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Porn Star Lawyer: "Absurd" to Say Trump Not Aware of Payoff; South Korean Officials to Deliver Message from Kim Jong-Un to Trump; Trump Set to Sign New Tariffs Today & Staffers Scramble; Pro-Syrian Regime Forces Amass Near U.S. Troops. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired March 8, 2018 - 13:30   ET


[13:30:00] SEN. JACK REED, (D), RHODE ISLAND: His contribution can be focused. So without this, he can have a conversation, but it does not have the effect of someone who is fully briefed and fully vetted to know everything we know about the situation.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Finally, Senator, the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, says President Trump won an arbitration in a lawsuit filed by the porn star, Stormy Daniels. That was the first time the White House has admitted the president was involved in any way with Daniels. What do you make of that and the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels to stay silent only a few weeks before the November 2016 presidential election?

REED: Well, it raises a host of issues. But the one I think that is not of exclusive concern, but serious concern is the campaign finance laws. Was this in some way an in-kind contribution? Was it in some way connected to the campaign? That has to be evaluated and examined and either confirmed or refuted. But there are just a host of legal issues that have been raised by this disclosure.

BLITZER: Do you agree with some of your Democratic colleagues that maybe the FBI, the Justice Department, or even the special counsel should look at all this?

REED: I think someone should. Immediately, the Federal Elections Commission, if there's -- particularly -- I think there's already been a complaint filed. But someone has to look into this. It has to be done promptly, and also not only to find the truth but to clear this issue off the table so it's not causing further disruption in the White House, which is certainly under a stormy path at the moment.

BLITZER: It certainly is.

Senator, thank you so much for joining us.

REED: Thank you.

BLITZER: Senator Jack Reed, of Rhode Island.

Right now, by the way, South Korean officials are headed to the White House to deliver a message from Kim Jong-Un to President Trump. We'll get details.

Plus, confusion and concern circulating inside the West Wing as the president pushes forward on his tariffs plan.


[13:36:13] BLITZER: A message from the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un, is on its way to President Trump. It will be delivered today by top South Korean negotiators who had an unprecedented meeting with Kim earlier in the week in Pyongyang.

Let's go to our international correspondent, Will Ripley, joining us from Seoul, South Korea, right now.

Will, have the South Koreans revealed specific details about this message from North Korea?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They have not, Wolf. They are being extraordinarily tight-lipped about this. In fact, even North Korean sources don't know what is in this message that's being delivered to President Trump, but it is directly from Kim Jong-Un from those meetings in Pyongyang at the headquarters of the Workers Party of Korea. Some are thinking it might be basically laying out the North Koreans' position. We know the North Koreans want American troops out of South Korea. They want an end to joint military drills. There is speculation in Seoul that perhaps Kim Jong- Un could propose sending his sister, Kim Yo Jong, for these talks. But all is speculation right now until that message is delivered to President Trump. And the United States, how will they respond? Will this lead to talks or will it be a non-starter? We'll just have to wait and see.

BLITZER: You've been to Pyongyang several times. To what degree have sanctions affected the regime of Kim Jong-Un, and is that the reason why some believe he's suddenly interested in diplomacy, direct talks, not only with South Koreans but maybe even with the United States?

RIPLEY: My sources close to North Korea say the sanctions are really starting to bite. They describe it as when there used to be 100 trucks going back and forth from China to North Korea, and now there's just 10 trucks. It's starting to hurt North Korea, medium to long range. It's really going to hurt if North Korea can't get some of those sanctions lifted and get some concessions out of all of this. So, yes, some are giving credit to the maximum pressure campaign and the sanctions for bringing about this dialogue. There are 450 sanctions on North Korea, more than ever before. Half of those have been imposed roughly during the Trump administration, and it really is hurting Kim Jong-Un's -- maybe not his nuclear program but other areas of the country. We don't know the status of his nuclear program, but we do hear, Wolf, they're continuing to produce materials to make nuclear weapons in the Pyongyang (ph) nuclear reactor.

BLITZER: Will Ripley, reporting from Seoul for us. Will, thank you very much.

We'll be anxious to find out what's in this message from the North Koreans to President Trump. We'll work on that throughout the day.

Just a short time from now, by the way, the president will sign some controversial new tariffs, which he calls very fair, but America's strongest allies are deeply concerned right now. Spheres of a global trade war brew.

And a standoff looms in Syria where pro-Syrian forces are amping up their presence near U.S. troops. We have new information. We'll be right back.


[13:43:21] BLITZER: The White House has now added to the afternoon schedule, just announcing moments ago that the president will sign the steel and aluminum tariffs around two hours from now. In today's cabinet meeting, the president said the plan is a go but some fine tuning possible.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Sticking with 10 and 25 initially, I'll have the right to go up and down depending on the country. And I'll have the right to drop out countries or add countries. We just want fairness. Because we have not been treated fairly by other countries.


BLITZER: Joining us now from New York is David Stockman. He was the budget director under President Reagan.

David, thanks for being with us.


BLITZER: I have a lot of questions. I know you've been working on these issues for decades. What does it say to you that the administration has had such a rocky rollout of these new tariffs?

STOCKMAN: It's typical. The steel industry are the crybabies of the Beltway lobby farm. They gang tackle every new president that comes in with their tale of woe. In this case, they've got the biggest sucker yet. And this whole thing is a giant mistake.

I was involved way back in 1982 when I negotiated for the Reagan administration an 18 percent quota on foreign steel, and they all pledged on their honor after five years they would be competitive, they wouldn't need the protection anymore, and here we are, you know, 30 years later, and one device they've had in protection after another, and it's still the same old story.

Now, we have a huge trade problem in this country. An $800 billion trade deficit is not anything to ignore. We have had a trade deficit for 43 years running. And if you want to know the truth, it adds up to $19 trillion of trade deficits over the last four decades.

But steel is the least of our problem. The steel trade deficit is about $20 billion, which is 2 percent, and the argument that we need this for national defense is actually ludicrous. We produced 82 million tons of steel last year. Canada, Mexico or Brazil, who I don't think will declare war on us or put an embargo, added another $13 million. So we have 100 billion tons of availability a year. And DOD says, at most, they need three million tons a year.


STOCKMAN: So this is a fig leaf for rank protectionism that's focused on the wrong industry, because there's so much excess capacity for steel in the world that there will never be a shortage. And we're just barking up the wrong tree. The problem isn't bad trade deals. The problem is bad money at the Fed --


STOCKMAN: -- and in the central banks of the countries that have been suppressing their exchange rates. That's the problem.

[13:46:24] BLITZER: So when you say the steel lobby is very effective here in Washington and they're dealing with the biggest sucker, who is the biggest sucker?

STOCKMAN: Well, the one in the Oval Office. That's the one I'm talking about. I mean, somehow, he thinks that a 17th century version of mercantilist trade policy is going to make America grow again. That isn't remotely correct. And he should be focusing on the real problem. We have 10 countries that we have a massive trade deficit with, almost 90 percent of the $800 billion is 10 countries. Everybody knows who they are. It's Mexico, China, South Korea, Vietnam, Japan, and a couple of others. They ought to focus on, why do we have a big deficit there when the other half of our trade accounts -- we have $4 trillion a year of import and exports -- half of it, $2 trillion, is balanced with 150 countries in the world where we basically buy a trillion and sell a trillion. So we need to focus on what's wrong with the exchange rates, what's wrong with corporate America that constantly uses all of its cash flow for stock buybacks, MNA deals, LBOs, leverage recaps. They're not investing in competitive ability for us to compete in the world market. In fact, business cap X in real net terms today is 30 percent lower than it was in the year 2000. That's where the problem is. And this tax cut did nothing for it. It's a giant mistake that's going to drive up interest rates and cause, you know, huge win windfalls to Wall Street and the 1 percent and 10 percent that own the stock.

BLITZER: All right.

STOCKMAN: But it's not going to really address the problem.

BLITZER: We'll see exactly what the president signs later today, 3:30 p.m. Eastern, when he makes this announcement on tariffs.

David Stockman, thanks so much for joining us.

STOCKMAN: Happy to be with you.

BLITZER: A warning for the White House Chief of Staff John Kelly to his boss, don't talk to Robert Mueller's witnesses about their testimony. This, as reports surface that the president is doing just that. More information coming up.


[13:53:06] BLITZER: In Syria, U.S. officials are concerned about a military building of the pro-Syrian regime forces east of the Euphrates River. It's not only close to where U.S. troops are advising local allies, but it's also the same area where pro-regime troops initiated an attack on U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces last month. In turn, the U.S. launched airstrikes, killing at least 100 pro-Syrian regime fighters.

Let's go to our Pentagon reporter, Ryan Browne, joining us now.

Ryan, first of all, what are you learning about the situation as it's unfolding?

RYAN BROWNE, CNN PENTAGON REPORTER: Wolf, officials are telling me this buildup is something of concern. It's something that's been noticed. This regime force has started to bring in reinforcements, getting larger very close to where U.S. Special Operation forces are. And that U.S. forces have contacted their Russian counterparts via a pre-established hotline meant to avoid any potential miscalculations, any potential clashes between the various groups in the area. They're watching this closely. The regime has attempted to seize territory in the area before leading to that devastating counterattack where the U.S. killed some hundred fighters, including some Russian private military contractors, we're told. Tensions very high right now. The U.S. communicating with their Russian counterparts to try to avoid a repeat of what happened last month. But this all comes as the U.S. fighting against ISIS has been complicated by a number of factors. U.S. local allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces have left the area to go join their fellow Kurdish militias in another part of Syria. This has complicated the situation. U.S. forces keeping a close eye on what these regime troops are doing so close to their positions.

BLITZER: Any indications over there that the U.S. military is gearing up for some sort of Tomahawk cruise missile strike or other strike against the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons?

BROWNE: Nothing concrete on that front. Of course, the U.S. has said that -- has pointed to what it's done in the past, those April strikes where they launched 58 Tomahawk missiles against Syrian regime forces, saying they've done that in the past. They're closely monitoring Syria's military activity, looking for evidence of any potential Syrian chemical weapons use. But no indications as of yet that any kind of military option is being closely explored at this time.

[13:55:27] BLITZER: OK, Ryan, thank you very much. Ryan Browne, over at the Pentagon. We'll check back with you.

I suspect it will get tense very, very quickly, given the unrest and slaughter going on in Syria. We'll stay on top of this story for our viewers here in the United States and around the world. Other news, as the president gets ready to sign new tariffs into

action, sources tell CNN he's also fuming over his press secretary, Sarah Sanders, and her explanation of the payout to the porn star, Stormy Daniels. We're getting more information on that, all the day's news. We'll continue our coverage right after this.