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White House Mocks McCain's Brain Cancer; White House Chief of Staff Under Fire for Immigrant Comments. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired May 11, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: So, is this rock bottom?

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news, it could be a new low, the White House repeatedly passing on the chance to apologize after a cruel joke about Senator John McCain's brain cancer.

Plus, the president's chief of staff speaks to CNN after slamming the Russia probe, making claims about immigrants that many are calling simply racist.

And the White House drama king strikes again. Today, new evidence that EPA Chief Scott Pruitt dined with a climate change doubter and accused sexual child abuser and kept it a secret.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto, in for Jake.

We begin with the breaking news. The White House just moments ago going the Trumpian route, refusing to apologize time and time again for a cruel joke a staffer made about John McCain dying of cancer.

That is right, a joke about him dying of cancer -- and refusing to answer whether this overall tone comes from the very top.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: There is not a tone set here. We have a respect for all Americans. And that is what we try to put forward in everything we do, both in word and in action.

QUESTION: Why not just apologize to Senator McCain?


HUCKABEE SANDERS: Again, I'm not going to get into a back and forth because people want to create issues of leaked staff meetings.


SCIUTTO: Well, not only did the White House not say those simple words, we're sorry, but as you heard there, pointed to the leak that led to that cruel joke getting out in the first place. Let's begin with CNN's Kaitlan Collins. She's at the White House.

Kaitlan, multiple chances from that White House podium to make a very simple apology for something everyone seems to agree was offensive, and yet no apology.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: No apology, Jim, and not even an acknowledgment that Kelly Sadler made this remark about Senator McCain.

And now to remind our viewers what the context of this remark was, Kelly Sadler is a communications staffer. She was in a communications meeting. And when they were discussing Senator McCain's recent opposition to the White House's CIA nominee, someone who knows a thing or two about torture, Kelly Sadler said that his opinion on Gina Haspel was irrelevant because he's dying anyway.

Of course, Senator McCain has incurable brain cancer. So she made that remark, it got released to the media. Of course, the White House there in that press briefing just then seeming more concerned with the fact that that comment leaked than with the fact that Sadler made a remark like that about someone who served the United States in Vietnam, someone who is a senator and someone who has brain cancer.

The White House there standing by Kelly Sadler, saying, yes, she still does work here, she still does have a taxpayer-funded job, and not even acknowledging that she made this remark, Jim.

I'm not even sure any P.R. company in the world would agree with this strategy. It seems quite easy to apologize for the remark, to say that they have discussed this with her or anything like that.

None of that is what we got in that briefing just there. Instead, the White House seeming to be critical of the fact that another staffer revealed to the media that Kelly Sadler made this comment at all.

And, of course, Sarah Sanders was asked there, is this comment something that is because of the tone that is set at the top? Of course, this is a president who has mocked John McCain in the past.

And staffers who described what Sadler said, said it was simply meant as a joke. Maybe her humor is more in line with the president's, who has never apologized for belittling John McCain and his service to our country -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: That's right, no apology by the president then, no apology from the White House podium today.

Kaitlan Collins at White House.

Today, John McCain's daughter also weighed in on that cruel joke about her father.

Tom Foreman reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Reprehensible, inexcusable, shame on you, resign. Outrage is swirling around White House aide Kelly Sadler on Twitter after she dismissed Senator John McCain's opposition to President Trump's CIA nominee by mocking his grave illness.

"He's dying anyway."

His wife, Cindy: "May I remind you, my husband has a family, seven children and five grandchildren."

His daughter, Meghan:

MEGHAN MCCAIN, DAUGHTER OF JOHN MCCAIN: I don't understand what kind of environment you're working in when that would be acceptable, and then you can come to work the next day and still have a job. And that is all I have to say.

FOREMAN: The White House hasn't publicly said there is anything wrong with this, though the aide apologized to the senator's family and in a statement said: "We respect Senator McCain's service to our nation and he and our family are in our prayers during this difficult time."

But not a word publicly from the president himself, who has never hesitated to go after McCain and has never apologized for taunting the decorated veteran and former prisoner of war during the campaign.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured, OK, I hate to tell you.

FOREMAN: Complicating the issue, on FOX Business, a former Air Force lieutenant general one who endorsed Trump repeating a debunked claim that McCain gave information to his North Vietnamese captors when they tortured him.


LT. GEN. THOMAS MCINERNEY (RET.), U.S. AIR FORCE: Well, the fact is, John McCain, it worked on John. That is why they call him songbird John.

FOREMAN: FOX says they won't have that general on again.

But the bipartisan uproar keeps raging. Former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden says the Trump administration has hit rock bottom.

Republican Speaker of House Paul Ryan?

REP. PAUL RYAN (R), WISCONSIN, SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Look, John McCain is a hero, no two ways about it.

FOREMAN: McCain has criticized Trump's leadership, his policies and he cast the deciding vote to stop a repeal of Obamacare, among his many maverick moves his family and fans say will far outlast his critics. MCCAIN: My father's legacy is going to be talked about for hundreds

and hundreds of years. These people, nothing burgers. Nobody's going to remember you.


FOREMAN: And yet, for all of that, and even with this opportunity for the White House to have something else to say about it, we still have no idea whether this staffer will pay any kind of price, let alone resign.

And, Jim, we have no word from the president, who says he loves veterans, who says he wants to be fair to everyone, who says he has the best of manners, whether he even thinks this was improper.

SCIUTTO: Yes, and you had the White House claiming showing respect for all people.

Tom Foreman, thanks very much.

Let's go to our panel to discuss.

Jason Miller, you worked for the Trump campaign. Why not a simple apology?

JASON MILLER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I think this is definitely an unforced error.

Not only was it an inappropriate comment by Ms. Sadler, but I think it's something that should have been dealt with yesterday. If it had been dealt with yesterday, I think we would be back to talking about how President Trump got these hostages out of North Korea, how he got us out of a terrible deal with Iran, talking about the economy, the embassy opening up in Jerusalem coming up on Monday.

But, instead, this carried on for a second day. From public reports, it looks like Ms. Sadler did call and offer an apology to Meghan McCain, but clearly it wasn't strong enough.

But this is something that the White House should have dealt with immediately. There's really no reason for it to continue today as it did

SCIUTTO: Ana Navarro, is it as simple as an apology for this comment?

Because, as Tom noted in his piece, this kind of dismissal of John McCain, it came from the president himself during the campaign, something that he's never apologize for. Does this go right to the top, in your view, this tone that you heard Sarah Sanders there deny that there is any talk, deny that such a tone exists?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Of course it's the same tone. It's a tone that Donald Trump has set.

It is the tone that he set during the campaign, when he said that John McCain was not a hero. Mind you, he, Donald Trump, a draft dodger, is saying that John McCain, who hung by his thumbs and was tortured for five-and-a-half years, was not a hero.

Of course he's a hero. And then he said it again and again and again. He's said it after John McCain's diagnosis. He's said it at a pep rally in Arizona. He said it at CPAC. He's said it over and over again.

This is not the first time I hear about Donald Trump or somebody from that White House calling Meghan McCain or Cindy McCain and offering an apology.

How about you stop saying stuff you have to call and apologize for? How about showing a little humanity? How about showing a little empathy to John McCain and his family and to all the people facing terminal illnesses and all the people that love people facing terminal illnesses?

How about being decent for a change? They can't fire this woman. They have had to fire Donald Trump for the stuff he has said and done already about John McCain.

SCIUTTO: Let me -- you heard Ana there mention that these kinds of comments do not come in isolation. The president has uttered similar things himself.

As a reminder, have a listen.


TRUMP: He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured.

And except for one senator who came into a room at 3:00 in the morning and went like that, we would have had health care too.

We got a bad vote. You know about that, right? That was not a nice thing.


SCIUTTO: Robby Mook, the fact is, despite his service and his heroism, he is something of a lightning rod for folks on the right.

For instance, when you heard that comment on FOX the other day from General McInerney, it's not the first time you have heard a comment like that there. It has an appeal to a certain wing of the Republican Party.


Look, Democrats are outraged right now. I'm outraged. I would say any decent human being is outraged. I agree with Jason's assessment. The White House should have let her go and moved on.

And the apology should have been -- there should have been an apology from the White House. The president's base loves this, because he's in the fight. I think that today is a perfect example of everything that is wrong with our politics right now. Let's go back up at what the original issue is here. We have someone being nominated to head our Central Intelligence Agency. She participated in a program that tortured people.

John McCain is a hero because he was tortured. We are not talking about whether this woman should become CIA director. We're talking about a stupid, disrespectful thing that a White House staffer said.


So, once again, Donald Trump is getting away with it. We're not focusing on what matters. We're focusing on the drama. Classic.

SCIUTTO: Joe Biden made note of this today, saying that decency just hit rock bottom in this administration.

Here's how his statement read today in part.

And I'm quoting here: "Given this White House's trail of disrespect towards John and others, this staffer is not the exception to the rule. She is the epitome of it."

Jason Miller, I wonder. As you see that there, Joe Biden, not a far fetched to imagine him as a candidate against Trump in 2000 (sic), does that concern you, when you have someone like Joe Biden, who brings respect, is willing to make a comment like that as a potential challenger to the president?

MILLER: Well, let's go and split the two up.

I mean, I would love to see Joe Biden run against President Trump. I mean, Joe hasn't won anything in the presidential arena, so I think he will lose against President Trump. But that's a side issue.

But I think his overall criticism of the White House is off-base for the simple fact that again this was not President Trump that made this comment. It was a staffer, a lower-level staffer.

SCIUTTO: But you heard the other comments that the president himself has made.


MILLER: But there were also comments worked in there, say, on the policy front.

Senator McCain did, in very notorious fashion, go out onto the Senate floor and do the whole thumbs down on the effort to kill Obamacare. And so there were policy aspects.

SCIUTTO: He voted against something.

MILLER: Yes. And he went out and did the whole -- he held up the vote and then went out there, did the whole thumbs down. So there is that aspect. There were policy items that were worked into that montage.


SCIUTTO: Because she made a broader claim.

In addition to not apologizing about John McCain, Sarah Sanders said these words: "We have a respect for all Americans. And that is what we try to put forward in everything we do, both in word and in action."

is the White House record -- does it back that statement up?

MILLER: I think that's accurate what they try to do every day.

I think that's the spirit that people at the White House take to it.

SCIUTTO: The president, his comments about immigrants, John Kelly's comments about immigrants today -- or, rather, yesterday, in an interview?


MILLER: OK, so let's talk about that for a minute.

John Kelly came out. And, actually, when I was looking through the interview, I was like, where is the problem?

He came out and actually showed a lot of empathy, I thought, for illegal immigrants that are trying to come to the country, and correctly pointed out that many of the illegal immigrants that come into the country have very low skills, don't know English, are not able to assimilate into the culture.

That is an accurate comment. I don't see where the inaccuracy or falsehoods are in what John Kelly said.

SCIUTTO: Ana Navarro, your response to Jason's view?

NAVARRO: Look, there were parts of John Kelly's interview which were substantive and talked about policy. He talked about TPS.

He talked about Congress' duty to do something and that it should fall on Congress to make the laws, the immigration laws. That was a substantive discussion he was having.

I thought the part about immigrants not being able to assimilate and having a poor education were unnecessary and were hurtful, particularly coming from somebody like John Kelly, who comes from poor Irish migrants, people like the Italians, people like the Irish, who came to Boston, where John is from, and have built that city and have made this country a great country and contributed.

And it also, I thought, was particularly disturbing because John Kelly is a four-star general. And he commanded so many troops. Go to any, go to any memorial, go to any U.S. cemetery, and you will see the names of Martinezes and Rodriguez and Garcias lining the headstones of people who came here and assimilated in the most American of ways, being willing to sacrifice their lives and to serve their country, which is a hell of a lot more than Donald Trump --


SCIUTTO: Let's give Robby Mook a chance to respond.

MOOK: Yes.

Again, this interview was classic for somebody in the Trump administration. He clearly wasn't telling the truth. He was asked, what do you think of President Trump? He says, oh, I think he's a brilliant guy. Have you ever wanted to quit? No, never. Not whatsoever. We have a very close relationship.

It was interesting listening to Ms. McCain there when she talks about how her father will be remembered for hundreds of years. I think John Kelly and a lot of the staff in the Trump administration will be remembered for all the lies they told, and not anything that they are doing.

And I just -- I have trouble taking any of it seriously. And, sure, he sprinkles it with hateful, racist comments, because that is what their base needs. That is what we're talking here, again, instead of the substance.

But this is nothing new.

SCIUTTO: Jason Miller?

MILLER: Well, I was going to say, I think this brings up the larger conversation on immigration.

We also saw Sarah Sanders say in today's briefing that that is one of the things they would like to get done today. I don't know if they can get into a comprehensive immigration reform, but the president has outlined a pretty detailed plan where he wants to get to more of a merit-based system, similar to what they do in Canada, where it is based on skills.

And then the other thing too is I think Ana earlier was conflicting a bit of people who have come here legally with people who come here illegally. But I would like to have this debate on immigration. it's something I think the president wants to also.

SCIUTTO: And just for the sake of --

NAVARRO: A lot of those poor Irish immigrants, a lot of those poor Italian immigrants did not come here legally.

SCIUTTO: Well --

NAVARRO: And if you want to talk -- let me tell you this.

[16:15:00] If you want to talk about unskilled immigrants, you want to have a conversation about Melania Trump's parents who are here under what -- do we call it family reunification when it's her parents and we call it something else, when it is the parents of other people. I think her father was, what a driver in her native country?

I am glad they are here. I am glad they are here to help her daughter, to help raise their grandchild. I am glad that Melania Trump's parents are able to reunify with her daughter. I wish others had the same chance.

SCIUTTO: If for our viewers at home who might not be familiar with John Kelly's comments in the interview yesterday, I'm going to read them here. He said the following, and I'm quoting, they don't integrate well or have skills, speaking about immigrants. They're not bad people, they're coming here for a reason and I sympathize with the reason but the laws are the laws.

John Kelly himself, he's Italian Irish, I'm Italian Irish. Actually, I was looking at someone posted the immigration records of his great grandparents and grandparents, they're very similar to mine, early 20th century, came without many skills, came without language skills as well.

MILLER: Illegal -- illegal immigrants is the topic of the conversation.

SCIUTTO: He was pretty broad in his description of --

MILLER: The question was about illegal immigration.

ROBBY MOOK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I was going to say, I love when the Trump administration talks about law and order. The irony is so rich, right, when it comes to government ethics, when it comes to government spending, when it comes to people getting their security clearances, the law is really fungible, when it comes to immigration status and when the president's own wife and her family the rules and the laws don't matter, but when it is somebody else from Mexico or some another country, it suddenly matters a lot.

SCIUTTO: Well, listen, there is a lot more to talk about. Is President Trump embarrassed or distracted? Also, John Kelly playing clean-up when it comes to the Russia investigation?

We'll have more just after this.


[16:20:55] SCIUTTO: As the White House today deals with another mess over a staffer's cruel joke about John McCain's health, the Chief of Staff John Kelly is trying to clean up his own comments after telling NPR that President Trump is, quote, embarrassed by the Russia investigation and that it lacks, quote, real meat on the bone in his words.

The retired marine general now saying that he meant the president is distracted, not embarrassed by special counsel Robert Mueller probe but the tape certainly seems to say otherwise.

CNN's Kaitlin Collins is back with us from the White House.

Really a remarkable shift on some very important words there, Kaitlin.

COLLINS: Jim, I believe the phrase is damage control. Now, we don't often here from the Chief of Staff John Kelly and the last time he did an interview, he said that the president's views on immigration had evolved and the president quickly rebuked him for saying as much. So, it seems like John Kelly is trying to steer clear of something like that happening again.


COLLINS (voice-over): President Trump in the Rose Garden today. While his chief of staff John Kelly is back in the spotlight, revealing that President Trump is embarrassed by the Mueller probe and investigation he has repeatedly dismissed as a witch hunt, telling NPR --

GEN. JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: There may not be a cloud but certainly the president is somewhat embarrassed frankly.

COLLINS: From a top aide that works for a president that sees embarrassment as a weakness. Kelly attempting to clean up the comment, telling CNN's Jeff Zeleny --

KELLY: I actually corrected it to say distracted. But we're not doing an interview.


KELLY: Well, yes, it's untrue. It is a witch hunt, right? And it is a distraction. But not too much, but, you know, it's unfair.

COLLINS: Kelly is asserting that the Russia investigation is hampering Trump's ability to have relationships with world leaders.

KELLY: It's like you walk in, and the first couple of minutes of every conversation might revolve around that kind of thing.

COLLINS: And suggesting the year-long investigation should come to a close.

KELLY: Something that has gone on this long without any real meat on the bone, it suggests to me that there is nothing there relatively to our president.

COLLINS: Kelly, a former four star marine and director of homeland security, also made headlines with his divisive comments about immigration.

KELLY: They're also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States. They're overwhelmingly rural people, in the countries they come from, fourth or fifth or sixth grade education are kind of the norm.

COLLINS: Despite reports that he has threatened to leave the White House on multiple occasions, Kelly insisting he's staying put for now.

KELLY: In retrospect, I wish I had been here from day one.

COLLINS: Kelly's replacement at Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, is the latest in Trump's inner circle to garner the ire of the president, after Trump erupted at her in a tense cabinet meeting Wednesday. The president lashing out at Nielsen because he thinks she isn't doing enough to secure the border. "The New York Times" reporting Nielsen was on the verge of resigning, something the White House disputes.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: As we've said many times before, if the president no longer has confidence in a cabinet member, he'll let you know.


COLLINS: Now, Jim, it may not be a question of the president's confidence because my sources said that Nielsen pushed back on the president during the cabinet meeting on Wednesday. John Kelly, who picked Nielsen for this job suggested her to President Trump told my colleague Jeff Zeleny today that he expects her to stay on, but I think, Jim, we're going to have to wait and see what happens in the next cabinet meeting.

SCIUTTO: Exactly. Does the president like that, pushing back?

Kaitlin Collins, thanks very much.

SCIUTTO: It is shocking just how many White House staffers have threatened to resign. You got to see this list. That's just after the break.


[16:28:42] SCIUTTO: Welcome back.

The big story today, the White House tripping over itself trying to clear up all kinds of comments, Chief of Staff John Kelly backtracking now on his remark the president is, quote, embarrassed by the Russia investigation.

My panel is back with me now.

Jason Miller, I wonder, John Kelly said the president is embarrassed by the investigation frankly, his words. And he said the first minutes of any conversation with the world leader end up focusing on the probe. I wonder if he was inadvertently revealed the truth.

MILLER: I don't think the investigation is embarrassing for the president, but for the DOJ for the leadership --

SCIUTTO: And he said embarrassed with the world leaders and he gets dragged into discussion about this, do you think that's accurate?

MILLER: Well, I have no idea what the first couple of minutes are, the conversation the president has with foreign leaders, but it is a distraction. I think it does get in the way to fact it advances the president on foreign policy, whether it'd be trade, whether it'd be on things like denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.

And, you know, next Thursday is an important milestone. That is the one year mark since Mueller came in as special counsel. And the fact that we're a year into this, and there still isn't any evidence that the Trump campaign colluded and in any way, shape or form, with a foreign entity I think is pretty stunning.

SCIUTTO: There has been no clear dismissal of that frankly.

MILLER: But there hasn't been any proof. And the fact that we're a year in shows the divide and the dichotomy that we have in the electorate right now, where Trump supporters say, wait a minute, after a year, what the heck is going on?