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Awaiting Highly Anticipated White House Briefing; Donald Jr's Trip to India Raises Ethical Questions; Children Among Those Killed in "Worst Day" in Syria; Nikki Haley Criticizes U.N. over Israeli/Palestinian Issues. Aired 1:30-2p ET
Aired February 20, 2018 - 13:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[13:33:57] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're just moments away from a highly anticipated White House briefing. This is the first one in a week and Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, has a lot of questions to answer. Just this time last week, the White House was engulfed in major scandal. President Trump's lawyer claimed he personally paid $130,000 to Stormy Daniels, the ex-porn star, who allegedly had an affair with President Trump, then a private citizen, back in 2006.
Also, former top Trump aide, Rob Porter, facing domestic abuse allegations, and Chief of Staff John Kelly under fire for what he knew and how he handled it. Kelly was supposed to speak at that briefing last week but it was canceled when the Florida school shooting happened.
Then, just two days later, the Russia probe intensified dramatically when Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians on charges of conspiring to defraud the United States.
Then, the president goes on a Twitter rant over the weekend, hitting on everything with the FBI and the probe, even on Oprah Winfrey.
CNN politics reporter and editor-at-large, Chris Cillizza, is joining us right now.
Chris, a lot has happened --
BLITZER: -- since that last White House briefing. You've got five questions you would like to see answered.
[13:35:13] CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER & CNN EDITOR-IN- CHIEF: Yes. To your point, Wolf, there is more than five, but let's go through the top five.
Number one, and I think this will be number one on most people's list, is Donald Trump and the gun debate. Over the weekend, Sunday night, the White House made clear that Donald Trump supported legislation that was up last year in response to the Sutherland Spring shooting in Texas. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, Chris Murphy, a Democrat, very outspoken Democrat from Connecticut on gun issues. That would close some more loopholes. To me the question is, how far is he willing to go? Saying you support it is one thing. There is a reason we haven't had gun legislation in quite some time, so how much capital does the president want to put in? That's sort of number one in everyone's mind.
Number two, Rachel Crooks. This is a woman who, in 2006, said Donald Trump supposedly kissed her, groped her in the Trump Tower on the 23rd floor of Trump Tower. The "Washington Post" did an extensive interview with her that ran this morning. What -- he has denied everything. Does he deny this? A lot of details in that story.
Next one. This is obviously a story that was huge a few weeks ago, and I think remains so. This is Rob Porter, obviously. John Kelly, the chief of staff, still has not -- it doesn't seem to me we're getting the full story timeline from John Kelly about how this was handled. Remember, Rob Porter extremely close to the president, literally handing him documents every single day. He didn't have a security clearance. Why? Was he fired? Did he resign? We need more.
Donald Trump tweets. We could ask this question every time in every press conference. Over the weekend, he suggested, yet again, that this is all sort of a hoax, collusion. Even while saying he didn't say it was a hoax. He said it was Barack Obama's fault. He has said, as you talked about in the last segment, he has said H.R. McMaster didn't appropriately represent his interests as it related to the 2016 election. Today, he's been doing even more on Twitter. this is the overarching one we always have to come Like you talked about with Tom Donilon in the last segment, he said he didn't totally represent his interests as it relates to the 2016 election. Today, he's been doing even more on Twitter.
And, OK, obviously, this is the old one we always have to come back to, Donald Trump and Russia. We have 13 indictments. We have a 37- page charging document that alleges a widespread strategy aimed at helping to elect Donald Trump and not elect or hurt Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump seems to be the person in the administration who doesn't believe that. The intelligence community does. Chris Wray does. Mike Pompeo, the CIA director, does. Can Sarah Sanders be any more definitive? And if she is more definitive, will Donald Trump take to Twitter for our last question and undermine her on the subjects the way he does?
BLITZER: She should have sent this, yes.
CILLIZZA: What she forgot was --
BLITZER: Let's see if he does that. Let's see what she says. We'll have live coverage coming up.
Chris, thank you. Donald Trump Jr, meanwhile, pulling out all the stops on a visit to India, promoting luxury apartments under the Trump brand name. But his meetings there are raising ethical concerns about the links between the president and his family business.
Take a look. This is live pictures of buses taking the students from Parkland, Florida. The buses are headed to meet state lawmakers in the state capitol in Tallahassee to call for action on gun violence.
We'll be right back.
[13:42:34] BLITZER: Is Donald Trump Jr mixing business with politics? It is a question plaguing him during his trip to India. Donald Trump Jr is there endorsing his residential project, Trump- branded condos, but he's also set to deliver a foreign policy speech later this week.
CNN's New Delhi chief, Nikhil Kumar, is on the scene with us.
Nikhil, what can you tell us?
NIKHIL KUMAR, CNN NEW DELHI CHIEF: Donald Trump Jr's this week is on a trip that's raising some serious ethical concerns. He's here to promote the Trump business. This is the biggest international market for the Trump Organization. But he's also giving a speech at the end of the week at a summit where India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is due to speak. The topic, reshaping Indo-Pacific ties. That's according to the summit organizers. It sounds like it will be about foreign policy.
And that's not all, Wolf. While in India, Trump Jr is also attending dinners with people who bought apartments in these new Trump-branded properties, which raises the really troubling question: Are these buyers investing in a Trump-branded product to access the Trump White House via the president's son? This is a country that has been suddenly deepening its ties with the U.S. in recent years. I tried to ask Trump Jr on the ethics of this in New Delhi today, but he ignored my question -- Wolf?
BLITZER: All right, Nikhil, thank you very much for that report.
Jordan Libowitz is the communications director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
What's your reaction to this trip by Donald Trump Jr?
JORDAN LIBOWITZ COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR, CITIZENS FOR RESPONSIBILITY AND ETHICS: Wolf, it raises further questions about just how connected the Trump administration is with the Trump Organization. India is the second-largest location for Trump businesses outside of the United States. So when the president's son, who we all know he's very close with, goes over there, gives a policy speech, and also meets with people paying the business $38,000, it raises questions, are those people trying to influence him? Is there an overlap between the president's business and this president?
BLITZER: The president promised there would be no new business dealings for his Trump company while he is president of the United States. They make the argument these are existing business dealings, these aren't new ones. Is there anything wrong with that?
[13:45:02] LIBOWITZ: So the buildings are not new. The buildings, however, were agreements made before the presidency. Now they're trying to fill the buildings. The Trump Organization takes a cut out of everyone who buys a condo and takes a larger cut if they buy a condo over the market price. It's been reported that many of the condos in Trump's buildings are selling well above the market price in a bad market. So we have to ask, what are people paying a premium for?
BLITZER: So you believe it's unethical but not necessarily illegal, right?
LIBOWITZ: Correct. As a private citizen, ethics laws don't apply to Don Jr. And the ethics laws that apply to the executive branch don't actually apply to the president. So while they're problematic and unethical, they're not actually illegal.
BLITZER: All right, Jordan. Thanks very much for that explanation.
Jordan Libowitz helping us.
Other news we're following, including horror. It is unfolding as we speak as children are among those killed in a Syria town. We have new video that has just surfaced of dramatic rescues and truly heartbreaking images. You're going to see what happened.
[13:50:38] BLITZER: Devastation and destruction striking right near Syria's capital city. Today is one of the worst days so far in the grueling Syrian war. More than 100 dead, including many children. Syrian regime airstrikes bombarding one of their rare safe spots, as it's called in eastern Ghouta. That's just outside of Damascus.
Let's take a look at the harrowing aftermath.
And just a warning to all of our viewers, this video is disturbing.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Heartbreaking images, indeed. Let's not forget hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed in this brutal, brutal war over the past few years.
Let's bring in our senior international correspondent, Ben Wedeman, joining us from Beirut.
Ben, what can you tell us about this specific attack, as brutal as it was?
BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I can tell you, Wolf, the images you just showed are the sanitized version. We've been looking at videos all day long here coming out of Ghouta and they are disturbing, to say the least.
Now, this has been going on for the last few days. The Syrian government and Russian warplanes bombarding seemingly indiscriminately in this area just outside of Damascus, home to almost 400,000 people. Before the war, two million people lived there.
We heard from the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Syria today who said that within the last 48 hours, six hospitals in that area have been struck. He said in his written statement that, "This nightmare in eastern Ghouta must end and must end now."
But it appears that the Syrian government and its Russian allies do not intend to stop this offensive. Today, according to the official Syrian Arab News Agency, rockets were fired from the eastern Ghouta by rebels into Damascus, killing at least five civilians, wounding 20 others. And it does appear, at this point, with the Syrian government with the upper hand in the war against the rebels, is pressing its advantage. Many of the people we spoke to today in the eastern Ghouta say they expect this -- really this bombardment, this brutal bombardment is a prelude to a final offensive to clear the rebels out of that area right next to Damascus -- Wolf?
[13:54:19] BLITZER: No end in sight at all to this brutal, brutal war that's been going on.
Ben Wedeman, thank you very much for that report.
Just in, as student survivors head to Tallahassee, Florida, right now to meet with lawmakers, we're getting word that 1,500 students have walked out of another school in West Boca, Boca Raton, today, in solidarity with Parkland students. We're monitoring this. We'll update you on that development. Plus, moments from now, all eyes on the White House. Sarah Sanders,
the press secretary, getting ready to face questions on multiple fronts in her first briefing since that school shooting and the Russian indictments.
BLITZER: Fighting words today from U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, over at the U.N. Security Council. In her speech, Haley criticized the United Nations, saying they spends a disproportionate amount of time on the Israeli/Palestinian issues without any results.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: That the United Nations spends an altogether disproportionate amount of time on Israeli/Palestinian issues. It's not that those issues are unimportant. They are certainly very important. The problem is that the U.N. has proven itself, time and again, to be a grossly biased organization when it comes to Israel.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Despite concerns about his lack of permanent security clearances, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, was there with Ambassador Haley. Kushner has been tasked with trying to broker an elusive Israel/Palestinian peace.
Much more on all these developments coming up.
That's it for me.
In the meantime, the news continues right now.
[14:00:14] BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, there. I'm Brooke Baldwin.