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Trump Fires VA Secretary, Taps White House Doctor to Replace Him; Reports: Trump Lawyer Floated Idea of Pardons for Flynn Manafort. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired March 29, 2018 - 10:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All of this less than 24 hours after President Trump fired his Veteran Affairs secretary and nominated the White House doctor to take over, more on that in just a moment.

But let's start with these new developments. CNN's Jeff Zeleny, part of the team that broke the story. Jeff, a rare 10:00 a.m. appearance on "NEWSROOM." It must be big.

JEFF ZELENY, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John, Good morning. More human resources news here at the White House, another staff shake-up, of course, with the VA secretary as you'd been talking about all morning. But we aren't getting some more information about how the president is viewing his essentially the reshaping of his administration. We have seen -- a major shake-up, really every week for the last six weeks or so a top adviser to him. But we're also being told that he's being advised by some people he speaks to that he may not need these roles of chief of staff or communications director, that other presidents have relied on so often.

He, of course, is listening to this advice. We don't know what he'll do with the advice. We have no reason to believe that John Kelly is in any danger at the moment here. But it is certainly giving a window into how the president is reshaping the West Wing. How he's becoming more comfortable with the job and trying to change the job in many respects.

Now Hope Hicks, of course, the outgoing communications director, is still here at the White House. But this is expected to be one of her last days on the job. And that is raising the question of who is the next communications director going to be. It is somewhat of a ceremonial job, though, John, because as you know, the president himself, he sets the narrative and the tone and the story line here every day online, on social media. So, the communications director not as important perhaps as in years past because it is a job he relishes.

BERMAN: And, again, this is outside people giving the president this advice, but before you just dismiss that, we know that a lot of times the president listened to this advice over the people who actually have official jobs in the White House. One official departure you mentioned before David Shulkin fired as VA secretary and Doctor Ronny Jackson, the admiral, will be nominated. ZELENY: Indeed. That happened yesterday afternoon, really a long time in coming. We have been talking about this for several days. The president not pleased with the direction of the VA. And also, there has been quite a fight inside the VA about the potential privatization of some of the health care services.

Now, the VA, of course, is the Veterans Affairs Department, but it is also a major medical provider for all of the veterans in America here. So, it is one of the reasons the president wanted to put someone in there with medical experience. The question is does Dr. Ronny Jackson have management experience. He does not, you know, certainly has not run anything in a major way, but it is also, you know, certainly giving rise to yet another person who is leaving this administration, saying Washington is simply difficult to work in.

David Shulkin, of course, was a holdover from the Obama administration, but he had a blistering op-ed in "The New York Times" this morning, essentially saying how difficult it was to do his job in this administration in Washington here, so certainly voicing many of those frustrations. But the reality here is the doctor has a close relationship to the president that helps any cabinet secretary. We certainly -- if he's confirmed, that's a big question. If he's confirmed, will surround himself by people who know how to run agencies.

But, John, the VA is the second largest part of the federal government here, the second largest department, so certainly an upgrade in terms of people he'll be in charge of should he be confirmed. And that will come perhaps by summer but some weeks away, John.

BERMAN: Senate Democrat Jeanne Shaheen just told me she needs to hear what Dr. Jackson has to say. She's not a "no" vote but not convinced yet that he's got the experience. -- Exactly.

Jeff Zeleny, great to have you here on the big show. Thank you very much.

Here now to discuss that report, national political reporter for "RealClearPolitics," Caitlin Huey Burns and White House correspondent for "Reuters," Ayesha Rascoe. You know, Caitlin, again, this is outside advisers, and we're not sure the president will take the advice. But it is interesting that people the president clearly trusts are telling him, you know what, you don't need a communications director. Chief of staff, you can handle it.

CAITLIN HUEY-BURNS, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "REALCLEARPOLITICS": Right. And we know that the president has been listening to outside advisers. You never really leave the White House, as they say. But interesting, though, that we have seen a year into this administration the president pushing out people and bringing people in that make him feel a little more comfortable. You know, evidenced by the VA secretary, I think, is an interesting example of that.

And so, which, you know, a lot of people have said that this is -- contributes to the chaos. I would note that if you are in the Senate right now, having this, you know, you'll have three positions now that they have to confirm at a time where the White House has been very dismayed, they say, at the progress of nominations for other things. So this certainly is going to be a difficult challenge on Capitol Hill for Secretary of State, VA now, of course, CIA director. But it does raise the question of, you know, whether -- Trump has already suggested that he's going to operate the way that he wants to operate.

[10:05:04] And the communications director, of course, was not the traditional role of a communications director. But according to the reporting, you know, she obviously served a key role in keeping things kind of running the way that they -- that has been effective.

BERMAN: Maybe because it was Hope Hicks -


BERMAN: -- maybe not communications director. The president clearly liked Hope Hicks, we don't know if he liked the role of communications director. He went through a few before he got to her and liked her. You know, Ayesha, I'm stuck on this notion of the outside advisers. Every president has the so-called kitchen cabinet people who come in and tell him or her, or helping give advice when required. But it seems with this president, the folks he speaks to at Mar-a-Lago -- the folks that he dials during executive time or maybe when he's watching TV at night, they have an awful lot of influence.

AYESHA RASCOE, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "REUTERS": Well, it is true. And the president, he's made clear that he likes to know how things are playing to the outside. He's someone who is very concerned about how things look, and how, you know, how things are looking right now. Maybe not looking long-term, but, like, how is this playing. So he likes to talk to these outside people and say, well, how does this look? Is this going to work for us? Is this making me look strong and powerful? And so they do have a lot of influence, and it looks like going forward that right now he's in this position where he wants to just try things. He wants to see what works for him.

BERMAN: It is interesting, Caitlin, because he likes people he trusts around him, Dr. Ronny Jackson, he's around him right now in the White House. The admiral is ever present in the White House. He's getting shipped out to Veterans Affair as a promotion. But he's going to be separate from him a little bit. It will be interesting to see how the Senate reacts to this nomination. People like this doctor. The Obama White House, he was a revered figure, people like him as a person. But he's got to have to meet a bar of competence when it comes to managerial issues.

HUEY-BURNS: Exactly. This is a management job. It is great that he and the president get along for the purposes of him being the White House doctor. It is very different, of course, for managing the behemoth that is the VA. What you're going to hear, though, from lawmakers is this concern about the privatization -

BERMAN: A tough word. People say it is tougher to pull off.

HUEY-BURNS: Exactly. -- You had the ethical issues surrounding Shulkin, of course, but there was dissent within the White House about his approach to the VA, not wanting to privatize it. In fact, writing an op-ed in "The New York Times" today saying that he does not want to go that route. He's going to be asked by lawmakers about that. You're going to hear from people like Bernie Sanders, of course, but also some others. So it will be difficult, in addition to the questions about how to run this kind of agency. I will note, however, that you know the bar may be pretty low for -- given all the problems that the VA has, so that could provide some opportunity for him to get ahead.

BERMAN: Today, we could actually see the president of the United States and hear him speak words out loud in front of people. He's been in hiding, so forced seclusion since last Friday, mostly around the Stormy Daniels situation right now. But he gives a speech in Ohio. Do we anticipate him touching any issue surrounding Stormy Daniels, getting anywhere near that, or you to think he'll try hide from reporters?

RASCOE: No. That's the one issue that he hasn't even tweeted about and we know that he'll tweet about almost anything from Jay-Z to Oprah, but no Stormy Daniels. And so I think part of the reason, and the White House has done this before. When things happen, that they don't want the president to be asked about in public, and they don't want him to have to respond to questions, I think that the White House didn't want reporters screaming, you know, Stormy Daniels, what do you have to say about that? And I think they may be concerned about what he might say, but so far this is the one topic that he's kept quiet about.

BERMAN: It is interesting. If he walks to you know on the south lawn to Marine One, he will get those questions shouted to him today. We'll see if he even responds in any form or fashion. Caitlin Huey-Burns, Ayesha Rascoe, thank you so much for being with us.

Also, this morning, new questions about whether the Trump legal team -- what they did exactly. New reports claim that the president's lawyer floated the idea of pardons for both Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort, and the real issue here is floated the idea of pardons to these men's attorneys.

CNN political analyst Josh Dawsey joins me now. Josh, you're part of the "Washington Post" team that did the reporting on this story. What exactly is your reporting? John Dowd, the White House -- the president's personal lawyer now gone - personal lawyer -- he mentioned what to whom when?

JOSH DAWSEY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: John Dowd, the president's personal attorney, who recently left the Russia legal team, back in summer, mentioned to Rob Kelner, who is Michael Flynn's lawyer and Reg Brown who is Paul Manafort's lawyer at the time, the prospect of pardoning both of the men. The men had not been charged yet. But the special counsel, you know, was closing in on them.

[10:10:00] There was a raid obviously of Paul Manafort's house. There was a lot of scrutiny on Michael Flynn. And the prospects of pardons were broached with both men. Now what we've not been able to discern is whether the president ordered that conversation to happen or if it was John Dowd as a unilateral actor, just floating something in conversation. But our reporting is that Mr. Dowd offered or not offered, but broaches subject of pardons with both of these attorneys.

Now, we heard before, a long time ago, the president had been asking questions to people around him about pardons, how much power do I have with pardons. That's different than asking your lawyer. Whether or not he was asked to, this raises serious questions about John Dowd. I mean, John Dowd may have to be answering questions about this. Is this something to your knowledge that the special counsel has been sniffing around?

DAWSEY: Well, what we have seen time and time again as special counsel is interested in, you know, obstruction cases, whether the Air Force One issue, where they wrote a statement that appeared to mislead the press, to the firing of James Comey to what folks knew about Michael Flynn, to the attempts to oust Jeff Sessions, a number of incidents where we have seen subpoenas, questions, about potential obstruction.

And from what the folks we talked to yesterday, they indicated that this could also be another issue. Now again, no one has been accused of wrongdoing here and we don't know where this is going. But it's kind of fits in a pattern of behavior where the president and those around him seem to obstruct the investigation or to at least impede what folks were doing in the odds of experts at least.

BERMAN: All right. Josh Dawsey. Go nowhere. A carefully worded statement from the White House, not considering pardons now, but how about then? Plus losing their edge. New polls show shrinking support for Democrats in the midterms and historic meetings, leaders from the North and South Korea agree to meet for first time in more than a decade. Stay with us.


[10:16:03] BERMAN: All right. Back now with that new reporting from "The New York Times" and "Washington Post" about the possibility that the president's lawyer dangled the possibility of pardons before lawyers for Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn bought - I think one of those reporters who broke that, Josh Dawsey, also joined by Page Pate, a CNN analyst and Manu Raju up from Washington to join me here. He of course CNN's senior congressional correspondent. Page, I want to start with you. We all know that the president has broad powers to pardon. John Dowd though, the president's lawyer, I'm not sure his powers are quite as broad when it comes to dangling the possibility of pardons to lawyers for possible criminal defendants.

PAGE PATE, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: That's absolutely true, John. It is undisputed that the president has almost unlimited powers to issue a pardon. But, you notice that the White House, both John Dowd as well as his current law Ty Cobb and Sarah Sanders has been very clear that we don't talk about pardons now, we're not talking about pardons now. And you wonder why they would say that. Because if it is totally lawful to issue a pardon, why can't they discuss it. You would expect they would at least consider it and then reject it.

I think the reason they're sensitive about that is they realize that you can do something lawful in an unlawful manner. If you're using a pardon, it's like a bait to try to get someone to not talk to the government, not enter a plea agreement, if you're using it for that purpose, then it can arguably be evidence of obstruction.

BERMAN: Well, they also are doing that for verbiage reasons. They're saying we're not talking about it now, so that they don't have to deny the possibility that they might have talked about it before

Manu Raju, so fascinating and you cover Congress. Ultimately this may not be a legal issue. This might not be an issue of whether or not talking about pardons constitutes a legal obstruction of justice, but it might be something that the House of Representatives deem is reason for impeachment. I know that's farfetched, but that's the only way to really hold the president accountable. Have you had a chance to check in with people either last night or in general about this issue -

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This has come up before in the past. I talked to Republican members who frankly think this is a pretty bad idea. When you talk to Republicans about what they believe the president has gotten in hot water for in this investigation, they don't believe the Russia collusion stuff. But they do believe the president potentially interfering with this investigation, his firing of James Comey, things that he's done to go after the special counsel's investigation. Those attacks are frankly not good for this president. They believe it is significantly problematic and these talk of pardons just adds to that. I've heard from a number of Republicans who pushed back on that idea. So certainly you would hear some significant concerns that the president were going through this -- actually pushing this. It is interesting, though, also, did the president actually know of the John Dowd was floating this, we don't really know that yet. I think people on Capitol Hill want to know if he did know that.

BERMAN: Just to be clear, you know, Josh Dawsey, this is part of your reporting here, specifically that is one of the unknowns in this, what was the connection between the president and John Dowd, right?

DAWSEY: Yes, we don't know whether the president sanctioned these offers or these conversations or not. The president, you know, said at different times he wants to know what he can do about pardons, whether he has the constitutional authority to do them. Obviously, we reported that earlier in 2017 that he was reporting about it. The specific conversations between Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort, we don't know if the president, you know, said that John Dowd should be having these or not. We do know that the president has privately criticized the investigation into Michael Flynn. He thinks it is weak and flimsy and he's praised Paul Manafort at length calling him a good man. So we know the president has not fully distanced himself from either one of these figures. But whether he made these offers or sanctioned them, we don't know.

BERMAN: All right, Page, I'll play you some sound I've obsessed over since last fall. This was the first statement from the lawyer of Paul Manafort after the very first indictment was issued, his lawyer Kevin Downing. Listen to very first thing he said.

[10:20:06] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KEVIN DOWNING, ATTORNEY FOR PAUL MANAFORT: I think you all saw today that President Donald Trump was correct, there is no evidence that Mr. Manafort or the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government.


BERMAN: It just struck me as interesting last fall that the very first line of defense that he had was for President Trump, not his own client, Paul Manafort. I'm wondering, if perhaps now we have an explanation, maybe he was trying to curry favor with the president.

PATE: John, I think that's absolutely correct. It makes no sense for Manafort's lawyer not to be discussing the merits of their defense. I mean these are very serious charges against Manafort, the money laundering, the financial dealings, and now not only do they have the documentary evidence to back it up, they have this co-defendant cooperating with the government. So why would you not consider a plea agreement to limit your exposure in a case like this, it is because you think you have got a pardon in your back pocket. Now, I don't know if they had those discussions. I don't know if one was promised, but if you watch the way Manafort and his lawyers are handling this case from the defense side, it is clear they are counting on him not going to prison even if he's convicted at trial.

BERMAN: Manu Raju, some political news here in the new CNN polling overnight. The Congressional ballot test, the Democrats still hold an edge. But it is down to 6 points. It was 16 points a month ago. I have a chance to speak to some Republicans about this. They're happy it is only six points, but not exactly doing an end zone dance. Still the same concerns they had.

RAJU: Absolutely. Because the map still significantly favors Democrats right now, they need to pick up 23 seats to take back the House, the same number of seats that Hillary Clinton won in Republican held districts. You're seeing a number of retirements. The overall environment significantly favors Democrats. And if you look at the poll numbers too, there's a significant enthusiasm gap and some I think 22 points or so, but favoring the Democrats and, of course this is a -- a midterm election that requires energy from the base, the base needs to come out to vote and when there is enthusiasm on one side, that's very good news. However, Democrats can't be too comfortable because it is shrinking this generic number and they -- their message is largely anti-Trump and if Trump is doing better in the polls, that's not necessarily good for them.

BERMAN: The economy is also good. You know, Josh Dawsey, one of the things that happens in a midterm election when the president's popularity might be sagging is the president will disappear or not get very involved in the campaign. I sense there is about a zero percent chance that President Trump will not be involved with the Congressional midterms come next fall. Getting any word of that from inside?

DAWSEY: The president wants to be aggressively involved going into the fall. He wants to be on the road almost every week. He told his advisers he loves having big rallies, we can attract 5, 10,000 people and big supporters. There will be places where I think Republicans will want to deploy the president, will see the president is helpful and other districts they will not want to deploy the president. But Manu makes a good point. The president's numbers have gone up a few points in recent days, up to above 40 percent now and see the tax cuts, tax reforms Republicans did last year, those have become more popular as a public -- the polls show they have become more popular. The public know more about them and maybe the paychecks have come in. So I think the president cuts both ways in 2018. A lot of places that suburban districts, moderate districts, candidates will probably not want to be near the president, other places where maybe he's an asset.

BERMAN: Josh Dawsey, Manu Raju, Page Pate, thank you very, very much. We'll be right back.


[10:28:02] BERMAN: The bell tolls for yet another Trump cabinet member. Here to discuss that and much, much more, Republican Congressman Leonard Lance of New Jersey. Congressman, thank you so much for being with us. Dr. Ronny Jackson, Admiral Jackson, works inside the White House, revered by many people, a good choice to be VA secretary?

REP. LEONARD LANCE (R-NJ), ENERGY AND COMMERCE COMMITTEE: I think that's for the Senate to determine through the confirmation process. He does have the president's confidence. And as I understand it, he had the confidence of President Obama as well.

BERMAN: As a physician.

LANCE: For -- physician of -- that he had in the White House. Now he's going to be the head of a very large agency, second only to the Pentagon. And certainly he should surround himself with those who understand how large organizations works.

BERMAN: Absolutely it is the Senate's job to confirm this person, although you've been mentioning you're doing district work, I know Congressional office is one thing they deal with a lot, constituent services and veterans concerns. In that vein, do you think from what you see he's got the bureaucratic experience, the managerial experience to handle a department with 377,000 employees?

LANCE: His experience has been as a physician, but I wouldn't exclude the possibility that he would be a fine secretary. We have a veteran's hospital in the district I serve, Lyons Veteran's Hospital and certainly we want to make sure that the veteran's hospitals are administered as well as possible.

BERMAN: All right. You're a lawyer, a good lawyer for a long time in private practice right now. These reports that the president's personal lawyer John Dowd was dangling the possibility of pardons or mentioned the possibility of presidential pardons to attorneys for Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort, what questions does that raise for you?

LANCE: The presidential pardon power is extensive. That regards the president himself. Now, regarding his lawyer, I suppose that those questions should be answered. But I would imagine when the Ford White House was discussing potential pardon with President Nixon. I assume the lawyers must have engaged in discussions as to what President Nixon should have said in recede of the pardon he received.