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Tillerson, Haley Signal U.S. Shift Towards Syria; Trump Welcomes National Association of Manufacturers CEOs to White House; Trump Calls Out Freedom Caucus Members on Health Care; Trump: Meeting with Chinese President Will Be Tough. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired March 31, 2017 - 11:30   ET



[11:3137] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: One Republican Senator says when it comes to Syria and the brutal civil war that's played out there for years, President Trump is now making a bigger mistake than President Obama's red line. The new comments from the secretary of state and the U.S. Ambassador to the united nations has many wondering if they are now signaling a major shift in U.S. policy towards the Syrian president.

Listen here. Right now, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is speaking in neighboring Turkey. Listen.


REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: Let there be no mistake, just so we can be clear, there is no space between Turkey and the United States and our commitment to defeat Daesh, to defeat ISIS, not just in Syria and Iraq, but as members of the greater coalition, to defeat Daesh. Anywhere Daesh shows its face on planet earth, they will be confronted by the coalition to defeat them. The status and the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.


BOLDUAN: That final statement is what is getting everyone's attention right now.

I want to bring in CNN senior diplomatic correspondent, Michelle Kosinski, for more on this.

Michelle, what are you hearing? Is the secretary of state signaling a shift here?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRSEPONDENT: Yeah, just one little sentence, right? And to hear that, that the fate of Syria, the fate of Assad will be in the hands of the Syrian people, I mean, that seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to say, kind of the same kind of diplomatic speak we hear regarding other situations around the world. But you had to put this in the broader context of what Assad has been doing in Syria and the way the prior administration spoke out against him. I mean, the Obama administration repeatedly called him things like a blood-thirsty dictator, saying that he's slaughtering his own people, that Assad must go, that he's lost all legitimacy. So, to be hearing none of that now from this administration, it's just an enormous departure, and that's shocking to plenty of people.

We should add that we've been asking the State Department about this over the last two weeks, knowing that Secretary Tillerson was going to go to Turkey, talk about the fight against ISIS, and everybody around the world who's involved in this fight wants to know what the future's going to look like, what the U.S. role is going to be, and what U.S. Expectations are. So to hear Secretary Tillerson say something like that, that, again, is such a departure, kind of makes it sound like the U.S. now would be OK with Assad remaining in power, at least through a transition.

So when we asked the State Department, does the U.S. still believe that President Assad has lost legitimacy as the leader of Syria, the State Department says, yes, the U.S. does still believe that, that's our opinion, but moving forward, this has to be in the hands of the Syrian people.

And that sparked really strong statements from people like Senators McCain and Graham. I mean, McCain saying, you know, you can make a statement like that, but you're not taking into account the fact that the Syrian people can't make decisions about their future because they're being slaughtered by President Assad. And Senator Graham calling this not only a grave mistake but a big reward for Russia and Iran -- Kate?

[11:34:00] BOLDUAN: Seems like there's more clarification still needed on that, and you're pushing for it.

Michelle, great to see you. Thank you so much. Keeping an eye there.

And also, keeping an eye on Capitol Hill right now, calling them out by name. President Trump putting his clear frustration with the House Freedom Caucus in full view of his millions of Twitter followers. What's behind these threats against members of his own party?

We'll be right back.




TRUMP: Thank you. Thank you very much.

We have some really good news today. That's really fantastic, these numbers. Today, I'm delighted to welcome the National Association of Manufacturers to the White House. It's a great group of people. I know many of them well.

And I want to thank your president and CEO, Jay Timmons, for being here with us today.

Great job.


TRUMP: Great job, Jay.

My administration is working every day to make it easier for manufacturers to build, hire, and grow in America. We're removing job-killing regulations and lifting the burdens on American industry like, I would say, have never been lifted before.

We've done a lot of work over the last 60-70 days, and I think you're seeing some real production. Maybe -- I think we can say this, Mike, like never before.

Earlier this week, I signed an executive order to end the war on coal. We had coal miners up at the office. It was an amazing scene. You had very tough, very strong, very powerful men that were crying, actually, and they were crying with happiness. And produce more American energy and more American jobs, which is how I got elected in the first place.

[11:40:24] BOLDUAN: All right, President Trump right there speaking with a group of manufacturers in the White House right now as he deals with several political storms on several fronts, including his national security adviser that he fired, now requesting immunity in exchange for testimony regarding investigations. The president just announced he will be signing two executive orders this afternoon, both of those involving trade. We'll have much more on that in just a moment.

But let's get back to the blame game. It is still on. It looks like it is going nowhere fast, one week after President Trump and House Republicans failed in their effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, the president is now calling out members of his own party by name.

Take a look at, of course, some of his tweets. "If Mark Meadows, Jim Jordan, Raul Labrador would get on board, we'll have growth and massive tax reforms." And this one "Where are Mark Meadows, Jim Jordan, Raul Labrador? Repeal and replace Obamacare."

Where is the president and where does this battle go next as they look to still do something with health care?

With me now, Doug Hye is here, CNN political commentator and Republican strategist; Alex Burns, political analyst and national political reporter for "The New York Times"; and Republican New York City Councilman Joe Borelli is here as well.

Alex, first, it was the president taking on the Freedom Caucus as a group. Now the president is taking on members of the Freedom Caucus by name. Do you get a sense that there is strategy behind this, or is this the president just -- is this the president lashing out?

ALEX BURNS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I certainly haven't heard that there is an overarching strategy to, you know, really apply 18 months of pressure to Raul Labrador in his district to make him crack and support Donald Trump's agenda. I do think there is broadly in and around the White House, in and around Republican leadership on the Hill this sense that we're really fed one these guys, right, that the time for coddling them and hoping that they at the end of the day decide to be team players is over. Kate, it's hard for me to see how it translates into the Freedom Caucus really meaningfully bending unless it is paired with a longer-term strategy of really bringing pain to these guys in their home districts, because as you know, they have not responded to pressure of any kind so far going on seven years now.

BOLDUAN: Right. The response has been, it has varied. I mean, we're talking about a caucus of 30, some 30 people.

But Raul Labrador, one of the people he called out, Doug, he responded on Twitter, of course, saying to the president, "Freedom Caucus stood with you when others ran. Remember who your real friends are. We are trying to help you succeed."

I found that interesting, because I heard a similar kind of tone and message coming from another member of the Freedom Caucus yesterday when I asked about this, if they saw it as a threat or kind of what the response was. Some of them do seem to be trying to calibrate the response to the president, instead of just saying, good riddance. Why do you think that is?

DOUG HYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Donald Trump's popular in their Congressional districts, first and foremost. They may have a higher approval rating than Trump does, but if Trump is at 60 percent in Raul Labrador's or Mark Meadows' district, which he likely is, that's going to temper their response. But this is also what we've been seeing now for five or six years that's just now been exposed a bit more because we have Trump doing tweets. And that's Republican infighting.


BOLDUAN: Normally, these happen behind closed doors.

HYE: And the other difference is it's not just policy we're seeing, we're seeing name-calling. And there was an op-ed in "The New York Times" calling out the Freedom Caucus. That's been responded with tweets. And it's not just policy anymore. It's getting personal.

BOLDUAN: By definition, it is now getting personal, right?

You also, Joe, have -- I want to get your take on if you see some long game in this, because you have some of the president's staunchest supporters, from Sean Hannity to Laura Ingraham, saying now that they think this is ill advised. They think taking on the Freedom Caucus and blaming the Freedom Caucus for this is unhelpful. I mean, Laura Ingraham was wondering, and it's -- I think a lot of people are wondering this, actually -- where's he going to find friends if he's going to be calling out these folks now on other things he wants to take on?

JOSEPH BORELLI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I do think the stage is set for the rapprochement and that's why people are pulling back their response. They'll go after tax reform next, and I think that's a subject matter they can both agree on.

But I don't know if there is a large-scale strategy to unseat people, but I also don't know that President Trump needs a large-scale strategy to rattle the cage some of the members. He can go to his cell phone, his Twitter, and have a similar response to people having a PAC or something like that. These three members outperformed him in the general election, but Trump did very well. In Jim Jordan's district, he won some of the counties against John Kasich in Ohio, not enough to unseat him, but certainly enough to rattle their cage in a midterm. I don't know if you want to have that going into a 2020 election, a state you need to win.

[11:45:10] BOLDUAN: But again, so much has happened in 60 days. Think about looking to 2018, right now, seems absolutely crazy, even though the president leveled this threat yesterday. It seems -- I get the sense kind of that even members of Congress aren't taking it seriously.

BURNS: Sure. And I think speaking to folks on both sides, there was this sense in November, December, January that, oh, my goodness, the whole political world has been turned upside down, we're living in Donald Trump's universe now, and we don't even know what the rules are. I think that sense has really faded among both Democrats who are up for re-election in 2018 and folks on the right who a couple months ago may have felt like we may really need to change our stripes to accommodate this guy. I think there is this sense, especially among the entrenched incumbents, as Joe was talking about, that we were here before this guy, we'll probably be here after this guy.

BOLDUAN: It will be interesting because they're about to go home for a very long recess in April. What they hear from constituents then and what it means for everything else.

Great to see you guys. Thank you so much.

Coming up next for us, more on the developing firestorm involving Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser to the president, who the president fired. Flynn wants immunity in exchange for testimony. Will he get it? And what is the story that he says he has to tell?


[11:51:02] BOLDUAN: In Chicago violence knows no age limit. This week's "CNN Hero" is on the front lines determined to give kids back their childhood. I want you to meet Jennifer Maddux.


OFC. JENNIFER MADDUX, CNN HERO: We are in a state of emergency here in Chicago. The shooting. The killing. 5, 6, 7-year-olds are losing people they love and care about. I'm a law enforcement officer but I'm also a mother and a member of this community. We can't arrest our way out of this. Once I saw there was another side to policing, I thought that I could do more.


BOLDUAN: To see Officer Maddux's full story, go to CNN While you're there, nominate someone you think should join the ranks to be a 2017 "CNN Hero."

Let me move to this now. Trump signed two executive orders aimed at reducing the U.S. trade deficit. It comes one week before he meets with the Chinese president at Mar-a-Lago, which he calls the southern White House. Trump already tweeting about the meeting, saying it will be a difficult one.

Let's get some perspective. Former U.S. ambassador to China and former Democratic Senator from Montana, Max Baucus, is joining me now.

Mr. Ambassador, thanks so much for the time.


BOLDUAN: So the president says -- he tweeted its out, he says this meeting next week will be a very difficult one. Why do you think that is? Do you agree?

BAUCUS: I think it could be difficult. We, Americans, have opened up our borders more than have other countries, especially China. China is quite closed. Really this comes down to a test of will, a test of strength. The Chinese understand strength, I think, better than do people anyplace else in the world. They can smell weakness farther away than anybody. The United States has to be strong, but in a measured, solid and considered way. He has to tell Chinese President Xi Jinping, hey, you're too protected, we're not allowed to send our products into China, the investment climate is too closed, you've got to change that. Trump has to be willing to not only say that to President Xi but to back it up with certain actions we're going to have to take if China does not open up.

BOLDUAN: Ambassador, when it comes to working with China, what impact do you think his Twitter feed has? If you look at it about this meeting and in the past, he has some very not nice things to say about China.

BAUCUS: I think the Chinese look askance at the Chinse. They're a little weird. The Chinese perspective, the Chinese are very measured, very conservative. The last thing in the world President Xi would do is Twitter. They're just not that way. They find President Trump's approach a little bit odd. But it is what it is. The Chinese respect that and understand that. But the meeting in Mar-a-Lago is going to be an opportunity for President Xi to take President Trump's measure, and vice versa, irrespective of tweets.

BOLDUAN: Big test and big moment for both of them, for sure.

You were in Washington a long time in your former life as a Senate, when you see everything swirling about right now, swirling around the White House, from the failure of the health care effort just one week ago today, the Russia investigations, and now his former national security adviser seeking immunity in exchange for testimony, have you seen anything like this before?

BAUCUS: I haven't. It's a bit surreal, actually. But it is again what it is. It means those who want good government just have to stand up and push for it. Members of Congress -- and they're very, very good responsible members of Congress, both sides -- are just going to have to stand up and do what's right. Be confident. Be objective. Be credible. Be honest. Have the strength -- have the belief of the American people and speak directly to the American public. But have good investigations which get to the heart of the problem.

[11:55:15] BOLDUAN: Having those good investigations, confident, honest, all those good words you laid out, some people searching for that. Regardless, it continues.

Ambassador Baucus, it's great to see you. Thank you.

BAUCUS: Thank you. Thanks, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Really appreciate it.

Coming up for us, as President Trump deals with the firestorm over his fired national security adviser, reporters just asked the president about Michael Flynn's request for immunity. See what happened next, coming up.


[12:00:00] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to "Inside Politics." Thanks for sharing your Friday with us.

It's another busy day here in Washington, one full of change. President Trump trying to shake off a slump by returning to an issue that helped him blue states, red. Signing two executive actions today designed to crackdown on unfair trade.