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Crowds Filling Arena For Trump Reelection Rally; Trump Denies Vetting Problem With Acting Secretary Of Defense; House Judiciary Committee Plans To Question Hope Hicks About Hush Money; Interview With Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI) About Lack Of Experienced Leadership At Defense Department; Trump Claims Millions Of Deportations Planned For Next Week; New Poll: Biden, Sanders, Warren Lead Trump in Florida; Iran Claims Ability To Strike U.S. Aircraft Carriers; Manafort Avoids Notorious Jail After Unusual Intervention By Deputy Attorney General. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired June 18, 2019 - 17:00   ET

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


[17:00:00]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: It's been a bit overshadowed by the acting Defense Secretary, Patrick Shanahan, withdrawing from consideration for the official job.

That's it for THE LEAD. You can follow me on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, @JakeTapper, tweet the show @TheLeadCNN. Our coverage on CNN continues right now. Thanks for watching.

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WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news: countdown to launch. President Trump is just hours from officially kicking off his 2020 presidential campaign with a rally in Florida, where supporters have lined up for hours and where a new poll shows him trailing top Democratic rivals.

Out of the running: the president's pick to lead the Pentagon withdraws his nomination and resigns his post as details of a contentious divorce threaten to complication confirmation, leaving the country still without a permanent Defense Secretary amid growing international crises.

Iran's new warning: heated rhetoric gets hotter as a top Iranian military leader claims Iran's ballistic missiles are capable of striking a U.S. aircraft carrier, one of which is in the region right now, amid increasing tension with Tehran.

And Manafort's prison move: former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort's expected transfer to a notorious New York jail is apparently scrapped after an unusual intervention by the Justice Department, leaving him housed instead in the same facility with the drug lord known as El Chapo.

I'm Wolf Blitzer and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news. The acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan withdrawing his nomination for the permanent post and resigning the Pentagon effective Friday amid reports detailing his contentious divorce, which Shanahan calls in a statement a traumatic chapter in his family's life.

President Trump just said that he didn't ask Shanahan to withdraw and that he only recently learned of his background issues. Right now the president is on his way to Orlando, a rally there officially kicking off his re-election campaign, as a new poll shows him trailing some top Democratic presidential candidates in Florida.

As he left the White House, the president again claimed plans for deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants starting next week, a claim that caught Homeland Security officials off guard. They say there is an operation in the works for next month but on a much, much smaller scale.

We'll talk about the breaking news and much more this hour with Congressman Dan Kildee of the Ways and Means Committee. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go to our senior White House Correspondent, Pamela Brown.

Another shake-up in the Trump administration and the critical post of Defense Secretary has now been vacant for six months.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Yes, that is right, Wolf. President Trump speaking moments ago here at the White House, claims he found out just yesterday about the Shanahan allegations.

I asked him if that caused concern about the White House vetting process and he denied there are any issues with the vetting process, despite Shanahan now being one of multiple individuals withdrawing from consideration for a post after being announced.

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BROWN (voice-over): Tonight President Trump heading to Florida to launch his re-election campaign but leaving behind turmoil, as his acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan announces he's stepping down.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I didn't ask him to withdraw but he walked in this morning and he said it is going to be a rough time for him because of obviously what happened. But I did not ask him to withdraw.

BROWN (voice-over): Trump tweeting that Shanahan has decided not to go forward with his confirmation process so that he can devote more time to his family and that Secretary of the Army, Mark Esper, will be the new acting secretary. TRUMP: We put Mark Esper in. Mark is highly experienced. I think he's going to fit in very easily.

BROWN (voice-over): An administration official tells CNN the White House is growing increasingly concerned that Shanahan's messy divorce could turn into a PR disaster. Pointing to former White House Staff Secretary, Rob Porter, who was forced to resign after abuse allegations from both of his former wives.

Shanahan and his ex-wife had accused each other of assault nearly a decade ago. She was the only one arrested after the incident but the charges were later dropped.

TRUMP: No, we have a very good vetting process and you take a look at our cabinet and our secretary is very good. But we have a great vetting process. But this is something that came up a little bit over the last short period of time. And, as you know, Pat was acting.

BROWN (voice-over): The president was also having second thoughts about nominating Shanahan since he lacked military experience and has a more reserved demeanor, the official says.

Shanahan's announcement leaves the Pentagon without a permanent leader less than a day after the decision to send more troops to the Middle East amid increasing tensions with Iran.

MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We talked about the CENTCOM decision that Secretary Shanahan and the president approved to move a thousand more Americans --

[17:05:00]

POMPEO: -- into theater to make sure that we're in a position to do the right thing.

BROWN (voice-over): The president tonight also reverting back to themes from his 2016 campaign, vowing a mass immigration crackdown.

TRUMP: And they're going to start next week. And when people come into our country and they come in illegally, they have to go out.

BROWN (voice-over): Saying, "Next week ICE will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States."

That announcement coming as a surprise to Homeland Security and ICE officials, sources tell CNN.

An senior immigration official saying, "There is no operation next week to pick up millions. No clue where he, Trump, got that impression."

The official said there are tentative plans for an operation to pick up families who did not show up for immigration hearings but the list doesn't include millions and the timing is still up in the air. The president's immigration rant coming as he officially kicks off his

2020 campaign tonight, some supporters camping out hours before the arrival. But not everyone is welcoming the president.

The "Orlando Sentinel" out with an op-ed, announcing its endorsement for 2020 is not Donald Trump.

And while president considers Florida his second home, it is a battleground state that Trump won in 2016 by 1.2 percent. Just hours before his arrival, a new Quinnipiac poll in Florida out today, showing President Trump trailing Democratic front-runner Joe Biden by 9 points and Senator Bernie Sanders by 6 points.

Trump recently fired his internal pollsters and has rejected any polls that show him trailing his opponents and claims his polls show him leading in all 17 swing states.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: And as for who could be the next Defense Secretary, President Trump said he will most likely nominate Mark Esper to the post and he says he will do it pretty soon. Meantime, we're seeing this arena here in Florida, where the president is headed right now for his reelection launch. He'll be attending that rally there this evening -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Pamela Brown reporting for us from the White House, thanks, Pamela.

Let's get more on the sudden departure of the acting Defense Secretary, Patrick Shanahan. Our Pentagon Correspondent, Barbara Starr, is working the story for us.

Barbara, what more are you learning about these incidents in Shanahan's past?

And how is he responding?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we know the acting secretary came to work here at the Pentagon this morning, as one official said, "in a very bad space."

He knew that a number of news stories were coming out in detail. And he had grown increasingly concerned about the impact of all of this on his children. He has three children.

In fact, when he resigned, he said it was more important to him to be a good father than Secretary of Defense. Important to remember in Washington, there are often families and children at stake in these controversies.

The police reports indicated that there were domestic abuse incidents; not clear how much the FBI knew about it. We simply don't know. His wife was arrested for one of them. Shanahan said he had the charges dropped against her. There was another incident involving one of his sons in a domestic

abuse incident with his mother, a very difficult business. The secretary making the decision that he felt he could not go forward with a confirmation hearing if this was going to further be a public issue that he didn't want his children to have to live through that again -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara, the president said he's naming the Secretary of the Army Mark Esper to be the new acting Defense Secretary. Tell us about that.

STARR: Well, Esper is very well known around the defense industry and the Pentagon and with the generals and admirals at the most senior levels. As Secretary of the Army, he's in charge of training and equipping soldiers to be ready to deploy.

But now as acting Defense Secretary, he is going to have to get briefed up very quickly by the time he takes charge on Friday. He is going to have to know everything that a Secretary of Defense knows, the launching of nuclear weapons, how to send Special Operations covert teams into combat, how to brief the president, the latest threat information at the highest levels of classification on North Korea, Russia, China, Iran, all of it.

And as we've discussed, Wolf, right now, it is certainly an extraordinary thing. No permanent Defense Secretary in the United States for the U.S. military for six -- the last six months.

The military will move on. It always does. It knows its job. This will not be a crisis for troops out on the line. But it is a question of how the military is perceived around the world, that there is permanent leadership, that there are people in the job able to make those quick decisions, able to brief the president. We will see if Esper gets the job full time. That is very uncertain at this point -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Could be a few more months before there is a permanent Defense Secretary. Barbara Starr, thank you very much.

There's more breaking news we're following. CNN has learned that the House Judiciary Committee --

[17:10:00]

BLITZER: -- plans to question President Trump's long time confidante and aide Hope Hicks tomorrow about the hush money schemes to cover up Trump's alleged extramarital affairs.

Let's go to our Senior Congressional Correspondent, Manu Raju, he is up on Capitol Hill.

Manu, you're getting new information from your sources.

What are you learning about the line of questioning Hope Hicks is about to face from lawmakers? MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we expect a confrontation between the White House and House Democrats tomorrow behind closed doors tomorrow. We're now learning the White House has sent a letter to the House Judiciary Committee, asserting immunity, saying Hope Hicks is a high-level adviser, doesn't have to testify about topics that occurred during her time in the White House.

This is a similar tactic that they used for Don McGahn, the former White House counsel, to prevent his testimony. Now after Hope Hicks agreed to go behind closed doors to testify, they're saying she doesn't have to respond to the questions.

Now what we're learning is that they do plan to ask her about questions at her time -- during her time in the White House. This is the way things laid out in the Mueller report, particularly five instances of alleged obstruction of justice that occurred.

I'm told that that includes the president's conduct around his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, his efforts allegedly to fire the special counsel, to actually undercut the special counsel's investigation as well as the handling and firing of James Comey as the FBI director and then also how the president apparently tried to get Jeff Sessions, who was then the attorney general, to unrecuse himself to oversee the Mueller probe.

Those are among the questions that the Democrats plan to ask tomorrow. That occurred during the time in the White House so the White House will now say she doesn't have to answer those questions.

In addition to her role in 2017, to issue a statement that was ultimately turned out to be misleading about the Trump Tower meeting that occurred in 2016, between Donald Trump Jr. and Russians over the offering of dirt on the Clinton campaign.

But there are questions during the campaign season that are bound to come up. We have learned that she plans to be asked questions about what she knows about that hush money scheme that the president was allegedly involved with to silence those affairs, alleged extramarital affairs occurring in the run-up to the 2016 elections, those payments that occurred in the run-up to the 2016 elections. She will be asked questions about that as well and those are questions that the White House presumably cannot seek to block, cannot invoke executive privilege or say she's immune from testifying.

So we'll see what new light she sheds on those topics even as the Democrats are pushing forward to learn more about these allegations of obstruction of justice that we're now learning the White House is saying she will not have to answer.

BLITZER: Manu Raju on Capitol Hill, thanks very much.

Let's get some more on all of this. Democratic Congressman Dan Kildee of Michigan is joining us. He's a member of the Ways and Means Committee.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us. Let me get right to the issue of the acting Defense Secretary, what does it tell you that Patrick Shanahan was confirmed as deputy Defense Secretary by the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly, nominated as Defense Secretary despite these serious incidents going back to an ugly divorce?

REP. DAN KILDEE (D-MI): Yes, I mean I think the problem is larger than that although I understand the point, he was confirmed in the position that he's in.

But there are very few positions like the Secretary of Defense, the authority that that position carries and the fact that the entirety of the U.S. military is under the direction of a Secretary of Defense makes it, I think, a higher bar.

But having said that, I think the larger problem is that we have an acting government. We've had, for six months, an acting Secretary of Defense, we have an acting Secretary of Homeland Security, we have an acting White House chief of staff, at a time when we face fairly significant threats.

Some of those threats are the result of the president's own doing. Certainly his approach to Iran, I think, has made things less secure and less safe, even though we know they're bad actors.

This is a time, I guess the point is, where we need adults in the room. We need professionals with experience. My criticism of Mr. Shanahan has little to do with anything related to his private life. But the fact that he never really served in government or served in the military capacity and now would be nominated for a position where he is essentially the top person in all of the U.S. military infrastructure.

I don't know where the president finds these people. But this is certainly not the A team on the field.

BLITZER: As you point out, it's been what nearly six months since there was a confirmed Defense Secretary.

How do you believe that impacts the administration's ability to handle these rising tensions, for example, with Iran?

KILDEE: Well, it is worrisome. Because at a time when we need a steady hand, with experience, that understands this threat but also understands the array of responses that we need to have at our availability to deal with a belligerent Iran, we have people who are essentially --

[17:15:00]

KILDEE: not ready for prime time. And especially at this point in time to think that Mr. Bolton really is now in the principal position of whispering in the president's ear his policy choices with no experienced leadership at the Defense Department, it is pretty frightening.

BLITZER: The other big news we're following, President Trump now threatening to deport what he calls millions of undocumented migrants starting next week. He tweeted next week ICE will begin the process of removing millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States.

How seriously do you take this threat from the president?

KILDEE: Well, I don't like the language that the president uses. I don't like it when he says these things but I've come to put them in a different place. The president's actions speak louder than words. He says a lot of things.

And the way I read that particular statement is that he's warming up the audience in Florida for his 7:30 rally tonight. He's using the office of the White House, the office of the presidency, he's using statements about policy made by the president of the United States to advance his campaign and to whip up the crowd when he shows up in Florida.

And I see it only as having that effect and only for that purpose.

BLITZER: You've now come out in favor of launching formal impeachment proceedings against the president in the House of Representatives.

What led you to that decision?

KILDEE: Well, it was a careful review of the Mueller report. It was spending a weekend with my grandchildren and asking myself the question, in 15 or 20 years, how am I going to be able to answer the question of what I did to stop a president who ignores the rule of law, ignores the Constitution?

And the idea that I would explain it away by saying, well, the political calculations back in 2019 were this wasn't necessarily going to be good or bad for the Democratic Party.

Look, the long view of history is not going to be so complicated. We take a step back and see we have a president who is ignoring the law and ignoring the Constitution and the framers anticipated that we use the tools necessary to protect the Constitution and protect the rule of law. And that is what I feel like we have to do.

BLITZER: As you know, this position you've now staked out that you've taken puts you in direct odds with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

What is your message to her?

KILDEE: Well, she has a different responsibility and that is to lead the entire caucus. Look, she understands what is going on with this president. We may have differences in terms of tactic or timing as to how we do this. But I've not seen another leader stand up to him in as tough a fashion and as smart a fashion as she has.

So I sympathize with the position that she's in. But one of the things that I know about the Speaker is when it comes to these really critical questions, that requires us to search our own souls and our conscience, she knows that members have to come to their own conclusions. And we all do that on our own timetable. So she respects the decisions that members make on questions like this

even though it might not be a united or a unanimous caucus on this particular point.

BLITZER: You just heard those new details, Manu Raju reporting from Capitol Hill, about Hope Hicks' appearance before the House Judiciary Committee tomorrow. CNN's Pamela Brown and Manu are also getting new reporting that the White House is going to assert immunity over her time at the White House.

Is that a reasonable use of that kind of presidential power?

KILDEE: I don't believe that it is. I think the president is -- sees himself as having unilateral authority, is an imperial presidency. And I think this is one of the reasons, Wolf, that I came to the conclusion that I did and that is that the normal process or the normal path of providing oversight over the executive branch is being blocked at every turn.

When we can't get subpoenas answered or have people answer questions about very serious issues that we need to know answers, that the American people need to know answers to, then we have to go to the Constitution and look at what the framers put in place.

And there is no doubt that an impeachment inquiry is a legitimate legislative inquiry and that they would have to answer questions, they would have to show up and they would have to comply with subpoenas. And we would get the answers to the questions we need answered, no matter what the outcome would be. There is a public benefit, there is public value to the kind of transparency that that process would provide.

BLITZER: Congressman Dan Kildee, thanks for joining us.

KILDEE: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: The breaking news continues. Next, we're awaiting the arrival of President Trump in Orlando, Florida, for his campaign launch rally amid very serious questions about his claim that millions of deportations could be beginning as early as next week.

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[17:20:00]

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BLITZER: Breaking news: President Trump is on the way to Florida right now to relaunch his re-election campaign but not before doubling down on a confusing claim about beginning immigration deportations next week. Let's get more analysis from our experts.

And, Gloria, first a political question, he'll be delivering this campaign speech later tonight in Orlando. Supposedly he wants to take away some of the spotlight --

[17:25:00]

BLITZER: -- from the Democratic presidential candidates.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, he might, a little bit this evening. He's apparently been very upset that the networks -- the cable networks have dared to run the other candidates speaking and that FOX has done town halls with Democrats, of all things.

So he's looked at the polls, even though he said they are fake, they're not. They're early but they're not fake. And so clearly he wants to get some of the shine back on his face. And he will get it.

And there will be lines in Orlando as there are and he'll have a lot of fans in Orlando as there are. And it is a state that he understands is very important for him to win. And so, yes, he'll get a lot of publicity.

But if you ask most people out there, has the president -- is this the start of the president's reelection campaign?

Or did it actually start the day after he got elected and hasn't he been out there campaigning?

Most people will say, gee, I thought he was out there campaigning for months and months.

BLITZER: And this Orlando rally follows a tweet that he posted. The first sentence about this, "Next week ICE will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who illicitly found their way into the United States."

Clearly I think the timing of this is related to what he wants to do tonight.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. And it is one of several similar pronouncements that the president has made within the last week. All of which we don't know if these things are actually happening.

Just remember, last week he said that he was going to name a border czar, Tom Homan. And my sources told me they weren't close to being done with the decision-making process of what the job would even be and who would be in it before the president announced it.

And now today he's announcing raids that our sources are also telling us were not in fact scheduled for next week and there was no definite date certain as to when something like this would even happen.

And so President Trump is getting ahead of his skis a little bit but partly in an effort to just signal to his supporters. This is where he comes back every time when he wants to retake the narrative, he wants to retake the attention, especially in the media, because it is all so controversial. And it is important to his supporters because, frankly, he's not

actually fulfilled this promise to his base. And this is one way that he could tell them, hey, I'm working on it.

BLITZER: John Kirby, the president was asked as he was leaving the White House to board Marine One that -- he was asked that these immigration officials, they don't know what you are talking about.

And he said, well they know, they know and they're going to start next week. And when people come into our country and they come in illegally, they have to go out. There seems to be a lot of confusion of what the president is trying to achieve.

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: They know now, I guess. Putting aside legitimate questions about the moral foundations of these raids, to the degree you want something like that to happen and be successful, you don't telegraph it on Twitter like that, certainly not before there is an interagency coordination process and people know what they are supposed to do.

So to whatever degree he expects this to be happening and be successful, he's pretty much torpedoed the idea or torpedoes his success --

(CROSSTALK)

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: They attacked the mayor of Oakland for exactly this same behavior that the president did himself in a tweet.

KIRBY: I think like what Abby said, I think this is all about tonight.

I really don't think -- I don't know that he --

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: What is happening tonight?

Is something happening tonight?

KIRBY: I just think this is just red meat for the supporters. I don't think he really even thought about whether he's going to do them or whether --

BLITZER: The core issue since he announced exactly almost four years ago with this whole illegal immigration issue.

BROWNSTEIN: I think this tweet today tells you more about his reelection strategy than anything he is going to say tonight.

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: -- remember during the midterms, he promised, oh, wait a minute, I'm going to do a tax cut before the midterm election.

What happened to that?

BROWNSTEIN: He believes -- what this tweet tells you is he believes the way to win is to gin up his base, is to energize his base and he believes the key to energizing his base is immigration, as Abby said. That is what he comes back to all the time whenever he has to consolidate his base.

His problem, though, Wolf, is that he is under -- there still are swing voters and he is underperforming with them significantly relative to their views of the economy and the kind of thing that he's envisioning here could actually happen.

If there were raids in Chicago and Houston and Dallas, where school kids come home and find their undocumented parents gone, what he is doing to try to gin up his base would exacerbate what I think is demonstrably his bigger problem, which is he's underperforming with voters in the center of the electorate who are otherwise satisfied with the economy.

PHILLIP: And you know who agrees with you, Ron?

The president's own campaign advisers, who would prefer that he tell the American public what he's done for them as it relates to economy. The president cannot stay on message on that topic. So he always veers back to immigration.

BROWNSTEIN: Everything looks like -- when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like it's --

BLITZER: Everybody, stand by for a moment. We have got a lot more to discuss, much more on all the breaking news right after this.

[17:30:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're back with our experts over here.

And, Ron, you're an expert on these polls, the Quinnipiac poll in Florida today.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes.

BLITZER: Look at these numbers. Hypothetical contest, Joe Biden versus President Trump -- Biden, 50 percent; Trump, 41 percent; Bernie Sanders, 48 percent to Trump, 42 percent; Elizabeth Warren, 47 percent to 43 percent for Trump.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes.

BLITZER: At least today this snapshot --

BROWNSTEIN: Right.

BLITZER: -- Trump's not doing well in Florida.

BROWNSTEIN: Now, it's probably a little optimistic for Democrats. I don't think there's any Democrat who imagines that they're going to win Florida by nine points. It's going to be decided by a point in the end, and it's probably been getting a little harder for Democrats in the last few years.

[17:35:02] But I think what is revealing in this -- in this poll is what you just pointed to, is that Donald Trump is at 43, 42, 41, 44. He is at or below his approval rating against any Democrat which is what we're seeing both in national polls and in other states.

The idea there is some vast army of voters out there who disapprove of the President but are going to vote for him anyway because he makes the Democrats so scary, that is, I think, very hard to square either against historical evidence or what we're seeing in the polls.

His biggest risk, as we were just talking about, is that despite the satisfaction with the economy, there is a lot of voters who say the economy is great, I don't approve of the way he comports himself as president, I don't approve of his policies. I think that is the real lesson to him in this poll.

BORGER: Well, and, you know, this poll shows that 54 percent of Florida voters say that they're better off financially than they were in 2016.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes.

BORGER: And yet you still see Trump losing to these Democratic candidates.

BROWNSTEIN: Quinnipiac gave me the numbers today. A quarter of the people who say they are better off say they are going to vote for Joe Biden over Donald Trump. That is extraordinary by historics (ph), and you don't see that many economically satisfied people vote against the party in power.

And I think it is both a question of whether they feel that they're personally benefiting but also more the doubts about his values, his judgment, the volatility --

PHILLIP: Yes.

BROWNSTEIN: -- the way he comports himself as president. By the way, the raids are exactly the kind of thing that compound the problem, that he thinks he's solving by turning out more of his own voters.

BLITZER: What did you think, getting back to the Acting Defense Secretary, Patrick Shanahan, the way that nomination collapsed today?

KIRBY: Yes, all of a sudden. I mean, just really fast, isn't it? I mean, I think -- I mean, I don't know all the ins and outs here, but it is clear that, I think, Mr. Shanahan felt like he just couldn't get through what was going to be a pretty bruising confirmation battle now that those stories about the family came out.

It sounds like he's made the right decision. I'm a little curious as to, though, why we're just now finding out about it. I mean, there is -- he was never nominated. The FBI checks were never completed, so it's a little bit surprising to me that this hasn't risen to the surface before. And I think --

BLITZER: Because, Abby, as the President was leaving the White House --

PHILLIP: Yes.

BLITZER: -- he insisted that the Trump administration has a, quote, very good vetting process.

PHILLIP: Which is demonstratively false, it's just not true. I mean, the fact is this has been an administration who, candidate after candidate after candidate, has not vetted them. Many of them have had to withdraw before they even face Senate confirmation or withdrawn afterward, and this is just the latest example of that. But, you know, I think there are, as John said, more questions than answered about what really happened here.

It's clear that Shanahan was aware of his own -- obviously, his own background and that he was aware that people were looking into it as early as January, according to "The Washington Post." And yet the President, in the last several weeks, announced that he would be the -- his permanent pick for that job in spite of all of that.

It's hard to believe that that would happen in a normal White House, that someone in the White House wouldn't know about these allegations and decide, affirmatively, how they were going to deal with it. The President said today he didn't know until yesterday. Again, that is not a normal scenario.

BORGER: Yes.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

KIRBY: And yet --

PHILLIP: You've got to know that things like these are on someone's background.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes.

KIRBY: And yet still has nominated him for, like, seven weeks. I mean --

BORGER: Well, that's because the FBI had not finished its process.

KIRBY: Yes.

BORGER: They had to keep putting off the confirmation hearings. And, you know, I was just looking this up. Trump has had to withdraw 62 nominees.

KIRBY: Wow.

BORGER: And that's a lot. That's double what Obama withdrew at this point in his -- in his presidency. He had those two Fed nominees -- remember Ronny Jackson for the V.A.?

BROWNSTEIN: Yes.

BORGER: Labor Secretary, I could go on. He -- you know, they don't have a great vetting process. One would argue they have almost no vetting process.

BLITZER: That's right. And look -- look at the --

PHILLIP: I think they're starting to realize (ph) --

BLITZER: Look at this --

BROWNSTEIN: Yes.

BLITZER: -- the graphic we'll show you. These are all the Trump administration members who are now serving as acting secretaries.

BORGER: Yes.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes.

BLITZER: Acting roles.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes, it's part -- look, it is, you know, part of the boiling of the frog in terms of how many processes that we thought were sacrosanct in our government that are subtly, steadily being eroded. And, ultimately, it is the Republican Senate that is acquiescing in this shift of authority, this diminution of the confirmation authority of the Congress, that is allowing him to do this.

BLITZER: All right, everybody, stand by because there are more news we're following, including some more breaking news amid new threats from a top Iranian military official. President Trump says the United States is now well prepared for a potential confrontation.

[17:39:16] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The breaking news. A powerful Iranian military commander claims his forces have developed the capability to strike American aircraft carriers with ballistic missiles. President Trump says the United States is very prepared to confront Iran but stopped short of committing to military action.

Our Senior International Correspondent, Fred Pleitgen has the story. He's joining us from the Iranian capital of Tehran. Fred, give us the very latest.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: All right, Wolf. Yes, this was probably the most senior Iranian military figure, the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps.

And he says that Iran has been testing ballistic missiles at sea and managed to hit a target that's about two-thirds the size of a U.S. aircraft carrier. And he says that the Iranians are continuing develop -- to develop ballistic missile technology and have already come a long way to make those missiles more advanced.

Now, of course, all of this rhetoric, Wolf, coming at a time that the Iranians are very closely monitoring those U.S. steps to send additional troops here to the greater Middle Eastern region.

And another senior Iranian military leader said that they're watching this very closely. And he said, if there is a move on the part of the U.S. military, that there would be a crushing response from the Iranians. And he said that that response would happen in a very large area.

[17:45:02] And that's a not-so-thinly-veiled threat that the Iranians, if there is a shooting war with the U.S., would not only use their conventional military but would also use all of those proxy militias that are loyal to them in the entire greater Middle Eastern region, Wolf.

BLITZER: The Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, Fred, he said today that President Trump does not want war and that their pressure campaign against Iran is working. What's the reaction over there?

PLEITGEN: Well, the Iranians clearly don't believe that that pressure campaign is working at all. It's quite interesting because Hassan Rouhani, the country's president, today, went to an event and said that, first of all, Iran does not want an escalation with the U.S.

But he also told the people there that one of the things they need to be aware of is that the Iranians are dealing with people in Washington who really are very inexperienced, a clear swipe at the Trump administration.

And if you look at this maximum pressure campaign, there are essentially two things that President Trump said it would achieve very quickly. He said the Iranians would come back to the negotiating table, and they would be weakened militarily in the Middle Eastern region.

Well, the Iranians, just last week, in the form of the supreme leader, absolutely rejected talks with the Trump administration. And their military, clearly, from its posture, is as strong as it was at any time before, Wolf.

BLITZER: Fred Pleitgen in Tehran for us. We'll stay in very close touch with you. Thank you very much.

Just ahead, why did a top official at the Justice Department intervene to keep former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort out of an infamous New York prison?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:51:11] BLITZER: An unusual intervention by the Deputy Attorney General is keeping former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort out of a notorious New York jail. Brian Todd is working the story for us.

Brian, Manafort, he was expected to be held at Rikers Island. BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He was, Wolf. And Manafort's lawyers

were worried about that, concerned about his health. Tonight, Manafort's being held at another facility in New York, a slight upgrade from Rikers Island. But now, there are questions about whether the Trump administration is applying pressure to give Paul Manafort preferable treatment.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Manafort, did you commit a crime?

TODD (voice-over): Paul Manafort seemed destined to be heading to one of America's most feared lockups, Rikers Island jail in New York, known for its brutal conditions and accusations of excessive force by guards.

For a man used to million-dollar homes in the Hamptons in Florida, who wore python and ostrich skin jackets, and whose health is a concern with his lawyers, it would have been daunting.

But tonight, Donald Trump's former campaign chairman is, instead, currently being housed at a federal prison in Manhattan, the Metropolitan Correctional Center. That's after Attorney General William Barr's deputy, Jeffrey Rosen, intervened.

Rosen wrote to the Manhattan District Attorney, seeking his input on where Manafort should be held.

ELIE HONIG, FORMER ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY, SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK: It is extraordinarily unusual and perhaps even entirely unprecedented for somebody as high-ranking as the Deputy Attorney General to get personally involved in the designation of one particular inmate.

TODD (voice-over): Another former prosecutor says the risk here is the optic of special treatment for Manafort.

SHANLON WU, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: If I were Manafort's attorneys, I would read this as a very hopeful message that the President and, by extension, the A.G. may still be looking out for us. They haven't forgotten about us.

TODD (voice-over): Two weeks ago, a source told CNN, prosecutors in New York were trying to move Manafort from the federal prison where he was being held in Pennsylvania to New York, possibly Rikers. Now, Manhattan D.A. Cy Vance says he never took a position on whether Manafort should be at Rikers.

This federal prison in New York where Manafort is being held now is the same facility where convicted drug cartel chief, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is being held. Experts say while MCC is not Rikers, it's no picnic for the 70-year-old Manafort.

ED GAVIN, RETIRED DEPUTY WARDEN, NEW YORK CITY DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTION: It's a small jail, it's overcrowded, and it is cramped. And I don't know that they have a wing for protective custody, individuals like Paul Manafort, because we don't have a lot of prisoners like Paul Manafort.

TODD (voice-over): Manafort is serving a 7-1/2-year sentence after being convicted on federal charges of bank fraud, tax fraud, and lobbying violations. He's now awaiting trial on several New York State charges including mortgage fraud. President Trump can't pardon Manafort on those state charges but could pardon him for the federal conviction.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you ruling out a pardon for Manafort?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't even discuss it. I had -- the only one discussing it is you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: On the question of whether political optics played a role in where Paul Manafort is being jailed, a senior Justice Department official tells CNN, the Department decided to err on the side of caution and keep Manafort at that federal jail in New York simply because New York prosecutors didn't object to that proposal from Manafort's lawyers.

The official said the reason the Justice Department checked with the New York prosecutors on this was because Manafort's lawyers, who were concerned about his health, told the Bureau of Prisons they were worried about him being moved to Rikers. So, Wolf, we'll see how long he stays at that Manhattan Correctional facility.

BLITZER: Let's see how long he winds up in jail. It's almost about a year already that he's been in jail.

TODD: Right.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting, thank you very much.

There's more breaking news. Next, the White House asserts immunity for President Trump's longtime confidant and aide, Hope Hicks, as House Democrats prepare to grill her about the hush money scandal.

[17:54:57] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. 2020 spotlight. President Trump is about to officially kick off his re-election bid with a cloud over his landing in Florida this hour. A new poll shows he's trailing top Democrats in that all-important battleground state.