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Complaints over VA Secretary Nominee; Trump Goodbye to Hope Hicks; Pardons for Flynn and Manafort; Sessions on "Time"; Funeral for Stephon Clark. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired March 29, 2018 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: All of these departures have taken place in just 14 months. Shulkin leaves Washington calling it toxic, chaotic and disrespectful.

The president wants to replace him with the White House physician Ronny Jackson. He would run the government's second largest bureaucracy and one of its most problematic, despite not having any real experience in management.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is at the White House for us.

Jeff, the former VA secretary has been really vocal. He's not leaving quietly. He's defending what was a controversial trip that contributed to his firing. Tell us about it.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: He is indeed, Brianna. This is David Shulkin, the now the outgoing -- in fact fired secretary of Veterans Affairs. He was giving an interview with NPR this morning, as well as an op-ed in "The New York Times," defending a trip he took to Wimbledon, which caught the eye of the inspector general. He's one of many cabinet members here who is doing some unauthorized and expensive flights. But he also says that he was actually being railroaded by other members of this administration who had strong disagreements with him on the privatization of some medical services at the VA. This is how he explained it this morning to NPR.


DAVID SHULKIN, FORMER VA SECRETARY: As you said, there are many political appointees in the VA that believe that we are moving in the wrong direction or weren't moving fast enough towards privatizing the VA. As I've always said, I think that it's essential for national security and for the country that we honor our commitment by having a strong VA. I was not against reforming VA, but I was against privatization. And I think that it was really the political appointees that were trying to undermine our efforts at VA.


ZELENY: So this really speaks, Brianna, to the level of dysfunction that has, indeed, you know, been rising month by month in this administration. There has been a push and pull over a variety of things, but the VA certainly squarely in the middle of that. I remember last summer being at an event here at the White House where the president said he would never have to say those words "you're fired" that he said on "The Apprentice" to David Shulkin. But indeed yesterday he said just that.

But more surprisingly was his decision to appoint his personal physician, Dr. Ronny Jackson, to head up this agency. It certainly speaks to the really small universe of advisers the president has surrounded himself with. He wants someone he's comfortable with as he, you know, seeks to reshape his presidency. Dr. Jackson, of course, became most known when he walked into the White House briefing room and said this about the president's health.


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


ZELENY: So certainly all of that was music to the president's ears.

Important to point out that Dr. Jackson also was the physician for President Obama but has indeed become very close to this president. And it was a surprise to virtually everyone here when he was tapped for that importance. He has to go through confirmation hearings, which will, you know, take weeks, even months, to come.

But, Brianna, just a few moments ago on the south side of the White House, the other side from where I'm standing now, when the president was leaving, he was walking out of the Oval Office and spent a few moments with Hope Hicks, of course, the outgoing communications director. Arguably one of his closest advisers and aide. She's somewhat of a Trump whisperer, if you will.

She was on his campaign from the very beginning, sat only steps from the Oval Office. She is one of the many people who have decided to leave this administration. Shortly after that, we asked the president many question about the VA, about Stormy Daniels, even about infrastructure, where he's heading to Ohio. Brianna, the president, once again, for almost a week in a row now, would not answer our questions. Smiled, waved, and climbed on Marine One.


KEILAR: What are we -- what are we expecting in Ohio, Jeff?

ZELENY: We are expecting the president to talk about that infrastructure plan. It's basically a stalled infrastructure plan. We don't expect the House or the Senate to do much in terms of big pieces of legislation. But he is still pitching the infrastructure plan, talking about bridges, highways, other things there. But it's actually a pretty rare event for the president. He's not traveled nearly as much as his predecessor. So he'll be going to Ohio in the Cleveland area, and then by dinnertime, before dinnertime, he'll be in Mar-a- Lago. He'll be spending the Easter weekend there.


KEILAR: Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thank you so much.


KEILAR: Now, joining me to discuss is Amy Kremer. She's co-chair of Women Vote Trump, and Democratic strategist Scott Mulhauser with us as well.

So, Amy, the president chose Ronny Jackson, in large part because he performs well on television. I mean you -- I think you probably saw or maybe you could hear his appearance there earlier in the year at the White House. It was almost like an audition, in a way, for the kind of style that the president really likes. He's also served for decades as a naval physician. We do not want to take away from that at all. But are you concerned about something that -- some people are wondering, even people who have reserve judgment on him, he doesn't have any management experience.

[12:05:27] AMY KREMER, CO-CHAIR, WOMEN VOTE TRUMP: Well, Brianna, I have to push back on you a little bit because I wouldn't say he was appointed because he performs well on television. I would say he has spent the past year and several months every day with the president of the United States. One of the president's top priorities was reorganizing and getting better -- more and better care for our veterans, taking care of our veterans. And Shulkin is an Obama holdover. He's been there. The president thinks things through as a businessman -- a businessman, and it has not happened as fast as I think he would like. And then you have this whole scandal with his European trip. And I think the president said it's time to go. And considering that --

KEILAR: Yes, but, Amy, Amy --


KEILAR: He's a holdover as a physician. This is managing a giant -- the second largest bureaucracy after the Pentagon. So --

KREMER: No, I'm talk -- well, I'm taking -- I was talking about Shulkin being a holdover. But, yes, he doctor is a holdover.

KEILAR: Oh -- oh, Shulkin, OK, I see.

KREMER: Yes. So -- but the doctor is a holdover, too, and he has spent every single day with the president since he's been in office, and he knows what the president wants and expects. I'm sure that they've had many conversations about it. And, Brianna, at the end of the day, the VA administration is not

working the way the president wants it done.

KEILAR: OK, but to my point --

KREMER: We elected him to be a disruptor and the president is making changes. And he wants the cabinet he wants.

KEILAR: So, but, Amy, what about -- he doesn't have -- the lack of management experience, speak to that.

KREMER: Well, I mean, somebody that had the management experience has not been doing a good job. So, as I said, the president was elected to be a disruptor, to change things. He is putting our veterans first and he's switching things up. And that's exactly what he was elected to do.

KEILAR: Scott, I wonder what you think, because something that stuck out to us was the chairman of the Senate committee on Veterans Affairs, Johnny Isaacson, and his response. He said, I look forward to meeting Admiral Jackson and learning more about him.

That's not a ringing endorsement. You can tell that he's -- you know, he's not -- he's not criticizing the appointment. But what is so clear in that statement is that there is some concern, because Johnny Isaacson knows how important this position is.

SCOTT MULHAUSER, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: That's right. I think the challenge here is both how to succeed in Donald Trump's cabinet and how to help effectively manage that bureaucracy and how to effectively manage that agency. And I think issues -- any issues with Secretary Shulkin aside, the questions for members, Democrat and Republican, are clearly going to be, how is the doctor as a manager, how will he do running this giant bureaucracy, running this giant organization that is attempting to help our veterans?

KEILAR: How do you expect the confirmation process to play out, Scott? Is it -- is it going to be a lot of focus on that then?

MULHAUSER: I think that's right. I think what you'll see is you'll see the doctor go Hill visit to Hill visit trying to woo individual members, and that will in part dictate his fate. And I think you'll get a sense from members by their reaction based on those individual meetings. And then following that, you'll really get a sense. But I think the fact that you're seeing hesitation from not just Senator Isaacson, but a host of Republicans and sort of middle of the road folks mean they just want to learn more. And that can go either way.

KEILAR: Amy, CNN's reporting that in the middle of all of this -- these big cabinet changes that we're seeing, the president's outside advisers have said to him, you know, you don't necessarily need a communications director or a chief of staff. What do you think about that?

KREMER: You know, I'm going to leave it up to the president. As I said, is -- we elected him to be a disruptor. And when things are not working as he wants, as he expects them, I expect him to make changes that will work. That's what -- he wants to be successful.

Remember, this is a man that gave up his private life to do this. He's not receiving any pay. He's doing it for the better of America. He wants to make America great again. And we know the president does not like to fail. So I trust in him that he's doing the right thing and he will make the right decisions that benefits all of America, because that's why he's doing what he's doing, Brianna.

KEILAR: At the risk of ask -- it's like me receiving a question, Scott, of like, do journalists or news anchors need to deliver the news, because I know this is your line of work? Can you imagine a president who doesn't have a comms director or a chief of staff?

MULHAUSER: It is remarkable, not just in -- it's sort of very illustrative of how the president organizes his world. It is someone -- your chief of staff and your communications director and your other senior staff help you do your job better. They amplify your voice. They help you manage your team. You need them to run an effective government. And he's running how many cabinet agencies and how many employees across the country? It is a remarkable endeavor and you need smart folks alongside you to help you do it.

KEILAR: Yes, you need the help. Someone you trust.

KREMER: Brianna, can I just -- can I just say --

[12:10:01] KEILAR: Actually, Amy, I am so sorry, we are -- we were actually out of -- we were out of time. I wanted to give Scott --

KREMER: We couldn't be too focused on titles, is what I was going to say. That doesn't mean he doesn't have the people around him. But --

KEILAR: Oh, that's an -- yes, no, that -- that's an interesting point.


KEILAR: Not to focus too much on the titles but getting the job done.

KREMER: Right.

KEILAR: Amy Kremer, thank you so much.

KREMER: Thank you.

KEILAR: Scott Mulhauser, we do appreciate it.

Coming up, the new report that could be of major interest to Special Counsel Bob Mueller. Trump's lawyer reportedly discussed pardons of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. We'll have details ahead.

Plus, protests building in Sacramento ahead of the funeral for Stephon Clark. He is the unarmed black man who was shot and killed in his grandmother's backyard. The lawyer for the family today saying that the police executed him. We are live from Sacramento.


KEILAR: Nobody at the White House will say that it happened. Sources tell "The New York Times," it absolutely did. Conversations about the president possibly pardoning two of his former top aides, Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn.

[12:15:05] Now, why is that a concern? Well, because those men are either charged with or have pleaded guilty of offenses related to foreign contacts or business dealings overseas during the Trump campaign. And if they were pardoned, the Robert Mueller-led special counsel would have no leverage over them and they would be less inclined to cooperate.

Rachael Bade is here. She's a CNN political analyst and reporter for "Politico." Also our legal and national security analyst Asha Rangappa with us.

So, Asha, if you were back in your old job here as FBI special agent and you learned that the president's lawyer contacted a person of interest and suggested to them the possibility of a pardon, you would think what?

ASHA RANGAPPA, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I would think that it's potentially problematic.

Brianna, we have to remember, the pardon power is one of the few unfettered powers in the Constitution. If the president actually pardons someone, then going into his motives and all of that is an uphill battle because he really has broad discretion to do that.

However, holding out a pardon as almost a bargaining chip to perhaps influence how someone behaves or even gets some kind of benefit in return is an entirely different story. That starts to look like an act of obstruction or potentially witness tampering or even bribery if there's an explicit or implicit quid pro quo. So the fact that he floated this out there I think will be of interest to Mueller, at the very least because it provides evidence that the president is worried about what these people might have to say.

KEILAR: And, Rachael, it was so interesting to hear Sarah Sanders in how she dealt with this topic. She was really careful with the language that she chose in denial of "The Times" story. She said, pardons are not currently under consideration. So she's speaking specifically to this moment in time only, which isn't really what the question is. What does that tell you?

RACHAEL BADE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, that perhaps they were talking about this a little earlier. At least that's what the reporting clearly shows from "The New York Times."

I think it's interesting, there's clearly two points of thought on this, and that is the president has the ability to do this. He has absolute power. And even if he was doing it, to try to keep staffers from talking about their Russia contacts, that -- that he can do it.

But the other piece of this is that the pardon power only goes -- does not go as far as to obstruct an investigation. And I think that the White House denying that they ever had any of these contacts show that they think the latter might be the interpretation ultimately used. They are very much trying to downplay this. They are denying it 100 percent. And I think that that is significant because if they did think the president had absolute power, they would say, we're considering this, we have the ability to do this, but clearly that is not the case.

KEILAR: Back in December, Asha, the president was asked whether he would pardon Michael Flynn. Here's what he said.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't want to talk about pardons of Michael Flynn yet. We'll see what happens. Let's see. I can say this. When you look at what's gone on with the FBI and with the Justice Department, people are very, very angry.


KEILAR: Let's keep in mind, so when he said that, that was after Flynn had pleaded guilty. It was while he was cooperating with the special counsel. Now knowing what we know from this "New York Times" report, what do you think about those comments?

RANGAPPA: Well, they could be trying to give a signal, an overture, that perhaps Flynn might hear. Again, it's a little less direct of a bargaining kind of action, but I think it could be sending that signal.

But remember, Brianna, that the president's pardon power only extends to federal crimes, crimes against the United States. So to the extent that any of these people could potentially be charged with state crimes, the president can't do anything about that. That's within the purview of the governor. And also if these people are pardoned, they no longer have the right to invoke the Fifth. They're in no danger of being incriminated. So Mueller in some ways can compel them to testify more broadly than they might otherwise.

KEILAR: Rachael, in other news, the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is on the cover of "Time" magazine declaring, quote, no one's above the law, defending his decision to recuse himself from the Russian probe. How's his boss going to react to this?

BADE: Not well. In fact, very brave on --

KEILAR: You say that so definitively. You're so sure.

BADE: Yes. And it's interesting. The timing is interesting, too, because heads are rolling left and right and people have said, you know, Sessions is on the chopping block here, too.

Look, this happened -- Sessions recused himself almost a year ago now, and he is still trying to defend himself because the president is still ticked at him over this and he clearly feels like he needs to try to justify. And I just think it's interesting. Maybe he's doing this pre-emptively. Maybe he knows something we don't in terms of if he's next to go. But, yes, I'm sure Trump will not take that well at all.

KEILAR: Or maybe he worries he's going to get the tweet. I mean the ax. I mean the tweet. The Tweet-ax, right?

All right, Asha, Rachael, thank you so much to both of you. Really appreciate it.

[12:20:04] Now, next, the family of Stephon Clark prepares to lay the young man to rest this afternoon in Sacramento. But his friends and neighbors still want answers from police.


KEILAR: While tension grows in Sacramento over the shooting death of an unarmed black man, Stephon Clark, his family is preparing for his funeral in just a few hours. Clark was shot and killed by police in his grandmother's backyard nearly two weeks ago. Police said he had a gun in his hand, but later they only found 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 interact with him until they make the decision to execute him. Now, it's so problematic because they are barking orders, but it doesn't seem like they give him any time to comply with their orders.


[12:25:07] KEILAR: CNN's Dan Simon joins us now from Sacramento.

Dan, I assume this is going to be a big turnout expected for this funeral today.

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A huge turnout, Brianna. And people are now beginning to arrive at the church behind me for this memorial service expected to get underway in about an hour and a half from now. And we expect Reverend Al Sharpton to actually deliver the eulogy.

Now, in terms of the overall investigation, Brianna, no real updates. But for the first time we are now getting a sense as to what the police officers are saying about all of this. And through a statement from the Police Officers Association, the two officers involved maintain that they were basically under threat. They say that Stephon Clark got into what is being described as a shooting stance. And so the officers feared for their lives and then fired their guns. Remember, some 20 times.

Of course, Stephon Clark was not armed as they thought he was. He was only holding a cell phone. And that is what has led to all the consternation and the protests that we've seen over the last several days. Now, there will be more protests this evening following this memorial

service. What happens tonight, we don't know. Of course there is concern that protestors will once again attempt to disrupt the Sacramento Kings basketball game. We've seen it twice already where protestors have basically surrounded the arena and have prevented fans from going inside. The stands have been virtually empty.

We know that the police department has been working with the organization if that type of protest occurs tonight. But the Kings have done something interesting here. They have partnered with the Black Lives Matter organization, and they basically say they want to help the Sacramento community find opportunities for black youth. And they've also said that they're going to establish an education fund for Stephon Clark's children. So that may mitigate things as far as the Sacramento Kings are concerned in terms of whether or not there will be a protest there.

But whether or not this angry group of protestors attempt to go somewhere else and disrupt things, that we don't know yet.


KEILAR: Dan Simon in Sacramento, thank you.

And coming up, do voters expect President Trump to win in 2020? We've got some CNN poll numbers that came in just moments ago, and they may surprise you.