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Roger Stone and WikiLeaks; Trump Not a Target; McMaster Talks Failure; Troops to Stay in Syria; Trade War with China; Markets Rattled over Tariffs. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired April 4, 2018 - 13:00   ET



[13:00:10] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Hello. I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Washington. 8:00 p.m. in Moscow, 1:00 a.m. Thursday in Beijing. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

We begin with breaking news.

Information uncovered by CNN's KFILE raises new questions about long- time Trump confidant Roger Stone and his links to WikiLeaks. On the same day he sent an e-mail claiming he had dinner with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Stone warned that, quote, devastating information from WikiLeaks would soon be released. He said the information involved wrongdoing by the Clinton Foundation. Stone made the comment in an August 4, 2016, interview on the Infowars radio show.


ROGER STONE: The Clinton campaign narrative that the Russians favor Donald Trump and the Russians are leaking this information, this is inoculation because, as you said earlier, they know what is coming, and it is devastating. Let's remember that their defense in all of the Clinton Foundation scandals has been, not, we didn't do it, has been, you have no proof. Yes, but you have no proof. Well, I think Julian Assange has that proof, and I think he's going to furnish it to the American people.


BLITZER: That same day, a source says Stone sent an e-mail to former Trump adviser Sam Nunberg saying he had dinner with Julian Assange the night before. Stone now says the e-mail was sent in jest and he never met or spoke with Julian Assange.

Our chief political analyst Gloria Borger is with us. Our CNN KFILE's senior editor Andrew Kaczynski broke the story for us.

Andrew, what can we glean from all of this about Roger Stone and WikiLeaks?

ANDREW KACZYNSKI, CNN KFILE SENIOR EDITOR: So this exchange with Stone and Alex Jones actually provides the earliest example of Stone claiming to know about forthcoming WikiLeaks. My team had pretty much put together this very extensive timeline showing that Stone repeatedly claimed to know about WikiLeaks drops on Clinton that were going to be coming. We had previously pegged the first date he had talked about that as August 10th, when he said he had spoken to Assange. This shows him speaking about it on August 4th, nearly a week earlier and, coincidentally enough, the same day he sent that e-mail claiming to have dined with Assange.

BLITZER: You know, Gloria, Stone says he was simply joking in that conversation with Sam Nunberg. From your sources, did Nunberg think Stone was joking?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, my source familiar with the conversation says that Nunberg thought it was about a 50/50 shot that Roger Stone was telling him the truth, that it could have been an exaggeration, it could have been puffery, it could have been a joke. He asked if Stone had new information on Benghazi, which is what Nunberg was really interested in. And according to this source, he was told by Roger Stone that it was about the Clinton Foundation, which is what you hear on that Infowars tape.

BLITZER: Andrew, Stone also mentions that he had spoken within then Republican nominee Donald Trump the day before the Infowars interview. Listen to this.


STONE: I spoke to Donald Trump yesterday. He's in good spirits. He has no intention whatsoever of dropping out. You can say anything you want about Trump. He's not a quitter. He's a brawler. He's a fighter.


BLITZER: All right, so give us some context about what was happening, Andrew, in the presidential race at that time.

KACZYNSKI: So in the presidential race around this time, the DNC had just happened, and Trump was embroiled (ph) in a number of controversies. We saw that Trump, he had made those comments about the Khans that were very controversial. We saw his poll numbers dropping out. And there were people that speculated that Trump would drop out of the race because of those sinking poll numbers. And this is sort of what him and Stone are talking about. He's saying, I'd spoken to Trump. You know, he's not going to quit. And, again, it's just very interesting with the timing of the claims about WikiLeaks and the e- mail about Assange because Stone has claimed that he never spoke with Trump about WikiLeaks.

BLITZER: And in terms of perspective, Gloria, the Robert Mueller investigation, I presume, they're all very interested in this information.

BORGER: Sure. They're interested in any link between WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, of course, the Russians, and anybody who was involved in the Trump orbit. Not necessarily in the campaign, but in the Trump orbit. And Roger Stone saying whether -- you know, they have to figure out whether he was joking or not, whether he had spoken with Julian -- or dined with Julian Assange. So I think that's something they clearly are going to want to get to the bottom of.

BLITZER: All right, Gloria, stick around. We've got more to discuss.

Andrew, thanks so much. You guys are doing a great job over there with the KFILE.

[13:05:02] A lot to discuss with our panel. Also joining us, our CNN national security analysis Samantha Vinograd, and CNN legal analyst Laura Coates.

Gloria, the special counsel, Robert Mueller, we have now confirmed, that the president is not a criminal target of this investigation.

BORGER: Right. Right. Sources familiar with the matter tell us, and "The Washington Post" reported this first, I should say, that the president's team has been told in recent weeks that they didn't consider him a target, but he was clearly more than a witness. And the reason he's more than a witness is because some of the events they're investigating he was a part of. This came up in discussions they've been having for weeks now about whether the president is going to testify.

Now, saying that somebody is a subject doesn't mean they can't become a target. And, Laura, you know a lot more about this than I do. But at this point they never sort of specified what he is. But I think his team gleaned that somewhere between witness and target is subject.

BLITZER: And there's been some suggestion the president can't be a criminal target of the investigation because the Justice Department and a special prosecutor really can't charge a sitting president of the United States.

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, you know, what you don't want to be in is a position to have a semantics-based argument going in to talk to the special counsel. The idea of, well, am I a subject, am I a target, am I a witness? What you don't want to be is ever a defendant in any of these actions. And so it's a very fluid discussion you can have.

Remember the DOJ has but some memorandum in their information about whether or not to actually indict a sitting president. It's not clear. There's live debate between legal experts whether they actually can do so. But you don't want to have that be the only straw that you're left holding at the end of the day because, one, this is telling me, as a negotiation tactic, probably in crafting the extent and the parameters of a discussion with Robert Mueller, they probably said, well, what sort of legal exposure do I have here? Are you talking to me because it's the end of your investigation and I am the final piece in the puzzle to convict me or am I (INAUDIBLE) facilitate the exoneration of me. So you see how hard (ph) that is.

I think what happened realistically is, they said, what is it going to mean for us to talk? And Mueller's team probably trying to placate and appease and coerce them to speak in a non-nefarious way was talking about this language.

BLITZER: All this is really important, Gloria, because the president and his legal team, they have to make a decision whether he's going to sit down and answer questions from Mueller and his team.

BORGER: Yes. Right. You know, and according to reporting I've done and Evan Perez has done, they're nowhere near making that decision now. I think it's safe to say that most of his lawyers think he shouldn't talk. But --

BLITZER: Even if he's not a target, even if he's not a subject, even if he's simply a witness.

BORGER: Yes, because you can get yourself in -- you can get yourself into a lot of trouble.


BORGER: And --

BLITZER: If he lies to federal investigators.

BORGER: And, don't forget, Robert Mueller knows a lot about the issues that they're going to be asking him about. As we've reported, they've given him four main areas and they're trying to figure out what to -- what to do right now.

Now, Mueller can say, well, I'm going to compel you, and then you have to make the decision, do you want to take this all the way to the Supreme Court? Which could, of course, occur.

The president, I was told, is not any more eager to testify because he knows he's not a target. He keeps vacillating, I was told, back and forth about what he should do.

BLITZER: Whether he's a target, a subject, a witness, or just the president of the United States. We will see what happens in the weeks and maybe months to come.

Let's talk about Russia for a moment. Sam, you're with us. H.R. McMaster, the three-star general, who's been the president's national security adviser, gave a bit of a farewell address last night at the Atlantic Council, and he said this, listen.


LT. GEN. H.R. MCMASTER, OUTGOING NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: 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 implausibly denies its actions, and we have failed to impose sufficient costs.


BLITZER: He said that he welcomed the U.S. -- the decision to expel 60 Russian diplomats. But when he uses the words "we have failed," "we have failed," I don't think the president of the United States likes to acknowledge that his administration has failed.

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Exactly. And we have a scenario whereby President Trump keeps doing this toughest guy in the room charade. He keeps saying, I've been tougher than all of my predecessors on Russia. And, Wolf, that's a red herring at this point.

We're still under attack. It doesn't matter if Trump was tougher, which he hasn't been, Obama was tougher, or Bush was tougher. At this point, we have the intelligence community, as recently as February, saying that we're still under live attack.

So I think it's great that McMaster and actually John Bolton are actually reading from the same sheet of music when it comes to taking real action to stop Russia. But the fact is, it's just not working yet.

BLITZER: The president says he wants to have a good relationship with Putin. He had that famous March 20th phone call in which he congratulated him. (INAUDIBLE) when he didn't raise some of the most sensitive issues, including the poisoning of an ex-Russian spy and his daughter in the U.K., or Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election, and the fear among U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials that they're doing it right now ahead of the midterm elections in November.

[13:10:20] VINOGRAD: Right. And he apparently invited Vladimir Putin to the White House despite the fact that, again, Putin is attacking our country. And Putin hasn't taken any good-faith measures to show that he wants to have a constructive conversation. It's almost like President Obama implemented this Russia reset strategy at the beginning of his administration to try to improve relations, and there again had to be confidence-building measures by both sides. Now it's like Trump is pursuing a reset and Putin's just continuing to attack us. It doesn't make sense.

BLITZER: I mean, Gloria, what did you think of McMaster's statement, we have failed to impose sufficient costs to the Russians?

BORGER: I think it --

BLITZER: And the fear that if the U.S. doesn't do that, they're going to just keep on doing it?

BORGER: I think he's out of the box at this point. He's not working there anymore soon. He can speak his mind. And if he were still if his previous job or knew that he was going to be there for a long time, I don't think he -- I don't think he would have said it. I mean, I think -- I think what you're hearing from General McMaster is the frustration that I think he feels that the administration has not done enough on cyber and prevention and has not been -- has not been tough enough. And I think that was one of the areas that he and the president probably clashed on.

BLITZER: Yes, General McMaster's a three-star general, active duty. BORGER: Yes.

BLITZER: He'll be retiring once he leaves the White House in the coming days.

COATES: You know, I also see this as also a critique of Congress as well. Remember, there are these dueling parallel investigations between what Mueller is doing in terms of a criminal probe, about whether or not an American citizen has somehow colluded, or whether there is a legislative action that can be taken to prevent what's actually going to occur again perhaps in the midterms and in the next general presidential election in 2020. So in a way of kind of addressing both of these, of a failure to actually effectively sanction, we have to kind of call into attention there have been these dueling, competing parallel investigations and neither seems to have had a sufficient impact on Russia, but for the talking indictment that was led by Mueller of those 13 Russian nationals that addressed how it was done.

BORGER: But, you know, remember, McMaster also came out weeks ago and said that it was clear and it was incontrovertible that the Russians were bad guys and had -- and had hacked the election, et cetera.

VINOGRAD: (INAUDIBLE) late in the game to say it.


BORGER: Right. But the president --

VINOGRAD: I mean it took a long time, right.

BORGER: But the president wasn't happy about it. So now McMaster's like, OK, well, the president's not happy about it. I've been fired anyway.

VINOGRAD: Right. I'm out.

BORGER: What's the point?

BLITZER: The president, I'm sure, was not happy to hear his national security adviser, albeit his outgoing national security adviser, say we have failed.

BORGER: Right. Right.

BLITZER: That's not something the president wants to hear.

BORGER: Right. Likes to win.

BLITZER: Guys, thanks very much for all of that, Gloria, Laura, and Samantha.

We're following breaking news on Syria at the same time. President Trump says he's OK keeping with U.S. troops -- some -- keeping U.S. troops in the war-torn region, at least for now, but he wants them out soon. We're going live to Damascus. That's next.

Plus, China hits back, announcing tariffs on American products. The news rattling U.S. stocks, stoking fears of a trade war between the world's two biggest economies. You see the Dow Jones down 100 points right now.

And today marks 50 years since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior. Massive crowds are spilling into Washington to honor the civil rights icon. I'll speak with his daughter, Bernice King, later this hour.


[13:17:43] BLITZER: There's breaking news we're following on the U.S. plan for Syria. CNN has learned the president told his national security team he's willing to keep U.S. troops in Syria in the short- term, but he also made known he wants an exit soon.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. And joining us from Syria right now, our senior national correspondent Fred Pleitgen.

Barbara, we're hearing a decision has been made regarding the status of those approximately 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, at least in the short-term. What else can you tell us?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, it is, at best, a short-term, perhaps, Wolf, because the president generally does not change his mind about things, as we all know. So he has put on the table that he wants U.S. troops out of Syria, about 2,000 troops there now.

But his generals have not really agreed to that. They are -- have been telling him, telling Defense Secretary Mattis that troops need to stay there, that the fight against ISIS is not done. Security is not guaranteed. And making the situation very complicated. If the U.S. pulls out, there's every reason to believe that Iran and Russia would strengthen their position there, continue to support the Assad regime, and ISIS would move in, in the areas that are essentially ungoverned at this point. So it could cause even more problems than they have now.

The concern that most commanders have is that it's too soon, they say, to go. And if they do go, it will unsettle the situation significantly.


BLITZER: And just to be precise, Barbara, the other day when he said he wants all U.S. troops out of Syria, quote, very soon, that took military officials over where you are at the Pentagon by surprise, right?

STARR: Well, it certainly did. There was a lot of perplexed looks and raised eyebrows about exactly what the president meant. It's not that he hasn't said before that he wants to get the job done with ISIS and wrap things up, if you will, but he was so adamant that he wants troops out soon. And that's really the crux of the question now. Even as the president was talking about, the top commander in the region, General Joseph Votel, was publicly saying here in Washington, U.S. troops need to stay, that the job is not done.


BLITZER: Yes, General Votel, the head of the U.S. military's Central Command.

[13:20:03] Fred, you're in Damascus. It's not often we get someone reporting live from Damascus. You've spent a lot of time in Syria over the years. So a quick withdrawal of these 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, what would it mean for the people, for the war over there?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think even that announcement that President Trump made certainly undermines the United States' credibility here on the ground. And, you know, one of the things that President Trump said, Wolf, is he said he wants other countries to step up in Syria for the U.S. to be able to move out.

And certainly there are three countries who are saying they're quite happy to step up. That is Turkey, Iran, and first and foremost Russia. Now, those three countries held a summit today in Turkey where they were essentially talking about the future of Syria and what they want the future to be like and the United States simply was not at the table.

The Russians, I would say, Wolf, certainly are by far the most powerful outside nation so far in Syria. If you look at where I am right now, in Damascus, the Syrian government forces have been making major gains here over the past couple of weeks. Right now what they're doing is in the eastern Ghouta area, just outside of Damascus, essentially negotiating for the rebels who are against President Bashar al Assad to leave those areas. And it's the Russians leading those negotiations, not even the Syrian government.

And then you look at some of those forces, Wolf, that were fighting with the United States against ISIS, (INAUDIBLE) the Kurds in the north of the country, a lot of them, of course, are quite angry, even at those announcements by the U.S. because they said, look, we were essentially your ground force against ISIS. We thought you'd be in it for the long run. And now they're not really sure if that's going to be the case. They're getting squeezed by the Turks. And, in effect, some of those groups are already talking as well to the Russians. So it seems as though the Russians are gaining momentum here while the U.S. already undermining its position simply by President Trump coming out and saying he wants that U.S. withdrawal. Certainly there's not many people here in this country who believe America is in it for the long run.


BLITZER: Yes, the Russians clearly gaining momentum. The regime of Bashar al Assad gaining momentum. The Iranians and their Hezbollah allies in Syria, they're gaining a lot of momentum at the same time as the U.S. considers a withdrawal of its troops from Syria. Lots to unpack there. We're going to continue our coverage.

Barbara and Fred, thanks very much for your excellent reporting.

Meanwhile, U.S. stocks, they have been on a roller coaster here in the United States as fears of a possible trade war with China escalate.

Plus, beefing up the border. The president renewing his promise, vowing to take strong action today. His words, strong action today.

Stay with us.


[13:26:44] BLITZER: Fears of a possible trade war between the world's two biggest economies are sending shock waves through the marks right now. The Dow, take a look at this, it's down about 150 points as investors react to news that China's threatening to retaliate against planned U.S. tariffs with a threat of new tariffs of its own. China says it will target $50 billion worth of U.S. exports to China, slapping a 25 percent tariff on 106 products in all, including soybeans, cars, and aircraft.

The news comes just hours after the U.S. published a list of proposed tariffs affecting more than 1,000 Chinese exports, including aerospace, tech, manufacturing, and medical industries.

CNN Money's editor at large, Richard Quest, is over at the New York Stock Exchange. Our White House reporter Kaitlan Collins is on the North Lawn of the White House.

Kaitlan, how is the president responding to all of this?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, unsurprisingly, Wolf, he's tweeting about it, essentially saying there's no point in backing down because he believes the United States is already on the losing end of this trade partnership with China. He wrote a little earlier today on Twitter saying, we are not in a trade war with China because that war was lost many years ago by the foolish or incompetent people who have represented the United States. Now we have a trade deficit of $500 billion a year with intellectual property theft of another $300 billion. We cannot let this continue. And then he added a little later on, when you're already 500 billion down, you can't lose.

Of course, Wolf, markets seem a little unconvinced that we're not on the brink of a trade war, but it does seem that the white House is a little concerned about this because they trotted out the new director of the National Economic Council, Larry Kudlow, who I should note has only been on the job for three days, to do some interviews earlier this morning. And he spoke with reporters on the North Lawn of the White House, essentially saying that he believes this is more of a negotiating tool. He noted that these tariffs have not gone into effect yet. And he said that the chance that these tariffs against China never materialize isn't zero. So certainly he sought to tamp down some fears of a potential trade war there. But, right now, Wolf, many people are left wondering what exactly is going to happen here and if there is going to be this tit-for-tat trade war between two of the world's largest economies.

BLITZER: Yes, Larry Kudlow, formerly of CNBC.

Richard, the tariffs have not gone into effect. Kudlow says it will take a while, that they're both posturing, China and the U.S. So there's some uncertainty about what will happen in the long-term. That's clearly having an impact, fueling the market volatility right now. What do you think we can expect, at least in the short-term?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT AND HOST OF "QUEST MEANS BUSINESS": More of the same and similar, Wolf. Just look at the way today has gone. We started off with the market down 500 points or so. And then, as, you know, obviously many stocks are looking cheap, so the market has pulled back quite a lot.

The S&P's even gone positive once or twice. The Dow nearly. The larger market, the broader market, the Russell 2000, has.

But, Wolf, this is a very risky strategy. If this is a negotiating ploy, as Kaitlan was discussing, by the White House, then, unfortunately, somebody has forgotten to tell the market because Boeing is down, Caterpillar is down, 3M is down, McDonald's was lower, Microsoft was lower. Every company that has pinned its future growth strategy in some shape or form on China is down.