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South Korean Delegation Meets With Kim Jong Un; NYT: State Department Spent Zero of $120 Million Meant To Fight Meddling. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired March 5, 2018 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:00] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: -- have the greatest impact, wait for it, Canada. And there are signs that he is doing it over the objections of not only America's allies but also the world's economists, members of his own party and even his own staff.

So whatever global turmoil this might cause, it is matched by the apparent turmoil within the administration. Listen to the secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, explain the president's thinking on this.


WILBUR ROSS, COMMERCE SECRETARY: Whatever his final decision is, is what will happen. What he has said he has said. If he says something different it'll be something different.


BERMAN: So that clarifies everything. He essentially just said you can take what the president has said to the bank unless you can't. Does that sound like a man who knows what the heck is supposed to happen? And Ross is one of the architects of this alleged policy. So what now?

Kaitlan Collins at the White House for us -- Kaitlan.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Not a lot of confidence there, John, in that statement that these are actually going to be implemented this week and the president contributing to that uncertainty again this morning by dangling the idea that if Mexico and Canada can renegotiate NAFTA in a way that is favorable to the United States, in a way that the president likes, that he might take those tariffs away before he's even implemented them.

Tweeting that idea out this morning, saying, quote, "Tariffs on steel and aluminum will only come off if new and fair NAFTA agreement is signed." Now, John, that comes one day at the president's trade adviser Peter

Navarro said that no countries will be exempt from these new tariffs once they are implemented and was on FOX a little bit after the president tweeted that this morning, again, saying that they were drawing a firm line in the sand right there but the president really throwing a wrench into that with his idea on Twitter this morning. Continuing with this, bucking the criticism that he's receiving from other world leaders.

We actually just got a call from -- a readout of the president's call with Prime Minister Theresa May regarding these tariffs and the White House says that they raised this idea but according to a spokesperson for May she actually voiced her great concern over those potential tariffs and the effect that it would have but the president seems to be bucking that idea for right now -- John.

BERMAN: Well, Theresa May doesn't like it because it hurts British exports of steel to the United States. It hurts the U.S. allies probably more than it hurts the people it's targeted against.

Not the only stuff the president is writing about this morning, Kaitlan. Once again on the subject of Russia.

COLLINS: Yes, that's right, John. The president actually was tweeting this morning about the investigation into Russian meddling in the election and whether or not there was any collusion with the Trump campaign. He tweeted this morning. I think we have it here.

He said, "Why did the Obama administration start an investigation into the Trump campaign with zero proof of wrongdoing long before the election in November? He says they wanted to discredit so crooked H," as in Hillary Clinton, "would win." He calls it unprecedented and says that it's bigger than Watergate. Plus, he ends, "Obama did nothing about Russian meddling."

Now, John, that last line there at the end something the president has repeated quite some time over the last few weeks saying the previous administration did not do anything to stop Russian meddling in the election as the president has faced questions over what he's going to do to stop any future meddling in any United States elections here, John.

But clearly something that's on the president's mind as he's getting ready to welcome the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, here at the White House in a few hours and right now none of those meetings are open to the press. We'll see if the White House changes their minds on that. But right now what we are keeping an eye out for is whether or not Jared Kushner is going to be involved in that meeting especially after he was stripped of his top secret national security clearance last week -- John.

BERMAN: Very key question there.

All right, Kaitlan Collins for us at the White House.

Joining me now is CNN political commentators Rich Lowry and Matt Lewis, and Washington bureau chief for "USA Today," Susan Page.

You know, Susan, as we head into this week, the leaders of the world right now are suggesting we could be on the precipice of a trade war. A real serious trade war. And Jean-Claude Junker, head of the European Commission, is warning it's serious. Listen to this. He says, "So now we will also impose import tariffs." He's warning what the Europeans will do.

"This is basically a stupid process, the fact that we have to do this but we have to do it. We will now impose tariffs on motorcycles, Harley Davidson, on blue jeans, Levi's, and bourbon. We can also do stupid."

Essentially the European commission right there, the great ally of the United States, says, if you want to do this go ahead and do it but we're going to bring it, too.

SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, USA TODAY: And of course this is historically what has happened when the United States is imposed tariffs in the past including in the Bush administration. There is retaliation from other countries and it is not -- historically it's not been helpful to the American economy. You saw the stock market take a dive last week when the tariffs were unexpectedly announced by the president.

I think that's one of the things that has fueled hope among some that the president won't go ahead and impose these tariffs at least not in the very broad way he outlined last week. But as Wilbur Ross, the Commerce secretary, made clear nobody knows for sure.

BERMAN: Yes. Wilbur Ross made exactly nothing clear except that point, Susan.

[09:05:02] He honestly said, if he says something different, it'll be something different, Matt Lewis. You know, the secretary of Commerce, the guy who is writing this policy we think, admitted on TV he's got no idea what's about to happen.

MATT LEWIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. That's the problem. You know, there's this old narrative about Ronald Reagan that Peggy Noonan talks about. She's a speechwriter for Reagan, and the line is, everybody knew what Ronald Reagan believed in and so that trickles down. When there's a clearly defined mission, when you have goals and when people know what you believe in, it's very easy for all the people who work for you to enact your agenda and your world view, even down to the bureaucracy level.

That's not true with Donald Trump. Nobody knows what Donald Trump really believes in many cases or how it's going to work out. He says he wants to do something on guns but will he really? It's unclear. He says he wants to help the DACA kids one day, the next day he acts like he wants to deport them and here we are again.

Any other president who said definitively that they're going to do these tariffs, we would take them at their word. You just can't do that with Donald Trump. Nobody knows what he's actually going to do and aside from the fact that he's now supporting what I think is a very bad policy, the fact that nobody actually believes him is maybe even a bigger problem.

BERMAN: Yes. It really is a microcosm of this larger issue. This idea that there is turmoil within the White House. The "Washington Post" the latest to write about this, suggesting these are dark days inside the West Wing. And it's interesting, Chris Christie, former governor of New Jersey, longtime ally of President Trump, he went on TV this weekend and he talked about what he sees the problem as. Let's listen.


CHRIS CHRISTIE, FORMER NEW JERSEY GOVERNOR: The problem is the president has been ill served in my view by staff over the period of the last 15 months where they create a lot of the distractions through their infighting, their leaking. The situation has made much worse by the fact that when we have family members in the White House. It makes it much more difficult.


BERMAN: I always think, Rich, that Chris Christie is trying to send a message to the president himself on these things. What was the message there?

RICH LOWRY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, one, he doesn't like Jared Kushner.


LOWRY: The two have a long history going back to Christie prosecuting Jared's father and then Jared ousting Christie from the transition. I'm sure Christie is delighted to be able to put the shiv in. But he's right on the fundamental question. It's just that Jared and Ivanka I believe never should have been in there. They don't know anything about government. They inherently distort the policy process because you don't know whether you can really disagree with him, you're on thin ice.

But on these steel tariffs, I take Matt's point as a general matter. You don't know where Trump is on a lot of stuff. You do know where he is on protectionism. This is something he's been consistent on for 30 or 40 years. It's something he's been chomping at the bit to do throughout his entire administration and his aides have constantly reigned him back and reigned him back and reigned him back. And finally, I think, last week he just said, look, I'm the president of the United States, I'm going to do this.

BERMAN: Yes, Gary Cohn may have kept him from doing it for a long time but can't keep it from doing it any longer.

I want to talk about what the president has said about Russia this morning. If we can put this tweet back up on the screen so people can see it because I think it is interesting and worth dissecting a little bit. "Why did the Obama administration start an investigation into the

Trump campaign with zero proof long before the election in November? Wanted to discredit so crooked H would win."

Let's take just that part, Susan Page, because I think we've actually learned a lot in the last few weeks because of the Republican memo and the Democratic response. The FBI started this investigation because George Papadopoulos who was working for the campaign was bragging about the fact that the Russians were promising him e-mails essentially and then there's Carter Page who was known to have some dalliances with the Russians in the past. I think that's where it all started. Hasn't that been answered already?

PAGE: Well, it has been answered but I think in some ways the president will be able to continue to make these assertions until we have some sort of concluding report from the special counsel and at that point we will see all these things put in context.

I do think that the president is tactically here trying to continue to raise questions about whether the investigation that touches on him and those closest to him and his campaign is legitimate because he knows this report is coming and he wants to a degree he can discredit the investigation and --

BERMAN: Hey, Susan.

PAGE: And starting with its origins.

BERMAN: One point here, "USA Today" and Suffolk have a poll out which asks Americans how important they think the Russia investigation is, and just for context, tell us what those numbers show.

PAGE: You know, this was a surprise. We -- an open-ended question, one of the most important issues to you determining your vote in November, we polled 1,000 registered voters, five of them said it was Russia and meddling in the election. Not 5 percent, five individuals that we polled. So it is clearly not the determining issue when you look into November.

School safety, guns and immigration ranked much higher on the list of things that are affecting people's votes.

BERMAN: It's interesting, though, the president keeps stoking it as unimportant as it might be to some voters when he writes about it every morning, when he obsesses over it, he may make the situation even worse for him.

[09:10:03] Rich, you brought up Jared Kushner so let me ask you this. We're waiting for this meeting at the White House between Benjamin Netanyahu and the president. Jared Kushner is handling Middle East peace on a, you know, low-level security clearance now. Do you think we'll see him in there?

LOWRY: I don't know. It'll be an interesting signal of where Jared's status is going but the general trajectory has been downward. I don't know how you can really be the key guy in Middle East peace when you don't have a top secret security clearance and now we have stories about various financial dealings that are a little shady. It seems as though in the shadow struggle between General Kelly and Jared it might be that the general who's not actually a relation of Donald Trump will actually win that battle.

BERMAN: You know, what's interesting to me, Matt Lewis, often when we have the White House schedule before us there's no public photo-op for certain things and then the White House opens it up. You know, I can't imagine them not opening up a meeting between President Trump and the Israeli prime minister because usually it's a mutual admiration society. These two men, you know, both gush over each other. It's exactly the kind of thing the president wants. However, if they open up the doors to this meeting, we'll see whether Jared Kushner's in there.

LEWIS: Yes, that's going to be very interesting. Look, I was somebody who early on was a little bit more sympathetic, probably, to Jared and Ivanka just because I thought -- I mean, look, you know, philosophically they're not conservatives, they're obviously woefully inexperienced. But they're sane. They can give Donald Trump sane advice and there were other people whispering in his ear that I was actually frankly more worried about and so I was hoping that Jared and Ivanka, despite the nepotism, despite the obvious problems, could at least be a voice of sanity.

I think that experiment has failed. And I don't know what's going to happen whether or not we're going to see a signal today, but, you know, the hope that Jared and Ivanka would be a positive influence I think has waned.

BERMAN: Susan Page, you know, last question to you. Were you at the Gridiron Saturday night?

PAGE: I was.

BERMAN: I figured someone as important as you would be there. Can you give us a sense of the president's performance and what it portends for the future? Do you think that perhaps we will see more of him at these Washington establishment events?

PAGE: You know, I think we may because the president attended the Gridiron. It's the first time he's ever been there and he hasn't gone to the other big press dinners in town in the past year and he seemed to have a good time even though you have to sit there and find yourself being satirized on stage by songs and skits. He gave a 34- minute speech that was partly self-deprecating and partly kind of same kind of speech we've seen him give at campaign rallies.

And then he tweeted that he had a great time and great fun. So I hope he does. I hope he does go to the White House Correspondents Dinner in April and I hope he comes back to the Gridiron dinner next year.

BERMAN: Susan Page, Matt Lewis, Rich Lowry, thanks so much for being with us. Appreciate it.

LOWRY: Thanks, John. PAGE: Thanks.

BERMAN: President Trump says North Korea called up and wanted to talk. Now South Korean officials are meeting with Kim Jong-un for the first time ever. So what now? And more than $100 million has been earmarked for the State Department to fight Russian election meddling. Guess how much of that has been spent? Whatever number you pick go lower. Plus --


JIMMY KIMMEL, HOST, 90TH ACADEMY AWARDS: I remember a time when the major studios didn't believe a woman or a minority could open a super hero movie, and the reason I remember that time is because it was March of last year.


BERMAN: The Oscars Me Too moment, Hollywood's biggest night becomes a celebration of diversity.



BERMAN: All right. New this morning, in Pyongyang today, the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un held what is believed to be his first face- to-face meeting with government officials from Seoul, from South Korea. So, what's the end game here?

CNN's Will Ripley with the latest from Beijing.

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: John, there's certainly a lot of hope for a diplomatic breakthrough here, but not a lot of optimism given how far apart the United States and North Korea are on the nuclear issue.

What we do know is that the highest-level delegation from South Korea in more than a decade is on the ground right now in Pyongyang. They are believed to have met within the last few hours with North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un for a meeting and a dinner. That's a good sign.

It shows that that meeting went forward. That they at least have some common ground. The mission of this South Korean delegation led by their spy chief and their top security adviser is to try to lay the ground work for discussions with the United States.

And then that delegation shortly after a quick debrief in Seoul, they're going to fly to Washington and brief lawmakers there and try to get the ball rolling here. Over the weekend, President Trump talked about North Korea.

He said they called up and said they want to talk. President Trump said, the U.S. wants to talk too, but that they have to denuke in his words. North Korean state media saying today, essentially, they are absolutely not going to denuke, saying they should not misjudge. The United States should not misjudge their intentions for dialogue and that if the United States thinks they'll give up their nuclear weapons that is, quote, "more than ridiculous" in North Korea's words.

So, clearly, Kim Jong-un has built up his entire image around nuclear weapons. You go to Pyongyang. You see propaganda of nuclear missiles. That's what gives him legitimacy both in the eyes of his people and his view around the rest of the world.

So, having him just walk away from that seems like a long shot and there's pretty troubling messaging from the Trump administration that if diplomacy doesn't work the United States will not allow Kim Jong-un to finalize his nuclear program to have that missile that could potentially hit the mainland U.S.

Trump saying just last week he's prepared to move into phase two widely interpreted as a military option that many analysts believe could be absolutely catastrophic in terms of loss of life. But diplomacy is the first step. South Koreans are talking with the North Koreans right now -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Will Ripley for us in Beijing. Will, thanks so much. Joining me now CNN global affairs analyst and online news director for the "New Yorker," David Rohde. David, the significance of the South Korean officials meeting with Kim Jong-un face-to-face in Pyongyang.

DAVID ROHDE, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: It's very important. I mean, he's only 34 years old and no South Korean officials has met him face-to-face. The only foreigners that have ever met him have been delegations from Cuba and China. So, they can get a read on him. They can see if maybe, you know, denuclearization is a possibility in the long term.

[09:20:10] BERMAN: So, now Dennis Rodman -- it's a good point. Meeting someone face-to-face and taking that assessment is crucial, I think. It will prove very important. The president at the Gridiron Dinner said something about North Korea and he may have been saying it in passing yet I think it has great significance.

He says that, "They," the North Koreans, "called up a couple days ago and said we would like to talk and I said so we would, but you have to denuke. You have to denuke. So, let's see what happened."

I don't know if it means the North Koreans really called and said we should have meeting. But the president saying that North Korea has to denuclearize there. He seems to be suggesting that once again, that's a precondition for meeting.

Whereas before we've been led to believe, no, no, no. The North Koreans don't have to say they have to denuclearize to sit down and talk. But they can talk about denuclearizing, two different things there. He keeps on seeming to change the preconditions.

ROHDE: Yes. There really hasn't been a clear message from the administration. I think, you know, North Koreans probably did talk. They do want to talk but talks aren't new. The one thing Trump is right about is that there have been talks for decade, but they didn't lead to much progress on this.

But the problem is, North Korea's here, the Trump administration's here and there's really no change in this dialogue. The South Koreans, this delegation, are trying to get in the middle. These two envoys that are in Pyongyang now are going to return to South Korea, and then fly straight to Washington for direct talks with the Trump administration.

BERMAN: It's interesting --

ROHDE: So, something could be happening.

BERMAN: But if the president says they have to denuclearize to sit down, they won't sit down because the North Koreans aren't going to do that.

ROHDE: That's the hardline. You know, he is adopting the tough approach. The madman theory, that he joked during the dinner. Maybe that will work quietly behind the scenes. But we've seen these talks go on before and the real fear is a military option to take out their nuclear capability. That's very dangerous and that's I think still on the table.

BERMAN: Let me bring up this other joke since you brought up humor. This was at a speech at Mar-a-Lago. The president was talking about the new Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, who just, you know, had all kinds of turmoil. He could be president, leader of China for life now essentially.

The president says, "China is great. Xi is a great gentleman. He's now president for life. President for life. He's great. He was able to do that. I think it's great. Maybe we'll have to give that a shot someday."

Now, look, I'm willing to believe that President Trump was joking about the fact that he would like to be president for life here in the United States, but in the process of that joke, one thing he did not do was raise any concerns about the fact that Xi just made himself Chinese leader for life.

He didn't express any concerns, President Trump, about the fact that Xi seems to be consolidating power in a relatively unprecedented way.

ROHDE: Let's just say he's joking about the United States. For decades Republican and Democratic presidents have opposed this kind of appointment for life. It's a core American value and not a -- this is part of a pattern and across the world democracies in retreat, Putin, Assad in Syria, Sisi in Egypt, sort of royal coup in Saudi Arabia. This goes on and on and on and we are not pushing back.

BERMAN: So, again, I agree that he was joking about himself there, but by not condemning it the Chinese took that as President Trump is OK with this. ROHDE: And I think people around the world see, you know, Xi as an effective -- and Putin, these are effective leaders and the United States is in retreat and weak and not pushing back. President Trump promised to be combative to make Americans proud, to stand up for our ideals. He's very quiet on these points.

BERMAN: David Rohde, nice to see you. Thanks for coming in. Appreciate it.

ROHDE: Thanks to be here.

BERMAN: The State Department reportedly received over $100 million to fight Russian election meddling and so far, they have spent zero, zilch, nada. So, what is the plan with more than 200 days to go until the midterm elections?



BERMAN: New this morning, the U.S. State Department reportedly has not spent a dime of the $120 million allocated to fight Russian election meddling. This is according to the "The New York Times." The administration is just sitting on the money, that is meant to counter Russia's disinformation campaign.

Joining me now is Congressman David Cicilline of Rhode Island, a Democrat, a member of the Foreign Affairs and also the Judiciary Committee. So, a lot of these Russia issues fit squarely into your purview, Congressman. What do you make of "The New York Times" report that the State Department was allocated this money and couldn't find a way to spend it?

REP. DAVID CICILLINE (D), RHODE ISLAND: Yes. Good morning. It's great to be with you. It's just another piece of very disturbing evidence that this administration is not taking the very real threat of Russia seriously. We have heard from a number of our intelligence community about the failure to get a directive from the president to take action.

We've seen the president himself minimize and describe all of this as a hoax and fake news, although our intelligence community say emphatically that the Russians meddled in our presidential election. They're continuing to engage in activities to destabilize our democracy.

This is really an attack on our democracy and we have tools and resources that should be committed to fight this. The Global Engagement Center is one of those so we can really counter this Russia propaganda and this is very disturbing.

We need a president that not only takes this seriously but leads a national effort with the sense of urgency to protect our democratic institutions, to protect the 2018 election and to be sure the American people get to decide who will hold public office in this country and not anyone else. BERMAN: It's sort of ironic that this news is coming out with the president just putting out a statement this morning where he said President Obama did nothing about Russian election meddling.