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McMaster Could Leave White House; President on Gun Law Change; For Trump Campaign Adviser Meets with Mueller; NRA Chief to Speak at Conference. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired February 22, 2018 - 09:30   ET


[09:32:10] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, new this morning, CNN has learned that national security adviser, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster could, could be leaving the White House after months of personal tension with the president. Several sources tell CNN the Pentagon is considering options that would allow the president to move the three-star general out of his current role back into the military. If he is replaced, this would be the third national security adviser appointed during the Trump administration.

Joining me now to discuss, CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr and CNN military and diplomatic analyst, Rear Admiral John Kirby.

Barbara, you're part of the team that broke this story that at least these discussions are happening. What have you learned?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, what we do know, John, is that the Pentagon is now looking for a job for McMaster with a fourth star. Essentially, odd as it may seem, booted out of the national security job at the White House as a three star and then promoted to become a four star.

The problem may be this. General McMaster, essentially for months now, has been in the equivalent of a political job. There's no question about it. So, can he practically come back to the active duty ranks full time, take on a fourth star and function, you know, offer his best military advice, which is what his job would be, rather than being seen as continuing to defend the White House, defend President Trump's policies?

The two men have had some tensions between them. It seems to all be coming to a head. And the idea is, see what can be done to get McMaster out of the White House.

There is always the option that they won't find a four star job for him and we will find out that he has put in his paperwork to simply retire. That still could be out there. But what we know is right now they are looking to see if they can find a four star job to promote him out of the White House.

BERMAN: All right, Barbara, thanks so much.

Let's bring in CNN military analyst, Rear Admiral John Kirby.

Admiral, thanks so much for being with us.

I guess there are really two major questions here. First, talk to me about what it tells you, that these tensions between McMaster and the president are so high that it makes the relationship going forward perhaps untenable.

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY (RET.), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: I think it's indicative of tensions in the White House in general, John, and the chaos that we continue to see there coming out of -- out of the West Wing in particular. I mean this is a president who is difficult to work for. He doesn't like to take contrary advice. He doesn't want to read. He's not intellectually curious. And I don't believe, as commander in chief, that he has fully thought through the heavy responsibilities on his shoulders. And I think that's -- what you're seeing is, you have a three star general who understands those responsibilities and I think there's some natural tension there.

I also think that he pushes his personal staff into areas and into conflicts of interest and political arenas that they are perhaps not best qualified to compete in.

BERMAN: Yes, my personal experience with General McMaster, from covering him in war zones, he's pretty blunt. And I'm not so sure the president likes that either.

KIRBY: Right.

[09:35:00] BERMAN: But there is this question now. There's this idea that it might be difficult for McMaster to move back into the military after being in what is a political -- essentially a political role in the White House. Is that really so -- Colin Powell did it, right?

KIRBY: Right. He did.

BERMAN: Colin Powell was a national security adviser and then went back into the military. It can happen or has happened in the past. What would make it impossible now?

KIRBY: I don't think -- I think the only thing that makes it impossible, honestly, is the degree to which General McMaster wants to make it hard. I think -- I think it is possible. I think he can do it. As you noted before, Colin Powell did it. But it really is going to depend on the degree to which General McMaster is willing to go back to the Army and put aside some of the political leanings that he has shown while he's been at the White House.

And it can be done. He's got to make it clear if he goes back in uniform, that he's going back in uniform. That he's going to be apolitical. He's going to be non-partisan. He is, as Barbara said, going to give his best military advice and keep it in the military lane.

He's a very smart guy. This is -- this is an intellectual general. I believe he has that capacity. And I think he can do it. I don't think it's going to be easy, but I think he can do it.

BERMAN: Has he been politicized, do you think, in the White House?

KIRBY: I think that he very -- in the early months he really crossed some lines for me. When he went out at the West Wing and he talked about the Kislyak meeting in the Oval Office and basically lied to the American people about "The New York Times" and "Washington Post" reporting of that meeting, I think when he wrote that op-ed piece with Gary Cohn, I think he crossed some lines there for me.

That said, John, I think if you look at the last few months, he has tempered things and he has walked things a little bit back and he has pulled himself out, I think, of the political arena a little bit more.

Look at what he did in Munich, you know, when he talked about the incontrovertible evidence that Russian had meddled in the election and then got slapped back by the president on Twitter.


KIRBY: I think that shows that he's not afraid to have his own mind and to speak it. And to maybe pull himself back. So I think he's made an effort, I really do. And that's why I think he can survive this and he can -- he can lead as an active duty Army general, he just has to work really hard at it.

BERMAN: Admiral Kirby, thanks so much for being with us. Appreciate your insight on this.

KIRBY: You bet.

BERMAN: All right, just ahead, the battle over guns and who should be allowed to buy them and which guns, if any, should be off limits to everybody. Stay with us.


[09:41:14] BERMAN: New this morning, the president says Congress is in the mood to act on guns. So let's find out if he's right.

Joining me is Dan Kildee, Democrat from Michigan.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us. I really appreciate it.

Let me read you what the president wrote just this morning because it does constitute for him a bit of a shift. He says, I will be strongly pushing comprehensive background checks with an emphasis on mental health, raise age to 21 -- I think we have this tweet -- raise age to 21 and end sale of bump stocks. Congress is in a mood to finally do something on this issue, I hope.

On each of these issues he brings up, do you support them?

REP. DAN KILDEE (D), MICHIGAN: I do. In fact, back in October, I introduced legislation to ban bump stocks. Two Democrats, two Republicans, literally sat in my office and worked out language, introduced it. It didn't move. Why didn't it move? Because the NRA said no. They stopped it. So if Congress is in the mood to act, I'm going to be a little skeptical until I see the Republican leadership show a willingness to put common sense legislation that the vast majority of Americans support on the floor of the House. And some of the items that you raise fit that category.


KILDEE: Most people think we have universal background checks now. Almost everybody says we should do it. But the NRA has been stopping it.

And I watched the town hall last night. It was frustrating to me to see the NRA representative speak about the need to clean up the background check process, but they oppose closing the gun show loophole. They oppose it.

BERMAN: The -- I --

KILDEE: So they don't -- they don't have credibility on any of these subjects.

BERMAN: I understand what you're saying about the NRA, and we will hear from the head of the NRA speak in just moments to see where he stands on some of these things the president is saying. And I understand your skepticism on congressional leaders because these things have to come up for a vote for it to make any kind of difference.

However, you do have the president, who is the (INAUDIBLE) head of the Republican Party now, taking a stand, you know, laying down a marker on these issues. At what point should a Democratic strategy be just take yes for an answer. OK, Mr. President, yes, all three of those things, yes, right now, yes, tomorrow, we agree.

KILDEE: We've been willing. We've had legislation ready to go. We have an assault weapon ban that's been introduced over and over again. My colleague, David Cicilline, has introduced that. I have my own bump stock legislation. We have legislation to close the background checks.

We've been ready. The thing that has changed, as you point out, is the president seems to be changing his tune on this.

But here's the -- here's --

BERMAN: Marco Rubio, too. Marco Rubio -- you can see that Marco Rubio, again, who had an A plus rating from the NRA, at least until last night, taking a different stance also and talking about high capacity magazines.

KILDEE: Here's the thing. To the families that have been victimized, not just the families of these terrible tragedies, but the families that I represent that one at a time have seen their loved ones lose their lives in shootings. For those families, words are cheap.


KILDEE: The president holding a note card in his hand to remind him to be empathetic, that's cheap. What I want to see is legislation go to the floor of the House, passed by the House and Senate, and sent to the president and change policy in this country to protect Americans.

Press releases, tweets, note cards, you know, sympathetic tones, that's cheap. And I'm done with it. Everyone said after Sandy Hook, which happened just as I was coming into Congress, that this is different. And it wasn't different.

[09:45:00] BERMAN: Understood.

KILDEE: And so when I hear -- and I support these kids especially. I look forward at welcoming them to Washington in a few weeks. If this is going to change, it's going to change because we actually do something, not because the American public demands it, because they've been demanding it for a long time.


KILDEE: We have to act.

BERMAN: And -- agreed. Saying something and doing something, two wildly different things. So right now the pressure really is on House Speaker Paul Ryan. If the president wants this, why not put something on the floor right away.

If I can, I want to play you a moment from the town hall last night. Marco Rubio drew, I think, some inadvertent applause when he was talking about -- you support a ban on assault weapons. He does not. He talked about part of the complication for why. Just listen to this.


SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: It's not the loopholes. It's the problem that once you start looking at how easy it is you get around it, you would literally have to ban every semi-automatic rifle that's sold in America.


BERMAN: So what was interesting there, congressman, is that crowd, you know, several thousand people, cheered wildly at the notion of banning every semi-automatic weapon. You proposed a ban on assault weapons, but you don't support a ban on ever semi-automatic weapon, do you?

KILDEE: No, but I think that cheer gives you a sense of how frustrated people are. They want something done. My view is, let's do what we know makes sense. Close the gun show loophole.

BERMAN: But, congressman, I guess what I'm asking is, is I think gun rights advocates point to something like that and say, look, they do want to take away all of our guns. Look, no one's talking about confiscation. I know that much. But they'll point to that applause and say, all those people say ban all semi-automatic weapons. That's too far, they say.

KILDEE: Yes. But, of course, I think -- and, you're right, gun advocates, the NRA, will seize upon that as sort of evidence that there's a slippery slope. But none of that excuses us as policymakers --


KILDEE: From actually having a thoughtful conversation about this. Knowing that public sentiment, you know, right now is at a peak level. That doesn't excuse us from doing the things that we know actually would make a difference. And that's the frustration that I have is that we have so many of my colleagues who, frankly, ought to just find a different line of work. If they're not willing to do the hard things, if they're not willing to say no to the NRA on anything, on anything, they ought to just find a different line of work.

That bump stock legislation that I introduced was very simple. Republicans and Democrats came together. Like I said, we crafted it in my office. There's no excuse for the fact that that didn't move to the floor, with one exception, the Republican leadership refused to disappoint the NRA. And that day has to end. That has to end.

BERMAN: Congressman, thanks so much for being with us. Please keep us posted. As you said, you've been talking about bump stocks for a long, long time. Right now you have legislation ready to go at a moment's notice.

Thanks, congressman.

KILDEE: Thank you, John.

BERMAN: A former Trump campaign adviser who was fired and later sued by the president, today sitting down with the Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team.

And any minute we hear from the head of the NRA for the first time since the Florida shooting. There's the spokesperson, Dana Loesch, who was on CNN last night.

Stay with us.


[09:52:48] BERMAN: All right, you're looking at live pictures from the CPAC Conference. That's NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch giving a passionate speech, saying there should be no new restrictions on any kind of gun ownership following the shootings in Parkland, Florida. We are expecting to hear from the executive director of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre, any minute. We'll bring you those comments live when they happen.

In the meantime, today, former Trump campaign adviser Sam Nunberg will be interviewed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team. Nunberg was an early adviser to the Trump campaign before being fired in August 2015 because of some FaceBook posts.

Our crime and justice reporter Shimon Prokupecz joins me with the latest on that. Interesting that Nunberg's going in now, so late in the game,

apparently, Shimon.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: No. Exactly right. More mystery, more people coming in to see the special counsel. We don't exactly know why he's going to the special counsel. But like you said, he's a former adviser to the president, worked in the campaign.

So he's expected to be at Mueller's office today where he'll be interviewed by a host of investigators, FBI agents. And Nunberg worked on the campaign through 2015, also worked for Trump previously and then he was fired from the campaign after controversial, racially charged FaceBook posts surfaced that were linked to him.

And then, in 2016, he was sued by Trump for violating terms of a nondisclosure agreement. He was accused of talking to the media, leaking information. That lawsuit was eventually dropped.

He's also, John, interestingly enough, quoted in Michael Wolff's book, "Fire and Fury." He's also an associate of Steve Bannon, who was just interviewed by Bob Mueller and his investigators in the last two weeks. So perhaps maybe something came out of there that has now required Nunberg's appearance.

But we don't exactly know why, at least not yet, why he's appearing there today.

BERMAN: We know he's an early campaign figure. So the question, why would he be speaking now? Maybe it is tied to the Michael Wolff book. But more proof, we just don't know in many cases what the special counsel is doing.


BERMAN: Shimon Prokupecz, thanks so much.

EPA Chief Scott Pruitt's travel expenses under investigation. The House Oversight Committee launching a new probe. This following reports that Pruitt traveled first class on multiple business-related trips. Pruitt reportedly said last week that he travels on military jets and first class due to security concerns, telling a reporter, quote, we live in a very toxic environment politically.

[09:55:13] South Korean officials say they will not set up a meeting between Ivanka Trump and the North Korean Olympic delegation. Ivanka Trump headed to South Korea where she will lead the U.S. delegation at the closing ceremonies of the Olympics. She will also attend a dinner with the South Korean president on Friday.

All right, we are still watching this live developments from the CPAC Conference. Dana Loesch wrapping up. We're expected to hear from the executive director of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre, any minute. His first comments since the shooting in Parkland, Florida. How much pressure will they put on the president going forward?

Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: All right, good morning, everyone. John Berman here.

New this morning, significant policy statements from the president on gun control, but will it lead to action. The president now says he supports stronger background checks, banning bump stocks, which essentially turns semi-automatic weapons into automatic weapons, raising the age you can buy a rifle from 18 to 21, which is a move strongly opposed by the NRA. So how will the NRA respond? We may find out any second now.

We're waiting to hear from the executive director of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre. These are his first comments since the massacre more than one week ago in Parkland, Florida. He is due to speak at the CPAC Conference. This is a group of conservatives meeting in Maryland right now. We believe he could be speaking right here. Let me just wait to see if the lights come up on Wayne LaPierre.

But while we wait for Wayne LaPierre to take the stage, our Rebecca Berg in the hall right now.

Rebecca, what have we been hearing so far? What do we expect?


Well, we expect a very friendly crowd here for Wayne LaPierre, for the NRA, in spite of the debate that we are having right now across the country about gun control. We saw it at the CNN town hall last night in Florida.

That is not the tone here at CPAC at all. This is a place where Wayne LaPierre has stood on this stage and spoke as a featured speaker for the past decade. It's a very friendly gun rights, pro-Second Amendment crowd.