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Trump's Surprise Syria Plan; Trump Touts Wall Construction; Sessions Rejects Second Special Counsel; Gates Help on Collusion. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired March 30, 2018 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: He shocked some members of his own administration after revealing his plans for American involvement in war-torn Syria in front of a massive crowd in Ohio. Last night the president told supporters about his plans for the ISIS battleground.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're knocking the hell out of ISIS. We'll be coming out of Syria like very soon. Let the other people take care of it now. Very soon. Very soon we're coming out. We're going to have 100 percent of the caliphate, as they call it, sometimes referred to as land, we're taking it all back quickly, quickly. But we're going to be coming out of there real soon.


KEILAR: Now a senior administration official tells CNN some of the president's aides were surprised by those comments. They said, quote, we are still trying to figure out what he meant about Syria yesterday.

CNN White House reporter Kaitlan Collins joins me live from West Palm Beach, Florida.

So, Kaitlan, what did he mean from the -- what he said yesterday?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, that's a big question mark here, Brianna. Certainly not a scripted comment from the president during that speech that was supposed to be revolving about infrastructure in Cleveland, Ohio. And now it's confusing his own officials in his White House about what exactly he meant when he said that.

But it's not just inside the West Wing that there's confusion over what the president said. Also a defense official telling my CNN colleagues, a defense official, I should note, that is intimately involved with the ISIS -- with the campaign against ISIS, who said they didn't know what the president was speaking about. And even the State Department spokesman, Heather Nauert, saying that she hadn't seen the comment yet, but that she was not aware of any plans for the United States to pull out of Syria.

Now, this is also interesting on another front, not just for the confusion that it's creating inside this administration, but also because this is a president who has often said he's not going to telegraph any of his military moves, he's not going to show his cards to let anyone know what he's signaling, doing, as he said right here on the campaign trail.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, one of the things I think you've noticed about me is militarily I don't like to say where I'm going and what I'm doing. I'm not saying I'm doing anything one way or the other.

I don't want to telegraph what I'm doing or what I'm thinking. I'm not like other administrations where they say we're going to do this in four weeks and that doesn't work that way.

I don't want to be one of these guys that say, yes, here's what we're going to do. I don't have to do that.


COLLINS: This is a president who was regularly critical of the Obama administration for previewing an attack on Mosul in Iraq. He's brought up that on several occasions. So it makes you wonder, this is the commander in chief, if he is making this decision to withdraw troops from Syria. That is a decision he can obviously make here and he needs to -- he, obviously, clearly, has not informed any other officials of concrete plans to do so. But it is certainly something he can decide. But even if it is his plan, it goes against his thinking that he's not going to telegraph what exactly he's doing here, Brianna. But if he is making this decision, it's quite clear he hasn't informed anyone else, Brianna.

KEILAR: Kaitlan Collins in West Palm Beach, thank you so much.

I want to continue the discussion now with my panel. We have Ned Ryun, he's a former writer for President George W. Bush, and he's the CEO of American Majority. And Isaac Wright is a Democratic strategist and the former executive director for Correct the Record super PAC, now a partner in FSSG.

OK, so, Ned, what's going on here, because he is either telegraphing what he's going to be doing or he's just sort of blowing hot air and isn't really talking about what the plan is for Syria and he's just kind of ad-libbing some stuff that may not be true. Which is it?

NED RYUN, FORMER WRITER FOR PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, I think yesterday probably made an argument as to why we have teleprompters and we stick to the script. I mean this is -- you know me, I'm one of the president's biggest supporters. One of my things that I'm always harping is a little bit more message discipline, whether it's on Twitter or whether it's on the stomp with teleprompter. Stick to the teleprompter, stick to what's being laid out for you. Even be a little boring if you have to be, especially in a midterm election.

So I've got to tell you, I think it just comes down to basic message discipline. And, again, it's one of those things that's always been a bit of a struggle. I'd love to see them working on that moving forward.

KEILAR: It wouldn't be, Isaac, a sort of campaign-style speech for the president if he didn't mention the wall. Let's listen to something that he said yesterday.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We need walls. We started building our wall. I'm so proud of it. We started. We started. We have 1.6 billion. And we've already started. You saw the pictures yesterday. I said, what a thing of beauty.


KEILAR: So the wall -- what he's referring to there is some photos that he tweeted out where he said it was the beginning of the construction of the border wall. The problem with that is that it's not, right? It's basically the mending of a fence, the repairing of an existing fence.

But I wonder, from your perspective, when you're looking at that and you're fact-checking these kinds of details, I mean, is it just white noise? Is there really a point to it? Is it something that politically Democrats can really make, I guess, progress with?

[12:05:010] ISAAC WRIGHT, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, it's dangerous, and we should treat it as something more than political, because it is. This president has made it part of his campaign and now his administration to create a constant assault on the truth. He posted photos on Twitter saying it was the beginning of the border wall, when we all know good and well those photos, even the DHS officials have admitted, they're from a fence that started in 2009.

He claims this 1.6 billion is part of a new border wall, when in reality it's not. That money was put there by Congress to fund drug interdiction along the border, to fund greater surveillance with law enforcement along the border, and to patch existing walls with proven fence technology that predates May of last year, i.e., it can't even be the prototypes that the president has looked at in San Diego. This president has made a constant battle, an assault on the truth. And we, as Americans, not just as Democrats but as Americans, should reject that and should not allow it.

KEILAR: Ned, do you want to react to that?

RYUN: I do. I mean I obviously disagree with Isaac on some of the -- some of what he said. But I would agree with him, this is not a good thing, not in regards to what Democrats or anybody else but his base. I mean this is a big issue, Brianna, for the base. This is one of the reason he got elected. I think we need to have an honest conversation about whether the wall will be built or not.

And I wrote about this in "The Hill" this week that I think Trump was morally obligated to veto the omnibus bill because it was such a bad bill. And, let's face it, he got less than a hundred feet for a brand new wall while Chuck Schumer got his tunnel. And I think Trump should have sent it back and said, give me a short term spending bill and let's have a conversation about how you fund my priorities.

And that's what we need to have the conversation about and the base needs to keep pushing and saying, this is why you got elected. We want funding for the wall. And if you have to veto omnibus and send it back and go into a showdown with Congress, then go ahead and do that because the base will be with you. So I think we just need to have an honest conversation about whether the wall will get funded or not and how far Trump's willing to go to do that.

Now, I think he should even think about -- and I don't say this lightly, Brianna -- Reagan shut down government eight times during his administration, still had 3.5 percent growth. I think Trump needs to be willing to say, I will go so far as to say I will shut down government unless you fund my priorities, and let's see what happens from there.

KEILAR: Well, we are -- we are on track for some shutdown records maybe, I will say that.

OK, community colleges came up in this talk. Let's listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A word that you don't hear much, but when I was growing up, we had what you call vocational schools. They weren't called community colleges, because I don't know what that means, a community college. To me it means a two-year college. I don't know what it means. But I know what vocational -- and I tell people, call it vocational from now on.


KEILAR: What? What is he talking about? There are community colleges that are not vocational colleges. What's he talking about, Ned? I mean everyone knows what a community college is.

RYUN: Let's go back to message discipline and talk about why -- I wish he would have really focused on -- I think it is a very good idea on vocational schools. Leave the community colleges out of it. I'm not really sure where he was going with that.

But highlight the fact that we should emphasize vocational schools moving forward. That there should be a conversation about, you know what, I don't think everybody need to go to a four-year college. I think they should go to vocational schools and really focus on that.

Again, it comes back to, Brianna, message discipline.

KEILAR: And --

RYUN: Focus on what you should be focused on, stick to the teleprompter and stick to the message and really communicate, because I do think vocational schools and that is a very good thing for us moving forward so we can have an honest conversation about what it means. Do you actually need to go to college or should you go to voc- tech school -- KEILAR: Well, sure.

Isaac, I suspect that you may agree with Ned on that point.

WRIGHT: Yes, I mean, look, the president needs to deal with message. He needs to get back on track. I think he has made some blunders in this speech. I actually would welcome the president to have some of these debates.

Ned mentioned earlier on the immigration issue. Republicans having a debate about shutting down government for the wall. Let's keep in mind, Mitch McConnell and Ryan -- and Paul Ryan right now are the ones in charge of Congress. That's who have basically snoozed at his border wall perspective and the funding for it. And the same reaction they had to his infrastructure bill.

KEILAR: Isaac's opening up a big can of worms that, unfortunately, I don't have time to go into, but we'll see you gentlemen --

RYUN: Oh, I would have loved to address that because I think this --

KEILAR: I know you would have. I know you would have, Ned Ryun. Thank you so much. We'll have you back soon.

Isaac Wright, appreciate it.

WRIGHT: Thanks, Brianna.

KEILAR: And coming up, the new signal that Special Counsel Bob Mueller is investigating alleged collusion between Trump's campaign and the Russians. The court documents that reveal Mueller sought help from a former Trump aide in probing links to Russian operatives.

[12:09:44] Plus, the lawyer for porn star Stormy Daniels' says the legal war with the president is far from over, as a high-profile lawyer for another Trump accuser, former "Apprentice" contestant, Summer Zervos, drops out of her case. Details ahead.


KEILAR: This morning new light is being shed on the Russia investigation and its priorities. CNN has learned through sources and court filings that special counsel investigators have told Rick Gates that they don't need his help in building the case against his former business partner Paul Manafort. Instead Robert Mueller's team wants Gates to reveal what he knows about the Trump campaigns contacts with Russian during the 2016 presidential campaign. Just a few days ago, the Mueller team showed that Gates knowingly communicated with someone with ties to Russian intelligence at the height of his work with the Trump campaign.

CNN's Shimon Prokupecz has been working on this story. He joins us with the latest.

Shimon, this bombshell that is coming from new court filings, tell us about it. SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Right. So the court

filings that had been made public earlier this week certainly was the first indication that we had seen where Rick Gates, there was this connection with Rick Gates to a Russian intelligence officials.

And now what we've learned is that the special counsel, when they were talking to him about potentially cooperating, they essentially said to him that they didn't need his help in the Paul Manafort case. It seems that they have everything they need and they feel like they have a pretty airtight case on Paul Manafort.

[12:15::15] But what they really wanted from Rick Gates, who was this high-ranking official within the Trump campaign, was what he knows about any potential collusion, what he knows about contacts that Russians may have had with people inside the Trump campaign. And also financing. And he is close -- was close to people in the campaign who were involved in some of the fundraising. Certainly Paul Manafort was part of that. And then another individual by the name of Tom Barrack, who was part of some of the fundraising for the inauguration.

So all of this seems to be some of the information that Mueller is asking questions about. Some of the contacts within the campaign. And this is what we believe, at least this suggests, that Rick Gates is a central part in trying to put the puzzle of collusion and Russian interference in this case.

KEILAR: And he may testify against Manafort still?

PROKUPECZ: Yes, absolutely. His cooperation, basically when he signed the cooperation agreement, he has to do whatever the government tells him to do. They essentially own him. So if they do ask him to testify against Paul Manafort, he would be required to do so.

When he went into cooperate, they do what's called a Proffer Agreement. And he has to tell the government everything he knows about any crimes that had been committed that he had been witness to or that he participated in. And all of Manafort's dealings with certainly foreign officials and some of his tax issues and finance issues would have been part of that. So that would certainly include and require him to testify against Paul Manafort.

KEILAR: All right, Shimon, thanks so much for that.

Now, Attorney General Jeff Sessions says he is not ready to name a second special counsel to investigate Republican claims of FBI bias in both the Russia probe and the investigation of Hillary Clinton. But Sessions did reveal one concession, and that's that a federal prosecutor is now investigating the claims.

CNN's Laura Jarrett is joining us live.

Tell us about this prosecutor, Laura, and exactly what he's looking for.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Brianna, he's a federal prosecutor out in Utah, a veteran prosecutor, and he was appointed by President Obama in 2015. And then President Trump actually reappointed him last year. But he's got quite a bit on his plate. He's going to be tasked with looking into everything from Republican allegations that the FBI somehow mishandled the Clinton e-mail server probe, as well as not doing enough to probe ties between a Russian nuclear energy agency and the Clinton Foundation. And then finally he's also going to be tasked with looking into whether the FBI mishandled the surveillance warrant on former Trump campaign aide Carter Page.

KEILAR: And Sessions isn't completely closing the door on this idea of adding a special counsel on this. What do you think about that?

JARRETT: He's not. What he's really trying to do is say, look, there's a high threshold for appointing a special counsel under the Justice Department regulations. It's really supposed to be used in situations where there's an appearance of a conflict of interest, or some extraordinary circumstances. But instead, Sessions is saying, I'm going to appoint a prosecutor who has all of the same powers, just like Mueller. He can bring charges. He can convene a grand jury. And in his letter to Congress last night, he says that Huber (ph) is going to be able to tell him if a special counsel is actually needed down the line at some point.

And it's interesting to note, so far Republicans have not come out and pushed back hard on this, Brianna. They say they still want a special counsel, but this is actually a step in the right direction.

KEILAR: All right, Laura Jarrett, thank you.

I want to bring in our panel to talk about this. We have CNN's senior political analyst Mark Preston with us. Michael Zeldin, he's a CNN legal analyst and former aide to Robert Mueller at the Justice Department, and Josh Campbell, CNN law enforcement analyst and former FBI special agent.

Michael, what do you think about Mueller clearly here trying to connect the dots between the Trump campaign and Russia through Rick Gates? What does this tell you?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: That he's following his primary mandate requirements.

If you go back, Brianna, to the appointment on May 17 of Mueller by Rosenstein, what that appointment letter says is, you shall continue the counterintelligence investigation that the FBI started under then- FBI Director Comey, and that that counterintelligence investigation shall include any indication of coordination between the Trump for president campaign and Russian interference. So that's his primary obligation, and that's what he's following up on.

And he has to write a report at the end of his investigation about who he prosecuted and why he declined to prosecute. So he needs not only to determine who has committed criminal offenses, but what is the story behind the entire Russian collusion/counterintelligence matter that is on his mandate.

[12:20:00] And so I think that what we're seeing here is a prosecutor who doggedly is pursuing what he has been obligated to do per his mandate, and it shouldn't be surprising to anybody that Gates will feature prominently in that because of the role that he held both in the campaign and with Manafort in their private consulting world.

KEILAR: Mark, the president is always saying it's become his rallying cry, no collusion, right? He'll tweet it. He'll say it. Considering this revelation, is that a harder thing for him to say and be accurate in saying?

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it won't be hard for him to say, but it will be hard for him to say and be accurate in doing so.

KEILAR: That's why -- that's why I added that caveat there.

PRESTON: You know, when we talk about collusion, we haven't seen any evidence necessarily that it actually happened. But we have seen evidence that they tried to collude. And we only have to go back to June of 2016 in Trump Tower when you had the meeting between the Russian go-between and the Trump family, basically. So --

KEILAR: They didn't get the dirt, and that was what was frustrating, right, is that they came --

PRESTON: Right. So -- so the idea that there's no collusion --

KEILAR: (INAUDIBLE) didn't have the dirt.

PRESTON: There was never any collusion. There was an attempt at collusion, OK, so at least that is a starting point.

What is interesting, though, about this is it shows that the focus, though, on this really is on Trump. There's been a lot of concern that Mueller would use these investigation to go off into these wild paths and try to bring everybody down. But if the focus for him now is to take Gates and put him primarily on President Trump and not on his business partner, Paul Manafort, who clearly has some problems there appears to be, it just goes to show you that Mueller isn't using this investigation to try to bring everybody down. It's very, very focused.

KEILAR: Josh, what does this tell you, this revelation about what Robert Mueller has already?

JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, so I read two things in this. The first is in line with what Michael was saying as far as, this is Mueller's primary mission. This is what he was tasked to do. And this is the most serious mission that he has, to look at any type of collusion, any type of interference by a foreign government into our electoral process.

The interesting thing here is that in any investigation -- and this is also the second problem of his -- is to follow any additional criminal activity that he happens to uncover. You're going to have these offshoots. And I can only imagine if you were to peek into the conference room and Robert Mueller's office, with his team, I mean the link chart, as we call it, has to be, you know, continuing to spread as these new charges continue to come about and new allegations. But I think the central mission is still his focus, to focus on collusion.

The second thing it tells me is that if you're Manafort, now is the time to really do a lot of soul searching with your attorneys with those who are assisting you with the case, because essentially we have the government saying, you know, we're good, we don't need this witness. I don't think that really bodes well for his future and the seriousness that they're taking his case.

KEILAR: Josh, let's talk about Jeff Sessions deciding not to appoint a second special counsel to look into what Republicans say is bias on the part of the FBI. Were you surprised that he went with having a federal prosecutor investigate this and not actually having a special counsel?

CAMPBELL: I am surprised. And, you know, the reason just basically for me comes down to this. I've been highly critical of the attorney general. I think he's politicized the Department of Justice. If you look at his role in the firing of Jim Comey and kind of the pretext that was, you know, brought about there, and if you look at the silence from him and his team when it comes to the attacks on the department, when it comes to the attacks on the FBI from politicians, I don't really see this as someone who is, you know, a profile in leadership here.

And why it surprises me is because he is essentially going against what the Republicans and the White House want. And that is another, you know, special prosecutor, someone with teeth, that kind of fire- breathing entity that can look and say, aha, everything that we've told you over the last year and a half about the FBI and all the malfeasance over there, now we're going to uncover it and it's going to be this big charade, this big show. He's essentially saying, no, I'm not going along with that.

So, to you question, I am surprised, but not for -- not the reason -- not for the fact that he's not following the facts, but for the fact that he's not in lock-step with the White House on this one.

KEILAR: John Huber is the federal prosecutor, Mark Preston --


KEILAR: Who is going to be looking at this. Initially appointed by President Obama, reappointed by President Trump.


KEILAR: The reception's been pretty good on The Hill, but this is not an easy assignment that he has.

PRESTON: It's an incredibly hard assignment. And, in fact, it's an assignment I wouldn't necessarily want to be drawn into because of concern that it would be corrupted by outside individuals within your own department, right, including going all the way up to the White House.

But I believe it was a brilliant move on Jeff Sessions' part because you've got somebody who was not only appointed by Obama, but reappointed, as you know, by President Trump. He is thousands of miles away in Utah --

KEILAR: In Utah.

PRESTON: From a very conservative state right now. And it gives Jeff Sessions the breathing time to let anybody else try to see if there is anything to this. And, if so, then he can continue on with the investigation. But what he's done is he's bought himself time.

KEILAR: And, Michael, what kind of mandate -- this is always the question about the special counsel, about Robert Mueller, is he within the parameters of what he should be looking at? What kind of mandate does Huber have here?

[12:25:00] ZELDIN: Well, what it is, is that he's essentially standing in the place of the Justice Department, under the regulations the Justice Department can appoint a special counsel, or if it feels it has the power to investigate it itself, take special measures, and that's the appointment of Huber.

So he is going to look at the so-called Uranium One deal and he's going to look at the FISA warrant against Carter Page as his principle mandate. In the course of that, he may come across other things. As Josh called it, a link chart. There will be links that will derive from the main body of his inquiry. But, principally, I think he's going to look at Hillary Clinton and the Uranium One, Carter Page and the FISA warrant and he's going to make a report and he's going to give it to the attorney general. Then the attorney general is going to determine what if any other steps need to be taken in follow-up of that. There is no need for a special counsel in this case because the appearance of conflict that gives rise to the extraordinary circumstance that led to the Mueller appointment isn't present in this case.

KEILAR: Michael Zeldin --

CAMPBELL: But we've got to --

KEILAR: Yes, real quick, Josh.

CAMPBELL: Yes, I was just going to say, I think what this will also show is, when we compare what the prosecutor comes up with and compare that to these House intelligence memos, this will be a dichotomy in how to conduct an investigation and how to conduct a real review that is apolitical. So I think on the whole we can welcome this. We need that independent review.

KEILAR: All right, Josh Campbell, thank you so much.

ZELDIN: Yes, it's not --

KEILAR: Michael Zeldin, unfortunately, we have to leave it there.

And, Mark Preston, really appreciate it. A jury has decided the fate of Noor Salman. She is the widow of the Pulse Nightclub shooter Omar Mateen who killed 49 people in 2016. We'll have that, next.