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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Trump Prepares to Meet With North Korea Leader; Michael Cohen Set to Testify. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired February 25, 2019 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:01]

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thanks for being with me.

"The LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER" starts now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Move over, Bradley and Gaga. What the president describes as a love story between him and Kim Jong-un, that's about to kick in.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Next of Kim. President Trump on his way to Vietnam right now to shake hands with Kim Jong-un again, as the critical summit denuclearize shares the spotlight with Trump's former fixer and current felon set to testify before Congress.

The president's son slamming the Mueller probe, claiming -- quote -- "No actual crimes were committed." You can tell that to the more than 30 people indicted, including his dad's former campaign chair.

Plus, a hopeful message or a bunch of stereotypes? The Oscar winner for best picture becomes the latest thing dividing America.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with the politics lead today.

Welcome to day one of what could be the most consequential week or so of the Trump presidency. Right now, President Trump is on Air Force One heading to Hanoi, Vietnam. There, he will meet face to face for the second time with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. The goal, to try to get the rogue regime to denuclearize, an achievement that has alluded every previous president.

After the last summit, of course, the president claimed there was -- quote -- "no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea," which, of course, is not true. That threat was reiterated yesterday, in fact, on CNN by the secretary of state and weeks ago by the CIA director.

The threat, North Korea wants to build nuclear missiles that can reach the United States. Meantime, Air Force One took off, but there's a whole lot of baggage left in D.C. Today, 58 former senior national security officials, Democrats and Republicans, said there is no -- quote -- "factual basis" to support President Trump's declaration of a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border, which he did in an attempt, of course, to secure the funding to build his border wall, a key campaign promise.

Tomorrow, the House will vote on legislation to block the president's order. That will set up a test of Republican loyalty to the president.

Also tomorrow, Mr. Trump's former fixer Michael Cohen will begin the first of three days of testimony before Congress. He will face the House Oversight Committee Wednesday for a public hearing, just as the president is sitting down to face Kim Jong-un.

CNN's Pamela Brown kicks off our coverage now on President Trump's wild week ahead.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump on his way to Vietnam for his second summit with Kim Jong-un, after starting the day touting how close he is with the North Korean dictator.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have a very, very good relationship Kim Jong-un, very, very good. We have a special feeling and I think it's going to lead to something very good.

BROWN: In a meeting with the country's governors, the president laid out the U.S.' goal, that North Korea get rid of its nuclear weapons, without defining exactly what that looks like.

TRUMP: I think we will have a very tremendous summit. We want denuclearization.

Well, thank you very much, everybody.

BROWN: While also appearing to tamp down expectations.

TRUMP: Not in a rush. I don't want to rush anybody. I just don't want testing. As long as there's no testing, we're happy.

BROWN: A far cry from his position following the first summit last June.

TRUMP: It will be a total denuclearization, which is already starting.

BROWN: The president had gone even further in a tweet, saying -- quote -- "There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea."

But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Jake on "STATE OF THE UNION" that's just not true.

TAPPER: Do you think North Korea remains a nuclear threat?

MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Yes.

TAPPER: But the president said he doesn't.

POMPEO: That's not what he said.

I mean, I know -- I know precisely...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: He tweeted: "There's no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea."

(CROSSTALK)

POMPEO: Right. What -- what he said is that the -- what he said was that the efforts that had been made in Singapore, this commitment that Chairman Kim made, have substantially taken down the risk to the American people.

BROWN: As the talks play out, key events in Congress could distract from the president's summit.

QUESTION: Mr. Cohen, did you meet with the Senate Intelligence Committee today?

BROWN: Including Trump's former personal attorney Michael Cohen testifying before Congress three times privately and publicly.

And the House will vote Tuesday to block the president's national emergency declaration for the border wall.

TRUMP: If you don't have it, you're not going to have borders. You're not going to have a country pretty soon.

BROWN: Fifty-eight former senior national security officials see it differently, signing onto a scathing bipartisan letter admonishing the president's declaration, saying it's at odds with the administration's own data and estimates.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: Now, President Trump will be meeting one-on-one with Kim Jong- un on Wednesday. All of this happening against the backdrop of the president's former fixer and attorney Michael Cohen testifying to Congress.

And, of course, Wednesday is the day he's expected to testify publicly. Now, those close to the president are shrugging it off, saying that Cohen is a proven liar. But he is expected to touch on touchy subjects for this president, Jake, his personal and business dealings.

So it is certainly a high-stakes week for this president -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Mr. Brown at the White House, thanks so much.

Let's chat about this with our experts.

Jen Psaki, let me start with you.

A lot of turmoil going on right now. And the president's leaving behind a lot of stories he doesn't like. Does that increase the pressure on him to walk out of this summit with some tangible, some actual achievement? And does that concern you at all?

[16:05:10]

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It certainly does. And it should concern all of us, because success in this case is not defined by how many photo-ops he has. It's not defined by how closely he hugs Kim Jong-un.

It's defined by the work behind the scenes. And a lot of that, we will not see. And we should all hope this is working or that this will work. Democrats and Republicans should.

But the best thing or success coming out of this summit is Donald Trump helping set the parameters with Kim Jong-un, who he thinks he's the only one who makes the decisions, no one else ,and passing it off to the team of experts, who can start to do the important work behind the scenes. That could take months. We should give him that time.

But it's unlikely he's going to have the big, big success that he wants in the next couple of days.

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I dearly hope that his aides can keep him focused on the talks with North Korea, because I fear he's going to be watching the television and get upset about what's happening on Capitol Hill, and then become desperate for a win with North Korea.

And my biggest question going into these talks, is the administration willing to trade sanctions relief for full denuclearization or partial? Because you could see the wiggle room starting to open up there over the weekend in your talk with Secretary Pompeo, where he started talking about verifiable steps.

TAPPER: Yes.

CARPENTER: So they may be trying to change the goalposts there. And if Trump feels under pressure by what's happening here in the U.S., he may be willing to trade too much with North Korea.

PSAKI: Give up all our leverage.

TAPPER: And, Linda, there's also this disconnect, as there often is, between members of the Trump administration and the president in terms of facts and reality.

Let's just run that clip again. After the last summit, President Trump tweeted in part -- quote -- "Everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea." And I asked the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, about that yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Do you think North Korea remains a nuclear threat?

POMPEO: Yes.

TAPPER: But the president said he doesn't.

POMPEO: That's not what he said.

I mean, I know -- I know precisely...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: He tweeted: "There's no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea."

(CROSSTALK)

POMPEO: Right. What -- what he said is that the -- what he said was that the efforts that had been made in Singapore, this commitment that Chairman Kim made, have substantially taken down the risk to the American people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Now, one other note. It was just a direct quote, but the secretary there kind of offering something of a Trump-to-English dictionary.

LINDA CHAVEZ, DIRECTOR, BECOME AMERICAN INITIATIVE: Right, simultaneous translation, I guess, is what President Trump needs.

The real problem here, Jake, is that the North Koreans now pose a threat. They don't pose a threat to the mainland of the United States, but they have intermediate range and short range missiles right now, and they have nuclear weapons.

And so the ability to be able to launch an attack is something they already have. And when President Trump starts talking about, well, I might be satisfied if we have no more testing, because he's worried about ICBMs -- that's what he's focused on -- but it isn't just ICBMs that are a threat.

You could start World War III by North Korea launching an attack, either a military attack against South Korea or missiles against Japan, and we'd end up being in a world war as a result. So there is a threat, it is real, and I fear, along with Amanda, that he may try to do something to lessen sanctions in order to make himself look like he has a win.

TAPPER: And, meanwhile, Jamal, Wednesday's the summit. Wednesday is also the day that Michael Cohen will testify before Elijah Cummings, the congressman who is now chairman of the House Oversight Committee. And...

JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Hmm. That's such a coincidence.

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: I don't think it is. I think Mr. Cummings have had some scheduling fun there.

And some of the scope of the hearings that Cummings has laid out includes -- includes Trump's compliance with campaign finance and tax laws, Trump's conflicts of interest or alleged -- his business practices, Trump's public statements, Trump's efforts to intimidate Cohen and others.

Potentially, are there any other individuals who were paid hush money payments, like Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal? Who knows where this is going to go.

SIMMONS: Yes, who knows?

And I do have a question. Why was it they only had 10 days to put this summit together? The people in Hanoi are talking about they had to do what Singapore had two months to do, to get it together in 10 days.

This feels like there's something else going on in the White House planning operation. I don't know what it is. But it's curious to me.

The Michael Cohen testimony just reminds as of all the sort of scurvy characters that are around this president. And I think we have talked about this time and time again. We are going to have a tutorial over the course of a few hours where people get to see what kind of people Donald Trump surrounds himself with, and hear a lot more about what kind of business practices he's engaged in over the years.

CARPENTER: But this is probably just the opening bid.

I think we think that this is going to be the end of what we hear from Michael Cohen. But I think he's just the bait. Listen, Michael Cohen has already pled guilty to tax evasion, violating campaign finance laws.

[16:10:07]

TAPPER: Lying to Congress.

CARPENTER: And lying to Congress.

TAPPER: Right.

CARPENTER: So every time he says anything, the Democrats can say, why should we believe you?

And then they're going to have to get the receipts. That means the subpoena cannon is going to get fired and they are going to get the tax records. And they will have justification for doing so because Michael Cohen is going to lay all these Easter eggs through his testimony.

TAPPER: And then, of course, there is this other issue. The House of Representatives is going to push forward, Speaker Pelosi, a motion disapproving or shutting down the president's national emergency declaration to get border wall funding.

The president's already preemptively warning Republicans in the Senate especially, I would think, to stand with him, tweeting -- quote -- "I hope our great Republican senators don't get led down the path of weak and ineffective border security. Be strong and smart. Don't fall into the Democrats' 'trap.'"

I'm not sure why trap is in quotes there. But what do you make of that?

PSAKI: That's a political shot across the bow by Donald Trump. He's basically saying, look at my political power. I still have it. I still can help Republicans. You should be worried about 2020. I'm going to help you or not, or I'm going to hurt you.

So listen to that. That's what that -- this entire issue is about, the support for the wall funding or not, unfortunately.

TAPPER: And, Linda, there's the 58 former national security officials, including a couple Republicans, mostly Democrats, but there are a couple Republicans in there, sent a letter to the president saying there's no factual basis to his declaration.

Do statements like this mean anything?

CHAVEZ: Well, it's certainly going to mean something I think in court. Whether they're going to mean something in terms of the court of public opinion, it's -- I think they should.

And senators should be listening, because, yes, there are several senators who are going to be running in 2020, but Trump may not be helping them. He may be hurting them in 2020.

PSAKI: That may not be what he thinks.

CHAVEZ: Well, yes, he always thinks that he's God's gift.

So, but, no, I think that this is a real time for the Congress to stand up. And, look, I'm a conservative. I have always believed that there had to be separation of powers.

And the legislative branch makes the laws, and they control the purse. And for Republicans to be caving on this, when the president himself says,I don't need this wall, I just want to get the money a little faster, I mean, this is outrageous.

TAPPER: And then -- let's talk about the senators who don't want to vote for this. There are a few. You got Susan Collins up for reelection in Maine, McSally in Arizona, Cory Gardner in Colorado. The map is much more favorable to Democrats this time around.

SIMMONS: Oh, the map is much more favorable to Democrats.

And the question becomes, you send these letters out. What are they going to do about it, right? At some point, people make statements. Donald Trump can't be embarrassed. The only thing he understands is force.

I mean, that's one of the benefits of having Nancy Pelosi as the speaker, because she's one of the first politicians who has sort of figured out the way you fight Donald Trump is to fight Donald Trump. And to back down in any way, you just kind of go along.

He doesn't respect the Senate. He's willing to run over them going into this election season.

TAPPER: All right, everyone, stick around. We have got a lot more to talk about.

We have heard what Donald Trump thinks about North Korea dictator Kim Jong-un. Up next, we're going to go live to Vietnam War, where Kim is arriving soon, with a look at what the hermit kingdom has in mind for the second summit with Trump.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:17:12] TAPPER: Our world lead now. President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are currently on their way to Vietnam for their second historic summit. The president is currently lowering expectations for this high-stakes meeting especially when it comes to Pyongyang getting rid of its nuclear weapons.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Not in a rush, I don't want to rush anybody. I just don't want testing. As long as there's no testing, we're happy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: CNN's Will Ripley joins me now from Hanoi, where the summit will take place. He's visited North Korea 19 times. He's also with former CIA and FBI official Phil Mudd.

Will, the U.S.'s end goal is for North Korea to denuclearize North Korea wants the U.S. to lift sanctions. What do you think that we should expect to see at the summit?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the South Korean Blue House gave us a hint Jake when they said that there could be an announcement to formally end the Korean War which, of course, would be significant. It also would come without North Korea taking a single step to this point to actually get rid of their nuclear arsenal, which has been the endgame all along from the United States' perspective. Remember, the U.S. said it could happen within a year, then they've kind of been extending it further and further.

And while analysts have always thought it was unrealistic to think that Kim would give up nukes right up front, to think that there could be an end of the Korean war and steps toward normalizing relations with the U.S. without a single concession in terms of denuclearization certainly surprising to a lot of people.

TAPPER: Phil, take a listen to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday when I asked him what kind of a pledge North Korea needed to make, an actual tangible promise on denuclearization.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: Look, we've got work to do on the denuclearization pillar. I don't want to get into the details of what's being proposed, what the offers and counteroffers may be. But a real step, a demonstrable, verifiable step is something that I know President Trump is very focused on achieving.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Phil, what might a real step forward look like here? Letting in inspectors?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTER-TERRORISM ANALYST: No, I'd say there's a step before that and it makes me remember the Saddam days, something that haunted us for years and years, and that is we keep looking at the visuals and I know they're attractive to Americans. Are you destroying nuclear material? Are you destroying the tunnels for testing?

There's one litmus test you might think about, Jake, that's verifiable. Do you have a piece of paper that indicates exactly what the North Koreans have? That is nuclear material, missiles, where is it stored, where are the plans? Do you have something before you actually go and destroy a facility that verifies that the North Koreans are even willing to tell you what they have?

We used to call that in Iraq FFCD, the full, fair -- the full verifiable list of materials that the Iraqis had so we could even begin the compliance process.

We're not close to that now, Jake.

TAPPER: Well, a spokesperson for the South Korean government said this summit could lead to North Korea in the U.S. to declare an end to the Korean War. What might that mean for the United States?

RIPLEY: Well, it means to potentially, you know, normalizing ties with North Korea.

[16:20:01] You know, there's also been talk about the two countries exchanging liaison officers who could eventually open liaison offices in Pyongyang in Washington. Here in Hanoi, they opened the embassy in 1995. There was a liaison office several years before that. So, you could have full-time American staff trained in Korean working in the North Korean capital for the first time ever, which does open a direct line of communication and help the two countries communicate more efficiently and resolve thorny issues.

It could also call into question the need for 28,000 U.S. troops on the south side of the Korean peninsula, although at this stage, the U.S. says they're not discussing that. But, of course, North Korea would like to see those troops go away.

TAPPER: And President Trump has talked about getting rid of those troops as well.

Phil, take a listen to the president earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: I think we'll have a very tremendous summit. We want denuclearization and I think they'll have a country that will set a lot of records to speed in terms of economy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Phil, obviously, North Korea wants the sanctions lifted. Do you think the president should hold on to all the sanctions until there's a complete denuclearization or do you think there can be something like a sliding scale for a complete inventory for example like you suggest, or inspections, lifting some sanctions?

MUDD: No, I think there's got to be a sliding scale. We always look at this from an American optics saying, look, they've got to get rid of nuclear weapons that can potentially hit places like Hawaii and eventually the U.S. mainland. We forget to realize that these are critical to the long-term safety from the North Koreans perspective against an American attack.

So, if they take half a step that leads to vulnerability for Kim Jong- un, if you're looking at this even-handedly tough, you got to say, I got to give something to get something. It's not very complicated. I don't think a big steps going to happen, but eventually, you can't expect full denuclearization without some steps from the Americans. That's not going to happen.

TAPPER: Will, do you think we're going to see the beginning of a former formal diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and North Korea coming out of the meeting as you just suggested might happen if they're -- they declare an end to the Korean War and what might that look like?

RIPLEY: Well, those are the hints that we're getting from South Korea, from U.S. officials. And, look, the North Koreans have said all along that before they denuclearize they need to build trust with the United States. They need to build confidence. They need reciprocal measures. So, if these are the reciprocal measures, then the true test of whether this is also a good deal for the United States is whether North Korea is really a willing and able to start taking tangible steps to denuclearize, to come up with a specific plan, transparency, that sort of thing. If they don't do that, if they make all of these pronouncements about, you know, basically legitimizing Kim Jong-un's government without any steps to get rid of nukes, well, then this is not going to be a win for the United States.

TAPPER: The president, Phil, said he and Kim fell in love. He was talking about these letters that they have exchanged. And Kim, according to "The Washington Post" has written letters where he refers to the president is "Your Excellency" and does praise them, but I'm -- I've read that "Your Excellency" is just what younger people in Korea or at least North Korea refer to as older people, and I'm not sure how much of this flattery is genuine, or even really to be blunt relevant.

MUDD: I think there is a marginal relevance here. Look, where were we -- you know, if I were king, I'd have representatives in Cuba and Iran as well. I don't see the harm in talking to people. If you talk to them in courteous tones, the likelihood that they're going to lob something toward Guam I think is lower. I think in some ways the president created the previous crisis by talking about "little rocket man" in front of the U.N. But I don't see the harm in a meeting and be having polite conversations over letters.

Bottom line though, both sides have different interests. We haven't talked about that, Jake. We want them to get rid of nukes. They want to keep nukes to ensure that they can keep the U.S. out. I don't know if we're going to win this. It's worth a try, but this is a long shot.

TAPPER: All right. Phil Mudd and Will Ripley, thanks to both of you for your expertise.

Coming up next, talk about downplaying. Donald Trump Jr.'s take on Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, that's pretty much everyone who's been following the news for two years shaking their heads.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:28:33] TAPPER: Politics lead now. A rather bold assertion today from the president's oldest son Donald Trump Jr. Listen to him downplay connections to people already implicated in special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, JR., SON OF PRESIDENT TRUMP: I've been hearing this for two years, where everyone's getting into -- everyone's going to jail. Meanwhile, they haven't actually found anything as it relates to this. What they did was, they put incredible pressure on regular guys that couldn't afford million dollars in legal fees and got him to slip up and say something incorrectly. You know, they pretended they were their friends, that's all that happened. There are no actual crimes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Hmm, the truth is Mueller has filed 199 criminal counts. He's charged 37 people and companies. He sent four people to prison already, those regular guys Donald Trump Jr. was mentioning include guilty pleas from his father's former personal attorney and fixer Michael Cohen, his father's former campaign chair Paul Manafort, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, former Trump campaign official Rick Gates, former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, just a bunch of regular guys.

As for Don Jr.'s assertion Mueller's team found no actual crimes, well, lying to Congress is a crime. Lying to the FBI is a crime. Witness tampering is a crime. Violating campaign finance laws is a crime.

Criminal conspiracy to defraud the United States by interfering in the U.S. election which Mueller is charging several Russians with having done, that's definitely a crime. Conspiracy to commit wired fraud, that's a crime. Bank fraud, that's a crime. That's some of them, and as far as we know, Mueller's not even done.

Let's bring in CNN political correspondent Sara Murray, along with CNN justice reporter Laura Jarrett.

So, Laura, let me start with you there's no actual evidence in terms of that Trump Tower meeting the Donald Trump funeral help set up, there's no --

[16:30:00]