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Report: Trumps Says He Has Confidence in Pruitt; Mueller Asking Russian Oligarchs About Donations to Trump Campaign; Homeland Security Unsure How Many Troops to Send to Border and If They Are to Be Armed. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired April 5, 2018 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:00] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: I'm Brianna Keilar in for Brooke Baldwin. And right now, Air Force One just landing in West Virginia. Trump is

set to address the tax roundtable and we are going to take you there when it starts. But it was moments ago while boarding Air Force One that President Trump was asked, point blank, do you have confidence in EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. His resounding two words, I do.

Meanwhile, Pruitt has been facing a steady stream of scandals and he did not please the President and other officials as he just appeared on Fox News, according to a senior administration official. It was an effort to quell the firestorms, including reports that he gave large, unauthorized pay raises to his favorite aides, which he says he didn't know about.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Have you made mistakes?

PRUITT: I think this is something that needs to be corrected, it was a mistake by my team.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you take responsibility?

PRUITT: I'm fixing it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you take responsibility?

PRUITT: I'm fixing the problem.


KEILAR: Now Pruitt was also on the defense about the cheap rent that he received from the wife of an energy lobbyist for a DC apartment.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: President Trump said he would drain the swamp. Is draining the swamp renting an apartment from the wife of a Washington lobbyist? PRUITT: I don't think that's even remotely fair to ask that question.

It was like an Airbnb situation. When I was not there, the landlord had access to the entirety of the facility. When I was there, I only had access to a room. There were common areas. They used the facility at the same time I was there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You only paid for the nights you rent, you were there?

PRUITT: That's exactly right.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's kind of a sweetheart deal. I never heard of anything like that. I lived in Washington over 25 years.

PRUITT: That is something that, again, has been reviewed by officials here. They said that it's market rate.


KEILAR: CNN has exclusive details about the decisions by those ethics officials that you just heard Pruitt mention in a memo that CNN obtained, the top ethics watchdog said he didn't have all the facts when he made that call. I want to turn now to CNN political analyst Josh Dawsey for "The Washington Post." Josh Pruitt it is obviously unfair nice despite this endorsement from the President. What are you learning?

JOSH DAWSEY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Here's what we know. We know that the White House and Chief of Staff John Kelly told Pruitt not to do the media interviews that he did inside the White House, Fox News interview, in particular, was seen as disastrous. A lot of top aides questioned whether Pruitt was telling the truth, particularly on that he had no knowledge of authorizing raises for some of his top employees, to have been with him for a long time.

And we know the President Trump is grumbling about him. Now as we have seen time and time again, Rex Tillerson, David Shulkin, Reince Priebus, the President grumbling or getting frustrated with someone is not necessarily a harbinger that they will be immediately fired but we do know that Pruitt is definitely on Trump's radar and he's asking people about their opinions about Pruitt which is not a good sign for the EPA administrator.

KEILAR: So why, if Pruitt was told by the White House not to do these interviews, would he have gone ahead and done them?

DAWSEY: That's a good question. Pruitt obviously knows that the President watches television. I think he was trying to make his case effectively to the President that these scandals or these issues were much ado about nothing, particularly going on Fox News which, as we know, is the President's favorite channel. I think it was a case to try to do a PR offensive and get himself on sure footing. That backfired it seems, according to several officials I've spoken to, that may have gotten him on worse footing instead of surer footing.

KEILAR: Pruitt is really doing exactly what the President wants him to do at the EPA with environmental regulations. The President had promised that they would be cut to favor business. That's what Pruitt has been doing. It's not like a replacement would exactly be easy to confirm. Right?

DAWSEY: Right. There's been a groundswell support from conservatives today. You saw Rand Paul tweeted his support to the President, a lot of other members of the hill are calling the White House to support Pruitt. You're hearing a lot of activists, tea party types, folks, big donors who like Pruitt's agenda supporting him pretty voraciously. That said, the President could still make a move. The point you made about not being able to confirm someone quickly may be the biggest deterrent to making a move here. You have several cabinet jobs. You have CIA, Veterans Affairs, State department. All of these are open right now. There will be lengthy confirmation hearings, and this would add another one to the list.

KEILAR: Josh Dawsey, appreciate it. Thank you.

[14:05:00] We're also following exclusive new reporting into Russian election interference. CNN has learned that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team is aggressively questioning Russian oligarchs, stopping and interrogating two of these uber wealthy Russians at U.S. airports. The question that Mueller's team is seeking to answer, did wealthy Russians illegally funnel money to the Trump campaign in 2016. Joining me now for more on this is CNN's Kara Scannell. So, Kara how did this go down and who are these wealthy Russians?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: So, we have learned that Robert Muller's team has approached at least two Russians as they entered the U.S. They got off their private planes and were getting off the planes when one of them at least was met with a warrant to have his electronic devices searched and request to come before the grand jury.

We are not sure if he is gone or not. We also know that Mueller's team has asked a Russian who is in Russia if he would voluntarily comply with a document request to come in for an interview. This really tells us that Mueller's team is following the money, trying to figure out if any Russian money made it into the U.S. election and we understand that they're considering two different theories. One, whether people used straw donors, such as Americans, where it's perfectly legal to donate into the U.S. political system.

KEILAR: But not if they've gotten money from Russians to donate.

SCANNELL: Right. That could be the problem and we understand that's what Mueller's team is looking at.

KEILAR: They are reason to believe that then? It seems odd they would pull that out of thin air. Is there some indication that this has happened?

SCANNELL: Right. What we've seen from Mueller's investigation so far is that it's very thorough. And while Republicans might say it is a bit of a fishing expedition, we can see from the cases they brought that they are leaving no stone unturned. They must have some reasoning to believe that these Russians would know something about money flows. It's also a pretty big deal to stop an oligarch as they come into the country unless you have good reason to believe so. And if you have a search warrant you've proven to a judge they have good reason to ask them some questions. I think whether something becomes of this or not remains to be seen. But they certainly seem to have a good reason to ask these questions.

KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: Kara, thank you for that great reporting. Really appreciate it.

I want to bring in my panel to talk about this. CNN legal and national security analyst. Asha Rangappa, she's a former FBI Special Agent. And David Priess, former CIA officer with us.

Asha, what does that signal to you, that at least part of Mueller's focus is on these super wealthy very powerful Russian businessmen?

ASHA RANGAPPA, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I think that it tells me a couple of things. Mainly it tells me that He is looking at potential violations of campaign finance laws. He is using every method at his disposal to investigate that. Particularly being able to search these oligarchs as they're coming in at the border. Ironically, Brianna, the Department of Homeland Security just updated it's electronic search policy at the border just in January the first time since 2009.

They may not have expected that Mueller would take advantage that, but he is. As reporting just mentioned, he is going to potentially be able to uncover Americans who might have legally funneled this had money into the -- poured money into the campaign, including organizations or Russians themselves. We know from his previous indictment on the social media front that he is also going after Russian nationals and entities in his investigation. Those are the big takeaways here.

KEILAR: David, it obviously is illegal for foreign nationals to be campaign donors. Right?


KEILAR: So, then there would have had to have been this -- it seems like a very real possibility of straw donors. How would that have worked to conceal the money?

PRIESS: There are several ways of doing it. Back in the good old days it was suitcases full of cash. That went out several days ago. The good news is some of the unsung heroes in this investigation are primed to look at exactly this kind of thing. The financial crimes enforcement network or FinCEN their division of Treasury. They're the people who look at all the bank records, all the money transfers to see what unusual patterns emerge.

KEILAR: So, they're looking, then, at money coming from Russia to Americans and then Americans who may have donated money?

PRIESS: At a very minimum, they would have lead information based on unusual transactions, that could be passed to the FBI for investigation and, therefore, Bob Mueller would chase that down. He's not the kind of person to let a loose end go unchased.

[14:10:00] KEILAR: Very interesting. Asha, how unusual is it, especially when you look at, as Kara mentioned in her reporting, these Russian oligarchs were met with, at least in one case, a warrant. How unusual is it for a Special Counsel to approach a foreign national this way?

RANGAPPA: I don't think it's unusual if there is an open investigation and there is a reason to investigate them. Obviously, the fact that he got a search warrant means he went to a judge and had enough probable cause to obtain that authorization. And remember, Briana, for these oligarchs being able to come into the U.S. is incredibly important to them. One of the big issues for them is the Magnitsky act that put sanctions on Russian oligarchs. That's what Russia has been trying to lift.

They have potential consequences for not cooperating with Mueller or by lying to Mueller. If they get caught in the criminal crosshairs and with a criminal conviction as a result even if they don't do jail time they may be ineligible to obtain a visa to ever enter the United States again.

KEILAR: The President, there are a number of these oligarchs, David, they are expecting to be met by sanctions. There are key figures in Russia. You think of the uber wealthy in America, it's a little different in Russia about how connected they are to the government apparatus. What message does this send to Russia, to Vladimir Putin if the President is pursuing sanctions against these uber wealthy Russians?

PRIESS: First, we have to see if there's actually any follow-up. We heard about this but haven't seen those put into place yet. If they are put into place that sends a more serious message than expelling a few intelligence officers. Because those can be replaced. It means more than closing a consulate, which can be reopened in the future. It gets more at the heart of the Putin regime. Much more so than public opinion which doesn't matter too much in Russia to an autocrat.

KEILAR: Explain how. Explain how it really gets at the heart of the Putin regime.

PRIESS: Russian economy is a pathetic shadow of what it used to be. Not much there. A lot of money is overseas. When these oligarchs are operating overseas and therefore having some of their assets vulnerable to sanction, some of their assets vulnerable to seizure, that's money they can't bring back into Russia, that's money that can't support the regime. This is something that Putin would look at seriously.

KEILAR: You expect, Asha, that he would retaliate. You hear David saying why it's not too big of a deal that the U.S. expelled 60 Russian diplomats, and, of course, you had Russia expel 60 American diplomats as well. You fully expect that they would hit back on something that hits the regime much more.

RANGAPPA: Yes. I think it remains to be seen how they're going to do that. The United States is what controls, you know, the banking sector and can impose these economic sanctions on Russia and other countries in the world. They have that leverage. It's unclear to me what leverage Putin would have unless it's to increase some of the interference efforts. Some of these actions that he has been taking in other countries like London and the nerve agent poisoning to kind of instill fear, I guess, or try to threaten the people that are helping him. So, you know, how he would retaliate in a meaningful way would remain to be seen. I think escalating it can be alarming.

KEILAR: Asha Rangappa, David Priess, thank you so much to both of you.

President Trump touting troops heading home -- heading to the U.S./Mexico border. So, for specifics are pretty turn. This isn't the first time the national guard has played a role along the border. What will it look like this time around? A retired army major general joins me live to talk about that next.

President Trump has touched down in West Virginia. We will monitor his remarks and take a closer look at his latest policy moves. Is he acting on impulse?


KEILAR: After days of fuming on Twitter about a dubious claim that undocumented immigrants are pouring across the southern U.S. border, President Trump is now calling on the national guard, signing an order to send troops to the southern border.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Until we can have a wall and proper security, we're going to be guarding our border with the military. That's a big step.


KEILAR: So, what we don't know is how much the whole thing is going to cost, how many troops there will be, how long they'll be at the border, what they're going to be doing, what they'll be tasked with or even if the troops will be armed. And even the Department of Homeland Security cannot give us an answer on that.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Armed or unarmed?

KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY: What I would like to hear from the governors is what it is that they want. That is not anything we proposed. We want to get to border security. What we are saying here is we're going to do everything we can to do it until and when Congress acts.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How many will go, do you have that number?

NIELSEN: We don't. Just because we take each mission set, each location and work with the governor on how many people. We'll let you know that as soon as we can.


KEILAR: So, we told you what we don't know.

[14:20:00] What we do know is that 2017 actually saw the fewest arrests of those attempting to cross illegally in years. There has, however, been a recent surge. Late last night. the administration releasing these figures that show a big spike in March. It's a story that CNN has been following closely. Gary Tuchman has gone to the wall, to the border wall for himself. He found that at least one person is armed down there, even if the national guard are not. Here is just part of his reporting from back in 2016.


GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: George Brenzovich is a ranch owner, in El Paso County, Texas, his ranch a short walk from the Mexican border in one of the most violent border areas there is. Are you carrying a gun right now?

GEORGE BRENZOVICH, RANCH OWNER: Yes, sir. It's a normal thing out here.

TUCHMAN: Would you ever walk down here without carrying a gun?


TUCHMAN: Because?

BRENZOVICH: I'm no fool. We need to secure the border and prosecute those who came in illegally, deport. You have to secure this border first. TUCHMAN: The Rio Grande separates the United States from Mexico from

one end of Texas to the other. There are fences and walls in this state but not right here. You can see the Rio Grande right over here, which separates the two countries. Mexico is over here, has no water in it. It's just mud. Very easy to cross. The only water we see is right here in this swampy area. About half a mile away there is a border fence, but it abruptly comes to an end. One more reason George Brenzovich and his wife want this area more secured ASAP.


KEILAR: A lot to discuss. Retired Major General Paul Eaton joins us. The national guard in 2007 mainly assisted with manning surveillance equipment freeing up border patrol agents so they could go on patrols. Do we have any sense of what the national guard would be tasked with this time around?

MAJOR GENERAL PAUL EATON (RET.), COMMANDED MILITARY TRAINING IN IRAQ: I have no idea what they've got planned but to use the national guard in any capacity is a really bad idea. Legally we're not on good ground with posse comitatus. Logistically, it's going to be expensive. We're pressed pretty hard right now across our national guard, active forces, United States Army Reserve. We've got a lot going on in the world and this is a great job for Border Patrol, ICE or the Homeland Security folks.

KEILAR: So then why do you think that this is being done, bringing the national guard up?

EATON: It makes no sense unless you're out to put bully boy tactics on the table. We are one of the luckiest nations on the planet. We've got the Atlantic to the east, we've got Pacific to the west. We've got allies, Canada and Mexico, north and south. I don't want Mexico to look across the border and see a young American with an m-4 carbine demonstrating a really offensive posture. That's bad optics, bad for the north American continent. It's really a bad policy. It's a looked tough but empty, empty approach.

KEILAR: So, you think that ICE. and the Border Patrol would be better served to be dealing with this instead of the guard. If you look at the numbers, the Trump administration points to this bump we've seen in the past month. Overall, though, if you look at last year's border crossings, they were at their lowest level in decades. When you look at the numbers and consider that recent bump, would you consider this a crisis?

EATON: Absolutely not. A crisis was back in 1970 when we had better than a million -- three I think crossing. We're down to 20 percent, 15 percent of that right now. This is episodic, and we just do not need to consider this to be a crisis. It's not. If we have to grow the Border Patrol, then we can grow the Border Patrol. The logistics of putting the soldiers on the ground, anybody can be a tactician. And this is expensive.

KEILAR: It does seem like the policy has not been very well thought out, right? We heard from the Homeland Security Secretary. There are a lot of questions that were unanswered. Yes, we know she had to meet with governors to see what they wanted. She said though they had some accommodations.

It's still unclear how long you're talking about having the guard there, exactly what they're going to be tasked with. You said you have no idea exactly what they'll be tasked with. There's this question of are they armed? If they are armed is there ammunition in those weapons?

[14:25:00] When you look at all of these unanswered questions, what does that tell you about how this policy has been executed?

EATON: One more time the Defense Department has had an unattractive mission dropped on its desk. Out of the blue. And right now, great men and women of the Pentagon are trying to figure out what the President of the United States wants to do here. They've been surprised before. They're great men and women. They'll figure it out. But this is right up there with a parade going down Pennsylvania Avenue. It's a bad idea. KEILAR: General Paul Eaton, appreciate your time. Thank you. Next

hour we'll hear from the Vice President of the Border Patrol Union that supports this decision by President Trump. Just ahead, Trump's decision to send national guard troops to the border is far from the first time the President has embraced his instincts when it comes to high-level decisions. Is his unpredictability working or not?


KEILAR: All right. And we actually have some live pictures to show you of the President speaking in West Virginia. This is where he is touting Republican tax cuts. And we are going to monitor his remarks and let you know what he says.

Political observers have been taking note of the stream of critical decisions in which the President seems to be going with his instincts and perhaps against the advice of his senior aides. For more I want to turn to CNN politics reporter and editor at large Chris Cillizza. Talk to us about the recent decisions by the President that have really sent his aides scrambling.