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Trump Fires V.A. Secretary; White House Doctor to Replace Him; NYT: Trump's Former Lead Lawyer Floated Flynn, Manafort Pardons; Special Counsel Filing: Rick Gates Tied to Russian Operative. Aired 6- 6:30a ET

Aired March 29, 2018 - 06:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Trump fires his V.A. secretary in yet another White House shake-up.

[05:59:20] SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: The president is seeming to manage his cabinet as a reality TV show.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think that the president should have at the agencies who he wants.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: A White House official said Dr. Jackson is qualified to run the V.A.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These appointments reflect the president's priority on loyalty, regardless of your qualifications.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't want to talk about pardoning Michael Flynn yet. We'll see what happens.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mueller's investigators have asked various witnesses about conversations at the White House about pardons.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president has the authority to pardon individuals, but it hasn't been discussed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The question hinges on whether dangling a pardon could amount to obstruction.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If an offer was made, we could be right in the middle of impeachment territory.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is your NEW DAY. It's Thursday, March 29, 6 a.m. here in New York. Here's our starting line.

President Trump firing his embattled V.A. secretary and tapping his White House doctor to replace him. The president insists Dr. Ronny Jackson is, quote, "highly trained and qualified." But he has no real management experience, and if confirmed, Jackson will run the federal government's second largest department that has hundreds of thousands of employees, well over 300,000. And it is plagued by inefficiencies.

"New York Times" reports that President Trump's former lawyer, John Dowd, may have floated the idea of pardoning fired national security advisor Michael Flynn and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort as the special counsel was building cases against both men. Was Dowd trying to influence Flynn and Manafort to keep them from cooperating with the investigation?

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: So Robert Mueller's probe has now drawn a direct link between a Trump campaign official and Russian intelligence officials.

A new court filing says former deputy campaign manager Rick Gates made frequent calls to a person the FBI believes had active links to Russian spy services. So we'll get into that.

And in the world of entertainment, Roseanne Barr is back after two decades. Her sitcom's reboot drawing millions of viewers for its premiere. The huge ratings catching the attention of President Trump. We'll tell you about the call he reportedly made to the show's star.

So let's begin our coverage with CNN's Abby Phillip. She is live at the White House with with our top story -- Abby.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Alisyn.

It seems like every week that goes by, there's another firing here at this White House. This time it's the former V.A. secretary, David Shulkin, who is now out and replaces with the president's personal White House physician, whose qualifications as a physician are not in question, but certainly, his qualifications to run one of the federal government's biggest and most troublesome bureaucracies are now in question.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PHILLIP (voice-over): President Trump firing embattled Veterans Affairs secretary David Shulkin, the latest in a series of high- profile departures in the last month.

Sources tell CNN that chief of staff John Kelly notifying Shulkin of his termination in a phone call before the president made the announcement public on Twitter. His departure was expected after damaging revelations that Shulkin and his wife used taxpayer dollars for a European trip, a trip that at least four administration officials cautioned him not to take.

In a new op-ed, Shulkin claiming he was falsely accused and blasting the toxic, chaotic, disrespectful environment in Washington for preventing him from doing his job.

In a surprise move, President Trump tapping his White House physician, Navy Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson as his nominee to head the V.A. White House officials tell CNN it's because the president was pleased with how Jackson handled questions, praising his health back in January.

REAR ADMIRAL RONNY L. JACKSON, NOMINEE FOR V.A. SECRETARY: There's no indication whatsoever that he has any cognitive issues.

His overall health is excellent. I told the president that if he had a healthier diet over the last 20 years, he might live to be 200 years old. I don't know. I mean, you know, he -- he has incredible -- he has incredible genes.

PHILLIP: A source tells CNN that Mr. Trump has been floating Jackson's name during recent conversations with advisors but wasn't taken seriously.

This upheaval coming as the White House faces new questions about whether President Trump offered to pardon two top advisers at the center of the Russia probe in exchange for their silence.

"The New York Times" reports that the president's former lead lawyer, John Dowd, discussed the idea of Mr. Trump pardoning fired national security advisor Michael Flynn and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort with their lawyers last year if they were to be criminally charge in the special counsel's investigation.

"The Washington Post" reports that these conversations took place last summer before Manafort was charged with financial crimes and before Flynn cut a deal with Mueller in exchange for pleading guilty to lying to the FBI. The White House dodging questions about pardons, reading a statement from the White House lawyer, Ty Cobb.

SANDERS: No pardons are under discussions or under consideration at the White House.

PHILLIP: Dowd denies having any discussions related to pardons, even after reports surfaced back in July that Mr. Trump was considering granting pardons to those under investigation.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The report does say that the president has even inquired about the ability to pardon himself.

PHILLIP: As recently as December, the president leaving open the possibility of pardoning Flynn.

TRUMP: I don't want to talk about pardons for Michael Flynn yet. We'll see what happens.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PHILLIP: After six days of having no public events here at the White House, we will actually see President Trump today when he travels to -- to tout his infrastructure plan out, a $200 billion infrastructure plan, out in Ohio. I guess it is Infrastructure Week or Infrastructure Day here again, Alisyn and Chris.

CAMEROTA: Abby, thank you very much. Let's bring in CNN political analysts John Avlon and Karoun Demirjian

to talk about all this.

[06:05:04] So John, Dr. Ronny Jackson. This is an interesting pick. Reportedly, the president had floated this with some of his advisers. And they thought that he was joking, or they didn't think that this would actually happen.

But in fact, he trusts his personal White House doctor --

JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes.

CAMEROTA: -- because this doctor travels with him regularly. This doctor knows him fairly intimately. And he's decided to give him this huge responsibility of the second biggest agency in the government.

AVLON: This is an agency with an $186 billion budget, over 300,000 employees. I am sure Dr. Jackson is a charming guy. He certainly did well defending the president on air at length after the physical. Some of the particulars may come up in confirmation hearing, as Chris was saying a little earlier. But it's not a criteria for running this kind of bureaucracy. Some kind of management experience is a bonus.

And remember, this is a president who also wanted to nominate his personal pilot to run the FAA. So this is somebody who's sort of "Who do I know? Who's nearest? How about you?" That's not the way that you --

(CROSSTALK)

CUOMO: Even the way we were describing it there, Karoun. Well, look, he knows him. He likes him. He travels him. Since when does that equate with run 377,000 people. Hundreds of billions of dollars is going to flow through that thing. And we know that it has been failing at its mission for generations. It is so sensitive; it is so fundamental. Are those the qualifications? "I know the guy. I like him. He told people I weigh only 233 pounds. This is a good man. And he wears a uniform. Let's go."

Is this enough?

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I mean, to the president, it is -- it's really important criteria. That he feels like he can get along with the guy, that he feels like the guy is, you know, is praising him but not just, you know, with puff. I mean, this is a doctor who's served three presidents. He is a nonpartisan. And so there is a little bit of legitimacy behind his words of adulation of the president, because he really does have a pretty solid reputation.

CUOMO: As a doctor.

DEMIRJIAN: As a doctor, right.

CUOMO: Serving as a doctor.

DEMIRJIAN: Exactly. You could make the argument that some of the biggest problems that have plagued the Department of Veterans Affairs have to do with health care, right? And so maybe he'd be sympathetic. Sure.

But you're right. He doesn't have any management experience, because maybe he'll turn out to have quite a knack for this, but there's no proof of that. He's going to get grilled in his confirmation hearings. But I would not assume that this is going to take him. Because again, unless we find something of his positions or his experience that really, you know, lets us know he is going to actually potentially prove to be a detriment to this department, the Republicans in Congress and the Senate are using pretty inclined to give him a pass.

CUOMO: He'll get the votes. Sure, he'll get the votes. But that's, like, a -- it's like a false standard now. I mean, basically, they go along with anything. But I'm just saying, you have to scrutiny the choice independent of that. Because if we just go on what they'll vote for, then really anything goes.

DEMIRJIAN: Yes. And one of the big issues right now at the department is what are they going to do in terms of the -- the number of veterans that are able to see private doctors?

CUOMO: right.

DEMIRJIAN: This is a big question. We don't really know where he stands on that. The fact that he is a doctor, but he's been in uniform for a long time could give him an interesting perspective. But it's going to be really interesting to see where he stands on major issues that really will dictate how efficiently the department runs, where the funding will be coming from and what will we be doing, going forward with this agency that has had serious problems managing its affairs the last few years.

CAMEROTA: Here's how the current V.A. secretary, well, who was just fired, Shulkin, describes some of those problems in a "New York Times" op-ed that came out last night.

"Unfortunately, the department has become entangled in a brutal power struggle, with some political appointees choosing to promote their agendas instead of what's best for veterans. These individuals who seek to privatize veteran health care as an alternative to government- run V.A. care, unfortunately failed to engage in realistic plans regarding who will care for the more than 9 million veterans who rely on the department for life-sustaining care."

He is sounding the alarm on his way out.

AVLON: Yes. And he's trying to say this is largely about a policy debate. To some extent, it may be. Also, maybe somebody who wasn't about White House in-fighting, as much as this president rewards.

CUOMO: And he also got busted with something that was perceived as using taxpayer money the wrong way for a vacation.

AVLON: For a European vacation, and that itself is not obviously acceptable. But now the potential -- I think here's the larger issue. Governing by gut has a bad track record when it comes to major decisions. And this is another example from this president. It's who's nearby, who do I like. How about you?

CAMEROTA: It's also who has complimented me. And so I mean, who likes me a lot. And so this is -- let's just remind people of what Dr. Jackson said when he was telling the press about President Trump's glowing health record.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JACKSON: There's no indication whatever that he has any cognitive issues. The president, you know, he's very sharp. He's very articulate. The president's health is excellent. It's called genetics.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AVLON: Oh, genetics.

CAMEROTA: There you go.

[06:10:09] DEMIRJIAN: Yes. I mean, look, as perhaps he, too, is a little bit astounded by the lifestyle the president keeps and the fact that he's in decent health.

CUOMO: Two hundred and thirty-three pounds?

DEMIRJIAN: Two hundred -- I think it was 239, Chris, but I might be misremembering. Whatever it was, it was one not --

AVLON: Round it up for the cheeseburgers in bed.

DEMIRJIAN: Well, because that was exactly it. I thought it was that it was --

CUOMO: I weigh 225 with the same height, just for a sense of scale.

CAMEROTA: What are we supposed to do with that?

CUOMO: But that is a surprisingly low -- let me help you.

CAMEROTA: Yes.

CUOMO: That is a surprisingly low number that he weighs maybe 15 pounds more than I do.

DEMIRJIAN: Muscle mass weighs more, as we know, right?

CUOMO: Are you guys doctors or did you sleep at a Holiday Inn Express last night? There's a difference, an there's plenty of goo on me, too. It's more dad bod than anything else.

But the point is this, he likes this guy. What we're getting as pushback is he's not a guy. He's an admiral. And with admiral rank, that is a designation being a rear admiral of a level of experience and expertise that they're saying transfers into capability of this type of management experience. Do you buy that?

AVLON: It's probably not sufficient for running an almost $200 billion budget. He has no doubt he's a charming guy with an impressive personal record. But this is a different skill set. Maybe he can make the leap, maybe he won't. But it speaks to the president's judgment. Again, he wanted to nominate his personal pilot to run the FAA.

Next thing you're going to know, he's going to nominate a chauffeur to run the Transportation Department. That -- there's virtue.

CUOMO: It was supposed to be --

AVLON: Mr. President, are you listening?

CUOMO: It was supposed to be the best of the best. Right? Shulkin was not a doctor. It's another wave of pushback: at least this guy is a doctor. I don't know how with the management of an organization. Many of the people who manage hospitals aren't doctors.

CAMEROTA: Well, understand.

CUOMO: That's what Shulkin did. He managed hospitals.

CAMEROTA: If depends on if you want to manage it or if he wants somebody who is, as you said, sympathetic to some of the problems.

DEMIRJIAN: Right now there's a question of kind of where, emotionally, do you stand on all of this? And I think if you bring in another businessman who has no ties to the military outside the medical field. Maybe you get somebody who's, like, "privatization is a great idea." And that is what many people in the current administration want, but clearly what Shulkin is saying is a bad idea and would be a financial boondoggle for the department.

So if you have somebody who's coming in, you know, with the medical training --

CUOMO: Yes.

DEMIRJIAN: and the reputation and the uniform, maybe somebody who has a little bit more confidence in the actual system to be able to provide this sort of health care that, you know, Shulkin is saying is the better financial approach to management, you might just have a better option. But we don't know. That's the point at this point. Because we just don't have any sort of resume on his part, on Jackson's part as to how he runs massive organizations, because he hasn't done it before.

AVLON: Usually relevant. The larger point, also, is look at the sheer tonnage of turnover. We're probably close to 50 percent of senior staff. In March alone, secretary of state, national security adviser, national economic adviser, transportation secretary, communications director, go on and on. This is not a well-oiled machine. CUOMO: And look, the V.A. should be of specific sensitivity also. We

have Paul Wycoff (ph) coming on. So he's the head of the IVA. They have real concerns. They've got messed-around-with in the worst ways. We'll get his take on what they think about this and what has to happen going forward.

CAMEROTA: Karoun Demirjian, John Avlon, thank you very much. So a new report says the former top lawyer for President Trump discussed pardons for Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn with their attorneys. Could that impact Robert Mueller's investigation. We discuss all that, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[06:17:22] "The New York Times" reporting President Trump's former lawyer, John Dowd, floated the possibility of presidential pardons for Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn. "The Times" reports that the conversations were with their attorneys and happened as special counsel Bob Mueller was building cases against both men.

Let's discuss. We've got John Avlon and CNN legal analyst Michael Zeldin who worked with Mueller.

Counselor, let's start with you. You fill in the blank of so what? So what Dowd was talking to their lawyers? When does it not become OK?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: When it is not OK is when he is suggesting that a pardon would be a quid pro quo for their not testifying against the president in any way, shape, or form.

If he is just talking to them, generally speaking, without the implication that it is intended to impact their testimony or their willingness to cooperate with Mueller, it's a little bit more benign. But if it's anywhere near the -- "if this impacts the president, we can make a deal," that's corrupt.

CAMEROTA: The White House is pushing back on this, as you know. The president has said we're not considering a pardon. His lawyers, his current lawyers who haven't been fired saying we're not considering a pardon. What's your take?

AVLON: Well, the president has said, when he's been asked about this, not talking about that yet. There's a lot of weight on that yet. I think the question, as Michael said, is was this designed to sort of create an incentive for them not to start cooperating with Mueller, which was apparently unsuccessful in the case of Flynn? Manafort is still fighting it tooth and nail.

But it's a power the president has. It's written. It's constitutional. There's very little ability to check that. And the question is can that be used to try to dissuade witnesses? But this is -- this is another chapter in that ever-increasing thicket of complications facing the entire administration and the fact that his legal team is in freefall right now. CUOMO: Well, Mr. Zeldin, correct me if I'm wrong, but it would lead

the same category of analysis that we have with other obstructions, which is can the president do this? Yes.

But does his intent in doing it matter? How you get into a little bit more of a sticky wicket. Right? Because you have to show correct intent. You would have to show not that he was just talking about pardons, but there was a quid pro quo. There was an offer dangled. And that would have been a very reckless thing for someone as seasoned as Dowd to do. No?

ZELDIN: You would think, yes. But remember, John Dowd has tweeted inappropriately and has also said publicly that the president cannot be charged with obstruction for doing something he has a constitutional right to do, something which is hotly debated among constitutional scholars. We have had Dershowitz on air a number of times, saying exactly the same thing.

But there's no question here, whether or not he can be charged with obstruction of justice for corruptly pardoning somebody or not, he certainly can be charged with abuse of office, an impeachable offense. So irrespective of whether or not the president can be indicted while he's sitting as the president, whether he can obstruct justice for doing something he has a constitutional right to do, if he does something with a corrupt intent with the intention of interfering with Mueller's investigation or shaping witness testimony, that is an abuse of office that exactly the shy crime and misdemeanor that Alexander Hamilton had in mind in writing "The Federalist Papers."

CAMEROTA: All right. Let's talk about this now. There is now story, because there is now, according to the special counsel's office, a direct link between the Trump campaign and Russian intel officials. OK? So this is -- people have been waiting for dots to be connected. And here are some being connected.

So this is a court filing from the special counsel's office in the sentencing of Alex van der Zwaan. He's one of the people. He's a Dutch lawyer. He's one of the people entangled in all of this. He lied to the special counsel.

Here is the court filing: "The lies and withholding of documents were material to the special counsel office's investigation. Rick Gates and Person A -- OK, that's the Russian -- were directly communicating in September and October 2016 was pertinent to the investigation. Federal Bureau of Investigation special agents assisting the special counsel's office assess that Person A, the Russian, has ties to Russian intelligence service, and had ties in 2016. During the first interview with the special counsel's office, van der Zwaan admitted that he knew of that connection, stating that he knew of that connection, stating that Gates told him Person A was a former Russian intelligence officer" -- John.

AVLON: That would be a direct connection.

We have a lot of smoke in the connections between the Russians and the campaign, efforts to influence, certainly. We found out, for example, that Guccifer 2.0, a GRU agent. Now, this is somebody who worked with Gates allegedly, and Manafort. And if the lawyer knew and if they knew, then that becomes material. It's not dispositive of collusion, but it's certainly an attempt to influence.

One factor is that Gates and Manafort were not directly running the campaign at this time. But if they were communicating with the campaign, if it was influencing decisions, rhetoric in any other way, it becomes significant. And I think CNN first reported this filing and the fact that it's in a filing, I think, is itself significant.

CUOMO: Zeldin, Michael, you're still a couple of steps short, though, right? Because the context would be everything. You know, all right. So you were working with someone. I don't know why they call him Person A. Everybody knows the guy has a name that's hard to pronounce.

CAMEROTA: You mean the Russian.

CUOMO: The name is out there. It begins with a k. It's just hard to pronounce. Why were they talking to him? What was it about? As you well know, Michael, there are lots of people in that part of the world and in that -- around that government and sphere of influence who could get lumped into the category of being an intelligence operative for the Russian government.

What more do you need to know for this to be more than an odd relationship?

ZELDIN: Well, you'd have to know what the content of the communication was. Was it an effort to work with the campaign to influence the outcome of the election. Remember, so yes, these conversations about the DNC hacks, I think, in July, August and these conversations in September, October and then there is clear connection between this fellow and the Russian intelligence services, which are then closely tied to Putin. So there's a line that's being drawn.

But what's so interesting to me is why this was put in almost gratuitously, but nothing is done gratuitously in Mueller's operation in the van der Zwaan memorandum. Why did this not surface in the statement of offense when van der Zwaan was pleading guilty.

So there is a message that's being sent here by including this in this obscure filing around van der Zwaan. And I think it must be something which says to Manafort, "Look, Manafort, we have more information than you could possibly know that will lead to your conviction."

Gates will be testifying now about a Russian connection between you and intelligence officers. It's time to come home and cooperate and work with us.

CAMEROTA: Quickly, John.

AVLON: Just remember this reality check. Presidential campaigns don't usually have multiple points of contacts with foreign powers, let alone foreign intelligence agencies. And that's what we're starting to see with the GRU. CAMEROTA: Michael Zeldin, John Avlon, thank you very much.

Coming up in our next hour, we will talk with former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowsky. What does he think about all this? As well as State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.

[06:25:05] CUOMO: History unfolding on the Korean Peninsula. The leaders of North and South Korea set to meet face-to-face. The breaking details, the stakes, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CAMEROTA: We are following some breaking news for you. A historic development on the Korean Peninsula. North Korean dictator Kim Jong- un and South Korea's president will hold a summit next month. These two nations have only held talks twice since the Korean War in the '50s. South Korean officials say the agenda will include denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and improving inter-Korean relations.

CUOMO: Dramatic night vision video of the U.S. military and Afghan's Special Forces conducting a nighttime raid to kill ISIS fighters in Afghanistan. The Pentagon says the operation resulted in the death of an ISIS Korason (ph) commander and another terrorist fighter. Many of the U.S. operations in Afghanistan are now focusing on eliminating the terror group's ability to recruit foreign fighters.