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White House Communications Director Hope Hicks Resigning; Robert Mueller Probing Trump's Efforts to Oust Jeff Sessions in July; Vladimir Putin Touts New Invincible Missile; Interview with Representative Stephanie Turner. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired March 1, 2018 - 10:00   ET


[10:00:29] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, good morning, everyone. John Berman here. The breaking news this morning, President Trump is fuming at his attorney general. This is new fuming if you're keeping score at home.

So what happened this time? The Attorney General Jeff Sessions committed the transgression of defending himself after the president called him disgraceful.

Let's get straight to Kaitlan Collins at the White House who broke this news.

Kaitlan, what are you hearing?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, President Trump was furious with his Attorney General Jeff Sessions yet again yesterday and for those keeping score at home, here's what happened.

The president sent this tweet saying the Department of Justice was acting and the attorney general were disgraceful for the way they were handling those alleged abuses of surveillance and, though Jeff Sessions has remained silent over the last year that the president has attacked him time and time again, calling him weak and beleaguered and saying he regretted picking him as attorney general, Jeff Sessions finally pushed back.

And very public pushback at that because he issued a statement essentially defending the Department of Justice, defending those lawyers and his position as attorney general. And that is something that did not sit well with President Trump and I'm told by those familiar with his demeanor that he was actually indignant over the way that Jeff Sessions fired back.

But, John, this is just the latest spat in between these two men and this long simmering feud that has gone on for nearly a year now because Jeff Sessions recused himself from overseeing that Russia investigation, but aides don't know where this goes, because the president doesn't seem compelled enough to fire Jeff Sessions, Jeff Sessions doesn't seem like he's going to quit anytime soon. So it seems like this feud is just going to continue here -- John.

BERMAN: You know, so interesting, the president likes to call himself a counterpunch, is fuming over someone who counterpunched. It's interesting. You know, the president may be in a bad mood

anyway, right, because his communications director, one of his closest aides, someone who has been there from the beginning, Hope Hicks, announced she's leaving.

COLLINS: Yes, he's got a lot on his plate right now. A lot of the issues going on with his son-in-law and senior adviser, some criticism of his daughter, and now one of his closest aides and one of his top confidantes, Hope Hicks, is leaving the White House after being with President Trump for three years now. And she's now leaving the White House, certainly something that's going to bother the president and because she is someone who isn't just another aide leaving the White House. We've seen a string of departures over the last 13 months, so many that it's almost comical.

But Hope Hicks is different because she was so close to the president, almost like a member of his family and certainly part of his inner circle and now she has left. Keith Schiller, his longtime bodyguard left, and now it's undetermined whether or not Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner will remain for much longer.

So Dan Scavino, Kellyanne Conway will be the only two of the people who have been around the president for some amount of time before he came to the White House that are still working here -- John.

BERMAN: On Jared Kushner, there is this new story in "The New York Times" overnight that he had meetings inside the White House with these financial executives and then those firms gave Kushner companies huge loans, more than $500 million. What can you tell us about this?

COLLINS: Yes, John, "The New York Times" is reporting that several companies donated or gave these big business loans to his family's real estate company after they met with Jared Kushner here at the White House where he was acting in his official capacity as a senior adviser and special assistant to the president, and one of those is Joshua Harris, who founded the Apollo Global Management Company. And he was actually in -- a contender for a job here in the White House.

He met with Jared Kushner several times, starting early last year and then that job never followed through but then his company did give a business loan of $184 million. Now that is quite a sizable loan, certainly larger than what Apollo management typically does. And this is just the latest in a string of stories including those about his security clearance and the "Washington Post" reporting that several countries discussed ways to exploit Kushner that really raise the question of his ability to continue working here in the West Wing -- John.

BERMAN: All right, Kaitlan Collins, at the White House. A lot of news from the White House this morning.

Let's try to break it down into pieces if we can. We're going to start with Hope Hicks. Joining me now, deputy White House press secretary under George W. Bush, Trent Duffy.

Trent, great to have you here with us. There are communications directors and then there are communications directors when it comes to the White House. And then there are communications directors who are really, you know, in the inner most of inner circles and that's where Hope Hicks is. This just isn't someone who runs messaging, who is leaving. This is one of the president's closest aides. That has to have an impact.

[10:05:03] TRENT DUFFY, COMMUNICATIONS CONSULTANT: It does have an impact, John. This is a very difficult blow for the Trump White House and the president himself. She was clearly his beloved disciple. She was able to channel him, she was able to tell him when he needed to think about things twice. Obviously she had written his talking points for the roundtable that was just held at the White House. So this is a difficult blow.

Hope Hicks is not going to go away. I'm sure she will still be able to provide advice to the president. The president will seek that out. But this is a difficult blow. But now the fact is she is leaving. And to the president's credit, he has assembled a very fine team in the time that he's been there that can pick up the pieces and move on. And that's the opportunity that they have.

This is the tale of two Trumps. There's Trump, the president who spoke in the State of the Union, had a very powerful leadership together speech, it didn't mention Bob Mueller, it didn't mention Jeff Sessions, it didn't mention all this muckety muck in the swamp and then there's Trump the tweeter that does all the other things. And he's got to decide and the communications team has got to get him back on Trump in the State of the Union and less Trump the tweeter.

BERMAN: The thing is, is that both those Trumps are president, right?

DUFFY: That's right.

BERMAN: It's one and the same person and is that what makes this such a unique challenge to run communications for this White House?

DUFFY: Yes, that's one of the many challenges, absolutely. But the other challenge is that they've got to realize communications sometimes gets confused with press and spin, and the two are somewhat interlocked. But communications is looking forward. That's why the White House Opioid Commission meeting today is so important. They need to get back on the offense.

When's the last time the president talked about one of his greatest achievements which is tax relief? April 15th is coming up. What's the White House planning on doing on that? And the other thing is we have the elections coming up. And if the White House and the communications team want to do anything, they better be thinking about how to keep Congress in Republican hands because if you can imagine how tough it is now, just wait if the Democrats get subpoena power.

BERMAN: Does it surprise you what we've heard from people close to the White House, Anthony Scaramucci this morning who says that morale is at an all-time low inside the White House?

DUFFY: Well, I don't know. I don't work there. You know, it is hard to say. Nobody knows that but the people who work there. I can tell you that the president is continuing to track very talented and good people. He's got a good team with him and it does take, John. It is human nature for any president or any human being to develop a level of trust and respect with his new aides. But fortunately many of the newer aides that are now part of his initial circle have had that time and I think there is some development of respect. So they've got to, you know, pick up the pieces and move forward. They've got opportunity. They've got eight months. And they can do this.

BERMAN: The question is, you know, can he keep them on board? There's been a lot of people in and out.

Trent Duffy, always great to have you with us. Thanks so much.

DUFFY: You got it, John.

BERMAN: All right. We're going to go back to the other big story of the day, this feud between the president and the Attorney General Jeff Sessions. "The Washington Post" is reporting a different angle of this, that the Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating if the president's push to get Sessions out last summer could be evidence of an attempt to obstruct justice.

Our Laura Jarrett live in Washington with much more on this.

Laura, what's the latest?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, John, as the president fumes over his attorney general's rare pushback yesterday, "The Post" reports that Special Counsel Mueller has been looking into that period of time last July when President Trump seemed just determined to drive Jeff Sessions out of a job. You'll remember tweeting nonstop in attacks, calling him everything from weak to beleaguered. And the reason this matters is potentially how it fits into a pattern of potential obstruction of justice.

The key legal question always here is whether the president's goal was to oust Sessions in order to pick a replacement, who would somehow change the course of the Russia investigation. Of course, the president was upset because Sessions recused and Sessions of course would say that he was obligated to do that from an ethics perspective given his role on the campaign, on the Trump campaign.

But, according to "The Post," Mueller's team has questioned witnesses in detail about this issue to try to get a sense of his mindset, John, before he actually questions the president himself.

BERMAN: All right, Laura Jarrett for us in Washington.

Let's try to get a better sense of what this all means for the Mueller investigation. Joining me now is CNN legal analyst Paul Callan.

Counselor, how do you prove a corrupt intent?

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, you have to show that the reason that the president, let's say we're talking about the president in this case, wanted Sessions out, wanted Comey out, was because he was afraid the investigation they were pursuing was coming too close to him personally. So the corrupt intent really is that the president is not seeking to protect the country by getting rid of a Cabinet officer, but protecting himself from an investigation.

BERMAN: And you show that how?

[10:10:01] CALLAN: Well, you show that by statements that the president has made, and you can also infer it from conduct that he has engaged in. So Mueller maybe looking at his course of conduct in trying to force the attorney general to resign.

You know it's a lot easier if Sessions just steps up and says I resign as opposed to Trump being forced to fire him, which would be a more blatant, easily identifiable action. So that's what Mueller is looking at.

BERMAN: You know, it's interesting, the fact that he was attacking him yesterday, calling him disgraceful, does that help or hurt the case? Because I can see both arguments. I can see you saying, look, you know, he's attacking him six months after this July episode for something sort of tangentially related to it. This just shows that the president likes to bash on Jeff Sessions.

CALLAN: Well, yes, it could demonstrate that. And, you know, it's just a crazy day yesterday for a couple of reasons. Number one, imagine a court situation where the guy in court is fighting with his lawyer in front of the jury, the jury being the American public and the Congress. This is going on all the time in the Trump administration. And it really makes the president look very bad. And secondly, he's making the person that he's trying to force out look better.

Sessions is standing up, acting in an ethical manner and saying, I'm not going to move. I owe a duty to the Constitution of the United States.

BERMAN: You brought up one of the points which I think is so important to raise as much and as often as we can. When we talk about obstruction of justice, proving corrupt intent, proving a pattern here, it is not proving it in a court of law or proving it inside a courtroom or a jury. This, by nature of who the president is, is a political matter.

What you're talking about here is a report that will come from the special counsel, the Congress will ultimately look at, in some sense it is a political statement. Robert Mueller could choose to say what we saw here was a disturbing pattern that feels like obstruction of justice. Period. Full stop.

CALLAN: You know, John, I think that's a great point because we start analyzing this like the president is going to get indicted for a crime like an ordinary person would. That's not going to happen here. If there is an obstruction of justice finding by Mueller, he's going to send those reports eventually over to Congress, and Congress is going to decide whether this is an impeachable offense. So as you say, in the end, it's all political.

BERMAN: And the mere fact, if Robert Mueller ever uses those words, obstruction of justice or pattern to obstruct, those would have huge political implications.

CALLAN: Absolutely.

BERMAN: Paul Callan, great to have you with us. Thanks so much.

Other major news, Vladimir Putin boasting about the development of new invincible missiles. The president receiving his daily intelligence briefing right now. How will he react to this news?

And a former White House official says morale is at an all-time low. More departures, he promises, to come soon. Much more on this chaotic 48 hours in the West Wing.

And then moments ago, the casket carrying the remains of Billy Graham leaving Capitol Hill, heading for Charlotte, North Carolina. The reverend was the fourth person to -- fourth private citizen to lie in honor at the Capitol. A private funeral service will be held tomorrow in front of the Billy Graham Library. Graham died last week at the age of 99.


[10:17:25] BERMAN: New this morning, the Russian president Vladimir Putin touting a new invincible missile that would render defense systems completely useless, saying that the missile could reach almost anywhere around the world.

Joining me now, senior international correspondent Matthew Chance.

And Matthew, you note this is a different type of rhetoric than really you heard from Vladimir Putin.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's certainly the toughest speech we've heard from Vladimir Putin in several years, those tough words directed towards the Western United States in particular.

But you've got to remember, John, that this is a political season here in Russia. Vladimir Putin is going to the electorate in 17 days to face a presidential election, which is almost certain to win. But he wants to put himself across as a strong leader, much as President Trump does in the U.S., and someone who backs very much the Russian military. And that's why I think he made this announcement to a gathering of parliamentarians in Moscow and he talked about these new strategic missiles.

Interestingly Russia he said was developing a new ICBM, an intercontinental ballistic missile, with a new warhead that can't be intercepted by Russia -- sorry, by U.S. anti-missile systems. He said any missile would be able to reach any point in the world. He also said that Russia tested a new nuclear-powered missile at the end of 2017, not quite clear what that would mean. And that the country is also testing underwater drones that can carry nuclear payloads.

And so that's something that may be of some concern to military planners in the United States. The point is, though, yes, the U.S. mostly were the audience for this in the West, but it was aimed at a domestic audience again in this election season and his message was very much that Russia is back as a military and a nuclear power -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Matthew Chance for us in Moscow. Matthew, thank you so much.

Joining me now, CNN national security analyst Shawn Turner.

Shawn, this is the language of the Cold War. This is the language of an arms race. What is the significance to you?

SHAWN TURNER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, there's no doubt, John, that there are aspects of speech that have elements reminiscent of Cold War language and it has some very pointed language directed at the United States. As I listen to this speech, you know, I was struck by Putin's reference to American -- to American exceptionalism. He said that our strategy won't be based on exceptionalism, but it will be based on a desire to protect ourselves.

He also made reference to some of the things that this administration has talked about with regard to diversifying and updating the nuclear arsenal, so this was, as Matthew said, a very pointed, a very direct speech, and one of the things this really tells is that Vladimir Putin really does understand the power of rhetoric and as we have seen in the past several years he's using it to its advantage.

BERMAN: Both presidents, Obama and Trump, have talked about modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal.


BERMAN: They didn't do so with the same type of language, though, that we just heard from Vladimir Putin. Are those the same things, just tied up in a different way or are we talking about substantive differences here?

TURNER: No, I think the real difference here is in the rhetoric. I mean, obviously we don't talk about these modernization efforts, these updated efforts with an eye toward sending a message to the international community that the United States is a nuclear power that can hold its own. Russia, on the other hand, does very much want to send a message. And even though we understand that they are not as advanced as they would like to think they are, with regard to some of these updates, we know that they understand that the message that they sent to the international world, and it's not just in this speech.

Everything from their annexation of Crimea to propping up Bashar al- Assad to their interference in our election is designed to send a message to the international community that Russia is a re-emerging power. BERMAN: Right. So you brought up election interference there. This

of course happens on the very week where the outgoing head of the NSA, Mike Rogers, has said that he hasn't been directed to do anything offensive against the engineering, the machinery of the Russians used to hack into the U.S. election system. Essentially saying that Vladimir Putin hasn't been cowed at all by any of the U.S. response. Are these two things connected at all or are we talking about two different spheres?

TURNER: Well, I think we're talking about two different spheres here. You know, this issue of holding Russia accountable is one of the issues that's, you know, really weighing on the national security community right now because as we talked about many times, the evidence is indisputable that Russia interfered and so far what we don't know based on the testimony from Admiral Rogers is whether or not the White House has actually asked for a set of proposals, of courses of action to carry out, or whether or not there simply hasn't been any discussion at all about holding Russia accountable.

So I think that for the Russians, you know, they certainly got to a point where they want the international community to know that they potentially had an impact on who the current leader of the free world is. And here we're just beside ourselves with trying to understand why the president hasn't taken some action to hold him accountable.

BERMAN: All right. Shawn Turner, great to have you with us. Thanks so much.

TURNER: Thanks, John.

BERMAN: Lawmakers stunned this morning after President Trump seemingly agreed with Democrats way more than Republicans on the issue of gun control. I'm going to speak with one of the lawmakers inside that meeting next.


[10:27:27] BERMAN: All right, this morning, lawmakers are confused after President Trump seemed to buck his own party during a meeting on gun control. He seemed to endorse positions that Republicans have opposed for decades.

Joining me now someone who was in that meeting, Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy of Florida.

Representative, thanks so much for being with us. I want to know for our audience right now that you decided to run for Congress in your district in Florida after the Pulse Nightclub shooting. So this is an issue that is very close to your heart.

Let me just ask you flat out, do you know where the president stands this morning on gun control?

REP. STEPHANIE MURPHY (D), FLORIDA: I think that I'm encouraged by the comments that he made yesterday in the meeting. He's open to a wide range of commonsense gun safety measures and he made a commitment that he wants to see this through to the end. So I think that's a good place for us to start and be able to advance some of these commonsense gun safety measures so that we don't have to have another Pulse Nightclub shooting or a Parkland School shooting.

BERMAN: Cynics will say that this made-for-TV discussion yesterday on guns was similar to the made-for-TV discussions on immigration a month or so ago where he seemed to endorse Democratic positions then reversed himself. Are you concerned that that will happen here?

MURPHY: Well, I think we heard all that his commitments and what we need to do is now act on it and move forward. And I think the Republican Congress needs to allow some of these bills to come to the floor and so that they have the moment.

The American people are counting on us. You look at the students from the Parkland shooting and the courage and a character that they're bringing to this debate, by holding their elected leaders accountable.

BERMAN: I want to play one thing the president said yesterday because it caught a lot of people attention yesterday. It had to do with this notion of gun restraining orders really was the broad subject, whether or not the government would have a right to get guns from people if they showed signs of mental illness or signs they could be a threat. Listen to what the president said.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Take the firearms first and then go to court because that's another system, because a lot of times by the time you go to court, it takes so long to go to court, to get the due process procedures, you could do exactly what you're saying, but take the guns first, go through due process second.


BERMAN: Is that something you support, taking the guns first, going through due process second?

MURPHY: Every American deserves to have due process. There are a lot of commonsense gun safety measures that we can implement without violating an American's right to due process. And I think we have to work really hard together trying to find a way to keep dangerous battlefield weapons out --