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Trump on 2018; North Korean Mixed Message; Deaths at Iran Protests; Iranian President on Trump's Sympathy; Russia Probe Sparked by Conversation. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired January 1, 2018 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] ABBY PHILLIPS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: The president spent New Year's Eve at his Mar-a-Lago resort at a very glitzy party filled with a lot of supporters and members of his club and their guests. And he rang in the new year on a pretty defiant note. Take a listen to some of what he had to say to the guests according to some audio that we obtained overnight.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So we're going to have a great 2018. It's going to be something very, very special. It's all kicking in. We have some pretty good enemies out there, but step by step they're being defeated. We have people -- they're some bad (ph) people. Someday maybe they'll love us. I don't know. You know what they're going to love? Everyone is going to love what's happening with our country.


PHILLIP: A pretty rousing reception from the crowd there to those comment, but it really is pretty unclear who he was talking about. It could be anyone, Boris, as you know, from the media to Iran that the president might consider his enemies. But clearly he believes that he is being victorious over whoever those people are.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, Abby, the president also clearly not making one of his resolutions to drop Twitter. He's already been tweeting about some foreign policy hotspots today. He took aim at Pakistan in this tweet. He writes, quote, the United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid over the last 15 years and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan with little help. No more. What is behind this harsh rhetoric, Abby?

PHILLIP: Yes, bright and early this morning the president sent out that tweet. And it's really not clear what prompted it. At least nothing publicly seems to have precipitated the tweet. But it's interesting because in the past the president has expressed some hopefulness that the United States' relationship with Pakistan would improve under his leadership.

That -- this has been a thorny and difficult relationship for the United States for quite some time. But now it seems that, especially as the president is ramping up this fight against ISIS and terrorist groups in the Middle East, the relationship between this administration and Pakistan is suffering. It's not clear exactly why, but that kind of optimism that we heard from him just a few months ago, when Pakistan helped the United States free some prisoners, some Americans who were held in that region, that is no longer the case. Apparently we also don't know if the president is going to follow- through on that apparent threat to pull funding for Pakistan, who despite the difficulty of that relationship is an important partner in that region for the United States.


SANCHEZ: All right, Abby Phillip, thank you.

Now to another foreign policy focus for the president, North Korea, where Kim Jong-un warned today that the nuclear button is, quote, always on the desk of my office. Un also called on his country to speed up the production of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles, but he seemed to signal a softer tone towards South Korea.

CNN international correspondent Paul Hancocks reports from Seoul.


PAUL HANCOCKS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There were two very different sides to the new year's day speech from the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un this year. There wasn't the usual nuclear defiance. But on top of that, there was also a conciliatory tone taken when talking about South Korea. A great difference from what we heard last year. Usually these speeches give some kind of indication of what we can expect from North Korea throughout the year and this one is certainly an interesting speech.

First of all focusing, though, on what we did expect from Kim Jong-un. He actually declared that 2017 was the year when North Korea completed the nuclear capabilities. He also said that North Korea is a peaceful nuclear state and they have no intention of using their nuclear weapons as long as there is no aggression shown towards them.

He also had a very specific message for the United States.


KIM JONG-UN, NORTH KOREAN LEADER (through translator): America will never be able to provoke war or attack us. The entire continent of America is within reach of our nuclear attack. They must never forget the nuclear button is placed on my desk at all times. They must realize correctly that this is not a threat, but reality.


HANCOCKS: So we're certainly seeing a more conciliatory tone towards South Korea. This time last year we heard from North Korean officials suggesting that they wanted to talk to the United States, or at least they wanted to see what kind of relationship they could have with the new Trump administration. We heard nothing of that this time around. They are focusing now on

the South Korean side, saying that North and South Korea must work together to alleviate the tensions. Also saying that if they work together, they will be able to alleviate those tensions without help from the outside. They would do it on their own.

[12:05:00] This is a very different strategy really that we're hearing from North Korea at this point saying -- he also said, quote, we genuinely wish for peaceful resolution with our southern border.

Also saying that he would be willing to send a delegation to the Pyongchang Winter Olympics, which start in February being held here in South Korea. That would certainly be music to the ears of the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in.

So really a very different kind of speech that we are hearing this year from North Korean Leader Kim Kong-un.

Paula Hancocks, CNN, Seoul.


SANCHEZ: Thank you for that, Paula.

We're also following new developments out of Iran, where a short time ago President Hassan Rouhani slammed President Trump saying he has no right to sympathize with Iranian protesters because he's called the Iranian people terrorists. State media says Rouhani made the comments in a meeting with lawmakers. The government there is struggling with how to respond to the nationwide protests that began four days ago. At least 12 people have reportedly been killed in these demonstrations.

CNN's Arwa Damon is in neighboring Turkey with more details.



And two of those people were killed on Saturday, 10 of them killed on Sunday. The government is struggling to try to contain these demonstrations, bearing in mind that this is a government that is fairly accustomed when it comes to attempting to stamp out voices of decent.

We heard on a number of occasions from the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, not just slamming the United States, but also warning those anti-government protesters from creating chaos, from engaging in violent acts, saying that they would be met with the appropriate response.

But at the same time perhaps something of a consolatory tone when it comes to actually acknowledging some of the grievances that these demonstrators have had, especially with the economic situation, with their economic grievances given the fact that food and fuel prices have been on the rise, unemployment is also on the rise. We also heard from Rouhani on Sunday saying that U.S. President Donald Trump is constantly creating problems for Iranians, including visas and financial issues, and also warning those anti-government protesters from becoming perhaps pawns of foreign agents.

Now, all this being said, what's quite interesting when we look at the demonstrations that are happening now in Iran, it's not necessarily the volume of individuals who are coming out in any one location, but just how widespread they are. And unlike the green movement that took place back in 2009, these protests don't have a leader. There isn't one group that is organizing them. These are people from across the country going out, venting their fury. But it's really hard to determine exactly what their end goal is or specifically what kind of changes they want to see. We're hearing chants of death to the dictator and we don't want an Islamic republic. And at this stage we're also hearing something that's quite rare, a direct criticism of the Iranian supreme leader. But, again, it's unclear exactly what these protesters want to see accomplished.

SANCHEZ: Arwa Damon reporting from Turkey. Thank you, Arwa.

We're joined now by Dennis Ross. He's an ambassador that has served in a variety of positions in the State Department, on the National Security Council from the Reagan administration through the Obama administration.

Sir, thank you so much for joining us.

First and foremost, I wanted to ask you about something that Arwa brought --


SANCHEZ: I wanted to ask you something that Arwa brought up in her report. The goal -- the ultimate goal of these protesters, have you been able to gain any kind of insight into whether this is purely an economic protest or whether there's more to it than that because to yell death to the ayatollah in Iran is a crime punishable by death. But we're seeing people do that openly in the street.

ROSS: I mean it's a very good question. What's the goal other than venting and frustration? Some of the other plaquards (ph) and chants that we've seen have been out of Syria, out of Gaza, out of Lebanon. There's a clear sense that there are deep economic grievances and there's a feeling that somehow the Iranian adventurism in the rest of the region is costing Iranians at home. So I think there needs to be kind of -- some, I think, from the standpoint of the protesters, they want to see some symbolic response to what are the frustrations that they're expressing. And I think the regime finds it very difficult to deal with this because they basically always manifest control.

There's one other point that I think is worth noting, precisely because these are widespread and precisely because they also include people who aren't necessarily part of the urban elite. In many ways they probably remind the regime of what produced the fall of the shah. Now I'm not saying we're on the brink of anything like that. But for the regime, control is paramount, number one. And in a sense, not being in the position where they're being challenged is really critical.

[12:10:20] So right now I don't think they have a handle on what to do and how to respond, but I think the question you raised is really the right one. OK, there's venting and there's frustration and there's outrage and there's a deep sense of grievance. What is this supposed to lead to, precisely because there aren't leaders, it's hard to know what it leads to.

SANCHEZ: And ultimately we've seen unrests like this go in two different directions, either it dies down, crushed by an oppressive regime, or it leads to all-out civil war. as we saw in Syria and we're still watching play out in Syria. In your opinion, what is the worst case scenario for the United States in this situation?

ROSS: Well, I think the worst case for the United States. in the end. is also the worst case for the Iranian people, that the regime, once again, completely cracks down in the aftermath of a crackdown rather than tempering its behavior in the outside, tries to create the image of confrontation on the outside to try to create more of a nationalist fervor in support of the regime. I mean what we don't want to see is internal troubles in Iran lead the regime to seek some kind of confrontation on the outside to divert attention away.

SANCHEZ: Now, zeroing in on something that you noted there. We've previously seen the Iranian regime capitalize on statements made from foreign countries, specifically the United States, in support of these kinds of demonstrations. And when we last saw this kind of unrest in the streets, it was back in 2009 and the Obama administration wasn't necessarily as vocal in their support of protesters as President Trump has been. He's now tweeted multiple times telling the leaders of Iran that the world is watching. Do you think that's the right approach in this situation?

ROSS: I do. Now, look, I was -- I was part of the decision making process in 2009 in the Obama administration. We were getting messages from those in the green movement within Iran basically asking us to keep it cool because they already saw the regime trying to create the impression that this -- these were foreign inspired. They weren't authentic and weren't domestically driven.

And I think, in retrospect, I think we made a mistake. I think that we should have -- we should have made it clear that, in fact, the world was watching. If you recall, if you go back, that is the language the Obama administration, the president began to use after the first week or so. But initially, for the first several days, we were extremely low key. And I think it was, as I said, in retrospect, I think it would have been better.

And I think even now one of the keys that we should be doing is not just saying that the world is watching. I think we should be putting out what Iran is spending. They spend, you know, about $800 million a year just on Hezbollah. What are they spending in Syria? These reflect the grievances on the inside. You know, and here I think precisely because the regime is going to be sensitive to this, one thing that might begin to temper what they do on the outside is the sense that that will fuel greater problems on the inside. So I think this is -- this is one thing we can be doing.

I think it's very important that the Trump administration not look like they're trying to foment trouble because that, I think, ultimately wouldn't be very credible. This administration, President Trump, has not seen internationally as being a champion of human rights. So again saying the world is watching is probably the right tone. I think emphasizing the cost of what Iran is doing in the region plays on the grievances themselves but in a way that responds, I think, in a responsible fashion and also gets as what we want. In the end we want to see the Iranians allowed peaceful protest, but we also want to see them change their behavior in the region.

SANCHEZ: Unfortunately, we are out of time. Ambassador Dennis Ross, thank you so much for sharing your New Year's Day with us. Take care, sir.

Up next, a fellow Trump campaign aide says he was just a coffee boy, but did George Papadopoulos actually play a key role in triggering the whole Russia collusion probe? Details of his drunken meeting with a diplomat after a quick break.


[12:18:31] SANCHEZ: The spark for the entire Russia investigation may have come from a conversation between a former Trump adviser and an Australian diplomat after a night of heavy drinking according to "The New York Times." "The Times" says that during an evening at a London bar back in May of 2016, George Papadopoulos told an Australian diplomat that Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton. Australian officials later notified the U.S. about that conversation when WikiLeaks began posted e-mails hacked from the Democratic National Committee.

I want to bring in our political panel to discuss. Scott Jennings is a CNN political commentator and former special assistant to President George W. Bush. We've also got Marc Lamont Hill. He's the host of "BET News," as well as a professor at Temple University and a CNN political commentator.

Gentlemen, thank you both for joining us.

Scott, first to you.

This report undermines one of the main defenses from the White House about George Papadopoulos, that he was just a coffee boy. Democrats have jumped all over this. Take a look at some of these tweets. This is from former Obama aid Tommy Vitor (ph), low level foreign policy staffers don't set up head of state meetings. Trust me, I was one.

This coming as one of the revelations in the report is that Papadopoulos helped set up a meeting between then President Trump and Egyptian President Fatah el Sisi.

Here's another tweet from Representative Ted Liu of California. He writes, quote, keep in mind no one was really aware of George Papadopoulos until his guilty plea was revealed. That tells us Special Council Mueller knows far more than people think. And Papadopoulos is cooperating with Mueller. The White House should be scared.

Scott, first off, what do you make of this report? And, second off, should the White House be concerned?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I mean, look, the White House should be concerned about this investigation comprehensively because obviously they're looking into things that could reach into the inner sanctum of the White House. But we know that already.

Here's the deal with Papadopoulos. I don't believe this report really tells us the white house should be scared. Should the white house be concerned?

Look, the white house should be concerned about this investigation comprehensively because, obviously, they're looking into things that could reach into the inner sanctum of the White House. But we know that already.

[12:20:10] Here's the deal with Papadopoulos. I don't believe this report really tells us anything we didn't already know. "The New York Times" makes perfectly clear, he was not central of the day to day running of the Trump campaign. That's a direct quote from the article. And he was out doing things at times as an unpaid volunteer that clearly he should not have been doing. This guy did not show good discretion. He was out drinking and carousing and spilling secrets and BS-ing with people in other countries and he was obviously someone who was prone to exaggerating his resume and then, he, of course, got caught lying to the FBI. This was not a good person.

And there's no question the Trump campaign failed the basic issue you do in presidential campaigns, and that's vet and google the people who show up on your front door asking for a job. In this case, Papadopoulos, a known liar, a known exaggerator, did things he shouldn't have done. He's lied to the FBI. But by no means does that prove we have any wrong doing on the part of President Trump or even people at the top reaches of the campaign.

SANCHEZ: Marc, Scott says that this reporting from "The New York Times" doesn't really tell us much we didn't already know. Do you agree?

MARC LAMONT HILL, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It confirms what we already suspected. I mean there's a question about how central Papadopoulos was. I agree. He may not have been a paid member of the campaign. He may have been drawing outside of the lines a little bit. And he may be a sketchy figure who's dishonest. But Trump has a history of having people in his campaign who are sketchy and dishonest and who exaggerate their resume and their accomplishments. We can't -- and so it's sort of difficult to dismiss his word because he's a bad guy when Trump surrounded himself with bad guys. I've been a coffee boy before and I've worked on campaigns before and at no point was I ever asked to connect to a head of state. When Trump ran for president, he had two really big foreign policy

visions. One was to man the relationship with Russia, whatever that means. And it was also to rearrange things in the Middle East, particularly around Israel and Palestine. If Papadopoulos is making connections to Abdel Fatah el Sisi in Egypt, which is key to the Israel-Palestine relationship, and he's -- and Trump is listening intently as Papadopoulos's report suggests, is promising to be able to connect him to Putin, then that means to me that he's involved right in the muck of foreign policy. That means that's he's bigger than we thought he was. It's no surprise that he's spilled secrets. It's no surprise that he's dishonest. That isn't new information.

But what is new information, or at least more helpful information, is the fact that we now know that he was the trigger for this investigation, not -- or not a document, not a report, nothing else, that he is the spark that started this whole thing.

SANCHEZ: Scott, I'm surprised the timing isn't suspicious to you because Papadopoulos is apparently telling this Australian diplomat that Russia had dirt on Hillary Clinton about a month or so before the DNC came out and acknowledged that it had been hack and that e-mails were stolen. So if he's just a coffee boy, how does he have this information that nobody else has?

JENNINGS: Look, I don't know whether this guy was a coffee boy or not. Clearly he was out there portraying himself as something that perhaps he was not and he was sharing things that he had learned from people in the campaign when he shouldn't have been doing that. There's no question about that. This guy -- I mean the last person you want working on a presidential campaign is someone like Papadopoulos or even Carter Page. These people who serially exaggerate their connections, they exaggerate their resumes, they lie about their life experience because they are prone to having bad judgement and doing the kinds of things Papadopoulos has done.

I hope it turns out that this is all we find out about Papadopoulos, that this doesn't go any further. But I will tell you, this is a cautionary tale. If you're running a presidential campaign, you have to look into these people who come and orbit your campaign. Anybody who's worked in presidential politics knows the type, these Papadopoulos and Carter Page types. They are attracted to politics like moths to flames. And you have to have the judgement to wean them out.

At the beginning of the Trump campaign, they did not have that kind of structure in place. I believe they put that structure in place as they went into the fall.

SANCHEZ: Marc, the --

HILL: Yes, Scott, I agree with you. But we can't -- that's not exculpatory for Donald Trump. WE can't say, well, Trump had bad judgment and picked back guys, so therefore we can't listen to the bad guys and did the bad stuff after he picked them. Both are true. Trump made bad choices at the beginning and probably in the middle and the end but that doesn't mean that we can -- we can't listen to what they're saying.

Again, this isn't purely what Papadopoulos is telling us. "The New York Times" had other -- had other investigators. They had other sources. This stuff has been corroborated. It's very clear here that he had a far deeper involvement with the campaign than he's suggesting and then certainly what a Trump spokesman is suggesting, is that he was just some ancillary figure. He's not an ancillary figure if he's involved in key meetings. He's not an ancillary figure if he's drawing connections. And he's not an ancillary figure if he has information that isn't leaked to the mainstream press until a month later. He clearly knew things and that's why the Australian officials were so triggered a month later when the DNC announced the leak.

SANCHEZ: And, Scott, does it surprise you that these Australian officials, once they saw the announcement that the DNC had been hacked, immediately went to the FBI, but no one on the Trump campaign, or at least George Papadopoulos, who apparently had some inkling that something was going on, approached federal investigators, officials, to tell them, hey, Russia may be doing something illegal.

[12:25:14] JENNINGS: Well, it doesn't surprise me what the Australians did because they're a good friend of ours and they're a good ally and so they did what they should have done. And I think hindsight for the Trump campaign is 20/20 on this on whether they should have gone to the authorities.

And, look, there's still a lot we don't know about what the Trump campaign did know or did do or did not do at this time. I mean obviously things are coming out all the time.

What we do know at this point is, and I think our legal analyst here at CNN, Paul Callan, has said this many times on the air, there is nothing so far that has come out that shows a conspiracy among two or more people to violate federal law. And that's what we're looking for here. Whether Papadopoulos did some of these things or not and whether he did things we don't yet know about. What we've not seen from the special counsel is a conspiracy to violate federal law in the space of collusion.

One thing I think the Republicans have to do, they have to acknowledge strongly the meddling without knowing yet whether there was actual collusion. There's no evidence of collusion. But we have to acknowledge that there was meddling. Clearly the Russians were trying to cultivate sources and meddle digitally in our election. We have to get on with dealing with that, even as this investigations continue. I think the Republicans need to draw that line and at least acknowledge and work on stopping a foreign hostile power from meddling in our election in the future.

SANCHEZ: Marc, a quick 10 second response.

HILL: I agree that they have to concede the point about meddling. I think t\he concern for many of us is that there's smoke and fire here and that if they begin to acknowledge the meddling, it will get to the collusion. Again, there's a lot more to be known. There's a lot more to be investigated. But this most recent revelation is certainly telling and it's certainly encouraging people on -- in the law enforcement community to keep digging.

SANCHEZ: Marc Lamont Hill, Scott Jennings appreciate the time. Gentlemen, Happy New Year to you both.

HILL: Happy New Year.

JENNINGS: Thank you, Boris. Happy New Year.

SANCHEZ: Up next, 10 Americans among the dead in a New Year's Eve plane crash in Costa Rica. We have details on this tragic story right after a quick break.