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Trump Whirlwind; Trade War Fears; Hatch Slams Obamacare; Schumer Votes Against Judge Nominee; Kushner Meetings at White House; Hicks White Lies; Gun Control Debate. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired March 2, 2018 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Washington. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

White House turmoil goes global as allies of President Trump tell CNN they're worried about him. He's now doubling down on his threat to launch trade wars and he's going it alone.

Plus, the west wing chaos takes a Machiavellian twist. Why the president reportedly asked his chief of staff to push out his daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law Jared Kushner.

And despite all this, instead of attacking Russia and Vladimir Putin for its attacks on the U.S., the president is zeroing in today on the actor who impersonates him.

All that coming up. But first, a president increasingly isolated and angry. And the west wing chaos getting worse and now going global.

Today marks the end of a tumultuous week for President Trump. His announcement of tariffs on steel and aluminum has rocked global markets, Wallstreet as well.

And his chief economic advisor has reportedly threatened to quit.

Our Chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta is joining us now from the White House.

Let's start with tariffs, the controversy erupting in a tweet today. The president clearly doubled down. Tell our viewers the latest.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. The president was, essentially, doubling down on the comments that he had made yesterday. Promising that tariffs are on the way against imports of steel and aluminum coming into the United States, despite the human cry across Washington.

Republicans all the way up to the House speaker, Paul Ryan, really, asking the president to change his mind on this issue.

You saw what happened in the stock market yesterday. And then, key U.S. allies, like the U.K., putting out statements saying that they're reviewing this to see exactly what they're going to do in response. Because this could absolutely spark a trade war.

And you saw the President earlier this morning that trade wars can be a good thing and that they're easy to win. That's, obviously, unnerving the markets even more and could, potentially, have the kind of repercussions that people are warning about.

And people inside the president's own camp are warning that this could be a problem. Gary Cohn, the president's top economic adviser, has -- had been working behind the scenes to persuade the president not to do this.

And there are some, here inside the White House, who are saying that Gary Cohn may be so upset about this that he may, in fact, resign over this.

And so, this is, yet, another example of the turmoil. We saw much of it in the palace intrigue realm earlier this week but now it's spilling into policy -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I understand the White House chief of staff has been meeting reporters over there. What can you report about that?

ACOSTA: That's right. Some breaking news here, Wolf, in the last couple of hours. The White House chief of staff, John Kelly, held a session with reporters. Some of it was off the record but some of it was then placed on the record.

And we should point out that, during this meeting, Kelly, essentially, defended his handling of the Rob Porter scandal that we have reported on so much over the last month. That's the former staff secretary who was ousted, of course, over here at the White House, after allegations of domestic abuse emerged.

And that, of course, raised this whole issue of these interim security clearances that the White House has been working with. So many staffers over here, more than a hundred, we have reported, as of November last year, were working with interim security clearances.

And during this session with reporters, John Kelly was asked, well, did you consider resigning over your handling of all of this? And he said at one point, quote, "I have absolutely nothing to even considering resigning over."

But, Wolf, he acknowledged, during this session with reporters, that they did not handle themselves very well, in terms of the public response to all of this.

You'll recall, on the that Rob Porter stepped down, they put out these glowing statements -- the chief of staff, John Kelly, the press secretary, Sarah Sanders, were putting out these glowing statements about Rob Porter, just as Rob Porter was putting out a statement saying, I took some of these pictures that have come out in the news media.

At one point during this session with reporters, John Kelly said, quote, "We didn't cover ourselves in glory, in terms of how we handled that on Wednesday morning." Talking about the day Porter stepped down. "It was confusing."

And so, John Kelly acknowledging that this was mishandled at that time. Which, of course, we all know. But to hear it from the chief of staff obviously is important.

And, Wolf, one final thing, in terms of these interim security clearances that the White House has been dealing with, obviously you don't want people like Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump working with interim security clearances.

John Kelly said, at one point during this session, that he was having his eyes opened, sometime last September, about the number of staffers who were still working with interim security clearances. He said, quote, "more people than I was comfortable with."

So, that is an acknowledgment straight from the chief of staff, John Kelly, that they had way too many people over here at the White House, Wolf, working with those interim security clearances.

BLITZER: Yes, all right, I'm sure we're going to get more on this briefing he provided.

[13:05:00] Thanks very much. Jim Acosta at the White House.

So, the president is also said to be deeply frustrated over the problems, dogging his daughter, Ivanka, son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

CNN Political Analyst Maggie Haberman of "The New York times" reports on yet another possible plot twist. The president turning to his chief of staff, John Kelly, and actually asking him to remove Jared and Ivanka from the White House rolls.



MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: This is really less about Ivanka Trump. It is -- it is primarily about Jared.

But he has said, repeatedly to aides, you know, Ivanka gets terrible press because of me. You know, this is all people taking attacks at me onto my daughter. This is terrible.

However, Jared Kushner is someone with whom he is now frustrated. He goes back and forth between being -- you know, feeling bad about what has happened and then being irritated by the fact that Jared Kushner has become a liability, of sorts, in his own right.

He's getting a ton of negative headlines on his own. It's all about the meetings he is taking.

It -- there is a lot of focus on investigations. He will talk about how, you know, Jared's getting killed. Jared's getting killed. And he's not only saying it with any sense or, sort of, self-reflection or this is an extension of how they're looking at me. Trump does not like when people attract negative headlines that could be a problem for him. And now, he has a member of his extended family getting that in droves.


BLITZER: His daughter as well.

Let's get some perspective on the west wing chaos. Joining us now to talk about that and much more, the Senate minority leader, the top Democrat in the Senate, Chuck Schumer.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.


BLITZER: All right. We're going to talk about the possibility of some significant gun control legislation in just a few moments.

But first, let's go through some of the news of the day. I quickly want to get your reaction.

What do you make, first of all, of that report of "The New York times" that we just heard. Maggie Haberman suggesting that the president may be working behind the scenes with his chief of staff to push out his son and daughter?

SCHUMER: Well, you know, you don't know how much veracity any of this has because different people in the White House tell reporters different things.

I will say this. I've served under six administrations. I have never seen such chaos. I have never seen such infighting. And it has real results because the president's positions keep changing. And not only the rest of the world, but Americans are saying, what kind of leadership is this?

On guns, he changed around completely. On immigration, he changed around completely. Who knows what he'll do on trade tomorrow morning.

BLITZER: "The New York Times" are also reporting, Senator, that the Kushner family real estate group got half a billion dollars, $500 million, in loans from various banking institutions, money lenders, after White House meetings. After Kushner actually met with some of those company officials.

What red flags does that raise for you?

SCHUMER: Well, this administration, which came in saying, they're going to clean up the swamp has made the swamp worse. Because there are so many people in this administration who have financial interests, broad financial interests, not the least of which the president, himself. And they intersect with things the government has to do. Previous administration, Democrat, Republican, made a clear break. And when you entered the administration, you had to get rid of all these financial entanglements so that there wouldn't even be a conflict of -- an appearance of a conflict of interest.

This administration seems blind to that, immune to that. And it just leads them into only more trouble.

I just don't get it. There is almost a view that we can treat ourselves ethically different than anybody else. And the chickens always come home to roost and they are right now.

BLITZER: Do you think Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner should remain in the White House?

SCHUMER: Well, I'm not going to make those personnel decisions. I think they both ought to divest themselves of any real estate or other holdings that they might have.

Because, at the very minimum, it looks like there's a conflict -- it looks like there's an appearance of a conflict. And who knows, maybe there is a conflict as well.

BLITZER: As you know, some allies of the president, they're expressing deep concern about the president, now that his trusted aide, communications director, Hope Hicks, is leaving.

Our own Gloria Borger spoke with one of those allies who's really worried, suggesting that the president -- and pointing out that he's known the president for decades.

What's your take? You've known the president for decades as well.

SCHUMER: Well, you know, running a real estate company, in almost a solo operation way, is a heck of a lot different than being president of the United States.

And the amount of chaos in this White House, the amount of infighting in this White House, and, frankly, the fact they have so many positions unfilled, I mean, is just incredible.

[13:10:00] The rumor is that one of the reasons they wanted to hang onto Porter, even after some of these revelations that was mentioned by your reporter, is that they had no one else there to do the work. And this is just, you know, in a really competent experienced way.

So, this is really damaging, whether you're a Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. You love the country. You don't want to see a White House that seems to be so chaotic, so incompetent and so filled with contradictor actions and opinions that people around the world and people here in America wonder if there's any leadership at all coming from the president.

BLITZER: Let's get to the issue of guns. The president had that extraordinary session on guns with Republicans and Democrats earlier in the week. At times he sounded more like a Democrat than a leader of the Republican Party.

But last night, he met with leaders of the National Rifle Association. The group's executive director later tweeted this. And I'll read it to you and to our viewers. I had a great meeting tonight with Donald Trump and Vice President Pence. We all want safe schools, mental health reform and to keep guns away from dangerous people.

POTUS and VPOTUS support the second amendment, support strong due process and don't want gun control.

What's your reaction to this meeting, the earlier meeting and that tweet?

SCHUMER: Well, as you know, when I dealt with the president on immigration, I said, negotiating with him is like negotiating with jello. And that's what happens. He believes one thing one day and then seems to contradict himself. Here, with guns, it's a typical pattern.

With the bipartisan group and with the camera lights on, his instincts were to do the right thing. To make sure that felons and those adjudicated mentally ill could not get guns by closing these loopholes of gun shows and on-line purchases. That was the right thing to do, both substantively, because it would have changed thousands of lives, and politically, because 90 percent of America is for it.

Then the hard right puts pressure on him, in this case the NRA, and he does a total 180-degree flip. It makes one think the president has no convictions, that he just says what's convenient at the moment.

But, more importantly, it makes one feel that when America really needs something, when America is crying out to prevent future Parklands, the president just succumbs to the pressure group that puts the most heat on him. In this case, the NRA.

BLITZER: What's the likelihood of Congress, the Senate and the House, passing any gun legislation this session in the wake of the Florida school massacre?

SCHUMER: Well, I'd say two things. First, Leader McConnell, Speaker Ryan are so afraid of the NRA, as are most of their members, that unless the president gives them cover by saying he's for it, it's very hard to see us getting anything else done. Until maybe the Congress changes in a year after the elections.

But the second thing I'd say is this. Don't underestimate the power of these kids.

I've been, you know, focused on this issue for a long time. I was author of the Brady Law in Congress when I was a Congressman, back in the mid-1990s.

And I've never seen anything like this. I've never seen so many people in different walks of life, of different political persuasions telling me we need to get something done. The power of these kids and the fact that there will be a large march in Washington on March 24th and marches in 70 other cities around the country is going to be very powerful.

And I think President Trump, Leader McConnell, Speaker Ryan and the Republicans duck this issue at their own peril.

Americans are fed up that the doctrine air position of the NRA, which is to do nothing to close these loopholes, to prevent felons in those adjudicated mentally ill from getting guns, is so out of favor and so infuriating so many Americans that I believe that Trump and the Republican leadership may have no choice but to switch their positions in the next month or two.

Now, that hasn't happened in the past, but I think there's maybe something different out there now led by these kids, these brave kids, from Parkland.

BLITZER: Well, do you think if the president does take the positions he spelled out, during that meetings with Democrat and Republican lawmakers earlier in the week, that he will convince the Republican leadership in the House and the Senate to follow suit and pass significant gun control legislation?

SCHUMER: I think the leaders, the Republican leaders of the House and Senate, know that, politically, their position is backward and wrong. But they're so afraid of the NRA, that they're afraid to move and do the right thing.

I think if the president were to come out and say, I am for this. And I urge the House and my fellow Republicans in the House and Senate to do it, it could happen.

[13:15:07] It's on the president's back and nobody else's. But that is because of the lack of strength and courage, the fear of the NRA that's in the -- that's in the hearts and souls of so much of the Republican leadership in the House and Senate.

BLITZER: Let's get to another very, very significant issue that's been unfolding yesterday and today. The president, today, doubling down on his plans to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports into the United States. He tweeted this today. He said that trade wars are good and easy to win.

How worried are you, if you are worried, about his position on these tariffs, that it could set off a trade war and also result in much higher costs for American consumers for products that rely on aluminum and steel?

SCHUMER: Well, I'd say three things here.

First, to say that trade wars are a good thing is just wrong. Economic history shows it's wrong. China has taken very great advantage of the United States. And to do nothing, I think also hurts America in a very, very real way. But you have to do it in a smart way. You have to do it in a focused way. The number one worry I have about China, and I have a lot of them, is that they're stealing our most precious, economic intellectual property and they've sort of dithered on that issue.

On this issue. on steel and aluminum, number one, we don't know where the president's going to come down because the ruling was temporary and for all we know he may back off tomorrow. So we'll have to wait and see where they come down. See how they've implemented this and then make a judgment on it. I'm not sure he's going to stick with this one either.

BLITZER: Well, by the way, China is not a major exporter of aluminum or steel to the United States.


BLITZER: Canada, for example, is a major exporter of aluminum and steel to the United States.


BLITZER: And a whole bunch of other countries. And that's why it's causing some significant concern.

SCHUMER: That's why the issue -- the issue -- right. The biggest issue with China, the crown jewel of America is our intellectual property. We come up with all these great ideas. China doesn't let us -- use those ideas to sell products in China. Instead, China tries to steal the intellectual property of America. And if I had to pick one place to come down on China, it would be that.

BLITZER: Let's get to another sensitive issue. Your Republican colleague, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, had some very harsh words for supporters of Obamacare. I want you to listen to what he said during a speech over at the American Enterprise Institute. Listen to this.


SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: That was the stupidest, dumbass bill that I've ever seen. Now some of you may have loved it. If you do, you are one of the the stupidest, dumbass people I've ever met. This is -- this is one -- and there are a lot of them up there on Capitol Hill from time to time.


BLITZER: The latest health tracking poll from Kaiser Family Foundation, by the way, shows Obamacare's approval ratings are at their highest since 2010. What does that say to you and what's your reaction to Senator Hatch?

SCHUMER: Well, Obamacare -- you know, look, Obamacare's not perfect, but the overwhelming majority of Americans say don't repeal it, make it better. And when Republicans attempted to repeal it, they couldn't do it. It was so unpopular with the American people because it's done a whole lot of good. We have preexisting conditions that are covered. We have women's health that is covered. We have 30 million people who might not have gotten coverage or have gotten just skimpy coverage who now have coverage. So all of this -- these are good things.

And Orrin Hatch, I think, is frustrated. He's usually a very polite man, you know. But I guess he sort of lost it in -- on that little clip you showed. But he's just frustrated because the American people are against what, you know, has been drummed into the head of Republicans, repeal it, repeal it, repeal it. And the damage for repealing it would have been so great that they couldn't accomplish it. They're not going to accomplish it. They ought to give up and move on. There are ways we can make Obamacare better, no question about it. That's what we ought to do in a bipartisan way as opposed to calling people names and using words that Orrin doesn't typically use.

BLITZER: Let me finally get your reaction. You've caused a bit of a stir. I want to get your reaction to --

SCHUMER: Anybody else saying dirty words on TV?


You caused a stir by a vote on a judicial nominee the other day. The South Carolina attorney, Marvin Quattlebaum was confirmed to become a federal judge --


BLITZER: By a vote in the Senate of 69-29. You were one of the 29 who voted against him. And apparently because of some of the comments you made, because he's white. And I want to give you a chance to explain what you meant by that --


BLITZER: Because it sounded -- it sounded unusual, to put it mildly.

SCHUMER: I didn't -- I didn't say that.

[13:20:14] Yes, that was right wing radio, who never really tells the truth, distorting what I had said.

What I said is this, that Barack Obama had nominated, I think as early as 2013, two people for this seat. And our Republican senators from South Carolina blocked them with the withholding of the blue slip, which has been a tradition.

So this seat has been vacant for a long time. The two people nominated were African-Americans. And I said now this new fellow is white and we need the bench to have real diversity. The president's record in nominating people of color, even nominating women to the bench, I think the bench should look like America. I think most Americans agree with that.

And the fact that they held up two people for so long and now wanted to get their fellow to come in made no sense. And compounding the injury was the lack of diversity on the bench.

BLITZER: So was this payback, from your -- SCHUMER: Of -- of the appointees of -- of the appointees.

BLITZER: Was -- was this payback because of the earlier action against the two African-American nominees?

SCHUMER: No. No. I think -- absolutely not. It was saying that I thought this nominee was not a very good nominee to begin with. But, second, it's really wrong to hold a seat vacant for two -- for four years, then change the rules, and then say, we're going to fill the bench just with people we want. There ought to be some compromise here.

BLITZER: Senator Schumer, thanks so much for joining us.

SCHUMER: Great to be with you. And, Wolf, have a great afternoon.

BLITZER: You, too. Always good to have you here on CNN.

SCHUMER: Thank you.

BLITZER: I want to bring a different perspective right now, Utah Congressman Chris Stewart of Salt -- is joining us from Salt Lake City. He's a Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee.

And I want to get your reaction to some of the things we just heard and then we'll get into some of the other issues.

Congressman, thanks so much, as usual, for joining us.

But what do you make of the Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, what he just said about chaos in the West Wing of the White House?

REP. CHRIS STEWART (R), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Well, I think there's a little uncertainty in the West Wing. I don't know -- look, I don't work there. I don't have any more insight than a lot of people. I do think sometimes we get an exaggerated perspective of that. Things that would have just kind of come and gone in the course of say the previous administration get an awful lot of emphasis, an awful lot of attention.

There are sometimes, you know, there's a bit of turmoil. I don't think that's terribly unusual. And many of us would wish things go smoothly all the time. I think that actually would be unusual.

But, you know, at the end of the day, they have a way of working themselves out. I don't spend much time thinking about it, honestly, Wolf. I think there's other more important issues that we could -- I could focus my time on.

BLITZER: Yes, the -- well, what's going on in the West Wing, obviously, is -- and in the Oval Office, in the White House, obviously very important.

But let's talk about some specifics.

Jared Kushner's legal team is pushing back against these various stories out there about the president's son-in-law's meetings with companies that were followed shortly thereafter by major loans to Kushner's family real estate business. Is that at all troubling to you?

STEWART: I don't know that it is. I mean maybe as we learn more, it could be. I can tell you, to be fair and consistent, when we had these types of stories with the Clinton Foundation with Secretary Clinton as a -- sitting as a secretary of state, those are things that I thought the more we learn about that, the better it is. Transparency is better for the American people. I would say that same thing would apply here. We should know and learn as much as we can about this.

My understanding is that Mr. Kushner no longer controls or makes decisions regarding his companies. There has been that separation. But even with that being the case, once again, I think the more information we have, the better that is for the American people.

BLITZER: And the same goes for the questions now surrounding the president's daughter and senior adviser, Ivanka Trump, and her business dealings?

STEWART: Yes, I just think that would be consistent throughout. Once again, my understanding is that all of the members of the Trump family have separated themselves from those business dealings. And, look, anyone who comes to the White House, or almost anyone, has meaningful, private enterprises that they've been involved with at some time in their lives. And -- and that's something that the American people are aware of. They were certainly aware of that when they voted for Mr. Trump. They were willing to accept that.

But once again, just like I wanted in the Clinton Foundation and others to be transparent, I want this administration to be transparent. There's no -- no evidence, by the way, that they haven't been. There's no evidence that it's quid pro quo at all. I know that sounds really sexy and exciting, but there's no evidence that that's been the case. But let's go ahead and ask the question and see what the answers are. I expect, at the end of the day, they probably won't amount to much.

BLITZER: Let's see what happens and let's see how much transparency, you're right, there is.

Your committee, the Intelligence Committee, heard from Hope Hicks, the president's now soon to be former communications director, very close confidant, this week. She spoke about what were described as white lies. Talk about the context of that statement --

[13:25:13] STEWART: Yes. On --

BLITZER: Whether you think it's important. Is it being overblown? You were, presumably, there during that Q&A, nine hours, she appeared before your committee.

STEWART: Yes, nine long hours. And like almost everyone. I don't think anyone's there for the whole thing. But I -- I am -- I know exactly what you're talking about and I'm glad we get a chance to talk about that.

Look, this was a -- it truly was just a setup of this witness who was trying to be forthright and honest. And the question was so broad. It was, in any circumstances, regardless of what it might be, have you ever felt any pressure to be deceitful or to be dishonest in -- regarding any subject? And she answered it honestly, and that is, anyone in that circumstance, there's none of us in our lives that could say we have always been 100 percent honest.

And we realize that this was, frankly, just a set-up, that it was designed to make a headline. So we asked her specifically, we interjected, we're talking about this investigation with Russia regarding collusion or conspiracy, regarding the hacking of the DNC. Any of these issues that we are focusing on in this committee, have you ever been encouraged to be deceitful or dishonest in any way. And she was adamant, no, absolutely not. The president has never, ever encouraged me to be dishonest or anything less than truthful regarding these issues. And then she elaborated.

But once in a while maybe he's in a meeting and someone else is waiting and I say he's not there. Or something that just happens in the course of day-to-day life and business that have been described as white lies. And yet the headline is that she is being deceitful for the president.

Once again, as soon as she said that, there were people leaving the committee to go out and talk to the media about this. It's unfortunate because she truly was trying to be honest with us. I don't think she's the kind of person who is -- and there's no evidence of her being deceitful about these things that really matter.

BLITZER: Let me get your thoughts on another really sensitive issue right now. An issue you're watching very closely, guns in America.


BLITZER: We heard what the president had to say during that extraordinary televised meeting with Republican and Democrats on Wednesday. He spoke about his support for comprehensive background checks. He spoke about age limits, raising the age to 21, for example, to purchase certain kinds of rifles. He spoke about concealed carry. That won't fly right now, even though Steve Scalise, the majority whip, said, you've got to include that as well.

Now he's apparently -- seemingly backpedaling a bit. Do you know, Congressman, where the president exactly stands on these gun-related issues?

STEWART: No, I don't know, and I haven't had a chance to talk to him about it. I think the more important issue right now is, where does the Congress stand, where does the House and Senate stand?

You know, I was listening to Mr. Schumer talk and he said again and again and again, Republicans are terrified. We're afraid of the NRA. You know, I was an Air Force pilot. There have been times in my life when I've experienced fear. I've never experienced fear since I came to Washington. I've experienced frustration maybe.

But I don't think we're afraid of the NRA or any other organization. What we want to do is do something that will actually help. And many times in these conversations it becomes overly politicized and the suggestions are things that won't help. If it will help -- and, by the way, I think there are some.

After the Las Vegas shooting, the very next day I said, we should eliminate gun -- gun stock -- the bump stocks. That very clearly was circumventing this rule that says you can't own an automatic weapon.

I'm not blind to this, Wolf. I'm not saying, no, no, no, we won't do anything. I think there are some things we can do. Some enhanced background checks. Maybe look at some age limits for some guns.

One of the things we have to concentrate on is actually enforcing current laws as we've seen breakdown after breakdown. And if current regulation allows it were it implemented that would have made a difference.

But I look forward to this conversation. I think that we really reached a tipping point in this last incident, this last tragedy, where many, many people think, what can we do that will help? And I think we should have that conversation.

BLITZER: Yes. Well on that, you seem to agree with Senator Schumer. He also thinks there could be a tipping point as a result of what happened, that school massacre in Florida. And we'll see what you guys in the House and Senate decide to do, if anything, over these next few weeks.

Congressman Stewart, thanks, as usual, for joining us.

Once Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Up next, we'll have more on the breaking news. The White House chief of staff, John Kelly, offering a fresh defense of his handling of the Rob Porter scandal, arguing he has absolutely nothing to even consider resigning over. That and a lot more right after this.