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Hicks Resigns; Crisis At White House; Kelly Jokes About White House; Kushner's Family Business; Trump Fuming After Sessions Pushed Back; U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Resigns; President Stuns Republicans with Gun Comments. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired March 1, 2018 - 13:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

We begin with this.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: The wild, wild west wing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Another day, another scandal, another resignation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hope Hicks abruptly announcing she is resigning.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president may have berated her for being honest.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Jared Kushner has heat on him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're seeing Jared Kushner meeting with executives in the White House, and then the companies are giving very sizeable mortgages to his company.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The existing battle lines have been entrenched by this decision from the chief of staff to essentially strip Jared Kushner of his security clearance.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Josh Raffel is leaving the White House. He essentially served as the point man for Jared Kushner and for Ivanka Trump.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And Attorney General Jeff Sessions pushing back after the president called his handling of complaints against the FBI disgraceful.

JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I wouldn't stay at all. I wouldn't be anyone's whipping boy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Trey Gowdy is demanding answers from Ben Carson.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: After a $31,000 dining room set was purchased for his office. BLITZER: Our American cyber chief says President Trump has not given him the order to disrupt Russian cyber threats.

ADM. MIKE ROGERS, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY: President Putin has clearly come to the conclusion, there's little price to play here.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Bingo. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is looking at the president's business dealings in Russia before the campaign.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Paul Manafort is pleading not guilty to money laundering and false statements.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Take the guns first. Go through due process second.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Tell when you're ready.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Can you do that? Joe, can you do that?



BLITZER: And all that was just over the past 48 hours. The administration clearly struggling to deal with one crisis after another.

Among the new developments, the resignation of one of the president's most trusted confidantes, the White House communications director, Hope Hicks.

Also, sources say Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team is asking questions about comments made by Hicks when she denied the campaign had any contacts with the Russians.

And Jared Kushner's business dealings are under new scrutiny. "The New York Times" says Kushner's family real estate company got $500 million in loans after meetings at the White House.

Meanwhile, the person brought in to try to calm all the chaos may be having some regrets about taking the job. Here's what the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, said during an event over at the Department of Homeland Security today. He used to work there.



JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: I have almost no right to be up on this stage. And I was in the department --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have every right to be on --

KELLY: And I miss every one of you every day. I went --

Truly, six months, the last thing I wanted to do was walk away from one of the great honors of my life, being the secretary of Homeland Security. But I did something wrong and god punished me, I guess.


BLITZER: All right, let's bring in our Chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta.

Jim, so what details have you learned about Hope Hicks' resignation, how it --the resignation and how it played out?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Some four-star deadpan there from General Kelly, Wolf.

Yes, that's right. We are hearing from people inside and outside the White House close to this White House, that this White House is essentially in a state of turmoil right now. That the president is deeply upset about the events of the last 24 to 48 hours.

However, you do talk to people, and I just spoke with a source close to the White House a few moments ago, who said the president is just fine and this is just another day at the office for President Trump.

Keep in mind, Wolf, and you and I both know this having covered President Trump for some time now, that he is accustomed to dealing in an atmosphere of chaos. And, in some ways, he feels right at home in that kind of environment.

And so, that was what this one source I just spoke to was alluding to a few moments ago.

But make no -- make no doubt about it here, Wolf. There is a very big sense, inside the White House, that the wheels, to some extent, are coming off.

When you see somebody like Hope Hicks, the Communications Director, a trusted aide and confidante of the president, stepping aside after working with him for so many years, it's hard to draw any other conclusion.

Now, from what we understand from talking to our sources, this was in the works for some time. There is nothing nefarious about her departure, one White House official said to us.

But, Wolf, we learned late last night that the Mueller investigation at the special counsel's office has been asking people, going into speaking with the special counsel's attorneys and investigators, that those investigators are asking about a comment made by Hope Hicks. Just two days after the election to "The New York Times" in which she says there were no foreign contacts, except for those that came around election night congratulating the president.

We now know, of course, that that was not the case. There were multiple contacts between Trump campaign associates and the Russians. [13:05:03] But I did talk to a former Trump campaign official, who has spoken with the special counsel's office as well as the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, who told me that, yes, they are asking that question.

And so, it does sound as if Hope Hicks will have to be dealing with this for some time to come. But, at the same time, the White House is planning for her departure. They say that she'll be here for the next several weeks. No firm date on when she'll be finally leaving here at the White House.

And, of course, we heard from the president yesterday in that statement, that written statement, that he's, sort of, leaving the door open to working with her in the future. No word yet whether that means she'll work in the 2020 campaign.

Although, we are hearing from some sources that that is something that could definitely happen -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We're also learning, Jim, that the president is fuming over his attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Tell us why.

ACOSTA: Well, he -- you know, this has been going on for months now, Wolf. Almost a year ago, the president started to really get upset with the attorney general, because he felt that Jeff Sessions was just not enough of a defender.

Almost -- the president was almost expecting Jeff Sessions to act as a personal lawyer or White House counsel. Perhaps not really understanding that the job of attorney general is to uphold the law and Constitution of the United States over at the Justice Department.

And it seems that Jeff Sessions is determined to do just that. And you saw that statement that he issued yesterday which seemed to be in direct response of the president tweeting at Jeff Sessions, berating him once again.

And, of course, what we've been hearing from our sources and what we're reading in "The Washington Post." That the president is really just fuming behind the scenes about Jeff Sessions referring to him as Mr. Magoo and so on. It's unclear how long these two can work together.

But, you know, one thing that we have to keep in mind, Wolf, the president does, at times, also thank Jeff Sessions for being one of his first supports and first big-name supporters during the campaign.

And, of course, he has a number of key staffers from Sessions' world and one very prominently, Stephen Miller, who works here at the White House for the president.

So, they have many ties between these two men. But, at the same time, it's very clear that Jeff Sessions has gotten under the president's skin -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, and Jeff Sessions may have been the first U.S. senator to endorse Donald Trump --

ACOSTA: Right.

BLITZER: -- for the Republican nomination.

But since then, I've -- we've checked. The president has called the attorney general an idiot, beleaguered, very weak, very disappointed with him. He did a terrible thing, and only yesterday, disgraceful. All that happening over these many months.

Sessions still, though, on the job. We'll see how long that lasts.

Al right, thanks very much. Jim Acosta over at the White House.

The resignation of Hope Hicks will leave a significant void in President Trump's inner circle and adds to the chaos in the west wing.

The former White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, he was on the job for about 10 days. He says morale is bad and getting worse.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What does that mean? What do you think is going on?

SCARAMUCCI: Morale. There's a fear, culture of fear, culture of intimidation. People afraid to talk to each other.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Coming from the president? They're afraid of the president?

SCARAMUCCI: No, I think it's the chief of staff. I think there's a culture of fear inside the White House.

If the current situation and the current culture inside the administration stays exactly the way it is, there is literally no change, there will be a lot more departures.

Yes, the morale is at an all-time low and it's threatening lower.


BLITZER: Hope Hicks is among more than a dozen top departures from the White House, from the Trump White House.

Let's get some perspective on all of this. Joining us, we have CNN Legal Analyst Carrie Cordero, CNN Political Analyst Julie Hirschfeld Davis, and our Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger.

What do you make of all this turmoil, these departures?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Even by Trump standards, I think it's bad.

I mean -- and, you know, we have -- we have different standards for the Trump administration because it's always in chaos. It's the way Trump governs. It's the way he likes to run his White House.

But, today, when we saw a president effectively go rogue on his own, kind of, economic advisers to change the subject, I would argue. And say, OK, we're going to impose a 25 percent tariff on steel and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum.

While these internal arguments are going on inside his White House, he sets up this meeting. He says, I want to get this done.

And it's very clear to me that there is a revolt going on and that the president's the one who went rogue. He went rogue on Republicans yesterday during that open session on gun control. He sounded more like Barack Obama than any Republican I know.

His loss, Hope Hicks, who, as one source says to me, is his emotional support. And this source also predicted that the president would head into a tailspin without Hope Hicks. And that may, in fact, be what we are witnessing.

[13:10:02] BLITZER: She, supposedly, Hope Hicks, started thinking about resigning after that whole Rob Porter scandal erupted, the former White House staff secretary who was accused of marital abuse of two ex-wives. And we saw those pictures. And she was having an affair with him at the time.

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, right. And, I mean, that just points up the level of chaos that she's been dealing with for many, many months, not -- dating back before the inauguration even into the campaign.

These are incredibly stressful jobs. But, certainly, with the focus on Rob Porter and then with the Mueller investigation going on in the background.

And she's clearly a focus of the special counsel's questions. She knew she was going to have to be interviewed. She's been dealing with that. She had to get a lawyer, just like many west wing aides have had to do. That's an enormous amount of pressure. So, I think this was on her mind.

And while that testimony that she gave on the Hill, when she said behind closed doors that she had, at times, told white lies for the president, didn't precipitate this, it does underscore what -- the pressures that have been on her.

And the fact that, you know, being part of Trump's inner circle is a super pressurized environment. And I think for the president, the reason that we're seeing him, sort of, lash out like this and really seem to take these departures to heart is that the circle of people around him who know him well and with whom he feels comfortable is really shrinking.

Now, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is under all this scrutiny. This story that we ran today about his business dealings, and whether -- and he's now been stripped of his clearance. Will he stay? Will he be able to stay? He's feuding with John Kelly behind the scenes. The number of people around the president who he can really trust and confide it, is shrinking. And that is not a good feeling if you're sitting in the Oval Office.

BLITZER: That "New York Times" story, Carrie -- and actually you're a legal analyst. While he was serving in the White House, among those who were brought in for various meetings, executives from two major lending operations, big capital companies, who wound up lending, what, $500 million or so to Kushner family business properties. And the suggestion is that's inappropriate.

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it's inappropriate. And the difficulty is this White House has, unfortunately, just, sort of, set aside many of the ethics rules that have been consistent throughout administrations of both political parties.

So, ethics rules apply to White House individuals, senior executive branch officials. And there is both the actual potential conflict, whether or not there actually was any knowledge of his part or his family businesses, those who are supposed to be running the business now, about these loans.

And then, there is the appearance of conflict. And both of those from a senior leadership position in government are things that officials should be concerned with.

Unfortunately, with Jared Kushner, it looks like they tend to disregard ethics, security clearance rules and these established norms.

BLITZER: He's the son-in-law as addition to be -- in addition to being the presidential's -- a senior advisor. But there are a lot of people out there who are suggesting his days are numbered.

BORGER: Well, including perhaps "The Wall Street Journal" in an editorial today. I think that Jared Kushner, no matter how much his people push back on this, would have a difficult time doing the job he's been assigned to do, i.e. peace in the Middle East, relations with Mexico, without having this kind of clearance.

And I think that these stories show that there is a different set of rules for some people. And I think, you know, that contributes to the chaos and the resentment inside the White House, about Jared Kushner and, perhaps, even about Ivanka.

And I think that's why you see a president that's so, sort of, besieged here. He's lashing out at his attorney general. He's got a son-in-law that's got real problems. He's got a Russia investigation that is asking questions about his relationship with the Russians, of some witnesses.

I mean, you know, this is a president who is getting it from all ends and wants to project to the American public that he is in charge. And he can do what he wants to do.

DAVIS: Well, in a way, all of this is in the same, sort of, category as the chickens coming home to roost.

Let's not forget, more than a year ago, we were all writing stories about nepotism and was it even appropriate for Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump to be working at the White House at all?

Now, we see an instance of where this has really become a major conflict inside the White House and outside.

And, also, you know, the Rob Porter situation. They now lack a staff secretary. That's where you get things like the president going rogue and saying he's going to do something on tariffs. When the paperwork isn't ready and all the lawyers are saying, hang on a second. This is not --

BLITZER: The paperwork isn't ready but he made the announcement today, even though it's not ready. He said, we'll make the announcement next week. But here's what we're going to do next week. And I'm sure that some of his aides were pretty stunned by that.

BORGER: He's so ad hoc.


BORGER: I mean, you can't run a White House at -- or policy in an ad hoc way. I just -- it doesn't work. It doesn't work.

BLITZER: Stand by. Everybody stand by. There's a lot more coming up.

[13:15:00] Coming up, more on the chaos that isn't necessarily contained simply to the West Wing of the White House. It's also spilling over into the Justice Department, as President Trump fumes over his attorney general who he has reportedly named Mr. Magoo.

Plus, a fresh threat in the global arms race. President Putin of Russia unveils Russia's new line of nuclear weapons that he calls invincible.

And surviving the slave trade. Why life as a freed man is still a daily struggle. Our new CNN exclusive report. You'll want to see this. That's coming up.



MR. MAGOO: Just a minute. What's going on here? Rock and roll. Stop, I say. I'm here to brush up on this (INAUDIBLE) and not get all steamed up.


BLITZER: Mr. Magoo, an elderly bumbler who's always getting into trouble, that's the cartoon. But apparently also the nickname and the impression that President Trump has of his own attorney general, the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions. [13:20:06] We're also learning now that the president is furious with

the attorney general after he pushed back on a tweet by the president.

Plus, the relationship has now piqued the interests of the special prosecutor, Robert Mueller.

Let's bring back our panel.

And, Carrie, this must be so extraordinary for career Justice Department officials to see the attorney general slammed publicly by the president.

CARRIE CORDERO, FORMER COUNSEL TO THE U.S. ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL FOR NATIONAL SECURITY: It's really bizarre. You know, I mean I look at this as someone who spent 13 years in the Justice Department as a career government lawyer, and it -- it just goes against everything that the department stands for, independent law enforcement, integrity, just a way of doing public service that the president just doesn't seem to understand. And the difficulty is that the people in the Justice Department will continue to do their job, they'll work on their cases, they'll do their work. But at the political levels, it just is so beyond -- inappropriate doesn't cover what it is that the president is doing.

And this goes back -- you know, he's been in office now for a year. So one could say early in his administration he doesn't understand independent law enforcement, he doesn't understand the boundaries that are supposed to exist between a president trying to pressure independent law enforcement leadership. But now, a year in, that excuse just really doesn't hold anymore. And so now when he verbally attacks, whether it's senior FBI officials or whether his own attorney general that he selected and nominated for this position, it just really demonstrates that he is actually, in my opinion, trying to influence the Justice Department's operation.

BLITZER: Well, if he wants to get rid of the attorney general, he's the president. He can fire him and he can make that happen. He doesn't want to do that. He wants to, in effect, ridicule him so much that he resigns.

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, that could be one of the things he's trying to do. I mean we do know that despite the "you're fired" slogan of his reality show, the president doesn't actually like to fire people. He does tend to do this to people. We saw him do it a little bit with Reince Priebus when he was chief of staff where he sort of openly challenges them and undermines them and undercuts them such that they want to resign. There was a sense that he might be starting to do that with John Kelly a few weeks ago, although I think that's over now.

But I think, you know, it's also possible that he is trying to do just what Carrie had said, which is essentially keep him there and lean on him and really pressure him to do otherwise. And I think what we saw in this statement yesterday, the reason that Sessions put it out, is because he's actually pushing back on that notion that, you know, you can insult me all you want, but I'm not -- you know, as long as I'm here, I'm going to do this job the way I think it should be done.

BORGER: I mean isn't it rich that the president gets furious and insulted by somebody who pushes back at him when he says, you know, I'm somebody who pushes back. I'm -- I'm, you know, I don't let anything go unanswered. And for the first time Jeff Sessions showed that he was pushing back on the president, and suddenly the president goes ballistic about it.

You know, this has been going on since last July. There are people who are advising the president legally who are telling him, you know, you cannot fire anybody right now. You are in the middle of an investigation. You can't fire Jeff Sessions right now. This would look really bad for you.

So I think he's doing as you're saying, I mean he's -- he's just publicly trolling Jeff Sessions.

DAVIS: And who is he really going to replace him with at this point? I mean what are the chances that he could get a new attorney general nominee through the Senate at this point?

BORGER: Zero. Zero.

DAVIS: There are none. So he has really no good options here.

CORDERO: It also does --

BLITZER: Well, we're just getting word in now -- and, Gloria, I want to get your reaction.

The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Roberta Jacobson, a career diplomat, has announced she will be resigning. I will be departing at the beginning of May in search of other opportunities.

That comes at a time when tensions between the United States and Mexico, pretty significant. The president, Enrique Pena Nieto, supposedly planning a trip here later this month, but after an ugly phone call with the president in the last few days apparently decided this is not a good time. The president still insisting that Mexico pay for the wall.

BORGER: Right. So he canceled -- he canceled the trip. I don't know the specifics of this, but I'm presuming the U.S. ambassador believes that she not doing any good. That her effectiveness is over. And that if the president's going to try and handle these relations, what is she doing there. And she probably disagrees. I mean it's, you know, again, I say this just off the top of my head. I haven't done any reporting on it.

BLITZER: Thirty-one years as a career diplomat.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: And making this announcement just now.

BORGER: Right. DAVIS: Right. And Roberta Jacobson, I think, as well as Jared Kushner, by the way, and many of the officials who have been working on the U.S./Mexico relationship, were actually -- they thought they were making some progress toward a visit where they could make some announcements about, you know, common border moves, something on trade, something on drug interdiction, and they knew that they had to get this phone call done before they could schedule a trip.

[13:25:10] But I think they thought this was really just going to be a rubber stamp on that opportunity. And, instead, the president's insistence on his own agenda, which is a political agenda, has really derailed this. And so if you're a diplomat, it's like, what am I even doing here? You know --

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: It comes at a time when so many career diplomats have resigned over the past year for a variety of reasons.

All right, everybody stick around. There's a lot more we're following.

He says he's the biggest fan of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but now it seems President Trump may be embracing gun control, leaving some lawmakers and his base scratching their heads.


BLITZER: Nobody knew what to think. That was the general reaction after an extraordinary meeting on guns between President Trump and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle yesterday. And it had to do with comments like this one.

[13:30:11] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Some of you people are petrified of the NRA. You can't be petrified.