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White House press briefing; White House on Russian election: "We don't get to dictate"; White House: Trump not "considering or discussing" firing Mueller; NYT: Ex-Playboy model who alleged Trump affair sues. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired March 20, 2018 - 14:00   ET

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


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And on the president's new attorney, Joe DiGenova, he says that there is this brazen plot by the FBI and the DOJ to frame the President. Does the White House share that view? Is there a plot to frame President Trump?

SANDERS: Look, we certainly have said that there have been some concerns with some of the actions that were taken. But in terms of any comments that he's made, I couldn't speak to those.

Matthew?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks, Sarah. Two more questions on the Putin phone call. First, does the White House believe the election in Russia was free and fair?

SANDERS: I'm sorry?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Does the White House believe that the election in Russia was free and fair?

SANDERS: Look, in terms of the election there, we're focused on our elections. We don't get to dictate how other countries operate.

What we do know is that Putin has been elected in their country, and that's not something that we can dictate to them how they operate. We can only focus on the freeness and the fairness of our elections, something we 100 percent fully support and something we're going to continue to do everything we can to protect to make sure bad actors don't have the opportunity to impact them in any way.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You said election meddling didn't come up in the call. I'm curious, did the recent poisoning in the United Kingdom come up in the call?

SANDERS: I don't believe that was discussed in today's call.

Jon (ph)?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks a lot, Sarah. Over the weekend, on one of the Sunday morning shows, Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina, said when responding to the various tweets that the president had put out over the weekend regarding Special Counsel Robert Mueller, he said, "When you're innocent, act like it." What is your response to what Trey Gowdy said over the weekend?

SANDERS: Look, the president has been very clear about the fact that there was no collusion between his campaign and any other entity. However, to pretend like going through this absurd process for over a year would not bring frustration seems a little bit ridiculous.

I don't think that any individual, including members of Congress, would like it if they had been accused of taking their seat in Congress by doing something nefarious when they hadn't, particularly if it went on for more than a year into their time in office.

My guess is they would be more than anxious to push back, and certainly would defend themselves as the president has clearly done in this situation and has since day one.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Another Republican over the weekend, Lindsey Graham, also a Republican from South Carolina, said that, "If the President were to fire -"

SANDERS: Maybe we need to work on our South Carolina members.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. Who said that if the president tries to fire Robert Mueller, it would be the beginning of the end of his presidency. What's your response to what Lindsey Graham said?

SANDERS: As White House Counsel Ty Cobb said earlier this week the White House yet again confirms that the president is not considering or discussing the firing of the Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you feel like you're losing Republicans in -

SANDERS: Sorry?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you feel like you're losing Republicans in some way that these two prominent Republicans from South Carolina both spoke in this manner over the weekend?

SANDERS: I certainly don't think we're losing Republicans at all. I think we're voicing some frustration over this ongoing process that we look forward to ending soon.

Pamela.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In January, the president told a room full of reporters that he would love to sit down and do an interview with Robert Mueller under oath and in "just a couple of weeks." At the time, that's what he said. Obviously, that timeframe has passed. Does he still want to sit down and do an interview with Robert Mueller?

SANDERS: Look, we've been fully transparent throughout this process. We've been fully cooperative, and we're going to continue to be cooperative with the Office of Special Counsel. Beyond that, I can't go any further.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can you just provide more clarity on the president's tweets toward Robert Mueller over the weekend, calling him out by name? What was behind that?

SANDERS: Like I just said, clearly, we have not been shy about the fact that there is frustration of this process. We would like it to end quickly and soon. And the president has contended since day one, and will continue to do so, that there was absolutely no collusion between his campaign and any outside force or country.

And so, I don't understand why it's hard for anyone to process. If you had been attacked mercilessly and continuously, day in, day out, every single second while you're trying to work hard to do good things for this country, and, literally, every day you wake up to an onslaught of people saying that you're there because of reasons that are completely false, that's frustrating. And, certainly, I think fair for him to be frustrated.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why doesn't he push for the firing? Why doesn't he push for the firing of Robert Mueller if he thinks the probe shouldn't have begun in the first place, if he thinks the whole thing is a witch hunt? Why doesn't he push for the firing?

[14:05:03] SANDERS: Look, we're going to continue to be cooperative, and we would like this to wrap up soon. We don't feel like that's the most productive step forward. But we would like to see this come to a conclusion.

Jordan.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks, Sarah. I want to follow up on the accusations of fraud in the Russian election. Why does the United States government not believe that it should criticize Russia for these accusations, which have been brought up by the OSCE and UK government directly in a statement?

You know, they're listing things like restrictions on fundamental freedoms and lack of access for opposition candidates. I mean, why doesn't the president or the White House believe that's something that they should be discussing with the Russian leader?

SANDERS: I didn't say that we couldn't discuss it with the Russian leader. I said it didn't come up on today's call. Again, the focus was to talk about areas of shared interest. We know that we need to continue a dialogue.

It's important for a lot of the safety and security of people across the globe. We would like to be able to work with them on things like North Korea, on Iran, and also, both countries' shared interest in lowering the tensions when it comes to an arms race, recognizing that that's not the best thing for either country.

And so, we want to be able to have those conversations. And that was the point of today's call. John (ph)?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, when is an appropriate time to raise questions about political freedoms with Russia?

SANDERS: Look, we continue to talk about these important issues, but that's not simply what today's call was about.

John?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Sarah. Two questions. First, we've discussed the president's call to President Putin following his reelection. Did the president make a similar call to Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has just formed a new government and assumed her fourth mandate in Berlin?

SANDERS: I know he spoke with the Chancellor. I believe, it was last week. I'd have to look back at the specific details of their conversation, but I know that they spoke within the last week.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The other thing is that Congressman Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania is expected, if not today, sometime in the coming weeks, to announce he's not running for reelection, making him the 38th Republican House member to announce retirement, resignation, or pursuit of another office - a post-World War II high in the exodus of Republican House members.

Is this something the president is bothered about? And do members call him when they say they'll make announcements like this?

SANDERS: Certainly, he's had conversations with a number of members. I can't speak to this situation specifically and whether or not he's spoken with the president.

We're not concerned. Right now, we think we've got a great story to tell after the first year of being in office and we look forward to communicating that to the American people and continuing to push the president's agenda.

David?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sarah, did the topic of religious liberty come up at all with the Crown Prince today? Did the president bring that up at all?

SANDERS: I don't believe that came up, but I'd have to check on the last half of the meeting to be sure because I wasn't there.

Trey?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks, Sarah. Two foreign policy questions for you. Human Rights Watch estimates that the Saudi-led coalition is responsible in 2017 for the deaths of 1,000 civilians, and took part in 85 unlawful airstrikes.

Did the president bring up these concerns about high civilian casualties in his meeting with the Crown Prince today?

SANDERS: I'm not aware that that came up specifically. Again, I'd have to check on the last half of the meeting because I'm not sure because I was on my way out here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: About the call between President Trump and Russian President Putin, the Russians said that Syria came up in the call. The readout that was released by the Trump administration did not include any mention of Syria. Did the president discuss the issue of Syria with Vladimir Putin? And did he discuss the high civilian casualties as a result of efforts by the Assad regime and the Russian government on the ground in Syria?

SANDERS: It briefly came up. And as you know, we've had a number of public statements on our position there and that certainly has not changed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Sarah. Yesterday, the Canadian prime minister noticed the signs of the pace of NAFTA talks is accelerating. And he said that the president - President Trump - is enthusiastic about getting a deal. Is the president that enthusiastic?

SANDERS: The president is always enthusiastic about making a good deal, but that would be the key caveat to any conversation, is making sure that whatever deal he makes is good for Americans and American workers. And so, anything we do, that would have to be a part of that conversation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There seems to be a end-of-April deadline. After that, the entire political process is going to get over the negotiations on NAFTA. Anything possible be that quick within six weeks?

SANDERS: I don't have any specific announcement as of this time, but we're continuing to have those negotiations and continuing to have those conversations being led primarily by Ambassador Lighthizer and working with the president.

I'll take one last question before the president's event. Jonathan.

[14:10:02] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Sarah. The president frequently speaks about the need to improve the nation's crumbling infrastructure.

Can you explain his opposition to the Gateway Project, which is to put a rail tunnel between New Jersey and his home state of New York that has the support of many Republicans, and also, according to one study, is key to 20 percent of the nation's gross national product?

SANDERS: The president specifically wants to address infrastructure on a broader scale, not put all our emphasis into one project. We certainly want to see the infrastructure across this country rebuilt, which is why we put forward priorities when it comes to that in a plan moving forward. And we look forward to working with Congress to make some real progress on that in the coming days.

Thanks so much. And the president has got an event here in just a few minutes. Thanks, guys.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: All right. So, you've been watching CNN here. I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thanks for being with me.

Let me jut catch you up to speed. A lot of the questions there in the briefing today all about comments made by the president of the United States just a little while ago, sitting in the West Wing with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.

The top line from the president, and then I'll back into this, is the fact that the president said yes, indeed, he talked to Vladimir Putin, leader of Russia, congratulating him on his win in the - air quote this on purpose - "the election" in Russia.

And then, he took it a step further and said, yes, he plans to meet with Putin in the not-so-distant future, leaving a lot of people to think, well, what is he referring to and is something on the books.

So, what Sarah Sanders just said was there are no specific plans as of now, but a couple of key questions came up pertaining to that call between Trump and Putin, I.e. did the US president bring up Russian meddling, interference in our election, and the answer we just heard was that Sarah Sanders doesn't think so.

And then, they were asked specifically about, does the White House believe the election in Russia was free and fair and she didn't quite answer that either.

A.B. Stoddard, Chris Whipple, two great people to talk to on what we just heard in that briefing. A.B., beginning with you, I mean, Sarah Sanders had a tough time answering questions about what she heard from her boss about this Putin phone call, namely whether the election was free and fair, which we all know the answer to that.

A.B. STODDARD, "REALCLEARPOLITICS" ASSOCIATE EDITOR AND COLUMNIST: Right. They make, obviously, a point of dodging that topic and the president - look, President Obama called Putin to congratulate him on his last election.

The problem for President Trump is that he has been loath to condemn or criticize any actions -

BALDWIN: Ever.

STODDARD: - by President Vladimir Putin ever and was dragged six weeks late into enforcing those sanctions that were passed last year overwhelmingly and had a deadline of January 31.

So, Sarah was able to go back to the fact that they're enforcing sanctions as a way of saying that they're tough on Russia, but, of course, they have all the stuff they want to work on with regards to North Korea and Iran with the Russians and she was pretty open about the fact that she's not going to take the bait on him calling out Vladimir Putin on Russian election meddling or a nerve agent attack or anything else.

BALDWIN: And, Chris, just again, reminding everyone, it is Trump's own intel chiefs who maintain that Russia is indeed - not only did attack the US election, but is attacking the US right now.

CHRIS WHIPPLE, AUTHOR, "THE GATEKEEPERS: HOW THE WHITE HOUSE CHIEFS OF STAFF DEFINE EVERY PRESIDENCY": It's bad enough that Donald Trump has already essentially unilaterally disarmed in the face of Russian attacks on our election and they're bound to attack again.

That's bad enough. But then, to congratulate Vladimir Putin who is a thug and an authoritarian for a sham election?

I have to say that, look, the bar is pretty low for this White House and this White House press secretary. But when Sarah Huckabee Sanders says we don't get to dictate how other countries run their elections, forgive me we do get to express our outrage when dictators run sham elections.

This is on Donald Trump. It's also on John Kelly, his chief of staff, who is failing to tell him hard truths.

BALDWIN: They were asked about this response that we got the statement from John McCain in response to what the president said earlier today and John McCain's response was this.

"An American president does not lead the free world by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections." That was the first part of the statement. And so, Sarah was asked for reaction on John McCain.

A.B., I'm not quite sure if I - I had nothing noteworthy written down. And I'm not quite sure if they took on John McCain again there. But, bottom line, the president not willing to go there.

STODDARD: What's so interesting too, Brooke, is the fact that this used to be a party that confronted the Russians. But for John McCain and a few others sometimes - Lindsey Graham tweeted yesterday about it being a sham election, something actually pretty aggressive.

[14:15:07] But for just a handful of them really, who in the Republican Party stands up at moments like this and confronts Vladimir Putin anymore?

They've gone silent in the face of Trump's silence. And that is a huge turnaround from the position that they were in during not only the Obama years, but in the early vetting of Trump's cabinet.

In the hearings for Rex Tillerson and others, they took a pretty tough line on this. And in the months and year that's followed, they've gone pretty mute on it.

BALDWIN: And a lot of them have gone mute, at least those who aren't leaving Washington on what the president has done directly taking on Bob Mueller, the special counsel.

Let me get to that because another piece of the conversation in the briefing was on this Mueller probe, and so Sarah Sanders was asked about Trump's tweets over the weekend where really, for the first time, he took on Bob Mueller, calling him out by name.

And I want you to listen what Sarah Sanders said on Republicans Lindsey Graham and Trey Gowdy, who have been critical of the president on his Twitter feed. Here you go.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Another Republican over the weekend, Lindsey Graham, also a Republican from South Carolina, said that if the president were to fire -

SANDERS: Maybe we need to work on our South Carolina members.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: Chris, care to comment?

WHIPPLE: Yes. What do you say to that? I mean, I don't doubt for a second that this is a president for whom there really are no lines. He clearly will cross any line when he feels cornered.

I describe in the new chapter of my paperback how Jeff Sessions resigned when he was belittled by Trump on the evening of May 17th and Reince Priebus had to chase him down in the parking lot and drag him back inside.

I don't doubt that Donald Trump may try to fire Sessions. He may try to fire Mueller. That will be a defining moment for the Trump presidency, for the rule of law and for John Kelly, who needs to throw his body in front of any decision like that.

BALDWIN: Wow! It was Lindsey Graham who said if the president were to try to do that, it would be the beginning of the end.

And the big question has been, what's up with the reticence from the Senate majority leader? And so, A.B., we actually just now heard from Mitch McConnell. He has just weighed in after days of silence after the president's tweet over the weekend, taking on Bob Mueller.

Here is Mitch McConnell.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Over the weekend, the president launched a series of attacks against the special counsel. Are you comfortable with the president going after the special counsel in such a direct way?

MITCH MCCONNELL, SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: Well, look, I agree with the president's lawyers that Bob Mueller should be allowed to finish his job. I think it was an excellent appointment. I think he will go wherever the facts lead him and I think he will have great credibility with the American people when he reaches the conclusion of this investigation. So, I have a lot of confidence in him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: OK. So, A.B., I heard no mention of Trump by name there. But when you hear the senate majority leader saying Bob Mueller should be allowed to finish his job, did he go far enough? Did you understand what he was trying to say?

STODDARD: Manu had a great piece yesterday on CNN about why McConnell chooses his moments to be quiet and then to come out and say something. He uses his words against Trump sparingly. And he, obviously, didn't want to talk, as you say, about the president's attacks on Mueller. He wants to talk about his confidence in Mueller.

That's different than the house speaker today saying he has been given assurances that Mueller is not going to be fired.

Let's remember for the viewers that it's not about Mueller being fired. It's about Sessions being fired or Rod Rosenstein being fired. That's a canard that this whole thing about Mueller and, don't worry, he's not going to fire Mueller, he'd never fire Mueller.

He can actually impede and restrict and limit or close down this investigation by changing the personnel above Bob Mueller. And that's the concern that Republicans have to deal with.

And when they tell you over and over again that they have confidence in Mueller, he should do his job and they don't think the president is going to fire him, that's actually not tackling head on the fact that the president, if he really wants to mess with this investigation, will fire Rod Rosenstein, the deputy AG, or he's fire Sessions, so that someone else can come in, oversee this investigation, who is not recused like Sessions and then that's a new probe entirely.

BALDWIN: Well, that's a whole other conversation, hopefully, for a day we don't need to talk about. But you never know. Chris and A.B., thank you so much.

We're just going through what we just heard in the White House briefing.

As we were listening to that, I have more breaking news for you. We have just learned a former Playboy model who claims she had a nine- month affair with President Donald Trump is now suing in an effort to share her story publicly. Who is she? What is she claiming? We have that for you.

[14:20:00] Quick commercial break. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BALDWIN: All right. We are back with more breaking news this Tuesday afternoon. Both of these stories I'm about to tell you about involving Trump accusers.

First is this former Playboy model who allegedly had this nine-month affair with President Donald Trump. She is suing the company that kept her original account from publication.

"The New York Times" is reporting that Karen McDougal is suing to be released from an agreement mandating her silence. The report would make McDougal just the latest woman to take legal action over an agreement restricting her from speaking out about an alleged relationship with the president prior to his time in government.

The White House has said over and over that Trump denies this affair. So, I have Brian Stelter with me on the reporting on this case and CNN legal analyst Areva Martin. And Athena Jones is on deck with another female filing, another kind of suit.

So, Stelter, first to you. Tell me more about this case involving McDougal and how to me how it sounds an awful lot like the Stormy Daniels NDA.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: It is. This is a second case of a woman who was paid for her silence, who is now saying that payment, that contract was invalid and that she should be able to speak publicly.

[14:25:09] And so, this could have the same kind of ramifications potentially for President Trump that the Stormy Daniels case has. Daniels has taped that interview with our colleague Anderson Cooper. It's set to air this weekend on CBS' "60 minutes." So, Stormy Daniels moving forward, speaking out publicly while she is suing for her right to speak.

Meanwhile now, Karen McDougal going to court today with a very similar case. Now, the difference is that she was paid by "The National Enquirer". She wasn't paid by a Trump lawyer. She was paid by a supermarket tabloid.

And the idea behind the payment at the time was that "The Enquirer" was buying the rights to her story. They could pay her for the exclusive rights to reveal her alleged affair with Donald Trump.

BALDWIN: Except they never did.

STELTER: Except they never published the story. That's the thing. They never published the story. This was called catch and kill in the tabloid business. You catch the story, you kill it.

So, now, she's suing "The Enquirer", saying this $150,000 payment is invalid. She should be able to speak freely. So far, Brooke, no comment from "The Enquirer."

BALDWIN: OK. So, that is the key difference with "The Enquirer" versus when the Stormy case, Michael Cohen and his whole private - that entity that he created in Delaware, does she have greater legal standing? Is the Stormy case really setting a precedent?

AREVA MARTIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, this case is interesting, Brooke, because she's claiming that her lawyer and "The National Enquirer" misled her with respect to this agreement.

She was allegedly promised that she would be featured in their publication, that she would have her own column, that they would post about her activities as a health and fitness guru and that that didn't happen and that she was led to believe she would get all of this attention and all of this coverage in "The National Enquirer" if she agreed to this $150,000 to not tell her story.

She is saying they never did that and that, if she had known, they weren't going to do that, she would have never entered into this agreement.

And she also claims something very interesting is that "The National Enquirer" was talking to Michael Cohen. And so, they consulted with him as they were crafting and negotiating this agreement. So, they also believe that Donald Trump, via Michael Cohen, was involved in getting her to enter into this non-disclosure agreement and she wants out.

She wants to tell her story just like Stormy Daniels and she says her story is very similar in terms of the affair that she alleges she had with the president.

BALDWIN: A la Michael Cohen. You all know his name now, the man who then paid the $130,000 to keep Stormy Daniels, that she says, quiet.

STELTER: Right.

BALDWIN: Standby. We've got another case to talk about here. So, not the only breaking news involving this trump accuser today.

Next, we talk about what we just learned about President Trump's effort to dismiss this case brought on by a former apprentice contestant. CNN has that next.