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White House Defends Death of U.S. Soldier in Yemen Raid; Labor Nominee Fight; Did Kellyanne Conway Break the Law?. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired February 9, 2017 - 15:00   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Senator Blumenthal said Gorsuch told him he found the president's attacks against the judiciary -- quote -- "as disheartening" and -- quote -- "demoralizing."

Despite Gorsuch's spokesperson confirming that conversation, President Trump said this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You have misrepresented his comments totally.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) ask you what your thoughts were, sir.

TRUMP: His comments were misrepresented.


BALDWIN: So, let's first begin with our White House correspondent Athena Jones, because, Athena, listening to Sean Spicer in the briefing -- he was asked does the president have any regrets over he has characterized his comment about judiciary?

And the answer was two letters, wasn't it?


No. No regrets. Let's go ahead and play that sound and then talk about it on the other side, that sound from Press Secretary Sean Spicer.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: This is what Senator Ayotte said.

Judge Gorsuch had made it very clear in all his discussions with senators, including Senator Blumenthal, that he could not comment on specific cases and that judicial ethics prevent him from commenting on political matters.

He has also emphasized the importance of an independent judiciary and while he made clear that he was not referencing any specific case, he said that he finds any criticism of a judge's integrity and independence disheartening and demoralizing.

So there's a big difference between commenting on the specific comments that had been made in a tweet and his general philosophy about the judiciary and his respect for his fellow judges.

And I think the senator's comments were very clear about how those are two distinct issues. Senator Blumenthal characterized them. He was talking about the tweets and saying that he loses heart.

That's not what the judge said. He was making two very complete distinct arguments how he views the comments that he should not be commenting on a political matter or on specific things. But as a whole, he doesn't like attacks in general on the judiciary. It was a very distinct argument that he was making.

He was commenting in general about attacks on the judiciary. That was it, plain and simple.


JONES: So, you heard all of that from the White House press secretary there trying to argue that Gorsuch didn't exactly mean what Republicans, Democrats, and the White House-appointed spokesman for Gorsuch said he meant.

There hasn't been an argument made that Gorsuch was talking about the specifics of this case before the Ninth Circuit. He was talking generally about how he feels judges should be treated and not treated, so it was a little odd to hear Sean Spicer trying to argue something different there, Brooke.

BALDWIN: He's in a bit of a pretzel, I think. We will talk about that with my panel in a second.

But let me also ask you, also from the Briefing Room from the White House, you have Kellyanne Conway this morning, who said this.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: They're using the most prominent woman in Donald Trump's most prominent...


CONWAY: And they're using her, who has been a champion for women empowerment, women in the workplace to get to him. So, I think people can see through that.

Go buy Ivanka's stuff is what I would tell you. I hate shopping. I'm going to go get some myself. This is just -- it's a wonderful line. I own some of it. I fully -- I'm going to just give -- I'm going to give a free commercial here. Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online.


JONES: A free commercial there.

So, two quick things, Brooke. One is the background. Kellyanne Conway, of course, the counselor to the president, was defending the president blasting Nordstrom for its decision to stop selling the Ivanka Trump brand, Nordstrom saying it's because of its sales performance, others suggesting that it's a political reason.

So, Kellyanne Conway was on "FOX & Friends" defending that. And then you heard her giving a free commercial to the Ivanka Trump brand. Well, that's an apparent violation of federal law. Any public employee, federal law bars public employees from endorsing any product, service or enterprise for the private gain of friends, relatives or persons with whom the employee is affiliated in a non- governmental capacity.

So Sean Spicer responded to that. Take a listen to what he said.


QUESTION: Questions have been raised after Kellyanne Conway did an interview. I believe it was with FOX News this morning, where she appeared to, from the confines of the Brady Briefing Room, promote the products of Ivanka Trump. Do you believe that she crossed an ethical line?

SPICER: Kellyanne has been counseled. And that's all we're going to go on. She's been counseled on that subject. And that's it.


JONES: That's it. The White House counselor, the counselor to the president, has been counseled on that subject. That's all that Spicer would say -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: I love how Jeffrey Toobin was like, that's my new favorite new word, counseled. What does that mean? I'm sure we will find out.

JONES: Exactly.

BALDWIN: Athena, Athena Jones at the White House, thank you so much.

We have so much to talk about with CNN political director David Chalian, CNN political analyst and "USA Today" columnist Kirsten Powers, CNN national political reporter Maeve Reston, and CNN contributor Larry Noble, who is also the general counsel at the government watchdog group Campaign Legal Center. He's also the former general counsel for the FEC.


Welcome to everyone.

David Chalian, just out of the gate first to you, before I even get into statements and this and that. I thought how you characterized the situation with Neil Gorsuch and senators and the White House and Trump was brilliant. Talk to me about how Sean Spicer today in the briefing would have had to pull off some sort of Jedi linguistics to dig himself out of this.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: I just think he was in a terribly tough situation, because he's trying to square what his own fellow colleagues at the White House put together as a strategy for Gorsuch to go to the Hill and let this be known, that he believes in an independent judiciary and sort of separate himself from the president's tweets.

He had to square that with his boss, the president, who tweeted out that somehow it was mischaracterized, despite the fact that his own White House team had confirmed these events. That's just an impossible situation for Sean Spicer to be in and it just didn't serve him very well to try to perform all those contortions.

That being said, I really thought this was a very smart strategy on the part of the White House to send Gorsuch up there with this separation, and I think it is very welcome words for Democratic senators to hear. And as they're trying to build a coalition of 60 senators -- and, as you know, they only have 52 Republicans -- to me, it was a pretty wise move.

It is just that President Trump kind of undermined it with his tweet this morning.

BALDWIN: Kirsten, what do you think?

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: I think what they were trying to do here was a little bit of a wink and a nod.

And the point of the Ayotte statement, as I have been told by people who are working on the confirmation, that what it was meant to be was a clarification.


BALDWIN: Let me just jump in. Let me read it, because we have it. And I don't know if everyone has seen this.

This is Senator Ayotte. She said: "Judge Gorsuch has made it very clear in all his discussions with his senators, including Senator Blumenthal, that he could not comment on any specific cases and that judicial ethics prevent him commenting on political matters. He also emphasized the importance of an independent judiciary. And while he made clear that he was not referring to any specific case, he said that he finds any criticism of a judge's integrity and independence disheartening and demoralizing."

Go ahead, Kirsten.

POWERS: Right.

That was meant to be not a confirmation of what Senator Blumenthal said, I'm told, but a clarification of what he said. I think it's really hard -- to a lot of people, it's a distinction without a difference because it sounds like they're saying the same thing. But here what they're basically saying is that he was making a general statement and he wasn't talking about President Trump. But let's just take that at face value and say that's true.

It would still apply, right? If he makes the statement that it's disheartening and demoralizing, then you could apply that to what Donald Trump has done. It may be true that he didn't specifically say it about the specific tweets, but he certainly made a general statement that would apply to what President Trump did.

BALDWIN: And to David's point, Maeve, the notion that this could have in the end really benefited maybe not necessarily the White House, but Neil Gorsuch, in the sense that Democrats are seeing -- they need the magic number of 60 Democrats for that nomination -- Democrats are seeing, all right, this is a guy who might stand up to the president of the United States, which could help him officially make it to the highest court of the land.


I had exactly the same thought yesterday, that this was really smart strategy by the White House. Usually, the handlers for a Supreme Court nominee would not be that specific, as they were with our reporters yesterday, about what Judge Gorsuch had been talking about in these talks with senators.

BALDWIN: They confirmed it.

RESTON: They confirmed it.

Jeremy Diamond got them to confirm it was exactly about the so-called judge tweet. So I think there's not any confusion on that matter there and it's just curious that Trump would draw more attention to this, unless that's a deliberate strategy on his part to keep us all talking about it and potentially get some more Democrats thinking about Judge Gorsuch.

BALDWIN: Larry, I promise I'm going to come back to you on this Ivanka-Kellyanne stuff.

But, David, just looping back -- and I know someone brought this up -- potential precedence for a president clashing with judicial, we remember back to 2010, President Obama, State of the Union, when he criticized the justices in the chamber for their ruling allowing corporations to spend freely and influence elections, the Citizens United case.

So, I remember State of the Union and you saw Justice Alito mouthing something like not true. But is that a fair comparison in this case?



I think our history is littered with examples of presidents complaining about court decisions, like President Obama did there. And that got a ton of coverage when that was really awkward, seemed like a breach of protocol kind of moment that the president did that.

And as you said, we saw Justice Alito's words mouthed there. But you could find tons of examples of where presidents disagree with the courts and say so about a decision. That's different than the president tweeting and saying so-called judge, or if something bad happens, blame him.

This was about sort of overstepping that co-equal branch thing even before there's a decision about sort of going after the members of the judiciary itself.

BALDWIN: This is something perhaps he's been very comfortable with in being litigious in his private life, but it's a very different ball game when you're sitting in the Oval Office.

Larry, to you on what Kellyanne Conway said this morning on FOX News, essentially this commercial for Ivanka trump's brand. Bottom line, did she break the law?

LARRY NOBLE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, the bottom line she did break the law.

The law prohibits a government employee from promoting a product using government resources. She was in a government office. She was in a government position. And it wasn't even subtle. She said I'm advertising for the product.

So this was a clear violation of the law. The problem now is, they seem to have admitted that by saying she's been counseled, but they won't tell us what she's been counseled on. They won't tell us if any action has been taken. So we don't really know if they get what the problem is.


BALDWIN: What's the ramification of this kind of thing?

NOBLE: That's a good question.

It's first up to the White House to decide what the ramification is, because she -- because they're her boss. And the ramification can be a letter of reprimand. It could be a suspension. It could be firing. That's what would happen to a normal government employee.

But we don't know that in fact what the counseling was. What was she counseled? Was she counseled be more subtle next time? Was she counseled to do it more often? Do they understand that this is a problem?

We have to actually bring it back from the day before, when President Trump took on Nordstrom's for dropping her line.


BALDWIN: And retweeted it from the POTUS Twitter page.

NOBLE: Yes. And he's not subject to this law.

But it just shows a lack of understanding of a line between what the government does and his private businesses. And this just carries through. And Kellyanne Conway did it, but she is subject to these laws.

This is something that is not going to end here. If they don't get what's going on or why this is important, then they're going to continue to do it. And just telling us to effectively trust them that she's been counseled doesn't really give us a lot of faith.

BALDWIN: Kirsten, what do you think? Can you think of anything that has happened in the past that we could draw upon or how any possible ramification for this, breaking the law?

POWERS: I think there's a zero percent chance that Kellyanne didn't know that there would a conflict there.

Kellyanne has been in Washington for as long as I can remember. She knows her way around very well. I think it was a intentionally provocative act. I don't think this law, as I understand it, has a lot of teeth.


POWERS: So, probably, she's willing to take the reprimand.

And, again, you don't know. You can't get to people's intentions, but willing to take the reprimand to be able to do what she said. And I'm sure it made her boss very, very happy. Of course, he loves his daughter very much and is very protective of her. And I think this was something that she will get a slap on the wrist for. Perhaps if she did it again, she will get in more trouble, but I don't think there's a lot that can be done from a legal standpoint over one infraction.

BALDWIN: It was the Bowling Green massacre issue, which she came on with Jake for what was that, 25-minute interview and mea culpa, but then it was this. And even throw in Sean Spicer misstating I think it was three times the Orlando massacre. He kept saying Atlanta.

Maeve, it's not been a great week.

RESTON: No, not a good week.

I think a lot of people are watching the last couple of weeks and how quickly the Trump administration has moved on all of these executive orders. You have got protests in the streets. And now the spokesman and the counselor to the president really getting tripped up on their words.

I think a lot of Republicans are watching this and distancing themselves a bit. We have already seen that today, for example, from Jason Chaffetz on Kellyanne Conway's comments. It's going to be interesting to watch what happens here. BALDWIN: I thought Dana Bash -- I will just end with this -- made

such an excellent point sort of juxtaposing the decorum on Capitol Hill, for the most part, and then just the opposite down the street at the White House, and her word was whiplash.

Thank you all very, very much.

We have more to talk about, coming up another, big headline out of the White House. President Trump sparring with Senator John McCain over that deadly U.S. raid in Yemen that of course included the tragic death of a Navy SEAL.

Senator McCain has not at all sat quiet on this one, questioning why the White House labeled the raid as a "success." I have two military veterans who will join me to discuss this. We will be right back.



BALDWIN: Welcome back. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

Two very different scenes playing out among Senate Democrats up on Capitol Hill today. First, just a short while ago, President Trump hosted a bipartisan group of senators for lunch, their focus, to discuss potential support for his Supreme Court pick in Neil Gorsuch.

Among the five Democrats who attended, four of them are up for reelection in states that Trump won last year.

While they lunched, the Senate's top Democrat turned his attention to another one of Trump's nominee, going after labor secretary pick Andrew Puzder.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: President Trump has amazing gall, to have campaigned the way he did, and then put this man as nominee for secretary of labor.

The idea that you can say one thing and do another and get away with it is embodied in the nomination of Andrew Puzder, one of the most anti-worker nominees to any Cabinet position and probably the anti- worker nominee to the Department of Labor ever.



BALDWIN: I have got our senior congressional reporter Manu Raju up on the Hill for us.

And so why is it? Why is it that Senator Schumer says no to Puzder already?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they disagree with him on key ideological issues, whether it's the raising minimum wage, or how to deal with workers' rights vs. the business community's right.

So this is one of the more polarizing nominations that Donald Trump has put forward. And actually Republicans that I'm talking to right now on Capitol Hill believe it could be the hardest nomination to get through right now, not just because of how viciously, vigorously opposed Democrats are to his nomination, but also some damaging liabilities from Puzder's past, namely the fact that he revealed earlier this week that he hired an undocumented immigrant as a household employee, only later to pay back taxes.

Now, Republican senators who sit on the key committee that will hear his confirmation, hear his nomination next week are still withholding their support, including Susan Collins of Maine, saying earlier today she does not know what she would do once she has a chance to vote.

Here's what she said, Brooke.


SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: I have not reached a decision. I almost always wait until there's a hearing, unless I know the individual well.

I have had two conversations with Mr. Puzder. And I think there are questions outstanding that will be, I'm sure, delved into at his hearing. But I have reached no decision.


RAJU: Now, there are several reasons why Republicans are in the leadership realize -- think that this is going to be very difficult.

One, they expect a very intense, aggressive effort from the left, the way that liberal groups, progressive groups went after Betsy DeVos, and went after Republicans who supported Betsy DeVos, and they believe that -- and they also acknowledge that the hearing is going to happen next week.

Then there's going to be a recess in the Senate and votes may not happen for several more weeks, giving the opponents time to mobilize. So, behind the scenes, Republicans are trying to mobilize their own efforts in support of Puzder, Republican leadership talking to roughly about a dozen outside groups, business groups to help prop up Puzder's nomination.

They're talking to the White House to give them some political cover. And one person who's been heavily involved in this, Brooke, Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, really working with his members very hard to get behind Puzder. They expect this to be a huge fight over the next several weeks -- Brooke.

BLITZER: Manu Raju, we know you will be covering it throughout.

Thank you so much on Capitol Hill. Still to come here on CNN: Senator John McCain and President Trump sparring yet again, this one over the deadly raid last weekend in Yemen. Two veterans will join me live to discuss next.



BALDWIN: Welcome back. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

Senator John McCain and President Donald Trump locked in a bitter back and forth over a deadly U.S. raid in Yemen. Navy SEAL William Ryan Owens was killed in that raid. And the White House has touted the mission as a huge success, of course, acknowledging the precious life lost in that Navy SEAL, but also suggesting that any criticism of it is totally out of line.

Senator McCain says that he wouldn't describe the mission as a success, in part of because of what happened to Owens. He tells CNN's Phil Mattingly the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is not planning any public hearings on the raid.


PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Senator, in your -- in your role as chair, do you believe the committee