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Source: Mueller Pushed for Gates' Help on Collusion Investigation; Russian Retaliates: Expelling 60 U.S. Diplomats; For Now, Sessions Doesn't Name Second Special Counsel to Probe FBI; Skepticism Grows Over Trump's Pick to Head V.A. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired March 30, 2018 - 06:00   ET



EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Robert Mueller is connecting the Trump campaign, Paul Manafort, directly to Russian spies.

[05:59:17] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My bet is that Gates revealed Russian connections.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He could have seen and heard a lot.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have a lot of partisan smoke, but we haven't seen that direct connection.

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: The president ought to be cautious. Don't ever mess with Director Mueller. He'll crush you.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: That's why I made some changes, because I wasn't happy.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm concerned about putting somebody in charge of the V.A. who doesn't really have management experience.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I wouldn't exclude the possibility that he would be a fine secretary.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- really wanted us to take a stance for privatization. I wasn't willing to do that.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: President Trump saying good-bye to Hope Hicks.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No one can replace Hope Hicks for the president.


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

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is NEW DAY. It is Friday, March 30, 6 a.m. here in New York. Chris is off. John Berman joins me.

Great to have you.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Happy Easter almost.

CAMEROTA: Thank you. Happy Friday.

Here's our starting line. CNN has learned why Special Counsel Robert Mueller wants help from that former Trump campaign deputy chairman, Rick Gates. Court filings suggest that Mueller is going after bigger fish as he investigates contacts between President Trump's campaign and Russia.

And the State Department is slamming Russia for expelling 60 American diplomats, saying the Kremlin should, quote, "not be acting like a victim." Russia is retaliating after the U.S. and 20 other nations expelled more than Russian diplomats this week in response to that nerve agent attack in the U.K.

BERMAN: President Trump's pick for V.A. secretary drawing criticism and concern over his thin management record. "The Washington Post" reports that Dr. Ronny Jackson himself, he was taken aback when he got the news and expressed hesitance about taking a job that oversees 360,000 federal employees and $186 billion in the budget.

More trouble for President Trump's cabinet? New questions about EPA administrator Scott Pruitt's unprecedented security detail. CNN obtaining a letter from a senator to the EPA inspector general that says Pruitt's 24-hour security in Washington extends to some of his personal trips, including a family vacation to Disneyland and sporting events.

We want to begin our coverage with CNN's Shimon Prokupecz live in Washington with the top story. New insight about what Robert Mueller might have here, Shimon.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, John. Mueller's team -- good morning -- we've been told has been primarily using Rick Gates, the former associate of Paul Manafort and was involved in the Trump campaign, for information about the central mission of the investigation, which has essentially been Russian interference and so-called collusion in the 2016 campaign.

And what's interesting here is that we're told that early on, when Rick Gates agreed to cooperate, he basically told -- Mueller's team told him that they didn't need him for Paul Manafort and, instead, wanted to hear about what he knew about the contacts of Trump campaign associates and Russians.

And a recent court filing, as you know, shows in some ways how Rick Gates is being used by the special counsel team and its investigators. Those court documents, which were filed earlier this week, revealed that a close associate of Paul Manafort who worked for Russian intelligence agents and has connections to Paul Manafort and was a business associate of his was communicating with Rick Gates during the height of the 2016 campaign.

CAMEROTA: What kind of information might Rick Gates have? What information did he have access to?

PROKUPECZ: Well, Alisyn, here's the thing. Rick Gates, as we know, has been this deputy to Paul Manafort, has been a close business associate of Paul Manafort. He was part of Trump's inner circle including, as we said, Paul Manafort and also another individual, Tom Barrack, who was a fundraiser, was involved in the inauguration. He's also a close friend of the president.


PROKUPECZ: So Manafort was in on the fund-raising decisions. He also developed a reputation for keeping tabs on what others were up to in the campaign, including that controversial Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton. And also important, this newly-released information from these court documents that reveal that Rick Gates was talking to a Russian intelligence individual in 2016.

CAMEROTA: OK, Shimon. Thank you for setting all of that up for us.

Joining us now to talk about it, we have CNN political analyst John Avlon and CNN chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

So Jeffrey, what -- from these court filings, they leave bread crumbs --


CAMEROTA: -- of which way Robert Mueller is going. You know, as we know, his investigation has sort of been famously a black fox, hard to figure out. But this one, if he's looking at Rick Gates and Rick Gates had connections with Russian intel officials, where is that leading us?

TOOBIN: Well, that's the question, you know, at the heart of this investigation. Were there contacts, collusion, conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government?

Here we now learned from these filings that Paul Manafort's business associate, someone who worked for Paul Manafort, also worked for Russian intelligence. We now know that Rick Gates was in touch with this person -- his name is Kilimnik -- during the campaign. What they said, whether they agreed to coordinate in any way, we don't know.

But you know, just stepping back, the Gates/Manafort team, which was running the campaign for a while -- and Gates was -- stayed on after Manafort was fired, were in touch with someone from Russian intelligence during the campaign. Sounds like a pretty big deal to me.

BERMAN: They were in touch with Russian intelligence, and folks were lying about it. You brought up the three "C's," right? Contacts, collusion, and conspiracy.

And I think one of the fascinating things that's happened over the last year -- we've been at this for more than a year now -- is this word "collusion," which doesn't mean anything legally really here. I mean, it's -- you know, so there's this investigation going on right now. And they feel like they've proven there are contacts with Russian contacts at the highest levels of the campaign.

JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: There's no question about that. I mean, the sheer number of contacts between Russians and members of the intelligence community and the campaign is far outside the norm for any presidential campaign. The question is that escalating standard? Collusion, what does it mean? Conspiracy seems to be the standard they're now going for. There has to be active work between the campaign and the Russian intelligence to throw the American election.

This detail is significant because Gates is not being used to necessarily flip Manafort. It's that there's a matter of the GRU --


AVLON: -- who's working with Manafort and Gates, and they're in constant contact during the critical closing months. That's a big deal, objectively.

CAMEROTA: OK. So then.

Now about how the U.S. is dealing with Russia. The -- President Trump expelled these 60 Russian diplomats. Russia said it would retaliate. It has now retaliated and done the same, tit-for-tat, expelled its diplomats. And it's just interesting, because you know, we've been talking all week about why did President Trump do that when he's used kid gloves with Russia and he has over and over stated how he wants better relations with Putin?

So now we know from a "Washington Post" article how the people around him in national security got him to do this. And they used a boxing metaphor so that he would understand what his strategy should be. Here's what they say.

"The official described the internal debate using boxing metaphors. 'If you go heavy now and the Russians really retaliate, we would be more limited in what we can do later,' the official said. 'With the medium option,' the official said, 'you're throwing a solid punch but withholding a fist,' and the president was persuaded by that option."

TOOBIN: Also remember, this wasn't the United States alone. This was the entire Western alliance all throwing out Soviet Union -- Russian. I've been watching "The Americans," and I keep saying -- I keep saying "Soviet" over again.

BERMAN: Maybe not a difference in this case.

TOOBIN: No, no. Maybe not a difference.

The Russians -- it was retaliated against by virtually every country in the E.U., in the United States, Canada. That -- if the United States had been the only country not to retaliate, it would have been highly embarrassing. And so I think Trump's hand was really forced.


TOOBIN: And, again, the president has not uttered any criticism of Putin himself.

BERMAN: Well, what's the interesting thing, look, maybe he's boxing because porridge wasn't available. Right? But he chose the porridge that was just right in this case. But he could have chosen, I guess, the cool porridge. He could have chosen the light option, and he didn't.

What's fascinating to me is what Jeffrey just said, which is that they did this major action, and the president hasn't said a thing about it. He talked about everything under the is sun yesterday in Ohio but somehow didn't mention what is one of the biggest foreign policy challenges on earth right now.

AVLON: The two things the president never talks about, the two people on earth that are off-limits, are Stormy Daniels and Vladimir Putin.

But you know, when the military presents those options to him, it's actually a classic thing military advisors do to presidents. They offer them the -- you know, the hot, cold, medium cold. And they direct the presidents towards the mid option. With this president, they try to engage him in more story telling.

But there still is still that conspicuous silence between what the president and Russia and that major gap between the administration's military advisors, who have been pretty hawkish on Russia, and the president's actual bully pulpit.

CAMEROTA: Yes, it will be fascinating to see what happens with John Bolton when he shows up and what happens with the Russian relationship.

BERMAN: He likes hot porridge. Very hot porridge.

AVLON: He's into hot porridge.

BERMAN: Piping hot.

CAMEROTA: OK. Let's talk about Jeff Sessions. He explained to us, Jeffrey, what happened. Jeff Sessions, as you know, Republicans have been pushing for investigations into FISA abuse and whether or not the FBI has done things wrong and whether or not Hillary Clinton has done things wrong and Uranium One and all that stuff. So what did Jeff Sessions do on that front yesterday?

TOOBIN: Well, the Republicans in Congress have been saying appoint a special counsel. Appoint another Robert Mueller. What Sessions did is he took an interim step. He said --

CAMEROTA: Medium porridge.

TOOBIN: He did the medium porridge --

AVLON: Yes. TOOBIN: -- again, yes. That's right.

AVLON: Continue that metaphor all morning.

TOOBIN: He said, "Well, we're going to do an investigation, but it doesn't need an entirely outside counsel with a new staff. We're going to appoint a sitting U.S. attorney, the U.S. attorney in Utah, to look at these issues and decide if any further investigation is necessary."

This strikes me as a reasonable approach. As far as I can tell, these accusations against the FBI by the House Republicans are a bunch of nonsense. It's tinfoil hat stuff. And Huber, the U.S. attorney in -- in Utah, will be in a position to do some more detailed digging and say whether there is anything here.

[06:10:05] BERMAN: It's interesting as a political choice here. Huber was initially appointed by Obama, U.S. attorney by Obama --

TOOBIN: Right.

BERMAN: -- but was extended by Donald Trump. So it will be hard, I think, for either side to point to this guy and say he's not fair.

AVLON: And actually, one of the -- one of the points that are being made is at least he's outside Washington. Because so much of this has become dumbed down by hyper-partisanship.

But he does have the power to convene grand juries. So this still could escalate.

I think what's interesting is Republicans feel -- are saying it's a half-step. What I think Sessions is trying to do is say, "Will this -- will this tide you over? Is this medium porridge going to be OK?" Because I think going full moral equivalence with special prosecutors probably not going to happen.

CAMEROTA: Isn't Jeff Sessions interesting? Isn't it just interesting to watch what Jeff Sessions has been doing for all these months and this position that he's been put in?

AVLON: The man on the tightrope. I mean, it's got -- it's a truly bizarre situation, probably without historical precedence.

BERMAN: The difference, though, between Jeff Sessions and a man on a tightrope is no one kicks the man on the tightrope. Repeatedly.

AVLON: Only in certain circuses.

BERMAN: What's been happening to Jeff Sessions.

TOOBIN: But, remember, you know, Jeff Sessions is advancing a conservative agenda at -- in the Justice Department on voting rights, on civil rights. You know, he is not powerless. And he is doing what he really wants to do on issues he cares about. And you know, the country is a different place as a result. BERMAN: And that may be why he's choosing to take the abuse.

TOOBIN: Absolutely. That he wants --

BERMAN: He gets what he wants.

TOOBIN: Exactly.

BERMAN: All right. Gentlemen, stick around. Skepticism growing over President Trump's pick to lead the Veterans Affairs Department. As the president largely stayed out of the public eye this week, he is making news at an unscripted rally in Ohio.

CNN's Abby Phillip live from Palm Beach with the very latest -- Abby.


Well, President Trump is waking up here in West Palm Beach, and he's also waking up with a smaller than usual inner circle with the departure of Hope Hicks this week.

But it's a new entrance, the newly-named V.A. secretary, his White House doctor, who is getting a lot of scrutiny over his resume and whether he has the qualifications to do this job.


PHILLIP (voice-over): Mounting skepticism on Capitol Hill about the qualifications of President Trump's nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, White House doctor Navy Admiral Ronny Jackson.

REP. MIKE COFFMAN (R-CO), VETERANS AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: This is an organization that's over half the size of the United States Army. And unless he's going to be tough, nothing is going to change.

PHILLIP: Jackson has worked at the White House for three successive administrations, but he has no management experience and, if confirmed, would take control of the second largest department in the federal government.

DAVID SHULKIN, FORMER SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS: Three hundred and seventy-five thousand employees. A budget of close to $200 billion next year and a very complex organization. And so it is going to be a challenge for anybody to take.

PHILLIP: Former CIA chief John Brennan calling Jackson's selection a "terribly misguided nomination that will hurt both a good man and our veterans."

"The Washington Post" reports that Jackson himself was taken aback by his nomination and hesitated to take on such a big job. But the president continued to push for his selection. Sources say Mr. Trump has been pleased with Jackson since he praised his health in January.

REAR ADMIRAL RONNY L. JACKSON, NOMINEE FOR SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS: I told the president that if he had a healthier diet over the next 20 years, he might live to be 200 years old.

PHILLIP: Jackson has not commented publicly about his position on privatization of veterans' care, a step his predecessor, David Shulkin, opposed.

SHULKIN: There were some political appointees within my administration that didn't see it that way and really wanted us to take a much harder stance towards privatization. I wasn't willing to do that.

PHILLIP: President Trump, hinting at his support for privatization at a rally Thursday.

TRUMP: We've made a lot of progress with the veterans, but I want to get them choice.

PHILLIP: Mr. Trump also defending his decision to oust Shulkin.

TRUMP: I made some changes, because I wasn't happy with the speed with which our veterans were taken care of. I wasn't happy with it.

PHILLIP: After largely staying out of public sight for days, President Trump going off script at a rally meant to tout his infrastructure plan. Mr. Trump threatening to upend his first major trade deal with South Korea.

TRUMP: I may hold it up until after a deal is made with North Korea.

PHILLIP: And surprising the Pentagon with this announcement about the U.S. presence in Syria.

TRUMP: We'll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon.

PHILLIP: Before leaving for Ohio, President Trump bid farewell to outgoing communications director Hope Hicks Thursday. So far nobody is in line to take her place. CNN has learned that the president is being told by some advisers he doesn't need a communications director or a chief of staff if General Kelly departs.

STEVE BANNON, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF STRATEGIST: If General Kelly at any time does decide to leave or the president decides it's time for him to move on, I don't believe there will be another chief of staff.


PHILLIP: And there is more troubling news about the president's cabinet today. This time, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt is under scrutiny for his use of a 24-hour security detail.

According to a letter from the Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse obtained by CNN, Pruitt's use of that detail extends to his personal home in Tulsa, a trip to Disneyland and also the Rose Bowl. So it's like cabinet whack-a-mole here. When President Trump deals with one issue, another one seems to pop up with his cabinet, Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: All right. Good metaphor. Abby, thank you very much for all of that reporting.

So amid growing concern about his qualifications, can President Trump's pick to head the V.A. get confirmed by the Senate? We look into that next.



[06:19:15] SHULKIN: I will do everything that I can to help Dr. Jackson succeed in this position. This is a tough position, there's no doubt about it. This is one of the most complex organizations anywhere to run. It is going to be a challenge for anybody to take.

Fortunately, we have a process that we go through where Senate confirmation is required where all of these questions will be brought out. Look, I have confidence that Dr. Jackson is a person who is honorable and cares about our veterans.


BERMAN: Former V.A. secretary David Shulkin speaking out about President Trump's pick to replace him, Dr. Ronny Jackson. Jackson facing growing questions about his qualifications to lead the nation's second largest federal agency.

Back with us again, John Avlon and Jeffrey Toobin.

I don't think people are questioning whether Dr. Jackson is smart and a good doctor. He seems like a great doctor, by all accounts.

The question is can he run this bureaucracy? And more and more members of Congress that you hear from -- and I talked to a number yesterday -- were saying, "We need to be convinced. We need to take a look at Dr. Ronny," as he's called in the White House, to see what he really thinks and how he intends to manage this huge agency.

TOOBIN: Well, and it also speaks to a larger point about the Trump administration, about is this an administration of cronies or of people who have competence in the field for which they are signed. Everybody is disappearing in the White House except Ivanka, Jared Kushner, Kellyanne Conway. You know, the core loyalists. Anyone who is not, you know, practically or literally part of the Trump family, here you have the president's physician being named to a position that he has no clear qualifications for. It's part of the Trump presidency that is broader than just the V.A.

CAMEROTA: I mean, even Dr. Jackson seemed to be surprised by the nomination, by the choice. And I think expressed privately that he didn't know that he had the qualifications for this. We even heard congressmen yesterday on the show say it is very likely this doesn't go well. But it is also likely he will be confirmed.

AVLON: He is clearly, as John Berman said, he's a great doctor. He's a charming guy. But no management experience. He apparently applied for a lower job in the V.A. and expressed concerns that his qualifications weren't typical. But he still thought he could do the job. It didn't go terribly well. If he himself was sort of pushing back on the president privately, saying, "This may be a big leap." That is not a good sign of confidence.

You're seeing, though, some of the worst qualities of someone who's run a private business. This is not sort of government by metrics, government by - you know, the classic "I'm going to run the government like a business."

This is really just sort of capricious picking people who you know from your life. So Dan Scavino, his social media guy, he met as a caddy. He wants his private, personal pilot to run the FAA. Now his personal doctor to be head of the V.A. This is about impulse ask and who you know and loyalty over competence, let alone excellence.

BERMAN: It's going to be a serious show-and-tell. I mean, Dr. Jackson will go up to the Hill, meet with the senators, and they'll either buy it or not. And I think we don't know yet for sure how they'll react to it.

The Scott Pruitt story is fascinating, the EPA director going around with private security to Disneyland, which in my experience doesn't require a great deal of private security.

TOOBIN: The crowds. Oh, my gosh.

CAMEROTA: But I'm serious. Why would wouldn't it? I mean, if he's under -- I'm curious about this. If he's getting death threats, why wouldn't he be worried about death threats at Disneyland?

TOOBIN: Well, that's entirely possible.

AVLON: Happiest place on earth, Alisyn.

TOOBIN: And -- but, remember, I mean, this is also the guy who's been living rent-free in a house owned by a, you know, someone who has business before the EPA. You know, this is a deeply, deeply politicized agency. There are lots of people out to get him.

But you know, there are rules about who gets security and when. And they're either -- you are either getting security when you are on vacation or not. I mean, it seems -- I mean, you're right. Just because he's on vacation doesn't mean necessarily there isn't a threat. But is he the kind of official who gets 24/7 security?

CAMEROTA: Well, I mean, listen, I think that they've made the justification that he's getting death threats. Who knows if that's -- how serious those are, how legitimate. But that's their justification, so --

BERMAN: One of the reasons Shulkin was just pushed out, though, is for running up these expenses on private trips overseas. They could be different if there's a real security risk here, but it is within this overall theme.

CAMEROTA: Not only that, I mean, he has said that's why he has to fly first class. There's no threats in first class? I mean, so that -- he's maybe taking some liberties, OK? However, if you're getting death threats, then of course, you need protection on your family vacation. Right?

AVLON: You do. And those are generally decisions that should be made by Secret Service. But remember the conservagentsia freaking out over Valerie Jarrett getting Secret Service protection security around the clock. This was a major issue. Almost rising to President Obama wearing a tan suit in the Oval Office. That level freak-out.

And now there's -- you see the situational ethics. Not the same standards being applied. It's worth asking whether the EPA secretary needs full-time security at the Rose Bowl.

BERMAN: But you're right. Jeffrey's right here. At the end, either he needs it or he doesn't. This is something that will be determined. The fact that we didn't know about it is interesting. This is something the American people, I think, should know about.

Jeffrey, final question here on Stormy Daniels.

TOOBIN: Stormy Daniels.

BERMAN: We began the week with Stormy. We will end with Stormy Daniels.

TOOBIN: Yes, indeed.

BERMAN: A judge, a federal judge ruled against this motion for Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for Stormy Daniels, to depose the president and his attorney, Michael Cohen, right now.

TOOBIN: Right.

BERMAN: Saying, "You've got to wait on this."

Avenatti is spinning this as sort of a legal victory, saying, "Hey, look, he didn't say, 'No, not never.' So we win here." What's the reality here?

TOOBIN: Well, the reality is the big issue has yet to be resolved in that case. Which is will the judge send it to arbitration and throw it out of federal court? Because Avenatti desperately wants to be in federal court, where he can take depositions, where he can, you know, interview the president and Michael Cohen under oath.

[06:12] If the case gets sent to arbitration, then he has very little chance of doing that.

The judge said, "I'm not dealing with any of these discovery issues until I resolve the arbitration question."

So you know -- Avenatti is wrong that it was a victory, but he's right that it's not a defeat. It is basically the judge saying, "Let's deal with this step by step." And the real issue unresolved so far is will the case be sent to arbitration? CAMEROTA: I'm going to be interviewing Stormy Daniels's attorney,

Michael Avenatti, coming up.

BERMAN: Coincidentally.

CAMEROTA: Coincidentally. As just so happens, timely. I mean, he is playing, as was pointed out, this very Trumpian game of every day coming up with some sort of new tease or new development to keep it in the news.

AVLON: Yes. It really is Trump getting a taste of his own medicine. But at some point the lawyer is going to start having to show some evidence rather than just simply teasing the media by showing -- hinting at more to come.

CAMEROTA: OK. I predict that will be at 6:45.

BERMAN: Please.

AVLON: Looking forward to that.

CAMEROTA: Or maybe it's at 7:10. Either way, stay tuned.

Thank you, gentlemen.

BERMAN: All right. President Trump contradicting the Pentagon. Defense officials say U.S. troops need to stay in Syria longer, but President Trump insists they are pulling out soon. So who's right here?