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Trump Speaks at White House; Trump To Make Trade Announcement; Trump Says Tariffs Will be Fair; Kelly Warned Trump about Talking to Witnesses; Mueller Looks into Seychelles Meeting. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired March 8, 2018 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Without wings, without anything. They landed so beautifully. So we're really at the forefront and we're doing it in a very private manner.

At the same time, NASA is very much involved in doing their own projects. But we're bringing that whole space flight back. We'll be sending something very beautiful to Mars in the very near future. And we're going to areas that nobody thought possible. Certainly not this quickly. So we're very proud.

So they had these outside. In fact, they were sort of spread much further apart. I said, let's bring them a little closer so the cameras can see them. But it's really amazing what's happening with regard to space and our country.

Thank you all very much. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you. Make your way out, please.

QUESTION: When you said you wanted to pass a bill on tariffs, what do - what do you mean by that?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Let's make our way out.

TRUMP: Basically -- I'll -- I'll take that. That's fine.

We have -- defense is very -- so important. We need steel. We need aluminum. We're negotiating with Mexico. We're negotiating with Canada and the NAFTA. And depending on whether or not we reach a deal, also very much involved with that is national defense. But if we reach a deal, it's most likely that we won't be charging those two countries the tariffs.

We have other countries that are very much involved with us on trade, but also on military and working together with military. And we'll be making a decision as to who they are.

We have a very close relationship with Australia. We have a trade surplus with Australia. Great country. Long term partner. We'll be doing something with them. We'll be doing something with some other countries. We're going to be very flexible. At the same time we have some friends and some enemies where we have

been tremendously taken advantage of over the years on trade and on military. If you look at NATO, where Germany pays 1 percent and we're paying 4.2 percent of a much bigger GDP, it's not fair.

So we have a lot of -- a lot of things going on. I think general with NATO, because of my involvement, we've taken in $33 billion more within the next, I guess, year and a half they expect to be have -- taken in $33 billion more.

And Mr. Staltenburg (ph), who is running things, is very thankful. He said, it's incredible what's happened since we became involved. And I became involved by complaining because it was not fair. We were spending 85 percent of the money. And, frankly, good for everybody, but it helps them a lot more than it helps us. It helps Europe a lot more than it helps us.

So, you know, we look at the military equation, too. General Mattis, it's very important to him and to me to maintain those great relationships. At the same time, we both want fairness. So we view the trade and we view the military, and to a certain extent they go hand in hand. And a lot of progress has been made.

And, you know, I'm very proud of NATO, because with NATO, when you see the kind of money that's pouring in that was never going to come in because people were delinquent, states -- countries were delinquent. They weren't paying. And now they're paying. Not all of them are paying the fair amount. Some owe billions and billions of dollars of money. They owe billions and billions from past years. They haven't paid it and that's not fair. They want us to protect and they want us to be a good partner, and then they're delinquent on payment or they haven't made payments. Or they haven't made payments which are fair. So we're looking at all of those things and we're talking about tremendous, massive amounts of money.

But that goes along with trade also, because we're looking at defense. But defense is very much also a part of trade. So we're going to be very flexible. But as an example with Mexico and Canada, we're going to be throwing NAFTA into the loop. We're negotiating NAFTA right now. I think we're doing quite well. It was always my feeling that I would terminate NAFTA or renegotiate it, one or the other. I guess renegotiating would be easier. But we'll be perhaps coming up with a deal on NAFTA fairly soon, or we will terminate NAFTA and we'll start all over again. OK?

Thank you very much, everybody. Thank you. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Everybody out. Let's go.

TRUMP: Say it.

QUESTION: Sticking with 10 and 25 (ph) (INAUDIBLE) --

TRUMP: All right, sticking with 10 and 25 initially. I'll have a right to go up or down depending on the country, and I'll have a right to drop out countries or add countries. We just want fairness, because we have not been treated fairly by other countries.

Thank you. Thank you, Jeff (ph). Thank you very much.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All right, let's go, guys.

TRUMP: Thank you.


TRUMP: Thank you very much, everybody.


TRUMP: Thanks, John (ph).


[12:05:01] The president of the United States there, in the cabinet room of the White House, arms folded for most of that discussion. The president has a big announcement on steel and aluminum tariffs later today. Still unclear exactly what he will announce.

You heard the president there start with a complaint about trade, turned it into a complaint of some European countries not paying, in his view, fair dues into the NATO alliance. A bit confusing from the president there as he made his case and offered some details about what he plans to announce three and a half hours from now at the White House.

Let's begin there, then. Let's go to CNN's Jeff Zeleny at the White House.

Jeff, this has been a mystery all day. Aides to the president giving conflicting accounts of exactly what he will announce later today, how significant it will be, how many exemptions and waivers it might have for key allies who have complained in recent days. What do we know at this hour after listening to the president?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John, I think we have a pretty prefect window into why there has been confusion here at the White House. Just listen to the president talk about that. A, it's very complicated, of course, as all of these agreements are. But he's also, you know, conflating and mixing some things here.

But there has been confusion here at the White House. Yesterday they were preparing for a 3:30 signing ceremony this afternoon. Last night it was scrapped. This morning it was added back onto the schedule.

The president clearly wants to show action on this in some way. But as he was saying there, you know, there certainly are not going to be immediate exemptions for Canada and Mexico. He says that will come down the road, but it certainly does not sound like it will be immediate.

But, John, the pushback from Republicans, from red state Republicans, farm state Republicans, Joni Ernst of one, Republican senator from Iowa, strongly opposed to this. They are very worried about any major changes to NAFTA, how that will affect the AG economy, the farm economy. So this is far from a done deal here.

We're -- even after the president signs the policy this afternoon, it could be symbolic, it could be real. There are still likely to be hearings on Capitol Hill and much blowback here. So the president articulating his view, taking a shot at his outgoing chief economic adviser Gary Cohn there, calling him a globalist. But the president has clearly vacillated on that from a week ago saying there would not be exemptions to Canada and Mexico. Now it appears there will be at some point. If that's immediate or not, we don't yet know, John.

KING: It is confusing and a chaotic process at the White House. This is a multi-billion dollar potential impact on the economy.

ZELENY: Right.

KING: It's something his own party opposes.

Jeff Zeleny at the White House.

Jeff, if you get any more details throughout the hour, just raise your hand, come back on and help us sort through this.

ZELENY: We'll do.

KING: With me here in studio to share their reporting and their insights, Julie Hirschfeld Davis of "The New York Times," CNN's Phil Mattingly, Toluse Olorunnipa of "Bloomberg," and Mary Katharine Ham of "The Federalist."

I want to first start with one of the things the president said -- one of the things the president said -- because White House aides aren't the only ones who contradict themselves or tell different versions from time to time. Sometimes the president does.

But let's start, again, the staff wanted him to wait. The president tweeted out this morning at 3:30 this afternoon he will have a big meeting on trade. It could impact the global economy. His own party worries that it's bad policy and bad politics for them in a midterm election year. Here's part of what the president said.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: American aluminum and steel, you'll be hearing about that at length at 3:30. Aluminum and steel are the backbone of our nation. They're the bedrock of our defense industrial base. Our greatest presidents, from Washington to Jackson to Lincoln to McKinley and others, they protected our country from outside influence, from other countries coming in and stealing our wealth and stealing our jobs and stealing our companies. And we're going to be very fair, we're going to be very flexible, but we're going to protect the American worker, as I said I would do in my campaign.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: They sometimes say throwback Thursday. McKinley, Jackson, the president talking about an era where America did have quite protectionist trade policies. What his critics say, including the leader of his own party say, is that the global economy has changed since those days, Mr. President, and your ideas are outdated, from a policy standpoint and from a political standpoint.

From what we heard from the president, what were we able to decipher that is real and firm? And what, even though, again, this is a multi- billion-dollar decision that will affect the U.S. economy, the global economy, relationships with allies, relationships with foes around the world, his relationships with his own party and potentially the November election, and it still seems, a little more than three hours till an announcement, they're kind of still jotting down the details.

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, absolutely. I mean this is actually reminding me of Inauguration Day when we were all sitting around the West Wing trying to figure out, was the president going to sign any executive orders, if so, which? And from his aides and officials around him the answer was, he's going to do what he feels like doing.

Clearly what you heard from the president right there is, he is embracing, as he has for many, many years, this protectionist approach. He wants to be able to say, I have applied these tariffs, I'm holding our trading partners to task for what he considers to be abusive behavior. But by continuing to come back to this idea of, we'll be flexible and we'll make exceptions, but failing to be specific about what those are, he's adding to the uncertainty here and he's adding to his responsibility, his challenge in showing that this is a policy that is workable, not just conceptually the way he talked about it on the campaign, but actually in practice.

[12:10:15] KING: Yes, in most administrations, if you have a big debate over this, which they have, a big debate, you shut down. You do it in private until you have a final decision. This has been, to be polite, a work in progress. I'm being kind.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, watching something play out in real time. Look, as a reporter, and you can say this for the president just in general in the last 15 months, it's fascinating to watch it play out in real time. We usually don't see these kind of things.

I think the danger in that is two-fold. First and foremost, anybody who tells you they know exactly what's real and what's actually happening right now is likely to be wrong in the next 20 or 30 minutes. And that's not an overstatement, that's reporting. If you talk to White House aides --

DAVIS: And they acknowledge that.

MATTINGLY: And they acknowledge it.

If you talk to White House aides -- I spoke to a number of lawmakers this morning in the Capitol who were asking me, like, have you talked to anybody at NAC (ph)? Have you talked to anybody that actually knows what's happening right now? These are Republican lawmakers who are very, very interested, who generally have connections straight to the Oval Office who are asking reporters if they actually know what's going to be in the policy.

I think the second danger here is the fact that -- as Julie kind of alluded to -- this is complicated and this has wide-ranging ramifications. It could be very serious in the global economy. And the idea that you can move something through that's not fully flushed out, that didn't necessarily move through the inner agency process in a normal way, that could be wide open to challenges in the WTO at some point or another.

I think when you listen to the president, you get some semblance of an idea of where the discussions are in terms of the exemptions related to NAFTA when it comes to Mexico and Canada, in terms of the exemptions potentially for specific products or specific issues related to NATO allies or defense allies there. But do those then undercut the rationale for the entire process itself, as section 232 national security exemption? So I think you kind of have a semblance, a big picture of where everything's going right now, but you don't have the details, and the details on this are everything.

KING: The details are everything because, again, it affects aluminum and steel companies in the United States. If there's retaliation, it affects everybody else in the United States. Farmers are especially worried about this. Farm states who do so much exports. Other companies that export.

The process is a mess. I don't think anybody can dispute that. It's chaotic to the end. The question is the policy. Listening to the president, he says, Australia's our friend. We'll try to give them a crave out. And he didn't say he would, he said he wanted to.

Canada or Mexico, we're going to try to have some crave outs contingent on renegotiating NAFTA, And then essentially he lashed out at Germany saying, but not them because I don't like what they do with NATO. Separate from trade but he makes the connection. Can you connect those dots for me?

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "BLOOMBERG": It's very hard to follow where the president is trying to go with all of this. Obviously he sees this as a -- not only a political issue, but it's a foreign policy issue where the president is using this to negotiate various trade deals. He believes that this 232 issue that he's trying to purport is something that he can use to get better deals from Europe, from Canada and from Mexico. And I believe that the president is sort of expanding what we have previously seen in terms of what these 232 negotiations are supposed to be about, which is national security.

The president is sort of broadening that out to economic security and security when it comes to trade deals. And, obviously, that's leading a number of members of Congress to push back and say, actually, this isn't about national security. This is the president trying to get better trade deals out of our allies and some of our enemies, and it's going to be harder to defend that when we talk about going to the WTO or we talk about even trying to draw up the legal papers to defend this. There's a lot of concern, not only in the West Wing but also on Capitol Hill, about whether or not this is something that's going to stand beyond this afternoon or whether it's going to get struck down right away.

KING: Go ahead.

MARY KATHARINE HAM, SENIOR WRITER, "THE FEDERALIST": Yes, I mean, I think there's a couple of things going on here. One is sort of, in the Trump White House, everything is a fight and every fight is public. So here we are watching it.

One, there's this sort of -- there's also the slap-dash nature of this White House and how it does throw things together like this on the fly, which is not a particularly great way of doing policy.

There is another part that may be strategic or method to his madness, which is this tendency of his to make a giant announcement with a giant ask in it and then start walking back, as he's doing with allies right now. Again, not helpful to be happening in this way, but I do think that might be part of what's going on here.

And then the last part is, he's changeable on a lot of policies, but on protectionism, he has been more consistent than almost anything else. He genuinely thinks we're losing and he has a misunderstanding of trade deficits.

I have a trade deficits with Bojangles. I buy all the bacon, egg and cheese biscuits from them. They buy nothing from me. It will never be even.

KING: Right.

HAM: But we're both getting what we want.

KING: Right.

HAM: It's not a bad thing. And without -- and we can -- we can both be happy with that. It's not a zero sum game.

Also I would add that countries with bigger tariffs also have bigger trade deficits, so we want to avoid that, which he seems to.

KING: Right. The retaliation question is a huge one.

And so for the Republicans who opposed the president on this, this, to them, is the troublesome trifecta in that he has a policy issue they think is wrong. He has a political issue he thinks is wrong. And the result of it is more personnel churning at the White House of senior staff.

Gary Cohn, the chief economic adviser leaving. He'd had frustration over a number of things, but this was the last straw. He told the president, this is a mistake. The president sided with the America first crowd, if you will, the more protectionist crowd. This is Gary Cohn's last cabinet meeting. The president had to make a joke about it.

[12:15:08] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is Gary Cohn's last meeting in the cabinet and of the cabinet. And he's been terrific. He may be a globalist, but I still like him. He is seriously a globalist, no question. But, you know what, in his own way he's a nationalist because he loves our country. And -- where is Gary? You love our country.

And he's going to go out and make another couple of hundred million and then he's going to maybe come back.

You might come back, right?


KING: It is interesting, number one -- it's a weird way to say goodbye to someone who has served you well for more than a year and is leaving in frustration, but I guess it's a compliment.

But, number two, it's the kind -- it's the -- forget the specifics for a second. What a lot of Republicans worry about, just this constant churn, a policy that affects the global economy being made up on the fly at the White House hours before a big announcement. Months before a midterm election. And now another senior staffer gone. Somebody the markets and somebody Republicans on Capitol Hill trust.

It's the churning even less than this -- even more so than the specifics that have Republicans worried this president's leading them into a disaster.

DAVIS: Well, right. I mean this tariff situation is both their worst nightmare on the policy side, which was coming in that Donald Trump was going to break with a lot of their principles and positions over many, many years and do his own thing. And actually last year they -- they found that, you know, they were in lock step with him on the big agenda item, which was tax cuts. And so they were willing to sort of concentrate on tax cuts and deregulation and judges and this was all things that they agree with.

Now they're at a point where he's tackling a policy issue where the Republican Party and Donald Trump are very much at odds. And you have the added complication of the fact that the -- any semblance of process that had been instilled in this White House, and there was only a little bit after John Kelly came in last summer, seems to be completely gone. And whether it's because Kelly is on the rocks, you heard the president allude to maybe he'll be back.

A lot of people think that's an illusion to, maybe he'll be chief of staff one day. Or it's because Rob Porter is gone and you don't have a staff secretary, you know, managing the flow of paper. Whatever the case may be. It is leading -- it's feeding on itself. Every departure is ending in more chaos, which, in turn, is opening up new opportunities for departures. KING: We'll keep reporting, try to get more details on the trade

announcement, 3:30 today. Stick with us throughout the day to get more on that.

When we come back. Big developments in the Russia investigation as well, both on Capitol Hill and the -- in the office of the special counsel.


[12:21:40] KING: Welcome back to some breaking news now on the president's conduct in the Russia meddling investigation.

This just in from CNN's Jim Acosta at the White House.

He says a White House official says the chief of staff, John Kelly, is warning the president to be careful about how he speaks to witnesses in the Russia meddling investigation. This after a report in "The New York Times" this morning that the president has spoken to at least two key witnesses in the special counsel investigation. His White House counsel, Don McGahn and his former chief of staff, Reince Priebus. "The Times" story details how the president has had conversations with them after their dealings with the special counsel.

Jim Acosta reporting that the White House official is telling him, quote, it's pretty clear that Kelly admonishes him constantly and he's not the only one. The official went on to say that White House aides are nervous about this. They believe, number one, it could be inappropriate. Number two, it could put the president in a precarious legal position to be talking to witnesses after they speak to the special counsel.

Not surprising that the president would be curious about what the witnesses are telling the special counsel. As I say from this chair often, one of the things that's interesting when the president lashes out is that they know more and he knows more than we do. So when he lashes out at the investigation, I'm always curious, what has he just been told.

To the account in "The Times." It says, number one, Don McGahn testified. And by all accounts, several news organizations, Don McGahn told the special counsel, the president at one point asked him to fire Bob Mueller, the special counsel. After that the president, apparently "The Times" reports, asked Don McGahn to put out a public statement saying that wasn't true. Don McGahn would not do so.

So, politically, the president trying to help himself, if you will. Legally, what's the jeopardy?

DAVIS: Well, I mean, we -- what we also know about the episode where he told McGahn to fire Mueller is that McGahn then told Mueller about that episode. So it's not necessarily just about politically wanting to have a statement out there saying this never happened, it's also -- it also could be construed as trying to get a witness in this investigation to change their story. And that, I think, is where the problem lies and why he is being warned by Kelly and many others, including Don McGahn, to not talk about -- to not talk to witnesses, to not allow it to appear as if he's trying to influence this investigation, because we already know that Bob Mueller is looking at the possibility that the president sought to obstruct justice.

And while my understanding, I'm not a lawyer, but my understanding is that it's not illegal to ask witnesses what they talked about or to have a conversation with a witness about what they talked about, it could go to an intent to try to cover things up if there are enough instances like this that are uncovered by Mueller in which the president seems to be questioning or trying to undermine the testimony that (INAUDIBLE).

KING: That's the key point. If it's information gathering, it's one thing. If it is part of a continued effort, the lawyers might lose the term conspiracy, to gather information or to get people to either change their story or to gather information from them that helps you then do something to get in the way of the investigation, the president -- if -- that should be left to his lawyers, right? It shouldn't be the president himself asking, you know, Toluse, how did it go before the grand jury?

OLORUNNIPA: Right. It should be, but it hasn't been, from almost the very beginning of this --

KING: Right.

OLORUNNIPA: When the president was trying to get James Comey to testify and say publicly that he was not under investigation. The president has taken a very personal role in this when he was sort of drafting a statement for his son on Air Force One. That's normally something left to the lawyers, left to the communications official, but the president himself has seen this Russia investigation as a cloud hanging over his presidency, and he's tried to be his own spokesperson, be his own PR man on this, and that's really gotten him into a lot of trouble where it seems like he's tampering with witnesses, it seems like he's tampering with the investigation.

He's forgetting all of the various lines that are supposed to be drawn between the Justice Department and the independence of the Attorney General, calling Jeff Sessions out on Twitter. Obviously the president is concerned about this investigation and is doing various types of activities to try to make this investigation go away. And it's only making it stay longer.

[12:25:36] KING: Which is why he should leave it to the lawyers who are trained in what is appropriate and what's not appropriate in terms of how you frame a question and what you specifically ask about.

In the case of Reince Priebus, his former chief of staff, "The Times" reporting is that he asked the former chief of staff, hey, were they nice to you? Now, you could take that as, the president's, you know, are you OK, everything all right? Take it as just this gentle, were they nice to you. Or you could take it as, the president understands he can't ask certain questions or it would be inappropriate to ask certain questions, so he asks a general question hoping you'll share. MATTINGLY: Look, to your point, there's a reason you listen to your

lawyers on these types of things. Generally they know why they're telling you not to do something.

Look, I think it's important to kind of look at it from the broader spectrum of the White House too. They've done -- they've made every effort they possibly can to compartmentalize their staff away from what's going on, as any White House that's been going through a special prosecutor has done. And the president's willingness to continue to weigh in on this, to ask people about this, as Toluse made clear, look, his perspective on this, at least the one publicly, and pretty regularly, what he's saying publicly, he's thinking behind closed doors, is that it's not very shy about that type of stuff, is he doesn't believe the investigation is legit, he doesn't believe he did anything wrong and, therefore, he's weighing in on all of these things to try and put a stop to something that he thinks is a fool's errand or is a witch hunt, as he calls it.

I just think the danger here is -- goes not just to the Oval Office, but also to the staff around him, which need to be insulated, want to be insulated, are working every single day on things like tariff policy or whatever else they're working on and all of a sudden they're drawn into a very complicated a potentially legally precarious situation because the president is curious.

KING: About 13 months in. Is it yet another example that for those of us who say perhaps the president will learn the lesson, perhaps the president will change his behavior that we are being fools?

HAM: I would say that there will be no change. This is a classic trumpian sort of situation he's putting himself in where the sort of ethical, best practices, keep your nose clean approach would be the best approach, just for appearances and legally and politically, all the things, but he will refuse to do that because the temptation to ask about something that he is understandably upset and very curious about, he's not going to be able to resist it.


I want to bring in some other special -- other reporting on Russia, getting some special attention from the special counsel. A meeting 14 months ago on the other side of the world. The question, was it an effort to set up a back-channel between the incoming Trump administration and the Russian government? Here -- we're going to follow the news here.

Trump associate Erik Prince says the crown prince of Abu Dhabi invited him to the Seychelles to discuss private business opportunities. But while there he also met with a Russian businessman with close ties to Vladimir Putin. Now Erik Prince says that meeting was short. It came up on the fly. Was unplanned. Now we've learned that another man was also there, George Nader, who has ties to both the Trump team and the government of Abu Dhabi. He is telling the special counsel, we are told, a very different story than Erik Prince.

CNN's Manu Raju Manu joins us now from Capitol Hill. Manu, break down the issues that matter here.

MANU RAJU, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, George Nader, who's that businessman who was now -- now we have learned was in the Seychelles and attended at least one of those meetings, he's now cooperating with Bob Mueller's investigation. And what we understand is as part of Mueller's investigation, he is determining whether or not this back channel was -- this meeting was part of an effort to set up this back- channel discussion between kremlin and Washington as the Trump administration came to power.

Now, when Erik Prince met before -- met with the House Intelligence Committee last November, he furiously denied that this was an effort to set up a back-channel discussion and he downplayed these meetings and he did not mention at all that George Nader apparently was part of these meetings.

Now, Democrats in particular are raising new concerns over (INAUDIBLE) saying that perhaps he was not (INAUDIBLE) committee last year.

Here's what Adam Schiff said just moments ago.


RAJU: Do you think Erik Prince lied to the committee about the Seychelles meeting?

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE RANKING MEMBER: I don't know whether the public reports of what Mr. Nader may be saying are accurate or not. All I can say is, if those reports are accurate, there is clearly a significant discrepancy between that version and what we heard in Erik Prince's testimony.


RAJU: Now, Schiff wants both Nader to come before this committee and for Prince to return to the committee and to provide further documents. And that's something, John, that Republicans are not yet committing to. As we know, Republicans are looking to end this investigation soon after this Corey Lewandowsky testimony from today. The question is, what do they do now with this new information, potentially conflicting information from this one witness who came before this committee last year, John.

[12:30:07] KING: Right, at least we know it is of interest to the investigation that matters most to that of the special counsel.

Manu Raju on Capitol Hill, appreciate it. A quick break.