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Lawsuit Filed to Replace New Acting Attorney General; Does Trump Show Pattern of Disrespecting U.S. Soldiers?; Melania Trump Feuding With Deputy National Security Adviser?. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired November 13, 2018 - 15:00   ET

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


[15:00:04]

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, here we go. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you for being with me.

Here we are, exactly one week after Election Day, another major political shakeup may be in the works. I'm not talking Congress, but the president's Cabinet and the West Wing.

And just in, the first lady, Melania Trump, she's now stepping in, using her voice to call for the dismissal of one specific staffer, the deputy national security adviser, Mira Ricardel. More on that in a second.

But, first, officials say President Trump is eying potential replacements for several other key senior positions, including his chief of staff, John Kelly.

With me now, CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash, and CNN White House reporter Kate Bennett.

And, Kate, let me begin with you.

Why does Melania Trump care clearly so deeply to have this deputy national security adviser fired?

KATE BENNETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right.

So, Brooke, I just want to make sure that we -- the statement from Mrs. Trump's office said it's the position of the office of the first lady that she, Ricardel, no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House. So a very specific statement.

A White House official does tell me on background that during the trip to Africa earlier this month, the first lady's office, some staff members and Ricardel sort of butted heads. They found that Ricardel was being a bit obstinate in her -- some of her behavior to some of the requests the first lady's office was making.

The source also says that there was perhaps some retaliation or attempt to retaliate on Ricardel's part by leaking certain things or attempts to do so. Again, this is from a source inside the White House, and it's an unfolding story, but certainly a very unusual, a very strong statement from the first lady and her office, actually saying this person doesn't deserve to be on staff at the White House.

You know, Melania Trump, as we both know, is not someone who's effusive in her statements. She's typically stayed out of staffing decisions. The East Wing operates very independently from the West Wing. This being someone that doesn't necessarily operate quite a bit within Mrs. Trump's circles, so this is a very unusual move, certainly.

And it'll be interesting to see how it plays out. Of course, Ricardel, we just saw her with the president in the same room at the Diwali ceremony. So she's clearly still at the White House today.

BALDWIN: Dana, I want to jump over to you in just a second.

But let me just quickly bring Barbara Starr in, because, Barbara, I know you have a bit more on Ricardel, who she is, what she does. Fill us in.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Mira Ricardel is someone who also casts a very long shadow over here at the Pentagon, ever since the beginning of the Trump administration.

It had become clear that she was trying to get some loyalists, some people that she thought should have talked about jobs over here at the Pentagon, and get Defense Secretary Mattis to have these people work here.

And he did not exactly see eye to eye with her, to say the least. And in the last several months, it had become extremely well known that Ricardel and Secretary Mattis were pretty constantly butting heads. He -- he's a former Marine. He knows his enemies. He knows who's out there that he thinks might be about to get them.

And none of this escaped his attention. So he may not be terribly sad if she goes on her way and begins working outside of the White House, to say the least, someone who had been very -- seen as being very contentious over here.

A little surprising, if she is leaving, perhaps, that Mr. Bolton is the one that's telling her to leave, because, again, Bolton, Mattis and Pompeo, the secretary of state, are kind of the troika, if you will, of the three key national security advisers, defense, political, diplomatic advisers to the president, three very strong personalities.

And they have all clashed at times. So Mira going away, it's going to be very interesting. It may put Secretary Mattis in a more solid position with the White House, because she is someone who had been no fan of his. And it's clear that she had been pretty public within White House circles about all of that -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: OK. I'm listening to both Barbara and Kate.

And, Dana, I'm hearing words like contentious, obstinate. Maybe this is personal with Melania Trump. What is your reaction to this stunning move?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's a public shaming.

I mean, that -- let's just call it what it is. Kate is absolutely right. This is -- I mean, I don't remember first ladies being this involved publicly ever. I mean, Nancy Reagan certainly was involved behind the scenes, but to publicly come out in an unsolicited statement and say that her husband's deputy national security adviser is not -- doesn't have it, doesn't have -- I'm looking for the exact words -- no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House is remarkable.

[15:05:14]

And you can only conclude two things, and they're not necessarily at odds. One is that a lot Melania Trump is so annoyed and angry with this woman that she wanted to call her out publicly and make her look bad and/or, two, as Barbara mentioned, her senior person there, the national security adviser, John Bolton, wasn't budging, didn't want to fire her.

So Melania went around her and -- went around him and went to the public. Both could be true. Well, we know that the public shaming is true, because we have seen it. This is what we're talking about.

BALDWIN: The public statement, right.

BASH: But the question is whether or not she had to do this because John Bolton said, uh-uh, I'm not letting go of her.

BALDWIN: Yes, yes.

So, OK, so you have this public shaming of Mira Ricardel by this statement from the East Wing.

Kate, when I was jumping in the elevator to do the show, you and I were quickly chatting about that there is tension. There has also been reported tension between the first lady and the chief of staff, John Kelly, but the East Wing is denying any kind of -- any kind of anything, correct?

BENNETT: Yes, I mean, it's interesting.

They are denying that the -- that Melania Trump has an issue with the chief of staff, that she has an issue, really that she is saying the East Wing doesn't operate in tandem with the West Wing, as we know to be true. This is a very independent first lady, a very independent East Wing.

However, it is interesting. The times that Melania Trump has sort of punched back, using her spokeswoman or on her own, have typically been times when she's felt slighted in terms of honesty or truth. If what the White House source is telling me, that there were perhaps stories push that were an accurate on Ricardel's part about the first lady, about her office, that seems to me very much in line with the times that Melania Trump has pushed back.

We have seen her do it a number of times, just sort of these statements that come very quickly from Stephanie Grisham. They're few and far between. But, certainly, they mean that, somewhere, she feels as though someone is telling an untruth or injustice about her.

But I will say this, Brooke. I do think -- and we heard this from the first lady when she spoke to ABC News on the Africa trip. She does have influence. She did tell the president, she has, if there are people she thinks he should not trust in his office.

And she was asked what has happened to those people, what happens, and she said, some of them don't work there anymore. So, clearly, she's not afraid to say, if I influence him or if I give my opinion, sometimes, he acts on it.

So this will be interesting to see whether Ricardel, with her alignment, obviously, with Bolton and her different role, not necessarily in the East Wing, whether that affects her overall job, and if she's out of there.

BALDWIN: Barbara, what does this mean, bigger picture, just even for national security, because you said, if Ricardel goes away, and you had mentioned the clashing between her and Secretary Mattis, maybe Mattis would feel like he was on stronger footing.

Who else? Who else does this affect, big picture?

STARR: Well, this is actually something that's quite significant between the White House and, as I said, the State Department, the Pentagon, the intelligence community, the national security apparatus, because Mira Ricardel essentially runs much of that apparatus within the White House day to day.

Mr. Bolton often travels. He's often with the president. But all of the hard work that goes on the, what they call the process, the national security process, how you move issues through the government, whether it's what to do about Russia, what to do about Iran, ISIS, Afghanistan, North Korea, any of these issues, these are, by tradition, very long, involved at times discussions between agencies of the national security community.

And Ricardel is in a position to shepherd that process through. Secretary Mattis is someone who likes to see analysis followed. He likes to see all these issues that we're talking about get a full national security analysis.

By all accounts, that has been very problematic in recent months. Not as much of that process has been followed, perhaps due to Mr. Trump's off-the-cuff approach to national security at times and perhaps due to some of the drama that's been going on, if you will.

So now the question will be really what kind of national security apparatus will John Bolton -- Ricardel does go, what kind of apparatus will he establish once again in the White House for Mr. Trump to work with? What -- who will be the new national security adviser? Will this be someone who simply says yes to everything the president wants?

Will this be someone who goes for the rigorous analysis that's needed in so many crucial national security issues, especially with these negotiations coming up with North Korea? While Mr. Pompeo, as secretary of state has the lead, this is something that is going to be crucial to the Pentagon.

[15:10:05]

They want to know exactly what weapons North Korea has, what they're willing to give up, What the process will be. We're entering into a period, again, everything from North Korea to Russia to Iran is at a critical stage. And so that National Security Council with or without Mira Ricardel is going to be absolutely vital.

BALDWIN: Barbara and Kate, thank you very much for those perspectives.

Dana, let me finish with you. Just tonight, you're part of this election night sequel. We heard the president is, as we have been talking, eying replacements potentially for his chief of staff, for Kirstjen Nielsen, Secretary Nielsen, others.

Starting to see the midterm results are worse for Republicans than originally thought. But what are your thoughts going into tonight?

BASH: Yes, I mean, it's true what a difference a week makes, because as we were watching the results come in, it was obvious that the Democrats were doing quite well in the House. We called the House for the Democrats relatively early on in the evening last Tuesday.

But the Senate picture looked different. It looked as though the president had really gotten a big bump from all of his extensive campaigning in the red states, where you had either open seats or Democratic incumbents in peril.

And in a lot of those seats, to be fair to the president, he did OK. He knocked off Joe Donnelly in Indiana, where the president won by double digits, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, where the president won by double digits, North Dakota, Heidi Heitkamp, where the president won by like 30-something points.

But in the other states, Nevada, Arizona -- and we don't know what's going to happen in Florida -- it's a different story. In particular, what happened last night in Arizona really does start to paint the picture differently of where the Republican Party is right now.

And what that means is, it's a lot more narrow. It's a lot more narrow. We saw that in the House, that the suburbs went bye-bye for Republicans, independents, women. And now it's looking more to be the case in other states that aren't ruby, ruby red.

And that is a very dangerous thing for this president and more broadly for the Republican Party.

BALDWIN: Yes, talk about a takeaway looking ahead to 2020. Not getting ahead of myself.

BASH: Exactly. We're there, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Let's look -- let's look forward to this evening.

BASH: Own it.

(LAUGHTER)

BALDWIN: We're so there. We're so there.

Dana, we will look for you tonight with the whole crew, election night continued, starts at 8:00 Eastern.

Dana Bash, Anderson Cooper, Jake Tapper, John King, all the -- all of them right here on CNN.

Now to the Trump hire that is so controversial, it's forcing a courtroom showdown, acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker.

Maryland's attorney general just filed papers asking a federal judge to replace Whitaker with the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, saying Whitaker's appointment violates the Constitution and the Attorney General Succession Act, and this is happening when the Department of Justice is expected to release its defense of Whitaker's appointment.

He took over, as you know, after the president fire Jeff Sessions a week ago.

So let's go straight to our reporter at the Justice Department, Laura Jarrett.

And, Laura, my goodness, the difference a week has made from when you were breaking the story, then to now. The Maryland attorney general is going after Matt Whitaker. On what grounds?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Brooke, it's kind of interesting, a legal maneuver here where they're using an existing lawsuit that had been filed against the Trump administration, naming Jeff Sessions as a defendant, having to do with the Affordable Care Act.

And what they're doing here, instead of filing a brand-new lawsuit, is filing a motion to say Whitaker is not the acting attorney general. In fact, it is the person next in line in the DOJ line of succession, who would be the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein.

So they're asking for a formal court order to that effect. And it's interesting. There's a hot legal debate going on right now between constitutional scholars about whether Whitaker's appointment was constitutional in the first place.

We have heard from George Conway, Kellyanne Conway's husband, weighing in on this. Of course, our legal expert Steve Vladeck has said he thinks it is constitutional. And so now the Office of Legal Counsel, which is the chief legal officer, almost the law firm for the administration, is planning to issue an opinion, I'm told, hopefully later today, which will lay all of this out, explaining those incision, defending the Whitaker appointment under the Federal Vacancies Act.

And the key here is not whether he was allowed to be appointed under the Vacancies Act. It's whether Trump effectively created this emergency on his own by appointing Whitaker, instead of Rosenstein, who would naturally fall in the line of succession.

But we're also told -- my colleague Jeremy Diamond and I are told that the administration is really doubling down on Whitaker's appointment. He had a rough couple days there, a series of bad stories, honing in on some of his past controversial statements.

[15:15:00]

But now the president is prepared to keep him on for several weeks in this temporary position, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Mm-hmm. We watch to see what happens with Maryland and also a case in Missouri.

Laura Jarrett, thank you very much for the update there.

Coming up: The president says he loves the U.S. military, despite attacking the late Senator John McCain and Gold Star families and critics saying he should have done more on Veterans Day weekend.

So is this part of a bigger pattern? My next guest says, yes, it is.

And the death toll in California continues to climb, as fires engulf the north and the south, one of the fires now considered the deadliest ever in California state history. Dozens of people are still missing. We will take you there.

Also, Monica Lewinsky back in the headlines today, her emotional and candid revelations about the Clinton scandal from years ago -- what she said about Hillary Clinton in a new interview. Do not miss this.

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BALDWIN: As government officials, historians and fellow Republicans continue to criticize this president for skipping a veterans event in France due to rain, my next guest says the president has a pattern of disrespecting the military that should not be ignored.

In an op-ed for "The Washington Post," Karen Tumulty ticks through a pretty stunning list of mishaps.

Among them, she points out he has yet to visit U.S. troops in a combat zone, something four of his predecessors had done by now, that now infamous insult to the late Senator John McCain. Trump had attacked a Gold Star family during the 2016 campaign and most recently rushed thousands of troops to the U.S.-Mexico border for a mission that is still not entirely clear. "The Washington Post"'s Karen Tumulty is with me now.

And your dad was an Air Force officer. You grew up on various military bases. And it's a strong, scathing piece that you wrote in "The Post."

And the final line, you refer to the president treating our men and women in uniform as props -- as props. Why?

KAREN TUMULTY, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, certainly -- well, because we do have a president here who claims that he is better for the military than any president ever has been.

And, of course, he will often point to the major increase in the defense budget that has taken place on his watch. But what becomes sort of startling is when you consider all the opportunities that he has passed on for really showing respect for individual military members and for the sacrifices that they have made for this country, not only the list that you mentioned, but the -- just yesterday, he did not go to Arlington Cemetery on the -- for the observance of Veterans Day.

What he did do with one of his first tweets of the morning is suggest that the Florida -- counting of votes in Florida be halted and that essentially election night results be accepted.

Well, one thing that would do would be to toss out the overseas and the military ballots. That is, under Florida law, those ballots are supposed to be counted. It's really just jaw-dropping that a president of the United States would suggest that people who are overseas and in some cases in harm's way serving their country should not be allowed to make their voices heard at the ballot box.

BALDWIN: I have talked to my friends in the military, and they're basically -- they're just sort of like, why has he yet to visit any military theater? Why hasn't he come to see us?

And you bring up the point about Arlington yesterday. But we talked for months about how this president had surrounded himself with military generals. He loves the generals. How is there not someone in his inner circle who's tapping him on the shoulder and saying, Mr. President, you are the commander in chief, you need to go?

TUMULTY: Well, and, certainly, we just now found out today that he was canceling a trip to the border, where he has over 5,000 active- duty military. This is different from what previous presidents would send down, Guardsmen.

This president has to sort of one-up them with the active-duty military. But these men and women are down there with no clear mission, and the president has canceled a trip to go see them as well.

And, yes, his four most recent predecessors had all made trips to combat zones. This president is almost two years in office, and he has yet to do that. He says he has been too busy, but he has nonetheless been able to play golf for over 100 days of his presidency.

BALDWIN: We do know that, speaking of generals, Secretary Mattis will be going, even though the president won't be.

You make the point he has increased military spending.

Do you give him any benefit of the doubt?

TUMULTY: Well, I certainly -- I mean, he is popular within the military. And I think people do appreciate that he's loosened the strings on the budget. He's effectively ended the sequester that was holding down the defense budget during President Obama's presidency under an agreement, a bipartisan agreement, that the president had made with Congress.

He has also increased military pay, but he likes to say it's the first raise the military has gotten in 10 years. That's a lie. The military has gotten a raise every year. And, in fact, the raise that they got under President Trump is actually smaller, percentage wise, than the raises they got in 2009, 2010 and 2008.

BALDWIN: He takes trips. He's gone overseas, gone to the Middle East, gone to Europe. Why he doesn't visit our men and women in uniform is a very valid question.

[15:25:02]

Karen Tumulty, thank you for writing the piece for "The Washington Post."

TUMULTY: Thank you.

BALDWIN: Good to see you.

Coming up next: Former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, in some of her most candid remarks yet, she gets pretty emotional as she opens up about what led to her affair with former President Bill Clinton and the life-altering events that followed.

And new details on this shameful salute, high school students in America making what appears to be a Nazi salute for this big massive prom photo.

We will talk with a lawmaker from where this happened and what he thinks needs to be done.

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