Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Will Keep U.S. Troops In Syria, Wants Exit Soon; Stocks Slide As U.S.-China Trade Battle Escalates. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired April 4, 2018 - 11:00   ET



BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, there. I'm Brianna Keilar in for Kate Bolduan. We begin with breaking news, President Trump clarifying his position on U.S. involvement in Syria. A senior administration official telling CNN that Mr. Trump has told his national security team that he's willing to keep American troops in the war-torn nation for now, but he wants them out soon. This is coming after we heard mixed messages about the administration's policy on Syria.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is live for us at the White House. Tell us about this meeting, Kaitlan?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes. That's right, Brianna. Some brand-new information from my colleague, Kevin Liptack (ph), who says during that meeting with his national security team at the White House here yesterday the president said he is willing to keep troops in Syria for the short term, but maintained that overall, he wants to cut an exit in Syria.

Now, this is something the president first said during an infrastructure -- speech on infrastructure in Cleveland, Ohio, last week catching a lot of military officials off guard when he said he want that the U.S. would be coming out of Syria soon.

This is something he repeated yesterday during that press conference with Baltic leaders here at the White House yesterday, saying, quote, "I want to get out. I want to bring our troops home."

And now this is something that goes in contrast with what military officials have said who said that battle with ISIS in Syria is not over yet, but the president has made clear he wants to get troops out of Syria, telling his national security team that yesterday.

And this decision, Brianna, we have reported is more than just national security here. It also has some economic factors as well because the president has actually been fixated by these big jumbo jets that these Persian Gulf monarchs have.

And in a conversation that he recounted to some people recently, he told one gulf leader, quote, "Without us, you wouldn't last two weeks. You would be overrun and have to fly commercial."

Now that comes after yesterday the president said he wants other countries in the area to start picking up the tab to have troops from the United States there helping out in Syria, but what's clear here, Brianna, is the president maintains he does want to get troops out of Syria.

But he's willing to keep them there in the short term to help with the transition while they plan for a withdrawal but overall, he does want those troops to come out of Syria -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Kaitlan Collins at the White House, thank you. Let's go to Fred Pleitgen. He is joining live from Damascus. Fred, what does this mean for the conflict there on the ground in Syria?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it certainly is something that continuously undermines American credibility. You know, Kaitlan, was just saying how the president says that he wants other nations to take charge here in Syria.

Well, I can tell you the three nations that are saying they are happy to oblige are Turkey, Iran and especially Russia. Those are by far the most important outside players here on the ground.

Even as the U.S. is discussing whether or not to stay in Syria in the medium term, those three nations actually have a summit that's going on today in Turkey where they are debating the future of Syria.

Now, of course, the U.S. is not at the table and therefore, is not going to be part of that decision-making, but you can already see these three countries essentially carving out a sphere of influence for themselves.

And of course, the big issue, Brianna, with that also is that there's forces here on the ground that have fought with the U.S. and continue to fight with the U.S. against ISIS and a lot of those forces are pretty angry.

Like, for instance, the Kurds that are not getting squeezed by the Turks and some of them, of course, will have no choice in the future than to try and speak to the Russians to see what --

KEILAR: All right, unfortunately we lost Fred's signal there from Damascus. As you can imagine there are some technical difficulties getting reports out of there.

I want to bring in now Barbara Starr, our CNN Pentagon correspondent, and Kimberly Dozier, a CNN global affairs analyst and the executive editor of "The Cipher Brief." Barbara, if you can make some sense of this for us, is this a cohesive policy that has been in the works because this counters even what you were reporting yesterday that U.S. military leaders are planning to expand the military footprint in Syria by dozens.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, let's start with that very point, what they want to do is put several dozen additional troops in Northern Syria because they think they need more capability up there. They are still fighting ISIS in that region and they are still trying to help support U.S. backed fighters in that region. That shows how complicated it is, that's a short-term goal. The president talking long term. He wants to bring U.S. forces home. I think it's fair to say U.S. generals would like nothing better. Of course, they want to be able to bring the troops home, but it's a matter of timing.

I don't think you can find a U.S. military commander or the secretary of defense who currently thinks that ISIS is defeated in Syria. So, if it's not defeated, that means you still have a terror threat and still have the possibility of ISIS taking hold, plotting and planning and even moving across the border back into Iraq.

[11:05:08] You have Russia and Iran as Fred just reported very happily expanding their own influence in Syria watching very carefully to see how and when U.S. troops withdraw. Bashar Al-Assad would not be, I think most people think, still in power if it wasn't for the backing of the Russian regime.

So, it's hard to see what the president thinks he'll achieve by quickly bringing troops home. It could be a big problem. But here's the bigger problem, Brianna, what does it really mean to defeat is, this is always the big challenge.

You're talking about defeating an ideology and talking about decades of trying to move against something that is very much taken hold in this particular region of the world. Bombs and bullets won't solve it alone -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Kim, it just -- these comments by the president, he was adlibbing the other day, he was at what was supposed to be a rally for infrastructure and he talked about we'll be out of Syria and very soon, this was not in the prompter and something off the cuff. Is some of this just cover for the president having said that, which is yes, a long-held desire of his to not take ownership of the conflict in this region, even though realistically the U.S. already has?

KIMBERLY DOZIER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, I think we're seeing a pattern that frequently happens. Donald Trump says something about his foreign policy, his national security team scrambles to fill in the blanks to the public because it's something they've been discussing behind closed doors.

I think we're getting a glimpse and arguments that Trump has had with his national security team. He wants the troops out and they have seen this movie before. They don't want to be going back in six months to a year to clean up a new version of ISIS or a strengthened offshoot of al Qaeda inside Syria.

Also, the U.S. allies, Israel and Jordan are still saying, please keep some troop presence on the ground because that maintains a physical presence that Russian-backed Syrian forces and Iranian backed forces and militia will respect and have to stay away from. When you see that battleground, that leaves the former U.S. Kurdish allies there to go it alone.

KEILAR: Part of the head scratching nature of all of this is really the mixed messages that we're seeing from this administration. Let's listen to U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, who came down hard on Syria's use of chemical weapons just moments ago.


NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: The Assad regime keeps dropping chlorine bombs on innocent men and women and children. Our lack of action has consequences. When they let one regime off the hook, others take notice.


KEILAR: Barbara, how do U.S. allies know who to believe?

STARR: Well, let's look at for a second what Nikki Haley is talking about. She has taken a big left turn here because the issue of these chlorine bombs is not ISIS but rather the Syrian regime led by Bashar al-Assad backed up by Vladimir Putin who basically keeps him in power.

Does the U.S. plan to go after this and basically challenge Russia? When the president talks about bringing in allied countries in the region to fight in Syria, are they going to go against Russia? Not very likely.

You already have a number of countries in the ISIS coalition but for key military tasks and start off with aerial bombing of any target, it is really the U.S. that has the capability to gather the intelligence, to pinpoint a target and attack a target.

So, what Nikki Haley is talking about, may be a diplomatic effort to get the regime to back off of these chemical weapons, but so far, no indication that's working and no amount of diplomatic action is going to really change Bashar al-Assad's mind unless Putin changes his mind.

Let me just very quickly add, a few days ago, the top U.S. military commander in the region, General Joseph Votel was asked before Congress, is it still U.S. policy that Bashar al-Assad must go? He paused for a moment and said he did not know. That's the top U.S. commander. That's a lot of uncertainty about where U.S. policy is headed.

KEILAR: That just speaks volumes. When the president was speaking yesterday, he was saying -- if you want us to stay -- if you want the U.S. to stay, maybe you're going to have to pay. He was talking about Saudi Arabia. Is that realistic, Kim?

DOZIER: Well, I think that's a big ask of Saudi Arabia, which is already conducting an operation in Yemen, which helps the U.S. with its counterterrorism mission against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula there.

And Saudi Arabia has been part of the coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Look, there is another way that they could continue this mission, which is to withdraw most of the U.S. forces into Iraq and bases there and then do in and out missions. [11:10:09] So, that's a way to keep it going, but yes, this is going to be costly. I think there might be a bit of arguing behind closed doors about who is going to pay the bulk of this mission.

KEILAR: Interesting. All right. Kim Dozier, thank you so much. Barbara Starr, really appreciate it.

And right now, stocks are sliding amid the escalating trade battle between the United States and China. So, why is President Trump tweeting, quote, "you can't lose?" We'll have details ahead.

Plus, sources telling CNN that the president is not currently a target in the Russia investigation, but what does that mean? Does it mean he's in the clear? Maybe not. We'll have details ahead.


KEILAR: The U.S. and China trade punches and stock markets around the world are left bruised and bloodied. Right now, on Wall Street, the Dow is down over almost 250 points as you can see after China responded to the U.S. with its own plans for hefty new tariffs.

[11:15:06] Beijing is going to slap 25 percent tariffs on critical American exports, soybeans, aircraft, cars, chemicals and many, many others. The sudden escalation of tensions between the world's top two economies is intensifying fears of a global trade war.

This morning, President Trump is showing no signs of backing down. He tweeted, "We are not in a trade war with China. That war was lost many years ago by the foolish or incompetent people who represented the U.S. Now we have a trade deficit of $500 billion a year with intellectual property theft of another $300 billion. We cannot let this continue."

CNN's Ivan Watson is in Beijing. First, I want to go, though, to Richard Quest at the New York Stock Exchange. Richard, is the feeling there that the U.S. is now in a trade war with China?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN ANCHOR, "QUEST MEANS BUSINESS": Well, if it's not in a trade war it is more close than it ever would wish to be in a dispute with its largest trading or large trading partner and the second largest economy in the world.

We can have a nice semantic argument about whether this is or is not a trade war, but the reality is this, these are the facts. The U.S. imposed tariffs on steel, China responded. The U.S. yesterday announced plans to impose tariffs for intellectual property theft within 24 hours and the Chinese have responded.

Now, if this is not a trade war, just because the -- the trigger hasn't been pulled, it's a war in everything but name. You have the arsenal and the weapons. They have been uncovered. They are now on the battleground. They are now facing each other.

All we are now talking about if you want to be -- on this issue, Brianna, those who say no it is a trade war, no it's not a trade war, all we're talking about now is firing the gun. The reality is, this is as close to a trade war as you ever want to get without actually fighting it.

KEILAR: And Ivan, China is making it clear that they are trying to have a very strong response to this. They even rhetorically are doing so. They accused the president of spreading fake news.

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it wasn't a direct accusation, Brianna, but the vice minister of commerce was asked about the accusations that China is engaged in theft of intellectual property. And the vice minister responded by saying I think I'd like to use the term President Trump often loves to say and call them fake news.

What China is doing, as Richard has said, it's saying it's going to go toe to toe with the U.S., with the Trump administration. So, you've got two governments and two world's largest economies engaged in a game of chicken right now.

And the Chinese are arguing, listen, trade for us, bilateral trade is a win-win situation, but if you slap tariffs on our goods, we will come back and the same size and with the same scope and it will go from being a win-win situation to a lose-lose situation.

According to the latest figures from the Department of Commerce, more than 900,000 U.S. jobs depend on U.S. exports to China. So, this week, we've seen China slap tariffs on pork exports, for example. And two of the big pork exporting states are Iowa and North Carolina.

Now they are saying if you go with these tariffs, Trump administration, we'll add planes and soybeans among other things. And eight out of the ten top soybean producing states in the U.S. voted for President Trump in the 2016 election.

There is the suggestion here that the Chinese are being strategic about which sectors of the economy they are targeting, Brianna, and which demographic could get hurt if this trade war goes from a skirmish to a full blown-out conflict.

KEILAR: Ivan Watson in Beijing, Richard Quest in New York, thank you.

Let's talk more about this now with Stephen Moore, a CNN economic analyst and former Trump economic adviser, and Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton. Earlier this week, Stephen, you wrote about how Trump was winning on trade. Today with what China has announced, these tariffs, do you think the U.S. is still winning on trade?

STEPHEN MOORE, CNN SENIOR ECONOMIC ANALYST: That's a good question. I mean, last week when I wrote that it looked like China was going to back down and they were going to negotiate.

KEILAR: It did.

MOORE: And then all of a sudden on Monday they started saying we're going to retaliate with these tariffs. I agree with what Richard Quest just said. I think he summarized this very well. I think I disagree a little bit with the analysis that Ivan was saying, look, Trump recognizes something that is -- gives the United States an advantage, which is China needs access to American markets much more than we do access to Chinese markets.

[11:20:08] It's true that there's maybe a million jobs that are dependent on the United States on trade with China. There are millions and millions -- China cannot function as an economy if they don't access --

KEILAR: China has a different political system, right?

MOORE: They do. That's the other big x factor here.

KEILAR: And American voters talk in a way that Chinese -- they make themselves heard --

MOORE: That's a great point.

KEILAR: And because of that the government is vulnerable in a way that perhaps the Chinese government might not be --

MOORE: Here's the big point here. Look, a trade war would be terrible for both countries, but we cannot -- and I wonder how Diane feels about this. We cannot continue with the current situation. It's not sustainable. China is stealing $300 billion of our intellectual property and enabling a nuclear bomb in North Korea.

They do have gigantic nontariff trade barriers. I mean, it's a joke today Beijing said we're going to take our case to the World Trade Organization. I'm like, are you kidding? I mean, Diane -- China does violates the WTO agreements. They are not a free trade country, they are playing (inaudible).

KEILAR: But Diane, if this is not sustainable, does this current situation make it more sustainable?

DIANE SWONK, CHIEF ECONOMIST, GRANT THORNTON: It doesn't. But I do want to respond to Stephen because I do agree with him. We do know that intellectual theft by China has been huge with this administration throughout the window was the greatest lover point they had in dealing with that, which was the Transpacific Trade Agreement which excluded China, had the rest of the world putting pressure on China and was much more likely to come out with a response and a negotiation and a solution from China without blood on the field, bullets being fired.

And I think that's where the real mistake is. We can all agree I think and I agree with Stephen that we know China has stolen intellectual property. That's absolutely true but let's face it. This is not a good solution. Bilateral trade agreements are not a good solution.

We abandon in this country the greatest leverage we had in talking to all of our allies now worried about the collateral damage that this could have to other countries and other allies like Japan, another big trading partner of China.

The other issue that I think is very important is when you look at the list of items tariffed by the administration if they go through, just plans at the moment, the bullets have not been fired yet, which I do agree is very important. Let's hope we don't get blood on the battlefield --

KEILAR: Do you think there's an off ramp?

SWONK: Pardon me?

KEILAR: Do you think there's an off-ramp if you have time here of you have weeks before this goes into effect, Diane? Do you think they can find an off-ramp of some sort?

SWONK: There is an off-ramp although given parties involved I have my doubts and I think escalation is more likely than a solution. I would like to say, though, these tariffs will hit the supply chain in the U.S.

There are a lot of parts. It's going to disrupt a lot of manufacturing activity and then the counter moves by the Chinese were very strategic, even whiskey being hit, they took a lead from the Europeans, hit whiskey, really going at the heart of what they felt was a political game and being strategic on that. This is not where we want to be at all right now.

KEILAR: When you look at how strategic China has been, Stephen, these key states, soybeans and you hear Diane talking about the supply chain there for automakers. Is this going to hurt key parts of the country in a way that is going to undermine that GOP message where they are touting tax reforms and people are seeing more in the paychecks.

MOORE: Well, it could. I mean, look, I still think there's an optimal outcome here, that actually makes everybody better off, which China has to realize and that is they are going to have to negotiate. They are going to have to change their behavior and have to agree to pay more for intellectual property and reduce their tariff trade barriers. I've talked to a lot of CEOs, Diane, who say we can't penetrate the China market because they have so many barriers.

SWONK: I'm not disagreeing with you, Stephen, it's whether or not the off-ramp is there --

MOORE: Let me tell you -- let me say what I think the off-ramp is.

SWONK: That will negate the tax cuts.

MOORE: It could.

SWONK: It will negate the spending increases, you have to be very careful, to shed the blood on battlefield is different than negotiations I hope you're right.

MOORE: Diane, I think what Trump is saying, the vast majority of Americans agree with Trump. You showed the tweet he put out this morning. This should have been resolved 15 or 20 years ago. They've been stealing and stealing and stealing --

SWONK: There was a process that got thrown out.

MOORE: (Inaudible) free trade with a country that steals. I mean, it's that simple. If they continue to steal, we're going to punch them right back in the nose --

SWONK: And we were about to do that. We gave up that opportunity to do that in a collective global way.

MOORE: Well, I kind of agree with you on that. We need to isolate China right now that's why we need to get NAFTA passed.

SWONK: Which was the goal.

[11:25:07] MOORE: Well, let's see if we can make that happen. We need a unified front against China, which is the bad actor in the world right now.

KEILAR: Diane, thank you so much. Stephen, thank you so much. And we should point out, TPP was very unpopular in places where these tariffs could have a negative effect in the U.S. so full circle.

SWONK: Exactly.

KEILAR: American voters in those areas did not like that. All right. Thank you so much, panel, really appreciate it.

Coming up, we have a major development in the Russia investigation. Sources telling CNN that the president is not currently a target in the special counsel's probe, but is he in the clear? We'll have that next.


KEILAR: Happening right now, President Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, is trying to get some of the charges against him thrown out for money laundering and making false statements about his foreign lobbying work.

Manafort claims that Special Counsel Robert Mueller had no right to indict him for work that he did before he took over the Trump campaign in 2016.