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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Did Trump Tell Border Agents to Break Law?; Trump Fires Secret Service Director and Homeland Security Chief; When Will Bernie Sanders Release Tax Returns?. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired April 8, 2019 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:03]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Sources tell me President Trump told border agents to break the law to secure the border.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news, it seems there are no limits to how far President Trump is willing to go to try to stop people from coming into the United States. We're learning about a meeting President Trump held with his top advisers, ordering that they begin shutting down the border, including the port of El Paso, in a day, laws be damned.

Then, when the president didn't get what he wanted, he cleaned house. Now another top homeland security secretary exits, as officials worry about a purge.

Plus, it's been more than 40 days since Bernie Sanders promised to release his tax returns soon. Has he decided the unrelenting pressure is better than showing the world what's in them?

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper with some breaking news about how far the president of the United States is seemingly willing to go to try to stop migrants from entering the country.

And some of this includes ordering officials to break the law. Last night, the president essentially fired the secretary of the department of homeland secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen. Conflicts with Nielsen had been building for months, but had escalated in recent weeks.

For instance, two Thursdays ago, in a meeting at the Oval Office with the president and other top officials, including Secretary Nielsen, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, top aides Jared Kushner, Mercedes Schlapp, and Dan Scavino, White House counsel Pat Cipollone and more, the president, according to one attendee, was -- quote -- "ranting and raving, saying border security was his issue."

Senior administration officials tell me that President Trump then ordered Nielsen and Pompeo to shut down the port of El Paso, Texas, by the next day, Friday, March 22, at noon. The plan was that, in subsequent days, the Trump administration would then shut down other ports.

Nielsen, at the meeting, told the president that would be a bad and even a dangerous idea, according to attendees, not to mention she said that the governor of Texas, Republican Greg Abbott, has been very supportive of the president. Nielsen proposed an alternative plan that would slow down entries at legal ports, but she argued, if you close all of the ports of entry, all you're going to achieve is end legal trade and travel.

That's not going to end illegal immigration, she argued to the president. The migrants will just go between ports. Said the president, according to two people in the room -- quote -- "I don't care."

Ultimately, it seems Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney was able to talk the president out of closing the port of El Paso and the other ports. The president, however, was insistent that his administration begin taking another action, just denying asylum seekers entry into the United States.

Secretary Nielsen tried to explain to the president many times that the asylum laws allow migrants from Central America to come to the U.S. and gain entry. She even talked to the White House counsel about it to see if there were any exceptions, and he told her that her reading of the law was correct.

Now, on Friday, in Calexico, California, the president publicly said this:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The system is full. Can't take you anymore. Whether it's asylum, whether it's anything you want, it's illegal immigration, can't take you anymore. We can't take you. Our country is full.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Behind the scenes, according to two witnesses, President Trump told border agents to simply stop letting migrants in. "Tell them we don't have the capacity," he said. "If judges give you trouble, say, sorry, Judge, I can't do it. We don't have the room."

After the president left that room, border agents sought further advice from their leaders, who told them they were not going to give them that direction. If they did what the president said, in fact, they would be taking on personal liability. You have to follow the law, the border agents were told.

Senior administration officials also tell me that, in the last four months or so, President Trump has been pushing his administration to enforce a stricter and more widespread family separation policy, not just the original policy started by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and undone by the president once it was criticized. That was a policy of prosecuting individuals crossing the border illegally between legal ports of entry. And that substituted a separation of parents from their children. No, according to multiple sources, President Trump wants an expanded version of this policy. He wants families separated even if they come in at a legal port of entry and are legal asylum seekers.

The president also want families separated even if they're apprehended within the United States, these senior administration officials tell me. The president wants more of this. He thinks family separation works to deter migrants from coming.

Sources tell me that Nielsen has tried to explain to the president they can't bring this policy back because of various court challenges. HHS Secretary Alex Azar has made it clear to the president that he opposes any policy that causes family separations.

[16:05:00]

And White House staffers, especially in communications, have reportedly tried to explain to the president that this would be an unmitigated P.R. disaster.

A senior administration official tells me -- quote -- "He just wants to separate families."

Last night, on the second floor of the East Wing of the White House resident in a room called the Yellow Oval, Nielsen, Chief of Staff Mulvaney and President Trump sat down and met. Nielsen tried to present a path forward, senior administration officials tell me, a path that is legal and in compliance with U.S. laws, but the president said to her -- quote -- "This isn't working."

Nielsen did not disagree. Quote: "At the end of the day," a senior administration official tells me, "the president refuses to understand that the Department of Homeland Security is constrained by the laws" -- unquote.

But, of course, the president may not think that's much of a barrier. The president's made no secret that he's frustrated with the laws, as he made clear in a recent interview on FOX News.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: There's never been so many people coming up, and that's because they're gaming the system and the system has changed, for the worse, because of what happened with Democrats and what they have done in terms of Congress.

So, if we change the laws, it would be very easy. But, in the meantime, Mexico, if they stop the people from coming in, we won't have a lot of people coming at the border.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: So let's chew over all of this with my panel of experts.

Let me start with you, Lanhee. The idea that President Trump actually ordered Pompeo and Nielsen,

shut down the port of El Paso by tomorrow at noon. Now, apparently he was talked out of this subsequently to the meeting. But that's a pretty big deal. You know, there's always this argument being made about President Trump, his bark is worse than his bite, this is just rhetoric in order to achieve what he wants.

But here he is, telling border agents to break the law, according to senior administration officials, and ordering the port closed.

LANHEE CHEN, FORMER POLICY DIRECTOR, MITT ROMNEY CAMPAIGN: If true, it creates huge liability for his administration, for the people whom he asked to engage in this activity.

And, really, the broader question here is, to what end? You know, what is the goal of all of this activity? In my mind, this is all part of a big political campaign effort, as we head toward 2020. The president is speaking to his base. He knows immigration is a big issue.

And, unfortunately, in this situation, it means that it put others at risk of potentially being in violation of federal law. So, this is a huge issue and a huge problem.

JENNICE FUENTES, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, Jake, I think it's a major inconvenience when you're trying to be a dictator and there's two things against you, the democracy and reality.

You know, it's on her head that we have at least three migrant children that have died under detention, an 8-year-old boy, a 7-year- old girl and a 20-month-old baby girl. So, that's on Kirstjen Nielsen's head.

And you tell me that now the dark lord of anti-immigration, Stephen Miller, is going to be in charge, I can't imagine how much worse this gets. You cannot shut down the border on your own will because you want to, because we have the three branches of government that work very government in this country. We try to make sure they work well.

You cannot shut down aid because you feel like it because those people are coming from those shithole countries. And I'm quoting the president.

TAPPER: Yes.

FUENTES: So, you know what? You can't get away with everything you want to, even if you're playing to that base, that you so desperately need to reactivate for 2020.

TAPPER: And what do you make of the fact that he, according -- again, this is from senior administration officials, current senior administration officials, that, according to them, President Trump actually wants to expand the family separation policy and separate parents from their children, even if they're applying for asylum, even if they're apprehended within the U.S., because he thinks it is an effective deterrent. BILL KRISTOL, DIRECTOR, DEFENDING DEMOCRACY TOGETHER: If President

Trump wants to change the laws, he should go try to change the laws, which, incidentally, he is spending not time at all doing.

If you have a real crisis and you really thought these laws, the asylum laws are a mess, you wouldn't throw out one proposal a year ago and forget about it. You wouldn't declare an emergency on the wall, for the wall, but not for this, right?

You would actually spend a lot of political capital and a lot of time as president of the United States trying to deal with an emergency. I believe that's what other presidents have done when they thought there were genuine emergencies.

He doesn't do that. He likes to -- he wishes he could just change the laws himself. And it's a serious problem. If the president of the United States is ordering unlawful acts, I think -- isn't that kind of almost the definition of what -- I hate to say the word -- but I'm not sure it's an impeachable offense, but I will say this.

Congress needs to have people testify, the Cabinet, the relevant Cabinet secretaries and others, as to whether they were ordered to do that or not.

TAPPER: Well, the president said -- again, this is according to two witnesses. The president told border agents when he was in Calexico, California, stop letting them in.

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes.

TAPPER: Tell them, we're at capacity, we're full. If a judge tells you say, sorry, Judge.

He's said similar things on camera, publicly, but this was behind closed doors. And according to these same witnesses, the leaders came in after President Trump left and said, don't do that.

FINNEY: Right.

TAPPER: If you do, do it, you're going to be held personally liable. You have to follow the law.

FINNEY: Right.

And I think the reporting has indicated that's what Nielsen tried to say, is that there are some legal reasons why I can't do some of the things you want me to do.

Look, I think we have to take this into the realm of politically, right? This president, it does not seem, is truly interested in solving the problem. This is a political issue for him. And it also illustrates the lack of interest in understanding the complexity of the problem.

[16:10:02]

We know that, between Presidents Clinton and Bush and Obama, numbers were going down. Aid seemed to be working in Central America.

President Trump comes in, cuts the aid, and whereas, in the first year of his presidency, the numbers were going down, now he is actually overseeing the largest number of legal migrants in this country because his policies have failed.

And so I think Democrats, though, have to be really careful in how we talk about this, because people are going to say, well, how does that impact me and my life? And I think the arguments we made here is just, this is complete incompetence.

In addition to having broken the law...

TAPPER: You don't think that's going to work?

KRISTOL: She's too nice.

Presidential -- president's policies fail. Presidents play politics.

FINNEY: Yes.

KRISTOL: That's fine. Presidents are not allowed to order people to break the law.

(CROSSTALK)

KRISTOL: That is totally different.

And we shouldn't have 12 seconds into the discussion say, well, let's talk about the politics of it or let's talk about the complexity of it. If he's ordering people to break the law, there needs to be a serious investigation by relevant congressional committees as to whether he did this, whether he meant it seriously, and how the executive branch is being run.

FINNEY: But what I'm arguing to you that the way you then would talk to that about the public -- I'm not suggesting you give them all the policy reasons. I think it's just you -- it's incompetence.

He broke -- he's trying to get people to break the laws and his policies failed. And that's a sign of his incompetence. I think you have -- that's the way you have to talk about it publicly.

FUENTES: Yes, but why do people not care?

It's, again, the comment that he made. I could kill someone on Fifth Avenue and nobody would care. And he would get away with it. Why is it that there's a consistent 40 percent, hypocritical 40 percent? Because I don't why the evangelical base would think that a lot of the things that this administration has done, those children dying on the border, for example, a policy that is not a policy, which is mindless, it's soulless, it's heartless, it's anti-Christian.

How does they get away -- how does he get away with that is really the question we have to answer. I don't know there's an answer.

(CROSSTALK)

CHEN: It seems to me that, were Congress to investigate, the challenge, Bill, is that everything's seen through a political light now.

I don't disagree with you that it's a problem if the president if the United States is ordering people, officers of the United States, to violate federal law.

The challenge is that Congress itself has lost some credibility in this regard as well. So, look, while I agree that Congress should hold people to account for this, I'm not so sure that the discussion fundamentally isn't a political one, because it's going to be based on how people view and see the president and Democrats in Congress.

FINNEY: And think about it.

You know, when we were seeing these family separations, part of at least among circles of friends that I talked to, some out of Washington, part of where the conversation really started to have an impact for people was their own children asking them, well, could that happen to me? Could people just come and take me away, the way these kids are being taken away from their parents? And does that mean that we would never be reunified?

And so that's when -- when it started to impact people very directly in their daily life is when you really, I think, started to see more people taking a pause and trying to understand what was really going on there.

TAPPER: Everyone, take one second, take a pause.

President Trump's wild demands on immigration are coming to a head, as a purge gets under way at the Department of Homeland Security, starting at the top.

And then an American tourist kidnapped at gunpoint is now free after her captors demanded a $500,000 ransom. Some officials worry that this sets a dangerous precedent for Americans abroad.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:17:23] TAPPER: We're back with our politics lead and what some even with the Trump administration now call a purge of senior national security officials. It's not just Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen or the director nominee of ICE, but now also the Secret Service director.

As CNN broke earlier this afternoon, President Trump had chief of staff Mick Mulvaney fire the Secret Service director the week before last. One official telling CNN, this all amounts to a wholesale decapitation of the Homeland Security Department.

And as CNN's Kaitlan Collins now reports, there might be more to come. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The Secret Service is fantastic.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump pushing out the man he picked to lead the Secret Service. Sources tell CNN, Trump ordered Mick Mulvaney to fire Randolph Alles, who goes by "Tex" and has led the Secret Service since 2017. Alles was still on the job Monday, but the White House said in a statement that he'll be leaving shortly. And President Trump has selected James M. Murray to take over in May.

Why Trump dismissed Alles is still unclear. Five days ago, after a woman carrying Chinese passports and a flash drive containing malware was accused of illegally entering his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, Trump praised the service.

TRUMP: I could not be happier with Secret Service. Secret Service has done a fantastic job from day one.

COLLINS: But he also applauded the Mar-a-Lago employee who stopped the woman after Secret Service allowed her in.

TRUMP: I think that the person sitting at the front desk did a very good job.

COLLINS: Alles reports directly to the Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: I just want to thank the president --

COLLINS: Who was also forced out Sunday after a face-to-face meeting with President Trump ended in him demanding her resignation.

NIELSEN: I share the president's goal of securing the border. Other than that, I'm on my way to keep doing what I can for the next few days.

COLLINS: The shake up comes as Trump has become increasingly frustrated with immigration, blaming Nielsen for a spike in border crossings and pushing her to reinstate the ministration's zero tolerance immigration policy, which he ended last year after backlash.

TRUMP: We're going to keep the families together. I didn't like the sight or the feeling of families being separated.

COLLINS: Sources tell CNN, Stephen Miller played a critical role in ousting Nielsen, but she's not the only DHS official he wants to get rid of. Miller has also pushed Trump to dismiss the director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, as well as the department's general counsel.

But the next departure could be the acting deputy secretary. [16:20:01] Claire Grady is technically in line to replace Nielsen when

she steps down on Wednesday, but Trump announced that Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan will step in. Sources tell CNN, Grady has no intention of resigning, and is expected to force the administration to fire her.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Now, Jake, CNN has obtained a letter that the former outgoing Secret Service director sent to his employees today, talking about what happened. He claims, Jake, that he was not fired, but does acknowledge that several weeks ago, he says, the administration told him that transitions in leadership should be expected across the Department of Homeland Security and that the president has directed an orderly transition for leadership at this agency.

Jake, you've noted that several officials that have left DHS in just recent days and now we'll see who could be next.

TAPPER: All right. Kaitlan Collins a to the White House, thank you so much.

Bill Kristol, let me ask you, there is a legitimate humanitarian crisis at the border, whatever you think about the president's rhetoric. You have people coming in, families, they don't have places to put them, et cetera. There's also terrorism, there's also cyber terrorism. There are a lot of challenges for the Department of Homeland Security.

And yet, you -- Kaitlan just went through all of the people who have been let go or fired or shown the door. All the people who might be let go, I mean, that's not a way to run an organization that is bracing for crises.

KRISTOL: No, it's not. And again, this is a crisis, such an emergency that we have to probably violate -- quasi violate the Constitution or the president has to arrogate all of his powers -- appropriate funds that weren't appropriated -- use funds that were not appropriated by Congress. And yet he, in effect, decapitates the department that is actually in charge of these relevant policies.

And yet I come back to, if there is a humanitarian crisis, we have published something about it in "The Bulwark", and there should be legal changes, changes in the law to address it. And the president has the ability to propose changes in the law. And the Republicans control one branch of Congress, I'm not sure that Nancy Pelosi would resist some of these changes, a because there is a genuine humanitarian crisis.

But is he doing anything about that? No.

TAPPER: Obama's secretary of homeland security, Jeh Johnson, he flew down to the Northern Triangle countries, and told people, don't come, you will be sent back. I mean, this is an issue that has plagued previous administrations. It's not just this one. But I don't -- what's your reaction to the news about all of these heads rolling? FUENTES: Oh, well, about the heads rolling? How many days, how many

heads will roll? I mean, it's constant. From HHS, Defense, CIA, just number them. We've had so many people who are just not -- everybody's acting. The Constitution says very clearly that the Senate has to consent and basically support your cabinet level secretaries and your appointments.

Why has not that happened? Well, because a lot of these people would never be confirmed. A lot of these people who are probably not truthfully. To Bill's earlier point about the Congress and the Senate have to be involved, he's not bringing them in front of the Senate, where he's supposed to constitutionally. Everybody has to be an acting, because the more information you retain, the more -- the less transparent that you are, the better these people can do the job you want them to do, clearly.

So we don't know who they are, why they're qualified, and why they're doing the jobs they're doing.

TAPPER: And, Lanhee, one of the things that's interesting that people in the administration say, the reason you're seeing all of this turnover in Homeland Security is because of Stephen Miller. Stephen Miller has been empowered even more than he was before. He's a hardliner on immigration, President Trump thinks very highly of him and he's getting rid of people including people who were already fairly tough on immigration like Nielsen or the ICE director nominee.

CHEN: Yes, the level of influence he appears to have over this process is pretty staggering. That having been said, he has been with the president for a long time, the president clearly trusts him. And the president has the right and prerogative to rely on advisers whom he trusts. I think the question is, is he getting the right advice here? For example, is it a good idea to have this many firings in a row on sequential days?

You know, if one were staffing a White House, staffing a campaign, they say, hey, look, maybe not like each day in a row. Maybe take a few days off. So, I think the question here becomes, you know, the fact that Stephen Miller has influence, there are aides that have influence over the president. That's how it is.

The question is, is he getting the right advice not only on the substance, but also on the process?

TAPPER: According to former White House aide, Cliff Sims, who wrote a book, Stephen Miller once said to him, quote: I would be happy if not a single refugee foot ever begun touched American soil.

FINNEY: Obviously, this is an issue he has cared about for some time and that he has, you know, been on a tear about for some time and in his. Current role, he has power and authority to really do some things about it. It also appears that the president is increasingly wanting to listen to voices that are telling him what he wants to hear, who are sort of the yes people, that are more to the right, and people who will -- that their primary qualification seems to be loyalty, unless sort of what you were saying, is it the best advice? [16:25:04] It doesn't matter. They're loyal, they may do what you

want them to do.

The thing with the Secret Service, though, I think there's something interesting here on this, because, you know, there's always a little bit of tension between the president and their families and the Secret Service detail, because usually there's a little bit of questions of privacy, you want to be able to go out to dinner with your friends or things like that.

But with Trump and his administration, particularly when you have our national security -- or sort of our, you know, foreign policy being conducted on WhatsApp, the idea that it really becomes more about secrecy and not privacy. And so, I think this will be continue to be a question as to why the head of the Secret Service, in addition to the broader context of the number of people fired, the sort of, as you said, decapitation at the Department of Homeland Security, when they do deal with a whole much broader range of issues than just immigration.

I mean, what about cybersecurity? We're heading into an election where our national security apparatus has already told us the Russians are trying to have influence. So what's that about? But the specific firing and the surprise of firing the head of the Secret Service, I think is one people are going to keep picking at and digging on.

FUENTES: If you were coming from Mars and looking at what we're talking about in Homeland Security, you would think it was the department that was created to basically deal with immigration, which is not a security crisis. It's a humanitarian crisis, like Bill said.

And we have bigger problems. This as Karen pointed out, we have real national security threats. And what are we doing? Nothing.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around.

Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii has repeatedly called for Secretary Nielsen to resign, but is what's happening at Homeland Security now more concerning? We'll ask her next.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)