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White House Daily Briefing; Sanders Defends Trump's Tweets on Mueller Investigation; White House Moving Ahead with North Korea Summit Despite Kim Threat; More Republicans Backing Petition to Take Up DACA Vote; Hawaiian Volcano Erupts, Ash Raining Down. Aired 1:30-2p ET
Aired May 17, 2018 - 13:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[13:30:00] SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HIOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president believes this country needs more people like Samuel who are willing to give back to our communities. He's a really great kid and it was great to meet him.
And with that, I'll take your questions.
QUESTION: Sarah, we -- we haven't had a chance to -- to hear a -- any kind of an in-depth analysis here.
Where are we with the summit with Kim Jong-un, and the statements that we've heard over the last few days out of North Korea? Do these -- do you think that these throw in jeopardy the idea of a summit? Or -- or is this just North Korea doing what it does, and trying to get the best deal possible?
SANDERS: Look, the president is prepared, and will be ready to meet. And we're continuing to move forward with the preparations at this point. And if the North Koreans want to meet, we'll be there.
And at this point, there is not a lot of change beyond that, and certainly not in -- in our process.
QUESTION: So what North Korea's saying now about the joint military exercises after Moon Jae-in said Kim knows that these take place, and he understands that they have to take place; what game is North Korea playing?
SANDERS: You'd have to ask North Korea what game they're playing.
I can tell you what we're doing, and we're continuing to move forward in preparations. And the president, as we've said all along, will be prepared and ready to meet, and there's really not a lot to add beyond that point.
QUESTION: Thanks a lot, Sarah.
QUESTION: What leverage does the U.S. have, as it relates to having this meeting take place on June 12th?
And two, that meeting actually taking place when it takes place, if it takes place, what leverage does the U.S. have over accomplishing the American goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula?
SANDERS: We're continuing in the maximum pressure campaign.
But, again, nothing has changed on our end. This was an invitation that North Korea offered, and that we've accepted. And we're continuing to move forward in those preparations.
QUESTION: Another issue...
SANDERS: Sorry, I'm going to keep going because we're really tight on time today.
Steve (ph), go ahead.
QUESTION: If I could just follow up on that, what the North Koreans also announced was they were stopping the dialogue with South Korea. So is it possible that there could be a meeting between the United States and North Korea if that whole dialogue between the North and South is on ice?
SANDERS: The meeting that would take place on June 12th is -- is between the United States and North Korea, should it take place.
We're going to meet with President Moon next week. And beyond that, again, there are no changes at this point to our schedule or anything else.
QUESTION: Does President Trump believe that the FBI had a spy at one point inside his campaign?
SANDERS: I haven't spoken with him directly about that. But certainly seen the reports. And if there is any truth to that, it should certainly be looked into.
SANDERS: Sorry, I'm going to keep going just because we're tight.
Emerald (ph), go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you.
Following up on Blake's question, if it is proven without a shadow of a doubt that there was a spy planted in the Trump campaign, does that change the president's position on firing Robert Mueller?
SANDERS: I -- I'm not going to speak about hypotheticals or get into a what-could-happen-if. We'll move forward in the process and make a determination at that point.
QUESTION: Yeah. Thank you, Sarah.
The Iraqi elections are over, and it's very clear that the two big winners, the two top vote-getters, were the party that was linked to Muqtada al-Sadr, a sworn enemy of the United States, and someone aligned with the Iraqi Communist Party. The second-place finisher was the party aligned with Mr. al-Ameri, the warlord that was once backed by Iran.
What's the U.S.' attitude on a government in Baghdad having either of those individuals as the key player?
SANDERS: I'll start with the fact, I'm glad you said the names and not me...
SANDERS: ... because I probably wouldn't have gotten them right.
But in terms of our policy, we don't have any new policy announcements with a potential change there.
QUESTION: (inaudible) you don't care (ph) if either of them is...
SANDERS: Certainly we care. But I don't have any specific changes in U.S. policy while that's happening.
QUESTION: Sarah, what does the United States expect out of negotiations today with China on trade? And what is the president's intentions on helping or changing the policy towards the Chinese company ZTE?
SANDERS: In terms of the meeting, I'll start there. Those are conversations that are ongoing. When we have something from that, I'll be happy to share it with you. But right now, those are just discussions and there's nothing to add to that at this point, since they're just now taking place.
I can say that we expect that the president will meet with the head of the Chinese delegation later this afternoon.
QUESTION: And ZTE?
SANDERS: On -- on ZTE, look, the United States and China relationship has a lot of issues that we have regular ongoing conversations about: national security, trade. And ZTE is one of them.
As we've said before and as the president has stated, he's asked Secretary Ross to look into the issue and do whatever is consistent with the law and regulations. But right now, it's just something that he's asked them to look into.
QUESTION: Thanks, Sarah.
Also on trade, the president said yesterday that "Mexico does nothing for us, especially at the border."
QUESTION: We know there are talks today on NAFTA -- today and tomorrow. And I wonder if -- if the administration has conditioned (ph) any NAFTA deals on a safe third country (ph) agreement with Mexico, or Mexico stepping up to do more to absorb asylum seekers and other migrants who are seeking entry into the U.S.
SANDERS: I'm not going to get into the trade conversations at this point, because they are ongoing and those are negotiations that we're in the middle of.
But I can tell you that the president does want to see Mexico step up and do more. There's a lot that comes through their country and he wants them to be tougher and more aggressive on that front.
QUESTION: Thank you, Sarah.
This morning the president marked the one-year anniversary of the Mueller investigation, saying it's "disgusting, illegal, unwarranted and a witch hunt." But his own FBI director yesterday said it's not a witch hunt.
Does the president -- why does the White House still believe it's a witch hunt?
And why did he cancel his news conference this afternoon, which was originally set for 3 o'clock today?
SANDERS: Different topics.
But the president knows that there was no collusion in the campaign, and he has been quite clear about this. It's gone on for over a year, they found no evidence of collusion. And still strongly believe that it's a witch hunt. I'm not sure how we could be any more clear and certainly not sure how the president could be any more clear about his beliefs and his opinion.
In terms of a press engagement, the president will have press at the -- his event here shortly -- which is why we're going to have to keep it quick and short today -- and likely take a few questions at that event.
QUESTION: Thanks, Sarah.
On immigration, there seems to be moving closer to action in the House of Representatives. And I'm wondering what bill the president would accept -- anything short of the four pillars that he laid out earlier this month.
Something like border security and DACA, seems to be a proposal that's gaining steam. Is that something that the president could support?
SANDERS: The president definitely supports border security, as he's laid out multiple times, and again talked about some yesterday. He would like to see the border security, he would like to see the loopholes closed.
Our priorities have not changed in the immigration conversation at all.
[15:35:00] QUESTION: Thank you.
Just going back to North Korea, you have said that the president will be willing to meet with North Korea and North Korea (inaudible). So does that put North Korea in the driver's seat here? Is it North Korea that's going to decide whether a meeting takes place?
And also the president said yesterday that the White House hadn't heard anything from North Korea. Has that changed? Have you heard anything since these calls -- these talks were called off with South Korea?
SANDERS: They're certainly not in the driver's seat. Nothing could be further from the truth.
But they're the ones that extended the invitation. We've accepted it. If they want to meet, we're happy to do that. If they don't, as the president has said, we'll see what happens.
But we're going to continue the maximum pressure campaign in the meantime.
I don't know how they would be in the driver's seat in any capacity, form or fashion in this process.
QUESTION: Is -- is the White House setting the standard for, "We won't meet with you unless we do X, Y and Z"?
SANDERS: Look, the North Koreans have already made concessions. They've already -- three Americans are home now that weren't. The president has had some success in this process and certainly we've given up nothing. And we are going to continue moving forward. And we're moving into this with our eyes wide open, we're not naive in this process.
But the president is fully prepared to have the meeting, but if not that's OK too. And we'll see what happens beyond that.
QUESTION: I know we've asked this a few times, but...
SANDERS: That's OK, that's all that we do here: Ask the same question over and over and over again.
QUESTION: So can you say yet when Michael Cohen stopped being the president's personal lawyer?
SANDERS: I'm not going to get into anything on that matter. You'd have to reach out to the president's outside counsel.
SANDERS: Sorry, Jill (ph) go ahead.
QUESTION: ... been able to answer that.
SANDERS: Jill (ph), go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you, Sarah.
Why didn't the president disclose the reimbursement to Michael Cohen in last year's financial disclosure report?
And just to follow up on other people's questions on North Korea, has any consideration been given at this point to potentially canceling those joint military exercises with South Korea?
SANDERS: On the first question, that was addressed in the financial disclosure. And that's something that would be determined by White House Counsel, how things would be categorized in the filings.
SANDERS: So -- and on the second part, those are ongoing exercises that are routine and they're aware of. They're annual. And at this point we have no intention of changing them.
QUESTION: I just want to ask you because so many people in the country have been talking about it in the last 24 hours. What did the president mean when he said, "Some immigrants are not people, they're animals"?
SANDERS: The president was very clearly referring to MS-13 gang members, who enter the country illegally and whose deportations are hamstrung by our laws.
This is one of the most vicious and deadly gangs that operates by the motto of "rape, control and kill." If the media and liberals want to defend MS-13, they're more than welcome to. Frankly, I don't think the term that the president used was strong enough.
MS-13 has done heinous acts. It took an animal to stab a man a hundred times and decapitate him and rip his heart out. It took an animal to beat a woman they were sex-trafficking with a bat 28 times, indenting part of her body. And it took an animal to kidnap, drug and rape a 14- year-old Houston girl.
Frankly, I think that the term "animal" doesn't go far enough, and I think that the president should continue to use his platform and everything he can do under the law to stop these types of horrible, horrible, disgusting people.
I'm going to take one more question.
SANDERS: Peter (ph)?
QUESTION: Thank you, Sarah.
Are (ph) chances of a summit now less likely than they were a week ago, before these statements came out from (ph) Kim Jong-un?
SANDERS: I'm not going to get into a percentage game.
I can tell you that we're ready and prepared, and if they happen, they happen. And if they don't, we'll see what happens.
[13:41:08] Thanks so much, guys. We'll see you here in a few minutes with the president.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Sarah, has the president ever lied to us?
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: So there you have the White House press briefing. Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, answering reporters' questions, not providing a whole lot of information. Although you did see her speak out very, very forcefully defending the president's use of the word "animals" in describing these MS-13 gang members who come into the United States illegally. She was obviously very passionate on that front.
On North Korea, she simply said the president is prepared, ready to meet with Kim Jong-Un, the North Korean leader. They will continue to move forward on the plans, at least on the U.S. side, as far as the June 12th meeting in Singapore is concerned. At this point, she says, there's not a lot of change. If the meeting happens, that's fine. If the meeting doesn't happen, she suggests that's fine as well. They'll move on. But no specific information on that front.
She also strongly defended the president's tweets this morning, a series of tweets in which the president, once again, on this, the first anniversary, first one-year anniversary of the Robert Mueller Russia probe, the president continuing to call this a witch hunt. In fact, he tweeted earlier this morning, "Congratulations, America. We are now in the second year of the greatest witch hunt in American history."
Let's discuss all of this and more with our panel. Mary Katharine Hamm is joining us as well.
As far as the witch hunt statement by the president, he often, several times a day, usually, calls it a witch hunt. His FBI director, the man he nominated, confirmed to be the FBI director, Christopher Wray, as recently as yesterday, told Congress in testimony this is not a witch hunt. He's got a problem with his own FBI director.
MARY KATHARINE HAMM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. Christopher Wray has done this several times, said this is legit because he wants to stand up for his investigators. It's not an illegal investigation who is appointed as special counsel to do this. He conflates some of the bad behavior that has come out from I.G. reports, from law enforcement with this, and he wants to turn the whole thing into the fruit of the poison tree.
I don't think that's what is actually going on here. Another thing going on is he knows a news hook when he sees one, and at the one-year anniversary, he was ready to go with a barrage of tweets so he could be part of that celebration of this birthday.
BLITZER: Let me read a little more of that tweet. Michael, I'll get your reaction.
Michael Zeldin is still with us as well.
After he said this is, "The greatest witch hunt in American history, there's still no collusion, no obstruction. The only collusion was that done by Democrats who are unable to win an election despite the spending of far more money."
MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: That's right. The difference between Christopher Wray, the FBI director, and Donald Trump is that Christopher Wray may have a window into the evidence that actually is being gathered. So when he says, it's not a witch hunt, he perhaps is saying an informed factual predicate, whereas, the president is just wishing it to be so.
We saw Richard Nixon saying, at the one-year anniversary of Watergate, that this was essentially a waste of everyone's time and a witch hunt and that it should just go away, too. It didn't work out that well, and 12 or 14 months later, he was no longer president. So we can take the president's wishful thinking for what it is and Christopher Wray's thinking for what it is, which is one that is fact based, probably, and one is aspirational.
BLITZER: Kim Wehle is with us, former assistant U.S. attorney.
On the Robert Mueller team, there are prosecutors, there are Justice Department officials, but there's also a delegation, a whole group of FBI agents who are assigned there. Would they normally be updating the FBI director on what's going on?
[13:45:00] KIM WEHLE, FORMER ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY: Sure. As Michael mentioned, there are a lot of facts that we have no idea what they're about. We don't need to know what's inside the FBI's coffers of information. We know it's public. We have guilty pleas. We have multiple indictments. Guilty pleas of people close to the president.
We have a federal judge denying Mr. Manafort's motion to dismiss the indictment and making clear that this is a legitimate investigation as a matter of law and as a matter of fact. So witch hunt is just not - it's silly at this point. I mean, it's purely political. It's a distortion. We should just take that out of the conversation because we're well, well beyond that.
BLITZER: The president also tweeted this morning and if we have it I'll put it up on the screen. The president, "Wow. Word seems to be coming out that the Obama FBI spied on the Trump campaign with an embedded informant."
Do you want to react to that?
ZELDIN: We heard this previously when the president said, or the candidate then said, that he had been bugged by the Obama administration, which was proven to not be true. We'll see if this turns out to be a similar allegation that has no factual basis for it. I would be stunned if there was a mole in the Trump organization that the FBI knowingly put there. What they describe as an informant could be someone that was an FBI agent who had a political point of view that was different from their point of view. It doesn't prevent that person from doing their job as a law enforcement official.
BLITZER: Jeff Zeleny, our White House correspondent, is joining us. Jeff is in the briefing room.
Jeff, what is the president referring to when he said the Obama FBI spied on the Trump campaign?
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's a good question. We'll see if the president answers that himself. He is in the Oval Office meeting with the NATO secretary-general. Sarah Sanders said he will take some questions in there. We'll see if he sheds more light on that.
But what it appears he was talking about was a report by a conservative commentator who was making this a suggestion here. Sarah Sanders, White House press secretary, was asked this at the podium to expound on it or if the Trump campaign had a spy in the campaign. She did not really answer, Wolf. She said, if that did happen, it certainly should be looked into. But it's unclear what the president was referring to specifically. We do not know, have no reason to believe there's any basis on that specifically.
But on to the witch hunt, I was trying to get Sarah Sanders to expound on the witch hunt. Again, she said, without any evidence at all, that there's no collusion here, there's no obstruction of justice. Of course, important to point out, every time the White House says that, Wolf, we don't know the answer to that question. That's what the investigation is all about. It could turn out to be that way, but we don't have an answer. That's what this Senate committee is also investigating.
But, Wolf, also keep an eye on the Oval Office because the president is speaking in there. We'll have his words later on. We'll have to see what questions he's answering today -- Wolf?
BLITZER: Yes, he's meeting today with the NATO secretary-general. As Sarah Sanders pointed out, he will take a few questions from reporters. We'll stand by for that.
BLITZER: Did you get a sense on her carefully chosen words on the summit, if it does take place with Kim Jong-Un scheduled for June 12th in Singapore, right now? She repeatedly said the president is prepared, ready to meet. He continues to move forward. At this point, there's not a lot of change. What are you hearing over there because there has been a significant change in tone coming from the North Korean leadership?
ZELENY: A change in tone from North Korea, without question. Wolf, I also detected a change in tone from this White House podium. We've seen this president, almost week by week, increase his eagerness at the willingness to meet with Kim Jong-Un. Of course, just a week ago, we were standing on a tarmac with him at Joint Base Andrews. He was talking openly.
He has left little room for a doubt this would not happen. I detected Sarah Sanders trying to hedge that a little bit more today If the meeting happens, if it goes through, but she was certainly leaving the possibility, more than the president has. He has from time to time, but he's certainly has left open the impression that he's very, very eager to meet.
But one thing she reacted very sharply to, she was asked by a reporter here, is North Korea in the driver's seat. And she said, no, absolutely not, North Korea is not in the driver's seat on this. That is something I'll also be watching to see how the president will react to that.
But, Wolf, there's no question, the president has raised expectations for that summit. If it does not happen, the White House does not want it to look like it's the president's fault. One of the reasons, I'm told, he's keeping his words careful here and measuring his words. We've not seen him react in a sharp way unlike on everything else he normally does -- Wolf?
[13:50:00] BLITZER: What's interesting is the North Koreans in their public statements keep going a John Bolton, the president's new national security adviser, words he uttered over the past weekend, but also going back years, 2005, even earlier, some of the strong statements he's made against North Korea. Clearly, they're very sensitive to this, aren't they? ZELENY: Very sensitive, indeed. We've not heard from John Bolton
this week either. That is one of the openings the United States government given to North Korea. There have been mixed messages. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has met with Kim Jong-Un a couple of times, which is extraordinary in and of itself, certainly seems to be more on the diplomatic crowd. John Bolton, the national security advisor, was interviewed over the weekend on CBS's "Face the Nation," among other places, and he was talking about Libya.
That resulted in the elimination and killing of Gadhafi there. That is something Kim Jong-Un and his people were watching very carefully. There has been a sense of mixed messages in terms of military might and diplomacy there. We've not seen the president weigh in much at all directly on this. But, Wolf, he has raised expectations for the summit. Just the sheer fact of having the summit, never mind the outcome of the summit, are pretty high here.
These next three weeks are very important. The White House is still planning to go ahead with the summit. They're still making plans. They have people on the ground in Singapore, but the summit is still more of an open question than it was a couple of days ago -- Wolf?
BLITZER: Yes. And in contrast to John Bolton, the new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, refers to Kim Jong-Un as chairman Kim and he shows much greater respect for the North Korean leader. Pompeo has been to Pyongyang twice over the past couple of months.
All right, we're going to get back to you.
We'll stand by to hear the president himself. He's meeting with the NATO secretary-general. He's also going to be taking some questions from reporters. We'll have live coverage or at least taped coverage of that if there's no live coverage inside the Oval Office.
Tal Kopan is joining us from Capitol Hill, our congressional reporter up there.
Some dramatic movement on the DREAMers, on the DACA effort to allow the DREAMers to stay in the United States legally, potentially, have a pathway to U.S. citizenship. Tal, what's the latest?
TAL KOPAN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. Right now, we are about five Republican signatures away from potentially having a floor vote in the House be forced on immigration, including over the wishes of House Speaker Paul Ryan.
This is interesting on a couple of levels. As you mentioned, for hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrations who are sort of in limbo, unsure if they'll have continued legal status in this country, they're watching very closely. This could be one of the first significant moves to resolve that issue.
But this is also an incredibly precarious situation for House leadership, which is trying to quash this effort before it can hit the requisite number of signatures. They're concerned it could jeopardize their standing with conservative members of the party and that it could take the process out of their hands and produce legislation that would not necessarily be Republican leadership's preferred outcome.
So if we get to 25 Republicans, we're at 20 right now, and every single Democrat, which isn't a lock yet, but if we hit that mark, this will hit the floor, whether leadership likes it or not. And the House is voting right now. That is when these signatures happen. A Democratic member familiar with this process tells me Democrats are going to begin signing potentially in large numbers today. So we're watching this very closely. It's all unfolding right now.
BLITZER: A very dramatic development, indeed. And the impact it will have on the DREAMers here in the United States, the DACA legislation.
Thank you for that, Tal, for that.
Mary Katharine, this could be a pretty significant setback, an embarrassment for the House Speaker Paul Ryan, if there are 25 Republicans, 25 members of his own party who side with the Democrats.
HAMM: Yes, of course, leadership is dead-set against this because it hands over some power to the minority in the process. I don't think he's against the actual idea of coming up with a deal but it's an uncomfortable fight to have in an election. I'm not sure anything will get past the House, and if it gets past the House, will get past the Senate. Mostly because this this is a rational, reasonable, bipartisan compromise that makes some sense and, as such, it will not happen in Congress.
[13:54:19] BLITZER: We'll see what happens. It is a sensitive moment, indeed.
Guys, stick around. There's a lot more. We're standing by.
We're also standing by to hear from the president of the United States.
Also, residents on Hawaii's big island are being told to take shelter following another volcanic eruption. We'll be live on the ground when we come back.
BLITZER: We're following breaking news on Hawaii's big island where there's just been an eruption at the Kilauea Volcano. You can see, make out the plume of smoke and ash rising into the air. And you can see how much ash is raining down on the area right now. Residents are being told to shelter in place.
CNN's Scott McLean is joining us live. He's there.
What are the conditions like now, Scott?
SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, so I think people here in the volcano area, the town is actually called Volcano. They've dodged a bit of a bullet, because the rain is coming down fairly heavily, which is dissipating some of that ash and putting it down on the ground and diluting it faster. You can see from the early web cam images just how much debris is raining down in this area. They said this would blanket the area with ash.
It is blowing more toward the northeast, but they said the plume itself could reach as far as Hilo, which is an hour away from where we are. We are on the edge of the Hawaii Volcano National Park entrance. The reason we're not going any further is because authorities aren't letting us stop anywhere for the next 10 miles because it's simply too close to that main crater that is giving off those eruptions.
I can tell you right now there are some air quality issues for sure. There's actually school closure in the Pohoa area, which is east of here, 45 minutes away, because the sulfur dioxide levels are high. They don't want people going outside. They want staying indoors with their windows shut. Originally, they were worried as this plume originally erupted that it would cause problems on the roads. It hasn't really happened because of this rain, but there are still air quality issues with those schools, Wolf?
BLITZER: Any idea, Scott, just how large this eruption was?
MCLEAN: Yes, it is hard to say at this point. But, Wolf, this was not the big one. They are still warning there could be other explosions inside that main crater at the summit of Kilauea, called Wimauma (ph). If that happens, they are warning of ballistic projectiles, which, in order words, are flying rocks. There were pictures yesterday of a rocks two-feet wide covered in a quarter inch of ash. A rock that big can do a heck of a lot of damage. They're warning that future explosions could be even bigger than that. That is definitely in the back of people's minds here.
BLITZER: Scott, thanks very much. We'll stay in touch with you.
There's more news we're following. Coming up, just hours before and after that infamous Trump Tower meeting in New York during the presidential campaign where dirt on Hillary Clinton was promised by Russians, Donald Trump Jr made multiple calls to block phone numbers. Who was he calling?
"NEWSROOM" with Brianna Keilar starts right now.