Return to Transcripts main page


Lawsuit Filed to Replace New Acting Attorney General; Melania Trump Feuding With Deputy National Security Adviser; White House Sources: Trump Has No Intention of Removing Whitaker As Acting Attorney General Despite Criticism. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired November 13, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: One White House official tells "The Wall Street Journal," the president doused a bunch of White House staffers with gasoline, and he is just waiting for someone to light a match.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Firing line. President Trump said to be itching for a major White House shakeup, as the first lady in an extraordinary move tries to get in on her husband's action. We will tell you who she wants to see sent packing.

The one guy who could be around for a while. President Trump is standing behind his widely criticized acting attorney general now, even as one state is already taking Matt Whitaker's appointment to court.

Plus, "Tell your boss the job is done," the new audio that could directly link the Saudi crown prince to the murder of a journalist. So why doesn't the Trump administration hear the audio that way?

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with the politics lead. Late this afternoon, something that happened that we have never seen before, even with all the chaos of the Trump administration, to which some of you may have grown accustomed by now.

This afternoon, the first lady, Melania Trump, called for a top official on the National Security Council to be fired.

Mrs. Trump's spokeswoman issuing a statement on the record declaring Mira Ricardel, the deputy national security adviser, seen here this afternoon standing behind the president at the White House, saying she should no longer work for the Trump administration.

"It is the position of the office of the first lady that she no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House" -- unquote. She still serves in the White House, according to a senior White House official. This remarkable display of dysfunction comes amidst the more typical

Trump drama, with advisers telling reporters that President Trump is preparing for yet another purge. Officials telling CNN President Trump is eyeing potential replacements for several key positions in his White House and in his Cabinet, including his chief of staff, retired Marine General John Kelly.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is at the White House for us right now.

And, Jeff, let's start with the shocker of this all. What do we know about why the first lady is publicly calling for a senior national security staffer to be fired, and has that staffer been fired?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, of all the dramas and all the shakeups here at the White House, and there have been many over the last year and three fourths or so, this certainly is an unusual one, largely because it's the East Wing firing a shot across the bow at the West Wing.

Of course,the East Wing is where the first lady's office works. But I was told just a moment ago by a White House official the president has made the decision to remove and indeed fire this national security adviser, the deputy national security adviser.

She's not being escorted out of the White House, as some reports indicated. She's being given a little bit of time to collect her things. But it comes after there was a bit of drama on the first lady's trip last month to Africa. There was some back and forth, some disrespect, in the eyes of some advisers to the first lady.

Now, this is all coming as this deputy national security adviser today happened to be standing only a few feet behind the president at a different event. So it makes the timing of this very curious.


ZELENY (voice-over): Another White House drama today, this time featuring first lady, Melania Trump calling for the firing of a deputy national security adviser. An extraordinary shot across the bow from the East Wing office of the first lady, which issued this statement today aimed directly at a top West Wing adviser.

"It is the position of the office of the first lady that she no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House," the first lady's spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, telling CNN.

She is Mira Ricardel, the deputy national security adviser, who has tangled with several officials in the Trump White House, from Defense Secretary James Mattis to the first lady. But today Ricardel was standing only a few feet behind the president at a Diwali lighting ceremony, marking India's most important holiday of the year.

CNN has learned the first lady and Ricardel were at odds during their recent trip to Africa.

MELANIA TRUMP, FIRST LADY: I give him my honest advice and honest opinions. And then he does what he wants to do.

ZELENY: It was on that trip where Mrs. Trump said she didn't trust all of the president's advisers.

QUESTION: Has he had people that you didn't trust working for him?

M. TRUMP: Yes.

ZELENY: The latest dysfunction coming as a staff shakeup is already looming in the West Wing and the Cabinet. The president ignoring those questions today.

QUESTION: Are you firing Secretary Nielsen?

ZELENY: Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen could be the next to go, officials telling CNN the president could ask for her resignation at any point.



ZELENY: She's been unable to win him over on a signature issue, immigration and border security.

It could touch off a domino of departures, including White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who is Nielsen's top advocate in the administration. Trump is already talking to a handful of potential replacements for Kelly, CNN has learned, including elevating Vice President Pence's chief of staff, Nick Ayers, to the post.


But as Democrats assume their majority in the House and prepare to open investigations of the administration, it's unclear whether the ongoing turmoil in the West Wing could complicate recruiting qualified candidates. The president has rejected that premise.

D. TRUMP: This is a hot White House. We are a White House that people want to work with.


ZELENY: So, Jake, we will see about that.

But the reality here today is the deputy national security adviser, again, I'm told just a moment ago by a White House official, will be leaving. The president has made that decision. And, again, this comes after a variety of criticism inside the White House by a variety of advisers.

But the question here today because of this is what -- because of John Bolton, John Bolton, the natural security adviser, who, of course, has the president's ear and support. He brought her into the West Wing here. So, Jake, this is just the beginning of what I believe will be several instances of staff shakeups from Cabinet secretaries to other West Wing officials.

One person here told me today the only people who feel absolutely confident of their jobs are people who are related to the president. That means Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner -- Jake.

TAPPER: Actually, Ivanka is the only one actually related. But, Jeff Zeleny, we actually -- we appreciate your reporting.

ZELENY: That's a great point.

TAPPER: Let's talk about this with my panel of experts.

I guess we will go down the row.

I have never seen anything like this, a first lady publicly calling for a national security official to be fired. Your reaction.

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Last time I checked, we didn't have a royal family, but they sure do like to act like it.

Listen, if there is insubordination or something really foul at hand here, OK, let's hear it. But I think we all should be concerned, because the first lady is calling for the firing of a national security adviser.

Last time I checked, the first lady didn't have any national security experience. So I prefer that other people make national security decisions, rather than someone who is more than just a former model.

TAPPER: And this comes as we're already hearing about other staff shakeups, potentially the chief of staff, potentially the homeland security secretary.

What's your reaction to Melania Trump voicing this opinion that a top national security staffer should be fired?

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I actually agree with Amanda. And I want to underscore.

Where are we? Who are we? Is this -- this is the United States of America. And I find it very interesting that the first lady seems to not have opinions on many other things, but currently has opinions on who should be fired. Where were her opinions on very, very -- be best?

Where are her opinions on the bullying?


CARPENTER: I just don't care. Do you?

SANDERS: Yes, I just don't care. Do you?

Where are her opinions on things that are really in the purview of this first lady's office? She seems to not have much. But she seems very comfortable singling out someone. So I'm very concerned about the way this White House is operating.

TAPPER: Mary Katharine?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, in this White House, you have things ranging from unorthodox to bananas. And this...

TAPPER: Where is this?


HAM: This lands squarely over in the bananas camp. This is like the public nature of it.

And it's also a bit -- I mean, as you're alluding to, it's out of character for her. She does not pop off like this normally, even when some people want her to talk about things, right? So it's very, very weird. And I wonder, as the shakeup -- if there is a continued shakeup goes forward, how does somebody like John Bolton react to the fact that someone else has veto power over his deputy help?

This is weird.


PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I'm going to take up for Melania.


BEGALA: She's my favorite Trump. It's a very low bar. OK? But she's my favorite.

CARPENTER: Barron is still good.

BEGALA: First ladies have always been influential. Edith Wilson ran the country when her husband had a stroke.

Nancy Reagan fired the chief of staff to the president. She did it behind the scenes. So, what's wrong with more transparency? She is being more open. She is being more transparent.


BEGALA: She should state her reasons, because I think Amanda and Symone and M.K. make really good points, that this is national security, it's not normally the purview of the president's family members.

But if there is some real reason, then we should know that too. Maybe it's better -- I'm trying. I'm trying, OK?


BEGALA: Maybe it's better you do it all out in the open. HAM: It is a very Trump move, in that when they have fights, those

fights are always public. And so this -- she went public and she went public first without dealing with...


BEGALA: It's "Survivor," not even just "Apprentice." "Apprentice" was much more civilized.


TAPPER: There are two sides to every story, right? This deputy national security official -- adviser, she's not going to come out and give a press conference, come out and give a statement, come out and give a tweet.

And what we have here is Melania Trump, the first lady, shaming this woman, attacking this woman, saying this woman doesn't deserve to work at this White House. We don't know the story. I have just never seen anything like this before. Maybe Melania -- as you say, maybe the first lady has good reason.


BEGALA: She should state that reason.

CARPENTER: But then the broader thing, how hostile of a workplace is this? They treat the people who go to serve them in good faith with such hostility and they slam the door on them as they go out. I mean, what is the purpose here?

I mean, I really wanted to give Melania a fair chance. And I thought she was doing a great job as first lady, until you had that moment with the "I just don't care" jacket. She was so concerned about sending that message to her husband or whoever, she didn't care what the rest of the country thought.


BEGALA: I think it was the liberal media.


CARPENTER: Whatever story she came up with. But why is she dragging all this drama out? Why is she dragging us into this? I mean, this is a really weird, bizarre development. And it's not the first time.

SANDERS: If I could -- if I could just say, I also -- why is the White House administration dragging us through any of this? California is literally burning as we speak.

There are people that have lost their lives, and the -- I mean, the president and his White House and the first lady are engaging in what's the equivalent of something you would see on VH-1 during "The Basketball Wives of New York" or wherever the basketball wives are.


HAM: We're not exactly resistant to talk about it. So there's like...

TAPPER: Are we supposed to ignore it?


HAM: No, I'm just saying this is definitely...


HAM: You're not talking about...

TAPPER: No, I hear you. Well, we have other panels on the show and we will talk about other issues.

But that's right. And the other thing is, this quote...


HAM: I'm just saying, we're not being dragged.


TAPPER: Well, I don't know what we're supposed to do, though.


SANDERS: We are being dragged. No, we are being dragged. We are being dragged.

CARPENTER: They want this to happen.

SANDERS: They want this to happen.

The White House refuses to focus on pertinent issues.

TAPPER: She is saying she could resist. But I don't know how you resist the first lady, you know, throwing shade on a sitting deputy national security official.

And then you have one White House official put it this way to "The Wall Street Journal"'s Michael bender about the general dysfunction, the fact that we're nearing the latest to end of the season of "Survivor."

"This is how the president works. He's doused a bunch of people in gasoline and he's waiting for someone to light a match" about General Kelly, the White House chief of staff, about Secretary Nielsen from the Department of Homeland Security. There are other positions, too. We don't know.

And all these people living in dread. You worked in a White House. You're the only one here that has ever worked in a White House. And certainly there were times when people's jobs were on the line. And I remember Rahm Emanuel's job was on the line for a long time. But how did Bill Clinton deal with that sort of thing?

BEGALA: Well, through his chief of staff. The hardest person to fire is the chief of staff. You go to the chief of staff. You run the staff, and you say, OK, Erskine Bowles, John Podesta, you need to fire that woman, you need to fire that guy.

There's an order. There's a process. And this president seems completely immune to that. He's got a completely dysfunctional White House. And I have to say, that should not have been a surprise. It's not like he ran saying he was Beaver Cleaver.


BEGALA: That's right.

But when General Kelly came on, a lot of people said, oh, he's a four- star Marine. And he is. He's an impressive man. And he is. He will bring order and discipline.

And if I can brag on myself, I said no way, no way, because the problem was not the chief of staff or the staff. It's the president of the United States. The fish rots from the head down.

And the first lady going public, I guess I'm a little more cool with it than most of these -- my co-panelists. But it is extraordinary, and it is dysfunctional. I don't know how anybody can do their job in that mess now, because who knows who the hell is in charge?

SANDERS: I would like to know.

The reason I -- one of the main reasons I'm very uncomfortable with the first lady going public is, if this was Michelle Obama, she would have been vilified. And so there are different -- every step of the way, we find out there are different rules for the Obama White House than there are for the Trump White House. And it's just upsetting.


TAPPER: She got vilified for telling people to eat carrots.

SANDERS: Telling people to eat carrots and not wearing -- and wearing her arms out. And Melania is out here traipsing around America.


SANDERS: I just -- I can't. I just can't.

TAPPER: All right, everyone, stick around. We have a lot more to talk about.

Sources saying President Trump is digging in on his acting attorney general pick, even as the White House is already being taken to court over Mark Whitaker's appointment -- Matthew Whitaker's appointment.

Then, garden hoses and buckets, that's how one man fought off the California fire as it surrounded his home with his 89-year-old mother inside.

Stay with us.


[16:18:01] TAPPER: Politics now. Well, it looked as if President Trump at one point wanted to distance himself from his new acting attorney general, and all the criticism the appointment brought. Today, there's apparently a new White House strategy.

Two senior administration officials tell CNN the president is digging in on his appointment of Matt Whitaker, the man now in charge of Bob Mueller's Russia investigation, despite repeatedly having attacked it in the past.

CNN's Laura Jarrett is over at the Justice Department for us.

And, Laura, as (INAUDIBLE) critics make the case that Whitaker's appointment is unconstitutional, one key legal opinion could help him stay put.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: That's right, Jake. We're waiting to see that legal opinion from the Office of Legal Counsel over here at the Justice Department. And while it wouldn't be binding on a federal court, it is expected to offer the most robust defense of Whitaker's surprise appointment as constitutional thus far.


JARRETT (voice-over): After a rocky start, the administration gearing up Tuesday for its first legal challenge on the controversial appointment of Matt Whitaker as the acting attorney general. The state of Maryland arguing in court papers that President Trump bypassed the Constitution when he named Whitaker to replace Jeff Sessions, writing that Trump is, quote, attempting to fill a vacancy he created himself with a temporary appointment that might last for many months or years.

Concerns echoed for days by Democrats on Capitol Hill.

REP. DENNY HECK (D), WASHINGTON: I think Matthew Whitaker's appointment was unconstitutional, illegal and just plain wrong. It's unconstitutional, because he's not been subjected to the confirmation process.

JARRETT: As part of a lawsuit over the future of Obamacare, a federal judge may now decide that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is Sessions' rightful successor if Maryland prevails. At the same time, the Office of Legal Counsel at DOJ preparing soon to issue a legal opinion, defending Whitaker's appointment under federal law.

SEN. RON WYDEN (D), OREGON: No matter what the Trump Justice Department says, there is no acceptable justification for this appointment.

[16:20:04] JARRETT: The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, who, like Whitaker, is from Iowa, tried to dismiss his colleague's concerns about Whitaker shutting down the special counsel's Russia investigation.

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R-IA), CHAIRMAN, SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Doesn't matter what Whitaker thinks. The president said it isn't going to be done.

JARRETT: While also signaling clear disagreement with Whitaker's views on a famous Supreme Court case many people view as the cornerstone of the judiciary's branch's powers.

GRASSLEY: If you would like to have an Iowan tell another Iowan which Mr. Whitaker is, and I know him well, he ought to forget that. I'm not a lawyer, but Marbury versus Madison is the basis of our -- the judicial branch checking the other two branches of the government, as far as I'm concerned.


JARRETT: Earlier this afternoon, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dianne Feinstein, called on her colleague, Chuck Grassley, to schedule hearings, not only for Whitaker, but also the former attorney general, Jeff Sessions. No telling whether Grassley will agree to do that in this lame duck period -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Laura Jarrett at the Justice Department, thanks so much.

I want you to listen to the reasoning of Whitaker's appointment by former New Jersey governor and White House ally, Chris Christie.


CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), FORMER NEW JERSEY GOVERNOR: I think he's really there to land the Mueller investigation, to get it done. I think the president -- I think wisely did not want to bring a new person into the mix, who was not already in the department.


TAPPER: So, Whitaker, according to Christie, is there to land the Mueller investigation. But that's exactly what the president's critics and Whitaker's critics are concerned about.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right, the pilot of the Mueller investigation should be Mr. Mueller, and Rod Rosenstein, who's been overseeing it from the beginning. The notion that the president should decide when to land it, it's called obstruction of justice, because he is involved, to say the least, in that investigation. He may well be a target of the investigation.

It's -- the whole process just like the last -- Mrs. Trump calling for somebody to be fired. You go to the Office of Legal Counsel before you take the action. And you say, hey, boys and girls, you're the best lawyers we have in this government. Why don't you tell me if it's cool for me to put this clown from Iowa in charge -- excuse me, this distinguished citizen --

TAPPER: Thank you.

BEGALA: -- from Iowa in charge of the Justice Department. The fact that they're on the basic traps is really appalling. I mean, they can't even -- they're not even good at being corrupt.


HAM: I mean, you like more transparency, as we discussed earlier.


HAM: It's clumsiness.

TAPPER: This is pretty transparent. And here's a guy who thinks that the Mueller investigation is a joke and a witch hunt, who has said that Donald Trump Jr. taking that meeting with the Russians, there's nothing wrong with that. Anybody would have done it, which is something that a lot of people do not agree with, including Steve Bannon, who called that meeting treasonous.

And they put him in there, though he hasn't been confirmed by the Senate, and that's not according to the laws of succession at the Justice Department.

HAM: As Governor Christie mentioned, if they need somebody who has been there for a while, there's a guy who has been there for a while.

TAPPER: Even if you don't like Rod Rosenstein, which the president doesn't, apparently, there's the solicitor general. There's a whole chart.

HAM: I think it's obvious best practices also for someone who has spoken specifically about this investigation not to take on that investigation. That is -- seems clear to me. But things that seem clear to me and ethically clear to me do not always seem clear to the White House. And so, here we are. I guess it will go through the legal challenges, because it did not do so before the fact so we're going to have to play this out once again in public. But there were plenty of options that were not this one.

CARPENTER: I'm surprisingly Zen about all this. I think we all agree that Mueller is a pretty smart guy. He probably planned for this scenario, given the fact that Donald Trump has called it a rigged witch hunt that he wanted to end and he wished Jeff Sessions would have ended it.

Robert Mueller has planned for this scenario, OK? He has diversified his portfolio by handing off investigations like Michael Cohen, Maria Butina. He's planned for this. There's probably sealed indictments a judge will decide to make public, not Rod Rosenstein or Whitaker. He's locked and loaded.

I think it's all going to be okay. TAPPER: Symone, the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerry Nadler, Democrat from New York, told me that Whitaker is the first person they're going to call to testify.

SANDERS: Well, I mean, he should be the first person. He has not been confirmed by the Senate. We -- this is really concerning, yes. I'm sure Robert Mueller has plans for this. But attorney general is in charge of a lot more -- oversees more than just the Mueller investigation.

We don't know where Matthew Whitaker stands on civil rights. We don't know where Matthew Whitaker stands on, you know, protections for violence against -- we don't know. We don't know what he stands for. I do know that he thinks the Russia investigation is a witch hunt, and that he stands with the president. And that is concerning.


SANDERS: And we will hear -- we're going to hear from him, because we all know, Jake, we don't have the answers.

TAPPER: Everyone stick around. The first day of orientation for new members of Congress and many of them are already being asked about one thing. What is that one thing? That's next. Stay with us.


[16:29:38] TAPPER: And we're back with our politics lead.

In one week after record-setting voter turnout in a midterm election in the U.S., millions of Americans still don't know who their new representative is. Ten House races remain undecided right now. Democrats currently lead in six of those races. Republicans in the other four.

The rest of the new members of Congress flooded Capitol Hill today for orientation. But it's not just meetings and tours. There's mounting pressure for some of these new House Democrats to pick a side within their own party.

CNN's Manu Raju is live on Capitol Hill.

And, Manu, they haven't even moved into their new offices yet.