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Misconduct Embroil VA Secretary Nominee; Macron Addresses Congress; Travel Ban Arguments. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired April 25, 2018 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:19] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

The White House rallying now behind the president's pick to lead the VA, but Dr. Ronny Jackson faces complaints about his personal and professional conduct and Republicans are furious the White House did not do a thorough vetting.

Plus, big Trump administration policies face new court challenges. The travel ban before the Supreme Court today. And a third federal judge is now on record against the White House plan to end protections for the dreamers.

And in a big speech to Congress, the president of France says this of his touchy-feely bond with President Trump. History does repeat itself.


PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON, FRANCE: In 1778, the French philosopher Voltair (ph) and Benjamin Franklin met in Paris. John Adams tells the story that after they had shaken hands, they embraced each other by hugging one another in their arms and kissing each other's cheeks. It can remind you of something.


KING: A little humor there. To the policy of that speech in a few moments.

But we begin a busy hour with a critical cabinet nomination in trouble, and mounting Republican Senate anger at the Trump White House. Dr. Ronny Jackson is, of course, the president's pick to run the Veterans Affairs Administration. He says he wants a confirmation hearing to answer allegations that range from drinking too much on foreign trips with the president, to leading a hostile working environment in the West Wing, the White House medial unit. Today, the Republican chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee say Jackson deserves a fair hearing after lawmakers finish vetting all these allegations.


SEN. JOHNNY ISAKSON (R), CHAIRMAN, VETERANS AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: What I'm going to do is make sure we have an open, fair hearing for the American people, for the nominee, for the president of the United States and for the interest of our veterans. And we'll get to the bottom of every claim that's made and we'll make a good decision when it's over.


KING: Chairman Isakson and the Republican Senate leadership furious at the White House, at the president, for not conducting its own vetting. Instead, the complaints are flooding into Capitol Hill and the Senators now left to sort a mess of the president's making.

CNN's Juana Summers has some new reporting on some of the more serious conduct questions and joins us now live.

Juana, tell us about some of the things the senators are now trying to sort out, fact or fiction.


So the senators -- senators have said that they've heard from more than 20 members of the military, active duty and retired, who have brought these claims forward to the Senate Veteran Affairs panel. Our colleague, Manu Raju, and I digging into one of those last night. Here's what we were told by four sources, including one with direct knowledge.

During an overseas trip in 2015, Ronny Jackson, the White House physician, went to a female employee's door, banging loudly on that door, and it was so loud and that this drunken behavior got the attention of the Secret Service, who became involved. Now we're told, at the time, that that was brought up the chain of command to Jackson, who was then, at the time, serving as the White House physician under President Barack Obama. I spoke to several people who worked in the White House medical unit under Jackson and they said that the woman at the time did not view this behavior as appropriate, that it made her uncomfortable that this happened in the middle of the night.

Now, it's really important to note, this claim, as a number of the others, that Senators Isakson and Tester and members of that committee are hearing, they're working to corroborate this claim. There issue, we're told, is that there is not a lot of documentation here to do that. So they're trying to figure out here what's true and what's not. But it's very clear that the Senate has a lot of questions for this nominee.

KING: Very clear and that particular evening -- just that one incident -- many allegations, just that one incident quite serious. It's going to take some time to sort it though.

Juana Summers, appreciate the reporting on this story.

The VA serves more than 9 million American veterans, American heroes, and has been without a leader for a month, something lawmakers hear about when they go back home. And already there are questions about whether Dr. Jackson has the experience to manage an agency with nearly 400,000 employees and just shy of a $2 billion budget. But the White House is, for now anyway, standing behind Dr. Jackson. He met with the president yesterday. He told, insisting, these allegations are false. The president says, fight back.


MARC SHORT, WHITE HOUSE LEGISLATIVE AFFAIRS DIRECTOR: We'll be making a request to Chairman Isakson that he get his hearing. I think that they want to make sure that they look at the latest allegations that came forward. But we -- we think that Dr. Jackson is a -- is a great American patriot.

SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He's a very highly qualified, highly respected person in the military, and in the medical community. And that's something that we strongly feel that veterans need.

HOGAN GIDLEY, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: And we're not going to write him off in any way before his hearing. And, quite frankly, neither should members of Congress.


KING: With me to share their reporting and their insights this day, CNN's Nia-Malika Henderson, Michael Bender of "The Wall Street Journal," CNN's Phil Mattingly, and Margaret Talev of "Bloomberg."

[12:05:02] To the White House in a moment, but, first, let's start on Capitol Hill.

They're beyond furious. I'm going to use the polite word. This is supposed to be what the president does. The White House is supposed to vet nominees. The White House is supposed to -- if -- even if these allegations are false, to conduct an investigation, have a report and say, hey, you're going to hear about this, here's the evidence, they're false. Instead, these senators now feel like they have to do all the president's work in an election year about an agency they get a lot of questions about when they go home.

Is Dr. Jackson going to survive?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Right now, I think if you talk to Republican aides and lawmakers and they're being candid they would say, no, it's unlikely. Clearly a defense is being mounted. But you have to -- you kind of lay out the issues here, which almost go by levels.

First and foremost, they weren't informed that this nomination was coming. How do you get allies on The Hill for a nominee? You involve people in the process. So if they run into problems, if they run into trouble, if there are allegations, you have lawmakers that are bought in, that feel like they can go out and defend. So that was the first problem. Obviously the issues related to management experience, everybody knows about. Republicans have been concerned about this.

Now you take these specific allegations. I'm told from several sources Republican senators were reaching out to the White House multiple times over the course of the last four days asking for specific responses to these allegations. Are these real? Do you know about these? Should we be concerned about these? What I am told is they were given little to no information. Some felt like they were being brushed off all together.

So when this imploded over the course of the last 36 hours, all of these lawmakers felt really hung out to dry, which is obviously problematic.

Then I think you also hit on a really key issue here that you just can't afford. The VA is a hyper local issue for all of these senators. This is not a vote that you take and say yes because the president said, hey, give me this one. I need this. This is what they hear about when they go home. This is what they hear about in their town halls. These are the vast majority of their calls into their offices. You win and lose elections, but also you win and lose the faith of your constituents based on how you treat this agency. And I think that's why Republicans, right now, are upset, are frustrated with the White House and are very skeptical that this nomination can move forward.

KING: And remember how much the president talked about this in 2016 on the campaign trail.


KING: This is one of his, you need a businessman to fix Washington, especially for our veterans who are getting screwed by the health care system that is supposed to be there to help them. This was central to the president's mission.

Among -- another of the allegations, Juana touched on a very serious one, that's a personal misconduct allegation that, number one, he's traveling overseas with the president. You have to be there at a moment's notice for the president or anybody on the senior staff. For those of us who have taken those trips, you know how important the role the doctor is. The doctor's everywhere.

And, number two, another allegation is that he was violating prescription protocols in distributing sleeping pills or other pills on some of these trips.

This is Democrat Jon Tester last night using some pretty colorful language about that.


ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, CNN'S "AC 360": I understand he had a nickname in the White House among some of the White House staff?

SEN. JON TESTER (D), RANKING MEMBER, VETERANS AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: Yes. Yes. And -- and it was -- it was the candy man, because he handed out prescription drugs like they were candy.

COOPER: The candy man. The White House doctor is nicknamed, among some people in the White House, was the candy man? TESTER: That's correct. That's correct. That what we were told.


KING: Yes, I covered the White House for ten years, and this is not defending Dr. Jackson, but going back to the Clinton White House and the Bush White House, it was common practice for White House physicians to hand out to the senior staff and to offer to reporters, especially on the long flights, sleeping pills. It was -- it was a common practice all the time.

Now, if he's doing it in abundance, candy man, something to be heard of here. But that -- this is where my big question is, and this is why it was incumbent on the White House to do this work before it becomes public because Dr. Jackson deserves to be treated fairly, he deserves a chance to answer this, is now we're going to have a public hearing as to whether he violated prescription protocols.

MARGARET TALEV, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "BLOOMBERG": Right. And this is all incredibly unfortunate. I mean I think for -- like, I've known Dr. Jackson kind of superficially but in a professional capacity for several years, having uncovered Obama's presidency before this one. And I think most reporters who have traveled with the president know him to be an affable, professional guy. But most of us have not been covering the medial office of the White House, you know?


TALEV: But we've all have experiences. You get, you know, a respiratory infection or some kind of problem while you're on a trip and the White House medical office, under his control, has been available to help reporters, as well as staff. That's common. And as you said, if there are people who have real problems sleeping, whether they're reporters or whether they're staff, these are basically a group of professional travelers. By the time you get on that plane you've been vaccinated, poked, prodded to make sure that you're sort of fit for travel.

So there's nothing inherently extraordinary or inappropriate about that. The problem is that, again, if these are problems -- if these really are problems, you -- if these are things that have been known issues behind the scenes with White House staff, it was incumbent on the White House to vet these issues first.

MICHAEL BENDER, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": And the White House, I can tell you, doesn't think there is much to this accusation or much to these accusations at all. Phil mentioned some of the frustrations on The Hill. I don't think those frustrations are going away any time soon. Talking to folks at the White House, they want to get this into a hearing. They don't want -- they don't want to do this behind the scenes. They don't want -- they don't want to settle Isakson's concerns, Tester's concerns on a staff to staff level. They want Dr. Jackson in a hearing for him to defend himself. And -- but that -- the point still stands about that some this should have been -- they should have been prepped by some of this. We reported in "The Wall Street Journal" yesterday that Dr. Jackson

and Trump just talked about this, some of these accusations yesterday. Jackson assured him that there was nothing to them. He was willing to defend himself. And now we see -- and Dr. Jackson likes -- Trump likes Jackson and there's something --


[12:10:12] KING: But that's the upside down part of this. The president of the United States --


KING: Just hearing about some of this yesterday --

TALEV: Right.

KING: From a person he has nominated for one of the most critical cabinet agencies in the United States of America. And to Phil's point, you know, a vote for secretary of state, you don't hear much when you go home. A vote for VA, especially after the VA's history the last several years, this is a big deal.

Your editorial board -- you mentioned fine reporting in "The Wall Street Journal." Also this from the editorial board. Operations, when death is all but assured, are called suicide missions. And it's beginning to look as if Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson was sent on a political version. The person responsible for this mess is President Trump. It goes on just to talk about, you know, he's now left a military veteran who, again, innocent until proven guilty, deserves a fair hearing, but the White House is supposed to help him prepare for this. If there are colleagues -- whether some of this maybe is because of rivalry, some of this might be being exaggerated, some of it might also be true --


KING: And it's their job to do this right.

HENDERSON: And it seemed like the president yesterday was kind of giving Dr. Jackson an out. Basically saying, if he was Dr. Jackson, he wouldn't want to put up with this. He would just pull his name. But then, as the day went on, he seemed to want to double down and fight, even though some of the reporting suggests that Dr. Jackson might want to withdraw his name.

I think one of the key problems they have here is that people came to folks on The Hill on their own, 20 or so active and retired military folks. So this idea that this is some, you know, conspiracy to bring a good man down, they're going to --

KING: Or that it's partisan. Military people (INAUDIBLE).

HENDERSON: Or that it's partisan.

KING: Right. Right. HENDERSON: Exactly. I think it's going to be hard.

TALEV: There is another concern, too, and it's the elephant in the room. We all know what it is. This is coming so soon after the Rob Porter controversy.

KING: Right.

TALEV: And that was so mishandled by the White House on so many levels that there is now a new awareness, a new sensitivity to everyone, not just inside the White House, but in Congress, you know, in terms of people who decide nominations, people who are able to influence this process to say, well, we're really obligated now.

And that's a key point because you have Republican senators now being much more public about something they said privately for a long time, that the personnel shop at the White House and some of the president's instincts, they call them impulsive. They call some of the process Mickey Mouse, things like that. Now it's coming public, in part because of the importance of this agency, in part because of an election year, in part because they're just fed up, there's been so many of them.

All right, a quick break here. Up next, the bromance is undeniable, but will the Trump/Macron friendship lead to a new Iran deal?


[12:16:26] KING: Welcome back.

A rare and a big platform today for the president of France. Emmanuel Macron addressing a joint session of the United States Congress, continuing to make a case he tried to make in his days of meetings yesterday with President Trump, saying that the United States must not withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal unless there's an alternative plan in place.


PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON, FRANCE: Our objective is clear, Iran shall never possess any nuclear weapons. Not now, not in five years, not in ten years, never!


KING: Macron speaking there before the Congress.

There was some hint of potential progress with President Trump yesterday. Both President Trump and President Macron saying they're trying to work out a new deal, or revisions to the deal. But it also depends on who you talk to in the Trump White House about whether they think this is feasible. I know when you talk to other European diplomats, including those traveling with President Macron, they say, wait a minute, May 12th is the deadline for the United States. Can we really negotiate some other framework between now and then? So is that essentially Macron, the president tweeted out this morning, he'd be watching. Is he continuing to talk to the president there, or was that to the Congress?

TALEV: Yes, he's talking to the president.


TALEV: Every time he talks, he's talking to the president.

I mean here's what's going on. The E-3 partners, right, the -- France and the U.K. and Germany, have been working for like months since the January 12 -- since the president basically signaled, I'm dropping this like a hot potato, working to come up with side agreements.


TALEV: But if you're marketing something to President Trump, you are not going to call it a side agreement to preserve the Iran deal, because that's like --

KING: Right.

TALEV: Why don't you just give him the knife, right?

So take note of the wording, "new deal," OK? It -- these -- it makes it sound like the JCPOA is being scrapped and being replaced with something much stronger. But these are the same side agreements that they've been working on really diligently at the national security director level, the staff level, with the State Department, in conjunction with the State Department. And even though Rex Tillerson is gone now, with Pompeo's team, that incoming team, Macron may be crucial to this, but so may be Pompeo, in terms of whether he wants his first act in this new job to be to blow up the Iran deal or whether he --

KING: Right before -- right before he goes to North Korea as the secretary of state --

HENDERSON: Right, to try to make a deal.

KING: To try to say, trust us, make a deal.


TALEV: Or whether he is able to convince President Trump to buy a little bit more time. Trump does not want to keep signing these waivers. But, to me, the president seemed to be signaling very strongly that he may be willing to give it a little bit more time. That doesn't solve the broader problem. We just can't do this every three months for the next 10 years.

KING: And I want to circle back to the Iran deal in a minute, but it's just interesting to watch a man who stood before the congress, made a joke about the touching, the feeling, the hugging rooted in history. He clearly wants to be, as they call him in Europe the Trump whisperer. He wants to be a Trump friend. He wants to be able to move the president along on these issues. But, listen here, a very public disagreement standing in the well of

the House of Representatives with the president of the United States on the Paris Climate Accords.


PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON, FRANCE: And I'm sure one day the United States will come back and join the Paris agreements. And I'm sure -- and I'm sure we can work together to fulfill with you the ambitions of the global compact on the environment.


KING: Interesting because he also has to go home. And he's got some political problems back home. That's mostly Democrats cheering when he said that to the United States Congress. Most Republicans -- most --


[12:20:05] HENDERSON: Yes, completely.

KING: I'm try to be nice, Phil.

TALEV: (INAUDIBLE) might have been there (ph).

KING: Trying to be -- trying to be nice here. There are a handful of Republicans who might like the Paris Climate Accords.

But it's just very interesting that at a time when you're trying to, you know, present to the world that you're the guy closest to Trump, to also stand right there on that big, international platform, but also a big domestic platform, and say, you're wrong, Mr. President. That's what he's saying.

BENDER: Yes, and he's actually -- he's played this really well. I mean there is a bit of one-upsmanship in the bromance between Macron and Trump there. The brushing of the dandruff.


BENDER: Macron put his hand on Trump's knee yesterday in the Oval Office and told him what an -- what a -- you know, how well the relationship is going. But then at the toast last night at the state dinner, Macron made a point of saying, you know, this is a necessary relationship. You know, the -- and the message there saying, we'll engage in this, but mostly because we have to. And you talk to French officials, and that's -- and that's kind of how they point to the -- how they paint this relationship, is that -- is that they don't have much of a choice.

And they also came out of those meetings yesterday, Macron's team, saying that they thought they had made some progress with him, with the president. It reached some sort of understanding on the Iranian deal. And, you know, Margaret mentioned some of the phrasing, the new deal that Macron had mentioned, Trump made that same -- made that same -- used that same language. But he does a very good -- the U.S. president does a very good job of hedging and sort of obfuscating where he's at. Said, you know, nobody knows what I'm going to do, except maybe Macron. And when he looked at Macron, Macron gave him a little wink back.

KING: Right.

BENDER: So I guess we'll have to wait a couple of weeks to find out exactly what that wink meant.


KING: We will -- we will have to wait. And the president's base is clearly worried about this.


KING: Before we go to break, this is Mark Levin on the radio yesterday. I would hope the president would stand his ground and get rid of this crap. That's from the conservative base saying they're trying -- you know, the Europeans are trying to lobby the president for a new deal. The conservative base saying, no, hold your ground, rip it up, Mr. President. In 12 days -- the 12th of May, a long ways off. We'll count the days there.

Up next, legal travel ban or unconstitutional Muslim ban? Today, the Supreme Court weighs in.


[12:26:16] KING: Welcome back.

A giant test for the Trump administration today before the Supreme Court. The Justice Department defending version three of the president's controversial travel ban, asserting it is well within the president's powers. Critics say, no, urging the justices to remember candidate Trump's talk of a Muslim ban and to rule the reworded administration policy that's unconstitutional. Remember, the ban suspended immigration from Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Venezuela and North Korea. CNN's Jessica Schneider was at the high court for today's arguments. She joins us now live.

Jessica, take us inside that courtroom.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, this argument lasted a little bit more than an hour. And throughout it the justices really did wrestle with that issue of whether this travel ban, the third iteration of it, whether or not it's legal, whether or not it's constitutional. But, of course, these justices did come down along ideological lines when it came to questioning. And that, of course, means that Justice Kennedy will likely be left as the swing vote here, as he often is.

Now, Justice Kennedy really asked questions on both sides. First of all, he did allude to the fact of whether or not candidate's comments should be problematic, of course, sort of alluding there to the president's comments on the campaign trail where he talked about the fact that he wanted a Muslim ban. But then Justice Kennedy, in addition to that line of questioning, also pointed out that this travel ban does allow for the review of it about every 180 days. That's what's written in the proclamation. So he said that this isn't a finalized ban that just applies across the lines among an infinite period of time. He seemed to line up with the other justices, Chief Justice Roberts, as well as Justice Briar talking -- I'm sorry, Justice Alito, talking about the fact that the president does have broad power to institute this to order to protect national security.

But then, of course, you had the justices in the liberal wing of things. And very outspoken at that, Justices Sotomayor, as well as Justice Kagan, they talked about the fact that President Trump's comments on the campaign trail are, in fact, extremely troubling. And in addition to that, Justice Kagan put forth a very interesting hypothetical there about a potential future president, the comments that me might make on the campaign trail, and what those might mean if he tries to institute a similar ban. Take a listen.


JUSTICE ELENA KAGAN, SUPREME COURT: Let's say in some future time a president gets elected who is a vehement anti-Semite and says all kind of denigrating comments about Jews and provokes a lot of resentment and hatred over the course of a campaign, and in his presidency. And in the course of that, asks his staff or his cabinet members to issue -- to issue recommendations so that he can issue a proclamation of this kind, and they dot all the i's and they cross all the t's. And what emerges, and, again, in the context of this vehement (ph) anti- Semitism, what emerges is a proclamation that says no one shall enter from Israel.


KAGAN: Do you say Mandel puts an end to judicial review of that set of facts?

FRANCISCO: No, your honor, I don't say Mandel puts an end to it, but I do say that in that context Mandel would be the starting point of the analysis, because it does involve the exclusion of aliens, which is where Mandel applies.


SCHNEIDER: And Justice Kagan there alluding to talking about the 1972 case of Mandel that did allow the attorney general to refuse someone into this country, and then the Supreme Court really couldn't review it beyond that point. So that's what that case was all about.

But, you know, Justice Kagan really did express her concerns here about the comments that President Trump made on the campaign trail.

[12:30:05] John, she said two other things after that exchange. She said, this really is an out of the box president. She also said, who know where his heart of hearts is.