CNN HOST ANDERSON COOPER:
Tonight (4/5/17), according to the president of the United States, the top national security official for the previous administration may have committed a crime. Now, he made that allegation during a rare Oval Office interview with the “New York Times.”
CNN political analyst Maggie Haberman was one of the reporters who sat down with the president and she joins us now via phone.
So, what exactly did President Trump say about Susan Rice?
MAGGIE HABERMAN, NEW YORK TIMES WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Hi, Anderson. Thanks for having me to talk about this.
The president began by talking about Susan Rice in an interview that Glenn Thrush and I had previously scheduled with him to talk about his infrastructure plan which is still in its nascent stages. I asked him a question about Judge Gorsuch and the president seemed to be — possibly Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and the president then started talking about Susan Rice, and how this is a big story, it is going to become the biggest story. He intimated, again, without offering any evidence, that there are other people involved in this, and he was adamant that she had done something wrong and improper, suggested it was not getting the media attention that it deserved including from “The Times” and other papers.
And then went on to say when we asked, you know, “Do you think she may have committed a crime?” he said, “Do I think?” He said, “Yes, I think.” And he left it there.
We asked him if he would declassify any of the intelligence that relates to this. And he said he doesn’t want to talk about that. And as you know, this is a president who has a habit of, in the past, when he feels attacked of both escalating and also when he has previously made claims that he says he will provide additional information for, that in the end, does not. So, we’ll see where this goes.
COOPER: So, he didn’t give any sense of how he came to this conclusion? Or — and he didn’t offer any evidence to support the accusation?
HABERMAN: He did not. He said there were other people involved. We asked him how high up this might go, he wouldn’t say, he said that he would talk about it at the right time.
COOPER: And the other — I mean, there are a lot of things in this interview that are fascinating. Just days after declaring April Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, President Trump also in this interview with you, came into the defense of FOX News host Bill O’Reilly over his sexual harassment settlements. What did the president say?
HABERMAN: He had mentioned Bill O’Reilly at a certain point of the conversation. I asked if he thought that, because I know he has been — he has liked Bill O’Reilly in the past, I asked if he thought he had been treated unfairly, he said that he did. That he felt that O’Reilly, “I think Bill didn’t do anything wrong,” I believe was the exact quote, he said that he didn’t think that O’Reilly should have settled. And then I said why not? He said, because you should go all the way in terms of defending yourself. He said that he believed that Bill O’Reilly was a, quote/unquote, “good person,” who’s as you know very similar to the approach he took with Roger Ailes, the former FOX News chairman, when he was accused of sexual harassment.
COOPER: And we should point, Bill O’Reilly, somebody he does repeated interviews with and has for a quite a long time.
HABERMAN: Correct. And who he believes has treated him fairly, in his words.
COOPER: By the way, when the president was saying this, were there aides and stuff around him? And did they have any reaction or they’re just listening?
HABERMAN: There was a phalanx of aides. It was actually never had that many aides on hand when I interviewed him. There were at least six at one point, including the vice president who walked in and there was no flinch. There was no, you know, noticeable reaction, but I’m pretty confident it’s not what they want to be talking about tonight.
COOPER: I know he also spoke about Russia and it’s involvement in Syria, what did he say?
HABERMAN: You know, we asked if he had seen the images out of Syria, he used some of the similar language that he used at his press conference that he was very disturbed by it, that it was horrible to see these images of these children, which I think is pretty universal thought, seeing them. He also, we asked about how this makes him view Russia, given the alliance between Russia and Syria, and all he would say was that it was a sad day for Russia.
We asked if this is something he would discuss with Vladimir Putin and he said he wouldn’t get into that.
More now on why the president and other Republicans have found it so important to focus suspicion on Susan Rice, why she is as one observer said tonight cat nip for this president and his supporters.
Tom Foreman tonight explains.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you for being with us.
TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The newest target of the Trump administration, Susan Rice, President Obama’s former national security advisor. She reportedly tried to learn the names of Trump operatives incidentally caught on tape by intelligence forces listening to foreign targets. She says she just wanted context for those conversations.
SUSAN RICE, OBAMA NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: The allegation is that somehow Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes.
That’s absolutely false.
FOREMAN: The White House not buying it, tweeting, “Lyin’, leakin’ Susan Rice stammered through her softball interview.”
Republicans’ skepticism of Rice dates back to the Benghazi attack in 2012, which left a U.S. ambassador and three others dead. Rice was then the American representative to the United Nations and she initially said the violence grew spontaneously from a protest.
RICE: And then as that unfolded, it seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons.
FOREMAN: But when the attack was found to be premeditated, critics howled that Rice was shielding the Obama administration from political fallout.
Then in 2014, the White House had just swapped five Guantanamo Bay detainees for a U.S. soldier held by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Bowe Bergdahl is still facing charges of desertion, but Rice’s assessment?
RICE: He’s back. He’s going to be safely reunited by his family. He served the United States with honor and distinction.
FOREMAN: And GOP suspicion has never faded.
SEN. TOM COTTON (R), NEBRASKA: Susan Rice is the Typhoid Mary of the Obama administration foreign policy. Every time something went wrong, she seemed to turn up in the middle of it.
(END VIDEOTAPE) FOREMAN: In this latest episode, there is no proof Rice did anything wrong or broke any laws despite what President Trump has suggested. But she is right in the middle of things and once again Republicans want her under oath and answering questions — Anderson.
COOPER: Tom, thanks very much.
Now, before bringing the panel, I want to turn to a portion of what the president said to Maggie Haberman, which considering the atrocity in Syria might raise an eyebrow or two. Here are the quotations. She said, quote, “I think it’s going to be the biggest story, it’s such an important story,” he said, “for our country and the world. And it’s one of the big stories of our time.”
Now, he wasn’t talking about Syria, about the wholesale slaughter that was going on for years, or about the chemical attack that took place yesterday. He was talking about Susan Rice.
Now, whatever you think that the former security advisor has done wrong, if in fact, she’s done anything wrong at all, it’s hard to imagine he could possibly announce the biggest anything, particularly on the day when the international community, and the president himself are coming to terms with the fact that at least 70 people were killed in a poison gas attack in Syria. We did notice the term biggest is something Mr. Trump uses an awful lot. In fact, he uses a number of superlatives in his regular remarks.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)
TRUMP: One of the biggest political events anywhere in the world is happening right now in the Republican Party.
It was the biggest Electoral College win since Ronald Reagan.
The biggest thing on the Internet, one of the big things on the Internet was that Trump was 100 percent right about Brussels.
We’re going to have the biggest tax cut since Ronald Reagan.
The biggest increase in murder in 45 years, you don’t hear that.
This is the biggest political scandal since Watergate.
We have the biggest audience in the history of inaugural speeches.
We’re getting the biggest crowds, the greatest people.
And we have, by far, the biggest rallies that people have seen.
(END VIDEO CLIPS)
COOPER: And candidate Trump and President Trump, of course, if so many things are described as the biggest, or the best or the most, how to tell what is really important to this president?
The question for the panel, not the biggest one we’ve ever had, but certainly the best — Kirsten Powers, Kayleigh McEnany, Matt Lewis, Ryan Lizza, Jeffrey Lord and Phil Mudd.
Kirsten, it is interesting that the president always uses these terms and after a while, they start to kind of lose value.
KIRSTEN POWERS, USA TODAY COLUMNIST: Well, he’s very hyperbolic, he exaggerates a lot. I think he builds things up a lot. And, but at the same time, I do think the things he finds to be the biggest, are the things that he cares the most about. I actually think that he does care more about the Susan Rice story than about what’s happening in Syria because it does impact him directly and so, he tends to place a much higher — bigger emphasis on things that he thinks affect him.
COOPER: Phil Mudd, I mean, according to “New York Times”, President Trump didn’t say if he had personally reviewed intelligence to bolster his claim. He said he would explain himself, quote, “at the right time”. But the fact of the matter is that he could declassify anything he wants to prove his point, just as he could with any of the other baseless claims.
PHIL MUDD, FORMER SENIOR OFFICIAL, FBI AND CIA: Sure, I think this is pretty straight forward, this is a shuck and jive. We have an accusation by the president, as he accused President Obama, incorrectly, as the FBI director told us, that the American citizen has committed a crime with no evidence.
Meanwhile, we have the FBI, the Senate and the House investigating members of the Trump team for potentially colluding with Russia related to an election. So, what did we talk about? We don’t talk about the cases where there appears to be evidence. We talk about an accusation with no background against an American citizen, who did what I believe Trump officials are doing today, that is unmasking names.
I have been there, Anderson, when senior officials request names to be unmasked. It happens all the time. I can explain to you why it happens, but I’m going to tell you right now, if the president thinks that the national secure advisor unmasking names inappropriate, he better look at his own staff because they’re doing the same thing.
GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN (RET.), CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: On its face, what I know about the Susan Rice unmasking story, what has gone on here was lawful, appropriate and here’s the punchline, pretty routine. Not exceptional.
One thing to importantly keep in mind, that report doesn’t get to her desk unless someone at Ft. Meade, at NSA, already thinks it had significance to foreign intelligence. And now, she’s making a request to better understand what we’ve already established, is important foreign intelligence.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
[20:15:02] COOPER: So, Jeff, obviously, the general’s point is that the unmasking is routine, appropriate and lawful. He’s certainly someone who would know. Obviously, the issue of if she or somebody else leaked that information, that’s a separate issue.
JEFFREY LORD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right. Anderson, look, this is really very simple. If there are six people in a sealed room and one of them is murdered, the other five become suspects. Four of those five may have legit reasons to be in the room. But they’re all suspects until further proven, until they get down with the evidence.
The sealed room in this case is everybody who had the classified information of who was unmasked. Someone in that group unmasked to the press in violation of the law and committed a federal crime.
COOPER: If you’re talking about Michael Flynn, that’s not — the Nunes stuff has nothing to do with Russia, we’re told.
LORD: Well, it doesn’t matter whether it has anything to do with Russia or not. Was it released to the press? Was somebody leaking classified information to the media?
COOPER: But was what released to the press? Because we don’t even know what the subject of the unmasking was, right, because it had nothing do with Russia?
LORD: Well, that, Anderson, that’s why we have an investigation, that’s why they should call all of these people. And the big payoff here, payoff, in a — in this political sense, this becomes a huge story, if in fact Susan Rice had this information and was sharing it with President Obama, that becomes a mammoth story.
LIZZA: Wait a second —
POWERS: It would be a big story if we found out that Ivanka Donald Trump was shoplifting at Bergdorff’s, yes, that would be a huge story, but there’s no evidence that that’s happening.
LORD: That’s why we need an investigation. POWERS: Should we investigate whether ever Ivanka Trump was
shoplifting? I mean, literally what we know, like, no, what we know that someone was unmasked, you guys have moved this into leaking.
MCENANY: We know a felony was committed to Jeff’s point, a criminal penalty of up to ten years.
LIZZA: The one thing we know about these documents, the only thing we know about these documents from Devin Nunes.
COOPER: This has nothing to do with Flynn. Devin Nunes said it had nothing to do with Russia.
LIZZA: It has to do with incidental surveillance under the Obama administration.
POWERS: He said it was all incidental and it was all legal.
LIZZA: It doesn’t have anything to do with Russia.
COOPER: It has nothing to do with Russia.
COOPER: We have been talking about President Trump’s remarkable interview with “The New York Times'” Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush. It covers a long, a lot of ground, including as Maggie Haberman mentioned at the top of the program, the president’s defense of Bill O’Reilly.
According to “New York Times” investigation, five women have received payments totaling $13 million from either O’Reilly or FOX in exchange for agreeing to not pursue litigation or talk about their accusations against him.
Today, remember, this is National Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the president had this to say about his old friend. Quote, “I think he shouldn’t have settled; personally, I think he shouldn’t have settled, because he should have taken it all the way. I don’t think Bill did anything wrong.”
Back now with the panel.
Kirsten, does it surprise you that the president of the United States is commenting in this kind of detail?
POWERS: I wish I could say that it surprises me but it doesn’t.
COOPER: Is it appropriate?
POWERS: It’s not appropriate and the content of what he said is very similar to how he defended Roger Ailes, when Roger Ailes was accused of sexual harassment. And I had interviewed him about — from my column on “USA Today” — about defending Ailes and he had sort of the same attitude, which is: Roger is a good man, I know him. He wouldn’t do it. The same with Bill — Bill is a good man, I know him. He wouldn’t do it.
And I tried to explain to him that that’s not really how sexual harassment works. And he also talked a lot about how Roger had done so many good things for people, so therefore, they couldn’t have been sexually harassed. And I kept trying to explain to him how sexual harassment work in which he just clearly doesn’t understand it. And then when I said, well, how would you like it if Ivanka was treated this way? He said, “I hope she would find another job or career.”
This is somebody who is — I mean, antiquated would be the nicest way to say it. I mean, it’s a very much throwback way of thinking about sexual harassment, that somehow your buddies, you know, can kind of do what they want and you don’t have to — you know, you just believe them at face value. And look, I’m not passing judgment. I don’t know what happened.
But I also know that he doesn’t know that it didn’t happen, right? I mean, he needs — he’s just not appropriate for him to be declaring that these women are not telling the truth.
COOPER: I mean, again, it’s interesting, you know, traditionally, a president of the United States would not kind of wade into this sort of a case.
MCENANY: Right. You know, I have no problem with him being a character witness for Bill O’Reilly, saying, “I have known him for a very long time. You know, he’s a very good man.” You know, I have met Bill O’Reilly a few times, and he has treated me with nothing but respect. So, I could make that claim —
POWERS: It doesn’t matter. I don’t —
MCENANY: Let me finish my point.
But as far as what happened in that room, none of us were there. We can’t say he did do it, we can’t say he didn’t do it. I think weighing in on the specifics of, you know, the voracity of the claim wasn’t the best. I think if he wants to be a character witness, I don’t have a problem with that.
COOPER: But something happened on the phone and it seems like there were recordings of it because there were very specific transcripts which were released.
POWERS: But the whole character witness idea presumes that somebody could — if they’re nice to you, that they wouldn’t do something bad, and that’s just not correct. And, in fact, he said to me, oh, Roger Ailes has always been a gentleman with me. And I said, you’re a man, what that does have to do with anything? I don’t understand.
POWERS: Because if someone didn’t sexually harass you, Kayleigh, doesn’t mean that you haven’t been sexually harassed. I worked with Bill as well. Bill never propositioned me. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen with somebody else. It doesn’t mean that it did happen.
MCENANY: I think if you know someone well, you can many times vouch for their character. I know he’s that type of person —
POWERS: How would he know what Bill O’Reilly or Roger Ailes would do in private with a woman? How could he possibly know that?
MCENANY: Someone who you work closely with you can vouch for their character and their integrity, and I think that is a fair point to make. If he wants to say this is a man of integrity and character, why can’t he make that point? I think that’s a completely —
POWERS: He’s not making the point that he’s just a man of integrity. He’s making the point that it didn’t happen. He’s saying these women lied.
MCENANY: And that’s the part I said he shouldn’t have gone to that length. But if he wants to say this is someone who I think —
POWERS: But I think when you don’t understand, Kayleigh, what you also don’t understand is when you step up and say, “I’m vouching for this person,” you are indirectly suggesting that the women are lying, you just are. There’s no other reason to do it. Why do you have to say that?
MCENANY: Because if you want to vouch for someone’s character, you have the right to do that. Just like you can vouch for the character of your father or your fiance, or whomever else.
POWERS: But the point is to say that they wouldn’t do it and how do you know that?
MCENANY: Because if you’re close to someone, you can say, he is not the type of person that would act that way or treat a woman that way because I’ve encountered him with women, treating women with respect.
COOPER: But, Kayleigh, I mean, just — you know, I don’t want — I didn’t want to bring up comments that Donald Trump made in the past, we all know the “Access Hollywood” tape. We all know what he said. Does he really have credibility on this issue to be vouching for somebody else’s character when it comes to how they treat women?
MCENANY: I think so, because they’re talking about someone who has been completely vilified in the way he interacts with women. When I say he, I mean, the president. President Trump is someone who has empowered women in the construction industry, his own daughter is a great example of empowering a woman.
COOPER: He did talk about grabbing women’s genitals.
MCENANY: Of course, he apologized for that and I accept that apology and he’s a different person today than he was then.
POWERS: So you think someone that empowers women, because this is actually Donald Trump’s argument about Roger Ailes, because he helped people’s careers, he helped Megyn Kelly’s career. He helped Gretchen Carlson’s career. Therefore, he could not have harassed her.
Do you believe that?
MCENANY: I believe. I’ve seen it. He’s treated me with respect.
POWERS: That’s how —
MCENANY: My personal interaction. I think Donald Trump is someone who does have credibility. I think he’s been vilified falsely as being misogynistic. I think it’s unfair the way he’s been treated. Just like you said that you can’t, you know, deny the women’s claims, the women might be being truthful, you also can’t deny the other side of the argument and say Bill O’Reilly or President Trump —
POWERS: But that’s what I asked you. I asked you, can a man help a woman in her career and also will harass her?
MCENANY: Of course.
POWERS: But you’re saying he empowers women, as if that’s meaningful to say, because he’s nice to his daughter or because he has women who work for him, that means he couldn’t harass somebody. That’s just a false statement.
MCENANY: That’s not what I’m saying. I said the way Donald Trump has treated me at the time I’ve met him and the way he interacts with women on his staff, women who know him well, he treats them with nothing but respect. He empowers them —
COOPER: But wait a minute, people on his staff have sued him and he has apparently settled for large sums of money.
MCENANY: When you settle, it doesn’t mean that you’re admitting that there’s merit to the claim. Just like when Bill O’Reilly settled, there was no merit to the claim, but he settled the case, because just the idea —
COOPER: Totaling $9 million.
MCENANY: Just the allegations out there can be damaging to someone’s career.
COOPER: You think he gave up half his income for a year because he was afraid of some allegations against him?
MCENANY: I’m saying I don’t know what happened in that room. I’m saying it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that on the heels of the Roger Ailes scandal, that he wouldn’t want accusations like this floating around about him. I think he would be willing to pay money to not have his character maligned if he didn’t engage in this.
I’m not saying he did it or didn’t do it. All I’m saying is that we can’t falsely accuse someone who says they didn’t do it. We also can’t say the women weren’t telling the truth. None of us were there. The women were in room. O’Reilly was in the room. None of us were.
COOPER: It does seem that there was a culture at FOX that certainly allowed this, I mean, to happen?
MCENANY: Look, I can’t speak for those interactions, maybe it happened, there’s certainly been payouts, Roger Ailes had to leave. So, it seems like maybe there was something there, absolutely. But I’m just saying we can’t vilify someone and just lump Bill O’Reilly into this just because he’s in a place where there has been accusations like this before.
I was at FOX. I had a positive experience there. I was never treated or maligned in any way. Bill O’Reilly treated me well in the times I met him.
But I just think we shouldn’t lump him into this whole scandal that has happened in other areas of the network.
POWERS: He’s the scandal right now.
COOPER: If I had settled, if I had paid out, say, $13 million over the course of several areas to a variety of employees and people who have come into my orbit, you wouldn’t look askance at me as, wow, that’s really interesting that he’s paid out so much money to a number of people who he happens to have worked with?
MCENANY: Absolutely, it raises a question, no doubt about it. But like you just called Bill O’Reilly a scandal, so you’re saying he did?
POWERS: I just actually said I don’t know what happened, I wasn’t there, but I’m just saying he’s not caught up in another scandal, like he — there’s a scandal around him right now, which is sort of what Anderson is talking about.
But the thing I keep coming back to, which I don’t think you understand and I don’t think a lot of other women understand, is when you come out and say it didn’t happen to me in the way you’re saying it, not just as a sort of aside. It sounds like you’re saying it didn’t happen to me and therefore, that is meaningful in some way. And it’s just not.
MCENANY: No —
POWERS: It’s not meaningful that Bill O’Reilly didn’t proposition me. I’m saying that just to disclose it. But it didn’t have any bearing on whether other people were propositioned.
MCENANY: Kirsten, when you’re putting together a case in court, you gather facts from people, character witnesses. So, if Donald Trump wants to say I can attest to this man’s character.
POWERS: I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about you —
POWERS: You repeatedly keep saying you were treated with respect, so therefore, it implies that —
MCENANY: That’s not what I’m implying at all.
POWERS: So, you think it’s possible that you were treated with respect and then these things happened?
MCENANY: Of course.
MCENANY: But what I think is important is you gather every piece of evidence. It didn’t happen to me. This person says it happened to them. Let’s talk to all of those people.
Bill O’Reilly, one of the points he made in the statement he put out, was that in all of his 20 years at the network, not one person put in a complaint to the anonymous phone line at 20 Century Fox.
COOPER: OK, but wait a minute —
POWERS: I’m sorry. I worked at FOX for 13 years and this is the first I ever heard of this anonymous phone line, hotline.
COOPER: And also, if the guy running the company, who’s the most power — one of the most powerful people in TV, Roger A. is doing what he was accused of doing, for which he actually left the company, do you really think calling into anonymous hot line within the company is something — I wouldn’t call into some hot line if the head of the company is doing what he’s accused of doing.
POWERS: It sounds again like you’re defending him. I just want to go back to the fact that we originally was talking about was Donald Trump getting involved in this which is the problem. We don’t know what happened. I just want to be clear.
POWERS: I don’t know what happened.
COOPER: — was always been very —
POWERS: I don’t know — I don’t know —
POWERS: — I’m not passing judgment on that. What I am passing judgment on is the president of the United States weighing in and suggesting that it didn’t happen. That’s a problem.
KAYLEIGH MCENANY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: And that he shouldn’t have done. But if he wants to say this is one I can vouch for, he’s a good person, that’s to me is OK.
COOPER: More breaking news tonight. President Trump with a very different response today of the deadly gas attack on the Syrian civilians in the White House had yesterday. At least 70 people including children were killed in the attack at dawn yesterday.
The crisis is arguably the Trump administration’s first major foreign policy test, it’s unfolding as Pres. Trump meets this week with three leaders, today is with Jordan’s King Abdullah, live press conference after what quickly turn to talk of Syria. U.S. lawmakers from both parties are demanding action against Syrian Bashar Al-Assad as government denies it was behind the attack. With new accounts coming out from witnesses and the U.N. calling an emergency meeting, Pres. Trump toughened his tone.
Jeff Zeleny has details.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (on voice): President Trump strongly condemning the deadly chemical attacks in Syria, and the regime of Bashar Al-Assad.
DONALD TRUMP, (R) U.S. PRESIDENT: The attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me, big impact. That was a horrible, horrible thing.
ZELENY: But in the rose garden today, the president stop and short of saying how he would respond to the foreign policy challenges profoundly testing his White House.
TRUMP: My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.
ZELENY (on voice): Facing threats from North Korea and a war torn Middle East, the Trump doctrine is still very much unclear. And for that the president did not apologize.
TRUMP: I’m not saying I’m doing anything one way or the other, but I’m certainly not going to be telling you.
ZELENY (on voice): Today the president was eager to criticize the Obama administration for failing to act in Syria, after despite Assad crossing the red line using chemical weapons.
TRUMP: When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, that crosses many, many lines beyond the red line.
ZELENY (on voice): But the president also offered a rare acknowledgement, the burden is now his.
TRUMP: I now have responsibility and I will have that responsibility and carry it very proudly, I will tell you that, it is now my responsibility. It was a great opportunity missed.
ZELENY (on voice): Yet, Mr. Trump did not once mention Russia and its critical role in v propping up the Syrian regime. He left the tough talk on Russia to U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley.
NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UN: If Russia has the influence in Syria that it claims to have, we need to see them use it.
ZELENY (on voice): Foreign policy is taking center stage in the biggest way yet in the young Trump presidency. After welcoming King Abdullah of Jordan today he’ll host China President Xi Jinping at his Mar-o-Lago retreat Thursday in Florida.
The president also making adjustments to his team, removing Chief Strategist Steve Bannon from the National Security Council, Gen. H.R. McMaster the National Security Advisor who stepped in after the firing of Michael Flynn, is empowered by the move sources tell CNN.
The diminishing of Bannon restores a more traditional structure to the National Security Council, with Dan Coats Director of National Intelligence and Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs back at the table. All this as the president is still finding it easier to criticize his predecessor than charting his own course forward.
TRUMP: Whether it’s the Middle East, whether it’s North Korea, whether it’s so many other things, whether it’s in our country, horrible trade deals, I inherited a mess. We’re going to fix it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: That was Jeff Zeleny reporting. As you just heard, Pres. Trump’s tone, no question was tougher, his words, though, were less clear, the attack he said crossed many, many lines. His attitude toward Syria and Assad has, “Changed, very much,” he said. The question, of course, is what that means, not clear, before he was president or even before he’s a candidate, he was pretty clear about where he stood on Syria, frequent subject of his tweet. Here are just a few, “The only reason President Obama wants to attack Syria is to safe face over his very dumb red line statement, do not attack Syria, fix U.S.A.” “President Obama do not attack Syria,” he also tweeted, “there is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your “power” for “another” and more important day.” Another tweet, “Again to our very foolish leader, do not attack Syria. If you do many bad things will happen & from that fight the U.S. gets nothing!” And another tweet, “What I am saying is stay out of Syria.”
So given those past tweets and criticisms the question is, are we actually seeing a policy shift now? Keep in mind, just last week Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that Bashar Al-Assad state was up to the Syrian people, and yesterday the White House blamed the Obama administration for the gas attack. But, now, as you just heard Mr. Trump says the mess that is Syria is his responsibility.
Joining us now is Fareed Zakaria, host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS, CNN Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger and our military analyst a retired U.S. Army General Mark Hertling.
Fareed, I guess it’s unclear whether there is a change of policy in the Trump administration, but it is certainly a major test for this president.
FAREED ZAKARIA “FAREED ZAKARIA GPS” HOST: Well, at some level, you know, you could file this under that very long developing file called the education of Donald Trump. He said when confronting health care, who knew health care was this complicated. While who knew Syria was this complicated and maybe next time it will be tax reform or infrastructure.
But Syria truly is incredibly complicated and the problem has always been that there is no good side to be on. So if you hate Assad, Assad’s big enemy is ISIS, you hate ISIS as well. And then there’s Al Qaeda, you hate Al Qaeda as well.
Our problem with Syria is we hit — you know, the guys are — we keep hoping to find somebody in the middle. What’s odd about Trump’s statement is — I mean Assad has been killing his people for five years now.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.
ZAKARIA: There are 5 million people who have fled Syria. What about this last thing? I understand the emotional impact. But how did it really changes — it would have been fascinating to understand what’s the principle going forward and what’s the general goal that has change?
COOPER: Right. I mean, Gloria, I mean, it makes you wonder, what was his opinion of Assad before if this changes his opinion of Assad? BORGER: Wait, look, you know, going back to 2013, you know, we saw chemical attack, we saw these same kinds of pictures day in and day out, so suddenly it’s affecting him in a different way, maybe because he’s president of the United States.
But, you know, I think today we need to take him literally. And he said this crossed many, many lines. And so, we’re going to have to see how he handles this, vis-a-vis Russia, because while Nikki Haley was out there saying to Russia today, how many more children have to die before Russia cares when we listen to the president at his press, he did not mention Russia, he did a little bit in his interview with Maggie Haberman in the “New York Times,” as you spoke to her about earlier. But, he did not in this press conference take the opportunity as Nikki Haley did to talk about Russia’s role in all of this.
COOPER: General Hertling, I mean — you know, there are no good answers here, I mean, and Pres. Trump continues to give details about what he says he will do or might do or might not do, refusing to saying we wouldn’t telegraph military moves. But, do that apply when it comes to Syria? I mean could he outline general ideas without giving any kind of advantage to the enemy?
LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, U.S. ARMY (RET.): He could get some guidance, Anderson, but I’m very concern about it primarily because of what Fareed and Gloria just said about Russia. Let’s go to that because he’s changed his opinion on Assad because of some very emotional and devastatingly unfortunate pictures of some chemical deaths.
But, Assad has been doing this for years, he’s been using barrel bombs, he’s been striking hospitals in multiple war crimes and within the last year, Russia has been the supporting agency for all of this. Assad was on the ropes about a year ago, and it wasn’t until Russia and Mr. Putin specifically stepped in and helped him out.
So if he’s changed his opinion on Assad, he better start looking and changing his opinion on Russia. And I think it was about 60 days ago, Anderson, you and I were having a conversation as Mr. Trump was signing executive orders saying that one of these days he’s going to be faced with multiple international crises. We’ve come to that day. It’s not only Syria, it’s going to be North Korea, it could be China, it could be Ukraine, it could be NATO and we could go right on down the list. And, by the way, we still have military personnel in three different countries in massive combat.
COOPER: Yeah. I mean, Fareed, we should also point out, Assad also opened up the prisons early on, I mean early on this was a, you know, demonstrations, peaceful demonstrations by people in Dhara (ph), Assad overtime opened up the prisons allowing extremist out to kind of have a self-fulfilling prophecy where he said (inaudible) on terrorist, he releases terrorist and that’s who is now on the ground battling.
ZAKARIA: Assad’s entire strategy from the start has been to tell his people and the world, you have to choose it’s me or ISIS. And by presenting that stark contrast, he’s achieved what he wants. The danger here as Mark Hertling was pointing out, Trump is sort of suggesting that he’s going to change now, and he’s going to get tougher, maybe he’s now no longer going to support Assad. But what does that mean? That’s actually an incredibly consequential thing for the president of the United States to say.
You know, I think the difference here is that Trump is used to the idea of, you know, trying out some words, flexing his muscles, maybe, you know, trying to see if there’s leverage. But in this situation, the whole world is watching. Is he now saying that the government of the United States is going to take on Assad? If it’s going to take on Assad, it needs to win, it needs to be able to defeat Assad. If he’s not saying that, what does he mean when he said I’ve changed my mind completely about Syria?
You can’t leave the world wondering, because it’s not just us, it’s every country in the Arab world is watching to try to understand, what is the United States going to do and therefore what do we need to do? You know, it’s one thing to not telegraph your military moves, but if you’re not telegraphing your actual strategy, everything thinks you have not.
COOPER: Gloria, you’ve got some new reporting on the removal of Steve Bannon from the National Security Council, what are your sources telling you?
BORGER: Right, and, you know, the National Security Council as you know is so important in determining what our strategy is going to be. Bannon was on this council, given a seat as a principal and he’s a political guy, and he was taken off that today.
My sources tell me that this is clearly a demotion for Steve Bannon and that this is Gen. McMaster who said I don’t want him there. And I’m told that McMaster went to Trump about this and that Donald Trump did not push back on it, that he and McMaster clash very often, I’m told, but they didn’t clash over this.
And I think that you now see the National Security Council taking a more sort of normal role here and that by putting the CIA director back on it, et cetera, et cetera, it’s going to be like a security council used to be in former administrations and removing the politics from it for good reason.
HERTLING: And if I could, Anderson, what we have too is H.R. McMaster is working unbelievably, he’s challenged right now, because he’s about three months behind where the National Security Council should be right now. They should have come into office with some strategy, some National Security Policy. H.R. is actually building a plane while it’s in flight, that’s an old expression, but it certainly is true in this case and it’s going to be stutter stepping for a while until he gets the principles in, the State Department and Defense Department gets their underlings in, and they can start putting a cohesive plan together for our National Security.
COOPER: The Trump administration is halfway through its 11th week with a good chunk of its first 100 days now behind it. The Washington Post has really interesting piece on how a messy Trump transition, messier than most to contents, led to a chaotic presidency. The paper has been tracking more than 500 key administration positions that require Senate confirmation. Today just 21 nominees have actually been confirmed and 20 others formally nominated.
Now the upshot of the post article is that the Trump administration is anything but a finally tuned machine. The White House, we should point out, does not see it that way. They point to executive action on the keystone pipeline, plans to increase defense spending, the focus on jobs and improving consumer confidence.
More now from Washington Post Chief Correspondent Dan Balz who wrote the piece on the Trump translation. Ryan Lizza and Jeffrey Lord are also back.
Dan, you know, you hear Sean Spicer routinely point to — to what he argues is a very productive first 11 weeks for Pres. Trump. It’s so fascinating compared to your piece which really lays out kind of how things went off the rails very quickly. And a lot of it at its core seemed to be about Donald Trump’s management style.
DAN BALZ, CHIEF CORRESPONDENT, THE WASHINGTON POST: I think that’s right, Anderson. I mean, the interesting thing is that there was a transition process that was operating pretty normally and according to outsiders, pretty effectively until the week of the election. But curiosity is that Donald Trump I think for — you know, as he put it, bad karma reasons did not want to engage at all with the transition team prior to the election. He just thought it was, you know, it was — he thought it would jinx him. And so, he didn’t have any involvement, though members of his family and senior staff certainly did.
COOPER: And Jeffrey, I mean, do you, you know, I know — I’m sure you read Dan’s piece. But, it seems like the White House is set up in many ways like the transition was and in many ways like the Trump organization itself was. And it worked, you know, certainly during the campaign, you know, Donald Trump had a very small core group just as he did in the Trump organization when he was in business. But does it work for the White House? I mean, do there need to be some more experienced hands and sort of clear lines of responsibility?
JEFFREY LORD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Every president stamps their own personality on the presidency. This is the Donald Trump presidency. He’s going to run it in a fashion that he became accustom to in the private sector. He does have a tendency, which historically is like — it reminds me of Franklin Roosevelt, of having competing camps at odds with each other. Ronald Reagan did a bit of this, too. Because, I think he feels it brings out the best in people when they compete with each other, etc cetera. So he is the most sure he’s going to this his own fashion. No question. COOPER: But, you know, Ryan, to Jeff’s point, I mean to say that this is how the private sector runs — I mea, it’s sort of how the Trump organization was run. But that — that’s not like many other large companies are running. The Trump organization, for, you know, all that various businesses they had and however many people they may employed, the actual organization itself in Trump tower was pretty small. And, it does seem like it was a very top down, you know, come from the personality of Donald Trump.
RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: One of the things that Dan’s piece points out that I think is really unique about the Trump White House is he has ditched the model that presidents have used really since Carter, which is a very strong chief of staff and nobody sort on the same — or a very few people on the same level as that chief of staff and not a super top heavy White House. Trump has a very top heavy White House. He has about six people who have close to the same authority as the chief of staff. And that creates the factions, because each one of the people has a little bit of a power center.
You know, back in the ’70s, Ford tried this model. Carter tried this model. It was– it even had a name. It was called spokes of the wheel, right? So, each person was a spoke going in to the president. Everyone since then has abandoned it because it just created a factionalized White House that was little more like lord of the flies.
COOPER: Dan, I mean, I’ve talked to a number of former chiefs of staffs of the White House, Republicans and Democrats, from recent administrations who have all said, you need to kind of, you know, — everybody needs to know what their lanes are, what their portfolios are. And you can’t have kind of various people who happen to have the president’s ear. Everybody kind of needs to stay in their lane.
BALZ: Certainly there are management techniques of having conflicting groups around you so that you are getting different kinds of advice so that everything isn’t homogenized. And there is some value in that. But, I think that one of the things that some of the people who were preparing the transition saw was that Donald Trump as a candidate and as a businessman has a particular style. And one of the things we know about that is that he has a relatively short attention span and can easily get distracted with things. And I think one of the reasons they felt there was a need for a very strong chief of staff and pretty clear lines of authority was in a sense to help bring some discipline to the president.
COOPER: You know, Jeff, when you look at the number of positions which have not been filled, I mean — according to Washington Post, you have 553 key administration positions requiring Senate Confirmation. Only 21 nominees have actually been confirmed. You know, Republicans control the Senate. It’s pretty stunning at this point.
LORD: Right, you know, I think I actually heard the president say that he was holding back on appointing some of these positions because he instinctively feels that’s it’s too top heavy in the government. And so, one of his ways of dealing with this was simply not filling the job which, you know, lots of people have talked about in the past. I think he’s actually doing this to some degree. The other thing that I think is important to note, this is a great piece by Dan. But it is, I would say, however, a Washington story. Out here, people are not paying attention to this kind of thing.
And what will happen is at the end of the Trump presidency, whenever that may be, history will judge him on his accomplishments as they do with every other president. Not necessarily and really at all on how he got there.
COOPER: To say that people aren’t paying attention to it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t play a role in what ends up being the accomplishment.
LORD: I understand. Yeah. And history will judge that.