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CNN NEWSROOM

Stormy Questions for President Trump; White House Briefing. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired March 7, 2018 - 15:00   ET

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


[15:00:00]

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I'm sorry. Can you be more specific?

QUESTION: Sure, sure.

With Jeff (ph) as well as Monday to the Wall Street Journal reporter, you were asked about whether the president knew about this payment his longtime lawyer made to -- facilitated, rather, Stormy Daniels.

You said, then and again today, "Not that you were aware of." Have you asked the president this question?

SANDERS: Yes, I've had conversations with the president about this. And as I outlined earlier, that this case had already been won in arbitration, and that there was no knowledge of any payments from the president and he's denied all of these allegations.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: On the V.A., Sarah -- but I just want to -- is there a reason why you're not answering the actual substance of the question, on the payment itself? Because it's come up a few times now. Can you...

(CROSSTALK)

SANDERS: I -- I believe I've addressed this question pretty extensively. And ongoing litigation, I'm not going to comment any further than I already have.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: (inaudible) want to, which is the new I.G. report coming out. This is an issue that the president has been passionate about, veterans' care. It finds that Secretary Shulkin was a part of failed leadership at the V.A. So why is he still a part of this administration?

SANDERS: Look, Secretary Shulkin has done a great job, as I outlined on Tuesday. A number of the things that have been improved upon at the V.A. under his leadership. We're proud of the work that we've done, and we're going to continue to do everything we can to protect the veterans, and help veterans in this country. It's something that the president talked about extensively on the campaign, and has directed Director Shulkin to take a aggressive approach, and he's done that since becoming secretary.

April?

QUESTION: Oh, Jordan (ph) and then me.

SANDERS: Oh, sorry. You're right.

QUESTION: Jordan, and then me.

QUESTION: All right. Thanks, Sarah.

I want to ask about elephant trophies.

SANDERS: April, that was very polite (ph) of you.

QUESTION: I'm always polite (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Just to be clear, I didn't suggest otherwise, because I'm sure there will be some sort of terrible comment about how I was abusive to the press otherwise.

Go ahead, Jordan.

QUESTION: Me in particular, but (inaudible).

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: All right, thanks, Sarah. I wanted to ask you about elephant trophies. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put out new guidance, saying they (ph) wanted to evaluate all permit requests on a case-by- case basis.

This comes back to the president had suspended the previous guidance, lifting the trophy ban. The president called that practice of collecting trophies a horror show, so I'm wondering, you know, what does the president think of this latest policy, in relaxing the ban? And did he sign off on it?

SANDERS: The president's -- President Trump's position on trophy hunting remains the same. The Fish and Wildlife's announcement is a response to a court decision impacting how trophy import applications are reviewed. Anything further, I'd refer you to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

QUESTION: Does the president -- does the president want them to further curtail that, given his thoughts about...

SANDERS: The president's been clear what his position is. And that has not changed. John (ph)?

April, I'm sorry. I was a little scattered today, on (inaudible). Go ahead.

QUESTION: You're (ph) at (ph) work (ph). Go ahead.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: All right, two topics really fast. This president was a businessman before he became a politician. And understanding business, if there's high turnover in a business, it's considered a management issue at the top. What's the issue here?

SANDERS: I don't believe there is one. I think that's why the first year of the administration has been so successful. As many people have outlined, we've actually accomplished a great deal of what the president campaigned on and set out to do, and we've only been here just over a year. So we certainly feel like there isn't an issue, but actually a great deal of success and a great story to tell about the president's first year.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) confidence in this administration, with top -- I mean, you've had a lot of people, 10 to 13 people in top-tier positions leave.

SANDERS: I think the confidence should be in the president and the policies that he's outlined and the agenda that he's laid out. That's what the American people voted for, and that's certainly what we've seen enacted over the first year and a half. And I think that's been a tremendous success.

QUESTION: ... second issue, going back to June. You know, we heard a tape of the president with Billy Bush, and now we hear about Stormy Daniels, and you're saying that it's not true. What should the American public believe?

And what does the president want the American public to believe after hearing that before the -- the election? And now this.

SANDERS: Well, it's not to conflate two different things. The President's denied these allegations. We've addressed this. The American people were aware of this, voted for the President. I don't have anything more to add.

John (ph)?

QUESTION: Thank -- thank you, Sarah, two quick questions on two separate topics. Has -- have any countries notified the administration of their intent to file complaints with the WTO regarding the acquisition of these steel and aluminum tariffs?

SANDERS: I'm not aware of any specific complaints.

QUESTION: And then on the other question I wanted to ask you, Michael Cohen has indicated that he was not reimbursed in any way by the Trump Organization or the Trump campaign for the $130,000 that he paid to Stormy Daniels.

At the same time, he's being reimbursed for his legal fees by the Trump campaign, they've already paid $214,000 in legal fees to a firm that's representing Mr. Cohen. I don't want to get you in trouble with the Hatch Act, but do you happen to know why it is that the Trump campaign is paying his legal fees?

SANDERS: I don't, I can't speak on behalf of the campaign, I'd refer you to them.

David (ph)?

QUESTION: Can you confirm his trip to California next week, and also why has it taken so long for the president to visit California?

SANDERS: I can't confirm the president does plan to make a trip to California next week. Why it's taken so long, I think it's because he's been busy growing the economy, creating jobs, defeating ISIS, remaking the judiciary.

I'd be happy to name off some other successes, but I think that's probably enough. But yes I can confirm the President will be heading to California next week. We'll take one last question.

Alex (ph)?

QUESTION: Sarah, bouncing off John's (ph) question on the Hatch Act. The White House's reasoning that Kellyanne Conway did not violate the Hatch Act when she said that a candidate in Alabama would be "a vote against tax cuts, weak on crime, weak on borders, strong on raising your taxes."

How do you see that as not advocating against a candidate?

SANDERS: She didn't advocate for or against the election of any particular candidate. She simply expressed the president's obvious position, specific to policy that he have people in the House and Senate who would support his agenda.

I don't think it should be a secret to anybody that the president is going to want people both in the House and Senate that are going to help push forward policies that he supports and push forward policies in his agenda.

In fact, Kellyanne's statement actually shows her intention and desire to comply with the Hatch Act, as she twice declined to respond to the host's specific invitation to encourage the people of Alabama to vote for that Republican.

Thanks so much guys. We'll see you tomorrow.

[15:06:35]

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: OK. Let's dig into some of what we just heard.

Obviously, she made some news on the president's trade plan, the chaos, or as they maintain, lack thereof there in the White House.

But I want to begin with this Stormy Daniels, this porn star lawsuit. A lot of questions on that and some statements made that we want to question.

So, Michael Smerconish, host of "SMERCONISH" here on CNN and also a lawyer, let me begin with you here.

And let me just read from this lawsuit, because we heard this from Sarah Sanders, what she was saying, A, that the president has addressed this had regularly. I don't think he ever has. Feel free, anyone, to correct me.

But, B, that the case has been won in arbitration. And we heard arbitration. We all sort of started scratching our heads. Let me just read this for everyone, so we're on the same page from the Stormy Daniels' lawsuit.

"To be clear, the attempts to intimidate Ms. Clifford into silence and shut her up in order to protect Mr. Trump continue unabated. For example, only days ago, on or about February 27, 2018, Mr. Trump's attorney, Mr. Cohen, surreptitiously initiated a bogus arbitration proceeding against Ms. Clifford in Los Angeles.

"Remarkably, he did so without even providing Ms. Clifford with notice of the proceeding and basic due process. Put simply, considerable steps have been taken by Mr. Cohen in the last week to silence Ms. Clifford through the use of an improper and procedurally defective arbitration proceeding hidden from public view.

The extent of Mr. Trump's involvement in these efforts is presently unknown, but it strains credibility to conclude that Mr. Cohen is acting on his own accord without the express approval and knowledge of his client, Mr. Trump."

So, Michael Smerconish, just starting with you, you have what Sarah Sanders said and you have what I just read from this lawyer. What do you make of it?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I was paying close attention.

When she said that, my ears perked up because I remembered reading in the complaint seeking the declaratory action that there was reference to arbitration. You just read from paragraph 29. If you put it together, it sounds like there was some type of an arbitration that Stormy Daniels doesn't honor, doesn't believe was legitimate.

Her lawyer is arguing she wasn't given notice. And it suggests to me that some type of a default judgment was entered against her for not having shown up to defend her position. But we really don't know. And she wouldn't answer any follow-up questions about it.

But it definitely was the most intriguing aspect of that presser.

BALDWIN: She said -- just couple of questions were did the president approve of the $130,000, which we know that Cohen apparently personally paid? The answer, "Not that I'm aware of," but it was clear that she had had conversations about that.

SMERCONISH: Right.

BALDWIN: And then this whole notion -- Dana, just quickly over to you, the notion that the president has addressed this had regularly, has he ever addressed this?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Not that I can recall.

In fact, as they were talking, Brooke, you and I and others here at CNN were sort of e-mailing around to make sure that we're not missing anything.

I think one of our colleagues said that the last time the White House has officially acknowledged this was a couple of weeks ago when Raj Shah was briefing. When I say acknowledge, even sort of answer questions about it.

So, that's a long way of saying, no, he has not, as far as we know. Sure would be nice to be able to ask that question.

[15:10:05]

Going back to what you were just referring to with Michael, there's so many unanswered questions, not the least of which is, what outside counsel is she referring to?

Is Sarah Sanders talking about Michael Cohen, the person who was engaged in this deal? Is she talking about another lawyer who is now being brought in to deal with the fact the Michael Cohen is caught up in this? We don't even know the answer to that, Brooke.

BALDWIN: OK.

Let's hit pause on this, because we now have got a microphone on Jeff Zeleny, who was asking all these great questions about precisely what we're discussing.

Jeff Zeleny, what did you make of Sarah's response?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brooke, it's been clear this is something that White House has not wanted to talk about.

Every time it has been asked, the White House says we have made our feelings known about this.

I was asking Sarah Sanders specifically beyond that, we know you have made your feelings known, did the president know specifically about that payment? And the White House has always maintained that this is an old story, there's nothing to see here. The voters have weighed in after all this happened.

But the reality is, we are learning more and more about this every day, through our reporting, the reporting in "The Wall Street Journal" and elsewhere, specifically about that payment that was made, which was not known during the campaign.

That was something that was not known at all. Sarah Sanders said today the president has addressed this. Well, in fact, the president did not address Stormy Daniels' specifically and certainly did not address the payment that was made here.

I do believe that Sarah Sanders was opening the door to more information. And we actually have to look into this more about the arbitration. She said the president has won it specifically. Well, that is not clear by any means. In fact, that is the heart of the allegation here, if the president's lawyers were essentially trying to look like they won this.

I do not believe they have resolved all of this. And a colleague of mine here, Hallie Jackson of NBC News, asked if Sarah Sanders had asked the president directly about this, because it's easy for a press secretary to say, I'm not aware.

BALDWIN: She said she had.

ZELENY: She said that she had asked him directly about this, exactly.

So, now, of course, this is one of those things that the president ultimately will be asked himself at some point about this. Did he know about this?

But before we get to that point, I do think so many questions still need to be asked and answered about that payment specifically. Did the president authorize it? Michael Cohen is, we have been talking about, is a longtime adviser. Hard to imagine that he did not ask his client about this at some point along the way.

And this is not an old story that was happening, you know, a year-and- a-half or so ago. The allegations are that...

BALDWIN: 2007.

ZELENY: ... he was continuing to reach out as recently as the last few weeks here.

BALDWIN: Right.

ZELENY: So, this is something that I do not believe -- there's a lot of stuff to discuss here at the White House, of course, with steel, aluminum and tariffs, but also a matter of the president's credibility and honesty on this here. We will see where this goes from here, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Right, all of this dating back to 2007 and this whole golf tournament where they apparently met.

(CROSSTALK)

ZELENY: Indeed.

BALDWIN: But your point is the most important, which is the attempts to silence as recently as last week.

Jeff Zeleny, thank you for asking the tough questions.

Michael Smerconish, just back over to you, in addition to all of the above, there are also some serious questions about the Trump team possibly breaking campaign finance laws.

SMERCONISH: Here is the big picture as I see it. This is a declaratory action that has been filed by Stormy Daniels.

She is seeking to have that agreement which ties her hands from speaking declared null and void. And it really presents a conundrum for President Trump, because, as I see it, he has three options.

Number one, he can defend the underlying agreement and he can say it's valid. But then, Brooke, he owns it. And politically speaking -- forget the legal argument. Politically speaking, he's now saying, well, yes, all of that is true and I have bargained to keep it all silent. That's option one.

Option two is, he ignores it and she gets the declaratory relief that she's seeking, which then allows her to go and speak without the fear of a million-dollar penalty for every time she speaks in violation to the confidentiality.

I think there's a third option. And the third option is one where he says, I didn't authorize that underlying agreement, but I nevertheless think it's valid. If he goes the third option route, he presents, I think, a problem for Michael Cohen, because then Michael Cohen will be said to have initiated a settlement on behalf off a client who was not in the loop and didn't have knowledge.

And he would therefore potentially run afoul of the ethical guidelines, in addition to the FEC requirement of having to disclose that $130,000 payment. I know it's all confusing, but it's really problematic and it's very difficult to navigate.

(CROSSTALK)

BALDWIN: He has a tough, tough decision to make.

[15:15:01]

What do you think, Dana? Of those three options, which would make all of this go away the quickest?

BASH: I am actually going to leave that for Michael to answer with his degrees that I don't have.

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: But I always answer sort of from the perch that I should probably answer, which is the political perch, which is, can we just take a step back here?

BALDWIN: Please. BASH: Forget about just for one second the very important questions

that Michael was talking about, about how this could be problematic legally for the president.

We're talking about the fact that his personal longtime fixer/lawyer paid over $100,000 to a porn star for some reason having to do with the president of the United States.

(CROSSTALK)

CATHERINE RAMPELL, "THE WASHINGTON POST": That is totally consistent with everything else that we know about the president, too.

BASH: Well, but the question -- right. But the question is, why? And we still don't know the answer to that. Go ahead.

BALDWIN: Go ahead.

RAMPELL: Look, this was a few days before the election. I think in that sense, this might have been more politically sensitive at the time, particularly since it was around the time that the "Access Hollywood" tape dropped as well.

But the idea that suddenly Trump's legions of supporters are going to abandon him...

BASH: Absolutely.

RAMPELL: ... because he had an affair with a porn star, after he admitted on tape he's able to grab women by the genitals, after he endorsed an accused child molester, after all of the other terrible things that Trump has publicly acknowledged doing, I just think that that strains credibility as well.

I think more than anything else, this is a legal problem for him and potentially a problem between him and his -- and other Republican elected officials. But the idea that hard-core Trump voters are going to abandon him over this, maybe they will be happy for him, for all we know.

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: I completely agree. And that's not the point I was trying to make. The point I was trying to make is that we still don't know exactly why this major financial transaction took place.

RAMPELL: Yes.

BALDWIN: But we do know that Michael Cohen as recently as what "The Wall Street Journal" was reporting in the last week was complaining because he hadn't been paid back the $130,000.

We do know that, according to the paper.

We are going to hit pause. There's so much more I want to ask of all of you. M.J. is also sitting next to me as well. We will bring her into the conversation.

Quick break. Back in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:21:31]

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HUCKABEE SANDERS: The president has denied the allegations against him. And, again, this case has already been won in arbitration. Anything beyond that, I would refer you to outside counsel.

QUESTION: You said that there's arbitration that's already been won? By whom and when?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: By the president's personal attorneys. And for details on that, I would refer you to them.

QUESTION: But you're aware of them. So, what more can you share with us?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I can share that arbitration was won in the president's favor, and I would refer you to the president's outside counsel on any details beyond that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: All right, I have got another great voice on all of this, M.J. Lee, national politics reporter.

We just had a whole conversation.

But to you. You have been covering a lot of this as well. Fact-check what we just heard from her.

M.J. LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: Sarah Sanders is simply wrong, one, when she says that Trump has addressed all of this before. He simply has not.

And, in fact, the White House has barely addressed this issue. The last time that the White House I think on the record was even asked about Stormy Daniels was last month, when Raj Shah was in the Briefing Room, and his answer to repeated questions about Stormy was, I haven't had a chance to ask President Trump about this.

And on the question of whether this is a story that is essentially going to go away, it is not. Sarah Sanders cannot just refer to this arbitration and say this is something we already won in arbitration. This is a done story. Nothing to look here.

That just simply doesn't work. I actually sympathize a lot with that reporter in the Briefing Room who seemed to be sort of scratching his head, what this arbitration, what are you talking about? I have been covering this story and I was also scratching my head.

BALDWIN: We all were thinking, what is she referring to?

LEE: Right.

And I think she appears to be referring to this arbitration that we learned about last night that was mentioned in this lawsuit that Michael Cohen filed last month in California. And according to Stormy Daniels and her representation, they actually weren't even given a heads-up about it.

We're still sort of digging into what exactly happened with this arbitration. But for Sarah Sanders to get up there in the White House Briefing Room and say, look at this arbitration, this is over and so no more questions, I mean, it's just not going to fly.

BALDWIN: Keep digging, M.J. Keep digging on that.

Let's turn the page now on the porn star and talk tariffs.

Dana, to you on that. The news that we heard from Sarah Sanders was that there would be potential carve-outs -- I'm just looking at my notes from what she said -- potential carve-outs from Mexico and Canada based on national security and potentially other countries, but she says that's a case-by-case basis.

National security. Explain that.

BASH: I'm still stuck on porn star to tariffs. Just another day in the Trump administration.

BALDWIN: Sorry. We got to move on.

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: No, that was a pretty good segue.

Tariffs, which is very important and absolutely fascinating, both on the political and policy level. And this is your question -- the answer to your question is where the two mix and the two converge.

Sarah Sanders did for the first time leave open the possibility that the president would exempt countries, Canada to the north, Mexico to the south, from this new tariff policy.

And one of the reasons is that for all of the incoming he's getting by free traders in his own party, some of whom are inside his administration, although the main just quit over this yesterday, Gary Cohn. One of the big concerns is the politics of the states, very important political states to the president that could face a backlash because of these tariffs.

[15:25:01]

The ones like Iowa, for example, where they really rely on trade with countries like Mexico and Canada for things other than aluminum and steel. And so that is a really big, important issue, again, policy- wise, but when it comes to kind of America's role and how he approaches trade, but maybe in this case, in the short-term, even more importantly, politically for how this new idea and this new policy affects some very important constituencies that the president has.

BALDWIN: But wouldn't the carve-outs -- Catherine, to you, wouldn't certain carve-outs for certain countries undermine the whole concept of tariffs?

RAMPELL: Well, it certainly seems to have -- well, at least potentially, I should say, undermine the national security argument for tariffs.

The mechanism by which they're imposing these tariffs is supposed to be a blanket mechanism, although if you look back at what the Department of Defense had said in a memo to the Commerce Department last month when they were discussing this very idea of steel and aluminum tariffs, Mattis said this is going to be highly problematic because it could alienate our allies, it could alienate our friends.

And our allies and friends have also been quite clear about what they would do should they be slapped with these tariffs. Sanders today indicated that President Trump has made no secret of the fact that these tariffs might be coming.

And so our European friends shouldn't appear so shocked. But, yes, our European friends have also made comments in recent months saying that if these tariffs come to fruition, they're going to target blue jeans.

BALDWIN: Bourbon.

RAMPELL: They're going to target Wisconsin Dairy, Kentucky bourbon, exactly, lots of products that the United States exports and that are made in politically important areas to Republican leadership.

(CROSSTALK)

RAMPELL: So, this should not be a surprise to the United States. We have been warned about it by the Department of Defense. And we have been warned about it by countries that are on the other side of these potential tariffs.

BALDWIN: OK, Catherine and Dana, thank you so much.

And, M.J., thank you.

Just a quick note on Stormy Daniels. Sorry to go back there. But this is key. Stormy Daniels' lawyer will be on "ANDERSON" tonight at 8:00 Eastern responding, of course, as well to what we just heard from Sarah Sanders in the briefing. So, stay tuned for that.

Coming up next: The FBI stops a Mideast power broker at the airport for questioning -- what this mystery man has to do with the Mueller investigation and the secret meetings he had with members of the president's inner circle.

Also ahead, new information that the poisoning of a former Russian spy was attempted murder -- details on how he and his daughter were likely exposed to a nerve agent.

We will be right back.