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Kushner Business Loans; Sessions Dines with Rosenstein; Trump Stuns Republicans on Guns; Carson's $31,000 Dinning Set. Aired 9:30- 10a ET

Aired March 1, 2018 - 09:30   ET


[09:30:00] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Suzanne Malveaux on Capitol Hill.

Thanks so much.

Joining me now, CNN's senior political analyst David Gergen and Ron Brownstein, and CNN political analyst Amie Parnes.

Guys, if I can, I'm going to come back to guns in a second, but first I want to clean up a couple of the other major stories that we're talking about today.

And, Amy, first to you.

You know, we reported earlier in the show on Jared Kushner, the stories about his finances, the meetings he took, the big loans that his businesses got after. You know, this on the heels of his spokesman leaving. This on the heels of everything else that's been going on.

You know, it begs the big question here, you know, Jared, Ivanka, staying, going, closer to going today than they were yesterday or just more of the same?

AMIE PARNES, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think he is definitely. And I think people inside the West Wing that I've spoken to have said as much. They don't trust him. They think that this was problematic and increasingly problematic as these stories happen. You know, it's just interesting to see the distrust there, the fact that, you know, John Kelly doesn't really trust him and he has his own faction and Kushner has his own faction or maybe he's a team of one at this point. I think there's a lot of, you know, consternation inside the White House happening right now. And a lot of it is kind of directed at Kushner.

BERMAN: The tension is very, very real. The consequence, you know, TBD.

Ron Brownstein, skipping to the next subject, which is Jeff Sessions right now. Yesterday it was during our show the president put out a statement calling the attorney general disgraceful. What made it different was this time the attorney general, he sort of fought back. He put out a statement defending himself saying this is going -- is how he's going to act as long as he's attorney general. And then last night there was this. I'd like to show you some video if

I can of the attorney general. I think we have this. Let's put it up if we can. Well, I'll describe it in vivid details.

The president -- the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, left the Justice Department, and with him was Rod Rosenstein. Rod Rosenstein, of course, is the man who is overseeing the special counsel investigation.

Now, Ron, you know, you and I have both covered politics for a while. You don't have to walk outside and go to dinner and be seen in public if you don't want to. This walk doesn't happen unless you want people to see it. What message is the attorney general sending?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, look, I mean he is -- he is sending a message of a kind of -- defiance might be too strong a word, but certainly standing up.

You know, I'm struck. I mean in any other administration, the events of the last few days would be Krakatoa (ph) or Vesuvius (ph). In this administration, it's Thursday. You know, it is par for the course to have this extraordinary level of internal open conflict and also, again, a reminder of the president's trampling over the traditional norms that have -- that have for generations held limits on the president's ability to directly intervene in ongoing law enforcement investigations. I mean this entire episode is again a reminder how he views the entire law enforcement process of the federal government as an extension of his personal will.

And also the fact that even Jeff Sessions is pushing back against this. Again, I think by contrast underscores how compliant the Republican Congress has been in accepting his willingness to run over these norms.


BROWNSTEIN: So, you know, it is just a reminder of how deep into uncharted waters we are almost every day.

BERMAN: Will that change, though, if the president splits with them on the policies that they care most about, and has he split with them on the policies he cares most about? How is that for a segue into the gun discussion right now?


BERMAN: Because, David Gergen, yesterday the president held this meeting inside the White House, a bipartisan meeting behind -- you know, with the cameras all there on the issue of guns it's great to have this kind of transparency. It's great to see the sausage being made.

Let's review some of the things the president said out loud as the whole world was watching yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm going to write the bump stock -- essentially write it out.

It doesn't make sense that I have to wait until I'm 21 to get a handgun, but I can get this weapon at 18. I don't know.

I like taking the guns early. Take the guns first, go through due process second.


BERMAN: So all of those things, David Gergen, against a traditional stance of the NRA, and most Republicans. The last one, you know, taking guns without due process, against the law also. That's a separate issue.

You know, does this represent change, David Gergen, or are we in a position where nothing matters, nothing that was said yesterday when we were watching matters?

DAVID GERGEN: Well, it's certainly a change. He's toughened his stance against guns. And from my point of view, more power to him. And that coming along with the gun ownership say like Dick's, you know, moving back, Walmart moving back, those are welcome steps if we want to see tighter gun controls in this country.

But to go back to Ron Brownstein's point, that -- you know, this is Thursday. We don't know what's going to come Friday or Saturday or Sunday. He's changed his -- you know, he's spun around like a top on questions of policy with regard to guns.

[09:35:08] And it goes back to the fundamental question we've been discussing all morning, and that is the degree of chaos in the White House creates an uncertainty. This is a time when so many things are going on that are dangerous to the country. We need steady hands on the wheel. And when your White House is in chaos, you just can't get there. The president doesn't have time for deliberations. Nobody knows what -- if he says something on Thursday, it's going to hold on Friday. Trust goes down in that situation. It's much harder to govern.

So I -- all these things are coming together in a way that make the -- even the gun control debate now totally uncertain and we don't know where we're going.

BERMAN: All right, guys, hang on for a minute. I'm going to go back to the story we were talking about just before this because there is some breaking news from our Kaitlan Collins in the White House. It has to do with Jeff Sessions.

We mentioned that Jeff Sessions pushed back after the president called him disgraceful yesterday. Well, our Kaitlan Collins in the White House reporting the president didn't like that one bit.

Let me read this. The president was fuming yesterday after Jeff Sessions pushed back. A source familiar with his demeanor described the president as indignant. So, Amie, you know -- and then -- and then Jeff Sessions walks outside

with Rod Rosenstein, the man overseeing the Mueller investigation, last night.

PARNES: Yes. I mean you can see why he was indignant. He had a really bad day yesterday between his guns was overshadowed by, you know, his communications director departure. And now Sessions pushing back on him. This isn't going to end well. You know, this is -- this is more turmoil. This pushes him away further from the policy debates that he wants to do on guns, on other things. This is not helpful to his White House. And so he has to be really angry.

And you don't -- I think this is not going to play out for a very long time. Someone -- someone is going to have to leave. And I think Sessions might be fed up enough to do that.

BERMAN: Why? Ron Brownstein, why leave now if he didn't leave, you know, in July? If he didn't leave yesterday? I don't -- you know, I don't know what makes Jeff Sessions tick.


BERMAN: But it doesn't seem like there's anything the president can say that will force him out.

BROWNSTEIN: You can't underscore enough, what is the initial root of the fizer (ph) between them? It is Jeff Sessions' correct decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, which led to the appointment of the special counsel. It is the president's view that the attorney general should be defending him rather than, you know, upholding the laws and the Constitution that is at the root of the dispute between the two men.

And I do think the fact that the president -- and you also need to remember that Jeff Sessions was the first significant elected official to endorse Donald Trump in 2015-2016 in the campaign. And I think that -- you can't underestimate the impact of this kind of public attack on an initial supporter on other Republican elected officials who know, and are reminded again yesterday that while they -- Donald Trump has come further in their direction than many of them expected on the core economic issues, he is still someone who will turn on them at a moment's notice if he believes it is in their interest.

I don't think he sticks with the gun positions he took -- he took out yesterday anymore than he did with what he said on DACA. But the fact that he would give validity on these Democratic arguments after virtually every Senate Republican filibustered the bill that he praised in 2013 is again a reminder of all of them, that they can't really put all of their chips in his corner at any point because they simply don't know what he is going to do on Thursday versus Friday versus Monday.

BERMAN: David Gergen, very quickly, you've advised many presidents. I'm going to give you a chance to advise a former senator and current sitting attorney general. What do you think Jeff Sessions should do right now? Because this is humiliating. GERGEN: Well, he's been humiliated. He's been humiliated time after

time. I actually think his stock is going up, his reputation is improving, because he's standing up to the bullying coming from the White House. He's standing up for the rule of law. I think he's going to hang in there and be fired and not walk away.

BERMAN: All right, David Gergen, Ron Brownstein, Amie Parnes, thanks so much for being with us.


BERMAN: Yes, the question is, will it happen in the next half hour? Who knows at this point. Everything else has happened.

Adding to the administration's troubles this morning, a new investigation. This one into why HUD Secretary Ben Carson needed a $31,000 dinning set in his office.


[09:43:30] BERMAN: This morning the House Oversight chair, Trey Gowdy, is demanding answers from HUD Secretary Ben Carson after a $31,000 dining set was purchased for his office. All of this coming to light after a HUD employee claims that she was pressured to find money beyond the budget for the renovation and then was later demoted for refusing to spend more than was legally allowed.

All right, our government regulation correspondent Rene Marsh joins me now with the details.

And, Rene, look, a lot of people are wondering what a $31,000 dining set might look like. You've seen some of the first pictures. What can you tell us?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION AND GOVERNMENT REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: Yes. So, John, you know, on Tuesday, as you said, we reported that HUD purchased this $31,000 dining set. It was specifically for the secretary's dining room at the agency. And the price tag really raised eyebrows.

So now CNN has photos of what that $31,000 dining set looks like. And it includes a table, side board and breakfront all in mahogany and ten mahogany chairs with blue velvet finish. That's according to the company that sold the furniture to the agency, as well as purchasing documents obtained by CNN.

Now, the table and two base pedestals, that cost more than $4,000. Then there were eight regent dining side chairs. That cost $7,920. There were two additional armchairs. Those were a bit more expensive, $1,050. But it was this side board, the Jefferson sideboard, that really racked up the charges. The three pieces there totaled $13,579. You throw in the shipping and you get that grand total of more than $31,000.

[09:45:07] Now, the company that sold HUD the furniture says that the agency, when they were talking to them, said that they were looking for new dining furniture for the new secretary's office because the current furniture was old. We have images of what exists there at this point. We know that HUD has told us that the furniture you're looking at there is very -- it's beyond repair, they say. It's been in the agency since 1967.

But really what gets to the heart of the matter here is that the agency's spending on this furniture came into question after a top career HUD employee says that she was pressured to find funds to go beyond the legal limit to renovate Carson's office. I have to get in, though, they continue -- HUD continues to push back saying that the Carsons did not know about this purchase and Ben Carson tweeting out yesterday that they plan on putting out more information to clear all of this up.


BERMAN: In politics, one lesson you constantly learn, you always have to be careful of the Jefferson sideboard.

Rene Marsh, serious questions. $31,000 of taxpayer money here we might add.


BERMAN: Rene, thank you.

$31,000 pales in comparison to $500 million. Major ethics concerns sparking new questions about Jared Kushner's future at the White House. Will the president protect his son-in-law or could he be the next one out?


[09:50:57] BERMAN: So, this morning, Jared Kushner facing an onslaught. "The New York Times" is reporting that his family's businesses got hundreds of millions of dollars in loans after Jared Kushner had White House meetings with these financial officials.

And "The Wall Street Journal" is now piling on. The editorial board wrote, only Mr. Kushner and his lawyers know if there are other vulnerabilities. If there are, he and President Trump would both be better off if Mr. Kushner were out of the White House before they become public. Giving up their White House positions would be a bitter remedy, but Mr. Kushner and First Daughter Ivanka could still offer advice as outsiders. That's "The Wall Street Journal."

Joining me now, CNN contributor, former White House ethics czar, Ambassador Norm Eisen.

Ambassador, look, you've been saying that Jared Kushner really should have never been there in the first place. But let's talk specifically about these White House meetings. He meets with these two financial officials, one from a bank, one from private equity, then afterwards those companies give his family businesses big, giant loans. What's the problem with that?

NORM EISEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: John, thanks for having me back.

The problem is that we have ethics rules in the United States of America that govern officials. And one of those rules is that you, as a public official, should not engage in anything that creates the appearance of a conflict. There is an enormous appearance of a conflict here when you're having meetings, discussing matters, as Mr. Kushner did, in his official capacity, and then those same companies that have enormous financial interests in the functioning of the federal government give gigantic loans to Kushner-related enterprises.

This is not a close call, John, in any administration. Democratic or Republican, this would have been forbidden. That's why we made people get rid of their businesses.

BERMAN: So, ambassador, let's just give you what the response is, basically. Not from the White House, but we're hearing this from the Kushner companies and also these financial institutions. They basically say, the meetings that Jared Kushner had, had nothing to do with the ultimate loans. These loans had nothing to do with the meetings. They were going to happen anyway.

EISEN: Well, John, that betrays an ignorance of the rules. And in a way it's as disturbing as the meetings themselves. The rules do not require that there be proof of a quid pro quo. We don't know if there was one. We don't know one way or the other. It is going to be looked at for sure.

They require that you keep well away from the appearance of a conflict because if you're avoiding the appearance, then you're not going to have the actual conflict. Those rules have been breached. And the total lack of sensitivity to those rules, the appearances here, the fact that they want us to take on faith that it wasn't discussed, that there was no wink about this, or that people didn't go out and think, OK, I'm going to do this in order to curry favor, that's a lot to swallow. That's why we have these rules.

BERMAN: So one argument also you hear, ambassador, is that, look, if you want to have rich people or people with vast business dealings who have been very successful in the business world, this might happen inside the White House. This is very hard for people who are this successful in business to disassociate themselves completely from everything they have done. Is that fair?

EISEN: No, John, it's not fair. It's rubbish.

Again, both Democratic and Republican administrations have had very successful business people. Our country has not been run for two and a half centuries by paupers. I made the people who came into the White House liquidate their business interests. They were not happy about it. My Republican predecessor, Professor Painter (ph), did the same thing with some of the wealthiest people in the country. But we explained, in order to avoid this miasma, this stink of conflict, you've got to get rid of your businesses so you can do the job.

[09:55:02] Outstanding people are willing to engage in public service and make those sacrifices because they're patriotic. They believe in our country.

And what we've seen in the Trump administration, and it started, John, the fish rots from the head, the president insisted on hanging on to his businesses. Despite constitutional rules that are implicated. And now it's a free for all.

BERMAN: Right.

EISEN: It's led to the Kushner situation, the $31,000 table in Mr. Carson's office --

BERMAN: Ambassador --

EISEN: And all of the other allegations. It's shameful.

BERMAN: The Jefferson sideboard at HUD right now.

Ambassador Norm Eisen, thanks very much. I know this is an area you care a lot about.

One of the president's most trusted aides, Hope Hicks, out. His attorney general is still in, despite repeated insults. Now we know the president furious anew at the attorney general and the special counsel looking into that relationship.

We've got developments all over the place. We're going to take a quick break. New developments ahead.