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Central American Caravan Continues Heading North; Trump Upset with Advisors over Syria Withdrawal; Daughter of Former Russian Spy Speaks Out. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired April 5, 2018 - 13:30   ET


[13:30:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: President Trump expecting support for his embattled Environmental Protection Agency administrator, but sources say, behind the scenes, the president is not happy with Scott Pruitt's combative interview with FOX News. The president was pressed about Pruitt as he departed for West Virginia moments ago and was asked whether he still has confidence in Pruitt.




BLITZER: You could barely hear him, but he said, "I do, I do."

Pruitt is under fire for a number of ethical scandals, including huge pay raises for two aides totaling more than $80,000 and for renting a room from the wife of an energy lobbyist for just $50 a night. We'll have more on that story coming up.

Also, right now, the Pentagon is holding a briefing on President Trump's order of National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border. The president says he's responsible for U.S.-Mexico border crossings being at a 46-year low, but insists that U.S. troops are still needed near Mexico. However, a few minutes ago, the Pentagon said it's still working out how many troops are needed and what their needed for. Listen.


DANA W. WHITE, PENTAGON CHIEF SPOKESPERSON: Again, we're working -- that's what the cell is about. We're going to coordinate and they will provide us with the requirements and then, from that, we'll determine how many and what's the mission and how many we'll deploy.


BLITZER: Meanwhile, the so-called caravan of Central American migrants that appears to have sparked the president's tweet storm in recent days on immigration is making its way north as we speak. The migration event, as it's called, happens yearly. This year, more than a thousand people are traveling north to Mexico looking for a better life. Some will stay in Mexico to try to get refugee status there, but around 200 others are expected to continue all the way to the U.S. border.

We're covering both sides of the border right now. CNN's Ed Lavandera is in Texas. CNN's Leyla Santiago is in Mexico following these caravans.

Ed, first to you.

Do people on the border want the National Guard deployed to the area? Do they see a need?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's interesting, it's a complicated question for many people here, Wolf. By and large, when you talk to people on the street, residents here in border communities, like Laredo, Texas, where we are, this whole idea of militarizing the border is not something many people are fond of.

Having said that, there is still some support for it. And it's something, quite frankly, that many people here have become used to over the last 12 years or so. Remember President Bush deployed the National Guard down here, as did President Obama. They have played mostly support roles. It's not like they've been incredibly visible. It's not like you're seeing tanks or Army teams deploying out and across the city. They have been in support roles. You don't see them out here on the banks of the Rio Grande where we are here this afternoon.

We spoke with -- also spoke with the spokesperson for the Border Patrol union here in Laredo. This is a group that isn't going to criticize President Trump by any means, but they welcome the move. They say they are still understaffed by some 2,000 Border Patrol agents nationwide, and the National Guard soldiers can come in and fill those gaps. They very much welcome that.

But there is a sense that perhaps this money could be better spent elsewhere and in different ways, and that is one of the other large criticisms we're hearing of the move here as well from the president -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Let's go back to Mexico right now.

Leyla, the president tweeted that the caravan headed toward the U.S. border with Mexico, is largely broken up. You're there. You see on the screen the president's tweet. What is the case? What are you actually seeing, Leyla, on the ground?

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, listen, Wolf, a part of this group, yes, has broken up quite a bit. But here's the thing. This is an annual event. It's actually a religious march, sort of a pilgrimage that people here use as a way to make a statement, and quite often it does break up at this point. Typically, they start on the southern part of Mexico and they make their way up. People kind of drop off on the way. So organizers say, yes, that is happening, but to say that it's because of President Trump, that's just not true.

Now, one of the folks that kind of broke off from the caravan, I have him right next to me. (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

SANTIAGO: This is Carlos Diaz. He is one that was with the caravan.



SANTIAGO: He was with the caravan at some point.


I'm asking him where he's going.


SANTIAGO: So he wants to get to the United States.



SANTIAGO: He's going to North Carolina. He's on his way.

So as you mentioned, Wolf, while many are going to stay here in Mexico, seek refugee status here, there are still some like Carlos that are going to go to the U.S. Now, Carlos -- (SPEAWKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE --


SANTIAGO: -- he's from Honduras.


I'm asking him why he left.


SANTIAGO: He says there is a lot of economic problems in Honduras.


SANTIAGO: He doesn't have a job, there is little opportunity there.


[13:35:11] SANTIAGO: And he says that it is very much controlled by the violence and the gangs that are there.


So Carlos is just one example of people in this caravan that are still on their way. To your point, yes, they have broken up a bit, but still more expected

to come here to Puebla. This priest at this church still expects 20 more buses to arrive with a thousand more people today. Carlos is one of the first, but they are expected to go from Lajoca (ph) where they are now, to Puebla, and head to Mexico City. Then some, organizers say some 200 will head to the U.S.-Mexico border to seek asylum -- Wolf?

BLITZER: What happens when they get to the border -- I don't know if you want to ask Carlos, Leyla. But what's happens when they get to the border, Leyla. Are they confident they will be able to cross into the United States? Will Carlos then be able to make his way to North Carolina?


I'm going to specifically ask him what the National Guard impact would be here.



SANTIAGO: He says that he could keep going.


SANTIAGO: So he says, even if he's arrested or detained by the National Guard or some sort of law enforcement on the border there, he's saying that he could either try to continue on to be deported back to Honduras and then he would try to make the same trip again. Because again, for Carlos, this is about a better life. He's looking for a job. He's looking to flee the violence.



SANTIAGO: He's got a family -- in Honduras?


SANTIAGO: So he's leaving behind children in Honduras to try to reach the United States to be able to give his family a better life. I wanted you to meet a part of this caravan.



I'm asking him if it's a dangerous caravan as President Trump says.


SANTIAGO: The president. He says he has a message for President Trump. DIAZ: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

SANTIAGO: He says they are there to work and they want a better future for their family.


SANTIAGO: He says to tap into his conscience and help --


SANTIAGO: -- help the migrants that are struggling --


SANTIAGO: -- to just have a better life --


SANTIAGO: -- and a better future for their children.



SANTIAGO: Carlos, thank you so much.

Again, I wanted to just sort of put a face to this caravan. Carlos is one of the first that has arrived here but, according to organizers, there are not only men, but women and children on their way right now to where we are.

It's fortunate we are here and telling you how it stands for the annual sort of pilgrimage that always goes to the north, but it is breaking up a little bit, but you cannot necessarily say it is President Trump doing that.

BLITZER: Very useful information, Leyla. Thank you so much for that. Taking us inside at least one individual's so-called caravan.

Leyla Santiago, in Mexico, and Ed Lavandera, in the U.S. on the Mexican border. We'll continue to follow this important story.

Coming up, President Trump gets testy when it comes to Syria. U.S. troops are staying there for now and the president is not happy about that. We have new details from inside what is being described as a heated national security meeting.


[13:43:02] BLITZER: Right now, U.S. troops will remain in Syria, but President Trump isn't very happy about that. Sources tell CNN that the president got irritated with his top military brass and national security team after they laid out the risks of an immediate withdrawal of some 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. Joining us now, CNN military and diplomatic analyst, retired Rear

Admiral John Kirby, and from Damascus in Syria, CNN senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen.

Fred, earlier this week, President Trump announced it was time to bring home those U.S. troops from Syria. He said very soon. At the same time, officials say the U.S. would remained until the defeat of ISIS was complete. How are those mixed messages being received in Damascus?

FRED PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's really interesting to see, because if you speak with folks within the Syrian army, they are not even factoring the U.S. in the future of Syria. I talked to some very senior soldiers and they were telling me they want to win back all of Syria, they want to get back all of their territory. They didn't seem as though they were concerned about the U.S. being there for an extended period of time. So it looks as though the Syrian government, which is of course backed by the Russians and the Iranians, it looks to them like Syria wants to pull out sooner than later, anyway, and that is something, Wolf, we said in the past couple days and it really strengthens the hands of the Russians and the Iranian in this part of Syria and other parts of Syria as well -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Good point.

John, what are the risks of pulling out those 2,000 U.S. troops? Because 2,000 doesn't seem, isn't 100,000 or 50,000. What is the risk of pulling them out quickly?

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY & DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Hopefully, we've averted this outcome of this latest decision. But if we pull them out before we could stabilize areas that ISIS has been kicked out of, you run the risk of ISIS reconstituting. You run the risk of the counter-ISIS coalition, which the U.S. leads and includes 75 other partners, potentially falling apart, which won't be good for the entire region.

And, as Fred pointed out, you give more oxygen to Russia and Iran, and frankly, Turkey, who would like nothing better than the United States to lead so they can begin to pursue a Syria that is in their interests and not necessarily the interests of the international community.

[13:45:21] BLITZER: Listen to Lieutenant General Frank McKenzie, the director of the Joint Staff over at the Pentagon. This is what he just said. Listen to this.


LT. GEN. FRANK MCKENZIE, DIRECTOR, PENTAGON JOINT STAFF: A lot of great work has been done in Syria, very close to reaching an in-state against the caliphate. We think as we go forward one of the things we haven't been given is a timeline. That's actually very effective. And that might have been a problem we saw before in Afghanistan where we acted against the timeline that was known to the enemy. The president has actually been very good at not giving us a specific timeline. That's a tool we can use to our effect as we move forward.

I would tell you, looking in the long term, obviously entities in the region, nations in the region have to have as much --


BLITZER: He's making the case why the military thinks giving the enemy, the adversaries advance warning about a timeline would be bad.

KIRBY: It would be, and that was something the military bristled at with Iraq and Afghanistan under President Obama, was we were telegraphing too much of our timeline.

That said, Wolf, and I agree with the general that it's good there hasn't been a specific timeline laid out yet. But the president has already telegraphed his intent. By doing that, he's given oxygen to partners on the ground, Syrian Democratic Forces in particular, who know they can't rely on the U.S. long term. They don't know exactly how long, but they know for not long. So they'll begin to start casting about for other allies and partners that they can rely on going forward. And most assuredly, not all the allies and partners on the ground they find will be sharing our interests in the future of a stable Syria.

BLITZER: Very quickly, Fred, what are you hearing over there? You're on the ground, you're in Syria. You're there in Damascus, which is under control of the Bashar al Assad regime, which is backed by the Iranians, backed by the Russians, backed by Hezbollah. What are you hearing from the U.S. allies, whether the Syrians opposed to the regime or the Kurds?

PLEITGEN: Yes, especially the Kurds -- I wouldn't say they are losing faith in the U.S. but they are getting there. For them, it's a difficult situation. Keep in mind, the Kurds hold a large part of Syria. There are only 2,000 U.S. forces there, but as long as the U.S. forces are there, it deters other nations from trying to infringe on their territory, and that's something obviously they think they'll lose if and when the United States pulls out.

Then you have to put yourself in the shoes of these folks who have been fighting alongside the U.S., what options do they have? Certainly some of the moderate rebels that were on the ground here, they strive to cut a deal with the Kurds. But the Kurds are left with the option to try and deal with the Russians. We know there's already some talks going on, so it certainly makes it difficult for them and you can see them losing faith in the United States -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Those Kurds have certainly lost a lot of faith.

Fred Pleitgen, in Damascus, John Kirby, in Washington, thank you.

Coming up, the U.K. has pinpointed the source of a nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter, and it all leads back to Russia.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [13:52:55] BLITZER: For the first time since she and her father were poisoned by a nerve agent, the daughter of a former Russian spy is now speaking out. Yulia and Sergei Skripal were found slumped on a bench in the English city of Salisbury on March 4. U.K. officials believe Russia was behind this attack.

Let's go our senior international correspondent, Matthew Chance. He's joining us live from Moscow.

Matthew, what did Yulia, the daughter, say?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is the first remarks we've had from Yulia Skripal since she was poisoned weeks ago from that Russian nerve agent, Novichok. A statement issued by the British metropolitan police said -- well, as they put it in a Twitter feed -- saying she woke up a week ago and is glad to say her strength is growing daily. She also expressed her thanks to the people of Salisbury who came to her and her father's aid, where they were, in her words, incapacitated. She is thanking the hospital staff in Salisbury where they're being treated for their professionalism.

This statement, issued by the Metropolitan police, comes after an audiotape was released on Russian television of Yulia Skripal apparently, having a conversation with her cousin, Victoria Skripal, here in Moscow. It's not authenticated, but nevertheless, Russian television has been playing this. Take a listen.




CHANCE: It isn't authenticated, as I say, but in that short telephone exchange, if it is, indeed, Yulia Skripal, she talks about how everybody's getting better, everybody is alive. She talks about her father's condition, Sergei Skripal, and says there is nothing that's wrong with him, basically, that is not fixable. If that it's the case, this is the first indication, really, we've had about the condition of these two individuals -- Wolf?

[13:55:21] BLITZER: Hopefully, they'll both be fine.

Very quickly, the U.S. diplomats, they're being kicked out as we speak right now from Moscow?

CHANCE: Yes. I think they've already been kicked out. Today was the deadline, earlier on this morning. There were buses that left the U.S. diplomatic compound here. They're already on the way back to the U.S.

BLITZER: Russian diplomats have been kicked out of Washington as well.

Thank you very much for that, Matthew Chance, reporting for us from Moscow.

Coming up, the president insists he still has confidence in his embattled EPA chief. What is he saying behind the scenes? We'll have a live report.


[14:00:14] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Hi, there. I'm Brianna Keilar --