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"Retroactive" Ethics Waiver Seems to Benefit Bannon. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired June 2, 2017 - 16:30   ET


CRISTINA ALESCI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Bannon, you know, was the head of "Breitbart", a far right news website, and before the White House issued the exception that we're talking about today, Bannon was subject to the ethics pledge barring him from communicating with Breitbart about anything that overlap with his White House duties.

[16:30:04] But a watchdog accused him of ignoring that promise and this waiver could get him off the hook because the White House made the waiver retroactive, back to day one of the Trump administration. That mans Bannon could have violated the original pledge and this waiver covers prior conversations.

Now, the head of the Office of Government Ethics flatly told me there's no such thing as a retroactive waiver. He told me that if you engage in prohibited conduct without the waiver, you've essentially violated the rule, and issuing a waiver after the fact won't change that.

Look, the focus on Bannon, as you pointed out, is key here because ethics experts are worried he's using Breitbart as a tool to advance his own interests and to perhaps hurt his political foes -- Jake.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Interesting, because a lot of political foes are his colleagues at the White House, rivals for the president's influence like Reince Priebus and Jared Kushner. But tell me more about this retroactive waiver thing. There's no such thing.

So, if there's not such thing as a retroactive waiver, who can hold the White House accountable?

ALESCI: No one. The ethics office can't investigate or prosecute. This is a perfect example of the White House changing the rules as it plays the game and there's no referee. For its part, the White House says it hasn't violated any ethics rules by issuing this retroactive waiver. It says, quote: Those who received waivers are in compliance with their ethical obligations.

And there's more to come on this story, Jake. Next week, the OGE will release waivers granted to people working in federal agencies outside the White House, and we'll have to see what those say, but we're going to be going through them quite carefully -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Cristina Alesci, thank you so much.

More on our politics lead now. The nation added 138,000 jobs last months. That is fewer than expected but the job market, of course, losing some momentum. Still, the unemployment rate ticked down to 4.3 percent, that's the lowest level since all the way back in 2001.

Now, one of the reasons it ticked down is more Americans stopped looking for work. That's why a certain someone used to always tell us that the unemployment numbers are not to be trusted.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Don't believe those phony numbers when you hear 4.9 percent and 5 percent unemployment. The numbers probably is 28, 29, as high as 35. In fact, I even heard recently 42 percent.


TAPPER: That, of course, was candidate Trump. Now, of course, we have President Trump and today the White House boasted about the positive signs coming out of the job market as evidence by these numbers.

My political panel joins me now.

Bill, let me start with you. The president is talking about people in that clip from last year, people who have given up hope, given up looking for a job, thus they're technically not counted as being unemployed anymore. Why doesn't the White House -- I mean, those are still the forgotten man and forgotten woman. Why doesn't the White House stick to his old view?

I'm not trying -- I'm not being cute here. You think I am, but --

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR AT LARGE, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: I don't think you're being cute.

TAPPER: But, I mean, there's an argument to be made. If he still -- he obviously cares a lot about his base, right? Why not still talk about the old numbers and how we still need to improve these things?

KRISTOL: It's actually -- I hadn't thought about it, until you asked it, but it is a good question. I mean, he's decided to be the incumbent president and to make credit for everything good that's happened. I think his son tweeted the Dow and the NASDAQ are at all- time highs, and that's risky because, of course, they might not stay at all-time highs.

He might have been better off sort of trying to maintain his standing as I'm the insurgent who is unhappy with the way things are and I've got to make things better and that's why we need tax cuts.

It's interesting. When you get into the White House, even if you're outsider as Donald Trump, and there's a huge impulse. I mean, I was there and should know how it happens, that hey, that's a piece good news, and it is pretty good news, the jobs situation --

TAPPER: Yes, sure. KRISTOL: -- is pretty good, the market is high and you want to take credit for it.

They might be better advise to take the longer view and remain unhappy with the status quo rather than becoming a defender of the status quo.

TAPPER: Yes. Anyway, Susan, let me ask you this because of the climate change deal is huge.

In 2012, President Trump claims falsely that climate change was a hoax created by the Chinese. Here's his tweet: The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.

Kind of nonsensical comment.

Take a listen to all the president's men this week responding when asked if the president sill feels that way or if he agrees wit the scientific consensus that global warming, climate change is real and at least partly manmade?


REPORTER: What does the president actually believe about climate change? Does he still believe it's a hoax? Can you clarify that? Because apparently nobody else at the White House can.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Yes, I have not had an opportunity to have that discussion.

TAPPER: Does the president believe climate change is a hoax?

SCOTT PRUITT, EPA ADMINISTRATOR: This is not about whether climate change is occurring or not.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Does he believe global warming is a hoax?

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: He believes in clean air, clean water, a clear environment.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'll ask it one more time. Does he believe that global warming is a hoax? Does he believe --

CONWAY: You should ask him that.


TAPPER: You have to ask him that. Of course, we have a difficult time doing that because he doesn't take our questions very often.

Why won't they give a straight answer to this?

SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, USA TODAY: Well, he, clearly, doesn't want to answer this question and even when a briefer in the background briefing was asked about this, the briefer said -- well, why won't you stay on topic? [16:35:03] When talking about the Paris accord. It did seem to be on


TAPPER: A little bit.

PAGE: Even when the president talked yesterday, he did not talk about climate change. This is a climate change decision pro or anti. He talked about it as an economic decision.

So I think they must have decided it's hard to defend the view that climate change isn't real and so, they are recasting this as an economic argument.

TAPPER: And let me bring in Bill Weir from New York. He's got a fascinating special called "States of Change" which airs tomorrow night. He traveled around the country talking to a lot of people.

And, Bill, you traveled to Oklahoma where the EPA administrator Scott Pruitt is from and you got some insight possibly into his way of looking at the world, literally.

BILL WEIR, CNN HOST, STATES OF CHANGE: Yes, exactly. I -- you know, I have some roots in the evangelical Christian community in Tulsa and when I went back there to talk to folks, it reminded me how much we forget how much that influences policy in Oklahoma. There was literal belief in the Bible, literal believe that after Noah's arc, the rainbow was a promise from God he would never destroy the Earth.

And then there's -- and also the idea that man has dominion over the earth, that oil is blessing. So, it's faith and wealth in that part of the country that shapes public policy. The legislature in Oklahoma just passed a law that would spare teachers from any lawsuits if they wanted to teach contrary alternative theories to evolution or manmade climate change.

And so, when you try to come at that ideology with science, it's just like hitting a brick wall.

TAPPER: Interesting.

Let's change the subject a bit to what will be a dominant storyline next week, the FBI Director James Comey testifying. He's certainly going to be asked whether he felt the president pressured him. He might -- I'm sure he'll even be asked that he felt it was an obstruction of justice potentially for the president to tell him to lay off Mike Flynn.

This could be a huge week in the Trump presidency.

KRISTOL: It will be dramatic testimony and we'll see what he says. I'm sort of surprised that the special counsel Bob Mueller is letting him testify. Normally, prosecutors as I understand like to hold their witnesses back, take their testimony privately, match it up with other people's testimony and not let the other witnesses know exactly what Comey said. Either he's very confident that -- I don't know. It's interesting to

think about why Mueller didn't request -- I mean, Comey went to him and said, is it OK if I testify and Mueller was very relaxed about it, which is not normally the way it's been. If you look at the past special counsels, they try to hold people back from testifying this early in the investigation to Congress.

It makes me wonder if we are early in the investigation. Maybe Comey knows -- Mueller thinks he knows a heck of a lot and there's no big problem of Comey telling -- saying publicly what his conversations with the president were like.

PAGE: He also just feel pretty confident that Comey knows how to handle himself in a situation and this is not -- given the situation, it's not going to cause a problem for Mueller going forward in the investigation.

I'll tell you who Comey did not go to --

KRISTOL: But think about this part of it. I mean, it's letting Trump know exactly what Comey says, right? I mean, if you think Trump is a possible target of the special counsel, you would think you might want -- I don't know.

PAGE: Don't you think we already know a great part of Comey is going to say?

KRISTOL: I guess.

PAGE: I mean, a lot that have has been leaked, but Comey did not go and say if I testify to Donald Trump. And the question is, would the White House if it chose to have standing to say these were consultations for the president and it's not appropriate, it's not legal for you to go and testify about them, if you try to invoke executive privilege.

TAPPER: Very interesting.

TAPPER: Bill, you went around the country and talked to voters who supported President Trump for your special airing tomorrow night, "States of Change." here I want to play a little clip with a former classmate of yours named Mary Miller. She's from Wisconsin, and you talked to her about why she supported President Trump and what she thinks now.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Same old everything. I wanted someone to come in rattle the cage.


TAPPER: Anyway, and there's another part of the clip that I thought we were going to run, but we didn't now, where you say and all this talk about Russia and she says no offense to the news people, but it just seems like a lot of hype. I don't follow it as much as some people do because I just don't believe it. What will come out what will come out and if it's true it will come out. Interesting.

WEIR: Yes. It was really interesting. You know, I spent a week there. This is a small town that went for Reagan and Bill Clinton and Barack Obama over the years, and I thought there's no way these salt of the earth cheese heads would fall for a New York billionaire. But they did 2-1.

And Mary and several other former classmates they live in just an alternate universe in terms of media consumption and how we pay attention, you know, to the daily soap opera. You know, we're so consumed tweet by tweet, new development by new development, and I had friends there say, you know what, we vote and then four years we don't think about it again.

So, what we think on the coasts are seismic movements is crickets in Waushara County, Wisconsin.

KRISTOL: I think that woman is intelligent in this sense. It would ridiculous to kind of, if you have an actual life to live, to follow every zig and zag.

[16:40:03] There's an actual investigation. People will be put under oath. We will learn something. We may learn three months from now, six months, nine months from now. There's nothing that the woman in Wisconsin or the most of us most rightly can do about things based on -- interesting for us to follow the news and guess what's going to come out.

But I think there's a real reality there. The legal stuff matters the most. We in the media like the media, we like Woodward and Bernstein and the media brought down Nixon. Judge Sirica brought down Nixon. People testifying under oath before Congress brought down Nixon.

And I think that's the same situation here, whether he's brought down or not, we don't know, which is why in order to get back to your original question -- Comey testifying this week before Congress under oath is a new stage in the investigation.

We really haven't seen anything, have we, like that yet? I mean, there's been no moment where a central figure has testified publicly --

PAGE: Well, Sally Yates testified and that was pretty powerful.

TAPPER: Sally Yates testified, that was powerful and also when Comey acknowledged the FBI investigation into Russia for the first time.

This might be different, of course, because it will be about potential obstruction of justice, not so much necessarily even the investigation.

PAGE: I actually think we need to talk about --

KRISTOL: And conversations with Trump.

TAPPER: Yes. That's what I mean. KRISTOL: Sally Yates didn't have it.

PAGE: When you talk what might shake Mary's support of President Trump, I don't think it's anything we're going to hear about from Comey. It's going to be, if these jobs never gets -- gets bad, if no manufacturing jobs come back to the places where they were promised, if there are no new coal jobs. If people don't find their own lives getting better, the people who were drawn to Trump's message of disruption and change. I think that's what will shake his support among those core supporters.

TAPPER: If it does.

KRISTOL: Back to Jake's early first question a few minutes ago, I mean, if I were advising Trump, not that I was asked to do, I would be a little -- have the attitude of being more of an outsider and being more unhappy with the way things are going but they can't resist. He's got all these Goldman Sachs guys in there. The stock market is the hitting record highs and they are back and high-fiving each other as their portfolios go up, but, you know, in a way he's probably better off having more of an outsider position than becoming a defender of the current situation.

TAPPER: All right. Bill Weir, Bill Kristol, Susan Page, thanks so much, one and all.

And you can hear much more about this search for common ground in the era of Trump on Bill Weir's "States of Change." That's tomorrow night here on CNN at 9:00 p.m. Eastern. Looking forward to that.

While all the attention has been on President Trump's withdrawal from the Paris deal, his administration has been busy getting a lot of other things done, like enforcing stricter sentences for drug offenders. One federal judge says the new guidelines are putting justice in handcuffs.

Stay with us.


[16:45:00] TAPPER: We're back with the "NATIONAL LEAD" now. From the current political impasse on health care reform and tax reform to the continuing chaos from the White House under a President who at times can't seem to get out of his own way. Maybe you think that it the Trump domestic agenda is at a standstill but it's not. Work is getting done on the cabinet level, including a critical reversal made by the President's Justice Department. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announcing he was instructing federal prosecutors to charge and pursue the strictest sentences for drug offenders, scrapping the Obama-era policies aimed at easing mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug offenders. CNN's Sara Sidner has more.


SARA SIDNER, INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: U.S. District Court Judge Mark Bennett says a grave injustice is being perpetrated in courtrooms across America.

MARK BENNETT, U.S. DISTRICT COURT JUDGE: I'm compelled to talk about it because I think that's one of the gravest injustices in the history of America.

SIDNER: Judge Bennett is talking about mandatory minimum sentencing in federal drug cases.

BENNETT: Most of the defendants I have sentenced in my career are low-level methamphetamine addicts. They're not making any money selling methamphetamine. Whenever I gave a mandatory minimum, I'd say about 80 percent of the time I think it's unjust.

SIDNER: Wait a minute, I'm backing you up, 80 percent of the time?

BENNETT: Yes. 80 percent. Sure. Maybe higher.

SIDNER: You think it's the wrong sentence?

BENNET: Absolutely it's too high.

SIDNER: But that is not at all how the new U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions sees it. He wants to make sure a key component of the war on drugs is being enforced with new vigor by reaffirming the usage of mandatory minimum laws passed in the 1980s.

JEFF SESSIONS, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY GENERAL: I have empowered our prosecutors to charge and pursue the most serious offense.

SIDNER: The move is a stark reversal of a policy his predecessor Eric Holder put in place which was meant to circumvent the mandatory minimum laws when it came to nonviolent drug offenders. The Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys which is made up of the attorneys who prosecute federal cases support Session' move saying, Holder's policy encouraged them to ignore the law.

LARRY LEISER, NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEYS: First of all, in order to get a mandatory minimum sentence you have to be trafficking in, for instance, one kilogram of heroin to get a ten-year mandatory minimum so this idea that these low-level drug traffickers are getting mandatory minimums is just not the case.

SIDNER: That is not how Mandy Martinson sees it. She says she was no kingpin but was sentenced like one. She says she'd been dating her drug-dealing boyfriend for about a month to feed her methamphetamine habit when police busted down her door arresting them both. What was he asking you to do?

MANDY MARTINSON, DRUG SENTENCE WAS COMMUTED: So, I counted money and I picked up drugs after him.

SIDNER: A jury convicted her of conspiracy to distribute more than a pound of meth and possession of a firearm.

MARTINSON: He got 12 years because he had more information to share. When you have more information to share, you have more to bargain with. Since I had only known him five weeks, I didn't have any information to bargain with.

SIDNER: At 27 years old, the former dental hygienist with no prior criminal history was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison, the mandatory minimum. Her sentencing judge noted he did not think she deserved the lengthy sentence but his hands were tied.

MARTINSON: Oh, I just died a little inside.

SIDNER: What do you say to people who go if you don't want to do the time, don't do the crime?

MARTINSON: I totally agree with that. What happens with the mandatory minimum sentencing laws and the conspiracy laws I was held accountable for everything that my co-defendant had done before I even met him.

[16:50:09] SIDNER: A year before she was to be released, Martinson received this letter from President Barack Obama commuting her sentence, freeing her. Nearly half of all prisoners in federal prison are there for drug offenses, a number that has been falling since Obama's policy shift. In the Sessions era, incarceration rates are expected to rise.

LEISER: It's always good for America when we can take off the street people who are distributing the highest levels, quantities of poison.

SIDNER: But Judge Bennett argues that is not what is happening.

BENNET: I do not consider myself soft on crime, but I consider myself opposed to mandatory minimums for low-level nonviolent drug dealers who are basically addicts. I just think that's wrong.

SIDNER: But he upholds the law, even though it's against his better judgment, Sara Sidner, CNN Sioux City, Iowa.


TAPPER: And our thanks to Sara Sidner for that report.

Coming up, it's a study that could help save the lives of those who have served our country but eight years later Senator Al Franken is still waiting for the results showing service dogs help veterans with PTSD. We'll talk to the Senator about the hero who inspired his first piece of legislation.


[16:55:00] TAPPER: Welcome back in our "TECH LEAD" today. Sorry, Han Solo, this one puts the millennium falcon to shame. A company called Stratolaunch rolled out the world's largest airplane this week, equipped with 6 engines, 28 wheels, and a wingspan longer than a football field, not to mention wider than the International Space Station. Sorry, you will not be able to catch a wide on this aircraft but instead, it will be hurling rockets carrying satellites into space orbit. Test flights are expected to begin in early 2019. Turning to our "BURIED LEAD" now, that's what we call stories we don't think are getting enough attention. According to the V.A., more than 600,000 veterans have been -- that they have treated have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Now, many of these heroes could not adjust to life back home without the help of some very special friends, men's best friend to be exact. For eight years, one senator has been fighting for the funding with the long-term goal of providing more service dogs to more veterans and the dogs can sense the scars that we cannot see.


SEN. AL FRANKEN (D) MINNESOTA: He had become a friend and he was an inspiration.

TAPPER: It was an incredibly important moment for Senator Al Franken when he met U.S. Army Captain Luis Carlos Montalvan and his service dog Tuesday. They inspired Franken's first piece of legislation.

FRANKEN: Service dogs, it's amazing what they do.

TAPPER: The bill passed in 2009 and called for funding for a pilot study to pair 200 veterans with service dogs --


TAPPER: -- and observe the outcomes.

FRANKEN: As I started studying this, I was more and more convinced that this would be a very good thing to do.

TAPPER: So this was your first piece of legislation?

FRANKEN: It was.

TAPPER: After two tours in Iraq, Montalvan had returned for more in 2006 with a purple heart and two bronze stars. But then, just living his apartment back in this country became a struggle.

LUIS MONTALVAN, U.S ARMY VETERAN: It was a very low point for me dealing with some alcoholism and negative effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. I was really in terrible shape.

TAPPER: What helped Montalvan was Tuesday, a highly trained service dog and friend that inspired him to write children's books and even be interviewed by David Letterman.

MONTALVAN: He brightens my days and he calms my nights. He will proactively change my disposition.

TAPPER: Franken hoped that positive scientific study results might allow more veterans the access to the same kind of help. But in the eight years since the bill passed, the study that it mandated has taken much longer than Franken imagined it would.

FRANKEN: They want to be careful that this is scientifically valid. They wanted to do this right which I think is more important than doing it fast. It is very frustrating.

TAPPER: Tragically, however, Montalvan will never see the results of the work that he inspired.

MONTALVAN: Can I have a hug?

TAPPER: Last December on a trip without Tuesday, Montalvan took his own life.

Tuesday is now retired as a service dog. Luis is now dead and you're still fighting this fight.

FRANKEN: Yes. Losing Luis and losing him that way was just very -- just -- I just sat down and cried, you know. You know, he clearly was profoundly and deeply wounded.

TAPPER: Tuesday now lives with his trainer Lu Picard who has raised hundreds of service animals.

LU PICARD, TUESDAY'S TRAINER: Still visiting V.A. hospitals, schools and working in the public, talking about service dogs and the benefits of service dogs.

TAPPER: With the study, Montalvan and Tuesday inspired due to be completed in 2018 and similar bills recently introduced, there may be more Tuesdays for more veterans soon.

FRANKEN: Luis, I want you to know that while you're not with us anymore, I'm proud of you.


TAPPER: You can read more about Captain Montalvan and Tuesday's story in Senator Al Franken's new Memoir, Giants of the Senate. Be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @jaketapper or tweet the show @theleadcnn. You can tune into Sunday Morning for "STATE OF THE UNION", my guests will be former Vice President Al Gore and the Vice Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Mark Warner. In addition, we'll have Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. That's it for THE LEAD, I am Jake Tapper. I now turn you over to Wolf Blitzer in "The Situation Room." Thanks for watching.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN THE SITUATION ROOM HOST: Happening now, breaking news, invoking his privilege? President Trump is weighing whether to block potentially damaging testimony by the FBI -- the former FBI Director.