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Trump Draws Complaints With Choice For New VA Secretary; Fired VA Secretary Defends Trip, Blames Politics For Firing; NYT: Trump Lawyer Discussed Pardons For Flynn, Manafort; Outrage Intensifies Ahead Of Stephon Clark Funeral. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired March 29, 2018 - 11:00   ET



BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, there. I'm Brianna Keilar in for Kate Bolduan.

Just minutes from now, we could hear from President Trump as he leaves the White House on a bit of a road trip. And after he sends another cabinet member packing, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin is the latest to spin the revolving door at the White House. He becomes the seventh high profile departure, and that is just this month.

The embattled Shulkin publicly fired by presidential tweet, joins a dizzying list of other administration officials to be shown the door. And keep in mind, that all of these departures have taken place in just 14 months. Shulkin leaves Washington, calling it, quote, "a toxic, chaotic, and disrespectful place."

The president wants to replace him with White House Physician Ronny Jackson, he would run the government's second largest bureaucracy and one of the most problematic, despite not really having management experience.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is at the White House for us. So, Jeff, the former VA secretary is defending what was a controversial trip that contributed to his firing. What is he saying?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: He is, Brianna, good morning. We have known for days and even weeks that the Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin has been on thin ice here at the White House. He's one of several cabinet members who had some expensive flights and other matters that did not sit well with the president.

There were also some other disagreements about the privatization of some medical services at the VA, but we did hear from David Shulkin, an interview with NPR. He was explaining how he believes he was innocent in all of this. Let's take a listen to this interview this morning.


DAVID SHULKIN, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS: This was being characterized as a European vacation. It was far from that. This was official business on nights and weekends. I went out, never used government money for that. The single expenditure spent was on a coach airfare for my wife who was officially invited.


ZELENY: So, indeed, the flight and the trip that he's talking about ended up in Wimbledon and he was criticized by the inspector general, but he certainly is not alone in terms of members of the Trump cabinet who had flights and other questionable expenses like this.

But it was actual other divisions at the VA, some Trump loyalists there who were supportive of privatizing some of these services. He was against that. And he, of course, was a holdover from the Obama administration who the president was hailing as one of his favorite members of the cabinet, just last summer.

That, of course, all changed. But, Brianna, the biggest surprise was not the firing of Secretary Shulkin, it was indeed the hiring of Dr. Ronny Jackson.

KEILAR: So, tell us about this pick and how it is being received.

ZELENY: Certainly interesting. Of all of the hospital administrators, all the veteran leaders, all the people who were considered for that, it turns out the president went to someone essentially at his side all the time, Dr. Ronny Jackson, a rear admiral in the Navy, but he is the president's personal physician. He came into the public spotlight, you'll remember, just a couple of months ago in the White House briefing room when he was talking about the president's physical condition.


DR. RONNY JACKSON, NOMINEE FOR SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS: There is no indication whatsoever he has any cognitive issues. The president, he's very sharp, very articulate, a lot of energy and stamina. Look at his vision, he's 71 years old, he can drive if he wants to without glasses. He washes his hands frequently. He uses Purell. He has incredible genes. I think he'll remain fit for duty for remainder of this term and the remainder of another term if he's elected.


ZELENY: So, that, of course, is a string of sound bites from a press conference, more than an hour long. Dr. Jackson essentially describing the president as just a bit short of superman, saying his health is outstanding. Now, it is certainly raising some questions, though, about his management experience.

He's well liked. He was President Obama's physician as well. This is a third administration he's worked for. But in terms of management experience, running this big of an agency, he certainly will have to go through the confirmation process like everyone else, answer questions for the senators.

And the VA remains a troubled agency here. So, just because the president nominated him does not necessarily mean he'll be confirmed. This will be playing out over the next weeks and likely months to come -- Brianna.

KEILAR: And the president is taking a trip to Ohio for a big event that we haven't seen really something like this for some time. What are we expecting?

ZELENY: Right. He'll be leaving the White House later this hour, he's flying to Ohio to talk about infrastructure. But more importantly, it's the first public event on his schedule all week long. He's been staying out of the spotlight, of course, as he's questioned about Stormy Daniels and other things have been weighing over the White House. So, we'll see if he talks to reporters as he leaves the White House coming up in this hour -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thank you. I want to continue this conference now and bring in CNN politics senior writer, Juana Summers. So, Juana, you've been reporting on the response to Jackson's appointment. There's a lot of skepticism.

[11:05:10] JUANA SUMMERS, CNN POLITICS SENIOR WRITER: There is, Brianna. I spent the evening and this morning talking with veteran service organizations and what I'm hearing from these groups is they don't know much about him. They're concerned as Jeff Zeleny was pointing out, the VA is the government's second largest bureaucracy.

It has more than 370,000 employees, and it does a lot more than just care for the nation's veterans. They're worried he's never been a manager before. He served the country. He's been a doctor.

This is an unwieldy bureaucracy and facing a bunch of questions including this big debate about whether or not to move more care for the nation's veterans and to the private sector.

KEILAR: And Shulkin leaving the VA, he has not gone quietly. He's been doing some interviews. What are we expecting ahead of this?

SUMMERS: Yes. I wouldn't be surprised if we hear more from him, listening to the tone of that NPR interview and the op-ed he did in the "New York Times." You know, he is suggesting the White House never let him tell his story when it came to that trip. That's something similar to what he said to me several weeks ago when I spoke with him.

He said, you know, this wasn't a vacation, he did nothing wrong. And I want to point out one thing, he acknowledged he couldn't even put out a statement defending himself. He did put out a statement, appeared on the VA's website for a short time and then it was taken down and replaced by a statement by the VA's press secretary.

So, I think he's looking really to come out and tell his story about how he feels that he was pushed out over a policy dispute when he's really tried to care for the nation's veterans and tried to advance the president's agenda. If you recall, this was one of the president's signature campaign promises.

KEILAR: Juana, thank you so much for that. Now if the president poses before the cameras, minutes from now, as he makes his way out of the White House, heading for Ohio, he is likely facing questions on another story that is really hanging over the White House.

That's because the "New York Times" reported that former Trump lawyer, John Dowd, floated the idea of pardoning two key figures in the Russia investigation while the special counsel was building cases against them.

The "Times" report raises questions on whether Dowd was trying to discourage Michael Flynn, the then -- the fired national security adviser, and Paul Manafort, former head of the Trump campaign, from cooperating with investigators.

CNN crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz, is joining us live to talk about this. What all do you know, Shimon?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Right, Brianna. And that's the key question here, if this reporting is true by "The New York Times", that's the key question, as you said there, whether or not this was being done to in some way influence the investigation.

Was there concern from the White House, perhaps from John Dowd, that Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn would eventually cooperate, and so was he trying to sway them in some way from doing so.

And it is all according to "New York Times" obviously that there was this perhaps -- this is what this story suggests. This, according to the "New York Times," occurred before the two men were charged, before Michael Flynn perhaps was even in talks of cooperating while the special counsel was investigating.

People we have talked to certainly, my colleagues here at CNN have all denied that this happened, have denied that the president knew, and it could be that John Dowd, who is no longer the president's lawyer, was freelancing here, perhaps, and may have approached these attorneys on his own. The attorneys for Paul Manafort at the time and Kelner have both declined to comment for the story -- Brianna.

KEILAR: The language is really interesting when you listen to these denials from Ty Cobb and the White House. Everyone is really careful to use the present tense, which of course, doesn't tell you what may have happened in the past. Tell us about that.

PROKUPECZ: Yes, that's right. Look, certainly, Ty Cobb, others at the White House, you know, have denied this. Other lawyers have chosen not to comment for the story. Something perhaps has happened. But really yesterday when the White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders came before cameras, she addressed this, also denying it, using a statement from Ty Cobb. Take a listen.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I would refer you back to the statement from Ty Cobb and the report that you're asking about when which he said I've only been asked about pardons by the press and have routinely responded on the record that no pardons are under discussion or under consideration at the White House. (END VIDEO CLIP)

PROKUPECZ: So, Brianna, really the key question here on everyone's mind and why this story has sort of taken on this buzz is whether or not this plays into an obstruction case, whether or not this -- how this all plays into the special counsel and the Robert Mueller investigation. We just don't know the answer to that right now.

KEILAR: All right. Shimon, thank you so much.

I want to bring in Jamil Jaffer, associate White House counsel under President George W. Bush. Jameel, there is a lot of debate about whether the president's lawyer suggesting a possible pardon to Flynn and to Manafort is obstruction of justice. Because he was -- they were in talks with the special counsel.

There was this question of, are they going to cooperate, are they going to plead guilty? You're actually skeptical of the -- of making that case, that this could be obstruction of justice. Why?

JAMIL JAFFER, GEORGE MASON UNIVERSITY: Well, look, Brianna, there is a big debate in the legal community about whether the president can ever be charged with obstruction of justice. Putting that to one side, the president has a pretty broad constitutional power to pardon folks.

[11:10:10] And so whether he's considering it or even his lawyers are having discussions about it, at the end of the day, it is a purely -- it is a pure power given the president of the constitution, it is highly unlikely you can make an obstruction case out of that. There is a lot of other stuff going on here, what is -- what you say about this is the atmospherics are terrible, if in fact, that is what was going on.

KEILAR: You think that -- it is not that you don't think there is perhaps a case or certainly data points on a case for obstruction of justice, you just think that other points are stronger, right? Which ones?

JAFFER: Well, look, I think there are -- there has been a lot of talk about what has been going on at the White House and who is saying what to whom and, you know, as the president asking questions. We talked about that before.

And so, somebody wanted to make a case about obstruction, this is probably the last thing they point to. There's a lot of other things they may point to. I'm not saying there say good case for obstruction or not. I'm just saying there is a lot of other stuff going on that people might be talking about.

KEILAR: CNN is reporting right now that the Justice Department, the officials at the Justice Department were e-mailing this summer about the possibility of if President Trump tweeted a pardon, that they concluded that he could do so without involvement from the Justice Department. What do you think about that? JAFFER: Well, look, I mean, the president has done a lot of things by tweet, fired some staff, some of his cabinet officials, so it could very well be possible. Typically, that's not how the process works. You ask for a pardon, it goes to the pardon attorney at the Justice Department.

There's a whole staffing process, a memo gets prepared for the president. But, you know, look, the president has the authority. It's his constitutional authority if he chooses to exercise it without advising his lawyers and without advising the Justice Department. That's his prerogative. It probably would be unwise, but it is his prerogative.

KEILAR: So, he does have these broad powers, as you point out, it is his prerogative. Is it his prerogative to use the power of the pardon to effectively shut down the Russia investigation? Could he use that power?

JAFFER: Well, look, there is a big debate about whether the president could shut the investigation down completely himself (inaudible) saying the investigation is over, it's done or firing Mueller or the attorney general and the investigation.

There is a lot of ways the president might seek to end the investigation. It's worth noting he hasn't done that yet thus far. There's been some talk about firings and the like, and we'll see how that plays out. This may be one methodology if you pardon folks.

But at the end of the day, one thing about pardoning, once you pardon someone, there is no charge to be brought, it changes the self- incrimination situation and so people might be able to be brought to testify if they have been given immunity or pardoned.

KEILAR: That is a very interesting point. Jameel, thank you so much for that.

Coming up, the outrage and protest building on Sacramento ahead of the funeral for Stephon Clark. He is the unarmed black man who was shot and killed in his grandmother's backyard. And the lawyer for the family today says the police executed him. We are live in Sacramento.

Plus, the president launching a new attack today on Amazon, accusing the tech giant of hurting the U.S. Postal Service. The Postal Service disagrees. Stay with us for that.



KEILAR: While tension grows in Sacramento over the shooting death of an unarmed black man, the family of Stephon Clark prepares for his funeral here in just a few hours. Clark was shot and killed by police while he was standing in his grandmother's backyard, nearly two weeks ago. Police said he had a gun in his hand, but later, they found only a cell phone. The Clark family attorney is responding to that claim.


BENJAMIN CRUMP, CLARK FAMILY ATTORNEY: It is less than 17 seconds from the moment that they enter at with him until they make the decision to execute him. Now, it is so problematic because they are barking orders, but it doesn't seem like they give him any time to comply with their orders.


KEILAR: CNN's Dan Simon is joining me now from Sacramento. Dan, there is going to be a big turnout today for Stephon Clark's funeral.

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No question about it, Brianna. I'm in front of the church, the service expected to get under way in a few hours, and they're really expecting as many as 500 people. It is open to the public. And Reverend Al Sharpton, he is going to be delivering the eulogy.

Now, in terms of the overall investigation, Brianna, no new developments, but we are now really for the first time hearing the -- what the police officers have to say, or at least this comes from the Police Officers Association.

And what they are saying is that Stephon Clark essentially got into a shooting stance, and the officers perceived a threat and therefore they acted justifiably. Their acts were justified is what they are saying.

Now, in terms of the protests, we are expecting another protest tonight, but where they go is unclear. There is additional concern that they might attempt to block the doors once again at the Sacramento Kings arena.

But the Kings organization announced that they have actually partnered with Black Lives Matter, and they say they want to create this partnership so there can be more opportunities for black youth in the city of Sacramento.

They've also announced that they have established an education fund for Stephon Clark's children. But no question, there will be some form of protest tonight, but where the protesters go and what type of disruption they might attempt to do we still don't know -- Brianna.

KEILAR: All right. Dan Simon, thank you so much.

The White House is now getting backlash over how it responded to the Stephon Clark shooting. Just listen to what White House Communications Director Sarah Sanders had to say when asked why President Trump has not commented on this.


SANDERS: This is something that is a local matter, and that is something we feel should be left up to the local authorities at this point in time.


KEILAR: Let's talk about this now with CNN political commentator and former press secretary for the Bernie Sanders campaign, Symone Sanders, and former Republican Westchester County New York executive, Rob Astorino, with us.

[11:20:02] So, Symone, the president himself, he hasn't commented on the Louisiana attorney general's decision, which was to not file charges against the officers involved in a different case, in the Alton Sterling death.

A man who did have a gun on him but was on the ground and police were trying to grab his hands. Trump has commented on those police officers in the past though in a video that really the whole world was able to see. Here is what the president said.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I thought they were terrible. I thought it was a terrible, disgusting performance that I saw. Now, whether that's training, whether that's -- they choked, they got scared, or nervous, I mean, the one man who was being stepped on and then shot in particular, I looked at that, I said, wow, that's bad, that's bad.


KEILAR: So, there he is, talking before about Alton Sterling. Now he's not. Why do you think he's staying silent, Symone?

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, I don't think the White House has a good answer on this, per se, and that's why they're not allowing, you know, Donald Trump or even the administration itself to have a comment on this. The idea that this is a, quote/unquote, "local matter" is absolutely laughable.

We know that President Trump will comment on -- he like called Roseann yesterday to talk about her show. He comments on things that are happening in communities across this country and abroad all of the time.

And so, the idea that he cannot comment on Stephon Clark, that he doesn't have a comment on the Alton Sterling case is laughable and it's just frankly sad -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Rob, I wonder what you think. You have Sarah Sanders saying that this is a local matter, but we also know that hasn't stopped the president in the past. He often has brought up Kate Steinle, who was shot and killed in California by an undocumented immigrant in 2015, he talked about that as recently as December.

When the jury acquitted Jose Zarate, Trump called it a disgraceful verdict. So, what is different here when previously he's not been stopped from talking about what might fit into this category of local matters? ROB ASTORINO, FORMER WESTCHESTER COUNTY EXECUTIVE: A few things.

First of all, in that video of the president, that was July of 2016, he was a presidential candidate, not the president.

KEILAR: But I just told you about the Kate Steinle thing which he talked about as recently as December when he was president.

ASTORINO: But what I was getting to for that, that was well in the past, it was established, gone through the process, a court determined what happened and immigration was the issue there where that is only a function of the federal government.

In these kind of cases, and first of all, we -- you know, someone died here and that is an absolute tragedy and always is, but police matters on a local police issue, a state issue, really should go through the process, if the president on every case jumps in, it becomes national.

And it becomes very divisive, and this already is divisive. There is a process here. In California, for instance, they've already asked Sacramento asked the attorney general to do an investigation in the state of California.

And I think that's the process we should take and I think you know, right now, discretion is better than coming out and tweeting about something where he doesn't even have the facts.

SANDERS: I'm sorry, these are the facts we do have. Stephon Clark was in the backyard of his grandmother's house, the house that he lives in --

KEILAR: Actually, I can just stop you real quick, Symone. We're talking about Alton Sterling and actually at this point, Rob, I would disagree with you because it is now settled. Stephon Clark, yes, ongoing. Alton Sterling, that was decided this week by the Louisiana attorney general to not pursue. So, it is not in progress.

ASTORINO: Bo, but they were clear too, and they were cleared with a lot of different investigations.

KEILAR: It is not in progress, though. You were saying he should wait. I mean, this is done. That one is done.

ASTORINO: I was talking about Sacramento. On the issue of Louisiana, does he have to get involved in everything? I mean, that case cleared the officers where the suspect was on meth, and on cocaine, repeatedly failed to --


ASTORINO: -- listen to a police officer. We don't want him to get involved in every incident.

SANDERS: Excuse me. Excuse me. Are we really going to -- are we really -- I really --

ASTORINO: He was reaching for a gun. He had a gun. SANDERS: We don't know he was reaching for a gun.

ASTORINO: He had a gun on him.

SANDERS: When we start to demonize -- I really think it is problematic here when we start to demonize the victims in these cases. Why -- the question on the table is, why can Donald Trump comment on everything else, but when it comes to issues that do not fit his political narrative, we cannot hear from this White House. I think that's problematic.

I'm not going to sit here and let you say that Alton Sterling was basically a criminal that was reaching for his gun and deserved to get shot because guess what? The young man that shot and killed 17 people on a high school campus the other day, he was taken into custody alive.

You know, Dylan Roof who walked into a church and shot nine people, he was taken into custody alive and then was taken to Burger King to get a burger before they took him to jail.

[11:25:07] So, the problem here is, it seems as though that when we have suspects or people who are engaged in situations with police officers that are a little bit more melaninated (ph) than some of our counterparts, they seem to not make it out of the situations alive.

They do not get due process. They do not get to go through the process and they're not given the benefit of being innocent until proven guilty. Police officers are seemingly making these decisions in the streets and not in the courtrooms and that is where we have an issue here.

ASTORINO: You have a split-second decision that needs to be made. In the case in Louisiana, they were going, knowing that the person or at least the call was the person had a gun. In fact, he did. They tasered him. They couldn't apprehend him. He wasn't listening. He was also on drugs.

KEILAR: But Rob, the Sacramento case, why not have the president -- look, I'm not saying he has to issue his verdict on this, but the idea that they thought there was a gun, there wasn't a gun, there was a cell --

ASTORINO: But we don't know what the facts are. You have potential camera, infrared as well from aviation, from the helicopter. You have witnesses and you're compiling a case right now. It is still seven days is early into the case. Let it --

KEILAR: Doesn't he have some ability to say something without getting in the way --

ASTORINO: What do you want him to say, other than condolences?

SANDERS: I would like him to say something that calms the fears and concerns of people and communities across the country. Donald Trump is in fact the president of all people. And when folks in the community -- in communities are hurting, it is nice to hear from the president because he tweeted, we didn't know the -- all the details in Parkland, but he knew that someone had been shot. And so, thoughts and prayers, even though thoughts and prayers are not enough --

ASTORINO: Parkland was clear cut. Parkland was pretty clear cut. This incident happened at night. There was a call of a suspicion, apparently, he was running or on the move, and so --

SANDERS: I'm not going to --

ASTORINO: I think we need to let this settle down a little bit. Reverend Al Sharpton going, I don't know if that will make anything better right now. But the president, no matter what he tweeted, Symone, he would be jumped on. I think right now it is better that he doesn't say anything and let the process in Sacramento and in California -- due process for the police officers as well, let this play out.

SANDERS: That it would be better if the president did say something. They need to -- as a communications professional, the president absolutely should have said something.

ASTORINO: If he tweeted my condolences and prayers, you would jump on him, right?

BOLDUAN: Rob, thank you so much.

SANDERS: I'm seconds away from jumping on you in this conversation.

KEILAR: We won't know. We won't know at this point in time unless he tweets that. We'll be right back. Thank you so much.