Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Considering Pardons; Pompeo Meets with North Korea; Trump Touts Letter. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired May 31, 2018 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:19] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.


We begin with breaking news, somewhat bizarre breaking news from the president of the United States. Just this morning he said he's inclined to pardon a conservative pundit convicted of campaign finance violations. Now, on the flight to Texas, the president telling reporters after landing there he also is considering pardoning the former Illinois Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich, who went to jail for corruption charges, and considering pardoning Martha Stewart.

Our CNN White House -- senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny on the ground with the president in Texas.

Jeff, just explain the president's thinking here between saying he's considering pardoning people who all seem to be people he knows from the world of politics.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE: He did indeed, John. This is certainly a surprising development.

And let me explain how it happened. The president did just land here a few moments ago. You can -- he is behind me. He is greeting a few military officials here at Ellington Field, just outside of Houston.

But we are told by pool reporters, including our Kevin Liptak, on the plane that the president invited reporters up to his office on Air Force One, which is a makeshift Oval Office, if you will, and he talked to these reporters for about 30 minutes or so. Most of that conversation was indeed off the record. But the part that he wanted to put on the record, we are told, is this specific, new information about how he is thinking about pardoning former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, as you said, as well as Martha Stewart.

Now, this is certainly coming as the president's giving a lot of attention to pardons. He's been doing it with more frequency. Of course, had an earlier tweet this morning about Dinesh D'Souza. But it is the Rod Blagojevich potential pardon that is certainly interesting, John. And you can see the president is now waving to a small crowd of supporters here behind me. He's pumping his fist into the air there as he gets into his limousine there. But certainly these pardons are something that are quite unusual. Rod

Blagojevich, of course, a Democrat. He is one of a long line of Illinois governors who have been sentenced on corruption charges of a variety of matters. He just recently had an op-ed in "The Wall Street Journal" talking about sentencing reform.

But one other similarity Rod Blagojevich has to Martha Stewart, they were both on "The Apprentice." John, they were both on the president's show, of course, before he came into the White House. So he knows them. He's familiar with them.

He said perhaps not a full pardon for Rod Blagojevich, but he might try and shorten his sentence. He has an 18-year sentence there. And he said this as well. He said, an 18-year sentence is unfair. He said plenty of politicians have said worse things. Of course, this was part of a pay for play scandal back in Illinois.

So all of this is coming, John, as the president, certainly not focusing on the message of the day, the matter at hand here. He's in Texas to raise money, as well as to meet with victims of that horrible school shooting in nearby Santa Fe, Texas. But the president seems to be having criminal justice on his mind, of course, as he's deep in the Russia investigation. A few other similarities here. One of the prosecutors in the Rod Blagojevich case was very close friends with James Comey, of course, the former FBI director who he fired more than a year ago. So a lot of news and a three-hour flight from Washington here to Ellington Field outside of Houston, John. We'll see what the rest of the day brings.

KING: I'll say, and, Jeff, I may be asking you a question you're not able to answer, and I apologize in advance if that's the case. But we know the president, in the past, Scooter Libby is one example, Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, got a pardon from the president in which the president emerged from a meeting with lawyers, including one of Scooter Libby's attorneys, and decided that was a good thing to do.

This is a process that usually takes months and years. The Justice Department looks into these things. The White House Counsel looks into these things. The parties affected in the case are allowed to comment on whether they think it's -- this pardon is appropriate or inappropriate.

Is there any indication that the president here is using a process or simply using his gut?

ZELENY: John, I think there is every indication he is using his gut. He is using his relationships, his familiarity, and of course lawyers for a lot of these people, and many others who we're not even thinking of, I'm sure, are indeed reaching out to him because he is sending the signal that he is indeed open for business in terms of pardoning people, no question.

Now, what we do not know, is he trying to send a bigger signal here in terms of people who are closer to him involved in other investigations? Michael Cohen, perhaps, his long-time lawyer and fixer. Is he trying to send a message that he will, indeed, pardon people down the road? Perhaps he is. We don't know that, but that is important context we should be pointing out.

This is not happening at the end of the administration. This is not happening on the end of a president's time in office, when most of these pardons often happen. So I think a couple things at play. One, the one from Dinesh D'Souza earlier today, certainly Dinesh D'Souza, a big critic of Barack Obama, spread conspiracy theories saying he was not born in America, all not true, of course. He pleaded guilty to these charges. This is a case of, a, the president, I think, trying to appeal to his base, but, b, trying to send a legal message perhaps that he's in the mood to pardon, John.

[12:05:28] KING: And it's that last point we'll continue the conversation.

Jeff Zeleny, keep in touch as you get more information from the president there on the ground in Texas.

With me in studio to share their reporting and their insights on this getting more interesting by the moment day, Catherine Lucey with the "Associated Press," CNN's Manu Raju, "Politico's" Eliana Johnson, and Karoun Demirjian with "The Washington Post."

This is the president's right. This is a unique power invested in any president of the United States.

This president is using it in a way -- very different. We use the words "very different," "very disruptive" a lot when it comes to President Trump. Number one, has he just decided, I don't need the process. I don't need to wait for the Justice Department. I don't need to go through this again year long, month long. Rod Blagojevich gave false statements. You had talked to the people involved in the prosecution in Illinois. Martha Stewart was convicted of securities fraud. In other cases, you would talk to the people involved in that case. Including the people who say, yes, but also give voice to the people who say no. The president doesn't do that.

The separate conversation is, the president' critics, understandably the president's critics, but they would say, he's also, as he does this, trying to send a message to people who are now either cooperating witnesses or under indictment in the Russian meddling investigation that I have this power and I am more than happy to use it. Is that fair?

ELIANA JOHNSON, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "POLITICO": One of the interesting things, I think, in terms of the timing, is that normally we see presidents pardon people, even make controversial pardons, at the end of their term. So we saw Bill Clinton pardon a political donor, political supporter Mark Rich. He took a lot of flak for that. But he did it just -- on his last day in office.

KING: Right.

JOHNSON: Trump is doing this one and a half --

KING: His last minute. Not even on his last day.


KING: I was covering the White House. And I was across in the White House on that morning doing the holy what. He was on his way up to the Capitol.

I'm sorry.

JOHNSON: Well, and we're seeing Trump do this one and a half years into a four-year term. And, sequentially, he's doing these a couple months at a time and so it seems like, you know, he isn't following the typical process, but what else is new. And so it does seem like he's doing this -- it's not even necessarily political allies, but just friends, people he knows and pardons that will please his political supporters.

KING: And a lot -- some of it seems -- some of it seems celebrity- driven, as we mentioned -- as Jeff noted, Martha Stewart, Rod Blagojevich, he knows them from "The Apprentice." Jack Johnson, the former heavy weight boxer, Sty Stallone called him and the president just had Sylvester Stallone at the White House the other day to announce that one.

As we continue the conversation, I want to bring in our senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, who joins us on the phone.

Jeff, this is unusual. Is it improper?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST (via telephone): Well, it is -- it is legal, there's no question about that. As you said earlier, the pardon power is really one of the unique powers in the Constitution in that there is no check on it, there's no judicial review, there's no congressional review, it is just something the president can do and that's the end of the story.

There is always the debate about whether it's appropriate. And that's a political question. That's a moral question.

You -- we have -- you know, the Blagojevich pardon is actually much more consequential because he's still in prison. Whereas, you know, Martha Stewart is long out of prison. Jack Jackson is long dead. Rod Blagojevich is still looking at a number of years in prison. And that -- you know, so the pardon would have an immediate, very practical benefit for him.

And as to the political issue of his allies awaiting trial or possibly awaiting indictment, you know, they watch the news, too, and they can watch and hope and keep fighting. That -- this could be a message to Paul Manafort, it could be a message to Michael Cohen that, hang in there and the cavalry will come sooner or later.

KING: Now, White House aides, of course, sort of push back and say, of course not. These are other cases. But just on the idea, Jeff, from your experience, I covered the White House for 10 years and I don't recall this ever happening. A president saying, I'm considering pardoning somebody. Again, this usually a very tightly held process because of the sensitivity. You mentioned Rod Blagojevich. He's not only a former politician, he's still in prison. All the more so -- more sensitive. Normally this is a very quiet, very sensitive, yes, fierce lobbying. People come and make their case to the White House Counsel, make their case to the Justice Department. Normally a long process before it gets to the president. This is a president first process, but considering, have you ever haired of that in the past, putting it -- putting the possibility out there publically?

TOOBIN: Well, I mean, certainly not about individuals. You'll recall in President Obama's second term, he said, I am going to establish a program and a procedure for shortening the sentences of non-violent drug offenders in federal court. And I believe he did more than 1,000 of them.

[12:10:08] Now, he tended to do commutations rather than pardons, which means these people still have a criminal records. If you get a pardon, you can put down on a form that you have no criminal convictions, because it really eliminates the existence of the case. A commutation is different. So the president -- President Obama established a procedure where people could apply to have their sentences shortened. So, in that way, he did sort of preview it.

But it was a very orderly process and it dealt not with celebrities but mostly African-American people in federal prison who had been charged with non-violent drug offenses. But certainly when it comes to individuals, there is -- there's no a precedent -- although -- I'm sorry I'm just thinking out loud here. There's also the matter of George Herbert Walker Bush pardoning the Iran Contra defendant as he was leaving the door, as he was leaving the presidency. Casper Weinberger had a trial scheduled, which was stopped. Elliott Abrams was pardoned. So I think, you know, I don't know if that was previewed, but certainly that had a -- that had a political flavor to it as well.

KING: Yes, we knew people were pushing the president to do that. I don't remember George Herbert Walker Bush ever saying -- Twitter didn't exist in those days -- but he did sometimes have conversations with reporters as he traveled the country. I don't remember him saying, I'm considering these things. We do know there was a public campaign to get the former president to do that.

I just want to correct the record. I said Martha Stewart was convicted of securities fraud. She was charged with securities fraud. She was actually found guilty on four counts, two counts of making false statements, one count of obstruction of justice and one of conspiracy. So the charges were different. The conviction was different. Not on the full set of charges.

Back into the room again.

This president is different in so many ways. Just what does this tell us about how he thinks, how he communicates, and, again, this will be a debate. There will be Trump loyalists who say, how dare you? These are individual cases. And there will be others, already, who are saying, you know, this is a wink-nod to other people, but it's a unique Trump style.


CATHERINE LUCEY, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, ASSOCIATED PRESS: (INAUDIBLE) I mean this isn't -- you said this isn't the traditional process, but this shows us the Trump process. And one of the things we see here is that --

KING: That he's the process.

LUCEY: Yes, relationships matter, celebrity relationships matter, "The Apprentice" relationships matter. These things are real. And so it sends -- it does -- in addition to sort of sending a message about the fact that he wants to wield pardon power, it also sends a message that if you're trying to get in his ear, you might be wise to try and lean on those relationships.

RAJU: And it's -- and it's irrespective of the seriousness of the charges that each of these people faces. Rod Blagojevich was convicted on corruption charges. He tried to sell a Senate seat in exchange for political favors, essentially. And --

KING: Barack Obama's Senate seat (INAUDIBLE).

RAJU: Barack Obama Senate seat.

KING: That might have something to do with it.

RAJU: This was a huge controversy. Dinesh D'Souza admitted to wrongdoing and he pleaded guilty. He pleaded guilty. So the president is doing these things presumably because of these relationships, but also you have to think that the people who are talking to the special counsel have this in the back of their mind about whether or not they should cooperate or not or stay on the president's good side. So I don't think there's any other way to interpret that.

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Also you -- I mean taking it from -- as, you know, the devil's advocate, I guess, as you want to be, the president's critics have brought up thematically very similar things having to do with the president. You're talking about obstruction of justice. You're talking about people getting rich off trading influence peddling. I mean this is -- these are all of the themes that we have seen be brought up for the people surrounding the president who are being scrutinized right now, whether it's by Mueller's probe or other legal inquiries.

So if he's trying to kind of like give a little whisper on targeting these celebrities in particular on those types of charges in particular, it's not a -- it's a subtle move but not necessarily. And I do not know that that's actually what he's doing. But if that's part of it, then it's a calculated -- a calculation that makes a lot of sense.

But look, also, just as we were talking about, the Trump process versus the regular process, I mean why would this be the one thing where Trump and the DOJ are in lockstep. This is not exactly a relationship that is healthy right now in many other regards. So to have all of a sudden this be the one place where they are kind of holding hands and working in tandem in a very harmonious way that's traditional, it kind of bucks the trend of what we've been seeing lately and talking about so much about Trump being at war with his own DOJ.

RAJU: But if you're Michael Cohen, you have to be thinking about this right now. Stay on the president's good side, it could help you in the long run.


KING: Whether the president means it or not, if you're on the other end of this, you're thinking -- you're thinking it's a possibility without a doubt. And to your point about Mark Rich, and my memories of those days flooding back into my -- Republicans were harshly critical of that, even though Scooter Libby was among those people -- Scooter Libby out of government at the time, was among the people on the legal team I think representing Mark Rich pushing for that pardon to come. But a lot of Republicans harshly criticized that. We're listening for the Republicans speak out about what this president does or how he does it. I think we'll have a long wait. Crickets in the meantime.

Up next for us here, we'll keep an eye on these pardons or potential pardons from the president, but diplomacy cut short. The secretary of state and North Korea's former top spy chief wrapping up talks early today. Are the North Korean's just jetlagged or did something go wrong?

[12:15:04] We'll be right back.


KING: Welcome back.

High-stakes conversations in New York today between the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and a key North Korean official, Kim Yong Chol. They ended a short time ago, ending on this day about two hours earlier than scheduled. Pompeo tweeting that they had substantive talks with the North Korean team, adding, we discussed our priorities for the potential summit between our two leaders.

We saw some promising images as they day began. What we're waiting to see is if we get some promising results, promising proposals from these conversations. You see the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, here shaking hands with Kim Yong Chol. That's in Manhattan, a high rise building. That's before this morning's meeting.

They also dined together last night. Steak, corn and cheese on the menu, according to the secretary of state.

President Trump has been getting constant updates throughout these meetings. Earlier today, before he left for Texas, he said things are going well. He also disclosed that Kim Yong Chol is carrying a letter from the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. The contents of which could well determine if that planned Singapore summit goes forward just 12 days from now.

[12:20:09] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I believe they'll be coming down from Washington on Friday. And a letter is going to be delivered to me from Kim Jong-un. So I look forward to seeing what's in the letter. But it's very important to them.

Hopefully we'll have a meeting on the 12th. It's going along very well. But I want it to be meaningful. It doesn't mean it gets all done at one meeting. Maybe you have to have a second or a third. And maybe we'll have none. But it's in good hands.


KING: That's the key. What the president just said right there, it doesn't all have to be done, meaning, you can -- this will -- this is a 10, 15-year process if -- the biggest if in global conversations right now, if North Korea actually agrees to completely denuclearize. But what is -- what is the test for the president? What needs to be in that letter to Kim Jong-un, and what does Mike Pompeo need to return from Washington saying, I looked this man in the eye, who was the former spy chief, who is the right-hand man to Kim Jong-un, I'm convinced they are serious about this. What do we need to get a summit in 12 days?

JOHNSON: You know, senior administration officials tell me that they need to know that denuclearization is going to be the subject of conversations, and not denuclearization meaning Americans leaving the Korean peninsula, but a real commitment from North Korea to eliminating some of their nuclear weapons. It may not necessarily be all. I think John Bolton and Mike Pompeo may be thinking about this a little differently. But an openness, a willingness to talk about that on the part of the North Koreans.

KING: And that's where it gets fascinating. If -- are -- is North Korea willing to come to the table in a written document to commit to denuclearization that -- in a way that's acceptable to the president and a way that the president works out any disagreements between John Bolton and Mike Pompeo? And then, what does that process look like? Does it go to the United Nations? Who are the inspectors? What international agency, or is it a U.S. agency that does that? And I think the key question is, what is the president prepared to come to the table with? If he gets those assurances and if he trusts them, which is another big if, is he willing to say, OK, we're going to relieve sanctions immediately, we'll give you economic aid immediately, or is there a two, three, five year sequencing plan?

RAJU: Well, that's what they --

LUCEY: Yes, it's how they do it. Is it -- is it a phased approach? There's been some conversation out with a -- you know, to get piece by piece. They do something, we do something. But I think what we have to see is, can they come to an agreement that there will -- a, that there will be a meeting, and that they can announce some kind of deliverable. The president really want to do the meeting. I think we're all very clear on that. But he needs to be able -- his people want to go into it and be able to come out of it saying he got something.

RAJU: And that's the real risk, right, whether to give them incentives up front or whether or not to have hard commitments. And this is exactly what they criticized the Iran nuclear deal about because they believe they gave all the initiatives up front and did not get enough commitments.

But, you know, North Korea, it's hard to see how they would completely denuclearize, which is a significant step, a years' long step without some significant sanctions relief up front, and that's what is such a big risk is for the president in doing this.

KING: And part of the risk here, as you jump in, I just want to show these historical photos. This is Madeline Albright, secretary of state in the Bill Clinton administration, in October of 2000, having a toast with the vice marshal of North Korea. They negotiated a deal. This was viewed as an historic breakthrough. This was in Washington. You have the secretary of state. Pompeo has to be aware of this, has to know this history here. You're meeting with these people. Everything sounds right. Everything looks right. They had an agreement and the North Koreans started cheating, I think, before the ink was dry.

DEMIRJIAN: Right. Exactly. And then -- I mean that's -- this is -- this is the history of it. And you had six parties involved in those talks eventually and now you're starting this again where the -- Trump is kind of calling all the shots and you don't have, you know, China at the table, you don't have Russia at the table. The South Koreans are kind of being treated as brokers but they're not really going to be part of this particular summit if it happens anyway.

And, remember, look, we're looking at the Iran nuclear deal and the past North Korea attempts as the precedent for what the North Koreans might ask for here. But it may not just be a simple denuclearized for economic sanctions release quid pro quo. What if they ask for us to pull back on our military capacity on the peninsula or some of our, you know, commitments we've made to various allies in the region. That could make this far more complicated as they start to really drill down to what they mean by these terms.

KING: And, again, what we're hearing so far, this from a senior State Department official, that talks ended a little bit early today. I would read almost nothing into that. Again, you try traveling from Asia to the United States and then go into high stakes meetings after being up late for dinner. The meetings went well -- went well. They made progress. That from a senior State Department official. Defining progress is the hard part here.

Jim Clapper, who's the former top U.S. spy chief. Kim Yong Chol is the former top North Korean spy chief. These two men have studied each other. They don't know each other personally, but they studied each other. Here's James Clapper's take on what he's seen so far from the North Korean right-hand man.


JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: He looked to me to be a bit overwhelmed by what he was experiencing.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Do you trust him?

CLAPPER: Well, I think with the North Koreans you definitely need to be in the trust but verify mode.


[12:25:06] KING: That's the fascinating part here. And I think -- I think even the president's fiercest critics have said, you know, if you think there's reason to go forward with this, give it a shot. Why not, right? Give it a shot. North Korea has nuclear weapons capable of reaching the United States mainland. They've been on a gangbusters development of those programs. If you think you can somehow -- the president says get rid of them completely, a lot of people would say even if you can significantly scale them back or get some sort of agreement where they, you know, stop testing them and stop using them, some people think that's good enough. The president's made clear, that's not his goal heading into this, it's the verification part.

Sergey Lavror, the Russian foreign minister, traveling to North Korea, says the Russians need to be brought in -- to your point, needs to be brought into this. Should it be the United Nations brought in? We don't have any information from the administration so far as to if they think they can get an agreement, that then takes a second meeting, a third meeting and it will take a second year and a third year and a fourth year, it's like, what does that look like? Who does that involve? And we know they're all skeptical of these international organizations. But you can't do it without them, right?

JOHNSON: I think the president and his advisers are still hashing that out amongst themselves yet. They're not going in, talking to the North Koreans with a clear, thought out plan, about how they're thinking about this and what they want. I think that was clear from the president's pull-back and then quick reengagement with the North Koreans.

KING: This is about, can we trust you?


KING: Or no?

JOHNSON: I think -- I think that's right. And on, you know, a background briefing call last week shortly after the president sent the letter, a senior administration official cited a series of broken promises on the part of North Korean officials. So, suffice it to say, I think Secretary of State Pompeo went in skeptical and they're going to need a series of signs from the North Koreans that this -- that this -- there might be an upside for the president engaging in these talks.

LUCEY: But we're also seeing a lot of the energy right now from the president, at least publicly, is going to literally, will the meeting happen or not?

KING: Right.

LUCEY: The -- will they, won't they, on again, off again, much less about the content. It's just a lot of --

KING: They all seem to want -- they all seem to want -- I'm just going to -- until we know otherwise, I'm going to assume, given what John Bolton has said, what Secretary Pompeo has said, and even what the president has said, I'm going to assume the deal with the content behind the scenes if they're not that naive for now. We'll see as we go forward. But they all do seem leaning forward, if you will, they're having it right now. We'll keep an eye on that. Hopefully we'll get more word from the secretary of state today in these conversations.

Up next for us, though, the Dow down again as fears of a global trade war ramp up because of a big White House action just this morning.