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U.S. Sanctions Russia; Trump Gets It Wrong; Trump Administration Finally Sanctions Russians; Trump's Cabinet Picks; Sen. Menendez On Secretary Of State And CIA Chief Nominees; Trump Pushes Back On Reports Of More Upheaval To Come; Upcoming Confirmation Of Gina Haspel. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired March 15, 2018 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Washington, 5:00 p.m. in London, 8:00 p.m. in Moscow. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

A White House on edge. President Trump expected to fire more people from his staff and cabinet, as concerns grow inside and outside the west wing it's too much too fast.

Facts be dammed. The president admitting that he lied to a major U.S. ally and then threatens to pull U.S. troops from South Korea, as his potential meeting with Kim Jong-Un gets closer.

And a new twist in the stormy saga. CNN is now learning that a second lawyer from the Trump Organization is involved in efforts to silence the porn star from talking about the alleged affair.

All that coming up. Let's begin with breaking news. Sweeping new sanctions against Russia for U.S. election meddling.

The Trump administration today finally imposing the new punishments, a month and a half after a deadline set by Congress.

Among those targeted, more than a dozen individuals dieted by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, as part of his Russia investigation which President Trump has dismissed as a witch-hunt.

Our Senior White House Correspondent Jeff Zeleny is over at the White House. And our Senior International Correspondent Fred Pleitgen is in Moscow.

Jeff, first of all, fill us in on these sanctions and the delay by the Trump administration in imposing them.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is the sweeping effort here, really the toughest effort the Trump administration has enacted or announced in the last year against Russia.

There certainly is a level of familiarity between the 19 individuals and five organizations announced this morning in the Treasury Department sanctions with that indictment list from a month ago from the special counsel's office.

There is significant overlap here, Wolf. So, it certainly is the first sign that the Trump administration at least is taking this more seriously.

It, of course, comes a month and a half after Congress mandated a deadline here. We asked senior administration officials to explain why that was. They said it simply took them that long to get this all worked out here. But it certainly has raised questions in the meantime, if the president was serious about this.

So, even though there is a delay, certainly tough sanctions here. And it's revealing, for the first time, that Russia was attempting to either look into or infiltrate the U.S. energy grid. So, that also part of the sanctions here announced today by the Treasury Department -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Fred, you're in Moscow. What's the reaction there from the kremlin?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. A couple of things, Wolf. First of all, the Russians actually alerted the fact that these sanctions were coming on Russian state media before the Treasury actually announced them. So, that just shows you how seriously they are taking all this.

And then, it didn't take them very long to respond, either, Wolf. The deputy foreign minister of Russia coming out very quickly and saying that Russia was, first of all, calm in the face of these new sanctions by the Treasury.

But also said that Russia is working on retaliatory measures against the United States. Now, so far, ever since the statement was issued by the Russians, we have not heard what exactly these retaliatory measures are going to be. But we are, certainly, keeping an eye on that.

And, of course, all this, Wolf, comes as the Russians are also working on retaliation against the Brits for throwing out 23 Russian diplomats after allegedly poisoning a former Russian spy in Britain.

So, tonight, we can see the Russians lashing out at the U.S. and its allies.

But, again, we'll definitely keep you posted once we hear what exactly the Russians are going to do to retaliate for these new sanctions -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, we anticipate they will do something.

Jeff, talk a little bit about the upheaval in the west wing over at the White House right now. Many White House officials described themselves as on edge, in the dark over the threat of yet more firings.

Give us a sense of where things stand and where more changes might take place.

ZELENY: Wolf, there certainly is still a sense that the president is still wanted to change things up a bit. Of course, coming on the heels of firing his secretary of state just a couple days ago.

But the president was asked in the Oval Office earlier today about these reports. And he said, look, there is change coming. Change is good. But he was, essentially, dismissing the fact that there would be a broad shakeup.

But that has done little to ease the anxiety here. There certainly are several cabinet members who are uncertain about their future.

First and foremost, the Veterans Affairs secretary, David Shulkin, who was appearing on Capitol Hill earlier this morning. He expressed some regret for the mismanagement management at his department.

But certainly others also are expecting to depart at some point. First and foremost, the national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster. Now, he declined to answer a discussion or questions about his future a short time ago, when asked by reporters, Wolf.

But there is still a sense here the president is not done making changes. Will happen today or tomorrow? Only the president controls the timing -- Wolf.

[13:05:00] BLITZER: We'll see what happens. Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thanks very much. Fred Pleitgen in Moscow. Thanks to you as well.

President Trump bragging about lying to a key U.S. ally at his event in St. Louis. The president talked about a conversation he had with the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, where he insisted that the U.S. had a trade deficit with Canada. The president admits, he didn't know the real answer at the time.

And this morning, the president tweeted this. Let me quote. "We do have a trade deficit with Canada, as we do with almost all countries. Justin Trudeau of Canada, a very good guy, doesn't like saying that Canada has a surplus, but they do." Close quote.

So, what is the truth about trade with Canada? CNN Money's Chief Business Correspondent Christine Romans has the facts -- Christine.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN MONEY CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the fact is the United States sells more to Canada than it buys. That is called a trade surplus.

Now, the way that the president views global trade, countries that run surpluses are the winners. Countries with deficits are the losers.

And he complains the U.S. is being ripped off by its allies and trading partners. But, Wolf, in the case of Canada, he's making that up about the trade relationship. And the government's own official statistics show it. This is from the Commerce Department. In 2017, the balance of all

goods and services trade with Canada tilted in the favor of the U.S., a $2.8 billion trade surplus.

Now, yes, the U.S. imports steel and lumber from Canada. And just on traded goods, there was a deficit with Canada for 2017, raw materials to feed American manufacturing and housing.

But that deficit more than offset by the value of the services the United States exported north. The U.S. no longer just a manufacturing economy but a services powerhouse as well. Think finance, media, technology.

The U.S. services trade surplus with Canada was $25.9 billion in 2017 -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Christine, thanks very much. Christine Romans with that.

Let's bring in New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez. He's the top Democrat, the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.


BLITZER: So, what's your response to the president actually bragging, during that closed-door fundraiser in St. Louis to Republican big shots, about not knowing trade facts and admitting lying to the Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau?

MENENDEZ: Well, it's pretty outrageous that you conduct yourself with one of your key allies in the world in a way in which you lie to them boldface. And they know that you're lying to them, because they know what the trade realities are.

And it undermines credibility, not just with the Canadians, but globally when stories like this come out. That you could be engaged with a foreign head of state and have the president of the United States bold-facedly lying to them.

And that undermines our relationships in the world. And when you are talking about something else at some other time, maybe some security agreement that you want, the person who you're going to be speaking to is going to be wondering, well, is he telling me the truth or is he lying to me?

BLITZER: During that fundraiser in St. Louis, the president also took direct aim at South Korea over trade, threatening to pull U.S. troops, about 30,000 U.S. troops, out of South Korea unless that trade deficit with South Korea doesn't go away.

Is that smart? Especially now on the eve, potentially, of the president's meeting with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un? MENENDEZ: No, it's one of the dumbest things I've ever seen in my 26

years of dealing with foreign policy between the House and the Senate.

Look, at a time in which you have a critical high-wire act that the president is conducting in this engagement with North Korea, without any safety net underneath, no preparation whatsoever on these talks. To suggest any inkling that you might move away from your security commitments to South Korea is to send all the wrong messages, not only to North Korea, but to our allies globally.

And so, that's one of the dumbest things I've ever seen.

BLITZER: Let me get your reaction to the White House, the Treasury Department now and the Trump administration, finally announcing today sanctions against Russia for its meddling in the U.S. presidential elections.

Do you believe the sanctions announced today go far enough?

MENENDEZ: They're welcomed. And I've been calling for those sanctions for some time. I mean, the reason Congress passed in the Senate 98 to two, those sanctions both on Russia, of course Iran and North Korea, was to get the administration implemented.

So, it's far past time that they did it. But they largely sanctioned individuals that had already been previously sanctioned by the Obama administration.

So, I'm looking for a more robust response. For example, that company, Glassa, that was identified in Special Counsel Mueller's indictment of the Russians. That's an entity that should be gone after to the sanctions regime.

[13:10:03] And there is a series of provisions of the law that are pretty mandatory that the administration has not pursued against Russia, on financial institutions, on arms transfers and other things.

So, there is a much more robust response that should be had. And the president should be leading a whole of government response to Russia. Not only for one they did to us in our elections and what they are doing globally and undermining democracies in other elections. And what they recently did in Great Britain.

It is a continuing reality from all our intelligence agencies. They continue to seek to undermine our democracy and our elections. And Putin only understands strength and that comes from a robust response.

BLITZER: Yes, they finally did begin implementing some sanctions today. Even though, as you point out correctly, the sanctions legislation passed the Senate 98 to two last summer, last August. I think 419 to three in the House.

The president didn't like it. He reluctantly signed it into law, only because he knew he couldn't override a Congressional veto.

But, finally, the U.S. has now gone ahead, the Trump administration, with these sanctions.

Let me get your thoughts on another development that's unfolding right now. Just in, the former FBI deputy director, Senator Andrew McCabe, he's -- we're now told he's at the Justice Department making his case why he should not be fired.

He's retiring at the end of this week, as you know. But there's now some suggestion the attorney general Jeff Sessions might fire him only days away from his retirement. He would lose his pension because of misleading others in the Justice Department in the course of the Hillary Clinton investigation.

What's your reaction to this?

MENENDEZ: Well, it's a case of first impressions for me. But I'll just say that it seems retaliatory. At the end of the day, the man is going to retire. He had served, as I understand, honorably for a very long period of time. And it's just retaliatory to fire him days before that retirement would take place.

So, this is the type of circumstances that has been going on in this administration, where you speak out against him or you act in a way in accordance with the law, but that's not satisfactory to the president, that you end up with a retaliatory response. And it's just pretty outrageous if we're going to be promoters of the rule of law, not only here at home but across the world.

BLITZER: Yes, he served 22 years in the FBI. He announced his resignation a few weeks ago to take effect later this month. And now, only days away, he might be fired. And, as I say, he would lose that pension.

Let's move onto some other sensitive issues while I have you, Senator. Let's talk about the president's cabinet changes. His nomination of CIA director, Mike Pompeo, to become the next secretary of state. Your committee will have to confirm him. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Gina Haspel to become the next CIA director.

Listen to your colleague, Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. He's already made up his mind on both of these nominations. Listen to this.


SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: My opposition to her is over her direct participation in interrogation and her gleeful enjoyment at the suffering of someone being tortured. My announcement today is that I will oppose both Pompeo's nomination and Haspel's nomination.


BLITZER: Where do you stand on these two nominees?

MENENDEZ: Well, I'm going to give them both their day.

On Pompeo, I look forward to a robust betting and a robust hearing on his nomination. There's much different skill sets to be the CIA director, where you're ultimately, you know, creating the opportunities for intelligence, having covert operations and executing enemies. Than being a diplomat, the lead diplomat for the United States of America. There's definitely two different skill sets, number one.

Number two is I want to hear what his views are on some critical issues that the United States is facing globally. What does he view this engagement with North Korea directly? What preparation is there going to be, to make sure that can actually be a successful result? Verses the president just having a meeting saying he walked away, solve the problem. And then it all collapses.

What is the reality of his view on the Iran nuclear deal. And, in fact, what happens if the president walks away? What is the follow on to that? Because that has critical challenges to it.

Where is he on the engagement that we need more robustly against Russia for all the malign activities that it has done?

Those are just a few of the questions that he's going to have to answer. And as to Haspel, I have serious questions and concerns about her seeming unlimited commitment to interrogation techniques and potential torture. That, I think, from people, like John McCain, who has said -- who was a victim of torture himself as a prisoner of war, that it doesn't work at the end of the day for the purposes of our intelligence gathering and that it actually acts as a negative for us globally.


I've got to respect somebody like John McCain who was a prisoner of war, went through such torture and understands the realities of it.

So, she's going to have a real problem for me. Pompeo, we'll see how he answers the questions on these critical issues.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST, "SITUATION ROOM": I know you voted against this confirmation as CIA director, but you have an open mind as far as secretary of state?

MENENDEZ: I will. I mean, I believe that there is a vetting process for a reason. And he's going to have to answer a lot of tough questions. I've only mentioned a few of them.

I'm sure some of his activities at the CIA, whether he believes in a robust State Department, in which under Secretary Tillerson and particularly under this administration, diplomacy is not something that they value as is evidenced by the emaciated State Department we have, the constant cuts, the hollowing out of our diplomatic corps, some institutional knowledge that's incredibly important with the challenges we have in the world and some other questions.

So, I look forward to how he answers those and then I'll create a judgment.

BLITZER: Sen. Menendez, thanks for joining us.

MENENDEZ: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: The president fighting back saying there will always be changes, uncertainty and upheaval, now plaguing the White House.

And a new layer in the stormy cloud looming over the West Wing, CNN's exclusive report of a second Trump's lawyer's involvement to pay off the porn star.

Plus, breaking news out of Parkland, Florida. New video just revealed shows the first officer on duty, what he was doing as 17 students and teachers were fatally gunned down. Stand by.


[13:20:54] BLITZER: President Trump is pushing back on reports of more upheaval to come in his administration. He says those reports, in his words, "are exaggerated and false".


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So, there will always be change, but very little. It was a very false story. It was a very exaggerated and false story. But there will always be change and I think you want to see change. And I want to also see different ideas. Larry Kudlow just came in a little while ago and Larry is going to be outstanding as economic adviser. So, we look forward to it.


BLITZER: Let's bring in our CNN political analyst Ryan Lizza and our chief political correspondent Dana Bash.

So, Dana, I know you are doing a lot of reporting. We all are. What are you hearing about more imminent changes?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Look, I think we've learned enough about the way that this president operates to know that what he says to people he calls on the phone early in the morning and late at night asking about this person or that person or that cabinet choice or how about if I switch this out, which he does a lot and still does, is my understanding, doesn't 100 percent portend changes.

Having said that, it's pretty clear just from the way that he has more aggressively made changes that he's in that mode, that he's got that MO going on and that he might do something similar soon.

Look, I think that, at the end of the day, we need to expect the unexpected. The unfortunate thing is, when it comes to people who are working in the West Wing and in and around it right now on the White House campus, it's stressful.

It's stressful no matter who you're working for, but it's especially stressful if you're just kind of on pins and needles waiting to see if the tweet that comes out of the president's thread next will be about you.

BLITZER: Because I can't tell you, and I've spoken to officials in the administration, how awkward it was that Rex Tillerson, whether he was a good secretary of state, bad secretary of state, that he learned officially that he was fired because the president tweeted that.

The president didn't even have the courtesy to call him up, let alone have a face-to-face meeting with him and then say, I know you worked 14 months, I know you've worked hard, appreciate what you've done, but you know what you're fired.

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Imagine what that does for morale in any organization. Imagine you're in an organization and that's how your senior colleagues find out that they're out the door. It's humiliating.

I mean, on the one hand, have some sympathy, but on the other hand, I do think that people who signed up for service in this administration had a clear idea of the kind of management style that Trump had. They kind of knew what they were getting into.

There's been so much reporting in the press about these changes, partly because Trump is on the phone all the time with this large circle of colleagues. This is like the spit ball president. Trump is constantly spitballing, is constantly throwing out ideas.

And all of us who cover the Trump world have some access to this circle of people. They're very talkative. In some sense, this administration is rather transparent because you have a sense of what Trump is thinking because he's constantly telling outside advisers and those people are constantly talking to the press.

But it leads to a lot of confusion because just because Trump says something, just because he says something to a close adviser doesn't mean he's going to pull the trigger. But he's, obviously, thinking about a lot of changes and I don't think anyone really knows who the next senior person is to be kicked out.

BLITZER: The uncertainty, this chaos does have a morale impact on the administration.

Let's talk about another sensitive issue, the upcoming confirmation of the CIA director-nominee Gina Haspel.

The senator, Sen. John McCain, who was himself tortured during the Vietnam war as a POW, he wrote this on Twitter. "The torture of detainees in US custody during the last decade was one of the darkest chapters in American history."

Liz Cheney - the daughter of the former Vice President Dick Cheney - replied "Saved lives - the program, the enhanced interrogation technique, program as it's called. Many call it torture. "Saved lives, prevented attacks and produced intel that led to Osama bin Laden. The techniques were the same as those used on our own people."

[13:25:11] To which Meghan McCain, daughter of John McCain replied, "My father doesn't need torture explained to him."

BASH: Yes. I mean, look, it's tough and it's personal. And one of the most poignant and intense debates, policy debates that I've ever covered was when I was on the Hill and covering the John McCain pushback of his fellow Republican in the White House, George W. Bush, and the enhanced interrogation techniques that he was espousing.

Dick Cheney, Liz Cheney's father, was one of the biggest proponents of that post 9/11 to try to get answers, to try to prevent another attack.

Having said that, having followed John McCain particularly and knowing some of the details about the way he was tortured when he was in the Hanoi Hilton when he was held prisoner for five-and-a-half years during the Vietnam War, he says over and over again that it just doesn't work. And he does know, as Megan just alluded to, firsthand.

So, at the end of the day, this is going to be revisited in a different sphere because we are 17 years after - almost 17 years after 9/11. People are looking at it from a little bit more perspective and without the innate fear that everybody had post-9/11.

And Gina Haspel, the new nominee to be CIA director, is going to have to answer really important questions since she oversaw so many of these programs. And how she answers those questions really could make or break whether she's confirmed.

BLITZER: Yes. She was a CIA officer at that so-called black site in Thailand where a lot of those enhanced interrogation techniques, waterboarding, among others, were taking place.

LIZZA: And this question keeps coming up as national security officials who were involved with this programs that are now illegal, that are no longer used as they sort of rise through the ranks.

And we really haven't had a reckoning about how to treat those people, right? When Obama came in, he made a decision not to prosecute, not to do anything radical about some of the Bush-era programs, torture and some of the other programs.

He decided sort of the era was over and we would move on. And there were senior officials in the Obama administration who were implicated in these same programs. And when they go before the Senate, it comes up, but we've, as a country, had a sort of reckoning about how do you deal with those people.

What's the way? Should they be cast out? Should they no longer be in government service? Or are we forgiving that that was a time and a place and they were being told what to do and that they are somehow - their careers should go on?

And I think that's the debate that the Senate needs to have with this nominee.

BASH: And they will. And it's being forced upon them. I was just talking to somebody who worked with Gina Haspel in the CIA, who said, look, if she goes before the United States Senate confirmation hearings and said, I know firsthand, I was involved in it, that it doesn't work, the reckoning will happen.

If she goes before the Senate and says, I know firsthand that it was uncomfortable, it was bad, it's now illegal and I'll follow that law, but it did work, that's going to be problematic for her.

BLITZER: Yes. She is going to answer all of these questions. But let's not forget, this was after 9/11; 3,000 people were killed. There was great fear Al Qaeda was planning more. They wanted - they had some of these Al Qaeda operatives. They captured them.

The president, the vice president, the Justice Department, they all approved it. They said it was legal. She was a clandestine officer. She was involved. Let's see how it all unfolds during the course of this confirmation hearing.

Thanks very much.

Up next, a CNN exclusive, new evidence of yet another lawyer from the Trump organization connected to the efforts to silence Stormy Daniels.

Plus, breaking news out of Parkland, Florida. New surveillance video just released shows what the first officer on the scene was doing while the gunman was at large.