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Trump Says Scandal-Plagued Pruitt Has Resigned; Interview with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired July 5, 2018 - 16:30   ET


[16:30:01] JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Most presidents don't get this. That is a chance to fire up conservatives.

In terms of as he feels about Republicans holding control of the House and Senate, it's a complicated fight for the House, no question. But they feel much better about it now than they did awhile ago.

This Pruitt stuff, it animates the people top the left. I'm not sure it does much on the right.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: We're going to go briefly to Sara Ganim now. She has no reporting on when exactly this decision was made to let Scott Pruitt go.

Sara, what are you learning?

SARA GANIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, one of my colleagues, Rene Marsh, just was able to speak to some folks inside of the EPA, top level officials, who said they were preparing for meetings with Scott Pruitt this week as if he would still be there. This came as a surprise to them. They did not know he would be resigning today.

Another person telling her that agency staff, all the way down to outside of headquarters even were surprised at his sudden resignation, saying that most of them found out through social media or from friends. You would guess from that Trump tweet. And this person says that they didn't receive any internal correspondence or email resignation or note of any kind from Scott Pruitt announcing his departure.

SCIUTTO: Sara Ganim, thanks very much.

Nia-Malika, does that indicate to you that the president made this decision?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes. And that was always everybody was waiting for. The president who was on an island in terms of still backing Pruitt in many ways, when would he reach the tipping point and change his mind? Pruitt had served at the pleasure of this president. The president finally said enough is enough.

And, you know, for months Pruitt seemed to be upbeat. He seemed to not really feel like he had to modify his behavior at all. I mean, he seemed to, you know, get more creative in terms of the things he would do to sort of display his swampiness.

Yes, the mattresses. You know, of course he wanted to get his wife a franchise at Chick-fil-A, you know? And the sort of secret calendar, I mean, creativity, I mean, I think, you know, is sort of one of his strong suits in terms of being swampy.


SCIUTTO: I mean, well, I mean, there is -- there has been this impression that maybe this is a beltway impression, I don't know, you know, nothing matters anymore, right? You know, the ethics, rules have been sort of feathered away. But you are seeing people -- but you mentioned Tom Price. Here we have Scott Pruitt.

People still pay a price for breaking the rules.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: They do. And more and more I've been out seeing Democrats challengers running for the House. More and more, you -- first off, the candidates tend to be just proportionately women and veterans and people of color, and sometimes all three, women veterans of color. They are speaking with greater credibility because they come from outside Washington and so many come from the military on these ethics issues.


BEGALA: It's not central, but this culture of corruption, they are running as Washington outsiders, running against Trump's Washington now, not the old Washington. So, this could be I think the beginning of a reform movement that, if Democrats are smart, and I think they are, they'll seize.

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I would just say, Trump is always hero of his own story. Never hesitates to throw former staff member, a loyalist under the bus. So he could easily turn this in front of a crowd and saying it got to be too much. Look at the weird stuff he is doing. I told him I had to get rid of him.

And I think a lot of conservatives would be happy to hear him say that. Laura Ingraham, as w discussed, has been saying, drain the swamp. Get rid of him. And so, you know, I think Trump with spin this easily. If you want to come to Washington and do this on my watch, you are out of there.

SCIUTTO: We have -- just to remind folks there has been back and forth in the White House. Here is a list of recent departures there. Reince Priebus, of course, the chief of staff, Tom Price, he went out under his own ethics cloud, the V.A. secretary, Rex Tillerson went out, seemed to have lost the faith of the president, Scott Pruitt now. And these are just the cabinet level departures. Of course, you have a host of others throughout the communications infrastructure, et cetera.

Jeff Zeleny, you covered a fair number of White Houses. This one -- administrations -- this one has had more than usual. ZELENY: No question about it. I mean, just the amount of staff

shakeups. And we've lost track of how many people, you know, at variety of different levels. This isn't over. I mean, we expect more turnover this summer.

And some are resigning because working in this White House, it is an exhausting enterprise. It is something that is challenging to say the least. So, I expect by the end of the summer, you know there may be a new White House chief of staff. There maybe a variety of other people, but --

SCIUTTO: Communications director which still is unfilled.

ZELENY: It is unfilled. We talked a lot about that. I don't think there's a single voter in America who cares about the communications director being unfilled. I mean, the reality is the president operates in different variety than any other president. He sets the tone and agenda every morning with this.

So, there is not really a need for long range planning because he's doing it every day.

SCIUTTO: I think that's true on communications. But would we are seeing on other policy issues having a functioning staff and process matters, right? If you look at the implementation of this family separation at the border, there clearly was no plan to roll it back, right?

[16:35:04] And that's why you still have 3,000 kids without their parents.

ZELENY: Exactly.

HENDERSON: Yes, and you are right. I mean, you would think that the -- you are right. It's governing matters and this administration in this instance has proved they are not very good at t but also see people in the White House, Ivanka Trump now it's time to turn to reuniting these families. I don't know how she's spending her time, if that's something she is working on.

But in previous administrations, when something like this happens, you typically sort of see the appointment of a czar or something like that or some sort of, you know, rapid response team and that hasn't happened here.

ZELENY: There is a reason why government and crisis matters. So far, up to this point, a year and a half into the presidency, most of the drama is of the president or staff's own making. We do not know how he's going to react to something externally. That's why having --

SCIUTTO: But we --

ZELENY: -- a functioning government matters I think, and we are just getting a copy now of the letter of the resignation. And I was hearing earlier there is not a mention in here about these ethics scandals and improprieties here. It's all about serving you the president and talking about God's providence, et cetera here, so trying to gloss over the matter at hand.

BEGALA: He talks to the president as if the president is god. I say this as a person of faith, it's shocking.

Second sentence of the letter says, truly, your confidence in here has blessed me personally and allowed me to advance your agenda.

Wow. Wow. That's brown nosing whole new level. I mean, you talk to the president blessing you. Most of us who have faith, and I'm sure Mr. Pruitt does, talks about God blessing us. And, you know, friends help us, bosses may be support us, but president blessing him.

Am I over reading this?

HENDERSON: It's brownnosing.

SCIUTTO: We have another excerpt here. I just want to read some of this letter to our viewers. Here's one, quote: It is extremely difficult for me to cease serving you in this role, first because I count it a blessing, there you go, to be serving you in any capacity, but also because of the transformative work that is occurring. However, the unrelenting attacks on me personally, and my family are unprecedented and have taken a sizable toll on all of us.

Not exactly taking responsibility for the behavior that's led to 14 federal probes. Of course, it's unrelenting attacks that he had nothing to do with.

CARPENTER: So, he's taking the martyr route. You know, I suffer because of this role that I perform and service to the country and all these scandals have nothing to do with this.

That's crazy. We know why he got forced out. Although there is this lingering concern that he -- there have been death threats against him like many administrators. But for some reason, since he got into that position, he seemed to take it on a whole new level in terms of amping up security, having these biometric devices, really, you know, intense security measures.

So I do think there is a story there. But how much of it was real or imagined is an open question, for me at least.

SCIUTTO: Well, he -- I mean, there were some substantive things. It's one reason he argued that he needed to be in first class at the front of the plane because he could have better security.

But didn't he also ask his detail to turn on the lights as they were driving downtown.


ZELENY: Going through a dinner reservation one mile from the White House.

SCIUTTO: So, what's exactly the security claim for that? HENDERSON: Not much there. But this does give you blueprint what

President Trump will probably say to this guy somebody who was attacked by the media, good guy, did good work for the movement and the conservative movement, good work for folks here in the audience. And so, yes.

It's also clear that it seems like he thinks he has some sort of future in Oklahoma, political future, running for senate, or governor, something like that. And the president is in some ways helping him if he has any credibility with voters in Oklahoma. He was, of course, the attorney general there. So we'll see.

ZELENY: I guess all the vetting is out of the way. So old story.

BEGALA: You know how many counties in Oklahoma President Trump carried?

HENDERSON: All of them.

BEGALA: Every single one of them. That's why Pruitt signs off the letter your faithful friend, comma, who would maybe like to want to run in Oklahoma again.

ZELENY: Everything going on in Oklahoma with the marijuana legalization, the school reform. But we'll see what he does.

SCIUTTO: Well, listen, there's a lot more to break down. We're going to take a quick break.

We're continuing to follow the breaking news. In case you're just joining us, Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator, has now resigned after numerous scandals. Some of those investigations are going to continue. We'll keep following it.

Stay with us.


[16:43:35] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

SCIUTTO: We are back with the breaking news. EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has resigned. Pruitt facing at least 14 federal probes regarding his spending, his management, ethics while in office. Just a short time ago, Independent Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted the following, quote, Scott Pruitt was the worst EPA administrator in the history of the agency, not only has he acted time and time again in unethical manner but he has led the agency in exactly the wrong direction.

Joining me on the phone is Senator Sanders himself.

Senator Sanders, thank you so much for taking the time.

Your reaction to Pruitt's departure?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT (via telephone): Well, you read it. I think this guy has done in callable harm to environmental protection in this country. And he has also ethically challenged.

But the major concern that I have is that at a time when climate change is the great environmental crisis facing this planet, and just this week we have seen reports of community fall over America and the world, seeing the highest temperatures they've seen. We have an EPA director who doesn't believe in climate change, let alone propose ideas to address the crisis.

In my view, Pruitt has been nothing more than an agent for the fossil fuel industry. Much more concerned about their profits than the needs of the American people. So I'm delighted that he's gone.

And what we have got to do now is to see if we can get a handful of Republican senators to understand the climate change is real, that environmental protection is enormously important for this country, and get them on board to demand that Trump appoint an EPA Administrator who represents the American people and not just the fossil fuel industry.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Senator Sanders, President Trump has said that the acting deputy Pruitt's deputy will take over as acting EPA Administrator. He is Andrew Wheeler. He himself was a long time coal lobbyist. He worked for Senator Inhofe who as I know you know is a climate change denier himself. Do you see any hope with Pruitt's replacement in light of that background?

SANDERS: No. I think he should be vigorously replaced. But the American people are clear. They understand that climate change is it real. They want a planet habitable for our children and grandchildren. And you don't need representatives of the coal industry or the fossil fuel industry to be making -- to be making policy. We need people making policy who understand that environmental protection is enormously important for the future of this country.

SCIUTTO: How do democrats block him assuming he goes on for full confirmation? You need, as you said, you need -- you would need Republican votes to do so.

SANDERS: Well, I think I would drop -- look, not every Republican agrees with Trump or Pruitt, that climate change is a hoax. There are many Republicans understand that it is real, that is enormously serious issue. And we need three or four of them to join us in saying that we need an EPA administrator -- I know this is a radical idea, who actually believes in environmental protection rather than just the profits of the oil industry or the gas industry or the coal industry. That's what we need to do. And we've got to put pressure on our Republican colleagues to get them on board.

SCIUTTO: It is both, as you say, climate change issue but it's also the regulation issue. And Pruitt has led rolling back a whole host of regulations, mercury in the air, you name it. I'm curious, and Paul Begala raised this point earlier on our panel, you know, why haven't Democrats been able to make that campaign issue, repeal to voters in a way that focuses on environmental regulations? SANDERS: Well, as opposed to what else? As opposed to trying to Trump trying to throw 32 million people off of health insurance as opposed to his racism, as opposed to his policies of separating tiny children from their mothers? As opposed to his you know, trying to destroy long-term alliances that we have with allies all over the world? The problem is there are so many things that Trump is doing that you know, environmental issues became one of many. But I do agree with Paul, this is a major issue. I think when you look at the future of this planet, if we don't get our act together and transform our energy system and move to energy efficiency and move to sustainable energy, I worry very much about the kind of planet we are leaving future generations. So this is issue of enormous consequence. Except when you deal with Trump, we are dealing with many, many issues of enormous consequence.

SCIUTTO: Senator Bernie Sanders, thanks so much for taking the time.

SANDERS: Thank you. Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Well, we've got more breaking news. We're going to talk about the young children still separated at the border. They number still to this day in the thousands.


[16:50:00 SCIUTTO: Let me tell you what you're watching there. Just minutes ago CNN witnessed as a child was reunited with her mother. They had been separated for two months. That child just eight years old, the family from Guatemala, a tearful reunion there in Boston just moments ago. It's just incredible to watch. This comes as we learned today just how many children remain separated from their parents after being separated at the border. You may remember that last week HHS said children like this one you're seeing here numbered about two 2,000. We learned today that that number is still around 3,000 but no exact figures. We have Sunlen Serfaty, she's been covering this story closely. Sunlen, you were on that call today with the Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, what did you learned?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly it's interesting, Jim, today we thought we were going to get new and specific numbers. The HHS Secretary today did give some numbers but they're not a full accounting of what actually is going on at the border. Today HHS gave us some new information and they said currently there are now under 3,000 children in total who are still in custody who may have been separated from their parents and that includes 100 children under the age of five. Both those are new numbers that we received for the first time today. But what's notable here is that this is not a precise tally. HHS today would not give us an exact figures when reporters tried to pin them down. Here's the HHS Secretary on that call earlier today.

ALEX AZAR, SECRETARY, HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES: I want to be clear it is under 3,000. I want to give you an outer bound, under three thousand and that is the maximum set it will not be 3,000, it will not be close to three thousand, it will be under three thousand. SERFATY: Now, the reason these numbers are important is the last

figure that we had was last Tuesday, that's nine days ago. HHS then said that 2,047 children were in custody still who had been separated. So this new estimate is potentially much higher than that. The HHS Secretary today says that that is because court-ordered required officials to go back further in time to comb through thousands of cases to find any separated children not just to focus on the administration zero-tolerance policy so this number here includes children who were separated before that policy that again started in May. And again this -- Jim, just highlights that these numbers are still very incomplete, that we still don't yet have the full scope of what progress is being made if any at reuniting these kids with their parents.

[16:55:42] SCIUTTO: All right, if you don't know the numbers then you can't begin to start the process of reunification. Sunlen Serfaty, thanks very much. Let's go now to CNN's Miguel Marquez, he's down on the border. Miguel, give us a reality check on what you're seeing down there. Are you still -- are you seeing any reunifications happening? Are you seeing evidence of a plan to do so?

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We are not but the government says that there is -- there is great pressure on the Trump administration right now to do something. Hearing that video, I've not seen it yet but of that Guatemalan mother who was reunited with her son, that is what is pushing them and to be perfectly clear that woman and her son were reunited not by the Trump administration trying to bring families together but by a judge. She was represented by the ACLU. They forced a judge to let her out. She then had to go find her own kid, go through a process of verification, and then go to Boston and that is the result that you see there.

That's what has activists and lawyers so frustrated and upset about this process. That's what has physicians across the U.S. decrying what the Trump administration is doing in separating these parents. What we do see here on the ground is a crack in the glass, a tip of the iceberg perhaps. Several parents have now been granted bond and that is the first step toward what that woman is experiencing. Once they can make bond, $1,500, maybe $2,500, a ton of money to them, then they can get out, they can get verifies to HHS, then they have to travel to wherever their kid is. That seems to be starting at the same time the Trump administration is saying those that can't get bond, they're going to detain them together until they get their asylum cases settled. Jim?

SCIUTTO: Miguel Marquez at the border. And now back to the panel now. I mean Miguel, makes a great point there. I mean, so that reunification we saw there was because of outsiders, not because of this government. And it seems to me not only does the administration not have a plan Jeff Zeleny but that not having plan was part of the plan right, in effect that they had no intention to do so?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And the deadline here by that judge is July 26. It's about three weeks or so to have these families reunify. It does not look like there's much progress. I'm at the White House every day, I do not sense that this is a top priority in the West Wing. You do not hear the White House talking about this. You do not hear a lot of briefings etcetera. It has taken all week to you know, even find out that there are still around 3,000 if it's under or over. I have to wonder if it was closer to 2000, wouldn't they have said 2,000. They said 3,000 feel a reason today I would assume so I just do not get the sense that this is a priority there at least among the President's top advisors.

SCIUTTO: Well, it seems basically what someone was reporting that they discovered that there were more children separated although some of them predating the zero-tolerance policy. So Amanda Carpenter, without a plan this is going to stretch out sometime.

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, it's going to be many, many months.

SCIUTTO: -- does President and Republicans?

CARPENTER: Of course not. It will forever be. I mean one way out that I can see President Trump having, he's got to fix this problem. But one way that he could show compassion to these families is saying I'm going to be very tough in the countries that created these conditions where people are fleeing for their lives. They've begun to lay some of that groundwork with having that Vice President Pence and Secretary Nielsen doing some of that but I think Trump needs to do that pretty directly. People are coming here our country did wrong by them. They have to fix that but then they also have to stop the problem and I believe that includes putting massive amounts of pressure on those countries to stop making life a living hell for those families.

SCIUTTO: What evidence is there that that's a priority for this President? I mean this is about political motivation --

CARPENTER: Well, I'm speaking optimistically. I mean, if you want me to be very blunt, this whole policy is about maximizing pain, right? That's what zero tolerance was about, it's a deterrent. They're not --

SCIUTTO: Well, it's been described as such by John Kelly and others.

CARPENTER: The policy of pain is continuing.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: And Trump has talked about pulling aide from some of these countries, not helping these countries and let's face it a lot of the crisis that some of these communities are having is because Americans have a drug problem, right? I mean their drug cartels that are overrunning some of these communities.

CARPENTER: It should be -- it should be maximized.

HENDERSON: Yes, so I mean, it's a very complex issue.

SCIUTTO: Well, listen folks. We had a lot to talk about this hour. Thanks very much to my panel for joining me. That's it for THE LEAD today. I'm Jim Sciutto in for Jake today and I turn you now over to Jim Acosta. He is sitting in for Wolf today right next door in "THE SITUATION ROOM."