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Votes Head to Polls in Pennsylvania; White House Won't Condemn Putin; Trump Visits California; Hunt for Serial Bomber in Texas; Another Nor'easter Slams New England; "The Washington Post": Tillerson Fired by Trump. Aired 8:30-9a ET

Aired March 13, 2018 - 08:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[08:30:00] MATT SCHLAPP, FORMER GEORGE W. BUSH POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Himself from Nancy Pelosi, to disassociate himself from some of the progressive, more radical voices in his party. Now, will he get away with it because when he -- if he wins, if he were to win today, he's going to vote with Nancy Pelosi on all the major issues most likely. It will be his decision to make. And if he doesn't vote with her, he'll be completely ostracized from the party. So the voters in Pennsylvania have to decide if they can take him at his word that he'll actually be a moderate voice in Congress.

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: We will be watching to see what happens as that plays out today.

I do want to get your take on everything that is all the drama surrounding the House Intel Committee.

SCHLAPP: Yes.

HILL: YOU know, we just heard from Eric Swalwell talking about he first learned that they were -- they were wrapping things up on Twitter. And we have seen the intelligence community come back and say, wait a minute, we stand by our findings here. We stand by everything that we saw. Even this, as Chris Stewart says, they did -- they got it wrong. Is the House Intel jumping the gun a little bit here, or was it time to wrap things up because it's become such a partisan distraction?

SCHLAPP: Well, how many years do we want to spend on this? We spent a year. We spent a lot of money. We have three major investigations going on. And I see no evidence of collusion. I've seen evidence of, you know, maybe mistakes in judgment. But I see no collusion.

Even the special counsel has only gotten indictments on people for activities before they joined the Trump campaign. So I don't really understand what -- why we need to -- what are we going to spend the whole Trump presidency investigating the Trump presidency?

I do think at their -- I think Condi Rice is right, there comes a point in all this where you put your cards on the table, you tell the American people the information you have and then the American voter has to make their determination. And that's what should be done now. HILL: So which is what's happening with the special counsel. And we

should point out, we don't know about collusion. We have not gotten those finding from the special counsel.

SCHLAPP: Have you seen any evidence -- have you seen any evidence of collusion?

HILL: I haven't seen any evidence either way --

SCHLAPP: Thank you.

HILL: Because I haven't seen the final report. So we can't speak to that because we don't know what they found. So let's stick to the facts --

SCHLAPP: But you can't -- but a -- but a Democrat can't be upset that an investigation in the House closes when we have seen no evidence of collusion. And if you've seen some evidence, please explain it to me.

HILL: Well, first of all, you're asking me, a journalist. I am not a Democratic on the committee. So let's be clear on that, first of all. But, number two, would a Democrat have a right to be upset about the fact that they're learning about this wrapping up on Twitter and that the findings are put out there before they're given to the Democrats?

SCHLAPP: Look, I think --

HILL: What does that say to the American people?

SCHLAPP: I think it's very unfortunate on basic questions of national security, and even the intelligence community, that we've gotten so polarized.

Think about this. How fair is it that the Obama administration used the intelligence committee to spy on the Trump campaign? I think that's a ridiculous and unconstitutional and irresponsible step. We have got to figure out a way, Republicans and Democrats, on these basic questions of national security to show the world that we can work together.

HILL: Well --

SCHLAPP: And I think it's terrible that we're not.

HILL: Well, we all think its ticked (ph) back on all of those things, so let's start by doing that.

Here's the other thing I want to ask you about. When it comes -- when it comes to Russia --

SCHLAPP: I didn't say anything -- I didn't say (INAUDIBLE).

HILL: I want to get your take on Russia here --

SCHLAPP: OK. HILL: Because we've heard very strong words from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson yesterday. We did not hear that from Sarah Sanders. In fact, Rex Tillerson going on to say, after he was sayings that it's almost beyond comprehension, calling it an egregious act, everything that happened in the U.K., and Theresa May saying that Russia was behind it, Sarah Sanders says, we don't know that. Rex Tillerson also said, look, we have spent the better part of a year really trying to work together with Russia. And what I've seen instead, after all of those efforts, I'm paraphrasing here, but he used the word "pivot." He said they pivoted to being even more aggressive.

Why aren't we hearing more concern from the White House on this?

SCHLAPP: I think you will. I think, look, when these types of things happen, there is a period of time by which you have to learn what the facts are and figure out the right stance. And it's not uncommon in an administration to have one member of the administration really go out there and be aggressive. And I think it's the job of the secretary of state to make that clear.

And I think that the -- there's no question, everybody understands the Russian menace. Everybody understands the Putin menace. What Donald Trump is trying to do with Putin is do everything he can to try to be able to have a good relationship with him. Democratic presidents in the past have said they want to have a good relationships with the Russians. It was usually the Republicans who were accused of being war mongers. In this case, you have a Russian president who's trying to be measured, both with China and with Russia. And those two interrelate. I don't think it's a bad thing for our president to try to not go to a war of words on every instance.

HILL: They're not going to a war of words and then there's actually going off of the facts that have been given to us by our most important ally, as we heard from Sarah Sanders who said --

SCHLAPP: Right.

HILL: We don't have the details. That most important ally said, yes, we do, it's Russia.

SCHLAPP: Look, there will be -- look, this is what countries do, this is what allies do, they share information. Everybody understand the Russian menace. I think Vladimir Putin has done terrible things, including trying to intervene in our election. And I think there's no question that this -- look at Obama himself. Obama didn't keep us safe in the last election. We have got to be much tougher when it comes to Russia. But it doesn't mean the president of the United States needs to be constantly in a war of brinksmanship with him. I think that would be a big mistake.

[08:35:0] HILL: Matt Schlapp, always appreciate it. Thank you.

SCHLAPP: Thank you for your time.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: You know, also see good proof there in this increasing partisan divide because of just abuse of facts, you know? President Trump said that China was raping the United States, blamed them for coming up with the idea of global warming. So he had no problem going after them.

HILL: No.

CUOMO: It's Russia that he insulates himself from. And if Matt Schlapp has proof that the Obama administration wrongly surveilled using a FISA court, he should offer it up, because otherwise that's just empty speculation and all the facts actually have taken us in a different direction. But it's important to hear both sides.

HILL: Yes, it is. That it is.

CUOMO: President Trump heads to California shortly. Why? Well, it's his first trip as president. It's going to be contentious because there are legal battles between the two states. But he's not going there to talk about the law.

HILL: Plus, fear gripping Austin, Texas. And this is all coming at the height of South by Southwest. Do authorities have a serial bomber now on the run? We have a live report, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[08:40:00] CUOMO: Just minutes from now the president's going to take his first trip to California as president. The president is going to be looking at prototypes for his border wall. The trip comes amid a tense battle with the state over sanctuary cities.

CNN's Miguel Marquez is live in San Diego with more.

The governor there had sent a message to the president saying, we're about building bridges, not walls. I guess this is the president's return to that. He's going to go look at walls, in fact.

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Look, there has been a long and growing standoff between the White House and the state of California. And we are likely to see that take physical form today in the form of protests across not only here in San Diego, but Los Angeles as well, and rallies for the president.

It's a little unclear how everything is going to break down, though. The free speech area that the officials here have put together near the prototypes, or nearer to the porotypes. Most groups are not going to because they are not allowing any parking near there. So we expect the president to land at Miramar Marine Air Base and then he'll go down to see those prototypes at some point. There will be a campaign- style rally back at Miramar, and then he'll go up to Los Angeles. We expect protests across San Diego, protests in Los Angeles. The left here in California certainly wants this president to know he is not welcome here.

Back to you.

HILL: Miguel with the latest for us.

Miguel, thank you.

Police and the FBI say three package bombs that killed two people in Austin are linked. And there's concern this could be the work of a serial bomber.

CNN's Nick Watt is live in Austin with the very latest.

Nick.

NICK WATT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning.

Well, of course we saw one person killed yesterday. The first person was killed March 2nd. And the bomb that killed that man has been in the lab for some time now and the police tell us that they have ascertained how it was constructed. They're not giving out any of those details. But the police chief did say this morning on "Good Morning America" that they believe that this is the work of one bomber.

Now, the other line of inquiry that they're pursuing is whether these victims were connected, whether they were targeted or whether these were random attacks. Now, "The Washington Post" reports this morning that the stepfather of the first victim and the grandfather of the second victim are very good friends and both are very big players in the African-American community here in Austin.

Back to you guys.

CUOMO: All right, Nick, appreciate it. Thank you very much.

All right, another big story to be tracking this morning, 44 million people are in the path of a nor'easter. This is the third in just ten days. And the snow is really coming down already in southeastern Massachusetts. Part of that state is under a blizzard warning. Some spots are going to see more than a foot of snow, and they just -- they've taken so much already.

Let's go live to CNN's Alison Kosik in Boston.

Oh, boy, I can see it around you. This is going to be a long day for folks.

ALISON KOSIK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is going to be a long day. Right now it looks quite pretty, Chris. Good morning to you.

We've got this sideways blowing snow, though. It's wet. It's heavy. It's making travel very treacherous. You can see some of the accumulation building up on the streets.

If you're traveling out of the Boston area, I'd say, good luck. Amtrak service between New York and Boston has been suspended. Lots -- hundreds of flights canceled at Logan Airport.

And about those accumulations. We're expecting one to three inches per hour. As the afternoon progresses, we could see not just a foot of snow, but up to two feet of snow. And, Chris, this could be the biggest snow fall for a March ever in Boston's recorded history. We shall see when the day is through.

Back to you.

HILL: Oh, that is not a record that you want.

All right, Alison, thank you.

Next week we reveal our first CNN Hero of 2018. Before we do, though, an update for you on last year's Hero of the Year.

Amy Wright was honored for opening a coffee shop in North Carolina that employs people with disabilities. Well now she has expanded her mission. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KELLY RIPA, HOST, "CNN HERO: AN ALL-STAR TRIBUTE": The 2017 CNN Hero of the Year is Amy Wright.

ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, "CNN HERO: AN ALL-STAR TRIBUTE": Amy Wright.

AMY WRIGHT, CNN HERO OF THE YEAR: Oh, my gosh, I cannot believe this is happening.

COOPER: Incredible night. But two months later, Amy has opened a second coffee shop, this one in Charleston, South Carolina. For most of these 17 new employees, this is their first job.

WRIGHT: People with intellectual disabilities aren't valued, and so this coffee shop has created a place where people see their value.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: And you can see Anderson's full update or nominate someone you think should be a CNN Hero. You can do that right now. Just log on to cnnheroes.com.

CUOMO: All right.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

CUOMO: So we do have breaking news for you. "The Washington Post" is reporting that President Trump has fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Joining us now is CNN political director David Chalian.

We know that there has been tension. Tillerson has been far afield when things were going on, specifically in Washington, D.C. Now this.

[08:45:02] DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes, Chris, there's been more than six months of tension in this relationship at least, dating back to those stories of what Tillerson said about President Trump in private. So this has not been a rosy romance by any stretch of the imagination. And Mike Pompeo, the CIA director, who "The Washington Post" is reporting is the man that President Trump is going to replace Rex Tillerson with at State, has also long been rumored for the last couple months to be in line for the post.

What it -- what "The Post" seems to be reporting --

CUOMO: Yes, David, just so you know, the Trump -- the Trump -- Donald Trump just tweeted --

CHALIAN: Yes.

CUOMO: That Mike Pompeo will be our new secretary of state. He will do a fantastic job, the president tweets. Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service. Gina Hapsel will become the new director of the CIA and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all.

So, there you have it. What do you make of it?

CHALIAN: Well, the Senate has some work to do here, obviously, in terms of hearings and confirmations. But --

CUOMO: Do you think the president knows that? Do you think he knows that he doesn't just get to name them?

CHALIAN: I do. I think he does know that. I just think he's supremely confident he'll get his team. He got his whole team originally. There doesn't seem to be a reason to think he wouldn't get his team with the balance of the Senate the way it is right now. Remember, you only need, in today's world, a simple majority to get a cabinet confirmation.

So, Chris, this is a pretty massive shakeup of the national security team. That's what's key here. While the United States is dealing with this very precarious issue of North Korea and this upcoming potential meeting and negotiations over the thing that Barack Obama told Donald Trump would be his single biggest threat and headache to deal with on his desk in the Oval Office, this is the moment in time, as that is just starting to really develop in an active sense potentially, that he shakes up his national security team.

We've seen Rex Tillerson on a different page from President Trump on several issues. And according to this "Washington Post" reporting, he cut his trip short in Africa at the end of last week in order to come back to Washington because the president informed him at the end of last week that he was looking to make this move.

HILL: So we know the president -- I think just tweeting again. And we have that, David, for you, we can put up. But in terms of being on different pages, there's also the issue of Russia and the very different response that we saw --

CUOMO: We just read this.

HILL: The tweet that Chris just read for us. The very different response that we saw from Rex Tillerson yesterday versus the White House. Was that the final straw? Is that the sense?

CHALIAN: Well, according to "The Washington Post," it wasn't, because the president had made this decision last week, it seems, in what they're reporting. But clearly I do think that it will be seen the way you're describing, Erica, that that was just yet again something to add to the list here where Rex Tillerson is speaking in a totally different way, much more aggressively towards Russia in his comments than President Trump would ever dream of speaking about Russia, it seems, at this stage of the game.

CUOMO: Well, so was Mike Pompeo. And that's an interesting play here because when it came, obviously he was at the CIA. He was quickly forming strong relationships there. The word, I'm sure, David, you were hearing the same thing when we were first covering this, was that they liked Pompeo there. They liked how he was doing the job, the respect he had for the agency. And he came out and contradicted the president about Russian interference and said there is no question that it happened. And, in fact --

CHALIAN: And is happening, Chris. Mike Pompeo said --

CUOMO: And is happening and that we're not ready to deal with it and that we need a plan. And the head of the NSA had said the same thing, I need a plan, I need an order. Pompeo was outspoken about what the intentions of the interference was, which was to, you know, hurt Hillary Clinton, help Trump in that process. Now he's there.

Any issues for him with the Senate, or, no, they confirmed him once, they'll confirm him twice?

CHALIAN: Again, because the filibuster rules are sort of no longer in effect here in terms of trying to get a 60-vote threshold for cabinet confirmations, I would imagine Mike Pompeo will have -- who, of course you know, is a former member of Congress --

CUOMO: Right.

CHALIAN: Will have pretty smooth confirmation to this role. I'm sure that he will get questioned quite aggressively from the Democrats in any confirmation hearing, Chris, but I think the ultimate result will be he's likely to be secretary of state.

But to your point, it begs the question, is Mike Pompeo the one person who Donald Trump can hear and separate out the notion of Russian meddling from any question about the legitimacy of his own election as president because he has publicly proven to be totally incapable or uninterested of separating those two thing. But as you are right to note, Mike Pompeo could not have been clearer. He says not only did Russia meddle, they are meddling right now in our 2018 elections.

HILL: But they did want -- David, stay with us. I also want to bring in Abby Phillip, who is at the White House.

Abby, what more are you hearing?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, good morning.

Well, this news is one that we've been expecting for several weeks. And it's always been a question of whether President Trump would pull the trigger and fire Tillerson at the end of the day.

[08:49:58] I would say, Erica, that this is a transition that's probably on the more streamline than of the ones that were available to the president. He could have brought someone in, some new blood. Some more controversial names have been floated out there as people that he was considering to either replace Tillerson or to replace Pompeo. But what he's chosen to do is pick someone from within the ranks, someone whom has already been confirmed, someone who he actually has a very good relationship with.

We know that the president likes the way that Mike Pompeo briefs him. He's one of the closest of the cabinet officials to the president. And by moving him over to State, there's a certain amount of continuity there. And then elevating Pompeo's deputy at CIA also allows for a certain amount of continuity.

But, of course, you were just discussing, Tillerson, in the last 24 hours, was contradicting the White House on this issue of Russia. And it makes you wonder whether he felt emboldened to do that knowing that he had already been asked to step aside last week as he was on this trip to Africa. And now he was sort of free and to sort of say what he believed ought to be said even though it contradicted almost directly what the White House was willing to say from the podium here.

Again, this is something we've been hearing might be coming down the pike for several weeks now. That day is finally here. Tillerson had been telling people for quite a while that he would serve for about a year. And that's almost exactly how long he's been in this post. But for a secretary of state to be leaving in the second year of a presidency is extraordinary.

CUOMO: Yes, very little precedent. I think maybe there was one other who left in about like 16, 17 months, or something like that.

But, look, Abby, your point is well taken. This is a continuation of unprecedented turnover. Now, you think they're trying to blunt that blow, that here you go again, here's another guy you said was going to be great and now he's out and there's more instability. By saying, well, no, Pompeo is read in on all of these issues. He's coming from the CIA. He'll be fine. There's more continuity than there is disruption.

PHILLIP: Absolutely. I mean I think that this is a continuity move on the president's part. He could have gone in a completely different direction. And we know from our sources that he was considering some people who would have come from the outside, who would have, in fact, disrupted the sort of sense that they had established here in this administration.

Pompeo is someone who is already here. He already has relationships. He's working with the White House as it is. And he has good relationships on The Hill.

It is of the options that were available to the president perhaps the least disruptive. But there's no question that removing Tillerson, who already -- there were questions hanging over him about whether or not he even spoke for this White House, spoke for the president with any sort of authority, removing him from that job really just re-enforces that for the last several months there was a disconnect here between the top diplomat for the United States of America and the president of the United States. It's an open question whether Pompeo will be able to maintain his -- you know, a sense of authority in that position despite some of the challenges that diplomats have to face dealing with issues like Russia, where sometimes, you know, the official United States position is quite different from what the president says. The president still doesn't want to talk about Russian meddling in the election, but that's something that Mike Pompeo at CIA and will be at State having to deal with very shortly.

HILL: That is for sure.

And, David Chalian, I know you -- we've been hearing rumors about more shakeup and more chaos obviously for some time now but you're hearing, too, we could be seeing, in very short order, even more of a shakeup when it comes to national security.

CHALIAN: Yes, this could be a total restructuring. You know another member of the president's team that has not been on the same page with him all the time is McMaster, Henry McMaster, the national security adviser, whose job, as you know, is to sort of take the secretary of state and secretary of defense, collate this information and bring it to the president from his own national security council. And if he is not long for this world, you may end up in short order having a new national security adviser, a new secretary of state, a new CIA director for the -- you know, what is basically the beginning of year two of the Trump administration, an entirely new, other than Mattis, national security team.

CUOMO: All right, the only other piece in this puzzle right now is who takes over for Pompeo. And the president says it's going to be Gina Haspel, who is the deputy director of the CIA right now. Her statement reads, after 30 years as an officer of the CIA, it's been my honor to serve as its deputy director alongside Pompeo for the past year. Grateful to the president. Appreciate his confidence in me to be nominated to be the next director of the CIA. If confirmed, I look forward to providing President Trump the outstanding intelligence support he's grown to expect during his first year in office.

Of course the irony is, he's been bashing the intelligence community, including the CIA, all along since he got into office.

What about her in terms of confirmation? Is there anything in her past that could come up?

David?

CHALIAN: Oh, sorry, I didn't know who that was to.

There's nothing I'm aware of that could come up. As you know, in these confirmation hearings, things present themselves that have not yet been in the public record. But there's no immediate indication that she is somehow not confirmable. We'll see as the hours develop here, Chris, if indeed something does emerge. [08:55:15] CUOMO: Abby, you heard anything?

PHILLIP: You know, not that I've heard of at the moment. But again, as David just mentioned, this is the beginning of that process.

But what I will say is, picking a veteran of the agency is an important thing that the president decided to do today. You just mentioned, he's been attacking the intelligence agencies since the very beginning of his administration. There is a huge issue of whoever leads the CIA needs to be able to hold -- to keep the morale up in that building. And I think by choosing someone who's already there, who's a veteran of the agency, who's not coming in from the cold, it's going to be an important signal to the people in the CIA, who many -- most of whom persist through various administrations, Republican and Democratic, that that agency is not going to suddenly take a turn for the politicized.

That's a fine line that Pompeo has walked since he's been there. It will be the job of the next director, with all this turnover, to maintain the confidence of the men and women who work in that spy agency day in and day out.

HILL: And to your point, having someone they know can definitely help in that respect.

We are also, of course, waiting to see the president depart. He's making his way to California. His first trip to the state of California since becoming president. Going to view some of these prototypes of the wall. If he takes questions, one would imagine the first will be about Rex Tillerson, David Chalian. This could overshadow a little bit of his day.

CHALIAN: Which questions, of course, the timing of this, right? I can't wait for our team to do the reporting that undoubtedly they're starting to already do, to sort of learn, how did the decision come today that the president wanted to roll this out this morning before he got on the plane to go to California, because it does overshadow what is a trip they want to highlight, talking about sanctuary city issues and the wall prototypes that he's going to see and what have you.

But it also, of course, overshadows the stormy Daniels headlines that have been back, as well as a congressional election up in Pennsylvania that is a coin toss that could be embarrassing for the president of the Republican candidate loses there in a district he won by 20 points just over a year ago.

So I am curious to find out sort of how today became the day that the president wanted to make this announcement.

CUOMO: All right, let's bring in Tony Blinken. He was in the State Department for the Obama administration.

We are assuming, Tony, that this is going to be an easy move because Pompeo is already comfortable with the president and vice versa. But going from the CIA to foggy bottom is not exactly the same type of portfolio. What will the transition require?

TONY BLINKEN, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL (via telephone): Well, you know, I think he's -- Chris, he's been doing this transition for the past several months because we were pretty much told at the end of last year that this change was going to happen and Pompeo was going to be the guy. And there were reports that he was preparing the way, talking to a lot of people, getting himself ready.

I think what's going to be very different is the public facing aspect of this. He has to be no longer the spy in chief, but the diplomat in chief. But Pompeo, I think, is reasonably well prepared for this. He had a lot of time in Congress, of course, before taking on the CIA job. And the president gets someone who is closer to his own views and beliefs on virtually every issue.

Rex Tillerson was on the opposite side from the president. He wanted to stay in the Paris Climate Accord. He wanted to stay in the Trans- Pacific Partnership. He wanted to, you know, avoid a meltdown between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. He wanted to stick with the Iran nuclear deal.

CUOMO: Right.

BLINKEN: So time and again he was on the other side of the fence.

I think now the president gets someone who is much more in line with his own thinking.

CUOMO: It's interesting, David Chalian, we're just getting some reporting here in house that on Friday the president had approached Tillerson about this. Why then today did we wind up hearing about this? And, obviously, it steps on his trip out to California. This couldn't have been the way they planned it.

CHALIAN: Yes. The timing to me, Chris, as I was just saying, I think is a bit odd here. And I wonder if, indeed, we'll learn a little more. It seems to me the president was quite eager to make this trip to California. Again, several issues there. The ICE issue, sanctuary city, building the wall, looking at prototypes, these are some wheelhouse sort of base Trump issues that he loves being able to highlight. He's making what is, you know, the longest time we've had a president in office without going to visit the, you know, most populous state. One out of every seven Americans or so lives in California. He's finally making that trip to highlight these issues.

I'm surprised he's willing to step on himself with this kind of message. But, as I mentioned, there are a couple of other, you know, stories dominating the headlines, stormy Daniels and a potential embarrassing loss in Pennsylvania in a congressional race. And perhaps that is why he wanted to sort of move ahead with this other big headline of the day by making public this desire to shake up his national security team.

CUOMO: All right, Abby, thank you very much. We know you'll be reporting all morning on this.

David Chalian, thank you. And, Tony Blinken, thank you for calling in. Appreciate the

perspective.

[09:00:02] BLINKEN: Thanks, Chris.

HILL: Never a dull morning.

CUOMO: Nope.

HILL: All right.

CNN's breaking news coverage will continue right now. Stay tuned. CNN "NEWSROOM" with John Berman starts right now.