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White House Chief of Staff Takes Back Remark that Trump is "Embarrassed"; Companies Come Clean on Cohen Deals After Being Outed; White House Sends Mixed Messages On EPA Head Pruitt; Guy Who Made 100 Million Calls Get $120 Million Fine Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired May 11, 2018 - 16:30   ET


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: There has been no clear dismissal of that frankly.

JASON MILLER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: But there hasn't been any proof.

[16:30:01] 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? Why do we still have this?

And quite frankly I wouldn't be surprised if this is what foreign leaders are saying. They come up and say, you know, President Trump, this is going on and they haven't said or proven anything that seems to be accurate --


SCIUTTO: I'm sure foreign leaders echo the White House talking points.

Ana Navarro, what is your view? Do you think that when John Kelly says that the president is embarrassed in meeting with world leaders or politicians that he ends up talking about this and it's frustrating?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, I think there is no secret in that, right? We see it every early morning tweet full of capitalized letters and exclamation points. This Russia investigation is something that is deep inside Donald Trump's head and that upsets him terribly. So, I'm not surprised that he would be embarrassed and bring it up with world leaders.

But I would tell you, there is so many things for Donald Trump to be embarrassed by, this should be the least. He should be embarrassed he had an alleged pedophile. He should be embarrassed he had a domestic abuser worker working a few feet from the Oval Office. He should be embarrassed he's got a communications counselor who makes jokes about somebody facing down a terminal illness. He should be embarrassed that he said over 3,000 lies as president.

So, I would say, listen, in the list of things you should be embarrassed about, the fact that there is an investigation about the integrity of our democracy and our elections should be the least of your problems.

SCIUTTO: Robby Mook, another comment stood out in John Kelly's interview, he called the Russia investigation unfair and a witch hunt, repeating that phrase the president has used. Are you surprise to hear that phrasing coming from former uniform marine general, some -- former DHS secretary?

ROBBY MOOK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Not in this case. And like I said, before, what stood out to me in that interview is how many times he covered for the president, how many things I think he said he didn't believe. I think to the point that you made, I think he did believe what he said about it being embarrassing.

It doesn't matter when you're a president, you're standing there at a press conference with a world leader, it's a very august occasion and people asking about a scandal. But no, this doesn't surprise me. And obviously, the president is making this all worse. If he would never tweet about this, if he would just step back and say, you know what, these visits with foreign leaders are so important to me, I'm going to go silent on this, I'm going to focus on foreign policy, I actually think he wouldn't be as embarrassed because I think we wouldn't be talking about it as much.

So again, I don't feel -- I don't feel bad for the president because I think it is a legitimate investigation but I don't feel bad because he brings it up so much. I don't think he can expect the press not to.

SCIUTTO: Jason Miller, I'm curious how the president is receiving. This there was upset -- we heard from the president when Kelly said the president's views on immigration had evolved. He had to pull that back. Now, you have Kelly saying, well, the president is embarrassed by the investigation. He has to pull that back and say, well, he's frustrated by the investigation.

To your knowledge, what is the level -- the president's confidence in his chief of staff?

MILLER: I think it is very high. I think we saw the two men stand together before they took off on Air Force One a few days ago. I think General Kelly has a strong standing with the president right now.

Look, when you work in this White House, when you work for President Trump, you got to have a thick skin. If he's upset with something, he'll tell you. He'll put you on notice pretty quick. And I think everyone who works for him, I think gets that.

At a certain point, I can't speak to how other presidents operated, but President Trump does have high accountability if he doesn't like the way something is going, he's going to tell you about it.

SCIUTTO: So, we had we had another story this week, a -- the DHS -- actually John Kelly's replacement at DHS threatening to resign after the president apparently berated her in a meeting. It's not the first time that threat has come from a White House official. Here is a list of people who have threatened to quit while working for the Trump administration, this according to several reports. Of course, a lot of those folks did not in the end do. It -- but they made -- those making those threats public, you know, that is normally on purpose, is it not, Robby Mook? As you look at that list there, what does it say to you?

MOOK: Yes, this is the guy's management style, right? I mean, the list you don't have are the people who got fired. That is a pretty high volume as well.

And we know this White House is having trouble filling jobs. I mean, this is -- this is part of the issue here, is that there -- they're not -- I think they're still lacking a communications director for example, and I know I talked to people around town, Republican colleagues. They want to stay away from that. They don't want to do the job because they know where it's going to head.

So, I think this will continue to be a challenge for him. I think in the case of Kelly, I obviously don't know as well as Jason, my guess is he's reached some kind of agreement with Trump. He seems to be like -- it seems like he's pushing back less than he did before. My guess is Trump recognizes that he has to have a chief of staff. He can live without his communications director but I think he has to have a chief and maybe he figures this is the best --

MILLER: Well, he's had some big wins lately and I think that's part of it. I think Kelly has played an instrumental role both with regard to the North Korea progress moving along.

[16:35:03] Obviously, Secretary of State Pompeo has been a critical part of that. I think also with the Iran deal and moving the embassy as I mentioned before.

This is -- this is national security is really at the forefront right now. It is dominating a lot of the news. And I think having a chief of staff who is a four-star general who has that background is a critical component. I think it's a lot different as opposed to last year when so much of the focus was on domestic politics.

SCIUTTO: Ana Navarro, in this CNN poll just out this week found that 30 percent of respondents approve how the president is handling cabinet officials, and 55 percent disapprove, really two to one there against. Do you -- I know how you feel about the upset within the Trump administration. But speaking of Republican voters, base voters, do you sense any exhaustion with the drama in the White House or do they still see that candidate that they voted for, someone who is, listen, yes, he sometimes speaks off the cuff but he's our guy?

NAVARRO: Look, I have been amazed and continue to be amazed by the tribal loyalty that some in the Republican base have and continue to have for Donald Trump.

I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that he does things here and there that are very symbolic and that please part of the base, some of it big things. Big things like naming Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. And some not as big but things that mean a lot to the base like -- like not celebrating pride month. Like curtailing LGBTQ rights, like going on and on about a wall that exists in his head and nowhere else.

And so, you know, I think Trump knows how to play his base. He knows how to keep that base happy and you keep seeing that level of loyalty.

SCIUTTO: Ana, Robby, Jason, thanks so much, as always.

Just when you thought the scandal surrounding Scott Pruitt could not get worse. It just did. Who the head of the EPA had dinner with while visiting the Vatican. Here is a hint: it wasn't the pope.


[16:41:28] SCIUTTO: Today, companies that did business with Michael Cohen are rushing to call those business deals mistakes. But only after they were outed this week in documents from Stormy Daniels' lawyer.

Today, the pharmaceutical giant Novartis and AT&T as well, which is currently, we should say, trying to buy CNN's parent company Time Warner, they're both trying to clean up hits to their reputations.

We're joined now by Jeffrey Toobin.

Jeffrey, you look at this, there is lobbying done in Washington. But when you look at these payments, were these actual consulting deals or were they buying access to the president? I mean , after all, Michael Cohen is the president's personal lawyer.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: They were buying access. But most of lobbying is buying access. I mean, what I don't understand about this controversy is what do people think is going on in Washington?

The whole business stinks. And the idea that Michael Cohen is somehow worse than all of the other lobbying these companies done, is kind of mysterious to me.

Cory Lewandowski, who was Trump -- President Trump's campaign manager is doing a thriving business. Why do you think people are hiring him? Because of his great policy expertise? No, because he's opening doors.

All of the ex-senators, you know, Evan Bayh, John Breaux, Trent Lott, why do you think people pay them? Because they could get access. This whole business stinks but it is legal.

SCIUTTO: Phil Mudd, you have a lot of experience in Washington. Is there anything more transparently, you know, D.C. or swampy about this or do you agree with Jeff, that this is more of the same?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Jeff is dead on. If you go into a bar and they're going to serve alcohol. If you go into Washington, D.C., you're going to get paid to get access. I mean, I'm going to have a martini at 7:00 tonight, I've got to go to a bar. If you want access in D.C., you go to somebody like this.

I do think there is one interesting aspect to this as I was looking at sort of the investigative angle, Jim, and that is obviously, one of the questions of special counsel wanting to understand is the flow of money and influence particularly related to Russia. I don't think AT&T and Novartis are at nay risk here. I agree with Jeff.

But I guarantee they're being transparent with the special counsel about how they're relationship developed, how the money flowed and if I were the special counsel's sort of adviser, I suspect that adviser is saying let's look at those money flows from these clean companies and see how that compares and contrast to what Russia entities might have been doing with Cohen.

I think there are interesting aspects to this related potentially to understand the Russia angle but not to understanding lobbying. Washington is dirty. Big surprise.

SCIUTTO: Sarah Sanders, Jeffrey Toobin, she made an interesting claim. She was asked if the president feels it is a mistake for Cohen to work with these companies. Here is her response.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think this further proves the president is not going to be influenced by special interest. This is actually the definition of draining the swamp, something the president talked about repeatedly during the campaign.


SCIUTTO: Is this the definition of draining the swamp, Jeffrey Toobin?

TOOBIN: I have no idea what she's talking about there. I think -- I think in fairness to President Trump, it's not clear that he knew about any of the payments that went to Michael Cohen. But, you know, he had lunch -- he had dinner with Michael Cohen just a couple of weeks before they searched his office in -- he had dinner in Mar-a- Largo with him just a couple of weeks before they searched his office.

So Michael Cohen still had access at the time he was getting money from the companies. So, it is entirely possible that the companies got what they were paying for. They got information. They got access to someone who had access to the president on at least somewhat regular basis.


SCIUTTO: But it's interesting -- it's interesting, Phil Mudd, because the companies are -- many of them are saying, in fact, the opposite. Novartis I believe it was paid $1.2 million for one meeting. They got to that meet and then determined that they weren't getting -- or he didn't have, Michael Cohen, the access that they believed that he had so -- I mean, what publicly traded company pays $1.2 million for a meeting, one meeting that gets them nowhere?

MUDD: I hate to tell you this, but I don't think that's uncommon in Washington, D.C. Look, we have somebody who's unknown in some ways in Washington political circles. That's Donald Trump. You can't go to K Street, which is the center of lobbying in D.C., 18 months ago and say who's going to help us get access to the President? Who's credible? Who has a track record? So these companies are going to have to go to people who don't have a track record.

I think paying for less than what you get in my judgment is common in lobbying circles but that other angle, paying for access to somebody who the standard channels can't get you access to might have led companies to waste a lot of money. By the way, and I think the bottom line here is these people aren't -- don't think they did anything illegal. As they said, they're just really embarrassed.

SCIUTTO: And you saw that Jeffrey Toobin, did you not? because AT&T gently it seems forced out their top lobbyist after this was exposed.

TOOBIN: Yes, they did. But what I think what's so interesting about this controversy is that you know, it illustrates Michael Kinsley's law. Michael Kinsley, a great journalist, one of my mentors who always said the scandal isn't what's illegal, the scandal is what's legal. The scandal is what society chooses not to punish. And you know, AT&T was embarrassed because this laid bare just how shabby the business of access peddling of -- is, but as Randall Stephenson said in his letter, and I think he was correct, there was nothing illegal about what they did. It's just that when the light shines on this, it does embarrass these companies and everyone involved and at least that's a good thing.

SCIUTTO: Jeffrey Toobin and Phil Mudd, thanks you very much. Scott Pruitt's list of possible ethics violations and alleged scandals keeps getting longer. Now there are questions about a dinner that he had while visiting the Vatican.


[16:50:00] SCIUTTO: Mixed messages coming from the White House today about another problem, the cabinet-level chief seemingly with nine lives. The President saying he has confidence in embattled EPA Director Scott Pruitt while his White House said there are some concerns. Pruitt is back in the news for all of the wrong reasons today after the New York Times obtained documents about a dinner that he had with a Catholic cardinal accused of child sex abuse. Sara Ganim reports.


SARA GANIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Documents uncovered by the New York Times reveal EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt dined with a controversial Vatican figure, along with over a dozen other church leaders at a five-star restaurant during his trip to Italy last year, even though his public schedule says he was simply having a private dinner with staff.

CARDINAL GEORGE PELL, TREASURER, VATICAN: Sometimes the very learned and clever can be brilliantly foolish.

GANIM: The guest of honor according to the document was a known climate denier, Vatican Treasurer Cardinal George Pell.

PELL: Are there any long-term benefits from the schemes to combat global warming, a path from extra tax revenues for the governments and income for those bias in implementing those things.

GANIM: Pell is also the highest-ranking member of the Catholic Church to be charged with child sex abuse. Decades of allegations are now going to court in Australia where Pell was an Archbishop. Pell has pled not guilty and while the dinner took place before he was formally charged, he was under investigation when he dined with Pruitt. The EPA won't say who paid for the dinner, costing up to $240 per plate or why Pell was kept off the public schedule. In a statement to CNN, the agency says on June 9th, 2017, Administrator Pruitt had dinner with over a dozen leaders from the holy see and on June 29th, 2017, Cardinal Pell was charged. But the documents specifically said that the dinner was with Pell even noting it would take place a day before the Cardinal's birthday. This trip is already under scrutiny for its $120,000 price tag and reporting that it was organized by an activist friend of Pruitt. His justification --

SCOTT PRUITT, ADMINISTRATOR, EPA: The trip to Italy was a G-7 trip a week after the Paris decision.


GANIM: Jim, the EPA claims that Scott Pruitt didn't know that Cardinal Pell was coming to the dinner. However, that does seem to be contradicted by that May schedule where he is the only named Vatican participant and clearly states dinner with Cardinal Pell even mentions that the following day is his birthday. Jim?

SCIUTTO: There's a paper trail. Sara Ganim, thanks very much. Be sure to tune in tonight for CNN "SPECIAL REPORT" investigating the controversy surrounding EPA Chief Scott Pruitt. It starts tonight here on CNN in the 9:00 hour. OK, phone is ringing and it looks like a number you know, but, wait, is it actually a telemarketer? And is anyone trying to stop those pesky robocalls? We'll have more.


[16:55:00] SCIUTTO: The FCC is trying to do something about these annoying robocalls that have all of us thinking twice before even picking up the phone. In this case, we see that the FCC levied the largest fine yet, $120 million on a Florida man who the FCC says made nearly $100 million robocalls.

That's the exact number, 100 million. The caller Adrian Abramovich denies that he's the kingpin of robocalling and said his work was legit, offering vacation deals. A Democrat on the FCC saying more needs to be done, tweeting, "there were 3.4 billion robocalls last month.

Emptying the ocean with a teaspoon is not enough when we are drowning in nuisance calls." Well, be sure to tune in to CNN this Sunday morning for "STATE OF THE UNION.:"

National Security Adviser John Bolton and Senator Bernie Sanders will join my colleague Jake Tapper. It all happens at 9:00 a.m. Eastern and 12:00 p.m. Eastern here on CNN. That is it for THE LEAD today. I'm Jim Sciutto in for Jake Tapper. I turn you over now to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM."