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Backlash Over Jeff Sessions' "Island in the Pacific" Comment; Climate Change Skeptics in Louisiana; New Report on Trump Condos Raises Questions. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired April 21, 2017 - 10:30   ET


[10:30:00] JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I really am amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the president of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and constitutional power."


POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: All right, so the Justice Department is trying to -- trying to explain this one. Let's talk about it with Jeffrey Toobin, our senior legal analyst, former federal prosecutor.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Friend of the Hawaiian people.

HARLOW: Friend of the Hawaiians. Aloha, Jeffrey. So here's how the Justice Department is trying to explain this one. "Hawaii is, in fact, an island in the Pacific, a beautiful one."

TOOBIN: Several.

HARLOW: A string of them, where the attorney general's granddaughter was born. The point, however, is that there is a problem when a flawed opinion by a single judge can block the president's lawful exercise of authority to keep the entire country safe."

All right, as you rightly point out --


HARLOW: First, it is not an island, it is a string of judges.


HARLOW: This single judge is a federal judge. All joking aside, this again is the administration, is it not, thinking that its branch has more power than the judiciary branch?

TOOBIN: Well, you know, this is a problem the president's faced. President Barack Obama, remember him?


TOOBIN: He was the one before Trump.

HARLOW: From Hawaii.

TOOBIN: From Hawaii. He is the one who had his immigration order blocked by a single judge in Brownsville, Texas.


TOOBIN: Also part of the United States, though, not an island. And you know, this is something that Article Three of the Constitution, it is a power that federal judges have, but it consistently frustrates presidents on both parties.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: You know, it's interesting, you are a supporter of executive criticism of the judicial branch.

TOOBIN: Absolutely.

BERMAN: You have no problem with it, which is interesting.


BERMAN: And President Trump, you know, of course he talked about so- called judges.

TOOBIN: Right.

BERMAN: And now you have so-called judges on islands in the Pacific. The risk here for the executive branch, for the administration is what? That these judges will continue to rule on cases affecting them?

TOOBIN: Well, I mean, that is -- that's what happens. I mean, that's how the system works, judges rule on cases affecting the executive branch. And you know, I just think federal judges, they serve for life, they are completely unaccountable. They weren't elected by anyone and they are perfectly -- it's perfectly appropriate for Donald Trump or anyone else to criticize their decisions.

These judges are big boys and girls. There's nothing that can happen to them, other than impeachment, which never happens. And I just think given how controversial some of their orders are, the fact that they should be open to criticism is fine with me.

HARLOW: So here's what Democratic Senator Hirano of Hawaii tweeted in response to Sessions' comments. "Hey, Jeff Sessions, this island in the Pacific has been the 50th state for an ongoing 58 years and we won't succumb to your dog-whistle politics and Hawaii was built on the strength and diversity and immigration experiences, including my own. Jeff Sessions' comments are ignorant and dangerous."

Are they dangerous or is that just politics at play?

TOOBIN: Well, I think there's -- you know, there's a lot of politics going on here, but, you know, I think the real issue here is the substance of the executive order, which is so controversial. Senator Hirano and many others are outraged at what is perceived as the broader anti-immigrant policies of the Trump administration. You know, whether this particular statement about this particular

judge in this particular string of islands is a dog-whistle, I'm not sure, but this is very controversial stuff.

BERMAN: Twenty seconds or less, charges against Julian Assange of WikiLeaks. Could they stick?

TOOBIN: Absolutely. You know, it's a policy. It's not a constitutional command that the recipients of leaks have not been charged historically. The government has not charged journalists with receiving leaks, but under the law, it is possible to bring those charges.


TOOBIN: And WikiLeaks, you know, is sort of a journalistic institution, and that's the question of whether there should be charges or not.

HARLOW: It doesn't matter. It's just flexing muscles if Ecuador doesn't exit -- that's the thing.

TOOBIN: Correct.

HARLOW: They can't do anything.

TOOBIN: But I mean, how many years can he stay in that embassy?

HARLOW: Seven.

TOOBIN: It's seven years in these two rooms. I guess he could stay for another seven.

BERMAN: Jeffrey Toobin, thank you.

TOOBIN: The first seven are the hardest, I'm told, in two rooms.

BERMAN: Jeffrey, thank you very much.

All right. In a few minutes you're going to hear from the attorney general of the United States.


BERMAN: Jeff Sessions is going to appeal with the secretary of Homeland Security, John Kelly. You can imagine Hawaii --


BERMAN: Pipe down, Jeffrey Toobin. Hawaii will no down come up. They will face Kate Bolduan on "AT THIS HOUR." That comes up in just a few minutes.

All right, it is being referred to as ground zero when it comes to rising sea levels. CNN's Ed Lavandera about to give you a bird's eye view of the impact. ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We're live along the Louisiana

coastline in the bayou down here, John and Poppy, on the eve of Earth Day, taking a closer look at that divide between climate change advocates and skeptics.

Join us for our journey along the Louisiana coastline, coming up next.


[10:39:21] HARLOW: Hundreds of marches planned around the world tomorrow marking Earth Day. One of the biggest expected to take place in the nation's capital, right on the National Mall. A lot of people will gather there tomorrow.

BERMAN: Despite scientific evidence of changing sea levels, climate change a hard sell in parts of Louisiana. Louisiana, low-lying Louisiana, who have seen the results of climate change firsthand.

CNN's Ed Lavandera joins us now from Louisiana with an incredible view -- Ed.

LAVANDERA: Hi, guys. Well, we're here in Louisiana because there's a new study out that shows that this part of the Louisiana coastline has some of the highest percentages of climate change skeptics in the country, but climate change advocates say that they should be much more aware about what's going on around them, that the signs of climate change is actually all around them.


[10:40:14] LAVANDERA (voice-over): For more than 30 years, Jeff Poe has guided fishing trips, chasing speckled trout and other fish in these waters near Lake Charles, Louisiana.

(On camera): Do you consider yourself an environmentalist on some level?

JEFF POE, FISHING GUIDE: Yes, for sure. For sure, without a doubt. But that's just my thing with the climate change. I just don't know that there is anything we can do about it.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): We're traveling these waters because according to a new study from Yale University, this part of southern Louisiana has one of the highest concentrations of climate change deniers and skeptics in the country.

POE: Speckled trout. I'm not a denier. I won't put it that way. But I am a -- you know, I'm skeptical as to, you know, how much control we have over.

LAVANDERA: Climate change experts say the skeptics are denying what's unfolding before their very eyes. And around here, climate change is a hard sell as we quickly discovered after sitting down with Cecil Clark and Leo Dotson.

LEO DOTSON, CAMERON, LOUISIANA RESIDENT: So I just don't think climate is real.

LAVANDERA (on camera): Is there anything or sign I just can say to you to change your mind or show you any kind of evidence that would change your mind?

DOTSON: If he was 500 years old and he told me it changed, I would probably believe it. But in my lifetime, I didn't see any change.

LAVANDERA: You have to hear from a 500-year-old scientist?

DOTSON: Right.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): One scientist described the Louisiana coastline to us as the ground zero of climate change in the United States where the coastline is disappearing in large part according to scientific studies because of rising sea levels.

A new Tulane University study calculates sea levels along the Louisiana coast are rising 10 to 13 millimeters per year. It might not sound significant, but scientists say it's more than enough to cause significant damage in the next 50 years.

Pilot Charlie Hammonds has seen the Gulf of Mexico March north since he was a teenager. That's how long he's been flying over this vast Louisiana marshland. Hammonds says the gulf waters spread north like a cancer and that much of that water you see below used to be land.

CHARLIE HAMMONDS, PILOT: It's probably, when I was a young pilot, I'd say it had at least three or four times what you see here.

LAVANDERA (on camera): You literally used to land next to islands.

HAMMONDS: Yes. Well, way out in the bay now. I'm talking about out in that bay, all right, and they are gone.

LAVANDERA: Those islands are gone.

HAMMONDS: They're gone, yes, that's right.

LAVANDERA: You couldn't land next to it today if you tried?

HAMMONDS: No. No. It's open water. Open water.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): Just look at how the Louisiana coastline has changed. NASA recorded the satellite images. And from the mid-1980s to now, you can see a subtle yet steady change around the town of Houma, capturing how a significant amount of coastline is disappearing. Charlie Hammonds says the Gulf of Mexico water keeps swallowing up water.

HAMMONDS: Like a cancer. I mean, it just keeps moving. I watch it every year. It keeps moving farther and farther and farther every year.

LAVANDERA (on camera): And eventually everyone is going to have to retreat? HAMMONDS: Yes.

LAVANDERA: Along these desolate roads of the Louisiana bayou, one of the first signs that things are quite right is when you come across Cyprus and Oak trees like this simply withering away. These trees depend on fresh water. But so much saltwater has pushed north and risen up from the Gulf of Mexico that these trees are simply withering away. Leaves and limbs have fallen off. Eventually these trees will simply crumble into the marsh. Spots like this around here are often called a ghost forest.

(Voice-over): After all this, you'd think Charlie Hammonds and others would be on the climate change bandwagon.

(On camera): There are a lot of people out there who believe that climate change and sea level rising is contributing to what you're seeing. But you don't buy that.

HAMMONDS: Well, I don't buy that.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): Hammonds and many others minimize the impact of climate change, and say other factors are in play. Like the impact from the Mississippi River. They say marsh land is naturally sinking that something called subsidence, and oil companies have carved canals through the marsh here, allowing salt water to creep north.


LAVANDERA: But for environmental activists like Jonathan Foret, the skepticism is bewildering.

FORET: I don't get how you can look at scientific data and see this very, very plainly and then say that it's not happening.

LAVANDERA (on camera): That climate changes.

FORET: That climate changed. Yes.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): In front of Chris Brunet's house in Isle de Jean Charles, there stands one dying tree. A clue that underground not all is right. From weathered scrapbook photograph, he can see how the landscape and trees have disappeared.

[10:45:04] For generations, Isle de Jean Charles has been a Native American community where 350 people once live. Now it's down to about 70. They fled north to escape the encroaching gulf waters. The island once covered 2,200 acres. It's now dwindled to about 350 acres.

(On camera): Do you think this is just part of the kind of natural evolution of the planet, or do you think manmade causes have created such a rapid change here on the Louisiana coast?

CHRIS BRUNET, ISLE DE JEAN CHARLES, LOUISIANA RESIDENT: I believe that the Gulf of Mexico is such a powerful force that it wants to make its way north. You know, more than one thing that's going on there.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): Skepticism around here thrives even as Chris Brunet and others prepare to be the next to pack up and move north.


LAVANDERA: So as you hear along the Louisiana coastline, so many people really trying to reconcile all the different things, things going on here along the Louisiana coastline, trying to figure out how much of this is manmade, how much of this is just naturally occurring changes in the climate, and all of those things, for climate change advocates, it's kind of a wake-up call that if they want to convince these folks, they have a lot of work to do -- Poppy and John.

HARLOW: Yes. Even by showing them islands that were there and no longer are.

Ed Lavandera, you've set the bar high for the rest of us. Thank you so much for the beautiful story and the reporting.

All right. Still to come for us, he has not released his tax returns. We don't know how deep or where all of his business ties go. And now this morning, news that there could be a new conflict of interest for the president? That's straight ahead.


[10:50:36] BERMAN: A new report about possible conflicts of interest for the White House. It's a fascinating investigative story in "USA Today" about condominium units. We're talking about 400 of them totaling about $250 million.

Joining us now is one of the reporters who broke this story, Steve Reilly with "USA Today," and CNN Money's Cristina Alesci, who is on the conflicts of interest watch.

Thanks so much both for being with us.

Steve, first to you. These condos that the president and his family own, he's not required to report them. And in fact, he did not report them or disclose, you know, them. So what is the possible ethics concern here?

STEVE REILLY, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, USA TODAY: Absolutely. So on his financial disclosure form, President Trump needed to disclose the companies he owns, but not the specific property units that he owns. So what "USA Today" did is look at real estate records from New York to California that catalog his properties, and we found that more than 400 condo units and home lots continue to be owned by the president's companies and they opened the door to anyone who wants to purchase them and spew millions towards Trump, anyone who potentially might want to influence the White House.

Buyers can overpay for the units. They can use shell companies to make these purchases. And they can essentially conceal their identities from the general public in the process of making these purchases.

HARLOW: All right. And when they make these purchases, the shell companies, it often happens, as you reported, this is how a lot of these real estate deals work, the public will never know who the people are.

So, Cristina, why does it matter truly for the American public to know who would be buying these? And the fact is, the president -- his sons run this trust, but he's the only one that can eventually take the money out of it.

CRISTINA ALESCI, CNN MONEY CORRESPONDENT: That's right. He's the financial beneficiary of that trust structure. But the bottom line, the public is concerned because they want to know who is influencing, potentially, the president's decisions, right? They want to know that nothing else is influencing the president beyond the best interests of the country. They don't want to have questions hanging over whether his bottom line will potentially influence his policy decisions, and this story that Steve broke and investigated really gets to the heart of that issue, and it's exacerbated by two things, really.

One is the lack of visibility into his business and the other is that he maintains ownership, to your point, that there's no way to really separate him from his business. Even though his sons do run it on a daily basis, he can ask for payments, for example, whenever he wants from that financial trust.


ALESCI: Exactly.

BERMAN: Just to be clear, look, the idea is you're a bad actor, if you wanted to pay $20 million for a $500,000 condo to get in good graces with the president, in theory, and we are not saying this would happen, but could, and the American people would never know about it. So, if you wanted to prevent even the appearance of any possible impropriety, what would the options be for Donald Trump and his family here? Would he just have to flat-out sell the condos?

REILLY: Well, there was discussion about this back in January, and part of the -- part of what Walter Shaw, the director of the Office of Government Ethics talked about was the need to set up a blind trust, essentially, so President Trump wouldn't have any information about the activities of his business or the finances of his business, and to make it so that he has no ownership link to his companies. And some ethics experts as well as Director Shaw were concerned that President Trump did not take adequate measures to separate the ownership of his companies from himself.

HARLOW: So, in Steve's reporting with this team at "USA Today," you guys reached out to the White House, they said talk to the Trump Organization. The Trump organization didn't really say anything.

So, Cristina, the bottom line is, correct me if I'm wrong, no one actually has to answer any of these questions. ALESCI: No, they don't, and he's not releasing his taxes, right? So

that would shed some light on his foreign business interests. That's what ethics watchdogs are hoping the courts will force him to do by bringing some of these lawsuits and that's how we will, perhaps, get some visibility on it.

BERMAN: Cristina Alesci, let me quickly ask you about the markets today. What are we seeing? Where's it headed?

ALESCI: We're seeing -- you know, we're up just slightly. Right before I came on set, I checked and we're up just slightly. But this really is a story, this last week is a story of volatility. We've seen greater than 100-point swings for the last five days. Investors are digesting earnings, geopolitics out there, uncertainty over that.

[10:55:02] And going forward, they're going to be watching the French elections and the outcome of that over the weekend, at least the first round, and also going into next week they're going to be paying attention to the discussion about government funding and whether or not we will have a shutdown of any sort. Goldman Sachs, the investment bank, is putting the probability of that at 25 percent.

HARLOW: 25 percent?


BERMAN: It actually could be a tumultuous, tumultuous week next week.

HARLOW: We knew that before. Thank you very much. Great reporting, Steve. To you and your team, thank you.

BERMAN: All right. Two members of President Trump's Cabinet, they are going to speak to CNN just moments from now. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in the middle of a bit of a firestorm over comments he made about an island in the Pacific, otherwise known as the state of Hawaii. Also joining Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. They will be with Kate Bolduan. That's next.


KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. Right now the Donald Trump White House is on the clock ticking down to the 100-day milestone of his administration.