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Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan Is Out; Donald Trump Officially Kicks Off His 2020 Campaign; Katharine Gorka Named The New Press Secretary For Customs And Border Protection. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired June 18, 2019 - 14:00   ET

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


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: And we have breaking news into CNN. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan is out, President Trump tweeting this, "Shanahan has decided not to go forward with his confirmation process so that he can devote more time to his family."

Trump also announcing Mark Esper, the Secretary of the Army is Shanahan's replacement and administration official telling CNN's Pamela Brown that the White House has grown increasingly concerned in recent days over Shanahan's issues with his background check relating to a messy divorce.

CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr and our CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger are joining me now. I want to ask both of you this, Barbara, starting with you who saw this coming?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, I think behind the scenes this was coming perhaps for several days. What Shanahan's personal situation is, is very sensitive because it involves his family. It involves his children.

He had been in an extremely contentious divorce several years ago, and there had been allegations in the final stages of his marriage of domestic abuse. The police had been called to his house. When they arrived, Pat Shanahan had shown signs that he had been struck and abused by his now ex-wife.

There were situations with all three children. He has given interviews. He came out with a statement last night in which he said in part, and I quote, "I never laid a hand on my then wife and cooperated fully in a thorough law enforcement investigation that resulted in her being charged with assault against me."

So it looks, if by the initial statements, Shanahan had been a victim of domestic abuse. There were also signs that the wife had had some issues and some problems. Both the statements say both with alcohol and substance abuse.

All of that said, what has happened in the last several weeks is the F.B.I. clearance process for Shanahan to become Secretary of Defense had taken a considerable amount of time as all of these allegations, all of these instances of a domestic abuse situation in his marriage were being looked at yet again.

And when we came to work today, some very senior aides here in the Pentagon said that Shanahan was in a very bad space. He was getting increasingly concerned that his three children would be again in the public eye during any confirmation process if these this domestic abuse situation became public.

And so earlier today, by all accounts, he decided to pull out of the confirmation process. He has withdrawn his name to be confirmed. He has resigned as Deputy Secretary of Defense and his last day here at the Pentagon will be Friday.

The new Acting Secretary of Defense will be Mark Esper, currently the Secretary of the Army. This is the civilian head of the army. He and the other civilian heads of the services will meet with Shanahan later today, according to our Ryan Browne. They will discuss the transition away ahead.

This comes at a very busy time. Not only do we have the Iran tension heating up, Shanahan was scheduled to go to NATO in the coming days to attend a defense ministerial. He also was scheduled in a few weeks to travel again to Asia, which had been a priority of his. This now will all have to be worked out and staffed. There will be some very significant changes, I suspect on the Secretary's senior staff. These are all people that Shanahan brought in.

The Pentagon will move on. The U.S. military will move on. The U.S. military is expert at one thing, people come and go; military people come and go, you know that better, Brianna as a military wife than anybody.

People have a job, they move on, they leave, they get promoted, they retire. So the military will absolutely move on. Policy and operations will be uninterrupted. But we are now six months plus without a permanent Secretary of Defense for the United States -- Brianna.

KEILAR: And that's really -- it's such a good point, Barbara, and we're seeing this, Gloria. It speaks to a lot of issues that the Trump administration has had. Yes, the military will move on. But there's something different that happens here, which is there's an issue over the vetting -- the vetting that isn't perhaps when it should be done.

The turnover that we're seeing and just this isn't the only Acting Secretary that is probably one of the most important ones, but this is not the only acting that we've seen. There's a lot of actings.

[14:05:11] GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: There's a lot of acting. EPA Administrator, UN Ambassador, White House Chief of Staff, now Secretary of Defense, Department of Homeland Security. This is an administration that has had a 65 percent turnover rate among senior level advisers, not just Cabinet people, but senior level advisers. And that's an extraordinary rate.

At one point, the President said, you know, I believe it was last January, I kind of like acting, because it gives me more flexibility, as Barbara points out, Mattis left six months ago. And so he's had an acting since then. And the President, then I think what he was saying was, you know, I don't have to go through confirmation. If somebody is acting, and I don't like them, I can just get rid of them. And they don't have to go through the confirmation process.

What was happening with Shanahan as Barbara points out, is that it was looking very messy. And it had been postponed, it was looking messy. The administration did not want a messy confirmation right now. And I doubt Shanahan wanted it either.

KEILAR: What does it mean, when you're looking at a position like this or the Department of Homeland Security or other departments where there's an acting, and there is not that continuity of leadership?

BORGER: I think I think that's the problem. I think what you would like is for people inside an agency to have a lot of faith and knowledge about the person who is leading them.

I think, ironically, by having this kind of revolving door, what you do is exactly what the President doesn't want to do, which is you give the so-called Deep State, or the career people a lot more power and a lot more authority, because there really isn't anybody at the helm to lead them.

What you also have is a lot more people leaving government -- retiring, feeling like why would I work here anymore, when I don't know in which direction the ship is headed? And I think that's a real problem, particularly as Barbara points out, when you have so many things going on around the world right now.

People want to know that there is a sense of direction, from the very top and from someone in the position of Secretary of Defense.

KEILAR: And I want to go back to Barbara now at the Pentagon, as we follow this news now of Shanahan's departure. What are you making, for instance of what we're hearing coming out of Iran? And the fact that there's going to be shifting leadership, that with Mark Esper coming in as the acting, what is that going to mean, if anything, because it seems like so much of this policy is driven out of the White House?

STARR: Well, you know, it's an interesting thing, we, I think, have to see where the National Security adviser, John Bolton falls in all of this. Traditionally, he's been quite the Iran hawk. But yet we've seen he has been very quiet in recent days.

There is a very significant additional transition coming in September, which is really just weeks away. The current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who is the President's principal, military adviser, General Dunford, he will have a scheduled retirement and a new Chairman is coming in that is currently the Chief of Staff of the Army, Army and Army -- Esper and General Mark Milley. He will step in as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and now, he doesn't know what Secretary of Defense he'll be working for.

But give me a minute, Brianna and let me step back. We now have a statement from Patrick Shanahan about his resignation and about what has happened here today. And sometimes maybe it's worth remembering that it's not all politics in Washington. There are families involved. There are children involved. And we talked a minute ago about the domestic abuse and substance abuse situation in the Shanahan family.

And I just want to read for one minute, some of what Patrick Shanahan wants to tell the world before he leaves office, and I quote, he says, "It's unfortunate that a painful and deeply personal family situation from long ago is being dredged up and painted in an incomplete and therefore misleading way in the course of this process."

And then he goes on and he says, he would welcome the opportunity to be Secretary of Defense, but he says, " ... after significant reflection, I have asked to be withdrawn from consideration for Secretary of Defense, and will resign my position as Deputy Secretary." He says that he doesn't want to do this at quote, " ... the expense of being a good father."

He has three children. He is concerned about their welfare if their family situation becomes public in a significant way. Two of the children did issue statements last night in detail with their names attached about what they had faced in the Shanahan family and what their views were about a domestic abuse situation between the parents.

But the bottom line is despite this personal family trauma, which is quite significant, by all accounts, the F.B.I. had still been looking into it and time was -- every week was going by and for, you know, some reason, they just -- the F.B.I. could not complete the paperwork at this point.

[15:10:20] STARR: And Shanahan had given some interviews. He had talked about it. He issued this statement last night. And apparently when he came in today, he decided that he just wanted to step out of the public limelight. And that's what he's done.

But again, for the troops, things will go on. Policies will be set. Decisions will be made. But it's no small thing not to have a Secretary of Defense in the United States. And one can only assume the White House sees the urgency of getting the situation resolved.

KEILAR: Indeed, Barbara. Thank you so much, Gloria. Thank you for your insight. The news of Shanahan's departure coming as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was at Central Command talking about the recently announced new troop deployment to the Middle East and saying that the President does not want war with Iran.

Outgoing acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan announcing that deployment saying that the troops will be in the region for quote, "defensive purposes to address air, naval and ground-based threats." This is coming after that attack on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman near a strategic shipping lane, that the U.S. is blaming Iran for.

Hillary Mann Leverett is an expert on Iran and co-author of the book "Going to Tehran: Why America Must Accept the Islamic Republic of Iran." Thanks so much for joining us.

HILLARY MANN LEVERETT, AUTHOR: Thank you.

KEILAR: So given this departure that we're seeing from the Defense Secretary, can we read anything more into the fact that Pompeo was at Central Command today?

LEVERETT: I think we can and I think the new appointment of Mark Esper is very important in the intra-Trump administration dynamics related to Iran.

The Acting Secretary Shanahan was seen as someone very close to National Security adviser, John Bolton who is very ideologically militaristic, wants to overthrow the Iranian government. He's very much on the extreme, and Shanahan was reportedly working very closely with him.

Pompeo -- Secretary of State Pompeo, on the other hand, has had a more nuanced approach. He's left the door open for negotiations, and he seemed to pivot quite easily to wherever President Trump wants to go on Iran.

The appointment of Mark Esper is very important in this regard. Mark Esper was in the same West Point graduating class, as Secretary of State Pompeo, they're really from the same ilk. They both went to West Point together at the same time. They both left West Point and pursued higher education at Ivy League institutions.

Pompeo went to Harvard Law School and Mark Esper went to get his Masters at Harvard, and then he went on to get his PhD here at GW. So they're very much the same, I would say of the same ilk.

Mark Esper like Pompeo is very conservative in his Republican politics. He was at the Heritage Foundation here in Washington, D.C., but he is much more open to a nuanced approach. And so this gives Secretary Pompeo an ally potentially, in a pivot with Iran, away from a purely militaristic overthrow the government approach that John Bolton holds at the White House, so he is useful for Pompeo.

LEVERETT: Yes, and we're learning that the President has been skeptical about that approach as well, this going to war with Iran. He was in a meeting with his National Security team, and in an interview in "Time" Magazine, the President called the tanker attacks very minor. And he said this about going to war against Iran to protect international oil supplies, quote, "I would certainly go over nuclear weapons. And I would keep the other a question mark."

So he is saying this, as there's 1000 more troops and you have resources heading into the region. Is there a disconnect between the President and these other members of his administration? And is he trying to make it clear that there is?

LEVERETT: Well, I think John Bolton who serves as the National Security adviser and his very hard line position serves a useful purpose for President Trump. John Bolton gives credibility to Trump's position that he is willing to take the most maximum militaristic, violent position against Iran if Iran doesn't come back to the table. But at the same time, President Trump is open to negotiating with

Iran, yet again, to have a bigger, better deal as Trump President Trump terms it than President Obama got with Iran over the nuclear issue.

So I don't really see as much of a discontent as a lot of kind of commentators do. I think Bolton serves a useful purpose for Trump, but Trump needs advisers that he can go to when he wants to and as he wants to pivot toward a more negotiating stance with Iran.

Pompeo had serve that purpose with the North Koreans. He was Trump's personal channel when he was Director of the CIA to North Korea. Pompeo could potentially do that with Iran, but not on his own and not with Bolton as his single counterweight.

If he has a Secretary of Defense that leans more towards Pompeo that could help Trump have a more balanced approach among his advisers and help him potentially go into a negotiating track.

[15:15:10] LEVERETT: The other just small interesting detail here that I've heard is that the former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, who notoriously negotiated the grand opening to China has been at the Pentagon the past two days. I'm not sure who he's meeting with.

But again, there's another tidbit here that there is a path toward negotiation if Trump chooses to pursue it, and perhaps with this new acting Defense Secretary, he has more ammunition to do so.

KEILAR: All right, Hillary Leverett, thank you so much.

LEVERETT: Thank you.

KEILAR: Right now President Trump is preparing to arrive in Orlando where he is about to officially launch his 2020 reelection campaign, and he has already kicked it off with a surprise and a controversial threat to deport millions of undocumented immigrants.

Plus the heavily armed gunmen behind the shootout at a Dallas courthouse. What we know about his background and the gun that he used.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[14:20:52] KEILAR: Next hour, President Trump will head to Florida as he officially kicks off his 2020 campaign with a throwback to his last one. Today on Twitter, the President unveiled some stunning next steps in his fight against illegal immigration. He writes in part quote, "Next week, I.C.E. will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal immigrants who have illicitly found their way into the United States. They will be removed as fast as they come in."

Now what exactly this means and how such a massive operation would be carried out. It's really anyone's guests and by anyone, we mean people from the White House to the Department of Homeland Security, because CNN has learned that many of them were caught completely off guard by the President's tweet.

But while this new plan may be a surprise to his own administration, it is right in line with President Trump's tough talk on immigration.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists.

We have illegal immigrants that in many cases are treated better than our great veterans.

Countless Americans are killed by illegal immigrants because our government won't do its job.

But we have some bad hombres here and we're going to get them out.

They want to have illegal immigrants pouring into our country.

These aren't people, these are animals.

I refer to them as animals. And guess what? I always will.

The United States will not be a migrant camp.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: CNN's Abby Phillip is at the White House for us. So Abby, tell us how the Trump administration is scrambling to keep up with the President's announcement?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, Brianna, this is one of those things that usually the Trump administration says we don't talk about these kinds of operations before they happen, because that endangers the people on the ground who have to carry them out.

But what's happening right now is that they're trying to follow up on President Trump's claim that this is going to happen next week by basically saying that is not the case.

So the administration has long been considering a proposal to go after some of these families and individuals who have what they call a final order of deportation. That means they've gone through the whole legal process, they've seen a judge and the judge has ordered that they are removed.

But this operation has been in development for quite some time. They're not sure exactly when it's going to happen and some of the details of how it's going to happen really hadn't been worked out yet.

So administration officials today are scratching their heads as the President tweeted last night, it's going to happen next week. And it seems to be what President Trump was doing was signaling to his base, "Hey, I'm working on this issue." This is of course, one of the toughest promises that President Trump

has tried to fulfill to his base and he has not been able to wrap his arms around this problem of the flow of migrants coming up through the southern border. And so this message seems to be aimed at them as he is on the verge of relaunching his campaign tonight.

But at the same time, it's created a lot of problems for his administration. These types of operations are intended to be kept secret, they require really going in and getting people who are at their workplaces or in their homes. And they hadn't really even worked out how exactly that would happen.

And so President Trump has gotten ahead of them, and in some cases, may have jeopardized really the element of surprise here. And not only that, but also this has always been seen as one of those difficult issues for the administration in terms of public relations.

It is going to be an unprecedented kind of effort to round up these people, including entire families in their communities. And I think they have been bracing for that to be a tough public relations issue for them.

But President Trump is making that a very difficult situation, I think, a little bit more difficult here today, Brianna.

KEILAR: Everywhere else, we're getting some new polling out of Florida that could spark concerns for the Trump campaign. I want to ask you about that. Are they responding at all to that?

PHILLIP: Well, so far, we haven't gotten an official response from the campaign right now. But this is all coming at a time when President Trump is trying to claim that all the polls are wrong that his internal polls, and that the public polls wrong that he is doing extremely well, but this is yet another poll -- a public poll this time that shows the President trailing his Democratic rivals.

[15:25:10] PHILLIP: Joe Biden -- trailing Joe Biden by a significant margin, trailing Bernie Sanders, trailing Elizabeth Warren. And so this is yet another sign of concern in such a critical state, Florida where the President today is launching his reelection campaign, because of how important it is for his reelection prospects, that it's only going to, you know, I think build up even more anxiety on President Trump's part.

He has been tweeting about this non-stop for days. It has clearly angered him, but this is a real poll. We're looking at it and it exists and we're talking about it and I think the campaign is going to have no choice but to address what appears to be really signs of trouble for President Trump as he goes into his reelection campaign -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Abby Phillip, thank you so much for that report. Let's get to Raul Reyes. He is an immigration analyst and attorney and he's an opinion writer for cnn.com. A senior administration if is telling our CNN's Jim Acosta that the Department of Homeland Security is planning for an operation that would target undocumented families on a different scale.

So not what the President describes maybe not in this timeline he is describing which is next week. But what do you make of this?

RAUL REYES, CNN OPINION WRITER: Well, what I make of this is that we're just seeing more confusion from the White House. And to me, it's particularly striking because it comes around what's supposed to be his signature issue of illegal immigration.

When I saw the tweets that he sent out last night, you know, the things that jumped to mind is just how logistically legally and even policy-wise how problematic they all would be because legally as Abby mentioned, taking away the element of surprise for any of these types of raids undercuts their effectiveness in places immigration enforcement officials at risk.

In fact, remember, just last year, when the Mayor of Oakland Libby Schaaf, she told her community that she had heard rumors of an I.C.E. raid and at that time, the President members of his administration called for her criminal prosecution.

Now, the President himself is basically doing that by announcing that some raids might be happening as soon as next week. And logistically, we don't know that any of these raids, even at a smaller scale, could even happen because so many of I.C.E.'s and our immigration enforcement mechanisms are currently assisting the Border Patrol and being deployed at the southern border, helping them that it doesn't seem to me that they have the necessary resources to go forward and carry out this type of operation.

And finally, just in terms of policy, this is in line with the Trump administration's overall policy of deterrence. But step back for a moment and remember, deterrence did not work when this administration separated families. It did not work when he threatened to close up the whole border or to impose tariffs.

Now, he is threatening these types of raids, hoping to scare people and again, it's just sort of a cover for his policies that have really been a failure and remember that under the Trump the administration, the arrivals at our southern border that are unauthorized have surged.

KEILAR: All right, Raul Reyes, thank you so much.

REYES: My pleasure.

KEILAR: And first on CNN, we've learned the DHS, the political appointee, Katharine Gorka is going to be named the new Press Secretary for Customs and Border Protection.

Gorka's tenure in Homeland Security has been a bit controversial because of her views on combating terrorism. She's also notably married to Sebastian Gorka, the former Deputy Assistant to President Trump, who was an outspoken and combative defender of Trump's National Security agenda, sharing some of the same criticism that his wife does have her and we have Jessica Schneider, our Justice correspondent who has more on this announcement. What else have you learned?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, we have learned that Katharine Gorka, she will be stepping into this role as the top spokesperson, the public face for Customs and Border Protection, but really she's been a flashpoint of controversy within DHS.

She sparked pushback for her views on terrorism and for the department's efforts to combat violent extremism in the U.S. and most specifically, prior to joining DHS, Katharine Gorka actually wrote extensively for Breitbart.

She spoke out against terrorism, blaming and lashing out at President Bush and President Obama for what she called a lax stance on terrorism. And interestingly, she has faced a lot of pushback within DHS, because she was part of this office on policy on violent extremism.

As part of that office, they actually cut a grant, cut some funding that would have worked to rehabilitate white supremacist, there was question about actually cutting that grant. So she's faced some pushback for that as well.

So her role at DHS has continually been questioned and of course, she is married to Sebastian Gorka, former Deputy Assistant to the President who has been a fierce defender of the President's National Security agenda, but at the same time, Gorka does have defenders within DHS.

We talked to one who said that they are ready for her to become spokesperson at Customs and Border Protection. But of course, CBP has taken on this heightened importance. She will be the front face, the public persona of this at the same time that --

[14:30:10]

END