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President Trump Stands Behind Scott Pruitt Despite Mounting Scandal; Trump Escalates Trade Standoff With China; Caravan of Migrants Arrives in Puebla, Mexico; Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired April 6, 2018 - 04:00   ET


[04:00:13] DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump with big praise for scandal plagued EPA chief Scott Pruitt. Will that prove the political kiss of death?


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You know, this was going to be my remarks. It would have taken about two minutes but the hell with.


RENE MARSH, CNN ANCHOR: Well, President Trump tosses the script and ignores key facts on voter fraud, immigration and more.

BRIGGS: And the president ups the ante on his trade standoff with China. How will Beijing respond this time to his new tariff talk? We will check in with Beijing shortly.

Good morning, everyone. Thanks for getting an EARLY START with us. I'm Dave Briggs.

MARSH: And I'm Rene Marsh. It's Friday, April 6th, it's 4:00 a.m. in the East, 4:00 p.m. in Beijing, 11: a.m. in Moscow, and we'll have reports from both cities in just a moment.

But first, President Trump is standing firmly behind Scott Pruitt this morning even as controversies mount around the embattled EPA administrator. Returning from an event in West Virginia yesterday, the president was asked if he still has confidence in Pruitt.


TRUMP: I think that Scott has done a fantastic job. I think he is a fantastic person. I just left -- I just left coal and energy country. They love Scott Pruitt. They feel very strongly about Scott Pruitt. And they love Scott Pruitt.


MARSH: Well, the president's backing is so strong sources tell CNN he floated replacing Attorney General Jeff Sessions with Scott Pruitt as recently as this week. Sessions a target of the president ever since he recused himself from the Russia investigation. The president has endorsed Pruitt despite the negative headlines and new allegations he sidelined top aides who pushed back on his spending.

More now from CNN's Sara Ganim in Washington.

SARA GANIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Rene and Dave. The bad headlines continuing for EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, this time reports that he sidelined or demoted multiple senior officials after they pushed back or raised concerns about his pricey travel, his office furniture spending, and his overall management of the agency.

Two sources with direct knowledge of the matter told CNN that both career and political appointees who disagreed with Pruitt were iced out. A story that was first reported by "The New York Times." In one case, an official was reassigned when he refused to drive Pruitt through town with lights and sirens to help him avoid heavy Washington traffic. Others were simply raising concerns about his spending, his frequent trips home to Oklahoma, and his international trips that cost thousands of dollars to the taxpayers that included a lot of leisure time.

This of course all adds to a list of ethics issues that are piling up on Pruitt in the last few days, including a sweetheart deal that he received a $50 per night apartment in the city, leading some top White House officials to grow frustrated with him. But the most important White House official, President Trump, has so far indicated that he is still backing Pruitt at least for now -- Rene and Dave.

BRIGGS: Thank you, Sara.

President Trump threatening $100 billion in new tariffs on Chinese exports. That stoking fears of a trade war and once again rattling markets. The president put this statement out late yesterday saying, quote, "In light of the China's unfair retaliation, I've instructed the United States trade representative to consider whether $100 billion of additional tariffs would be appropriate."

Earlier this week, the Trump administration announced $50 billion worth of tariffs on Chinese exports. China immediately retaliated threatening tariffs on 106 American products. That's what the president is calling unfair. And he telegraphed his latest move at an event yesterday calling China out for unfair trade practices.


TRUMP: We're at a point where we had to do this. Our economy is strong, our jobs are great. We're going to come out with numbers on Friday that hopefully are going to be fantastic numbers. Companies are doing really well. And you have to go after the people that aren't treating you right.


BRIGGS: Potential for more tariffs sent stock futures sinking. But they are off the loads and Asian markets mostly shrugged off the move. The National Retail Federation, though, slamming President Trump's threat and some prominent Republican senators also criticized the proposed action.

MARSH: So how is China responding to the latest tariffs threats from Washington?

Well, CNN's Ivan Watson is live for us this morning in Beijing with the very latest.

And Ivan, it seems like the Chinese, they're not planning on backing down.

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No, they're not. And even though it's a national holiday here, the Commerce and Foreign Affairs Ministries both put out an identical statement calling President Trump's latest threat to put a tariff on $100 billion worth of Chinese goods a provocation.

[04:05:10] The statement went on to say, quote, "We do not want to fight a trade war but we're not afraid of it. If the U.S. disregards the opposition of China and the international community and persists in the unilateralist and trade protectionist practices, the Chinese side will follow through to the end and will not hesitate to fight back at any cost."

Those sound like fighting words. As of now, the U.S. has threatened $150 -- to put tariffs on $150 billion worth of Chinese imports to the U.S. That's roughly 40 percent of China's overall trade to the U.S. And you know, if both sides continue to make these threats, it's going to be a big deal. These are the two largest economies in the world and as yet, however, the White House has said we're probably months away from these tariffs being imposed. So this could still be interpreted as posturing and maybe they will sit down and negotiate and work a way out of this -- Rene.

MARSH: And that's, of course, what people are hoping for.

Ivan Watson, thank you so much. Live for us in Beijing this morning.

BRIGGS: All right. During a tax reform roundtable in West Virginia Thursday, the president tossed out his prepared remarks. Literally.


TRUMP: You know, this was going to be my remarks. It would have taken about two minutes but what the hell.


TRUMP: That would have been a little boring. Little boring. No, I'm reading off the first paragraph. I said, this is boring. Come on. We have --


TRUMP: We have to say -- tell it like it is.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BRIGGS: That is so symbolic right now, folks. After going off script instead of talking tax reform, the president adlibbed on a host of other topics including border security, anchor babies and voter fraud.

MARSH: Well, in an effort to bolster his argument for tougher immigration laws, the president claimed women coming from Central America are raped at unprecedented levels. Listen.


TRUMP: I remember my opening remarks at Trump Tower. When I opened, everybody said, oh, he was so tough and I use the word rape. And yesterday it came out where this journey coming up, women are raped at levels that nobody has ever seen before. They don't want to mention that. So we have to change our laws.


MARSH: Well, it's unclear where the president got that information from. He later announced plans to send 2,000 to 4,000 National Guard troops to help secure the U.S.-Mexico border. The administration has not yet said how much it will cost but the president insists troops will remain on the border until his proposed wall is built.

BRIGGS: The president on Thursday also repeated a debunked voter fraud claim.


TRUMP: In many places like California, the same person votes many times. You probably heard about that. They always like to say oh, that's a conspiracy theory. Not a conspiracy theory, folks. Millions and millions of people.


BRIGGS: Again, this was to talk tax overhaul. The president once again asserted millions of people voted illegally in 2016. Despite having failed for more than a year to produce evidence to support this claim, you'll remember the president set up a commission to investigate the issue last year. The panel was ultimately shut down early January after heavy criticism from Democrats for not publishing evidence of mass voter fraud. The president argued Democratic states refused to turn over data to the commission.

MARSH: Well, President Trump finally broke his silence about his alleged affair with adult film actress Stormy Daniels. Aboard Air Force One on Thursday, the president said he knew nothing about the $130,000 hush payment his lawyer made to Daniels. Take a listen.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?


TRUMP: What else?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Why did Michael Cohen make it if there was no -- if they're allegations?

TRUMP: You'll have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael is my attorney. You'll have to ask Michael.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you know where he got the money to make that payment?

TRUMP: No, I don't know.


MARSH: Well, Cohen paid Daniels out of his own pocket he says to sign a nondisclosure agreement. Daniels and her lawyer claim the agreement is invalid.

Last night, Daniels' lawyer told Anderson Cooper the president's new comment greatly improves their legal standing allowing Daniels and her attorney to depose the president.


MICHAEL AVENATTI, STORMY DANIELS' LAWYER: It's like Christmas and Hanukkah all rolled into one. You can't have an agreement if one party claims they knew nothing about one of the principal terms of the agreement. So the president has just shot himself in the foot. Thrown his attorney basically, Michael Cohen, under the bus in the process.


[04:10:04] MARSH: Well, Avenatti says he looks forward to, quote, "testing the truthfulness of the president's claims."

BRIGGS: The final witness testifying to the House Russia investigation repeatedly cursed at Democrats on the committee. Four sources tell CNN President Trump's former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski at one point said, I'm not going to answer your f-ing questions. Except he of course used the real swear word. After CNN first reported the story, Lewandowski reached out to say Democrats were the first to use what he called appalling language.

Those exchanges a measure of just how far this committee descended into partisan back biting before breaking up last month. Perfect reflection of where we are politically. Who used naughty words first.

MARSH: No decorum.

BRIGGS: 2018, everyone.

MARSH: Not even in Congress. Decorum is gone. Well, coming up, it's the border or bust for hundreds of Central

American migrants headed right now to the United States. CNN is on the ground with the caravan. That is next.

BRIGGS: And a narrow escape for some construction workers. The story behind the stunning video straight ahead.


[04:15:18] BRIGGS: All right. 4:15 Eastern Time. The first busloads of Central American migrants traveling northward toward the U.S. border now in Puebla, Mexico.

CNN's Leyla Santiago spoke with migrant families in this annual caravan. The next stop? Mexico City.

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Dave and Rene, the organizers of this caravan have admitted that they are overwhelmed. And so we are actually getting conflicting reports on what exactly is happening with this caravan. Some organizers saying that things are on hold, they're going to delay their next move. And others saying the march is on. We will continue to make our way north.

So what are we seeing? We are in Puebla, where one bus arrived transporting people from Oaxaca further south to Puebla where we are right now. These were women, children, families that started with this caravan. Some now having permission from the Mexican government to be here without fear of deportation, having that special permit that allows them to be here. But many of them still saying they plan to go to the United States. Others saying they are afraid of the rhetoric coming out of the White House and they will stay in Mexico over going to the United States.

Now the president of the United States, President Trump, has said that the numbers are dwindling. That this is a caravan that is breaking up. And while this group is seeing the numbers diminish and they are breaking up into smaller groups, that is actually something that is quite normal. Remember, this is a caravan that has been organized for years. They have been doing this for more than five years. And every year, they start with a big number. This year about 1200. And then the groups get smaller and smaller as they make their way to the north.

And organizers say that a group of about 200, they believe, will make it to the U.S.-Mexico border to seek asylum. I asked some of the people here today what will happen if they encounter National Guard troops given that President Trump says that is the new plan to provide more security on the border. And many of the people here said if they have to wait, they'll wait. If they have to find another way, they'll find another way, but they will make it to the United States of America -- Dave, Rene.

MARSH: Leyla, thank you.

And breaking overnight, South Korea's disgraced former president Park Geun-hye is expected to appeal her conviction on bribery and abuse of power charges. South Koreans watch the historic guilty verdict unfold on live TV. Park sentenced to 24 years in prison and fined nearly $17 million. She became the first South Korean president to be impeached following her involvement in a multimillion dollar bribery and extortion scandal.

BRIGGS: Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty headed back to the future in pursuit of a new job -- his old one. Pawlenty declared himself a candidate for governor in a video announcement Thursday. He touts his experience governing the state. His previous campaign theme saying political correctness has led to undocumented immigrants receiving state benefits.

Minnesota's current governor, Democrat Mark Dayton, not seeking a third term in November. Pawlenty gives Republicans a familiar name as they try and flip the seat. He was first elected governor of Minnesota in 2002 and served two terms.

MARSH: Well, the teacher -- some stunning video to show you now. A towering crane being used to build the new police headquarters in St. Petersburg, Florida, yes, you're seeing it, it collapses sending workers literally running for their lives. A security video captured the massive crane about 10-stories high, falling over on Thursday morning, just barely missing some of the construction workers on the ground. Thankfully no one was injured.

Officials say the falling crane created no hazardous conditions and there was minimal damage at the construction site. But oh, my. I mean, can you imagine? You see that --

BRIGGS: No, I cannot imagine having to try to get out of position. That is just terrifying. You can see the people there on the ground trying to figure out where it's going to fall.


BRIGGS: A good --

MARSH: A good ending.

BRIGGS: Happy ending there.

Ahead, arguably the most famous fighter on the planet today. The MMA's Conor McGregor goes off. His epic rampage caught on video. Don't miss this. Next.



MARSH: New this morning, UFC star Conor McGregor charged overnight with three counts of assault and one count of criminal mischief. Yes, you're looking at him right there in the video after he allegedly attacked this bus filled with rival fighters at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. McGregor and his entourage reportedly crashed a press event then attacked a mini bus using trash cans and metal barricades. UFC president Dana White says one fighter suffered head and facial cuts from broken glass. McGregor was apparently upset with the decision to strip him of the lightweight title belt. McGregor is expected in court later today.

BRIGGS: To a much more civilized game. Jordan Spieth masterful at Augusta, shot a six under 66 to grab the first round lead at the Masters. Spieth has now played 17 career rounds at the Masters. And astoundingly he has held the lead or a share of the lead after nine of them. Nine of 17.

[04:25:08] The golf gods were not smiling, though, on defending Master champ Sergio Garcia. Boy, did he have a wet and wild adventure here on the 15th. Garcia hitting not one, not two, not three, or four, but five shots in the water on the same hole. When it ended, he took a 13 on the par 5 15th. Tying the worst score ever in a single hole at the Masters. Even one worse than Kevin Costner and Tim Cook.

And Tony Finau looking plenty healthy a day after suffering that gruesome-looking ankle injury while celebrating a hole-in-one at the Par 3 contest. Finau shot a 4-under 68 and is just two shots behind Spieth.

As for Tiger Woods, he finished the first round of one over par, seven shots off the lead. You know that's how I'm doing today, Rene.

MARSH: I know it's right. Well, Seattle Mariners lefty James Paxton is giving new meaning to the term big game pitcher. Paxton minding his business on outfield when this happened. Yes, that is a bald eagle swooping in. The bird went rogue in a pre-game flying ceremony. Yes. Yes. Look at that perfect landing. This happened during the national anthem in Minnesota on Thursday. Paxton, he kept his cool as the Eagle landed on him.

BRIGGS: He did.

MARSH: He flew off. Landed on him again. The bird's handler said not quite sure what exactly went wrong there. I would freak out if it happened to me.

BRIGGS: No doubt. Paxton played it --

MARSH: That wingspan is -- right, no joke.

BRIGGS: Very calm and cool.

All right. Ahead, President Trump backing his embattled EPA boss. Doubling down on China tariffs and tossing out the script in a freewheeling West Virginia speech.

This is all in the last 24 hours. Top stories next.