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Trump Welcomes Home Three Americans Freed by North Korea; Sources: Cogen Aggressive Pitched Access to Trump; Israel Strikes Iranian Targets in Syria after Rocket Attack. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired May 10, 2018 - 10:00   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Top of the hour, good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.


This morning, a historic homecoming for three American detainees, finally back on American soil after being freed by North Korea.

HARLOW: Relief on their faces as they walked off that plane. One of them saying it is like a dream to finally be home. And now the focus turns to President Trump's upcoming summit with the North Korean leader. Is this a sign that Kim Jong-un is really ready to negotiate?

Let's go to Kaitlan Collins live at the White House with more. Good morning, Kaitlan.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, John and Poppy, it was really a heroes' welcome before dawn. These pitch black skies, this American flag strung up between two fire trucks as these detainees were welcomed back to America last night, with the president greeting them on the tarmac at Joint Base Andrews and him going there in the middle of the night really illustrated just how important their release was in the bigger picture ahead of his upcoming meeting with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. And last night the president and the Americans welcomed back walked over and spoke with reporters. And the president was asked what he thought Kim Jong-un's motivation was in releasing these three Americans. Here's what the president said.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I really think he wants to do something. I think he did this because I really think he wants to do something and bring their country into the real world. There has never been a relationship like this. We're starting from here. But I really think a lot of progress has been made.


COLLINS: Now, the president wouldn't say if he had spoken with Kim Jong-un during the negotiations of this release. But he did -- was asked if this is his proudest achievement. He said his proudest achievement would be if he could get North Korea to give up their nuclear weapons. But certainly a very triumphant moment for these detainees, especially for this president, who John and Poppy, is hoping to have another triumphant moment in a few weeks when he does sit down with Kim Jong-un.

HARLOW: Right. Kaitlan Collins, thank you for the reporting from the White House this morning.

I do want to read a statement we just got from Walter Reed, which is the hospital where the detainees went as soon as they got off that plane last night before being reunited with their families, obviously checking their medical condition. Here is what we just learned, quote, "These individuals have demonstrated significant emotional and physical resiliency. The current priority is to allow the returnees' decompression time as they transition, decompression consists of establishing a routine, providing them with rest and attending to their nutritional and medical needs. Too much stimuli all at once is emotionally overwhelming." Of course, understood by everyone but again, significant emotional and physical resiliency, that is the message about these detainees from Walter Reed this morning. That's great to hear.

Let's talk about the bigger picture here, with us, former senior adviser at the State Department, Balbina Hwang and CNN senior political analyst, David Gergen, who just celebrated his 40th birthday yesterday. Happy Birthday, David!


HARLOW: Nice to have you both here and so nice to be able to talk about such great news. Now, we not only know that these Americans are home, Balbina, but we know that they have shown incredible resiliency emotionally and physically as well. How significant is this in the bigger picture of the hopes that this president and country have of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula?

BALBINA HWANG, FORMER SENIOR ADVISER, U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT: Well, it is a very important step diplomatically and politically because the holding of U.S. citizens in North Korea has always been a very pesky obstacle to furthering any kind of diplomatic or political talks and has always been a thorn in the side of any kind of progress in political talks, it always between talks, between countries at any level but especially at this kind of political level.

HARLOW: The president, David, in the middle of the night, when he addressed reporters, he said one thing that was striking. He said we want to thank Kim Jong-un who really was excellent to these three incredible people. Yes, they're incredible people, detaining them against their will is not excellent any way you try to slice it. Is there a danger in using language like that ahead of this key summit?

GERGEN: Yes, I think there is some danger. One doesn't want to diminish the president's own, you know, claim to some victory here, he did get a victory. We ought to say that. I think it was important to get the last barrier out of the way before going on the talks. But it is worth remembering that these fellows were held, not only just held captive, but they're in work camps. They were doing hard labor. This wasn't exactly, you know, sitting in a rich hotel somewhere in Pyongyang.

HARLOW: Right.

GERGEN: So, they had a hard time. I do think there is a tendency, hyperbole going into this summit of sort of overpraising who North Korea is and had they been excellent all along, credible people, been terrific, et cetera, et cetera. You know that's the president's style, I don't think it works in diplomacy very well.

[10:05:12] HARLOW: Well, Balbina, there have been some experts who have warned the president against trying to have too quick of a Nixon and China moment here, right? Trying to get a deal just to get a deal, it has to be the right deal. And we have seen this rapid pace and I'm not being critical. I'm just interested in your expert opinion on the pace that we have seen. You had Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State meeting within the span of five or six weeks with, you know the leader of North Korea, which is remarkable in of itself. And then you've had Kim Jong-un meeting with the Chinese president and then the South Korean president as well. How fast is this going in the context of what it is going to take to bring these two sides together?

HWANG: Well, here is the difficulty with this particular president which is what makes it so interesting for us analysts for the rest of the other leaders, but also for historians. Because frankly speaking, when we look back at history and for those of us analysts who have been watching Korea especially for decades, what is so fascinating is that when we look at this kind of diplomatic talk, many times some of these leaders, we don't -- we simply do not know what is actually going on. Sometimes some of this diplomatic speak is done very, very carefully. We don't know actually know at the moment whether or not this is done very carefully and whether or not this is done with the mind of -- behind the scenes whether it is spoken very carefully to send a message to the leaders themselves, with almost a secret code.

In other words, it is spoken very carefully to send a message with spoken very carefully to send a message with message in the sense that you are sending to the leaders in a way that it is meant to convey to Kim Jong-un maybe that -- that he's signaling, you know, that he is conveying -- exactly. But, but with President Trump, this is exactly hyperbole. He's turning it around -

HARLOW: And Balbina, let me just bring David in on this point, because we have seen the American public responding in a way that is very beneficial to the president, not about the detainees, look at this polling, the CNN polling. It was conducted before they came home just released today. The president in the span of two months has seen a 10- point increase in the approval rating overall of Americans how they believe he's handling the North Korea situation, significant.

GERGEN: It is very significant. And, you know, the president sees the politics in this obviously. He went out there in the middle of the night with his wife, with the vice president to give them a heroes' welcome. We had a lot of prisoners come home without heroes' welcome and this one he's playing to the hilt because he sees the politics in it. And by the way, there are other polls showing when you look to the midterm elections, the Democratic advantage of 15, 16 points has now shrunk to 3.

HARLOW: Right, right.

GERGEN: So this is playing to the home audience a lot.

HARLOW: But to that point, I mean, if you think about President Nixon and make a comparison, David, about trying to focus on the Soviet Union and peace in the Middle East when he's under the threat of impeachment here at home. It doesn't erase that. Look how it ended with Nixon. And I'm not making direct comparison here. I'm just saying do you think that these foreign policy successes for President Trump can successfully overshadow the controversies he's facing here at home, the payments to Cohen, et cetera, trying to buy access to the president, et cetera?

GERGEN: Right. Look, I think if the president comes home with a North Korean deal.

HARLOW: Right.

GERGEN: That will be extremely important for the country and for the world. I don't think it is as historic as Nixon going to China, but it's a big league victory if he brings it off. I think what a lot of us, who are - well, say, the quote, establishment of a foreign policy - domestic area are urging caution because we have been lied to so often. I was involved in the negotiations during the Clinton administration at the table with these other advisers. And you know we thought we had a big deal. But the guy just flat out lied, he cheated, and you got to be very, very careful with these folks.

HARLOW: We're out of time. But thank you both very much for being here. Balbina Hwang and David Gergen, we appreciate it.

So, also this morning, President Trump's long time lawyer and fixer facing a new problem, sources say after the election Michael Cohen aggressively pitched himself to companies to get paid for access to the president, made a lot of money doing that.

Evan Perez is in Washington with more. Well over a million dollars he made basically saying I'm the guy that can get you to the president.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Poppy. You remember obviously that the president when he was campaigning was railing against the swamp, here in Washington. Well this is the ultimate in swampy behavior.

[10:10:00] Michael Cohen, once the president was elected, started cashing in on his access to the president telling people that he was the guy who could get him close to this White House, to this new administration. One Republican strategist told us one that of the pitches that Michael Cohen made was -- he said, quote, "I don't know who has been representing you, but you should fire them all. I'm the guy who you should hire. I'm closest to the president. I'm his personal lawyer."

He clearly was making over a million dollars as you mentioned, for some of these big name companies that I think even, you know, big lobbying firms here in Washington would have been very, very jealous of the big names that he was able to get.

HARLOW: Right. So let's talk about some of those big names, huge pharmaceutical companies, AT&T.

PEREZ: Right, exactly. We're talking about AT&T, Novartis, big pharmaceutical company, Korea Aerospace Industries, and there's Columbus Nova, which is an American company that you probably haven't heard of very much until lately. They were -- a company that is tied to a Russian oligarch, Viktor Vekselberg. And they have been busy over the last few weeks trying to erase all the links that there were between them and Viktor Vekselberg. They have scrubbed all references to the company that Vekselberg owns, Renova Group, from their website.

And, look, all these companies have said that they -- one of the things that they wanted was access to the administration. In the case of -- in the case of Novartis, they said what they wanted was advice on health care. AT&T said that they wanted insight into the new administration. The Korean company said they wanted some legal advice and so, all of these ties into what Michael Cohen was doing, which is in the end, just access to the new administration.

Of course, Robert Mueller's team has taken interest in this, as a prosecutor in the southern district of New York. We know that Novartis and AT&T have confirmed they both have provided information to Robert Mueller's investigators. This happened months ago. And we have a statement from I think from AT&T which says in part, "When we were contacted by the Special Counsel's office regarding Michael Cohen, we cooperated fully, providing all information requested in November and December of 2017."

Poppy, they say that they have not heard anything more since then from the special counsel and they think that the questions have been answered. We really, though, it shows that this investigation is a lot further along, months ago, than when we found out.

HARLOW: Right. It is stunning that this happened, you know, six months ago, these companies were questioned by Mueller's team. We're just finding about it now. Evan, thank you for the reporting as always, to you and your team.

Dana Bash is with us, our chief political correspondent. So, Dana, help me just get my head around this and understand it fully. Yes, Michael Cohen has been close to the president for years. And there is reporting that he thought that he might be named White House counsel when Donald Trump was elected, maybe Chief of Staff, he ends up with nothing, no role. There's even reporting that some of the president's family were trying to keep him as far away from the White House as possible, so he decides to get rich? Is that what happened?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Look, he's not the only person in and around the president who has done this. It seems as though he was quite aggressive about it, based on the reporting that I and Sara Murray and MJ Lee and our amazing team have done. But, Poppy, I just want to tell you that I just got off the phone with Rudy Giuliani about this very issue. And asked him the key question, I think, which is, did the president know that Michael Cohen was doing this.

And here's what Giuliani told me. He said that he talked to -- he, Giuliani, talked to the president only one time about it before the latest in the last 36 hours, our reporting about other attempts to get business. At that time, the president told Giuliani that he was not aware of the situation. And Giuliani said, obviously now things are getting a little bit more -- the word he used was contorted. But then Giuliani went on to say that he's only going to be concerned about it if somebody says this involves the president. And so far they are not saying it.

Now, again, this is Giuliani saying he spoke to the president only once about the notion of Michael Cohen, basically trying to sell access. President didn't know about it. But has not spoken to him since our reporting about the volume with which the -- Michael Cohen tried to do this.

HARLOW: So he - I mean, Dana, you talked to Rudy Giuliani fairly often, especially lately. He gives you information. Did you get the sense that he is completely confident that the president had zero knowledge of this or were you left still with questions?

BASH: It seems as though he still has questions. As of now, he says that the -- as far as he knows, based on his conversations with the president.

[10:15:01] The president didn't know about it. But, again, it is pretty clear that he understands what is happening, that we're getting new information pretty fast. But, again, the sort of headline from him is that he insists that it is not a problem, legally speaking, for the president unless somebody says the president knew anything about this. Politically is a whole different situation.


BASH: Legally speaking, he thinks so far, the president is in the clear.


HARLOW: Politically, it's like swampy -

BASH: That's a whole different question -

HARLOW: Before you go, look, with all of these big payments to Michael Cohen, it doesn't seem like he was very good at it. I mean, the money to Stormy Daniels, the porn star, didn't work, didn't silence her. Novartis, which paid him $1.2 million bailed after one meeting with him realizing, according to our reporting that he really didn't have the access that was promised to the president, AT&T getting no breaks in this federal lawsuit seemingly. So what gives?

BASH: Look, being in Washington and knowing a lot of people who are registered lobbyists, people who aren't registered but they are consultants and I think a lot of registered lobbyists I know think it is not really fair that the consultants are not registered. But there is an art to it. And they understand the business of Washington and they understand kind of how to play the game with these big companies and Washington figures. And Michael Cohen is a New York lawyer who worked for a private citizen named Donald Trump doing a lot of fixing as we know. But this wasn't necessarily his thing, combine that with the fact that he was selling the ability to have conversations with the president on things like Obamacare and repealing Obamacare and it just wasn't going to pan out.

HARLOW: Right, right, great point. Dana Bash, thank you so much.

BASH: Thank you.

HARLOW: Still to come, House lawmakers have just released a trove of Facebook ads linked to Russia, as many as 3,000 all meant to meddle in the election. CNN is digging through them.

Also, Israel and Iran trade fire as military confrontation escalates in the region. We have new reaction from the White House this morning.

And Senator John McCain now confirms, and says, why that he would do it again to give that famous Steele dossier to then FBI Director James Comey. What McCain says and how he put it, ahead.


[10:21:08] BERMAN: The White House expressing its support for Israel this morning after overnight strikes between Iran and Israel marked the most direct confrontation to date, really, between these two countries. All of this, just days after President Trump's decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.

HARLOW: Our Oren Liebermann is live for us following the conflict. Oren, what can you tell us? This really all just unfolded overnight.

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, there is a deceptive quiet here behind me now. But having watched this overnight from this very spot, we very much saw the first real direct exchange of fire between Israel and Iran, these two regional rivals battling for positioning here. The Israeli military says shortly after midnight, Iran forces in Syria here behind me, where we can see from the occupied Golan Heights, fired off some 20 rockets at military positions not far from where I'm standing now. Some of those were intercepted by Israel's iron dome aerial defense system.

Israel's response included surface to surface missiles, airstrikes, as well as other methods targeting Iranian sites in Syria. Israel says they targeted and hit dozens of Iranian sites in Syria including intelligence compounds, command headquarters as well as rocket launchers there. Now to today, where it has been a -- as I said, deceptively quiet day. Here the international community stepped in to try to get this to de- escalate as these two sides have this first direct confrontation between each other. The White House has come out strongly in Israel's position.

And here's their statement. "The United States condemns the Iranian regime's provocative rocket attacks from Syria against Israeli citizens, and we strongly support Israel's right to act in self- defense. The Iranian regime's deployment into Syria of offensive rocket and missile systems aimed at Israel is an unacceptable and highly dangerous development for the entire Middle East."

No surprise there that the U.S. has come out firmly in Israel's corner here. The Syrian foreign ministry meanwhile describes this as the strongest - or rather a new phase of Israeli aggression against Syria. So, there you see that escalation, that speculation that sides here are girding for war.

John and Poppy, pointing in the other direction, trying to de-escalate this, the Russians have very much stepped in. Keep in mind it is their military that essentially writes the rules of operating in Syria. They have relations between Israel and Iran. Russia has said they're in touch with - has said they're in touch with both countries and they are urging both sides here to de-escalate to show restraint and essentially to back off here.

BERMAN: All right, Oren Liebermann, very tense situation. Please stay safe. Appreciate it.

Three detainees once held in North Korea back on U.S. soil this morning. President Trump was there to greet them. More on their homecoming, next.


[10:28:25] HARLOW: A win for the president overnight on foreign policy and for this country, welcoming home three detainees who were held in North Korea.

We want to bring in Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu of California, a member of the House Foreign Affairs and Judiciary Committee. Congressman thanks so much for being with us. Your reaction to those pictures overnight of those detainees landing at Joint Base Andrews and whether or not you think this administration deserves credit for bringing them home.

REP. TED LIEU (D-CA), FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: Thank you, John, and Poppy, for that question. Yes, I believe the Trump administration deserves credit for bringing in these hostages back from North Korea. But also I want to note that two of these hostages were taken under the Trump administration, one was under the Obama administration and North Korea had no reason for taking these Americans. They had done nothing wrong. So, North Korea should actually get no credit.

HARLOW: So, given that, do you think it is a good idea for President Trump to sit down with Kim Jong-un in just a few weeks in Singapore?

LIEU: I served on active duty under U.S. Pacific Command. And it is very clear the United States has exactly zero good military options against North Korea. That's why I'm very pleased that diplomacy is taking center stage. I support the president speaking with the leader of North Korea at the summit. I hope the summit is successful.

BERMAN: 77 percent of Americans agree with you. They approve of the president. His plans to sit down with Kim Jong-un which we believe will be in Singapore.

If I can shift gears to Michael Cohen here, the news that has come out over the last 24 hours about his aggressive sales pitch to sell not -- if not access, at least sell his expertise on the Trump administration to AT&T, to Novartis, and to this company that has ties to a Russian oligarch. First of all, what do you make of that?