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U.S. Drops Massive Bomb in Afghanistan; Trump on Military Authorization; Trump Flexes U.S. Military Might; British Had Communications of Trump Associates. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired April 14, 2017 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Kate.

And welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thanks for sharing your day with us.

A long Easter weekend in Palm Beach for President Trump as Washington and the world debate the strategy and the meaning behind two major military strikes.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have the greatest military in the world and they've done a job, as usual. So we have given them total authorization. And that's what they're doing. And, frankly, that's why they've been so successful lately.


KING: In a week full of big policy changes, another noteworthy shift, candidate Trump loved WikiLeaks and its attacks on Hillary Clinton. President Trump's CIA director calls WikiLeaks a threat.


MIKE POMPEO, CIA DIRECTOR: WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service. It's time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is, a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.


KING: Plus, palace intrigue inside the Trump White House. Wall Streeters are the rising powers and the president's America first sidekick, Steven Bannon, now more and more on the losing side of policy fights.


ROGER STONE, FORMER TRUMP ADVISER: I think Steve made an error by not spending any of his political capital on bringing other Trump-ites and non-globalists into the White House circle. Therefore now he's alone and he's surrounded.


KING: With us to share their reporting and their insights - that got a smile at the table - Laura Meckler of "The Wall Street Journal," "The New Yorker's" Ryan Lizza, Michael Bender of "The Wall Street Journal," and Karen Tumulty of "The Washington Post."

Again today big international news driving the day. All eyes on North Korea. April 15th - it is already April 15th in North Korea - is the hermit regime's biggest holiday and a provocative act is a big holiday tradition. U.S. Navy ships are nearby and satellite images suggest Pyongyang might be poised for a nuclear test. In Moscow today, a show of anti-American unity. Russia, Iran and Syria say they are united in condemning last week's U.S. cruise missile strikes against the Syrian air base. No big surprise there. But President Trump's home was that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's trip to Moscow this week perhaps might have persuaded the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to change course.

And in Afghanistan, American military commanders declare success after a ground-breaking mission. Watch it play out here. The first combat use of the military's largest non-nuclear bomb against an ISIS camp and tunnel complex.


GEN. JOHN NICHOLSON, U.S. COMMANDER IN AFGHANISTAN: This was the right weapon against the right target.


KING: Barbara Starr was first to report this dramatic news yesterday this hour and joins us now from the Pentagon.

Barbara, they've used this weapon for the first time. What does the battle damage assessment say? Do they think it was a success and a success enough to think about using this again?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, just 24 hours after you and I were talking about it in breaking news exclusively at CNN, the battle damage assessment that's beginning to take ship is, General Nicholson got what he wanted out of this strike. They were able, by all accounts, to kill some ISIS fighters, to close up some of those tunnels and caves. They have no evidence of civilian casualties in the area. Those civilians in the area are reporting that they heard the blast, that they felt the ground shake.

But a short time ago, a senior U.S. military official told me this was really a psychosocial message to ISIS, that the U.S. will hunt them down, even in these remote mountain valleys. And that - if that's the message, General Nicholson achieved his goal of delivering it. The video shows us that the bomb dropped where they meant it to drop. It went into this very steep mountain valley where this complex of caves was located, an area that these ISIS fighters had retreated into.

But, still, a very long way to go in Afghanistan. The Afghans say a few dozen fighters were killed. There may be 800 ISIS still in the country and there is still the Taliban out there who are resurgent in the south. President Trump will have to decide in the coming weeks if he wants to send more U.S. military trainers to Afghanistan to buck up, to help the Afghan forces in this very difficult, ongoing fight in so many fronts in their country.


KING: It's an important point. You can't solve the biggest problems from the skies above.

Barbara Starr, live for us at the Pentagon.

Barbara, thank you.

KING: A war of words with North Korea, missile strikes in Syria, the dramatic bomb strike in Afghanistan, so how would the commander in chief describe the current state of play?


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If you look at what's happened over the last eight weeks and compare that to what - really to what's happened over the last eight years, you'll see there's a tremendous difference. Tremendous difference. So we have incredible leaders in the military and we have incredible military. And we are very proud of them. And this was another very, very successful mission.


KING: Come into the room here.

Toughness is not a strategy. But toughness does get the world's attention. So where are we at this moment when we, as Barbara noted, a lot of tough decisions about Afghanistan. Do you leave U.S. troops? How aggressive of a posture do they take? What next in Syria? We're all watching. We'll get to it in a moment, what could play out this weekend in North Korea.

[12:05:01] But in terms of - when you hear the president there talking about, you know, his willingness to use military force and his muscular language, what does it tell us?

KAREN TUMULTY, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, Barbara talked about how this bomb was meant to send a signal to other parts of the world. But I think it was also meant to send a signal to the domestic audience. And that was, not only about the president's willingness to use force, but also his willingness to rely upon the judgment of the military. Yesterday he made some sort of cryptic comments when he was asked whether he had authorized this. It's really hard to imagine that the military would have used a weapon they had never used before without consulting with the president. But he really tried to make - at least leave the impression that the military was leading the way here.

KING: Let's bring those words in because they are important. You know, he - we're still getting used to this president. We're just a couple weeks shy of 100 days. This was the first time in a matter of weeks he used military force twice. Sixty cruise missiles launched at Syria. This big - they call it the mother of all bombs dropped. And to your key point, one of the questions is, how does this work? What's the chain of command? Did you personally sign off? The president wouldn't answer the question. Not directly.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Everybody knows exactly what happened. So - and what I do is I authorize my military. We have given them total authorization. And that's what they've doing. And, frankly, that's why they've been so successful lately.


KING: We don't know the nitty gritty details by, "I've given them total authorization." Does he mean they've come to him and said, Mr. President, this is one of the weapons we might use in Afghanistan. We don't know when, if the opportunity arises. Mr. President, if the opportunity rises, we might launch a raid in Yemen, which he says everything has been a success. That raid is more of a debate point. Do they just have carte blanche because they're - of one briefing where he signed off on things or is there a daily back and forth about this?

MICHAEL BENDER, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": I think that the president has to answer that question. I would say it's not unusual to lean on your military generals for - to make these kind of decisions and that you can - you can give them a certain amount of latitude to decide when and where to strike. But, you know, by not answering directly, he opens himself up to these questions. And we know that the president doesn't like to talk that much about military strategy. We also know that he's sort of not steeped in military history. He likes his briefing sort of in bullet points or in pictures. So I think combined with those two things, he doesn't like to get into these answers. He leaves himself open to more questions.

But what I can add to this question right now is sort of the - Trump's state of mind, which I think is important as we kind of tiptoe into some really complicated foreign policy here, right? I mean these are -

KING: Right.

BENDER: These are matters of life and death. I interviewed the president this week with some colleagues at "The Wall Street Journal," and this is not a president who was - you know, seemed weighed down by these decisions. There was - it was - it was before the mother of all bombs. It was after Syria. And even with the framework of some complicated domestic issues, right, I mean these - he has no major legislative victories. His staff's in turmoil. He was - he was at ease. He was even a little bit, I would say, emboldened or maybe thrilled by it when he was talking about dropping bombs on Syria. Not suggesting any of these decisions are personal for him, but, you know, as we - as we get into these decisions and see where this Trump doctrine, where the Trump foreign policy is going to play out, I think it's important to understand that he's - he's very much at ease right now with these decisions. KING: It's an interesting point because, you mentioned, you know, what

is the Trump doctrine. Now, again, we're shy of 100 days. So people who say, what is your strategy, give me your detailed strategy for Afghanistan, your detailed strategy for Syria, some of that's unfair. These are long, intractable problems that have founded past administrations as well. But there is a sense that one thing we do know is that this is a president very different from the rhetoric of his campaign where he criticized President Obama. Where he told President Obama, don't go into Syria. Even after chemical strikes back in 2013, he said, don't go into Syria. So he has abandoned a lot of the rhetoric of the campaign, a lot of what we thought would be the basic parameters of what he would do and wouldn't do. But what else do we know? We just know he's left that behind. Do we know where we're going?

RYAN LIZZA, "THE NEW YORKER": I think the one thing that's been consistent is that he's not interested in a values based foreign policy. He does not talk about spreading democracy. He doesn't talk about human rights. Even after the chemical attack, he made some lip service to the - how grotesque the attack was. But when he wrote a letter to Congress and explained it, it was very much, this is why this is in American's national interest to do this.

He's not - does not talk about nation building. And so I think some people got him wrong in the campaign when they described him as an isolationist. I don't think he was ever a true isolationist. But he is a consistent realist so far in that the way he wants America to operate on the world stage is strictly in terms of our interests and in our - and in the interests of other countries.

He brought in the leaders - in the conversations that he's had personally or his aides this - just this month with China, Russia, and Egypt, right, three autocrats, right? In previous administration, there would have been a lot of talk about human rights. There would have been a lot of delicate dancing around that issue. Are they going to be confronted formally or not? Trump didn't talk about that at all. He doesn't care about human rights or democracy or the internal affairs of these countries. He cares about, frankly, the deal-making and the interests of the two sides.

[12:10:12] So, so far what I see is a true realist and that may mean he'll intervene here or there, but a realist who's willing to use American force.

KING: Right, and -

TUMULTY: And, in fact, with the Egyptian leader, el Sisi, who's the most repressive ruler in modern Egyptian history, the president complimented him for doing a terrific job under difficult circumstances.

KING: Right.

LIZZA: Absolutely.

KING: Right. Yes. LIZZA: And after the terrorist attacks in Egypt recently, he had - he sort of praised him and said he's the right man to do deal with this. So (INAUDIBLE).

KING: And he's - and he puts his political opponents in prison, where, many of them, according to human rights groups, are tortured.

Let's deal with the North Korea issue, which could be - it's already on the president's plate. It could be first and foremost this weekend because of the history, the timing in North Korea. The president was asked point blank yesterday, you've launched tomahawk cruise missiles in Syria. You just dropped this new weapon in Afghanistan. Are you trying to send Kim - the Korean leader a message?


QUESTION: Does it send a message to North Korea?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't know if this sends a message. It doesn't make any difference if it does or not. North Korea is a problem. The problem will be taken care of.


KING: Now, Kim Jong-un's army today put out this statement. Now, we do know a U.S. carrier group has moved into a region. The president saying there it will be taken care of. There was some evidence China's actually trying to help out of the meeting that he had last weekend with President Xi. The North Korean army statement says this today. "We will mercilessly destroy all the provocative choices of the United States with our own toughest response. Serious military hysteria has reached a dangerous phase."

Now, North Korea is renowned for its provocative, belligerent, pugnacious statements. But the timing here, this is complicated and it's risky if there's miscalculations.

LAURA MECKLER, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": Right. I mean this is - they are firing with real bullets here. You know, if they launch a test and then if that - nuclear test and then that's - obviously will be seen as a provocation back. And then how does Trump respond to that? If he's saying, well, you know, they'll regret it, you know, does that mean that we get involved militarily there? I mean the past response have been economic sanctions, a more diplomatic approach.

You know, he said that when he - after meeting with the Chinese leader that, oh, well, they're going to help us. In fact, if was willing to put aside his long-standing views on Chinese currency manipulation because they're going to help us with - supposedly with - with North Korea. But if that does not come through and if they - and North Korea calls our bluff essentially, then I think that he faces a pretty tough decision because you've got our - South Korea, you know, just over the line there and facing real peril potentially, so.

KING: It was interesting. I believe it was in "The Journal" where the president said essentially, conceded, I thought I could just ask the Chinese to help. They could snap the finger and North Korea would do their bidding. And then he realized, you know, President Xi said, you know, it's not that easy. It's a complicated history in the region. It goes back hundreds of years. Yes, we have some influence over them, but not what you think.

However, though, I do think at least so far, we'll see where this ends, you'd have to score a win for the president in terms of getting actions out of his summit with the Chinese leader where they have turned away some coal shipments. They have threatened, in an editorial, in a quasi-state (ph) newspaper today, to cut off oil shipments to North Korea. A Chinese airline today said - says because of weak sales, but canceling its flights into Pyongyang, at least temporarily. So the Chinese appear to be trying to help the president here.

TUMULTY: Although they issued a statement this morning as well saying very bluntly how worried they are about this standoff that seems to be developing in North - outside of North Korea.

KING: Right.

TUMULTY: And they said, if something gets touched off here, whoever touch it off will be judged by history.

KING: Right. They don't like - they don't - even if they're trying to help the president, they don't like when the United States military is in their neighborhood. So there's a lot of complicated chess pieces here.

Hold the thought. We need to move on though.

Next, how U.S. intelligence agencies first got word associates of the president were in frequency election year contact with the Russians.


[12:18:08] KING: Welcome back.

There's new CNN reporting today on a key sub plot of the Russian election meddling investigation. What first brought to light the possibility associates of then candidate Donald Trump were coordinating or colluding with Russian efforts to damage Hillary Clinton? Well, U.S. intelligence officials, CNN has learned, were alerted by British and other European intelligence agencies who had intercepted communications between Trump associates and Russians who are under surveillance.

Our justice correspondent Even Perez is here with more.

A little twist in the spy novel, Evan. Explain the details.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, John. It was these - the British and European agencies that were monitoring Russians that first alerted the U.S. intelligence agencies that there were these contacts and communications between people associated with the Trump campaign and suspected Russian operatives. Again, they were targeting the Russians. This was incidental collection. They weren't necessarily targeting the associates of Donald Trump.

But it does raise another question here for the FBI, which is investigating all of these contacts. We know that they're using some of this information for their investigation. And the question will be whether they can use any of this as they try to put together a possible criminal case. We know that's going to be a very complicated matter for them. We know that the GCHQ and the European agencies have been really watching the Russians very, very closely because they know about their other activities in Europe. And so we - that's one way that the U.S. intelligence agencies were first alerted about these communications and contacts, John.

KING: Even Perez with the latest twists. Evan, thanks very much.

Let's come back into the room.

It's - on the one hand you say that's the way it's supposed to work, right? These are our allies. We share intelligence with them. They share intelligence with us. But then you think about, you know, you're sitting at the CIA or the national intelligence agencies and you get a call from the Brits or, you know, another European agency and they say, we're going to send you something on somebody who's close to Donald Trump on the phone with Russia. I mean this is literally out of a bond movie.

[12:20:01] LIZZA: Yes, but if you think about the analysts, they have now been monitoring Russia's meddling in western democracies for years now, right?

KING: Right.

LIZZA: So from their perspective they're thinking, OK, this is just Russia taking the playbook that's used in Europe and exporting it to America. So not exactly shocking to them. What might be shocking depending on what they picked up is how close the ties were to one of the major campaigns.

TUMULTY: At a moment when nobody thought Donald Trump was going to win. I think that's pretty key here too. And before the hack of the DNC.


TUMULTY: So I think those two events put all of this in a very, very different context.

LIZZA: And it makes - look, I think it make the Obama administration continue to look like they did not take this seriously enough early enough, that they didn't do enough about it, partly because they were hemmed in by the political circumstances and looking like they were trying to impact the election by making a big deal out of it. But the more we learn, the more it seems like the Obama administration could have been on the case a little earlier and could have had a more robust action.

KING: That's an important point. And so let's try to connect the dots. We don't know what these conversations were about, but, again, as Evan just explained, British intelligence, other European intelligence agencies, pick up conversations. Trump associates talking to Russian operatives. Now we all know what happened during the summer. WikiLeaks released a whole bunch of those e-mails hacked out of the Democratic National Committee. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump said, great.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Now, this just came out. This just came out. WikiLeaks. I love WikiLeaks. And I said, write a couple of them down.

And, by the way, WikiLeaks just came out with lots of really unbelievable things. Just minutes ago. In fact, I almost delayed this speech by about two hours it's so interesting.

By the way, did you see another one? Another one came in today. This WikiLeaks is like a treasure trove.


KING: Now, take your partisan - put your partisan instincts aside for just a second. What you have there is - from what we now know - is a candidate for president praising an organization releasing e-mails critical of his opponent. Those e-mails allegedly obtained from a state actor, Russia, who was interfering in U.S. elections. Most people, I think, would think that is bad.

During the campaign, Mike Pompeo was then a congressman, he actually praised this at one point, said there was damaging stuff about Hillary Clinton. Now Mike Pompeo is Donald Trump's CIA director. It's his responsibility to track intelligence around the world. His opinion's changed.


MIKE POMPEO, CIA DIRECTOR: WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service, and has encouraged its followers to find jobs at the CIA in order to obtain intelligence. It's time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is, a non-state, hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.


KING: I t's, to me, another example of when, you know, you're a congressman, and no offense to Congressman Pompeo, you represent the 500,000, 600,000 people back home. You have a safe political base. You kind of say what you want in the political environment. You take this job, the job he has now, one of the hardest, toughest, most daunting jobs in the United States government and you realize the gravity of what you're dealing with.

LIZZA: And wasn't Pompeo on the Intelligence Committee, though?

KING: He was. LIZZA: I mean he was - could, you know, just by that job alone you could argue it was irresponsible during the campaign to essentially be colluding with WikiLeaks by advertising stolen - stuff that was stolen by a state -

KING: Yes, he was talking about - he did tweet out about the DNC e- mails that seemed to suggest - seemed to suggest is being kind - the Democratic National Committee was helping Hillary Clinton. It didn't like Bernie Sanders running against her. And he said - he tweeted out "busted" about that. You're right, that's a key point, he was on the Intelligence Committee.

MECKLER: I mean and the - the Hillary Clinton people, their heads just explode every time one of these stories comes out because they were saying this all, you know, through October, there was evidence already then that Russia was behind the hack e-mails, the John Podesta e- mails, as well as the DNC e-mails. And so now what - we're just continuing to unfold.

I mean I think the big picture here is this is not going away anytime soon. There's been a lot of machinations about which investigation is going where and the troubles that have happened in the House Committee. But the upshot of all of this is that this is a big story. I mean is, like you said, taking your partisan hats off, that the idea that you essentially did have Russia meddling in this election, every day that passes seems like you get evidence that supports that general theme rather than undercuts it. So - but I just - I guess I wonder, you know, where does it lead at the end of the day. You know, it's not - it doesn't - doesn't change the results of an election.

KING: But three months on the job, I assume Mike Pompeo also knows a lot more about - or at least has a lot more suspicions about what else WikiLeaks might have in its possession.

LIZZA: Yes, and he's now - this is like Trump facing reality of all these foreign policy crises.

KING: Right.

LIZZA: Pompeo is now the head of the CIA.

KING: Right.

LIZZA: Most analyst at the CIA were appalled by the way WikiLeaks operated and that one party would take advantage of it. And so he's now reflecting the sort of culture there.

TUMULTY: And plus he presumably has in his possession the intercepts between Russian officials and people associated with Donald Trump. He knows exactly what was said, I would assume.

[12:25:03] LIZZA: Yes.

BENDER: That's where the - that - and that's the most important question here, right? I mean we still don't know what exactly was said or why it was - or why it was done. Like the CNN story is a great - there's a great detail and Evan's been doing great reporting on this story and, in my view, what the one thing this does is increase pressure on these investigators to get to the bottom of this and let us know what was said and why.

KING: Right, that's going to be a big challenge at the end of this, as you're seeing all these (INAUDIBLE). How much of it - because so much of it is classified, so much of it - how much of it can they put out in the public. So whatever your view, you can read the documents, see as much evidence as you can and make your own decision and hopefully again, as I said at the beginning, set your partisan instincts aside and read what they find.

Up next, politicians like to say their positions evolved. Hate to hear criticism, but they flip-flopped. So what to make of President Trump this week when he proved beyond any doubt he's telling the truth when he says he's flexible?


[12:29:50] KING: President Trump kept a promise to social conservatives just yesterday signing legislation that allows states to withhold federal money from organizations that provide abortion services. Proof right there that elections have consequences. But this week also is rich with examples of what the president likes to call flexibility, which sure sounds a lot more gentile than flip-flopping or breaking a promise. Candidate Trump embraced a key Tea Party demand, get rid of the federal export/import bank.