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Trump Stuns Administration; Gates to Help on Collusion; Sessions Rebuffs Special Counsel; Putin Test Fires Missile; Congresswoman Kept Aide Despite Allegations. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired March 30, 2018 - 13:00   ET

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


[13:00:04] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: 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.

Despite saying he wouldn't telegraph military moves, the president stunning officials by saying the U.S. will be leaving Syria very soon. And now White House officials are scrambling to try to figure out what he meant.

Vladimir Putin launches Satan 2. Russia test firing a new intercontinental ballistic missile as the Kremlin and the Kremlin and the U.S. face off over the expulsions of their diplomats.

And an explosive development in the Russia investigation. The biggest indication yet that Robert Mueller, the special counsel, is looking into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

All that coming up.

But let's start with lots of confusion over at the White House right now while the president is vacationing down in Florida. President Trump is spending Easter weekend at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach. Once again today he was seen at the Trump International Golf Club, not very far away. It's the -- his 104th day at one of his golf properties since taking office.

Our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is joining us from West Palm Beach right now.

Jim, the president at his golf course. But it's a comment from his speech in Ohio yesterday that has caused some significant confusion back among his top aides. What's going on?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. A senior administration official told me earlier this morning that the president's comments in Ohio yesterday that we're going to be getting -- the U.S. is going to be getting out of Syria very soon is essentially just perplexing people inside the administration, inside the White House, State Department, over at the Pentagon, because that's obviously not the strategy for taking on ISIS at this point. The president seems to have made those comments without telling a lot of staffers exactly what he meant. I talked to one senior administration official earlier this morning who said we're still trying to figure out what the president meant when he said that yesterday.

But just to give our viewer a sense of what the president said, here's what he told people in Ohio yesterday about the battle against ISIS and about the possibility of pulling U.S. troops out of Syria. Here's what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're knocking the hell out of ISIS. We'll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now. Very soon. Very soon, we're coming out. We're going to have 100 percent of the caliphate, as they call it, sometimes referred to as land, we're taking it all back quickly, quickly. But we're going to be coming out of there real soon.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: And so that is the comment there that is confusing a lot of staffers inside the administration at this point, Wolf.

A couple of things we should point out. One is, we talked to another senior administration official who told us in recent days that a sudden and drastic withdrawal from Syria would potentially create a vacuum not unlike what we saw in Iraq when the U.S. pulled U.S. forces out of Iraq following the Iraq War. That is obviously a situation that helped create the -- I guess foundation of ISIS. Those Islamic state forces really grew out of the vacuum that was left behind in Iraq after the Iraq War was over there. And so officials are now worried about a similar possibility happening in Syria just as they're wiping Syria -- wiping ISIS out of their strongholds in Syria.

The other thing we should point out, Wolf, is that this confusing comment from the president comes at a critical time for the national security team over at the White House. John Bolton, as we know, is coming in as the national security adviser. And there are people who are sort of wondering and bracing for the impact of John Bolton really coming on board there and putting his own people in place. The expectation is, according to one senior administration official I talked to earlier today, is that basically John Bolton will have his own team, new people will be coming in, and some of the current people who are there on staff will be moving out. And so all of that creating some confusion about what is actually going to happen with Syria, this very important fight against ISIS that the president campaigned on quite a bit, as we recall, during the 2016 election, Wolf.

BLITZER: He certainly did.

There are about 2,000 U.S. troops, Jim, in Syria right now. Maybe another 5,000 or 10,000 in Iraq. About 15,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Are you getting any indication that the president wants to pull all of them out fairly soon? He never liked these wars in the Middle East to begin with.

ACOSTA: No, he doesn't. And he seems to want to have it both ways. You'll recall during the campaign he went after George W. Bush time and again over essentially how he was handling the Iraq War, essentially accused George W. Bush of pulling the country into a quagmire and spending a lot of money there that shouldn't have been -- shouldn't have been spent. It was one of those -- it was one of those campaign comments from the president that he just went back to time and again at various rallies. Surprised a lot of Republicans that he would go after George W. Bush in that way, but he did it time and again.

But, at the same time, the president saying that he wants to, as he likes to put it from time to time, knock the hell out of ISIS. Well, to do that, you need troops on the ground. You need a significant commitment from the U.S. military. And as you said, 2,000 U.S. military troops in Syria at this point. The Pentagon just disclosed that to reporters last December, trying to shed light on what U.S. commitments are around the world, said at that time that there are 2,000 U.S. forces in Syria.

[13:05:28] The question, Wolf, is whether or not the president can make good on that comment yesterday to pull the U.S. out of Syria soon, while at the same time making sure that ISIS does not reformulate itself in Syria and cause problems for the United States and other countries in that area down the road, Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta reporting for us in West Palm Beach.

Jim, thanks very much.

For the first time we're also now learning just how Robert Mueller is using information from a former Trump campaign deputy to tie Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign chairman, directly to the Russia intelligence agency. We're talking about the deputy, Rick Gates. He was a business partner with Manafort's firm before being brought onto the campaign, eventually severing all ties with the White House in March of last year. He pleaded guilty to financial fraud and lying to investigators last month and agreed to cooperate with Mueller's special counsel.

Let's bring in our political correspondent Sara Murray.

Sara, walk us through how Mueller is trying to connect the dots here.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, when Rick Gates first pleaded guilty, I think a lot of people expected that Mueller wanted his cooperation when it came to Paul Manafort. Of course they were long-time business partners. They were both facing criminal charges for their business activities prior to joining the campaign. But sources are telling my colleague, Kaitlan Pulance (ph) that when Rick Gates was speaking to the special counsel's prosecutors, they made it clear, we don't need you to flip on Manafort, we don't necessarily need your cooperation in this case, but what we need your cooperation for is for our broader mission, which is, of course, investigating Russian collusion potentially with members of the Trump campaign.

Now, when you look back at the campaign, Rick Gates wasn't necessarily particularly close to President Trump. He wasn't necessarily in all of these top meetings, but he was, of course, close to Paul Manafort, who was the campaign chairman at the time. And sources are telling me that Rick Gates made it his business to get to know what was going on in Trump Tower.

And he was there at some critical moments. Remember the summer of 2016. This was when there was this Trump Tower meeting between Paul Manafort, a number of other folks on the campaign, as well as a number of Russian operatives. We know that this is something Special Counsel Robert Mueller is interested in and this could be the kind of meeting that Rick Gates has information about.

Now, in addition to what sources have told us about Rick Gates and his meeting with the special prosecutors, we also got some new filings from Robert Mueller in a separate case. And these filings are particularly interesting because they tie Rick Gates to a man who's not identified in the court filings, but our sources identify him as Constantine Colimnik (ph). The reason that this person is so interesting is because he's a suspected Russian intelligence operative. And according to prosecutors for the special counsel, they say Rick Gates was in contact with this man throughout the campaign and knew about his Russian intelligence ties.

Now, Colimnik is also someone who has worked with Paul Manafort in the past. We know that the special counsel is interested in these interactions. He has said that these contacts are pertinent to the investigation and certainly wants to find out more about them.

And, of course the big question is what, if anything, does this mean for President Trump? We have seen him out there time and time again calling this investigation a witch hunt. And part of his argument is that nothing that he has seen from investigators so far ties anyone on his campaign to Russian officials. Obviously the latest information we're getting takes some steam out of that argument.

BLITZER: Yes, it certainly does. And Rick Gates pleading guilty, fully cooperating now with Manafort. That's a source of concern clearly to some around the president of the United States.

Thanks very much, Sara, for that report.

Several times during the Russia investigation, President Trump has clamored for a second special prosecutor, this one to look into Hillary Clinton, and later into possible bias over at the FBI and the Justice Department. The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has now refused that second special counsel request, at least so far. He put a federal prosecutor in on the case but in a different role. His name is John Huber, and he's the top federal prosecutor in Utah. But his inclusion in the process isn't sitting well, at least with some Republicans.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. MIKE TURNER (R), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: In this instance, he's asking a person within the organization to investigate the organization. We want special counsel that's independent, that has full ability to pursue these issues to wherever they go.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Specifically, John Huber will review the FBI's Russia investigation and whether agents abused their powers by surveilling a former Trump adviser. He'll also review the investigation into Hillary Clinton's possible ties to a Russian nuclear energy agency.

Joining us now from Chicago, Illinois, Congressman Mike Quigley. He's a Democrat. He's a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Thanks, Congressman, for joining us.

[13:10:01] REP. MIKE QUIGLEY (D), ILLINOIS: Thank you. Good afternoon.

BLITZER: What do you think of the review that's now been ordered by the Attorney General Jeff Sessions, his refusal to name a second special counsel, but his inclination to go ahead with this federal prosecutor in Utah, John Huber, to take a look into all of this?

QUIGLEY: Yes, it's really lockstep with what Chairman Nunes was doing, creating additional investigations on separate matters, is the only way to describe it.

Let's put this into context. Since the Republicans shut the investigation down on the House side, we have news about Gates and Manafort meeting with someone tied to Russian intelligence. We've had the FaceBook Cambridge issues. We've had the issues of the White House possibly offering pardons to people as the special prosecutor closed in on them. All this while we've closed down the investigation.

So we stopped the investigation as to what the Russians have done, and we're continuing the investigation into our own government.

BLITZER: We're also now learning, as you know, that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, has been using former Trump campaign deputy, Rick Gates, to chase the entire Russia collusion angle with the Trump campaign. Not necessarily to focus in so much on Paul Manafort. What do you think of that?

QUIGLEY: You know, I think it makes perfect sense. I think it's easy to forget that there are several people out there cooperating, including General Flynn. I think the only way you're going to find out exactly what took place is if people who were involved in the process speak out. So I think Mr. Mueller has done this brilliantly. He's worked from the periphery and moved toward the middle and he's done this in a surgical context, getting people in a vulnerable state who are willing to and have information that we need to know, all the while House Republicans sit on their hands.

BLITZER: Was information from Rick Gates part of your House Intelligence Committee investigation into possible collusion?

QUIGLEY: Well, it's an area of great interest as all of the cooperating witnesses are. And at this point in time, you know, we feel a little bit liberated. At this point in time, we've asked Mr. Wiley to come testify about Cambridge Analytica's role in the Trump campaign and what he might know. So we're going to go forward with or without the Republicans and make

the request of the cooperating witnesses, see if they'll come talk to the House Democrats and give us more information. But, obviously, to answer your question, these are people of great interest as they are with Mr. Mueller's investigation.

BLITZER: You mentioned it, but let me ask you about the reports that President Trump's former attorney, John Dowd, had talked about the president using pardons potentially, at least floated the idea of using these pardons to influence the investigation. He talked about both former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former deputy -- and former national security adviser Michael Flynn. What's your reaction?

QUIGLEY: You know, it's hard to imagine he's having these communications, if indeed he is, unless it's to attempt to influence their decisions as to whether to cooperate with the investigation.

I understand that the pardon power is fairly absolute of the president of the United States. It is inconceivable to me that the founding fathers created the pardon power to allow the president of the United States to escape the possibility of prosecution.

BLITZER: Well, we don't know if the president was specifically involved in -- if John Dowd -- if John Dowd did, in fact, float this idea. We don't know if the role, if any, of the president's was, right?

QUIGLEY: No, but clearly the attorney is doing this on behalf of the president of the United States. Again, fair questions. All questions that we should be continuing to investigate.

Look, we'll -- we started the investigation on four prongs. One of them was not obstruction of justice. But obstruction of justice as a possibility is intertwined with the other four. What did the Russians do? Who helped them do this in attacking our democratic process? So I think it's equally valuable for us to find out exactly after the fact, was there obstruction of justice, because it helps us find out what the Russians did, how to prevent it in the future.

BLITZER: Yes, they're looking at obstruction of justice. They're looking at possible collusion. They're looking at money laundering and perjury clearly is atop the agenda as well.

Congressman Quigley, thanks so much for joining us.

QUIGLEY: Any time. Go Ramblers!

BLITZER: OK, thank you.

President Trump stunning his own administration by saying the U.S. will soon leave Syria. Very serious consequences. That's coming up.

Plus, in a provocative move, Russian President Vladimir Putin launching a new intercontinental ballistic missile system called Satan 2, as the U.S. expels dozens of Russian diplomats. [13:14:54] And a Democratic congresswoman under fire for keeping a

chief of staff accused of abuse and threats against one of his workers. How is she responding? All that coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Today, Russia escalating tensions with the test firing of what's called Satan 2. That's the nickname for their newest intercontinental ballistic missile. When President Putin originally introduced it earlier this month, he said the missile could hit any point in the world.

Let's discuss this and more with CNN intelligence and security analyst, former CIA operative, Bob Baer.

How worried should the U.S. be about this missile?

BOB BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: I think very worried. Our missile defenses I don't think can counter this. They can fly this over the North Pole. It's got multiple warheads. It can beat definitely Patriot and probably THAAD as well. They've adapted their technology over the last 17 years.

BLITZER: Why do you think the Russians are releasing all this information at this particular point?

BAER: The Russians are very disappointed with Donald Trump. They think we're heading back into a Cold War. They got something they didn't expect. They look at the United States as hostile. They're still upset about the Ukraine, about Crimea. You know, and the rest of it. They are -- Putin looks at us as the main enemy and is taking appropriate steps.

[13:20:15] BLITZER: What did you think of the president yesterday saying the U.S. was going to pull out its troops from Syria very soon. The U.S. currently has about 2,000 troops in Syria, I think many of them special operators.

BAER: Look, he's shooting from the hip again. He totally frustrated with Syria. There are no solutions. Iran and Russia have about 80 percent of the country. The national security adviser, McMaster, has not offered him a resolution. So he said, let's get up and leave. But the problem is, you don't do this without preparation.

Secondly, if you get up and leave, you're opening that whole area, the Kurdish area, to Iran, Hezbollah and the Russia, and then Syria becomes effectively an Iranian satellite.

BLITZER: I was a bit surprised that the president publically telegraphed his intention to pull out U.S. troops from Syria very soon yesterday, given what he used to say during the campaign when he was very critical of President Obama for saying the U.S. was going to pull out troops from Iraq or Afghanistan on such and such a date. Listen to what he used to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, one of the things I think you've noticed about me is militarily I don't like to say where I'm going and what I'm doing.

I don't want to telegraph what I'm doing or what I'm thinking. I'm not like other administrations where they say, we're going to do this in four weeks and that -- it doesn't work that way.

I don't want to be one of these guys that say, yes, here's what we're going to do. I don't have to do that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: So yesterday he specifically said 2,000 U.S. troops, they're going to be pulled out very soon.

BAER: Indeed. Well, we know he's inconsistent. The problem is, we've got allies in Syria. They didn't know anything about this. There's no plans that was worked out with the administration. And then we've got the Kurds who are our main allies on the ground doing most of the fighting, and this came as a total surprise to them, demoralizes them. And what is U.S. policy? And the last time we left quickly an Arab country was Iraq and it fell apart in an awful civil war which is still going on today.

BLITZER: Yes, he was critical of President Obama for spelling out when the U.S. would pull out of various locations because he said, and he made a good point, that gives the enemy an opportunity to just wait it out. Once the U.S. leaves, they can step up their effort. And now the president just said that U.S. troops are going to be out of Syria very soon. It was a surprise to people, I've got to tell you, over at the Pentagon.

BAER: A victory for Iran.

BLITZER: Iran's making significant progress from Iran, through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, through Hezbollah. They've got a huge, huge influence over there.

BAER: And they're sitting on the Israeli border right now.

BLITZER: Yes.

BAER: And Bibi Netanyahu is scared.

BLITZER: Yes. It's a big problem.

All right, thanks very much, Bob Baer.

He was a chief of staff up on Capitol Hill accused of abusing, harassing, and making death threats against one of his staff members. But a Democratic congresswoman kept him on the staff anyway. You're going to hear her explanation.

Plus, life without Hope Hicks. The president spending his first day without one of his most loyal and trusted aides. Why advisers are now so concerned, potentially, they fear, he could unravel without her.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:27:30] BLITZER: A Democratic congresswoman kept on a top aide despite learning of very serious abuse allegations against him. Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty not only allowed the aide to keep working for her, but entered into a non-disclosure agreement with him and even went on to write him a letter of recommendation.

Our congressional correspondent, Sunlen Serfaty, is joining us with details.

Sunlen, walk us through the details, the accusations, what exactly unfolded.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, there's a lot here that we're just learning from something that took place two years ago, Wolf. The congresswoman is apologizing now that this story is out and acknowledging that she should have handled this better. This was someone who was once very powerful in her office, her former chief of staff, Tony Baker. And these are some very serious allegations. Allegations that in 2016 he physically assaulted and threatened a female staffer in her office, someone he was once in a relationship with, so much so that this staffer had to get a restraining order against him.

The congresswoman, in a statement, says, quote, I am sorry that I failed to protect her and provide her with a safe and respectful work environment that every employee deserves. To this survivor and to anyone else on my team who was hurt by my failure to see what was going on in my office, I am so sorry.

And when we're talking about the failures that the congresswoman references there, the timeline here is so important. This is something that allegedly happened two years ago, and the congresswoman knew about two years ago. She said she first learned about this in the spring of 2016. She launched an internal investigation, she says, and demanded that Baker receive counseling. But he ultimately stayed on her staff for three additional months after that. She entered into a nondisclosure agreement with him. Upon his exit, she paid him severance and even wrote a letter of reference or recommendation for him for his next job. And for that, Wolf, the NRCC today is calling for the congresswoman's resignation. They say it is a disturbing cover-up.

BLITZER: That's a very significant and disturbing development, indeed.

I want to assess. Stick around.

I want to bring in CNN legal analyst, former federal prosecutor, Laura Coates, and "Boston Globe" reporter Astead Herndon.

Astead, what do you think? This is a serious, serious allegation, serious problem, and especially the way it all unfolded.

ASTEAD HERNDON, REPORTER, "THE BOSTON GLOBE": Right, that timeline is really important. We see from the congresswoman that there was ample amount of knowledge and intimidate understanding of the accusations against the staffer. And then still, after that point, and kind of damning or really bad-looking details of entering into that nondisclosure agreement, providing that letter of recommendation.

[13:30:05] And, of course, this comes within the backdrop of this Me Too movement, which this congresswoman has been very vocal about in terms of supporting people who have been victims of unsafe and