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Republicans Push Tax Plan; White House Press Briefing. Aired 3- 3:30p ET

Aired November 20, 2017 - 15:00   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you for being with me.

We are watching very closely that White House podium, waiting to see Sarah Sanders. A briefing is expected to begin any moment now.

We also just got some breaking news in to CNN on the Republican tax reform effort.

So, our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, is here to join me with that news.

The president has now won over one more of those Republican senators. Who is he?


Senator Rand Paul, of course, the Republican from Kentucky, he tells our Lauren Fox that he is likely to support the tax plan moving through the Senate. Of course, that is important. The White House is still keeping an eye on every Republican vote. It is uncertain if they have enough.

They, of course, can only lose two Republican senators, so Rand Paul saying he will likely support this is something certainly that the White House is going to be happy about, but the caveat is he's likely to support this if it has the repeal of the health care mandate in it.

And that is by far from a done deal yet, because what they're trying to do is find support across the sea of Republicans who are uncertain on this. So Rand Paul is a likely supporter of this, but, Brooke, with the Senate out this week for the Thanksgiving break, not coming back until next week, this is going remain an open question really throughout the week if there are enough Republicans to support this plan.

Of course, Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, has said he will not support in its current form. Susan Collins, of course, Republican of Maine, very skeptical of this, so it certainly is something that the White House is watching, but again, will not be resolved until, of course, the Senate reconvenes next week -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: Jeff, let me to come back to you in a second.


BALDWIN: But just quick analysis with our political reporter, David Chalian.

So, Jeff says, all right, the caveat with Senator Paul is if the individual mandate remains in, he's a yes, but if it remains in -- and we have the sort of senator baseball cards on the screen -- if it remains in, other senators would be out.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes, like that there one from Maine, Susan Collins, who expressed big reservations about the individual mandate repeal being a part of the tax bill, Brooke.


CHALIAN: As you know, this is what it's all about when you're counting votes, right? You have to figure out what needs to be there in order to get the 51 votes they need.

When you take Rand Paul's yes or likely yes because of the individual mandate, you begin to understand why the individual mandate repeal was put into the bill to begin with, which is that some on the right and conservative side of the equation may have had concerns about adding to the deficit and the debt with this bill and perhaps it wasn't as targeted to the middle class as they'd hoped, but when you get the key core principle of stripping await individual mandate in Obamacare, you can start to assuage concerns on the right.

That's a much bigger pot of votes for Mitch McConnell to wrangle than perhaps if he can get away with just losing Susan Collins from Maine.

BALDWIN: So, it's about money. It's about revenue. These are the wild cards and we will get more into these senators in a second.

But let me pivot back to the White House Briefing Room, back to Jeff Zeleny here. David Chalian, stand by for me.

Because there was also big news from the president today, Jeff, on North Korea, putting North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terror. This was the president earlier today and what he said about this key decision.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: As we take this action today, our thoughts turn to Otto Warmbier, wonderful young man, and the countless others so brutally affected by the North Korean oppression.

This designation will impose further sanctions and penalties on North Korea and related persons and supports our maximum pressure campaign to isolate the murderous regime that you have all been reading about and in some cases writing about.


BALDWIN: You heard the president mention the name there, this young man, Otto Warmbier.

He was the University of Virginia student who died just days after returning to the U.S. after being imprisoned in North Korea for some 17 months. And his parents sat with me and spoke with me back in September about why they believe the Kim regime should be labeled a state sponsor of terror.


FRED WARMBIER, FATHER OF OTTO WARMBIER: Now we see North Korea with the tensions claiming to be a victim, and they're claiming that the world is picking on them.

And we're here to tell you, as witnesses to the terror of their regime, North Korea is not a victim. So, we felt it was time to tell the truth about the condition that Otto was in.

A perfectly healthy, young American visiting there, an innocent young American comes home with severe brain damage. But it's not like it happened and they shipped him home immediately. It's a year later. These people are terrorists. Kim and his regime intentionally injured Otto.



BALDWIN: So, Jeff Zeleny, just for people at home trying to understand, when we know he now wants to designate North Korea the state sponsor of terrorism, what does that really mean?

ZELENY: Brooke, what it means is, it is just one more way for the U.S. to tighten the noose, if you will, on the North Korean regime.

It's one more way to initiate sanctions, which the president said the Treasury Department will do tomorrow.

And we will listen to Sarah Sanders right now, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Oh, here she is.


Thank you guys for being patient with us.

I have brought a special guest. So, I figured you might be OK if we were a little bit delayed today.

As you all know, the president hosted a very productive Cabinet meeting this morning and made news by announcing that the United States has again designated North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism.

As the president said, one of the primary goals of his recent Asia trip was to pursue the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. This designation will impose penalties on North Korea that will continue our progress toward that goal.

Additionally, it is a reminder that North Korea has repeatedly supported acts of international terrorism, including assassinations on foreign soil. The president's position is this. The North Korean regime must be lawful. It must end its unlawful nuclear and ballistic missile development and cease all support for international terrorism.

This afternoon, we have Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with us to answer some of your questions on this topic. He's going to come up and make a couple of remarks and then take questions on that topic.

And,as always, I will be back after that to answer other news of the day.

With that, Mr. Secretary?


And, as Sarah indicated, the president did make the designation earlier today, announced it in the Cabinet meeting. And I think it's really just the latest step in a series, as you can see, ongoing steps to increase the pressure.

I call it the peaceful pressure campaign. The president calls it the maximum pressure campaign. So, there's no confusion, they're one and the same. And I think this is, though, to hold North Korea accountable for a number of actions that they have taken over the last several months, the last year or so.

Some of you will know that North Korea was designated as a state sponsor of terrorism back in 1988, so they have been designated before. That designation was lifted in 2008 as part of an effort to negotiate with North Korea an end to their nuclear program. That obviously failed, because we can see where we are today.

But as a result of actions they have taken, including assassinations outside of their country, using banned chemical weapons, these are all very, very serious actions on their part that put the public at risk as well.

So, that, along with a number of other actions that they have taken, resulted in their designation now again as a state sponsor of terrorism.

I think, as Sarah indicated, the practical effect of it is, we already have many of these actions in place through the current sanctions. It may, though, disrupt and dissuade some third parties from undertaking certain activities with North Korea, as it does impose prohibition on a number of other activities that might not be covered by existing sanctions.

But I think, importantly, this is just continuing to point out North Korea's illicit, unlawful behaviors internationally. And we felt it necessary to reimpose the designation for that reason. So, with that, happy to take questions. And I'm going to let Sarah

referee, because I'm not good at refereeing.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir. (OFF-MIKE)

Is this move an intent to incentivize Kim Jong-un towards negotiations? I think it's been more than 60 days since we have seen some kind of test. Do you think that that timetable is in any way promising? And why wait until we were back in the U.S.? The president said that there was hope for diplomacy where we were in Asia, and this seems to be counter that.

TILLERSON: No, we still hope for diplomacy.

And this is -- the timing of this is just one of us concluding the process. There is a very specific designation process that we have to go through at the State Department to be able to meet the criteria to make such a designation. And we wanted to ensure that we'd fully met all of those requirements.

Again, this is all part of just continuing to turn this pressure up, and we continue to turn the pressure up on North Korea by getting other countries to join and take actions on their own. We have had other countries in our visit to Vietnam. They have committed that they're going to curtail activities further with North Korea.

Malaysia has indicated a curtailment. Singapore has cut off all trade with North Korea. The Philippines have cut off all trade.

And just recently, the deputy secretary of state has been in Africa and he had meetings with the Sudanese government. The Sudanese government have traditionally been buying military weapons from North Korea. They now have agreed to halt all those purchases as well.


So, this is being -- it's taking effect all around the world. And we think, it takes effect, again, this just continues to tighten the pressure on the Kim regime, all with an intention to have him understand this is only going to get worse until you are ready to come and talk.

QUESTION: So, there's a 50-day window? (OFF-MIKE)

TILLERSON: We're hopeful that he continues this quiet period. That's our objective, is that he would continue to be quiet as well.

This designation, as I said, is one that we're required to undertake from time to time, and we have been monitoring the situation. We wanted to be sure we had sufficient evidence before making the designation. So, this is a process that started actually several months ago.

QUESTION: Secretary, you mentioned that you're going to be increase regional pressure against the North Korean regime. Do you have any indication that that is working? And if you haven't seen those indications just yet, how long do you go down this path before the administration has to change its strategies?

TILLERSON: Well, we get a lot of anecdotal information that is working. And then we do have our own intelligence sources as well, and then what the Chinese and others share with us, that I think the general belief is it is having a significant effect on North Korea.

We know that there are current shortages of fuel based upon what we can gather from anecdotally, but also from certain intel sources. We know that their revenues are down because a number of the revenue streams are being curtailed now.

So, I think it is having an effect. Is this the reason we haven't had a provocative act in 60 days? I don't want to suggest to you that that I could say. But we are hopeful this period will continue. And, again, I think the president in his address in Seoul, South Korea, to the General Assembly, I thought he laid out the case very well to them that he wanted them to come have talks because he wants to deliver a different future for the people of North Korea.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. I have a couple for you.

First, can you give us an example of a third-party transaction that is now covered that was not covered by either existing American sanctions or the U.N. Security Council sanctions?

TILLERSON: Well, there could be certainly dual-use equipment that may not have been covered under previous sanctions that this would prohibit now a third party selling that dual use.

And so -- and, again, I don't want to suggest to you that the designation is suddenly going to put a whole new layer of sanctions on them, because, again, I think we already have North Korea so heavily sanctioned in so many ways with the U.N. resolutions that have been undertaken. But this will close a few additional loopholes off.

QUESTION: And then you and the president have both referred to assassinations, plural. We obviously all know about the Kim Jong-nam assassination at airport. Can you give us another example of another assassination on foreign soil?

TILLERSON: I don't have anything that I can share with you specifically.

QUESTION: Thanks. There seems to be more unilateral U.S. sanctions against North Korea on the way. The Treasury (OFF-MIKE) as well. Have you given up getting China to agree to an oil embargo?

TILLERSON: We have not given up.

And let me say this with China. We continue to talk with them first to ensure that they are fully committed to implementing all the U.N. sanctions. And they have assured us they are, which, as you will recall, the last round of sanctions imposed a pretty severe restriction on the import of finished products, so fuels, petroleum, diesel jet fuel and whatnot.

But have we suggested to them, look, you control that oil pipeline that feeds their refinery. You don't -- you can do that unilaterally on your own if you want to increase that pressure.

Whether they're doing that, we don't know, and it's very difficult for us to know whether they're taking actions to curtail all supplies to them.

QUESTION: Secretary, earlier today, President Trump said that the Treasury Department will be announcing additional sanctions tomorrow and described as it as a very large one, the highest level of sanctions.

Can you give us any insight into what those individual sanctions may be?

TILLERSON: Well, I would like to leave it to Treasury to announce those tomorrow. They're similar to sanctions we have taken in the past. We're just going out much more broadly now to more entities. But I would like to leave it to their announcement tomorrow and not jump the gun on them.

QUESTION: And do you all see today's announcement as more symbolic or as something that really does have a lot of teeth to it?

TILLERSON: Well, I think it is very symbolic on the one hand, because it just points out again what a rogue regime this is and how brutal this regime is, and how little they care for the value of human life.

So, I think -- and that in and of itself I think makes a strong statement as just the nature of this regime. And, as I have said, the practical effects may be limited, but, hopefully, we're closing off a few loopholes with this.


QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) If China does not agree to cut off oil to North Korea, how can you possibly get enough pressure on them to come to the table?

TILLERSON: Well, their fuel supplies are already quite constrained, and, as I said, we have evidence that there are fuel shortages in North Korea.

Obviously, the civilians are by and large the ones that can't get fuel. So we see long lines of vehicles at petrol stations. We see certain petrol stations that appear to be out of fuel because they're closed, when normally they'd be open. So there are indications that fuel supplies are already quite tight.

As you know, they only refine a small amount of their fuel needs internally. They have only one refinery that operates, and operates at a low capacity. So, they were heavily dependent on the imports of finished fuel products, which have been constrained significantly with the U.N. sanctions. QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

TILLERSON: I don't know that you -- I don't that oil -- that the cutting off of oil is the magic wand or the silver bullet that is going to bring them to the table.

What I would say is, the North Koreans have demonstrated in the past they have an enormous capacity to withstand a lot. They will make their people pay, but they have an enormous capacity to withstand a lot. So, I don't want to say that we think that one action is all it would take to get them to the table.


I want to pick up Olivia's next question about the assassinations. How determinative was that in the specific evidence (OFF-MIKE) used to make this determination?

And I also wanted to ask you, I think you and Ambassador Haley both (OFF-MIKE) Can you tell us a little bit about that meeting and anything substance that came up there?

TILLERSON: Well, on the assassinations, the assassination in Malaysia was a significant event that caused us to really begin to look carefully at what else they might have been doing.

As you know, that assassination involved the use of a chemical agent, a very dangerous agent in a public place. And so that really got our attention. One of the things that we wanted to ensure is that we had a sufficient certainty around their role in that particular assassination.

So we have been working with Malaysian authorities as well and have been in conversation with them. Wanted to let them have their own process obviously play out as well.

With respect to Ambassador Haley and I, we were just both in the Cabinet meeting today.

QUESTION: I know, without getting too much into it, that there had been a suggestion from the North Korean media about some violence directed towards the U.S. president. Was that a determinative fact all in the decision to make a designation?



You talked about an assassination on foreign soil using a chemical agent. Russia has been accused of assassination on foreign soil, including using polonium in London. Should they be considered for the same -- for a designation?

TILLERSON: I think we have to consider any country that would take a substance like that and use it illegally.

QUESTION: Is there a process like that going on right now with Russia?

TILLERSON: I don't want to comment on that.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. (OFF-MIKE)

Two quick questions for you. How do you balance the impact of sanctions? You talked about the people of North Korea paying the price. Is this something you are considering when you talk about more sanctions towards the regime of Kim Jong-un?

TILLERSON: Well, it is always a difficult choice you make when impose sanctions in terms of who is really going to bear the burden here.

The truth of the matter is, the people of North Korea already live under enormously difficult conditions. And I think what we're focused on is a mission that is going to change North Korea's trajectory, change their path.

That's the best way we can help the North Korean people in the future is to have Kim Jong-un reverse his nuclear weapons program, allow us and the rest of the world to then engage with them on economic activity that will ultimately provide a better life for his people.

QUESTION: And my follow-up question, do you believe that the United States is running out of diplomatic options to respond to the nuclear threat of North Korea?

TILLERSON: No, I do not.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Got time for one last question.

John Gizzi in the back.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

You talked about the limited intelligence on North Korea and on the regime. Is there any evidence of any dissent within Pyongyang at all or possibly reaction against the current government by other members of the Kim family even or other opponents to him?

TILLERSON: Well, I want to be a little careful about how I answer that.

What I would comment on is, you're well aware of a number of executions that have occurred within his inner circle and within many of the military people that are close to him. So I will leave it to your own interpretation.


HUCKABEE SANDERS: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

TILLERSON: Thank you.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Hold on. We will get to some more questions.

I know that there is obviously a lot of interest today.

Thank you again to the secretary of state for coming in and answering questions.

As many of you -- to shift gears just a little bit on some happier notes, I'm sure a lot of you have started to notice that the Christmas season has officially arrived here at the White House.

This afternoon, the first lady and Barron Trump will receive a beautiful 19-foot Christmas tree, which will serve as the official Christmas tree on display in the Blue Room. The tree will arrive via horse-drawn wagon and will be presented by Jim and Diane Chapman and their son David of Silent Night Evergreens in Wisconsin.

The Chapmans were grand champion winners of the 2017 National Christmas Tree Contest sponsored by the National Christmas Tree Association. The NCTA has presented the official White House Christmas tree since 1966.

The grand champion grower wins the privilege of presenting a tree to the White House, and we're excited to have him -- have them here today for the 52nd time.

As you probably also know, we have some other holidays like Thanksgiving coming up and this will be our last press briefing before the Thanksgiving holiday in this room.

So, I want to share a few things that I'm thankful for. And I think it would be nice for you guys to do so as well, before asking your questions.

Obviously, you probably know -- and it's no secret -- that I'm clearly very thankful for all of you here in the room. And I think that goes without saying, but in all seriousness, I'm very thankful for my family, my faith, particularly thankful for the brave men and women for the military, many of them who are away from their families during the holidays, protecting the freedoms that all of us in this room and across this country enjoy.

I'm thankful for the police, the firemen, the first-responders who keep us safe here at home. And I'm certainly thankful for the incredible, incredible privilege of serving this president and the American people.

So, this is how it's going to work today, since I'm here and I get to call on you. If you want to ask a question, I think it's only fair since I have shared what I'm thankful for that you start off with what you're thankful for.

So, anybody want to be first on what they're thankful for?

April, you have been so eager, so I'm going go with you to start us off on what you are most thankful for.

APRIL RYAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I'm thankful for life. I'm thankful for my children. I'm thankful for 20 years in this job. I'm thankful to be able to talk to you and question you every single day.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I feel the gratefulness there.


BROWN: Now my question.


BROWN: I hope you felt the passion of my (OFF-MIKE)

So the question is, since I didn't get a chance to ask Secretary Tillerson, there is a black hole when it comes to intelligence when it involves North Korea

And he was talking about that -- Secretary Tillerson said things will get worse until they're ready to talk. With that said, the rhetoric is still amping up. What is the concern about the intelligence that we do not know about? What do we know as relates to the nuclear capability of North Korea? And what are the concerns about the things that we don't know?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I mean, obviously, the biggest concern is making sure that we take steps every single day to protect Americans.

That's what the action of the president that he's taken today and that the Treasury Department will take tomorrow is again putting that maximum pressure North Korea to put a very large focus on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.

That has been the top priority. And that's going to continue to be our priority. We don't feel that they're fully there yet, and we want to keep pushing to make sure that we're taking steps to prevent them from getting any further into this process.

I can't go really deep into specifics on information like that, but certainly, again, the priority of the administration is to protect Americans and partner with our allies and our friends around the globe to do that. And I think that's what you're seeing in some of the actions that took place today and that you will see again tomorrow.


BROWN: On this Twitter, this back-and-forth Twitter with the president...

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Sorry, April. I'm going to keep moving.

BROWN: I understand, but this is a hot story.


HUCKABEE SANDERS: I know, but -- and I'm sure that one of your colleagues will happily ask...

(CROSSTALK) BROWN: Does the president regret his tweet? He came back twice yesterday.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: April, I'm starting to regret calling on you first.



HUCKABEE SANDERS: I am, but I don't want that to go away, so I'm going to move on to one of your colleagues.


Francesca, go ahead.

QUESTION: I'm very thankful for you calling on me (OFF-MIKE) but I will follow your lead and be thankful for (OFF-MIKE). My dad is a police officer, so I'm very thankful for their service.

What I want to ask today about something that Kellyanne Conway said this morning on "FOX & Friends" about the Alabama Senate race. She brought up tax reform and tax cuts and said that the Democrat running in that race would not be a vote for tax cuts.

And she did not directly endorse the Republican that is running, Roy Moore. However, it opened the door, I think, to a question that we haven't really discussed in here yet, which is whether the president would be supportive of a write-in campaign of someone like Luther Strange, who he supported in the primary, or Jeff Sessions, his attorney general? Both of those are going around?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Actually, I think we have addressed those. I have addressed it quite a few times, but the president feels that it is up to the people of Alabama to make that determination who their next senator will be.

I have answered a number of questions on this topic. And our position hasn't changed over the weekend. It's certainly still the same as it was when I answered those questions on Thursday and on Friday.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) You said whether the president would support a write-in campaign for Jeff Sessions?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: He said he supported the people of Alabama making the decision on who their next senator should be.

John Decker.

QUESTION: Thanks a lot, Sarah. I'm thankful for my health, my family, my faith. I think I live in the best country on the face of the Earth.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: See, isn't this nice?

(CROSSTALK) QUESTION: I'm thankful, of course, that you address us every day here in the Briefing Room.

My question is also about the Senate race in Alabama. This is an unusual question, because, normally, we wouldn't ask you a question about the Republican nominee running for statewide office and whether or not the president is supportive of the Republican nominee,.

But my question is just that. Would you be pleased if Roy Moore wins his Senate race in Alabama? Would the White House be pleased with that outcome?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Look, obviously, the president wants people both in the House and the Senate that support his agenda.

But, as I have said, and as the Hatch Act prohibits me from going any further, we certainly think that this is something that the people of Alabama should decide. And I'm not going to be able to weigh in anything further beyond those comments.


QUESTION: Thank you, Sarah. I'm thankful for my wife, who is pregnant with our soon-to-be-second child.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Congratulations. Very exciting.


QUESTION: I'm thankful for my family, my parents.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Good luck. Number one only gets a lot harder.

QUESTION: I know. Having it be this week, I'm thankful that they sent me to the University of Michigan and not Ohio State. Go, blue. I will get that out there.


QUESTION: My question is on taxes as well.

The president seemed to suggest today that Democratic help is all but gone for. Do you think still that you can get Democrats on board?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: We certainly would still like to.

Frankly, I don't know why Democrats wouldn't want to support tax cuts for the middle class. As we said many times before, seems like something they should be running to cast their vote for, and we would certainly welcome their support if they want to get on board and help that effort.

QUESTION: Thank you, Sarah.

I am thankful for the First Amendment.

QUESTION: Ooh, yes.

QUESTION: Kellyanne Conway today...

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think we all are.


Kellyanne Conway -- I want to ask the Kellyanne Conway different -- question in a different way, though, because she was here on the North Lawn, and she said that -- she warned Alabama voters not to support Doug Jones, not to be fooled by Doug Jones.

So, is that the position of this White House, that voters are better off voting for someone accused of assaulting teenage girls than a Democrat?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Look, as I have answered, I think, even for the third or fourth time just today, as well as 10 or 15 times on both Thursday and Friday of last week, the position of the White House hasn't changed. We feel like the people of Alabama should make the determination on who their next senator should be.

QUESTION: But she made a clear suggestion over who they should vote for.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: And I'm telling -- I'm giving you the answer, the position of the White House.


QUESTION: Sarah, first, I'm grateful for my daughter and my family and the fact that I went to the Ohio State University, as opposed to Michigan.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: We will let that slide.


QUESTION: But my question is, does the president really regret intervening in the case of the UCLA basketball players? And what message does that send to other U.S. citizens who may be held captive by foreign governments?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Look, the president was certainly glad and thankful to see the release of the three UCLA athletes by the Chinese government.

And, frankly, it's really fortunate that the president has built a strong enough relationship with President Xi of China that he was able to secure the release of the American citizens.

Whenever the president is able to use his office and those relationships to help American citizens held overseas, he is certainly going to do that. And, again, certainly the president was happy to intervene.


HUCKABEE SANDERS: And I think he's made that clear by taking that action upon himself to do that without being asked and certainly something that he's done several times in these brief, short 10 months that he's been in office --