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Trump Defends Scandal-Plagued EPA Chief; Trump Tower Fire Kills One; White House Press Briefing. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired April 9, 2018 - 15:00   ET

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


[15:00:03]

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: But I can tell you that we're reviewing a wide range and a number of different options.

Dave.

QUESTION: Thanks, Sarah.

At the Cabinet meeting this morning, the president was talking about the potential impact of Chinese tariffs on American farmers. And he said the farmers are patriots for being willing to take a hit. And then he said, "We will make it up to them."

What did he mean?

SANDERS: The president has worked with his team to determine how best to respond to China's attack on American farmers.

And he's asked the Department of Agriculture to protect our farmers and we will present a plan on the specifics of that shortly.

QUESTION: Would he consider like extra crop insurance subsidies that are often put in the farm bill for market fluctuations?

SANDERS: I'm not going to get ahead of potential options, but the president has asked the Department of Agriculture to come back with some specifics that we will pronounce -- or announce to you guys shortly.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: I have two for you.

First on Syria, we talked about the idea of the possible military option being a deterrent.

Last year, we heard something very similar from the president. He called that chemical attack last year an affront to humanity and said it could not be tolerated.

Is the White House worried that Assad is now making a mockery of President Trump's threats?

SANDERS: Not at all.

What our concern is about the fact is that the Assad regime has taken an outrageous action against innocent civilians. Our focus is on responding to that. And that's what we're looking at.

QUESTION: And then I wanted to follow up on something from last week, just because we didn't get a chance to, and specifically your comments on citing "The L.A. Times" article when asked I think by John here about the president's brief remarks at that event last week that didn't actually back up the president's claims.

You actually last fall admonished reporters to make sure that we hold ourselves to a high standard of accuracy. Does the president also need to be held to that same standard of accuracy?

SANDERS: Absolutely.

And as I said that day, it has been well-documented that a number of those individuals going back even to 2014, where there were multiple articles and studies put out that said 80 percent of the women that make that -- that go through the process and try to enter the country are raped through that process, something certainly that I think should be concerning to all of us and certainly something that the president has voiced concern about.

QUESTION: And what about the voter fraud claim that the president made last week as well, also not backed up by evidence?

SANDERS: I'm sorry. Can you be more specific?

QUESTION: Yes. The president talked about those claims of voter fraud again. It's something he's repeatedly brought up. It's just getting into the idea of when words matter, particularly in moments of a lot of international pressure, like this moment right now, what his standard of accuracy is.

(CROSSTALK)

SANDERS: Certainly, the president still strongly feels that there was a large amount of voter fraud and attempted to do a thorough review of it.

But a lot of the states didn't want to cooperate and participate. We certainly know that there were a large number of incidences reported, but we can't be sure exactly how much because we weren't able to conduct the full review that the president wanted because a number of states did not want to cooperate and refused to participate.

QUESTION: Yes, two questions regarding Scott Pruitt. How long is the review going to take that the White House is conducting?

SANDERS: I'm not going to lay out an arbitrary timeline, but it's something that we're looking into and continue to take under consideration.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) or years? SANDERS: Obviously, we want to get through this process as quickly as

we can. But I'm not going to just make up a time frame here today.

QUESTION: OK. And did Chief of Staff John Kelly recommend that Pruitt be fired?

SANDERS: I'm not going to get into any private conversations.

Blake, welcome back. Congratulations.

QUESTION: Thank you, thank you. Appreciate it.

I want to ask you about Mark Zuckerberg heading to the Hill to testify. This administration has often talked about deregulation and the deregulatory efforts of the president and this administration has undergone, but there's a question whether or not Facebook should be regulated.

Does the White House have a stance on whether or not Facebook should be regulated? And if so, what is that position?

SANDERS: I don't have a specific policy on that front, but I think we're all looking forward to that testimony today.

QUESTION: What does the president make of Mark Zuckerberg? Does he have an opinion of him? Larry Kudlow was fairly critical of him both on "FOX News Sunday" yesterday and when I asked him about Zuckerberg this morning.

Does the president have any sort of opinion on Mark Zuckerberg?

SANDERS: You know, I haven't asked him directly. I would have to check and get back to you.

Take one last question.

Jim?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Is there anything of the Syrians can do at this point to prevent military action from being taken?

SANDERS: I'm not going to get ahead of what actions we may or may not take, so I can't really answer that question. But we will keep you posted when we have something on that front.

ACOSTA: If I could follow up, just because, you know, you have been saying this over the last couple weeks, that nobody has been tougher on Russia and Vladimir Putin than this president. Isn't there some hyperbole with that when you say that?

I mean, obviously, Ronald Reagan said, tear down this wall. John Kennedy put up a blockade around Cuba. Carter boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.

[15:05:05] Obviously, there have been presidents over the course of the last several decades who have tougher on -- this president, also given the fact that this president up until just recently wasn't really willing to criticize Vladimir Putin by name.

We all saw that over the weekend and took that as a new development.

SANDERS: You cite like one example for each of those individuals.

Let me list off just a few of the actions that the president has taken that previous administrations haven't.

The Treasury Department issued new sanctions on numerous individuals and entities in Russia. The president has continued other sanctions on Russia's malicious cyber-activity in response to election hacking. He's expelled 60 Russian operatives from the United States and closed two consulates.

The president's issued four statements condemning Russia's poisoning of U.K. citizens on U.K. soil. He's authorized the sale of lethal aid to Ukraine. He's authorized military strikes against the Assad regime in Syria and has repeatedly called out Russia's actions on that front.

We have also exported energy to our allies in Eastern Europe. Look, I think that you named off one or two things. It is without dispute that this administration and this president have done a number of things to be tough on Russia.

(CROSSTALK)

ACOSTA: ... that Vladimir Putin may pay a price for what is happening in Syria right now. After all, the Russians were supposed to be responsible for helping the Syrians remove the chemical weapons from Syria.

When the president says that they may pay a price, we should take that to the bank?

SANDERS: I'm not going to get ahead, once again, of any actions that the United States may or may not take. But I think the president has been clear about what his intention is.

Thanks so much, guys. Have a great day.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: OK, let me start there with what we just heard from our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, asking all the right questions on why now with regard to President Trump and finally 15 months later in office criticizing Vladimir Putin in Russia.

Let me bring the ladies back.

And, Dana, just starting with you.

Yes, Sarah Sanders just rattled off entities, agencies, sanctions, et cetera, but this is the first time that the president himself has criticized Putin. Why? Why now is my question? It's taken him -- he's attacked the country, he's attacking our elections, he's attacked our friends in England.

Why did it take this, do you think?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, let me just give a semi-educated guess, and that is, if you remember when the Syrian -- the Assad regime used chemical weapons against his people a year ago, shortly after the president took office, the reporting from people in and around him was how he felt looking at the pictures of these innocent children getting annihilated, assassinated, all of those things.

And it really struck him. So, if you fast-forward to now, as he is contemplating what he is going to do, as he, as Sarah Sanders said, getting intelligence as to what really happened, who might be behind it, perhaps that is why this is the occasion that President Trump used to finally call out Vladimir Putin by name.

We saw last week the administration implementing sanctions in a big way against Putin's closest confidants, against the oligarchs, against businesses in Russia and so forth. That was done because he was compelled to sign a piece of legislation by a majority in Congress that sort of forced his hand, made him do that.

And, finally, these sanctions, which were overdue, had to be implemented by his Treasury Department. This is different. And it would be very interesting to sort of have a chance to get in to question the president, to ask him why this is different, to ask him why this is finally the sort of trigger.

But it might be because of the extent to which we're seeing the terror and the horrible tragedy that maybe he's being told Russia is at least complicit in.

BALDWIN: Yes.

What do you think?

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I still think it's remarkable that it's taken this long for him to call him out by name, and we have speculated for all this time about why he hasn't.

But, as we have said many times, he is transparent. We know what he's thinking. And I think what Dana says is likely to be correct. We know how he reacted to those pictures a year ago. I think these were very disturbing to him. Again, we have heard that over and over again. So it may have just been, this is the moment.

BALDWIN: How about the moment, to me, where I noted that Sarah Sanders was most, I don't know, animated, when she was referring to -- and they never said John McCain by name, but the question was about, you know, the president's recent comments and wanting to withdraw the 2,000 American troops from Syria, whether that gave Assad essentially the green light for this chemical attack.

[15:10:08]

And when she said that's absolutely ridiculous, to quote her, and it's outrageous, Nia, to blame Trump, that he somehow green-lit the attack, she was ready. She was on the defense.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: No, I think that's right.

And I wrote that down and noticed, too, how animated and forceful she was in that moment, because, remember, it was candidate Donald Trump who talk about how stupid leaders were, presidents, to telegraph what they were going to do, because then you would given the enemy a chance to get in there and do something, if you're telling the enemy what your next move is.

And so there you have John McCain, who is very well-respected, very hawkish in terms of his international policy and international engagement, saying this was a blunder by this president, essentially telling Assad that the U.S.' mission there was done because of the degradation of ISIS and that the U.S. was ready to pull out those several thousand troops.

So, I imagine that is something that rankles this president, essentially people drawing a connection between what he said in a very off-the-cuff way. Right? He took a lot of his advisers by surprise, had to be in some ways talk off the ledge in terms of pulling troops out of Syria.

So, yes, you imagine this is a president that really doesn't take too kindly to that. And we will see what he does. Right? What's interesting here is, we were here a year ago, right? And the president struck back in terms of lobbing an assault against Syria after that chemical weapons attack and here we are again.

And it isn't clear whether or not Assad really cares. Assad is stronger than he ever was. At some point, the international community, at least some leaders have said, well, the real goal here is to see Assad -- regime change.

And that doesn't seem to be really anybody's goal at this point. And I think at this point Assad seven years into this civil war feels pretty good about his tenure.

BALDWIN: I want to talk about Trump's option. I have got Rear Admiral John Kirby waiting in the wings.

But I do want to you, ladies, on this notion of a Capitol Hill apartment costing $50 a night. So, we will get to that in just a second.

But, Admiral Kirby, to you, sir, on what the president's option are when it comes to Syria right now. What are they?

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Let's take a look at just the military options with the expectation that hopefully they will be also pursuing some sort of diplomatic options like sanctions against Russia and Syria.

But let's just look at the military options. First, we will call the pinprick. This is kind of what we saw a year ago, cruise missile strikes, perhaps joined with some of our allies maybe against a helicopter base from which the most recent attack was launched.

This is proportional. It's low-risk. There's really no change to the military mission in Syria. But it also has a low deterrence value. It is not really going to do much to change the situation on the ground. Next, we're going to call -- we're call this the pin cushion ideas. These are a little bit more expanded options. Also more high- risk.

You could do expanded strikes against Syrian -- and other Syrian targets, even maybe Russian targets. You could do no-fly zones, although the time for that has really passed. That was really something we could have looked at a year or two ago. Now the regime has much more control over the country and better air defenses in place.

That would very, very risky. You can do a more bold sanctions enforcement, maybe putting Navy ships off the coast. You would need international cooperation. You certainly would need Russia's cooperation on that and that's not likely to happen.

And, of course, you could also do full-scale intervention with regime change as the ultimate goal. But, again, that risks a really much bigger conflagration of war in Syria. I don't think there's going to be any appetite, not only here in the United States, but internationally, for that kind of action.

All these are very, very high-risk. Finally, keeping with my sewing theme, we will call this the friendship quilt. You could also do an expanded set of missions for your troops that you already have on the ground.

We have 2,000 special operators there. They're mostly doing advise and assist missions. Their job is to counter ISIS and to get the Syrian Democratic forces to do better against ISIS. What if you expanded that mission set, allowed them to include regime targets or maybe go after chemical weapons storage facilities? You could do that.

You could be more aggressive in terms of your support to the opposition. We haven't done that. All the support we have given to Syrian Democratic Forces and forces on the ground has all been against the ISIS fight. What if we did more arming and capability-providing for opposition and rebel groups?

And, of course, we could enlist the aid of regional allies. When the president said the other day let other people take care of it now, we think he was probably talking about some of our Arab allies who have small presence in the region and on the ground. Maybe you could turn over more of that fight to them.

All of this, though, risks more of a proxy war than I think we are going to have a stomach for. It gives you very, very little control over outcomes and potentially gets into mission creep.

So, all those are the military options. Very few of them are good. I think we could be looking more at the tactical pinprick strike coupled with some sort of diplomatic pressure as well.

[15:15:07]

BALDWIN: OK. He said within the next 48 hours, the U.S. would respond.

Admiral, thank you so much.

We will come back to Syria of course in just a moment.

But ,ladies, to put a button on our conversation, Scott Pruitt, just a bit of background, the president defended his EPA chief's $50-a-night apartment on Capitol Hill as market value.

You all actually live in Washington.

But, Jamie, just turning to you, that's like -- of course I think like two or three martinis is how I think about $50 in Washington.

GANGEL: Even -- I looked on Airbnb to try to find $50-a-night rooms in that neighborhood in Washington, D.C.

HENDERSON: Oh, gosh.

BALDWIN: I hear Nia.

GANGEL: Can't be done. Can't be done.

(LAUGHTER)

GANGEL: And I hear them laughing. It just can't be done. This speaks to how much Donald Trump likes Pruitt. He's willing to excuse this, when there's no excuse.

BALDWIN: Nia, final note from you? I hear laughter.

HENDERSON: That's right.

A sweetheart deal that Pruitt got, he's paying $50 a night. Apparently, he wasn't even regularly paying. The folks had to get kind of after him to actually make those payments.

So, yes, I think this speaks to the fact that Trump likes him, that folks like Rush Limbaugh are praising Pruitt because of all the regulations he's rolled back at the EPA. Of course, any Republican EPA would do the same thing. It's not even unique to Pruitt, but, listen, Trump likes him.

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: Real quickly?

BALDWIN: Yes.

BASH: Congress has been gone for two weeks.

They're coming back.

BALDWIN: They're back.

BASH: And I talked to a Republican congressman today who said, we're all going to start getting asked about this, and that means that the next shoe to drop, we're all going to say, enough, or at least many of them are going to say, enough, and the president is going to hear from members of Congress in a way he hasn't been for the last two weeks.

BALDWIN: OK.

Jamie and Dana and Nia, thank you all so much.

HENDERSON: Thanks, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Coming up next, the president promises he will make it up to farmers, that they will come out of this whole stronger if they're hurt by this looming trade war with China. We will dig into exactly what that would look like, how that would work.

And new details about that deadly fire at Trump Tower in New York City -- what we learned about the smoke alarms and sprinkler systems in the building.

And we wait now for the comments from the U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley. We will also bring you the view from the other side of the Syrian war, how Putin and Assad might react to a military strike from the U.S. or the coalition.

Stay with me. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:21:39]

BALDWIN: All right.

Housing officials and New York City leaders are calling for new sprinkler laws following this deadly fire at Trump Tower. One person has died. Several firefighters were injured when a fire broke out in an apartment on the 50th floor over the weekend.

We are now learning from the sources there was no working smoke alarm in the apartment where this fire happened. Legislation mandating sprinklers on residences actually passed in 1999, but Trump Tower and other older buildings in New York were grandfathered in.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT CORNEGY JR., NEW YORK CITY COUNCILMAN: We need more than a passive alarm system. And we need a sprinkler system not only for the Trump building, but remember for all buildings that are four units and above, especially that high above street level, where it's actually difficult for firefighters, and they would articulate the degree of difficulty in fighting a fire that high up without the assistance of an internal mechanism that helps them, makes it more difficult.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: The president and members of the Trump family were not in Trump Tower when the fire broke out. Investigators continue to search for a cause.

Let's discuss this.

With me now, Jim Bullock is a retired deputy chief for the New York Fire Department and the co-founder and president of New York Fire Consultants.

Thank you for all your years fighting fires in the city. Nice to meet you.

JIM BULLOCK, FOUNDER, NEW YORK FIRE CONSULTANTS: Hello.

BALDWIN: First and foremost, just what are the New York City rules on having sprinklers in high-rises like Trump Tower?

BULLOCK: It really goes by the occupancy. It's a residential building, and residential buildings would require sprinkler systems if they were built after 2000.

BALDWIN: But it wasn't.

(CROSSTALK)

BULLOCK: It was built in the '80s, so it wasn't required to have sprinklers.

BALDWIN: And they wouldn't have had to -- I understand Trump lobbied against a requirement to retrofit the buildings?

BULLOCK: I know the real estate industry lobbied against it. Him individually, I don't know.

BALDWIN: Why?

BULLOCK: Cost.

(CROSSTALK)

BALDWIN: Because it's expensive to have to go back in.

BULLOCK: Everything is a cost to a building, square footage. The way they build it, they get more square footage is the way you build buildings.

BALDWIN: Would it be possible that -- all right, we know this particular apartment where the fire broke out on the 50th floor didn't have a sprinkler system, but is it possible the president who has his residence at the tiptop of the penthouse may have sprinklers? Could you choose one apartment and not the other, I guess, is what I'm saying?

BULLOCK: An individual can put sprinklers into their apartment. Very rarely done.

Owners of apartments in New York City, especially high-end, are not likely to want sprinklers. The reason is, it's a mess to put it in, and the reason is also they're afraid of leaks and stuff like that. They really don't want sprinklers, even though sprinklers save lives and all the same that you hear all the time.

It does save lives. But most of the time, this particular building and other buildings -- I do a lot of work on Park and Fifth Avenue -- the buildings are fireproof. Fireproof buildings means the fire does not extend beyond that apartment.

And so the fire will stay in that apartment. So if your apartment is not on fire, relatively, you're safe unless you run out into the floor where the smoke is.

BALDWIN: OK.

And then just last question, Jim, I don't know if we can pull the tweet up, but the president from what I can tell his one and only real response to this fire where six firefighters were injured, one person ended up dying, was essentially he was thanking the firefighters, but saying, hey, I'm paraphrasing, take a look. Trump Tower was obviously really well-built.

[15:25:19]

BULLOCK: Most of the high-rise buildings are well-built, and the fires don't extend.

BALDWIN: What about the president's sensitivities, though? No comment?

BULLOCK: No comment, really, because I think he really said that early on and didn't know. It wasn't until later that they found the victim and he was brought to a hospital and then died.

BALDWIN: That's correct. That's correct. But that's the one and only time I think we have heard from him on that.

BULLOCK: Yes.

BALDWIN: Jim Bullock, thank you very much for talking sprinklers in New York City. I appreciate you.

BULLOCK: OK, thank you.

BALDWIN: I want to get back now to the White House and CNN political analyst Josh Dawsey, who just questioned the press secretary on the scandal surrounding EPA Chief Scott Pruitt. So, Josh, I was watching your back and forth with Sarah. Remind

everyone first how the president defended Pruitt just over the weekend.

JOSH DAWSEY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Sure.

So, the president defended Pruitt by saying while his security was a little more than previous predecessors, he wasn't concerned about his $50-a-month fee for lodging on Capitol Hill with a lobbyist, he wasn't concerned about the tripling of the size of his security detail or his first-class travel because Scott Pruitt had faced some threats, and he basically he felt Scott Pruitt's work as EPA administrator outweighed some of the ethical situations he's now found himself in.

Sarah Sanders basically said today that while they were continuing to review the issues, the president's support of Scott Pruitt remained strong.

BALDWIN: And the Sarah Sanders defense of the $50 a night on Capitol Hill market value, what did you make of that?

DAWSEY: Well, I don't know how you could get an apartment for $50 on Capitol Hill that you just pay nights you're there.

But I guess it's possible that there are apartments on Capitol Hill right by the Capitol that are only $50 a night. She said that the EPA and government analysis done by the lawyer showed that it was OK.

Now, the lawyer has come out and said that all the info wasn't available and that a determination was made and maybe they would make a different determination now. But Sarah said today that the government was comfortable with that rate.

BALDWIN: Why do you think the president is so high on him, is such a fan of his? Is it because at the end of the day he's rolled back so many Obama era regulations when it comes to climate, et cetera? Why do you think it is?

DAWSEY: I think the president sees him as effective in rolling back regulations at EPA. I also think Scott Pruitt was heavily involved with the president on the Paris climate accord and the decision to pull out. Scott was one of the biggest -- Scott Pruitt was one of the biggest proponents of pulling out of the plan. And that's something the president really wanted to do.

And I think a lot of folks on the right, conservative allies of the president are telling him Scott Pruitt's doing a good job and it would be difficult to confirm someone else. So for a number of reasons, I think Scott Pruitt is getting the benefit of the doubt than, let's say, Tom Price or David Shulkin or other Cabinet officials who have faced similar ethics questions.

BALDWIN: He's been getting the benefit of the doubt, but Dana Bash just pointed out something astutely, which is Congress is back. Right? Congress is back this week, and so you know these congress men and women, senators will be asked about this starting today. Do you think, depending on what they say, does Pruitt survive?

DAWSEY: I'm not sure if that moves the needle with this president.

I think there's a lot of actually support among Republican congressmen and senators for Scott Pruitt. I'm sure there will be some who are critical of his ethical issues, but you have already seen kind of an outpouring from Rand Paul and others on the Hill that they actually think he's doing a good job.

I don't see what happens on Capitol Hill moving the needle with this president. But I guess you never know.

BALDWIN: OK, Josh, thank you so much there for us at the White House.

Coming up next here, President Trump makes a promise to farmers, potentially impacted by the back-and-forth tariffs with China, saying that he will -- quote -- "make it up to them."

Plus, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley will be speaking any moment now on that just absolutely atrocious chemical attack in Syria and discuss a possible U.S. response. We will take it live.

You're watching CNN.