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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

President Trump Flip-Flopping on North Korea Summit Decision?; Will North Korea Restart Missile & Nuclear Tests?; CNN: Russian Oligarch Met with Michael Cohen During Transition. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired May 25, 2018 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:08]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: I hate you. I need you. You can't break up with me because I'm dumping you. Negotiations with North Korea or a teen romance?

THE LEAD starts right now.

Whiplash. After a -- quote -- "warm letter" from North Korea, President Trump says his summit with Kim Jong-un might actually go on as previously scheduled in a little more than two weeks.

But beyond the logistics of such a meeting, has any substance been agreed upon?

The big if. If these high-stakes negotiations with one of the most volatile countries in the world don't work out, will North Korea go back to threatening the world with nuclear weapons? We will take you inside the nuclear tunnels buried inside the hermit kingdom.

And a murder mystery on the Mexican border -- a woman found dead, a federal agent possibly assaulted. Why are investigators now changing their story?

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with the politics lead today and the delicate art of diplomacy being jostled and pushed and kicked by competing agendas and plans for President Trump's Singapore summit in complete and utter confusion.

The self-proclaimed master deal-maker is having his skills put to the ultimate test, with nothing short of nuclear war on the line. One day after abruptly canceling his summit with North Korea's Kim Jong-un, President Trump today said the show might still go on.

Experts say these negotiations were always going to be far more difficult than the president's breezy mentions of a Nobel Peace Prize might suggest, what with a pattern of erratic behavior by North Koreans, suspicions that South Korea President Moon may have oversold this all, questions about whether China is trying to sabotage any peace plan, and, of course, the disastrously received mention by the Trump White House of the so-called Libyan model, which to Kim Jong-un may have conjured forth vision a denuclearized Libya with sullied by Gadhafi's bloody corpse.

The big question now, of course, where does it go from here? Will the world end up farther away or closer to war?

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is at the White House for us now

Kaitlan, so I guess the basic question, are you buying a plane ticket to Singapore for June 12, and, if so, is it refundable?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Don't worry, Jake, we booked refundable, and, unlike President Trump, we have not canceled our tickets yet.

Now, one of the primary reasons this summit was called off roughly 24 hours ago was because there had been a breakdown in communications between the U.S. and the North Koreans, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo essentially saying his calls to the North Koreans were going unanswered and a staff that goes ahead to Singapore to smooth out all the wrinkles for the trip said they were stood up by the North Koreans.

But we have confirmed today, just now, what President Trump said earlier, that talks between the United States and North Korea are back on.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS (voice-over): It is the latest case of diplomatic whiplash from President Trump; 24 hours after canceling his highly anticipated sit-down with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the president suggesting the summit in Singapore could happen after all.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We will see what happens. It could even be the 12th.

COLLINS: In a stunning reversal, Trump telling reporters today his administration is back in touch with North Korea.

TRUMP: We're talking to them now. They very much want to do it. We'd like to do it.

COLLINS: But his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said this the day before:

MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We have received no response to our inquiries from them.

COLLINS: Asked if Pyongyang is playing games, Trump said:

TRUMP: Everybody plays games. You know that.

COLLINS: The developments coming one day after Trump revived talk of military action and vowed to continue economic sanctions.

TRUMP: Our very strong sanctions, by far the strongest sanctions ever imposed, and maximum pressure campaign will continue, as it has been continuing.

COLLINS: With North Korean officials maintaining they're still willing to sit down with the U.S. at any time, in any format to resolve the problems.

The White House unable to answer if planning staff were still flying to Singapore later tonight, as expected.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We will see. We have still got a -- a few hours before that takes place. But as I just said, we are going to be prepared if the meeting takes place on June 12, as the president indicated it still could this morning. We will be ready one way or the other.

COLLINS: Officials answering few questions about the summit's future, with only one formal press briefing this week.

TRUMP: Nothing to do with Russia.

COLLINS: And 463 days since President Trump's one and only solo press conference.

QUESTION: Are you going Singapore, Mr. President?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: So, Jake, we are 18 days out from what could be a groundbreaking moment in history and we still don't know if this trip is happening.

Yesterday, the president called it off. Today, he seemed to resurrect it. And the most confident response I have gotten from anyone inside the White House today is effectively a shrug.

[16:05:07]

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: All right, Kaitlan Collins at the White House, thanks so much.

My political panel is here with me.

So, Senator Lindsey Graham said on Hugh Hewitt's radio show this morning that he spoke to the president about North Korea and that he thinks President Trump will ultimately be able to end North Korea's nuclear program.

Take a listen.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I don't know how he bought and sold and property, and I don't know how he bought and sold golf courses, but he was pretty good at it. As president of the United States, he's made a decision to end the North Korean nuclear program. He wants to do it peacefully if possible. And he's going to do it in his first term, I believe.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

TAPPER: Now, obviously, he's a supporter of the president's.

I wonder, do you think this analogy of President Trump was a good deal-maker when it came to real estate in Atlantic City and New York City, and therefore he might be a good negotiator, do you think actually there is any relevance?

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I think that is one of the strongest brand assets he brought to the campaign and to the presidency, is that that a lot of people believe that, because he's good at negotiating over golf courses, he will be good at negotiating over other things.

And when it comes to something like North Korea, which is a very complicated problem that very smart people have been trying for a very long time to solve, the fact that you have had the smartest guys in the room for decades be unable to solve the North Korea problem, you can kind of understand why supporters of the president might say, yes, this sounds crazy, but Kim Jong-un is crazy. Maybe it takes crazy to deal with crazy.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: But I think the problem is, when you default on a bank loan or you don't get that real estate deal and you walk away, that building doesn't have nuclear weapons.

There is not -- there aren't the kind of giant -- and also he's boxing out allies. That is another problem. The fact that South Korea was like, wait, what, we have got to see what he's thinking here, that is problematic.

You have got to loop other people, other countries in to these snap decisions. There were American journalists in North Korea.

TAPPER: Yes, one of them is ours, Will Ripley.

(CROSSTALK)

KUCINICH: And Will Ripley was there when President Trump made this decision. That is not a good look, to leave people hanging like that.

There is just -- there's a lot of moving pieces, that whether he was a good deal-maker in real estate is kind of irrelevant.

TAPPER: Kirsten, take a listen to "The Washington Post" editorial board.

They say -- quote -- "President Trump's abrupt cancellation of the summit with North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un had the same air of hasty, strategy-free improvisation that has characterized his handling of the diplomatic opening all along. Mr. Trump has impulsively blown up the process, with potential consequences that he and the administration have not bothered to calculate."

Do you agree with that, or are they being a little harsh?

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: No, I think it's right.

I just want also it is highly debatable that he was a good businessman. He was a made-for-TV businessman. Most billionaires we know who actually are good at real estate are not on TV doing reality TV shows.

So, setting that aside, I think that he -- I think what Lindsey Graham was saying has a little bit of a ring of the emperor has no clothes. Right? It is just like -- it's not what is happening. I don't know why Lindsey Graham would say that. He is obviously a smart person and knows a lot about foreign policy.

It is like he's trying to I guess make lemonade from lemons and sort of say, oh, this will all work out eventually, when, in fact, the fact that you had Vice President Pence, that you had John Bolton invoking the Libya -- the Libya...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: The Libya model is...

(CROSSTALK)

POWERS: I mean, the Libya model?

TAPPER: So many experts I know have really...

(CROSSTALK)

POWERS: It's the number one reason that they don't...

TAPPER: Yes.

POWERS: That North Korea doesn't want give to give up weapons, is because they don't want to end up like Gadhafi.

SOLTIS ANDERSON: They don't want to end up dead in a drain pipe. It's just not -- that is not a good negotiating tactic.

POWERS: Yes.

TAPPER: So, Kristen, the White House has sent talking points to its surrogates, including -- quote -- "The president has been clear that he was prepared to walk away from this meeting and he kept his word. The president's overarching goal isn't a meeting. It has always been the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."

And be that as it may, I think that that is fair and accurate. But you can't help but observe that a lot of the hopes for the summit were from the White House itself. President Trump talking about a lot people are saying I deserve the nuclear -- the Nobel Peace Prize, and those commemorative coins that were being sold.

So a lot the hype has -- it is a self-inflicted wound. (CROSSTALK)

SOLTIS ANDERSON: You can't be too eager going into any negotiation. You can't be the party that has the most to lose, that has the most to gain by something going well.

And I think -- take a look at the way Republicans have gone after the Iran deal, the idea that this was a bad situation of the United States and a country that we are not friends with and that we were so eager to make a deal and look good that we made a bad deal in the process.

And so you can see the White House now beginning to backtrack, wait a minute, were we too eager to make it seem like we have to get something out of the summit? Look, we might get a Nobel Peace Prize.

And there is a cold dose of reality that folks are getting that Kim Jong-un is -- this is not just going to be some easy thing where you waltz in, you do a meeting, and it's like a reality show where everything is tied up in a nice bow at the end.

POWERS: Well, Republicans on the Hill yesterday weren't very exercised about this once the deal was off.

[16:10:05]

They were sort of more -- they were actually angrier about what was going on with what the president said when it came to foreign cars than they were upset about what the president did walking away from North Korea.

It was kind of seen as a tough negotiating tactic, rather than scuttling something that had all this promise.

TAPPER: Marco Rubio tweeted this afternoon -- quote -- "Kim Jong-un stays in power through force and deception and believes nukes give him prestige and reduce chances of U.S. attack. He never wanted a nuke deal. He wanted as much sanctions relief as possible without giving them up. Unfortunately, the options on dealing with him are narrowing."

Are you worried that we are headed towards a military confrontation?

KUCINICH: I hope not.

I think that -- but I think this is -- Marco Rubio is probably closer to the truth than Lindsey Graham was, in the sense that I think that Trump was kind of getting played by the North Koreans a little bit.

The idea they were just going to give up their nuclear weapons, that was never going to happen. And I think after they -- they agreed to this meeting without any of the legwork. Right? And then all the -- I think that Trump maybe started to become aware that it wasn't going to go the way that he thought it was going to go, and that he was basically giving them exactly what they have been trying to get from every other president, which is the legitimization of sitting down with the U.S. president, without giving up anything. TAPPER: Thing is, one foreign policy expert I was talking to said,

North Korea has a way to conventionally destroy South Korea just with normal armaments.

They need to be convinced that you can keep those, we're not going to take those away from you, but it is the nuclear weapons that are actually making you less safe and being worse for your country. I don't know if that argument is being made at least publicly to them.

SOLTIS ANDERSON: Well, this is part of why -- to Jackie's point earlier -- it is so important to make sure that South Korea is involved I in this.

It is so easy to just think of this as a United States and North Korea issue, where we don't want them to have nuclear weapons that can hit Hawaii, and it is so much more complicated than that. And I think that -- so I certainly -- I agree with the point that you made earlier, that that is one of the reasons why this -- kind of turning this into a reality show is so dangerous, because the people with the most at stake here are the South Koreans.

TAPPER: All right.

I want to bring in CNN's Will Ripley. He is in Wonsan along the east coast of North Korea.

He broke the news of the canceled summit to North Korean officials.

Will, what are North Korean officials telling you now?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the sense we're getting on the ground here, Jake, is that North Korean diplomats do want to make this work.

That's why you saw that statement out of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Pyongyang praising President Trump for having the courage to move forward with the summit, saying that they are willing to talk with the United States at any time.

The letter from President Trump, frankly, struck the right tone with the North Koreans. Yes, he canceled the summit, but he was respectful, he was complimentary of North Korean Kim Jong-un. That is the most important thing to the North Korean government, that their supreme leader is treated with respect and dignity.

And that is frankly why they responded the way they did to Vice President Pence and National Security Adviser John Bolton, comparing North Korea to the Libya model. As your panelist said, it's pretty much the worst thing that you can say to the North Koreans entering a nuclear negotiation, because they are never going consider any sort of scenario where they feel that their current government would no longer exist after that deal.

I will touch on one point about North Korea's conventional weapons. There have been moments over the many decades where there have been tensions that have been extraordinarily high. North Korea has always had the capability to open fire on Seoul and kill many people and destroy much of that city.

And they haven't done it. They haven't used those weapons. And they feel the same way about their nuclear arsenal. They have always said to me for the last several years in many trips into this country that this is a nuclear deterrent, this is something to give them leverage, this is something to guarantee their survival as a nation -- Jake.

TAPPER: But, Will, I guess the follow-up question then would be -- and I ask it to you because the North Koreans aren't there -- are they willing to give up the nuclear program if they still have the conventional weapons and the -- they retain the ability of deterrence because they still no matter what can bomb Seoul or any other part of South Korea?

Are the nukes really actually on the table here?

RIPLEY: Well, for a long time, North Korean officials have told me that they will never give up their nuclear weapons, period.

And now we're hearing directly from North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un, that he is willing to discuss denuclearization. But for the North Koreans, this is not something that is going to happen in a matter of months. This would be a long process, taken with simultaneous action by the United States.

I mean, what the North Koreans' eventual goal would be is the elimination of what they consider a hostile policy by the United States for their country. They want safety guarantees for their leader, Kim Jong-un.

They want a reduction and eventual elimination of American troops on the Korean Peninsula. We will just have to see if those are the kinds of things that the United States is even willing to discuss here, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Will Ripley in North Korea for us, thank you, as always, sir, for the great reporting.

While diplomats are trying work things out, the U.S. military is preparing for the worst-case scenario. How the Pentagon now views the North Korean threat coming up next.

[16:15:03] Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: And we're back with our world lead now.

Growing fears that cancelation of the summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un will lead North Korea to start conducting more missile tests and more nuclear tests, potentially bringing the two rivals even closer to direct military confrontation.

CNN's Barbara Starr joins us now from the Pentagon.

And, Barbara, has the American military posture changed at all over the last 24 to 48 hours?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Look, Jake, the answer to that is publicly no. But behind the scenes, all of military eyes are indeed on North Korea.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): North Korea is under heavy U.S. military and intelligence surveillance as always. But now, the watch is on for any indication it is resuming weapons testing in response to President Trump calling off the summit.

[16:20:03] LT. GEN. KENNETH MCKENZIE, JOINT STAFF DIRECTOR: We'll see what develops over the next few days, if any provocative actions occur from DPRK. We'll certainly, in concert with our allies and partners in the region, be ready for it.

STARR: U.S. spy satellite, aircraft, submarines in the region continuing to gather every detail about what Kim Jong-un is doing. The U.S. military has significant concerns about North Korean capabilities. Mobile ballistic missiles could quickly be wheeled out of hiding and test-fired. Tunnel sites around the country could be used to test nuclear devices or Kim Jong-un could conduct a nuclear test in the atmosphere. North Korea also still has capability to make plutonium for nuclear weapons.

Even in his letter to Kim, the president reminding the North Korean leader of U.S. nuclear might saying, you talk about your nuclear capabilities but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to god they will never have to be used. But is the Trump administration back on the path of using military force. One Democratic warning about not letting the rhetoric of fire and fury take hold.

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D-MD), SENATE FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: There is no military option without extreme risk. So, it's puzzling that the president has now thrown diplomacy off track and there's always a risk of miscalculation. And a miscalculation could have extremely dangerous consequences.

STARR: Even North Korea good faith gesture destroying its nuclear underground test tunnels may not be all it seems. These tunnel explosions U.S. defense officials say may have only destroyed tunnel entrances, little permanent damage may have been done. For now, Defense Secretary James Mattis signaling optimism.

GEN. JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY: We're not changing anything. Steady as she goes. Diplomats are in the lead and in the charge.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: And military leaders will remind you that if were wore to break out with North Korea, it would be bloody, violent and thousands, tens of thousand could die -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon -- thanks so much.

We're learning about yet another Trump Tower meeting that is raising questions about foreign influence. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:26:34] TAPPER: Breaking today, we have new information about the Russia investigation, and more evidence of a relationship between a Russian oligarch with ties to Vladimir Putin and the Trump team. Video shows the Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg at Trump Tower just days before the inauguration. Vekselberg is in the black hat and you may have heard his name before when his plane landed in the U.S. earlier this year. Vekselberg was questioned by special counsel Robert Mueller's team.

Well, the man to his left, that is his cousin Andrew Intrater. Intrater runs a investment firm, that same month, January 2017, started paying more than a half a million dollars to the president's personal attorney Michael Cohen.

CNN's Shimon Prokupecz has been following the money trail.

And, Shimon, I realized, maybe we don't know this yet, but what was Vekselberg doing at Trump Tower? And along those lines, why did Mueller want to talk to him?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes, I mean, Jake, that is a great question. And the people that we talked to have certainly said that they were there to discuss U.S. and Russia relations, how to better these relations. Now, the question really is, you know, why did they feel the need to have these discussions with Michael Cohen who, as you've said, was the personal attorney to the president and what exactly would his role be in bettering any kind of relationship with any country is not entirely clear.

But what's obvious is what Mueller would be interested in these two guys and they both we've been told were questioned about the special counsel, by FBI agents, is really because if you follow this money trail, this is what's interesting. Now, Viktor Vekselberg is this billionaire with close ties to Vladimir Putin. He shows up at Trump Tower, he shows up at the inauguration.

His cousin there Andrew Intrater donated to the inauguration and as you said hired Michael Cohen, gave him -- paid him over half a million dollars for a contract. Clearly, all of this is something that the special counsel and FBI agents have found interesting. There's also been concern from FBI agents, from the special counsel that oligarchs were somehow funneling money to straw donors in the U.S. that was then going to the campaign and the inauguration.

And perhaps, Jake, that is what some of this is about.

TAPPER: All right. Shimon Prokupecz, thank you so much.

Let's bring back the panel.

So, Kirsten, let me start with you.

We're told these cousins met with Cohen, Michael Cohen, the president's personal attorney, not somebody on the campaign, to discuss U.S.-Russia relations. Do you buy it?

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Even if I do buy it, it is pretty strange. Because if you go back and I know it's getting very hard to follow all of this, but we were told originally when Intrater gave this money to the inauguration and then hired Cohen, that we shouldn't think anything of the fact that he had this cousin who was an oligarch who was close to Putin because he's an American citizen, and clearly, he's just acting on his own and is not in any way connected to his cousin who's close to Vladimir Putin.

TAPPER: But then --

POWERS: Now, we see them going to Trump Tower together. And so, now, it's like, actually it seems like maybe they are doing something together and then reportedly this Russian oligarch weirdly goes to the inauguration of Donald Trump. I mean, is that something that oligarchs usually do? I don't know.

But everything about this is highly suspicious and just undermines the story that we were originally told.

TAPPER: And one of the things that is so odd about this, Kirsten, is the Trump campaign, the Trump people, they could give their explanation as to all of these meetings and all of these Russian contacts and such, but they don't. They haven't said anything. It's been the special counsel, or journalists finding these things out and then bringing them to them.