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EPA Chief in Trouble?; VA Secretary Nominee Under Fire; Trump on French President Macron: "I Like Him A Lot". Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired April 24, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: A reminder here that President Trump only picks the -- quote -- "best people."

THE LEAD starts right now.

What's up, doc? President Trump gives his pick to lead the VA a ton of room to bow out, as Admiral Ronny Jackson finds himself fighting all sorts of very troubling, but completely unproven charges.

Ticktock on another Trump pick. It only took a half-dozen or so scandals, but is the White House now finally prepared to turn its back on the president's EPA chief?

And hugs, kisses and lots of holding hands. Can President Trump's new best bud on the world stage nudge him into a different direction?

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We're going to begin with the politics lead today.

It is the messy result of President Trump governing by gut, picking someone he likes, someone with insufficient experience and nonexistent vetting to head the nation's second largest bureaucracy.

President Trump this afternoon stunningly opening the door for White House physician Admiral Ronny Jackson to step aside from his nomination to be secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, asserting that Jackson doesn't need the job or the aggravation, that Trump himself would not go through with it were it him.

This comes after the news this morning that Jackson's confirmation hearing has been put on hold indefinitely by the U.S. Senate, senators, led by Republican Johnny Isakson of Georgia, chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee in the Senate, expressing concerns about allegations, unproven allegations that one Republican senator called "devastating if true."

After two whistle-blowers detailed to the committee alleged behavior involving what they called a toxic work environment under Jackson on Capitol Hill this afternoon, Jackson saying he was eager to answer any questions about this.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny starts us off with more from the White House. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't want to put a man through a process like this. It is too ugly and too disgusting.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump trying to offer a graceful exit today for another top aide, this time Dr. Ronny Jackson, his personal White House doctor he picked to lead the VA. The president standing behind Jackson, but bluntly saying he wouldn't blame him for stepping aside.

TRUMP: I wouldn't do it. What does he need it for? To be abused by a bunch of politicians that aren't thinking nicely about our country? I really don't think personally he should do it, but it is totally his. I would stand behind him. Totally his decision.

ZELENY: But it was the president who put Jackson in this position. Nominating him to run one of the biggest bureaucracies without vetting him first. Before this, Jackson was known for effusively giving the president a clean bill of health.

DR. RONNY JACKSON, PRESIDENTIAL PHYSICIAN: I told the president if he had a healthier diet over the last 20 years, he might live to be 200 years old. I don't know. He has incredible genes, I just assume.

ZELENY: While senators have been openly questioning Jackson's experience, his confirmation hearing was postponed indefinitely amid questions about his behavior at the White House Medical Unit.

CNN has learned senators on the Veteran Affairs Committee are looking into allegations from whistle-blowers who raise concerns about excessive drinking, a toxic work environment and Jackson's handling of prescription drugs.

The president himself said there was an experience problem with his own nominee, but also said he had not heard the details of the allegations.

TRUMP: Now, I know there is an experience problem because lack of experience. I haven't heard of the particular allegations, but I will tell you, he's one of the finest people that I have met.

ZELENY: On Capitol Hill today, Jackson showed no signs of backing down.

JACKSON: I can answer the questions, absolutely. I'm looking forward to rescheduling the hearing and answering everyone's question.

ZELENY: On a day of pomp and circumstance at the White House as President Trump rolled out the red carpet for French President Emmanuel Macron, it was yet another potential staff shakeup stirring controversy.

The president spoke to Jackson by phone today, saying the decision was his. TRUMP: I told Admiral Jackson, just a little while ago, I said, what

do you need this for? This is a vicious group of people that malign and they do, and I lived through it. We all live through it.

ZELENY: While the president blamed the ordeal on Democratic obstructionism, senators in both parties expressed outrage at the White House for improperly vetting nominees for critical posts like the VA.

REP. TOM UDALL (D), NEW MEXICO: Let's get a leader over there, Mr. President. Do your vetting a lot better.


ZELENY: And important to point out it is Republicans on that Senate committee raising questions as well. Senator John Thune is saying it would be nice to know about some of the things before the fact as opposed to after the fact.

But, Jake, despite the fact that the president opened the door to a graceful exit, we don't know if Dr. Jackson is going to walk through it. I'm told that he is still thinking this through, he's not yet advised the White House what he wants to do.

One school of thought is he wants to answer the questions before hearing and another school of thought is it is wiser to step away in this moment if he doesn't get confirmed. So, Jake, no answer to this yet, but yet one more potential staff shakeup -- Jake.


TAPPER: All right, Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thanks so much.

And my political panel joins me now.

We have with us CNN White House reporter Kaitlan Collins, senior adviser for Karine Jean-Pierre, and Jonah Goldberg of "The National Review, "who has a new book out today. It's called "Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy."

It's been called everything from magnificent to a tour de force.

Congratulations, Jonah.


TAPPER: Everyone at home, check it out.

But let's talk about the panel discussion.

Take a listen to how President Trump talked about Dr. Jackson today.


TRUMP: I have gotten to know him pretty well. He's a great doctor. And it was a suggestion. Now, I know there is an experience problem because lack of experience, but there is an experience problem. The Veterans Administration is very important to me.


TAPPER: Isn't it, Kaitlan, a bit unusual for a president to acknowledge that his own nominee has a "experience problem"?


And exactly if you listen to what the president said going forward, saying, if it was me, I wouldn't stay in this, I essentially would withdrawal my nomination.

That is not exactly a ringing endorsement, because before the allegations were made against Dr. Jackson, a lot of the pushback on Capitol Hill, he was facing an uphill battle with this confirmation anyway, because not just Democrats, Republicans too, do not think he has the experience to run Veterans Affairs.

It has a lot of problems, it's really big, and they don't that he has -- just because he is a doctor and he has great medical credentials that he could run something like that. So, there the president saying, if it was me, I wouldn't do it, he's been put through ugly rumors, these ugly allegations.

TAPPER: Disgusting process, he called it. We call it a confirmation process here in Washington.


There's a reason these processes are so tough. And so when those people are confirmed, you don't have people like Scott Pruitt and David Shulkin running around spending money like they're printing it in the backseat, so you have someone you know you can trust running something like that.

Veteran Affairs hits home for a lot of people. They are not going to confirm just anybody. And it doesn't seem like anything is going to happen for Dr. Jackson here.

TAPPER: Jonah, take a listen at President Trump seeming to blame "a vicious group of people that malign," specifically talking about the Democrats, he said he didn't even know the specific allegations, though a White House source tells CNN that Jackson did in fact warn the administration.

When the president demonizes Democrats for blocking this nomination, when it is actually Republicans senators primarily leading the concern, you write in your book about tribalism, about how everything these days is devolving into packs of people loyal to even to people more than ideology.

Is that part of this, this idea that President Trump is just getting his base to blame Democrats even though it is not Democrats really to blame at all here? JONAH GOLDBERG, "THE NATIONAL REVIEW": Yes, sure.

Look, part of my argument is that human nature in a very real way is corrupting. It causes us to sort of bend the rules. We don't like external rules, we want to take the shortest path between our desires and where we are.

And that is Donald Trump to a T. That is why he likes to surround himself with loyalists. He cares more about their loyalty to him than he does about, say, their qualifications for a job. And he has figured out this argument by innuendo, where if there is somebody who is in trouble on his team and his tribe, however you want to put it, it must be because the sort of evil other is to blame for it.

It can't be that they did a bad vetting process. It can't be that this guy wasn't qualified for the job, because for Donald Trump, he works on instinct. He admits he works on instinct. And his instinct is, if I like you, if I think you're a loyal person to me, we can work out all the other details later, because that's what he really actually cares about.

TAPPER: And, in fact, Karine, CNN has learned Jackson wasn't vetted before he was nominated. Obviously, it is a different, but President Trump has brought the phrase extreme vetting into parlance when talking about refugees coming into the country.

But he doesn't even believe in basic vetting for Cabinet nominees.

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I think that is exactly right. And he's so ill-prepared.

It shows how ill-prepared he is for the office. He doesn't understand what the agencies even do. To have nominated someone who would be the head of the second largest agency, a $200 billion budget, which is the agency behind the Department of Defense, that is a big job.

And Ronny Jackson is just ill-prepared. He's not ready. He should not have this job. But going back to what the other guests were saying is that Donald Trump is the king of tribalism. He only, always talks to his base. Everything he does is talking to his base. Not to the people of the country, but to his small and shrinking base.

And that is just how Donald Trump operates.

TAPPER: And, Kaitlan, let's play the sound again of President Trump saying he supports Ronny Jackson as nominee, but also opening up a door and maybe even several windows for Ronny Jackson to flee from the nomination process.

Take a listen.



TRUMP: The fact is, I wouldn't do it. I wouldn't do it. What does he need it for? To be abused by a bunch of politicians that aren't thinking nicely about our country? I really don't think personally he should do it, but it is totally his. I would stand behind him. Totally his decision.


TAPPER: I mean, that doesn't really sound like he's standing totally behind him, to be honest.

COLLINS: It doesn't sound like he's standing totally behind him.

But he is saying that I wouldn't do it because he does see what he's being put through. This is someone who a week ago was this well- respected doctor, very beloved in the West Wing and also very beloved by the president because he picked him to do a job.

TAPPER: Beloved by the Obama White House before that also, we should point out.

COLLINS: Both parties alike.

But even White House officials who work for President Trump realize he is likely doomed here. They just do not see how he can pull himself out of this.

They see this tough battle that Pompeo just went through and they think he has the credentials to get the job as the nation's top diplomat. They can't make the same argument, they're not confident to make that statement.

I should note the statement that the White House sent out today defending Dr. Ronny Jackson was actually drafted several days ago in preparation for his confirmation hearings, because they knew he was going to be criticized for a lot of things, this lack of experience.

So they drafted that statement saying they trusted his leadership at the VA, but they obviously got to send it out a little bit early because of the allegations that are threatening to upend his nomination.

TAPPER: And, Jonah, quickly, Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, asked if he had gotten any sort of signal from the White House that Jackson might withdraw, he said: "I haven't gotten a signal. We're waiting for a signal."


Look, if Ronny Jackson is innocent of these allegations, he's been done a terrible disservice. And you can understand why he might want to stay in.

I don't know what truth of it all is. But he's been really poorly served because if they had vetted him up front, he never would have -- his name never would have been entered.

I should also say there is a reason why Republican senators might be concerned here. The VA is not a sexy job, but, man, it is way up there on the list of priorities for congressmen and senators in terms of constituent services and people who vote.

And getting on the wrong side of veterans is just terrible P.R. So you can see why they would be concerned about this.

TAPPER: Absolutely.

Everyone, stick with us. We have a lot more to talk about.

Coming up: I love you, man. What is it about the French president that has President Trump unable to keep his hands off him?

Stay with us.


[16:16:19] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: We're back with our politics lead.

President Trump and France's President Macron have a long list of policy disagreements but if he watch the two interact -- well, I guess opposites attract because they seem to have a great time together as Macron visits the White House and President Trump.

My panel is back with me.

Kaitlan, how would you describe this relationship?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: So, this has been described as a bromance. It was just saying, this is not a bromance. It's who can outdo the other.

If you watch them, even several times just today, I'm speaking purely about physical interactions not what they said about the Iran deal, but if you watch them, they are constantly trying to outdo each other. When they were on the Truman balcony earlier, they were trying to out- wave each other, see who could be the last to wave to everyone standing on the South Lawn. There, they're trying to see like who could pull each other the furthest, who could shake each other's hand the longest, who is the one who comes out with their hands on top on the back.

Or earlier when they were walking to the Oval Office after they welcomed everyone on the south lawn, Trump essentially was dragging --

TAPPER: He likes to pull.

COLLINS: Pulling him. It is an aggressive power move there. They're trying to outdo each other physically.

TAPPER: He likes to man handle.

Jonah, in your new book, "Suicide of the West," you write that -- you giggle every time I plug your book.

JONAH GOLDBERG, SENIOR EDITOR, NATIONAL REVIEW: I'm so grateful for it. It's amazing.

TAPPER: In your new book "Suicide of the West", you write that French President Macron has, quote, something of a Napoleonic streak to him and wants, for example, to go around parliament in France and impose most of his reforms by decree. Despite the differences on policy, despite the differences in physicality, are Trump and Macron more alike than maybe we think they are?

GOLDBERG: They certainly -- I think Kaitlan is right about the body language issue. You know, if you watch it with the sound off, it sometimes reminds me like, I don't know, like Champ Kind from "Anchorman" telling Ron Burgundy, I like your musk. There is a certain weird thing going on there.

But I think ultimately it really is a sort of an alpha male thing and there is this desire to seem like this is a person who's above and beyond politics and is the dominant male and you see it in their interactions and also -- it is a very -- it is a long-standing trend in French politics as well, this idea from being without -- from without the system and you find it in American politics more and more as well.

TAPPER: Yes, that's right.

And, Karine, when President Trump was standing with French President Macron there, he brushed something off his coat. This is a very odd moment. Take a listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's a great honor -- great honor to be here. But we do have a very special relationship. In fact, I'll get that little piece of dandruff or -- we have to make him perfect. He is perfect.



TAPPER: I mean, what?


TAPPER: Actually telling the French president he has dandruff on his jacket?

JEAN-PIERRE: It is like a -- like a theater that Trump can't help himself. But it also feels like the two of them bring back this cave -- the cave man days, right? They are all trying to establish themselves against each other. But to me, I have to give credit to Macron because he's clearly taking

a master class in how to manage Donald Trump. He plays into all of Donald Trump's insecurities and he knows how to get him to do -- hopefully to do what he wants. We don't know yet.

But Macron is not stupid. He knows what he's doing.

COLLINS: And it does show how much more comfortable Trump is around him. I think when Merkel comes on Friday, Trump is not going to be picking dandruff off her shoulder or making any jokes like that. I don't --

JEAN-PIERRE: But I think that's the play. He comes first and then, you know, she'll come on the back end.

TAPPER: There was also an interesting moment, Jonah, when a reporter, I think it was Jon Karl from ABC asked President Trump whether he would pardon his personal attorney Michael Cohen who's under criminal investigation. Take a listen.


REPORTER: What about Michael Cohen?

[16:20:02] TRUMP: Thank you very much.

REPORTER: Are you considering pardon for Michael Cohen?

TRUMP: Stupid question.

Go ahead. Any other -- anybody else, please?


TAPPER: Stupid question. It doesn't really seem all that stupid to me. It seems like a very legitimate question. He keeps talking about pardons.

GOLDBERG: Yes. No. I mean, he's giving them away like Oprah with presents under the chair. And I can understand why he doesn't want to talk about it right then and there, but it seems obvious to me that he is thinking about it, he's sending these signals about it. I think it would be a terrible idea particularly before you find out what it is exactly that they are looking at about Michael Cohen. I mean, it's one thing to do it after you find out what the charges are and maybe they don't touch you and you could do it in the spirit of magnanimity but to do it preemptively which would just seem very much like a cover-up.

TAPPER: And, also, Kaitlan, this is an interesting moment, interesting story that CNN broke, the president using his personal phone -- cell phone to contact people outside of the advisers and there are security issues but what is he calling people and asking about?

COLLINS: That is a -- he calls about everything. It starts early in the morning calling lawmakers he's seen on TV, staffers, sometimes aides. And then at night is when he tends to call his old friends back in New York, cable news hosts, the like, to question them on pretty much everything under the sun and everything that he's handling in the White House and who he should put in John Kelly's job, even though, you know, hours later, telling John Kelly that he thinks he's doing a great job. Just a little bit of what he's saying and he calls to talk about pretty much everything.

TAPPER: Everything is fine.

Next, our closest European allies stage a diplomatic intervention with President Trump over the Iran deal. The first step is recognizing you have a problem.

Stay with us.


[16:25:52] TAPPER: Today, President Trump is issuing a new warning to Iran as he considers whether to rip up the Iran nuclear deal as he long promised.


TRUMP: We're not going to be restarting anything. They restart and they're going to have big problems, bigger than they've ever had before. And you can mark it down.


TAPPER: Today's warning came as the president welcomed French President Macron to the White House. Macron is trying to convince President Trump to stay in the Iran nuclear deal. There is a May 12th deadline looming to recertify the agreement.

My next guest worked for the State Department under President Obama and he just wrote a book called "War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence". We can also add Pulitzer Prize winner to his title.

Ronan Farrow joins me now.

Ronan, great to have you back. Thanks so much. Congrats on the book, congrats on the Pulitzer.


TAPPER: All the great work you're doing.

So I want to ask you, President Trump is the one clearly threatening to pull out of the Iran deal. Do you think, based on your knowledge of these two, that Macron might be able to convince him not to pull out?

FARROW: You know, I think that will be the project of a lot of world leaders. I talk about the international reactions to the Iran deal and this administration's escalating assaults on the Iran deal in the book. You know, "War on Peace" chronicles just how rare an accomplishment the Iran deal is these days and despite all of the valid sources of controversy around it, it's an important signaling.

And, you know, when you hear the frank comments of world leaders about the saber-rattling we're hearing from the Trump administration, one of the big concerns, Jake, is, what are the ramifications for the North Korea conflict? You know, as we strive to come to some kind of a settlement there, how are they supposed to behave? Why would they have any incentive to come to the table if the one other prominent example of a deal with a rogue regime is one that we ourselves sabotage?

TAPPER: Interesting.

Today, President Trump offered no hints as to what his decision will be on the May 12th deadline to decertify or to certify the agreement. Take a listen.


TRUMP: We'll see if I do what some people expect, whether or not it will be possible to do a new deal with solid foundations, because this is a deal with decayed foundations.


TAPPER: Is he laying the groundwork for staying in the deal? How do you interpret that?

FARROW: You know, we've heard this kind of vacillation and these threats and then pulling back time and time again from Donald Trump. I would just highlight one material difference this time around, Jake. You know, I talk to Rex Tillerson in this book. He's one of the many secretaries of state, all of them in fact that went on the record for this, talking about deals of this type.

And one thing that's striking about Rex Tillerson is that although he presided over these deep cuts to the State Department and was lock step with Trump in some ways, he was at times a lone voice pushing back against Trump's effort to extricate our country from the Iran deal.

TAPPER: Right.

FARROW: And in Mike Pompeo, who, you know, very soon is in all likelihood going to be the new secretary of state, we see someone who's much more lock step with President Trump, who has matched Trump's own saber-rattling on Iran with his own tweets and his own statements saying, we've got to get out of this deal.

TAPPER: And, of course, you mention North Korea as part of a reason theoretically to stay in the Iran deal to show the North Koreans that the U.S. will abide by any sort of agreement. Take a listen to President Trump this afternoon raising eyebrows when he praised the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Kim Jong-un was -- he really has been very open and I think very honorable from everything we're seeing.


TAPPER: I mean, that is some fairly stunning language to use when describing Kim Jong-un who, to say the least, starves and imprisons his own people.

FARROW: And what's striking here, Jake, is you don't have a system of experts guiding any of this any more, because we no longer have what we had when, for instance, the Bush administration made a run at the North Korea problem with some is success. Although it fell through in the end, you know, we made significant end roads with China on this issue. That's going to be a key lever if we return to the table and try to solve this. We've thrown that all out.