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President Trump Tweets Explosive Threat to Iran; Iran's Hasan Rouhani Fires Back At Trump's Tweet; Trump Walks Back His Walkback on Russian Interference; Trump Privately Frustrated Over Pace of North Korea Talks; Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired July 23, 2018 - 10:00   ET


[10:00:28] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. Top of the hour. I'm Poppy Harlow in New York.

This morning Iran is accusing President Trump of waging it calls psychological warfare. The White House responds and says if anybody is inciting anything it's Iran. Threat from the president overnight following yet a reversal on the Russia front. Once again, he's calling Russian interference in the 2016 election a hoax and a special counsel's investigation a witch hunt.

Abby Phillip joins me this morning at the White House to kick us off.

Look, he read from a script last week, saying he stands, you know, in lockstep with the intelligence community. Now this morning, calling it all a hoax and a witch hunt again. Is the president telling us how he really feels about all of this, script aside?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It seems that he certainly is. I mean, the president often reverts back to this position of calling it a hoax. And the White House is saying that he meant to say that the meddling investigation, the collusion investigation was a hoax, not the Russian interference itself. But the president himself made it clear, he was talking about the Russian interference in the election in 2016.

The president also is spending the morning dealing with the fallout from a tweet that he sent last night, all caps threat aimed at Iran. And the question everyone is asking this morning is why. Why now? Why is the president seeming to threaten Iran with military action. He says the consequences will be the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before.

Now we asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary this morning about what the president meant by that and whether or not he was pushing the United States closer toward a conflict with Iran. Here is 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. (END VIDEO CLIP)

PHILLIP: And the president's comments did come a couple of hours after Iran's President Rouhani issued a warning to the United States saying, "A war with Iran will be the mother of all wars and peace with Iran is the mother of all peace. Do not play with the lion's tail because you will regret it eternally."

Now the White House this morning isn't saying any more about that. Sarah Sanders said, I don't want to preview what the president's strategy is on this. But they did issue a brand-new statement from the president's National Security adviser John Bolton who said that he spoke with President Trump over the last several days. And this is a quote. "President Trump told me that if Iran does anything at all to the negative, they will pay a price like few countries have paid before."

It's really not clear, Poppy, what is driving this, where the White House is going with this. Some people have suggested that perhaps it is a distraction from a week of bad headlines, frankly, from the president's summit with Vladimir Putin. But all of this -- a lot of people shaking their heads. Is President Trump kind of pushing the United States toward yet another conflict on the global stage?

HARLOW: He was responding to Rouhani's comments. But a lot of people are asking that question this morning, sort of why engage like this right now.

Abby, thank you.

Our Nick Paton Walsh has been reporting inside Iran many times. He joins me now from London with his perspective on all of this. I mean, look, the sort of wagging the lion's tail if you will or pulling the lion's tail came from Rouhani. The president shot back but he shot back in all caps with a very dire warning. What's your read on that, Nick?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Look, it is quite hard to work out exactly what the end goal policy really is all of here. And you've got to remember, this is a tweet being fired into a region where the caps lock is always put on, Poppy. And frankly, the additional statement from John Bolton saying that if Iran does, quote, "anything at all to the negative," is an extraordinarily broad kind of threshold for a military action effectively is what he went on to say.

I mean, Mike Pompeo recently as the nuclear deal was being withdrawn from by the United States put out a list about 12 things it wanted Iran to do, a bit of a wish list, frankly. Because it essentially said it will need to withdraw from all areas in the region where you currently have military influence.

But the problem here really is I think Iran is possibly maybe today thinking perhaps his tweet went a little bit too far, threatening the mother of all battled. But it also threatened the mother of all peace, too. We heard from the Foreign Ministry spokesman, according to state media, saying that these kind of threats will unify Iran. We've heard a senior Iranian commander talk about this being psychological warfare. But make no mistake, Iran has been suffering since the U.S. began to re-impose sanctions, it began to ask its European allies to do the same.

[10:05:05] Its leaders have suggested possibly interrupting all supplies through the Gulf if their oil exports are significantly damaged. But it's a region where there are lots of potential flashpoints for conflagration here. And the kind of gasoline rhetoric Donald Trump and John Bolton now are throwing on, particularly precarious. U.S. troops are not far from Iranian military in northern Syria.

A key U.S. ally Israel regularly takes strikes out against the Syrian regime. Itself is threatened by Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon. So a lot that could potentially go wrong here. Whether or not this is a distraction, this is just not the kind of thing that necessarily has a sensible or attainable end goal in sight. And that's key here. What is the policy?

HARLOW: It is. Nick Paton Walsh, thank you very much for that reporting from London.

Let's bring in our security analyst, Sam Vinograd. She's a former senior adviser to President Obama's national security team, and also worked in the White House, important to note, during the sort of secret beginning stages of the Iran negotiations.

What is your large takeaway from not just what the president tweeted in all caps but also what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said standing in front of those Iranians who he was clearly trying to send a message to the people of Iran rather than necessarily the government, the leadership in Iran.

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Secretary Pompeo did give the speech yesterday. And an Iranian commander said that the United States is engaged in psychological warfare against --

HARLOW: Right. That's what they said this morning.

VINOGRAD: Against Iran. Indeed. It's not entirely untrue. The United States has been engaged in psychological operations under this administration through speeches, through the president's tweets, to support Iranian protesters protesting against the regime, to support unrest and to really lay out in great detail all the things that the Iranian regime is doing wrong, both domestically and in the region.

So to a certain extent you have to ask yourself, why wouldn't Rouhani respond? How much can the United States kind of poke the proverbial Iranian bear without expecting some kind of response from Rouhani? And Rouhani knew that President Trump has a Pavlovian knee-jerk reaction of being threatened and that he would respond in kind.

HARLOW: You talked about -- you've written about how some Iranian leaders, especially the hardliners are going to see this, as a direct attempt to interfere in Iranian politics. I mean, you had Mike Pompeo go as far as yesterday to say -- and his message to these students was, they, leadership is enriching themselves at the cost of you because he knows that the average Iranian is reeling economically from the sanctions, et cetera.

He went as far as to say that Ayatollah Khomeini has a $95 billion hedge fund, for example, that he's profiting off of.

VINOGRAD: I don't think that the Iranian people need Secretary Pompeo to lay out everything that the Iranian regime is doing wrong. I think the Iranian people are very aware of how difficult their lives are because of the regime's activity. I think Secretary Pompeo's speech last night, his speech when we violated the Iran deal and the president's own tweets really call into question, what is our end goal with Iran?

If our end goal was denuclearization, we would have stayed in the Iran nuclear deal. If it's to address all these other things that Iran is doing in the region, threatening Iran, fomenting unrest, and again poking the Iranian bear is not what's going to --


HARLOW: I mean, that is what the administration said. The administration said, you know, this nuclear agreement doesn't go far enough. It doesn't address all of these other issues. It doesn't address financing of terrorism. It doesn't address, you know, ballistic missiles. It doesn't address these other threats. So the goal was to address them all. Do you see any evidence that there is --- there are steps being taken to get there?

VINOGRAD: I see evidence to the contrary. I don't think that we've seen any negotiations between the United States and Iran to address these other issues that were factually speaking not covered by the Iranian nuclear deal.

HARLOW: Right.

VINOGRAD: And we have the Iranian leadership saying that they will not come back to the negotiating table with the United States because we're so unreliable. So I think we're seeing a backtracking from really addressing these other security issues. And when sanctions come back into effect in August, I think we can expect more escalatory rhetoric from the Iranian regime. And the question is going to be how President Trump responds.

Are we going to get into a tit-for-tat verbal war of words with the Iranians like we did with North Korea? Or is the president going to consult with his intelligence community?

HARLOW: Yes. But which the administration may point to and say, look, this worked for North Korea. At least it got them to the table and we believe we've made advanced on that front.


HARLOW: Using the fire and fury rhetoric. That's what they would say.

VINOGRAD: They're the only ones who I think would say we've made advances with the North Koreans since we were in Singapore.

HARLOW: Thank you. Good to have you, Sam. As always. Appreciate it.

Meantime, President Trump is making clear exactly how he does feel about the Russia probe as we just mentioned. He's walked back the walkback, reverting back to calling the investigation into Russian interference in the election a hoax.

Take a look at the number of times that his story has changed over just the last week.


[10:10:00] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have President Putin. He just said it's not Russia. I will say this, I don't see any reason why it would be.

The sentence should have been, I don't see in reason why it wouldn't be Russia. Sort of a double negative. I have full faith and support for America's great intelligence agencies. Always have.


HARLOW: Let's talk about this and a lot more. CNN political analyst Molly Ball is with us and our political commentator conservative Mary Katharine Ham.

Nice to have you both here. Did we just get in clear view, Molly, exactly how the president really, really feels despite scripts and all?

MOLLY BALL, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, probably. I mean, look, I am not a mind reader or a psychoanalyst. So I can't -- I don't know any better than anybody else what's actually in the mind of Donald Trump. But it certainly has seemed obvious from his tone and from the sum total of his comments where he stands on this. And, you know, again, you can impute various psychological motivations to this. But, you know, he read that scripted statement in the most grudging possible manner.

And this is what he does. He'll say two contradictory things, thus allowing people on both sides to believe what they want. So the people on his side with the whole hoax narrative are satisfied. And then, you know, others like, say, Republican congressmen who are disturbed by having a president be this close to Russia or not trust the intelligence community then have something to grab on to and say, no, no, I believe the president when he said this other thing.

HARLOW: Well --

BALL: And so -- but as to where he really stands, I think it was always somewhat obvious. HARLOW: Mary Katharine, to Molly's point, I mean, that's what Senator

Marco Rubio said yesterday. Right? On this network with Jake. I care about the rhetoric. I care about the action. Even more he mentioned, you know, the increasing defense of Ukraine by the United States. Here is how senator -- Republican Senator Lindsey Graham see this.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: You need to get with Rubio, with Van Hollen, and myself and others, and come up with a set of sanctions that would be a hammer over Russia's head if they continue to interfere in the 2018 election. Do not meet with this guy from a position of weakness. You need to do two things. You need to harden our electoral infrastructure, you need to be the leader of that movement.


HARLOW: What are the chances of that happening, Mary Katharine? Being the leader of the movement to harden against Russia?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I don't think he will be the leader. You can get him in a room with those people and discuss these things. And I do think the actions matter. And there's this bizarre divergence between the rhetoric and the actions, which have been fairly harsh, with closing embassies and sanctions, and arming Ukraine. But the president's words matter, and clear is not a word that I use for the president's words almost ever.

He does swing back and forth. But it seems pretty clear that he is -- he finds the Russia meddling investigation and the attacks on the legitimacy of his election inextricably linked. As to be fair, many of his critics do as well. And he is so hung up on it -- if I may psychoanalyze for a moment -- that he cannot separate the two in public even when he's standing next to Vladimir Putin. And that is a problem because his words are powerful because he's the president of the United States of America.

HARLOW: There is some polling that indicates that that's working for him. At least within his party. Let's pull up the new "Washington Post" poll. This is all taken post-Helsinki. Two things. When you look overall at the country, 50 percent disapprove of how he handled the summit with Putin. OK, 50 percent disapprove, 33 percent approved. But then break it down by party, ladies. And you have 66 percent of Republicans who approve and 8 percent -- only 8 percent of Democrats who approve.

I mean, doesn't that show us that the overall -- Mary Katharine Ham, the overall view on either side here, Republicans and Democrats, is just so baked in that not even something as astonishing as what happened in Helsinki on the world stage can sway folks that much?

HAM: Yes, I do think it's very tribal and that that is part of this. It's which team you're on. The other part is that Americans don't in general care that much about foreign affairs. If you look at the numbers on the economy, he's doing quite well there because that's the thing that is top of mind. But then the other thing that's top of mind for people is his actual -- his ability to run the country is the other thing that pops up at top of mind.

So if he continues down this path, I think the real problem is with independents because if you look at those numbers, that's where things are falling off for him, not within his own party.

HARLOW: Molly, what do you make of those numbers?

BALL: Yes, I think that's all correct. I think it's also the case that 66 percent is pretty low for him with Republicans considering --

HARLOW: I guess in a party where he has 88 percent approval. Right? That's the point.

BALL: Exactly.


BALL: So there is at least a chunk of Republicans who are put off by this for one thing. For another thing, it's always somewhat deceptive to break down the numbers in that way because you have people who may have voted Republican but don't consider themselves Republican anymore.


BALL: A lot of those independents are conservatives who have drifted away from the Republican Party.

[10:15:06] So without knowing the size of those different chunks of the electorate, it can be somewhat deceptive.


BALL: But I would say that actually that -- of course, this is very polarized. And Trump has a masterful ability to lead Republicans into places that they never would have thought they would be, policy-wise. But it does seem to me like that's a pretty soft number for him.

HARLOW: Molly, let's just set the record straight here on something the president wrote over the weekend that our viewers may be reading and scratching their heads and saying, oh, that's a good question. Here's what he writes, "So President Obama knew about Russia before the election. Why didn't he do something about it? Why didn't he tell our campaign? Because it's all a big hoax." And he goes on.

The campaign was told. Right? In August of 2016, both teams were told.

BALL: Yes, that's correct. But look, there are various legitimate critiques of the actions that the Obama administration took. And many have concluded that they were sort of slow off the mark to comprehend the scope of this problem, although it is -- if you think that this is all a hoax, how can you also accuse the administration of not doing enough to combat it? That seems a little bit nonsensical to me.

HARLOW: Thank you both.

HAM: I agree.

HARLOW: Mary Katharine and Molly, it's nice to have you both here this morning.

Still to come, President Trump pushing back against reports that he is privately frustrated over the pace of North Korea talks. This as CNN learns that North Korea wants the United States to make what it is referring to as a bold move before moving forward on denuclearization.

Barbara Starr has that for us.

Also operations under way to raise that tour boat that capsized in Missouri. Ahead, we're learning new things about the boat itself, how safe it was and, of course, the passengers that lost their lives.

And rescuing the rescuers. Volunteers with the White Helmets in Syria now need saving themselves. A report ahead.


[10:21:14] HARLOW: This morning, President Trump asserts, quote, "Japan is happy, Asia is happy." And he is very happy with the denuclearization talks in North Korea. Well, earlier a U.S. official told CNN that behind closed doors the president is frustrated. Increasingly frustrated. The talks have dragged on and on with Pyongyang, reportedly holding out for a bold move from Washington in order to move forward with denuclearization.

Let's go to the Pentagon. Our Barbara Starr is there. What is the North Korean regime -- I mean, what is the Kim regime asking for at this point to move forward?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning, Poppy. You know, the Kim regime working on an agenda, its own details about what it wants. I mean, clearly, they feel that now the Trump administration needs to come up with something that Pyongyang wants, make a gesture towards them. The president, however, tweeting that he is not frustrated despite reports that he is privately expressing that to his aides and tweeting this morning, and I quote, "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."

Well, right now it's not going much of anywhere. There have been no significant moves towards denuclearization according to the intelligence community. We saw some of those underground tunnels blown up but no verification about whether they are really out of commission, no verification that any significant denuclearization has taken place. A top U.S. Military commander over the weekend saying that expectations must be tempered. That this may take a while. And while it's taking a while and while no missiles have been

launched, one of the big concerns by the intelligence community, what has Kim been doing all this time? There is concern he could be in secret production with additional amounts of nuclear fuel, missiles and warheads, things he may be stashing away secretly in hopes the U.S. never finds them once an agreement, if it is, is reached -- Poppy.

HARLOW: But, Barbara Starr, I mean, Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, said over the weekend, you know, and I'm paraphrasing here, but essentially make no mistake, you know, we are all on the same page when it comes to the United States and North Korea. I mean -- and the president seems to be saying and is explicitly saying, look, they haven't had these rocket launches in nine months, these nuclear tests in nine months. It is there evidence that everyone is on the same page?

STARR: Well, the U.S. page is that they are committed to getting a denuclearization agreement with North Korea. I don't think there's any controversy about that. The intelligence community, they on the other hand is paid obviously for its analysis. And they're a little bit cautious. Their view is, OK, move ahead with denuclearization. That's the political decision. But the intelligence calculation is you have to keep a very close watch. You don't know what exactly they might be doing right now. And all of that surveillance of North Korea, planes, satellites, radars, all of it, none of that is being let up on, at least not for the moment -- Poppy.

HARLOW: And to be clear, I mean, North Korea and the United States are on the same page on this. But very good point.

Barbara Starr, thank you for the reporting.

North Korea says it plans to continue the talks for now. For more on what they say needs to happen, though, to keep them at the table, Will Ripley is with me. And he has reported in and throughout North Korea 18 separate times.

This is an ask that North Korea wants. They want the U.S. to lift sanctions. They want a lot. And they also want assurance that the Kim regime will remain in power.

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And that, Poppy, is the most important thing to the North Koreans. You know, the Hollywood- style movie trailer that President Trump showed them talking about the condos that could go up on the beach that they have used to conduct live fire drills, that's all fine and dandy for the North Koreans.

[10:25:08] But above that, above all else is making sure that their leader Kim Jong-un stays in power. And they feel, according to a source that I spoke with during the overnight hours, that the way to guarantee the security of Kim Jong-un, to keep him in power in that country, is to formally end the Korean War. There's this armistice agreement since 1953. The fighting stopped more than six decades ago, but North Korea is still technically at war with South Korea and the U.S. and its allies. The North Koreans feel until they have that peace treaty, they're not

going to have the security guarantees that they will feel comfortable to then begin this what they view very differently from the U.S. perhaps, a slow, step by step, incremental process of denuclearization with economic concessions from the United States in exchange for each small step by the North Koreans. They view this as taking place over a matter of many years with a lot more than the United States has indicated it's willing to give during the process, the U.S. saying that all of the benefits are going to come at the end of the process. That's very different from what the North Koreans expect.

And Poppy, I have to point out, the North Koreans have said -- my source told me, they will -- they don't intend to walk away from denuclearization talks. But they say they will do it if the U.S. doesn't push forward with this bold move, this peace treaty. And they have the backing right now of their traditional allies, China and Russia. And Kim Jong-un looked pretty good on the world stage, not the kind of mad man image that was portrayed by the United States. So maximum pressure may be difficult moving forward.

HARLOW: That's exactly what I was going to say. You know, if the talks do fall apart, can you go back to that maximum pressure language? No, it makes it a lot harder.

Will, great reporting. Thanks very much.

Still ahead, divers are in the water in Missouri as operations have begun this morning to try to raise that tour boat that capsized claiming the lives of 17 people. We are live from the scene with the latest.