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Trump Fires Rex Tillerson; Tillerson to Speak at State Department; Democrats React to Tillerson Firing; Trump Aide Under DHS Investigation for Financial Crimes Fired; Kellyanne Conway Called Out for Taking Pricy Flights. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired March 13, 2018 - 13:30   ET


[13:30:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: 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 aggravated each other for months and months and months. Now, Tillerson knows what it's like to be Gary Busey on "The Apprentice," getting fired just like that. I think that he got a little bit of a heads-up, and they've done some great reporting on that. I think Tillerson thought he was going to hang in there because Trump doesn't like firing people. They're going into the negotiations with North Korea. Maybe Trump thought it was a good time to do it. I tend to think that it's not so grand that there was some precipitating issue.

I also talked to someone this morning who is a friend of Trump's and said to me he's feeling quite emboldened, that he feels he's in charge of his own White House finally and that we should look for some more changes. We've all been talking about how long General McMaster has in the White House. There's been some speculation about General Kelly. And so we may see more of this as an emboldened president feels like he is taking charge, and one way he knows how to do it is to elbow people out that he doesn't like.

BLITZER: And, Elise, you are doing some reporting. Steve Goldstein, who was, until he was fired a few moments ago, the undersecretary for state for public affairs. He said Tillerson doesn't know why he was fired, has not heard directly from the president, learned about his firing on Twitter.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: I think they're trying to make a distinction right here between the official "you're fired" which he never really got, and a call that came in. Secretary Tillerson, in Africa over the weekend, got a call from chief of staff, General John Kelly, letting him know something was up. My suspicion, as he didn't say, you're out, that's it, I think he was along the lines of, "Come back, he's getting ready to get rid of you, I can save it like I have so many other times." And this is part of the reason President Trump has had problems with John Kelly, because a lot of people think John Kelly is trying to manage Trump. This morning, you heard Rex Tillerson say, as he was leaving Africa, people were asking him about these North Korea negotiations and whether he would be leading, I think he was trying a last-ditch effort to save his job. He said, I think I could provide the kind of advice that's needed for the president to have successful negotiations. Once again, trying to hold onto his job. I don't think when he woke up this morning, though, he knew this was going to be his last day, and he did hear that on Twitter.

BORGER: Actually, he was probably sleeping because he was on his way back flying back from Africa.

BLITZER: He would have arrived at 4:00 a.m.



LABOTT: Got in at 4:00 a.m., and the tweet came in about 9:00. It was the 11th hour. He was going to go in and try and save it, but that wasn't going to happen.


BLITZER: You would think the president -- when he was leaving the White House, spoke to reporters, he praised Tillerson, decent man, very patriotic, thanked him for his work. You would think he would at least have the courtesy to call him personally and tell him he was fired.

TONY BLINKEN, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: It would have been the decent thing to do but we've come to not accept that, unfortunately. Recall when James Comey was fired, the president was apoplectic that Comey was able to take his plane back after his final appearance. It's a good thing that Tillerson at least was allowed to come back on his own plane.

Look, the fact of the matter, Wolf, is they have been out of sync on substance for a long, long time. On virtually every major issue, they've been on opposite sides, whether it was the Paris climate deal, the trade deal, TTP deal, the trade deal, the Iran Accord, and so on, down the line. The president is entitled to the team that reflects his views. But as you heard Senator Cardin say, the downside of that is there may be no one to tell him no, to contradict him, to say he's going down the right path. That's what's troubling about not having a team of rivals but having a team of folks who just reflect --

BLITZER: We just got word, by the way, that Rex Tillerson will make a statement at the top of the hour at the State Department, presumably, his own reaction to the president's firing.

BORGER: Right. I would like to hear what that statement is and whether he takes questions.

And don't forget, there was the whole controversy -- it seems like yesterday, not too long ago -- where Rex Tillerson apparently privately called the president a moron. I was told the president never got over that. And Rex Tillerson, as you know, in repeated interviews, refused to directly address it. I've also been told that the president believes that Tillerson has

been disrespectful and arrogant towards him.

LABOTT: I've heard that.

BORGER: And he doesn't like it. Whereas, somebody like Jeff Sessions, whom he doesn't like, is not disrespectful to him. Or General McMaster disagrees with him, but is respectful to him. That still might not save McMaster, but there was this sort of notion that, I'm the president. These are two alpha males. Why are you being so arrogant?

[13:35:07] LABOTT: And the idea, right, that in these national security meetings, we've seen these cabinet meetings where everybody is like, oh, Mr. President, your leadership. Secretary Tillerson was not like that. And it was pretty evident in the meetings that he didn't agree with the president. Made that known and would say, along the lines of, you're the president, it's your policy. And, look, Tillerson was as exasperated with this relationship as the president was. He didn't resign. He wanted to go out on his own terms. He thought this North Korea issue was kind of a Hail Mary for him to go out with a win. Just recently, the secretary acknowledged that he didn't have any wins on the board. I think he would have liked to have one on the board before he left.

BLITZER: And none of us should be surprised if there's some more either firings or resignations, including General McMaster, the national security advisor to the president.

BORGER: You guys can talk about this better than I can. But there are people at the State Department, we should say, that are not unhappy about this.

LABOTT: Most people, actually.


BORGER: Most people. That Tillerson

BLITZER: The career diplomats.

BORGER: The career diplomats. Tillerson was not popular. He kept to himself. I'll leave the rest to you. But they're kind of applauding this change.

BLINKEN: We've seen a hollowing out of the department, unfortunately, under Secretary Tillerson. People marginalized, career folks. The middle ranks, the senior ranks, and that's, unfortunately, going to have an impact not just now, but for years to come. The other problem


BLINTON: The other problem, Wolf, is that around the world, because the president was constantly undercutting Tillerson, nobody really took him seriously.


BLINKEN: Because he would say one thing and be contradicted in a tweet within hours, within days. The one advantage, I think, of having Pompeo come is, is since he reflects the president's views, when he talks to people around the world, they'll know they're hearing what the president thinks. They're not going to like what they hear, but at least they'll know it's authoritative.

LABOTT: And Director Pompeo has been rather popular at the CIA for standing by his staff.

Now, look, yes, Tillerson has contributed to this hollowing out of the State Department. But that is also a White House move. The White House does not trust the so-called deep state, the career diplomats. And it will be interesting to see how the new secretary of state, Pompeo, will come in, will he be able to rally the troops in a way that shows that the State Department will be a force for diplomacy again?

BORGER: I think one thing we can take away from all of this is that the White House wants to keep foreign policy --


BORGER: -- at the White House.

BLITZER: That's what every president wants.



BLITZER: Speaking of the Obama administration, where was foreign policy run? At the White House. The State Department --


BLITZER: The State Department did what the White House wanted.

Listen to some of the reaction, Gloria, we're getting from some key Democratic Senators. They're going to have to vote on the confirmation process and what's going on right now. Listen to this.


SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL, (D), CONNECTICUT: This dangerous game of musical chairs undermines our national security and our credibility around the globe.

KAMALA HARRIS, (D), CALIFORNIA: I just think that this administration is falling apart.


BLITZER: Senator Kamala Harris, of California, "I just think this administration is falling apart." We're getting a lot of that from the Democrats.

BORGER: I think they thought that before today, to be honest.

Look, Pompeo will get confirmed pretty quickly. He's sort of been pre-confirmed, so that's easy. Haspel, at the CIA, is going to have some issues because of her position on waterboarding torture during the Bush administration. I think that's going to cause some problems.

But I just think it's the unpredictability that Democrats will rail about. And Republicans who, I might say, a lot of them didn't like Pompeo because they couldn't get through to him on the phone. How many people have you talked to, guys, who say I just can't get through to the secretary of state? They may welcome somebody who they think is a little more responsive because he used to be in the Congress.

BLITZER: There is a lot more news coming up.

I want everybody to stand by.

Any moment now, any moment now, Rex Tillerson will speak for the first time since he was fired by the president. You're looking at live pictures coming in from the State Department. He will be speaking, we're told, right at the top of the hour, maybe earlier, maybe a little bit later, but he will react to the decision by the president to get rid of him.

[13:39:13] Also, breaking news on another White House departure, the president's close personal aide. Another one fired today and actually escorted out of the White House. You're going to hear why he's under investigation by Homeland Security.

We'll be right back.


BLITZER: We're continuing our breaking news coverage. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson fired today by President Trump. But Tillerson isn't the only departure. President Trump's long-time personal assistant, John McEntee, was also forced out after the Department of Homeland Security confirmed he was under investigation for what they say are serious financial crimes. McEntee and Tillerson join a growing list of exits for the Trump White House.

CNN politics reporter, Chris Cillizza, is with us right now to break it all down for us.

We're hearing today about the firing of Tillerson, but there have been a lot of others, and more potentially on the way.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER & CNN EDITOR-AT-LARGE: Yes. So let's go through it, Wolf. First of all, here's a list of the people who have left. We are literally running out of room. We have two spots left. So nobody else. No. We're running out of room. This is basically 14 months of the Trump administration. This is mostly senior officials, not junior folks. Let's go to the next screen, because I want to show you, Wolf, what we

think the through line is here. Loyalty. I think the best way to understand Donald Trump is he expects total and complete loyalty to him, not to the government, not to institutions. Reince Priebus. Lost confidence that Priebus was loyal to him. We know how James Comey worked out, the FBI director. Steve Bannon became too big in some ways for Donald Trump. Felt like he was building his own brand. Sean Spicer, I think, sort of had to go, but loyal to Trump. And Tillerson is your best and most recent example, which is Tillerson always thought he had his own sort of space within the government. That he was loyal to state diplomacy, and not necessarily to Donald Trump. Donald Trump doesn't like that.

[13:45:18] Let's go to the last screen because none of these people currently work in the administration anymore. But both of these men do. Jeff Sessions. If you had to guess, who is the one cabinet official that Donald Trump might fire next, it has to be -- I would say Jeff Sessions is in the top one, two and three. He's called him beleaguered. He's called him disgraceful. He said he wouldn't have given him the job if he knew he would recuse himself. Remember, loyalty to Trump. Sessions recused in the Russia investigation. Trump believes that's fundamentally disloyal. John Kelly, we've heard he may be out. Does Trump trust him anymore or is this a broader cleaning he's doing of the White House? Don't know, but I would keep an eye.

BLITZER: Also keeping a close eye on the president's national security advisor, General H.R. McMaster. He's still on active duty, three-star general. Lots of speculation within the next few weeks that he might be moving out.

CILLIZZA: We've heard they're looking for potentially -- CNN reporting they're potentially looking for a place for him to land back in the military. A reminder, Kelly, Tillerson, Mattis, McMaster, all part of a more globally friendly view of the world, and all for amigos, in some ways. Do they go as a pair or not? I don't know. But, again, after this, there are so many people. You are seeing a massive amount. All of these people, by the way, very persistent. Comey is one. But the vast majority of these people are people Donald Trump picked him, Wolf. He put people in office. These are not holdovers. It speaks to how changeable he is and how much turnover we've seen, and I think how much wisdom you lose when you lose this number of folks in such a short period of time.

BLITZER: Yes. The president said today he's close to getting the members of the cabinet that he wants.


BLITZER: That would suggest he's not there yet.

CILLIZZA: Not over. Yes.

BLITZER: So expect some more movement in the coming days and weeks.

Chris, thanks very much. CILLIZZA: Thanks.

BLITZER: Take a look at this. Live pictures coming in from over at the State Department. We're only moments away. The outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, he was fired today by the president. He's getting ready to speak live. We, of course, will have live coverage of that. The first comments since being fired by President Trump. Stand by for that. Much more right after this.


[13:51:50] BLITZER: This just coming in to CNN. The Florida state attorney says he will seek the death penalty against the Parkland school shooter, Nikolas Cruz. Cruz, 19 years old, he's charged with 17 counts, 17 counts of premeditated murder, 17 counts of attempted murder in the first-degree. Tomorrow marks one month, one month since that school massacre. We're looking at pictures of Nikolas Cruz. He will face potentially the death penalty right there.

There's more news we're following. Another member of the Trump administration is now in the line of fire over alleged, alleged abuse of travel expenses. This time, it's the White House counselor, Kellyanne Conway. It's emerging that Conway was on several private flights along with ex-Health and Human Service Secretary Tom Price. Taxpayers footed the bill to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. Price resigned over the scandal and has since repaid the government. It's the latest in a string of Trump picks caught up in controversies over the spending of taxpayer monies.

Let's bring in CNN's Rene Marsh.

Has Kellyanne Conway, Rene, first of all, responded to this?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION & GOVERNMENT REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: I can tell you, I reached out to the White House and we've not received word yet.

But just to bring folks up to speed, today, Democrats with the House Oversight Committee put out this letter essentially saying that HHS, Health and Human Services, the agency allowed them to review documents. And over the course of reviewing documents, they found that Kellyanne Conway was on board several private jet flights with Tom Price. Remember, Tom Price had to resign over multiple flights on private jets. According to the Democrats on the House Oversight, Conway was on board private flights for 11 times. So, 11 separate flights, she had been on these private jets. They say that her portion of these flights cost tens of thousands of dollars.

They say that they've been reaching out to the White House to get more documentation, more information about, number one, whether she has repaid any of -- or at least her portion of these flights and whether she faced any repercussions. Remember, again, Price was forced to resign over this. They want to know, did she face any repercussions for this. And the Democrats say the White House has stonewalled them on this part of the investigation. So right now, what Cummings is trying to do, by way of this letter, is

ask the chairman, Republican Trey Gowdy, to subpoena these documents so that they can get to the bottom of just how exactly her extensive her travel on private jets were. But, again, as far as this letter goes, it's to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.

One other note we should point out, the Treasury says that they have now received a check from Tom Price for the amount of $60,000, which they say covers his portion of flights on those private planes.

[13:55:03] BLITZER: He was fired as a result of all of that as well.


BLITZER: Rene, thank you very much. We'll stay on top of all these developments as well.

And we'll have much more on the breaking news coming up. President Trump firing his secretary of state, replacing him with the CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Rex Tillerson, by the way, he is getting ready to speak any moment now over at the State Department. We'll have live coverage of that right after this quick break.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

[13:59:51] BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: My goodness, what a day. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

Here's a heads-up. We are waiting to hear from the man who President Trump fired today, via Twitter, outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. This is the highest-level shakeup, thus far, within the Trump administration. Tillerson's position is fourth in line to the presidency and arguably the last job that should be disrupted --