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ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT

President, First Lady Greet the Macrons For First State Dinner; Trump V.A. Pick Under Scrutiny, As White House Hosts First State Dinner; White House Officials Debating If Pruitt Can Remain As EPA Administrator. Aired 7-8p ET

Aired April 24, 2018 - 19:00   ET

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


[19:00:13] ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: OUTFRONT next, breaking news. Dr. Ronny Jackson not withdrawing for now. I think faces serious allegations. Trump standing by his man, but is he offering him a way out?

Plus Trump calling North Korea's brutal dictator a man who's accused of having his own brother assassinated, open and honorable. What happened to Fire and Fury and little rocket man?

And the first Trump state dinner happening at this moment. People are arriving with the full pomp and circumstance. It's all about Trump and Macron and the special relationship, and Trump brushing off the French President's Dandruff. Let's go OUTFRONT.

And good evening, I'm Erin Burnett. OUTFRONT tonight, the breaking news. This is the North Portico of the White House and as I said this is the first state dinner at the White House. The president of the United States anticipated to be arriving with Melania Trump and the French president and his wife any moment.

Brigitte and Emmanuel Macron. And of course, we've seen some arrivals already. The Treasury Secretary and his wife along with Ivanka and Jared Trump. You have the full military array there. And as I said the President anticipated to be arriving momentarily.

Obviously this is the first state dinner. It is what has come of a very close relationship between two very unlikely men with completely different political points of view. One aged 40, the other aged 72. It's a pretty incredible relationship that has developed between those two men and now their wives as well.

It is a small state dinner relative to the prior ones that we saw with President George W. Bush and Barack Obama. This guest list we understand to be only about 130 people, much smaller, as I said, than those other state dinners.

Congressional Democrats not invited, which is a real break from tradition. Usually this is a bipartisan public event. Not at all the case of what we're seeing tonight, just one known Democrat going to be there, a Democratic governor. Melania Trump herself has been very involved with the specifics and the formalities, the logistics and exactly what you're going to see tonight. Very serious issues are at stake for this most important of dinners. Macron saying he had convinced the President how to act in Syria, to keep troops in Syria.

Macron also wants to keep the United States in the Iranian nuclear deal to convince the President to come on to decide on that. The President today calling that deal "Terrible, insane and ridiculous" and yet indicating he may still go along with the French position.

Jeff Zeleny joins me from live from the White House. And Jeff of course on that red carpet, we anticipate momentarily the President, the first lady, the President of France and his wife. This is a very important dinner tonight.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It is indeed, Erin, good evening. We are watching and waiting for the French President to drive in the North Gates here at the White House. They're staying just down the block here at the Blair house.

Of course the House for all visiting a dignitary. So I believe they're watching with interest throughout the day here, watching in realtime as this relationship develops between the presidents from both countries here.

And you ask people why they seem to have such a close relationship. The main answer, Erin, is this. Emmanuel Macron is a new leader. He is one of the few new leaders that President Trump is dealing with. He does not have an old history with President Obama or President Bush. This is a new relationship.

President Trump is clearly seized upon that and the macrons clearly seized upon the Trumps as well. So we have watched them throughout the day. They had dinner of course last evening at Mount Vernon. They were going to have that state dinner this evening.

And then tomorrow it is going to culminate with a speech on Capitol Hill to a joint session of Congress. But I was at the news conference today in the East Room watching their relationship, watching them hug each other, giving them a handshake.

But beyond that it certainly belies some major, major differences. You could hear President Macron sort of, you know, weaving those into his conversation, about climate change, about the economy, particularly Iran, as you said.

There is a sense here that he's trying to pull the president of the United States into a new way on Iran, a different type of agreement after the president is likely to reject the agreement next month to pull the U.S. out. President Macron is trying to find another way here, a supplemental agreement. The question is why would Iran go for that?

BURNETT: Right. ZELENY: So after the pomp and circumstance, we're going to hear tonight, certainly I'm not sure anything has change d substance-wise between these two leaders, but it's a fascinating relationship unfolding before our very eyes.

BURNETT: It certainly is unfolding before our eyes. Of course, as we await for these arrivals, Jeff is going to stay with me. I want to get to the other big breaking news this hour and that is the President today also meeting with his embattled nominee to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, even as a source tells CNN that Dr. Ronny Jackson is not withdrawing his nomination as of now.

[19:05:03] Trump and Jackson meeting in the Oval Office this afternoon and the allegations against Jackson are serious. They include excessive drinking, creating a toxic work environment, overprescribing medication, all of this while he yet led the White House medical unit, was the doctor for the President of the United States, for this President and Barack Obama.

These allegations of course Jackson has denied, and President Trump making it clear today he stands by Jackson, but leaving the door open for him to take an out.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I haven't heard of the particular allegations, but I will tell you he's one of the finest people that I have met. But the fact is I wouldn't do it. I wouldn't do it. What does he need it for? To be abused by a bunch of politicians that aren't thinking nicely about our country? I really don't think personally he should do it, but it's totally his. I would stand behind him, totally his decision.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: I wouldn't do it but you can go ahead. All right, so that's your endorsement. Now, Jackson for his part says he is looking forward to his hearing which has been postponed indefinitely, he says to address the allegations.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RONNY JACKSON, PRESIDENTIAL PHYSICIAN: I can answer the questions, absolutely. I'm looking forward to rescheduling the hearing and answering everyone's question.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: The story dominating the headlines of course, as we await the arrival at the state dinner, for the French President and his wife. The Jackson allegations are begging a crucial question and that is did anybody vet trump's nominee?

Jackson already faced opposition for lacking managerial experience which is desperately needed to run the second largest agency in the Federal government. They're nearly 400,000 people who work for the V.A. Because these allegations are not just from one or two people.

Here's Montana Senator Jon Tester on NCR moments ago, talking about the drugs. Jackson allegedly gave out and his drinking on the job.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JON TESTER (D), MONTANA: We had 20 military folks and retired military folks tell us these stories. It's been basically that prescription drugs that will put you to sleep and then of course prescription drugs that will wake you back up. He was repeatedly drunk while on duty, where his main job was to take care of the most powerful man in the world. That's not acceptable.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: So if this is out there and Jon Tester is talking about 20 or more people saying this, what led Trump to pick Jackson? Here could be a clue from a fundraiser in Mar-a-Lago in February.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: He's like central casting. He became like a Hollywood star. He's going to leave now and go make a movie.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: And Jackson of course play the game that works with Trump and that is florarie, florarie, florarie (ph).

Here is at that infamous press conference about the President's health.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JACKSON: His overall health is excellent. I told the President that if he had a healthier diet, over the last 20 years, he might live to be 200 years old, I don't know. He has incredible genes, he has incredibly good genes. That's just the way god made him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: Now, to be clear this is not the first time the vetting process in Trump's White House has come under fire. There was Trump's first pick for Labor Secretary Andrew Puzder. He withdrew after he admitted hiring an undocumented immigrant as a housekeeper.

His ex-wife also had accused him of domestic abuse which is a story she later recanted. Also former judicial nominee Brett Talley, who never tried a case and appear to defended the KKK on online message board, force to withdraw, and then another judicial nominee Matthew Peterson, who struggled to answer the most basic of legal questions.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R), LOUISIANA: Have you ever tried a jury trial?

MATTHEW PETERSON, FORMER DISTRICT COURT JUDGE NOMINEE: I have not.

KENNEDY: Civil?

PETERSON: No.

KENNEDY: Criminal?

PETERSON: No.

KENNEDY: Bench?

PETERSON: No.

KENNEDY: State or Federal Court?

PETERSON: I have not.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: He withdrew. So does Trump have a vetting problem? Well, that is something that a Democrat and a Republican agree on.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: This Trump administration has done the worst job of vetting their nominees of any administration I can remember.

CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), FORMER NEW JERSEY GOVERNOR: This was a brutally unprofessional transition. This was a transition that didn't vet people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: Jeff Zeleny is back with me. Jeff, look, this is, you know, pretty incredible when you talk about Jon Tester saying, look, is 20 or more people. You're learning more tonight about an inspector general report from a few years ago about morale in the medical unit under Jackson. What are you finding out?

ZELENY: We are indeed, Erin. The news that something that the president was trying to replace his V.A. Secretary, who he had just sent on his way because of a variety of disciplinary issues and overspending so he was looking for someone in a hurry so that's why he picked Ronny Jackson.

But we have been looking through this inspector general's report this afternoon talking about morale that was very low in 2012. Not just with Ronny Jackson but also with one of his contemporaries who was there, another doctor.

Essentially they were feuding. On a scale of 1 to 10, the inspector general talked to everyone in the medical unit and they said the morale is at a two. So these are the people who are required to, you know, provide medical attention to the President and Vice President and other staff here. So, it was very low morale. But at that point he was promoted to head the unit and things seemed to turn around. It was essentially an office workplace issue with Ronny Jackson and the person who used to run the office. He was removed and Ronny Jackson was running it. And it was to glowing reviews in the Obama administration, Erin.

[19:10:10] BURNETT: Yes, certainly glowing reviews, right. I know president Obama had multiple times, right, Jeff, over several years recommended promoting Ronny Jackson. The same as President Trump. They were completely in agreement on that.

ZELENY: He did. And that is one of the things the White House has releasing this even this copies of personnel job reviews basically that President Obama wrote in his own handwriting about how much he liked Ronny Jackson.

Interesting the White House has putting this out this evening. They did almost none of this a month ago when he was first nominated. They thought he would sail through. The reality is that hasn't happened. But this is what President Obama said about Ronny Jackson and his performance.

Let's take a look at this. He said Ronny does a great job. He has genuine enthusiasm. He's poised under pressure, he has incredible work ethic and follow-through. This is President Obama. He goes on to say Ronny continues to inspire confidence with the care he provides to me and my family and my team. Continue to promote him ahead of his peers. And then he was promoted then to a rear admiral.

So, the reality is the bottom line here, Erin, is this, this afternoon around 4:00 or so Dr. Jackson met privately with President Trump in the Oval Office to talk about a way forward. President Trump said you have my support if you decide to stick around.

Now, of course we heard in the press conference earlier, the President said I wouldn't blame you for not sticking around, but at this hour the President is fighting to support him. We'll see if he decides to stay, Erin. A hurdle to say the least in the Senate.

BURNETT: Certainly so. And I guess the President's words being I wouldn't do it, but if you want to, I'm behind you. I mean, you know, I suppose an endorsement although not perhaps as strong --

ZELENY: But they are standing behind him, which is important to say because they don't always do that in this administration.

BURNETT: Very true. All right. Thank you very much, Jeff Zeleny. And of course, as we await the arrival of the French President and his wife for the state dinner and the greeting, the formal greeting from President Trump and Melania Trump, we're going to keep that up so we can watch that together.

I want to bring in now Senator Jeff Merkley or Oregon, who sit down with former relation committee, Senator you just heard talk about inspector general report and the details of Senator Tester. He is saying 20 people came forward with these allegations about drinking on the job and handing out medication improperly. He was saying prescription sleeping medication and waking medication. What do you make of these allegations?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY (D), FOREIGN RELATION COMMITTEE: Well, I think you're seeing extensive bipartisan concern in two different ways. One is that simply a personal physician is very different than running an agency with 380,000 people on the team with complex health care management challenges throughout the nation, including the ability to recruit the doctors and the nurses and physicians' assistants that are needed to make sure they're paid and make sure.

There's so many issues that veterans are bringing up where they feel like the services need to be improved. Very, very different than the job he has right now. And the second is certainly had these issues not come up, we would see the -- the hearing going forward and we're not.

Why was it canceled by the Republican chair, postponed if you will? Because they feel there may be some substance. They've got to look into these issues in detail. I think that there is a real sense that there is serious weight behind the I.G. report and some of these other allegations.

BURNETT: Now, you know, a source tells us Jackson wander the White House, look, there's the possibility disgruntled former employees would raise allegations against him. I remember this back with Rob Porter, a very different set of allegations, right?

But, you know, he had said although maybe red flags and everything seemed to proceed ahead without any issue. You heard Chris Christie and Chuck Schumer. Does the White House have a serious vetting problem?

MERKLEY: Well, they do. They are not carefully vetting. In fact conversations I've had with my Republican colleagues are that we have to double down on the vetting that we do on the committee level here because people are coming over with such poor investigation beforehand about the issues that might appear here in the Senate.

So it certainly slows everything down. They need to get the White House team into shape, really do the job up front before they send people over.

BURNETT: Does it give you pause, though? You know, look, we know many top members of the Obama administration praised Dr. Jackson, you know, even after his news conference about President Trump's health which seemed almost farcical. But yet he was very widely respected by many who had work with him.

And then the White House, you heard Jeff Zeleny read one of the things Barack Obama had to say about Ronny Jackson, but he had three years of exams in which he said similar things. One of them in 2015. Ronny's positive impact cannot be overstated. He's a tremendous asset to the entire White House team. Already at a level of performance and responsibility that exceeds his rank. Promote to rear admiral now. Look, he didn't nominate him for V.A. secretary. I'm simply saying he didn't see anything that, you know, is now being alleged about drinking or anything like that.

MERKLEY: No, we didn't see any of that and the I.G. report isn't about prescribing drugs, it's not about drinking, that's coming from other folks that worked directly with him.

[19:15:08] Apparently they're sharing that information with both Democrats and Republicans on the committee.

But again, it's so different to be a personal physician and then to run a large agency. And if you created a hostile work environment in a small team in the White House, what can be expected under the stress of running a very large organization?

And so the lack of expertise for managing such an organization combined with the style, a style that people described as dealing with parents during a bitter divorce, that's really not what the V.A. team needs. We need very competent managers who know how to run a hospital and health care system. We owe our veterans nothing less than that.

BURNETT: I want to ask you about some of the challenges that the President has had getting people appointed, right, and it's not all on him. Earlier today he accused Democrats of blocking his nominees. He was specifically citing his proposed ambassador to Germany. Here he is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: We have Angela Merkel coming to the United States on Friday. We still don't have our ambassador approved. And at this rate, and many of the papers checked it out yesterday and they actually said I was right. But it would be nine years before these people -- but we have hundreds of people in waiting to be approved, and the Democrats are taking 30 hours per person. They're taking the maximum time. They are obstructionists. That's very bad for our country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: Of course, Senator, you formally held up that vote on Richard Grinnell. What's your response to the President? I mean, after all, the numbers are the numbers. It is taking a lot longer for President Trump's nominees to be confirmed than it did for either of his predecessors.

MERKLEY: Well, my advice to the President is, don't nominate someone who has personally attacked Michelle Obama, who has personally attacked Callista Gingrich on the Republican side, who has personal attach members of the press, who attached Sandra Fluke. He is not a diplomat. This is someone who is full of venom, has not an atom of diplomacy in his soul, and certainly doesn't make sense to have --

BURNETT: He does know a lot about foreign policy. Look, he's fiery on Twitter, I've been on the receiving ending of some of that, but he's a qualified foreign policy guy. He is known as that. That's part of the reason why he had made the rounds on television.

MERKLEY: Well, I'll ask you this. Do you think Republicans would be excited about supporting someone who attacked Melania Trump repeatedly? I think not. And so, send someone over who has treated people respectfully and decently and then let's have the conversation.

BURNETT: All right, Senator Merkley, I appreciate the time tonight, thank you so much.

MERKLEY: You're welcome.

BURNETT: And of course we are still awaiting, it should be any moment now and the second half and so we're going to bring it to you live. If we're in break, we're going to come back to you.

Next, there is more trouble for another -- well, not a nominee, the sitting EPA administrator in Trump's cabinet staff Pruitt. Republicans now backing away from Pruitt. Is the White House is about to abandon him too.

[19:18:16] Plus President Trump snaps over a question about pardoning his personal lawyer. And we're going to take you back to the White House live for the first state dinner.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BURNETT: All right. There you can see the President of the United States and Melania Trump formally there on the red carpet on the North Portico of the White House for the first state dinner to honor the president of France. Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, who are going to be walking up. Let's just watch this for a moment.

And they are now walking inside. You saw that the formal pomp and circumstance that we all like at a dinner like this, and there they go for the first formal state dinner with that arrival.

Here with Rob Astorino and Keith Boykin. Look, couldn't have done it. It was perfectly executed. Although you point out, you know, maybe the President should have buttoned his tux. I'd rather have a comment about the men's fashion being slightly off than the women's. They both looked absolutely perfect, I would say at least on the female side of things, but what do you expect from the French and a former model, right? They got it all right.

So, you know, look, we're going to keep monitoring this as we get more images, but another member of President Trump's inner circle is facing scrutiny as this is happening, and I'm not talking about Ronny Jackson right now, I'm talking about Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator, multiple investigations.

A White House source telling "Essentially everybody but Trump wants him gone." That's the situation now. Senate Republicans becoming increasingly frustrated as well.

Manu Raju with us on Capitol Hill. So Manu, Republican lawmakers also turning on Scott Pruitt who I think for a brief few days might have thought this problem was going away, but in fact they just got a lot bigger, frankly all of his own doing.

[19:25:09] MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Yes. It is iron-clad support on Capitol Hill among Republican, definitely weakening. We're hearing Republican after Republican who also starting to raise new concerns about the increasing revelations about ethical misconduct, about conflicts of interest, about the allegations of misusing taxpayer money, all of which Pruitt has denied but which is becoming more and more damning as each report surfaces.

Now significantly, Erin, some key Republicans told me earlier today that they wanted to hear more from Scott Pruitt, including the chairman of the very powerful Senate environment and public works committee, which oversees Pruitt's agency.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU (on camera): I'm curious if Scott Pruitt, you're concerned about these allegations?

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO (R), WYOMING: Absolutely have concerns, a lot of questions that still need to be answered. I've been asking the questions and will continue to ask questions.

SEN. SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO (R), WEST VIRGINIA: I think they're perfectly valid questions and they need to have good answers.

RAJU: Do you have confidence in him?

CAPITO: I'm waiting to see what he says.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: And probably more capital plans to meet with Scott Pruitt this week. But also everyone is going to be looking at his answers before two House committees and testimony, which we are told he's actually not getting any assistant from the White House, on the White House offering assistance.

But according to our colleagues that cover the White House for CNN, said that he actually decline those request. But nevertheless, that is key moment fro Scott Pruitt about whether or not he can survive on Capitol Hill and whether or not the President continues to stand behind him.

BRUNETT: And obviously significant reporting Manu talking to Republicans. Thank you very much. And Rob and Keith are with me.

Keith, so what do you make of this? You've got Pruitt now and the problems with Pruitt did not go away. I think we all sat there a few days and thought Pruitt thinks he's in the clear now, because the story went away from being the front story. But what happened is, more facts came out about Pruitt's behavior that have raised Republican concern about Pruitt.

KEITH BOYKIN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE AIDE UNDER PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: This is true. You know, what Trump value, the reason why he still stands by him is loyalty. And what we see from Pruitt is that he's will to go to the mat to defend Trump and Trump is willing to go to the mat to defend him.

It is a pattern we see with other Trump appointees as well. I don't think that Pruitt really helps Trump in any way. There's talk about even giving him a promotion. I don't think it helps him to keep him around but Trump doesn't care because his base doesn't care so there's no accountability because Congress isn't going to do anything about it either.

My good point is just that, remember, Trump came in office saying he was going to run the country like a business. But remember Trump had no sort of traditional business experience. He came from office, came from a family business background so he comes with no accountability in that type of business.

There's no shareholders, no board of directors, he answers only to himself and he's not used to getting this type of criticism, which is what any other CEO in this position would have been fired for what Trump has done.

BURNETT: And yet, you know, Chuck Schumer you heard, you know, Chris Christie talking about a brutally unprofessional transition which of course was led by the President. Look, The President, Rob, had promised repeatedly, right? I'm going to pick the best people, the best people. Here he is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: The cabinet, we're going to have all the best people. We're going to find out who they are.

We want experts, our finest people. We don't want that are B level, C level, D level, we have to get our absolute best.

We need to get the best and the finest, and if we don't, we'll be in trouble for a long period of time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: OK. Well, I guess that could be coming true. I mean, look, if you're going to talk about what Pruitt's behavior when it comes to personal ethics and spending and playing by the rules and I mean, you know, you would be generous.

ROB ASTORINO, FRIEND OF PRESIDENT TRUMP FOR OVER 15 YEARS: Well, you know what, someone once said to me if you're getting hit for the right reasons, keep getting hit. In other words, if "The New York Times" is bashing you, then you're probably doing the right thing because we're on the other side of the philosophy of "The New York Times."

So Pruitt, who just got escorted (ph) again by "The Times" in their Sunday edition as far as conservatives go, as far as the President goes, he's doing the right thing on policy, and whether he weather the storm or not is to be seen, but it's only one man's decision. It's not senators bloviating, it's the President. BURNETT: Well, true or Pruitt. But I mean we're talking about, you

know, people are saying, OK, policy, so who cares about personal morality, who cares about spending taxpayer money. And I think, this is what your saying. But I mean, this is a guy who is wasting taxpayer money, spending it frivolously --

ASTORINO: We can have an argument, Erin because --

BURNETT: It's not an argument, those are facts.

ASTORINO: I know but I'm saying Obama's EPA administrators had security, went on trips abroad and spent a lot of money and that's part of the job. That we can say.

BURNETT: Did propose a have $100,000 for private jets, $32,000 for soundproof phone booth.

ASTORINO: Absolutely. Some of them did use private.

BURNETT: -- no, they didn't.

ASTORINO: I agree. Some of those things are probably out of bounds. Is it a fireable offense?

BOYKIN: But it's a pattern, though I mean. It's not just with Pruitt, you saw it with Ben Carson and other people, Ryan Zinke and other people in the Trump administration. And then he goes and he puts his daughter, Ivanka, and his son-in-law, Jared, in positions of power. He puts Omarosa in positions of power.

[19:30:03] Trump doesn't vet anyone. He picks people who he likes, people who are loyal to him. People he sees on Fox News, not people who are qualified and competent to run to governor. And that's a good service to the American public. Regardless of what your politics are, just put your country above politics for one time.

ROB ASTORINO, FRIEND OF PRESIDENT TRUMP FOR OVER 15 YEARS: But first of all, it's the executive's decision to have the team he wants. If he wants to pick these people who he sees something good in and something special and that could get his agenda moving, then it's up to him.

BOYKIN: Except that they have to be confirmed by the Senate --

ASTORINO: Yes, but there's nine nominees in the history of our country, the last one was 30 years ago, that did not get confirmed by the Senate.

BOYKIN: And a lot of them they don't get confirmed because when there is heat or pressure, they withdraw their nominations.

ASTORINO: To some extent.

BOYKIN: And Trump has more people who have been withdrawn or threatened to withdraw because he continues to appoint people who are not qualified. ASTORINO: On Jackson, before we make this into a sad country song,

OK, you know, he served Bush, Obama and now Trump. And this is the first time we're hearing about this? If he had alcohol problems, I think we would know about that. If there was an environment he was abusive, I think we would know about that.

BOYKIN: Bush and Obama never tried to promote him.

(CROSSTALK)

BOYKIN: A doctor to be the secretary of veterans affairs, the secretary of veterans affairs though, not to be the secretary of veterans affair, the largest agency in the government.

ASTORINO: Why was he still in the White House if he was so abusive? These are things that we need --

ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: Those are serious questions. But 20 people have come forward, so it's not nobody, but you have a point, it hasn't happened before. I mean, there are questions that need to get some serious answers.

(CROSSTALK)

BOYKIN: I don't know what his history is, but there is trouble there and we need to investigate it. You should not be appointing this guy to a higher position.

BURNETT: And these issues are separate, of course, from the fact that he's a doctor and this is now an organization of 400,000 people, right? The experience itself is separate.

All right, thank you.

And next, President Trump abandoning the nickname little rocket man, heaping praise on Kim Jong-un.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He really has been very open and I think very honorable.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: And we'll take you back to the White House where Trump's first state dinner is about to begin with a rather British hue to it.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BURNETT: Breaking news: Moments ago, President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, as you see, greeted the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and his wife at the White House for the first formal state dinner. About 130 people, much smaller, breaking with tradition in many ways, no Democrats invited from Congress, and yet this is a very obviously special affair with a special relationship between the two men there. They took questions today about some major foreign policy issues that are front and center.

President Trump refusing to explain, though, why he said this earlier today about the North Korean dictator. Here he is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Kim Jong-un was -- he really has been very open and I think very honorable from everything we're seeing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[19:35:05] BURNETT: Honorable. Well, look, Kim Jong-un, South Korean officials say, directly ordered the killing of his half-brother, that was by poison. He had his uncle executed. His defense minister was killed with an anti-aircraft gun at a military school, that as audition watched. His top education official was executed by firing squad. Kim has purged hundreds of senior officials in his own party, hundreds of thousands of citizens have been sentenced to labor camps and according to the United Nations, 18 million people in North Korea, 70 percent of the population don't have enough food.

OUTFRONT tonight, Dan Senor, senior advisor to the Coalition in Iraq during the George W. Bush presidency, senior foreign policy advisor to the Romney campaign, and Max Boot, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and columnist for "The Washington Post."

You guys have a lot of titles between you.

MAX BOOT, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS SENIOR FELLOW: Sorry to overwhelm you, Erin.

BURNETT: So, I'll make a short --

(CROSSTALK)

DAN SENOR, FORMER SENIOR ADVISER TO THE IRAQ COALITION UNDER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH : We'll give you business cards.

BURNETT: Honorable?

BOOT: You know, Donald Trump is an extremist. He goes from one extreme to the other. A few months ago, he was calling Kim Jong-un little rocket man and saying he was going to rain fire and fury on him, which I thought was very ill-advised, that nuclear saber- rattling.

But now, he's gone from war-mongering to kind of this naive appeasement, talking about this guy as being honorable and we're going to do a great deal together, and he's agreed to denuclearization, which is not the case at all. So, you know, he's got to pick a more moderate, middle centrist path that makes sense, instead of swinging from these extremes that are just incredibly harmful and damaging to U.S. credibility.

BURNETT: It seems also perhaps -- I mean, sycophantic would be a word to describe it, Dan. I mean, you know, the FBI Director Jim Comey is a slime ball, Hillary Clinton is the devil, Joe Biden is crazy, but Kim Jong-un is honorable.

SENOR: Yes, he's handed a massive propaganda victory to Kim Jong-un, not just by this rhetoric, but by agreeing to meet him face to face.

And keep in mind, here we are in the context of these discussions about an Iran deal certification or decertification, or getting out of the Iran deal. So, Kim Jong-un, if he stopped the process now, the fact the president said he wants to meet with him, he's an honorable and transparent man, Kim Jong-un can decide, you know what, I see where the president is heading on the Iran deal, this is not someone I want to negotiate with, with regard to denuclearization, I've got my propaganda victory. He's sitting there praising me saying he wants --

BURNETT: Well, it's also imagining, right, you know, when you think about what President Trump says about the Iran deal with all of it's weaknesses, it was a deal made with a power that wanted to become nuclear. And Trump is now talking about doing the same thing.

Can you imagine if Barack Obama had started talking about the leaders of Iran as honorable?

BOOT: Right.

BURNETT: There would have been an outrage.

BOOT: Conservatives would have been apoplectic. I mean, remember in the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama was pilloried for saying that he would meet with them and even Hillary Clinton was attacking him for that. And that's exactly what Trump is doing now and, you know, it's hilarious that Trump and his defenders are saying this is a huge diplomatic victory that he's meeting with Kim Jong-un when the reality is any previous president could have met with him, any dictator of North Korea would be delighted to meet with an American president because it legitimates them.

SENOR: Yes, I would just say, I mean, they are saying there will be some preconditions. I'm not defending their strategy, I don't think it will work.

BURNETT: They are saying there will be some.

SENOR: Yes, there will be some preconditions which is different from what President Obama said. But said, there's a reason why three administrations from both political parties never met with the North Korean leader face to face.

BURNETT: And the North Koreans, by the way, made promise after promise after promise in exchange for sanctions really, by the way, all of that was broken.

BOOT: Yes, news flash, they're not very honorable, you know?

BURNETT: And, of course, the president is quick to say that that's what Iran is going to do but now, North Korea is going to be this honorable player.

BOOT: He's trashing Iran and praising North Korea, it doesn't make any sense.

BURNETT: So, let me just play what he said about the Iran deal today because he was blasting it with macron, but then he appeared to backtrack on that and saying, you know, Europe, I'll work with you on a solution. It was sort of a -- you know, give you a little bit of a -- trying to think of the right word. But your head is spinning around. Here he is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: It's insane, it's ridiculous, it should have never been made. I think we're fairly close to understanding each other.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: Insane, ridiculous, we're getting close to understanding each other.

SENOR: I actually think on this one, what the president will achieve is better than the status quo.

BURNETT: You do? OK.

SENOR: Yes, because the Europeans now are begging the U.S. to stay in the deal. The president has laid out certain conditions he wants to toughen the deal. And it seems like what Macron is here doing is trying to save the deal, so to speak, by keeping the U.S. in it.

BURNETT: So you're saying the Europeans might give -- keep the U.S. in --

SENOR: He wants some fixes on ballistic missiles, he wants some fixes, the president does on inspections, he wants some fixes on how to address the sunset clause. And I think he's basically said to the Europeans, you have between now and May 12th to come back with telling me how you're going to address my concerns. If you do, I'll stay in the deal.

Again, I have serious questions about if the deal -- meaning if the U.S. pulls out of the deal, what happens the day after. I don't think it's going to get to that. But I do think if the Europeans come back with a proposal to toughen the deal, this actually -- this strategy may work.

BURNETT: Do you think it should work, Max?

[19:40:00] BOOT: Well, I mean, remember, that the U.S. and Europeans are not the only parties to the deal. I think it's going to be very hard to adjust the deal because you have the Iranians, the Russians and the Chinese go along. I think what's more likely to happen is you might see an agreement reached between the U.S. and Europe to say if Iran, for example, continues testing long-range ballistic missiles that the U.S. and Europe will impose sanctions, and then Trump and Macron can therefore cite, this is part of the deal, it's a great deal, but it won't actually technically be part of the deal.

BURNETT: But they won't be part of the actual --

SENOR: No, no, hold on, hold on. It won't be part of the deal. However, it could conceivably constrain Iranian behavior once the deal expires because their economy is tanking, their currency is going down the tube.

BOOT: It's not a bad thing, but it's not that Trump is going to be able to adjust the deal.

SENOR: Right, but I do think it will be a net positive, better than the status quo.

BURNETT: All right. We'll leave it on that agreement. Thank you.

And next, President Trump slamming a reporter's question about whether he'll pardon his lawyer, Michael Cohen. But what's his answer to the question, and Jeanne Moos on that hat everyone is talking about.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BURNETT: New tonight, President Trump dismissing a question about whether he'd pardon his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, claiming it is a, quote, stupid question.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[19:45:06] REPORTER: What about Michael Cohen?

TRUMP: Thank you very much.

REPORTER: Are you considering pardon for Michael Cohen?

TRUMP: Stupid question.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: Did you see Emmanuel Macron's eyebrows go up?

OK. Here's the thing, it's not a stupid question because dangling a pardon in front of someone can influence their willingness to stay loyal and President Trump has been greasing the wheels with Michael Cohen. This is his own Twitter account, right? He said "The New York Times" was trying to destroy to, quote, destroy Cohen and his relationship with Trump. He liked and respected Cohen. Trump's press secretary, Sarah Sanders, then refused to rule out a possible pardon for Cohen just yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPORTER: It was noticed by some that you didn't close the door one way or the other on the president pardoning Michael Cohen. Who is your -- what's your read on that right now?

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It's hard to close the door on something that hasn't taken place. I don't like to discuss or comment on hypothetical situations that may or may not ever happen.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: OUTFRONT now, the former assistant attorney for the Southern District of New York, Harry Sandick, that, of course, is where the criminal investigation in Michael Cohen is, and the former counsel to the U.S. assistant attorney general for national security, Carrie Cordero.

Thanks to both.

Harry, the president says asking about pardoning Michael Cohen is stupid but, of course, he's pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Scooter Libby, that was 11 years ago. Put out a tweet about pardoning a boxer who died 72 years ago just the other day.

Of course, if Cohen knows a pardon would be coming, if he were charged and convicted, which has not happened at this point, he might be less likely to say bad things about the president. Is the question stupid?

HARRY SANDICK, FORMER ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY, SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK: It's not stupid. The potential for a pardon could influence somebody's testimony and because the president keeps talking about pardons. That's why he got the question today.

What's important here is that there is actually a pardon process in the Department of Justice that in normal times people go through. If you want a pardon, there's a way you can get one. But this kind of extra process that the president is putting on where a film actor can call up and say, pardon this person, or someone who's giving him legal advice can say, pardon my other client. That's not normal. That's not how the pardon process is supposed to work.

And when you don't have a functioning pardon process, people will assume it's done for a bad reason.

BURNETT: So, Carrie, you know, look, these are all real concerns but I know you say you can understand why Trump is frustrated about the Cohen questions right now.

CARRIE CORDERO, FORMER COUNSEL TO THE U.S. ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL FOR NATIONAL SECURITY: Well, I understand why he's frustrated if there really is no discussion in the White House at all about issuing a pardon for Michael Cohen. So, we don't know whether or not because Sarah Sanders won't answer the question, whether or not this is actually something under discussion in the White House. If it's not at all and this is just conjecture, then I could understand his frustration.

But it's no surprise that you've got two former DOJ people who are going to talk about policy process, because Harry is absolutely right. One of the reasons I think this question keeps coming up is pause in the Arpaio and in the Libby cases, the president abandoned the normal policy process through the review that would normally take place from the Justice Department over to the White House. And so then that leaves observers to wonder, well, if he abandoned the normal policy process that would consider pardons in those cases, then who's to say that he wouldn't just up and do something in this particular case.

So, it's that abandonment of process that I think is causing so much questioning and concern.

BURNETT: Which you both share. Now, harry, you know, I talked to Victoria Toensing last night, an informal Trump advisor, obviously, Scooter Libby's attorney. So, I asked her if Trump was trying to send a message with that pardon and these other pardons he's talking about. And here's how he's replied.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

VICTORIA TOENSING, INFORMAL LEGAL ADVISER TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: I don't try to read that kind of message into it. You know, I saw him and I talked to him when he gave Scooter Libby a pardon and he was thrilled.

BURNETT: Is he trying to send a signal to Cohen? You think no, he's just doing this out of the goodness of his heart right now?

TOENSING: No, I'm telling you he got a thrill from giving Scooter a pardon. And I would think that anybody who could take back, you know, a crime for a black and white woman marrying, that that would be -- that would thrill me to be able to give a pardon for that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: Do you think the president is trying to send a message, whether it be to Michael Cohen or Paul Manafort or anybody else with all of this sort of out of left field talk about pardons?

SANDICK: It certainly looks that way, and appearances matter for the reasons that Carrie said a moment ago. When you're not following the process, appearances matter. I mean, to be sure, the president gets a thrill from issuing a pardon. It's a constitutional right that presidents have because the king of England used to have it. That's why the president has it.

But it's not one that should be exercised capriciously or for a bad purpose.

BURNETT: Carrie, one of -- one thing I wanted to ask you about related to this, but, you know, the whole Russia situation, the Russian government, you know, allegedly, right, Jim Comey has talked about this, taped Donald Trump watching prostitutes urinating in a hotel in Moscow. Every time I say this, I can't believe I have to actually say it.

[19:50:00] Anyway, the president said no way this happened because I didn't spend the night in Moscow so there's no way this would have happened. And this is something that Jim Comey said the president told him directly.

Here is the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: I didn't ask about business with the prostitutes. But he launched into explanation as to how I should know that wasn't true. And that he remembered now and talking to friends who have been with him, that he never stayed overnight at the hotel, he just changed clothes there and went to the Miss Universe pageant. And I remember thinking, well, should I say, that as I understand the activity sir, doesn't require an overnight stay.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: All right. I don't know whether, you know, he was sort of somewhat trying to make a joke there, Carrie. But here's the reality, Bloomberg is looking into the flight records and they contradict what Trump is saying. The records show, according to Bloomberg, that Trump was on a plane. It left on a Thursday night, got in Moscow on Friday, didn't leave Moscow around 4:00 a.m. on Sunday morning. So, he was there on Friday night and obviously part of Saturday night as well.

How much legal trouble could this present the president?

CORDERO: Well, so, first of all, I'd be interested to see if other outlets, including CNN can verify these records and if, in fact, it turns out to be correct that he was there that night. Director Comey does obviously in those statements and in his book, make a point of saying that the president made effort to try to convince him that he wasn't there that night.

Here's why it matters from the bigger Russia investigation. The reason this issue is even discussed is because it goes to the question of whether or not there was something that this foreign nation had an ability to blackmail the president in some way and whether or not that has affected his behavior in office. So, that's -- it is a salacious issue, it's a salacious allegation.

BURNETT: Right.

CORDERO: But from a counterintelligence perspective and from a investigative perspective, that's why it's relevant.

BURNETT: Right. It is very significant, despite how strange it is to have to discuss it. Thank you both.

And next, the president and the first lady breaking with tradition, not inviting any members of Congress, Democrats, that is to tonight's dinner, only Republicans. And it's not the only protocol that they are breaking.

Plus, Jeanne Moos on the bromance between Trump and Macron.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BURNETT: Breaking news: President Trump's first state dinner honoring the French President Emmanuel Macron is underway right now at the White House. The Trump is greeting the Macrons at the north portico of the White House, you see that there. [19:55:00] The two leaders will each deliver a toast shortly as part

of protocol, maybe a thank you from the first lady who we are told has been at the center of the planning for this event.

White House reporter Kate Bennett is OUTFRONT.

And, Kate, the eyes of the world are on these pictures tonight, these two couples with the formal meeting and the pomp and circumstance. What are people talking about?

KATE BENNETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Right now, everyone was anxious to see what she was -- what Melania Trump was going to wear. And I can tell you, Chanel haute couture. Obviously, Chanel is one of the most famous fashion houses of France. So, this is definitely an homage to the country that they're hosting today.

Yes. I mea, I think, you know, this dress might not be the one white hat she wore earlier today which just took off and made headlines and kind of stole the scene if you ask me, and I think this is a sign that Melania Trump is coming into her own. She's doing her own thing. She is willing to steal the scene. She has planned every detail for tonight's events, from the seat cushion down to the desert, to the music that's playing, to the guests. She had an influence there.

So, certainly, this is a big moment for Melania Trump.

BURNETT: And she is getting a lot of credit today. I mean, just how involved was she, Kate?

BENNETT: Well, she didn't hire an event planner, which is something that a lot of these recent state dinners did have, an outside person or firm to help put them together. Melania Trump said no to that. She said she wanted to do it herself with just her very small team, her social secretary and the White House staff.

It has taken her months. She has done a lot of research. You know, she's using the Clinton china, the Clinton plates that are gold on the rim there, and some of the Bush glassware. She's certainly done an homage to cherry blossoms by lining the halls with 1,200 stems of cherry blossoms. She's definitely paid attention to every detail.

I got into the room with a sneak peak and it really did look beautiful. But everything is gold and right down to the little tiny salt and pepper shakers, the candle sticks, the chairs. So, it definitely had a feel of Trumpiness, if you will, in that setting.

BURNETT: Well, certainly. I mean, after all, her husband is attending and we know he would want gold at the very least. Any idea of what the toast will bring?

BURNETT: I'm sure it will continue, what has been well-wishes and warmth between the two countries. We aren't sure what the president will say or what Macron will say. However, we do know as you said, these two gentlemen have been getting along today. There's been sort of a bromance brewing between the two, and certainly the two first ladies have as well. I think it's going to be a friendly evening. Not a lot of Democrats in the house as we saw the guest list. However, very Trump friendly room.

BURNETT: Certainly right. I guess there's one known Democrat, a governor.

All right. Thank you very much, Kate Bennett.

And also, something to watch tonight, President Trump's very special relationship with Emmanuel Macron, so special that -- well, dandruff is involved. Here's Jeanne Moos.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: These two just can't quit each other when it comes to public displays of affection.

EMMANUEL MACRON, FRENCH PRESIDENT: Thank you. Thank you.

TRUMP: I like him a lot.

MOOS: Get a room. Actually, they did. The Oval Office.

TRUMP: You are a special friend.

MACRON: Thank you.

MOOS: President Trump and President Macron, didn't just shake hands, they had to add a pat, or a hand on the back taking turns, even a hand on the chest. They stared into each other's eyes and muttered sweet nothings.

MACRON: Thanks to you.

MOOS: Using first names, my dear Donald.

TRUMP: Emmanuel and myself.

MOOS: Dialogue out of a bromance novel.

TRUMP: I hope you feel the same way.

MACRON: Definitely.

MOOS: The French president even tweeted their clasped hands.

Brace yourself, I bet you've never seen this before. One world leader grooming the other?

TRUMP: We do have a special relationship. In fact I will get a piece of dandruff off. We have to make him perfect.

MOOS: One French newspaper called the gesture disturbing. We noticed Macron later examining the spot President Trump flicked.

The first lady was less accessible. Her hat made attempts to air kiss even a wider miss than usual.

Tweeted one critic, that hat is called the Trump repellent hat.

As they pose for pictures, the president and Melania seemed to play footsie with their fingers, which "The Daily Show" put the music.

But the president couldn't keep their hands apart, all the hugging left them so happy --

TRUMP: It's an honor to call my friend.

MOOS: -- that President Trump missed a slap. The French disconnection rare for these two.

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BURNETT: Well, at least Macron will hold his hand.

Thanks for joining us. Anderson starts now.