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CNN: DHS Secretary Nielsen Did Not Resign Willingly; CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan Named Acting DHS Secretary; A Senior Trump Administration Official Says President Trump is Becoming Unhinged About Border; Mick Mulvaney: Democrats will Never See Trump's Tax Returns; Barr Set to Testify Tomorrow Before Congress on Budget; Rep. Ro Khanna (D) California Interviewed About DHS Secretary Nielsen's Resignation; Bipartisan Calls for Trump to End U.S. Support for Saudi-Led War; White House Adviser Stephen Miller Wants More DHS Officials Fired; DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen Said to Have Resigned Unwillingly. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired April 8, 2019 - 09:00   ET

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


[09:00:00] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: -- the president over how to stop the influx of migrants crossing the southern border. A source tells CNN that Nielsen was frustrated with the president because he was insisting that Nielsen take actions at the border that were, quote, "not only impossible, but likely unlawful." Unlawful.

CNN justice correspondent Jessica Schneider joins us now.

That seems to be the consistent reporting here is that the president was pushing her and others to go against what is standing U.S. law.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right. There was this constant clash between the president and Kirstjen Nielsen. We saw it unfold for months here. But this morning we're actually told by a source that Kirstjen Nielsen is taking this resignation actually as a relief since she has been clashing with the president about this. And she believed that her relationship with him really had just become untenable.

You know, the president had increasingly made these demands with this increasing border crisis, really wanting her to do things that she couldn't lawfully do. For example, the two of them were down at the border on Friday. We saw the video of it. And we know that the president actually told border agents down there that he wanted to have them stop these migrants from coming into the United States.

But we know that by law these migrants from Central America, if they're claiming asylum, they're allowed to come into the United States so because of that clash with the president, we know that by early yesterday, Nielsen really knew how the day would likely unfold and that she would in fact be forced to resign.

But here's the problem, DHS, it doesn't just handle immigration. Nielsen is leaving behind a department that really has a plethora of issues to deal with -- cyber security, infrastructure protection, you know, they handle the TSA as well as FEMA, and we're told that Kirstjen Nielsen really had a strong grasp on all of this.

But now it's possible that with such a focus of immigration from the administration, you know, someone could come into the secretary role who doesn't really have that broad base of knowledge.

And we've heard from people within DHS that there are really gripes within the department because there is such a lack of leadership. For example, few of the roles there are actually filled permanently. There are at least three positions that are filled right now by people in the acting capacity. And that's really leading to these growing concerns that DHS potentially might not be ready to handle the next major crisis on top of the immigration issues.

So, Jim and Poppy, one interesting anecdote here, we know that Nielsen in the past week, she really tried to double down on this immigration problem. She said in a conference call last week with White House officials that she intended to respond to the influx of migrants, in her words, like a category 5 hurricane threat.

And you would have thought, Jim, that that would appease the president and his advisers. But we know that top advisers to the president including Stephen Miller, they were perplexed by that, they didn't like that, they didn't like that response. So of course in the end it was Nielsen's undoing and, of course, eventual resignation yesterday -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Well, if the standard for success is breaking with the law, quite a hard standard to meet.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: It is.

SCIUTTO: Jessica Schneider, thanks very much.

HARLOW: All right. Inside the White House one thing was clear, Nielsen had few allies remaining. In fact, CNN has learned many of those who spoke most frequently with the president were openly opposing Nielsen and where she stood on this.

Joe Johns joins us outside the White House with more. We've learned a lot over the last 24 hours about how exactly this went down. What can you tell us?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely true, Poppy, and also important to say that out in front the administration is certainly trying to put the best face on it. Kevin Hassett, the economic adviser to the president, who had a lot to say last week about the debate to close the border was out here just a little while ago essentially saying nothing to see here, things are running smoothly, people come and go at the White House, even some kind words for Kirstjen Nielsen.

But behind the scenes, a completely different story. CNN's Kaitlan Collins, my colleague here at the White House for CNN, reporting that everyone from the president's chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, to the influential adviser Stephen Miller, to the National Security adviser John Bolton had either butted heads with Kirstjen Nielsen or otherwise was critical of Kirstjen Nielsen and the way she was operating over at Homeland Security.

So clear she was isolated here at the White House. Also very true that she didn't have a lot of friends on Capitol Hill. She was seen as too tough by many Democrats in the House of Representatives which now has the power and seen as not tough enough here at the White House, Poppy.

HARLOW: Now the man who is stepping in at least temporarily to replace her is her deputy. There is Kevin McAleenan. What's interesting about him, you know, he was an Obama -- he worked in the Obama administration as deputy in DHS there, deputy commissioner. You know, he's talked about and praised aid, for example, to the northern triangle which was just cut by this administration.

[09:05:02] What else do we know about him and how long he may last in this role?

JOHNS: Well, he is the commissioner of border protection and very highly regarded here. He is not seen as a flame thrower, if you will, as are many in the White House who are concerned about immigration. Nonetheless, we are told that he's expected to just take a temporary role.

It's important to say he would be the fifth acting director in the administration at this time which is quite remarkable. There's been, as you know, a lot of criticism of the administration from a systems analysis point of view because of all the turnover and acting secretaries.

HARLOW: OK. Joe Johns at the White House. Let us know when you learn more. Thanks very much. Jim.

SCIUTTO: Joining us now to discuss all this and more, CNN political analyst Astead Herndon, national political reporter for the "New York Times," and CNN political commentator Errol Louis, he is host of the "You Decide" podcast.

Errol, you look at our reporting, our colleague Jake Tapper's reporting, and that is that she left in part because the president was making, in the words of officials who spoke to Jake, unreasonable, even impossible requests. Went on to say the president fundamentally lacks an understanding of the legal limitations that constrain him and any commander-in-chief when it comes to border and immigration."

It appears that the president was pushing Nielsen, and we heard comments from him speaking to border agents while he was down at the border, to break U.S. law here. It's alarming.

ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, it apparently didn't work. I mean, in the end you have officials who are not going to go along with that. And that I think is the decisive break between Secretary Nielsen sand President Trump.

If President Trump -- I think it's a misnomer to say that he is not aware of what the laws are, I think he just wants to change that, and he wants to change them by fiat, sort of put facts on the ground, change the policy, dare anybody to take him to court, maybe have Congress dither for a while, while he simply implements the policy that he wants, which appears to be turning back people who have a legal asylum claim, turning back migrants, turning back refugees, turning back anybody he doesn't want showing up at the border. It simply can't work that way. It's unworkable. But I think that is in fact what is emerging as the White House policy.

HARLOW: You know, we're also seeing, Astead, that the president is once again after seeming to retreat from it at the end of last week once again threatening to close the border. He tweeted about this twice last night, "We'll close the southern border if necessary."

Is there a risk here for the president and the party as a whole of looking like, you know, the boy who cried wolf? I mean, he's threatened this over and over again here. And if Mexico does not do more, as he's calling on, what's the risk here?

ASTEAD HERNDON, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Yes, the politics here can be a little messy. You have the president who is actually going out further and further. You know, immigration has been his calling card issue since he entered the race, but you do have that risk of being someone who continuously has words but without action.

You know, I've talked to Trump supporters, people who are certainly not Democrats, people who have -- thought of voting for Democrats who have shown a little bit of a break recently and saying, you know, I backed him because he was the best on the issue I cared about, closing immigration and restricting immigration. But those words for some folks haven't matched up with action.

But we've seen the president especially in election times and as he gears up into re-election mode, try to ramp up that anti-immigrant nativist language we saw at the end of the midterms, with the talk of the caravan. And I don't think it's any mistake now that as we ramp closer and closer into the 2020 swing, he will be pushing this immigration issue because that is what he thinks he wins on.

CABRERA: I mean, the question, Errol, does he actually win on it? He pushed the wall issue in the midterms. Did not help him. The numbers show it did not help him in the midterms, at least in house races. May have been different in a couple of the Senate races here. But, you know, it's a sign of the rise of Stephen Miller, right, who also pushed back against his choice for ICE director last week. Is this a winning strategy for Republicans?

LOUIS: Well, it's their strategy. Sometimes it wins, sometimes it loses. It didn't work very well in a number of House races in the midterms, but overall, if you poll where the Republican base is on this issue, it really is very much a symbolic marker. And they -- in many cases, the Republican base that supports what the president is doing are nowhere near the border. They don't know nor care what's actually going on down there, nor with the chaos that would result from it.

It's really kind of a symbolic statement about what it means to be an American. And this is Trump's go-to place. This is where he goes to rile up the base. It seems to work, to rile up the base. The problem for him, of course, is that that's not a majority of the country. And it's not likely to be a majority in 2020.

You know, we had good reporting, Jim, that members of the White House wanted to see rioting at the airports when they announced the Muslim ban in the early days of the administration.

[09:10:03] They think that's what juices up their vote. I think we should trust them that that's really who they're talking to and that's who they're appealing to.

HARLOW: All right. So, Astead, let's talk about what, you know, we should expect from the White House in terms of immigration policy and push moving forward. Stephen Miller clearly is the one with the president's ear, even more so this morning. And I think it's important to remind people where Stephen Miller has stood on immigration, even on the rights of legal immigrants to this country. Remind us.

HERNDON: Yes, we can expect the White House to go even further than previously. Stephen Miller, as you said, and I think it extends past Stephen Miller to President Trump himself, has shown a willingness not only to limit illegal immigration for reasons that they lay out that aren't based in fact, but has -- immigrants, legal immigrants means close down the ability for asylum seekers to come to the U.S. as we've said.

And as the White House continues to push in this direction, including the implementation of a new ICE director or now in a new Homeland Security secretary, you can see them ramping up to the point to get to the policy to try to match their more nativist rhetoric. And you see this happening even now, as Secretary Nielsen leaves, she's been willing to back the administration's policies but you have a little more hardliners going on the president's favorite TV shows now, trying to get their name in the mix. People like Kris Kobach and others who would be more so aligned with the president than Stephen Miller, to go even further that what typical Republicans have said and be more in terms of the hard line route on what it means to be an American and just who is allowed to be an acceptable immigrant in this country.

HARLOW: OK. Astead Herndon, Errol Louis, thank you very much.

Errol, congrats on the podcast. Everyone should be listening to it. We appreciate it. Always good to have you. Jim.

SCIUTTO: Still to come this hour, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney says Democrats will never see President Trump's tax returns. Why? We're going to speak to a former IRS commissioner about what the rules are.

HARLOW: Plus, on the eve of elections in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is promising to annex settlements in the West Bank. That's quite a reversal and it could be good for his chances in the election tomorrow. We'll see. What does it mean for peace in the region. And an American tourist abducted at gunpoint while on a, quote, "dream

trip to Uganda" has been rescued. We're live with the details.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:15:00] HARLOW: All right, welcome back. A significant development, Kirstjen Nielsen is out as Homeland Security Secretary. This as a senior administration official tells CNN the president is becoming, quote, "unhinged about the situation at the border."

Let's talk about it with Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna of California. He serves on the Budget, Armed Services and Oversight Committees, and as if he isn't busy enough, he's also the co-chair of Senator Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign. Nice to have you, thanks for joining me.

REP. RO KHANNA (D-CA): Great to be on, Poppy.

HARLOW: All right, so you said last week on "Fox News", quote, "there is no doubt the number of people coming over has increased, that's a fact." So is there a crisis at the southern border this morning?

KHANNA: Well, I do think there's a crisis in terms of how we process people who are coming. And there are two ways that we could go about this. First, we could be processing people in country, in El Salvador, in Guatemala, in Honduras. President Obama actually had started that program, President Trump has discontinued it.

I don't understand why we can't continue that. Second, we should be providing these countries with aid. My colleagues was actually in El Salvador, he saw one of the U.S. Aid programs was educating folks in coding. There were a 1,000 Guatemalan kids who said they want to stay -- a thousand El Salvador kids who want to stay in El Salvador to become programmers and not come to the United States. Those are ways to solve the crisis --

HARLOW: So, I mean, to your point about aid to the Northern Triangle that the administration has just announced it's cutting off, the man who is now replacing Kirstjen Nielsen at DHS at least for now, Kevin McAleenan was very supportive of that. You know, he's from CBP, he was on "ABC News" back in December when the president first threatened to stop that aid to the Northern Triangle.

And he said we need to invest in Central America, quote, "the State Department's announcement of unprecedented increase in aid is a tremendous step forward." That seems to align with exactly what you want. Are you supportive of him in this role?

KHANNA: Well, if he gets his wishes. I mean, he's read the same studies I have. Vanderbilt did a study that said that U.S. Aid is leading to 50 percent reduction of violence there. We all know that people are coming here because they're escaping violence.

So I hope that he will continue to push for that. And if he argues for increased aid to the Northern Triangle, he would have the support of many Democrats like myself. HARLOW: Yes, of course, he was an employee as well, career official,

worked under the Obama administration. Let's turn to the president and his taxes. You know the demand from the House Ways and Means Committee, the Chairman Richard Neal about all of that. Well, here is what Mick Mulvaney, the acting Chief of Staff has said about that this weekend.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To be clear, you believe Democrats will never see the president's tax returns.

MICK MULVANEY, ACTING CHIEF OF STAFF, WHITE HOUSE: Oh, no, never, nor should they. Keep in mind, that's an issue that was already litigated during the election. Voters knew the president could have given his tax returns, they knew that he didn't and they elected him anyway, which of course is what drives the Democrats crazy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: When you look at the polling, I mean, you have 64 percent of Americans who want to see them released, only 37 percent of Republicans. I'm interested, Congressman, in how much energy and political capital you think your party should expend over this fight to get the president's last six years of returns.

[09:20:00] KHANNA: Well, we should spend political capital because it's about transparency. Look, our party is just calling for two very simple things. We want him to release his taxes like every president had, going back to President Reagan, and we want the Mueller report to become public. This is a call for basic transparency. And I think most Americans will realize that --

HARLOW: Which --

KHANNA: That's fair.

HARLOW: Which is more important to you, meaning if the Democrats are going to go to the mat on one of them, the president's taxes or the full Mueller report, which should it be?

KHANNA: I think the Mueller report. I mean, that millions of dollars were spent on that, there was a thorough investigation, there are serious concerns of interference in our election that every American should be concerned about. That report should be public. That's when Mueller intended to have it come before Congress.

HARLOW: We will see Bill Barr testify tomorrow and Wednesday before Congress. This is a planned -- you know, planned hearing before the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. But obviously, there are going to be a lot of questions to him no doubt about the Mueller report, about the redactions that he's making about when we'll see it and how much of it will be handed over to Congress.

As you know, the DOJ has defended these redactions, defended that four-page summary from him so far, saying that on the Mueller report, every page contained a note that said that there's material included here that is covered under law, therefore, cannot be publicly released.

Do you want to see your party exercise a little bit of restraint just for the next week and a half, two weeks, until it truly is mid or end of April in terms of demanding to see the report and to see it now?

KHANNA: Well, we need to understand why he chose to issue an interpretation and issue that four-page summary. Why didn't he just release Bob Mueller's own summaries. No one is asking for classified information. No one is asking for sensitive information. What is offensive is that Bill Barr after two years of investigation will think that he should be the final arbiter of what Mueller completed --

HARLOW: Well, that's not -- but that's not the case. Congress, I mean, we heard Congressman Jerry Nadler who chairs the House Judiciary Committee saying nothing less than a fully unredacted report handed over to Congress is acceptable to him. Do you agree with that? Is that the bar, no redactions whatsoever at least to --

KHANNA: Well --

HARLOW: Congress?

KHANNA: Well, Poppy, I think Nadler was talking about what Congress could see behind closed doors in a --

HARLOW: Right --

KHANNA: Classified setting.

HARLOW: Right.

KHANNA: And if -- and I do think that there should be enough confidence in the chair of the Judiciary Committee to see that. I don't need to see the full report, not every member of Congress needs to see it. But for some select individuals in Congress, the speaker of the House --

HARLOW: Interesting --

KHANNA: The minority leader, chair of the Judiciary, I do think they should share it with them.

HARLOW: All right, let's talk about the war that rages on in Yemen at a huge expense to human lives. You and a bipartisan group of lawmakers sent a letter to the president just a little over a week ago calling on him to officially sign on to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

I understand you have not yet heard from the White House. But you believe, congressman, that there's a good chance the president is going to side with you on this. Why?

KHANNA: Well, Poppy, first of all, thanks for bringing this up. Yemen is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. Fourteen million people face the prospect of famine if we don't do something in the next six months. We need to end our support for the Saudis and we need to call for the Saudis to lift the blockade to allow food and medicine in so that people don't starve to death.

The president has called for ending endless wars, I've actually supported the president when it comes to withdrawing troops from Syria and Afghanistan. And a bipartisan group of lawmakers want to make the case to him that he can end this war.

It began in 2015, and he can help make sure that we don't see a huge famine. So I'm hopeful that he'll at least take the meeting and consider signing the resolution that passed with a bipartisan vote in the Senate and the House.

HARLOW: But just finally, to put a button on it, what tells you that you think there's a likelihood that he will? Are you getting --

KHANNA: Well, I don't want --

HARLOW: Messaging to that, you know, effect from the White House?

KHANNA: You know, I think that it's still uphill. I think there's a chance he will sign it partly on Thursday, he said that he still has to look at it. He didn't say that he was definitely going to veto it. And then we have heard from some people close to the White House that they don't want this foreign involvement.

The president has talked about more restraint in foreign policy, not having these interventions. This gives him a chance to come through on that rhetoric.

HARLOW: Congressman Ro Khanna, it's nice to have you, let us know what you hear. Thanks so much --

KHANNA: Thank you, Poppy --

HARLOW: Jim?

JIM SCIUTTO, CO-HOST, NEWSROOM: Try as they might, President Trump's Chief of Staff says that Democrats will never see the president's tax returns. Of course, he's talking about Americans in general because no one is going to see them at least right now.

Former IRS commissioner is going to weigh in next, plus, watch Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in a live CNN presidential town hall moderated by our colleague Erin Burnett, it is tomorrow night at 10:00 Eastern Time here on CNN.

[09:25:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCIUTTO: Welcome back. We have this just in to CNN. And that is that Stephen Miller; the White House -- the president's close adviser who's got very hard line positions on immigration, that following Kirstjen Nielsen's departure.

He wants more officials in DHS and elsewhere removed, including director of the United States citizenship and immigration services, at least, just not as well as the DHS General Counsel John Mitnick or it looks like at least an attempted cleaning of house here of officials dealing with immigration policy who Stephen Miller, perhaps the president don't consider hard line enough.

Of course, you're familiar with the president saying last week that he wants to take immigration in a tougher direction. It's a story we're going to continue to follow this morning, we'll have more later this hour. Poppy, to you.

HARLOW: Yes, important reporting from our Jake Tapper. All right, so on another front, the fight over the president's tax returns. The White House pushing back hard against the push from congressional Democrats to try to use IRS code to get the president's tax returns.

Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney called the Democrats' strategy, quote, "a political stunt", vowing Democrats will never see them. Phil Mattingly is with us on the Hill. All right, so it's a political fight, but I mean, there's also law here, Phil, I mean --

END