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Trump's day of political gymnastics; President Trump says relations with Russia at an all-time low; Secretary Tillerson bemoans low of trust with Russia; US officials say Syrian military consulted chemical experts for the sarin gas attack; President Donald Trump's reversal on NATO; Trump heaps praise on President Xi of China; Will China help US deal with North Korea?; Inside the fight against ISIS with Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired April 13, 2017 - 04:00   ET


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN HOST, EARLY START: A series of significant policy shifts, reversals, 180s, U-turns coming at a rapid pace from President Trump. Big changes on key issues including Russia, NATO, China. His new outlook and what it all means. Right now (INAUDIBLE).

Good morning and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN HOST, EARLY START: And I'm Dave Briggs. It's Thursday, April 13, 4 AM in the East, 1 AM Pacific Time which is where I've been for a few days. My body clock is flip-flopping, so too is the president on virtually everything.

ROMANS: Well, we're glad to have you back.

BRIGGS: It's good to be back. A stunning display of political acrobatics, you might say, from President Trump. In a matter of hours, he performed at least three major backflips, leaping away from the stances that formed the bedrock of his campaign.

He took the most skeptical position yet on Russia, even as he left the door open for reconciliation with Vladimir Putin. This, just hours after Secretary of State Tillerson met with the Russian president.

ROMANS: Mr. Trump also performed a complete reversal on NATO proclaiming its new relevance as he stood alongside NATO's Secretary General. Let me repeat that. He proclaimed the relevance of NATO, a body he had claimed was obsolete.

And a sudden twist on China. The president suddenly full of praise for President Xi Jinping, hoping for his help in dealing with North Korea.

So, why the rapid-fire gymnastics? Let's bring in senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Christine and Dave, a sharp change in tone from the president on the subject of Russia during a news conference here at the White House with the NATO Secretary General. President Trump described relations between the US and Russia as at an all-time low. He also said that the Russians may have known about that chemical weapons attack in Syria last week that prompted the president to order strikes against the Syrians.

But the president was not so quick to criticize the Russian President Vladimir Putin who has arguably been the biggest backer of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Here is what he had to say during that news conference.


DONALD J. TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It would be wonderful, as we were discussing just a little while ago, if NATO and our country could get along with Russia. Right now, we're not getting along with Russia at all, but we're going to see what happens.

Putin is the leader of Russia. Russia is a strong country. We're a very, very strong country. We're going to see how that all works out.


ACOSTA: And that is not the only shift in tone for the president. There were also some pretty big reversals for the president at that news conference. He described NATO as not being obsolete. That's a huge departure from what he used to talk about during the campaign when he referred to the NATO alliance as being obsolete.

Also, on the subject of China, the president told The Wall Street Journal he no longer considers China to be currency manipulators. I asked White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer about that. He said circumstances change.

Christine and Dave?

BRIGGS: They sure do. Jim, thank you. President Trump's abrupt turn on Russia echoing Secretary of State Tillerson's frosty tone following meetings in Moscow with President Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Speaking to reporters after his meeting with Lavrov, Tillerson offered this grim assessment.


REX TILLERSON, US SECRETARY OF STATE: I expressed the view that the current state of US-Russia relations is at a low point. There is a low level of trust between our two countries. The world's two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.


BRIGGS: All right. For more on the fallout from Tillerson's visit, let's bring in CNN's Paula Newton live in Moscow. Good morning to you, Paula.

This is - if not a cold war, certainly cooling. How is it being characterized there?

PAULA NEWTON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Dave, it feels rather chilly here. I'm surprised you guys don't feel it there in the studio. This was unbelievable in terms of how tense it was. But just right out of the gate, they shook hands, sat down.

Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, went right into it, just saying the airstrikes were illegal, that you should've waited for an investigation, that we can't - we don't even know who to call at the State Department because you're not staffed up properly. And more to the point, we have no idea where you stand on foreign policy matters. Sounds like they got off on the right foot, OK.

So, that went on from there. I think what they did do, though, was realize that, look, one way or the other, we have to work together. They set up this working group to try and go through the very long laundry list of things where they disagree.

Right now, first and foremost is Syria. The substantive meeting, though, Dave was, of course, between Rex Tillerson and Vladimir Putin. Vladimir Putin kept him waiting, but then when he did bring him in, again, he ditched the US press pool going in there. No pictures so far or video. Two-hour meeting.

Definitely they got down to business in that meeting. But either side probably not wanting to give up exactly where there will be compromise on Syria, if any. All of that, Dave, going on, while at the United Nations in New York where you are, Russia angrily vetoing a US-backed resolution condemning those chemical attacks.

Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the UN, wanted that on the record and she got what she wanted there, with Russia saying, look, we have no proof, there's no evidence. This condemnation comes far too early.

[04:05:09] BRIGGS: So much for the order of friendship bestowed on Rex Tillerson. Paula, thank you.

ROMANS: All right. New, overnight, CNN is learning that US military and intelligence officials intercepted communications between Syria's military and chemical experts discussing preparations for last week's sarin gas attack in Idlib.

A US official says those intercepts have helped confirm Syria's role in the deadly bombing. We are told the US did not have prior knowledge of the attack. And so far, there are no intelligence intercepts showing Russian military or intelligence officials communicating about that chemical attack.

BRIGGS: Maybe the starkest example of presidential shape shifting concerns NATO, however. During the campaign, then-candidate Trump called the military alliance "obsolete." But at a news conference Wednesday, alongside NATO Secretary General, president said he changed his view after the alliance began to focus on fighting terrorism, a change he's taken credit for.


TRUMP: Secretary general and I had a productive discussion about what more NATO can do in the fight against terrorism. I complained about that a long time ago and they made a change. And now, they do fight terrorism. I said it was obsolete. It's no longer obsolete.


ROMANS: The president's allegation that NATO just recently began fighting terror is not accurate. The alliance has played a central role in Afghanistan for more than a decade. Its involvement in that war came after the US invoked NATO's Article V calling for collective defense following the 9/11 attacks. It invoked that article in defense of the United States.

BRIGGS: And another 180 for the president. After skewering China for months, Mr. Trump suddenly has kind words for President Xi since the two leaders met last week at Mar-A-Lago. Listen to the president suggest a mutually beneficial agreement between the two countries could be in the works.


TRUMP: President Xi wants to do the right thing. I think he wants to help us with North Korea. We talked trade. We talked a lot of things. And I said, the way you're going to make a good trade deal is to help us with North Korea. Otherwise, we're just going to go it alone.


ROMANS: The president is also backing away from a campaign promise to label China a currency manipulator. More on that in a moment. Remember, when he campaigned, he said that, from day one, he would hold China to account on these trade issues. Instead there is 100 days of discussion and he's saying that he's going to have better trade deals if they move his way on North Korea.

Let's bring in CNN's Matt Rivers live from Beijing. Matt, are we witnessing a warming in relations between the US and China?

MATT RIVERS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we are hearing President Trump praise China, specifically over one thing that China is doing and that has to do with North Korean coal imports into China.

So, in that same press conference, President Trump said that, in recent days, China has rejected a fleet of coal-laden ships coming from North Korea to China. And that's a continuation of a policy China has had in place since the middle of February where they suspended North Korean coal exports to China. And that's a key source of currency for the North Korean regime.

So, that would be the kind of economic leverage that the Trump administration wants China to use over Pyongyang and the Kim Jong-un regime to get them to stop its weapons development program. That is something the Trump administration is very happy about. But just this morning actually, we got trade data. In the first three months of 2017, despite the ban on coal imports to China, the total trade volume between China and North Korea actually went up almost 40 percent. That is not what the Trump administration wants.

When they hear those numbers, it will be very interesting to hear how the administration reacts. On the one hand, China seems to be doing what the Trump administration hopes they will do. On the other hand, they are still trading lots and lots of things to North Korea to the tune of well over US$1 billion.

ROMANS: Some would argue keeping North Korea on a lifeline, if you will. But others would say, well, keeping hundreds of millions of starving people off of China's border at the same time. Just a really complicated situation.

Matt Rivers, thank you so much for that. Nine minutes after the hour, time for an early start in your money. This morning, the US dollar struggling to recover from a sharp plunged. What happened to the dollar? Well, comments from the president took it down.

In an interview, the president told The Wall Street Journal, the dollar is getting too strong. By the way, it is almost unheard of for a sitting president of the United States to talk up or down the value of the dollar. Long, long precedent there. But this president does things his own way.

He made those comments. It caused an immediate drop of seven-tenths of a percent, a big move when it comes to the dollar. It usually doesn't move like that. The greenback hit its highest level in 13 years shortly after the election, a sign investors are betting on a stronger US economy. The dollar was strong because of positivity about the direction of this economy and this country.

But a strong dollar has its downside. It makes American goods more expensive compared with European or Japanese products and that can hurt US manufacturers competing on the global arena. It can crimp their profits.

[04:10:05] President Trump also made a significant reversal on economic policy with China. He told the Journal he will not label the country a currency manipulator. It's something he promised - he promised repeatedly to do that during the campaign.

But the present acknowledge that China is no longer manipulating its currency. In fact, China has actually been propping the yuan lately, in an effort to try get wealthy Chinese investors to keep their money at home.

And on the campaign trail, Dave, I'll tell you, when he was talking about China holding its currency low and using the crudest terms possible to talk about what China was doing to the US, he said he would label it a currency manipulator. And experts were saying, well, wait a minute, that was like 15 years ago. Now, they're manipulating the currency in a different way. So, it's just a fascinating reversal. BRIGGS: What do you think is behind the financial reversals we saw yesterday? Is this a dramatic worldview policy shaping or is it just a la carte?

ROMANS: I think the president likes to win. And I think he doesn't win with labels of currency manipulator. People around there know that. People close to the White House know that and close to the China trade situation. And he needs help on the North Korea situation. So, he's using it kind of as a -

BRIGGS: Janet Yellen, the Export-Import Bank.

ROMANS: I know. He said he would be open to reappointing Janet Yellen, which really (INAUDIBLE) lot of people.

BRIGGS: All right. China, meanwhile, calling for a peaceful resolution to growing tensions on the Korean peninsula just as a US aircraft carrier strike group makes its way to the region. Let's go live to Pyongyang and bring in CNN's Will Ripley.

Good morning, Will. We understand the Japanese Prime Minister just issued a dire warning about North Korea's potential to use chemical weapons. What do we know?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. We know the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaking about the North Korean nuclear threat also said that Japan believes North Korea has the ability to put sarin gas in the warheads in their missiles that they are launching. In other words, implying that there's not just a nuclear threat, but also the threat that North Korea could use chemical weapons.

Now, of course, President Trump ordered a strike on Syria because they were accused of using chemical weapons on their own people. I can tell you we don't have an official response from the North Korean government yet.

But what they will say, judging from our previous conversations with them about this topic, is that this is just another example of propaganda from a US ally trying to drag North Korea's name through the mud. They say they are trying to develop weapons to defend their national sovereignty and they are not interested in developing weapons that violate international law, even though their nuclear tests do violate international law and they've conducted five of them.

Analysts are saying that their sixth nuclear test could happen at any moment. There's a new analysis from 38 North. They've been looking at satellite images and they say that the North Korean nuclear test site is prepped and ready to go.

There is also new images coming out on North Korean state media of leader Kim Jong-un overseeing a special operations military strike force. These new photos - still photos being released. And it's interesting that those photos were released because we saw the leader Kim Jong-un for ourselves today. We got a phone call here shortly after 4 AM and we were told we had just 20 minutes to get dressed up in suits, bring very light technical gear, no cell phones allowed and we were taken through several hours of security.

We knew, at that point, it was probably a good bet that we would be at an event where Kim Jong-un would be appearing. And after several more hours, almost 5 hours of security and waiting, with - there were crowds of tens of thousands of people, soldiers, people dressed up with balloons, we did get a glimpse, our first glimpse in person on this trip on the ground, of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

He was at the opening of a brand-new block of apartment buildings that have been constructed here in Pyongyang. He's made growing the city's skyline one of his main priorities, in addition to growing his nation's nuclear program.

They finished a number of different apartments, 3600 of them, they say, in just about a year using a lot of their soldiers as construction workers in this case. And we saw a lot of those soldiers marching out on the streets today.

Interestingly, Kim Jong-un did not say a word when he was appearing before these people. He just stood there. He clapped. He cut the ribbon. And yet, just doing that solicited a tremendous response from the crowd as they cheered for him as he drove off in his black Mercedes-Benz limousine.

Whether he'll push the button on that sixth nuclear test, Dave and Christine, we just don't know.

BRIGGS: What a fascinating experience for you, Will? All right. So, the president heads to Mar-A-Lago. All eyes once again on North Korea. Thank you, Will.

A Republican Congressman joining a chorus of calls to oust Sean Spicer, his White House press secretary. We'll tell you who next.


[04:18:49] BRIGGS: There's more fallout from White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's stunning Hitler comments. At a town hall, Wednesday, Colorado Congressman Mike Coffman became the first Republican lawmaker to publicly call for Spicer's removal.


REP. MIKE COFFMAN (R), COLORADO: Spicer made a terrible mistake yesterday and he admitted it. If you're not familiar with what he did is that he - he needs to go.


BRIGGS: Subtle, but no doubt stood out there. As for Spicer, he's still apologizing, admitted he screwed up and let the president down. A source telling CNN, White House officials believe an apology was the right approach toward fixing things and they want to move on.

ROMANS: You have to imagine Sean would like to move on from this as well. It was a pretty royal screw up, but he has made several apologies.

BRIGGS: You wonder if you could survive this. This might be the one unforgettable offense.

ROMANS: One thing about that town, a Republican town hall - town hall, sorry I'm speaking so quickly, I can't even get the words out - to hear the crowd after he said he should go, I thought that was interesting, that feedback.

BRIGGS: Well, the Republicans have been staying away from the town halls a bit because of healthcare. But if they start showing up, will we see more of that?

[04:20:04] ROMANS: All right. Steve Bannon's future at the White House in his own hands. Several sources say the president's chief strategist is trying to keep his head down as he mends fences with first son-in-law Jared Kushner, so Bannon can maintain his foothold in the White House.

Our source says the president is unhappy with the suggestion he is implementing Bannon's agenda and not the other way around. Our source also tells CNN, President Trump's tepid endorsement for Bannon this week was a warning that the president has grown tired of Bannon's open conflict with Kushner and other infighting among his staff.

And the president we're told is irked that Bannon is getting the credit for this populist blow-it-up kind of idea of Washington that the president has been talking about that for 20, 30 years. He doesn't want to give Bannon all the credit.

BRIGGS: Describing him as a guy who works for me to The Wall Street Journal. Interesting turn.

The family of the passenger pulled screaming from that United Airlines flight will speak publicly this morning for the first time since it happened at a news conference. Attorneys for Dr. David Dao are seeking to have evidence preserved and protected, including a cockpit voice recording for United Express Flight 3411 and the personnel files of the Chicago Aviation Department Police who forcibly removed Dao from the plane. Three officers have now been placed on leave.

Meantime, United will refund fares to all of the Flight 3411 passengers.

ROMANS: Becoming a very expensive mistake for them.

BRIGGS: Not going away anytime soon, however.

ROMANS: All right. Next, a CNN exclusive. We speak with the general commanding the battle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. A fresh look at Operation Inherent Resolve. Live from Iraq.


[04:26:12] ROMANS: CNN has an exclusive look into the fight against ISIS, flying above the battlefield with Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend who is leading the war in Iraq and Syria. Our Nick Paton Walsh asks how long the fight for Raqqa will last and how concerned the military is about chemical weapons.

We're really fortunate to have Nick joining us live from Iraq with this exclusive reporting. Remarkable access, Nick.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Interesting to see how full in effect the plans for the siege of Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS' self-declared caliphate, actually are.

Lieutenant General Townsend explained to me that they've used Syrian rebel allied forces and some of their forces to effectively surround the city from the north, west and east. It's the southern flank that is currently open.

They potentially may move to try and surround them from the south as well in the future. That full assault may well be underway towards the city center by summer, he said, trying to be vague about timing.

But I also pushed him too as to whether they had enough American boots on the ground to complete the task.


LT. GEN. STEPHEN TOWNSEND, COMMANDER, COMBINED JOINT TASK FORCE, OPERATION INHERENT RESOLVE: Right now, I think we have the resources we need there to isolate, to do what - the task we're doing right now, which is complete the isolation of Raqqa.

After the isolation of Raqqa will come the assault. And we're still evaluating what resources we need. If I need more resources, I'll go to my leadership, my chain of command and tell them what we need to get the job done.


WALSH: A strong possibility then he will be requesting potentially more troops for that long and arduous fight.

Also too, he addressed the use of sarin gas by the Syrian regime, according to US officials, saying there's a small risk - he believed, that was a risk to US troops in the theater and, frankly, I'm paraphrasing here, will be stupid for the Syrian regime to pick a fight with the global coalition here.

One other point of note from our interview, he did say that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader, whilst keeping a very low profile despite the fact that his group is basically on the backfoot and in tatters in Iraq and Syria, they believe that man is still in operational control of the terror group.

Plans for the taking of Raqqa moving ahead fast. Back to you. ROMANS: The most important man in the world still in operational control. That's an interesting wrinkle.

All right. Thank you so much, Nick Paton Walsh, for that look above the battlefield. Thank you.

BRIGGS: Some great reporting.

ROMANS: It really is.

BRIGGS: Campaigning is given way to governing. With new realities setting in, President Trump pulls back on some key campaign promises. We'll take you through a series of reversals next.