Return to Transcripts main page


Labor Secretary Acosta Resigns Amid Furor Over Epstein Case; House May Delay Mueller Testimony by 1 Week; Louisiana Braces for Impact as Tropical Storm Barry Gains Strength, Moves Closer. Aired 11- 11:30a ET

Aired July 12, 2019 - 11:00   ET



[11:00:24] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. Thank you so much for joining me.

We are following breaking news on a number of front this hour in what is turning out to be yet another wild Friday in Washington. Buckle up, friends.

Another cabinet secretary out.

And some of the most-highly anticipated congressional testimony this year and beyond, it now may be postponed. CNN learning that the House Judiciary Committee is considering pushing back the blockbuster hearing from Special Counsel Bob Mueller. After months of negotiations, that big moment was finally set for Wednesday, next week. And now this morning, who knows. We're going to have more on that in just a moment.

But first, another Trump cabinet member is gone. The president announcing that Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta is resigning. And announcing it with Alexander Acosta standing right by his side.

This comes amid mounting calls for Acosta's resignation because of new scrutiny of his handling of a secret plea deal for sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein, a decade ago when he was a U.S. attorney.

The president has all along stood by his labor secretary. And was standing right by him today.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The fact is, he has been a fantastic secretary of labor. And Alex called me this morning and he wanted to see me. And I actually said, well, we have the press right out here, so perhaps you just want to say it to the press. But I just want to let you know, this was him, not me. Because I'm with him.


BOLDUAN: But there's more to it than that.

Let's start with CNN's Sarah Westwood. She's in Milwaukee where the president is headed right now.

Sarah, the president says that he didn't want to see Acosta go. What are you hearing from behind the scenes?

SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, this is sort of a remarkable turnaround from the president. Earlier this week, vocally praising his labor secretary, saying that he planned to stand by his secretary, to announcing the resignation of Alexander Acosta.

But a White House official tells our colleague, Jim Acosta, that privately there were concerns with the president, among his aides, that there would just be more disclosures to come. That the more Acosta's involvement in the 2007-2008 plea deal that Jeffrey Epstein received in Florida was scrutinized, the more that people would learn about Acosta's involvement, the more scrutiny would be brought on the administration, and this was a way to end what could be a distraction.

President Trump had privately gone from praising Acosta, urging him to defend himself to questioning. Whether that press conference that Acosta gave earlier this week had done enough to explain that extremely lenient plea deal. And also questioning about victims in that case weren't notified of the deal that Acosta struck with Epstein and his defense team. That is one of the most controversial aspects of that deal.

And President Trump, learning more details about that, the fact that those details were withheld from victims at the time, he became more and more concerned.

Secretary Acosta standing beside the president today on the South Lawn of the White House said it was he who volunteered his own resignation, saying he did not want to become a distraction for the White House. Take a listen.


ALEXANDER ACOSTA, FORMER LABOR SECRETARY: I called the president this morning. I told him that I thought the right thing was to step aside.

Cabinet positions are temporary trusts. It would be selfish for me to stay in this position and continue talking about a case that's 12 years old rather than about the amazing economy we have right now.

And so I submitted my resignation to the president, effective seven days from today, effective one week from today, earlier this morning.


WESTWOOD: Now, this comes as President Trump also trying to distance himself from his one-time social relationship that he reportedly had with Epstein, acknowledging that he kicked Jeffrey Epstein out of his Mar-a-Lago club, has had been reported, saying that he had some sort of unspecified falling out with Epstein years ago. So President Trump trying to put some distance between him and that relationship as well. This comes after President Trump requested that Acosta do that press

conference earlier this year to come out and explain the details of that case. Although it certainly wasn't enough to persuade those who had been calling for Acosta's resignation that this was an OK deal.

And obviously, we know what happens next. Now the president will have yet another vacancy in his cabinet with high-level vacancies across his administration at the moment already -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: And now mounting.

Sarah, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

Joining me right now is CNN chief political correspondent, Dana Bash, senior political reporter, Nia-Malika Henderson, and White House correspondent, Kaitlan Collins.

Kaitlan, let me start with you.

[11:05:01] Was the writing on the wall here, do you believe? Acosta sure didn't seem to think so when he held the press conference to defend himself on Wednesday.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: No. And initially, that was what the president wanted. He urged Alexander Acosta to have the press conference to defend himself. And privately, the president was praising him, talking about the job he's done as labor secretary, and downplaying the details of the role he played in Jeffrey Epstein's plea deal.

But then Acosta came out and gave the press conference for about an hour, took questions and maintained a calm demeaner. But as the president began to hear criticism of how Alex Acosta answered those questions, how he did not explicitly apologize to the victims, and many people pointing to the biggest part of the plea deal, which is the victims were not notified about it until it had been approved by a judge, the president started to raise doubts.

Of course, anything like this is going to be controversy surrounding his administration, negative criticism focused on his White House, and that is something, we're told by sources, became something for the president.

He went from privately praising him, talking nicely about Alexander Acosta, to then talking about the fact that the victims weren't notified about the plea deal. And this is when people started to raise questions about whether or not Alex Acosta was going to make it in this cabinet. And they were also noting the fact that it had been over 24 hours since he had come out and tried to defend himself, and the president still had not said a word about it publicly.

BOLDUAN: When it comes down to it, this is reactionary to what public outcry. This isn't reactionary to new information, Dana, right? Because this information has been out there. Just ask Julie Brown and the "Miami Herald" about all of this.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. She's part of the reason that we know about all this, her excellent reporting.

Yes, it isn't new information, but it seems as though, according to Kaitlan's reporting, it might have been newish to the president. Particularly that notion that the Justice Department, Acosta as the U.S. attorney, the representative of the Justice Department when he did the deal with Epstein 12 years ago, didn't inform the victims, who were children.

And if the president didn't realize that, as he was defending his labor secretary, you know, maybe shame on him. He should have known the facts.

But this is Donald Trump's M.O. When somebody is accused of something, unless it directly affects him and his reputation, the president defends them. Particularly as it relates to something where he believes they are being unfairly treated by the press.

That is what the president -- the pattern that the president followed, saying he felt badly for Acosta until it became pretty clear that it was untenable.

The reason that they gave there actually might be a real reason, which is the concern that it is overshadowing the economy, which the president likes to talk about, and obviously other things in the president's administration. It has been on a loop, understandably, even before the labor secretary, now former labor secretary, came out and did that press conference and maybe even more so since.

One thing I want to point out that Poppy did last hour, which I think is really noteworthy, which is we've almost become numb to cabinet secretaries and senior administration officials being fired or resigning or being forced to resign, whatever it is. Usually, it's by tweet, it's when somebody is halfway across the country, it's when people don't know.

The fact that he stood with Acosta out on the North Lawn of the White House -- excuse me, on the South Lawn, and sat there with him for 30 minutes praising him is a bit unique.

And it kind of goes to show what happens when somebody tries to do the right thing, which is what Acosta did in the eyes of the president, praising the president, doing what he asked, having the press conference early this week, not doing a bad job in particular at the Labor Department. And it's all about the relationship with the president.

BOLDUAN: And doing a good job in the eyes of the president.

BASH: That's what I mean. Exactly.


BOLDUAN: Exactly. Because if you look at another example, Jeff Sessions, who did the right thing in the eyes of everybody else by recusing himself from the Russia investigation --

BASH: Bingo.

BOLDUAN: -- that was the beginning of the end for him.

But this leaves us, Nia -- Acosta's resignation puts a bright spotlight again on the broader issue of the administration -- the broader issue that this administration has right now, which is there are so many people leaving government agencies that are not Senate- confirmed. He's not the first one forced out in scandal, as we well know.

And if you look at all of the -- go through all of the acting cabinet- level positions -- I think I have a complete list. I might not because it is so many. Defense secretary, head of DHS, chief of staff, ambassador to the United Nations, OMB director, Small Business Administration, now add labor secretary to that.

[11:10:00] And you then you have Barbara Starr's great reporting from earlier. If you just look at the Pentagon, she's saying that 19 of the most-senior defense policy and military jobs at the Pentagon are not filled by permanent appointees.

For folks who are outside of the bubble, what does that mean? What does this do when there's so many people that have not gone -- that are not confirmed or not in permanent positions or are in acting positions and are definitely at the whim of the president in these leadership roles?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, certainly, I think it creates for these different departments, sort of an unstable environment for the folks who are working there.

And I think it also reflects the conversation that we've been having about this White House from the very beginning, which is a problem with vetting, which is also a problem with recruiting. Right?

The president made a big deal about he's going to hire the best people. He soured on people fairly quickly, even if they hung around for a while before he fired them or they resign.

So this is like something we've never seen before. Not surprising, Donald Trump wasn't in government and so he didn't necessarily come with a lot of folks in mind when he ascended to the White House.

But, yes, I think the folks who are sort of frontline people in these different departments, it is a little destabilizing to have this kind of turnover and vacancies and to have folks at the head of these departments who are acting at this point. Who knows what will happen going forward with some of these departments?

It seems like you just add to them. We had sort of a stack of these acting folks. And rather than filling these positions, you had more trouble. For instance, with acting defense secretary there, had to kind of step aside as well after reports from his private life.

So, yes, this is a president that didn't really make good on this promise to bring the best people. Even if you think about someone like Alexander Acosta. You go back

and you look at that 2017 confirmation hearing, this was all in the hearing. Look at the testimony between Tim Kaine and Acosta --

BASH: That's right.

HENDERSON: -- and this was all laid out, all the stuff about the victims, all the stuff about the secret sweetheart deal.

So this idea that the president is just now realizing what has been out there for years just doesn't really pass the smell test.

BOLDUAN: Look, and to the -- go ahead, Kaitlan. Final thought?

COLLINS: To the point about acting secretaries and just so many people, that is something the president is sensitive to and it's often a part of the reason why he's slow to fire people or have people resign in some cases, because he does recognize that every time someone leaves his cabinet or the West Wing in some kind of sign like this, it does contribute to those stories that it's a chaotic administration. That's something the president is very sensitive to.

And you noticed that when he was standing there with Alex Acosta. He had to look down at a piece of paper to say the name of the deputy secretary of labor, who he announced is going to become the acting secretary.

As far as the president praising Acosta, telling reporters it was his decision to step down, a lot of that likely has to do with this essentially relieves a burden from the president. He no longer has to worry about someone who is bringing an extra amount of scrutiny to whom he hired, the kind of people who work in his administration. And by offering his resignation, Alex Acosta essentially relieved the president of that.

BOLDUAN: Of this one, this time. We honestly have to say, just stand by to stand by.

We actually need you all to stand by. I need you to stay there because we have a lot more to discuss, because there's more breaking news that we're following this hour. We're going to have much more coming up.

Coming up for us, we have this. It was the most-highly anticipated testimony of the year. Now Bob Mueller's public hearings before Congress might be pushed back. Why? What is going on behind the scenes? Details on that ahead.

Plus, we have more breaking news. The National Hurricane Center just issued a new update on Tropical Storm Barry as millions brace for major flooding. We'll have more details on that as well.

[11:13:51] Be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [11:18:43] BOLDUAN: Some of the most highly anticipated congressional testimony this year and beyond may be postponed. Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller is scheduled to testify next Wednesday before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees about his findings, of course, in the Russia investigation. The date has been set, but now there's news that lawmakers are still negotiating.

Manu Raju, CNN's congressional correspondent, is on the Hill following all of this.

Manu, what are you hearing?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, there's been pushback in the recent days from particularly Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee concerned that there's not going to be enough time under the previous agreement to bring Robert Mueller in.

Initially, he had agreed to testify for two to two and a half hours, first before the House judiciary, and then the Intelligence Committee, for the time period. But because of the way it's limited, there would not be enough time for all of the members of the House Judiciary Committee to question the special counsel.

We have been hearing behind the scenes that these frustrations have been boiling over. They have been raising concerns directly to the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerry Nadler, asking for time for them to question, particularly the more junior members.

Now we are hearing that because of those concerns, this hearing may be delayed in order to pressure the special counsel to agree to testify for a longer time period. We don't know for sure if it will, in fact, be delayed, but they're told July 24th is the day that they are looking at pushing this to.

[11:20:14] And the Judiciary Committee chairman has not made an official comment on this yet. But his spokesman says that, as of now, the hearing about happen on Wednesday, but negotiations continue. So we'll wait for that final announcement.

But for the moment, they're considering delaying one of the most- heavily anticipated, most-highly anticipated hearing in years -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. And it looks like someone is commenting behind you because I just saw cameras all running over there. So I'll let you get to it.

Manu, thank you so much. Really appreciate it.

RAJU: Thanks.

BOLDUAN: Thanks so much.

Let me bring back in Nia-Malika Henderson, who is following this.

It's like, Manu, just go, I want to know who it is. It's unusual. What has been laid out was going to be kind of the parameters as it was going to - parameters of what they were agreeing to. For members of a committee, maybe not being able to get a question in to a witness, especially on what's going to be the biggest hearing of the entire term. I wonder if this really could be the reason behind this or, I don't know, if it's something else.

HENDERSON: Yes. I don't think we know. But you're right. The idea that there would be essentially two hours for each of these committees, one hour for the Republicans and one hour for the Democrats, that is a hard thing. One of the committees has 40 members and the other has 20 members. So I imagine that if you're a junior member you might get sidelined by this.

In some ways, this sort of speaks to somewhat of a division I think between the leadership that agreed to the deal of four hours of four and a half hours for Mueller and then the sort of dissatisfied young cohort of folks who might not get a chance to participate in the hearings.

Democrats obviously going into these hearings with a lot of high stakes. They're trying to lower expectations, because I think it's obviously going to be a must-see TV when it happens.

But we already know that Mueller has basically said, listen, my testimony is the report, the 400-page report. He's been a reluctant witness, a reluctant testifier. So we'll see whether this happens Wednesday or in the coming days beyond next week.

BOLDUAN: Or if it spikes it altogether because Mueller --


BOLDUAN: -- doesn't really want to testify --

HENDERSON: That's right.

BOLDUAN: -- any more than those couple hours. But we know the difference is, when another witness comes in and testify for seven, eight hours, who knows. Hillary Clinton was like, what, 11 hours?

HENDERSON: Eleven hours, that's right, yes.

BOLDUAN: Great to see you, Nia. Let's see what happens.

HENDERSON: Thanks, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Really appreciate it.

HENDERSON: All right, thanks.

BOLDUAN: Coming up for us, folks in the gulf are bracing for major flooding as Tropical Storm Barry is gaining strength. We just got an update from the National Hurricane Center. We're going to bring it to you right after the break.


[11:27:25] BOLDUAN: This just in. We have a new update on Tropical Storm Barry. It is gaining strength and it's threatening southwest Louisiana. We're talking hurricane-force winds, intense rain, storm surge and the potential of widespread flooding. The storm could make landfall tomorrow as a hurricane.

Here's the warning that Louisiana's governor issued just this morning.


JOHN BEL EDWARDS, (D), LOUISIANA GOVERNOR: This is going to be a very, very significant rain event across most of Louisiana. And the rain bands that are going to come in off of the Gulf of Mexico are going to be wide. And so this is going to impact just a huge swath of our state. And we are taking it extremely seriously.


BOLDUAN: Let's get the latest update where this is headed and what it looks like. The National Weather Service just put out new information.

Chad Myers has all of it for us.

Chad, what are you seeing?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Kate, now 65 miles per hour. It was 50 just six hours ago. The hurricane hunter aircraft flying in it and finding the wind.

But look at the cloud cover. It's all the way covering two-thirds of the Gulf of Mexico. And every bit of that cloud cover is going to be moving to the north, into Louisiana, into Texas, Mississippi, Alabama. There's your 62-mile-per-hour wind speed with that hurricane hunter aircraft flying through it right now.

The new forecast also does get it to hurricane strength before landfall tomorrow. The older forecast only had it going to 70 miles per hour. But who can tell the difference? It doesn't really matter. This isn't going to be a storm that knocks things down with wind. It's going to be a rain maker.

It's already raining in places here. But a lot more rain is to the south of the storm. And that rain will rotate right up into Louisiana, right up into Baton Rouge. There's New Orleans. All the way down here to Grand Isle. Very heavy rainfall. And we're going to see 20 inches in some spots before this is finally all done.

Notice where the bull's eye is tomorrow morning. This is 7:00 p.m. tomorrow afternoon and evening.

Baton Rouge, you are right in the middle of the heaviest rainfall. Rain that may come down at three to four inches per hour for hours on end. That's what we're dealing with. Just very, very heavy rainfall. The rivers are already high. Down here in this red zone, the

downriver of New Orleans, that's where the levies don't even reach 20 feet and they could be very close to the top, the water level there. Because the water in the Mississippi is already high from the rains in Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri three months ago.

BOLDUAN: Yes, you take it seriously even before that.


BOLDUAN: Even if the Mississippi River was at normal levels. What is it, 10 feet above where it's supposed to be?

MYERS: Absolutely.

[11:30:04] BOLDUAN: All right, Chad, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

MYERS: You're welcome, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Still to come for us, a new book is out. This time, the sources are all on the record, and one of them is named Paul Ryan. And Donald Trump is not happy. That's next.