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DHS Secretary Nielsen Did Not Resign Willingly; DHS Secretary Nielsen Had Few Allies In White House After Kelly Left; Sources Say Nielsen Felt In Limbo For The Last Week. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired April 8, 2019 - 10:00   ET



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But, I mean, keep the city there for us when we get back.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Calm down. It seems like they're losing their minds. Sometimes you just have to like chill out a little bit. I'm glad that they're having fun but, like I said, they've got to keep the -- calm down a little bit, you know? Yes, I'm a little bit scared.


ANDY SCHOLES, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: All right. You may want to mix in a nap at some point today, a late championship game. Red Raiders and Cavaliers are going to tip off at about 9:20 Eastern. And, guys, I lived in Lubbock, Texas, for three years. Mildly concerned if they win the game tonight, what the celebration is going to look like in the city because they have been waiting for one for a very long time.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: They'd better be greasing the light posts. I did undersell you, Andy. You're right. You're in ninth place, I said tenth. Ninth place.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN NEWSROOM: All right. There you go, single digits.

SCIUTTO: Impressive.

SCHOLES: I appreciate it.

HARLOW: That's good. Thanks, Andy.

SCIUTTO: A very good Monday morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto in Washington.

HARLOW: And I'm Poppy Harlow in New York. We're glad you're with us. So big news over the weekend breaking late yesterday. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is out. And just within the last hour, we're learning she may not be the only DHS official to go. A Trump administration official tells our colleague, Jake Tapper, that there are at least two more names on the White House adviser Stephen Miller's list of folks he wants out of there. Miller is one of the immigration hardliners who thought Nielsen was not tough enough on border security. Jim?

SCIUTTO: A source tells CNN Nielsen was frustrated with the President because he was insisting that she take actions at the border that were, quote, not only impossible but likely unlawful. Listen to that, likely unlawful.

CNN White House Correspondent Abby Phillip joins us now live. So the President, because he said similar things to agents down at the border during his visit, trying to pressure them to break in effect asylum law. I mean, these are amazing circumstances.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It is. I mean, it really reflects President Trump's growing frustration with the laws that are confining his aspirations on the border. He's talked about trying to get rid of asylum, wanting to get rid of judges, being frustrated that once you step foot in the United States, you are entitled to some form of due process.

And in the background of all of this, there is a power struggle happening within the White House as one of the top aides who has always been focused on immigration. Stephen Miller is starting to flex his muscle, the President listening to him as he urges the President to move to a more hard line immigration policy. And one of the things that has happened as a result of that is, as we now know, Kirstjen Nielsen is now out, but we are learning also, according to sources, that Miller is seeking to push out more officials within the Department of Homeland Security that he does not believe are tough enough on immigration, including the Head of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency as well as the General Counsel.

Now, there is going to be a little bit of a dispute here happening over what happens next, who will actually replace Kirstjen Nielsen. The person who is next in line, Claire Grady, is still on the job, but the President announced that someone else would be taking the job. So there is a feeling that perhaps that if he is going to have the line of succession that he wants, that Claire Grady is going to have to leave as well. But there's no word on whether that is actually happening.

Meantime, the reason we're at this point right now is because Kirstjen Nielsen has become so isolated in this West Wing. She was the sort of second in command to the former Chief of Staff, John Kelly, who left at the end of last year. And Nielsen became increasingly isolated from a lot of the President's top aides, including Miller, but also the National Security adviser, John Bolton, and even the President's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Now, the President is now left with a cabinet that is frankly quite bare. There are a number of acting officials in those roles who are filling positions on a temporary basis. The President likes to complain that this is about democrats in Congress holding up his appointees. But what it really apparently is is the President firing a lot of his officials without being clear on who he wants to replace them with. So as we go into what he is calling a crisis, he's going into a crisis with acting officials at all levels of his cabinet. Jim and Poppy?

HARLOW: Yes. You can't overstate how potentially problematic that is. Abby, thanks.

We're learning a lot more about the how, how did this all go down, right, over the weekend, how was she pushed out. I think what is not said, Jim, in her resignation letter says a lot.

SCIUTTO: Yes. It didn't mention Trump's name. We noticed that.

Let's bring in CNN Justice Correspondent Jessica Schneider. So the more we learn, the more it's clear this was not her choice.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. You know, she really didn't want to resign, but she had to. And things really started to unravel over the past week even though we reported it's really been months of ups and downs for the Homeland Security Secretary and the President.

So let me take you back to last Sunday, one week before her resignation. That was right around the time, of course, the the President threatened again to shut down the border with Mexico. It was at that time that Kirstjen Nielsen left Washington for what was really supposed to be a week-long trip to Europe to discuss terror threats with European officials.


But it turns out she only lasted in Europe a day or two before realizing that she should come back to Washington and really put her focus on the border. So that's why on Friday, we saw her at the border with the President.

But we have learned from a source that at that point, Nielsen believed that her relationship with the President had become untenable mostly because the President have resorted to making these unreasonable requests. We've learned that the President told border agents on Friday that he wanted them to stop letting people cross the border, despite the fact, of course, that it is U.S. Law to allow Central American asylum seekers into this country.

So because of this constant clash with the President that had reached a boiling point, we know that by yesterday, Nielsen really knew how the day would likely unfold and that she would be forced to resign. And, Jim and poppy, we're actually told at this point, because of this months of clashing with the President and those top advisers, we understand that Kirstjen Nielsen at this point considers it somewhat of a relief, her resignation. She has been in this pressure cooker for the past week, but, really, it's been months of ups and downs battling to push back against these forces within the administration. Guys?

SCIUTTO: What do you do when your boss tells you to break the rules, right? A tough one. Jessica Schneider, thanks very much.

Joining us now to discuss this is former republican lawmaker and CNN Political Commentator Charlie Dent. Always good to have you on, Congressman.


SCIUTTO: So the President wants to overrule U.S. asylum law. He doesn't like it, told border agents basically to break the law, not to follow it. And Kirstjen Nielsen seems to have gone to the President, said you can't do this, and now she's out. Are republican lawmakers going to say this is a bridge too far? Our President can't do this?

DENT: Well, Jim, they certainly should. Look, the President's frustration is with the law. I mean, no matter who he puts in that job, he's putting those Individuals in a very difficult spot. I served on the Homeland Security Committee for six years. You know, the department would come over very respectfully and ask us to change laws when necessary. Obviously, there are problems with the asylum laws, there're problems with the Flores decision, there are problems with the way we secure our border. But this requires acts of Congress.

And I think that Secretary Nielsen understood this. And for that, she has been relieved of her duties. And frankly, she, like so many others in this administration, are leaving with their reputations besmirched or tarnished, in her case, because of the kids in cages and family separation policies that she implemented.

HARLOW: Congressman, good to have you with us. Talk to us about what you think a Stephen Miller immigration policy would/will look like. It's clear he's always had the President's ear on this, but has it even more now, especially given Jake Tapper's reporting that he wants some others in DHS out. And I ask you that because of his views on legal immigration and just how dramatic of a push that he would like to see.

DENT: Well, Poppy, Stephen Miller would take a nativist approach to immigration. Remember, Stephen Miller was the one who was responsible for the so-called travel ban that was horribly implemented. And had to be -- obviously, it was a national disgrace. And so I think if you have Stephen Miller running this policy, you will see very nativist approach. He'll want to crack down on legal immigration. And everybody knows that in order to stop illegal immigration, we have to fix the legal system of immigration. He, I think, like others, wanted to limit the number of green card

holders. We know we have shortage of certain types of labor in this country, and I even believe the administration just recently, I think, added significant numbers to the H-2B program.

The bottom line is in order to stop illegal immigration, we have to make sure that the legal system works so people can come and go as they need to and that takes away the incentive then for some of those people who come into this country to bring their family members in unlawfully. So I think that's why we have to have a more nuanced approach. And I don't think Stephen Miller is the guy to do it.

SCIUTTO: Where is the President's credibility on this issue now with his republican base, right? Because he was not able to get the money he wanted for the wall through, he's finding it in other places, but he's not going to build the miles of wall he wants to because he can't get it through Congress. He said he was going to close the border this time last week and then backed off that. You know, he's threatening to upend his own renegotiation of NAFTA, right, by imposing car tariffs as another penalty on Mexico. The question is does he actually follow through on that. Do folks in the base buy his positions here? Buy that he's making it work, that he's sticking to his guns, or are they starting to lose faith?

DENT: Well, I think some do, some don't. But remember this. I think many folks in the republican base can actually handle some nuance. I think one of the challenges for this president is that he is wholly incapable of articulating a coherent plan to establish operational control on the border.


Many things he wants to do, whether it's to add greater technology, more personnel, barriers where they're needed, I think most people in this country would accept that. But it's the way the President talks about it, saying build a wall, as if we need 2,000 miles of barrier, which we don't, and he also makes comments that are very disparaging of people who are from south of the border.

So I think it's the President's own rhetoric that gets in the way of his ability to negotiate sensible policy that would be embraced by both sides. I think that's really the tragedy in this whole thing.

HARLOW: Especially when you do have people like Jeh Johnson even recently on the last two weeks saying there is a crisis at the border, right? That could be helpful to his push, but is some of that rhetoric and the sort of unfulfilled things like saying I'm going to close the border getting in the way. It's an interesting point. Congressman Dent, we always like having you. Thanks.

DENT: Okay. Thanks so much. Thanks, Poppy. Thanks Jim.

HARLOW: Of course. So, still to come, another major battle brewing between House Democrats and the Trump administration over these, of course, taxes, and after the acting White House Chief of Staff says democrats will never see the President's tax returns. We'll get into that.

Also, another threat from the President on tariffs, threatening tariffs on Mexican cars imported from Mexico if Mexico does not keep Central American migrants out of the United States. How could that threat though impact the pending replacement of NAFTA, which, Jim, Congress needs to vote on?

SCIUTTO: They do, one of the President's priorities.

And former President Barack Obama worries the far left wing could end up hurting democrats in 2020. He's not alone in that criticism. We're going to ask a candidate about that coming up.


SCIUTTO: This morning, the fight over the release of President Trump's taxes is growing even more tense.

HARLOW: Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney vowing, making it very clear over the weekend that he thinks democrats will never see the President's tax returns. He calls the strategy of using that IRS code nothing more than a, quote, political stunt.

Manu Raju is on the Hill with reaction to that. I mean, it's whatever. It's IRS code. I mean, they can debate the politics of it, but there is just one fact and that is the fact.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. And there is -- it's really largely untested in court, this code that dates back to 1924 that essentially says that the Ways and Means Committee is authorized to seek the tax returns, personal or business tax returns, of an individual and says that the Secretary of Treasury shall furnish these tax returns when requested.

Now, that is the question though ahead, going ahead. This is largely untested in court. So we are setting the stage for what could be a protracted legal battle between the Trump team and House Democrats. The Trump team, new legal team that he's hired for this particular issue sent a letter on Friday attacking the Ways and Means Committee Chairman, Richard Neal, saying that this is a political stunt that is something that should not be allowed to move forward.

The democrats say this is all part of a policy reason. They contend they may need legislation to deal with this, which is why they need these tax returns. But nevertheless, there's a Wednesday deadline that Richard Neal has set. That is not going to be met by the administration. Then what's next, likely more letters from the Ways and Means Committee Chairman, and then a long legal battle, and, of course, a lot of political posturing as well.

HARLOW: Yes, for sure. Manu, thanks. I appreciate the reporting. Jim?

SCIUTTO: Well, this is just in to CNN. Our Evan Perez is reporting that in recent weeks, President Trump has been pushing for DHS to reinstate the family separation policy. Nielsen, of course, resisted that at the time. A source familiar with the discussion says that this policy elicited an enormous amount of outrage from democrats and some republicans, leading to that reversal.

Let's go to the White House, CNN's Abby Phillip there. So, Abby, the President with a number of decisions here, both personnel and policy, pushing a much tougher line.

PHILLIP: Yes, and driving his appointees to push towards tougher policies, even ones that in this case were being challenged in the courts, that were causing a lot of political difficulties for the President and for republicans. But the President insisted that this was a policy that was necessary to deal with the flow of migrants coming from Central American countries up to the southern border.

But it's worth noting, Jim, the White House has insisted and DHS has insisted this is not a family separation policy, that this was not intended to be a deterrent, but, in fact, that was the whole genesis of this idea when it was first raised early in this administration, was to try to discourage these parents or families from bringing their young children up through this journey to the southern border.

And now, we're learning that the President wanted to bring that back, especially as those numbers continue to rise, as the weather started to get warmer going into the spring. The President wanted to bring this policy back in order to deal with that problem.

Nielsen resisted. She had taken the brunt of the blowback for this policy, both on Capitol Hill and in the media. And she resisted. But ultimately, the President weighed in here by essentially firing her, calling for her resignation over the weekend because this is just one of the many policy issues that I think that she tried to push back on, but the President wanted someone, and clearly not her, to take a harder line, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Yes. And, listen, some administration officials said right out, it was meant to deter, even though they denied it later. Abby Phillip, thanks very much.

HARLOW: Great point. So when it comes to the border and immigration in this country, the President over the weekend declaring, quote, our country is full.


Do republicans in Congress agree with his message? We will ask one next.


SCIUTTO: Welcome back. This morning, the President's top economic adviser is jumping to cover, to his defense, rather, over recent threats the President has made to slap tariffs on Mexican cars and/or close the border if Mexico does not stop the flow of drugs and undocumented migrants.



LARRY KUDLOW, WHITE HOUSE ECONOMIC ADVISER: He is saying, if need be, he may have to take emergency steps to deal with that. He is not about to do it. He's pulled back a wee bit. He's just issuing a warning. And if you know this president as I do, you better listen to him.


SCIUTTO: Joining me, Republican Congressman Don Bacon of Nebraska. He serves on the Armed Services Agricultural Committee. He also was a Brigadier General in the U.S. Air Force. Congressman, we appreciate you joining us this morning.

REP. DON BACON (R-NE): Good morning.

SCIUTTO: First, on the very simple question, of course, a week ago today, the President was threatening to close the border any day now. Do you support closing the border?

BACON: Well, I do know that we have an emergency with about 900,000 people coming here over the next year. We're at that pace. So we have to take action. Whatever we do at the border, we have to protect our trade opportunities as well. So there's got to be an agile way to do this. We want to protect our trade with Mexico. It's very important for Nebraska and the Midwest. But we also have to acknowledge we have an emergency. So I know the President is looking at how to take action.

But here's the ultimate answer, it's Congress. Congress needs to sit at the table and compromise with the President, not give him a full victory or a full defeat. We need a victory for our country on this. And we need to come together and compromise. Mexico can't solve all this. The President can't. It's going to take Congress in partnership, so republicans and democrats alike need to solve this.

SCIUTTO: Sure, fair enough. And I hear it from both parties. But the thing is this is a President who doesn't appear to have the patience for that. As you know, when he was down at the border, he was talking to border agents about not following U.S. asylum law. And that appears to be one of the reasons Kirstjen Nielsen was forced out because she told the President, you can't break that law whether you like the law or not. Should a U.S. President be allowed to ignore a law he doesn't like?

BACON: No, the President has to follow the law. We all have to follow the law. But here's the problem. Congress refuses to deal with this. And we have overly partisan, too much gridlock, and we -- I think we need to relook at our asylum laws because we're on pace for 900,000. And everyone knows you can ask for asylum, that buys you a year or so, and wait for your court order. Many don't come back. And so we have a problem, and Congress refuses to deal with it.

And that doesn't mean republicans should get everything they want, neither should democrats. We have to find a way to -- but the President can't do this on his own. He needs Congress. We're refusing to do it. It's wrong.

SCIUTTO: I hear you. And, listen, I will let you place the onus on Congress. After all, you sit in there. But you have a president who -- does he help it by, for instance, referring to immigrants as animals, by, for instance, it's CNN's reporting just in the last few minutes that the President wants to reinstate the family separation policy opposed by many -- certainly many democrats but also many republicans. First of all, on that issue, do you support the reinstatement of separating parents from their children at the border?

BACON: No. I would support changing the law that we hold families together, because right now, the law in the court orders, do not permit that. So you can hold the parents, you can't hold the children. So, historically, we'd let most of them go, but then many would not come back for the court hearing. So it was catch and release. And you would never see many of these families again. Again, I don't want to overgeneralize. But I think family separation is not what our country is about either. So in the end, Congress has to fix this.

And just to come back to your earlier point, Congress called the MS-13 animals. And whether you agree on this --

SCIUTTO: He said that later. He said that later as a clarification. You know, as you know, he's called immigrants rapists, murderers, et cetera. The language appears to be intentional, right, as he riles up support for this issue. It's not been an isolated thing the way he describes folks coming from the southern border.

BACON: I believe our message should be we need legal immigration. We want to stop illegal immigration. We have -- it's not just folks coming here for jobs. We have some almost that are (inaudible). We have a record number of people dying of overdoses. And we have human trafficking. But the majority of people are coming here for jobs. We have that.

So we need to revise our policies, and Congress has Article I responsibility. That's why I'm working together with democrats for this four-country caucus because this is an area we have to come together and fix. So we want to encourage legal immigration, more H-1 visas, H-2 visas, but illegal immigration is not right either. It's not right for those who are trying to do it right. They're waiting ten years to come here. So we owe it to them to be a nation of laws that we follow our laws.

SCIUTTO: And I'm glad you brought up the four-country, because this is something our viewers should know about. You're a veteran, as are many serving members of Congress in both parties. What you're trying to do here is say, listen, we can fight together on the battlefields, we can work together on the Hill as veterans. It's noble. I hope it works.


I'm curious, how do you then respond as a republican to some of the President's positions on this? For instance, you saw him say twice in the last few days, our country is full.