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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

New Gun Control Legislation in Florida; Attorney Used Trump E- Mail Address For Porn Star Deal; Trump Stuns World By Accepting Kim Jong Un's Invite, Already Changing Mind on North Korea Meeting?; White House: No Talks Until North Korea Matches Actions to Words; Interview with Senator Jim Risch of Idaho. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 9, 2018 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[16:00:10] DANA BASH, BCNN HOST: It's the week the president finally enacted his I alone can fix it doctrine. THE LEAD starts right now.

It will be historic, it will be risky, it could alter the world, if it actually happens. Did the White House just pour cold water on the possibility of President Trump actually sitting down with Kim Jong-un?

The news of the potential summit not weathering the Stormy Daniels scandal. Today, what could be new proof of the alleged affair, the payoff and the potential legal trouble in Trump Organization e-mails.

Plus, minutes ago, Florida's Republican governor signed the first gun legislation since the shooting in Parkland. Will this open the door for more action across the U.S.?

Good afternoon. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Dana Bash, in for Jake Tapper today.

And we begin with the politics lead.

An event that I never thought could happen or would happen in my lifetime, and I'm definitely not alone. A United States president agreeing to meet with a North Korean dictator. But now the White House says the meeting will not take place unless North Korea takes concrete actions toward dismantling its nuclear program.

With White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders repeating that word concrete eight times this afternoon.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We are not going to have this meeting take place until we see concrete actions that match the words and the rhetoric of North Korea.

We have accepted the invitation to talk based on them following through with concrete actions. But this meeting won't take place without concrete actions. The president will not have the meeting without seeing concrete steps and we're not going to move forward until we see concrete and verified actions.

We want to see concrete and verifiable action on that front.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: But the South Korean official who delivered this message yesterday only said that Kim is committed to denuclearization, not that he would take any concrete steps before the meeting.

So let's try to figure all this out with CNN's Ryan Nobles at the White House.

Ryan, it sounded certainly like Sarah Sanders was throwing some cold water on the meeting. Was that her intent?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Dana, if we were looking for some sort of clarity about the potential of this historic meeting between President Trump and the North Korean dictator, we certainly did not get that today.

Sarah Sanders seemed to indicate that a lot of negotiation has to take place before this meeting even happens. As you point out, that was much different than the impression we were given last night.

But it seems in many ways that this confusion is standard operating procedure for this White House.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NOBLES (voice-over): Even top advisers at the White House didn't see it coming.

CHUNG EUI-YONG, SOUTH KOREA NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: President Trump appreciated the briefing and said he would meet Kim Jong-un by May to achieve permanent denuclearization.

NOBLES: President Trump agreeing to making history by accepting an invitation for a face-to-face meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

The move is yet another example of the unpredictable and often chaotic nature of the Trump administration. The unprecedented decision made within hours of a South Korean delegation arriving at the White House. The president himself making a surprise visit to the White House press Briefing Room to tease the policy shift that his own secretary of state was unaware of hours before it was made.

REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: In terms of the decision to engage with President Trump and Kim Jong-un, that's a decision the president took himself.

NOBLES: The abrupt adjustment to American foreign policy offered a welcome distraction to a White House and a president under fire from accusations of an extramarital affair with porn star Stormy Daniels.

Daniels, who was paid $130,000 by Trump lawyer Michael Cohen before the election to keep quiet about her alleged affair with Mr. Trump, is now suing the president, asking a court the declare the nondisclosure agreement she signed invalid.

The White House has said the president denies the affair and knew nothing about Cohen's agreement with Daniels. Today, it was revealed that Cohen used a Trump.org e-mail to communicate with Daniels' then attorney while negotiating the NDA. The White House refused to engage on the topic.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: We've addressed this extensively, and I don't have anything else to add.

NOBLES: The hasty announcement on North Korea mirrors the president's decision-making process on steel tariffs. Despite being advised by top aides to reconsider the move, the president forged ahead and went public with his decision.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said with Donald Trump in charge, anything is possible.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: The president is in a great mood. The president has been in a great mood because we have had not the just a successful couple of days. We have had a successful year.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

[16:05:06]

NOBLES: And back to North Korea, and it is important to point out that there's still so much we don't know about this potential meeting. We don't know when it could take place. We don't know the parameters of this potential meeting.

We also don't know what the United States is looking for in terms of those concrete steps that North Korea is taking before the meeting takes place or how they will even be able to confirm that those concrete steps were taken.

Dana, once again, there's still a lot we don't know and this could be one of the most important meetings that Donald Trump has ever been a part of.

BASH: Absolutely, Ryan. And I think the issue is that we don't know, but also they don't seem to know the answers to those questions yet. Thanks for that report, Ryan.

And North Korea's nuclear ambitions have plagued four U.S. presidencies. The Clinton administration tried stop with it a signed agreement, which North Korea promptly violated. The Bush administration engaged with North Korea through six-party talks. President Obama tried to restart those talks. And all the while the rogue regime was advancing and testing its nuclear missile programs.

And now here we are on the cusp of Pyongyang being able to launch a nuclear missile that could hit the U.S.

On that note, I want to bring in my panel.

Nice to see you all. Happy Friday.

Elise Labott, I want to start with you.

You have been talking to your sources about this. Let's talk about what we discussed with Ryan. Is there a sense of what the parameters are that they want to put down some, what those concrete steps are before a meeting takes place?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, the short answer is no, OK, because we didn't know this meeting was going to happen. They didn't know that this meeting is going to happen.

And kind of even before this all came about, when you saw the warming of relations and talking between the North and South, you would talk to officials and they would say, look, we really don't have a strategy for what this would look like. There's been a lot of rhetoric on both sides. There's been a desire, I think, to talk on both sides, but no strategy.

So now you have this meeting supposedly coming up in May. Let's see if it really takes place in May. What kind of concrete steps are the administration looking for? It is going to be impossible for the North Koreans to take some demonstrable steps for denuclearization by then.

You remember North Korea blew up its cooling tower two years. That took months. But if you're looking for a suspension of nuclear tests, a suspension of missile tests, we already have that. November 29, the last missile test. There has been a period of quiet.

BASH: And, Jen Psaki, you worked at the State Department for a long time in the Obama administration. I'm sure you're thinking to yourself, can you imagine what would have happened if President Obama said, I'm going to meet with Kim Jong-un, what the Republicans would have said and maybe even some Democrats?

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: That's true.

And we can see by reaction to the Iran deal that was successful and concluded that there's partisanship that comes out in cases like this. In this case, I don't think Democrats should be rooting for Donald Trump's failure. We should be rooting for his success, because diplomacy is a positive thing and we should want this to be successful.

I think the skepticism, not just from Democrats, but from a lot of people who are in the national security community and have dealt with these negotiations comes from the fact that, as Elise alluded to, you're kind of putting the cart before the horse here.

And there are big components to make this successful, including an interagency process, defining what success looks like, knowing what you want to get, what you're going to give, having people who will be the point people. None of those things have happened.

And the challenge they now is that it is playing out in public, and that's never ideal for negotiations.

BASH: Yes, certainly not traditional. But, yes, we crossed that bridge a long time ago.

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: Exactly.

And I wanted to you listen to what Sarah Sanders said just a couple of hours ago at the White House briefing about the idea of this whole thing playing right into Kim Jong-un's hands.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Isn't the president giving Kim Jong-un exactly what he wants, which is respect and stature on the international stage?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Not at all. I think that the president is getting exactly what he wants. He is getting the opportunity to have the North Koreans actually denuclearize.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, I am highly skeptical of the idea of meeting with the head of a gulag state and handing over legitimacy by way of doing that.

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: You think it is a bad idea?

HAM: I'm generally worried, no matter what administration it is. You don't want to be Madeleine Albright clinking glasses and doing grip- and-grins and then 20 years later, here we are.

That is a problem that you run into and you maybe take promises you shouldn't take at face value. I think we often get worked in these situations.

I worry a little bit that it is more about Trump than it is about -- and his negotiating skills and the fact that he wants to be in the room that might be driving some of this.

On the other hand, and this is classic Trump, by the way, this is completely unpredictable. We don't know what the parameters are. But that actually does have potential to change calculus with the way that Kim Jong-un looks at the situation.

The sort of madman competition we're having here, I don't feel great about how that's happening, but it does have the potential on mix things up.

[16:10:05]

LABOTT: I think that's exactly right. And, listen, talking on people today, they said, you know what? Yes, it was the maximum pressure campaign. Yes, it was this South Korean government that is there and is more favorable.

But it is really the idea of Trump and his unpredictability and his tough rhetoric on military action. I spoke to one senior U.S. official today who said, look, despite all your criticism of the fire and fury, for the first time, you have a North Korean leader and a Chinese leader that don't know what this president will do.

I think the skepticism, as everyone has said, is what comes next, how does this play out? But for now, it's lowered the temperature. It might just last a day. We could be back to fire and fury in a couple of days, but let's...

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: It has lowered the temperature.

But, Jen Psaki, as a communications specialist, you were also the White House communications director -- communications director, rather.

This has the added benefit, wink, wink, nod, nod, of being a very big story at a time when the Stormy Daniels story was really gaining steam.

PSAKI: And also it gives justification for the argument that the Trump team has been making about why he can't testify in the Russia investigation as well, that he's busy with his foreign policy meetings and endeavors.

So in terms of the public piece of this, this is overall a good thing for Trump and a good thing for the team, because it is a real substantive thing they can talk about. If nothing else, it gives them a couple of months until this meeting happens or doesn't happen to kind of wade away from a lot of the other controversies that they've been grappling with.

It doesn't mean Stormy Daniels will go away. She is here to stay, it seems. She keeps reappearing. And obviously he is the master of stepping in his own -- creating his own mess. But, overall, this is a big thing, it's a big policy. It's a big -- people have different emotions and feelings about it, but it certainly helps them with their P.R. challenges.

HAM: As distractions go, if it is one, it's an important thing to be distracted...

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: It's a real thing, if it happens.

Thanks, guys. Stand by. Everybody, stick around.

And be sure to tune in tonight to CNN. Stormy Daniels' attorney, Michael Avenatti, will join Anderson Cooper at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

Now, what exactly is the current state of North Korea's growing nuclear program? We are going to take a look at that up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:16:42] BASH: And we're back with our world lead.

North Korea's reclusive supreme leader says he is willing to talk about denuclearization when he meets with President Trump this spring. But does the U.S. military really believe that Kim is willing to give up his nuclear ambitions?

CNN's Barbara Starr joins me now live from the Pentagon.

Barbara, what are you hearing from your sources over there at the Pentagon about what military leaders think the answer to that is?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, the talks seriously are welcomed as potentially very good news. But for now, U.S. military officials will tell that you North Korea remains very much a threat.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): The critical question tonight is why President Trump agreed to meet with the world's most isolated leader. Kim Jong- un is feeling the bite of sanctions.

GORDON CHANG, AUTHOR, "NUCLEAR SHOWDOWN: NORTH KOREA TAKES ON THE WORLD": The North Korean leaders' slush fund is running out of money. People are saying the country is going to run out of foreign exchange reserves by October.

STARR: But it comes to the table in the strongest military position North Korea has ever had.

JAMES CLAPPER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: One of the factors that affected this decision on Kim Jong-un's part was that they have reached a level of confidence in their nuclear capabilities.

STARR: Kim Jong-un has always wanted to be acknowledged as a world power. And now he has a recently improved arsenal in hand before he sits down with Donald Trump.

LT. GEN. ROBERT ASHLEY, DEFENSE INTELLIGENCE AGENCY DIRECTOR: He has instituted a rapid missile development and flight testing program has over the last two years brought North Korea closer to its goals. North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test in September of last year, which generated a much larger seismic signature than previous tests.

STARR: The most immediate threat? The intelligence assessment is Kim sometime this year could put a warhead on a missile capable of attacking the U.S. MIKE POMPEO, CIA DIRECTOR: North Korea is ever closer to being able

to hold America at risk, said it was a handful of months. I had said the same thing several months before that.

STARR: In 2017, North Korea fired 23 missiles, perfecting its technology with each launch. The most recent and worrisome, in November, launching the ballistic missile that flew higher and farther than any previous tests. Since then, U.S. intelligence believes the regime has made further progress on missiles and warheads U.S. defense officials say. And experts say Kim may also have enough nuclear material to potentially build 30 to 60 nuclear warheads.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: Sixty nuclear warheads. Would Kim ever give up any of that? The answer is there will have to be international inspections and verification to determine that he is complying with any future agreement. And that is a very big if -- Dana.

BASH: A very big if. Barbara, thank you so much for that report.

So if this happens, where do you actually have a meeting between president of the United States and a brutal dictator? Don't go anywhere.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:24:01] BASH: Welcome back.

President Trump has agreed to an unprecedented meeting with the infamously reclusive leader of the most closed off country in the world. In fact, Kim Jong-un has not even set foot outside North Korea since he became the leader there six years ago.

CNN's Will Ripley joins me from Seoul, South Korea.

And, Will, the White House push back on the idea that the president would even sit down with him and give him a victory? Push back on the notion that it is a victory for the supreme leader, as he calls himself? How do they feel in Pyongyang?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It obviously is a victory for the North Koreans. A meeting with a sitting U.S. president is something that Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, the previous two North Koreans wanted and they could never make happen.

Kim Jong-un's strategy for the last few years and, you know, conversations with North Korean officials has kind of reaffirmed this. He wanted to build up his nuclear force, come to the negotiating table with a position of strength with leverage, with respect.

[16:25:02] And now, he gets to sit face to face across from the leader of the free world.

For the leader of North Korea, that's a huge deal. Yes, there are crippling sanctions. Yes, there's, you know, looming threat of possible military action by the United States. But now, you have these historic talks and North Korea hasn't really will to give up anything other than continuing the freeze in testing that they say already started in November, Dana.

BASH: And, Will, you have been to North Korea 17 times, more than any other American television journalist. Based on your experience there, your conversations even today with officials there, do you really think that Kim will be willing to agree to denuclearization as the president hopes?

RIPLEY: It's tough to imagine how and here's why. Number one: they have it written into their constitution that North Korea will be a nuclear power. Two, Kim Jong-un has built up his entire image around nuclear weapons. Everywhere you go in Pyongyang, there are pictures of missiles targeting the United States. I mean, this is what gives him legitimacy as the nuclear force he's assembled.

Now, perhaps he'll now gain new legitimacy that he's been able to make something happen with the United States. If the meeting goes well, because, you know, who -- we don't want to think about what happens if the meeting goes badly because it doesn't get any higher than the meeting of two heads of state.

Also number three, the sentiment within his country about President Trump, that's going to be a real challenge because they've been telling people for more than a year that they should hate President Trump. They called him a senile old lunatic. I've interviewed people on the streets Pyongyang if they want him to meet with Donald Trump, and everybody has said, absolutely not. Why would our leader meet with someone like that?

So, we'll have to see how they spin. They haven't told their own people yet.

BASH: Will Ripley, thank you very much. I assume that would be an issue if it were a place where public opinion mattered, vis-a-vis who the leader is, maybe not so much there in North Korea.

Will, thank you.

And I want to turn now to Republican Senator Jim Risch of Idaho. He serves on the Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees and just returned from South Korea where he met with that country's president.

Senator, thank you so much for being with me.

I want to start by playing for our viewers what you said at the Munich Security Conference a few weeks ago about the potential for war on the Korean peninsula.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JIM RISCH (R), IDAHO: If this thing starts, it's going to be probably one of the worst catastrophic events in the history of our civilization. But it is going to be very, very brief. The end of it is going to see mass casualties, the likes which of the planet has never seen.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: That's quite a meeting. Are you confident that maybe it is the only way to avoid that, maybe the only way to avoid that?

RISCH: Well, I don't know if about confidence. Certainly, it is a very, very positive move. There isn't anyone dancing and saying, oh, this is going to end well, because we've had such a bad experience with it.

But I'm watching a lot of negativity about this. And I would plead with the networks and the American people, this president needs to be wished success in this. This is not a Democrat or a partisan or hate Trump problem. This is an American problem that needs to be reserved -- be resolved it's a world problem that needs to be resolved. We all need to pray for the president's success in this.

BASH: Well, we have a former Obama official right here on the show who said the same thing, Jen Psaki.

So, I want to continue, though, on the substance of what we're talking about here.

RISCH: Sure.

BASH: Should guaranteed denuclearization and the release of Americans held by North Koreans be a precondition here, Senator?

RISCH: Well, I don't know that a precondition. The only way this is started is Kim Jong-un is already that he is willing to denuclearize the peninsula. He has said that. Now, does that mean it's going to happen? Of course not.

But the direct talks between he and the president are a very, very good sign. I've heard the negativity that it shouldn't be done this way. The lieutenant should meet first, et cetera. It's hard to find negativity in this. You'd have to work at it.

Look, for 70 years, people have been trying to resolve this. They've tried other method. It hasn't worked. What's wrong with trying this method?

BASH: Absolutely, it is not about negativity or positivity. It is about getting into the nuts and bolts of how it's going to work and how you think it should work to be successful.

So, what's your answer to that? What is a precondition that must be adhered to have this meeting? Because they made it pretty clear at the White House today that it's not guaranteed. There are some conditions before it happens.

RISCH: Sure. The way I read the statement that came out of the White House today was that Kim Jong-un has said he's ready to talk. He wants to talk. And he will do some things in the meantime, not the least of which is to quit testing. And that's a big deal. And I think he is going to have to be held to that as a precondition.