Return to Transcripts main page


Report: NYT Reports Dowd Floated the Idea of Pardons for Manafort And Flynn; Chinese Ambassador Goes to White House About North Korea Meeting; White House Press Briefing. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired March 28, 2018 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:00] BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: Hi there. I'm Brooke Baldwin. You are watching CNN. Here is the breaking news this afternoon as we're waiting for that White House press briefing to begin any moment now, live pictures. Here's the deal, the "New York Times" is now reporting that John Dowd, the former head of President Trump's personal legal team who just stepped down a couple of days ago floated the idea of pardoning aides Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort over concerns that they may cut a deal with the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

This also raises questions if Dowd had offered the pardons to influence their pleas and cooperation into the investigations, so let's dig into all of this. We have our chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta who is live for us waiting for their briefing to begin and Jeffrey Toobin is there, got his glasses on ready to roll for us in Washington. So, Jim Acosta, first to you, has the White House said anything on this yet?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: We thought this was a slow news week, Brooke, and of all things it was infrastructure week as well here at the White House or at least infrastructure was on the agenda. We knew something was going to come up that was unrelated to that. But it appears this "New York Times" story is going to set the agenda for this briefing with Sarah Sanders when she comes out hopefully in a couple of moments. The briefing has already been delayed once.

Yes, the White House has already responded to some extent on this, Ty Cobb who is one of the lead attorneys here in the White House essentially giving us the same statement that he gave to the "New York Times." He told me over the phone that he did not know about this and gave us this statement. I have only been asked about pardons by the press and I've routinely responded on the record that no pardons are under discussion or under consideration at the White House.

We've made some attempts to reach John Dowd who, as you know, just left the President's legal team, he was the President's lead outside lawyer, last week. And as of yet we have not been able to reach him. We do know that he denied this also to the "New York Times" as did Jay Sekulow. This story is obviously coming from somewhere. My guess, Brooke, is that Sarah Sanders is not the source of all this and will not be divulging, that yes, they have been discussing the idea of pardons over here. Obviously, this adds a new dimension to the Russia investigation as is

written about in "The New York Times" article. Obviously, if the President's legal team either inside or outside is floating the possibility of issuing pardons to Paul Manafort or Michael Flynn, that obviously brings up the discussion again of obstruction, and whether or not there was some sort of undue or improper influence that was being attempted by the President's legal team t try to keep Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn from saying much of anything to the Special Prosecutor's office, which obviously raises a whole host of other questions.

Meantime heading into this briefing, Brooke, we thought this is going to be a briefing by and large about, again, Stormy Daniels, because of the other float of the day that is of big news value. That is Michael Avenatti, Stormy Daniels' attorney, saying he would like to depose the President of the United States in the Stormy Daniels' matter, which conjures up all sorts of things from the late 90s of the Paula Jones deposition for then President Bill Clinton and the Whitewater investigation which of course ultimately led to his undoing.

So, it might be 50/50, Stormy Daniels and Russia. Two topics of course that the White House has not been keen to talk about. The President has been silent on in recent days. But obviously this idea, this prospect of the idea of John Dowd floating pardons really possibility of pardons to Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn. That is obviously going to dominate the discussion here.

BALDWIN: Sure, it's a big deal. You just teed me up for all kinds of questions to Jeffrey Toobin. Maybe it's going to be from Sara, I refer you to Trump's counsel, but I know you're going to some of those questions if you are called on. Jim Acosta, thank you. We will be looking for you.

So, Jeff Toobin, to you. This notion that Trump lawyers and Dowd specifically was, the way "The Times" put it, broaching this idea, dangling these pardons for Manafort and Flynn, what who does that speak to us as far as concerns team Trump might have had ahead of these guys talking about Mueller?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: I think it's a useful reminder of the number of options the president has to short circuit the Mueller investigation. Of course, we have talked a lot about whether the President can direct the firing, the dismissal of Mueller. But he can end the investigation in other ways, but simply taking away the targets, by pardoning the people who might be prosecuted. Flynn has already pleaded guilty. Manafort, of course, has not pleaded guilty and is preparing to go to trial. The other issue that pardons raise is that it could be something that you would dangle the possibility of to encourage people not to cooperate with the Mueller investigation.

[14:05:00] BALDWIN: Isn't that the crux of this potentially? You know, you want to appease these two guys who may have potential dirt so that they don't cooperate with Bob Mueller?

TOOBIN: Well, that is certainly a possibility. Although, in fairness, we need to point out that they have both taken -- they have taken opposite tacts. Flynn has pleaded guilty, Manafort at least so far and going to trial. Flynn is cooperating as far as we know.

There is nothing in and of itself improper for the President discussing pardons. He is the President of the United States. The pardon power is a well-establish power of the President. It's in the Constitution. But in the context of this investigation, it would certainly be useful to learn in what context it arose and whether there was any improper motive At least suggested by the idea of pardons. The question that you asked. Was it use d to try to discourage people from cooperating. We have no evidence at this point but certainly is a subject worth asking about.

BALDWIN: So again, Dowd told -- in "The Times" piece, Dowd denied ever offering any sort of pardon to these two gentlemen. Would the Bob Mueller team -- we don't know where this information came from. Would they then -- would this potential offer for pardon now be swept up in their investigation as well? I guess what I'm asking is might this be part of an obstruction case as well, the offer?

TOOBIN: Right. That is certainly a good question to ask. I certainly don't have an answer, because just as firing James Comey, the FBI director, is at the heart of the pardon investigation, that -- I mean of the obstruction of justice investigation, the idea of it being that the President fired Comey in an effort to forestall the investigation, would he pardon people in an effort to forestall the investigation?

That's would be the question that the Mueller team might want to address. I think it's important to say at this point there is no evidence that that's how the pardon power was used. But it certainly is a question that is worth asking.

BALDWIN: You point out rightfully so that Manafort and Flynn are now sort of on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to this whole investigation. We know that "The New York Times" is saying that the offers for the pardons would have happened last year. So, what is the timing of that tell you fairly early in this investigation?

TOOBIN: Well, it suggests that it was a way of avoiding the whole case. If the President pardoned Flynn before pleading guilty, there would have been no case, no cooperation. If he had pardoned Manafort before he was indicted there would have been no prosecution and no possibility that he would then cooperate with the Mueller investigation. Pardons are a unique power of the President and they're not just for, you know, an act of Presidential grace. They are, at least in this context, potentially a way of forestalling an investigation. But again, we need to say they were not -- there were no pardons. The investigation was not forestalled. Mueller is still working. That's part of the story, too.

BALDWIN: I hear you loud and clear. Our chief legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin here, assessing this big piece of information out of "The New York Times" this afternoon. We are standing by, waiting for that White House press briefing to begin. You saw Jim Acosta is in that front row seat. We are waiting for Sarah Sanders to take that podium. You know she's going to be asked about this. How does the White House respond? That's coming up.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: With that in mind the President will be traveling to Richfield, Ohio, to deliver remarks on his infrastructure initiative before an audience of local workers. The remarks will be at a training site for members International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 18, diversified trade union, representing heavy equipment operators, mechanics and surveyors in the construction industry and stationary engineers who work in operations and maintenance and building and industrial complexes.

Following on the success of tax reform, infrastructure is the next piece of the President's successful economic agenda. These workers represent the hardworking Americans across the country, who will participate in the rebuilding of our nation's infrastructure, sparked from the President's vision and it will definitely be worth tuning in to see the President lay out that vision. With that, I'll take questions. Cecelia.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are pardons on the table for anyone involved in the Russia probe?

SANDERS: Look I would refer you back to the statement from Ty Cobb and the report that you're asking about in which he said I've only been asked about pardons by the press and have routinely responded on the record that no pardons are under discussion or under consideration at the White House.

[14:15:00] UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can you say unequivocally that no one here has discussed pardons in this case?

SANDERS: I can say that Ty Cobb is the person that would be most directly involved in this. He has a statement on the record saying that there's no discussion and there's no consideration of those at this time in the White House.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Does the White House worry about what Michael Flynn or Paul Manafort might tell Special Counsel Robert Mueller?

SANDERS: As we said pretty much every day since we've got here, because you guys continue to ask about this topic every single day, there was no collusion and we're very confident in that and look forward to this process wrapping up. Zeke?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Attorney for Stormy Daniels filed a motion to depose the President of the United States. Do you have a response to the White House reaction to that deposition?

SANDERS: No. We have addressed this, once again, extensively. And we have nothing new to add and for any new questions I'll refer you to the President's counsel. Again, I'm not going to get into a hypothetical question and would refer you to Michael Cohen on that matter. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Real quick, we haven't seen much of the President.

He said he would do a news conference and ended up not taking questions.

SANDERS: He actually took a couple of questions at the end.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But not full questions to address other topics in the news. Why haven't we seen so much of the President? Will he commit to doing a formal news conference? He hasn't done one of those in more than a year.

SANDERS: The President has got a major speech tomorrow. He has been incredibly active all week long. We've taken major actions in trade negotiations as well as expelling intel officers from Russia out of the country this week. There have been a number of major things that the President has taken action on and been engaged on. He is giving a major speech tomorrow.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did he take questions from the press?

SANDERS: I'm sorry.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is you too busy to questions from the press?

SANDERS: Look, we take questions from you guys every day in a number of different formats. Right now, I'm standing up here, taking questions from you, which I did yesterday, which Raj did on Monday and the President is speaking directly to the American people tomorrow. Phil?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sarah, the President has said that Michael Flynn is a good man and also said that Paul Manafort is a good man. I'm wondering if the President believes he has the right to use the power of his office, power of pardon, to protect them from what he might see as unfair punishment down the road. Does he believe he has that right?

SANDERS: I would refer you back to Ty Cobb's statement. There's not discussion or consideration of that at this time. There would be no reason for me to have had a conversation with the President about that. That is not being currently discussed at the White House.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: About that though it is whether he believes he has the right to use the power of his office.

SANDERS: The President has the authority to pardon individual but you're asking me about a specific case in which it hasn't been discussed so I would not have brought that up with him. John?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Sarah. The President who has the power of the pardon, not Ty Cobb. So, how's the President --

SANDERS: Which is what I just said to Phil.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Not exactly. You talked about Ty Cobb's statement. The President has the power of the pardon. Has he considered, is he considering, would he consider pardoning Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn or Rick Gates?

SANDERS: As I said an on-record statement from the President's attorney here at the White House on these matters has said there's no discussion or consideration on this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The other matter, the trade deal that you spoke about at the very top of the briefing regarding the U.S. and South Korea, as part of this new trade deal, each U.S. car maker would be allowed to export 50,000 vehicles per year to South Korea. It's now capped at 25,000. But last year, if you just look at the most recent history, no U.S. automaker sold more than 11,000 cars to South Korea. What makes you think that demand is going to rise so dramatically as to benefit the U.S. auto industry?

SANDERS: It also impacts the parts component, a major piece of this deal. We're going to continue working with auto manufacturers in this country. One of the other things that we've seen is an increase in business across the board and people actually making things in America again due to deregulation, due to the tax cuts. We expect business in America to grow and, therefore, the trade component to grow as well.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But as to the automakers, do you believe that the actual numbers of vehicles sold will increase dramatically as a result of this trade deal?

[14:20:00] Last year, 11,000, the new numbers now, 50,000 there. Next year will we see a dramatic increase?

SANDERS: Look this was a something that happened -- the problem wasn't created overnight. But this is certainly steps in the right direction to help remove the trade deficit that we have. And we're very excited about the progress that's been made. Not just with auto manufacturers but also in agriculture sector and pharmaceuticals as well. Francesca?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you, Sarah. A report today on President Trump and Amazon caused the company's stock value to tumble roughly $53 billion. As that report said, is the President looking for ways to go after the internet retail giant?

SANDERS: We have no announcements and no specific policies or actions that we're currently pushing forward or considering taking.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Not referring to an announcement specifically but has the president bringing ways to go after Amazon. Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin has said the White House does favor an internet sales tax. And that is something you guys will be looking at. Is that something that the President is pushing for even behind closed doors?

SANDERS: The President has said many times before he's always looking to create a level playing field for all businesses and this no different and he it is always going to look at different ways, but there aren't any specific policies on the table at this time.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: One more question. On Kim Jong-un's visit to China, when was the White House made aware of that trip?

SANDERS: The ambassador from China came to the White House yesterday and briefed members of the national security team, who then briefed the President.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Alton Sterling, the charges against him the police officers --

SANDERS: I'm sorry can you speak up a little.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There were no charges against the police officers in the Alton Sterling police shooting. What does the President have to say about that? Particularly as he is a strong supporter of police. Then you have the issue -- we're in the midst of the issue that happened, the shooting of the young man in California behind his grandmother's house with a cell phone.

SANDERS: Certainly, a terrible incident. This is something that is a local matter and something that we feel should be left up with the local authorities at the time.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He was strongly behind police, supports police, as much of America does, but wants to weed out bad policing. What does he say about weeding out bad policing when you continue to see these kinds of situations occur over and over again?

SANDERS: Certainly, we want to make sure that all law enforcement is carrying out the letter of the law. The President is very supportive of law enforcement. At the same time in these specific cases and instances those would be left up to local authorities to make that determination and not something for the federal government to weigh into.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Eric Garner that cried out 11 times, I can't breathe. His mother is still looking for something, an indictment of police officers in New York. Does the President -- has he asked them the status? If something going to happen? What?

SANDERS: I'm not aware of any specific action. Once again these would be local matters that should be left up to the local authorities. Kevin.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sarah, quick one on that North Korea and them maybe a fast follow on the census. On North Korea, how would you characterize the administration's mood after the meeting in China between Kim Jong-un and President Xi Jinping? And I am asking because on one hand the President tweets almost sound optimistic. But at the same time if we look back historically, when Madeleine Albright went over there, the North Koreans were sort of cheating their whole way through, so I imagine there's some skepticism. How would you describe the White House's sensibility right now?

SANDERS: Certainly, were going to be cautiously optimistic but we feel like things are moving in the right direction and that the meeting yesterday was a good indication that the maximum pressure campaign has been working. You saw him leave for the first time to -- since becoming the leader of the North Korea leaving his country for the first time for that meeting. And we consider that to be a positive sign that the maximum pressure campaign is continuing to work. And we are going to continue moving forward in this process in hopes for a meeting down the road.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: By the way, we were talking about May. Is that still sort of the goal?

SANDERS: Certainly, we would like to see this. Obviously, this is something of a global importance. We want to make sure it's done as soon as we can, but we also want to make sure it is done properly. We're working towards that goal. As we said before, the North Koreans have made that offer and we've accepted and we're moving forward in this process.

[14:25:00] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: On the census, I was going to ask about -- give us U.S. code title 13, 221 effectively says you can be fined if you don't answer the census truthfully. No one has been fined dating back to 1970. Would the White House support the idea of fining individuals that don't answer the census or fail to answer it honestly?

SANDERS: Look, the goal is to have data that we can use for specific things. We think having accurate data is important. I'm not aware of a mass campaign to start fining individuals. We certainly want people to follow the law, whether it's the census or anything else, people should follow the law and the law should be enforced. Kristen?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you. Ty cobb's statement deals with the President. I want to ask you very specifically, did the President direct John Dowd to talk to Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn about potential pardons?

SANDERS: I'm not aware of any conversations of that nature at all.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did the President have a reaction to these revelations of this subject in "The New York Times"? Did you ask him?

SANDERS: Again, I have not talked to him about it specifically. But again, I have been in a number of conversations and it has never come up. Ty Cobb, who would be the lead representative for the White House on these matters has also gone on the record to discuss and declare these conversations haven't taken place.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Let me just follow up with, April, quickly if I could. You said these are local issues. With respect this seems to be an entire issue that the country is grappling with, the tension between communities of color and police departments. Does the President not need to show leadership on this issue?

SANDERS: We certainly -- when the President has talked about a number of issues, we want to find ways to bring the country together. Certainly not looking for any place of division. I think you've seen that in the policies that he's put forward. He wants to grow the economy and wants to do that for everybody, he wants a better America for every American. That's been a repeated thing out of this White House.

But when it comes to the authority to, on the rulings that have taken place in the last few days, those are things that have to be done at a local level and they're not federal decisions at this point in time.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But there are a lot of African-American moms all across the country feel as though their sons are dying. Doesn't the president really need to do something about that?

SANDERS: I think we should do every single thing we can every single day to protect the people of this country. I think the President, whether they're black, white, Hispanic, male or female, rich or poor, we look for ways to protect the individuals in this country, particularly children. That's why you've seen the President take an active role over the last several months in school safety and looking at ways.

We want to do that across the board, whether the kid is in school or whether they are at home, no matter where they are in this country, kids should feel safe. And that's why this president has focused on safety and security as a big part priorities of this administration, both through securing our borders and stopping the flow of drugs, stopping the flow of gangs, stopping the number of school shootings by the stop school violence act. The background system. I'm not saying it's perfect. Until every child is safe we can always do more. We'll show up every day for work trying to do exactly that. Peter?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Several judges in Maryland have refused to throw out the --

SANDERS: I'm sorry, I couldn't hear you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A federal judge in Maryland has refused to throw out an emoluments claim against the President saying that Washington and Maryland have the right to sue. Wonder if the White House might have a comment.

SANDERS: I can't comment on ongoing litigation. We'll have to keep you posted on that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Quick one on North Korea and then if I might on something else. You told us last night about a personal message that Xi Jinping had for President Trump. What was in that message?

SANDERS: It was a personal message. We feel like we made significant progress and we're going to continue moving forward in this process. I don't have anything to add at this point beyond that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Quick question on Stormy Daniels and the lawsuit that was offered overnight or the motion that was made overnight, you've said you've addressed these issues extensively in response to Steve today. But you haven't answered the substantive question of whether the President was aware of the $130,000 payment that was made under an agreement in which he has explicitly named to Stormy Daniels silent. Can you answer that question? You were asked three weeks ago today and you said you weren't aware. Are you aware now? SANDERS: Look, the President has denied the allegations.

[14:30:00] We've spoken about this issue extensively. And I don't have anything else to add beyond that, anything beyond that I would refer you to the outside counsel.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Sarah. Two questions, following up on big tech, following up on Francesca's question about Amazon, the report this morning said that the President was quote obsessed with Amazon and its CEO Jeff Bezos. Have you ever heard the President talk about Amazon and are they currently competing on a level playing field right now?

SANDERS: I heard the President talk repeatedly about making business practices in this country level for everyone across the board. I have heard them talk about it privately and publicly I know it's something that he wants to see happen. Beyond that I don't have anything for you. Richard?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Sarah. Two questions on immigration. First one, is the President concerned that his immigration policies, kept away from the U.S., high-tech workers, special workers that instead would go to Canada, for instance.

SANDERS: I'm not sure I'm following you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The concern with -- that is immigration policies have kept away from the U.S. specialized workers, high-tech workers that prefer to go somewhere else.

SANDERS: Not at all. But the President is concerned that we're not doing enough to create a strong workforce here, which is why he has put a big emphasis on workforce development. It's something that Ivanka Trump has been directly engaged in.