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Shulkin Out, Jackson In at V.A.; Report: Trump Lawyer Floated Pardons; Korean Summit Set. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired March 29, 2018 - 05:00   ET


DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: [05:00:03] In fact, both of those were funded by private donations. The act called EGO, brilliant, by Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana, who always knows how to work the press.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN ANCHOR: Sketches and cartoons still OK, though.

BRIGGS: Indeed.

KOSINSKI: And EARLY START continues right now.


BRIGGS: The doctor is in. The latest shakeup with the president's personal physician to lead the V.A., but Ronny Jackson's lack of management experience is raising concerns. Now outgoing secretary David Shulkin is firing back.

KOSINSKI: New report says the president's lawyer floated pardons for top campaign aides. Was the Trump legal team trying to keep Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort from cooperating in the Russia probe?

BRIGGS: The date is set for leaders of North Korea and South Korea to meet. The agenda includes denuclearization. Another step as Pyongyang evolves into a major player on the world stage.

Good morning, everybody. Thanks for getting an EARLY START with us. I'm Dave Briggs.

KOSINSKI: And I'm Michelle Kosinski. It's Thursday, March 29th. It is 5:00 a.m. in the East.

BRIGGS: It's great to have you here, my friend.

KOSINSKI: Thank you. I'm trying not to screw anything up.

BRIGGS: Perfectly done.

KOSINSKI: Be kind.

BRIGGS: I always try to screw things up. So, you are good there.

KOSINSKI: Another change at the top of the Trump administration. David Shulkin is out as veterans affairs secretary. President Trump making the announcement, where else, on Twitter. But in this case, we are told chief of staff John Kelly did give Shulkin a head's up, very similar to the Tillerson situation.

White House officials says the controversy surrounding Shulkin and questions about his travel spending have become distractions that were getting in the way. The president campaigned hard on helping veterans.

BRIGGS: The big surprise was not Shulkin's ouster which was rumored for weeks. It was who is nominated to replace him. His personal physician, rear admiral, Dr. Ronny Jackson.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the nominee's performance on television had an awful lot to do with the selection. Dr. Jackson's White House briefing where he praised the president's health played a role.

Here's a little throwback Thursday for you.


RONNY JACKSON, NOMINATED AS SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS: There's no indication that he has any cognitive issues. The president, you know, he's very sharp. He's very articulate, a lot of energy and a lot of stamina.

You look at his vision. I mean, you know, he's 71 years old. I mean, he can drive if he wants to without glasses. I mean, he washes his hands frequently. He uses Purell.

The president's health is excellent, his overall health is excellent. He has incredible genes. I'd just assume. I think he will remain fit for duty for or another term if he's elected.


KOSINSKI: You know, many eyes are going to be on that confirmation hearing which Dr. Jackson still faces.

He is an active duty Navy physician who has served on the White House medical team for the last 12 years. In 2013, he was nominated by President Obama to become physician to the president. CNN has learned President Trump floated Dr. Jackson as a potential replacement at the V.A. recently, but people have not taken it seriously.

BRIGGS: Dr. Jackson's nomination is not going over so well with veterans groups. The executive director of the American Veterans or AMVET says: Tonight, the momentum at the V.A. has come to a screeching halt. We are very disappointed. Even more so, we are concerned. We are concerned at who the nominee is. We don't see anything in his bio that makes him fit to lead.

KOSINSKI: In a stinging op-ed published in "The New York Times" overnight, David Shulkin takes aim at people who want to privatize the V.A. He says until the past few months, veterans issues were dealt with largely in a bipartisan way. But Shulkin says the department has become entangled in what he calls a brutal power struggle.

BRIGGS: He says, quote, solutions should be determined on the merits of the arguments, the advocates within the administration for privatizing V.A. health services, however, reject this approach. They saw me as an obstacle to the privatization who had to be removed. That is because I am convinced that privatization is a political issue aimed at rewarding select people and companies with profits even if it undermines care for veterans. Expanding private healthcare for vets is a White House priority.

Let's bring in CNN politics reporter Tal Kopan live in D.C. this morning.

Good to see you, Tal.


BRIGGS: This is an awful lot of turnover. It keeps on ruling. We are now hovering over 50 percent mark.

Here is what President Trump who is famous for the line "you're fired" once said about never having to use that line when it comes to David Shulkin.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will never have to use those words. Will never have to use those words around David. We will never use those words on you, that's for sure.


BRIGGS: But in this case, Tal, it was rumored about for weeks as he hung out to dry. What's the impact of all the turnover at the White House?

KOPAN: Yes, that's right, Dave. It's sort of a remarkable saga that has unfolded. And, you know, Shulkin has been sort of in and out of the news for a lot of reasons.

[05:05:01] But you mentioned the turnover. You know, keep in mind that this is yet another cabinet position that is going to require Senate confirmation that is coming open. And these things take time. And it's not just time for the White House which now has to get all the paper work in order and get these people vetted, prep them for confirmation hearings. It's also time away from whatever business this Senate would otherwise be doing. You hear lawmakers saying I don't know how we will confirm these nominees.

And so, you know, typically presidential administration in its, you know, birth basically in the second year, would have gotten tried to get its entire cabinet in place and get as much time out of that first batch of nominees as they can to really build some stability in the administration. And Trump barely finished nominating the first wave before he is already on to the second. And that's difficult for the White House and Congress to deal with at that rate of change.

KOSINSKI: Right. I feel like what this has taught us over the last several weeks is that those who are rumored to be out the door might take a long time. They are safe for a while. It seems like nothing will happen. But then they are out the door.

So, I mean, is the sense there are more people on the chopping block and could happen soon, Tal?

KOPAN: That's right, Michelle. I feel maybe no one knows that better than you having covered the State Department, where we did this with Rex Tillerson for some time. But, you know, there's a sense -- it's sort of a duality in the world of Trump. It's the sense that on the one hand, you are never gone, that everyone who's been in Trump's orbit sort of resurfaces at some point.

But on the other hand, I mean, you could be in one day and out the next. I mean, look at Jeff Sessions, the sort of I think probably the next one with the most rumors about, you know, since last summer we've been having this conversation about Jeff Sessions, where he was one of Trump's favorite, his earliest supporter and most loyal supporter. And Trump just, you know, soured on him and seemed to never come back around.

And so, there is a looming sense at any point you could be fired and maybe from a tweet you don't get a very long head's up on. So, it's sort of a remarkable state of affairs for cabinet secretaries to sort of constantly be working under this uncertainty.

BRIGGS: It would be just about impossible to imagine a confirmation hearing for a new attorney general in this political environment. That maybe what's holding that up.

You mentioned the tweet. The tweet from the president raised a few eyebrows, including yours yesterday regarding the border wall. Trump tweeting: Great briefing this afternoon on the start of our southern border wall, included the pictures below, several of them.

Tal, is that a border wall?

KOPAN: Well, it depends who you ask, Dave. It's an interesting question.

This is actually what you are seeing is replacement fencing, steel bollard design that is going up in the Calexico California region. This was actually authorized in the 2017 spending bill to replace existing fencing with a sturdier and higher design, a design that already existed pre-Trump.

So, this is a perfect example of one of the things that Congress has sort of passed in spending bills, where Democrats are able to point to it and say, this is existing fencing, this is not a wall. But Republicans can point to it and say, look, we're building something and that something is a wall.

So, it's a little bit of a game of semantics, but at the end of the day, this is a replacement steel design that is going up in a region that already had fencing prior to the construction project.

BRIGGS: Oh, the semantic debate.

All right. Come back in about 20 minutes. I want to talk about the census battles hyper-politicized at this point.

Tal Kopan in D.C. for us, thanks.

KOSINSKI: Thanks, Tal.

"The New York Times" reports President Trump's now former top lawyer John Dowd floated the possibility of pardons for Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort. "The Times" says Dowd raised the issue last year with lawyers for the former national security adviser and Trump chairman. Both are now facing charges in the special counsel's Russia investigation.

BRIGGS: Yes, Dowd's reported action raises questions about whether he tried to influence the decision to cooperate with the Mueller probe.

CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin with some context.


JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: There is nothing unlawful about lawyers discussing pardons. That is the power of the presidency. Where there could be trouble is if there was some sort of promise implied or given to witnesses in the Mueller investigation that if you don't Cooperate, you will get a pardon.


BRIGGS: In a statement to "The Times", John Dowd denies the report. Dowd resigned from the president's legal team last week.

KOSINSKI: The federal judge giving a go-ahead to a lawsuit alleging the president is profiting illegally from governments doing business with the Trump Organization in Washington, D.C. The Maryland and D.C. attorneys general who brought the case argued that the Trump International Hotel's operations put other nearby hotels and entertainment properties at a competitive disadvantage.

[05:10:03] The judge did not make any rulings on the allegations in the case, but he did note foreign governments moved business from other hotels in D.C. to the president's hotel.

BRIGGS: Now could be a great time to buy Amazon. Shares fell 4 percent yesterday on news President Trump wants to crackdown on the online giant. "Axios" reporting Trump wants to go after Amazon with antitrust enforcement or changing tax rules. The source calls him obsessed with the company.

Trump has repeatedly tweeted how he dislikes Amazon, accusing it of avoiding sales tax and hurting retailers, workers, even the post office. He also incorrectly links Amazon to "The Washington Post", which he calls fake news. But "The Post" is owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, not Amazon itself.

Amazon declined to comment, but Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the administration isn't going after Amazon at this time. Amazon stock declined as part of the broader drop in tech stock. Tech is the stock market's most valuable sector. Until now, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Netflix and Google have all pushed the market from one record to another, but investigators now worrying a bit. Tech companies face greater scrutiny, especially in the wake of Facebook's recent user data crisis.

Of course, Mark Zuckerberg coming before Congress soon.


BRIGGS: Breaking overnight: the summit between North and South Korea is set. Denuclearization on the agenda. But yet another key player wants in on the talks in Pyongyang.

We are live in Seoul straight ahead.


[05:15:39] BRIGGS: A funeral and memorial today in Sacramento, California, for Stephon Clark, the unarmed black man fatally shot by police in his grandmother's backyard earlier this month.

Authorities say officers thought a cell phone was a gun and opened fire. Police union defending the officers involved saying in a statement they reacted to the threat as they perceived it. Actions were legally justified.

KOSINSKI: The city remains on edge. Protests have intensified since the shooting. Police and the Sacramento Kings are bracing for more ahead of the team's NBA game tonight. Protesters have blocked entrances to the King's Golden 1 Center twice in the past week. Authorities say there will be a significant police presence around the arena tonight.

BRIGGS: The Oklahoma Senate approving a pay raise for state teachers, currently among the lowest paid in the country. The average $6,100 increase to be paid for with tax increases on gas and cigarettes. Starting teacher in Oklahoma now makes less than $32,000 a year. The teachers union says that is not enough and the walkout is planned for Monday is still on.

Meantime, teachers in Arizona protested at their state capitol also demanding higher pay. Much of this inspired by West Virginia teachers whose 13-day strike led to a 5 percent pay raise earlier this month.

KOSINSKI: Breaking overnight, the date now set for the historic summit between leaders of North Korea and South Korea. The two sides deciding on the date after talks at Panmunjom, the border village in the demilitarized zone.

CNN's Ivan Watson is live in Seoul with the latest details -- Ivan.

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, there. That's right. They set a date, April 27th. That's when the leaders of North and South Korea will sit down and talk face to face. Notable because this will be the third time in history that the leaders of these neighboring countries will do such a thing. It hasn't taken place in more than a decade.

Now, this comes on the back of that secret summit or as the Chinese describe it the unofficial visit of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to Beijing. He traveled there and back over four days in an armored train. North Korea and China did not make it public until after it was over. You have a Chinese envoy who is here in Seoul basically briefing top South Korean officials on that meeting.

South Korea is welcoming that engagement, saying that should help with trying to resolve the tension here on the Korean peninsula. The big issue that everybody is dealing with, of course, and concerned about is North Korea's arsenal of nuclear weapons, which has been known to test from time to time. And it has been punished with sanctions and international isolation in the past.

Now, the situation has changed dramatically. Everybody seems to want to talk to Kim Jong-un. President Trump says he'd like to meet with him, perhaps in May, and now, we're hearing that the Japanese prime minister is also trying to organize his own summit with the North Korean leader -- Michelle.

KOSINSKI: Yes, those pictures with Xi Jinping sure looked official, even though the Chinese is still saying that was an unofficial visit.

Thanks so much, Ivan.

BRIGGS: You knew Shinzo Abe would want in on that. He had missiles flying over their country.

Ahead, baseball fans everywhere. Today is opening day for 2018, the earliest start to the season in history. Andy Scholes with the "Bleacher Report", next.


[05:23:3] BRIGGS: Normally, I'm a day sleeper with these hours having these hours, but not today. Why? It's opening day in Major League Baseball and we cannot wait.

KOSINSKI: Andy Scholes is here with the story heading into the season in this morning's "Bleacher Report."


Always been exciting today. You know, opening day, one of the best day on the sports calendar. Every fan can feel the team can have a great season. After acquiring reining National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton to pair with Rookie of the Year Aaron Judge, most publications including "Bleacher Report" had the Yankees as a favorite to win the World Series this year.

Well, that's just more bulletin board material for the Houston Astros, after winning more than 100 games last year and the World Series. They are poised to be even better this season.

And if you want to skip out on work or school early today to watch baseball, well, MLB has you covered. They posted this excuse note to Instagram. Just fill in your name and I assume if you work.

All right. LeBron James continuing to etch his name into the record books. Last night, LeBron tied Michael Jordan for the most consecutive games with at least ten points, doing it now for 866 straight. The last time LeBron scored less than ten was back in January of 2007. He led the Cavs with 41 as they beat the Hornets.

Now, in the loss, the Hornets's Kemba Walker became the team's all- time leading scorer.

[05:25:04] The crowd giving him a standing ovation. And Walker getting emotional when asked about the feat after the game.


KEMBA WALKER, HORNETS GUARD: My Lord and Savior, my family, a lot of hard work. You know, it has been a long ride. But this is a huge accomplishment.


SCHOLES: Elsewhere in the NBA last night, Celtics at the Jazz. Games tied with time winding down. Boston swings around to Jalen Brown who knocks down the three with just 0.3 seconds left on the clock. The Celtics escaped Utah with a 97-94 win.

All right. Final four teams arrive to a rainy San Antonio yesterday. They meet with the media and practice today and tomorrow, then the big game taking place Saturday night.

Loyola will look to become the first 11th seed ever to win a final four game. They take on Michigan at 6:00 on TBS. That game will be followed by Kansas taking on Villanova.

Guys, you know, Loyola's 98-year-old chaplain, Sister Jean, she's become such a superstar. She has her own media availability tomorrow morning there in San Antonio. And they said it's the only time she's going to talk all weekend long. That's how big of a star she has become.

KOSINSKI: That's great.

BRIGGS: We got a special tribute to Sister Jean tomorrow at the end of the "Bleacher Report." So, look forward to that.

KOSINSKI: Oh, really?

BRIGGS: Oh, yes, it will be memorable.

KOSINSKI: I will brace myself.

BRIGGS: Thanks, buddy.


What is it about Dr. Ronny Jackson that the president likes so much? (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JACKSON: There is no indication whatsoever that he has any cognitive issues. The president, you know, he's very sharp and he's very articulate. A lot of energy and a lot of stamina.


KOSINSKI: Yes. But as a doctor with no management experience the best to lead the V.A.? More on the latest administration shakeup coming up.