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President Trump Tweets Explosive Threat to Iran; Trump Privately Frustrated Over Pace of North Korea Talks; Trump Walks Back His Walk-Back on Russia Interference. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired July 23, 2018 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:00] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: His reportedly waning patience on North Korea and his unfiltered views on the Russia probe. Not to be confused with the script that he read last week, or the subsequent interviews or the news conference that he held with Vladimir Putin.

First, this seemingly in response to this provocation from Iran's president a few hours earlier, the president writes, "Never ever threaten the United States again," he warns, "Or you will suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before." That from President Trump. Close to midnight.

Abby Phillip is at the White House with more. For a lot of people I think waking up this Monday morning, Abby, they think, where did this come from?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and it's never exactly the greatest thing to wake up to an all caps tweet, seeming to threaten military action against Iran. But that's exactly what millions of Americans woke up to this morning. The rhetoric from President Trump seemed to invoke the fire and fury rhetoric that we had heard from him when it came to North Korea. And all of that was in response to President Rouhani of Iran issuing his own threat to the United States.

Rouhani said, "Mr. Trump, don't play with the lion's tail. This would only lead to regret. America should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace. And war with Iran is the mother of all wars."

But the question is, what prompted President Trump to make this threat overnight. Is this some kind of distraction from a week of otherwise bad headlines on the foreign policy front, or is the president really on the verge or on the brink of war? We asked Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, this morning, and here's what she said.


SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Look, the president's responding to Iran, and he's not going to allow them to continue to make threats against America. If anybody is inciting anything, look no further than to Iran.


PHILLIP: And Sarah also denied that the president was trying to distract from anything. She said he can focus on many things at once. But at the same time, this is coming at a peculiar time for President Trump.

One more front in a sea of global conflicts out there. We should also add that yesterday Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was delivering a speech to a group of Iranian Americans, in which he called or characterized the Iranian regime as a mafia. So there is a lot of rhetoric flying back and forth, a lot of decisions for this White House to make on sanctions. Remember, just a few weeks ago, the Trump administration pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, and now they face some decisions about imposed -- re-imposing sanctions on Iran.

HARLOW: Right.

PHILLIP: So there's a lot on the horizon here, Poppy.

HARLOW: Because that was all that was sort of staving off those sanctions so what will happen.

Abby, at the White House, thanks very, very much.

This morning a top Iranian commander is accusing the president of waging what he is calling psychological warfare, that coming in response to the tweet from the president overnight.

Let's go to our Nick Paton Walsh who's in London with more. What else can you tell us on this front, Nick?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Poppy, you've got to remember this is a region where the cap locks key is always pressed down. So you're talking into a very volatile environment, and more broadly U.S. troops are in northern Syria, where they're very close at times to Iranian militia. They're there to try and circumvent their influence, a key U.S. ally, Israel, intermittently carries out strikes against a key Iranian ally, the Syrian regime and Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah militia slightly to the north of Israel.

So the scope of some kind of proxy escalation is very much there. It's unlikely that the U.S. is going to end up unless something goes terribly badly wrong in the shooting war with Iran. But the issue here is how Iran itself is trying to recover from a damage being done by re-imposed U.S. sanctions. Their economy has taken a real hit. Its currency slighted. And I think some of the reaction we heard today which were really a bid by Iran to try and use this aggression from Donald Trump or this certainly very war-like rhetoric for their advantage.

Talked about how it would only do nothing but unify Iranians more. You mentioned how one senior commander referred to it as psychological warfare. And, of course, Rouhani himself said they're dangerously playing with the lion's tail here.

You have to remember, there is a conception, Poppy, it seems like within the U.S. State Department now that there is some immediately viable liberal Iranian governmental alternative out there. That they just have to keep pushing the current one and something better will come in its place. Hasan Rouhani's moderate government is probably the most moderate they're going to see in the next 10 years or so. So the complication here, really, as well, the Obama administration tried to encourage the Rouhani government by easing sanctions, striking a nuclear deal.

Mike Pompeo and Donald Trump seemed to think the more they poke it, the more they try and break it, the more likely they are to get something they like. Sadly, what we're seeing now is Hasan Rouhani move to a slightly more hard line position, some analysts say, because he's realizing he's directly under criticism from the United States. And so at the end of the day, everything maybe actually not what the U.S. is hoping to see happen.

HARLOW: I mean, it's very similar to the fire and fury rhetoric we saw that actually, you know, some argued helped bring North Korea to the table. What the reaction will be from the Iranians, though, as you note, is very much up in the air.

[09:05:02] Nick, thank you for the reporting.

WALSH: Where do we go next?

HARLOW: From London.

With me now to talk about all of it, our Senior Political Analyst, Ron Brownstein, and our Military Analyst, Retired Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona. Nice to have you here.


HARLOW: When you look at the president's all caps tweet, Colonel, overnight, you argue this takes it to a new level. It is dangerous. A, why is it dangerous, in your mind, and B., how will hard-liners in Iran, Khomeini and the others, how will the hardliners see it?

RICK FRANCONA, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, the hardliners are going to react to this. You know, we're getting into right where we were with the North Koreans, pushing back and forth. And this is going to escalate. And you know, at some point the Iranians are going to feel they have to make a demonstration in the Gulf, something we don't need. You know, everything is on a hair trigger over there now anyway.

You know, as Nick ran through all of those different things that are happening in the Middle East. You've got Hezbollah, the Iranian proxies, you've got ISIS still in Iraq, you've got the southern Syria operations. You've got U.S. troops involved in northern Syria. All these things make up this mosaic that is just very, very fragile. And so if you start poking the eye of the Iranians, they're liable to push back. They're feeling the sanctions now and they haven't even really started to pile on.

They're feeling trouble in Syria. And they're feeling the pressure from the United States. So we may see them lash out. And it will be a miscalculation, and we don't want to miscalculate on either side because this will ratchet out of control very quickly.

HARLOW: Ron, just reading part of the president's message overnight, again, quote, you, being Iran, will suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before. Do leaders in Iran, do world leaders, take this president at his word? We see so many dramatic sort of bellicose messages on Twitter from the president. Do they actually believe that this is a direct threat, or potentially a threat of military action, or do they take it a little bit more with a grain of salt, because he spouts off so much?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, I think it's probably more the latter. But they don't know for sure, which I think is obviously the point. I mean, I think the clearest message that he delivered here in his all caps is how unconstrained he feels. Either domestically or internationally. Domestically, obviously, I think he believes, based on the evidence of the first 18 months, that whatever he does, Republicans in Congress and much of the Republican -- you know, large portion of the Republican electoral base, would support him.

Internationally, other than Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu, it is hard to name an international leader whose opinion he has shown he respects or who would act as a constraint on him. And although the evidence on North Korea I think points in the opposite direction, certainly he believes that the threats, you know, have created the possibility of a deal. So all of this, I think, encourages the risk of the miscalculation the colonel is talking about, in that they're really at this point are not a set of domestic or international actors that have shown to have the ability to significantly constrain his behavior.

HARLOW: Let's listen to what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said over the weekend. He was speaking, again, to a group of Iranian students. Oh, we don't have that. All right. What I -- hopefully you guys have heard it or read about it, as I have. But let me read you part of this. To the regime -- all right. We have a full screen here. Sorry about that.

"To the regime, prosperity, security and freedom for the Iranian people are acceptable casualties in the march to fulfill the revolution." He went on to say, "The level of the corruption and wealth among regime leaders shows that Iran is run by something that resembles the mafia more than the government."

Talk to me, Colonel, about the administration's strategy here. I mean, clearly, he seems to be speaking to the Iranian people who are suffering, especially economically, as these sanctions have been re- imposed. What is the strategy here, and is it a smart one?

FRANCONA: Well, I don't know if it's smart. But I know -- I see what they're trying to do. You know, they're trying to generate this -- the reaction among the Iranian people that their government is not serving them. Hey, you know, we all that.


HARLOW: Well, I mean, he charged that Ayatollah Khomeini has $95 billion hedge fund. He is saying they are getting wealthy at the expense of you, the people.

FRANCONA: Yes, and I think he's trying to highlight that. And as the sanctions take more of a bite. And, you know, the economy in Iran is in the tank anyway. The rial is virtually losing money every day. It is -- life is becoming very miserable. And, of course, this time of year you're going to see people out in the streets. The problem is, are we trying -- are we forcing the Iranian or encouraging the Iranian people to uprise and then not back them up? That's where we run the risk.

You convince the Iranian people they need to get rid of their government. They march out in the street and the Iranians react very strongly. What are we going to do about it? So that's the danger I think we're running, is we're going to encourage a revolution we won't support.

HARLOW: All right. Both of you, stay with me. I want to get your take on the other side after we get some of these North Korea headlines in here.

[09:10:03] Because President Trump is insisting all is well with the North Korean negotiations, claiming that he's put no time limit on talks aimed at denuclearization. He said that in that CBS interview. But a U.S. official tells CNN that privately the president does not feel that way. He is frustrated that the talks and action is not moving faster. One big reason they aren't is said to be North Korea's insistence that the U.S. make what it has deemed a bold move in the form of a full-on peace treaty.

Let's go to the Pentagon, our Barbara Starr is there. This is the demand apparently from the North Koreans that seems unlikely that the U.S. will give on.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, hard to tell at this point, because as you say, Poppy, events are moving very quickly. Just a short time ago, President Trump once again this morning taking to Twitter. And let me read, everyone, what he has just said about this North Korean situation. The president tweeting, "A rocket has not been launched by North Korea in nine months. Likewise, no nuclear test. Japan is happy. All of Asia is happy. But the fake news is saying without ever asking me, always anonymous sources, that I am angry because it's not going fast enough. Wrong. Very happy."

So here are the facts. The president initially very much had the policy of complete, irreversible, verifiable denuclearization, and had given every indication he thought it could happen. Relatively quickly, perhaps. That there was an agreement reached between him and Kim Jong-un after the Singapore summit to proceed with this. But what we now know is that that is moving slowly, and sources are telling us that he is frustrated about it.

Even though there's been no test, there's also been no real step towards denuclearization. The North Koreans not taking any action, really, other than the blowing up of some test tunnels, which is unverified that the tunnels were even destroyed. Not really taking any steps towards denuclearization. In fact, top military advisers are saying that really expectations need to be tempered. This is a diplomatic process. Kim moves very slowly and he moves on his own time frame -- Poppy.

HARLOW: That's right. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. Thank you for that this morning, Barbara.

For more on what North Korea says, we'll keep them at the table for talks, let's go to Will Ripley, our correspondent who has been in and reported throughout North Korea 18 times.

You have an important and unique perspective on all of this, given all of your reporting history there. How do you see this playing out? I mean, the president saying, look, we have time, this takes time, that's OK. But then privately being frustrated that things aren't -- you know, that there's been very little action on the part, certainly, of the North Koreans.

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's certainly a dose of reality for anybody in the Trump administration who thought that full denuclearization would happen in a matter of months and that there would be instant transparency on the part of a country that's been the United States' sworn enemy for more than six decades. Anybody who observes the Korean peninsula and studies North Korea knows, though, that this is going to be a very long, slow process.

And I spoke with a source very familiar with the North Korean negotiations who feels that North Korea has already taken steps. You heard Barbara mentioned the Punggye-ri nuclear test site's apparent demolition. It was impossible for us journalists who witnessed it on the ground to verify what we were actually seeing, and of course the fact that North Korea hasn't launched anything or conducted a nuclear test since November of last year.

North Korea feels now it's time for the U.S. to act, and what they want, Poppy, above any economic concessions from the United States, is a peace treaty. They want a formal end to the Korean War that has technically been ongoing since 1953, because until they get a peace treaty, the North Koreans feel that their leader, Kim Jong-un, and his government could still be in danger of attack by the United States.

HARLOW: North Korea also wants the United States, obviously, to begin lifting sanctions. To be clear, though, the action we've seen in the past few weeks has been cancelled follow-up meetings, you know, as we've reported on this show. And as Barbara noted, this missile engine testing facility that the president keeps saying will be destroyed, will be destroyed, will be destroyed, at least, you know, one of them remains intact.

How has the North Korea actually followed through, where the president can point to it and say, see, this is a give?

RIPLEY: Well, a lot of the things that North Korea has done so far happened before the Singapore summit even took place. Now what we are expecting in the coming days is the possible repatriation of dozens of sets of remains from the Korean War that North Korea claims are U.S. service members who died. That is something that President Trump asked for in Singapore. He at one point claimed that it already happened. It hasn't happened yet, but it could be happening later this week. We're going to watch very closely to see if that happens.


RIPLEY: That's -- has nothing to do with denuclearization, but it is something that North Korea promised that they would do. And it's been more complicated than expected, Poppy.

HARLOW: And the optics would be a big win for the president, right? Because if it happens, say, Friday, which marks 65 years since the armistice, that would be very symbolic and the president could say, look, North Korea is doing this and, you know, things are moving along.

Will, thanks for the reporting, as always.

Let's talk more about this again. Back with me, Ron Brownstein, Colonel Rick Francona.

Colonel, when you look overall at this, who is right, the public Trump or the private Trump that reportedly is frustrated things aren't moving quickly or the public Trump who is saying it's OK, it's OK, things can take time, we'll get there, we're all on the same page when it comes to denuclearization?

FRANCONA: Well, I think the president is probably a little frustrated. I think what we're seeing on the North Koreans is negotiating skill.

They saw what we did with the Iranians. We gave the Iranians everything upfront, hoping that the Iranians would later comply. The Koreans say why can't we have that deal? Why can't we get something for making concessions. And, right now, they want something from the United States. They figured they're the only ones that are giving something up.

And, of course, I've always been concerned about the internal politics in North Korea because Kim has to move very, very slowly here because he's got different power contingencies. He's basically put out of business. If he gives up his nuclear weapons, his nuclear program, he's putting a lot of people out of work, he's angering a lot of people whose lives are devoted to this project. So, he has to move slowly.

So, I think negotiation is a good thing. And I'm willing to give him a little more time to get this done.


HARLOW: Yes, Ron, I just want your thoughts and you to react - go ahead.

BROWNSTEIN: Real quick. I mean, you see how the two stories interact as well. I mean, Iran made a deal with the world. It doesn't have nuclear weapons. It wakes up today to threats of regime change. That is a reminder of why, in the end, the kind of the Libya problem

that people have called it. Why, in the end, Kim is going to be very hard to persuade to ultimately give up nuclear weapons without something that looks like an ironclad guarantee that his regime is going to stand.

And you kind of see how the diplomacy and the threats can kind of collide as I think they certainly do this morning.

HARLOW: I want you both just to very quickly listen to Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, just on Friday, talking about sort of the global stage and Russia and China as it pertains to North Korea.


NIKKI HALEY, US AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: We have photographs of proof of ship-to-ship transfers. Now, for China and Russia to block it, what are they telling us? Are they telling us that they want to continue supplying this oil? They claim they need more information. We don't need any more information. The sanctions committee has what it needs. We all know it's going forward.


HARLOW: Colonel, she is calling out Russia at the same time, in the same week that President Trump said Russia will help us on North Korea. Which is it?

FRANCONA: Well, of course, we don't trust the Russians. I don't think we trust the Chinese. They have their vested interest in North Korea. And, of course, I wouldn't put anything past either one of them, trying to make life difficult for the United States.

A success in North Korea for the United States does not mean a success for the Chinese and the Russians. So, I think there is the three - what I'll call the three superpower rivalry here. I don't think we're going to get much cooperation that hurts their interests.

HARLOW: Thank you both, gentlemen. Appreciate you being here with me through all of that this morning.

A lot ahead for us this hour. Now, it's a hoax? The president contradicts his own clarification on Russian election interference. Does White House even try to explain it this time?

Also, more on the tour boat tragedy in Missouri. Minutes from now, the Coast Guard will pull out that sunken duck boat out of the water as families and loved ones grieve the loss of 17 people.

And a mass shooting in Toronto leaves two dead, more than a dozen injured overnight. Investigators are searching for a motive this morning. We have the latest.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) HARLOW: This morning, walking back the walk-back. President Trump making clear exactly how he feels about the Russia probe, after just last week saying he does accept the intelligence community's findings.

What did they find? They found, A, that Russia interfered with the election; and B, Russia did it in order to help then candidate Trump.

This morning, though, according to the president, it is all again a hoax.

With me now Charlie Dent, CNN Political Commentator, former Republican member of Congress, recovering member of Congress. Nice to have you. Thank you for being here, sir.

Did the president just tell us exactly how he feels despite the script he read on Russia last week?

CHARLIE DENT, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, Poppy. Here we go again. I mean, I think the president was very honest in that tweet. He believes that the whole Russia investigation is a hoax. He doesn't really take seriously the fact that the Russians not only meddled, but attacked us during the 2016 election. He simply doesn't take it seriously.

And I - they'll script him and he'll go out and read a statement. But you can see he doesn't have his heart in it. I mean, the tweet today revealed, I think, his inner feelings, his true feelings.

HARLOW: Let's listen to Trey Gowdy, who is also on his way out of Congress and being a little more candid these days. Here's how he sees it all.


REP. TREY GOWDY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: The evidence is overwhelming. It can be proven beyond any evidentiary burden that Russia is not our friend and they tried to attack us in 2016. So, the president either needs to rely on the people that he has chosen to advise him or those advisers need to reevaluate whether or not they can serve in this administration.

But when you're the leader of the free world, every syllable matters. And you really shouldn't be having to correct it when you're the leader of the free world.


HARLOW: OK. Every syllable matters. Yes, it does. And that's when he did have to correct it later last week.

But what do you make, congressman, of him saying that some of these folks in his administration need to reevaluate whether they can serve?

DENT: Well, I think that's a reasonable statement.

[09:25:02] Look at Dan Coats. Honorable man. A member of the Senate. Ambassador to Germany. A distinguished service. He is leading our intelligence agencies, and this man is telling us that this threat is real. He's standing up for his people in the intelligence community.

And the president, of course, threw the whole intel community under the bus standing next to Vladimir Putin. And so, somebody like Dan Coats is probably having a - doing a lot of thinking right now and reflecting.

I would have to think Jim Mattis, who has a different worldview than Donald Trump. They all - it's tough. I'm glad they're in their positions. I think they're both great and honorable people. I think they should stay as long as they can. But it's clear, the president's vision of the world is quite different from their own.

HARLOW: It is.

DENT: And people they represent.

HARLOW: It is. And that's reflected in the rhetoric that those men choose to use when it comes to Russia compared to the president.

But the point that Marco Rubio had yesterday when he was speaking to Jake here on CNN that I thought was really interesting, is that you may not like the rhetoric, but the action is much more important. And he pointed to action taken by Mattis this week. Let's listen.


SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: The rhetoric matters. The policies matter even more. And that's why we need to deter act. That's why I agree with arming the Ukrainians. Just this very week, we sent additional military aid to Ukraine. If we keep doing those things, hopefully, the rhetoric gets better on it.


HARLOW: He was talking about Mattis and additional military aid to Ukraine this week. Does he have a point? That maybe you just have to live with this rhetoric as long as the action is tough?

DENT: Well, the truth is, both the rhetoric and the policy matters. What concerns me, while I agree that the president has been tougher on Russia with respect to Ukraine, and arming the Ukrainian government with lethal weapons, but what concerns me, though, is the president's rhetoric is not making - putting America first. It's making America isolated. Placing America alone.

So, even if some of the policies might be right, the rhetoric is putting this country in a position where we have alienated our friend and allies. We seem to have embraced autocrats, from Putin to Kim Jong-un to Erdogan and others. And we're in this weird place. I think what President Trump must do is articulate his vision for the United States in the world.

I know what Jim Mattis - his vision is. Or Dan Coats' is. But it's not the president's vision. I would like the president to explain. Does he think this is a tri-polar world, the US, Russia and China and maybe he wants Russia to replace Germany as the chief Eurasian power?

HARLOW: A tri-power world? Do you think he sees it that way? I mean, you served in Congress as a Republican under him, with him.

DENT: I'm trying to understand it. I think one columnist in "The Wall Street Journal" made that point. I think it was Mead who made that point. And I'm starting to think there might be something to it.

That, for whatever reasons, the president's feelings about NATO are clear. He doesn't particularly like NATO. He doesn't like the European Union. He's clear about that.

And from my view as a more conventional, traditional Republican, I believe that's the foundation of American national security policy, NATO and the EU, the trans-Atlantic relationship is the crown jewel of American diplomacy over the last 70 years. It's the basis of our foreign policy. And the president seems to have a different vision.

Congress or somebody needs to have a real debate about America's role in the world. It just isn't happening. There's a debate within the administration between the president and some of his key advisers. But I think this needs to be made much more public.

HARLOW: Congressman Charlie Dent, thank you for being here.

DENT: Thank you, Poppy. Great to be with you.

HARLOW: So, the president claims, without evidence, that he is vindicated after the release of a FISA court set of documents. What he's claiming, what the fact check is, and the reality on all of this. Our legal expert is with me next.