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President Trump Facing Historically Low Approval Ratings; Interview With Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin; Kelly: Trump Will Be "Insistent" On Wall Funding; State Department Blog Seems To Plug Trump's Mar-a-Lago; Obama Makes First Post-Presidency Remarks. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired April 24, 2017 - 16:30   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: A possible 6 percent boost worth $4.4 billion for its budget, if all goes according to plan.

And joining me now is the Secretary of Department of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin.

Thank you so much, Secretary Shulkin. Really appreciate your being here.


TAPPER: So, the president is expected to sign an executive order this week that we understand will allow you to more easily be able to fire employees who are underperforming or worse.

Is that going to be a useful tool? It seems like that's something that every VA secretary has struggled with. There are so many protections for VA workers that even the ones who are causing problems need to be kept in the system.

SHULKIN: Yes. We do need accountability in the VA. I don't see accountability as just firing. I see it also as being able to bring on the very best people who can help serve our veterans.

But when we do find employees that have lost their way and have deviated from the values, I have to make sure that I have the tools to get rid of those people.

TAPPER: Will this be enough, what the president is able to do? Because I don't know what he is going to be able to do with an executive action or an executive order vs. what would need to be done by Congress.

SHULKIN: I think the president feels so strongly about this, that this is an action that's important.

But we are also going to need congressional action. The House has passed a bill. Now we're waiting for the Senate to bring a bill up.

TAPPER: As you know, this month's report at the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center highlighted a number of challenges that that system in that center faced.

Among the problems, the inspector general found dirty storage areas, $150 million of equipment not inventoried, no plan to keep track of recalled equipment, not to mention some staffing shortages.

You took the unusual step of taking this preliminary inspector general report and then acting on it. You also oversee more than 1,200 facilities nationwide. How widespread do you think this kind of problem is?

SHULKIN: Well, I did want to comment on the Washington, D.C., situation.

When the inspector general presented me with an interim report, within one hour, I removed the director. In no circumstance am I going to tolerate our veterans being put at risk, and we're not going to allow that to happen. So when it comes to our expectations and accountability for management, they are going to be steep.

We're looking at whether this is also existing in other VAs across the country. The inspector general is going into six or seven over VAs. On Friday, they looked at several and there was not the finding that they found in Washington.

TAPPER: The Trump administration has signaled it would like to see movement on health care this week, repealing and replacing Obamacare.

As you know, Obamacare helped bring insurance coverage literally to hundreds of thousands of uninsured veterans, according to an Urban Institute study. What if they repeal Obamacare and replace it with something that does not provide insurance for all those veterans?

SHULKIN: Well, I think if something does get passed, we're going to take a very close look at it to make sure we understand the impact on veterans.

But one thing I can assure you is that the VA is there for veterans and the VA is the safety net. So if we have to be able to accept new veterans that lose their insurance, well, that's what the VA is going to be there for, and we're going to make sure that is our utmost responsibility to take care of them.

TAPPER: Are you in the process of this? Because I would think -- President Trump talked a lot about veterans during the campaign. I would think that they would want to make sure that they get your input before they introduce something on the floor of the House.

SHULKIN: Yes, we're certainly talking to the president and to Secretary Price about these issues. And we're doing contingency planning to make sure that we're prepared to be able to take care of any veterans that need health care.

But I haven't seen the details of a plan. And, of course, as you know, nothing has passed through Congress yet.

TAPPER: An inspector general report last month said that nearly 30 percent of the calls to the VA crisis hot line still rolled over to the backup call centers.

You put out a statement saying that the problem is now resolved. When you say it's resolved, does that mean you guarantee if somebody calls the VA crisis hot line, somebody will answer the phone?

SHULKIN: Well, yes, somebody will answer the phone. The question is whether it rolls over to a backup service. The backup service are trained responders, but they are not VA employees.

As you mentioned, just several months ago, 30 percent of our calls were rolling over to a backup center. Today, that number would be less than 1 percent. So it's not zero, but it literally is a handful of calls a day, less than 1 percent.

TAPPER: Let me ask you just a big picture problem, big picture question with the VA. What is the problem? My mom worked at the VA. You work at the VA.

I know that there are a lot of really good, devoted people. Why are there so many veterans who are not able to get access to the system and why are there too many, maybe not a tremendous amount, but too many who get access to the system and find their care is not what it needs to be?

SHULKIN: Well, first of all, thank you for recognizing that the vast majority of our employees are dedicated, passionate people like your mom was. And so we're doing tremendous things every day.


We are the largest health care system in the country. And when you're that big, sometimes, you don't always perform at the level that you expect and that you are intending to. And so there are examples every day where we're meeting our obligation to veterans.

We're working hard to address that. But I think the issue is, is that this has been years and years of neglect in the system. And what we're really doing now is, we're tackling those tough issues. We're modernizing the VA. And we're putting in place systems like accountability to make sure that, where we identify problems, we're not going to just pass them down the road.

We're going to actually address them the way that the private sector would address them.

TAPPER: All right, Secretary Shulkin, thanks so much for your time. Good luck. I know it's a tough job. Good luck to you.

SHULKIN: Thank you, Jake. Appreciate it.

TAPPER: He hammered President Obama repeatedly for using them to go around Congress, but President Trump's administration seems to have no problem boasting about signing the most executive orders.

And why is a State Department Web site touting President Trump's exclusive Mar-a-Lago club? That's coming up in our conflict of interest watch.



TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Sticking with politics in this 100 days of Trumpitude week, lots to talk about with my panel.

And let me start with you, Alice, because I want to ask you. Back in 2012, then citizen Trump tweeted -- quote -- "Why is Barack Obama constantly issuing executive orders that are major power grabs of authority?"

But now we now, 95 or whatever days it is into his presidency, he has signed more executive orders in his first 100 days than any commander chief since Harry S. Truman.

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: What a difference five years makes. Right?

Look, I will say this. Some of the executive orders have been positive, advancing his policies, whether it's with regard to withdrawing from TPP and furthering the Keystone pipeline and his policies.

But in terms of actually making a substantive legislative accomplishment, these really aren't them. And I akin this to Hillary Clinton saying traveling around the world and frequent flier miles are an accomplishment. That's an activity. And these are activities that further his policies.

What we do need to see -- and I think we will -- is some legislative accomplishments with regard to repealing and replacing Obamacare. I think his tax policy that will be coming out, that should be positive.

But these are not necessarily legislative accomplishments. They do help to further his policies, but I wouldn't take it anymore than that.

TAPPER: The polls indicate, Michael, that he has lowest approval rating of any president in modern history at this point in his presidency.

But if you dive deeper into the polls, his supporters, his base is still with him; 96 percent of respondents in a new "Washington Post"/ABC News poll said they would support him again. What does that tell you?

MICHAEL SCHERER, "TIME": I think the rules have changed in politics.

If Hillary Clinton had been elected, she would probably have among the lowest poll approval ratings of any person at this point in the presidency. The country is just more polarized. And we know that from two presidential elections now in a row. And I think with Trump he is four or five points where he wants to be, where he should be. He said last week he thinks his base is 45 percent. He's now at 40 percent. And that's a perilous place for him to be. But I don't think anybody imagines that he would be where Obama was in the 60s at this point in his presidency.

TAPPER: And, Michelle, the president tweeted that the polls were fake news and that he would still beat Hillary Clinton in the popular vote.

Of course, he never beat Hillary Clinton in the popular vote. I have to say, I'm a little surprised he's still tweeting about this stuff. It still really gets to him, his approval ratings and what happened with the popular vote in 2016.

MICHELLE COTTLE, "THE ATLANTIC": Look, he thought being president was a little bit like winning Miss Universe. If you can get the crown, then everybody needs to be nice to you, and you just get to go around and accept the well-wishers' greetings.

It's been hard. And he's had to find this out. And he doesn't let go of anything very easily. So you can expect him to be tweeting about this for a really long tame.

TAPPER: Yes, and interesting, I was off on Friday, but Jim Sciutto did the show, and I was watching it this morning, and it was all about how the White House was planning to introduce health care reform this week, and they were going to finish the 100 days strong with this health care week.

Now we're hearing different messages from Reince Priebus and the budget director talking about how it's a marathon and not a sprint and health care reform doesn't have to pass.

This does mean that President Trump as of now has zero major legislative accomplishments. And other presidents, you know, usually have one or two. FDR had something like 15.

But do you think health care is something that can still happen, whether or not it happens this week?

STEWART: I do think it will happen.

I think the good thing is now they're not putting timeline on it, which is a positive step, and the fact that the president has indicated he's going back to the drawing board on this and there was significant progress last week with regard to on the House GOP side. We had the moderates of the Tuesday Group and the more conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus and have conversations, pretty significantly, late last week.

I'm hearing there's a possibility there may be some actual text in the next day or so, possibly by tomorrow. Whether or not it gets to a vote I think is a little bit premature to say that something will happen before 100 days.

But the good news is, is that the president and Vice President Pence, they have all indicated they want to follow through on the promises that not just they campaigned and won on, but the members of the House in regard to repealing and replacing Obamacare.

TAPPER: And, of course, we have this week this big showdown over government funding.

Take a listen to Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly talking to Dana Bash about the funding of the border wall. President Trump has said that funding needs to be in the government funding bill.


JOHN KELLY, U.S. HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: The president has been pretty straightforward about his desire and the need for a border wall.

So, I would suspect he'll do the right thing, for sure. But I will suspect he will be insistent on the funding.


[16:45:14] TAPPER: Do republicans even want this? I read that republicans who are in the border states like Texas and Arizona, they don't even support this wall.

COTTLE: You know, it's not really clear who's dying for this wall in Congress. And democrats have made pretty clear that this is no - this is a non-starter for them. They won't even have a discussion about this. So the thought is that there will be some kind of face-saving measure where they talk about additional money for technology, but, you know, the Budget Chief Mulvaney won't even now say for sure that Trump will reject any bill that doesn't have the funding for specifically the wall.

SCHERER: This is straight out of the art of the deal with Trump. He likes starting negotiations shooting really high. Saying 15 percent is going to be the corporate tax rate which will put trillions of dollars on the deficit over ten years. It's basically a non-starter but he's starting at a point where he can then walk back and cut a deal on a favorable place. I think the border wall, he's also putting it out there before the negotiations really get down there, this is my line and he can walk it back. I think with ObamaCare last week, he said I want to do it in four days or six days. It's not going to happen, but he's lighting the fire under members of Congress and keeping them moving forward.

TAPPER: Speaking of members of Congress, Dana Bash talked to Congressman Darrell Issa from California who had a tough re-election battle last time - in fact, there was a recount and he was one the last people last sworn into office. Take a listen when after Dana ask him if he would President Trump to campaign with him.


DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR: Would you want President Trump to come to your district and campaign for you?

REP. DARRELL ISSA (R), CALIFORNIA: I was with Secretary Kelly.

BASH: But the President?

ISSA: I was with Secretary Kelly who's one of those greater points -

BASH: I think that's the answer.


TAPPER: Is this going to be a big issue I think in 2018, republicans who don't want Trump to campaigning with him?

STEWART: I think we saw a little insight into this in the Georgia Congressional - the CD6 Race where we saw that the people that were really supportive of Trump and embraced him and were supportive of him, they came in like third, fourth and fifth and Karen Handel who was - who won on the republican side, she basically came out and said, look, I'm going to be a conservative, consistent conservative in Washington, but I will be a check on Donald Trump, so the ones that are slightly distancing themselves from Trump seem to be doing better. Whether or not that's a sign of things to come, after we get some accomplishments under our belt remain to be seen.

TAPPER: It does seem like there are members of his administration like Mattis and Kelly are more popular than him among republican members of Congress.

SCHERER: And the place where this is really going hit the road is in the midterms. If you have a President whose under 40 percent in the midterms, that's really bad news for your party and everyone - that hits every district not just the, you know, the purple districts, and that means members of your party are going to move away from you. It means you're going to have to stay home. We saw this with other presidents. We've seen other presidents stay home from campaigning. I remember Bush staying home at the end of his term and Obama stayed out of many districts as well. So Trump has some time here. You know, he's got a year to pull this together and maybe someone like Issa in California will come around but it's not looking good.

TAPPER: Some of the interesting issue though is, Michelle, that Trump's base would walk across a floor of broken glass for him, but that's just not - that's not a majority, that's 35, 40 percent.

COTTLE: That's right. I mean, he is correct that basically he could be caught with a dead body and they wouldn't care, but what's making republicans in Congress very nervous that loyalty does not necessarily translate in the midterms. The midterms tend to be a referendum on how the President is doing overall and, you know, and maybe those Trump loyalists are in their districts and they'll be backing these guys but maybe not and presidents usually have their party lose seats in the terms.

TAPPER: Fascinating stuff. Thanks one and all for being here. Really appreciate it Michelle, Alice, Michelle. It's his first official public appearance since leaving the White House but there's one thing former President Barack Obama did not talk about on stage in Chicago. What was it? Stick around.


[16:50:00] TAPPER: Welcome back to LEAD. Turning to our "MONEY LEAD" now. President Trump has visited private Mar-a-Lago club in Southern Florida seven times since taking office spending a total 25 days there. Now we're learning that the State Department promoted the property and still is promoting the property on Web sites describing it as quote, "The winter White House and a prominent place for President Trump hosts foreign leaders. We're taking a look on this - at this in our latest I installment of our ongoing series "CONFLICT OF INTEREST WATCH with CNNMoney's Cristina Alesci. She's been digging into this, she joins me now. What exactly happening - is this allowed?

CRISTINA ALESCI, CNNMONEY CORRESPONDENT: We don't know how it happened, all we know is that the promotional arm of the State Department, something called Share America that's supposed to advertise the country, is essentially advertising Trump's private business Mar-a-Lago, and at the best case scenario it's free advertising for Trump, worst case scenario it's a wink and a nod to foreign dignitaries that they can stay at Mar-a-Lago and potentially curry favor with the President. Now I spoke to ethics experts on both sides of the aisle who say this is a clear violation of ethical laws in this country. There's a law specifically that says a private - a public official cannot use his or her position for their own personal - their public position for their own personal gain. And so that's what's going to be contested here. They do draw - these ethics experts do draw parallels to what Kellyanne Conway did with Ivanka's brand when she promote it -

TAPPER: Told people to go out and buy her brand. Yes.

ALESCI: Exactly. But this is far worse because it is actually - the State Department on its own website essentially giving the history of Mar-a-Lago, you know, touting the fact that foreign dignitaries stayed there, like the President of China just recently, so this is - this is clearly another piece of evidence that it's very difficult for President Trump to separate himself from his business.

TAPPER: Well, especially when they're just shamelessly promoting his products on U.S. government taxpayer-financed Web sites, and we know that Mar-a-Lago has benefited from President Trump being elected President.

[16:55:22] ALESCI: You're right. Right after the election, the membership fees at Mar-a-Lago increased. They went from $100,000 to $200,000. Some - that raised some eyebrows. Mar-a-Lago said we were scheduled to have these increases. They were going to happen regardless of the election but still, it's concerning to many in the ethical community and President Trump as you mentioned in the intro continues to go to his properties when there are cameras around and for anyone who didn't know what Mar-a-Lago was before he became President, they now know because it's on TV all the time. Of course, we're - we need to be there to cover what the President does, so that's essentially free advertising for President Trump.

TAPPER: All right. Cristina Alesci, thanks so much. Latest in "CONFLICT OF INTEREST WATCH." Now, back to politics. Nearly 100 days after he left office former President Barack Obama is now back in the spotlight making his first official post-Presidential remarks just a short while ago at the University of Chicago, speaking to young people about civic engagement. Let's bring in CNN White House Correspondent Athena Jones. And Athena, the former President chose a youth political roundtable as his first public (INAUDIBLE) since leaving office which seems a clear signal about the kind of work he wants to be doing.

ATHENA JONES, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi Jake. Absolutely. We heard the President talk quite a bit about this in his final weeks in office. He often spoke about the importance of bringing new voices into the political process, and he said developing the next generation of leaders would be an important part of his post-presidency work. Today he said conversations like these with young people make him optimistic about the future and it was clear he was enjoying himself.


JONES: President Obama in his first public appearance since leaving office -

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What's been going on while I've been gone?

JONES: Using humor and anecdotes to make the case for civic engagement during a forum at the University of Chicago where he once taught.

OBAMA: The single most important thing I can do is to help in any way I can prepare the next generation of leadership to take up the baton.

JONES: The former President was joined on stage by young leaders for a wide-range discussion on breaking down barriers to civic participation and bridging divides between the political parties. The President reprising his criticism of a news media he says, can't agree on basic facts.

OBAMA: - that the internet in some ways has accelerated this sense of people having entirely separate conversations.

JONES: But he carefully avoids wading into the politics of the moment, never mentioning his successor by name, even as he discussed issues on which he disagrees with President Trump, like immigration.

OBAMA: It's not like everybody in Ellis Island had all their papers straight. You know, the truth is the history of our immigration system has always been a little bit haphazard

JONES: Event comes after the former first couple enjoyed an extended vacation in far-flung locales including a nearly month-long sojourn to French Polynesia where they reportedly hung out with Oprah Winfrey and Bruce Springsteen and the President snapped photos of his wife on the deck of music and movie mogul David Geffen's yacht, scenes that went viral. Today he had advice for the young crowd about the perils of social media.

OBAMA: I mean, it is true that if you had pictures of everything I had done when I was in high school, I'd probably wouldn't have been President of the United States so I would advise all of you to be a little more circumspect about your selfies.

JONES: And he encouraged them to think about what they want to do with their lives, not just what title they hope to one day achieve.

OBAMA: Worry less about what you want to be and worry more about what you want to do.


JONES: Now today marks the first in a series of appearances slated for the former President over the next couple of months. Next month in Boston, he's going to receive the centennial profiles in courage award at the John F. Kennedy library and later in the month, he's set to go to Berlin to appear with his good friend German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Brandenburg gate where he famously spoke before 2,200,000 people during his first run for the White House. Jake?

TAPPER: Athena Jones, thank you so much.

Be sure to tune in at 9:00 p.m. Eastern all week starting tonight for special episodes of THE LEAD marking President Trump's first 100 days in office. Tonight my guests will include Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey plus of course all the stop stories of the day. Be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @jaketapper or tweet the show @theleadcnn.

That's it for THE LEAD, until tonight at 9:00, I'm Jake Tapper, turning you over to one Mr. Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

WOLF BLITZER, CNN THE SITUATION ROOM HOST: Happening now, walled off. President Trump's border wall has now potential barrier to stopping a government shutdown.