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Trump Slams Iran, Obama, and Justice Department; Congress Returns to Deadlines and Packed Agenda; Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired January 2, 2018 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:06] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Top of the hour, 9:00 a.m. Eastern. Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.

For his first order of business on his first workday of 2018 President Trump is taking on the leadership of Iran, President Obama and his own Justice Department.

A lot to get to. Let's get to our Joe Johns at the White House.

Good morning, Joe. Nice to see you. I hope you had a good break. So what is the president up to this morning?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: I did, indeed. And thank you very much, Poppy. Well, the fact of the matter is the president has put out a couple of tweets this morning, just a lot to unpack quite frankly. The first one coming down early this morning. The president restating some of the grievances he complained about on the campaign trail related to the Obama administration's unfreezing of assets of Iran that had been frozen since the Iranian Revolution.

Let me just read you the tweet. It says, "The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime. All of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their pockets. The people have little food, big inflation and no human rights. The U.S. is watching."

One other note there, there is no evidence that we know of that says Iran actually used that money for terrorism, nonetheless that's the first tweet. Now here's the second tweet. He also wrote, "Crooked Hillary Clinton's top aide," referring to Huma Abedin, "has been accused of disregarding basic security protocols. She put classified passwords in the hands of foreign agents. Remember sailors' pictures on submarine. Deep state, Justice Department -- deep state Justice Department must finally act. Also on Comey and others."

Now that is the president going after his Justice Department run by his handpicked attorney general. It has been a common theme with the president to do this, but some of the facts of course in that tweet are questionable and based on some reporting in conservative media that CNN has not yet confirmed. Back to you.

HARLOW: Joe Johns at the White House with all of that. Thank you very much. Let's go to Capitol Hill because lawmakers are getting ready to tackle their 2018 agenda. There are hopes for a bipartisan infrastructure deal, whispers of possible entitlement reform, that depends on who you ask. This is all happening as Republicans face a slimmer majority in the Senate.

Suzanne Malveaux is there. Good morning.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Poppy. It's a very big to-do list, and the president is dispatching top officials to work with congressional leadership on all of this tomorrow. His legislative top aide Marc Short as well as Mick Mulvaney will be here meeting with congressional leaders to talk about what is the top of the list here.

Democrats and Republicans, of course, they are split on this. But Republicans as well are divided. You have on the House side, House Republicans led by Speaker Paul Ryan, really pushing for entitlement reform, cuts to welfare, food stamps and Medicare overhaul.

On the Senate side, you've got Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell saying they don't want to have anything to do with that, that they don't have the votes, it's a razor-thin majority, as you know, on the Senate side that they've got to reach out to Democrats to figure out how to pass legislation, because it's a super majority, the 60 votes, so they're looking at things like a general broad spending bill, the budget, immigration reform and what to do with DACA, when -- what to do with the Dreamers when that expires in March -- Poppy.

HARLOW: Also today, Minnesota senator, Democrat Al Franken, his last day there. He'll step down officially, right?

MALVEAUX: He will. Yes, that's right. And Democrats are not looking at a change in power. You're not going to see any kind of change with the dynamic. But certainly a very powerful message when it comes to how Congress is dealing with sexual harassment, that it won't be tolerated. That is certainly the message that they are hoping to move forward.

Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith is going to be replacing him, there'll be a special election in November, but that is really what they are hoping to convey to their colleagues. And again, a Democrat for a Democrat, they're not really seeing any policy changes but certainly a very strong message when it comes to sexual abuse.

HARLOW: And a very, you know, vocal member of the Senate on some of these most liberal ideas.

Suzanne, before you go, if the president has it his way Republican Orrin Hatch will serve again or run again for an eighth term, but that's not a shoo-in. We're going to get his decision sometime today?

MALVEAUX: Yes. We don't know what that decision is. So there's been a lot of talk, a lot of reports about whether or not he would stay. A lot of talk about him retiring.

This would be a dramatic shift, Poppy, as you know, because if he were to step down and retire, there's a lot of talk about Mitt Romney actually running for that seat.

[09:05:05] And as you know, Orrin Hatch, the very powerful chair of the Finance Committee, really pushing for the tax bill that just got passed, a big fan of Trump. Mitt Romney, not so much.

HARLOW: Right. We'll see what happens. We should know today.

Suzanne, thank you on all those fronts.

Joining me now, CNN political analyst Molly Ball and Alex Burns, and CNN political commentator Matt Lewis.

Nice to have you all here. Matt, just a quick beat from you before we get on to those sort of full agenda here. One of the president's messages on Twitter this morning is taking on his own Justice Department again. To what end?

MATT LEWIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, I don't know to what end, but this is a pattern that we've seen. I guess 2018 is going to be like 2017. And I just think it's problematic. And we're going to talk in a second about the agenda the Republicans have. I think, you know, Donald Trump finished strong in 2017, not by following the Steve Bannon playbook but by following the Republican, you know, conservative Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell plan. And he's beginning 2018 on a different note.

HARLOW: So, Molly, if we look at 2018 what the president said during his vacation to Mar-a-Lago, he said we're taking this big beautiful ship, he means America, and we're slowly turning it around. Here's the things. Loose lips can sink ships, as you know, and I wonder if you think with this huge agenda list ahead for the president, for Republicans and for Democrats for the things they want to see done, like Dreamers, infrastructure, et cetera.

Can the president -- will he tone down his rhetoric at all to try to help get some of this stuff done and done quickly or does it not matter because, look, he got tax reform through?

MOLLY BALL, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I mean, I never like to make predictions about what anyone is going to do, especially this president, but I think it is safe to say he's not going to tone anything down ever. I mean, that's just not what he does. He never did it during the campaign, he hasn't done it as president, and I think particularly the mood he's in right now, as we've seen through his public and private comments and expressions, is he's feeling really good and that's when he tends to be sort of expansive and expressive.


BALL: And wants to say things to people and wants to sort of let it all out whether it's just with sort of emotional outburst like tweeting about the Justice Department or whatever, so I think, you know, he always tends to feel that what he is doing is working when he can point to a success that he's had. He does feel he ended 2017 on a very strong note and that means he's going to continue to do what he does.

HARLOW: Fair assessment. Alex Burns, to you, DACA. You have a deadline of March. So Mitch

McConnell, the Senate majority leader, doesn't see a rush here. You've got Democrats and some Republicans who say we want to get something done and we should get it done as soon as possible for these -- you know, the average age of these people when they came to the United States not of their own will was 6 years old, right?

So 83 percent of Americans want something done to protect so-called Dreamers. The president says no DACA deal unless I get wall funding. Where does this go?

ALEX BURNS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Poppy, the message from the White House has been a little more opaque than that. And that you do have the president's folks around him saying you're going to need us give something like the wall in exchange for resolving DACA, but at the same time the president has also suggested in the past that that might be -- that March deadline might be flexible in the event that they can't get a deal.

That's not really the way leverage works in negotiations.


BURNS: You don't set a hard deadline, demand concessions and then say actually it might be a hard deadline after all. I think the key numbers to watch in the DACA fight are the public polls about frankly just mass popular opinion in both parties. And among independent voters, when it comes to the DACA issue, there's overwhelming public support for resolving this in a way that keeps those folks in the country, that gives them some kind of legal status in the United States.

And, you know, frankly, there are a lot of folks in the Republican Party who are going to want to extract concessions in exchange for doing that.

HARLOW: Right.

BURNS: There are a lot of folks in the Republican Party as well who are just going to want to make this issue go away.

HARLOW: Matt, to you, before leaving to head back to Washington something else the president said in Mar-a-Lago during one of these parties is we have some pretty good enemies out there, but step by step they are being defeated. There's some pretty bad people, but that's OK, someday maybe they'll love us."

Let's play a game. Do you think he is talking about Democrats, Hillary Clinton, just haters in general that he might deem as that, MS-13 gang members, maybe? All of the above? Who is he talking about?

LEWIS: It's a Rorschach test. Everybody probably envisions a different enemy. To me --

(LAUGHTER) LEWIS: My interpretation there was talking about foreign policy, adversaries, not our domestic political adversaries, not his domestic political adversaries, and the victories were people -- over people like ISIS, which I think was -- that was really a story in 2017 that didn't get that much attention, rolling back the caliphate. I think understandably nobody wants to declare mission accomplished because you can never really win.


[09:10:07] LEWIS: Vanquish your enemies but that was an area where Donald Trump probably didn't get quite enough credit in 2017. That's how I saw it. But -- that is open to interpretation, I think we can agree.

HARLOW: Alex, Ron Brownstein has a fascinating new column today on and he says the one question that will likely decide the 2018 midterms as they are finally this year, we've been talking about them for a long time, is this -- will Americans vote to constrain President Trump by electing a Democratic-led Congress that will challenge and restrict him, or to empower the Republicans who are increasingly working to harness him of all time? What do you think?

BURNS: Well, so far, you know, the pattern and basically the entirety of the period that all of us have been alive is that voters in the first midterm vote to check the president.


BURNS: And the question is just how forcefully do they vote to check the president.

HARLOW: But aren't things a little bit different? Maybe this time, maybe his, you know, record-low approval rating won't have the same impact that it would for other presidents or maybe history will be different this time? It was certainly different in the general election.

BURNS: It's possible but we have never seen an exception to this pattern except immediately after 9/11, and, you know, when you talk to folks in Washington about the developing climate for the midterm elections, they basically say they expect Republicans to get whipped pretty solidly absent a 9/11-level event, which obviously nobody is hoping for.


BURNS: The question, Poppy, is less, are voters going to punish Republicans and more how much are they going to punish Republicans? Are voters going to vote for Democrats at a strength that will actually flip the House of Representatives or put the Senate in play? Those are still the really big questions here. I think there's no question Republicans are going to take losses. And that the president will be a drag on them.

HARLOW: Molly, so to that point, to Alex's point, how can the president be less of a drag on them or most helpful to those running for re-election?

BALL: Well, he could get more popular. The political climate right now, just as Alex was saying, the main reason the political climate is so difficult for Republicans is the president's unpopularity, record unpopularity for any president at this point in his presidency and we have seen all over the country, you know, from Virginia to Alabama, voters reacting to that in one way or another.

So, you know, there's a couple of questions to me. First of all, is there anything that the president can do to turn around those dismal approval ratings? Does he find a way to put himself on a stronger footing with voters, particularly independent voters? And then second of all, you know, do Republicans run toward or away from him?

You can argue that that doesn't really matter. Democrats, I remember in 2010 and 2014, some ran with Obama and some ran against him, and it didn't matter, they sort of all got slaughtered. But that will be the major question. You know, Democratic strategist just feel like there's no way this political climate gets better for Republicans. It can only get worse as we look toward the midterms. But that to me is the only sort of wildcard.

HARLOW: All right. Molly, Alex, Matt, stick around. We have a lot more to talk about a little bit later in the show. Thank you all very much.

Also to international news, the death toll is mounting in Iran as this widespread protest continue into their sixth day. The country's the leadership is blaming enemies for the unrest, assuring people that these will all end soon. We'll have an update on that.

Also, millions of you out there set to see a wage hike this year. Are you one of them? Next.



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Reports out of Iran this morning say that 21 people at least are now dead in these protests across the country, not just in the capital, but across the country. Leadership in Iran is blaming what they are deeming enemies, al Qaeda in the country, for provoking this.

A top government official says the protests, in their words, will soon end, claims that in most places things are already back to normal. It certainly does not appear that way.

Our Nick Paton Walsh is following all of this for us from London. Look, Iran is saying this is a proxy war. This is being waged by the U.S., U.K., Saudi Arabia. What are we seeing?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, at this point, we don't really know how bad the protests have been during this sixth day potentially. We do know, as you said, that overnight, Monday night, (inaudible) doubling of the death toll. Many of those (inaudible) bringing total to 21.

At one instance at a police station (inaudible). So not really that bloodshed picked up across the country, though, we have heard some much tougher rhetoric from Iranian security officials, some of that is saying that they will pinpoint that target those behind the protests.

Others, as you said, is pointing to outside agents potentially fermenting this kind of unrest. Now the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini not a man given to commenting that often on Iranian unrest or daily life has said, quote, "The enemy is waiting for an opportunity, for a flaw through which they can enter."

Now, it is clear, obviously on the street level from many people we've spoken to that this is a lot of anger at economic and political problems. That the unemployment rate in the 25, a quarter, the sanctions relief under the nuclear agreement hasn't really change people's lives as people had hoped.

So, they are cross about that, certainly, and also (inaudible) of oppression, which even moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, seemed to recognize in comments a couple of days ago. Now it seems sympathetic towards the protesters' demands.

The point is that we are now in the sixth day at this stage too and while the hardline response many expects from protests on the streets in Tehran and other Iranian cities hasn't really come forward in the way we'd expect it. It's been a very measured response from Iranian security officials that are dealing on a government level of how to negotiate with the protests.

It doesn't really have leaders. It doesn't really have a manifesto and so a very complicated task ahead. The violence does seem rising to some degree. Unclear how bad it has been today. We are still looking to work that out, but a lot of tension and a lot of concern. As I said, how do you negotiate with protests that don't have a figure head.

HARLOW: Exactly. Nick Paton Walsh, thank you very much.

[09:20:02] Also this morning, South Korea is proposing high-level talks with North Korea. These could happen if they come to fruition as early as January 9th. They are proposing they happen in the demilitarized zone. This comes after North Korea's leader, Kim Jong- un, requested a dialogue. So, they are open to talking to South Korea.

Let's go to Paula Hancocks who joins us from Seoul. This is significant for a number of reasons. We'll debate it with our foreign policy experts after this. You have the president weighing in just moments ago.

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Poppy. Yes, a positive response from South Korea and you have a tweet from the U.S. president, Donald Trump, let me get straight to it. He said, "Sanctions and other pressures are beginning to have a big impact on North Korea. Soldiers are dangerously fleeing to South Korea. Rocketman now wants to talk to South Korea for the first time, and perhaps that's good news, perhaps not, we will see."

Now Rocketman, obviously his nickname for the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. Not many experts had agreed with him using that kind of personal insult against the North Korean leader. But this is interesting because what we saw from Kim Jong-un was really almost a sidelining of the United States when it comes to the negotiations.

The relationship between Washington and Pyongyang is at an all-time low. The personal insults as you can see just a number of minutes ago between the leaders as well is still going on. So, what we are see is almost a change in strategy from North Korea.

Kim Jong-un looking fast now. He knows the president in South Korea wants to talk to him. He has welcomed the idea that Kim Jong-un would be willing to send a delegation to the Pyeongchang Olympics which start next month.

South Korea wants North Korea here. This is obviously why Kim Jong-un is suggesting that the two Koreas should actually meet and should try and alleviate the pressures and tensions on the peninsula, which is what he said in his speech.

So, a flurry of positive statements from here in South Korea. They have suggested next Tuesday, January 9th, and they suggested the border village within the demilitarized zone. There hasn't been a response from North Korea at this point.

The South Korea even said if they disagree then we can change the date anytime anywhere and any format. There's a very strong positive outcome from the South Korean side, and really bending over backwards to try and make this work -- Poppy.

HARLOW: Right. We knew that Moon Jae-in was open to talks with North Korea, but he is being so open here saying any place, anytime, we will sit down at the table. Thank you very much, Paula Hancocks, in Seoul for us.

Joining me with their thoughts on all of this information, CNN military analyst, Retired Army Major General Spider Marks and CNN global affairs analyst, former deputy secretary of state, Tony Blinken. Nice to have you both here.

Tony, let me begin with you. There are a number of ways this could go. These talks could be very positive for the world stage if they happen between North Korea and South Korea. They could also serve to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States, which could be very dangerous for the U.S.

And that seems to be what the president is weighing here in this latest message saying these talks, if they happen they could be good or bad for the United States. How do you see it?

TONY BLINKEN, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: I think, Poppy, you got it just right. One interpretation is the talks and the overture by North Korea, our result of the pressure has been exerted on North Korea, or the administration has done a good job in ratcheting up that pressure. The other interpretation is that Kim Jong-un is trying to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea. In fact, I think it's both. I think Kim is responding to the pressure. At the same time, he sees an opening because unfortunately, President Trump got off to a bad start with President Moon in South Korea, denigrating him and threatening unilateral action.

And he sees an opportunity now, Kim, to drive a wedge. So, I think for us the key thing is to make sure we are in absolute solidarity with our allies in South Korea in the way that they approach this.

They want a calm Olympics and this is another way of trying to get that. We have to navigate this together so that's the first order of business. I think, you know, bellicose tweeting doesn't help. Just act calmly, deliberately, continue to build the pressure, but also look for opportunities to talk. You can do both at the same time.

HARLOW: General, you are not as hopeful. You say expect little from these talks, if, indeed, they do happen. Why?

MAJOR GENERAL JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RETIRED), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, we have been down this road before. This is a pretty well-worn path. If we go back to the year 2000, the South Korean president had a similar in treaty to the North and in fact had a meeting with the younger, current Kim's father, and that went nowhere.

South Korea spent close to a billion dollars trying to enact some adjustments to the status quo to include some economic openings, to include the construction of a railroad line up to the DMZ, the demilitarized zone so that it could link up with the North, proposed North Korean railroad.

[09:25:10] That would be the beginning of this great opening, and that went nowhere. So, I think we need to be a little bit cautious about all of this, but we should, as Tony indicated, we should take the necessary steps.

Clearly, the world's attention is now on the peninsula for a number of reasons, nuclear development to the North, the ICBM tests that have taken place, and the constant pressure that the United States and South Korea applies to the North, both economically and in terms of military presence.

But in light of the fact that we have the world looking with the Olympics coming up just in a month, it's important that all of this gets right. We also have to realize, look, our strategic view toward the North has always been a series of tactical engagements.

This is one more tactical small step where there's a little bit of a give and take. We give, North Korea takes quite a bit, but we have to have a longer-term view and I think that's what we are trying to achieve.

HARLOW: Tony, on Iran, look, Iranian leadership says it's a proxy war, right. They see this Saudi Arabia, U.S., U.K. ganging up on them, provoking this. They say all will be normal soon, et cetera. That's their view.

The reality on the streets is you have a very young population, 50 percent of Iranians are under 30. You have the average age of those arrested in these protests, 25 years old, and you have up to 40 percent unemployment among youth in Iran and they are mad.

Do you think -- you worked in the Obama administration in the State Department, do you think, though, that President Trump and Senator Lindsay Graham are right when they argue the sanctions relief that has come from the Iranian nuclear deal has not trickled down enough to these young folks?

BLINKEN: Well, Poppy, you have to start with a big dose of humility. It's very difficult for us to fully understand, much less try to shape the forces at play in Iran. So, it's right to express real solidarity with people who are fighting for democracy and fighting for their rights peacefully.

But we also don't want to make it about us and incite people to do more where we cannot back it up and actually defend them. That's a hardline to walk, but the first thing to do is not make this about us.

Second, unfortunately, here again, I think the president has forfeited a lot of the credibility that we would normally bring to what we say about this, precisely because he's attacking Democratic institutions here at home, the press, the judiciary and other institutions.

It's pretty hard for him to stand up for those kinds of Democratic values abroad. The last thing, though, is this, I think this actually puts an exclamation point on the need to make sure that we preserve the nuclear agreement and that we don't tear it up.

It's the one thing that's actually working in the relationship with Iran. They are abiding by it. If we tear it up for no reason, it just gives the hardliners a wonderful talking point with more pragmatic folks and moderates in Iran to say, see, I told you so, the United States isn't good to its word.

HARLOW: And General, on Pakistan, the Trump administration, you know, attacking Pakistan just after applauding Pakistan for helping get this North American family out of Pakistan. It was held by a Taliban- linked group just in October. Now taking a very different tone once again today on Pakistan, withholding $255 million in military aid, is it the right call?

MARKS: It's a difficult situation in Pakistan. It is, to put it very bluntly, it's quite a mess. There are so many different levels to our relationship with Pakistan. Let's start at the very top. Look, it's a nuclear power.

And it has this ongoing feud that takes place with another nuclear power called India as a matter of routine. So, we have to walk this very, delicate, delicate line that exists. There is much that we get from our relationship with Pakistan that's in our national interests, and it is about the U.S. national interests. We have to start the conversation always with what's in our best interest, and if we can define that very clearly then we can move forward. And sadly, what happens in cases not unlike what's happening in Pakistan is we end up navigating, and we kind of make it up as we go. That happens as a matter of routine. That's OK.

We need to have a pretty well-defined end state, and that's where we are with Pakistan right now. We are in a better place if we can cooperate with Pakistan and they can agree with what we think those terms need to look like.

BERMAN: But also, you know, the president calling Pakistan out for harboring terrorists, and not doing enough in the fight in Afghanistan as well. Gentlemen, thank you. We appreciate it.

So, big plans on the domestic political agenda for 2018, but the Russia investigation continuous to hang over all of this. What is next? What's the latest on that?

Also, we are moments away from a new trading year on Wall Street. Christine Romans is back. Happy New Year. Are we going to see the run that we saw last year?

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: At least this morning we will see the continuation of that big run. You know, the Dow is up 25 percent last year, Poppy. So, a very big run there. The S&P 500 has its best in about four years and futures this morning are pointing higher.