Return to Transcripts main page


Reporting Indicates President Trump Wishes to Replace Jeff Sessions with Scott Pruitt as Attorney General; Closed-Door Speech by President Trump to Donors Recorded. Aired 8-8:30a.

Aired March 15, 2018 - 8:00   ET


[08:00:00] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Jimmy never takes an opportunity not to show their face.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Jim, great reporting. Thank you very much. We're following a lot of news. Let's get to it.

CUOMO: We went to college together.

CAMEROTA: I know that.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now our closest allies will not know whether the president is speaking from facts.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're looking for solutions for paths forward.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Why did they ban together to screw the United States on trade?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These documents suggest that the Trump Organization has been intimately involved in the effort to keep Stormy Daniels quiet.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're talking about a president engaged in behavior that is, a, immoral, b, that's possibly illegal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is any Trump voter surprised that he wasn't Mother Teresa?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I instantly burst into tears just wondering where my dog was.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This has happened on more than one occasion on United flights.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was a really special dog. It's just sad the way he has to just leave.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is NEW DAY with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota. CUOMO: Good morning. Welcome to your NEW DAY. It is Thursday, March

15th, the ides of March, by the way. Beware, keep your distance. It is now 8:00 in the morning. We begin with a stunning admission from the president of the United States. "The Washington Post" reporting that President Trump told donors at a closed-door fundraiser that was recorded that he made up information about trade in a meeting with Canada's prime minister. The president also apparently threatened to pull U.S. troops out of South Korea over trade. So we're going to talk to one of the reporters who heard the audio recording of the president coming up.

CAMEROTA: Meanwhile, staffers inside the Trump White House wondering which shoe will fall next. One administration official tells CNN the president wants to fire every cabinet member that he considers dead weight. And CNN has new reporting that the person most at risk is getting the axe next could be Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but that would, of course, create a host of new headaches.

So let's begin with CNN's Abby Phillip live at the White House. What are you hearing, Abby?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Alisyn. President Trump may want to fire the dead weight in his cabinet, but the issue could very well be that it is very difficult to replace some of these people. There is a large group of cabinet officials who President Trump is upset with at the moment. Perhaps at the top of the list, as you just mentioned, is Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, who has been criticized by President Trump repeatedly on social media. He's also talking about firing H.R. McMaster, who is also another person who has been add odds with the president on a number of policy issues.

And there are others, Ben Carson at the housing agency, also Betsy DeVos who had that really tough interview over the weekend and has failed to answer some basic questions about her agency. So the list is very long. But on Sessions, sources tell us that there are serious conversations happening right now about replacing him with someone else in the administration, the EPA administrator Scott Pruitt. Pruitt is a former Oklahoma attorney general, so he has that in his resume. But the problem becomes if he is named as acting attorney general, that's a position that eventually the president would need to name him to on a permanent basis. And once he does that, he can no longer be the acting A.G.

Pruitt has not been without controversy. Democrats have been concerned about how he's run the EPA. But of course, all these conversations are happening in the White House, and it seems at the moment that almost no one knows exactly what President Trump is going to do and when he's going to do it, Alisyn and Chris.

CUOMO: Abby, thank you very much. Let's bring in A.B. Stoddard, editor at Real Clear Politics, Brian Karem. So A.B., this is an interesting issue. You could actually get into the weeds very quickly, and I promise I won't, about what it is to slide over from one cabinet member into another cabinet position, acting versus permanent. But the idea that it would be easy and they could just simply avoid a re-vetting of Pruitt if he were to take out Sessions may not be so simple in the minds of the senators who would make the decision. Here is Senator Angus King who would sit on the committee that would do the vetting.


CUOMO: Is it your understanding that the White House can slide somebody from one cabinet position into another without going through any recertification by the Senate?

SEN. ANGUS KING, (I) MAINE: No. I've never heard that theory. Oh, no. If Mike Pompeo is going to move from CIA to be secretary of state, there clearly has to be a full confirmation process, hearings in the Senate and a Senate vote on confirmation. Those are two very different jobs.


CUOMO: So let's say it's the example of Pruitt who was A.G. in Oklahoma and would have some bona fides there, but I'm sure people would have questions for him. Do you think their plan is to try to do an end run around the process, A.B.?

[08:05:00] A.B. STODDARD, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, REAL CLEAR POLITICS: Well, obviously I think President Trump would be happy with an end run, but that doesn't mean that the Senate will. We know the Senate Republicans, many of them have been privately telling the White House for months that they don't want to approve of another attorney general, that it is politically perilous for the president to get rid of Jeff Sessions, that unlike the other cabinet secretaries, including Scott Pruitt, he has not abused first class or private travel, he has not ordered pricey dining room sets on the taxpayer dime, and he has actually worked harder than anyone to implement the president's make America great agenda. So there's a lot of bad feelings about the idea of him getting rid of Sessions to begin with.

Scott Pruitt just like Senator Angus King was describing about Mike Pompeo moving from CIA director to secretary of state would have to come in and talk about his role as, and his performance as attorney general in Oklahoma. He would have to talk about what he's done as secretary at the EPA and the fact that he's run into some ethical trouble with the rules. And he would have to talk about his responsibilities in that new job.

So it obviously brings up the whole scope of the conversation about the Russia investigation, Bob Mueller, would he fire him, how would he oversee it and all of that. So it would be very contentious and very controversial, and it is not easily done. So as much as President Trump would like to watch cable news and decide who the next person is for new jobs, it's not as simple as it sounds.

CAMEROTA: Sometimes it is. Listen, he does have a lot of people he's chosen are from cable news that he's gotten familiar with over the years. We see that happening with Larry Kudlow. But I'm fascinated by this, Brian, in terms of this game of musical chairs. Here is the list of resolving door, as our reporting shows all of the people who may or may not be on the chopping block. It goes from David Shulkin, Jeff Sessions, as we're talking about, H.R. McMaster -- who fills in for him? Betsy DeVos, John Kelly, Ryan Zinke, Ben Carson -- says Sarah Sanders, but I think we can take that off the list. But in any event, are people just interchangeable in that way?

BRIAN KAREM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: First of all, we have to understand what the White House is right now. It's a dysfunctional daycare center. There's no other way to look at it. And at the bottom you've got people who are barely professional who really shouldn't be where they are. In the middle you've got the middle management, the nannies who have to manage up and down and are trying to implement a message from the president, but that message changes on a daily basis.

And the top management, you've got people that are competing with the president who loves conflict, who loves to pit people against each other and thinks he's getting a handle on his job now. This looks like a guy who is feeling his oats. But at the same time he's really a good that would rather be on the back nine kicking his titleist out of the rough than actually dealing with some of the important issues that are facing the country.

So he views it as a reality show, so he can kick people in and out any way he wants. The simple fact of the matter is government doesn't run that way, and he's loathe to reach the learning curve where he understands the job, although he thinks by his actions that he does. That's the White House.

CUOMO: A.B., what do you make of the criticism that his style is disruptive as a way of messing with these people who are so stuck in their bureaucratic ways and that there is progress, there is method to his madness, he is getting things done because of how he is? Does anyone buy into that?

KAREM: No. We've seen method, we've seen madness, but we've seldom see the two meet. The method is madness, and the simple fact of the matter is, if there is a message it's often lost by the simple fact of the way he conducts business. And while he may want to shake things up -- I've been coming and going since Reagan, OK. I've seen people who like to shake things up. But this is flying by the seat of the pants. There seems to be no real message other than the message of the moment.

And that's the difference. And the people who are professional, and there are some like McMaster, like I told you before, Chris, I think he's a great guy. I think Mattis -- some of these people actually are good people, sound professional people, are having difficulty dealing with it. And then of course on the back end there are people afraid if they leave this administration they'll never find work again.

CAMEROTA: A.B., your thoughts?

STODDARD: I think that -- I've heard the conversation this morning, and we have it often, about whether or not Trump's base will support all this chaos and whether they'll leave him. They don't care about Stormy Daniels, and that's fine. But this is governance, and governance is a process. And so while he creates all this disruption and he enjoys it -- Brian

is right -- and it's his style and it was in the New York real estate business, it actually destabilizing the U.S. government at a time when the economy is fine at home doing quite well.

[08:10:09] He has a great story to tell there. He got a tax bill through Congress and he's presided over massive deregulation that the business community loves and Wall Street adores. But overseas we're in a perilous situation.

And so while the world watches the way he dumps his secretary of state, the world watches people working close to the president, handling classified and sensitive and secret information without security clearances, and then being whisked off the property without their jacket on, the world watches all this dysfunction, him bragging about lying to the prime minister of Canada, one of our greatest allies, and thinking it's funny, threatening to pull troops out of South Korea at a very, very grave time and consequential time, this undermines us long term, not only now but later. And that's what's so scary is that it's not just a style. It really has consequences.

KAREM: Right, and the real consequence, the bottom line in the piece that you saw that Jim put on that you were talking about earlier, is the Russian question. Russia is running rampant right now and freely and unchecked. And last Friday in that briefing room I asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders. I said, listen, in the last three weeks this president has said he's going to increase our involvement in nuclear arms, he's going to back away from the leadership role this country has taken in nuclear disarmament. The following week -- I think it was OMB Director Mulvaney said we're going to spend $50 billion upgrading and enhancing our nuclear arsenal. A week later Putin comes out and says he has a first-strike weapon that can render our defenses useless.

Those are the serious issues this president must deal with. And when I asked that question, I was told by the White House that their problem, quite frankly, isn't that. It's false narratives and fake news. These people do not understand the issues facing this country.

Brian Karem and A.B. Stoddard, thank you very much for your analysis.

CUOMO: Let's get back to the bombshell report in the "Washington Post," an audio recording captured the president about lying when it comes to the trade balance with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau. Joining us is CNN political analyst Josh Dawsey. He co- wrote the piece in the Washington and heard the Trump recording. Sorry to get you out of bed, brother, but this mattered this morning because already Trump loyalists are pushing back, saying he didn't say it, it's fake, he didn't mean it that way, it's been misrepresented. You heard it. How did it go?

JOSH DAWSEY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: We have the audio. It was a 30- minute comments to the fundraiser where the president rifts like he normally does on a whole smorgasbord of topic. He talked about trade, he talked about South Korea, potentially pulling out troops if he doesn't get what he wants on trade with Seoul. And the president was there ostensibly for a fundraiser for Josh Hawley who is running for senate in Missouri but it turned into one of his free-wheeling campaign-style rallies where he just went through a number of topics, from Justin Trudeau where he said essentially I made up the facts at this meeting, I said I don't really know, but I'm going to guess we have a trade deficit even though the United States trade representative says there's a surplus, to his comments on the allies. He says our allies are not looking out for us. They're looking out for themselves.

Essentially, Chris, his comments distilled to this -- he thinks so many other countries and the world are, frankly, screwing the United States over. He went through, Japan, China, Canada, Mexico, all of these places where he wants to renegotiate deals and wants to obviously put more tariffs on. His comments were pretty striking even to the donors in the room.

CUOMO: That's fine. He can call out trade imbalances. He's just got to find a way to fix them and he can't abuse the truth in the process at least when he's being recorded. Let me ask you thing, any thought over at the "Washington Post" to put out the recording and put all these discrepancies to rest?

DAWSEY: We'll put a transcript out likely later today, Chris. We have the recording. We've quoted him extensively. This isn't anonymous sourcing.

CUOMO: I hear you. But you know how it goes, if people don't see the proof for themselves, there's always going to be a little bit of a space for a disconnect.

DAWSEY: Chris, there's always sensitivities to our sourcing and how we do our recording and what we can do and what we can't. But I think we quoted the president extensively, and obviously we stand by our reporting.

CUOMO: And was there anything in how it sounded that would give an excuse to the president of, I was just joking, I was making a joke, this didn't really happen and everybody in the room knew it?

DAWSEY: The president does sometimes joke, Chris. But this is the way he tells stories. You watched his rallies over and over again, and sometimes his folks around him will say don't take him literally. He likes to be -- he likes to embellish the truth occasionally. He likes to go out and take some liberties. He's even said that in a deposition before. And the crowd was laughing. But the president's words are his words and our job is to try to find out exactly what he's saying to donors behind closed doors and write about it.


[08:18:16] ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's abrupt firing via Twitter yesterday may be only the beginning of more top officials being dismissed.

Joining us our CNN political director David Chalian and CNN politics reporter and editor at large, Chris Cillizza. Great to see you, guys.

David Chalian, let's talk first about Rex Tillerson and what's going to happen with Mike Pompeo taking over as secretary of state. So, this is the opposite, right, of a team of rivals. This is a team of clones or a team of parrots or whatever you want to call it that is aligned with President Trump's world view.

So, what does that mean going forward for the next year?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICS DIRECTOR: Right, I don't know that it's parrots. It's certainly apparent that the president is putting together a year two team that is much more inclined to allow him, the president, pursue his basic instincts on things, his gut level approach to things. Whereas team year one there were a bunch of people he put into place that sort of I think were trying to be boundaries that he would bump into. And instead now, he wants to go ahead with his gut on things, whether it's foreign policy or some domestic policy and not be encumbered by people trying to rein him in in some way.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: What's the plus-minus on the move, Chris?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER AND EDITOR-AT-LARGE: The plus is he gets someone much more in line with his world view, right? Tillerson, I think Donald Trump liked the idea of Rex Tillerson, Exxon chairman, titan of industry, a guy no one saw coming, you know, sort of an outsider. I think he liked the idea of him, but the reality of Tillerson, even from the beginning, was clearly not what Donald Trump imagined. They clashed repeatedly.

[08:20:01] Tillerson seemed to think he had his own portfolio, sort of his own space to operate in. Trump didn't view it that way.

So, the plus is you get someone who broadly speaking echoes what your beliefs are as relates to foreign policy and diplomacy.

The minus is you fired, if not your top cabinet official, certainly one of your top three cabinet officials via Twitter and promising more first to come with people like your chief of staff, your national security adviser, your Veterans Administration, you know? I mean, there's a lot of turmoil and chaos, and I think Donald Trump welcomes that, likes it, believes he thrives in it.

I just don't think everyone likes it and believes they thrive in it. I think it makes it hard to do the work -- the everyday work of the government and the long-term strategic planning that's required to get a president who is, at best, in the low 40s, into a better place politically speaking before November or else you're going to see more results like Pennsylvania 18. If you see more results like Pennsylvania 18, assuming that Conor Lamb wins, then Democrats are winning back the House.

CAMEROTA: Here is the list according to our reporting of who may be on the chopping block. So, there's David Shulkin, V.A. Secretary, Jeff Sessions, of course, we've been talking about for a long time, attorney general, H.R. McMaster, national security adviser, John Kelly, as we know, has been in the crosshairs for some time, White House chief of staff, Ryan Zinke, interior secretary.

So, David, that's a long laundry list.

CHALIAN: It is. Maybe Ryan Zinke and Scott Pruitt might be able to breathe a little easier on that list. But you're right, they've been all in hot water with the president at various times. And when he's in this kind of mood and this kind of public display as Chris was describing of sort of that chaotic nature that he likes to create, you wouldn't feel very comfortable being any one of those people that you just --

CUOMO: Shulkin has to be the low fruit, right? He's an Obama holdover and he seems to have gotten caught in terms of what he said and what is true with his travel.


CHALIAN: That and the Ben Carson headlines have been a disaster for the president as well.

CUOMO: But could he get rid of Ben Carson?

CHALIAN: He can get rid of anyone he wants. Yes, he could, and I wouldn't put it past him.

CILLIZZA: He fired Rex Tillerson via Twitter, Chris.

CUOMO: The shut-up and dribble crowd at Fox say that's not true, that it happened on Friday, he knew, they just didn't know when --


CILLIZZA: He knew something was coming.

CUOMO: Well, he was a little vague on it. His undersecretary said they got completely --


CAMEROTA: I just want to read it because it's so fascinating.

Secretary Tillerson had every intention of remaining because of the progress he made on national security issues. He established and enjoyed relationships with his counterparts. He will miss his colleagues and enjoyed working together with the Department of Defense in an uncommonly robust relationship.

That's not somebody who knew it was coming.

CUOMO: Well, that shows he didn't want to leave, but in terms of timing when he was told, what do you have, Chalian?

CHALIAN: No, I mean, I think what we understand is that the White House and chief of staff John Kelly made it clear to Tillerson when he was over in Africa at the end of last week that the gig was up and that the president was sort of done with him. And then I don't think the secretary was out on a tweet on Tuesday morning at 8:45, but I think he was aware that his time in the administration had come to an end.

That's all semantics, guys. And we should note it is not tenable for a president of the United States to have a secretary of state going around the world on a different page from him. No president of the United States should be -- have that much daylight between himself and the secretary of state. So, that really is a relationship that needs to be fully aligned and this one hasn't been for months.

CUOMO: All right. I don't think you can deny a president your cabinet. They should pick who they want. But how you fire people matters. This inability is going to breathe disloyalty in-house. I don't know what it means to his base, and frankly, I don't care.

This is about what continuity he has in terms of the loyalty to him, how strong people are in their positions, Chris, and also your operational continuity.

CILLIZZA: That's right. I mean --

CUOMO: Now, this may be a better fit for him with Pompeo, this is new leadership, you'll have to redo who is at the top, redo the priorities. It slows things down.

CILLIZZA: There's people that have to be confirmed. You don't get to say, OK, you're this, you're that. OK, everybody, let's get together and let's do it.

They have to be confirmed by the Senate. That takes some time.

I just think turmoil and constant churn is not typically how successful operations, whether that's political or otherwise, operate. You see -- take sports. The San Antonio Spurs are successful for a lot of reasons, but one of which is the continuity of the fact that Gregg Popovich has been the coach for a very long time.

CUOMO: Basketball.

[08:25:01] CILLIZZA: There is a steadiness that exists there. Look across any very successful sports team, for the most part you'll see a continuity of management and leadership.

It's hard when everyone is kind of doing the -- to make sure they're not the next guy or woman to be let go.

And when you have a president of the United States who not only fires the secretary of state in -- let's just say in less-than-ideal circumstances, then how do you not feel -- if you're Betsy DeVos, Shulkin, Carson, Zinke, Kelly, McMaster -- I mean, I left people out -- but how do you not get distracted by that day in, day out, when you're trying to do the operational maintenance and management of government? You wouldn't be a human if that didn't happen.

CAMEROTA: I'd just tell them to keep checking the president's Twitter feed if they need to know their status.

CILLIZZA: That's a good way to run the government.

CAMEROTA: David, Pennsylvania's special election. What does this tell you that Conor Lamb appears to be at this hour the winner?

CHALIAN: Yes, he's poised here for a major upset when every last vote is counted in a district that Trump won by 20 points, as we've been saying. This is a huge deal. I know that the Republicans will do their darndest to say, our candidate wasn't so great, they had a great candidate. This is true.

But there are going to be two big conversations that emerge from these results. One, the worrisome conversation inside Republican ranks, just how big is this Democratic wave we're facing in November and what am I going to do to fortify myself, to try to make sure I'm not wiped out by it? Is it possible to not be wiped out by it? That's a conversation on the Republican side.

On the Democratic side, there's going to be a whole conversation about -- the path forward for the party, is it through people like Conor Lamb? Can we not be completely identified with identity politics and look more for people who do fit their districts?

There's going to be an internal battle inside the Democratic Party as it emerges and tries to find its leader for 2020, and the results last night is going to be the beginning of that conversation for that party.

CAMEROTA: OK. Gentlemen, Chris Cillizza, David Chalian, thank you very much.


CAMEROTA: Former Trump adviser Roger Stone denies that he had any contact with WikiLeaks before the stolen e-mails were leaked. But former Trump associate Sam Nunberg tells a different story. He joins us live, next.