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EPA Administrator Piling Up Scandals; New Interview With Former U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired June 6, 2018 - 16:30   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Some breaking news in the politics lead.

An official tells CNN that two of EPA Administrator's Scott Pruitt aides have now resigned. This news comes on the day that we learned Pruitt used his capacity as a Cabinet level official of the U.S. government to get his wife a Chick-fil-A Fast food franchise.

This brings the grand total now to 13 investigations into Pruitt's ethics issues.

Still, today, the president had nothing but glowing things to say about him.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: EPA is doing really, really well. And somebody has to say that about you a little bit. You know that, Scott.


TAPPER: The president went around the table today at FEMA, praising members of his Cabinet individually, including Scott Pruitt, with vociferous, vociferous and kind adjectives.

Of course, there was one Cabinet official who only got the bare minimum.


TRUMP: Attorney General Jeff Sessions, thank you, Jeff. Thank you very much.


TAPPER: Of course, President Trump last week said he wished he had hired someone else, instead of Jeff Sessions, for the job of attorney general.

But back to Scott Pruitt watch.

CNN senior investigative correspondent Drew Griffin joins me now.

And, Drew, Pruitt had a bizarre response to this story about him trying to get his wife a Chick-fil-A franchise.


And Scott Pruitt didn't seem to see anything wrong with that move, Jake, calling Chick-fil-A a franchise of faith, even saying he was excited about the possibility of bringing one of those franchises to Tulsa.

The president may support Pruitt, but increasingly Republicans on Capitol Hill finding it hard to do. One Republican senator, John Kennedy of Mississippi, today said of Pruitt, "He's acting like a moron."


GRIFFIN (voice-over): Scott Pruitt apparently tried to use his position as head of the Environmental Protection Agency to get his wife a franchise with Chick-fil-A.

As astonishing as that sounds, even more astonishing, it is all in writing in government e-mails. On May 16, 2017, Pruitt's former aide Sydney Hupp from her official EPA account writes to Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy: "Administrator Pruitt asked me to reach out to you about a potential meeting."

Days later, Hupp sends a second message to Chick-fil-A: "The administrator would like to talk about a potential business opportunity with Mr. Cathy."

Pruitt's wife started the process, but never became a Chick-fil-A franchisee. It is just the latest in a long stream of ethically questionable moves and spending gaffes that has ethics expert amazed just how Pruitt is able to hold on to his job.

WALTER SHAUB, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: It is mind-boggling how long the list of potential ethics violations are.

GRIFFIN: Earlier this week, it was revealed Pruitt sent an EPA staffer on government time to run personal errands, including asking the Trump Hotel about buying a used mattress for him.

The list of probes or investigations into Pruitt is a long one, from leasing a D.C. condo from a lobbyist's wife below cost to spending tax dollars on first-class travel and weekend trips home, handing out job and pay raises to political aides, holding questionable meetings with companies seeking EPA favors, 13 separate probes now under way involving Pruitt, and yet he keeps his job.

Walter Shaub, who headed the government's Ethics Office until last year, says he's never seen anything like this.

(on camera): You don't doubt that this is the message Scott Pruitt is basically saying through his actions? Ethics do not apply to me?

SHAUB: I think that is certainly it. You even have inconsistent explanations for different things that he's done. And I don't even think it is just simply ethics rules. It is compliance with all of the safeguards and restraints on government officials.

GRIFFIN: At the White House yesterday, another stock answer from the press secretary.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We continue to have concerns and look into those and we will address them.

GRIFFIN: The White House said that almost verbatim after each scandal that has unfolded. The White House is awaiting an ethics review on Pruitt that could lead to his removal.

But for now and through every past scandal, Pruitt has survived. Why? Because big energy, big business, big coal, big mining, big oil, in other words, big financial supporters of the president, say they like what Pruitt is doing to the EPA.

DOUG DEASON, PRUITT SUPPORTER: Two things that have done more to lift the poor out of poverty than anything else, number one, fossil fuels. Second is capitalism.

GRIFFIN: Doug Deason is part of the Koch brothers network. His father is a billionaire. They donate to super PACs that support Donald Trump, and they say they could not be happier with Scott Pruitt running the EPA into the ground.

DEASON: The EPA obviously needs to go away.

GRIFFIN: Until it does, Deason and others hope the president will keep Scott Pruitt right where he is.


GRIFFIN: And, Jake, "The Atlantic" reporting on one of those aides who resigned today, the one who searched for the used mattress and helped in his real estate endeavors.

Millan Hupp is her name, a sister of another EPA aide, Sydney Hupp. She filed her notice with the EPA, according to "The Atlantic," fed up with her boss. "The Atlantic"'s reporter tried to get confirmation from EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox.


Wilcox reportedly would only tell the reporter to have a great day, you're a piece of trash.

Wilcox has not responded to CNN by phone, e-mail or insult -- Jake.

TAPPER: I'm not sure if this current EPA calling someone trash is an insult, actually.

But, Drew Griffin, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

What the president said in a private phone call that now has another world leader seeing red. Stay with us.


TAPPER: Our world lead now.

Mexico announcing it will hike prices on U.S. exports of pork and apples, potatoes and bourbon, and different types of cheese, in retaliation for President Trump's new tariffs on metals.

And that likely will not be the end of it for President Trump or the American people. Trump will face a chorus of disappointment likely from U.S. allies over the metal tariffs at the G7 meeting in Canada this week.

For more on this, I want to bring in somebody who used to prep another president for this kind of event, Ben Rhodes, the former deputy national security adviser to President Obama.


Ben is out with a new book. It is called "The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House."

Ben Rhodes joins us.

Thank you so much for being here. Appreciate it. Congratulations on the book.


TAPPER: So, in your book, you write about European leaders in the wake of President Trump's election worrying about a decline in U.S.- Europe relations. You talk about German Chancellor Angela Merkel even having -- crying a single tear.

How do you anticipate this summit is going to play out, the G7?

RHODES: Well, I think Trump is going to find himself incredibly isolated.

And that is bad for the United States. It's bad for American workers. Another thing I wrote in the book is Xi Jinping. When Obama met with him for the last time, he warned him there might be trade actions from Trump.

And Xi said, look, if an immature leader throws the world into chaos, the world will know who to blame. He liked the possibility of potentially having the high ground against the United States, picking off our allies.

And that is what I fear, is that our allies are going to turn to China as a trading partner instead of us.

TAPPER: OK. To play devil's advocate, is it not true that for the last 20 years, 30 years, there has been consensus in Washington on trade deals that has been better for corporate America and Wall Street than it has been for the middle class in this country, which has shrunk significantly?

Isn't President Trump right at least about that?

RHODES: There was certainly trade deals in the '90s, NAFTA, China coming into the WTO, that really did hurt the middle class, really did favor corporations.

We were trying to turn that dynamic around by putting labor protections into our trade deals, but the bottom line is, even if you believe there should be more enforcement on other countries' unfair trade practices and a better deal for the middle class, the way he's going about his trade actions is making it less likely that it will help those people.

We need to bring the world together behind the type of trade we want to see to pressure, say, a China. Why would you find Europe and Canada and Mexico when you are trying to deal with the issue from China? That allows China to play them off of each other, play them off of us, and it will make it harder for us to build a consensus to get China to abide by the rules.

TAPPER: So, we're just learning from CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta that President Trump had a testy phone call with Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, last month.

Trudeau was shocked that the United States would invoke the national security item when talking about the need for these tariffs, the idea that Canada is a national security threat. And President Trump apparently invoked the War of 1812 and asked Trudeau -- and I assume jokingly -- didn't you guys burn down the White House?

Now, it was the British and Canadian militia -- Canada was a colony of U.K.


TAPPER: But, beyond that, what do you make of this, the president talking about the -- burning down the White House?

RHODES: Well, it is crazy.

I think that the national security thing is so offensive to Canada and to Europe because their troops fought and died with us in Afghanistan. To call people who are -- been allies who fought shoulder to shoulder with us a national security threat has a profound consequence.

And what I worry about is, Jake, in the day-to-day, this looks like he does something crazy, the world doesn't end the next day. But the fact is, these trade wars spiral out of control, the costs get bigger and bigger as years go on.

And when we have to call those allies, when we're in a national security crisis and say, can you stand with us, they are going to be less likely to do so a year or two years from now. That's the ultimate cost of what he is doing.

TAPPER: You write proudly in the book about the Iran nuclear deal which President Trump withdrew the United States from recently.

The Iranians this week acknowledged that they are building advanced centrifuges, and Iran's supreme leader announced earlier this week he's ordered preparations to increase uranium enrichment capacity if ultimately the deal falls through entirely, because obviously other countries are party to it.


TAPPER: Does -- don't those two actions demonstrate both the weakness of the Iran deal in the sense that they are so ready to start with the centrifuges and the enrichment of uranium like that, and not to mention how insincere the Iranians were about it?


All it demonstrates is, it is a response to what Trump did. Trump -- Iran was complying by the deal. That is what the U.S. intelligence community thought. That's what his secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs testified to Congress.

He scrapped the deal. It was entirely predictable Iran would respond like this and start again another crisis, where over time Iran could be restarting its nuclear program. It took six, seven years, as you know, Jake, of sanctions and diplomacy to get to an Iran deal that put the type of constraints on the Iran program that he wants to get with North Korea when he goes out to this summit next week.

And what we're seeing now is, at the same time that he's trying to get a deal with North Korea that, if he's lucky, will look anywhere near as good as the Iran deal, he's putting at risk another nuclear crisis in the Middle East.

TAPPER: But you are not opposed to talking to Kim Jong-un, right? When you worked for Obama in 2008, he talked about meeting with hostile leaders without preconditions.


And I write in the book -- the first week that I went to work for Obama was the debate where he said he would meet with the leaders of Iran, Cuba and North Korea without preconditions. And the whole right piled on him as being naive and irresponsible.

Seems like it is a different story if the president is Trump.

I support diplomacy with North Korea. It is far preferable to conflict. What I worry about is, are they doing the preparation to make that succeed? What are they trying to accomplish? They have not articulated what they are trying to accomplish.

I worry that North Korea comes in, makes some hollow promise to give up the nuclear weapons at some point in the future and Trump is so eager to declare victory that he lets North Korea consolidate its nuclear deterrent and get international legitimacy without the type of deal that we actually need.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: All right, the book is The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House. Ben Rhodes, thanks so much for being here. We really appreciate it.

RHODES: Thank you.

TAPPER: Good luck with the book.

RHODES: I appreciate it.

TAPPER: An award-winning cartoonist suddenly sees a lot of his work like this critical of President Trump hitting the cutting room floor being killed by his editors. Why? Stay with us.


[16:50:00] TAPPER: In politics, more questions today about Trump friendly media owners not allowing dissenting points of view. Readers are calling out the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for not printing the work of its award-winning left-leaning editorial cartoonist for 25 years. Rob Rodgers has sketched his view of the world lately that has a lot of political jabs to President Trump. Here's one showing a ticket dispenser for pardons right outside the Oval Office. But this one you're looking at and for others poking fun at or skewering President Trump have been killed by management in just the last week or so. They've been on not on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Web site or in the paper. Does the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette no longer allow cartoons that mock the President of the United States? Rob Rogers, the cartoonist at the center of this joins me now live from Pittsburgh. Rob, thanks for joining us around Memorial Day. Your bosses would not run your drawing that depicted President Trump laying a wreath on a tomb reading truth honor and rule of law. Did anyone personally tell you why they wouldn't run the cartoon?

ROB ROGERS, EDITORIAL CARTOONIST, PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE: No they didn't. You'll have to ask the editor and the publisher but I think it is -- it is sort of the thing that has been happening lately. And it's not that they won't run any Trump cartoons, they will but there have been some that have been -- have been killed.

TAPPER: Let's show another one. Another one is a rather pointed commentary on the Trump policy of separating the children of undocumented immigrants crossing the border from the parent. You see Trump snatching the child in silhouette in a caution sign. Your editors killed this as well. Did they give you a reason to kill that one?

ROGERS: No they didn't give a reason. They just killed it. And you know -- and the readers had started to notice at that point and were outraged and that's why I'm here because I think they deserve to know the answer to why they won't run the cartoons.

TAPPER: Yes, moment ago a representative for the newspaper responded to the story. We reached out to them. They said, "This is an internal personnel matter we are working hard to resolve. It has little to do with politics ideology or Donald Trump, it has mostly to do with working together in the editing process." What's your response to that?

ROGERS: Well, I can't really comment on the sort of the back-and- forth with management at the moment but I have always been somebody who's worked alone and come up with my own ideas and for 30 years that's been the process and they've given me a lot of freedom. It doesn't mean that I don't work with editors because I've had many editors over the years and there's been a lot of good give-and-take. But it seems that -- it seems that what's happening now is that I'm feeling at least that they want me to be a cartoonist that I'm not and so I've been trying to be true to myself.

TAPPER: A pro-Trump. They've been wanting you to be a pro-Trump -- a pro-Trump cartoonist, right? That's what you feel?

ROGERS: Yes, I mean in a way or at least less negative to Trump. But it also -- it also applies to some other cartoons that kind of puzzled me as well, the FBI or race.

TAPPER: We should point out that that one of the killed cartoons mock Roseanne. It was a Klan leader blaming his racism on Ambien. And earlier this week, the cartoon on the right outside of the screen was published making light of a trade war. And also it's not unheard of to have cartoons killed every now and then, maybe what, two or three a year or something?

ROGERS: Yes, that's been my experience in the 34 years that I've been a professional cartoonist. It's never more than two or three a year. And unfortunately since March, I've had 19 ideas or cartoons killed in that short period of time and that's a lot. And that is directly corresponding to a change in personnel on the editorial pages.

TAPPER: Do you see this in any way as similar to what Sinclair stations are doing when they force their local T.V. anchors and reporters to toe the company line, be supportive of President Trump?

ROGERS: I mean, other people can kind of make that comparison. It does -- it does seem like that to me but I -- you know, I can't really say.

TAPPER: I guess one other thing that just occurs to me is that I can't think of anything less journalistic than -- especially in America where editorial cartooning really became what it is today than not letting an editorial cartoonist poke fun at the most powerful person in the universe, that what journalists are supposed to do.

ROGERS: Right. And to be honest, you know, there's a saying that you know, the newspaper is supposed to you know, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable and there's no better affliction for the comfortable than a good editorial cartoon. And you know, I've always been an independent voice and I've always been somebody who comes up with my own ideas and I'm not an illustrator. I'm not there to illustrate someone else's opinions, I'm there to draw my own. [16:55:08] TAPPER: Rob Rogers, we wish you the best of luck. Keep in

touch. Let us know what happens. Thanks so much.

ROGERS: Thanks, Jake. And congratulations on your cartoon award over the weekend a couple weeks ago.

TAPPER: It's sketches on a napkin compared to what you do. Thanks so much. Scary security questions after a man wanted for murder shows up to work inside the White House complex. Stay with us.


[16:55:00] TAPPER: Be sure to tune in tonight on CNN. Chris Cuomo is going to have White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on his new show "CUOMO PRIME TIME." That's 9:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN. That's it for THE LEAD. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter @JAKETAPPER or tweet the show @THELEADCNN. I'm turning you over to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Thanks for watching.