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CNN NEWSROOM

Trump Thinking about Pardons; Trump on Firing Sessions; Ex-aide Arrested in Leak Probe; Criticism of Pruitt. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired June 8, 2018 - 09:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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[09:32:51] PAMELA BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, new this morning, President Trump just confirmed he has a batch of new pardons in the works and he dropped one very big name.

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DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He was not very popular then. He certainly -- his memory is very popular now. I'm thinking about Muhammad Ali. I'm thinking about that very seriously. And some others. And some folks that have sentences that aren't fair. But I am thinking about Muhammad Ali.

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BROWN: Joining me now are two big names in our world, CNN chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin and political director David Chalian.

Jeffrey Toobin, first to you.

He says here's thinking about pardoning Muhammad Ali. But here's the thing. The Supreme Court overturned his conviction, so is a pardon even needed?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: I don't think so. I -- it's a peculiar situation and I would have to look into it. I mean you can pardon someone who hasn't been charged. I mean most famously Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon before he was charged with anything. I don't know how that would work in the context of someone who's no longer alive, who's obviously not going to be charged with anything in the future.

Frankly, I think this was a shiny object for all of us to look at. I don't think it has a great deal of significance one way or the other. But just in terms as a practical matter, unlike Jack Johnson, who actually was convicted in a case widely regarded to be unjust, the Ali situation I think is different in the sense that there is no conviction for him to be pardoned for.

BROWN: And, David Chalian, of course Muhammad Ali is beloved around the world. But what do you make of this? Is -- the president is considering pardoning another celebrity. Of course earlier this week he did pardon Alice Johnson at the behest of Kim Kardashian. What do you make of all of this? DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, this, to me, is classic Trump. I agree with Jeffrey, it is a bit of a shiny object. But Donald Trump's entire life has been about attaching himself to celebrities that could rub off on him in he would think a positive way. I mean that -- he had a show called the "Celebrity Apprentice" at one point. I mean it -- this is somebody who has very much wanted to benefit by the company he keeps in this way. And so taking one of the most beloved famous men worldwide and saying, hey, I'm in this pardon routine right now and I'm going to pardon Muhammad Ali, it's just an embrace of somebody that he hopes can rub off some good will for him.

[09:35:23] BROWN: All right, so he talked about Muhammad Ali. He also -- reporters asked him, have you thought about pardoning Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman, or Michael Cohen, his personal attorney. Here's what he said about that.

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DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I haven't even thought about it. I haven't even thought -- I haven't thought about any of it. It certainly is far too early to be thinking about that. They haven't been convicted of anything. There's nothing to pardon. It's far too early to be -- it is far too early to be thinking about it.

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BROWN: So he didn't exactly rule it out, David Chalian.

CHALIAN: Not at all. And he has ruled other things out in his --

BROWN: He has.

CHALIAN: When he's asked. So he's making a very deliberate move here to leave some space for himself in the future if he wants to.

And, of course, he goes on to say that he could pardon himself. That he has absolute power to do so, but then he doesn't need to do so because he's done nothing wrong and holds out the possibility that he may think about pardoning these guys down the road, that he just hasn't thought about it yet.

You know, Pam, one of the conversations about the president's moment of pardons in the last couple of weeks has been this speculative notion, is he sending a signal to others that he's willing to use the pardon power? Is that something that Manafort or Cohen or Flynn or anybody could -- should pay attention to? And by now, I mean, this is literally holding out the possibility that a pardon may be in their future.

BROWN: It's clear he enjoys the power of pardoning. Most presidents wait till the end of their terms. Not this president.

Something else he didn't rule out was the firing of his attorney general, who he continues to taunt on Twitter. Here's what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Fire who?

QUESTION: The Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

TRUMP: We'll see what happens. We'll see what happens.

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BROWN: Jeffrey Toobin, your reaction?

TOOBIN: What a ringing endorsement of his attorney general. No, I mean, look, it's widely acknowledged, as the president has tweeted repeatedly and told people privately that he detests the fact that Sessions did not tell him that he would recuse himself from the Russia investigation, thus leading to the appointment of Robert Mueller. You know, yet -- and this is yet another example of something we have never seen under previous presidents, this continual taunting of his own attorney general.

What's particularly chilling about this is that at the same time he is not, you know, supporting his attorney general, he is doing things like he did yesterday where he was calling for the prosecution of Debbie Wassermann Schultz's low level aide who was being investigated in connection with the e-mail scandal. I mean, you know, it is important to remember that in the United States of America, historically, we don't have presidents calling for criminal investigations of political adversaries. This is something that has been outside the realm of possibility in recent generations. But here we have the president calling for the Justice Department to investigate and incarcerate, you know, prominent Democrats, and not so prominent Democrats.

And I think, you know, in the swarm of tweets, in the, you know, the endless supply of Trump news that we deal with, it's important to focus on the fact of how much a violation of our norms that is. And that, to me, is a heck of a lot more important than this continuing dance with Jeff Sessions.

BROWN: And we just received a statement in from Muhammad Ali's attorney. I want to read this. It says, we appreciate President Trump's sentiment, but the pardon is unnecessary. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Muhammad Ali in a unanimous decision in 1971. There is no conviction from which a pardon is need.

All right, that is the statement from Muhammad Ali's attorney.

A lot more to discuss on this very, very busy Friday morning. We'll be right back.

Thank you, Jeffrey Toobin, David Chalian.

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[09:43:34] BROWN: A former Senate Intel Committee staffer accused of repeatedly lying to the FBI is due in federal court this morning in Baltimore. James Wolfe was arrested yesterday. The FBI says he lied to agents who were investigating leaks of classified information to reporters. Before he left for Canada this morning, President Trump slammed leakers.

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DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I believe strongly in freedom of the press. I'm a big, big believer in freedom of the press. But I'm also a believer in classified information. Has to remain classified. And that includes Comey and his band of thieves who leak classified information all over the place. So I'm a very big believer in freedom of the press, but I'm also a believer that you cannot leak classified information.

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BROWN: Well, CNN justice correspondent Jessica Schneider is in Baltimore, along with Jeffrey Toobin.

I'm going to go to you first, Jessica.

How did Wolfe pop up on the FBI's radar?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Pamela, we know that the FBI and the Justice Department, they have been aggressively pursuing these leaks since really the beginning of the administration. So it was back in October of 2017 that these FBI agents, they approached James Wolfe. They said that they were investigating the disclosure of classified information.

Now, it's important to note, James Wolfe was the security director for the Senate Intelligence Committee, meaning that he was charged with maintaining and really safeguarding classified and sensitive information for the committee and for those lawmakers. Then it was in December of 2017 when James Wolfe sat down with FBI agents for a voluntary interview. And in that interview, FBI agents asked him if he had had correspondence, communication with several reporters. They also asked him if he had disclosed any sensitive information to them. James Wolfe told them no. And he also elaborated in an interview as well.

[09:45:17] Well, last night, James Wolfe was arrested and he was charged with lying to the FBI, lying to federal investigators. And now we're expecting him here at the federal courthouse in Baltimore to answer to those charges.

But, really, Pamela, this is significant because this shows that the administration, the Justice Department, will prosecute those involved in leaks. And, also, this is the first publicly known time that we know that the Trump administration, in pursuing these leaks, has seized the data, the communications of a reporter. In particular, in this case, a "New York Times" reporter who did have communications with James Wolfe.

Pamela.

BROWN: And we know that one of the reporters Wolfe that -- was corresponding with. Tell us about this reporter. What do we know?

SCHNEIDER: Right. So "The New York Times" disclosed the identity of this reporter last night. Her name is Ali Watkins. She had previously worked for "BuzzFeed" and "Politico." And in this article by "The New York Times," they disclosed that Ally Watkins had a three year relationship with James Wolfe dating back to the time where she was an intern in Washington, D.C.

So we know that in April 2017 Watkins wrote an article for "BuzzFeed." In that article, she disclosed that there was an investigation as to Russian spies targeting Carter Page back in 2013. Of course we know that Carter Page was later a foreign policy adviser for the Trump campaign. So Ali Watkins was involved in writing that article. And the FBI wanted to know exactly how she got that information.

Now, the DOJ actually sent Ally Watkins a letter in February of this year letting her know that her phone and e-mail records had been seized. So, of course, Ali Watkins and other journalists pushing back on this forcefully. Ali Watkins lawyer last night saying it is very disconcerting when the records of any journalists, really, are targeted. But a very aggressive approach, Pamela, by the Department of Justice in tackling and targeting these leaks.

Pamela.

BROWN: Jessica, thanks so much.

I want to bring in Jeffrey Toobin for perspective here. How significant is this, Jeffrey?

TOOBIN: Well, what's really significant here is the investigative techniques used by the Justice Department. You know, I think a lot of people don't know -- a lot of journalists don't know, that journalists, we don't occupy any special privileged area under federal law. There is no shield law. We are just like any other citizens. We can be subpoenaed to the grand jury to testify about our sources. We can have our phone records seized. We can have our e-mails searched by the Justice Department.

Now, historically, there has been a policy of restraint on the part of the Justice Department that in deference to the constitutional role of journalists, they don't investigate us like anyone else. That's begun to change. It began to change under the Obama administration. The Obama administration did start investigating leaks in a way that also touched on investigating journalists. This appears to be a significant step up in terms of aggressive investigating of leaks and thus investigating of reporters.

And, you know, it is constitutional. There is no doubt that the Justice Department has the right to subpoena or obtain our phone records, our e-mail records. But if that starts to be routine, that will have a tremendous chilling effect on how we do our jobs. And that's the risk here. And Congress occasionally has talked about putting in some sort of legal safeguards when it comes to journalists and their reactions with sources, but they haven't done it.

BROWN: Jeffrey Toobin, thank you so much for that. I've actually -- I cut you off or not. Apologies if I did. Thank you so much.

Well, lawmakers have called for his firing, but EPA Chief Scott Pruitt just got a huge thumbs up from President Trump. We'll show you what the president said up next.

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[09:53:43] BROWN: Well, President Trump giving a new vote of confidence for embattled EPA Chief Scott Pruitt. This as criticism grows due to Pruitt's spending habits on the taxpayer's dime.

Take a listen.

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DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Scott Pruitt is doing a great job within the walls of the EPA. I mean we're setting records. Outside he's being attacked viciously by the press. And I'm not saying that he's blameless, but we'll see what happens.

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BROWN: CNN correspondent Sara Ganim joins us with more details.

The list just keeps growing and growing, Sara.

SARA GANIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Pamela, we've been talking all week about how Scott Pruitt is under fire for using his staff for personal errands. And the latest allegation to surface here from "The Washington Post," that he called on his security staff to pick up his dry cleaning and search for a type of lotion found at Ritz-Carlton Hotels. Now, this is shocking and people are talking about it because Pruitt's security detail is unprecedented. It costs taxpayers $3.5 million last year for around the clock security that he claims he needs because of death threats.

Now, the need has been called into question by members of Congress. So learning that this is how they were at some points used is sure to raise eyebrows as he makes his way through these 13 probes into his behavior at the EPA.

Now, another report from "The Daily Beast" also alleges that Pruitt used his staff to fetch snacks for him, like Greek yogurt and protein bars. And, you know, folks are starting to have a lot of fun with this. Pruitt's become a punching bag for a lot of people on Twitter in recent weeks. Postmates, which is an online errand service, tweeted this yesterday, hi, just FYI, we are a company called Postmates and we are willing to drive all around the city looking for a very specific fancy moisturizer so your security detail doesn't have to.

Pam.

[09:55:30] BROWN: And what does EPA saying to this, Sara?

GANIM: You know, they're not actually talking to CNN about it. They've given statements to other media, very generic statements that they have said many, many times simply saying his security detail is the same on personal and EPA time.

BROWN: All right. Sara Ganim, thank you for breaking it down for us. We do appreciate it.

Well, moments from now, President Trump will arrive in Canada and he's ready to come out swinging, it appears, against key allies upset over tariffs.

We'll be right back. Stay with us.

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