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Donald Trump Fires VA Secretary Shulkin; Lewandowski Talks about Trump. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired March 29, 2018 - 07:00   ET

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


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: -- Secretary Shulkin, it seems as though there is a real policy battle going on underneath the service.

[07:00:08] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's not hiring qualified people. He's hiring people who look the part.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's not right to be dangling pardons, unless you have something you want to cover up.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If there was a quid pro quo, that could get him into trouble.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is inconceivable to me that sophisticated lawyers would have had that conversation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Take out your cell phone. Does this look like a gun.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The mayor and the city of Sacramento has failed all of you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Were the officers justified at all in the shooting.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Until all the facts are in, I can't answer that.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to your NEW DAY.

President Trump has fired his embattled VA secretary, and he has tapped his White House doctor to replace him. The president insists that Dr. Ronny Jackson is highly trained and qualified.

However, Dr. Jackson has no real management experience. If confirmed, Dr. Jackson will run the federal government's second largest department, which has hundreds of thousands of employees and continues to be plagued by inefficiencies.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: All right. So the latest White House shakeup is happening as "The New York Times" is reporting that President Trump's former lawyer, John Dowd, floated the idea of pardoning fired national security advisor Michael Flynn and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort at the same time that the special counsel was building cases against both men.

Was Dowd trying to influence Flynn and Manafort from cooperating with the investigation? If so, and the president knew, you'd have another big piece in what might be part of an obstruction investigation.

Let's begin our coverage. CNN's Abby Phillip live at the White House with our top story.

Good morning, Ab.

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

Another day, another turnover. Another day of tumult here at the White House. This time it's the VA secretary, David Shulkin, who is out and the president's personal physician, who is coming into that new role. He has developed a rapport with the president.

But there are questions are being raised now about his qualifications to take on the big, sprawling and troubled bureaucracy at the VA.

(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, and 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 VA. 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 VA 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 charged 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.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: No pardons are under discussion 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: Well, believe it or not, it is infrastructure day here at the White House. We will actually see President Trump for the first time in six days when he goes to Cleveland, Ohio, to tout a $200 billion infrastructure plan before leaving for Florida for the Easter weekend, Alisyn and Chris.

CUOMO: All right. Thank you very much, Ab.

Let's bring in CNN political analyst John Avlon and Alex Burns. What are you laughing about?

JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I'm laughing because every time the White House makes it Infrastructure Day or Infrastructure Week, it's like summoning bad mojo. It's like bad things happen on alleged infrastructure days and weeks. And they keep doing it. And God bless them, because it's really important. But, you know, it's an invitation to chaos, apparently.

CAMEROTA: You also found infrastructure day amusing?

ALEX BURNS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, I like to live every day like it is infrastructure day. John is absolutely right. It is sort of a "kick me" sign.

CAMEROTA: Can we talk about the appointment of Dr. Ronny Jackson as the new head of the VA Alex, you have some reporting. How are Republicans in the Senate going to feel about this appointment?

BURNS: Well, I would sort of put their feelings in two buckets. One is the just practical bucket of "We have to spend weeks now on another confirmation. We already have a secretary of state vacancy." He is talking about shaking up multiple other cabinet departments.

We have maybe four months of productive time left in this year if we're going to get anything done. It would be super useful to not have a bunch of confirmation hearings stacked up. That's just the generalized complaint.

Specific to the Ronny Jackson choice, there is sort of a sense of bewilderment, and I think that came through in Abby's report. The president was floating this guy. He was not taken seriously as a choice. And now here he is. And are they going to have to go out and defend him?

CUOMO: It was seen as, like, the -- his personal pilot being the FAA secretary kind of thing?

BURNS: Or you know, a Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court kind of choice, right? Someone the president knows close -- knows on a close personal relationship for a very, very important job that just happens to be vacant, and it's not totally clear if the qualifications line up.

And you know, Jackson clearly is an impressive person in some respects. But he's never faced this kind of scrutiny. And it's not clear that he is up to sort of outlining a vision for the bureaucracy.

CUOMO: I mean, unless he hides it on his resume, the one that's available online, he has never managed anything significant ever. People appointed to his rank doesn't designate responsibilities necessarily. And you get an automatic commission as a professional. He probably came in as a major. So we just don't know.

But that said, absent personal scandal that we don't know, what is the chance that the Republicans don't push this through and some Democrats don't help along in this confirmation? Because it's who the president wants.

AVLON: Yes. We all know in this environment, Republicans are overwhelmingly inclined to do what the president wants. This guy is -- did a great job defending the president or talking to the press for over an hour after his physical. He has served in the military in Iraq. He was appointed by Obama, degree of bipartisan support.

But again, this is really about an organization with $186 billion budget and over 300,000 employees. This is a management job. That experience is important.

But, you know, it is actually essential to have management experience. Now, are the Senate going to confirm him? Probably. Because the Republicans control it and they are inclined to do whatever the president wants. But that hearing will be a little bit more contentious and maybe more revealing about details of the president's health that people expect.

CAMEROTA: Alexa, in terms of the big turnover rate, it was suddenly 44 percent before Shulkin was ousted. You think that President Trump is quite aware of the clock ticking on the midterms, and that's why he's doing some of these things now.

BURNS: Well, I couldn't speak to where he is personally. I can tell you people who work with the administration, people in the administration with some more government experience than the president has are very aware of the fact that, look, they already lost one sentencing in Alabama. And that has made it much, much tougher to get anybody confirmed.

You lose one more Senate seat in those midterms, and you can forget about a lot of judgeships. You can forget about easing confirmations for these sort of middle-tier, lower-profile cabinet departments. And every time the Republicans lose even a little ground politically, the president has a tougher time shaking up the administration.

So in a lot of ways this is the last window for him to make these kind of big changes and be able to assume a level of deference from Congress. Because even three or four months from now, Republicans will still control the Senate. But we will be in the throes of a campaign year. And every selection he makes is going to be a lightning rod in even a more intense way than it is now.

CUOMO: Let me stay with you for a second in terms of on a reporting front. The word of Dowd, the former Trump lawyer, having communications with the counsel for Flynn and Manafort that may have involved pardons. And it was going on when they were trying to figure out whether or not these two guys were going to go along with the special counsel or fight the case. How is that resonating in the White House?

BURNS: Well, look, it freaks the hell out of people in Washington just in general. Because it is seen as a sort of political red line if the president starts issuing pardons.

I was interviewing Eric Holder at an event in New York last night. He sort of took this interesting view for a very prominent Democrat. That look, the president's pardon power is absolute. If he wants to pardon Paul Manafort and Mike Flynn, he can absolutely do that. They walk free.

But that it is totally fair game, then, for Congress, for special counsel to sort of scrutinize the process behind the pardon. And was there any expression of intent to anybody up and down the chain to try to interfere with this investigation? And does that then expose the president legally in a way that he wouldn't be exposed if he just let the investigation take its course?

[07:10:17] AVLON: But one power is clear. The president has a right to pardon.

The second is murky. Can that lead to a further investigation that leads to an obstruction claim or something else on a higher level? There is every indication this president is going to do whatever he thinks he can get away with. And he's been constrained by his lawyers to some extent.

But this news about Dowd offering -- you know, floating the idea of pardons was really -- seems to be something to see if -- whether or not he could influence Flynn and Co. (ph) from not flipping. Apparently unsuccessful. But my guess is there will be more to come.

CAMEROTA: Right. I mean, the White House is pushing back and saying that that's not true. The president hadn't actually offered that up.

AVLON: Yet.

CAMEROTA: Yes, he did say "yet." But it seems like, even if he did, Michael Flynn decided that was not the best avenue.

CUOMO: Right. Also, we don't know that, because Dowd was discussing it, that means that Trump was motivating it. You know, this could shake out, that yes, Dowd was having these conversation, but he was having them on his own accord.

And remember, we've seen him do that before, right? He came out with a statement that sounded just like what Trump would say about something. And then when he was checked on that he said this is my personal opinion, about ending Mueller ending the probe, getting rid of Mueller. So he may jump on this grenade, as well, if it gets too close.

AVLON: He may. But he's no longer -- Dowd is no longer in the camp. And that increases the chances that people are going to speak more forthrightly and freely and not necessarily just being overheard at a steakhouse.

BURNS: And one thing that we've seen already a few times is Mueller and his investigators going after people's lawyers and challenging attorney/client privilege and really scrutinizing whether what the lawyers themselves are doing is legal.

If you're John Dowd, you're not now on the outside and you're not transacting business under privilege on behalf of the president every single day, I do think you have to at least imagine the possibility of some risk and personal exposure there.

CAMEROTA: Alex Burns, John Avlon, thank you very much.

CUOMO: All right. So VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin the latest Trump cabinet member to be shown the door. Is the president done cleaning house? He's got almost a 50 percent turnover rate. We're going to ask former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [07:16:22] CUOMO: VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin is out. President Trump has now shed half of his senior staff. It's just March. The president tapping White House physician Dr. Ronny Jackson to lead the second biggest department in the federal government. Does he have management experience? Not that we know of. But what will we learn in this confirmation process? We'll see.

Let's get some political optics from Corey Lewandowski, Trump's former campaign manager and current chief strategist for America First Action. He's also the co-author of the book, "Let Trump Be Trump."

Good to see you, sir.

COREY LEWANDOWSKI, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN MANAGER: Good morning, Chris. How are you today?

CUOMO: I'm doing well. Thank God. What do you know about Dr. Ronny Jackson and the strength of this pick?

LEWANDOWSKI: What I know is that Admiral Jackson is a career military officer. He has now served under two different presidents in the position of the White House physician. He's a man who understands the VA, because he has used it for his entire professional career as it relates to health care and understands the problems that veterans face having been an active-duty military officer for his entire professional career.

And if we want somebody who understands the problems that veterans face, who better than an active-duty military officer who's going to retire and then take over this position, if he's confirmed by the Senate, to understand the problems that veterans face.

CUOMO: I think part of the question -- part of the answer to that question will be someone who has managed something before, let alone the second biggest bureaucracy of 377,000-plus employees and about $250 billion flowing through it. Do you know of any management experience of anything near that scale that the admiral has?

LEWANDOWSKY: Well, Chris, I think if you look back and you look at the previous VA secretaries, those who had supposedly had management experience who have come in, we've seen disasters under their regimes. If you look at, you know, the tragedies that took place in Phoenix, Arizona, from a VA secretary who supposedly had management experience, that didn't help save the lives of the veterans waiting for care in Phoenix, Arizona.

And what this president is doing is taking a military person who understands the problems of care as it relates to the VA and putting them in charge, because who better than someone who views it every day? I think it's a very fair thing.

And look, we can criticize the admiral if we want to, for his lack of leadership experience -- previous leadership experience of large agencies does not directly correlate to getting the veterans the care that they need. CUOMO: That's a fair point. But it doesn't mean that having

management experience is a negative. Right? Knowing what the problem is matters. Knowing how to fix it and how to manage it has to matter, Corey. It just does. You can't argue that. Well, we've seen in the past that management experience led to bad outcomes, so we don't want someone with management experience. That's silly.

LEWANDOWSKY: Of course -- of course it matters. But we also have to remember that the significant job of the Veterans Affairs Administration is to take care of those people, and specifically our veterans, our great men and women who served our country and take care of their health care.

CUOMO: Sure.

LEWANDOWSKY: If we want to understand the problems in the health care Who better than the admiral who is the White House physician appointed by the Obama administration to serve in that capacity who understands the problems that veterans face getting good quality health care.

We need to do a better job taking care of our veterans. And admiral -- this admiral understands that and is going to put a new leadership in place at the VA to make sure they have the health care they need.

CUOMO: So you think that a doctor who is in the military but has no management experience is the best choice the president could make for this?

LEWANDOWSKY: I think if I was a veteran and I want to make sure that I have the best health care possible, because I've served my country, I want a doctor who understands the needs that I have and a person who can say, "We're going to have a better VA system than we've had under bureaucrats who have no experience being in the veterans" --

[07:20:08] CUOMO: General Shinseki was a four-star Army general who had a high command in the U.S. military. And he also knew the VA So it's not like they've had a bunch of rubes in there. You know, David Shulkin wasn't just a physician, but he ran hospitals. And it was seen as needing a management side. But I'll tell you where you're right. It ain't worked yet. Not well enough for the veterans.

Even though satisfaction rates have gone up, they still have huge and seemingly almost intractable problems. So hopefully, things get better and we'll see the confirmation. Let me ask you about another bit of "have you heard" intrigue.

Have you heard that the president is talking to Rob Porter and maybe considering bringing him back?

LEWANDOWSKY: You know, I haven't heard that. I don't know if that's true or not. I saw a report on that. But I can tell you this. I don't think the president is going to be bringing Rob Porter back to the White House. I know that that role has since been filled. And I think the president has thanked him for his service, which has been widely reported months ago.

But I have no understanding or confirmation that any conversation took place between those individuals.

CUOMO: All right. So you don't think he would bring him back. That's important to note. The president has been very quiet about this new wave of opponents he has in the form of these three women with their litigation. And maybe there will be more. We don't know yet.

Stormy Daniels's attorney says that he's vetting other women with similar complaints. Why do you think the president has been so quiet about these opponents?

LEWANDOWSKY: Well, the president has been very clear that these allegations are exactly that. They're false, and so he doesn't want to address them. I mean, addressing an allegation --

CUOMO: He hasn't really come out and said that the way he did about women in the past. That's why I'm asking. He's much more quiet about this this time. Why?

LEWANDOWSKY: Well, I believe that, you know, his attorney has sued Stormy Daniels. And this is an individual who really lacks credibility on a good day.

Well, on three separate occasions, she indicated both in writing and through her own words that nothing ever took place. And then supposedly, there was some, you know, decision of her own to change her opinion now and come forward and change her story. So what is the truth?

The three times she said that nothing ever took place or now she's trying to profiteer off of a relationship that she didn't have with the president to cash in and, you know, join in a publicity scandal, a publicity stunt. So what is the truth? What she said the first three times that nothing took place. Or now that she's changed her story. Nobody really knows.

CUOMO: So do you think that this happened? Do you think she's telling the truth about what happened between her and the president or do you think she's lying?

LEWANDOWSKY: I think she's telling the truth that the three times she said that nothing took place. Absolutely think that's the truth. Because she had the opportunity on multiple occasions early on to come forward, and she said on three separate occasions, was that nothing took place. She said that in writing. She said it very publicly on those three occasions. Now only recently did she decide to change that story. And so you have to call into question her credibility on the issue.

CUOMO: How about Karen McDougal? Do you think she's telling the truth?

LEWANDOWSKY: I don't know Karen McDougal. I don't know Stormy Daniels. I can only tell you what my conversations have been and what I've heard from individuals in the building, that the president has denied these, and I think he has the right to do that. CUOMO: He definitely has the right to do it. Whether or not it's the

truth. And now that you have litigation, because I'm with you. There's no -- you know, the farther you go down personal lives, the farther away you get from the policy matters that are really significant to people's lives.

But now that you have litigation and you wind up having who's telling the truth and there's exposure to the president on that level. We have to keep considering it.

Let me ask you one more thing, Corey. I think this is a simple question. But I have to present to the other ones so we start at the same point. You are interested and believe that the White House is interested in stopping these shootings, right? We all want that as a joint enterprise, right? Agreed?

LEWANDOWSKY: Of course. Of course.

CUOMO: OK. I don't understand the energy that's being exerted in putting up the boogeyman that one side wants to get rid of the Second Amendment. And that's what this is about.

The president tweeted the other day it's percolating up in the fringes of the right. Why push that when you know that there is no meaningful effort to repeal the Second Amendment? It seems like such a tactic to keep the sides apart and not get any reasonable solutions working to this obvious problem. Why go this way?

LEWANDOWSKY: Well, I think, you know, the president's tweet was probably in response to the op-ed penned by the former Supreme Court justice who recommended the repeal of the Second Amendment, which is, you know, so antithetical to everything our Constitution stands for.

You know, we had a former Supreme Court justice who wrote an op-ed who said we should repeal the Second Amendment. This is an individual who's on the highest court in the land, who's making decisions that affect every person in the United States, and now that they left the court think that repealing the Second Amendment is something that we should truly consider. I think that's so antithetical. The framers of our Constitution. And so the president's response was "We'll never repeal the Second Amendment."

CUOMO: But he made it sound like it's a real threat. Do you think there's any real momentum anywhere with anyone who's a player in this situation to repeal the Second Amendment?

[07:25:13] LEWANDOWSKY: Look, I think when you have a former Supreme Court justice who served on the highest court in the land recommending that, advocating that, you know, potentially influencing his former colleagues on the court --

CUOMO: Schumer came out and said, "We don't want this." Schumer came out and said, "We don't want this."

One of the representatives of the kids' group in Florida came out and said, "We don't want this." And it's not just -- it's not just Stevens. Other people have written these op-eds, as well. But we both know there is no meaningful energy behind this cause. And we both know it's all but politically impossible, right, for this to happen. So why push --

LEWANDOWSKY: Of course it's impossible.

CUOMO: It's not impossible, but it is practically politically impossible.

LEWANDOWSKY: Realistically, you know, what have we got? Are we going to repeal the Fourth Amendment? We're going to repeal the First Amendment?

CUOMO: No. Nobody is asking to repeal any amendment. But the point is, you guys are using it as a boogeyman. And I don't know how that helps to solve the program.

LEWANDOWSKY: Somebody -- somebody did ask to repeal it. Somebody did ask.

CUOMO: And he's a retired Supreme Court justice. And there are other opinion people. And now you're making it. Like the main line of the conflict. And it's a distraction. And it keeps us apart. I just don't get it.

LEWANDOWSKY: This is -- this is a former member of the highest court.

CUOMO: I know who he is. But he's not a player in this.

LEWANDOWSKY: Making this recommendation. He is a player in this.

CUOMO: He doesn't lead an organization. He's not an elected official. There is no momentum behind any call like this in Congress.

LEWANDOWSKY: He was a colleague of one of the nine individuals --

CUOMO: I know who he is. I know who he was.

LEWANDOWSKY: He still has influence amongst those individuals. He's trying to influence those people to make decisions based on a tragedy which took place in Parkland. Now whether that issue ever comes to the Supreme Court, who knows? Do I think it's realistic? Of course it isn't. But is he trying to influence his colleagues to crack down on gun control? Of course he is.

CUOMO: Cracking down on gun control is very different than repealing the Second Amendment. I just wanted to ask you, because we don't need -- we don't need obstacles to cooperation. We need motivations for cooperation. And this is something that's not going to happen. That is just something that's used as a steer tactic? That's all. That's why I wanted to bring it up.

LEWANDOWSKY: This president has said, "Let's ban bump stocks, for sure." That's a -- the president has pushed on that. Let's harden our schools.

CUOMO: I heard you did it.

LEWANDOWSKY: Only lawful gun owners have that. Let's check the backgrounds and have a mental health check. That only people who don't have mental health issues should have access to weapons. Those are all reasonable things. But this chief -- this justice went so far to make an outrageous, outlandish --

CUOMO: He's not a player.

LEWANDOWSKY: -- claim to potentially repeal the Second Amendment.

CUOMO: He's not a player.

(CROSSTALK)

CUOMO: And giving voice to it is just another tactic to keep sides apart. And that's why I raised it.

Corey Lewandowsky, thank you very much for giving us your take on it, as always. I appreciate it.

LEWANDOWSKY: Thank you.

CUOMO: All right, bud. Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: Who exactly is President Trump's pick to be the next VA secretary? Dr. Sanjay Gupta joins us next to talk about the White House doctor.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)