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Trump Pushing to Reinstate Family Separations at Border; A Look at Trump's Growing Number of Vacancies & "Acting" Officials; Nadler Calls on Barr to Testify on Mueller Report May 2nd; As Sudan Brutalizes Its People the U.S. Offers Closer Relations. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired April 8, 2019 - 14:30   ET

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


[14:30:00] ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Gabby Orr, great to have you with us. Thank you.

GABBY ORR, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, POLITICO: Thanks, Erica.

HILL: We were just talking about President Trump as we talk about all the things happening with immigration. We've learned about the president's desire to actually reinstate that controversial family separation policy. It's a policy that was, of course, in place during both the Obama and Bush administrations. But it was not enforced until President Trump took office. That is when former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, announced adults who illegally crossed the border would be criminally prosecuted, that their children would be put into shelters or foster care. That move was quickly condemned on both sides of the aisle forcing the White House to end the policy a few months later.

Here's what the president said at the time.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The children, the children can be taken care of quickly, beautifully, and immediately. The Democrats forced that law upon our nation. I hate it. I hate to see separation of parents and children.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: Well, a recent ACLU filing found some 245 children were separated after that policy was officially ended. That is in addition to the nearly 3,000 that the ACLU says were reunited with their families. Now the government is saying it could take up to two years to identify all the children displaced and reunite them.

Ed Cash is the former director of intergovernmental affairs with the Department of Homeland Security.

Good to have you with us today.

Let's take the legal issues, the optics out of this all for a moment. When we look at this as a policy, it clearly didn't work as a deterrent, which we were told it would be at the time. So what is the advantage? Do you see an advantage to bringing it back as we've learned the president wants to do?

ED CASH, FORMER DIRECTOR, INTERGOVERNMENTAL AFFAIRS, DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY: No. It's a tricky subject. There was a crisis on the border. I think the cutting the aid wouldn't be a bad thing. Would hurt a little bit but would send a clear message. I do know that many employees at HHS and ICE do the best that they can to take care of these children and parents coming in. But, yes, it's a lose/lose situation there.

HILL: Lose/lose situation as we look at all of this.

Looking at the last 24 hours, we learned a little bit more about the back and forth behind the scenes between Secretary Nielsen and the president. Secretary Nielsen coming out today and saying, look, I still support the president's goal of a secure border, but the issue was they were not on the same page in terms of how to carry that out. How do you see this playing out? Not only for Homeland Security but for the other affected agencies as well?

CASH: Yes. No, I was at Homeland Security on day one with Secretary Tom Ridge in 2003 when we stood up DHS, 180,000 employees back then. It's now over 250,000 employees. And like Jake was saying, it's FEMA, Secret Service, Coast Guard, CIS. The majority of Homeland Security employees are career officials. There's a small amount that are political appointees, leadership. But, yes, I don't believe in removing a lot of these officials in the middle of all this. It is more than -- the border is front and center. Maybe we do need a border czar. People that have had the position before, have been governors that have had multiple different agencies. Maybe it is time to bring a governor in that can juggle multiple things. An acting secretary, an acting deputy secretary, you know, it's just not -- I don't believe in removing some of these officials.

HILL: Ed Cash, I appreciate your insight. Thank you for being with us today.

CASH: Thank you.

HILL: President Trump brags he hires the best people. Now he's surrounded by quite a few acting leaders after major turnover of some of his administration's top positions. We'll take a closer look.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[14:38:08] HILL: The list of former Trump officials is growing. In just the past hour, another name added to the list less than 24 hours after Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen resigned. That new name, Randolph Alles, the head of the Secret Service. Keep in mind, of the people who have left, some left on their own. Some were pushed out. Some very vocal than others after leaving, letting loose on their time in the administration once safely away from Washington.

Here with us, CNN politics reporter and editor-at-large, Chris Cillizza.

You've been keeping track. CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER & CNN EDITOR-AT-LARGE: I mean,

it's a lot, Erica. Let's go to the first. This is my favorite graphic. I like that one, but I like this one better. OK. This is all the people who have left the Trump administration. There's actually more of these. This is the major names. This is a ton of people. Including in here 14 cabinet secretaries. Some of those people, like John Kelly, went to be White House chief of staff and then left. Some moved up. Some moved on involuntarily and voluntarily. But 14 cabinet secretaries in here. Obama, nine cabinet secretaries gone in four years. Bush, four in four years. We're running at record pace.

Let's go to the next one. It's not just cabinet level officials. Trump's A-team, this is great work. They calculated all the folks who are senior staffers or cabinet level officials. It's not just the cabinet. And 66 percent of that A-team has turned over. I looked at this before I came on, Erica. Donald Trump has been president for 808 days. From the start until today, two-thirds of the people who started in those most senior roles are gone. Two-thirds. There's obviously going to be some turnover. That's inevitable. It's a high- pressure job. But 66 percent is stunning.

One last thing. Here's the problem. Donald Trump's management as it relates to government is this. There's a leak over here, he plugs it with someone. Then a leak over here. He takes the person he plugged that leak with, he plugs it back over here. They're acting. Patrick Shanahan has been since January 1st, the acting defense secretary. David Bernhardt since January 2nd. Jonathan Cohen at U.N. Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff. Kevin McAleenan -- this is coming up -- the acting head of the Department of Homeland Security. There's just so many people who are not in jobs they are staying in or are supposed to be in these jobs for a small period of time. Because there are so many leaks from a staff perspective, I mean, just people, attrition, constantly leaving, leaving, leaving. There are too many holes and jobs for Donald Trump to fill and he's not doing a good job of filling them. As a result, you just have a lot of empty jobs and too much work for the people who are in those jobs to do -- Erica?

[14:41:01] HILL: It is quite a picture that you paint.

Chris Cillizza, thank you.

CILLIZZA: Thank you.

HILL: CNN political commentator, Tara Setmayer, joining us now.

One of the other things we heard, even with Kirstjen Nielsen, we had heard she had some concerns and one of the reasons she may have stayed on is she was worried about getting a job after she left and concern about, once you've been a part of this administration, it's either a reputation and/or career killer. Is that valid?

TARA SETMAYER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I would say so. Look at what people are forced to do. Kirstjen Nielsen served dishonorably. There were so many opportunities for her to say, Mr. President, I'm sorry, but we're not going to do that, including the family separation thing. I worked in border security and immigration issues for many years on Capitol Hill. I'm pretty tough on border security. However, you know, what we saw with children in cages and the way that policy was instituted really rocked this country to the core. It was something that we had never really seen before at that level. And she stood behind that. Just like many other people who stood there and enabled this president to do things -- and this is what we know. God knows who was stopped. What he tried to do. That was one of the things being reported. That the president was trying to push her to do things that were illegal. I guess that was the line for her. But ethically and morally, there were so many things she did as Homeland Security secretary she should have walked away from prior to this and she did not. Can you blame the immigration advocates and other people for saying, listen, if any company that hires her, she gives a speech, we're going to protest that because we feel what she did was immoral? We can have a political debate about that. When you sell your soul, you can't cry crocodile tears afterwards when people hold you to account once you finally decide to walk away.

HILL: When it comes the family separations, it was mishandled from the beginning --

SETMAYER: Yes.

HILL: -- in terms of the messaging and the intent of it.

SETMAYER: Absolutely.

HILL: It was a nightmare, certainly politically. You heard outrage on both sides of the aisle. To hear the president, who, at one point, said, I don't want to see kids in cages, is now pushing to bring it back, what does that do? If they want to be tough on immigration in 2020, does that help or hurt?

SETMAYER: I think that's going to hurt overall. It may help with his base. That's all he seems to be concerned about is making sure that the base stays rabid and on his side no matter what. The president is doing this because he knows immigration was his bread and butter. That's what -- a lot of people argue that's what got him elected. Maybe. There are problems with immigration and some of the problems he pointed out are valid. But the way they're executing this is just ginning up xenophobia and it's not allowing us to have real policy debates about what works and what doesn't. A lot of it is emotional and irrational. No one wants to hear the valid points are to fix the system. We're going on two-plus years. The president had control of both Houses of Congress. I don't want to hear that because you need 60 votes in the Senate so you can't get anything passed. There were plenty of bipartisan opportunities on immigration and the president walked away from that last year when it came to the border wall and more funding and DACA. There were opportunities and he blew it. Personally, I've always believed he doesn't want to solve the immigration problem because, as long as he has it as a foil, that's his go-to.

HILL: It's better to run on, yes. SETMAYER: Absolutely. And he can distract from what's happening with

Mueller and his taxes and the other investigations in New York. Those were important aspects also. As long as he can distract, oh, don't pay attention to what's going on over there. And immigration is the way to do it. It's unfortunate.

Stephen Miller, being the driving force behind all of this, should concern everyone that he's pulling the strings like this from his perch in the White House and causing this chaos in Homeland Security. For people that I know, who are professionals in this business who have been doing border security and working on immigration, are horrified by what's going on. But they have to stay where they are because they're worried about who's going to come in behind them. Now if Kirstjen Nielsen is out because she's unwilling to do things illegal, who comes after her? The list of names I've seen, Kris Kobach or Ken Cuccinelli, my goodness, are these the people we want running Homeland Security? Will Republicans step up in the confirmation process and say no because they want someone there that's not going to do the president's bidding? You should be serving the American people. You serve at the pleasure of the president. But the priority should be what's in the best interest of the country. Who are those people going to be? You have unbelievable amounts of vacancies. The Justice Department only has 41 percent of their confirmed positions filled, 41 percent. Homeland Security only has 63 percent. We're acting with a skeletal bureaucracy because this administration can't attract the talent you need to help run the government. And looking at the chaos chronicles, as I call them, do you blame these people? I don't blame them. It's difficult to attract talent when this is what happens to you.

[14:45:52] HILL: Tara, always good to see you.

SETMAYER: Thank you.

HILL: Thank you. Appreciate it.

SETMAYER: Thank you so much for having me.

HILL: This just coming in to us. The House Judiciary chairman has set a date for Attorney General Barr to appear before his committee on the Mueller investigation.

For more, let's get to CNN's senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju, on Capitol Hill.

Now we have a date, Manu.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We do. Well, May 2nd is the day that Bill Barr is going to come in. That's the day that actually Bill Barr had suggested to come before the House Judiciary Committee when he sent that initial letter detailing the top-line summaries of the Mueller investigation. He said that would happen the day after coming before the Senate Judiciary Committee. What Jerry Nadler has said is that he'll bring in Bob Mueller to testify before his committee at the appropriate time. He just -- Nadler just tweeted this saying, "Ranking Member Collins called for Special Counsel Mueller to appear before the House Judiciary. I fully agree Special Counsel Mueller should come before the committee to answer questions in public about his 22-month investigation into President Trump and his associates. In order to ask special counsel Mueller the right questions, the committee must receive the special counsel's full report and hear from Mueller, Attorney General Barr about the report on May 2nd. We look forward to hearing from Mr. Mueller at the appropriate time."

Now, last week, Nadler told me it would be, quote, "inevitable for Mueller to come in." He also said that he planned to issue those subpoenas that were authorized, in, quote, "very short order." Those are the subpoenas for the full Mueller report and the underlying evidence and records from five former White House officials cooperating with the Mueller investigation. Those subpoenas have not been served yet. And in large part, because they're trying to give the Justice Department time, see what they ultimately turn over in terms of the Mueller report, see if the redactions are still in the report as Barr suggested he would move forward with.

There are a lot of questions. When will the report come forward? What will Congress be able to see? What will be public be able to see? One thing Nadler is making clear is that we'll hear, the public will hear not just from Attorney General Bill Barr but from the special counsel, too, in public testimony -- Erica?

HILL: All right, Manu Raju, with the latest, May 2nd. Mark your calendars. Thank you.

Intriguing new details on the woman arrested in the security breach at Mar-a-Lago, including more on the technology she had.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[14:52:41] HILL: President Trump is known for his support of so- called strong men. Is Sudan's hardline president, though, one this president wants to embrace? As the U.S. government heads closer to normalizing relations, protests are growing in the East African nation. Thousands have taken to the street demanding President Omar al-Bashir resign. At least eight demonstrators have died since Friday. An opposition group of Sudanese doctors says they were killed by security forces and at least one of those people was tortured and beaten to death.

My colleague, CNN's senior international correspondent, Nima Elbagir, was born in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum.

You're just back from this undercover reporting trip, which is remarkable, to put it mildly. That's an important question, whether or not President Trump wants to align himself.

NIMA ELBAGIR, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And what impact America First has, does it become America only? We're seeing in Sudan, with the increase, the continuing climbing of the death toll, what happens when America chooses to step back and focus purely just on what America needs on the ground. Take a look at this.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ELBAGIR (voice-over): This is my hometown, Khartoum. For months now, in the grip of pro-democracy protests. Much of it brutally hidden from the world by Sudan's government. And yet, people here are still risking everything for change.

(SHOUTING)

ELBAGIR: Even as the United States works through diplomatic relations with Sudan's government.

(CROSSTALK)

(SHOUTING)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

ELBAGIR: Sudan's capital. As I was growing up here, the government's grip on its people was all encompassing.

(SHOUTING)

ELBAGIR: But a rise in the cost of living in recent years has triggered protests against one of the world's longest-serving dictators, president Omar al-Bashir.

(CHANTING)

ELBAGIR: The Sudanese government doesn't want the world to know what's happening. Any journalist caught reporting on the demonstrations risks life imprisonment and the death penalty.

In the crowd, I try to stand back and film with secret cameras and smart phones and hope that I'm not spotted.

(on camera): You can smell the tear gas TAHT they've been releasing on the demonstrators. The people hear are starting to get tense.

(SHOUTING)

[14:55:10] ELBAGIR: Some of the demonstrators start shouting that national security agents are on their way. Operatives infamous for their brutality. We have to leave.

A family agrees to hide us in what people here call a safehouse but, really, it's just someone's home.

(on camera): The national security agents have arrived. They're going from house to house. We've been brought into this safehouse. We don't know how long we'll have to wait here. They're trying to figure out how to get us out of here. People are starting to come in. We have to go.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANAGUAGE)

ELBAIR: I just saw their cars driving past. They're going from door to door trying to figure out who was out at the demonstrations.

(GUNFIRE)

ELBAGIR (voice-over): That sound you hear, tear gas cannons. We're trapped.

Hours pass. We can only watch and listen through a gap in the window. Just next door to us, security agents are slapping and kicking a protester as they drag him out. The neighbor's son.

In the end, we leave our equipment behind and take the risk to run.

We got lucky. But so many others didn't.

CNN gathered detailed testimony from former detainees held in Sudanese government facilities. Of the over 3,000 people who have been arrested since the demonstrations began, almost all say they've been abused.

One of them agrees to speak to us.

KHARAJOH AL DOWSHI (ph), VICTIM (through translation): They were all masked, armed and holding batons. As soon as we stepped out, we were beaten with batons. One man slapped me on the left side of my face. It became numb. Then he struck me with the butt of his gun in my back. It's not even an official center. It was one of those ghost houses.

ELBAGIR: Ghost houses -- torture houses, which the government says don't exist. We went to try and find one.

For all of us who grew up under Bashir's dictatorship, ghost houses conjure up immediately the horrors this government is accused of -- torture, sexual assault, brutal beatings.

Right in the center of Khartoum, we find a heavy military and intelligence presence. On your left, a screened-off square, a holding pen. Activists picked up in the city center tell us they're beaten her and sorted according to their alleged crime. We can't linger. Everywhere there's a high level of security.

From here, activists say they moved onto any one of the ghost houses scattered around town. Using descriptions given to us by eyewitnesses and activists formally held there, we're able to pinpoint one using aerial images in Garden City, south of the Blue Nile.

Keeping watch over this green building, we witnessed national security pickups of what appear to be detainees.

Worse, though, is in store. Many of the detainees we interviewed described being tortured just across the river, here, in what's known as the Refrigerator. Its very name inspires terror.

And yet, one woman agreed to speak to us.

WREQ ANMED ABOULLAH (ph), VCITIM (through translation): They detained us in an abandoned building. Because we were so severely beaten, we went numb. I couldn't feel my legs and arms. The place was so cold. It felt like there were knives piercing our bodies. I only spent two days there, but they were the worst two days of my life.

ELBAGIR: So why, in spite of all this, is President Trump's administration in talks to restore relations with Sudan?

This is the brutal aftermath of the terror attacks on the "USS Cole" and the U.S. embassies in East Africa. For years, families of victims have been seeking compensation from Sudan's government who they believe was complicit. CNN has learned that a key requirement for talks between Sudan and the U.S. is that Sudan enter into good-faith negotiations regarding compensation for victims' families.

In a statement, the U.S. State Department does not deny that talks are continuing with Sudan or that this is ultimately about the terror claims. But says, "Relations will improve only if the Sudanese government takes steps related to human rights."

The Sudanese have shown no steps of doing so and, yet, talks to improve relations continue.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ELBAGIR: And that fear that we felt, that we witnessed, it's just really a glimpse, which makes it all the more extraordinary that the numbers protesting every day are growing.