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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

Source: White House Officials Admit President Trump Handled Questions On Taking Foreign Dirt Poorly; New DOJ Legal Opinion Supports Treasury Secretary's Refusal To Turn Over President Trump's Tax Returns To House Panel; Source: W.H. Aides Frustrated With Sarah Sanders' Handling Of Interview That Led To "Dirt" Comments; President Trump Says He Won't Fire Kellyanne Conway For Hatch Act Violations, Despite Federal Agency Recommendation; Warren Bounces Back; "Woman Of Mystery: Melania Trump" Next On CNN. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired June 14, 2019 - 20:00   ET

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


[20:00:17] JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: Breaking news tonight. His advisers privately admit he is handling questions on this poorly, and even as they do, the president of the United States might just be proving their point. He just thanked a top lawmaker for making it easier than it would otherwise be for him to break the law if he wants. Easier to do what he said just two days ago he is open to doing, colluding with foreign governments to win reelection and never mind the FBI.

John Berman here in for Anderson.

These two items on collusion and private doubts inside the West Wing broke at the end of the day that began with what some were calling a walk-back by the president, a cleanup of a gaffe they called it.

But keeping them honest, what about the so-called gaffe was no gaffe at all. What if the president said to ABC's George Stephanopoulos days ago was, and I know it sound crazy, the truth.

Tonight's tweet is fresh evidence of that. Quoting now: Thank you, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for understanding the Democrat's game of not playing it straight on the ridiculous witch hunt hoax in the Senate.

That's the president thanking the Senate majority leader for blocking legislation that would have required any offers of campaign help from foreign agents to the FBI.

Senate Republicans killed it yesterday afternoon. It was done and done quietly all things considered, meaning the president didn't need to say a thing let alone just as the whole story was dying down, but he did. And the fact that he did is pretty telling. It suggests that this morning's so-called walk-back which you will see in a moment, might not count for so much, and what the president really, truly believes is what he originally said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS ANCHOR: Your campaign this time around, if foreigners, if Russia, if China, if someone else, offers you information on an opponent, should they accept it or they should call the FBI?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think maybe you do both. I think you might want to listen. I don't -- there's nothing wrong with listening. If somebody called from a country -- Norway -- we have information on your opponent. Oh, I think I would want to hear it.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You want that kind of interference in our elections?

TRUMP: It is not an interference. They have information. I think I'd take it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: That's the president of the United States telling ABC News and the world that it is now open season on U.S. elections, that he's fully open for business. Oh, and he went on to add that the FBI doesn't necessarily have to know about it.

All of it prompted the chair of the Federal Election Commission to issue a public rebuke of the president. It reads in part: Let me make something 100 percent clear to the American public and anyone running for public office. It is illegal for any person to solicit, accept or receive anything of value in connection with the U.S. election. This is not a novel concept.

So, that's where we left it last night. Then this morning the president went on "Fox & Friends", and this is what became known as the walk-back, the cleanup. Listen carefully.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

TRUMP: You have to look at it because if you don't look at it you're not going to know if it is bad. How are you going to know if it is bad? But, of course, you give it to the FBI or report it to the attorney general or somebody like that. But, of course, you do that.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

BERMAN: Of course you give it to the FBI, he said, or the attorney general or somebody like that. But you have to look at it, he says. How else would you know if it is bad?

Now, unclear there whether he means bad as in bad for the country, bad for public confidence in the democratic process, or merely bad for his opponent. But, hey, you got to take that Rolex from the guy in the bar because, you know, how else can you find out if it is stolen?

That in a nutshell is the president's argument. Don't call the cops before inspecting the goods. Some walk-back, maybe though a still listening walk-back, and some cleanup, but let's say for a minute that the president for whatever reasons did, in fact, intend to somehow temper his position. You still have to ask yourself given the latest tweet, given what you

just heard, given his original remarks, which rings truer, the so- called cleanup or the so-called gaffe?

And we do have some new reporting right now on how all of this is unfolding inside the White House.

CNN's Jim Acosta joins us now with what his sources are telling him.

Jim, what are you learning about all of the fall-out surrounding the ABC News interview?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, John, sources telling me and Abby Phillip, my colleague, that essentially people inside the White House and outside the White House close to the president feel that Mr. Trump mishandled these questions coming from ABC about whether or not he would accept foreign dirt on a political opponent in the upcoming 2020 campaign. Now, one source told me earlier today that these clips coming from ABC have been, quote, tough to watch, and they essentially feel at this point the president did try to clean this up but there has been some lasting damage.

[20:05:08] They're not exactly sure how much damage was done, but there was some lasting damage from what the president said. He clearly invited foreign governments to turn over damaging information on political opponents in that interview.

As you were just playing a few moments ago, he sort of cleared it up but left a lot of collusion confusion because in the course of that interview on "Fox & Friends", he seemed to be saying, well, maybe I would turn it over to the FBI but I might want to have a look at it first. That's not exactly the same thing as going straight to the FBI.

BERMAN: No, not at all. And I understand, Jim, that some of the president's advisers have taken issue with how Sarah Sanders handled all of this, correct?

ACOSTA: That's right. And there was some grumbling going on inside the White House among some of the president's political advisers as to whether or not the outgoing White House press secretary simply granted too much access to the president during the course of this interview and put him in a position where he made these kinds of comments.

Now, of course, it was the president's decision to do the interview and also make those remarks, so you can't blame too much of this on Sarah Sanders. But there was some finger pointing going on inside the White House and among the president's political advisers. It just goes to show you, John, that there was concern as to what the president said. Otherwise, they wouldn't be pointing fingers at one another.

BERMAN: So the people you are talking to, Jim, do they think these comments from the president are going to hurt him with his supporters at all? ACOSTA: You know, what we're hearing at this point -- and, John, you

and I have seen this movie before. When the president makes these sorts of remarks, it is kind of incredible how much Teflon coating he has when it comes to this issue of interference in our elections. The sources that we've been talking to over the last 24 hours have told us essentially they feel though that this is just an issue for Democrats and people in the media, not necessarily something that's going to dent his support among his supporters.

And I think one true sign of that came earlier today, John, when the Senate majority leader was thanked by the president on Twitter for Mitch McConnell's comments to Fox News that essentially the public needs to move on all of this and that Democrats are never going to give this you have.

It is just one more example when it comes to this issue of foreign interference, it seems that the leadership of the Republican Party has essentially had this president's back no matter what he says -- John.

BERMAN: I will say we've heard from many non-partisan people in the national security community they've been concerned about the comments as well.

Jim Acosta, thank you very much.

ACOSTA: You bet.

BERMAN: Joining us now someone with a better sense of almost anyone on how the president thinks and what he believes, CNN Political Analyst and "New York Times" White House Correspondent, Maggie Haberman.

Maggie, CNN is reporting there are people inside the White House looking at what the president said this week and they're concerned.

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: They are.

BERMAN: They think it didn't go well. What are you hearing?

HABERMAN: There are a couple of things going on. One, there are concerns about the specific remarks about, you know, I would take it, which was his language about foreign interference.

To be clear, we weren't talking about -- which he is describing as opposition research and we should be very clear that's not what it is. That's not what opposition research is. I know we talked about it here before but it is worth noting again, and it doesn't have to be Russia. It could be almost any country.

They're concerned about the fact that he actually gave a series of interviews in the last two weeks, two of them on his foreign trip, his state visit to the U.K., and then to Normandy, and then this interview, a very long interview with George Stephanopoulos, where he said all manner of things that a number of his aides thought were regrettable, a number of his advisers thought were regrettable. He talked about the Vietnam War dismissively as he was getting ready to attend D-Day commemorations. You know, he then gave this interview with George Stephanopoulos.

They don't think it will dent his support, but they know that his base has to grow, that he can't contract if he is going into 2020. And anything that could shave off even a little bit of support is worrisome.

BERMAN: The part about being concerned with the George Stephanopoulos interview confuses me because it wasn't a trick question. It is one of the major questions out there, would you listen to outreach from foreign countries offering dirt on political opponents? You know, Robert Mueller basically presented that question to the world at the end of his one public statement.

HABERMAN: That question was also asked of the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, about a meeting that Jared Kushner attended with the president's son and the then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort with a Russia criminal-linked lawyer during the campaign, would you do that again? And Jared's answer was not just "no". It was, I don't know, I'm not getting into a hypothetical.

It is the second time we have seen that and it suggests there's not been a lot learned in terms of going forward. I also think that it is not excuse making, to be clear, but you have to remember for this president, acknowledging that he wouldn't do it again would be admitting that someone made a mistake last time, which I think he is always loath to do. But in refusing to do so, he is hurting himself.

BERMAN: So, why then what some are calming a walk-back today, even though he did still say he would listen and determine whether to hand it over?

HABERMAN: Because there's still the reality of the situation and there are enough people who know that this had to be dealt with.

[20:10:01] BERMAN: And there is one other political reality he did create, which to give Democrats an opportunity to propose this legislation which would make it illegal not to tell the FBI if you get this foreign outreach from foreign adversaries offering dirt on political opponents. That is something the Democrats, I imagine, could run with.

HABERMAN: Democrats could absolutely run with that in the House even though they know it is not going to go anywhere in the Senate, but it could certainly lay bare for people what the issue is and what they're talking about and the stakes here. And this is --among Democrats there is some quiet and not-so-quiet grumbling that there's more they could be doing on the voting front to just try to, you know, highlight areas where they think the president has problems.

BERMAN: All right. I want to ask you something which you have done a lot of work on in the last week, which you had a terrific report which said that there were concerns within the Trump campaign that their internal polling had shown the president trailing Joe Biden in key swing states, many of them. The president then denied it, called it fake news among other things I'm sure, and then today, ABC News didn't just mash it, they were handed the very polling from the Trump campaign.

HABERMAN: I don't know that they were handed it from the Trump campaign. The Trump campaign certainly confirmed the numbers they had were real. But, yes, to your point we reported and "Politico" and CNN reported that the president was behind Biden in a number of states, in a 17-state poll.

What the campaign then said I think once approached with the numbers by ABC was these were just one set of numbers, it was the worst case scenario. But once again, you have the president of the United States saying this is fake news, this is not real, and that term has come to mean stories he doesn't like.

BERMAN: Right. He didn't like your story, and then he lied about it afterwards.

HABERMAN: Right. Look, this is always the question. Is -- I don't know how much of the information he knew, I don't know exactly what he was shown, but that's not really the point. That's why he should be more careful with what he says and not just tweet everything is fake because it strikes a cord.

BERMAN: Right. Although some of the reporting out there also included the fact that he wanted justification for the bad polling. He certainly knew the polling was out there because he wanted it spun a different way.

HABERMAN: Yes. He wanted his aides to say that these -- the reporting by us, by you guys, by "Politico" wasn't true, and then he denied that he had wanted them to deny it. The whole thing is chain reaction to himself.

BERMAN: Once again, reporting by Maggie Haberman and "The New York Times" proves to be correct.

HABERMAN: Thanks, John.

BERMAN: Thank you very much for being with us tonight. I appreciate it.

Next, more breaking news. This item involving the president's taxes and who can see them. We will tell you which influential legal voice has now just weighed in and how much credence that opinion, which favors President Trump, might carry.

And, later, Elizabeth Warren, who likes to tell voters "I've got a plan for that" if she becomes president -- the question tonight, do all of those plans add up to a winning strategy?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[20:16:56] BERMAN: More breaking news tonight. The Justice Department has just weighed in on President Trump's tax returns, namely whether the Treasury Department can keep them away from the House Ways and Means Committee and perhaps the public, despite a law that seems to strongly explicitly suggest otherwise. CNN's Laura Jarrett has late reporting on this and she joins us now.

So, Laura, what exactly is the Justice Department's legal argument here?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: John, the basic claim made by DOJ tonight is that the text of the tax code may be clear, but what really matters is the intent of the Democratic congressmen who served the subpoena for Trump's tax returns, Richard Neal. The Justice Department says because the chairman wants to make the taxes public, that's not a legitimate legislative purpose, and so, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has a duty not to turn them over.

BERMAN: So, it's about the Democrats' motives?

JARRETT: Exactly, and DOJ called Chairman Neal's stated goal of looking into legislative proposals on things like the auditing of presidential candidates and the president himself, he called all of that pretextual, the Justice Department does, pointing to a bunch of states from other Democrats who said they need Trump's tax returns for a variety of reasons like looking at his financial health, which clearly have nothing to do with enforcing federal tax laws.

BERMAN: So, I know it wasn't a surprise. We knew the Justice Department was going to weigh in and we were going to see it. I guess my question is what is the next step for the Democrats here?

JARRETT: Well, the Justice Department also doesn't have the last word here. This isn't a legally binding opinion. It is just their argument. So, Chairman Neal so far has not made any moves to get his subpoenas enforced in court but that's where it is all headed in all reality. And so, today's opinion from the Justice Department just shows how aggressive a stance this administration probably plans to take to keep those tax returns under wraps, John.

BERMAN: But no filing yet? This isn't in a courtroom waiting to be heard at this point?

JARRETT: No, this is just a 33-page missive from the department that shows what they will say in court down the line.

BERMAN: All right. Laura Jarrett, thanks so much for being with us tonight. Appreciate it.

Joining us now, two CNN Legal Analysts, former federal prosecutor Shan Wu and Carrie Cordero, former counsel to the assistant attorney general for national security.

You know, Shan, does the Justice Department have a valid argument there's no legislative purpose and it carries a risk of abuse?

SHAN WU, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: They do not. That was not a legal opinion, John. It was just, as Laura said, an argument.

I mean, when I worked at the department my understanding was the department defended our laws. Here they seem inclined to either abandon them or to find a way around them, and this is just silly that they're saying that they question the motive. They're not in the business of questioning motive. They're in the business of doing legal analysis. There's no legal analysis in these 33 pages.

BERMAN: So, Carrie, as Laura pointed out, the DOJ says Chairman Neal proclaimed publicly several times he was committed to making the president's tax returns available to the public, which they say proves this is partisan and not for legislative reasons.

Do Chairman Neal's prior statements have undercut his argument here?

[20:20:00] CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think it is possible for two things to be true. It is possible for him to have a legitimate legislative purpose, and I think that he does. He has demonstrated that.

There's all sorts of different potential legislation we could think of Congress could pass with respect to a president needing to make their tax returns public or the enforcement of the IRS audit against the president. So I think he's demonstrated a legitimate purpose. There also is something to the argument that the Justice Department has, which is that he also has made statements and other Democrats have made statements about making the returns public.

So it is possible for both things to be true. What is clear in the legal opinion from the justice department is that they are not challenging the text of the statute at all.

BERMAN: The text of the statute which says, "shall furnish," Shan. You know, the Treasury Department shall furnish these tax returns and the statute says nothing about motive. It doesn't come up at all, which, in fact, the Justice Department agrees with today in its legal argument.

WU: That's right. Carrie is right. They don't challenge the legal basis because there's nothing to challenge. There's really nothing to interpret about it.

I mean, it says "shall" as you pointed out, John, and the Justice Department has come up with an argument for thou shall not follow that law.

BERMAN: Carrie, what about the potential for abuse though or what about the idea that this law might not be a good one anymore if, if this administration or if this Congress wants to get the president's tax returns, what is to stop another Congress from going after a different president's tax returns in the future?

CORDERO: Yes, I mean there's something to that, although the president could have handled this.

So he is the first president, at least in our modern history, who has not released his tax returns. That has raised all of these questions, and so Congress is attempting to use a law that has been passed, that was enacted into law, having been signed by a prior president. So they're using the law to obtain them. He could make this whole thing go away by releasing his returns, and so there is a legitimate reason for them to be able to pursue it.

It also raises the question, I think, as to whether the president is abusing his authority by having the Justice Department, sort of under his authority make arguments that protect him personally.

BERMAN: So, talk to me about that. I think that's really interesting. What does that say about the Bill Barr Justice Department?

CORDERO: Well, it shows, first of all, that not just Bill Barr but that the entire instrument of the Justice Department, including the Office of Legal Counsel, which issues the definitive legal opinions for the department and advises the rest of the executive branch, is being asked and is fulfilling arguments that potentially benefit the president personally. I think -- I mean, they are going to make the argument that they are defending the executive in this case, but given the fact that some of the returns pertain to returns before he was president, that's where I see some question about it.

BERMAN: So, Shan, what happens next? When does this get to a courtroom?

WU: It can get to a courtroom if they go -- if they, being Congress, try to go the route of contempt. That would be a mechanism by which to get to the courtroom.

And at this point, that's really the more proper place for it to be. I mean, the department can make those arguments if it wants for a fact finder, for a judge to discern, but, you know, their language is so bootstrapping.

I mean, they say that, quote -- it is not exactly a quote, I'm remembering it. That it is not -- can't possibly be constitutional for Congress to have an invalid purpose. I mean it is a completely conclusory statement.

If you want to challenge the law being constitutional, challenge it. Be upfront about it. Of course, they can't do that.

BERMAN: All right. Shan Wu, Carrie Cordero, thanks so much for being with us tonight.

CORDERO: Thanks, John.

WU: Thanks, John.

BERMAN: So, we found out that White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders will be exiting. We have one of her predecessors with a lot to say about the legacy she will leave behind. Not a glowing assessment. Joe Lockhart is next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[20:28:36] BERMAN: All right. Back to our breaking news at the top of the hour. President Trump's ABC News interview this week, which was even panned

among some inside the White House. As we mentioned, White House officials have privately expressed frustration with how the president answered the questions. And a source close to the White House says some political advisers were not impressed by how Sarah Sanders handled the interview prior to the announcement of her departure yesterday.

So, the question tonight, what is going to happen after she leaves?

According to "The New York Times", the president is said to be eager to install a woman to replace her. Could the exit of Sanders mean the return of the daily White House press briefing? There's apparently now an internal debate over whether to revive it, as according to "The Times", as the president heads into the thick of the election season.

We are now day 95 since the last briefing.

My next guest didn't shy away from facing reporters when he held the position even when things were not going that well. He wrote a very critical op-ed on Sanders posted on CNN.com, saying she failed on almost every aspect of her job.

Let's talk to Clinton White House Press Secretary, Joe Lockhart.

Joe, it's great to see you.

Strange to see you in the night.

JOE LOCKHART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Good evening, John.

BERMAN: I usually wake up with you, which is a totally different thing.

LOCKHART: Right, let's move on.

BERMAN: Listen, the idea that the White House is frustrated with Sarah Sanders, how she handled the ABC News interview, does it ring true?

LOCKHART: Yes, I have to think and it is just a hunch that the last two weeks might have accelerated her departure.

[20:30:00] I think if you book-end the Europe trip, the sitting down with Laura Ingraham in the American cemetery in Normandy knowing that the President has no impulse control and will go off on Nancy Pelosi and any opponent in the worst of all settings, a sacred place.

You book end that with giving George Stephanopoulos, a very tough interviewer and a guy who is not likely to be wowed or in awe of the White House and trappings because he worked there for four years. Those were bad decisions. I assumed they were Sarah's, maybe they weren't. Maybe that's unfair. But ultimately the buck stops in the press secretary's office. And, you know, the President was put in a bad situation. Despite, you know, doing it to himself he shouldn't have been there. BERMAN: Is it Sarah's fault that -- George, you know, is a great guy and a great interviewer, but those were obvious -- I mean, that was an obvious question. Is it Sarah's fault that George asked the question that I think everyone in America wanted to know the answer to?

LOCKHART: Well, I think a big part of the press secretary's job it's a little bit like a lawyer in court. Never put somebody out unless you know what they're going to say. You work through it.

And if the answers are not going to work for the President to help promote his agenda, to help defend against something, you don't put him out. And, you know, there just seemed to be a little bit of malpractice there to just sort of open the doors and say, come on in, ask anything. You know, the President is ready.

BERMAN: All right. Your op-ed about Sarah Sanders where as you say she failed at almost every aspect of her job, I mean you spared nothing in this.

LOCKHART: Yes.

BERMAN: Why?

LOCKHART: Well, I mean, the press secretary's job got multiple facets to it. The part that I think she did do well was she defended the President. You should defend the president, but you've got to defend him by telling the truth and she failed there.

And I think the Mueller report story about the, you know, smearing James Comey and talking to FBI -- that, you know, she talked to FBI rank and file and said he was a bad guy, that was instructive that under oath she told the truth, but beforehand and then when she was back in her office talking to reporters she doubled back to the lie. So it means that unless -- you know, this is a person who unless they're faced with jail time is not going to tell the truth, that's -- you're in the wrong job if you're there.

The second thing is the big part of your job is to keep the public informed. And they're going 95 days without doing a briefing, sends the message that the public doesn't have a right to know.

The third is you're there as the advocate for the press. And, you know, one of the things that Sarah Sanders did is she normalized this idea that it's OK to view the press as the enemy of the people. Never once did she stand up and say, "Well, the President is being hyperbolic there. We don't really think that here at the White House." She basically echoed it. So, in almost every aspect of the job I think she failed.

BERMAN: If truth is not a priority for this White House, is it worth restoring the press briefing?

LOCKHART: Well, you know, that's -- I don't know that I can answer that question. I don't think anyone should take the job if truth isn't the first order and the second order and the third order of business. Let the President just tweet. If lying is acceptable, let him be his own press secretary.

But if someone is going to go into that job -- and doing the daily press briefing is a huge opportunity for the administration. It's one lost here because you get to drive the narrative, and you drive it in a way that's much more disciplined than the President's early morning tweets. Yes, everybody chases that, but there's no strategy behind that.

BERMAN: There's also necessity on days when there is conflict with Iran, for instance, and other things.

LOCKHART: Yes.

BERMAN: Do you believe that there has been lasting damage done to the job of press secretary?

LOCKHART: I'm afraid there has. You know, I'm afraid that whoever is president next, whether it's a Democrat or Republican, may look at this and say, well, we don't have to do this, you know. The risk is too high. We can just do it through talking directly to our supporters on social media, and all that does is further divide the country when you only feel like you have to talk to your people.

The thing about the press briefing is its wide open. Anyone who wants to watch it can watch it. That's how people used to speak to the whole nation rather than, you know, through Fox News or through, you know, a liberal website or progressive website. I'm afraid that people will take the wrong lesson from this. And it really is -- you know, it sounds self-important, but it really is a blow to democracy when you cut the press out of the system.

BERMAN: Joe Lockhart, great to have you with us tonight. Appreciate it.

Next, President Trump's best known catch phrase, "you're fired." See why you won't catch him using it with one of his most outspoken staff members, Kellyanne Conway. Does the White House consider her above the law?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[20:38:52] BERMAN: The Office of Special Counsel's report on what it called Kellyanne Conway's numerous violations of the Hatch Act could not have been more clear, nor the watchdog agency's conclusion as she had used her government job to preach partisan politics and that failure to fire her for that would "send a message to all federal employees that they need not abide by the Hatch Act."

The response from the President today during a phone interview on Fox also could not have been more clear. Conway, he said, did nothing wrong. Nothing, he said, but exercise her First Amendment rights.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, I got briefed on it yesterday and it looks to me like they're trying to take away her right of free speech, and that's just not fair. It really sounds to me like a free speech thing. It doesn't sound fair. So I'm going to look at it very carefully.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So you're not going to fire -- Mr. President, you're not going to fire her?

TRUMP: No, I'm not going to fire her. I think she's a terrific person. They have tried to take away her speech and I think you are entitled to free speech in this country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Here with me now, former White House Communications Director for President Obama and a CNN Political Commentator, Jen Psaki, also former Director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics and a CNN Contributor, Walter Shaub.

[20:40:01] Walter, the idea that Kellyanne Conway was just exercising her First Amendment rights, does that hold any water?

WALTER SHAUB, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: No, it's just utter silliness. The Hatch Act has been upheld by the Supreme Court and repeatedly by lower courts. This is a well-established restriction. And keep in mind, she is entitled to speak freely on her own time off of government property. But the whole point of the Hatch Act is to keep her from misusing her government position to advocate for a candidate or against a candidate in an election.

BERMAN: The law specifically, just to be clear on this, Walter, distinguishes between when she is working as, in this case a senior counselor to the President, or when she's off on her own, correct?

SHAUB: Right. That's absolutely right.

BERMAN: So, Jen, I want to play some instances where Kellyanne Conway, again, using her official job, violated the Hatch Act. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KELLYANNE CONWAY, WHITE HOUSE COUNSELOR: Doug Jones in Alabama, folks, don't be fooled, he'll be a vote against tax cuts. He's weak on crime, weak on borders. He is strong on raising your taxes. He's terrible for property owners.

I'm yet to see presidential timber, I just see a bunch of presidential wood chip.

Amy Klobuchar, you can change the 81 and 0 and get, oh, my. Elizabeth Warren spent decades, folks, decades appropriating somebody else's heritage and ethnicity.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. And she's going to have trouble beating that.

CONWAY: And that is -- and she's been lying about it. Kirsten Gillibrand, this weekend in her 50s, apparently was the first time she's ever eaten fried chicken and she waited for the cameras to roll. I mean, this is just silly stuff.

(CROSSTALK)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Again, some of those even included statements on the White House lawn, repeated instances, Jen, of these Hatch Act violations.

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: That's right and it's pretty shocking to watch. I mean, when I was in the White House in 2016, our lawyers were so strict, we called them the Hatch Act police behind their backs. Now they may know, I guess, if they're watchers.

But, you know, the fact is this law has been around for decades. And the reason, as Walter touched on, is so that you're not influencing electoral politics from the White House and most White Houses abide by it.

And watching Kellyanne Conway, I mean she is not just using -- playing into politics, she is kind of attacking and obviously engaging in efforts to go after President Trump's opponents, and that's exactly what you're not supposed to do. And that's why this law is in place.

BERMAM: So, Walter, what happens now? Because Kellyanne Conway isn't going to jail, she's not losing her job, is she allowed to just keep on making comments like this?

SHAUB: Well, she wasn't allowed to do what she did and she did it anyway, so she will probably continue and she probably won't be fired. I think one good thing that has come out of this is it truly exposes the level of lawlessness in this administration.

You've got career federal employees who in this administration have been fired for Hatch Act violations. One of them was even barred from working for the government for another five years. But it seems that in the Trump administration the higher the level the official, the less the rule of law applies to them.

So at least now we have clarity that the Trump administration is not even paying lip service to the idea that they care about the rule of law. And I think it shows a particular disdain for laws that lack in effective enforcement mechanism.

BERMAN: But, Jen, you know, what message does it send to other White House employees? What message does it send to future White House employees?

PSAKI: Well, it sends a message that you're above the law if you're in the White House. And certainly that comes from the current president and, hopefully, that's not what the message future presidents send.

But I think one of the points Walter made is really important. You know, I worked in an agency as well during my time in government, and the vast majority of federal employees don't even have posters of candidates they support, whether they're Democrats or Republicans.

They give no indication of that because it's not appropriate and that's not how you conduct yourself in federal service because you're serving the American people. There's only a handful, a very small number of even White House employees that can engage in political activity.

So, this is sending the message that that doesn't matter anymore and we don't have to abide by that and that kind of goes into this divisive theme we've seen from this White House that you only are governing a small population of the people in this country, that's to your political advantage, and not the whole country and that's a huge problem obviously.

BERMAN: All right, Water Shaub, Jen Psaki, thanks so much for being with us. Have a great weekend.

PSAKI: Thank you.

BERMAN: Just ahead, she was polling in the single digits, trailing far behind the pack, now Elizabeth Warren has caught up to second place with Bernie Sanders. Our M.J. Lee talked to Senator Warren today, that's next.

[20:48:51] BERMAN: The line-up for the two nights of Democratic debates was announced earlier today, and when Senator Elizabeth Warren steps on to that stage during round one on June 26th, she will be the only top five polling candidate that night.

So a few months ago national polls had her far back, trailing the other progressive favorite, Senator Bernie Sanders, by double digits. In the last week, though, state polls in Nevada and Iowa have her ahead or about even with Sanders.

To understand the turn around, her aides say you just need to watch her on the campaign trail. That's where we find CNN National Political Correspondent M.J. Lee who talked to the senator today.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Dream big. Dream big.

MJ LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Nearly 100 town hall meetings, thousands of selfies and a whole lot of plans. Elizabeth Warren is riding high into the summer on fresh momentum and energy. Poll after poll shows Warren climbing, within striking distance of Senator Bernie Sanders for second place nationally, neck- in-neck in Iowa and ahead of Sanders in Nevada.

WARREN: This isn't about polls. It's way too early to be talking about that, but it's about ideas. It's about talking with people about what's broken in our country.

[20:50:01] LEE: In a historically crowded Democratic contest for president, Warren has bet big from day one on policy. WARREN: And I got a plan for that.

LEE: She's released more than 20 plans just this year on everything from breaking up big tech --

WARREN: They collect information on every buyer and seller that comes through.

LEE: -- to student loan debt cancellation and universal child care.

WARREN: What it means to talk about student loan debt cancellation.

Universal child care and real investment in early learning for zero to five.

LEE: Her ideas heavy strategy is clearly resonating with some Democratic voters.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm excited that she knows what she is doing, has experience and has a specific plan for how to change the world.

JAMES MCGUIRE, NEW HAMPSHIRE VOTER: She was able to articulate many of the issues that are facing us and more importantly she has -- seems to have a workable plan to address these issues.

LEE: Warren has also committed to building a grassroots campaign. She is refusing to hold high dollar fund-raisers during the primaries.

WARREN: And I'm not smooching up to any billionaires hoping that they will fund super PACs on my behalf.

LEE: And instead, trying to win over supporters one at a time.

WARREN: Hi, Matt. This is Elizabeth Warren.

LEE: Warren has also been a leading voice among the 2020 field and calling for impeachment proceedings against President Trump after the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report.

WARREN: This is not about politics. This is about principle.

LEE: But warren faces stiff competition from former Vice President Joe Biden who has consistently led in the polls.

(on camera) How do you appeal to moderate voters who might be more inclined to support a Joe Biden at this point?

WARREN: The way I see it, it's talking about where things have gone wrong, how long before Donald Trump came along. We had a government that was working better and better for those at the top. Now, the Trump administration, the most corrupt in living memory, but the problem is a long time big problem. And the way we fight back is we tackle that corruption head on.

LEE (voice-over): M.J. Lee, CNN, Manchester, New Hampshire.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BERMAN: And M.J. Lee joins me now from Manchester, New Hampshire where Warren was campaigning today. MJ, the senator didn't bite on your question on Joe Biden, but the fact of the matter is, is that she and the former vice president have feuded for years, correct?

LEE: That's right. They've butted heads when it comes to policy, at least, for a number of decades now, actually, dating back to when Joe Biden was a senator from Delaware and when Elizabeth Warren was a bankruptcy law expert. You remember that they crashed on Capitol Hill on that very issue.

We learned today, of course, that Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren are not going to be on the same debate stage for that first Democratic set of debates. Instead, Warren is going to be on stage with folks like Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, and Beto O'Rourke.

So that clash or potential clash between Biden and Warren is not the one that we're going to see at least in that first Democratic debate. I should also note that I did ask her if she had started doing debate prep. She says she has not yet, John.

BERMAN: All right, time to get started. M.J. Lee in Manchester, thanks so much.

Next, she lives in the people's House, but people still know very little about our notoriously private First Lady Melania Trump. That's going to change in just minutes. You're going to hear from aides in her close inner circle and you're going to get a rare look inside the east-wing. That's in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[20:57:13] BERMAN: Moments away now from a fascinating new CNN Special Report. How much do you really know about Melania Trump? We often see more than we hear from her. She is one of the most private first ladies we've ever had.

So, our White House Reporter Kate Bennett worked through magic (ph) and was able to get access very few who've had thus far to this east- wing to help give us a better understanding of Mrs. Trump, what she's like and what she does. Here's a quick peek of tonight's upcoming documentary, "Woman of Mystery: Melania Trump."

Oh, we don't have the sound here, but trust me, there is a lot in this special. You're going to see it all a couple minutes from now. That's at the top of the hour. I want to bring in Kate Bennett to walk us through what else we can expect.

So, Kate, obviously the First Lady is in the public spotlight, yet she is still so elusive or as you put it, a woman of mystery. What's the biggest misconception?

KATE BENNETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, I think there are two camps. There are people who really believe that she's miserable and sort of trapped in the White House. And then there's the camp that feels like she's a very traditional stoic grace under pressure First Lady. I think the truth lies somewhere in between.

I don't think that she's trapped or really miserable, unhappy. I do think it's a role that she never saw herself being in. And I think that alone -- you know, being First Lady, there's no job description. It's what you make of it. It's a very nebula sort of part of an administration. And for someone like Melania Trump who values her privacy and always has, this is a complicated experience and I think she doesn't want to go out of her comfort zone.

BERMAN: So you were able, and this is terrific, to get access, full access really to the east-wing where the first family lives. What was that like?

BENNETT: Well, we were in the east-wing offices where mostly the First Lady goes to work every day. She oversees her staff. We got to pick in to where the calligrapher is due. There were getting advance team in the different components that put the east-wing together.

And, again, this is -- for this administration, a part of the White House apparatus that no one's really gotten a chance to see. Like the President, Melania Trump is not a big fan of the media and so certainly getting inside there and really meeting the people who see her and work with her every day brings a different big component to this First Lady.

BERMAN: All right. I'm looking forward to seeing this special. Kate Bennett, thank you so much.

BENNETT: Thank you.

BERMAN: And to all of you, thank you so much for joining us night. We want you to all have a wonderful weekend. Happy Father's Day to me and all of you else out there who observe. The premiere of "Woman of Mystery: Melania Trump," starts right now.