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At This Hour

Trump Surprises His Own Administration With Plans To Leave Syria; Trump Says U.S. Will Withdraw From Syria "Very Soon"; Trump: Border Wall Construction Has Started (It Hasn't); Source: Mueller Pushed For Gates' Help On Collusion; Sessions Rejects GOP Calls For Second Special Counsel. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired March 30, 2018 - 11:00   ET



COY WIRE, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: All action tomorrow on our sister channel, TBS, Ana.

ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you so much, Coy. "AT THIS HOUR" is next. I'm Ana Cabrera. Thanks for being here.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Hi there. I'm Brianna Keilar in for Kate Bolduan. We have some breaking news, President Trump shocking 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 OF AMERICA: (Inaudible) 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, 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 that some of the president's aides were surprised by those comments, saying, quote, we are still trying to figure out what he meant about Syria yesterday.

CNN White House reporter, Kaitlan Collins, joining us live now from West Palm Beach, Florida. Kaitlan, what do we know about this?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, Brianna, it is essentially one big question mark and people inside the White House are still trying to figure out exactly what the president meant when during a speech on infrastructure, supposed to be on infrastructure, the president made this remark about pulling out of Syria soon.

And now it is not just inside the White House they're trying to figure out what this comment meant, also a defense official saying they weren't sure what the president meant by that comment and even the State Department spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, saying she had not seen the comment, but she was not aware of any plans to withdraw from Syria as well.

Now, another reason this comment from the president is interesting is because this is a president who often lamented any person who telegraphed what they were going to do militarily. And anytime the president or the White House or the president is asked what exactly his plan is for foreign policy in certain situations, they say that they don't like to telegraph those moves as the president said here back on the campaign trail.


PRESIDENT TRUMP: 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: Yes, so it is not just those, Brianna, multiple more comments like that, the president very critical of the Obama administration for previewing an attack on Mosul and Iraq one time, something he's brought up on several occasions at least, but we have to keep in mind that that was a very campaign style rally speech, that the president gave yesterday in Cleveland, Ohio, maybe he was just spit balling foreign policy as he's known to do before.

But what is clear here, Brianna, is the president could make this decision, but if he does, it doesn't seem as if he's informed even his own administration officials on this so far -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Kaitlan Collins in West Palm Beach, thank you. I want to continue this discussion with my panel, Ben Ferguson is a CNN political commentator, who is joining us from Dallas, and Keith Boykin is a former White House aide for Bill Clinton. He's joining us from New York. Ben, what do you make of this?

BEN FERGUSON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think this was the president obviously talking off the cuff in a way that is very much like he does at campaign rallies, talking about general themes and ideas, talking about taking it to ISIS, it's something we have seen him consistently talk about.

KEILAR: He's talking about taking it away -- he's talking about leaving the ISIS fight or wrapping it up and going. I mean, that is --

FERGUSON: Beating the caliphate and taking out 100 percent. KEILAR: And getting out of there very soon and having other people take care of it. Why is he doing that?

FERGUSON: Well, look, again, I'll say this, I think clearly he was talking about winning and beating ISIS and throwing down on them. He's talked about that consistently since he's been president. And I think when you're in a campaign style rally, as he was, with a friendly crowd and talking about what we're doing and our successes.

I think that's what the president was trying to convey to the people in the audience is that, look, we're winning against ISIS. We're taking the fight to them. We're going to beat them and then we're going to get out of the Middle East in a military way, and that's what he seems to be saying here.

KEILAR: Getting out very soon, he said, Keith.

KEITH BOYKIN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, Ben is wrong. This is not about ISIS. This is about a president with no discipline. A president who said when he was running in the campaign 2016, General McArthur and General Patton would be in a, quote, "state of shock" by Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, announcing and telegraphing their intentions militarily in advance.

But when he gets in office, he decides he's going to telegraph his intentions and there is no consequences for the hypocrisy. This is also the guy who said in North Korea he's going to have a meeting, a summit with Kim Jong-un without telling his secretary of state about it.

[11:05:10] Completely blindsiding his Defense Department on issue after issue, the transgender ban. This guy who also said that he knows more about ISIS than the generals do. So, Donald Trump wants to be his own foreign policy shop. He wants to be his own staffing shop.

He just wants to watch Fox News and get all his information that way, I guess, he thinks he can run the country by doing that. That's an inappropriate illogical way to run a country.

FERGUSON: Keith, you look at North Korea, just mentioned that, whether you like it or not, his North Korean foreign policy has actually been pretty proactive in a positive way. Look at the meetings that were happening in the last five or six days for goodness sakes, talking about walking away from their nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities and having some sort of deal with the world.

That clearly has been a positive for national security in this country and around the world. And the president telegraphing what he's doing on ISIS has been pretty simple. He's been telegraphing that we were going to come after you, we were not -- not going to allow you to set up --

KEILAR: Ben, he said they're leaving very soon.

BOYKIN: Ben -- FERGUSON: I think there is a reason to leave if we have a victory

over ISIS and we defeat what they try to set up, which was a caliphate.

BOYKIN: Ben, could you just at one point admit that the president is hypocritical.

FERGUSON: I don't think it is hypocritical to say you're taking to ISIS and when we win -- and we leave.

BOYKIN: Let me just say this, when Barack Obama announced his intentions to have a negotiation with the (inaudible) and that led to a deal, you weren't so positive about what the outcome was going to be. Now that Donald Trump is -- let me just finish for a chance, OK, Ben.

FERGUSON: It was a disaster.

BOYKIN: Now that Donald Trump is announcing his plans for -- which hasn't even happened, you're willing to accept that as being a positive development. There is a hypocrisy here in Donald Trump's statements from the past and president, your willingness to defend Trump.

KEILAR: Ben, can I ask you a question, Ben? Ben, I want to ask you a question.


KEILAR: You said he's saying if we win, then we leave. What he said was, he said that the U.S. will be leaving soon and will be having others fight the fight. He did talk about taking back the caliphate. But he's talking -- he's talking a timeline which is something that Republicans skewered. I mean, just took out Obama over.

FERGUSON: Here's what I'll say. If you obsess over the micro of this in one simple moment instead of looking at the overall, what he's talking about, when he talks about a caliphate, and not allowing him to set up a caliphate, that means in translation defeating them, having no place where they are safe, safe havens, Syria, Iraq, et cetera. That's clearly what the president is referring to with the caliphate. The definition of a caliphate is setting up a --

KEILAR: He's also talking -- Ben, if I may, he's talking about then having -- just to be clear, the U.S. is not alone in its anti-ISIS campaign, right? There is a lot of countries involved in this. He's, yes, talking about that, but then clearly there would still be work to be done and he's talking about dispatching that to other countries, besides the U.S. it is not like ISIS is gone, out the U.S. goes, there is no more of an issue, but he's saying very soon.

FERGUSON: He talked about this during the campaign. He said that America is having to lead too much and take on too much of a burden for our people with these wars in the Middle East. He said others need to step up and protect and defend their own lands. He talked about this during the campaign. So, if the president says we're going to go in and crush ISIS, which, by the way, we have been doing consistently since he became president, and not allowing them safe havens, which is one of his campaign promises.

We're not going to allow ISIS to set up and have places where they can do recruiting and where they can have places where they can train their fighters and teach them how to do things, put them on the run, and destroy them, this is important, Keith, just because you don't like what I'm saying doesn't mean it is not happening.

BOYKIN: I'm trying to make a point here.

FERGUSON: I'm not filibustering. I'm being honest here. I'm answering Brianna's question so I'm not filibustering you by answering our question. So, the president is saying that we're going to leave soon. If we have defeated ISIS and allow them to not set up a caliphate that is --

BOYKIN: You said the same thing three times now.

KEILAR: OK. Well, let's talk about something else then, Gentlemen. Gentlemen, I want to talk about the border wall. Let me talk about this. I don't think we're going to go anywhere different with this conversation here, Keith and Ben. OK, so the president mentioned the wall, right. It wouldn't be a campaign rally for him -- a campaign style rally if he didn't. Here's what he said.


PRESIDENT TRUMP: 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: All right. So, he's talking about pictures that he tweeted earlier this week that show what he said was the beginning of the construction of the border wall. The problem with this is, it's not a new border wall, but it's a repairing of an old border fence.

[11:10:05] I wonder, though, Keith, does it even matter, the fact checking of this. It seems to just kind of become white noise.

BOYKIN: No, it doesn't matter to his supporters or the people like Ben I suppose. But, you know, it's not even $1.6 billion for a wall. It is about $600 million actually. The $1.6 billion is for a larger appropriation for expenses, has to do with border security.

And then he's talking about, threatening to use the Pentagon budget to fund the wall as well. Remember, this is a guy who said, in 2016, 2015, he's going to build a wall and who is going to pay for it? Mexico. Guess what, taxpayers, you're on the hook for Donald Trump's big promise.

KEILAR: Ben, final word from you.

FERGUSON: I think the president has been out to the border wall prototype, you saw that in the last couple of weeks when he took a trip out there. He's looking at this as repairing a wall and making our borders more secure. Clearly there needed to be repairs done.

I think the majority of the people in the audience understood what the president was talking about, that's why they cheered him on. There are many Republicans and conservatives like myself that are not happy that we don't have total funding for the wall.

But I also like the fact that president is still fighting on it while many Republican members of Congress who ran on the same policy have abandoned it with lack of funding which is on them.

I think it will be a big issue in the midterms and might cause some Republicans, some of their seats in Congress, and it should cost them their seats in Congress for their hypocrisy of claiming they were going to fund the wall and they've not given the funding needed to actually do so.

KEILAR: We're going to have to leave it there, Gentlemen, for time. I think what you said, Ben, is not what the president said. Ben Ferguson, Keith Boykin, thank you so much.

Coming up, it is the clearest signal yet that Special Counsel Bob Mueller is investigating allege collusion between Trump's campaign and the Russians. The court documents that reveal Mueller sought help from a former Trump aide in identifying links to Russian operatives.

Plus, the lawyer for porn star, Stormy Daniels, says the legal war with the president is far from over. The new comments coming after a federal judge deals a big blow to their case. So, where do things stand now? Stay with us.



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, Mueller's team wants Gates to reveal what he knows about the Trump campaign's contacts with Russia 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, joining us with the latest. Shimon, this bombshell coming from new court filings. What do we know? SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes. Earlier in the week, there were these court filings which indicated that the FBI and the Mueller's team are saying that Rick Gates was communicating with a Russian intelligence official while he was working for the campaign.

The other thing that we have learned and this really suggests that the collusion investigation, the Russian interference into the election, and whether any of Trump campaign associates were part of it is still very much alive in that when Rick Gates met with the special counsel, months before he agreed to cooperate, they essentially told him that they needed his cooperation on their main cause.

Sort of their main purpose of this investigation. And not so much on what Manafort -- on Paul Manafort and what he was doing in some of his business dealings. Certainly, a significant move here by the special counsel to let him know that this is what they were looking for him.

Now, keep in mind, Rick Gates, as we know, is an important figure in this investigation. Now that he's cooperating, certainly, he has information that could be helpful to the investigation. He had a seat at the table with the president.

He was running the campaign, Paul Manafort's deputy, he was also helping with some fundraising and as well as the inauguration, all of which is now under investigation by the special counsel.

KEILAR: Shimon Prokupecz, thank you for that.

Now Attorney General Jeff Sessions may be keeping a wary eye on President Trump's Twitter account this morning wondering if he again is going to be criticized. Sessions says that he's 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, a federal prosecutor who will now investigate those claims.

CNN's Laura Jarrett joins us now live from the Justice Department. Tell us about this prosecutor, Laura, and what is he looking for?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Hi there, Brianna. The man now at the center of this highly politically charged investigation is John Huber, a veteran federal prosecutor in Utah. He was appointed U.S. attorney actually back in 2015 under President Obama, and then President Trump later reappointed him.

In terms of what he's got on his plate, there is quite a bit. Everything from Republican-led allegations that the FBI engaged in some sort of misconduct when it came to investigating how Hillary Clinton handled classified information using a private e-mail server when she was secretary of state.

But they're also looking into John Huber, looking into allegations that a Russian nuclear energy corporation tried to donate to the Clinton Foundation, to secure the sale of some -- the purchase of some uranium mining interests later on when she was secretary of state, sometimes referred to as the Uranium One scandal in some circles.

And last but not least, he's also looking into how the FBI secured a surveillance warrant on Carter Page, the former Trump campaign adviser.

[11:20:00] KEILAR: Sessions, though, isn't completely closing the door on this idea of adding a special counsel to this. Tell us about that and also what -- is this seen as him just covering himself or is this seen as something that could actually lead to a special counsel?

JARRETT: I think he's trying to have a delicate balance here. He said in a letter to Congress last night, look, there is a very high bar for appointing the special counsel under the Justice Department regulations. It is really reserved for extraordinary circumstances when there is some sort of appearance of a conflict of interest.

But as you said, he doesn't close the door completely and in that letter to Congress, he explained in part that I received regular updates from Huber, and upon the conclusion of his review will receive his recommendations as to whether any matter is not currently under investigation, should be opened.

Whether any matter is currently under investigation requires further resources or whether any matters merit the appointment of a special counsel. So, he certainly is leaving the door open for now, but sort of sidestepping the issue by appointing Huber who has the ability to bring charges -- Brianna.

KEILAR: All right. Laura Jarrett, making sense of all of that for us from the State Department, thank you.

Let's discuss this more with our panel. We have CNN politics senior writer, Juana Summers, and CNN legal analyst, Paul Callan. So, Paul, we're getting some sense here of what Mueller is trying to connect, right? He's trying to connect the dots between the Trump campaign and Russia through Rick Gates. What is this new development tell you?

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think it is fascinating because, you know, we have been talking in recent months about whether Mueller is investigating obstruction of justice and other offenses. And now we're circling back to what began the entire investigation.

That is the Russian connection and in particular Manafort's connections to the Russians. Remember, when Mueller started pointing, you know, his telescope at Manafort, that was a suggestion that maybe that was the source of Russian connections and here we have Gates being brought back into the case to try to develop that point. So, I think we're circling back to where the investigation really began.

KEILAR: Juana, the president, he loves to say it, he'll tweet this and his supporters will say no collusion, and his supporters have argued that if you look at the charges so far that Mueller has brought, none of it is directly related to collusion between Russian entities and the Trump campaign. Does this revelation make that a harder case to make? JUANA SUMMERS, CNN POLITICS SENIOR WRITER: I think it does. You know, this is one of the first public windows we've seen into how Robert Mueller's team wants to connect Rick Gates and Paul Manafort to the Russian intelligence agencies. They are drawing a line there. We don't know what will come of this, but it's getting us a hand of how they are doing that.

I think based on this new information that Shimon and Kaitlan Collins, our colleagues, have been reporting that it is showing us what the direction is going to be, what it makes it harder for the president to make the argument that there is just nothing to see here.

KEILAR: There is a difference, though, Paul, between contacts and criminal conspiracy. So, knowing that, Mueller obviously knows that as he's looking at this, what would he have to prove about gates and this former Manafort firm employee with ties to Russian intelligence in order to make something of this?

CALLAN: I think that's a very important point because, you know, we have fallen into this trap of talking about collusion all the time, and, of course, collusion -- there is no crime of collusion that applies here.

It would be conspiracy with the Russians to violate American laws, particularly the laws relating to the election, and computer hacking and that sort of thing. So, that's what you really would have to prove.

I mean, it is not really that unusual for there to be some contact with foreign powers by a candidate running for office. I think it is unusual the degree here of the contact and the fact that it was with Russia, traditionally an adversary of the United States.

But in the end, you've got to prove contact plus a criminal intent, maybe to hack into U.S. computer systems or to influence the election. And it is clear that there is a lot of contact that maybe Mueller can establish, but we're not clear yet of criminality.

KEILAR: Juana, the AG, Jeff Sessions, has decided, no, he's not going to appoint a second special counsel which would look into what Republicans have alleged, the FBI has been biased. But he does have a federal prosecutor who is looking into it.

It's not like nothing is being done. Huber was appointed by Obama, reappointed by President Trump, what kind of political minefield is he going to be walking through with this investigation?

SUMMERS: This is going to be a huge minefield, but I do think it is an encouraging sign. When Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote that letter to some top lawmakers that Laura Jarrett has been reporting on. You know, these congressmen, some Republican congressmen and women who have been saying, you know, the nation's top law enforcement agencies are politically biased that there should be a broader investigation into that.

But we're hearing top lawmakers signal that they approve of this choice. You saw that in the response that Bob Goodlatte, the Republican congressman from Virginia, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, and Trey Gowdy, the Republican who chairs House Oversight and their response, they responded favorably.

[11:25:13] And I think that's a good sign for John Huber as he kind of wades into this. Maybe he will not come under the same barrage of attacks that we've seen Attorney General Jeff Sessions come under from lawmakers who were alleging bias in this.

KEILAR: From the president, we shall see.

SUMMERS: We will indeed.

KEILAR: Juana Summers, thank you so much. Paul Callan, really appreciate it.

We have some new details in the case of the president and the porn star. The lawyer for Stormy Daniels says that the legal war with President Trump and his lawyer is far from over. This comes after a federal judge blocked Stormy's team from deposing the president. We'll have that next.


KEILAR: A step backward for Stormy Daniels, but her lawyer says they're not going anywhere. A California judge halted her attorney's effort to depose President Trump and his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, calling the motion for an expedited trial and discovery process premature. Daniels team wants them to answer questions under oath about the $130,000 --