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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

EPA Chief in Trouble?; President George H.W. Bush in Intensive Care; China Rising. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired April 24, 2018 - 16:30   ET

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


[16:30:01]

RONAN FARROW, "THE NEW YORKER": We made significant inroads with China on this issue. That is going to be a key lever if we return to the table and try to solve this.

We have thrown that all out. At the time, they had a whole cadre of North Korea experts. Right now, we're flying blind. And what all of the experts who have deeply embedded in the North Korea problem for so long say is, time will tell what this kind of meeting means.

There are valid reasons why we have avoided it in the past. You run the risk of getting played. You run the risk of legitimizing North Korea as a nuclear power, which is their fondest ambition.

And unless that is embedded in a long-term strategy, which it doesn't appear to be, it can be really problematic.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: So, when you talk about China, today, President Trump said China has never treated the United States with more respect.

You write in your book a great deal about China. You talk about China filling voids left by the United States in North Korea and frankly around the world.

Former Secretary of State John Kerry told you in your book -- quote -- "In terms of the big, powerful, ambitious countries setting the agenda and executing on it, they're eating our lunch today. And this president, President Trump, has invited it because he thinks our retreat is some kind of accomplishment."

Now, you write that China is no global hero. Is it growing into the most dominant world power?

FARROW: So, I'm careful not to oversimplify this.

China still has a long way to go to compete with our diplomatic and development footprint. But the trend line is alarming. And this is something not just John Kerry, but secretaries of state of both parties, remarked on again and again.

The United States is undergoing a transformation, Jake, in how it relates to the rest of the world. It is losing and actively ousting its experts and its negotiators and peacemakers, and empowering the military to a such a vastly out-of-balance extent, that we really are in many conflicts a nation that shoots first and asks questions later.

And all around the world, in places where we are abandoned diplomatic leadership, sometimes in ways as literal as just closing our embassies, China is hot on our heels. Places like Sudan, where for a long time China fit the stereotype that we have in American foreign policy about China, that they were a rapacious interloper, they didn't care about human rights, now they have got an envoy doing shuttle diplomacy to try to broker a peace agreement.

So, this is something we need to watch because we're really surrendering a domain where we once had ownership and exerted much more influence.

TAPPER: The book is fascinating. It's called "War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence."

The author is Pulitzer Prize winner Ronan Farrow.

Ronan, always great to have you on. Thank you so much. And good luck with the book.

FARROW: Thank you so much, Jake. Thank you.

TAPPER: The latest on President George H.W. Bush health, after he is sent to intensive care just one day after the funeral of his former wife, the late Barbara Bush. What 41 is saying about his plans for the future.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:36:53]

TAPPER: Our national lead now, he's still in the hospital, but former President George H.W. Bush is awake and alert and saying that he's still plans on vacationing in Kennebunkport, Maine, this summer.

Bush took a turn just a day after the funeral of his wife of 73 years, former first lady Barbara Bush, on Saturday. He's still in intensive care battling a serious blood infection, but his spokesman says that the former president is on the mend.

I want to bring in CNN's Ed Lavandera, who is outside of the hospital.

And, Ed, President Bush is 93 years olds. He's obviously brokenhearted. But before he went into the hospital, he released a statement saying that nobody should worry about him.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, this was a statement just days after Barbara Bush died last week. And he was talking about how overwhelmed he was by the outpouring of love and support that he has received from Americans across the country in the wake of his wife's death.

And, remember, it was just last Friday where we saw him standing next to the casket there greeting mourners as they were coming by. And he ended that statement by saying that the Americans should cross the Bushes off their worry list.

And then just a few days later, we hear the news that he's brought here to this hospital in Houston, Texas. And according to a source close to the president, when he was brought in on Sunday morning, that was a very serious situation.

In fact, we're told that there were a couple of times that it wasn't clear whether or not the president would survive this blood infection that turned into sepsis, and there was real concern as to whether or not he was going to make it through the day on a couple of occasions.

But, today, we are hearing from a spokesperson for the president that he is beginning to respond more positively to the treatments that he's receiving here at the Houston hospital, that he's awake, alert and talking and even, crazy as it might sound, talking about wanting to spend -- determined to get strong enough that he can make the trip to Kennebunkport, Maine, which, as you well know and many people who have followed the Bush family for decades know that Kennebunkport is where they have vacationed in the summertime.

The family compound there, if you will, is a treasured place for the Bush family. And President George H.W. Bush, Jake, talking about wanting to get strong enough so he can make the trip up there this summer.

TAPPER: All right, Ed Lavandera, thank you so much. We appreciate the good news.

Apparently, a half-dozen scandals aren't stopping one person in the White House from sticking by Scott Pruitt's side. Who is it?

That's next.

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[16:43:37]

TAPPER: Some breaking news now on embattled Admiral Ronny Jackson, the president's nominee to be secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The Associated Press reports that a watchdog report says the president's pick to head the VA exhibited -- quote -- "unprofessional behavior" in a power struggle with a rival doctor.

The 2012 Navy's medical inspector general report suggested removing both Admiral Jackson and the rival from their roles in the White House Medical Office. Sources have told CNN that there was literally no vetting of the Admiral Jackson before he was nominated to head the VA.

Earlier today, the president opened the door wide open for Jackson to step aside, though President Trump said, somewhat contradictorily, he still supports him. Now to a different embattled Trump official who made it past the

confirmation hearing process. CNN has learned that White House officials are debating whether EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt should stay on the job. One source saying everyone but President Trump wants Pruitt gone.

CNN's Sara Ganim joins me now.

Sara, even some of Pruitt's staunchest conservative allies on Capitol Hill, from Oklahoma even, are starting to raise questions about Pruitt's conduct ahead of his appearances this week before lawmakers.

SARA GANIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That is right, Jake.

As one Republican put it today, it has been weeks of drip, drip, drip of allegations against Scott Pruitt. And the good will that he's built up from his aggressive EPA policies is starting to wane, as supporters become fed up with the constant bad headlines.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GANIM (voice-over): Republican support for embattled EPA administrator Scott Pruitt is eroding following a string of allegations of ethical lapses, everything from first class flights to pricey security detail on personal trips to a soundproof phone booth and questionable staff pay raises.

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R), LOUISIANA: You can't just go around acting like a big shot.

GANIM: Even Pruitt's mentor, Senator Jim Inhofe is concerned.

SEN. JIM INHOFE (R), OKLAHOMA: There are serious allegations against him that I would want to check out and I'm doing it.

GANIM: Pruitt's saving grace for his supporters so far has been drastic rollbacks of Obama-era environment regulations, including this week telling a New York radio station that he plans to reorganize how science is used to create rules and regulations.

SCOTT PRUIT, ADMINISTRATOR, EPA: A lot of science that we use to form the basis of rules actually are done by third parties, meaning folks outside of the agency.

GANIM: But ahead of back to back Congressional hearings on Thursday, where Pruitt is sure to face tough questions, there seems to be waning support for Pruitt from inside of the White House, too.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, PRESS SECRETARY, WHITE HOUSE: We're continuing to review a number of the reports that you mentioned.

GANIM: Meanwhile, some of Pruitt's most senior advisers at the EPA remain the same business partners from his questionable past in Oklahoma. Chief among them, a disgraced former banker named Albert Kelly banned in 2016 by the FDIC from banking for life who Pruitt put in charge of the task force reforming the EPA's superfund clean-up program which is supposed to address the most toxic and harmful sites across the country.

ALBERT KELLY, CHAIR, EPA'S SUPERFUND TASK FORCE: At Spirit Bank, we're proud of our 95 years of service to our customers --

GANIM: Back in 2003, Kelly was the owner of Spirit Bank in Oklahoma financing Pruitt's multiple homes and part ownership of a minor league baseball team. At the time, Pruitt was making just over $38,000 a year as a state lawmaker. But Kelly approved him for a $2 million loan to buy a percentage of the team, baffling many. Another Senior EPA Adviser, Ken Wagner is one of Pruitt's buddies from law school and they've been intertwined in business together for decades. Wagner hired Pruitt to work at his law firm in the early 2000s and after Pruitt became Attorney General years later, the law firm state contracts increased six-fold to more than half a million dollars. But the close ties don't end there. Wagner also worked closely with Albert Kelly, buying his own share of the baseball team and later representing Spirit Bank on development projects. Wagner's law firm is even located in the Spirit Bank event center. In a statement, the EPA disputed any allegations of wrongdoing and said they are dedicated EPA employees who have earned the respect and admiration of EPA career employees across the country.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GANIM: And Jake, remember earlier this month, those questionable raises that Pruitt had to rescind, well the two advisers who initially got a combined $84,000 through a loophole in the EPA's Clean Water Act, Pruitt actually also brought those two from -- with him from Oklahoma from his time in politics, just another example of folks who he was bringing in from his questionable past.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Sara Ganim, thank you. My panel is back with me. We have CNN White House Reporter Kaitlan Collins, Karine Jean- Pierre who worked in the Obama White House and Jonah Goldberg, Senior Editor at the National Review and Author of the new book Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy. So we just got breaking news on this very subject. A White House official telling CNN that Scott Pruitt refused White House assistance to prepare for this upcoming hearings in the House which baffled White House aides. Kaitlan Collins, how do you explain this? Why wouldn't they want White House help?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: I'm not baffled by this because President Trump is a big at advocate of Scott Pruitt so far. He's really been pushing (INAUDIBLE), someone he really likes really wants to keep there. But that feeling is not echoed throughout the West Wing. And even this week, the response to these allegations against Scott Pruitt, the stories that just continue to come out at an alarming rate. Even the White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, the Legislative Affairs Director Mark Short, when they were speaking with reporters on the north lawn of the White House, they were very tepid in their defenses of Scott Pruitt saying they're waiting on the basis of these reports to come out and see what the reports say and then they'll make a decision from there but they do not seem to be defending him as strongly as they were in the past. So it is not that surprising if Scott Pruitt is trying to hang in there. He doesn't seem to think the White House is on his side.

TAPPER: Jonah, one of the reasons President Trump was elected he talked about draining the swamp and cleaning up Washington and the conflict of interest and here we have stories repeatedly about Scott Pruitt literally in a lobbyist's bed. I mean, renting for $50 a night, the bed of somebody who lobbied him. I could go on but where would you put him on the -- on the swam scale going from let's say, from a salamander to the swamp thing? Is this -- is this a big deal? Is this -- does this fly in the face of the Trump promise to drain the swamp, or is the liberal media and Democrats making too big a deal out of this.

[16:50:23] JONAH GOLDBERG, SENIOR EDITOR, THE NATIONAL REVIEW: Of course it is swampy, you know. I mean, whether or not you need the full hip boots going up all of the way or whether or not you just need the smaller boots, there's a lot of swampiness here. The problem is that in many ways Scott Pruitt is for a large chunk of the Republican base the sort of Trump in microcosm or miniature in the sense he's get things done that Republicans and conservatives have wanted to get done for a very long time and so they're willing to look the other way for the character or logical shortcomings and all of the rest. And if you talk to people on the -- Republicans on the Hill, they sound like Jerry Maguire, you're talking to Cuba Gooding Jr. in the Jerry Maguire movie, where he says, you know, help me help you. Just stop making yourself into a spectacle. Stay out of the headlines and do all of this other stuff and people will defend him. But he can't help himself and it creates a huge problem on the right because they just want him out of the headlines.

TAPPER: And we know that Trump hates bad headlines about aides. We see him reacting that to Ronny Jackson, we've seen him react that to Tom Price, the former HHS Secretary. I could go through the list of all the people that left the administration but it's only a one hour show. Karine, how do you see this playing out? I mean, Pruitt has getting bad headlines for weeks and weeks and weeks and yet President Trump is standing by his man.

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE, FORMER OBAMA ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, because he really likes Pruitt apparently and he loves loyalty and Pruitt is doing the bad stuff that he loves that he's doing out of EPA. But the other thing too that Donald Trump said is that he said that he only hires the best people. And thus, what we've seen from his administration, in particular, his cabinet -- his cabinet secretaries are the most corrupt and the most unqualified group of people that we've seen in our nation's history. And the other thing too, and I think in any other administration whether it is Democratic or Republican, he would have been fired already. He would have been fired by now. Pruitt would have never lasted this long. We have to remember, Pruitt is also the person who lied during his hearing about private e-mail account.

TAPPER: I want you to take a listen, Kaitlan, to Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana talking about Pruitt.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) KENNEDY: Some of his behavior has hurt the President of the United States. He's hurt the President's credibility and the credibility of all of us and it would be way cooler if he would behave. And ethics matter and impropriety matters and the appearance of impropriety matters.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: That's Jonah Goldberg's Jerry Maguire help me help you. John Kennedy saying please cut it out.

COLLINS: Well, it's so easy to lump this in with all the other actions of the President's cabinet. We've seen several other people do things like this, spend taxpayer money like it's growing on trees and you can't let it go just because it's such a widespread problem. It's widespread that you know, almost a joke that so many people in the President's cabinet have problems, have their own scandal, whether it is money or what not. But that doesn't mean it that it's acceptable and it doesn't mean that we should let this go and that the President should keep this person in his cabinet just because he thinks they're loyal. If their misusing taxpayer money trying to ride through Washington, D.C. with sirens on their car, you know, those are things that you can't let that slide because the President feels like he has loyalty to one person or because he feels like they're doing what he wants at the EPA. He could easily have someone else in line at the EPA to take that job. I think the President sees these headlines and knows that Scott Pruitt is hanging by a thread so he wants to keep him there that much longer just to prove the media wrong, that certainly a part of it. I do think he likes Scott Pruitt a lot and he could hang around for a little bit longer but if these scandals continue to come out, I don't see how he remains around the White House.

TAPPER: Jonah quickly if you could. You write about tribalism in your book and the tribal -- this tribalism that you write about seems to be one of the reasons Scott Pruitt still has a job today because in any other administration it's impossible to imagine him still surviving. He has I think two hearings later this week. Can he survive?

GOLDBERG: I don't know. I think long-term it is like he's swallowed (INAUDIBLE). He's going to keel over at some point. But right now he's a useful foil for Donald Trump because he is -- he can be the bad guy. He can be the guy that Donald Trump looks kind of good by comparison to and takes a lot -- you know, takes a lot of the attention away and I think Donald Trump likes that kind of thing and it's a very -- it's a very tribal administration, you know.

TAPPER: Thanks one and all for being here. A special thanks to Jonah Goldberg, his book of course Suicide of the West. Buy it orb Amazon right now. Coming up, a personal announcement, you're not going to want to miss from me. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:55:00] TAPPER: In our "POP CULTURE LEAD" today, as if there are not enough, crazy stories out of Washington these days. Hey, I have a book out today. It's a novel. It's called the Hellfire Club. It's a political thriller. It takes place right in the thick of the cold war era, the 1950s. The heroes are a young World War II Veteran and his academic zoologist wife. The book has sex and corruption, secret societies, Joe McCarthy, Nixon, the Kennedy's, kind of like the Billy Joel song but slightly longer and a little bit more chilling and perhaps even with a lesson for this stranger than fiction world we're living through right now. Once again, it's called the "Hellfire Club." It's available at Amazon and your local bookstore. I apologize for the presumptuousness of this pitch but I would be honored if you would check it out. Be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter, @JAKETAPPER or tweet the show @THELEADCNN. That is it for THE LEAD today. I now turn you over to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Thanks for watching.