Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Called EPA Chief Monday Said, "We Got Your Back"; Trump Blasts Obama, Amazon, Immigration In Twitter Outburst; CNN Sources: Trump Convinced He's His Own Best Adviser; Mueller Authorized To Probe Manafort/Russia Collusion; First Sentencing In Russia Probe Now Underway. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired April 3, 2018 - 11:00   ET



ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: -- starts right now.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Hi there. I'm Brianna Keilar in for Kate Bolduan. We begin with a thunderous Tuesday morning tweet storm. President Trump blowing up social media with a flurry of posts, railing on everything from the media and the Obama administration to Amazon and immigration.

Here's one of those tweets, "The big caravan of people from Honduras now coming across Mexico and heading to our weak laws border had better be stopped before it gets there. Cash cow NAFTA is in play as is foreign aid to Honduras and the countries that allow this to happen. Congress must act now."

Meantime, is the climate inside the White House changing for Scott Pruitt? Earlier CNN learned the president was angry over reports that Pruitt rented a room in Washington from the family of a prominent energy lobbyist.

But new this morning we've learned that Trump and his chief of staff are urging the embattled EPA chief to fight on.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is covering this from the White House for us. So, Kaitlan, the president made this call to Pruitt last night. What do we know about that?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, Brianna, really the standing of Scott Pruitt depends on who you ask and what is going on. If you ask the president, he calls Scott Pruitt last night to essentially voice confidence in him, saying we have got your back, hang in there.

And then the Chief of Staff John Kelly also phoned Pruitt this morning, essentially repeated what the president said, reinforced that confidence in him. But officials inside of the west wing are describing a sense of deja vu, because we have got another cabinet secretary mired in scandal.

This time over Scott Pruitt's living situation where he paid $50 a day to live in an apartment that is owned by a lobbyist. But what is clear, here, is that it is not clear at all what is going to happen with Scott Pruitt because he is someone that the president has liked.

The president is very fond of him, much fonder of him than he was in David Shulkin in recent weeks who the president essentially let twist in the wind and even in recent weeks the president was floating Pruitt as a potential replacement for Jeff Sessions over at the Department of Justice.

Of course, he does float multiple people, multiple times a day, for multiple jobs. So, it's important to keep that in mind, but also this vote of confidence is coming from the White House.

You have to take that with a grain of salt essentially because just one week as you recall when they -- before H.R. McMaster was fired as the national security adviser, the White House was also expressing confidence in him.

But just to give you a sense of what kind of a state the west wing is in right now, Brianna, the president called the EPA administrator last night to tell him he has confidence in him.

But just yesterday shortly before that phone call, White House officials were telling me that Pruitt had no, if any, defenders left in the west wing and that he was likely on his way out the door any day now, Brianna. So, what is going to happen with Scott Pruitt really depends on who you ask.

KEILAR: And back to his Twitter storm this morning, it sounds like he's trying out a new nickname for the former president.

COLLINS: Yes, that's right. No mention of the cabinet scandals over on the president's Twitter feed this morning. He's talking about his former -- the former President Barack Obama calling him the cheating Obama and also going off on Amazon yet again, not a surprise.

It's essentially the greatest hits from the president talking about his poll numbers there, saying thank you for the honest polling, just hit 50 percent, which is higher than the cheating Obama administration, cheating Obama at the same time in his administration.

Also, a tweet about Amazon saying, quote, "I am right about Amazon costing the United States Post Office massive amounts of money for being their delivery boy. Amazon should pay the costs plus and not have them borne by the American taxpayer. Many billions of dollars. Post Office leaders don't have a clue, or do they?"

Of course, that comes after experts say that Amazon actually helps the Post Office by paying them to do deliveries, but Brianna, we're just seeing the president continue to vent about this, also immigration as well. But not a word about what is going on over in his cabinet.

KEILAR: Yes. And he's wrong about Amazon. They pay the bulk rate that other users who have bulk mailings pay as well. Kaitlan Collins at the White House, thank you so much.

Joining me now, we have CNN senior White House correspondent, Pamela Brown, she's here along with CNN political director, David Chalian. Let's talk about some interesting reporting that you have about some of the chaos inside of the White House right now. It seems like according to what you're hearing the president is -- he's seeking his own counsel, really going back to that, and he's sort of embracing his own instincts.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, he's embracing his own instincts and this ever chaotic oval office and ignoring the advice of his own advisers, his own top aides who are trying to mitigate the appearance of disarray in the White House.

Case in point is what happened, I'm told, with the firing of Rex Tillerson, a source familiar with the matter says that the chief of staff, John Kelly, actually wanted to wait until Tillerson returned and to have a formal ceremony.

To have Tillerson, Pompeo and the president all meet together in the oval office and come out and do an unveiling of the new top diplomat. The president had other plans and I'm told by a source familiar that Chief of Staff Kelly was very upset, really fuming about this.

And that is what prompted him to call Rex Tillerson when he was abroad to tell him, you better hurry back because he was so worried the president was going to tweet his firing while he was still overseas.

[11:05:11] So, that just gives you an example, Brianna, of the fact that the president is ignoring those around him and were trying to sort of provide him more stability or at least the perception of stability in the White House by relying on his own instincts.

I spoke to one aide who is -- who said that people are growing frustrated by the president's sort attention span. Case in point, look at the tweets this morning. The official I spoke to said they'll go to brief him on one topic and then all of a sudden, he'll go on a tangent about Amazon or, you know, he'll -- it is reflective of the tweets. One after the other on different topics --

KEILAR: Sounds like they're upset for Donald Trump being Donald Trump.

BROWN: Well, that's the thing.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: They may be upset, but not surprised, I am sure.

KEILAR: Right. It is interesting that the reporting about Rex Tillerson because clearly Kelly wanted something ceremonious and it couldn't have been more unceremonious the way it all went down with Tillerson leaving. This -- all of these Twitter attacks that you're seeing here, the Department of Justice, immigrants, cheating Obama, what is going on here, David? Is this -- is the president feeling insecure with his base that he feels the need to shore that up?

CHALIAN: I mean, if he is, he shouldn't be. His base in every poll we see is still very much with him. I mean, even more broadly than just his core supporters, our last poll had him at 86 percent approval among Republicans at large. That's a pretty healthy good place to be. But it does seem something is off kilter. The man who told us he could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone, and folks were still going to be with him does seem to be feeling a bit off kilter, perhaps it is from his conversations this weekend with a lot of Fox News personalities who have told him that.

On things like the spending bill and on immigration, his rhetoric, his tone, his signing of the spending bill, is causing some conservative unrest, that may be more than the media intelligencia circles of conservative than in the Trump base with voters, but he clearly felt the need to -- for 48 hours now, unleash red meat tossing kind of tweets.

KEILAR: Just to maybe assuage them if he has any concern. How long do you think -- we heard from Kaitlan's reporting about Scott Pruitt, head of the EPA. She basically said it is clear as mud about what his future is. He's gotten this call last night from President Trump saying, keep on fighting. And the president is clearly happy with the agenda that he's pursued, but he's getting so many bad headlines. What is the sense that you get about his future?

BROWN: He is. As we know, the president does not like it when his own people get bad publicity. I'm told by aides that often he's more disturbed by the bad publicity than the actual behavior causing the bad publicity.

That said, he does really like Scott Pruitt. Scott Pruitt has advanced his agenda as the head of the EPA and that is sort of another factor in this that you didn't see with the firing of Shulkin or Tillerson, even McMaster.

You know, the president really, really likes Pruitt. I spoke to one White House official who said, look, White House staffers went in this week really hoping there was not going to be another staff shake-up, including the president.

But given all of the headlines and the ethical concerns, people I've spoken with don't see how he can survive even just this week, given everything going on.

CHALIAN: And there is a tension here because it is bad headlines, no doubt, but it is also Scott Pruitt is going against the grain of a fundamental promise that Donald Trump made, back to talking about the relationship with his base, draining the swamp, getting rid of the kind of behavior that is generating these headlines of a, you know, living high on the hog with $50 a night rent to a lobbyist who is lobbying the EPA.

These kinds of things cut against the very core that he was -- Trump was going to come in, up and bust up the way the Washington swamp system had worked. Balance that against what Pam is saying, Scott Pruitt is completely accomplishing long time, decades long, conservative agenda items at the EPA, getting rid of regulation, winding back some of the Obama era regulations that were put in, just today also. And that is hugely important to the president. So, that's why any guessing of where the president is going to end up on this is dangerous because he's really at this moment torn between two fundamental things that he promised to deliver on.

KEILAR: Yes. We'll see if the headlines continue. And we'll know that that's going to make him uncomfortable and we'll see if that's enough to sort of tip things in the balance one way or the other. David Chalian, thank you so much. Pam Brown, thank you so much.

Any moment now, a federal judge is going to hand down the first sentence in connection with the special counsel's Russia probe. It comes as new court documents reveal the scope of Robert Mueller's investigation.

Plus, markets are rebounding a bit from yesterday's massive sell-off. But fears of a trade war still very much alive and the president just unleashed a new attack on Amazon. Stay with us.



KEILAR: Right now, in a Washington courtroom, the first sentencing in the Russia investigation is under way. London-based lawyer, Alexander Van Der Zwaan has already entered a plea agreement for lying to investigators. He could face six months in prison. Van Der Zwaan worked with Trump campaign officials, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, in Ukraine.

In the meantime, a late-night court filing reveals the scope of Robert Mueller's investigation of Manafort. The classified memo, which was dated last August, shows the Justice Department explicitly authorized the special counsel to investigate claims that Manafort colluded with the kremlin to meddle in the election.

Shimon Prokupecz with us here now to break all of this down in these new developments regarding Manafort. I want to begin, though, with Evan Perez, outside of the U.S. District Court. So, Evan, tell us what's happening there in court right now.

[11:15:04] EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, the court hearing is still ongoing in the third floor here at the federal courthouse behind me. But Alexander Van Der Zwaan's attorneys have been begging for him to serve no jail time in -- no jail time as a result of lying to prosecutors. He has pleaded guilty to lying and conspiracy charges.

In court, just a little while ago, the federal prosecutors said that Alexander Van Der Zwaan should serve as an example for what the consequences are for lying to investigators. Now, a few moments ago, he also read a few sentences, he apologized to the court, he also said what I did was wrong.

Now, what he did do according to prosecutors was he hid documents and he lied when he talked to the FBI about his interactions with Paul Manafort and with Rick Gates. In particular, Rick Gates has apparently said that he was in touch with a Russian spy during the campaign, the middle of the 2016 presidential campaign, in September and October of 2016.

And Van Der Zwaan said he helped conceal that information, that Rick Gates knew that he was in touch with a Russian spy, man by the name of Konstantin Colimnik, and that that interaction was continuing in the middle of the campaign.

Now, again, we expect the judge is taking a break now, will come back and will announce a sentence, probably on the lower end of that scale, Van Der Zwaan has a wife who is expected to give birth to their baby in August. So that's one reason why we expect perhaps that there will be some leniency as a result of this -- Brianna.

KEILAR: And Shimon, what do we know about this memo on Manafort?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Brianna, the memo lays out sort of what exactly what the special counsel was authorized to investigate by the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who is overseeing the Russia investigation.

Really there is a couple of pieces of info in here, but the big one is that there this active collusion investigation relating to Paul Manafort. And specifically when the mandate, in the parameters of the investigation, it says that Paul Manafort, the investigation against Paul Manafort.

Allegations that he committed a crime, crimes by colluding with Russian government officials, with respect to Russian government efforts to interfere with the 2016 election for president of the United States, which obviously is a violation of the united states law.

So that is specifically -- it also talks about the Ukraine and some of the charges that he's now facing there, with relation to money he made there. But the point really, I think, for all of us in seeing this memo and seeing this memo made public it was classified, Paul Manafort, his attorneys, really no one except the special counsel and Rod Rosenstein, attorney general, deputy attorney general knew this memo existed.

So certainly significant, they went ahead with this step and making it public and it was really, I think, more or less just trying to bolster their investigation to show exactly the focus of their investigation, you know, they filed it late last night and certainly sort of what is making news here today.

KEILAR: And there is also this new reporting, Shimon, that Mueller is looking into former Trump campaign adviser, Roger Stone, a very colorful figure in his ties to Wikileaks. What can you tell us?

PROKUPECZ: Yes, certainly, very colorful, no stranger to many of us who have been covering this investigation really the last year or so. So, Roger Stone, according to the "Wall Street Journal," they have seen an e-mail where he writes to Sam Nunberg, another kind of colorful figure who made the rounds recently on television.

He appeared before the grand jury and had to testify. So, the "Journal" yesterday went ahead and reported that they came across an e-mail. They have seen an e-mail from Roger Stone to Sam Nunberg, where he claims that back in August, even back in August of 2016, that, quote, "I dined with Julian Assange last night."

And the importance of that is that Robert Mueller, the special counsel, are investigating whether or not there was some kind of coordination, whether anyone that Trump campaign knew that Julian Assange was about to publish these e-mails.

Now, Roger Stone had denied that he had this dinner, said he was joking to Sam Nunberg. But nonetheless, these questions about Roger Stone and his connection to Julian Assange keep coming up and certainly from everything we know is part of the Mueller investigation.

KEILAR: Shimon, thank you so much. Thanks to Evan Perez as well.

Joining me now, CNN legal analyst, Paul Callan, and CNN Politics reporter and editor-at-large, Chris Cilizza with us. Paul, Alex Van Der Zwaan is really the first figure in this Russia investigation expected to be sentenced. How does this play into the larger Russian investigation?

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, of course, he's a young lawyer, who got jammed up in this case because he lied to federal investigators. Of course, Mueller likes to send that message out repeatedly. You lie, to one of my investigators and you may go to prison.

[11:20:11] But he's important as well because he's really central to this Russian connection that seems to run out of the Ukraine. And, remember, Manafort's political consulting business was focused on a Russian-supported Ukrainian government, but had ties to this individual who was actually a Russian intelligence officer.

And, in fact, Manafort got himself into trouble even more recently, almost had his bail revoked, because he was still talking about how to create a favorable view of himself, Manafort, overseas. I guess looking to do business in the future. So, this is an important connector to Russian contacts with the Trump campaign.

KEILAR: Chris, one of the arguments that Manafort is making is that these charges are outside of Mueller's authority, right, that this is outside of his mandate. The court filing that we saw released last night really suggests otherwise.

CHRIS CILIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER AND EDITOR-AT-LARGE: Yes. I mean, when you have the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who is the one who appointed Bob Mueller in a memo from August 2017 saying it is expressly within your mandate to look into possible collusion between Paul Manafort and the Russians as well as Manafort's relationship with Viktor Yanukovych and other Ukrainian officials, it is going to be hard for Paul Manafort I think to win that argument. KEILAR: Just grasping at straws then?

CILIZZA: Well, yes. I mean, I think you -- I don't know if he's grasping at straws. My guess is he's pursuing every legal avenue possible, right? You don't leave any box unchecked because you never totally know. So, why not do it?

That said, bob Mueller doesn't strike me as the type who leaves a lot of shoelaces untied, legally speaking. And he has, as we saw, like, oh, OK, you want to see this is outside my purview, here is someone who said it is in my purview to do this.

So, I don't think it is likely to work. Remember, Paul Manafort is facing up to 300 plus years in prison for the allegations against him. You're going to try anything and everything you can, given those stakes.

KEILAR: Paul, as Chris said, he's trying every avenue that he should, but if you look at this, and that's the avenue that he has as an option, and it clearly does not appear to be good considering what Rosenstein, who oversees the Mueller investigation, because the AG Sessions recused himself what does that tell you?

CALLAN: Well, I have to agree with Chris. This is a real uphill battle for him, but his lawyers have been extremely aggressive in trying to get this indictment dismissed, and they have made this motion and essentially this motion says two things. One, it says that they didn't have the right to be investigating this particular aspect of it.

But also, they say that this authorization that was given to the special counsel was so broad, allowing him to investigate so many things, that it is like a blank check, and you're supposed to appoint a special counsel to be looking at a very focused thing.

And they also talk about special counsel going way back in time, years back in time, to look at money laundering and tax violations involving Manafort. They say in the motion, hey, the Justice Department can investigate those things.

They also filed a civil case against the Justice Department to have this investigation terminated. So, they have been very, very aggressive because as Chris has said, Manafort is facing potentially life in prison. He could die in prison as a matter of fact if he's convicted on all of these offenses.

KEILAR: Chris, the president has been openly critical, very frustrated by Sessions. That just has not gone away for some time now. Rosenstein as well, just yesterday, he called the Department of Justice, which is justice in quotes, we should note. How do you think he's going to be responding to this ongoing activity in court?

CILIZZA: Not well. Here's what's hard. Donald Trump in his administration picked Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein, Rod Rosenstein was a U.S. attorney appointed by George W. Bush, by the way, nominated, confirmed by the Senate, in the Trump administration. Jeff Sessions, a Republican senator from Alabama, confirmed in the Trump administration. Bob Mueller, nominated by George W. Bush as FBI director, and named by Rod Rosenstein as special counsel. Also, Rod Rosenstein is the guy that Donald Trump hung the James Comey firing on.

Well, lifetime, well respected member of the Justice Department, Rod Rosenstein wrote a memo saying -- so you can't -- you can try to have your cake and eat it too, it almost never works. That's what Trump is trying to do here.

Rod Rosenstein is good when he does things I like, like justifying the firing of James Comey, but bad when he gives Bob Mueller room to run on this special counsel.

[11:25:07] So, I just think the -- you remember that old movie, the old horror movie, the call is coming from inside the house, the woman is on the phone. That's sort of what this is. Donald Trump is trying to blame the media, Democrats, you know, this is all partisan witch- hunt.

The truth of the matter is everyone who is involved at senior levels of this probe and the Justice Department are either Republicans or people that Donald Trump has expressly picked for these jobs.

KEILAR: The call is coming from within the house.

CILIZZA: It always is.

KEILAR: Chris Cilizza, Paul Callan, thank you so much to both of you.

Coming up, the president's relentless bashing of one of the nation's largest employers, Amazon, continuing today, and it isn't doing any favors for the stock market that is already under pressure. We are live from the New York Stock Exchange next.


KEILAR: President Trump is back attacking Amazon, continuing a days' long assault on the online retailer. The president tweeting this morning, "I am right about Amazon costing the United States Post Office massive amounts of money for being their delivery --