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Trump Not Pleased with Pruitt; Trump's Confidence in Pruitt; Mueller Team Questions Russians; Sanction of Russian Oligarchs. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired April 5, 2018 - 13:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 12:00 noon in Mexico City, 1:00 p.m. here in Washington, 8:00 p.m. in Moscow. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

Scandals mounting. Scott Pruitt is facing yet another controversy as the president grows increasingly frustrated with the embattled Environmental Protection Agency chief.

Following the money trail. The special counsel eyes a new target with one big question, did Russian oligarchs illegally funnel money into the Trump campaign? It's a CNN exclusive.

And shoring up the border. President Trump makes it official and sends U.S. military personnel south, feeding into his base as details of the plan remain rather scarce.

And this just in. New trouble for the president's embattled EPA chief, Scott Pruitt. CNN has learned the president is not pleased with Pruitt's latest TV appearance in which he was hammered about a number of ethical scandals, including huge pay raises for two aides totally more than $80,000. Here's how it played out.


SCOTT PRUITT, EPA 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?

PRUITT: No, what is it?

HENRY: $57,000 a year.


HENRY: So one of your friends from Oklahoma got a pay raise that's the median income, for a pay raise.

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

HENRY: They did. They --

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

HENRY: So you stopped it.


HENRY: Are you embarrassed that you run this agency?

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


BLITZER: Let's bring in our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, there have been many reports that Pruitt right now is on very thin ice. What are you hearing? What's the latest?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there is no question that the EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, is on thin ice. That literally just a few moments ago, as we were playing that interview there, we got word from the pool reports at Andrews Air Force Base, who asked the president a question as he's flying to West Virginia this afternoon, if he still has conference in his EPA administrator. He says, I do. So the president saying right now he has confidence in his EPA administrator.

But, Wolf, this comes against a backdrop of what I was told by an administration official earlier today, the president was not pleased by the outcome of that interview. He was watching the interview on Fox News. He was watching it and was not pleased by the fact that he was doing it, for one, and how poorly he seemed to be doing in that interview.

So all signs so far have been pointing to the fact that Scott Pruitt's days might be numbered here as more information is coming out. One of his top advisers resigned this morning from the agency -- excuse me, Wolf -- and that is something we were watching as well. But right now the president says he has confidence in him.

But, Wolf, we have seen time and time again the president has said he has confidence and then a couple days later sometimes, sometimes hours later, sometimes weeks after the fact, that cabinet secretary is out. So this is the president's decision. His alone. He controls the timing on all of this. But the latest word from him just a few moments ago, he says he does have confidence in his EPA administrator.


BLITZER: We'll see how long that confidence, Jeff, lasts.

ZELENY: Indeed.

BLITZER: Our Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thanks very much.

Let's bring in our panel. CNN politics senior writer Juana Summers, associate editor and columnist for RealClearPolitics, A.B. Stoddard, and CNN political analyst Ryan Lizza.

He seems to be on pretty think ice, but you just heard the latest word from the president that he still has confidence in Pruitt.


And here's one reason I think we might hear that from the president. Scott Pruitt at EPA is seen as one of the president's, you know, most reliable cabinet secretaries. The president campaigned on cutting a number of these regulations at EPA, and now -- and the White House. Scott Pruitt has helped him carry out exactly that.

But I have to say, this reminds me of the situation we heard around now former V.A. Secretary David Shulkin. The White House, particularly Chief of Staff John Kelly, not happy that David Shulkin was going out and speaking to reporters to put his side out there. Long before he was fired, he was speaking to CNN, myself, and other news outlets. They didn't like it. He was told to stop. He kind of clamped it down, but ultimately he still lost his job.

So I think ther's now this question of, does he do more of these interviews? He -- the president and the White House not happy with them. Does he continue to push out more of this narrative? And is there more to any of these stories? I think that will tell us really whether or not he stays or goes.

BLITZER: Yes, there's been, A.B., several scandals. Let me put a few of them up on this screen there. The pay raises for some of his aides. Then there was news he was renting a room in D.C. for just $50 a night from the wife of an energy lobbyist. Plus the reports that he took dozens of first-class flights on taxpayers' dime, and that he took Clean Water Act decisions away from regional Environment Protection Agency offices.

[13:05:03] All that raising questions. Why does he still have a job?

A.B. STODDARD, ASSOCIATE EDITOR AND COLUMNIST, "REALCLEARPOLITICS": That is my question, Wolf. I mean there's no -- other people can cut regulations at the EPA for Donald Trump and enact that kind of an agenda. There's no reason to hang on. There -- you listed all the infractions that have -- that Scott Pruitt is responsible for. He's an ethical mess.

But the entire cabinet. Ryan Zinke, Steven Mnuchen, Tom Price, Ben Carson, David Shulkin, I'm going to -- I'm going to forget the rest of the names because there have been so many people who have overstepped, not followed the rules, thought it was their playground. And this is a narrative that is so outrageous that the president would allow this to continue. Juana was nice. I'd put it another way. I think basically the

president's word is meaningless. He has given a pat on the back to outgoing people before they're fired. Before Shulkin, Tillerson, McMaster. It sometimes is the kiss of death.

I think this guy has a number of hours. I don't think he's going to make it to another TV interview.

BLITZER: Really?

Here's -- let me play another clip, Ryan, from what he said on Fox. Listen to this.


HENRY: President Trump said he would drain the swamp.

PRUITT: 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.


BLITZER: You think it's a fair question?

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it's certainly a fair question. Good, tough interview there from Fox.

Look, he had to have known going into this job that he was going to be under a microscope, right? Democrats, liberals who care a lot about the EPA, found this to be one of the most controversial picks that Donald Trump had. So, from day one, he had to have known that he was going to be under an immense amount of scrutiny. So the fact that -- and that list that you just -- you just showed. The fact that he went ahead with these, you know, unusual arrangement with a lobbyist, getting pay raises, knowing that there was so much attention on his position because he had been so controversial at the EPA, is just sort of mind-boggling.

And I think one tea leaf that a lot of people in Washington are looking at today is that one of his senior deputies, who he is very close to and has worked with him in a number of other -- previous jobs -- I'm forgetting -- I apologize, I'm forgetting her first name -- Dravis (ph) is her last name, and she has resigned. And that should -- that tells us something, that someone that close to him, who's been with him through his career, has decided to leave the EPA and she was very important there.

BLITZER: They didn't just do an interview with Fox News, with Fox's Ed Henry. He did an interview with "The Washington Examiner," Juana. He said he's dumbfounded over the controversy. He also said this. Do I think that because we are leading on this agenda, that there are some who want to keep that from happening? Absolutely. And do I think they will resort to anything to achieve that? Yes.

So he's really blaming what he's trying to do at the Environmental Protection Agency, he's blaming those who oppose his deregulation and other steps for the current problems he's having.

SUMMERS: I find that really interesting. And it makes me wonder if he watched what happened at V.A. recently where you heard, again, David Shulkin say a similar thing. You know, there's infighting within the department. There are people who want to oust me. So I can't do these things. But it's very interesting that he's now suggesting, at least the way that I took it, that perhaps people who don't agree with the agenda that he's pushing, that the president campaigned on or -- they didn't' sign a lease with a lobbyist that got him a housing deal that you or I or Ryan or A.B. couldn't have gotten -- couldn't have necessarily gotten. They -- I think it's very interesting that he's not taking responsibility for that, at least in that path with "The Washington Examiner," instead saying that this is someone else's fault. It's not his problem.

BLITZER: The reports out there, you know, A.B., that the president was watching that interview he did on Fox, was not very happy, and we all know Fox is the president's favorite cable news network. And it's very important to him that his spokespeople who go out there do an excellent job and not come out embarrassed.

STODDARD: A bad TV interview is the greatest sin, I think, if you're on the ropes with Donald Trump. Yes, exactly, the -- the fact that he was defiant, the White House telling him not to do any media, and he went out and did it anyway.

And then I thought one of the most telling parts of the interview was when Ed was saying, well, who's responsible, if you just found out about it yesterday? And he says, I found all -- out about it yesterday, but I -- but he couldn't come up with a person who was responsible. And so it really -- it really seems like he wasn't telling the whole truth in that interview. And that's why I believe if the White House doesn't trust him on pay raise thing, that he's going to be gone very shortly.

BLITZER: Presumably, Ryan, the president's a little torn about getting rid of Pruitt right now because nominating a new EPA chief would require Senate confirmation. That's going to drag on and on and on. I don't know if he wants to bother with that right now.

LIZZA: Absolutely. He's got two problems there. One, already the people who are in line to be confirmed by the Senate have issues. So he's got a -- he's got a lot of trouble in the Senate. And, two, a lot of conservatives in the Senate don't want Trump to push him out because they like Pruitt. They see he is the sort of favorite of many -- of many conservative Republicans who, for ideological reasons, want him to stay. So Trump would have to -- and Trump is being advised by some Republicans in the Senate to keep him in place, see if they can weather this storm.

[13:10:14] But, you know, I don't think Donald Trump really cares that Scott Pruitt is, you know, cutting all these regulations at EPA. He doesn't keep people for ideological reasons. If they embarrass him personally, he's happy to cut ties.

BLITZER: So, bottom line, Juana, what do you think?

SUMMERS: I think we're in wait and see mode. But I have to agree with A.B. here, oftentimes that president, you know, giving the pat of the back saying, you know, he's got my full support, it means exactly the opposite.

BLITZER: It's not necessarily his last word.

Guys, thanks very, very much.

We'll continue to assess what's going on. Hear if there's any tweets from the White House coming out any time soon.

Still ahead, the president sends U.S. military troops south to stand guard along the border with Mexico, as key details in the plan remain very unknown.

Plus, President Trump irritated. New details also emerging from inside his heated meeting with his top national security advisers over Syria.

But first, Robert Mueller is following the money and looking into whether cash was funneled straight from Russia's wealthiest to the Trump campaign. Our CNN exclusive reporting. That's next.


[13:15:23] BLITZER: Did wealthy Russians funnel money into Donald Trump's presidential campaign and inauguration? That's what the special counsel, Robert Mueller's investigators are trying to determine, according to exclusive CNN reporting.

And in another development, the Trump administration is expected to sanction several Russia oligarchs with ties to Vladimir Putin. The sanctions are in response to Russian meddling in the 2016 president election here in the United States.

CNN crime and justice reporter Shimon Prokupecz is joining us now with details.

Shimon, first of all, tell us what you can about the Mueller team's actions, the aggressive tactics that the investigators are now employing.

SIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, that's right, Wolf, over the course of the last several weeks or so, FBI agents have been tracking some Russian oligarchs that have been traveling to the U.S. And what we learned that at least in one case they stopped one of them at a New York area airport and questioned the person, even searched his phones. They gave him a search warrant and they went through his phones, through his electronic devices, and essentially wanted to question him about what we've learned is perhaps straw donors that Russians were using. There is some suspicion on the Mueller team by investigators that the Russians were using straw donors here in the U.S., U.S. citizens, who would then, in turn, take that money and donate it to the campaign and perhaps maybe the inauguration.

BLITZER: Because it's illegal for American political campaigns to accept money for non-Americans, from foreign nationals. So what you're -- what you're saying they're investigating is whether the Russians funneled money to American citizens who then gave that money to the presidential campaign.

PROKUPECZ: That's exactly right.

BLITZER: But that's illegal. Even if American citizens were doing it, if they were getting the money directly from the Russians to do that, that would be a conspiracy.

PROKUPECZ: That's right. And it goes to the conspiracy -- it goes to the interference conspiracy. It goes to the colluding conspiracy. We know colluding isn't actually a crime. But we know that Mueller is looking at the overall interference, overall conspiracy to interfere in the election. And if there was any kind of activity by the Russians to sort of use straw donors to funnel this money through American citizens to hide, that they were actually the ones that were doing these donations, that essentially be a crime.

BLITZER: They would be cutouts.

What can you tell us about sanctions that the administration -- the Trump administration is now considering imposing on Russian -- on Russian oligarchs, wealthy Russians?

PROKUPECZ: All right, so we're told by administration officials that Russians, in connection to the Russian interference, that oligarchs and others will likely be sanctioned, perhaps maybe today, could happen tomorrow. We were told by week's end. And we were specifically told these were people that were connected, obviously, to President Vladimir Putin, and also that had some connection to the 2016 interference by the Russians in the election.

BLITZER: Very interesting. I want you to stick around.

I want to bring in our panel also to discuss these late-breaking Russia developments.

We have CNN contributor Adam Entous, and former assistant U.S. attorney Kim Wehle.

Kim, what do you make of these latest tactics, stopping Russian oligarchs coming to the United States. They have valid visas to come to the U.S. Stopping them at an international airport here in the U.S., questioning them, seizing documents, cell phones, other issues like that?

KIM WEHLE, FORMER ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY: Well, the tactics make sense because there is something benefit to having the element of surprise, right? When people aren't expecting prepared to answer questions, they might be more candid.

But certainly the idea of these oligarch -- and an oligarch is a rich business person in Russia that has close ties to the political process. The idea that these oligarchs are being swept into this investigation isn't really a surprise. I mean we had a plea -- a sentencing hearing this week with someone whose -- who pled guilty to lying to the FBI about a relationship with Rick Gates. Rick Gates is -- had connections with Russian oligarchs, potentially. This person was the son-in-law of a Russians oligarch. So we've already seen the -- this -- the Mueller investigation looking into these issues.

And we have to keep in mind, why is this illegal? This is illegal for a reason. We don't want foreign governments making decisions about our electoral process. And the Americans are very careful about influence of -- we hear every day, immigration, people coming in. Our -- protecting our borders. We have had a situation where a foreign country has come in and mucked with our election, and I think it is an important development that the Mueller team is getting as deeply as possible into it.

BLITZER: And, Adam, you're doing a lot of reporting on this as well. Give us your big picture.

ADAM ENTOUS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes. Well, I think it's complicated because obviously you don't know if these oligarchs are taking orders from Putin. Are they doing it independently? Are they trying to impress Putin by showing -- by making -- creating relationships in the United States with an incoming administration? It's natural if you're a big businessman in -- in Russia that you would, just for the sake of your own business interests, try to curry favor with an incoming administration. In fact, if we looked beyond Russia, I'm sure we'd find Israeli businessmen, Emirati businessmen who might be doing the same thing.

[13:20:19] So it's not always clear whether oligarchs in Russia are doing things because Putin is directing them to do them, of if they're doing it in order to go to Putin afterwards and show their value to him in having created these relationships.

So I'm sure Mueller's team is realizing how murky this can be.

BLITZER: Yes. And we know that earlier this year the Mueller team did indict 13 Russians on allegations of meddling in the U.S. presidential election. None of those Russians are here.

ENTOUS: That's right.

BLITZER: They're all, presumably, back in Russia. And don't hold your breath waiting for Russian to extradite them to the United States.

But where does that fit in with these other late breaking developments on the oligarchs?

PROKUPECZ: I certainly think down the line we may see some other connections to this. Remember, we are still waiting to see if Mueller indicts anyone on the Russia hacking, on the hacking of the DNC and the John Podesta e-mails. There is every suspicion that that is going to happen. And we may see a bigger connection to all of that when -- at that time when that happens. But certainly, based on everyone we've talk to here at CNN, there is every indication that more Russians are expected to be indicted. Whether they will be brought here, obviously, probably not. But there still is a lot of interest on the Mueller team at building out exactly who in Russia was part of this conspiracy.

BLITZER: And you have to assume, Kim, that for everything the U.S. does to these Russian citizens, there's going to be an equal rebuttal from the Russian side. Putin is not one to say, OK, let them do what they want. He's going to treat -- start treating U.S. citizens visiting Russia and others very similarly.

WEHLE: Yes, it's a really tricking situation. I mean the way you deal with a bully is to hit him across the head with a 2x4 really. And I'm glad to see that we're actually taking actions from the executive branch to actually -- to sanction Russia in ways that hit their pocketbooks and might make an impact prior to the fall election.

That being said, as you mentioned, I mean, he's not going to sort of stand down very easily. And we're in a situation where our Congress is not making many strides in terms of fighting back with this kind of attack on our democracy. So it's very, very important. And I think Trump deserves some credit for actually taking steps in this direction.

BLITZER: Because, you know -- Adam, go ahead and make your point.

ENTOUS: Yes, I think, you know, Trump maybe can get some credit for some of the actions he's taken against Russia, such as closing facilities and some expulsions. In this particular case, the sanctions of the oligarchs, this is a requirement under legislation that he did not initially support and really didn't have a choice. He's begrudgingly signed it.

So I think, you know, what he's doing now with these oligarchs is responding to a congressional mandated, you know, rather than something that he's deciding to do because he thinks it's the right thing to do. I think -- I think he still believes, maybe less strongly than he did initially, that a personal connection between him and Putin would solve all these problems. I think he's -- he's not as -- he's more realistic today about where the relationship is heading than he had been in the past.

BLITZER: Having said that, a couple weeks ago he spoke with Putin on the phone from the White House, did not raise in that phone conversation some of the most sensitive issues, and poisoning of an ex-Russian spy in the U.S. and his daughter, did not raise the issue of Russian meddle in the U.S. elections and continuing, according to the U.S. intelligence community, to try to meddle in the upcoming midterm elections. And he supposedly also invited Putin to come over to the White House for a meeting.

ENTOUS: Yes. So he makes that. He doesn't use the talking points that he was supposed to use, right? He's -- he doesn't --

BLITZER: Do not congratulate him. ENTOUS: Right.

He, obviously, you know -- clearly, I think, this is the acts of a person who's still clinging to the notion that he can somehow save this relationship from a race to zero, as they call it, where, you know, we'll end up with no Russian diplomats in the United States and no American diplomats in Russia.

But as far as that officer of that meeting at the White -- that proposed meeting. Since that call, my understanding is, that there hasn't been any follow-up on that. And there's a realization within the White House that the optics of such a meeting, even if Trump really wants it, would kind of reinforce the narrative, you know, about the nature of why is Trump not, you know, as tough on Putin, at least rhetorically, even though he is taking some actions. You know, why is he not as tough, you know, in his rhetoric when he deals with him?

I personally think it has a lot to do with his hope that he can somehow create this bond, but, you know, I -- we really don't know the truth to that.

BLITZER: Well, let me play this clip, because we're almost out of time. This is what the president said about a possible improvement in relations with Putin and Russia. Listen to this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Getting along with Russia is a good thing. Getting along with China is a good thing. I think I could have a very good relationship with Russia and with President Putin. And, if I did, that would be a great thing. And there's also a great possibility that that won't happen. Who knows.


[13:25:13] BLITZER: On that note, who knows, we'll leave this there.

Guys, thanks very much for that conversation. We'll continue it down the road.

Coming up, President Trump gets testy. New details emerging about a tense meeting between the president and his national security team on Syria.

Plus, more fallout after the poisoning of an ex-Russian spy. Has the U.K. just traced a dangerous nerve agent back to a secret Russian lab? We'll have a live report.


[13:29:50] BLITZER: President Trump expressing support for his embattled Environmental Protection Agency administrator. But sources say, behind the scenes, the president is not happy with Scott Pruitt's combative interview with Fox News. The president was pressed about Pruitt as he departed for West Virginia just moments ago and was asked whether he still has confidence in Pruitt.