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Trump Fires Tillerson; Russian Found Dead In Home; Pompeo Nominated for State; Cabinet Changes and North Korea; Putin Critic Found Dead. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired March 13, 2018 - 13:00   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Washington. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We begin with breaking news on multiple fronts, including another major cabinet shake-up here in Washington. President Trump firing the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, citing irreconcilable differences on foreign policy issues.

Tillerson finding out about all this firing, finding out about it on Twitter. With Tillerson out, the president is asking the CIA director, Mike Pompeo, to switch seats, take over at the State Department.

Pompeo's post as CIA director has been promised to the deputy CIA director, Gina Haspel.

Before heading to California, the president spoke about his reasons for this very dramatic change.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Rex and I have been talking about this for a long time. We got along actually quite well, but we disagreed on things.

When you look at the Iran deal, I think it's terrible. I guess he thought it was OK. I wanted to either break it or do something. And he felt a little bit differently.

So, we were not really thinking the same. With Mike, Mike Pompeo, we have a very similar thought process. I think it's going to go very well. Rex is a very good man. I like Rex a lot. I really appreciate his commitment to the service. And I'll be speaking to Rex over a long period of time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's go to our Senior White House Correspondent Jeff Zeleny. Jeff, do we know when the president made this decision of what the White House is now saying about secretary -- how Secretary Tillerson was actually informed?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, just to walk you through a bit of the timeline here. The secretary of state landed at Joint Base Andrews just outside Washington around 4:00 a.m. He was in Africa for more than a week.

Less than five hours later, about four and a half hours later or so, this news was announced on Twitter.

We do know that the secretary of state was informed by White House chief of staff John Kelly last Friday into Saturday. He was in Africa. That the president had made a decision to relieve him of his duties but did not say when that would happen.

So, the State Department, and indeed many here at White House, were surprised this morning when the president made the announcement of the timing here.

Certainly, no surprise that the bad blood between the two had boiled over. It had been simmering. They had not been on the same page here.

But, certainly, it was a surprise to the State Department that this happened at this moment.

But, Wolf, we also heard the president say something else this morning on the south lawn as he flew to California. This could be very important. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And I'm really at a point where we're getting very close to having the cabinet and other things that I want.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZELENY: Saying they were getting close to having the cabinet and other changes that I want, Wolf, certainly signals that the staff changes and shake-up here at the west wing at the White House are not finished yet.

Several other people, potentially, may leave in the coming days or weeks. The top person we have we have our eye on, potentially, is the national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, who has been in discussions -- in the subject of discussions, is he going to stay?

Of course, the White House says the president still has confidence in him. But, Wolf, that's exactly what they said about the secretary of state. Until he didn't.

BLITZER: Yes, and that went relatively quickly. Relatively. I should say a year and two months into this administration. Jeff Zeleny, thanks very much.

Rex Tillerson didn't get the reality T.V. moment of hearing President Trump say, you're fired, since he learned about the decision through a tweet.

The president says he got along well with Tillerson. But he also says he and Mike Pompeo are always on the same wavelength.

Let's bring in our Senior Diplomat Correspondent Michelle Kosinski. She's over at the State Department.

Michelle, has Tillerson spoken with the president today about this decision to fire him?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMAT: As far as we know, he has not.

But most of our information has been coming from one of Tillerson's top people. His undersecretary for public affairs and public diplomacy, Steve Goldstein, who told us, in a stunning statement this morning, that not only had Tillerson not spoken to the president, but that Tillerson was unaware of the reason of why he was fired. And had every intention of staying on.

Shortly after that, we got word that Goldstein, himself, now has been fired by the White House.

In speaking to him since then, though, he said that he stands by what he says happened in this. That Tillerson got a call from White House chief of staff Kelly on Friday, indicating that there was something coming. That there was a change brewing. That there would likely be a tweet.

[13:05:02] But Tillerson, according to Goldstein, said that it wasn't really definitive that he was going to be losing his job. And then, it did indeed come as a surprise today via that tweet.

And when I asked Goldstein, well, do -- you know, do you think, then, that the White House isn't quite telling the truth about the timeline? He said he only knows what Tillerson told him. And that Tillerson said that the fact he was losing his job today was entirely a surprise this morning -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It was a dramatic moment, indeed. The firing of Rex Tillerson comes as the president is getting ready to meet with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. Tillerson was a little cautious about that, I assume.

Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I really didn't discuss it very much with him, honestly. I made that decision by myself. Rex wasn't, as you know, in our -- in this country. I made the North Korea decision with consultation from many people. But I made that decision by myself.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He said he totally disagreed -- he said he totally disagreed with Tillerson, when it came to the Iran nuclear deal. But go ahead.

KOSINSKI: Right. There have been so many disagreements, so many public undercuttings of Tillerson.

But the timing of this is just after the president, as he said himself, made that decision to meet face to face with Kim Jong-Un now, in the near term.

And only hours earlier, Tillerson, while he was traveling, was saying, well, first, we're going to have to have talks to even see if we even can enter negotiations. Seemingly the complete opposite of what the party wanted.

After that, the State Department went to pains to say, no, no, Tillerson was deeply involved. He spoke to the president twice.

But it seems like, at least coming from the White House via the chief of staff, that decision was made shortly after the president's decision to speak to Kim Jong-Un.

And, you know, Wolf, this has been brewing for some time. So, the fact that Tillerson is out is in no way a surprise to this building. The writing was on the wall for months, but it seemed as if they had reached some kind of detente between themselves. That, at the very least, when Tillerson leaves eventually he will go out on his own terms.

That's why this is so stunning, that even he didn't see, at the very least, this timing coming -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And the president, himself, decided that he personally would not even notify his secretary of state. Quick pick up the phone and call him and tell him, in effect, you're fired. That was another element in this story.

Michelle Kosinski over at the State Department. Thanks very much.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Much more on the breaking news on the cabinet shuffle here in Washington coming up.

But there's other breaking news we're following. Word just coming in of a Russian, who was a critic of Vladimir Putin, found dead in his home in London.

Our Senior International Correspondent Nick Paton Walsh is joining us from London right now.

Nick, what can you tell us?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPODENT: I'll proceed with a note of caution here, Wolf, because it's very early days here.

But Nikolai Glushkov, we understand from his lawyer speaking at the Russian media, was the man who the metropolitan police who identified -- sorry, have said was found dead at his home just south of London in New Malden last night at about 10:00.

Now, a cause of death is not given, at this particular point. But the police behind me say they've put the counterterrorism police in charge of the investigation. I think purely because of the climate of suspicious, I might say fear, that is gripping London, because of the deaths of Sergei and Yulia Skripal.

Now, the same statement from the police says that as of this point, they do not believe there is any link to the event of Soul Spri (ph).

But, still, the fact that Nikolai Glushkov, as we now prepare to know, a man at age 69, fair to say he has been reported to have had health problems in the past, is now, of course, turning up dead in his home has got many people concerned.

Now, I should give a little bit of background of history here. Mr. Glushkov was an associate of a -- we call an oligarch, a very rich Russian businessman called Boris Berezovsky. He, himself, was kind of the kingmaker in the 1990s. Many say responsible, in fact, for part of Vladimir Putin's move in to the Russian elite.

But Berezovsky fell out with the kremlin, moved to London and the series of corruption cases launched by his then enemies in the kremlin followed him here, also followed Mr. Glushkov.

Mr. Glushkov was accused and sought for extradition from the United Kingdom to Russia because of accusations he had embezzled millions of dollars from the Russian state airline, Aeroflot.

Now, he was sentenced in absentia, on a number of occasions, he did some -- actually, some jail time in Russia on various charges. And found himself here in the United Kingdom.

[13:10:00] So, it remains a very key note of caution here, because we don't know, at this point, a cause of death or if any foul play is suspect at all.

But the mere facts that a man who fell foul of the kremlin turns up dead at his home at this, frankly, troubling time here in the United Kingdom, frankly, has many asking the very serious questions.

BLITZER: Very serious questions, indeed. And as you pointed out, the metropolitan police, a counterterrorism unit, now taking over the investigation of this death.

Stand by for a moment. Fred Pleitgen is joining us from Moscow right now.

Fred, what are you picking up from over there?

FRED PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's interesting, Wolf, because a lot of Russian outlets are actually already picking up on this very quickly. The state-run media has picked up and other outlets have picked up on it as well.

Right now, what we have from the Russians is pretty much factual reporting. They're saying that this man, Nikolai Glushkov, that he has been found dead. His lawyer has been on the Russia media as well confirming this.

Again, right now, it's a lot of speculation as to what exactly the cause of death might be. That's certainly something that the folks here are going to be looking very close at, as will the authorities as well, to see if there's going to be any more speculation on that.

But, you know, Nick is right. This does, of course, come at a very sensitive time after the poisoning of Sergei Skripal. And then, of course, Mr. Glushkov, as well, was in that circle of people around Boris Berezovsky, Alexander Litvinenko. Two people who died under mysterious circumstances. Especially Litvinenko, of course, was poisoned. And someone who, in the past, had said, look, I might be the next one. He referred to himself as the last man standing, at one point.

So, certainly, this was something where he was someone who was very critical of Moscow, someone who had a falling out with the powers that be here around the kremlin and certainly someone who believed that his life was very much in danger.

It will be very interesting to see, in the next couple hours especially, how reporting here is going to happen in Russia, whether there or not there is going to be any official statement. And whether or not this is going to cause even more issues between Russia and the United Kingdom, as things, of course, are already so fired up between these two countries.

Wolf, I have to tell you, today, the Russians really not happy with a lot of the things that they've been hearing out of the U.K. They've become very, very defensive, of course about the Sergei Skripal case. We'll wait to see how they react about this one -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, I'm sure they are.

All right, thanks very much for that. Fred Pleitgen in Moscow.

Let's bring in our panel to assess this and all the breaking news here in Washington. Our Global Affairs Correspondent Elise Labott is with us, CNN Global Affairs Analyst Tony Blinken is with us. He's a former deputy to the secretary of state during the Obama administration. And our Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger is with us.

Tony Blinken, you -- this is very disturbing, these -- this death in London today, this Russian emigre, what's been going on in Salisbury, elsewhere in England. How do you see it?

TONY BLINKEN, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, Wolf, if you're Putin opponent, it's apparently not good for your health. Look, we don't know, in this particular case, what's happened. Let's follow the facts. But there's a long list and growing list of Russians who are opponents of Putin who are -- went -- left the -- left Russia and wound up dead, including in the United States.

But what's most pressing is this case that we do know about, and we do have the facts on it, at least for the Brits, involving the death of -- or, well, the poisoning of Mr. Skripal.

BLITZER: And his daughter, Yulia.

BLINKEN: And his daughter. And there's a deadline tomorrow. As you know, Theresa May has said she wants to hear from the Russians by tomorrow on what happened.

BLITZER: Yes, and this is causing, potentially, not only a severe rupture in U.K.-Russia relations, but maybe with the United States as well.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And you just heard secretary of state Rex Tillerson the other day going further than the White House has gone, saying this is very troubling, putting the blame solely on Moscow and saying that there needs to be more investigation about it.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, that may have been dangerous to his political health. You know, because they disagreed on a lot of issues, this one of them.

And so, --

BLITZER: Tillerson was much more forceful in condemning the Russians than, for example, the president.

BORGER: Well, the president's press secretary did not come out and refused after she was asked repeated times to come out and say, do you believe, as the -- as the British do, that the Russians did this? And she did not.

BLITZER: Everybody stick around. There's much more on this. There's lots of breaking news unfolding, as we speak.

The president, President Trump, firing his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. Much more on that when we come back.

[13:14:26]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:18:28] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: There's breaking news that we're following.

Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, has been fired by the president. There's been a lot of reaction coming in from Capitol Hill. Listen to this.

We're going to get that sound in a moment.

But right now let's bring in Maryland Senator Ben Cardin. He's a Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks for joining us.

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), MARYLAND: Well, Wolf, it's good to be with you. It's certainly been a day of surprises.

BLITZER: Your committee has oversight of the State Department, of the secretary of state. Were you given a heads-up on this by the White House?

CARDIN: Not whatsoever. We heard no -- no advance notice whatsoever. I understand no one on our committee was informed of this. And we read about it through a tweet from the president.

BLITZER: What did you think of the president's decision to fire Tillerson?

CARDIN: Well, it's very concerning. I mean it looks like the president doesn't want anyone in the room that disagrees with him, doesn't want to hear independent advice, doesn't want to get objective accounts from the State Department. It's very concerning. We have major issues concerning North Korea and negotiations, the Iran nuclear agreement, and now we have a secretary of state who voiced his recommendations based upon the experts at the State Department being canned because he disagreed with the president.

BLITZER: Well, he apparently disagreed with the president on several sensitive issues. The president himself earlier today said he disagreed with Tillerson on the Iran nuclear deal, which, as you know, the president hates. Tillerson wanted to keep it going.

Does this suggest to you that the president will now move quickly to change or even scrap that Iran nuclear deal?

[13:20:06] CARDIN: Well, we certainly hope that's not the case. The United States shouldn't be he party violating the agreement. There is negotiations taking place between the United States and Europe, with Congress involved, to make sure that we make it clear that Iran never can have a nuclear weapon.

Let's work with our allies. Let's keep Iran in compliance with this agreement so they don't become a nuclear weapons state. And the United States shouldn't be the one that violates this agreement.

BLITZER: But if the president has serious differences with his secretary of state, whether on the Iran nuclear deal or North Korea or global warming and international trade deals, tariffs, for example, being imposed on various countries -- we know Tillerson opposed the tariffs on steel and aluminum -- what's wrong with the president, who is the president, saying, you know what, you're fired?

CARDIN: You know, Secretary Tillerson and I disagreed on many issues, but I respect his professionalism. The president will make the ultimate decisions. That's his responsibility. But he needs to have the advice of experts from the State Department. And Mr. Tillerson was representing the professionals in the field to let the president know the consequences of his actions. It would be irresponsible for the president to act without getting that independent advice. Mr. Tillerson's credibility was clear and the president didn't want that.

BLITZER: The president has chosen the CIA director, Mike Pompeo, to take over as the secretary of state. The committee chairman, your committee chairman, Bob Corker, says the first hearing on Pompeo's nomination, his confirmation hearing, will take place next month. As far as I remember, you voted against his CIA confirmation, Pompeo's confirmation as CIA director. Do you have reservations about his becoming secretary of the state?

CARDIN: Well, I voted against his nomination for that position because of his position on torture and on privacy of American information rights. I want to know Mr. Pompeo's interest in representing American values through diplomacy, good governance, anti-corruption. I want to know where he stands on rebuilding the State Department with the expertise it needs, filling critical positions and, yes, being independent and standing up in the White House to tell the president what he needs to hear.

There are questions that I'll be asking during the confirmation process.

BLITZER: So right now you're undecided, is that right?

CARDIN: That's correct. I always allow the confirmation process to go forward. I believe in the confirmation process. Let's see his answers to questions. Let's see how he does during the confirmation hearings.

BLITZER: This reshuffle of the cabinet, what does it mean for the president's proposed talks with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, over the next two months?

CARDIN: Well, it's not only the absence of a secretary of state, we now have an absence, of course, of an ambassador in Korea. We don't have a special representative for North Korea. There's be a hollowing out at the State Department. So the president will not have the type of talent he should have around him as he enters into these negotiations. So I don't think it -- I don't think it bodes well for these talks.

BLITZER: Who do you blame for that hollowing out -- hollowing out of the State Department, all those career diplomats resigning over the past year. Do you blame the president or do you blame the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson?

CARDIN: I blame the president of the United States. I think this is a reaction to the person who's in the Oval Office. A concern about his lack of interest in diplomacy and his failure to fund the -- the State Department at the level it needs to be funded. I think that message was received loud and clear by a lot of people who devote their life to public service and diplomacy. BLITZER: But if you speak to State Department officials, career

diplomats, foreign service officers, they say that Tillerson didn't have the guts to stand up to the president and allow this to take place.

CARDIN: Well, I agree that Secretary Tillerson was not effective in standing up to the president in regards to the State Department's budget and having the resources it needs to carry out its mission of getting people appointed to key positions. Secretary Tillerson was not strong enough in that department and I voiced my concerns.

I had serious problems with Secretary Tillerson. We disagreed on several issues. I voted against his confirmation. But I think the way he was handled by the president, and the president's failure to want independent information in order to make decisions is really a problem.

BLITZER: Let me get your quick thought on another breaking story that we're following.

I assume you've been briefed on what's going on in the United Kingdom, the poisonings of this double agent, this Russian double agent. Now another critic of the Russian President Putin was found dead today in his London home. What can you tell us about that?

CARDIN: Well, this is part of Mr. Putin's playbook. We know that. I authored a report in January, which we've talked about in previous shows, about Russia's engagement in Europe and in the United States. The activities in our 2016 elections were just part of that.

He has authorized killings of his opponents. And we've seen that happen in Russia. We've seen it happen in Europe. So this is out of his playbook.

[13:25:04] I applaud Prime Minister May's ultimatum to Mr. Putin that she has to have satisfactory results by tomorrow in regards to what Russia did in the U.K. It's a violation of sovereignty. It's a violation of international norms.

BLITZER: Senator Cardin, thanks for joining us.

CARDIN: Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up, the revolving door over at the White House. Several top officials in the Trump administration leaving over the last few weeks. We'll take a look at the bigger picture.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's get back to the breaking news.

President Trump's dramatic decision to fire Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and to name CIA Director Mike Pompeo to be his replacement.

Let's bring back our panel.

[13:30:00] You know, Gloria, there have been rumors about Tillerson going for months and months and months, but the timing this morning, why?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: It's odd. I have a source who said there must have been a precipitating event because these people, Trump and Tillerson, have --