Return to Transcripts main page


Feisty Exchange Between Barr, Rep. Matt Cartwright over Obamacare; Mnuchin on Trump's Tax Returns: "Our Intent is to Follow the Law"; Some Republicans Sounding Alarm on Trump's DHS Purge; Trump Wants to Bring Back & Expand Family Separation Policy. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired April 9, 2019 - 11:30   ET


[11:30:00] DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: And that is why we saw a rare pullback by the president last week after he had taken this discussion about the legal action that his administration is doing after this internal debate. And taking it a step further by putting it into the legislative political realm once again. He was forced to pull it back after they reminded him they couldn't do it, as I said before, with complete control of Congress. How are they going to do it now with Democrats in control? Instead, the president is now saying it will be a 2020 campaign argument, which it was going to be all along. But the reality of the president, as we have seen so many times, just kind of going with what he feels is the right thing to do and the right thing to say based on the last person he talked to, likely, kind of smacked into a force field of, you've got to be kidding me, among fellow Republicans in the Congress.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. Not necessarily sounding like a man who was ready and willing to defend what they were doing on Obamacare in court right now.

Dana, great to see you. Thank you so much.

BASH: You, too.

BOLDUAN: Elie, Jennifer, thank you guys.

See you in a bit.

Still ahead, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin is also facing lawmakers today. Different topic, talking about the President Trump's tax returns. What does he say about it? Would he have the final say to release them? Much more on this after a quick break.


[11:36:11] BOLDUAN: Attorney General Bill Barr isn't the only Trump cabinet member facing lawmakers today. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin testifying before two House committees and he's quickly facing questions about the president and his tax returns after a House committee, you'll remember, has said it has the authority to see the tax returns and the president's chief of staff just as quickly says that's is never going to happen. CNN's Cristina Alesci is following all of this for us.

Cristina, what did Mnuchin have to say about it.

CRISTINA ALESCI, CNN BUSINESS & POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: Not much. He tried to kick off the hearing talking about his budget request for Treasury, but very quickly, the chairman of this subcommittee turned the issue to the president's tax returns, and asked Mnuchin whether or not he was the right guy to even decide whether the IRS should hand over tax returns and fulfill the Democrats' request for those documents.

He also asked Mnuchin whether Mnuchin had spoken to anyone at the White House about this issue. Listen.


REP. MIKE QUIGLEY (D-IL): Last week, we were well aware that the chairman of the Ways and Means, under 6103 of the tax code, requested the president's tax returns and we can get into the issue of what that answer should be. But, at first, I think it's more important we talk about who should make that decision and with respect whether or not you, Mr. Secretary, should be involved in that decision.

STEVE MNUCHIN, TREASURY SECRETARY: I want to acknowledge that we did receive the request. And as I have said in the past, when we received the request, it would be reviewed by our legal department, and it is our intent to follow the law. And that is in the process of being reviewed. Now, in regards --


QUIGLEY: Let me just interject. I apologize. What part are they reviewing? Whether or not, or whether your office should be the one that makes the ultimate decision? Are they reviewing whether or not you should make that decision as well, sir?

MNUCHIN: It will be premature for me to comment specifically what they are reviewing on or what they're not reviewing on. But I would highlight, OK, I think as you know, the law calls for a request to me. As you have said, there's a tradition of delegating certain responsibilities. I would just comment that it is my responsibility to supervise the commissioner. But, again, I think it would be premature at this point to make any specific comments, other than as I have been consistent before in saying, it is being reviewed by the legal departments. And we look forward to responding to the letter.

QUIGLEY: Have you spoken to the White House chief of staff or the president about this decision?

MNUCHIN: I have not spoken to the White House chief of staff or the president about this decision.

QUIGLEY: Has anyone from the White House talked to you about this decision?

MNUCHIN: To me, personally, or to other people within my department?

QUIGLEY: You personally, first, and to other people, second.

MNUCHIN: I have not had any conversations with anybody in the White House about this issue.

QUIGLEY: Any communication?

MNUCHIN: I, personally, have not had any communication with anybody in the White House. Although, I want to be specific, that relates to me and not everybody at Treasury.

QUIGLEY: OK. So to your knowledge, has anybody in the administration communicated with anybody in your office about this decision?

MNUCHIN: Our legal department has had conversations prior to receiving the letter with the White House general counsel.

QUIGLEY: And did they brief you as to the contents of that communication?

MNUCHIN: They have not briefed me to the contents of that communication. I believe that was purely informational.

QUIGLEY: You believe what was purely informational?

MNUCHIN: I believe the communication between our legal department and the White House general counsel was informational, that we obviously had read in the press that we were expecting this.

[11:40:12] QUIGLEY: So they communicated just to say expect this, or did they talk about their views in any way, shape, or form as to how you should --


MNUCHIN: Again, Mr. Chairman, I want to be clear. I personally wasn't involved in those conversations. Again, I want to be very clear and not be misleading. I acknowledge there were conversations. I am not briefed on the full extent of those conversations.

And I would also just comment, those have been prior to us receiving the notice.

QUIGLEY: Because they saw the handwriting on the wall.


MNUCHIN: I think, as you know, it was widely advertised in the press beforehand --


MNUCHIN: -- so this wasn't exactly a state secret that we thought we would be getting it.


ALESCI: So, Kate, Mnuchin is in a very difficult position because he's been a loyal cabinet member for so long. And he's managed to keep a very good relationship with the president.

Now, Democrats are saying they're pursuing a legal route to getting the president's tax returns, and Mnuchin is saying he'll follow the law. He's in a very difficult position. In fact, the chairman of the subcommittee pressed Mnuchin on whether or not there's an issue of basic transparency and whether the president, in his view, should just go ahead and release his tax returns. In response, Mnuchin said that is a personal decision for the president -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Whether he likes it or not, Steve Mnuchin is now smack dab in the middle of this fight. Which is going to be a fight.

Cristina, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Let me bring back in Elie Honig, Jennifer Rodgers and Dana Bash on this.

Elie, how do you read Mnuchin's response?

ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: He's in a tough spot. Interesting that he actually conceded there's been coordination, communication between his office and the White House on some level. But Mnuchin just said, we're going to follow the law. I would have liked to follow that up with, well, the law says, quote, "shall furnish." "The IRS shall furnish this information to the House Ways and Means Committee upon request." So how do you read "shall furnish" other than "shall furnish?" It will be interesting to see if they're able to get around that. But that's a pretty straightforward piece of law. And I don't know how Mnuchin can come to any other conclusion other than "we shall furnish."

BOLDUAN: Dana, you have what you hear from Mnuchin, we will follow the law. You have what you heard from Mick Mulvaney, the president's acting chief of staff, that Democrats will never see these tax returns. How is the White House going to navigate this? Those two things don't seem to be the same.

BASH: They don't. First of all, that was a really fascinating exchange.


BASH: Because it's almost like you were on the journey with him trying to avoid a minefield, a mine every time he stepped on what was clearly a minefield.

BOLDUAN: I had frogger in my head. You had minefield.


BASH: Exactly. I mean, all of the above. Because he clearly has seen what happens when you don't tell the truth to Congress, and he was trying to be so exact that he was tripping over himself to say that the people in his office have had the conversation. But again, it was noteworthy not since, that he knows of, not since the actual letter from the House Ways and Means chairman was sent last week. It was just in anticipation of that.

But, look, Elie is right, the law is clear in terms of what Congress can do in terms of it's a request to the IRS, not to the president, to the IRS commissioner, asking for these tax returns. But the question is, what is the opposing argument that the president's legal team is going to make when there's going to be an inevitable court challenge, which could, likely will -- Elie and Jennifer can correct me if I'm wrong, they're the lawyers here -- go up to the Supreme Court and create a brand-new fascinating precedent.

BOLDUAN: Yes. That law, a 1924 law, is what is being cited by the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. It's that one word, two words if you will, "shall furnish," that everyone will be looking at for a long time to come. Let's see what happens next.

But Steve Mnuchin now seems to be the man, whether he likes it or not, in between Congress and Donald Trump's tax returns. Then there's some court mixed in there.

Great to see you. Thank you so much, guys.

BASH: Thank you.

[11:44:30] All right, coming up for us, the purge at the Homeland Security Department. It now has some Republicans sounding the alarm. Why they say the president needs to think twice about his continuing shakeup at the Department of Homeland Security. That's next.


BOLDUAN: "Near systemic purge," that is how one senior White House official is describing what's happening at the Department of Homeland Security right now. Here's a look at who's been fired, who probably will be fired, or those who didn't even a chance, because their got their nominations pulled.

More pink slips could be coming. And that is raising red flags for even some top Republicans. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley telling the "Washington Post" in an interview that President Trump is, quote, "pulling the rug out from the very people that are trying to help him accomplish his goal." Especially when it comes to immigration.

[11:50:05] But wait, there's more. Do you remember the widely condemned family separation policy we've talked about so much on this show at the border, that even President Trump himself had said it was a bad idea and even Donald Trump himself put a stop to with an executive order? Well, CNN has now learned that he not only wants to bring that policy back, he wants to expand it, like the old policy on steroids.

Let's get right to CNN's Kaitlan Collins at the White House right now. Kaitlan, this is all coming to light just after the Homeland Security

secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, was forced out. What are you hearing now?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Kate, the president is increasingly furious about the record-high immigration numbers that he's seeing, and he thinks a clean sweep of DHS leadership is going to help him change that. Now, one idea that's been raised in recent days in response to the president to pushing people to reinstate that family separation policy is something called binary choice. That would give migrants who have been detained the options to either remain detained as family units or be separated from their children so their children don't have to remain in those detention facilities.

Now, whether or not the administration can implement something like that, Kate, without congressional approval, is essentially a whole another ball game. But what it really reveals is that the president is very frustrated about the immigration numbers. And that's why you've seen so many people pushed out of DHS in recent days and maybe more to come in the coming days, if the president gets what he wants.

Now, something you've heard from White House officials behind the scenes is they don't know if the leadership changes that the president is making is really going to make that much of a difference. They are unable to stop a record-high number of people crossing the border, but people say they don't know that it will be that much different with Nielsen and those other leaders gone from DHS.

BOLDUAN: Kaitlan, thank you so much.

And for everyone, it was -- yes, the Color Guard is always for Kaitlan Collins, but it is also today, walking behind Kaitlan as they're preparing for the president of Egypt, al Sisi. He will be meeting with President Trump today. Yes, the president of Egypt will be there. There's a lot of discussion to have that around that as well.

Let's focus here on Kaitlan was talking about, and what's going on with Homeland Security and when it comes to the border.

David Lapan is joining me now. He's the former press secretary for the Department of Homeland Security. He and Secretary Nielsen worked together at the department when it was led by then-Secretary John Kelly. He's also a retired Marine colonel who spent 30 years in the military.

Thank you so much for being here.


BOLDUAN: The president -- as Kaitlin's laying out, the president for four months has been pushing for not only a return to that zero- tolerance policy, but also an expansion of it. Do you think that's a good idea?

LAPAN: I really don't know. You know, as Kaitlan said, the president's frustrated, and I understand that frustration, but those kinds of decisions and those kinds of moves are counterproductive. They aren't going to help the situation. As we've seen already, the harsh rhetoric, the harsh policies have not resulted in a decrease of migrants coming to the southwest border. The numbers have continued to rise. So it seems pretty clear that those aren't the right answers.

BOLDUAN: And one other thing that we're hearing, it's basically multiple steps at this point of what the president is trying to do of recent that we're just now learning when it comes to the border. He wanted to shut down ports of entry. He was talked out of that. He then wants to put a stop to letting asylum seekers in. And for months, talking about the separation policy. Telling -- CNN's reporting, though, that he was telling Border Patrol agents in El Paso, when he met with them, that they should stop letting migrants in, effectively telling them to break the law. They had to be told by the other superiors to not do that after he left.

David, do you think at this point that the president does not care, or that he somehow still does not understand the law?

LAPAN: One, I don't think he clearly understands. Two, I don't think he understands, again, that what he wants to do is put butting up against both U.S. and international law. He wants results, he wants what he wants. And whether he just doesn't understand the law or he doesn't really care, it seems, again, that he's willing to roll over all of those things. I mean, the irony here is, from the days that I was at Homeland Security and throughout, you know, the mantra has been, we follow the law. And I'm confident that the professionals in Customs and Border Protection and the Border Patrol wouldn't follow a direction that would cause them to break the law.

BOLDUAN: What did you think when you learned that Kirstjen Nielsen was effectively pushed out?

LAPAN: Well, I'm concerned not only at her dismissal, but all of the personnel changes that you've detailed, both the ones that have occurred and the ones that might occur. So it's creating a large amount of confusion, uncertainty, at the very head of an organization, the only organization in the U.S. government whose primary mission is securing the homeland. So if Kevin McAleenan is moved into the position, we will have an acting secretary of Homeland Security, an acting deputy secretary, an acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection --

[11:55:10] BOLDUAN: Yes.

LAPAN: -- an acting director of ICE. And oh, by the way, less than three months before the start of the Atlantic hurricane season --

BOLDUAN: Do you think --


LAPAN: -- an acting director of FEMA.

BOLDUAN: Do you think this is putting the country at more risk?

LAPAN: I think it certainly has that potential. If we are looking at adversaries and they are watching closely, this is the exact type of situation they're looking for to exploit, the confusion --

BOLDUAN: Yes. And, David, one of the people behind pushing Nielsen out, we're learning, and other policies, is Stephen Miller, the top adviser to the president. Did you have a lot of interaction with him when you were there?

LAPAN: I wouldn't say a lot, but I did have some interaction with him.

BOLDUAN: If you were told that Stephen Miller is in charge of border policy and immigration policy right now, are you OK with that?

LAPAN: Not at all.

BOLDUAN: Why is that?

LAPAN: Well, both because the policies and the views that Stephen has espoused over time. But importantly, and especially in the -- in this change in leadership at Homeland Security, puts us in a situation where you have an unelected member of the staff, somebody who is not Senate confirmed, therefore, not accountable to higher authority. So, again, there have always been individuals at the staff level that are involved in decisions, but usually have senior leadership, as well. So that vacuum at the senior leadership gives more power to somebody, again, who's in an unelected and non-Senate-confirmed position.

BOLDUAN: I think that's a very important point to be making.

David, I really appreciate your time. Thank you for sticking around with all the breaking news we've been dealing with today. Really appreciate it.

LAPAN: Thanks.

BOLDUAN: Still ahead, the attorney general, Bill Barr, facing lawmakers still, right now on Capitol Hill, taking questions on the Mueller report, on the legal fight against Obamacare that the administration has taken on anew, and much more. Barr revealing a redacted report -- the redacted report of the Mueller investigation could be released, in his words, "within a week."

Stay with us.