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Does Trump Want Sessions Gone?; Trump Addresses Opioid Crisis; Interview With Maryland Congressman Anthony Brown; Did Kushner Use White House Influence to Acquire Company Loans?. Aired 3-3:30p ET
Aired March 1, 2018 - 15:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: -- members of Congress across the board.
QUESTION: Sarah, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was due to be at the White House today for the opioid summit. Did the president have an opportunity to speak to him while he was here?
SANDERS: Not that I'm aware of.
QUESTION: OK, and then moving on to gun violence prevention, the president said yesterday that he would sign a bill, and then he said "And I will call whoever you want me to if I like what you're doing." If senators, if the House and Congress, passes a bill that does deal with safety, gun violence, is the president committed to signing whatever they pass?
SANDERS: The president's not going to unilaterally say without seeing that piece of legislation but he does want Congress to come together and put forward a piece of legislation that addresses the safety in schools and gun violence specifically. And he laid out a number of things he'd like to see in that. And so we're hoping that Congress will continue working with us and put a strong piece of legislation forward. I'm going to take one last question. The president -- hey, guys, hold on just a second...
The president's headed over to speak at the opioid summit here momentarily. I'll take one last question.
QUESTION: So one more on the gun debate, Sarah...
QUESTION: So, according to the White House readout, there was a phone call this morning between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and President Trump. And Moon Jae-in briefed him on the inter-Korean talks. The South Korean government is also saying that they plan to send -- send a special envoy to North Korea soon. How does the president feel about the dialogue between North and South Korea? Does he welcome it or is he concerned? Does he feel that President Moon is being too soft on North Korea?
SANDERS: The president wants to continue working with South Korea. It's a strong ally, we have no daylight between the two of us. We're going to continue those conversations. Again, the ultimate goal is to denuclearize the peninsula. That's what we're focused on and we're excited about any steps moving forward in that process. Thanks so much, guys. I'm going to move out. The president will be speaking here in a couple minutes.
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Well, a very short White House press briefing there just wrapping up.
And I have a panel now to discuss it with me.
CNN political analyst Rachael Bade, who is also congressional reporter for Politico, CNN political analyst Ryan Lizza with us as well, and Amber Phillips from "The Washington Post." She writes its political blog, The Fix.
OK. Let's talk. Let's start with Jeff Sessions, because what really stood out in contrast to me was -- it was actually really fascinating to hear her answer this, because very quickly she was asked, you know, basically -- she was asked, Sanders was, about Attorney General Jeff Sessions, does the president want to get rid of him?
Not that I know of. That is not like a ringing endorsement. And then it was about Jared Kushner. No. So it was this contrast between how the president feels about Jared Kushner, very definitive, and then the not that I know of.
What did you think?
RACHAEL BADE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. It is clear President Donald Trump is extremely frustrated with Jeff Sessions.
A lot of Republicans will tell you wrongfully so. They will say that Jeff Sessions is doing the right thing by basically having this inspector general at the Justice Department look into these matters that House Republicans have raised. They have sort of been accusing the Justice Department of having political motivations, saying some of the FBI agents need to be looked at and investigated for having anti- Trump bias.
He sent that to an oversight watchdog at the Justice Department.
But President Trump, he wants a special counsel. He is upset that there is a special counsel on Russia in particular, and he thinks there needs to be another one to counter that narrative.
KEILAR: On FISA abuses, which even some Republicans are saying, hey, that is not even a real thing.
Ryan, what did you think of this? What did you think of how Jeff Sessions is faring here?
RYAN LIZZA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, a couple things.
One, I think Sarah Sanders, ever since the Rob Porter situation, has learned to be more cautious when she talks about what she knows and what she doesn't know. And when she is talking the president -- what is going on in his head...
KEILAR: Because there she got stung by that?
LIZZA: Because I think she got stung by that. And I notice she's been a little bit more cautious. If she doesn't know something, she will hedge. On this with Sessions, she's hedging
As far as she knows, the president is -- look, Trump is Trump. You never know from one minute to another where his top people stand with him. So, it's not an easy job that she has.
In a very, very busy news week, I do think that yesterday's back and forth between Trump and the attorney general was remarkable, almost historic. You have rarely seen a president publicly attack the attorney general, and this time, unlike previous times, the attorney general come back and say essentially, no, Mr. President, you are wrong, I'm doing the right thing, I'm following the Constitution.
KEILAR: And as long as I am attorney general, he said, right, I will continue to do this.
And really just implicit in with Jeff Sessions, what the Department of Justice said yesterday, is, we know what the law is, we are following the Constitution. Implicit in that is, you're crossing a line here.
And after a lot of line crossing in this administration, it was sort of good to see, I think, the Justice Department stick up for itself and put -- and say what they said.
KEILAR: And then in video and in pictures.
Amber, we then saw Jeff Sessions walking out of the DOJ, heading over to dinner with who, but Rod Rosenstein, the guy who is overseeing Robert Mueller's special counsel team.
AMBER PHILLIPS, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Yes, I think this week marks a turning point for the attorney general. He came to this job thinking he would be an ally with the president. They agree on immigration. They have similar world views on a lot of things they could work together on.
And now you have the attorney general almost seeing his role as a blockade to the president. He is sort of recognizing that the president has this world view, very narrow, of the government, specifically his allies in government, should be working for the government and not necessarily for the government.
And I think Sessions this week really signaled to the rest of us he gets that that is a problem and that is dangerous.
KEILAR: It is important to note that Jeff Sessions has executed so many things that are in line with the Trump agenda, but on this, he seems to be standing firm, and this perhaps is what matters the most to President Trump, and so he is upset about it.
We're keeping our eyes trained, as you see there, on the Dow. So it is down more than 500 points, right, and this happened after the president mentioned that he is going to be rolling out tariffs on aluminum and steel. Wall Street did not respond very well to this, Rachael.
And then -- OK, so, then, when you have Republicans who have skewered the White House for how they've handled this, the idea that you just don't say there are going to be tariffs and leave all the details for, look, the markets to worry about.
What did you think about her reaction to that? She said the president isn't going to apologize for protecting American workers. But Republicans are really mad.
BADE: And so from the president -- or from the White House's standpoint, they're going to say he is delivering on a campaign promise.
He said he was going to slap these tariffs on steel and aluminum and he is following through. However, Republicans on the Hill are worried that this is going to hurt Americans' pocketbooks and that prices are going to go up on voters. And that could actually have the reverse effect of tax reform right now.
Republicans are saying they want tax reform to be the central issue in the midterms, because tax reform, a lot of people are seeing the benefits of it, it is becoming more popular, they are going to run on it, but they think this could actually set them back and they are worried about that.
KEILAR: And we don't have the details of the tariffs that are being proposed. Right? So what do you think about this rollout? It doesn't seem as if it has been very smooth and it seems like the president jumped the gun, right?
BADE: Seems like maybe he wants to change the topic. It's been a really tough 24 hours. Maybe he wanted to get out there to try to get people to talk about something else.
LIZZA: Yes, but this seems to be one reason perhaps that the markets are reacting so negatively is the uncertainty, right? It does seem like the president today jumped the gun, announced the tariffs when they didn't have all of the details ready to explain to the press, to explain to allies.
I mean, we don't know if it is going to actually apply to every country, if there will be any carve-outs. He is saying it does -- often, tariffs have -- the devil is always in the details of these things, and I think that is why the market might be jittery.
And, look, when you are slapping tariffs on things like aluminum and steel, you are giving preferential treatment to those American industries, but you are jacking up prices potentially for lots of American manufacturers and lots of other companies in the industrial base of the country.
So there are winners and losers here. So, the idea that this is 100 percent going to protect American workers, well, you have to look at the details. If you are in the aluminum and steel business, yes. If you are in the automotive business, where you are importing steel and aluminum, not buying it domestically, you are going to be hurt.
KEILAR: And she was asked, Sarah Sanders was, OK, are there going to be exemptions? Richard Quest said this was like pulling the pin out of the grenade and not saying where it was going to go off.
KEILAR: So she was asked questions and she clearly is not in a place where she is ready to roll out the details, despite what the president said, Amber.
PHILLIPS: Yes. And I think another factor that we can't take away or we can't separate from this is the chaos the White House has been over the past month really, starting with the Rob Porter scandal, you have Jared Kushner losing his security clearance, Cabinet officials being under fire for lavish spending.
You have Bob Mueller indicting or getting people in Trump orbit to plead guilty, Hope Hicks leaving, and then, on top of this, you have the president saying let's put this tariff announcement out now without any other details.
And I think this is all a sign -- and I think the markets are recognizing this -- of a White House that isn't just not organized. It is frankly unstable.
KEILAR: Thank you guys so much, Amber Phillips, Ryan Lizza.
And a very special thank you to you, Rachael Bade, who is now joining us as a CNN political analyst. We're so happy to welcome you to the CNN family.
BADE: Thank you.
KEILAR: And moments from now, President Trump expected to appear at an opioids event that is going to take place at the White House. You can see people getting settled there.
You see Jeff Sessions there, right? He is also in attendance. So we are going to monitor that.
And then this, $31,000 for a dining set. HUD Secretary Ben Carson now responding to accusations of lavish spending inside his government office. We're going to get an interior designer's take on this.
Let's listen in.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you very much, Kellyanne.
And it is an honor to be with you. I just said I was going to stop over, say hello to some of the great families and some friends, some friends that have had some incredible difficulty. I know what you're going through.
Melania is here someplace. Where is our First Lady? Where is she? Where's Melania? Hello, darling. So she feels so strongly about it. Kellyanne feels so strongly about it. And I do.
And a friend of mine, Steve Witkoff, who is a great developer in New York City -- stand up, Steve. I didn't know you were going to be here. Steve had some big difficulty. He went through -- Steve, come on up here. Steve has been one of my great friends over the years. A tremendously successful man. And would you want to just discuss this? Because we're all among friends here. You know, it's a tough thing to discuss, right?
MR. WITKOFF: It is. It is.
TRUMP: But I was there when he was going through something with a very special boy, right? Go ahead.
MR. WITKOFF: I remember the hug you gave me when the world was -- when I felt all was lost. I listened to Eric's story. I lost my son in 2011. And he didn't buy drugs on the Darknet; he bought drugs on the Internet -- a website owned by three of the largest U.S. corporations in the country today. So it's not just the Darknet.
But he was a great kid, and he detoxed the first night with me. So he was my special child. So if I lost him -- I always felt hopeless before you were elected. And I've never lobbied my friend about anything. I've just supported you because I so believe in you. But if my son knew that you were going to take up this battle -- oh, my gosh, he must be upstairs applauding every single day. So I am so grateful. Thank you.
TRUMP: Thank you, Steve. You take care of yourself. Thank you. (Applause.) And Steve went through something where he thought everything was perfect. He thought everything was fine. And his boy was recovered. And then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, he got some very bad news. So I fully understand what you're going through.
The administration is going to be rolling out policy over the next three weeks, and it will be very, very strong. I've also spoken with Jeff about bringing a lawsuit against some of these opioid companies. I mean, what they're doing and the way -- the distribution. And you have people that go to the hospital with a broken arm, and they come out and they're addicted. They're addicted to painkillers, and they don't even know what happened. They go in for something minor, and they come out and they're in serious shape.
So we're going to very much -- you know, as you know, I think we've been involved more than any administration, by far. It's a problem that's growing. And drugs are a similar but different problem, in the sense that we have pushers and we have drug dealers that don't -- I mean, they kill hundreds and hundreds of people, and most of them don't even go to jail. You know, if you shoot one person, they give you life, they give you the death penalty. These people can kill 2,000, 3,000 people and nothing happens to them.
And we need strength with respect to the pushers and to the drug dealers. And if we don't do that, you're never going to solve the problem. If you want to be weak and you want to talk about just Blue Ribbon Committees, that's not the answer. The answer is you have to have strength and you have to have toughness. The drug dealers, the drug pushers are -- they're really doing damage. They're really doing damage.
Some countries have a very, very tough penalty -- the ultimate penalty. And, by the way, they have much less of a drug problem than we do. So we're going to have to be very strong on penalties. Hopefully, we can do some litigation against the opioid companies. I think it's very important because a lot of states are doing it, but I keep saying, if the states are doing it, why isn't the federal government doing it? (Applause.) So that will happen. So that will happen.
In the meantime, I just want to pay my respects to everybody. Some of you have gone through a lot. Many of you in this room have gone through a lot, more than anyone can imagine. We're with you a hundred percent. We're fighting for you, and we're going to win. We're going to win.
Thank you very much. Thank you, everybody. Thank you.
KEILAR: All right, President Trump dropping by an opioid summit there at the White House.
And pretty interesting. Obviously, the White House, the administration as a whole has been looking at taking on manufacturers and distributors. You heard him talking about drug pushers there, but also something that may have made your ears perk up, where he talked about some countries having the ultimate punishment for drug crimes.
That, of course, would be capital punishment. And that is something that he has hinted at before. So, what exactly does he mean? What exactly proposal would that -- what would that look like? We do not know, but certainly something that we will be following up on.
Now, next, we have some serious new questions about Jared Kushner after "The New York Times" reports his family business received half- a-billion dollars in loans after meetings that he hosted inside the White House.
Stand by for that.
KEILAR: Well, just days after being stripped of his top-secret security clearance, new reporting about Jared Kushner and blurred lines at the White House. "
The New York Times" is reporting that Kushner's family business received half-a-billion dollars in loans from two companies after Kushner met with the heads of those companies right inside the White House.
And Kushner reportedly discussed giving the co-founder of one of those companies a job within the administration. Kushner, who is the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, was among a group of White House officials stripped of their top-level access after working on a temporary clearance for more than a year.
I want to bring in Democratic Congressman Anthony Brown of Maryland with us now. He is a retired Army colonel, Harvard-educated lawyer and the former lieutenant governor of Maryland.
And, sir, you are also on the House Ethics Committee. So, we appreciate you being with us.
REP. ANTHONY BROWN (D), MARYLAND: It's great to be on today.
KEILAR: So, Jared Kushner has had his security clearance downgraded, but we learned that there were four different countries that were considering using his financial woes and his lack of experience in government to try to manipulate him.
And then you have this latest bombshell about his meeting with bankers. Given the problems surrounding Kushner, do you believe that what he has done is something that is unethical?
BROWN: I think it is unethical. I think it also presents a risk to the security interests of this country. And, frankly, I think he out ought to be remove from the White House. He has demonstrated that, if you are not going to distance yourself
from your outside business interests and continue to take meetings with businesspeople who are going to provide loans to your company, you have got no business being in government, let alone the White House.
KEILAR: What is your reaction, though? Today, we just heard moments ago from Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, asked about Jared Kushner and really the stability of his role in the White House, and she made it really clear it is stable.
BROWN: Look, if Mr. Kushner was a member of Congress, I have no doubt that an ethics claim would probably be filed with the Ethics Committee. We would be looking at a conflict of interest.
He is a senior government official. He has got outside business interests. He is taking meetings with companies that are later giving him or his family's business large, outsized loans. That is, if not an actual, it is certainly a perceived conflict of interest.
And the best way for it to be addressed would be for Mr. Kushner to no longer work at the White House.
KEILAR: Let's talk about guns, because this meeting that we saw between President Trump and a bipartisan group of lawmakers yesterday was pretty stunning.
Do you think, when you listen to what he said, and I'm sure you were surprised by some of the things you heard, did you think that he sounded like he had a lot in common with you, that he might actually sound more like a Democrat than a Republican when it comes to gun control?
BROWN: Well, one of the things that the president suggested -- and he has suggested it before -- is to raise the age on purchasing or selling assault weapons. I filed a bill three days ago -- it is probably one of the few bipartisan bills that have been filed this Congress -- to restrict the access to guns.
And so I think that we can find common ground to raise from age 18 to 21 in order for someone to buy an assault weapon. That would put it on parity with what the age requirement to buy a handgun in this country.
KEILAR: So, rhetorically, at this point in time -- and we don't know what the policies are. We know that we have heard from the Senate side. Sounds like Republicans aren't planning on unveiling anything next week.
Rhetorically, there are a lot of similarities. But I do wonder, between you, between President Trump, what would have been the reaction if President Obama had said something like we heard Donald Trump yesterday where he said take the guns first and worry about due process second?
BROWN: Look, there would have been an uproar certainly among Republicans if President Obama had uttered those words.
But I think, here, we can find some common ground on a few narrow issues that I think there is common ground, like raising the age on purchasing assault weapons, banning bump stocks. I think after what we saw, what we -- the horrific carnage in Las Vegas, I think there is an overwhelming majority of members of the House that would support banning bump stocks.
And also background checks, if not universal, certainly enhanced background checks, so that we can make sure that those who shouldn't have access to a firearm don't. I think we can find some common ground, and that is what we need to work towards.
KEILAR: Senator Marco Rubio just announced his own bill. Of course, you have announced, introduced that bipartisan bill that you referenced.
But his bill, among it, the items in it are temporary gun restraining orders, which would allow someone to petition a court to block someone having access to guns.
What do you think about that? Is that something that you would support? Is that something that you think could pass the House, where Republicans have control?
BROWN: It is certainly something I can support. I think, in all too many of these incidents -- we certainly saw it in Florida at Parkland -- there are these red flags, these indicators that a person has some issues, often associated with mental health, although I don't want to suggest that everybody with mental health challenges presents a danger to society.
But we have seen red flags. And where family or friends or teachers or others in the community see red flags that might suggest that somebody will do harm to themselves or others, that they may be likely to obtain, if they don't already have, a firearm, I think we ought to be able to relax the standards where we can put a temporary halt, some sort of restraint to make sure that we are taking a close look, where necessary, remove the gun.
If it turns out, after a closer look, that there is no real threat, then the person ought to be able to retain the weapon. But I think I can get behind what Senator Rubio is talking about.
Can we get the entire House or a majority in the House of Representatives? I'm less optimistic, but certainly it is something we ought to be looking at doing.
KEILAR: Congressman Brown, thank you so much. We really appreciate your time today.
BROWN: Thank you.
KEILAR: The nickname Mr. Magoo that President Trump is reportedly using for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as their once close relationship unravels in real time.
With Trump now fuming over Sessions' pushback, the White House was asked moments ago, does the president want Sessions gone? Well, it wasn't actually a ringing endorsement of his stability as A.G. We will talk about that next.