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President Trump Tweets About Stormy Daniels for the First Time; President Trump Contradicts Himself on Firing James Comey; President Trump Confirms Mike Pompeo's Trip to North Korea; Former First Lady Barbara Bush Dies At 92. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired April 18, 2018 - 09:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good morning, everyone. John Berman here. This morning President Trump versus President Donald Trump at odds with himself on the Russia investigation like never before.

We'll have much more on that in just a moment but first after remarkable -- for him at least -- restraint on Twitter, not weighing in on the Stormy Daniels matter, he went all in. His first statement on Twitter on the credibility of the adult film actress who says that they had a relationship.

We want to start with CNN's Abby Phillip who is in Florida near the president's home in Mar-a-Lago.

Abby, the president has done a lot this morning to go against himself and his legal strategy, not to mention administration policy on foreign policy as well. What's going on?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John. I mean, you would imagine the president has a lot else on his plate. He's here having a summit with the prime minister of Japan but this morning is tweeting about Stormy Daniels for the first time that we know of that he's really addressed her claims directly.

Here's what he wrote. "A sketch years later about a nonexistent man, a total con job playing the fake news media for fools but they know it." And he was re-tweeting an image of this person that Stormy claims threatened her and her daughter, juxtaposed with another image of Stormy and an ex-boyfriend of hers.

But the president here is weighing in to this legal issue that his lawyers are trying to deal with inside of the courtroom and he's also doing one more thing. He's calling her a con artist. So right now Stormy's attorney is rejoicing about this, but the president is clearly not heeding his own lawyers in not weighing in.

He also was tweeting this morning on another person who's been kind of a thorn in his side, the former FBI director James Comey whose book tour continues this morning. Trump says this about Comey, "Slippery James Comey, the worst FBI director in history was not fired because of the phony Russia investigation where, by the way, there was no collusion. Except by the Dems."

But that really contradicts what the president himself said just days after he fired James Comey. Listen to what he told Lester Holt last year.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: But regardless of recommendation I was going to fire Comey knowing there was no good time to do it. And in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.


PHILLIP: So the president is never one to back down from these kinds of conflict but here he's weighing in on two really tricky legal issues that I'm sure, John, this morning his lawyers are not particularly happy about that.

BERMAN: I'm sure the lawyers are not happy. Also, I think, reality is not happy.

Abby Phillips, stick around. We're going to come back to you in a moment.

Here to discuss, CNN political commentator Errol Louis and CNN political analyst Eliana Johnson.

Errol, this is a direct contradiction. I mean, he said to Lester Holt on camera in an interview in front of the whole entire world, "I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story." That is why he said he fired James Comey and this morning he's saying I didn't fire him because of it.

ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: This is -- this is I think one of the reasons why some of the lawyers who don't want to work with Donald Trump really get very frustrated because he's talking about his own state of mind. He's saying on national television I said to myself, he's giving you the exact timeline of his intentions, his thought process and the action that followed which is at the heart of the Mueller investigation and possible obstruction of justice.

So he keeps walking himself into these traps. He just can't seem to let go of it. You know, I was looking at his Twitter feed knowing that we were going to talk about it, and I was thinking, I must have missed something. Surely he's mentioned the death of Barbara Bush. Surely there are other things on his mind besides that, other than creating these problems for himself. But it seems to be something of an obsession with the president.

BERMAN: He did put out a statement, an official White House statement on Barbara Bush, didn't do it on Twitter.

But on Twitter this morning, Eliana, this is just, you know, day is night, black is white, I mean, this is again, he says one thing to Lester Holt, says another thing on Twitter. The absurdity of it, I don't know where to go.

ELIANA JOHNSON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I think Errol is exactly right about how problematic it is that he broadcasts his own feelings on Twitter because the president did direct Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to draft a memo laying out the case for firing Rod Rosenstein and that memo did not mention the Russia investigation or the investigation into the president or his pleas to Comey to stop the investigation, and Comey's resistance to that.

[09:05:11] But the president says, whatever the case made in the memo, that wasn't the reason that I fired him. It was my own feelings about the Russia investigation, and that really is problematic. And his Twitter feed really does serve as a window into his personal feelings which is unprecedented, I think, in presidential history.

BERMAN: He also can't just unsay on Twitter what he said out loud to Lester Holt. And Errol, one -- the president did tweet out the official White House statement on Barbara Bush. That was yesterday. He's not still writing about it today.

Errol, what do you make of the president also weighing in on Stormy Daniels? Again he has said very little about this publicly. On Air Force One he basically said, you know, Michael Cohen, you'll have to ask him, I don't know anything about it. But now officially going after her credibility. This is what's going to drive the lawyers crazy.

LOUIS: Huge mistake. Right. It will drive the lawyers crazy because he's got a very talented, very aggressive lawyer in the form of Mr. Avenatti who's trying to sort of draw the president into this case, trying to draw him into statements, into an argument that he can now take to court and say, I've got to depose the president. I've got to ask him more questions. He's got an opinion about this. He seems to know something about this. He's relevant to this. My client is being defamed by and called names by Michael Cohen and his client, the president.

And if we get a countersuit for defamation, if we get some other kind of legal hook to draw the president in, he may regret having given up his restraint as you describe it and deciding to jump into this thing.

BERMAN: You brought up Michael Avenatti, Eliana, in fact the lawyer for Stormy Daniels, no surprise has already responded on Twitter. Let me read you what he wrote. "In my experience there's nothing better in litigation than having a completely unhinged, undisciplined opponent who is prone to shooting himself in the foot. Always leads to bigly problems like new claims."

Now this isn't a legal argument being made by counsel. This is Michael Avenatti doing politics, poking both of his fingers in the president's eyes this morning, Eliana.

JOHNSON: Yes. You know, the president's lawyers have told him very clearly not to talk about the Stormy Daniels claims or the lawsuit and not to respond to questions about it, and he had been up until recently uncharacteristically disciplined about it, but that started to slip about two or so weeks ago when he responded to a question a reporter shouted to him on Air Force One and he said that no, he was not aware of the $130,000 payment to her and now he's starting to tweet about it.

And I think his lawyers must be getting very nervous and Michael Avenatti I think sees rightly an opening to prod the president to say more and it's something that can only get him into trouble, both personally and legally speaking.

BERMAN: What is this sketch, Errol? I mean, in terms of -- where does it fit in to the grander scheme of what's going on?


LOUIS: You know, personally I thought the most compelling sort of comparison was with Tom Brady, perhaps it's her ex-husband, perhaps it's just some guy. You know, let's assume it might even have really happened, but maybe was said jokingly. You know, there are a lot of different questions about this, whether or not the person exists is of no particular importance. It's not that important to the case. It's not that important to the claims that Stormy Daniels has made and it's certainly not important enough for the president of the United States to weigh in on it.

And so it becomes triply mystifying that he would allow himself to be lured into this over something that, as he suggests, frankly, I believe the president on this. There's a very good chance that this never happened.

BERMAN: If it did and they can prove it then it becomes a serious issue but he may not help himself by wading in.

Errol Louis, Eliana Johnson, thank you, go nowhere. I want to get back to Abby Phillip who's at the White House because there's been another major development.

The president confirmed that CIA director Mike Pompeo did meet with Kim Jong-un a few weeks ago.

This is a major development, Abby. What have you learned?

PHILLIP: That's right. I mean, this development, it seems to increase the amount of intrigue around this whole meeting which would be historic if it were to happen.

The president is confirming now what the White House declined to do yesterday. He says, "Mike Pompeo met with Kim Jong-un in North Korea last week. The meeting went very smoothly and a good relationship was formed. Details of the summit are being worked out now. Denuclearization will be a great thing for the world but also for North Korea."

The president is really sending one of his most trusted advisers and allies in Mike Pompeo to meet directly with the leader of North Korea and that makes Pompeo one of the most senior U.S. officials to ever meet with a North Korean leader in the last almost two decades now.

This meeting the president says he wants to happen by the end of May or early June. There are haggling over locations right now but officials tell us that none of the locations being considered are in the United States.

[09:10:06] There are some thoughts about some neutral locations overseas and perhaps in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. But this is all happening as Mike Pompeo, the CIA director, is currently waiting to be confirmed as the secretary of State at a time when his nomination seems to be kind of on the rocks. He's waiting for a number of Democrats to announce whether or not they're willing to support him and this move puts him right in the center of a critical piece of foreign policy for this administration.

President Trump today is also supposed to be talking about this issue at length with the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who's here at Mar-a-Lago. They are actually at the president's golf course right now as we speak -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Abby Phillip for us again in Florida. Abby, thank you so much.

Joining me now retired Rear Admiral John Kirby, CNN military and diplomatic analyst.

You know, Admiral, this is a major move having the CIA director meet with the North Korean leader, the highest level meeting of any American going back, you know, more than a decade. Does this show focus? Does this show a deliberate nature now in approaching this ultimate meeting between the president and Kim Jong-un?

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: I definitely think it does, John. I think it shows that they certainly are putting this at a high enough level having him go directly like that and having talks directly with Kim Jong-un. That's a big deal. So yes, I think this should give everybody more confidence that, A, the summit is being planned and then being prepared for, and B, that it's more likely now to happen. I mean, now that we know that the back channel talks are actually at that level.

BERMAN: And the A part there is interesting, given that this leaked some might suggest deliberately during the president's meetings with the Japanese leader Shinzo Abe maybe to sent a message to U.S. allies around the world, like, look, we're doing this in a deliberate way?

KIRBY: Yes, I think there's probably going to be some reassurance and I suspect Prime Minister Abe is glad to hear that it's been conducted, this backchannel, at that level, but I do think the Japanese felt like they were a little bit on -- cut on their back foot by the speed with which this summit was agreed to and moving forward, which is one of the reasons why no doubt Abe wanted to come and have a direct meeting with the president. But the other thing is, this sends a strong message to those members

of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and in the Senate in general about Pompeo's fitness to be secretary of state. I don't think there's any reason to doubt that the reason this leaked right now is because his confirmation is a bit flagging. And so this might shore him up projecting him to the American people and to the Congress as a person who really can represent American foreign policy abroad.

BERMAN: Do you think it'd be harder for certain Democrats to vote no given that he has already been engaging in such high level diplomacy?

KIRBY: I think for some of them, particularly those that are red state Democrats, yes, this might be a little bit tougher for them to get by, but for others, no, I don't think it's going to be that big of a factor.

BERMAN: All right. Rear Admiral John Kirby, thank you very much for being with us. We do have more to discuss in just a moment.

A White House fight over Russia sanctions gets ugly and goes very public. Ambassador Nikki Haley firing back after a top White House adviser says she was confused about the plan for those sanctions, plus getting new details about the chaos inside the Southwest airplane after the engine blew. More on the woman who died and the pilot who passengers say had nerves of steel. And the nation remembers an icon. Former First Lady Barbara Bush dies at the age of 92.



BERMAN: All right. This morning, flags at the White House and across the country at half-staff. You're looking at live pictures of the White House right now. The tributes pouring in for former first lady, Barbara Bush. She died yesterday, surrounded by family, holding the hand of her husband of 73 years, former President George H.W. Bush.

CNN's Jamie Gangel joins me now. Jamie, you spent so much time with the Bush family over the years. The word matriarch isn't big enough, right. You couldn't put it in capital letters in the font size big enough to describe the role that Barbara Bush played in that family.

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: It's true. I just want to say, while it is a sad day, she lived such a full life. She used to always say, I'm the luckiest woman in the world. Today is also a celebration of her life.

She did such amazing work for literacy, raising hundreds of millions of dollars and as her husband once said to me, she was his not-so- secret secret weapon. She campaigned for him and her two sons. She was beloved.

I just want to tell people who may want to pay their respects that this Friday, she will be laying in repose at St. Martin's Episcopal Church on Friday and the public is invited to visit there, then the funeral service will be private. That will be on Saturday, but on Friday, people are welcome to come and pay their respects. The other thing that I think we have to remember about her is that family came first.

And I just want to play you part of now a speech a lot of us have seen where she was at Wellesley, a commencement speech and she talked about being a parent.


FORMER FIRST LADY BARBARA BUSH: Maybe we should adjust faster, maybe we should adjust slower, but whatever the era, whatever the times, one thing will never change, fathers and mothers, if you have children, they must come first. You must read to your children and you must hug your children and you must love your children.

[09:20:05] Your success as a family, our success as a society depends not on what happens in the White House, but on what happens inside your house.


BERMAN: You know, Jamie, I covered George W. Bush for a couple years in the campaign trail and in the White House and he never spoke about his mother without getting a mischievous grin on his face. There was a special relationship, a special kind of adoration there. You had a chance to talk with so many in the Bush family about Barbara Bush.

GANGEL: Right. No question. George W. Bush like to say I have my daddy's eyes, but I have my mother's mouth. They had a very, very close relationship and she had a nickname, "The Enforcer." So, here's a little bit about what her sons thought about her.


GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: My mother was on the front line and expressed herself frequently. Dad, of course, was available, but he was a busy guy and he was on the road a lot in his businesses and obviously on the road a lot when he was campaigning, and so mother was there to maintain order and discipline. She was the sergeant.

JEB BUSH, FORMER GOVERNOR OF FLORIDA: Well, mom, the nickname, one of many nicknames she had was "The Enforcer." So, there were unwritten rules and if you violated them, she would enforce the rules, and do it in a way that was pretty effective. I don't remember my dad doing that.


GANGEL: I love the look on Jeb Bush's face when he says in a way that was pretty effective, when Barbara Bush spoke, everybody listened -- John.

BERMAN: Barbara Bush used to say late is rude, so George W. Bush was never late to a campaign event in his life because his mother would put him in trouble. Jamie Gangel, thank you for being with us. Really interesting memories.

Joining me now is Kate Andersen Brower, a CNN contributor, the author of "First Women To Grace In Power Of America's Modern First Ladies." Kate, you write that Barbara Bush redefined the role of first lady. How?

KATE ANDERSEN BROWER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think she did. She brought a level of compassion to the role. She in 1989 visited a house here in Washington and she went, and she held cradled babies living with HIV, and I think that was a really important moment.

It was kind of like what Princess Di did, you know, and here was a woman that was very patrician, but she did things like that. She wore $29 pair of shoes to her husband's inaugural. She was very relatable, and I think that's wonderful about her.

And I also want to say the resident staff at the White House loved Barbara Bush. She was their favorite first lady to serve and I was recently in touch with a White House usher actually this morning, who said that she actually called him and saw him on a local TV show and said what a great job he did.

So, she is somebody who treated her staff like family and I think that says a lot about the kind of woman she was. She was very funny. She was always making self-deprecating jokes. There are these jumbos in the White House which are these big photos.

And she would look at it and say who is this old wrinkled lady, oh, that's me. You know, and so she had a great sense of humor and I think that she brought a levity to the role of first lady.

BERMAN: You know, we played a clip from that Wellesley commencement speech before and there's actually a lot else in that speech, which I find fascinating. People have to remember that it was controversial when she was speaking there.

A lot of the students at Wellesley at the time weren't so happy. They were saying things like, Barbara Bush, she's only accomplished because of what her husband did, she's just a first lady. She didn't do anything herself. She was so politically shrewd that she went in there and delivered this line. I want you to listen to this.


BARBARA BUSH: Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my foot steps and preside over the White House as the president's spouse and I wish him well.


BERMAN: She understood politics. She understood how to play the game and she did it for just so long.

BROWER: She did. I mean, she was born in the 1920s, which is incredible. She was married for 73 years to George H.W. bush, the longest marriage in presidential history and she was also, as you said, she was able to kind of make a joke about things.

And she did go through a period of depression, though, because she at one point in her memoir writes about thinking was my life a waste, devoting my life to my husband and children with the women's liberation movement.

So, she went through that period and she came out the other side and she never apologized. I mean, in that Wellesley speech, she says the best decision she ever made was marrying George H.W. Bush.

And when I talk to her she said that so many good things happened to us because he was president and I loved every minute of being first lady and to her it was no chore and I think that's important. She considered it a great honor to live in the White House.

BERMAN: Her legacy?

BROWER: I think her legacy is really of compassion, humor, grace, class.

[09:25:05] I think she's -- she's not only the matriarch of the Bush family but also of the Republican Party, and this era of civility of the Bush/Reagan years, and so I think it is quite sad.

BERMAN: Kate Andersen Brower, thanks so much for being with us. Appreciate it.

All right. U.S. Ambassador to United Nations Nikki Haley firing back at the White House after a top adviser called her confused over sanctions on Russia. Now that adviser is apologizing to her.


BERMAN: The president's top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, is now apologizing to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, after calling her confused about new sanctions on Russia. Sources tell CNN that Kudlow Haley to say that the policy had changed and that she just had been kept in the loop.