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EPA Administrator Under Fire; Mueller Questioning Russian Oligarchs; President Trump Revives Mexican Rape Claim. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired April 5, 2018 - 15:00   ET



DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: One is -- and you know this from covering a White House, I know this from covering a White House -- that some things, even in the nontraditional Trump White House, are pretty standard.

And that is, when a Cabinet secretary gets an interview request, they run it by the White House, as you said. And, in this case, I'm also told that the guidance was bad idea. Look at where you are. Look at what's happening. There's no way that the questions are going to not be about the kind of subject that we just heard.

My sense that is, frankly, Pruitt probably had a false sense of security, given the network that he did the interview with, and it certainly didn't turn out the way that he expected it. And now the White House is being asked to kind of help with the damage control. And it's, be careful what you wish for.


OK, so, Elaina, you have really been all over this story. You have had some great reporting, including this issue of the raises, $28,000 and $58,000 for the top two aides, I think, right? Here is how Pruitt, as he tried to explain this, here is what he said.


SCOTT PRUITT, ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY ADMINISTRATOR: I did not know that they got the pay raises until yesterday.

ED HENRY, FOX NEWS: OK. One of them got a pay raise of, let's see, $28,000. The other was $56,000. Do you know what the median income in this country is?


HENRY: Fifty-seven thousand a year.


HENRY: So one of your friends from Oklahoma got a pay raise that is the median income.


PRUITT: They did not get a pay raise. They did not get a pay raise.

HENRY: They did.

PRUITT: No, they did not. They did not. I stopped that yesterday.

HENRY: So, you stopped it?


HENRY: Are you embarrassed that...


PRUITT: It should not have happened. And the officials that were involved in that process should not have done what they did.


KEILAR: He's pleading ignorance there. Does that mesh with your reporting that he wasn't aware of these raises?


In my initial report, as I stated, I was told by several top EPA officials that he ordered the salary raises specifically, in large part because he knew these people from back in Oklahoma.

They are close to him. But I can also report, Brianna, that he was told specifically this would not go over well if it got out, which, as we're seeing now, he got wise counsel.

But Pruitt is the kind of person -- and to Dana's point, why he would agree to go on FOX News, "Washington Examiner," "Washington Times," he -- sources say that he kind of believed, no, I can handle this. Don't worry. I know Kelly doesn't want me to do this. However, just wait. I know who I'm talking to and I can do damage control on my own.

KEILAR: Wow. He's only going to realize that wise counsel is only wise if you take it.

BASH: Can I just add one quick thing to that?

And somebody reminded me of this before coming on. We have seen sort of a history of this in lots of administrations, in cases where people are kind of big deals back in their home state, and they feel that they're used to handling questions from the media.

But it's a different ball game when you come here. It's just different. The stakes are different. The questions are different and, as we saw, the follow-ups are different from people who know what they're doing.

KEILAR: Oh, yes. And those were some pretty tough follow-ups from Ed Henry there. A big deterrent to removing Scott Pruitt, Josh, is that he's doing

exactly what the president wants him to do. The president campaigned on cutting to favor businesses. Pruitt has done that.

And then there's also a question about, well, if someone needed to replace him, could they be confirmed? Even in this current Senate, with a narrow Republican majority, it's uncertain.

JOSHUA GREEN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: He succeeded in terms of rolling back regulation. He's a big friend of industry, which I think matters in this White House to an extent, greater than it might in a Democratic White House.

However, he has not kowtowed to Trump and the White House in terms of how he's comported himself. This endless series, seemingly endless series of ethical scandals, we have multiple I.G. investigations.

And then doing things like giving raises to top aides when the White House had told him not to, going out and doing these media appearances when the White House evidently had told him not to, is really acting in defiance of what a Cabinet secretary ought to be doing.

And speaking to somebody close to Pruitt just now during the break...

KEILAR: Yes, we saw you talking.



GREEN: I think what Dana said is exactly right. He is a big deal in his own world and is used to being the boss.

I think when you're in a subordinate position, the way a Cabinet secretary is to a president, that's not always such a great fit. And I think we see Pruitt essentially going rogue and mounting his own defense in opposition to what the White House would like him to do.

KEILAR: Are his backers, are Pruitt's backers, Dana, wrong when they think what he's doing at the EPA is more important than the fact that he's bucking Trump's promise to drain the swamp?

BASH: No. They're not wrong in that the president, I'm told, and people at the White House are very happy about the focus that he has put on rolling back the Obama era regulations. There's no question.

That is a hugely important issue for the base. But the flip side, the second point you made, Brianna, is if he's not there, then who would be, meaning who would they nominate? It's also a hugely important issue to the Democratic base. And if he's fired and somebody else is nominated, the Democrats are going to go bananas in trying to make sure that a new EPA administrator is not anywhere near Scott Pruitt.


KEILAR: All right, we need to pause for a moment. We have some breaking news. The negatives keep mounting against Scott Pruitt.

Today, 15 state attorneys general and the city of Chicago filed a lawsuit specifically charging the EPA administrator of violating the Clean Air Act.

I want to turn now to CNN's Tom Foreman for more details on this -- Tom.


And basically what these folks are saying is that Pruitt, in an effort to please his boss, is essentially going with the politics, but not doing his job. Among the basic claims here is that he withdrew policy that determines how major air polluting facilities are regulated.

One of the real focuses here is on plants that put out methane that can potentially damage the ozone layer, that sort of thing, the environment out there. They're saying that he withdrew policy that would have done something about that. He announced plans to repeal Obama's Clean Power Plan for regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

And beyond that, he has had these big announcements of plans to roll back auto fuel efficiency standards. These states are saying, look, that is the essence of what you're supposed to be doing and you're retreating from it, you're delaying it, you're reversing it. That's their concern, Brianna.

KEILAR: Tom Foreman, thank you so much.

I want to go now to something we have just monitored of the president's comments in West Virginia, reviving his debunked claim that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 election.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It doesn't matter because 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. And it's very hard, because the state guards their records. They don't want to see it.


KEILAR: All right.

So, let's bring our panel back in to talk about this.

That's untrue. I mean, that is just patently false, disproven. It's something that was sort of hatched by a conspiracy theorist and proven wrong. Dana, what is he doing?

BASH: He is in West Virginia, a place where he won by more than 30 points. KEILAR: Because it's such a key presidential electoral state for him?


BASH: No, it's not. It's not. Thank you.

But there is a very important Senate race there. Joe Manchin, whom he has really gone after on Twitter and elsewhere, a Democrat, who although he has a very long history as former governor and now senator in West Virginia, he is vulnerable.

And so if Donald Trump goes to West Virginia and keeps the Republican base, the Trump voters excited about him and energized, then that is bad for Joe Manchin.

Now, having said that, I'm gaming this out in a very political way. I'm not entirely sure that the president did that. But it also, even separate from where he is and perhaps the message specific to West Virginia, this fits with what we have seen for over the past week- plus, very specifically targeting the base over and over and over again.

KEILAR: What's he doing, though, in the bigger picture, I wonder? There is this Senate race in West Virginia, sure, Josh. But he also revived his claim about rapists that he was excoriated for, certainly not by his base, not by his die-hard supporters, in his announcement address speech. And he just revived that as well.

GREEN: Right. This is just Trump. It's what he does. He doesn't tie himself to standards of fact and objectivity in the way that any other Republican or Democratic politician would.

He simply decides to believe these things, maybe he saw them on FOX News, I don't know, he's watching Alex Jones. But his habit is to repeat them, regardless of them being consistently disproven by the media.

KEILAR: But he is there to tout tax reform, right? Isn't that why he's in West Virginia? He is there to say, look, we delivered on something. You have more money in your paycheck. That's because of us.

And, you know, the larger thought among Republicans is that if you can make an economic argument, that that can be a winning argument. Why isn't he sticking to that and he's just getting distracted by so many things?

PLOTT: I think we all know the answer to this question. He doesn't want to be told what message to be tethered to.

And, also, I think it speaks to the cynicism of this White House. If you think about what rallies in the last year Trump has revived claims of millions of illegal immigrants casting votes in this election, another state was Alabama.

I think, you know, he has in his head -- I don't know if he's being advised this way. But we saw during the Roy Moore election, too, he would tout this line because he just imagines this is something that would energize his base, as Dana said, and drive them out there even further.

But it's an interesting play in West Virginia because he doesn't need the base for whoever the GOP nominee is to win that Senate race. He needs to pull over some of the more conservative Democrats.


I don't see this as the best strategy for doing that.

KEILAR: Let's listen to what he said about really reviving his rape claim as well.

This was just moments ago in West Virginia.


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 has 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. So, we have to have strong borders. We're going to have the wall. We have already started building it. We have $1.6 billion. We've started building it and fixing miles and miles of wall that's already up and fence. And we're going to have our wall.



GREEN: What Trump is doing here is conflating victims of rape with perpetrators of rape. What he said when he came down the elevator for his campaign speech essentially was Mexican immigrants are rapists.

One of the reasons that these refugees is traveling in a caravan is for safety, to protect themselves collectively against being attacked and raped by people as they move from Honduras in Central America up to the U.S. border.

The idea that they, themselves, are this marauding band of rapists trying to climb the border fence, or something, whatever it is that Trump is trying to imply there, is wrong in all sorts of ways.

KEILAR: Final thoughts here?

BASH: Look, it's disturbing that the president thinks that he can be successful in saying things over and over again that are just not true. He called it a conspiracy theory. What you said is a more accurate

way to phrase it, things that are just not true. And your description, Josh, it's really important for us to keep doing over and over again. There are -- there's a faction of viewers and of voters who will believe things because he says them. It doesn't make them true.

And it just -- it makes it very difficult.

KEILAR: Elaina, Dana, Josh, really appreciate it. Great panel.

And next, the Pentagon and Homeland Security officials unable to answer some key questions today about that troop deployment to the Mexican border. CNN is on the ground, speaking to migrants headed to the U.S. And the vice president of the Border Patrol union will join me live to discuss why he's backing the president's decision.

Plus, Russian billionaires stopped at the airport by Robert Mueller's team of investigators. We will explain why the special counsel wants to talk to them.



KEILAR: After days of fuming on Twitter about undocumented immigrants 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.


TRUMP: 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 many troops there are going to be, how long they're going to be there, what they will be doing or even if these troops are going to be armed.

And even the Department of Homeland Security cannot give us an answer on that.


QUESTION: Armed or unarmed?

KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY: We are working -- what I would like to hear from the governors is what it is that they want. That is not anything that we had proposed. But we want to get to border security. I think what we're seeing here is, we're going to do everything we can to do it until -- until and when Congress acts.

QUESTION: How many will go? Do you have that number yet? NIELSEN: We don't. And that's just because we take each mission set,

each location and then work with the governor on how many people. We will let you know that as soon as we can.


KEILAR: Here is what we do know.

In 2017, we saw the fewest arrests of those attempting to cross illegally in years. There has, however, been a recent surge. Late last night, the administration released these figures that you can see here, showing what is really a dramatic spike in March.

CNN's Leyla Santiago spoke to one of the men who was part of the caravan of Central American migrants going through the Mexican border.



I'm asking him why he left. He says there's a lot of economic problems in Honduras. He doesn't have a job. There's little opportunity there. He says that it is very much controlled by the violence and the gangs that are there.

What I'm going to specifically ask him is what the National Guard impact would be here. He says that he could keep going. Right. So he says, even if he's arrested or detained by the National Guard or some sort of law enforcement on the border there, he's saying that he could either try to continue on, to be deported back to Honduras, and then he would try to make the same trip again, because, again, for Carlos, this is about a better life.


KEILAR: I want to bring in Art Del Cueto. He is the vice president of the National Border Patrol Council.

Art, thanks so much for being with us.

ART DEL CUETO, VICE PRESIDENT, NATIONAL BORDER PATROL COUNCIL: Thank you for having me on. I appreciate it.

KEILAR: I want to start with this caravan approaching the U.S.

This morning, the president tweeted: "The caravan is largely broken up thanks to the strong immigration laws of Mexico and their willingness to use them so as not to cause a giant scene at our border. Because of the Trump administration's actions, border crossings are still at an unacceptable 46-year low. Stop drugs."

What do you think about this? Because the tweet is not accurate. The caravan is an annual event organized by activists since 2010, and they have always dispersed into these separate, smaller groups as they approach the border. What Mexican laws is the president talking about? DEL CUETO: Well, you know, what I have seen is -- I'm not familiar

with Mexican laws. I'm obviously familiar with the United States laws. I have been doing this for 15 years.


I have been in law enforcement over 20 years. And in the time that I have been here, I have never seen so much media be put on this caravan.

I had never heard of this caravan before. So, if it's done before, I have not been aware of it.

KEILAR: OK, so you have not been aware of it. He's touting in a way this 46-year low. He says it's still unacceptable, but he's admitting there has been this dip in arrests of illegal border crossings, and yet he is sending the National Guard.

And he's painting this picture of there being a crisis. We just spoke to a general, a retired general, who said that this is not a crisis and it's not a good use of the National Guard's resources. What do you say to that?

DEL CUETO: I don't know if this general has ever worked with the United States Border Patrol or he has ever done the job that the men and women of the Border Patrol do.

What I can tell you is that we're in an area where we're losing a lot of agents. A lot of agents are leaving our agency. And the illegals that are still coming in are still coming in.

When I first started this job, I would apprehend a group of, say, 80, and all of them would be pretty much peaceful and you wouldn't see any attacks from this. What we're seeing now is the attacks on Border Patrol agents are higher than they have ever been.

The groups may be smaller, but they're a lot more aggressive. They attack our agents a lot more. And that needs to be taken care of. What the military would provide us is, they would provide us an extra set of eyes or ears. That way, the agent has enough time to move forward and effect the arrest.

And that's what we're looking for. We need more time to be able to get to where these illegals are crossing. And it's not just illegal aliens, obviously. It's drugs. Drugs are a huge epidemic. Here in the sector that I work at, in the Tucson sector, we still account for close to 50 percent of all the drug seizures in the entire country.

And that's astronomical. So, when we can have the military down here to assist us in giving us more time to effect the arrest, what it does is, it creates that dent that is needed against a criminal cartel. That's what needs to be taken care of also.

KEILAR: So, what are the things you need to know? Because we're really short on specifics about what the plan is with the National Guard. We don't know how many there will be. We don't know how long they're

going to be there. We don't know if they're going to be armed. In the past, you have seen them with weapons, but they don't have ammo. What do you need to know?

DEL CUETO: Obviously, that's something that is going to be discussed with the higher-ups within Border Patrol itself.

You bring up a fantastic point, though. They have been used before. The Obama administration used them before. The Bush administration used them before. Why our President Trump is now being attacked and, you know, second-guessed so much is beyond me.

But the reality is, the men and women of the Border Patrol are very grateful that they have a commander in chief that is putting the security of our country at the forefront to anything else.

KEILAR: Art, I think some of the questions come from the fact that these illegal border crossings are at a 46-year low.

DEL CUETO: They are at a low.

However, what we have seen is, just in the month of February, there was more apprehensions than there was in the month of February of 2017 and more than the month of February of 2016. So, for 2018, the month of February's numbers have gone up.

A lot of it has to do with, obviously, the continuance of catch and release. That's a big issue. There are several things that need to be taken care of. I think there's people even still within our leadership in Border Patrol that are still Obama holdovers. And, you know, maybe their plans, maybe their way of doing business is not necessarily the way that President Trump has asked.

And I think that's what needs to be done to begin with to also secure the border. We need to get rid of some of the Obama holdovers that are still within our organization that are not following some of President Trump's plan.

KEILAR: So who is doing that? Who are the holdovers that you speak of? Or are you just surmising that there are some?

DEL CUETO: There are some. There are definitely some. I think there was some talk. And you can see. It's been apparent in Twitter posts prior to the election where, you know, there was leaders within the organization that would go as far as to, you know, make fun of President Trump.

And those individuals are still within our leadership. And I think they're undermining some of the things that need to be done.

KEILAR: Who are you talking about?

DEL CUETO: We welcome the military to help us.

Excuse me? KEILAR: Who are you referring to?

DEL CUETO: There's different members within the organization. There's leaders within the organization that I believe are still here. And they were here during the Obama administration.

KEILAR: So, you don't have -- do you have names? I mean, is there someone specifically that you're thinking of?

DEL CUETO: I'm not going to go into specifics and throw out a name.


KEILAR: Do you know the names, but you're just not sharing them, or are you just surmising that there are people whose names you're not aware of?

DEL CUETO: There's people out there that, if you do the proper research, you will see that there was people that would undermine President Trump prior to him becoming president.


KEILAR: Do you know who they are?

DEL CUETO: Do I know who they are? I'm aware of who they are.

KEILAR: But you're -- OK, so, you're saying there are people -- OK, so you just don't want to name names?

DEL CUETO: Correct. I'm not going to name them right now.

KEILAR: Will you tell us later?

DEL CUETO: See, I -- at the same time...


KEILAR: I mean, Art, you come on and say this.


KEILAR: Come on. Art, Art, Art, you come on and you say this. You can't just, like, go dropping little blind items and not telling us what you're talking about.

DEL CUETO: No, I'm -- I -- I don't think I'm dropping little blind items.

I'm just making it specific that I think we have a president that has a good, clear idea of what needs to be done for border security. And I think that it's unfair that he gets second-guessed continuously on a lot of these issues.

I think he's doing a fantastic job. And I think sometimes perhaps he gets second-guessed because there may be still members within our agency that are holdovers from the last administration.

KEILAR: Art, we will follow up with you on that.

Art Del Cueto, really appreciate you being with us from Tucson.

DEL CUETO: Thank you.

KEILAR: Now, next: The Russia investigation has taken special counsel Robert Mueller to the airport -- why his team is stopping Russian oligarchs as they enter the country and what they're looking for.