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Trump's New Plan to Detain Immigrants?; Sources: Trump Told Then-CBP Head Kevin McAleenan He'd Pardon Him If Hew Went to Jail For Denying Entry to Migrants. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired April 12, 2019 - 16:00   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Found a trove of electronics, including a signal detector and about $8,000 in cash in her hotel room. She will be back in court Monday.

I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thanks for being with me.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with some exclusive breaking news.

President Trump, I am told, raised the prospect of a pardon to a top official if this official broke immigration laws. Senior administration officials tell me that, during the president's visit to the border at Calexico, California, one week ago today, he told border agents to block asylum seekers from entering the U.S., which is contrary to U.S. law.

We brought you that story earlier this week, but now we're telling you that the president then went even further. Two officials briefed on the exchange say the president told Kevin McAleenan, then head of Customs and Border Protection, now the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, that he, the president, would pardon McAleenan if McAleenan ever went to jail for denying entry to migrants, as one of the officials paraphrased.

It was not clear if the president was joking or was serious. I asked the House for a comment. They referred me to the Department of Homeland Security. A DHS spokesman told me that the president has never directed the acting secretary to do anything illegal.

President Trump's apparent lack of commitment to staying within the bounds of immigration law has been a constant theme in recent weeks. In fact, we also have some additional breaking news on the proposal President Trump has now confirmed he's considering, transporting undocumented immigrants and releasing them in sanctuary cities, places which limit cooperation with federal immigration enforcement.

The president tweeted earlier today -- quote -- "We are, indeed, as reported, giving strong considerations to placing illegal immigrants in sanctuary cities. Only, the radical left always seems to have an open border, open arms policy, so this should make them very happy" -- unquote.

Breaking right now on CNN, even though President Trump is pushing this today, administration lawyers told the White House months ago there are serious legal problems with this proposal.

In February, according to documents I obtained, DHS general counsel John Mitnick told the White House in writing that transporting and releasing migrants far from where they were apprehended could only happen if there were a -- quote -- "strong mission-related rationale" -- unquote, such as providing medical care for the migrants or overcrowding in a facility.

That rationale does not include political retribution or trying to make a political point, which is what the president made clear in his tweet is his rationale.

The general counsel, Mr. Mitnick, also noted that this proposal could be self-defeating, that transporting an undocumented immigrant to a place where he or she has no ties could increase the chances that that individual would become a flight risk and skip deportation proceedings.

Another warning to the White House from general counsel Mitnick, do this and there will be lots of lawsuits, because this would violate, theoretically, the due process rights of the migrants, or at least that would be the charge.

One senior administration official told me that -- quote -- "Once the lawyers explained it, the issue was ultimately dropped" -- unquote back in February, until today, of course, when President Trump just tweeted it out.

CNN's Abby Phillip joins me now to talk about this from the White House.

Abby, let's talk about this sanctuary city proposal, which DHS general counsel Mitnick said would run afoul of the law. How is the White House trying to explain this?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the White House had spent the last 12 hours saying that this was not a proposal that was being considered any longer.

They said it had only been briefly raised and that it had been rejected because of those legal issues that you just outlined. But then, when the president tweeted that they were, in fact, re-emerging with this idea of sending migrants to sanctuary cities, the White House now says something new, that they are asking their lawyers to look for new justifications for going forward with this policy.

White House officials are saying that they are not trying to revive that old policy that was rejected by the lawyers, that they are looking at ways to do this legally and in a different way. The question for them now is, how can they do this without addressing that last point that Mitnick wrote about in his guidance to the White House, which is about due process rights?

It seems that those issues would persist no matter how they manage to get the migrants from the border towns to sanctuary cities. And the White House is not addressing specifically what other ways that they could use in order to put this policy actually into place.

It seems, Jake, to be an attempt by the White House to square their earlier denials with the president's new tweets, trying to make it seem as if they are not contradictory, when, in fact, they are.

TAPPER: Completely, of course.

How are Democrats reacting to this proposal to send undocumented immigrants and deposit them and release them in sanctuary cities, even if that's hundreds, if not thousands of miles from where they were apprehended?


PHILLIP: Well, one of the Democrats who was potentially being targeted by such a policy would have been House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose hometown, San Francisco, was one of the cities being considered by the administration to move migrants.

And Pelosi was asked about it this morning. And she essentially said that this is a policy that is not worthy of the presidency of the United States and that the president continues to sort of fly in the face of the values of the country.

Democrats are simply rejecting this out of hand. They're lumping it in with all of these other policies, like the policy of separating children from their families at the border, that are a part of the Trump administration's increasingly hard-line approach to immigration.

They're using this as a further example of how the president is simply going way too far on these issues, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Abby Phillip at the White House, thank you so much.

Let's chew on this with our panel.

Jackie Kucinich let's go back to President Trump going up to the head of the Customs and Border Protection, now the acting head of the Department of Homeland Security, Kevin McAleenan, a week ago today, and after telling the border agents, the president, stop enforcing the law, keep these people from coming into this country -- or stop honoring the law, keep these people from coming into this country, even though the law says you have to let them in, telling him, Kevin, if you go to jail, don't worry, I will get you a pardon.

Again, we don't know if he was joking or serious, but what's your response?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It's shocking. It's definitely shocking to hear the president did that.

And after he said that to the Border Patrol agents, their superiors said, you can't do that. It's against the law.

TAPPER: Right.

KUCINICH: You would hope that the officials that are put in these positions would do that and just brush him aside, but the fact that they have to brush the president aside, it's -- we just -- we're in -- as usual, in unchartered territory here.

TAPPER: And the statement from the Department of Homeland Security, I read it very carefully, does not deny that the conversation took place, just says that the president never directed him to break the law and that Kevin McAleenan would never break the law.

BILL KRISTOL, DIRECTOR, DEFENDING DEMOCRACY TOGETHER: Yes, it's too bad we don't have a co-equal branch of government that can summon the head of executive agencies to testify before them and ask Mr. McAleenan, did the president say this to you?


KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I'm going to make a prediction. I think the House should do that.

KRISTOL: And the House should do it.

But here's -- but the House is now out for two weeks. God knows what will happen over these two weeks.

FINNEY: Right.

KRISTOL: I wouldn't be ridiculous -- I'm not sure what rules they adjourned under -- for the speaker to reconvene them or to, you know, allow for a committee hearing to be held, and ask for testimony, really pretty soon.

This is a pretty serious -- maybe it was a joke. And if Mr. McAleenan testifies that it was banter and he didn't take it seriously, fine. But let him testify under oath before a committee of Congress.

TAPPER: What's your response, Sabrina? What do you make of all of this?

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, "THE GUARDIAN": Well, it reinforces that the president's approach to enforcing immigration law is to violate existing law, one, that he's reportedly encouraging officials at Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to take steps that they're not legally authorized to do, and, two, that he is considering proposals like returning to expanded family separations, even after a federal judge ordered his administration to halt those separations last year, and to immediately reunify those families.

We have heard him try and stop migrants from being able to claim asylum at the border at all, which is a clear violation of international law. So, you know, it's not clear that he actually is serious about resolving the problems in the immigration system. He seems more intent on creating chaos to score political points, especially as he looks ahead at his 2020 reelection campaign, and to perhaps reanimate his base, which, of course, as we know, cares very deeply about the border.

TAPPER: I think Sabrina's right, Karen. I mean, what's animating him is, he hates these laws. He hates immigration laws, so he is telling people, stop obeying them. Stop adhering to them.

FINNEY: But he's also -- you know, this is why businesspeople should not run government, right, because you are accountable. You can't just pick and choose which laws you want to follow and which ones...


TAPPER: Shot at Howard Schultz there.

FINNEY: A little bit. I am, aren't I?


FINNEY: But you can't just pick and choose which laws you want to follow and which ones you don't.

Here's the thing. Like, we're having a policy conversation, and this is what Bill and I were actually here at this table last Friday, due to your reporting, talking about, right, the visit to the border. The president views this as -- it's all politics, right? This is all about stoking the base, the red meat, the build the wall, the praise that he got every time that he would in front of a crowd say, build the wall or lock her up.

And so, he doesn't care what the law is, what the policy is, right? To him, it's, I just want to keep my base happy, I just want to keep demonizing these people. He doesn't care that he's using people as pawns. He doesn't care that it might be breaking the law.

And, frankly, what's so despicable about this is, we started to hear a little rumbling from your friends in Congress, the Republicans in Congress, about some of the chopping of heads, heads rolling at the...

TAPPER: At DHS, yes.

FINNEY: ... Department of Homeland Security.

So let's see. This is the moment for Republicans to step in. Democrats are there and ready, but somebody has got to step in and say, you can't just blow up everything in service of your political agenda.


KRISTOL: That's true, but Congress -- but the Democrats do control the House, as you're well aware. FINNEY: And they would be happy to hold a hearing.


KRISTOL: And you know what? CEOs really can't order their subordinates to break the law. And if they do and that comes out in a legal proceeding, CEOs lose their jobs and some of them go to jail.

FINNEY: Well, SDNY is looking into that right now.

KRISTOL: No, but seriously I think people really need to take -- I understand the politics of it, but this is actually like the conversation we had on Monday or whenever it was, when you had the earlier report about the border agents.


TAPPER: Yes, the president telling border agents, don't let people into the country, and they had -- McAleenan and others had to like say, don't do that.


KRISTOL: That was already a week ago. So let's just have a hearing with Mr. McAleenan and find out what the president said to him.

TAPPER: It's weird, though, that like McAleenan, who respects the law, respects the rule of law, is somebody who is actually very respected by Democrats and Republicans, including hard-line Republicans, it's weird that, like, if he gets in any hot water here for pushing the law, for saying, we need to follow the law.

KUCINICH: Look at what happened to Kirstjen Nielsen. Apparently behind the scenes, that that's what they say, she was pushing back.

TAPPER: Yes, she was doing the same thing.

KUCINICH: And -- but you did see today, though, in part that Democratic mayors especially were not taking the bait when the president was tweeting about that...

TAPPER: Sanctuary cities.

KUCINICH: Sanctuary cities and he was going to send illegal aliens there.

I mean, that is predicated that these people are all criminals, where you had the mayors say, listen, we would welcome migrants in our towns. So you did see that sort of shift and the trying to take some of the cynicism out of what he was putting out there as we went through today.

TAPPER: And speaking of that policy, Sabrina, this is funny, around 11:30 a.m., before the president tweeted that he was, indeed, confirming the story, a White House official told CNN -- quote -- "This is a nonstory. The idea was briefly and informally raised and quickly rejected."

And then, you know, little more than an hour later, 12:38, President Trump, "We are, indeed, as reported, giving strong consideration to placing illegal immigrants in sanctuary cities."


TAPPER: No wonder that original White House official didn't want to put his or her name to it.

SIDDIQUI: And precisely because the White House wanted to put this story to rest and say, look, this is a proposal that was floated, it was swiftly rejected, that was the end of discussion.

But the president himself wants to engage on this fight, because he thinks the politics of immigration are good for him. Leave aside that it's remarkable that he would suggest releasing thousands of detainees into cities just to score political points against Democrats.


KUCINICH: To think that hard-liners would be -- wouldn't want that that happen, but I know we're like upside down at this point.


SIDDIQUI: Well, who knows what the implications are of what he wants to do. He obviously wants to stoke fears around immigrants.

He has gone after sanctuary cities to try to draw a link between immigrants and crime. Obviously, studies do not bear there to be a significant correlation between immigrants and violent crime. And, frankly, I think that when he focuses on sanctuary cities, you can have a policy debate over how Democrats see it and Republicans see it.

But what is often overlooked is that the whole purpose of sanctuary cities is not just to harbor undocumented immigrants. It's to be able to create a line of communication between the undocumented immigrant community and law enforcement, so people can actually go forward and feel comfortable reporting crimes in their communities.

TAPPER: Right, including crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, members of MS-13.

And this is one of the things that John Mitnick, the DHS general counsel, was trying to explain to President Trump, or the White House at least, which is, if you do, if you move them thousands of miles away, they probably will not show up for their deportation hearings, and they will be flight risks. And you have more of a chance of them staying in the United States, instead of being deported.

FINNEY: Right, just like, if you cut off aid to the Central American countries and you make it worse, guess what? More people will come here, because you have made it worse and you have made it less likely that they're going to stay. But, again, like, we're all talking like rational human beings who

understand the implications of policy. This president has shown time and time again he does not care. This is purely political.

And I think in addition to the moral issues around how people are being treated, children in cages and all of that, what I would like to see Democrats do, fine, hold a hearing. That's great. But, more importantly, we have to hold this president accountable, because Republicans are not doing it.

And I think the argument we have to make to the American people is that this man is -- this is a culture of lawlessness. This is a person who believes he gets to play by a whole different set of rules than the rest of us, because, otherwise, it doesn't matter. That's the problem.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around.

Coming up, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is going to react to the breaking news, President Trump offering to pardon, jokingly, serious, we don't know, a top immigration official if he goes to jail for breaking immigration laws in the name of being tough on the border.

Plus, head of the World Bank, ambassador to the U.N., these are just some of the jobs Ivanka Trump is qualified for, according to her father. So why didn't he appoint her to those positions?

Stay with us.


[16:18:54] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And we're back with our breaking news.

Sources telling me that President Trump a week ago told the head of Customs and Border Protection, now the acting head of Department of Homeland of Security, Kevin McAleenan, that he would pardon him if McAleenan were jailed for breaking immigration law by not letting asylum seekers into the country as the president wants.

Was the president joking? Was the president serious? We don't know. But we know he said that.

Joining me now is the former director of national intelligence under President Obama, retired General James Clapper.

What do you make of this, General? The president, whether it's the comments he made to border agents, stop letting people in, and they had to be told afterwards by McAleenan and others, no, you have to let people in if they make it to U.S. soil, that's the law. And then telling McAleenan, if you go to jail, I'll pardon you. There seems to be a real, just disregard in not caring about what the immigration law is.

JAMES CLAPPER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, or the rule of law, generally, which is unfortunately not surprising any longer. The one thought that occurred to me when I heard about this, Jake, is suppose that had been a bunch of soldiers, active-duty soldiers who were told to disobey a law, and that would pose some real challenges for the command chain, if those were officers or soldiers in the military.

[16:20:13] So it's obviously, unconventional, but not surprising.

TAPPER: Let's turn to the Mueller report. We know that they are going to have four categories, according to Bill Barr, the attorney general, where the president -- where the attorney general redact things.


TAPPER: Grand jury material, sensitive sources and methods, information that could impact ongoing investigations, and information that could infringe on personal privacy and reputational interests of third parties.

How much -- I know you don't know what's in the report and all of that stuff, but how much do you think can be redacted and still be a credible report?

CLAPPER: Well, let me speak to one of those four categories, which is intelligence sources and methods. And I'm taking a cue from the two key indictments of February and July of last year. The first one was against the Internet Research Agency --

TAPPER: The Russian troll farm.

CLAPPER: Right. And the second was against the GRU --

TAPPER: The Russian military intelligence.

CLAPPER: Military intelligence organization, which named and called out specific individuals.

Frankly, I was taken aback by the level of detail in the fidelity of the information that was included in that, which gives people some insight into the information we had, when we did our intelligence community assessment, that we briefed out to President-elect Trump on January 6th.

So taking a cue from that, I am very hopeful that there won't be a great deal of redactions, at least in that one category of sources and methods. And the reason that's a big deal to me is that it's my hope that the Mueller report will be descriptive of the magnitude and depth of the Russian interference in our political process. And I think that message needs to get out.

I really can't speak to the others. It's my understanding in the case of grand jury proceedings that, you know, that could be worked around by a court order, at least for the benefit of the Congress. I don't know about the public. But the one I'm most concerned about, and most interested in is intelligence sources and methods and the degree to which there would be revelations about the Russian meddling. TAPPER: Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is defending his and

Bill Barr's handling of the Mueller report redaction process and the whole process, really, telling "The Wall Street Journal," quote: He's being as forthcoming as he can, Bill Barr, so this notion that he's trying to mislead people I think is just completely bizarre.

What do you think? Do you think Attorney General Barr is being straightforward or is he trying to mislead people?

CLAPPER: Well, I think -- I would probably defer on answering that question until whatever comes out comes out. And then I think I would be able to make a better judgment, perhaps, about what -- you know, how much black space there is and how much the redaction pen was used. I know one novelty here will be color coding, so you can tell which of the four categories were affected.

So I think personally, we'll just have to wait and see until we see the actual content of what is released, particularly to the public.

TAPPER: So you're giving the attorney general the benefit of the doubt for now.

CLAPPER: For right now.

TAPPER: "The Washington Post" is reporting about the extent of the Russian campaign to target Bernie Sanders supporters and help elect Donald Trump by trying to convince them that they shouldn't vote for Hillary Clinton. This is obviously back in 2016.

Were you aware of this Russian influence campaign to the extent that we now know?

CLAPPER: No, we weren't. We had a general appreciation, general understanding of what the Russians were doing, the magnitude of it, how aggressive it was, multi-dimensional, and all of that. I don't think we fully or at least I didn't, fully appreciated the depth of activity on social media.

Now, the business about Bernie Sanders, I think, is illustrative of the sophisticated understanding that the Russians had of our whole -- of the political dynamics in this country and how they tried to exploit them to hurt as much as they can -- could, Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump. And this is just one more detailed illustration of that intent on the part of the Russians.

TAPPER: Retired general and former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, always good to see you. Thanks so much for coming in.

CLAPPER: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: We have more on our breaking news. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is going to join me live to discuss immigration and much more. That's next. Stay with us.


[16:29:07] TAPPER: We're back with the breaking news.

Senior administration officials telling me that during President Trump's visit to California last week, he told them Customs and Border Protections head Kevin McAleenan that he would pardon him if he ever went to jail for denying entry to migrants that is legally required, but a law the president is very frustrated with.

It's not clear if the president was joking about the pardon or if he was serious.

Joining me from Santiago, Chile, to discuss this and much, much more is the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.

Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for being here.

I know that you want to talk about the International Criminal Court and I'll get to that in one second.

MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: It's great to be with you, Jake.

TAPPER: Thank you so much, sir.

I know you weren't present for the conversation between the president and Commissioner McAleenan, but would you know -- or what do you say to senior administration officials when they say to you, boy, President Trump is so frustrated by these immigration laws, he doesn't seem towns that we have to adhere to them even if he doesn't like them?

POMPEO: I've been in lots of conversations on the enormous crisis at our border and I have watched this president try to use every tool in our tool kit.