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EPA Chief Pruitt Resigns Amid Ethics Scandals. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired July 5, 2018 - 17:00   ET

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


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT/ANCHOR: I turn you over to Jim Acosta, sitting in for Wolf today right next door in the THE SITUATION ROOM.

[17:00:12] JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT/ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. EPA climate changed. Scott Pruitt resigns as head of the Environmental Protection Agency as ethics scandals swirl around him.

Undercounted. The Health and Human Services secretary raises the estimated number of migrant children separated from their families from about 2,000 to under 3,000.

Get off my lawn. President Trump tweets that undocumented immigrants should be treated like trespassers and turned back at the border.

And rescue delayed. A medical assessment reveals that the members of a youth soccer team trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand are not well enough to attempt a rescue yet.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Jim Acosta, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

ACOSTA: And we are following breaking news. EPA administrator Scott Pruitt out, resigning under the pressure of more than a dozen ethics investigations. We'll talk about that and more with Senator Ben Cardin of the Foreign Relations Committee. And our correspondents, specialists and analysts are also standing by.

But first, let's head straight to the White House. CNN White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins is there.

Kaitlan, President Trump tweeted the news this afternoon. He broke the news of Pruitt's resignation a short time ago.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Jim, quite stunning. It is a headline a lot of people did not think they would see, because the EPA chief has been drowning in ethics scandals for months now.

But now today, 24 hours after the president said he thought Scott Pruitt was doing an outstanding job at the EPA, we are now learning that he is no longer in the administration. But it didn't come in the form of a firing, but a resignation.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCOTT PRUITT, OUTGOING EPA ADMINISTRATOR: Scott Pruitt, administrator of EPA.

COLLINS: Embattled EPA chief Scott Pruitt out tonight after months of ethics scandals and questions about his conduct. President Trump tweeting aboard Air Force One, "I have accepted the resignation of Scott Pruitt as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency." Trump praising Pruitt's work rolling back regulations, long a goal of conservatives, but making no mention of the scandals against him, writing, "Within the agency, Scott has done an outstanding job. And I will always be thankful to him for this."

The ethics questions have mounted for most of Pruitt's time in the administration, from his expensive security detail to costly first- class travel, his housing situation in Washington and even his wife's desired Chick-Fil-A franchise.

Pruitt back in the news just this week, CNN reporting that a whistleblower alleged Pruitt and his aides scrubbed his public schedule to hide contacts with industry representatives they thought would look bad.

Throughout it all Pruitt managed to hang on, even as the White House lost confidence in him. But Trump, counseled by Republican officials that Pruitt was making gains rolling back regulations, stopped short of letting him go.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm not happy about certain things, but he's done a fantastic job running the EPA, which is very overriding. But I am not happy about it.

COLLINS: Just yesterday, Pruitt appeared to be in good standing with the president, attending the White House's July Fourth picnic on the South Lawn and receiving a shout-out from Trump.

TRUMP: Administrator Scott Pruitt.

COLLINS: But in the frantic world of the Trump administration, 24 hours can mean the difference between a job and a farewell.

At the same time, another department secretary facing a huge challenge, racing to meet a deadline as the crisis on the border gets worse. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar telling reporters today that less than 3,000 kids have been separated from their parents, despite officials insisting for days that that number was closer to 2,000.

ALEX AZAR, HHS SECRETARY (via phone): A review and comprehensive audit of multiple data sets has identified under 3,000 children in total, including approximately 100 children under the age of five.

COLLINS: The White House facing a deadline from a federal judge to reunite all families in three weeks and children under five by Tuesday. Aides now refusing to say how many families, if any, have been reunited. AZAR: We will comply with the court's deadlines. We will do as much

as possible up until the deadline set by the court to ensure that we've confirmed that these are, in fact, the parents.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Now, Jim, we have gotten a hold of Scott Pruitt's resignation letter to President Trump. In it, he tells the president that his confidence has blessed him personally and says it is extremely difficult for him to resign, but says, quote, "the unrelenting attacks on me personally, my family, are unprecedented, and have taken a sizable toll on all of us." He makes no mention of the scandals specifically.

[17:05:06] And I should note that the EPA inspector general said those investigations into his behavior will continue to go forward, despite this resignation -- Jim.

ACOSTA: Scott Pruitt doesn't seem to take any responsibility for any of this. Kaitlan Collins at the White House, thank you very much.

Let's bring in Sara Ganim. She has been all over the ethics allegations facing Scott Pruitt.

Sara, I just talked to a souce close to the White House in the last few minutes, responding to Scott Pruitt's resignation: "Two words, thank God."

You have been busy following Scott Pruitt. Tell us just, I mean, what were the most glaring scandals for this administrator?

SARA GANIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You're talking about 14 different federal probes that he was up to at this point. And we have the long list of headlines. You see them here on your screen. It was hard to keep up with. Some of the early ones we've already forgotten about. Right?

But the big ones were his travel tendencies. He was spending $3.5 million a year on 24/7 security, first-class travel. This was all unprecedented and on the taxpayer dime.

You know, some other of the things that people were focused on were his spending. How he was attempting to personally gain, that's the allegation, from his job as administrator of the EPA. Getting an under market rate condo from a lobbyist who was lobbying the administration. You know, a soundproof booth that people said were just not necessary. Fountain pens that he was buying.

But some of the more bizarre things, you know, that really made people kind of just wonder. Having his staff run errands for him, going to buy expensive lotion that he wanted. Going to buy a used mattress from the Trump Hotel. Looking for a job for his wife. One of the them, one of the jobs he was looking for was a Chick-Fil-A franchise; another one, a job with a salary over $200,000 with the Republican Governors' Association. Some of these things were just weird. A lot of them were also

glaringly, you know, a problem. People were scratching their heads saying, "Why are you focused on these things?" when they really wanted to focus on the deregulation agenda, which many people backed him for, including the president.

ACOSTA: Scott Pruitt managed to be both swampy and tacky at the same time.

Sara, what about the deputy administrator, Andrew Wheeler, who's expected to take over? What do we know about him?

GANIM: This is it interesting, because when he was confirmed, the talk inside the agency and inside Trump's constituency immediately turned to, "Well, now Pruitt probably will go." Right? Because Andrew Wheeler has every ability to carry out the same agenda that environmentalists hate that Trump has been promising but without the scandal. He can do it more -- probably more effectively, because it will be quieter. It will be harder to hit Andrew Wheeler, because there most likely will not be the same kinds of headlines, the same ethics scandals.

And so you know -- but you're still talking about a person who's a former industry lobbyist. I counted a list that ProPublica compiled just a few minutes ago, you know, 30-some energy organizations that he either worked for or lobbied for. And so that's what has the environmental groups questioning him leading the EPA.

ACOSTA: A less swampy Scott Pruitt is what they're worried about, somebody who'll carry out the president's agenda. And it sounds as though this is a huge surprise to the rank and file over at the EPA.

GANIM: Yes, a couple of people who I've spoken to or my colleagues have spoken to said this did come as a surprise. That they were planning meetings with Scott Pruitt, you know. That they didn't get a letter. There was no internal good-bye e-mail or "Here I am resigning." A lot of people heard about this the same way you and I heard about this, which was through the president's tweet.

ACOSTA: Interesting. One of the more colorful figures to work in this town, Scott Pruitt.

Sara Ganim, thank you very much.

GANIM: That's a way of putting it.

ACOSTA: Let's get more on all of this with Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, a key member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator Cardin, thanks for joining us. You sit on the Environment and Public Works Committee. Let's begin with your reaction to the news. Scott Pruitt is out of a job. What do you think? We had heard earlier this week from a senior administration official that people inside the White House thought he was reaching the tipping point. I guess that tipping point came fairly quickly. What do you think was the tipping point? SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), MARYLAND: Well, Jim, first, it's good to be with

you. Ethics are not suggestions. These are staples of good government. And it was clear that Scott Pruitt had no appreciation for adherence to ethical standards.

So I don't think it was one thing that tipped the scales. I think the cumulative impact of everything he had done that violated ethical standards was just too much for the public to take, but also too much for the people around the president, the Republicans in Congress, recognized that Scott Pruitt had to go.

ACOSTA: And what does this say to you about this president's approach to governing, that Scott Pruitt was able to hold on for so long? We were just showing all of the various investigations that were going on. All the various allegations facing Scott Pruitt during his tenure at EPA.

[17:10:05] The font on our screen right now is almost too tiny to read, Senator Cardin. That's not the fault of our Chyron operators. It's the fault of the EPA administrator for having racked up that many scandals. What does that say about the president's approach to governing that it took this long?

CARDIN: It demonstrates that the president liked what Scott Pruitt was doing on rolling back regulations on clean water and clean air. What he did in easing the ability of oil and gas companies to get oil and gas here in the United States. And the list goes on and on and on.

So he liked the fact that Scott Pruitt was carrying out President Trump's agenda. And that was more important to him than the ethical issues. It's amazing it took this long.

ACOSTA: And the president says Scott Pruitt's deputy, Andrew Wheeler, will temporarily take over that position as administrator. Wheeler is a former lobbyist for the coal industry. Our Sara Ganim was just talking about the angst inside the environmental community about Andrew Wheeler coming on board and taking over that agency.

Do you think this anti-regulatory mission at the EPA is going to JUST continue on, that Scott Pruitt may be gone, but the agenda is going to continue?

CARDIN: Well, quite frankly, I think the American people want the administrator of EPA to be someone who wants to protect the environment. That's the mission of the Environmental Protection Agency.

And Republican presidents and Democratic presidents historically have appointed people to administer this agency that understand that mission. Clearly, with Scott Pruitt that was not the case. And now we have a potential -- his administrator -- his deputy administrator coming in, and it's not clear whether this person is committed to protecting the environment. That's the real problem.

ACOSTA: And at some point the Senate will need to confirm a new administrator. I remember when Scott Pruitt was coming on board. He was sort of famous for brazenly stating that he wanted to demolish the EPA.

You're a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees the EPA. What kind of nominee would like -- would you like to see the pretty put forward? Do you think he's capable of someone with more moderate view coming forward?

CARDIN: Well, Scott Pruitt not only stated that. He filed so many lawsuits as attorney general of his state against the EPA and against the policies of the EPA on clean air and clean water.

I want to see someone that's going to come in here and be the protector of our environment. That's why we have that agency, to protect our environment for future generations. We don't want someone who's there to do the bidding of the -- of the oil and gas industry or to do the bidding of the coal industry or do the bidding of any special interest.

We want the interests of the EPA administrator to be the public's interest for a clean environment, for clean air, clean water, recognizing it's important for public health. It's important for our economy.

ACOSTA: Let's turn to immigration. Because there's big news on that, even before Scott Pruitt stepped aside earlier today.

The government is bound now by a court order to reunite families separated at the border. And yet the Health and Human Services secretary says none of these kids have been returned to their parents, or very few that we know of. What is it going to take to make this administration take this seriously? And do you have any confidence that all of these kids are going to be reunited with their parents?

CARDIN: I have major concern as to whether this is going to be done in the proper way.

We already heard from the president that he's telling the parents they have a choice: Either to take their child with them, when they are deported or not, that the president will not allow the parent to make the solemn proceedings here in the United States.

So it's a horrible choice. It's been now weeks and parents have been separated. We don't know where they are. We don't know how many are, in fact, still separated. Secretary Azar said it's somewhere around 3,000. This is outrageous. This is not what America should be standing for.

So, no, I have little confidence that President Trump is doing the right thing when it comes to keeping families together. We still have seen the children separated from their parents. Fortunately, we have a court order. Let's make sure this court order is adhered to.

ACOSTA: And if it's not, what happens then?

CARDIN: Well, you know, the court has a way of enforcing its orders through contempt. But I think the American people are already outraged, and they expect that parents and children will be reunited. It should be done in a humane way, not in the a way that requires a parent to make a decision about the safety of their child. The families should be together. And be able to make these decisions together.

ACOSTA: All right. Senator Ben Cardin, thank you for coming on with us on a very busy Thursday during this holiday week. Thanks for joining us, sir. We appreciate you.

CARDIN: My pleasure, Jim.

[17:15:03] ACOSTA: All right. And breaking news continues. Next, we'll have more on the resignation of Scott Pruitt. What was the tipping point for the scandal-plagued EPA chief?

Plus the Health and Human Services secretary suggests the government may have 1,000 more migrant children separated from their families than previously reported.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ACOSTA: And we're following multiple breaking stories, including today's resignation of embattled Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt. Let's bring in our legal and political experts.

And Chris Cillizza, I'll go to you first. First, we can show it once again up on screen. Pruitt's problems. We don't have enough time in the program to read through them all. I don't know which is more egregious, the Chick-Fil-A one or the used mattress from Trump Tower. But what do you think the tipping point was?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS CORRESPONDENT AND EDITOR AT LARGE: Don't overlook the hand lotion that he had a person go after.

ACOSTA: Hand lotion.

[17:20:03] CILLIZZA: I will tell people, first of all I was just in the room where that screen is. That's a gigantic television screen filled with that.

ACOSTA: Yes.

CILLIZZA: That is not a small screen. So it speaks to how many there are.

ACOSTA: A lot to take in.

CILLIZZA: The thing about it I'm more baffled by why it took so long than why today. Scott Pruitt did everything we know President Trump doesn't like, including get lots of bad headlines repeatedly.

You know, I guess it's some combination of what we think, which is he was someone who did execute Donald Trump's agenda. Look, at the EPA, there's a lot you can do on the regulatory front. There was a lot of withdrawing, a lot of delaying of Obama-era regulations. So there's that.

And I do think there was some element of Donald Trump is a guy who, if you say, "Zig," he zags.

ACOSTA: Right.

CILLIZZA: Everyone around him for months now -- and Jim, you know this better than any of us -- has been saying, "Why does this guy still work here?" He's a natural contrarian. I think there's some tendency to say --

ACOSTA: Relished it a little bit.

CILLIZZA: -- "If you think he's bad, we're going to keep him around."

ACOSTA: And Sabrina, let's go through the resignation letter a little bit from Scott Pruitt. I think it's very interesting. We'll start: "he unrelenting attacks on me personally," he says, "my family are unprecedented and have taken a sizeable toll on all of us."

And then there's another section how he finishes the letter to the president: "My desire and serious to you has always been to bless you. As you make important decisions for the American people, I believe you are serving as president today because of God's providence. I believe that same providence brought me into your service. I pray as I have served you, that I have blessed you and enabled you to effectively lead the American people. Thank you again, Mr. President, for the honor of serving you. And I wish you Godspeed in all that you put your hand to."

Sabrina, there seems to be three elements. Not taking any responsibility. Blaming the media. And Trump worship. Which is the ethos, it seems, in Trump world. And it's signed, "Your faithful friend, Scott Pruitt," there at the very end of this. So I suppose he considers himself to be a faithful friend of the president.

What do you make of that resignation letter? It seems detached from --

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, "THE GUARDIAN": Reality?

ACOSTA: -- reality.

SIDDIQUI: Well, throughout his political career, Scott Pruitt has leaned heavily on his Southern Baptist faith. And so I think that's why you see a lot of these references to God and to religion.

It is quite clear, though, like many who are in Trump's orbit, he sees the value of proving once again his loyalty to this president. of lavishing praise on President Trump, who it's worth noting, in accepting Scott Pruitt's resignation, did not actually acknowledge all of the wrongdoing.

It's difficult, having said that, to blame anyone else for your problems when you are the subject of at least 14 separate federal investigations. But, remember, Scott Pruitt is someone who has a lot of political ambition, both in the state of Oklahoma, where he has considered running for governor, as well as nationally.

And so I think this might not be the last that we hear from him. And lavishing praise on President Trump is a way to perhaps appeal to the president's base and keep himself relevant.

ACOSTA: And speaking of lavishing praise, here's the president, Jeffrey Toobin, talking about Scott Pruitt. Let's play it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Administrator Scott Pruitt. Thank you Scott, thank you very much. EPA is doing really, really well. And, you know, somebody has to say that about you a little bit. You know that, Scott.

Scott Pruitt is doing a great job within the walls of the EPA. I mean, we're setting records. Outside, he's being attacked very viciously by the press. And I'm not saying that he's blameless. But we'll see what happens.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you still confident in Administrator Pruitt, Mr. President?

TRUMP: Yes, I do.

Scott has done a fantastic job. I think he's a fantastic person.

Scott has done a fantastic job at EPA. But --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You don't see any problems with his ethical --?

TRUMP: I'm not -- I'm not happy about certain things, I'll be honest.

I'm not happy about certain things. But he's done a fantastic job running the EPA, which is very overriding.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: Not -- not so fantastic anymore, Jeffrey Toobin.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: I'm a little worried that Cillizza is starting to disrespect Chick-Fil-A. That is a fine, fine chicken sandwich. So I just don't want to hear anything --

CILLIZZA: I love Chick-Fil-A.

TOOBIN: -- about Chick-Fil-A.

CILLIZZA: Don't put words in my mouth, Toobin.

TOOBIN: All right, all right. Now the -- the thing -- when Donald Trump talks about his presidency, he generally talks about two big achievements. One is sort of sort of freeing the economy from bad regulations. And that -- and he talks about the Supreme Court. Both of which are, you know, major achievements in his mind.

And so, you know, Scott Pruitt was doing what he wanted. I mean, that is the override. I mean, he used the word "overriding."

Now, finally, it got too ridiculous. I mean, you know, the corruption became too obvious and too embarrassing and too much of a distraction.

But let's not kid ourselves. I mean, the fact that there are fewer regulations about clean air, clean water, you know, emissions from factories, from automobiles, you know, lowering the mileage requirements. I mean, this is what Donald Trump prides himself on. So it's not entirely surprising that he was reluctant to get rid of him.

[17:25:10] ACOSTA: And Susan Hennessey, I mean, some of this is the responsibility of the president. He left Scott Pruitt in this position throughout all of this.

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes. And look, I think what we've seen is ethics rules begin at the top. The one thing that we haven't seen Donald Trump say is whether or not he believes this behavior is acceptable.

When other individuals in the administration have violated ethics rules, clearly violated. Kellyanne Conway, lots of different examples, there. The president has actually backed them on this. And because this falls largely not within the realm of criminal prosecution, although it could be, but within those executive rules and regulations, that the president of the United States doesn't think that ethics and good governance regulations are important. Then I think that we're going to see a lot more of these scandals in the future.

ACOSTA: Important to note, investigations are ongoing. Susan, that's right.

All right, everybody, stand by. President Trump is arriving in Montana. We'll see if he has more to say about Scott Pruitt's resignation today.

Also ahead, a top official refuses to say how many immigrant children are in federal custody but insisted the number is under 3,000. When will they be reunited with their parents?

[17:30:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: There's also breaking news in the ugly fight over the Trump administration separation of parents and children of immigrant families that arrived illegally in the U.S. Today, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar wouldn't give reporters an updated number on how many children have been taken from their parents, but insisted the number is somewhere under 3,000. That's as specific as they're getting. He also revealed no children have been reunited with parents yet based on last week's court order. Let's go to CNN's Miguel Marquez along the border in Texas. Miguel, what are you seeing there? I understand you have some pretty heart-wrenching video to show us.

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, look, there is great, great pressure on the Trump administration how to get these families back together. That 3,000, that under 3,000 number he's talking about. What the administration is not saying is how many of that under 3,000 was due to families being separated under zero tolerance. We are seeing some reunifications but those are one-offs ordered by a judge where the individual happened to be represented. We're lucky enough to be represented by groups like the ACLU or others. We just saw one of those in Logan airport. I want to show you a little bit of this. It is very difficult to watch. It is very difficult to listen to.

This is a mother who had not seen her child for two months. She was in detention. She got a bond hearing. She passed her credible fear test, meaning that she was on -- she passed the first step of getting asylum here. She got a bond hearing, she got out on bond, she was able to locate her child, she was able to get help to get to Boston Logan. Her child then was in another part of the country. Her child was brought in, and that is what we see there. This is not what you are seeing a result of the Trump administration and its efforts to bring these families back together. What they are saying is that before next Tuesday, those under 5 with their families will be reunited in some form or fashion. There's about 100 of those kids they say.

They -- it sounds like, from what the Secretary Azar is saying, is that they will reunite those families in detention in a place yet to be determined. We believe it is Fort Bliss, Texas, on the base there at Fort Bliss, a massive sprawling military base. And then the rest of those children will be reunited with their families in some way, whether the families are eventually bonded out. We're hearing about more people being granted bond here in Texas, but we're not seeing them get out yet. We are likely to see if more are granted bond, because they are successful in their asylum process so far. We're likely to see more scenes like that in Boston in the days ahead. Jim?

ACOSTA: And Miguel, that video of that mother sobbing with her child, it just underscores the pain that these families are going through. Just incredible. What can you tell us about these DNA tests that are being required for children and parents to make sure that the right children are matched with the right parents?

MARQUEZ: Right. So, the government is saying that these are not being used in all cases. That in some cases, they can use documentation, that's the way it used to happen. They would use documentation and they would figure out who was related to who. Because of the pressure of the courts, they're saying they're having to go to DNA tests. They will only be used, so says the Health and Human Services Secretary, only to be used for identification purposes, so they can get them back together, but it is certainly angering and upsetting many groups and immigrants themselves because they're not quite sure what the government will end up doing with this information in the years -- you know, months and years going forward. So, it's controversial but for parents who want to see their kids again, it is the quickest way to ensure that they are those kids' parents. Jim?

ACOSTA: All right, Miguel Marquez, I imagine they'll do anything they can to get their kids back. Thank you very much. We appreciate it. Let's bring back our legal and political experts, Chris Cillizza. I just want to show that video again, because it doesn't matter if where these kids are coming from, where the parents are coming from, where you live in this country, when you see this video, it just touches your heart, you just -- you go through just watching this, what these families must be going. Incredible.

[17:35:01] CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS EDITOR AT LARGE: Right. So I think there's a tendency to get caught up in the numbers and the policy, which is not an unimportant discussion. You know, 3,000 kids who have been separated from their parents, 100 according to the administration, 5 and under. Look, I have a 9-year-old and 5, almost 6-year-old. When they are out of my sight for five minutes at a playground, the pool, anything like that, if it's ever happened, I'm in a full panic, and they are too once they realized they're alone. We're talking about days, weeks, and months. I think what we need to do is keep showing things like this. Not because it's easy to watch, but because it's hard to watch, because it puts a human face on this. That policy decisions, the zero tolerance policy made by the Trump administration have impacts. And by the way, Jim, there's deadlines coming up here. Reunification deadlines, deadlines in the executive order Donald Trump signed as it relates to how long you can keep a kid in a detention center. This is humanitarian crisis, a human story, not policy story. We need to fix it through policy measures but that's not the heart of this.

ACOSTA: And Sabrina, as we're watching this, I'm seeing this child comfort the mother. You know, the child, the daughter there was rubbing her mother's back, almost to comfort mom. I mean, it's just unimaginable what these families are going through.

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, POLITICAL REPORTER, THE GUARDIAN: It's remarkable. And I've spoken with many people from the medical community who have talked about the psychological toll that these separations have taken, especially on these children. Think about how young some of these children are, where when they've been away from their parents for extended periods of time, they don't fully understand why. And so, some of them have come back and blamed their parents. There are some who are infants and toddlers who might not even fully remember their parents by the time they've been reunited.

And so, I think, as Chris pointed out, this puts a human face on what is Trump administration's legacy. I also think it's worth noting that this President, time and again, used these families as political pawns. He is trying to extract very conservative concessions on immigration. He's made it entirely unclear what legislation he would be willing to sign to move away from this particular policy. And so, you are now seeing the ramifications of his inability to not only to get a deal on immigration, but also to be willing to use these families in the process as pawns.

ACOSTA: It's painful to watch, Jeffrey Toobin, it just feels like a lot of people are going to be feeling ashamed of themselves after this whole saga is over with. They put these families, put these kids through hell, they put these people through hell.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: I mean, you look at that scene and you think about it and multiply it by now it turns out 3,000, not 2,000 times. And, you know, as someone who used to work in the government, I have a lot of respect for the government, but I also know how difficult it is to organize things. And when you think of how long it's going to take to reunify these families and how long it's going to be until there are more scenes like this, after all, this scene is the good news. This isn't the scene of the kid crying himself to sleep. This isn't the mother and father, you know, tortured by being -- you know, having no idea where their -- where their child is. You know, we are coming up on this deadline, and the interesting question is, or what? You know, what is the judge going to do, when clearly, all the families are not going to be reunified. Now, I suppose the judge could start to hold some people in contempt but, you know, this just shows how powerful the government is. Yes, judges can issue orders, but judges can't reunify families. And this is just going to take a long time.

ACOSTA: And Susan, you're watching this video with us too. I mean, what are your thoughts?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY & LEGAL ANALYST: Look, I think it's important to -- that we remember that this is a self-inflicted crisis. A manner in which these children were separated from their parents was chaotic, efforts were not made to keep track of them, and there was never a reunification plan from the get-go. And that's why I think whenever they're coming up against these various deadlines, the judges are not going to be particularly patient here because they created this crisis through their carelessness. And you know, I look, when we think about as days -- as days passed (INAUDIBLE) days passed the filing deadline, or passed these court ordered deadlines, because these are not casual filing deadlines that the government might make or not make. This is ongoing psychological trauma to nearly 3,000 children.

CILLIZZA: And to be clear, just this was meant for whatever the administration says now, go back and look at what they said then, this was meant as a deterrent.

ACOSTA: That's right.

CILLIZZA: There's no debate about that. The reason the zero tolerance policy is put in place by Jeff Sessions was as a deterrent. They did not to a point foresee what it might play out like. But it was not done accidentally, it was done purposely.

[17:39:59] ACOSTA: And now these families are paying the price. And who knows how long it's going to take for these families and these kids to recover from all of this. Just terrible, just awful. Well, everyone stand by. We're just getting President Trump's first comments on Scott Pruitt. He just spoke to reporters on Air Force One. We're going to have more on that in just a few moments.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ACOSTA: And we have more breaking news. There, you see President Trump arriving in Montana for a rally later on tonight. He was just on Air Force One defending Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator, even though he's accepted Pruitt's resignation as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

[17:45:05] The President just telling reporters a few moments ago, guys, "There was no final straw." These are the words from the President to reporters on Air Force One. He is -- apparently, Scott came to the President and said, look, I have great confidence in the administration. I don't want to be a distraction. And according to the President, Scott Pruitt said that he felt that he was a distraction. And then he wrapped up his comments on Scott Pruitt, saying, quote, he'll go on to great things. He's going to have a wonderful life, I hope. Jeffrey Toobin, your thoughts.

TOOBIN: Well, I hope he has a wonderful life, too. But he was entirely unfit to be serving in the government. I mean, this was a preposterous embarrassment, he should have been gone months ago. I think it was just an example of how dedicated the President is to this deregulatory agenda. And also, and I think as Chris said earlier, just when you push Donald Trump in one -- in one direction, he does have a contrarian streak that makes him want to hang in there. But this just became too absurd.

ACOSTA: And Chris, he sounds like he was pretty defiant here, the President was about Scott Pruitt. Yes?

CILLIZZA: I mean, he doesn't -- everything that happens is what he meant to happen. And that's not unique to Donald Trump, all presidents say that they knew what was happening five steps ahead. The one thing I will say is the idea that Scott Pruitt suddenly became too big of a distraction, I mean, Scott -- the number of negative headlines, I have not seen the like of, both in terms of the raw number, and the breadth and depth of them, serious charges over a long period of time. Scott Pruitt has been a distraction for this administration for months on end. It didn't just -- it's not last week in which they said, well, wait a minute, this guy gets bad headlines.

ACOSTA: Yes. Sabrina, he was sort of a Babe Ruth of scandal-plagued cabinet secretaries here in Washington.

SIDDIQUI: And it's telling that the President said there was no final straw and that was Pruitt who approached him offering his resignation. That implies that had it not been for Pruitt doing so, he might still have been on the job the President was clearly willing to overlook more potential ethics violations than you have time to read on air. And this fits into a broader theme that for all of his talk on the campaign, that this President is not serious about draining the swamp. There are close to 200 appointees in this administration who have been federally registered lobbyists, many of them are tasked with representing or lobbying on -- or representing the same industries on whose behalf they once lobbied. And so, you see that once again, he's willing to turn a blind eye to the exact swampiness that he had derailed on the campaign trail. And if it weren't for Pruitt then he may have still been on the job.

ACOSTA: All right. Thanks for all of that, guys, we appreciate it. Also, tonight, a new clue tonight in the case of a British couple sickened by the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok. London Police now say the pair was exposed by handling a contaminated item. CNN's Senior International Correspondent Fred Pleitgen has more from Moscow. Fred, this is interesting, but not surprising, Russia denying any involvement in any of this, isn't that right?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, despite the fact, Jim, this is the same substance that apparently poisoned a former Russian spy in England just a couple of months ago. And back then, the Brits said that it was the Russians who were behind it, that that's what they believe. The Russians are saying they have nothing to do with it, and today, actually lashed out at the British government. Here's what happened.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PLEITGEN: Another two people in Britain poisoned by the military- grade nerve agent, Novichok. And London demanding answers from Russia.

SAJID JAVID, BRITISH INTERIOR SECRETARY: It is the actions of the Russian government that this -- that continue to undermine our security and that of the international community. It is completely unacceptable for our people to be either deliberate or accidental targets all for our streets, our parks, our towns to be dumping grounds for poison.

PLEITGEN: Former Russian Sergei Skripal and his daughter barely survived poisoning by the nerve agent Novichok in Salisbury, England in March. The Brits blamed Russia, the U.S. and many other allies agreed, and expelled dozens of Russian diplomats. The Kremlin still fuming, today rejecting the allegations again.

DMITRY PESKOV, KREMLIN SPOKESMAN (through translator): Russia has categorically denied and continues to deny the very possibility of any Russian involvement. You also know that the U.K. side has not provided any convincing evidence to support the baseless accusations against Russia.

PLEITGEN: Now, Moscow firing back at the British government, demanding to be part of the investigation. But the Brits say that won't happen.

MARIA ZAKHAROVA, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY SPOKESWOMAN (through translator): We urge Theresa May's government to stop playing games with chemical poisonous substances and stop creating obstacles for a joint investigation on what happened on the U.K. soil with the Russian citizens.

PLEITGEN: And Russian state-controlled T.V. launching a media blitz with guests claiming it's all a conspiracy against Russia. And that undermining improved relations with the White House ahead of the upcoming Trump-Putin summit.

ANTON UTKIN, CHEMICAL WEAPONS EXPERT (through translator): Russia's image on the international scene has significantly improved thanks to the World Cup and because of the upcoming NATO Summit.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): They had to do something, right?

[17:50:06] UTKIN (through translator): And the upcoming Trump and Putin meeting. This doesn't look like an accident but is known behavior.

PLEITGEN: With the preparations for the summit between President Trump and Vladimir Putin well underway, it's the latest incident that has critics warning of the dangers of trusting the Russian leader.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PLEITGEN: And then, a senior administration official now telling CNN that that summit is indeed going to kickoff with a one-on-one meeting between Vladimir Putin and President Trump, and apparently, the U.S. delegation wants to touch on arms control, Ukraine, Syria, and election meddling as well, Jim.

ACOSTA: All right. CNN's Fred Pleitgen for us, thank you very much. There's also important news out of Thailand where rescuers are racing against the clock to pump water out of a cave where a dozen boys and one adult have been trapped for nearly two weeks. Forecasters predict a new round of torrential rain beginning Sunday which would raise water levels inside the cave. Let's bring in CNN's Brian Todd. Brian, this dangerous and complicated rescue operation may be even more difficult now, isn't that right?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It probably is going to get more difficult, Jim. That rain coming that you just mentioned, the rising water levels, the limited options for extracting those boys, all complicating rescue efforts. Tonight, we're also hearing from experts about psychological challenges ahead for the boys and for the rescuers.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: According to one rescuer, these boys have reported hearing dogs barking, a rooster crowing and children playing somewhere outside the cave where they're trapped. That information has rescue leaders looking at whether they can find some kind of hole or natural chimney to access so they can get the boys out that way, or possibly drill a hole in the mountain. But experts say there are challenges to that method of extraction.

ANMAR MIRZA, CAVE RESCUE EXPERT: The big problem with drilling or finding a natural opening is, of course, it needs to be tied into where they are. And they're in a very small target area. And if they are several hundred meters down below the surface, you can't just start drilling and poking holes in. You need to know where that point is out on the surface that you want to start drilling.

TODD: Another possibility, pumping water out of the cave, has so far failed. Experts say that still could be the best option tonight. But it's rainy season so the caves could become even more flooded.

MIRZA: If the water coming into the cave exceeds the amount that they can pump, then it becomes not a viable option. TODD: Tonight, rescue officials and experts continue to say one of

the best options is to teach each boy how to scuba dive, then have them propel their way out led by rescue divers. A veteran cave diver puts the risks of that in stark terms.

MIRZA: When you are cave diving, if something happens to your equipment, if you you're your regulator, if anything at all happens and you cannot correct that within a minute or so, you're dead.

TODD: Some of the boys can't swim. All of them have been sapped of their strength and need to be given more food to build their energy. Then, there are the psychological challenges.

DR. LISE VAN SUSTEREN, FORENSIC PSYCHIATRIST: There are going to be emotionally tense moments. And they have to be ready for them.

TODD: Forensic psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren says the boys already traumatized from being trapped, have to battle other elements if they have to scuba dive.

VAN SUSTEREN: That feeling of claustrophobia going through these narrow passages where they're essentially going to be following along a rope, they can't swim, it is treacherous. And the fear that someone will panic is absolutely legitimate. And then, of course, that brings not only hazard to the child, but also to the expert diver.

TODD: But Van Susteren says their young ages, 11 to 16, could give these soccer players an advantage in a rescue operation.

VAN SUSTEREN: A young person might be more willing to -- indeed, they took the risk to go into the cave, so some kids may be more disposed to looking at this as the adventure of a lifetime. And they borrow the courage of the rescuer.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: But Lise Van Susteren and other experts say that after the boys are rescued, some or all of them may experience post-traumatic stress, nightmares, trouble sleeping, anxiety disorders triggered by darkness. So, the psychological trials faced by these boys are likely nowhere close to being over. Jim?

ACOSTA: Well, that's incredible, Brian. Rescuers are trying to set up phone lines inside this cave so these boys can talk to their parents. Is that -- is that a good idea?

TODD: Well, Lise Van Susteren says there are advantage and disadvantages to that. The advantage is the encouragement, the positivity that can come from talking to a parent when you're in that situation. But the disadvantage could be that talking to the parents could make some of these boys overconfident, it could take away their concentration for the task at hand, which has to be focused on everything the rescuers are telling them, Jim. They've got to be concentrating here. This is a very complex operation, and they've got to help their rescuers. ACOSTA: And we're all pulling for this (INAUDIBLE) as soon as possible. Brian Todd, thank you very much, we appreciate it. Breaking news next, the latest on the resignation of the scandal- plagued EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

[17:55:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ACOSTA: Happening now, breaking news. Scott-free, the scandal- plagued EPA chief calls it quits after more than a dozen ethics investigations. Tonight, the President is speaking out, and he's still defending Pruitt.

Hidden figures, Trump administration can't or won't provide hard numbers on immigrant families that have been torn apart. But the President's health chief suggests that hundreds more children may be separated from their parents than first thought.