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McCain Slams Trump for Congratulation Call to Putin; Interview with Rep. Tim Ryan; Facebook to Brief Lawmakers on Data Scandal this Week; Judge Allows "Apprentice" Lawsuit Against Trump to Go Forward; Playboy Models Wants Out of Confidentiality Agreement; White House Daily Briefing. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired March 20, 2018 - 13:30   ET



[13:32:02] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Standing by for the White House press briefing. Sarah Sanders supposedly will be briefing reporters any minute now. We'll, of course, have live coverage.

There are lots of questions reporters will ask, especially the latest developments involving the president of the United States, telling reporters he spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The White House putting out a statement that the president congratulated President Putin on his win in the most recent elections for another six years.

This resulted -- and this is what the president said while he was meeting with the Saudi crown prince. Listen to this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I had a call with President Putin and congratulated him on the victory, his electoral victory. The call had to do also with the fact that we will probably get together in the not-too-distant future so that we can discuss arms, we can discuss the arms race. As you know, he made a statement that being in an arms race is not a great thing. That was right after the election, one of the first statements he made. And we are spending $700 billion this year on our military, and a lot of it is we are going to remain stronger than any other nation in the world by far. We had a very good call. And I suspect we will probably be meeting in the not-too-distant future to discuss the arms race, which is getting out of control. But we will never allow anybody to have anything even close to what we have. And also to discuss Ukraine and Syria and North Korea and various other things. So I think probably we'll be seeing President Putin in the not-too-distant future.


BLITZER: It follows a statement the White House put out congratulating the Russian leader.

John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Arms Services Committee, issued this statement. Listen to this: "An American president does not lead the free world by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections. And by doing so with Vladimir Putin, President Trump insulted every Russian citizen who was denied the right to vote in the free and fair election to determine their country's future, including the countless Russian patriots who have risked so much to protest and resist Putin's regime."

Very, very strong words from Senator John McCain.

Jeff Zeleny, our senior White House correspondent, is with us, joining the panel as well.

The president issued a relatively positive statement about Putin and that deeply angered Senator McCain.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It certainly did. When you listen to the president's words there, it's so clear what he's not talking about. He's not talking about the sanctions issued by his own Treasury Department just last week. He's not talking about the attack that happened in the United Kingdom there. He's talking as though he is a leader of a democracy somewhere else, not given the context of Russia. Again, it falls on Senator John McCain to reset the conversation. It reminds me a conservation last week, a question that Sarah Sanders was asked in the briefing, is Putin a friend or a foe, and she really had a hard time answering that. So once again, the president seems conflicted by how he deals with Vladimir Putin. He has never, or seldom, done any scolding at all for the bad things he's done.

[13:35:23] BLITZER: And the Kremlin put out statement saying the phone conversation that the president had with President Putin, President Trump never mentioned the poisoning of this ex-Russian spy in England and his daughter, or some of the other sensitive issues. Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election, for example, never came up.

ELIANA JOHNSON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. The Trump administration has been in a sort of fascinating position with regard to Russia, because even as the president as refused to say anything negative about Vladimir Putin, his administration actually has taken action. They did take action and posed sanctions in the wake of that attack in London. But it's been hugely overshadowed by the president's refusal to say anything negative about the Russian president. And you can see Russia using that to its advantage by playing up the president's kind words towards Putin, and I think that's where the president really gets himself into trouble.

BLITZER: Adam, we were following it earlier, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the vice chairman, a Republican and a Democrat, Richard Burr and Mark Warner, they came out today and said the Russians not only interfered in the U.S. election, but they actually got into some electoral systems in some states.

ADAM ENTOUS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, the evidence that has come out about what the Russians were doing in terms of probing those electrical systems. The Obama administration approached the Senate Majority Leader McConnell and tried to get them, at the time, in 2016, to take a firmer stance with the states, and McConnell was extremely skeptical in that meeting when he was approached by the then-Obama administration officials and told what Russia was up to. Obviously, the dynamics have changed on the Hill, at least to a certain extent, where you would have potentially a legislation that would get bipartisan support that would try to encourage states to take more action. But you can tell the Republicans are walking this fine line, recognizing they cannot impose and will not impose on states to do certain things because they realize that's a red line that they can't cross. So it's unclear with this legislation that's being proposed and with any action that's being called for how much of a difference it's actually going to make in the end, because there is a reluctance to really going too far in tightening up the systems.

BLITZER: As we await the start of the White House press briefing, I want to bring in from Capitol Hill Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan. He's a Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

Congressman, thank you for joining us.

Let me get your reaction to the president of the United States issuing a statement congratulating Russian President Vladimir Putin for his election win for another six years.

REP. TIM RYAN, (D), OHIO: The president needs to realize that Vladimir Putin is trying to destroy the United States of America. He's trying to destroy our democracy. He's trying to destroy our electoral system. He's aiming and targeting the very fabric of our society. That's our political elections, our presidential elections. And I come from a pretty pragmatic place outside of Youngstown, Ohio, and I think the average person sitting there watching the president of the United States handle Vladimir Putin with kid gloves, like he's doing right now, given everything Russia is trying to do, there would be a lot of questions about that kind of behavior.

BLITZER: So you agree, I assume, with Senator John McCain, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who said in this tough statement, "An American president does not lead the free world by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections."

Are you with Senator McCain on that?

RYAN: One-thousand percent. This is like congratulating Saddam Hussain when he got 98 percent of the vote in his Iraqi elections. He has a state-controlled media. He cracks down on his political opponents in Russia. He doesn't let anyone get a word in edgewise with regard to a free and open discussion about the future of the Russian people. And of course he's going to win by a substantial margin. And then to congratulate him, I think, shows how out of touch the president is. It's really sad that he doesn't engage properly, like a president should, or strongly, like a president should. It's also scary because of what Russians' intensions in the Ukraine, in Syria, allowing the gassing of innocent people in Syria, trying to disrupt us any way they can, they're partnership with Iran, and on and on, all the different ways Vladimir Putin is operating against the interests of the United States, against the interests of a lawful global society, and the president congratulates him. It's not good.

[13:40:14] BLITZER: I want to get to some other issues, but why do you think President Trump is so relatively nice to Putin?

RYAN: We're going to have to wait for all the details. Those of have some hunches as to what's going on here. But I think the best thing we can do is let Mueller continue to do his investigation. It seems like, with the indictments of 13 people associated with Russia in a deep way that he's trying to peel the onion back, and we need to let him do his job. And then it may get revealed to us exactly why President Trump is handling him with kid gloves. But I will say, in the heartland, people would be very skeptical and say, there's something up here.

BLITZER: Let's get to this other issue involving Facebook. I know you've been watching the developments over the past 24-48 hours closely, Congressman. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg needs to come up to Capitol Hill himself, not one of his executives, to answer some of these late-breaking questions about Facebook and security.

RYAN: I believe he does. And I believe Speaker Paul Ryan needs to make it a direct ask that Zuckerberg gets here to Capitol Hill and testifies openly in front of the United States of America about exactly what it is that happened with Facebook. We're talking about 50 million people. There are a lot of things out there we don't know. What states did these people live in? Were they coordinating with the Trump campaign? Was Trump coordinating his campaign schedule with where those 50 million people lived. There's all kind of issues that we need to look at. I think Zuckerberg needs to come here and tell the American people exactly what's going on. Just like with the issue of Vladimir Putin, I think this goes to the heart of our democracy, out electoral process and he needs to answer for that. We need to know who knew what, when, and what was their response, and why didn't they let these 50 million people know? There's all kinds of questions here on how Steve Bannon, the campaign chairman for Donald Trump, ended up with 50 million Americans' information on how they surf the web.

BLITZER: Lots of questions. We'll see if Zuckerberg ever shows up on Capitol Hill.

Congressman Ryan, thanks for joining us.

RYAN: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: We're standing by for the White House press briefing. Lots of questions. The president getting ready apparently to shake up his legal team, as one lawyer reportedly says he has no control over the president. We'll have live coverage right after this.


[13:45:08] BLITZER: Breaking news. We just received word there is a major new development of a legal battle between President Trump and a former "Apprentice" contestant who has accused the president of sexually harassing her.

Let's go to our senior media correspondent, Brian Stelter, who has been working the story. A couple of major developments, Brian. Update our viewers.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT & CNN HOST, RELIABLE SOURCES: Yes. First, Trump accuser Summer Zervos, will have her day in court. Zervos was an "Apprentice" contestant more than a decade ago. She alleged in the final days of the election back in 2016 that Donald Trump, when he was on "The Apprentice," groped and kissed her without her permission in 2007. That allegation came out before the election. President Trump called her and other accusers liars. So she's tried a novel legal strategy, Wolf. Summer Zervos, with her attorney, Gloria Allred, sued for defamation last year. She can't sue for alleged harassment or groping because the statute of limitations had run out. But she can sue for defamation. So she filed that suit here in New York last year. Trump's lawyers tried to get it thrown out. They issued a motion saying you can't sue a president in a state court. He has immunity in a case like this.

So the judge in this case spent many weeks reviewing the arguments on both sides. And just in the past few minutes here, we received the filing that confirms Zervos can move forward. That Trump's lawyer's motion to throw this case out has failed. And interestingly, Wolf, the judge is citing the Clinton/Jones case from the '90s to say that no one is above the law, that, yes, the president can be sued, that a president does not have immunity in a case like this.

So this means that Zervos and her allegations of defamation will go forward. And that raises some First Amendment questions. The president was defending himself, saying these women are lying about me. But Zervos will have her day in court.

BLITZER: And there's another major development involving Karen McDougall, a former Playboy model, who know wants out of a confidentiality agreement. Tell us about that.

STELTER: Yes, this is breaking with the "New York Times." This involves Karen McDougall, the Playboy model, who accepted a payment from the "National Enquirer" that essentially silenced her from talking about an alleged affair with Donald Trump. Again, these allegations about the relationship with Trump are many years old. But McDougall was paid for her silence ahead of the presidential election. McDougall is now challenging that in court. She wants to have that payment invalidated so she can break her silence. This is a lot like the Stormy Daniels situation. Of course, Stephanie Clifford, A/K/A, Stormy Daniels, is also suing, seeking to validate the confidentiality agreement she signed. We know she is scheduled to speak on CBS's "60 Minutes" this Sunday. So now we have Karen McDougall, another woman, also suing in order to free herself of this confidentiality agreement so she can speak publicly about an alleged affair.

[13:50:00] BLITZER: They're increasing these allegations. We're going to stay on top of it.

Brian, I want you to stick around.

We'll see what the White House press secretary has to say, if she's asked about these late, breaking developments. We'll be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:54:30] SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESSS SECRETARY: (In progress) This administration is making sure their government does that by allowing them to be more productive by cutting their taxes and empowering them to make their own decisions about investing and their operations and by working to make sure our trade agreements are fair and other countries play by the rules.

The president was proud to issue a proclamation declaring today the 45th Annual National Ag Day.

Earlier today, the president was pleased to welcome Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to the White House. This meeting provided an opportunity to make progress on a range of issues, including Syria and its sponsors, Yemen, the GCC, and an our Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts efforts.

Today, we were able to engage with Saudi leadership, as we do on an ongoing basis, to increase our coordination on regional issues, advance shared strategic objectives, and develop new channels and capabilities to institutionalize these interactions. This afternoon, the president also met -- will also meet with top law enforcement officials, members of Congress, and administration leaders to discuss the threats of lawless sanctuary cities.

SANDERS: Sanctuary jurisdictions released thousands of criminal aliens out of our prisons and jails and back into our communities. Such policies threaten the safety and security of our people. Every American family deserves to live in safety and security in their home and their neighborhood. Sanctuary cities make that goal much more difficult to achieve, and the president is committed to restoring rule of law in these cities.

We're also continuing to monitor situations both in Austin, Texas, and in Maryland. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims involved in these situations, and we'll continue to work with state and local law enforcement officials around both of those incidents.

And with that, I'll take your questions.


QUESTION: Sarah, let me start by asking what the president said about potentially meeting with Vladimir Putin, quote, "soon." There's nothing that will put them in the same city at the same time until November at the earliest. So what he's talking about in terms of (inaudible), would that include a visit by Putin to the White House or the president going to Russia?

SANDERS: There are no specific plans made at this time, but we want to continue to have a dialogue with Russia, continue to talk about some of the shared interests we have, whether it's North Korea, Iran and particularly, as the president noted today, slowing the tensions when it comes to an arms race, something that is clearly important to both leaders. QUESTION: Now that Putin has won yet another term as president, is President Trump concerned that he will continue his aggressive posture toward the rest of the world, and maybe even increase that posture?

SANDERS: Look, we're going to continue to maintain the position that we've had and be tough when necessary. At the same time, we want to continue to have dialogue so that we can work on some of the issues that concern both countries, and we're going to continue to do that, while also continuing to be tough on a number of things, including sanctions on Russia, rebuilding our own military, and exporting energy, things that we know are not great for Russia.

Nathan (ph)?

QUESTION: I want to get your reaction to a statement that Senator John McCain, chairman of the Armed Service Committee put out. I'm quoting him directly here: "An American President does not lead the free world by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections. And by doing so with Vladimir Putin, President Trump insulted every Russian citizen who was denied the right to vote in a free and fair election to determine their country's future, including countless Russian patriots who have risked so much to protest and resist Putin's regime." How do you respond?

Look, the president once again has maintained that it's important for us to have a dialogue with Russia, so that we can focus on some areas of shared interests, the ones that I've already named.

At the same time, we're going to continue to be tough on them. The president joined other countries in these calls. Both Germany and France have reached out, as well as President Obama in 2012. These are conversations that sometimes take place, and certainly the president finds there to be an importance in having that dialogue with Russia, so that we can talk about some of the big problems that face the world.

QUESTION: Does the White House Disagree with Senator McCain's characterization of this as a sham election?

SANDERS: We disagree with the fact that we shouldn't have conversations with Russia. There are important topics that we should be able to discuss, and that is why the president's going to continue to have that dialogue.

At the same time, we've been very clear in the actions we've taken, that we're going to be tough on Russia, particularly when it comes to areas that we feel where they've stepped out of place, we've placed tough sanctions on Russia, and a number of other things where we have shown exactly what our position is.

QUESTION: What (ph) you brought up in context of John's question about timing, since you mentioned North Korea and Iran -- is it the president's intention to meet with Vladimir Putin before he sees Kim Jong-un or makes a decision on the Iran nuclear deal?

SANDERS: Again, we don't have any specific plans laid out at this time.

QUESTION: Thanks, Sarah. Neither the White House readout of that phone call with Putin, nor the Kremlin's readout says anything about election meddling. Did the president not raise the issue of Russian election meddling in that phone call?

SANDERS: I don't believe it came up on this specific call, but it is something that we've spoken extensively about, and continue to look at ways and steps forward to make sure it never happens again.

[14:00:06] UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The president's new attorney, Joe DiGenova, he says that there is this brazen plot by the FBI and the DOJ to frame the --