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Trump & Turnbull Press Briefing; Trump Talks Guns & Kushner's Security Clearance; Rick Gates Pleads Guilty in Mueller Probe. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired February 23, 2018 - 14:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[14:30:00] MALCOM TURNBULL, AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER: We are currently taking about 18,000 refugees a year. We've taken -- we've taken 12,000 from the -- in addition to that, from the Syrian conflict zone.

But we -- we determine which -- we are very careful about security, of course, in terms of our humanitarian program. But I think it would be fair to say that the -- the president has, of course, the most insight into this area here.

But it'd be fair to say that, ultimately, the resolution in Syria has to be a political settlement. And that, I'm sure, is what Secretary Tillerson is -- is working towards.

QUESTION: And, if I could briefly follow up, specifically, though, in Syria, as two of the most powerful men in the entire world, is there anything that you can do to stop the bloodshed?

TURNBULL: Well, the -- ultimately, there has to be a political settlement. It is a -- you know, the -- the campaign to destroy Daesh or ISIL has been largely completed. Their terror -- you know, the so- called caliphate has been reduced down to, you know, a few pockets.

It's been -- it has been smashed, and that has been -- and Americans and Australians have worked bravely, effectively with our allies and partners in the region to do that.

TURNBULL: That's very important, by the way, to keep Australians and Americans safe at home, because the -- the image of ISIL's invincible caliphate, you know, sweeping across Syria and Iraq and they said they were going to sweep across Europe -- all of that was a big recruiting tool.

So this was a very important part of our global effort. But ultimately, the settlement in those -- in that region has to come from a political settlement among the people who live there.

TRUMP: I will say, what Russia and what Iran and what Syria have done recently is a humanitarian disgrace. I will tell you that.

We're there for one reason: We're there to get ISIS and get rid of ISIS and go home. We're not there for any other reason. And we've largely accomplished our goal.

But what those three countries have done to people over the last short period of time is a disgrace.

OK, would you like to ask a question, Mr. Prime Minister?

TURNBULL: Yes. I think -- yes, Phil Coorey from the Australian Financial Review.

QUESTION: Thanks, gentlemen. Mr. Trump, Mr. Turnbull, Phil Coorey from the Financial Review.

To you, Mr. Trump, just on the region and China and associated issues, the United States Navy has conducted frequently freedom of navigation sail-throughs through disputed areas. Would you like to see the Australian Navy participate directly in those operations alongside the U.S. ally?

And whilst on the region, can I ask you what your latest thinking is on the Trans-Pacific Partnership? Are you softening your opposition to that or do you remain -- remain as opposed as ever?

TRUMP: Well, I think the Trans-Pacific Partnership was not a good deal for us. And if they made it a good deal for us, I'd go in. But honestly, it wasn't.

I like bilateral deals much more than multilateral. I like to be able to negotiate with one country, and if it doesn't work out, you terminate. And during the termination notice, right after you consent, they call you and they say, "Please, let's make a deal," and you fix the deal. When you get into multi, you can't do that.

But Trans-Pacific Partnership -- TPP was a very bad deal for the United States. It would have cost us tremendous amounts of jobs, would have been bad.

But there is a possibility we would go in, but they will be offering us a much better deal. I would certainly do that.

As far as your lanes are concerned, we'd love to have Australia involved. And I think Australia wants us to stay involved.

I have to say, we've developed a great relationship with China, other than the fact that they've been killing us on trade for the last long period of time -- killing us, absolutely killing the United States on trade. But we have developed a great relationship with China; probably closer than we've ever had.

And my personal relationship, as Malcolm can tell you, with President Xi is, I think, quite extraordinary. He's somebody that I like and I think he likes me. With that being said, he likes China and I like the United States.

(LAUGHTER)

But a lot of things are happening. It's going to be a very interesting period of time. But we do have to straighten out -- and as much as I like and respect -- really respect President Xi, we have to straighten out the trade imbalance. So much, it's no good. TURNBULL: OK, Kieran Gilbert from Sky News?

QUESTION: Kieran Gilbert, Sky News Australia.

General Mattis has called China a revisionist power and that there are growing threats from China, yet you're very positive about your relationship with Xi. Can you tell us, is it a friend or a foe?

And on North Korea, the sanctions, if they don't work, are all options still on the table? Can I get your answer and also the prime minister's thoughts?

TRUMP: Well, to the second, we'll have to see. I don't think I'm going to exactly play that card. But we'll have to see.

If the sanctions don't work, we'll have to go phase two. And phase two may be a very rough thing. May be very, very unfortunate for the world.

But hopefully the sanctions will work. We have tremendous support all around the world for what we're doing. It really is a rogue nation.

TRUMP: If we can make a deal, it'll be a great thing. And if we can't, something will have to happen. So we'll see.

As far as General Mattis is concerned, I mean, he has that view, and a lot of people have that view.

China's tough. They're getting stronger. They're getting stronger, to a large extent, with a lot of the money they've made from having poor leadership in the United States, because the United States leadership has allowed them to get away with murder.

With that being said, I think we can have a truly great, even trading relationship with China. Hopefully, that's going to work out. And hopefully, the relationship I have with President Xi will make that happen. Only time will tell.

Thank you.

TURNBULL: Well, I can confirm that President Trump and President Xi see eye to eye in -- in every respect. And they -- they have a -- it -- it is -- it's very clear, at the meetings I've been at, which -- which we've attended in the region, the East Asia Summit, and so forth, APEC -- the respect that they have with each other. And I think it's the most -- single most important relationship, between China and the United States. It's clearly very respectful, very frank, very clear-eyed.

For -- for our own part, we see China's rise as being overwhelmingly a positive for the region and for the world.

The critical thing, of course, is the rule of law is maintained. You know, that is -- you know, that the -- the -- the -- there are people that want to try to paint the United States and its -- and its allies like Australia as being against China in some sort of rerun of the Cold War. That -- you know, that's -- that -- that is not appropriate. It's not accurate.

What we need to ensure is that the rules of the road, the rule of law, the rules-based system, where, you know, big countries can't push around little countries; where, to quote Lee Kuan Yew, all those years ago, where you don't have a world where the big fish eat the little fish, and the little fish eat the shrimps; where you have that rule of law that protects everybody, that is what has enabled the great growth in our region. That's what's enabled hundreds of billions -- millions of people in our region, and including in China, to be lifted out of poverty.

So maintaining that rules-based order is what we are committed to, and we all have a vested interested in doing so.

And I just want to say again to the president that the -- that his -- his presence -- his own personal presence in our region at the end of last year was -- sent such a powerful message. The regular visits by Secretary Tillerson, Secretary Mattis and, of course, the presence of the United States Navy and so many other manifestations of American commitment to the region, is so important to maintaining that rules- based order.

Believe me, that has been the foundation of the success, the prosperity and the security these last 40 or more years.

TRUMP: I don't think we've ever had a better relationship with China than we do right now.

The only thing that can get in its way is trade, because it's so one- sided, it's so lopsided. And the people that stood here for many years, in this position, right where I am right now, should never have allowed that to happen. It's very unfair to the United States, and it's very unfair to the workers of the United States. Very, very unfair.

TRUMP: And even today, it's extremely hard on companies that want to do business in China, because the barriers are incredible, whereas the barriers coming into our country are foolishly not. Foolishly. I believe in reciprocal trade. If they do something to us, we do something to them.

Well, that never happened, and it's gotten worse and worse over the years. But we'll correct it. That can be the only thing that can get in the way of a truly long-term great relationship. Because we have all the ingredients for friendship.

From the Washington Examiner, Gabby (ph)?

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.

Your chief of staff, General Kelly, has recommended ending the practice of granting interim security clearances to members of the Trump administration.

TRUMP: Yep.

QUESTION: If that proceeds, would you be willing to grant a waiver to Jared Kushner, one of your senior advisers?

TRUMP: Well, Jared's done an outstanding job. I think he's been treated very unfairly. He's a high-quality person. He works for nothing, just so -- you know, nobody ever reports that, but he gets zero. He doesn't get a salary, nor does Ivanka, who's now in South Korea -- long trip -- representing her country. And we cannot get a better representative.

In fact, the first lady, Melania, was telling me what a great impression she made this morning when she landed in South Korea. Jared is truly outstanding. He's -- he's -- he was very successful when he was in the private sector. He's working on peace in the Middle East and some other small and very easy deals.

They've always said, "Peace in the Middle East, peace between the Palestinians and Israel is the toughest deal of any deal there is." And how come (ph) -- I've heard this all my life, that -- as a former deal-maker, although now you could say, maybe, I'm more of a deal- maker than ever before -- you have no choice as president -- to do it right. But the hardest deal to make of any kind is between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

We're actually making great headway. Jerusalem was the right thing to do. We took that off the table. But Jared Kushner's right in the middle of that, and he's an extraordinary deal-maker. And if he does that, that will be an incredible accomplishment and a very important thing for our country.

So General Kelly, who's doing a terrific job, by the way, is right in the middle of that. We inherited a system that's broken. It's a system where many people have just -- it's taken months and months and months to get many people that do not have the complex financial -- you know, complicated financials -- they don't have that, and it's still taken months.

It's a broken system, and it shouldn't take this long. You know how -- how many people are on that list -- people with not a problem in the world. So that'll be up to General Kelly. General Kelly respects Jared a lot and General Kelly will make that call. I won't make that call. I will let the general, who's right here, make that call.

But Jared's doing some very important things for our country. He gets paid zero. Ivanka, by the way, gets paid zero. She gave up a very good and very strong, solid, big business in order to come to Washington, because she wanted to help families and she wanted to help women. She said, "Dad, I want to go to Washington. I want to help women."

And I said "You know, Washington's a mean place." She said, "I don't care. I want to help women. I want to help families." And she was very much involved, as you know, in the Child Tax Credit, and now she's working very much on family leave, things that I don't think would've been in the agreement, if it weren't for Ivanka and some of our great senators, et cetera. But she was very much in the forefront of that.

TRUMP: So I will let General Kelly make that decision. And he's going to do what's right for the country. And I have no doubt he'll make the right decision, OK? Thank you very much.

QUESTION: Mr. (OFF-MIKE)...

(CROSSTALK)

TURNBULL: Yeah.

QUESTION: ... Prime Minister, your country conducted a buyback program of semi-automatic weapons back in the mid '90s and hasn't had a mass shooting ever since.

Is this something that you've discussed with President Trump? And did you at all urge him to reconsider his current recommendations to combat mass shootings in the United States?

TURNBULL: Well, the -- our history with gun control and regulation is obviously very different to the United States'. And you're right, there was a mass shooting in Tasmania in 1996.

And my predecessor, John Howard, who's very well known here in the United States -- Prime Minister for nearly 12 years -- John undertook some very big reforms. And, basically, semi-automatic and -- let alone automatic weapons -- are, essentially, not available.

Indeed, there are many classes of the -- the range of firearms that are available to people that don't have a specific, you know, professional need, like, you know, people who are involved in pest control and so forth, are very, very limited.

But it's a completely different context historically, legally and so forth. We are very satisfied with our laws. We maintain them. We -- they're there. They're well known. You've referred to them. But we certainly don't presume to provide, you know, policy or political advice on -- on that matter here.

This is a -- the -- you have an amendment to your Constitution which deals with gun ownership. You have a very, very different history. And I will focus on our own political arguments and debates and wish you wise deliberation in your own.

TRUMP: And I have to add to that. They're very different countries with very different sets of problems. But I think we're well on the way to solving that horrible problem that happens far too often in the United States.

Thank you very much, everybody. We appreciate it. Thank you.

Mr. Prime Minister, thank you very much.

TURNBULL: (OFF-MIKE)

(APPLAUSE)

[14:46:01] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: There's the president and prime minister of Australia wrapping up their joint news conference. The president making news on several fronts, including on guns and safety in American schools, as well as on his son-in-law, senior adviser, Jared Kushner, saying a decision on whether he will be allowed to access sensitive classified information will be left up to General Kelly, the White House chief of staff.

Gloria, let's start off with that.

And we've got a great panel to assess what we just heard.

He's doing an amazing job, the president said of Jared Kushner on the Middle East peace effort. That's the hardest negotiation ever but Jared Kushner is working to try to bring peace between the Israeli and Palestinians. Clearly, if he's going to continue to do so, he's going to need full security clearances, not just this interim arrangement.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: He made a point that Jared is being treated unfairly, is working for no money, and has a big job to do. He talked about inheriting a system that is broken. Didn't seem to be broken for other administrations. Sometimes security clearances do take a while but not this long. And then he kind of punted it, which surprised me, quite honestly. He said, you know, he's going to let General Kelly make that call. In speaking today he made it very clear that he believes Jared is really important and doing important work. He kind of hinted to General Kelly about where he would like him to come down on that.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: He said General Kelly will do what's right for the country.

(CROSSTALK)

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: And what he thinks is right for the country is Jared Kushner continues to do the work he's doing.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Right.

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: The reason Jared Kushner doesn't have a final security clearance is because of the Mueller investigation. It's implicit dig at the Mueller investigation, saying that's what's holding up peace in the Middle East, essentially, and, therefore, Kelly will recognize that and move forward and call the Mueller investigation what it is.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HIOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It is something of a win for General Kelly not to have the president totally publicly undermine him in a forum where he totally could have done it. Leaving this up to Kelly as a chief of staff is important. He's trying to put in a process here and at least nominally has the ability to say no more for Jared Kushner on this particular issue.

But keeping with Kushner has less of his foreign policy portfolio, and the fact that he's regularly seeing the presidential daily briefing. Probably no more significantly classified documents that the president sees than that thing, and Jared Kushner apparently sees it all the time. No one in the White House has an answer the question of why that happens even though he doesn't have a full security clearance or how that might continue to happen if he doesn't get it.

BLITZER: Our White House senior correspondent, Pamela Brown, she's still over there in the East Room.

You were other there at the news conference on guns in the United States. The president said he wants background checks, especially for the mentally ill, and wants to get rid of bump stocks. He said there are certain other things he wants to do. He didn't spell those out but was very firm that the U.S. will make great progress in this area and we won't see these mass shootings down the road.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: What struck me, Wolf, is what he didn't say or reiterate, what he supported just yesterday, raising the age limit for those buying a semi-automatic rifle. He also didn't mention that this morning when he was on the South Lawn. As you know, the NRA has come out and opposed that measure, saying it is not in favor of it.

The president seems to be more focused on today strengthening the background checks and banning the bump stocks, and also the notion of arming those highly adept teachers. He brought up the deputy who stayed outside of the Parkland school, even though he had a gun, and never went in. But he said the difference with arming highly adept teachers is that they would have love for the children and, therefore, would be more compelled to act.

[14:50:01] Now the Australian prime minister was asked about gun violence because the last mass shooting where five or more people were killed in Australia was back in 1996 when 35 people were killed. Since then, Australia enacted sweeping gun control measures and there has not been a mass shooting there since. Australian prime minister said he is satisfied with Australia's laws but doesn't want to make any policy recommendations on gun violence, basically saying these are two different countries with two different sets of problems, a different context. The president weighed in as well after he said that, to make a very similar point.

The other highlight, as you were discussing, was his response on Jared Kushner, who has an interim security clearance. And under John Kelly's new memo, he would no longer have access to top-secret information to continue on with his portfolio, creating peace in the Middle East, as the president said. At first, we wondered, is he going to answer this question because he continued to talk about what a wonderful guy he is and what great work he has been doing and so forth. But then he did say he's going to leave it up to General Kelly, to his chief of staff, to determine what will happen on that front. And so we will have to see what does happen there -- Wolf?

BLITZER: He also said something that will be controversial. He was talking about the security guards, armed security guards at school. The president suggesting that's simply not enough. He says maybe 10 or 20 percent of the school teachers should be trained because a security guard, the president said, Pamela, doesn't love the children, doesn't know the children. I suspect a lot of those school security guard are going to disagree with the president on that.

BROWN: Yes, that's right. And the president made a point to say, well, the deputy --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Unfortunately, we just lost Pamela Brown over at the White House. We'll get back to her.

But there's more breaking news. We've just confirmed that Rick Gates, former senior adviser to the Trump campaign and President Trump, has just pled guilty, pled guilty to two criminal charges in federal court. He has agreed to go ahead and to cooperate in the investigation that Robert Mueller, the special counsel, has put forward. He will cooperate, plead guilty, presumably get a reduced sentence, put pressure on the former campaign chair, Paul Manafort, to do the same thing. He has still refused to go ahead and plead guilty.

Josh Campbell, a former FBI supervisory agent is with us.

Give us a sense from your experience at the FBI what this means now that Rick Gates has formally gone ahead and done what the prosecutors want, he has pled guilty.

JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, it's another arrow in Mueller's quiver. If you look at this instance, this is a big deal. You know, some people have been asking why Mueller is playing such hard ball. When you go into an FBI interview, the bureau will ask you questions that they already know the answer to. They're trying to determine is this person telling us the truth before they get to information that they may actually genuinely have questions about.

What we saw in this case -- and I know this from conducting interviews myself and doing interrogations -- when you're confronting someone, and they don't provide you accurate information, you ask yourself, maybe is this person scared? Do they not really realize what's going on? This isn't that. The way we know that is because the date on the court documents for lying to the FBI was from February 1st.

This was very recent. So for investigators and for Mueller's team, the question is, why are they playing such hard ball, it's because you have someone who appears to be coming across as a wise guy who thinks he's smarter than the investigators, and I think they're showing that's not the case.

BLITZER: Bring in Michael Zeldin, our legal analyst, into this.

As Josh points out, this is a big deal.

ZELDIN: It is. It's a big deal for Gates and his family. He's going to plead guilty and cooperate. And he's most likely going to do jail time. Under the provisions of the plea agreements that he's going to give a lot of money up and he'll have to start his life anew. That's much better than spending 20 years in prison, which is what Manafort is facing. I think Manafort has to look at the situation he's in, which is there

are tons of documents that are already assembled against him, computer records and the like. Now there's an insider who is going to take the jury, or whoever has to find the facts, through all of that. And there's not much of a defense case that can be built in opposition to documents and Gates. So Manafort will have to make the decision, which I think is at the heart of where Mueller is. He wants Manafort's testimony. He believes there are aspects of the counterintelligence investigation that he can't get at without Manafort's cooperation or the collusion investigation that he can't get at without Manafort's testimony.

[14:55:00] BLITZER: All right.

Our crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz, is getting reaction from Paul Manafort.

What are you learning, Shimon?

SHIMON PROKUPTECZ, CNN CRIME & JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Manafort does not intend to change his position. Let me read you a statement that our Evan Perez just got from him. It says, "Notwithstanding that Rick Gates pled today, i continue to maintain my innocence. I had hoped and expected my business colleague would have had the strength to continue the battle to prove our innocence. For reasons yet to surface, he chose to do otherwise. This does not alter my commitment to defend myself against untrue, piled-up charges contained in the indictments against me."

That's from Paul Manafort, a statement we just received from him.

Clearly, Wolf, all this talk about whether or not this guilty plea and cooperation by Rick Gates is going to put any pressure on Paul Manafort to now cooperate, no indication in his statement of how he intends to proceed, if he intends to cooperate. He claims he will continue to defend himself and is just sorry that his friend, his business partner, Rick Gates, has now chosen to cooperate.

BLITZER: We'll see how long that lasts. The pressure clearly is going to mount on Paul Manafort. We saw Rick Gates and his lawyers get in that vehicle and drive away from the federal building in Washington, D.C.

Gloria, big picture right now, this is an important moment in the Robert Mueller investigation, this Russia investigation. What happens just happened is sending powerful messages across the board.

BORGER: First of all, you can't lie to the special counsel, number one. Do not do that. That is a bad idea. You will be prosecuted for it. That is one of the things that Rick Gates pled to today, that he lied in his proffer when he was interviewed.

CHALIAN: And that's true of Papadopoulos of well.

BORGER: It was true of Papadopoulos as well. But the other thing is, this is, despite what Manafort is saying

today, this puts huge amount of pressure on him. They've operated with certain bravado during all of this, saying that they want to take this to trial, et cetera. When you look at what Bob Mueller has, that will be very lengthy, very difficult, very expensive. Manafort was interesting in his statement saying, "for reasons yet to surface, he chose to do otherwise," speaking of Rick Gates.

I'm wondering what he is talking about there. Rick Gates sent a letter, as we know, to his friends and family saying that he chose this course because it was going to be difficult on his family. Manafort is clearly furious with his former partner here. And he has a tough decision to make because he is not a young man. He's 69 years old. He's facing spending the rest of his life in prison. Clearly, there is something, as you were saying, that the special counsel believes Manafort has that he needs and that he wants.

ZELDIN: And that only Manafort can offer, I think, is what the special counsel must be thinking.

BORGER: And the White House, I should say -- I got a statement from Ty Cobb last night, who represents the president internally in these matters, and he says, we don't comment on these things because this case has absolutely nothing to do with --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Abby, you cover the White House for us. How much of a toll is this Russia investigation playing on officials over there?

PHILLIP: It is a slow burn for this White House. It has been for over a year now. And beyond that, it is less of a slow burn for the president. It's constantly front of mind for him. He is constantly stewing about this. It often derails anything they're trying to do outside of that.

I think the other issue here is how, for this White House, is how methodical Mueller has been in this, and how quiet he has been, as he has proceeded along step by step by step. That's in direct contrast to how the Trump campaign was operated, which was a total freewheeling entity. And so that alone has to concern them. Those are two very different things. The Trump campaign was so wild and so -- it was like the Wild, Wild West. They would readily admit this. And you know, they don't know what they are -- what is down the road for them. And I think the smart folks in the White House understand that. I think Gloria's statement is what we've been hearing from them all along, which is they want, for as long as possible, to say this has nothing to do with us. We don't know how much longer that will go on.

BLITZER: This is going to continue for quite a while. He is indicating, Robert Mueller, there's no end in sight.

CHALIAN: And there's so much momentum to his work product, right? He's getting a lot busier publicly and starting to put forth these cases, these indictments, these charges, this plea agreement now. We are piecing together the larger story. But I think Abby is right. This White House is consumed with a lot of known unknowns right now.

BORGER: Don't forget, they are in the middle of negotiations with the special counsel over the question of whether the president testifies. And so all of this plays into that.

[15:00:05] PHILLIP: It's also worth noting, Wolf, the president was not asked about this today at a press conference. He hasn't had a real press conference in over year.