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Pence to Make Case for Health Care Replacement; Anger Over Sudden Firing of 46 Attorneys; American Medical Assn Opposes GOP Health Care Plan; WH Tries to Unite Republicans on Heath Care Bill; Bashar Assad Says U.S. Troops in Syria are "Invaders". Aired 7-8a ET

Aired March 11, 2017 - 07:00   ET


[07:00:02] WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Will Ripley, CNN, Grain Valley, Missouri.




UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking for the resignation of 46 Obama appointed attorneys.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is not the way to do this and it's destabilizing in an already destabilized environment.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The chances of someone actually tapping Trump's phone in Trump center is zero. It's not possible.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We try to follow all of the laws except, of course, coming to this country illegally.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It doesn't matter. You've still broken the law.

TRUMP: Don't believe those phony numbers when you hear 4.9 percent and 5 percent unemployment.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It may have been phony in the past but it's very real now.


CHRISTI PAUL, CNN ANCHOR: Well, good morning to you on a Saturday morning. I hope it's been good to you so far. I'm Christi Paul.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Victor Blackwell. Good morning to you.

This morning, Vice President Mike Pence is hitting the road to pitch the Republicans plan to overhaul the Affordable Care Act, actually to repeal it and replace it. This is a crucial sales job, we should say, as opposition within the party is threatening to potentially derail one of the president's biggest campaign promises.

PAUL: And just a few hours from now, the vice president will speak to business leaders in Louisville, Kentucky, he'll appeal with the state's governor, Matt Bevin. This is a man not completely behind the plan himself. But this, of course, is happening as President Trump claims the clock is ticking on Obamacare.


TRUMP: We just act now to save the Americans from the imploding Obamacare disaster. Premiums have skyrocketed by double digits, and triple digits in some cases. '17 would be a disaster for Obamacare. That's the year it was meant to explode because Obama won't be here.


BLACKWELL: Plus, considerable anger after dozens of U.S. attorneys abruptly are told to resign by the Trump administration. We've got our panel of political reporters standing by to break it all down for you this morning.

Let's start, though, with CNN's Ryan Nobles in Washington, and this sudden firing of 46 U.S. attorneys.

Ryan, past administrations have asked holdovers to step down, larger numbers even. Why is this different?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Victor, the move by the Trump administration and the newly installed Attorney General Jeff Sessions is not out of the ordinary, but as point out, it is the way these U.S. attorneys were asked to step down that has left many at the Justice Department angry. This all went down Friday when 46 of these top prosecutors were asked to step down, some finding out through the media that their service was no longer needed.

Presidents have the right to appointment their own U.S. attorneys, but normally, the transition process is handled differently, giving the people in these high-powered jobs time to bottom up their responsibilities. Now, law enforcement source told CNN that the situation could, quote, "not be handled worse because there were so little warning".

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she was surprised and concerned by the news of the firing. In a statement she said, quote, "In January, I met with Vice President Pence and White House counsel Donald McGahn and specifically asked whether all U.S. attorneys would be fired at once. Mr. McGahn told me that the transition would be done in an orderly fashion to preserve continuity. Clearly, this is not the case."

Now, this purge is said to include several high-profile U.S. attorneys, including Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York. Bharara has successfully convicted several powerful New York politicians on corruption charges and is in the process of wrapping up a lengthy investigation into New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. Now, Bharara's removal will be surprising because back in November, he met with then-President-elect Donald Trump and told reporters that Trump had asked him to stay on. A spokesperson for the U.S. Justice Department waved off concerns that the quick removal of these U.S. attorneys will cause a problem saying that, quote, "until the new U.S. attorneys are confirmed, the dedicated career prosecutors in our offices will continue with the great work of the department" -- Victor.

BLACKWELL: Ryan Nobles, thank you.

PAUL: All right. Let's talk to CNN political reporters Tom LoBianco and Eugene Scott about this.

Tom, first to you, so as Ryan's pointing out, it's not that this is unusual. I mean, Bill Clinton let go double what -- almost double what President Trump has done so far. But it's the execution and the immediacy of all of this. Do you get the sense that this was deliberate or was it just a misstep?

TOM LOBIANCO, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, it's hard to tell whether this is another misstep by the administration but it does go to show what happens when you're unprepared for these things, you know, as everyone has pointed here. Look, this is what happens, OK? This is normal, but how it happened is the issue.

And that's why people are caught off guard. It's kind of like rolling out the -- when they rolled out the travel ban for the first time.

[07:05:03] You know, maybe there was some stuff in there that was going to stay. But, my God, this just shook the rafters the way that they handled it. So, you know, again, delivery matters, perception matters, especially when you're near the White House.

PAUL: Well, and timing matters, as we know.

And it's a bit curious to a lot of people, this coming 24 hours after FOX News personality Sean Hannity said this. Let's listen here.


SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS HOST: Now, for weeks, we've been warning you about the deep state Obama holdover government bureaucrats who are hell-bent on destroying this president, President Trump. Tonight, it's time for the Trump administration do begin to purge these saboteurs before it's too late.


PAUL: Eugene, coincidence, what do you make of the timing of this?

EUGENE SCOTT, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, it's been said repeatedly that the president looks at cable news quite a bit and gets a lot his advice on the area of foreign policy from analysts. It seems like that could also be the case for other issues. We know he is a longtime viewer and fan of Sean Hannity and the feeling is mutual. I think what's most interesting, though, is the whole idea of a deep

state, this really intentional move from the Obama administration carry overs to subvert the president currently in his agenda. That's been a fear of President Donald Trump and this looks like it could be the latest move to response to that, to some people.

PAUL: And another thing that's a little interesting here is the fact that the president personally called two U.S. attorneys and asked them to stay on.

Tom, do you have any more information about how long they're staying on? Or why these two in particular?

LOBIANCO: Well, he reached out to Dana Boente and Rob Rosenstein for some pretty obvious reasons here. Because they -- he's nominated Rosenstein to be second in command at the Justice Department and Boente is filling that role right now. It's kind of interesting that he hasn't done it for the other ones.

You know, when you look at Preet Bharara in this case, he really -- when you talk about -- Trump talks about draining the swamp, he talks about anti-corruption, he talks about taking on Wall Street, I mean, it looks like there no one else that you would want there. I mean, he appears to be the perfect match for that. He's spent a career taking on Democrats, Wall Street. It's pretty shocking that he's not keeping Bharara here.

PAUL: And, Eugene, real quickly, I mean, what is the -- is there not a legal risk here? I mean, there have to be pending cases sitting on the desks of these A.G.s right now. What happens? Are there questions now do they go in limbo? Who takes over?

SCOTT: Well, as of now, it looks like the deputies who will be there fulfilling the roles that they were before the Trump administration came in, to carry on the investigations, to oversee them until replacement is set, or named, or replacement attorneys are named. There is a huge risk, particularly because some attorneys were asked to clear their desk yesterday and without warning.

And the reason why that is of significant concern is that perhaps it's not giving them significant time to communicate with their staffs. The latest information on the ongoing investigations and what needs to be done moving forward. And so, how these will end is not clear yet.

PAUL: Tom LoBianco, Eugene Scott, thank you both so much.

SCOTT: Thank you.


BLACKWELL: This morning, we know now more about Michael Flynn, the national security adviser who was fired for not disclosing his contacts with Russian officials.

PAUL: It turns out he was paid to represent Turkey's interest during the Trump campaign and maybe more significantly, the transition team knew of his potential conflicts of interests, despite claims to the contrary.

Here's CNN's Jessica Schneider.


JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The White House saying President Trump had no idea when he chose his first national security adviser that Lieutenant General Michael Flynn had been a paid lobbyist for Turkish concerns at the height of the campaign and through Election Day.

But a source tells CNN White House counsel was well aware, both before the inauguration and after General Flynn was named national security adviser that his company was planning to file a foreign agent disclosure form.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He didn't file until two days ago. Nobody would have known that because he hadn't filed until two days ago.

SCHNEIDER: A senior administration official confirming that Flynn's lawyer contacted the transition counsel and said there were business dealings that needed to be addressed.

REPORTER: That advice was -- the transition was aware of that advice, why wasn't than then -- was the president made aware that that recommendation had been given to his national security advisor?

SPICER: Well, wait a minute, Sara, that there are tons of individuals that consult with the lawyers and with ethics experts and say, I own this stock, will I have to sell it. I own a business, I own this house. And for the most part, they're given guidance as to, hey, go seek professional help.

PENCE: Vice President Pence telling FOX News he had no knowledge of Flynn's involvement with Turkey until a story was published this week.

[07:10:00] MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, let me say hearing that story today was the first I heard of it. And I fully support the decision that President Trump made to ask for General Flynn's resignation?

BRET BAIER, FOX NEWS: You're disappointed by the story?

PENCE: The first I heard of it, and I think it is an affirmation of the president's decision. To ask General Flynn to resign.

SCHNEIDER: But last November, Congressman Elijah Cummings sent this letter to then-vice presidential candidate Mike Pence raising conflict of interest concerns and pointing out that Michael Flynn wrote this op said titled our ally Turkey is in crisis and needs our support.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Please welcome to the stage, General Mike Flynn.

SCHNEIDER: General Michael Flynn, a staple on the campaign trail. At the same time, his company was hosting meetings with a group of government officials from Turkey, including minister of foreign affairs and minister of energy on September 16th. Flynn's tenure at the White House was a short one. He resigned after he withheld information about discussions he had with Russia's ambassador in the U.S. Even then, President Trump continued to defend him.

TRUMP: General Flynn is a wonderful man. I think he's been treated very, very unfairly by the media. As I call it the fake media, in many cases. And I think it's really a sad thing that he was treated so badly.

SCHNEIDER: Jessica Schneider, CNN, Washington.


BLACKWELL: We've got some breaking news out of Germany. German police are responding to a possible terror plot in the western city of Essen.

PAUL: Yes, we understand that they have shut down large shopping mall there after learning of an attack possibly planned today. We're keeping a close eye on the situation there. We'll bring it to you as it continues to develop there.

BLACKWELL: President Trump promises to repeal and replace Obamacare but he's facing growing opposition from leading health care groups. Why they say this new plan could put lives in risk.

PAUL: And U.S. spies living in fear of President Trump's next tweets. That's what insiders tell our global analyst Kimberly Dozier. We'll learn more from here in just a moment.

Plus, Syrian President Bashar al Asad calling troops in Syria invaders, this after twin bombings just rocked the city of Damascus, leaving dozens dead, hundreds wounded. We have a live report for you, just ahead.


[07:16:30] BLACKWELL: We could go by next week if there's any evidence to support President Trump's claim of political espionage by his predecessor. The House Intelligence Committee wants proof by Monday that supports the president's claim that President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower during the campaign.

Now, a former CIA operative tells CNN that President Trump should have reached out to the FBI instead of taking to Twitter.


ROBERT BAER, FORMER CIA OPERATIVE: It's quite amazing. All he has to do, he should have done it before the tweet is call up the Department of Justice or the FBI and say, hey, what there a FISA on me? Is there any reason to believe there was an illegal tap? It would have been one phone call, one minute at the most.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLACKWELL: Let's continue this conversation with Kimberly Dozier, CNN global affairs analyst and senior national security correspondent for "The Daily Beast".

Kimberly, good morning.


BLACKWELL: So, you spoke with other national security professionals who say they live in fear and I want to come back to that word of the president's next tweet. Here's a portion of what you wrote. In a community that once shunned social media for fear it would damage careers or threaten security clearances, spooks, spies and special operators are now signing up for Twitter accounts and setting up real Donald Trump and POTUS alerts so they can find out the inner thinking of their commander-in-chief and protect their own bosses from fallout."

It's come back now to that word "fear' and what you're learning from these natural security experts.

DOZIER: Well, what they're worried about is that his weekend tweet storms could have far-reaching implications from creating diplomatic incidence which some of them have, to maybe triggering an all-out shooting war. Now, that is extreme. You have to understand, these people largely conservative, many of them Republicans, but they plan for crises and they want to know that their commander-in-chief is focused on the job and isn't being pulled off center by his own emotions.

So, the people that I spoke to who work for some of the top people the cabinet, well, they live in fear of the weekend, going, OK, what is it going to be this time that we're going to have to be dealing with throughout the weekend and Monday morning?

BLACKWELL: Yes, we'll remember it was just a week ago, almost to the hour, when President Trump tweeted that claim that President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower.

Let me go to the other side of this conversation, because while there are some signing up for the accounts setting up alerts, for others, this is beginning to fall on deaf ears. Explain that.

DOZIER: Well, the fact of the matter is, several times we've had these tweet storms, Monday, Tuesday, it gets walked back. Now, last weekend was an exception. It took roughly 24 hours for us to get a comment from White House Spokesman Sean Spicer backing up the president's claim that the last president may have wiretapped Trump Tower. And they want to look into it.

But in other cases, you've seen the anger expressed by Trump via Twitter been walked back. And, for instance, with Mexico, you had that Mexico president feud with Trump.


DOZIER: And then that evolved into a conversation.

So, I've spoken to some people who are part of the Trump transition and Trump administration supporters and they're saying, you know, it's becoming such background noise, though, that may be more hope than reality for the rest of the world.

[07:20:01] BLACKWELL: Kimberly, we know that the president is not going to give up his Twitter accounts. He enjoys having what he calls that direct access to the American people. So be it.

But is there any degree of confidence or any indicators here that someone in the national security community can explain to the president the gravity of these tweets in that sphere, in that arena?

DOZIER: Well, from the people I've spoken to, they're basically hoping that the media reaction to his tweets will eventually be the thing that causes him to rein himself in. Notice so far this morning, we don't have any early morning tweets from the president. But we do have a few from Kellyanne Conway talking about the jobs report. Perhaps she's making sure preemptively that the first thing her boss sees this morning is good news that she is sharing about his administration. And maybe that will head off the angrier versions of his tweets.

BLACKWELL: We know Saturday morning is when he typically makes news via Twitter. And it's still early.

Kimberly Dozier, thanks so much.

DOZIER: Thank you.

PAUL: Let's talk about the vice president. Vice President Pence hitting the road today to pitch the GOP's new health care plan. Another major medical group is coming out against it, though. The group's president joins us to explain why he thinks this plan is so dangerous.

DOZIER: Also, a look into the private life of Melania Trump, how she's making her own role as a modern first lady.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Melania Trump to my imagination is emerging as a Mona Lisa of a first lady.



[07:25:53] PAUL: It's always good to have your company. I'm Christi Paul.

BLACKWELL: I'm Victor Blackwell.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has demanded the resignations of 46 U.S. attorneys. Now, such a purge, some are calling it, it is not unusual at the Justice Department, but sources tell us many of the prosecutors learned of their fate only through a news release.

PAUL: The White House has pledged a full court press to sell the Republican plan to repeal Obamacare, and Vice President Mike Pence is hitting the road to do just that. Later this morning, he'll meet with business leaders in Kentucky. Also on hand, the state's governor who says changes need to be made.

Now, as the White House tries to sell this plan here, this health care plan, it is facing growing opposition from medical groups. In fact, the American Medical Association sent an open letter to House leadership about the American Health Care Act.

BLACKWELL: It read, quote, "While we agree there are problems with the Affordable Care Act that must be addressed, we cannot support the American Health Care Act has drafted because of the expected decline in health insurance coverage and the potential harm it would cause to vulnerable patient populations."

Earlier, I spoke with the president of the American Medical Association, Dr. Andrew Gurman, and asked him about his concerns about the GOP's health care plan.


DR. ANDREW GURMAN, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION: We need to understand that people who don't have health insurance lives sicker and die younger. So, our concerns are based on our worry that people will, in fact, lose health insurance coverage. Some of the numbers released by the Kaiser Family Foundation compared the subsidies that are available under the Affordable Care Act as opposed to the proposed legislation.

And let me give you a couple of examples. Someone who is 27 years under the Affordable Care Act would get a subsidy if his or her income qualified for that, would get a subsidy somewhere between $2,500 to $4,500 depending on where they live geographically.

Under the proposed legislation, there is no geographic adjustment. The subsidy would be $2,000. Now, if you're 27 years old and relatively healthy, you might be able to find an insurance policy for $2,000, $3,000, even $4,000 that would cover at least your basic needs. But if you're 60 years old, the subsidies under the Affordable Care Act would be between $9,500 and $13,000, whereas under the proposed legislation, it would be $4,000 doesn't matter where you live.

BLACKWELL: Beyond your group, AARP, the federation of American hospitals, American college of physicians and other groups, oppose the bill as written. Here's how White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer characterized the president's reaction to that opposition.

Let's watch.


SPICER: This isn't about trying to figure out how many special interests in Washington we can get paid off. It's about making sure that patients get the best deal, that lowers prices and costs. So, while I have respect for some of the work that some of these Washington, D.C.-based associations do, at the end of the day, this is about patients and about the input from doctors who are on the front line of seeing patients and talking about the care that they're able to give or not to give to people.


BLACKWELL: Your response?

GURMAN: Well, he talked about input from doctors. This doctor on behalf of the American Medical Association has concerns on behalf of patients that they're going to lose insurance and thereby live sicker and die younger.

BLACKWELL: Sean Spicer also called for your group and groups like yours to share your ideas, shares your thoughts and make sure there's input on the bill. Has the White House, have congressional Republicans reached out to the AMA, have you reached out to them beyond this letter to be a part of the process putting this bill together?

GURMAN: The AMA has been very active in interacting with congressional leadership for quite some time in preparation or leading up to this bill. I don't know if we've had any interactions with the White House. But we certainly have spoken with congressional leadership and will continue to do so. We stand ready to engage and try to make this work for our patients.

BLACKWELL: Dr. Andrew Gurman, president of the American Medical Association -- thanks so much for being with us.

GURMAN: Thank you for having me on. I appreciate it.


[07:30:04] VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN ANCHOR: Well, the vice president is headed to Kentucky today and his trip is meant to sell the GOP's new health care plan to the public. But the White House is struggling to get some members of its own party onboard. And the governor of Kentucky appearing with the vice president today says that he's not really a fan of the current plan.


GOV. MATT BEVIN (R), KENTUCKY: Senator Paul has ideas of things he thinks it needs to be a lot stronger. He's not as impressed with what has currently been offered, as some who have currently offered. Truth be told, I'm not either. So, I'm with him. I think there are things that need to be done.


BLACKWELL: Now, he later leased a statement saying he had an encouraging conversation with the White House about the bill. It would be great to hear what that encouragement was from the White House.

Question, how can the Trump administration unite the party and deliver on its promise to repeal and replace Obamacare?

Here to discuss is CNN political commentator Paris Dennard.

Paris, good morning to you.


BLACKWELL: So, there are some congressional Republicans who believe that the president is making it harder to pass this bill, because he seems to be open to moving up the date -- and this may get into weeds of ending the Medicaid expansion here which Republicans who put this bill together say that it's crucial to keeping this bill, or getting it passed.

Is the president making it harder to pass the replacement and the repeal process?

DENNARD: No, I don't. I think this is one of the key things that we have to remember about this president in particular. Donald Trump, as a candidate, always talked about the fact that he was a great negotiator. That he was someone who could bring people together at the table and come up with the best deal. Remember, he always talked about I'm going to get the best deal for the American people.

So, I've always said he might make a lot of Republicans upset. He might make a lot of Democrats upset because at the end of the day, he's not an ideologue. He's someone who wants the best deal for the people. That's why he's a president that's open to both sides. That's why you have an administration who is not afraid to go to Kentucky where you have a sitting senator, a junior senator, speaking against the plan, and the governor who seems to be not 100 percent on board with it.

But that's part of the process. And it's a great opportunity for the Republican Party. Republicans in Congress to work with this White House to break with the plan that's going to be more -- that's going to be beneficial to the American people and a better plan. I think at the end of the day, that's what Republicans want and that's what this Trump administration wants. The president wants a better plan for the American people.

BLACKWELL: Now, you say that this may upset some of the Republicans in offering potentially moving up that day to end the expansion. But more than upset Republicans, this could -- this could kill the bill, the first phase of this three-leg stool that we heard from Paul Ryan. Is the president going to have the freedom to negotiate? Are Republicans on the Hill willing to allow this president to negotiate, if, as you say, that is his strongest asset here?

DENNARD: Yes, you know, this is a make or break moment for the Republican Party. We have long talked about repeal and replace. I advocated for review and revise. But the line is repeal and replace. And if we do this, we have to replace it with something. We can't

leave people out there in the cold. And so, this is an opportunity for the Republican Party and the Trump administration to come together and say, listen, we're going to first listen to the American people and get this right. And in doing so, you have to compromise.

Look, Democrats, when they passed Obamacare, the more extreme liberals were upset because it didn't have everybody covered or pieces that they didn't like, and still don't like. And conservatives and Republicans on the far right might be upset with the plan we have right now.

But you have to compromise but you have to agree to come together. You might not get every single thing that you want, but I think if we can get most of it and assure people, that is what the goal should be. So, the ideologues have to put that aside and decide what is best deal for the American people and that's what I believe President Trump wants to do.

BLACKWELL: Paris, quickly, why is the vice president going to make the case today instead of the president? I mean, 2009, when Barack Obama was pushing the Affordable Care Act, they didn't send Joe Biden out the door first.

DENNARD: Look, I think when you look at someone like vice president pence you have someone who has excellent relationships with the Hill. He has been a sitting -- he was in the Congress and he was a governor. And so, it makes sense to put him in a position to go talk to another governor because he was a former governor. It's a brilliant strategy to place someone's strengths.

The president is going to be behind the scenes doing negotiation, we saw him yesterday meeting with congressional leaders, the chairs of committees. That is his strong suit.

BLACKWELL: Now, it seems that the argument that you just made that it makes sense for the president to be behind the scenes, but Mike Pence has the congressional relationships -- it would make more sense based on your description of the strengths for Mike Pence to be working behind the scenes.

[07:35:08] And this is billed today as a pitch to the American people for the president to be out in front of a rally of supporters there in Kentucky because we know that's what he enjoys.

DENNARD: Well, this is more than just a rally. This is an opportunity for him to listen to the governor and listen to people at the company that they're going to be visiting and getting it from the people that are there. As a former governor going to speak with a current governor, he understands the issues that go on as you govern.

Look, there are people like Governor Kasich and governor in Arizona who have to get expansion and they're very conservative. And so, this vice president understands the delicacies that goes on at a state level, and that's why I believe he's going to attempt to do that. And that's why when it comes to congressional relationships and really negotiating and bringing people to the table, that's what you saw from the president in the past few days because that is what he's going to do to be an effective leader for this country to give us the best deal we can to having a more affordable health care plan.

BLACKWELL: Paris, thanks so much.

DENNARD: You're welcome. Thanks for having me.

BLACKWELL: All right. Wednesday night, join Wolf Blitzer and Dana Bash for a live town hall with Health and Human Secretary Tom Price. He'll answer questions, maybe questions you have about the new GOP health care proposal, Obamacare and what comes next. That's Wednesday at 9:00 Eastern, right here on CNN.

CHRISTI PAUL, CNN ANCHOR: Well, Syrian President Bashar al Assad calling U.S. troops in Syria "invaders". And twin bombings just rocked the city of Damascus. Dozens of people are dead, hundreds are wounded. We're going to get you the latest with a live report, ahead.

Do stay close.


PAUL: Well, mortgage rates edged up this week. Here's a look.


[07:41:11] BLACKWELL: Nineteen minutes until the top of the hour.

And we're following news out of Syria this morning. Twin bombings rocked the city of Damascus, 40 dead after these explosions. Hundreds more wounded. The blast believed to have targeted buses carrying Iraqis.

PAUL: And Syrian President Bashar al Assad called U.S. troops in Syria "invaders", signaling that recent raids there were conducted without consult of the Syrian government.

CNN senior international correspondent Ben Wedeman following these developments for us this morning.

Ben, what are you learning there this hour?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Christi, this was an interview that Bashar al Assad, the Syrian president, gave to the Chinese media. And, of course, we're focusing on his remarks that any foreign force that enters Syria without government permission should be considered invaders. He said whether they're Americans or Turks.

But the fact of the matter is there's very little he can do about it, given the limited control the Syrian government has over its territory, what with now we're entering the seventh year of civil war here. But also during that interview, he said that he and President Trump share common views on counterterrorism and fake news. And he said that he didn't rule out the possibility that at some point, the United States and Syria could cooperate in the fight against terrorism.

Now, when he talked about the U.S. as "invaders" in Syria, he's referring to several hundred U.S. troops that are in the northern part of the country, supporting American-backed rebels, Kurds and Arabs who are fighting against ISIS. And, of course, that is something that the Syrian government is also doing, as well as Turkish-backed forces. So, it's a bit of a mess on the ground in northern Syria, with all of the forces involved. We do know that Russian/American military officers met in Syria recently for what was called a deconfliction meeting, in other words to make sure that Russian forces, American forces, Turkish forces all operating in northern Syria don't get into a shooting war.

PAUL: That's a difficult situation.

Ben Wedeman, thank you for the update. We appreciate it.

PAUL: Well, she's gone from model to first lady. Melania Trump is beginning to embrace her role in the White House. For some, she's redefining what it means to be a modern first lady.


[07:47:53] PAUL: Friends of Melania Trump say, look, she never expected to end up in the White House, but now, she is redefining the role of a modern first lady. And as she embraces her new positions, a CNN poll shows her rising popularity with the American public. More than 50 percent of the people polled now have a favorable opinion of Mrs. Trump. That's double what it was at this time last year.

Let's discuss with author of the book, "First Ladies", and CNN contributor, Kate Andersen Brower.

Kate, thank you so much for being with us.

So, what do you make of the spike of the fact that people seem to be embracing her more now?

KATE ANDERSEN BROWER, AUTHOR, "FIRST WOMEN": Well, I think people want to like the first lady. I think that regardless of whether you support the president, the idea that the first lady didn't necessarily ask for this job. And I think something that's unique about Melania Trump in particular, she clearly is someone who doesn't want to be in the spotlight.

And in the same way that when Michelle Obama went out on the campaign trail for Hillary Clinton, people felt that she really meant what she said because she didn't go out campaigning that often. I think when you see Melania Trump in the public eye, it seems very genuine, because she's not somebody who craves the limelight. And that's something that people really respect.

But those CNN poll numbers are along party lines and they're very similar to what Hillary Clinton experienced in her first year as first lady, where you have a majority of people in your husband's political party to support you. But it's a pretty stark contrast as you're looking at the number of percentage of Democrats that Hillary's case, the percentage of Republicans that supported her.

PAUL: Well, she's clearly very different from Hillary, though, because Hillary was in politics as well in her own right. And Melania strives to be a very private person. And let's, in fact, to part of what you're going to see here on the CNN special on the first lady.


CARL SFERRAZZA ANTHONY, HISTORIAN: Melania Trump is, to my imagination, emerging as a Mona Lisa of the first ladies, because it is by her appearance and her posture that she seems to signal a strong impression.

[07:50:03] It's a centered quality. It's an independent quality.

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): An independent quality that adds to the mystery of Melania Trump.

MICHAEL D'ANTONIO, AUTHOR: I see in some ways the same expression on her face at every moment. I know that she's hiding from us, and to some degree, I feel great empathy for her because it would be hard to be the one who's the subject of so much attention and who knows that everyone's trying to figure out what's going on inside of you when all you really want is to be a private person.


PAUL: Speaking of wanting to be that private person, how can she balance -- is it possible, Kate, for her to balance her private life with her public role?

BROWER: Well, every first lady confronts this question. And, you know, we look at the comparison to Jackie Kennedy which I think is an apt comparison to make, someone who furiously guarded her privacy, her children's privacy and often left Washington. Jackie Kennedy did, though, move to the White House. She was often out of town and would take her children with her to Middleburg, Virginia, where she rode horses and did things that she liked.

And I think if Melania Trump -- what we know is that she'll move to Washington probably this summer. Once she does that and just -- at least makes the effort to move into the White House, then I think people will give her a lot of leeway to leave town, to go to Mar-a- Lago where she is very happy. I mean, that's -- that's really where she feels most at peace.

So, I think that it's -- it's really just the symbolism of moving into the White House that I think will also help boost her poll numbers among some skeptical Democrats.

PAUL: You say, too, that she's redefining what being the first lady means. How so, or at least the role that she'll play?

BROWER: Yes. I think we were all thinking about because of looking at the poll numbers before the election, thinking of what a first gentleman, Bill Clinton, would do, how he would change the role. And in an equally fascinating way, I think Melania Trump has changed it by making us question whether or not a first lady needs a big staff.

You know, Melania Trump has three or four staffers right now that we know of versus Michelle Obama's 20 something staffers, 24, I believe it was.

PAUL: Uh-huh.

BROWER: When I talk to people, they often wonder, do we need this symbolic position anymore? I think that we do. And I think it's important also from just a public perception around the world to have the first lady there to host visiting heads of states and their wives and husbands. But I think she's redefining it kind of in a completely different way than someone like a Bill Clinton would have made it a more active role.

PAUL: OK, Kate Andersen Brower, so good to have you here. Thank you for your input.

BROWER: Thank you.

PAUL: Sure.


BLACKWELL: Repeal and replace, it was the rallying cry felt Donald Trump's campaign promise to do away with Obamacare. So, why is the president shying away from the branding? Putting his name on it? Late night comedian Jimmy Kimmel weighs in.



JIMMY KIMMEL, HOST, JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE!: Trump has made it known that he doesn't want the new health care bill called Trumpcare for a very good reason, actually. The president is a humble man. He doesn't like to put his name on things.




[07:57:43] PAUL: Having trouble keeping a fitness schedule? I'm with you, people.

Here are some ways we can keep on track in this week's "Staying Well."


STEPHANIE MANSOUR, WEIGHT LOSS COACH: The National Institutes of Health says that you're more likely to adjust to a change in routine by taking one small step at a time.

Drop an extra pair of shoes by the door. That way, you're reminded to exercise every time you walk in and out.

Line up some water bottles on a shelf in your fridge. This way you'll have to drink a bottle of water before you can eat the food behind it.

If you're a nighttime eater, try this trick -- put some lotion on your hands to signal that it's time to stop eating for the day. Plus, who wants to eat a snack that tastes and smells like lotion?

Write down positive affirmations on sticky notes and place the sticky notes on your bathroom mirror. That way you can say them over and over again to help build a healthier and happier relationship with yourself.


PAUL: OK, another key to good health -- laugh, people. Get a good laugh in.

BLACKWELL: And for late night hosts, business is booming. Here's a roundup of some of last night's biggest laughs.



KIMMEL: Trump has made it known that he doesn't want the new health care bill called Trumpcare for a very good reason actually. The president is a humble man. He doesn't like to put his name on things.


CONAN O'BRIEN, HOST, "CONAN": New research says that Neanderthals used to relieve pain by chewing on a plant containing the main ingredient in aspirin. That's what Neanderthals did, yes! Or that's now being called the Republican health care plan.

STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, "THE LATE SHOW": The one thing Trump is willing to put his name on is accusations that President Obama illegally tapped his phones. Trump demanded that Congress investigate his charges which they're going to get to right after they find those three million illegal voters and what really happened to Arnold Schwarzenegger's ratings.



PAUL: All right. Is there anything they're joking about other than politics these days?

BLACKWELL: No, no, no.

PAUL: I haven't seen much of it.

Hey, thank you so much for sticking with us here. We're getting into hour three here in a moment. BLACKWELL: Stay with us. Next hour starts right now.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking for the resignation of 46 Obama appointed attorneys.