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Trump Pushes Back; Russian Sanctions Coming in Several Weeks; North Korea Willing to Talk; North Korea Boosted Readiness Forces. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired March 6, 2018 - 13:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Washington, 9:00 p.m. in Moscow, 2:30 a.m. Wednesday morning in Pyongyang, North Korea. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

Up first, we've got questions. We'll find out soon whether President Trump has answers.

He holds a joint news conference with the visiting prime minister of Sweden later this afternoon, and reporters will be clamoring to ask about a laundry list of issues, including the backlash from global allies and fellow Republicans over his proposed tariffs on steel and aluminum.

The Russia investigation fired campaign aide, Sam Nunberg, says he believes the special counsel has, quote, "something on the president." What's the fallout from Nunberg's rather bizarre live T.V. interviews? And what is he saying right now?

And North Korea signals a willingness to talk to the United States about giving up its nuclear weapons. In the words of President Trump, and I'm quoting now, "the world is watching."

Let's begin over at the White House, where President Trump says, chaos. What chaos? But he also says there will probably be more staff shake-ups and changes.

Let's go to our White House Reporter Kaitlan Collins. She's joining us from the White House.

Kaitlan, fill us in on the details of the president's pushback.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, Wolf, he's pushing back, pushing back hard against the notion that there is any kind of dysfunction here in the west wing, tweeting this morning, saying that the new -- fake news narrative that there is chaos in the White House. He says that's wrong and that people will always come and go.

And he wants strong dialogue before making a final decision. Now, he adds, I still have some people that I want to change, always seeking perfection.

There is no chaos, only great energy.

Now, Wolf, as you know, that is certainly a sentiment that people who actually work inside the west wing would disagree with.

They actually believe that it's as chaotic as ever. And that that turmoil mirrors that of the first few days of the Trump administration a little over a year ago when it was incredibly chaotic.

And just in the last week alone, we've seen several things hit the west wing with the departure of Hope Hicks. That close confidant.

We saw Jared Kushner have his security clearance downgraded. Gary Cohn threaten to resign over those tariffs that the president announced at the last minute.

And we even had the chief of staff, John Kelly, joking at an event that God punished him by sending him to work in the west wing, Wolf.

So, certainly safe to say that that is not the sentiment by staffers in the west wing that there is no chaos here at the White House.

BLITZER: We're also following, Kaitlan, the developing story involving White House aide, Kellyanne Conway, and violations of what's called the Hatch Act.

What can you tell us about that?

COLLINS: That's right. The office of the special counsel announced today that Kellyanne Conway, who is a senior counsel to the president, actually violated the Hatch Act twice late last year, when she was speaking about that Alabama Senate race in television interviews.

Of course, the Hatch Act prevents you from using your government -- in your position in the government to influence any kind of elections. And they're saying that Kellyanne Conway did that.

And to give you a sense of what she said about that race, listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KELLYANNE CONWAY, WHITE HOUSE COUNSELOR: And Doug Jones in Alabama, folks, don't be fooled. He'll be a vote against tax cuts. He's weak on crime, weak on borders. He's strong on raising your taxes. He's terrible for property owners.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COLLINS: Now, of course, Wolf, if you violate the Hatch Act, the office that would reprimand you, if they choose to do so, would be whichever one you work for.

And we've reached out to the White House to see what their reaction was to this. And they gave us a statement from deputy press secretary, Hogan Gidley, who says that they believe Kellyanne Conway did not violate the act. Did not advocate for or against the election of any particular candidate.

They say that she simply was expressing the president's obvious position that he has people in the House and the Senate who support his agenda.

But, Wolf, the office of the special counsel simply does not agree with that.

BLITZER: I just want to point out, the office of special counsel in Washington is not connected with Robert Mueller's office.

A very different office, indeed. He's the special counsel. But there's a separate government office of special counsel investigating now Kellyanne Conway.

Thanks very much. Kaitlan Collins over at the White House.

Now, a complete about face by the former Trump campaign official, Sam Nunberg. The ex-adviser is now saying he will, repeat, will cooperate with whatever Robert Mueller's team wants in the Russian probe.

That's a dramatic departure from what he said in the string of stunning media interviews. Nunberg repeatedly insisting in those interviews he wouldn't comply with a Grand Jury subpoena.

Nunberg now says he felt compelled to go on T.V. on a series of interviews to share his frustrations about that subpoena.

But he also says he has no regrets. He doesn't believe he'll get in trouble for those very, very bizarre interviews.

Our CNN Politics Reporter and Editor at Large Chris Cillizza is joining us right now.

[13:05:01] Chris, with all the craziness, we did learn some key information from Nunberg. Let's start with the Trump Tower meeting back in June 2016. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump says he knew nothing about the meeting. Do you -- do you think that that's true?

SAM NUNBERG, FORMER WHITE HOUSE AIDE: No.

TAPPER: You don't think that's true.

NUNBERG: No. It doesn't -- and, Jake, I've watched your news reports. You know it's not true. He talked about it the week before.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What's the significance, Chris, of that?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER AND EDITOR AT LARGE: Yes. So, what I think Nunberg is talking about is the meeting at Trump Tower is June the ninth, 2016.

June the seventh, two days before, Donald Trump gives a speech, a campaign rally speech, in which he says, essentially, just wait. In a few days, we're going to have lots of dirt on the Clintons. I'm going to be giving a good -- a big speech about it.

It's not -- you're correlating those two things. I'm not sure one causes the other. Donald Trump, just for the record, has said, I didn't know about this meeting beforehand. I was not involved in it in any way, shape or form.

So, I don't know if Nunberg knows more than he's letting on in that interview, or if he's just conflating those two things because of the closeness of the date.

BLITZER: He did, also, release to all of us that two-page subpoena he received from the special counsel.

CILLIZZA: Yes.

BLITZER: And it -- you went through it. I went through it. It did provide some additional information about the scope of Mueller's investigation.

CILLIZZA: Right.

So, to me, this is the most important thing that we learn. It's easy to focus on all the bluster of Nunberg and the claim he makes. But we did learn a few things.

Number one, OK, we've got it up here, Wolf. So, he is asking -- Mueller was asking Nunberg for the period of November 1, 2015 to the present. Now, remember, Donald Trump announces he's running for president in June 2015. But November 2015 until the present, a significant amount of time.

Basically, the amount of time when Donald Trump goes from a laughing stock to the nominee to the president and into the White House. So, it's a -- it's a broad scope of time.

Number two, the people. And this is the most important and some of these make sense. Carter Page, right? Michael Cohen, we expect. Paul Manafort, we know has already been charged by Mueller. Rick Gates has pled guilty.

Keith Schiller, a former body man. Hope Hicks, the communications director has resigned.

I mean, obviously, there is a reason this guy's in the middle. I mean, the fact that he is looking for any and all correspondence. That's e-mails, draft memoranda, that's memoranda, anything involving any of these people, to me, is the most important thing we take from Nunberg yesterday. Which is, this is broad and it doesn't seem like it's going to end, you know, anytime all that soon.

BLITZER: Yes, very broad, indeed.

Nunberg also says he believes that Mueller has something already on the president. Let me play this clip.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) NUNBERG: The way they asked about his business dealings. The way they asked if you have heard anything, even during while I was fired. It just -- it just made me suspect that they suspect something about him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CILLIZZA: So, suspect they suspect. Let's put that caveat in. That's two levels of some amount of, you know, making sure he's protected. But this is someone who spent five and a half hours with the special counsel, right? He wanted to refuse, though. He's obviously, as you said, reversed that.

But he spent time. He knows the questions they asked. He's inferring -- I doubt Bob Mueller said, here's what I have on Donald Trump. He's inferring.

But this is, again, a voice from someone who is closer to it than anyone we've had before. Someone who's actually been interviewed for five and a half hours in this process. Been asked questions.

That's why I think Nunberg is interesting. It's a window into Mueller's process.

I don't know that we take some of the things that Nunberg claimed all that seriously. The subpoena, however, and what's in it, the length of time and who it's targeting, hugely important.

BLITZER: Yes, the subpoena very significant.

Stick around. There's more we need to discuss.

The ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee wants to hear more from Sam Nunberg. Congressman Adam Schiff says Nunberg may be able to shed light on what the president knew about the 2016 Trump Tower meeting in New York City.

But the White House disputes the claim by Nunberg, that the special counsel may have something on the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I definitely think he doesn't know that for sure because he's incorrect.

As we've said many times before, there was no collusion with the Trump campaign.

Anything further on what his actions are, he hasn't worked at the White House, so I certainly can't speak to him or the lack of knowledge that he clearly has.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA, RANKING MEMBER, HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: That speech that he teed up, which was going to take place after the Trump tower meeting, he never gave. Now, was that because the Trump Tower meeting didn't produce what he had hoped it would produce? We don't know.

But, certainly, if Mr. Nunberg has light to shed on what the president knew before that Trump Tower meeting, we'd be interested in finding out.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, let's discuss all of this and more. Chris Cillizza is still with us, along with CNN Legal Analyst Laura Coates and CNN Political Analyst April Ryan.

[13:10:04] April, what's your biggest takeaway from those rather strange interviews he gave on CNN, MSNBC, elsewhere?

APRIL RYAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Strange is a calm word. It was erratic. It was -- you would have to really wonder about his mental state at the time.

And being a lawyer, number one, and understanding that there was a 3:00 deadline -- and he missed the deadline yesterday to respond.

BLITZER: To hand over documents.

RYAN: Yes. And he's on T.V. talking to Erin Burnett. And Erin Burnett, you know, thinks that she smells something on his breath. And then, he talks about the drugs that he's taking. And it's -- it was just -- it was erratic.

But what it leads -- and I believe the biggest piece of this is there is this big puzzle that they're trying to find pieces to and put in this puzzle. And one of those pieces of the puzzle happens to deal with Roger Stone.

And this is a man who looks at Roger Stone as a father who is connected to the president. So, they're going way back to come forward to find out what's going on.

And this puzzle has yet to be complete. It's a large puzzle.

BLITZER: Yes, Laura, you're a former federal prosecutor. You wrote a piece on CNN.com, in which you say this, and I'll put it up on the screen.

Someone should explain to Sam Nunberg that federal subpoenas are not friend requests. They are not suggestions. They are commands to appear before a Grand Jury, investigating whether there is probable cause to issue an indictment in a criminal case.

So, it looks like -- and he's a graduate of law school. It looks like he's wised up now, after initially saying he's going to dishonor that subpoena.

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, he should have wised up. And, frankly, I'm surprised his counsel even allowed him to leave his front door.

BLITZER: He said he was doing what he was doing without the advice of his counsel.

COATES: Well, obviously, he was. And, again, against all common sense and logic.

And I think you had a combination of two things there, Wolf. Number one, only a delusional person believed they had the illusion of choice to come talk to a Grand jury.

It was not a suggestion for a coffee chat. So, he already knew that, and I'm surprised that he endeavored to say that he wasn't going to do so. Except for, perhaps, he was talking to an audience of one.

You've seen a track record of several different people, from Michael Flynn to Rick Gates and beyond. Who have been questioned and condescendingly patronized from being cooperators in federal investigations.

But, perhaps, he was trying to say, I'm going to at least feign an attempt at looking like a tough guy and say, I'm not going to roll over and do this, ultimately knowing he would have to actually comply with a subpoena.

I mean, look at Susan McDougal. We know the lesson, 22 months served. Eighteen months of that served because she failed to comply with a Grand Jury subpoena. Four months for --

BLITZER: This was during the Whitewater investigation.

COATES: During the Whitewater investigation.

BLITZER: During the Clinton years.

COATES: Yes, and, of course, he mentioned Clinton and his discussions with Erin Burnett and others yesterday, forgetting that very key piece that there actually are consequences.

But, you know, part of the reason, I think, that he may have been, if I want to give the benefit of the doubt, misinformed about what he had to do, Wolf, is because, remember, you've watched Congressional subpoenas be ignored without consequence.

So, maybe he thought that it was going to be the same thing with Robert Mueller's subpoena. And it is not. And he finds out today that it is not.

BLITZER: Very different subpoenas, indeed.

Go ahead. What's your take on the back and forth? Not going to do it. Now going to do it.

CILLIZZA: I hope if I do something that's very odd, that Laura is my -- because Laura is giving the benefit of the doubt which is kind. I'll be -- I'll play the devil on the other shoulder which is it doesn't strike me that this was a hugely calculated move by Sam Nunberg. And I would argue that the reversal, so quickly cancelling his television appearances today. Saying, oh, no, no. It's all -- oh, yesterday? No, don't worry about that. That was nothing.

It all strikes me that this was someone who was in a rage or angry, or, to April's point, maybe just something off.

RYAN: Something off.

CILLIZZA: Because --

RYAN: Yes, (INAUDIBLE.)

CILLIZZA: I just don't think -- and who knows. I mean, Roger Stone, who is Sam Nunberg's mentor, is the king and proudly touts his -- you know, the political jujitsu. You go over here to make it -- this thing move over here. Maybe it was that.

But my read, in watching it, is that this was just someone who was acting without any consequence. And once -- to Laura's point, once the obvious legal consequence set in, it was, kind of, like, you don't have to comply to it. But there are real, with teeth, consequences to not complying.

BLITZER: Let's get to some other issues that have come up today. And, April, the -- as you know, last August, last August, the House and the Senate overwhelmingly passed sanctions against Russia because of its election meddling, 98 to two in the Senate. I think 418 to three in the House.

The president reluctantly signed that legislation into law, even though he hated it. But since then, the administration has not implemented any of those sanctions against Russia.

Just a little while ago, the treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, was asked about that.

[13:15:01] Listen to this exchange.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. MIKE QUIGLEY (D), ILLINOIS: Will this administration fully implement the Russian sanctions mandated by Congress?

STEVE MNUCHIN, TREASURY SECRETARY: Mr. Quigley, as I've testified before, I fully assure you that we will implement them. I expect in the next several weeks we will be moving forward with sanctions on Russia as a result of the act. So I can assure you that both in my discussions with the president, he is fully supportive of the work we're doing and we have a large team working on it as we speak.

BLITZER: Why has it taken so long?

APRIL RYAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Why has it taken so long? I mean it's curious. But here's the issue. You have a president who met with Vladimir Putin and he had a press conference a few months ago and said, I asked him and I believe him. That is very -- that's a critical piece. And let's see what Mnuchin says, if it's true, in the next couple of weeks if they will indeed enact these sanctions and push forward.

But at the same time, this is a president who is also -- and a White House who's just really started saying -- just really started saying, yes, we now know that Russia impacted the election, but did it really impact who won versus who lost. So they're still in this haze of belief, yet disbelief, and I believe Putin. Let's see how this leader of this -- the free world, the president of the United States, Donald J. Trump, in this White House, will push against a man who he believes.

BLITZER: He said -- he said that he believes Putin is sincere.

RYAN: Yes.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER: Yes. And he said in that same thing, under significant questions, what am I supposed to do, not believe him?

RYAN: Yes, how about that? How about that?

CILLIZZA: To which many people said, well, your intelligence committee says, yes, you shouldn't believe him unanimously.

You know, the "in a few weeks" construction rhetorically could mean anything. There's no date certain there. Remember, Donald Trump, after the (INAUDIBLE), not Parkland, but the most recent one before that said, well, we're going to look at some things, you know, in the coming weeks. And I'd note the Parkland -- Florida legislature, the Florida state senate passed a bill raising the age 18 to 21 to buy a rifle, passed arming teachers. That went through yesterday in the Florida house -- senate, I believe.

So there is movement, and I would say, you know, we've been promising from Donald Trump, we're going to get something done in the coming weeks on guns as well.

RYAN: But, remember, right, we were supposed to have the discussion right after the bump stock issue after Vegas.

BLITZER: Right.

RYAN: And that really didn't happen until after Parkland.

BLITZER: Correct.

RYAN: So, yes.

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST:: You know what -- you know what's ironic here? That the only reason that somebody like Sam Nunberg now feels the heat of having to comply with a federal investigation is because there were consequences.

CILLIZZA: That's right. RYAN: Right.

COATS: Because somebody made it pressing. Somebody impressed upon him that he had consequences that were very, very real. Now, if that same thing were to be used and used against and applied in the form of, I don't know, a thing called sanctions against Russia, maybe they also would feel the pressing need to then comply with, you know, international law and diplomacy efforts, not to interfere with democratic institutions or elections.

So you see this very big absence and this parallel being drawn between Nunberg --

BLITZER: Yes.

COATES: And how he (INAUDIBLE) -- tried to thumb his nose at Mueller and how it's being enabled at the front (ph) of Vladimir Putin.

CILLIZZA: And just to add -- and April touched on this --

BLITZER: All right.

CILLIZZA: But the key is the top, Wolf. Donald Trump is the one who doesn't totally believe that Russia actively meddled in the election. Virtually everyone else underneath him, Mike Pompeo, Chris Wray, I mean the intelligence community, all think --

RYAN: It starts from the head.

BLITZER: All right.

RYAN: It starts from the head.

BLITZER: And let's not forget the State Department, back in 2016, was appropriated millions and millions of dollars to do something about Russian meddling. So far they've spent zero of that money.

RYAN: Correct.

BLITZER: April, thanks very much. Laura, Chris, good work.

In an unprecedented move, North Korea, the leader there, Kim Jong-un, now offering to potentially abandon his country's nuclear weapons program. So what does he want in return? We have new details. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:22:58] BLITZER: In a remarkable diplomatic development, North Korea is now willing to talk to the United States about giving up its nuclear weapons. That's the word from South Korean delegates who just returned from an unprecedented meeting with the North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un. Considering that only a few months ago Pyongyang claimed it could wipe the U.S. off the face of the earth, this is a startling change. Let's go to our CNN international correspondent Will Ripley. He's

joining us now from Beijing. He's been to Pyongyang dozens -- at least more than a dozen times.

So what has changed, Will, for the North Koreans right now, because this is a pretty dramatic statement?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, I just got off the phone, Wolf, with a senior official, a source of mine with very deep knowledge of North Korea's mindset, and this source actually views this as a counter-offensive by Kim Jong-un towards President Trump. The deck is stacked in the way right now that Kim Jong-un views diplomacy as his best option in the short term. You have President Trump saying that there could be a military option if North Korea doesn't express willingness to denuclearize. You have these increasingly crippling sanctions that are piling up, that are really starting to hurt North Korea's economy. So Kim Jong-un used the Olympics as kind of the peg, the opportunity to start this path towards diplomacy.

But for the North Koreans, denuclearization could be an extremely long-term process, a temporary freeze followed by a dismantlement that could take a decade or longer, far outlasting the Trump and Moon administrations, which means that if the detante were to fall apart, North Korea would then have an excuse, when there are new administrations in place, to pull out of this and to still have the nuclear force intact and also benefit from the easing of sanctions or the other potential benefits in engaging in diplomacy right now.

So this is Kim Jong-un playing the long game. He intends to remain in power far longer than the two presidents that he's dealing with in the United States and South Korea. And, at the moment, this is his strategy. But this is all about protecting North Korea's interests. And I have to say, Wolf, you go to Pyongyang, he has built up his image around his nuclear force. There is propaganda showing nuclear bombs and missiles all over the city. It is hard to see how he'd be able to do an about face and just walk away from the image he has built up. He has it written into his country's constitution that North Korea will be a nuclear power.

[13:25:11] So we have -- we really have to watch and see what North Korea's actually willing to give up here as they engage in discussions with the United States. Right now they haven't had to give up anything. And, in fact, the North Korea watchdog group, 38 North, has it -- has noticed increased activity at the Yongbyon nuclear reactor where North Korea produces the materials to make nuclear bombs.

Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, lots of questions that need to be answered.

Will Ripley joining us.

Thanks very much, Wil.

Let's discuss this with my next guest. I'm joined by Bill Richardson. He's the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, former governor of New Mexico, and he's visited North Korea on several occasions going back to the '90s, has had meetings with top North Korean officials.

What's your reaction to this late-breaking development, governor?

BILL RICHARDSON, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: Well, I'm guardedly optimistic. It's significant if North Korea confirms two things. One, that they're willing to talk about nuclear issues. And, secondly, that they're willing to stop missile and nuclear activity during these talks.

Now, the North Koreans haven't confirmed this, but if it's true, it's a potential breakthrough.

Now, I think the South Korean president deserves credit for making the moves on the Olympics, by holding back with North Korea and saying, I will visit North Korea in late April, but only if you agree to talk to the United States on nuclear issues. And it looks like he got what he wanted.

So it's a small step forward. But, as you know, with North Korea, everything moves slowly and dangerously.

BLITZER: Well, do you give the president, President Trump, any credit for this potential, potential diplomatic breakthrough? His tough talk, his threats against Kim Jong-un, do you think that has -- that has played a significant role?

RICHARDSON: Well, I give him credit for the increased sanctions. I think going to the U.N., going to countries around the world to put pressure on North Korea with oil, food stuffs, energy sanctions, I think they're the toughest ever, I give him credit there.

I don't give him credit for the tweeting and the insulting and -- although I don't like Kim Jong-un insulting the president either, I think you have to move forward now with traditional diplomacy.

Now, what is important is, where do we go from here? I think it's important to focus on the diplomacy track, exactly what we're going to do with North Korea in terms of this dialogue. No pre-conditions, but at the same time do we insist a complete denuclearization or a halt in missile and nuclear activity, artillery.

Clearly a reduction of tension in the peninsula is what the South Koreans wanted. They're the most vulnerable. And if this moves forward, that's going to happen, and that's good.

BLITZER: But is it realistic at all to believe that Kim Jong-un and his regime in North Korea will ever give up its nuclear capability?

RICHARDSON: I don't believe they ever will, but I think we should, at the same time, have that as a goal. If they give up, for instance, freezing their ballistic missile activity that threatens the United States, their nuclear activity, there's a reduction of tension at the border, and Panmunjom, the DMZ, if there are humanitarian talks on the recovery of our remains, human rights between North and South Korea, a reduction of tensions can be a combination of soft power, but also finding ways to -- the North and South and the Japanese that are venerable too, to engage in further diplomacy talks, Wolf.

I think this is good. You know, everybody's pessimistic when they think of North Korea. But the North Korean leader, I've always said, has had an end game. And I think his end game is a big negotiation with everybody. I don't think you give up nuclear weapons. But he clearly does not want a military confrontation with the United States. I think he clearly knows his country's in deep economic trouble. I think the sanctions are biting.

So this is a new chapter. And I hope the president, the administration, has a plan, where do we go from here. I hope it's diplomacy. I hope it's the secretary of state. I hope it's traditional diplomacy instead of military threats and tweets insulting the North Korean. Let's take advantage of this very positive development.

BLITZER: It's potentially very significant. The Senate Armed Services Committee has been holding hearings today on worldwide threats facing the United States. I want you to listen to what the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency said about North Korea. Listen to this.

[13:30:02] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LT. GENERAL ROBERT P. ASHLEY, JR., DIRECTOR, DEFENSE INTELLIGENCE AGENCY: The biggest change that we've seen from his father to Kim Jong-un is the rigor of training.