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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

President Trump Revives Mexican Rape Claim; Will Trump Name Embattled EPA Administrator as Next Attorney General?. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired April 5, 2018 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:05]

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Good afternoon. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

President Trump just wrapped up an event in West Virginia where he made a number of outrageous and some untrue claims. He was supposed to have been talking about tax cuts, but at one point tossed the president literally tossed his prepared remarks into the air.

We're now in a new phase in the Trump presidency, where many in the White House are sorely feeling the absence of aides such as Hope Hicks, and this chaos that the president is embracing is not just evident in the explosions of questionable remarks and tweetstorms. It's also apparent in policy decisions.

And it's affecting the president's personnel decisions.

On and That last subject, we have breaking news on that right now and what could potentially be the president's boldest and perhaps most baffling staffing move yet.

As EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt comes under increasing fire for a series of potential ethical lapses, amidst headline after headline, prompting questions from Republicans in Congress and even White House officials about whether Pruitt should keep his job, CNN has learned that President Trump is as of now not backing away from EPA Administrator Pruitt.

In fact, quite the opposite.

CNN's Pamela Brown is live at the White House.

And, Pamela, what are you learning?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, we have learned that President Trump floated replacing Attorney General Jeff Sessions with embattled EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt as recently as this week, even as Pruitt faced a growing list of negative headlines about ethics concerns. In fact, one source I spoke with said the president was trying to

protect Pruitt as his fill-in for Sessions. Now, the president is known to float several people a day for multiple positions in his administration that are already occupied.

But this proposition, Jake, this week reveals the confidence he has and that remains in Pruitt, despite a dizzying number of ethics issues that have come to light.

Now, asked by a reporter as he boarded Air Force One if he still has confidence in Pruitt, the president simply said, "I do." Pruitt has remained in Trump's good graces for the most part, though a source familiar tells me that the president's confidence in his has faltered a bit in light of the bad headlines surrounding these ethics issues.

However, he is hesitant to fire him because he likes entertaining this idea of replacing Sessions with him eventually, and feels confident that he will continue to advance his agenda at the EPA.

We should note the White House would only say today in response to our story that there are no personnel announcements at this time.

TAPPER: At this time, of course.

What about Chief of Staff Kelly? Does he have the same amount of confidence in Pruitt?

BROWN: Well, sources tell me and my colleague Kaitlan Collins that Chief of Staff Kelly has not matched the president's confidence in Pruitt. He has advocated for firing him before the headlines get worse.

And a source familiar with how things unfolded said that Kelly called Pruitt Tuesday morning to ask if there were any other issues that could become public that he needed to know about. Now, these feelings were further deepened after Pruitt did several interviews with FOX News, as well as "The Washington Examiner," which a senior administration official said only made matters worse.

And one source I spoke with said if more negative headlines about Pruitt come out, that could be the final straw, Jake.

TAPPER: I have seen a couple just in the last few minutes.

This all -- I have to say, this idea that he maybe wants to replace Jeff Sessions at the Justice Department with Pruitt, this really underscores the president's focus and preoccupation with this issue of Sessions and Rosenstein and the Russia probe.

BROWN: That's right. In fact, even if he's not tweeting about it, behind the scenes, he's talking about it. That chatter continues about ousting both of them, Jake.

Multiple sources familiar with his thinking tell me and my colleague Kaitlan Collins that his advisers have repeatedly tried to thwart this by convincing him that doing so, by firing Sessions, it would be damaging in the midterms given how popular he is with conservatives. These same advisers have also argued that firing Rosenstein could delay the completion of the special counsel Robert Mueller's obstruction of justice probe, while creating unwanted headlines.

But the president has especially focused his frustration on Rosenstein in recent weeks, often repeating his complaint that he is weak and not on his team. Sources familiar with the president's grievances have told us that Rosenstein resurfaced as a source of the president's wrath because of a photo of him dining with Sessions and Solicitor General Noel Francisco at a popular Washington restaurant.

But Trump has repeatedly complained about firing many in his administration, Jake, as you well know. And it doesn't necessarily mean he will.

TAPPER: And it doesn't mean he won't either.

BROWN: That's right.

TAPPER: Pamela Brown, excellent reporting. Thank you so much.

The EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, has come under fire for renting a $50-a-night room with lobbyists whose firm was lobbying the EPA. He's also facing questions about pay raises for two aides' salaries that were made against the advice of the White House, something Pruitt recently said he didn't know about.

And we are now just learning that the man who led administrator Scott Pruitt's protection detail was taken off that assignment and reassigned when that individual refused to drive with lights and sirens blaring through the streets of Washington, D.C., when this administrator, the administrator of the EPA, was stuck in traffic.

[16:05:03]

That, of course, would have gotten Pruitt around town more quickly. But it is against regulations. That news first reported by CBS News and also confirmed by CNN.

My panel joins me now for more on this breaking news.

First of all, Kirsten, let me just start with you about this breaking news about -- there's so many issues of breaking news, but this one about the fact that he had somebody in charge of his security detail, and he wouldn't turn on the lights and sirens to get through traffic more quickly. And that person has been reassigned.

The headline originally with CBS. We have now confirmed it. This is another headline. Could this be another problem for Pruitt or not?

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: Well, it should be a problem. A lot of the behavior that you outline there is sort of the swampiest of behavior, right?

It's this very entitled attitude that you come into the government and everybody's sort of there to do your bidding, and you're above the regular people, which is what I thought Donald Trump was running against. You would think that it would be something that he would find offensive, but based on our other breaking news, it sounds like maybe not.

TAPPER: And you were talking, David, about a reason why President Trump might want Scott Pruitt to be the attorney general.

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Sure.

So at the conclusion of Director Mueller's investigation, the special counsel investigation, he turns his report over to the attorney general. Sure would make sense if you replace the attorney general with someone who you just saved from another job and inauspicious demise and put him in as attorney general.

That being said, the EPA administrator's been very effective at his job, other than the distractions. He's been doing an incredible job for the administration, and replacing him would be pretty tough.

TAPPER: What do you make of all this?

JOSH HOLMES, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: The first thing you learn in conservative politics is the most formidable opposition that you have is the environmental left. They are better organized, better funded. They run better campaigns.

And if you were on the right and you are trying to make significant inroads against their agenda, you are the number-one target. And I think what Scott Pruitt has experienced here this week and last week is a perfect example of the very well-organized campaign against him.

And let me just say this. If we're talking about low rent and we're talking about sirens on a car and we're talking about him giving raises to his staff salary, I mean, that -- in the grand scheme of things, this is amazing that we're having the conversation about whether he should be replaced at all.

In a conservative point of view, he's done his job absolutely, exactly how he said he was going do it.

POWERS: So, you don't think people need to follow rules if they're doing your agenda? Is that what you're saying?

(CROSSTALK)

POWERS: Well, he didn't get the ethics approval that he needed to get in order to do this. And he only got the ethics approval...

TAPPER: You're talking about for staying at the house of a lobbyist.

POWERS: For staying at the house with a lobbyist, which is obviously inappropriate. And so he didn't get ethics approval.

He then went -- when he found out it was going to be a problem, he went and sort of steamrolled it and made them do an ethics approval, which they now have come out and said they had to do too quickly, there was information that they didn't have, such as his daughter was actually staying there.

So that would normally cost you more than $50. I mean, you don't find it troubling that somebody is renting from a lobbyist?

TAPPER: Fifty dollars a night is not a standard rate from Washington.

HOLMES: Do I love the optics? Absolutely not. I hate the optics of it.

But I think if you're suggesting that Scott Pruitt, who's had a demonstrated, lengthy record in the public sphere...

POWERS: He gets to do whatever he wants?

HOLMES: No, no, no. What he is doing and executing is exactly what he said he would do in his confirmation hearings.

It's what the president expected him to do. And the suggestion that he's somehow doing it because of a $50 rent is...

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: I think the Pruitt problem here is not one fatal blow, but is he going to bleed out over time?

That's the issue, right? None of these are fatal. He's doing a great job. Finding a replacement is going to be tough. But the question is, does he bleed out? You serve at the pleasure of the president until you don't.

TAPPER: I do think that the larger issue here is that the president's still talking about replacing the attorney general, whether it's with Scott Pruitt or with not. You could argue that Scott Pruitt is doing a great job enacting President Trump's agenda.

You could also argue that about Attorney General Sessions, who is doing that. It's just that he has disappointed President Trump when it comes to the Russia probe.

POWERS: Right. But the point is that President Trump ran on something much bigger than just the environmental...

TAPPER: In fact, hold that thought.

POWERS: Yes.

TAPPER: Because I want to play -- it was a contentious interview with FOX News' Ed Henry, when he was asked if -- Pruitt was asked if his behavior lived up to the drain the swamp ideal. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ED HENRY, FOX NEWS: President Trump said he would drain the swamp.

SCOTT PRUITT, ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY ADMINISTRATOR: I don't... HENRY: Is draining the swamp renting an apartment from the wife of a Washington lobbyist?

PRUITT: I don't think that that's even remotely fair to ask that question.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(LAUGHTER)

POWERS: Well, they're obviously -- Ed Henry is obviously controlled by the environmental left, right? That's the only reason you would ask that question, which I want to get back to the idea that the environmental left is making him behave this way.

I mean, there's also the issue of this trip that he took to Morocco, which cost 100-and-something-thousand dollars which he's been questioned about.

This is just not -- this is not what you're supposed to be spending taxpayer dollars on.

[16:10:05]

(CROSSTALK)

HOLMES: It just a total cherry-picking.

(CROSSTALK)

HOLMES: What you just said with those trips with Morocco, there's been a dozen stories since then that suggest that those exact same trips were taken by his predecessors in the Obama administration. Again...

(CROSSTALK)

POWERS: It's not a question of taking a trip.

It's a question of -- they said that there was a one-hour meeting on each day. So, it's a question of whether or not you're actually working.

The point is, President Trump said he was going to drain the swamp. And for you to blame the environmental left for the behavior of one of the Cabinet members, I mean, it just -- it doesn't make sense.

(CROSSTALK)

HOLMES: We have done a segment on a $50 rent.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Well, $50 a night from a lobbyist, it's pretty questionable.

(CROSSTALK) TAPPER: You would concede that?

HOLMES: It's absolutely -- the optics are terrible. But the suggestion that that's why he's doing the job the way he's doing, I think, is nuts.

TAPPER: What do you think about the idea of President Trump replacing Jeff Sessions with Scott Pruitt? How does that sit with you?

HOLMES: I don't like the idea of replacing any of the Cabinet secretaries. And let me tell you why, because we have got a one-vote majority right now in the United States Senate.

And you have got a very thin majority when it comes to controversial issues that pop up in environmental segments, and certainly in the Department of Justice. I mean, I think we're probably in an era where you couldn't confirm Bobby Kennedy to be at the Department of Justice, to run the Department of Justice.

URBAN: And you also have three giant battles coming up on the hill. Right? You have secretary of state, you have the secretary of veterans affairs, and a CIA director, which are going to not go without some bumps is my guess.

TAPPER: So it's just a question of the number of battles?

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: I think it's the bandwidth that the Senate has as well. Right? There are a certain number of calendar days left to have hearings.

And you're up against congressional recess in the summer. People are getting out of here to campaign in October. You run out of days. To get all those folks have hearings and confirmed, and I will say this, the Democratic minority is doing a very good job of burning all their time on bringing these nominees to the floor.

It's really inside baseball. But they take 30 hours out of each nominee to bring them up for the lowest level nominee to come to the floor to vote, they're burning up time and doing a great job of stalling.

TAPPER: What David said was you could -- that he could see the idea, the argument of replace Sessions with Pruitt. You are saving Pruitt's job, which it's not clear right now that he's going to hold on to very long. And then, all of a sudden, Mueller is issuing a report, and it's in Pruitt's hands. Does that alarm you?

POWERS: Yes. I mean, the idea -- you don't think that's good, right? I mean...

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: I was pulling the string.

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: Jake said, why would you think this might happen? I was hypothesizing why it might happen.

POWERS: Yes, we would like to -- I think we need a real investigation.

(CROSSTALK)

POWERS: And the idea that Jeff Sessions is somehow too biased to oversee the Justice Department, I mean, what world are we living in?

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: Listen, nobody in America believes that Director Mueller is not doing an incredibly thorough investigation. I assure you that he's doing a incredibly thorough investigation. This is evidenced by the stopping of Russian oligarchs and seizing their phones and going through their suitcases.

The notion that he's not doing an investigation is just not -- won't hold water. What happens when that investigation is given to the attorney general, that he issues a report based upon that, and what a lot -- what I think is going to happen here is that Mueller -- you can't -- he is a constitutionalist.

Going to look. He can't indict the president. The way to remove a President Trump is through impeachment. He is going to give a report to the attorney general. It's up to the attorney general then to determine what happens. The attorney general hands it off to Rod Rosenstein, because he's recused. And there's the question mark.

TAPPER: But you're saying that Rosenstein and Pruitt might do different things?

URBAN: I believe so, yes.

POWERS: What about how would the base react to Sessions being removed? We hear a lot about the fact that he's popular and he's carrying out so many initiatives that the base cares about him.

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: I agree removing any Cabinet secretaries, any more transition before the midterms I think is not helpful.

TAPPER: One of the things that's also unusual about the idea that President Trump is saying this privately that he might want to replace Sessions with Pruitt is that Hogan Gidley, the deputy press secretary, just earlier today was asked about Pruitt and he was less than optimistic in his response. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HOGAN GIDLEY, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: I can't speak to the future of Scott Pruitt. I can just talk about where we are now. And that is that the White House is aware of these reports. We're obviously looking into those.

We don't have any announcements to make as regards to staffing right now. But we're aware. And, you know, we believe that some of these questions need to be answered.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: That's not a ringing endorsement.

HOLMES: No. I mean, I think Hogan's doing his job there. And I think we have seen over the last two weeks that this president has made impulsive moves.

And you can't be entirely sure when you're speaking on his behalf if you're on solid ground from moment to moment. I have no fault with that answer at all.

URBAN: Well, you serve at the pleasure of the president until you don't.

TAPPER: Indeed.

Everyone, stick around. We have a lot more to talk about.

Not only did President Trump just seem to repeat his claim that Mexican immigrants are rapists, but he just took it one step further.

That's next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:19:06] TAPPER: President Trump this afternoon defending his order to send National Guard troops to the border, insisting there will still be a wall and even that the military will help build the wall.

President Trump returning to the same type of rhetoric that he used when he launched his presidential campaign in June 2015, using terms that immigrant communities might find offensive, such as anchor babies or chain migration, saying that women coming to the U.S. are being raped, quote, at levels nobody has ever seen before, unquote.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is at the White House.

And, Jeff, I thought that this trip to West Virginia was about President Trump promoting tax cuts and tax reform.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Jake, that's what Republican leaders thought, as well. That's why he went to West Virginia, home of one of most competitive Senate races. And it got off to a start about the tax plan, what Republicans hope the president would talk about for the next several months.

Instead, he reverted to one of the old standbys of his campaign -- immigration, and bluntly, the word "rape".

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) [16:20:04] REPORTER: Mr. President, tell us about the border plan.

ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump traveling to West Virginia today to sell his tax plan.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So, now, once again you see that America is open for business. One of the big things is our tax cuts.

ZELENY: But within moments he moved on from the biggest legislative achievement of his presidency to his biggest obsession, illegal immigration.

TRUMP: Remember my opening remarks at Trump Tower when I opened, everybody said, oh, he was so tough, and -- I used the word "rape". And yesterday, it came out where this journey coming up, women are raped at levels that nobody's ever seen before. They don't want to mention that.

So, we have to change our laws, and the Democrats, what they're doing, is just -- it's insanity. I don't -- nobody understands what's going on.

ZELENY: The president who used the word "rape" when first announcing his bids for the Oval Office also going back today to old and unproven claims about voter fraud.

TRUMP: In many places like California, the same person votes many times. You probably heard about that. They always like to say, oh, that's a conspiracy theory. Not a conspiracy theory, folks -- millions and millions of people.

ZELENY: Election officials, Republicans and Democrats alike, have dismissed this as a hoax. Consumed by the president's fury over illegal immigration, the White House is now scrambling to implement his plan to send National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border.

TRUMP: We're going to have our wall. And we're going to get it very strongly. The military's going to be building some of it. But we're going to have strong borders. We have to change our laws, and we're working on doing that.

ZELENY: But a question remains unanswered -- why now when even the president acknowledges arrests at the border are down?

Because of the Trump administration's actions, border crossings are still at an unacceptable 46-year low, the president writing on Twitter. That figure from the president is true. There are fewer arrests for illegal border crossings than at any point since 1971, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Arrests are 25 percent lower than in 2016.

Republican governors largely voice support for the plan, while Democrats like this Congressman Ruben Gallego blasted it as blatantly political. REP. RUBEN GALLEGO (D), ARIZONA: It's using our National Guard troops

who are greatly trained, you know, you're going to pull them out of their private lives to essentially go and try to solve a political program. This is a failing presidency.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: So, even with so many questions here about that plan to send National Guard troops to the border, one thing is clear, Jake -- the president clearly making the decision to double down on illegal immigration as a theme of this midterm election campaign. He wants to get conservatives, his base back in his corner. Of course, this all comes after conservative backlash saying he was not doing enough on immigration.

The question here is how this resonates with some of the voters. Republicans are trying to hold on to suburban voters out there in the country who could hold the key to the House and the Senate remaining in Republican control -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thanks so much.

And we're going to dive more into the reality at the border in a moment, including a trip down there.

But, first, I want to bring back my political panel to talk about this.

So, David, he's really -- he's never going to stick to script, right? I mean, like, you have the -- you've been talking about the tax cuts, you're on message. You come here, and you have your list. And --

URBAN: I'm not the president, I don't have that luxury, right?

TAPPER: You don't have the luxury, but wouldn't it be better for him?

URBAN: No, listen, if -- the way he got elected was being exactly like this. He cut through an incredibly crowded Republican field and political neophyte by throwing the script in the air and doing exactly what he's doing.

People voted for this. That's what they want. The same viewers that are looking at "Roseanne" are looking at him now and they love it.

TAPPER: Yes. You're eye-rolling?

(LAUGHTER)

POWERS: No. Actually, I wasn't. No, no. I think that's true. I think that is what he got elected for.

TAPPER: But you think it's not wise necessarily?

POWERS: It's -- I think his base likes it. I'm much more -- less concerned about him throwing away the script as what he said when he threw away the script. TAPPER: Such as?

POWERS: Such as how he was talking about, you know, the Mexican rapists. I think it was such a misrepresentation of what is happening. Sort of conflating these issues of like remember when I said all the Mexicans are rapists, and then people are getting raped on their way here. So, therefore, all Mexicans are rapists.

When in fact what's happening, it's true, a lot of women do get raped, girls get raped on their way to the United States, but it's because they're being brought up by these coyotes. And there needs to be a better process for people to get into the country. We don't want them being smuggled into the country. We don't want them making these horrible journeys which they're doing because they're fleeing violence.

TAPPER: Right. Human trafficking those individuals, the ones, not -- people in the caravan, for example, mostly women and children.

URBAN: I would say the notion that using the National Guard to help protect the border is somehow novel. I mean, President Bush did it in 2006 --

[16:25:00] TAPPER: Obama did it.

URBAN: Yes, Obama did it in 2012. Bush had 6,000 soldiers. You know, this is all governed by the Posse Comitatus Act which says, you know, troops can't be used to enforce the law. They can be used to help protect the border, but they're not going to be arresting folks. They're going to be used to supplement the folks that are on the border. Clearly, it's been done before. I don't think it's controversial at all.

TAPPER: A difference though, that's completely true, it's been done before, but a difference, Josh, is that when Bush did it, when Obama did it, there was a process, interagency discussion, consultation with Congress, consultation with Mexico, as opposed to the president. This seems like a much more impulsive decision, the president seeing something on "Fox and Friends," saying he wants to do this, and then the Department of Homeland Security and others trying to make it a reality.

HOLMES: Yes. I mean, look, I don't think anybody should be taken by surprise that this president takes border security very seriously. I mean, I think the idea that there's anybody over at homeland security who's questioning his commitment to the border -- of course, they --

TAPPER: Fair enough.

HOLMES: But I think bringing this back to the politics for a minute, I think what David said is absolutely true in that the base does react to all of this. They're not going to love constant talk of tax cuts. They're going to want to talk about some of the things that got President Trump elected in the first place. I think that's what he's doing. There's an interesting, you know -- I guess conversation to have about

whether this is ultimately a base election, because if this is a base election, that stuff works well. If it's not, which we saw in Pennsylvania, and we saw in Alabama, and we saw in Virginia, suburban voters are running for the hills. And so, there's got to be a melding of those two things for Republicans. They've got to use the energy the president brings with base voters, but they also have to talk about tax cuts. They really do.

TAPPER: And, Kirsten, the president once again bringing out this canard that millions of people voted illegally. Obviously, there are fraudulent votes that happen in every election cycle, but there is no evidence according to Republican and Democratic officials that millions of people voted illegally.

POWERS: Nope, there is not. I don't know how we -- OK.

URBAN: Political hyperbole, shocking, right?

TAPPER: Hyperbole. I mean, he's telling people that millions of people voted illegally.

URBAN: Today's campaign event, right? I mean, that's what it is. And he's trying to rally the base.

I do agree with you, the less he talks about the accomplishments, the less he talks about all the money -- he's in West Virginia, the West Virginia auditor did an audit in West Virginia, and, you know, $50 billion, some gigantic number are going to go into the West Virginia economy. The president should be talking about that and how it's going to be spread over the economy.

TAPPER: Yes, why are you saying it and he's not?

URBAN: I'm just saying. I agree with you, Jake.

TAPPER: But that's my question. Why --

URBAN: I agree with you. Listen, the president should be touting his own success. He's doing great things --

POWERS: Why can't he like get them excited without making up things?

URBAN: He's not -- not --

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Millions of illegal votes is not true.

POWERS: He said it's not true. You're like it's not true, but that's what they want to hear.

TAPPER: Anyway. Stick around.

Russia running wild, now rubbing it in the world's face. What just went down at the United Nations over the poisoning of an ex-spy on British soil? That story next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)