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Trump Wants U.S. Troops Out of Syria "Very Soon"; EPA Chief Defends Actions in Raise Controversy; Reporters Question Kudlow about China Tariffs on U.S. Imports. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired April 4, 2018 - 14:30   ET


[14:30:00] JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That certainly is a possibility here.

So many things to talk to the White House press secretary today. Of course, this is just one of them. Syria, the border, so many other questions that the White House has yet to answer -- Brooke?

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: On Syria, because, of course, it all started with the president's speech in Ohio a week ago, right? He surprised the Pentagon in saying, I want the troops, 2,000 or so American troops in Syria to withdraw, leading to questions. This, as the Pentagon was planning to send more troops over to Syria. He met with national security advisers yesterday at the why House, expressed his interest in withdrawing. Yet, what was his decision out of that meeting?

ZELENY: Certainly, the president is eager to withdraw at some time. There was a big discussion here yesterday at the White House. It's not exactly what the president was hoping for, at least in terms of the swift timing of this. Yesterday was pretty extraordinary watching the global envoy in the fight against ISIS say essentially the exact opposite of what the president was saying. It speaks to the fact that the president has a lot of advisers, some are outside the government. He's following his instinct more and more on everything. But I expect those questions to be asked today as well -- Brooke?

BALDWIN: Jeff Zeleny, we'll stand by for that briefing to begin. Thank you so much. See you in a bit.

Also just in, embattled EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt spoke out moments ago, defending himself against some of the controversy he's facing. We'll discuss his recent remarks, next.

And also coming up, that White House press briefing. Stay with me.


[14:35:52] BALDWIN: More breaking news into CNN. Embattled EPA Chief Scott Pruitt said he was unaware of the raises given to two of his political aides, which was against the initial White House direction. He was asked about this moments ago. Here he is.


ED HENRY, FOX NEWS WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Why did you go around the president and White House and give pay raises to two staffers?

SCOTT PRUITT, DIRECTOR, EPA: I did not. My staff did. I found out about that yesterday and I changed it.

HENRY: So --

PRUITT: The PPPO process should have been respected and I issued a statement yesterday walking back those pay raises. That should not have --


HENRY: So should someone be fired for that?

PRUITT: That should not have been done.


HENRY: Who did it?

PRUITT: There will be some accountability.

HENRY: Career person or political person?

PRUITT: I don't know.


HENRY: You don't know? You don't know who did this?

PRUITT: I found out about this yesterday and I corrected the action.

HENRY: So --

PRUITT: But we are in the process of finding out how it took place and correcting it.


BALDWIN: Let's talk about this. Kaitlan Collins, Karoun Demirjian, you're up with me.

We were talking to Elaina at "The Atlantic," who broke this story as it pertains to the two staffers that Scott Pruitt brought over from Oklahoma when he got the job in D.C. He wanted to give them raises, tens of thousands of dollars-worth in raises. Went to the White House, the White House said no.

Kaitlan, it sounds like he's putting it on his staff and he didn't do it, even though the Safe Drinking Water Act loophole was used.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: That's right. He seems to defend himself, saying he didn't know about it until yesterday and as soon as he found out about it, he changed it. To be clear, they were ma massive pay raises for two staffers from Oklahoma, where Scott Pruitt is from. So that raises the questions of just how he would not know. These are tens of thousands of dollars in pay raises, not just insignificant numbers here. We're talking very big numbers in pay raises for people who typically do not make big paychecks and Scott Pruitt is sitting here, saying he did not know about it.

You saw FOX's Ed Henry push back on that saying you run the agency, how would you not know about something like this, something as significant as this. It's government spending. It's taxpayer dollars. How would you not know these were authorized?

First that we've been hearing from Scott Pruitt since he has been amid this scandal. His job certainly has been on the line this week. Even though the president himself has discussed confidence in Pruitt. As we reported, he called him and told him he has his back right now and he should keep working and going on over at the EPA. It makes you wonder. Clearly, the president will be watching this interview when it airs in full. If he doesn't think that Pruitt does a good enough job defending himself, just how long he's going to be hanging around here -- Brooke?

BALDWIN: From our own reporting, Karoun, the president is more irked by the publicity around this embattled EPA chief rather than the bad behavior. As Kaitlan said, the president called Scott Pruitt and said, we like you, hang in there. Pruitt sitting down for this interview, is that part of him trying to keep his job?

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: We've seen in the past the president has given -- spoken kindly to and given assurances to members of his cabinet that he then turns around and terminates a few hours later. They could go hand in hand easily. I think it depends. Certainly if Scott Pruitt does not come off well in that FOX News interview, I don't think the president will be that inclined to give him a pass on that. The president does care a lot about how he appears on television, about those who are his proxies and speaking for him on television doesn't go well when you don't put on a good face. So in that way, yes, it's a very existential moment for Scott Pruitt. And given the fact that the president doesn't need more complications, more complicated press on things that we're not necessarily problems for him prior to this scandal emerging.

[14:40:02] BALDWIN: Karoun, thank you. Kaitlan. Thank you, ladies. Stand by for me.

We're waiting for that press briefing. Have to imagine Sarah Sanders will be asked about that and so many other issues.

But I want to get to this. Outgoing national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, made some incredibly strong remarks on Russia on his way out the door last night. Why he says the Kremlin's confidence is growing.



UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Is it possible that these stiff new tariffs against China are, in fact -- (INAUDIBLE)? LARRY KUDLOW, CHIEF ECONOMIC COUNSEL: It's part of the process. I

mean, I would take the president seriously on this tariff issue. You know, there are carrots and sticks in life. But he is ultimately a free trader. He said that to me. He has said it publicly. So he wants to solve this with the least amount of pain.

[14:45:16] UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Can you have growth if there's a trade war?

KUDLOW: Hopefully, we won't get to that point.


BALDWIN: He says, hopefully, we won't get to that point. That's Larry Kudlow, Trump's new chief economic adviser in the White House, being bombarded by the White House press corps on what is going on with this counterpunch from China, slapping tariffs right back on U.S. products like soy beans, which is a huge, huge deal.

Richard Quest is back with me today on the Kudlow remarks, on Trump's tweet this morning.

When you're already $500 billion down, you can't lose, which to me sounds contradictory from what we've heard from the president's other people.



BALDWIN: That's not one.

QUEST: No. But this is important as well.


QUEST: We're not in a trade war with China. That's a bit of peasantry as to whether you are in a trade war yet. But we cannot let this continue. That's the important bit. That's the bit that says I will take action. What he did, of course, what the U.S. did yesterday announcing its planned tariffs on I.P. theft, China predictably responded. When you and I were talking yesterday, we said, look, with this $3 billion pork and apples and things. Wait for the real stuff.


BALDWIN: This is the real stuff. Soy beans is the real deal.

QUEST: -- $50 billion, aircraft, soy beans and chemicals. And all things that go to the heartland of American manufacturing.

BALDWIN: Larry Kudlow, though, said, listen, looking at it from a macro perspective this is smart growth will, increase wages, gave references to look for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. What is the pot of gold? QUEST: The post of gold --

BALDWIN: People in middle America aren't seeing the pot of gold.

QUEST: No. Kudlow is right. Very good man. Kudlow is right. There is a pot of gold. And the U.S. has a very valid point when it comes to not only steel tariffs and intellectual property theft. There's no question that the U.S. has a strong, valid case that China has been cheating on trade. The president is right. The issue is whether this is the right way to go about it.

BALDWIN: Got it.

QUEST: Do you go about it with the WTO? Remember, the Chinese have just announced they are going to the WTO. Or do you do this sort of tweeting at 280 characters or less? If you go down this route, remember, we talked about the tower.


QUEST: The tower that --


BALDWIN: Where it needs concrete at the base but not getting the concrete it needs.


QUEST: No, no, we're not getting concrete. The president's got a digger. The president's got --


BALDWIN: And the tower is starting to --


QUEST: Undermining the foundations. And that's what we saw this morning. Markets, look at the Dow --


BALDWIN: Flash it up on the screen.

QUEST: A market that's down 500 at the open.

BALDWIN: Here you go.

QUEST: Rise back up again. You could say to me, Richard, but you're wrong. Look, it's up 117. This is not normal. This isn't reasonable. This isn't a responsible market. It's having external forces against it and it cannot cope.

BALDWIN: OK. Richard Quest, thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

We're waiting for the press briefing. You know Sarah Sanders is going to be asked about this.

Quick break. Back in a moment.


[14:53:12] BALDWIN: President Trump, who has been saying publicly he wants the U.S. out of Syria, is now clarifying his position after puzzling his own Defense Department and State Department, which indicated they were unaware of such plans. The president telling his national security team he is willing to keep U.S. troops in Syria in the short term, but he also made known he wants an exit soon.

But I want you to listen to what U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley also said today.


NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: It's a sad fact, just a few years ago, a single chemical weapons attack would have united us in shock and anger. It would have been enough for us to take immediate action. Now we have a regime that uses chemical weapons practically every other week. Our lack of action has consequences. When we let one regime off the hook, others take notice.


BALDWIN: Joining me now, retired Army Lieutenant General Mark Hertling and CNN's Fred Pleitgen, who is live in Damascus in Syria.

Fred, I want to begin with you.

You're there on the ground. We hear the president. Obviously has a desire for U.S. troops to get out. Nikki Haley just saying our lack of action has consequences. Is it too early to even be talking withdrawal?

[14:54:41] FRED PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think certainly at this point in time if you speak to people on the ground and look at the other powers engaged in Syria, Brooke, they are certainly looking to see whether the U.S. actually does withdraw. The whole back and forth, what the president wants, suggesting that maybe the Saudis should pay if America stays here longer. That's undercut the American strategy on the ground. Turkey, Iran and Russia, by far the most powerful players on the ground in Syria right now at the expense of the credibility of the United States. Those three countries had a summit today in Turkey where they essentially talked about the future of this country. Of course, the U.S. was not at the table. If you look where I am right here, in Damascus, in this area, the forces loyal to president Bashar al Assad are making huge gains right here and the Russians are brokering. Having to go to parts of northern Syria. If you look at the facts on the ground, you can see Russia obtaining its military objective on the ground and Turks doing essentially the same thing. Forces loyal to the U.S., right now, very much in limbo. They fought with the U.S. against ISIS, in some places continue to do so. A lot of them are quite angry because they feel America might leave them behind and leave this country all together -- Brooke?

BALDWIN: On that point -- Fred, thank you.

General, on the Turks and Russians, listen, this is a president who talks a lot about America First. He talks about the trillions of dollars important in this part of the world for 17 years. That's what he said yesterday. He also has said let other people take care of it. He wants the onus to be with the leaders in that region. The question is so then who? There is obviously a lot of coordination with allies. Fred alluded to this. What would happen if the U.S. pulled out?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: There would be a loss of trust not only in the United States but in the U.S. military. A lot of people are depending on us to continue to be their partners. And truthfully in many times in the past we've done the same kind of things to Kurdish forces on several occasions. My conversations with those that I knew in Iraq, their Kurdish regional government, are telling me they're beginning to lose trust if they haven't lost it already in the United States. That would be a short-term issue. The long-term issue is what is going to happen, as Fred just said, with Russia, Iran and Turkey? Turkey being especially important because it's a NATO ally. What is going on in terms of how the U.S. is perceived in not only the Middle East but in Europe because of these actions. And what's going on, on the battlefield. The military operation's only one small piece of this every adviser on the president's staff, General Votel, General Thomas, Secretary Mattis, Ambassador Haley, you just pointed out, the NSC advisor, McMaster, have all said we need to realize what goes on post-conflict and determine what our strategy is and strategy is never determined by the number of boots you have on the ground.

BALDWIN: Fred mentioned, interesting, the timing of meeting with the Turks and the Russians. Would Russia directly benefit from the U.S. withdrawal?

HERTLING: Yes, absolutely. We've known that for quite some time, and we have known about this meeting for several months, which we were excluded from this particular meeting, which, in fact, will divvy up responsibilities in Turkey -- excuse me, in Syria without our input. And, yes, Russia would be extremely beneficial to this for two reasons. First of all, they get their bases in Syria, which is what they've been looking to do since the start of them supporting this conflict. They also put another wedge in NATO. And they also support Iran, just as the U.S. is saying, hey, we've got to relook the Iranian nuclear deal. Yes, Russia not only has the short-term tactical perspective of what's going on with these conversations about northern Syria, but, Brooke, I've got to tell you, this is strategic chess at the brain-surgery level. They know what they're doing and do it extremely well. Not just this area but other parts of the world.

BALDWIN: On Russia, let me ask you one more. You've spoken about General H.R. McMaster. He's leaving his post as the president's national security adviser. He had a lot to say on Russia last night. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) GEN. H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Russia has used old and new forms of aggression to undermine our open societies and the foundations of international peace and stability.

Russia brazenly and implausible denies its actions and we have failed to impose sufficient costs.


[15:00:01] BALDWIN: So he is blasting Russia on his way out the door. Rex Tillerson blasted Russia as he left the State Department.