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Administration Wants More Talks; Trump on NFL Rule Change; Pelosi on Impeachment; Trump on Comey Firing; North Korean Summit Canceled. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired May 24, 2018 - 09:30   ET


[09:30:00] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Freezes in the past administration to administration have completely have utterly failed. And that's why this administration was demanding denuclearization immediately. Now, they make -- that may have not been the right card to play in the negotiations, but the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who's coming before your committee today, he says the opposite of what the president says. Listen to him just yesterday.


MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: It is my view that we have made zero concessions to Chairman (ph) Kim to date and we have no intention of doing so.

The model that we have laid forth is a rapid denuclearization total and complete that won't be extended over time.


HARLOW: Does he need to clarify to your committee today what the administration's stance really is?

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), SENIOR MEMBER, FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: Well, there might be a lot in the interpretation, what he meads by "immediate." But I think in negotiations you have to be willing to give and take.

Look, there's no question --

HARLOW: Can -- sorry, can you -- can there be interpretations of "immediate"?

CARDIN: Oh, yes. I mean, physically, that's impossible. But I think the key thing here is that Kim Jong-un, the North Korean regime, is the rogue regime. They're the ones who are going to have to make the commitments. But they're going to be matters on both sides that are going to have to be dealt with. And it's going to take some time. And I think we have to be patient. We have to build confidence.

And, I -- quite frankly, we need transparency and we need Congress involved in how we're going to move forward. We don't trust Kim Jong- un, but we know diplomacy is the best way to resolve this issue. HARLOW: Let me ask you about another comment the president made this

morning. He was asked about the new NFL rule, about penalizing NFL players that don't stand for the national anthem. Here's how the president sees it.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't think people should be staying in locker rooms. But, still, I think it's good. You have to stand proudly for the national anthem. Or you shouldn't be playing. You shouldn't be there. Maybe you shouldn't be in the country. You have to stand proudly for the national anthem.


HARLOW: Maybe you shouldn't be in the country if you don't stand for the national anthem. Your response?

CARDIN: This country's stands for the constitutional protections in the First Amendment, the right of freedom of speech. That's what this country is about. Employers have the right to establish reasonable standards on how their employees can express themselves. So I think what the NFL is doing right now is moving in the right path.

HARLOW: Is that a dangerous comment from the president to suggest deportation for players that do not stand for the anthem?

CARDIN: I strongly disagree with the use of those types of words. Yes, I think they're inflammatory and I would hope that the president understands that. But I now know -- so far into his term that we can expect this language from the president, but it's never going to be acceptable to me and I think to many Americans.

HARLOW: Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer, gave an interview to "The Washington Post" and he said a few things in it that struck me. But perhaps the most striking thing was what he said about the truth. And he was asked if the president would sit down for an interview with Bob Mueller's team. He reversed course saying, well, I might just let that happen because the president wants to essentially. But then he said that he is concerned about an interview because he thinks it would be a perjury trap and he said, quote, truth is relative. Went on to say they, meaning Mueller's team, may have a different version of the truth than we do.

Is truth relative?

CARDIN: No, not at all. And this president has shown over and over again that he says things that aren't truthful. He does that. And I think Mr. Giuliani is right to be concerned at how the president will conduct his interview.

But he'll have the opportunity to be prepared for such an interview. What the president said is that he wants to cooperate with the investigation. He would do an interview. If Mr. Mueller wants an interview, the president should accommodate that.

The bottom line is, let this investigation reach its conclusion without interference.

HARLOW: Nancy Pelosi sat down with our Chris Cuomo last night in a CNN town hall. I was asleep for it, but I saw the highlights this morning. In case you miss it, here's something that stood out to us, talking about when Democrats talk about impeachment. Listen.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), MINORITY LEADER: Impeachment is, to me, divisive. Again, if the facts are there, if the facts are there, then this would have to be bipartisan to go forward. But if it is viewed as partisan, it will divide the country. And I just -- I just -- I just don't think that that's what we should do.


HARLOW: Do you agree, especially leading into the midterms, that your fellow Democrats need to move as far away from possible talking about impeachment, at least as a platform to run on?

CARDIN: Well, I sort of view this differently. I think a president needs to be held accountable. He needs to be held accountable for his conflicts. He needs to be held accountable for the -- what comes out in the Mueller investigation. So accountability can be in many different ways. The House of Representatives have sole responsibility on impeachment and I do think that the leader is correct, that we need to do this in a way that doesn't divide our nation.

[09:35:05] HARLOW: Senator Ben Cardin, appreciate you being with us before that hearing today with the secretary of state. Thank you.

CARDIN: Thank you, Poppy.

HARLOW: Critics call it obstruction, but President Trump now says the firing of FBI Director James Comey was, quote, a great service to America. Who's right? Next.


HARLOW: This morning, President Trump says firing FBI Director James Comey was a great service to the country. Comey slamming the president's claims that a spy was planted in his campaign. Completely unsubstantiated claims.

Joining me now is Errol Louis, CNN political commentator, Alex Burns, our political analyst.

Nice to have you both here.

So the president says, Errol, the firing of James Comey is going to go down as a good thing. It's also going to go down, just factually, as the thing that prompted the hiring of the special counsel and potentially could lead to obstruction charges.

ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: This is true. It's a pivotal -- it's a pivotal event. There's no question about that. When Trump now says that it's a popular thing, you know, everybody wanted him to do it or lots of people were saying, those kind of catch phrases that he likes to throw out to justify himself.

[09:40:10] Let's go back to May 9th when the firing happened. Let's go back to the very next day when he's meeting in the Oval Office, excluding American press as he meets with the Russian ambassador.


LOUIS: The third day after that when he's talking with Lester Holt and sort of saying this Russia thing is all made up and that's why I fired him. Shifting explanations. A call for clarity, which in turn let to the appointment of the special counsel. And that's really going to be, I think, the pivotal history moment for us.


LOUIS: This is where we began to look into --

HARLOW: Right.

LOUIS: Things that had only be rumored up until that point.

HARLOW: It is interesting, though, because you saw the shift in strategy last week with that long Giuliani interview that Chris did here, the strategy has clearly become, you know, pit the honesty and integrity of James Comey against the honesty and integrity of the president in terms of the public opinion on the Mueller probe. On the NFL comments, the president saying players that don't stand for the national anthem, maybe you shouldn't be in the country.

Would the outrage be greater, Alex, a year ago if the president said this? Do we just come to expect something like this from him?

ALEX BURNS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Oh, I think there's no question the outrage would have been greater a year ago. And a year ago there might have been some expectation that the president would face immediate political or substitute consequences for those kinds of comments, which are really outside the realm of things that a president could be normally expected to say. But, you know, we've now seen -- I think it's not just a matter of your sort of ordinary person being desensitized to this kind of thing. We've had many opportunities now for Congress, for prominent figures in the president's own political party, for cultural leaders to do something really significant or assertive to make the president sort of pay a price for this kind of thing, right.

HARLOW: Right.

BURNS: The NFL could really have stood up to the president at some point. It just hasn't happened.

HARLOW: Right.

BURNS: So, you know, if people lose a sense of outrage or if people lose the expectation that the out -- the outrageous actions might have consequences, you can kind of understand it.

HARLOW: On that point, Republican Senator Jeff Flake, and I think we have the sound, made this -- made some really remarkable statements at Harvard at the commencement this week. Let's listen to it.


SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: Our presidency has been debased by a figure who seemingly has a bottomless appetite for destruction and division and only a passing familiarity with how the Constitution works.


HARLOW: Normally, Errol, a Republican senator saying about a Republican president, we have hit bottom, would have been stunning. And yet it's just another -- what day is it, Thursday? It's just another Thursday.

LOUIS: Well, it -- I mean, two points. Let's -- first of all, it's no less true, the fact that it doesn't get a lot of attention. The fact that more and more people are coming to that point of view and are speaking out is probably a good thing because folks have been saying this all along. There were warnings all throughout 2015 that this is a chaos candidate. He's going to take us down a road we don't want to go down. A lot of Republicans said there are going to be -- there's going to be a political price to be paid. And that much I think we have started to see.

In other words, people aren't necessarily taking to the streets, although a lot of people are. People aren't necessarily doing blaring headlines, although there's a fair amount of coverage, just as you showed. But really, very importantly, in many, many cases you see folks who, because they were aligned with Trump, not with the eliminationist (ph) rhetoric or any of the extremist kind of comments or even the tweets, but they are losing. There are people who are going to the polls and saying, we don't want this anymore.


BURNS: But, you know, we see Jeff Flake go and say that kind of thing at Harvard, right? Last week the president went up to Capitol Hill, amid this uproar over his own aide's --


BURNS: Really ugly comment about John McCain. Republican senators were up in arms.

HARLOW: They didn't ask him about that.

BURNS: They had the chance to confront him.


BURNS: They didn't do it. HARLOW: Yes. And they said, we ran out of time.

BURNS: Right.

HARLOW: It's like what's your job, and the president's in front of you and you say you're upset about this, so ask him about it.

Guys, stay with me. I want your analysis on this news just into us.

Sources tell CNN how the president is taking North Korea's attack on the vice president. Let's get straight to our Elise Labott. He's in D.C.

So, Elise, set this up for us and then let us know what the president's saying.

Elise, can you hear me?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Poppy -- Poppy, we have some breaking news coming in to CNN. We understand President Trump will be delaying or postponing or possibly canceling his summit with Kim Jong-un.

Obviously there's been a lot of consultations and discussions and concern really that Kim Jong-un's intentions weren't honorable, that he wasn't committed to the kind of full denuclearization that the U.S. had wanted. There's been a lot of rhetoric floating back in the last couple of days. You know in the last week the North Koreans had threatened to pull out of this summit because of these joint military exercises that the U.S. and South Korea were looking to do, even though Kim Jong-un had said he understood that this is not a threat against North Korea.

[09:45:01] So, obviously, we're waiting for more news. We will be hearing from North Korea -- U.S. officials about this very dramatic decision. I think President Trump really wanted to have this summit as a way of, you know, testing the waters with North Korea, that there could be a negotiation.

We have now a letter from President Trump to Kim Jong-un. It's delivered. It's addressed, Mr. Chairman. We greatly appreciate your time, patience and effort with respect to our recent negotiations and discussions relative to a summit long sought by both parties which was schedule today take place in Singapore. We were informed that the meeting was requested by North Korea, but that to us was totally irrelevant. I was very much looking forward to being there with you. Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement -- and we can talk about that Poppy -- that's that recent statement about Vice President Pence that the North Koreans put out last night. This is the key part now -- I feel it's inappropriate at this time to have this long planned meeting. Therefore, please let this letter serve to represent that the Singapore summit, for the good of both parties, but to the detriment of the world, will not take place. Your talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used. And, Poppy, I mean, the president is very effusive in this letter.

I felt a wonderful dialogue was building up between you and me and ultimately is only that dialogue that matters. Some day I look very much forward to meeting you. In the meantime, I want to thank you for the release of the hostages who are now home with their families. That was a beautiful gesture and very much appreciated. If you change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write. The world and North Korea, in particular, has lost a great opportunity for lasting peace and great prosperity and wealth. This missed opportunity is a truly sad moment in history.

So, Poppy, the president really upping the ante here. In the end of that letter, he says, if you change your mind having to do with this most important summit. I think he's sending a very powerful message to Kim Jong-un that we want dialogue, the U.S. wants this kind of nuclear dialogue and perhaps, you know, even leading to relations between the two countries, there's been a lot of talk about what the U.S. could do for North Korea, whether it's economic development, whether it's a peace treaty, security guarantees that Kim Jong-un had long been seeking. All those were on the table.

But given the rhetoric coming from North Korea and really the lack of Kim Jong-un's clarity on what he was willing to put on the table, unfortunately, led to this very dramatic letter in the last 24 hours or 12 hours really since that statement about Vice President Pence came out from the North Korea's calling him a political dummy because of this whole idea of the Libya model. That really led the president -- he was very furious about that statement and ultimately decided to up the ante and pull out.

We're not sure if this is a real, you know -- it's done for good, but he's certainly leaving the ball in Kim Jong-un's court now, Poppy.

HARLOW: Elise, it is a stunning reversal, of course, for this White House. The language is markedly different than a president who weeks ago called Kim Jong-un honorable, said he had treated American detainees excellently. Those Americans are now home, thank goodness.

We have our players at the White House joining us as well.

Let's not forget, Elise, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who first met twice with Kim Jong-un, setting up this summit, laying the groundwork for it, will testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in ten minutes.

LABOTT: That's right, Poppy. And, obviously, he will explain a little bit more about the U.S., you know, reasoning for this and that's probably why the White House put out the letter as it did.

But I have to say that this letter is very remarkable in the sense that it's not the usual rhetoric that you heard from -- you hear from President Trump. He's not tweeting that the summit is over. He's not calling -- back to calling Kim Jong-un little rocket man. There's been a real effort over the last several weeks as this summit approached to give Kim Jong-un the kind of respect of a world leader that was going to meet for an important summit, calling him Chairman Kim, talking about the dialogue that they set up.

I think, you know, for President Trump, this is a, you know, a very statesman like way of doing this. And something, frankly, that we're really not accustomed to the way he is laying this out and giving, you know, not basically going back to the kind of disrespect that he did and, frankly, not the disrespect that the North Koreans are showing the United States, that they showed Vice President Pence in their last statement. They're still kind of -- the U.S., I think, deciding to take the high road here and still trying to see if they can appeal to Kim Jong-un's, you know, sensibilities that this is an opportunity that could be lost.

[09:50:26] HARLOW: OK. We -- Elise, thank you for breaking the news. Stay with us.

We also have our Kaitlan Collins at the White House. Jim Sciutto, my colleague, is with me as well.

Jim, you know, all -- Elise just read the letter, laid out all of this. He addressed Kim as Chairman Kim. He opened the letter by saying, we greatly appreciate your time and patience. But he said after North Korea threatened a nuclear showdown with the United States, called the vice president a political dummy, President Trump says this is off. What's your top line on this?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's sort of like a nuclear Dear John letter, right? I mean it starts -- it starts with some politeness, but the bottom line is remarkable. And what does it show you? It shows you that the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea does not turn on a dime. The president has suggested that, right, going from the rhetoric at the U.N. General Assembly just last September, little rocket man, the fire and fury comments, threatening, it seemed, nuclear war against North Korea unless it gave up its weapons if it didn't stop threatening the United States.

And then turning, just in the last couple of weeks, to calling him honorable. This dictator honorable in his discussions about this summit. Claiming that North Korea was credibly going to give up all of its nuclear weapons when, in fact, his own intelligence agencies doubted that assessment that he used nuclear weapons as a means to his survival. And then you had a return from the North Korean side to the rhetoric we were more used to, volatile, calling the vice president stupid, and then some quite strong rhetoric from the U.S. side as well.

You know, this relationship does not suddenly become warm and fuzzy in the span of weeks because the two sides are talking. Their positions are entrenched. North Korea views nuclear weapons as a means of survival. The U.S. does not want North Korea to have nuclear weapons. Finding the middle ground there, it was always unrealistic to say, and for the president to imply publicly, that this was a problem with an easy solution. Remember, just in the last couple of weeks, talking openly about a Nobel Peace Prize, long before any of the difficult issues had been discussed in any substantial way.

So here we are now where the summit, which already had questions as to what it was going to accomplish, even if the summit were to happen, what were the outlines? What did peace look like to the U.S. and North Korea. It was very clear from public statements that, in fact, they were different definitions to some of these key issues. The U.S. saw denuclearization as the complete destruction of North Korea's nuclear weapons. North Korea saw it somewhat differently, very differently. None of those issues had been worked out.

So as you get closer, this beyond the president's reaction to some of that fairly angry rhetoric from the North Koreans the last 24 hours appears to be a realization on the part of the White House that those big picture issues were not, that the two sides were not as close on those big picture issues, and they needed to be if the two leaders were going to sit down across from each other at a table. And setting the president up, you might imagine, for a difficult encounter there if he were to sit down there and not get anything close to the concessions that he expected. So it appears to be that this is a -- this -- this is something of a realization of that as well.

HARLOW: And let's remember, you know, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said something completely different in terms of the demands that this country has for denuclearization ahead of this summit than the president even said in that interview just hours ago with Fox News, saying a phase-in could be OK. That is not what the secretary of state testified just yesterday.

Jim Sciutto, thank you. Stay here.

Let me go back to Elise Labott for more.


LABOTT: Well, Don't forget, yesterday we were talking about the idea that the U.S. wanted additional high level talks with the North Koreans to kind of assess what Kim's true intentions were. They didn't feel that they knew.

Now you have this advance team that was leaving this weekend to go meet with the North Koreans. Obviously those logistics were going forward. But as Jim said, they did not have real clarity about what Kim was willing to talk about, his true intentions, whether -- what he saw as denuclearization, they just didn't know what he was putting on the table.


LABOTT: And that's why it was so hard to set up the agenda, Poppy. And officials told me, listen, it shouldn't be that hard. If he's serious about denuclearizing, an agenda should be very easy. But if he's not and they're just going to play -- the North Koreans are just going to play the same games that they have, kind of trying to drag this out, then this summit is not going to be very successful.

[09:55:02] So I think Jim makes a key point -- HARLOW: Hey --

LABOTT: That, you know, even though they're changing this on the recent rhetoric, I think it was a lack of clarity and a -- you know, the fact that they were unsure about whether this summit was going to be successful or a bust.

HARLOW: So, Elise, we know the president, from the letter, from your reporting, was very angered by North Korea calling the vice president a political dummy, but also this statement overnight from North Korea, quote, whether the U.S. will meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at a nuclear to nuclear showdown is entirely dependent upon the decision and behavior of the United States. That came from the vice minister and the North Korean foreign ministry.

Barbara Starr is with us from the Pentagon. Also Kaitlan Collins at the White House.

And, Kaitlan, let me get to you on, the president was very eager to have this summit. We know that. Some analysts thought even too eager, talking about Nobel Peace Prizes, moving too quickly some said. Do you have any sense of who in the White House may have forced the president's hand on this, if there was someone? May have said, look, this rhetoric overnight in the last 24 hours has gone too far, we need to pull out for now.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I don't think, Poppy, that the president's hand was forced here. We've seen the eagerness kind of subside over the first -- in the recent days since North Korea first made that threat that this summit may not happen after all and it seemed like the North Koreans were getting cold feet. And we've seen the optimism here over the potential for this summit, which had once been at an all-time high. Aides were very cautiously optimistic, not talking privately about the chances that this might not happen.

We have seen that change over the last few days and certainly the last 24 hours, especially with this latest statement that you just referenced where the North Korean senior official referred to the vice president as political dummy and then later on, of course, they are essentially threatening nuclear war, saying they can make the U.S. (INAUDIBLE) an appalling tragedy it has neither experienced nor imagined until now. And I think White House officials just saw, with North Korea making a threat like that, how could they envision a summit going forth with that language coming out of North Korea.

So I think we've seen the chances of something like this happening deteriorate over the last few weeks. And this really happened over the last 24 hours. Just yesterday White House officials were still confident that there was a chase that this summit could happen, about they were saying that there had not been a lot of communication between the United States and North Korea and even between the South Koreans and North Korea, as evidence by the fact that the South Korean president visited here at the White House the other day, sat down with the president and he could say that he thought he was 99.9 percent sure the summit would still happen. But he also had not had a lot of communication with the North Koreans -- HARLOW: Right.

COLLINS: From what people inside the White House have said.

So I think we've seen the chances for something like that deteriorate. And then with this statement going after the vice president for something that the president has also said, and the national security adviser, and this threat of nuclear war, I think it was really tough for them to envision the summit going forward.

HARLOW: And, Jim, to Kaitlan's point, she said, look, I don't think the president's hand was pushed at all, but, Jim Sciutto, what about John Bolton in all of this? What can you imagine those conversations were like between the president and John Bolton ahead of this letter coming out?

SCIUTTO: Well, as often happens with this White House, that conversations occur out in public on cable television, right? I mean John Bolton made some comments that I don't want to say scuttled the talks but raised issues about these talks --

HARLOW: The Libya model.

SCIUTTO: That, you know, questions -- I mean a discussion of the Libya model, right, which is not a great advertisement for any nuclear negotiations in light of what happened to Muammar Gaddafi. So is it possible that via the cable news airwaves that he was, you know, expressing his own doubts about what might come out of these meetings. John Bolton, who's always been a North Korea hawk, it's possible, certainly.

The other point I would make is this, Poppy. Keep in mind, you know, this is far from just a political story, right? Before there was talk of a summit, there was real concern here in Washington about a conflict resulting from this, a military conflict, a shooting war over North Korea was our own reporting with my colleague Dana Bash and others earlier this year, and we remain confident in this, that there were real discussions of the possibility of military action, that the president was closer to that option than many imagined in light of his concern about the threat there.

So if this summit is indeed off, if negotiations as a whole are off, we are back in a very dangerous place here. And I think we should be conscious of that. It's far more than a Washington story, a politics story. This is -- this could have real repercussions.

HARLOW: Absolutely, Jim. I mean harkening back not that long ago to the fire and fury comments that were coming from the president.

Barbara Starr joining us at the Pentagon.

What is your read on how these two leaders, Kim Jong-un and President Trump, understand or fundamentally do not understand one another?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, it's a great question, Poppy, because I think the fundamental question here is, what is going on inside Kim Jong-un's head? What has led him to engage in this new round of rhetoric that then led the president to put the summit off.