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Interview With Congressman Ted Lieu; EPA Chief in Trouble?; VA Secretary Nominee Under Fire; CNN White House Officials Debating Whether Pruitt Can Stay at EPA; Former President George H.W. Bush Alert and Talking as He's Treated in Intensive Care. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired April 24, 2018 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: "I wouldn't do it."
President Trump seems to be giving his pick for VA secretary permission to withdraw, as we're learning more tonight about the stunning allegations about Dr. Ronny Jackson's on-the-job performance going back years. There is late word this hour on whether Jackson will stick it out or step aside.
Threatening Iran. Mr. Trump rails against Tehran and the nuclear deal he despises, as the French president tries to persuade him to strike a new agreement. Will the intervention by America's oldest ally work?
"Stupid question." The president snaps at a reporter who asks if he would consider pardoning Michael Cohen as Trump's personal lawyer faces a criminal probe and escalating legal peril. Mr. Trump failing to shut down the speculation that Cohen might turn against him.
And head and shoulders. A strange new twist in the Trump-Macron bromance, as the U.S. president brushes dandruff off his French counterpart. Was it a friendly gesture or a power play?
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: Breaking tonight, a senior White House official says the president's pick to be the Veterans Affairs secretary won't withdraw his nomination, at least not right now.
This after Mr. Trump seemed to be nudging Dr. Ronny Jackson out the door. Stand by for new details on the very serious allegations that have left Dr. Jackson's nomination in limbo, allegations involving drinking, improper prescriptions, and a toxic work environment.
This hour, I will get reaction from the House foreign Affairs Committee Member Ted Lieu, and our correspondents and analysts are all standing by.
First, let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. Jim, what more are you learning tonight?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, as you saw earlier today, President Trump seemed to give a nudge to his pick for Veterans Affairs secretary, Dr. Ronny Jackson, to withdraw his name from consideration. The president went as far as to concede before reporters that Dr. Jackson lacks the experience to run the VA.
The question now is whether the doctor will accept the president's diagnosis. But, Wolf, late today, the president and Dr. Jackson met in the Oval Office. The inclination right now is for Dr. Jackson to hang on and keep fighting for this nomination. As one White House official just told me a few moments ago, he's ready to fight.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In fact, I will get that little piece of dandruff off.
ACOSTA (voice-over): the big brush-off of the day wasn't between President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron. It was the signal sent from Mr. Trump to his pick to run the Department of Veterans Affairs, White House Dr. Ronny Jackson, whose experience to lead the VA didn't exactly get a ringing endorsement.
TRUMP: Now, I know there's an experience problem, because lack of experience, but there's an experience problem.
ACOSTA: Despite selecting Jackson himself, the president blamed the media for the questions swirling around the doctor's background, that include allegations of excessive drinking on the job and being part of a toxic workplace environment.
TRUMP: I told Admiral Jackson, just a little while ago, I said, what do you need this for? This is a vicious group of people that malign and they do, and I lived through it. We all live through it.
You people are getting record ratings because of it, so congratulations. But I said, what do you need it for?
ACOSTA: Democrats argue the president, who chose Jackson in part after the doctor cheered Mr. Trump's health, only has himself to blame.
SEN. PATTY MURRAY (D), WASHINGTON: It is really frustrating to me that this administration continues to not vet or sloppily send over a nominee that leaves us having to really vet them and look at serious questions, which this Senate is now doing, and that's the right step.
ACOSTA: Making the rounds on Capitol Hill, Jackson sounded as if he would fight on.
DR. RONNY JACKSON, PRESIDENTIAL PHYSICIAN: I can answer the questions, absolutely. I'm looking forward to rescheduling the hearing and answering everyone's question. ACOSTA: The Jackson distraction comes as the president is demanding
that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons program, ahead of his potential summit with Kim Jong-un.
TRUMP: It means they get rid of their nukes. Very simple.
ACOSTA: Even as Mr. Trump offered some praise for the North Korean dictator he once dubbed Little Rocket Man.
TRUMP: Kim Jong-un was -- he really has been very open and I think very honorable, from everything we're seeing.
ACOSTA: As the president is seeking to make an agreement with the North Koreans, he's threatening to tear up the Iran nuclear deal, with a dire warning.
TRUMP: But I will say, if Iran threatens us in any way, they will pay a price like few countries have ever paid.
ACOSTA: Though Macron hinted that a new Iran deal could be in the works.
EMMANUEL MACRON, FRENCH PRESIDENT (through translator): It's not about tearing apart an agreement and having nothing, but it's about building something new that will cover all of our concerns.
ACOSTA: The alpha male bromance between the two leaders was on display all day long, with multiple aggressive handshakes. Some of Mr. Trump's aggression flared up when he was asked whether he would pardon his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, who's under federal investigation.
TRUMP: Thank you very much.
TRUMP: Stupid question. Go ahead.
Any other -- anybody else, please?
ACOSTA: Actually, it was a good question.
Meanwhile, there are other Cabinet questions for the president, as in the EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt. CNN has learned that White House officials are debating whether Pruitt can continue in his role as the EPA, while he is facing so many ethical questions.
We have also learned, Wolf, that Pruitt has refused help from the White House to prepare for his upcoming hearings later on this week.
And getting back to Dr. Ronny Jackson, Wolf, I just want to reiterate that we're hearing from a White House official just in the last few moments, who is saying that the doctor at this point wants to fight for this job, fight for this nomination. Of course, we have heard that kind of defiance before from other senior White House officials who have been embattled, other Cabinet members who have been embattled, other top officials of this president, nominees of this president who have been embattled and then have bowed to reality.
But at this point, it seems Dr. Jackson wants to fight on -- Wolf.
BLITZER: See if he can. Thanks very much, Jim Acosta.
Tonight, new evidence that concerns about Dr. Ronny Jackson go back more than five years and were documented actually in the military watchdog's investigation.
Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, has new reporting on that part of the story.
Barbara, there, what, was an inspector general's report on Dr. Jackson back in 2012.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It does go back to 2012, Wolf, during the Obama administration.
Of course, the Navy's medical inspector general, a watchdog element to the military, conducted a survey of the workplace in the White House Medical Unit. And what they found was concerning to them, that many employees or at least some employees reported a very difficult workplace environment.
And it was because there were two Navy captains at the time, Jackson, he was not yet an admiral, and another Navy captain, and they were butting heads and they were arguing. The report says that employees reported it was like being in the middle of parents having a bitter divorce.
So there was a recommendation, not a mandatory order, a recommendation out of this report that either Jackson, the other doctor, or both of them actually be replaced. Now, what we know is that Jackson, obviously, was not replaced. He has, you know, been promoted to admiral. He has another promotion upcoming. He remained on the job.
He became the personal physician, and now the personal physician -- military physician to President Trump. There was the remarks about the other Navy captain included officials in the report saying, this other captain was irrevocably damaged, his ability to effectively lead and serve. We don't know what happened in his career just yet, but we do know, tonight, Jackson remained on the job, and the White House did not take the recommendation at least to replace him -- Wolf.
BLITZER: See how long that lasts. Barbara, thank you, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.
Let's go to Capitol Hill right now for more new information about the allegations against Dr. Jackson.
We're joined by our congressional correspondent, Phil Mattingly. Phil, Democratic Senator Jon Tester, he's the top Democrat on the
Veterans Affairs Committee that has to go through the confirmation process of Dr. Jackson, he's speaking out rather bluntly about these allegations.
PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's exactly right, Wolf.
Look, right on Capitol Hill right now, it's more of a wait and see moment. Wait and see whether or not the allegations will be proven true. Wait and see whether Dr. Ronny Jackson will ever have a confirmation hearing, given one was postponed that was supposed to happen tomorrow. And wait and see whether or not Dr. Ronny Jackson will actually still be the nominee in the course of the next 24 hours.
But, as you noted, Senator Jon Tester, the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, laying out on the record for the first time what we have been hearing behind the scenes over the course of the last couple of days. He basically split the allegations, Wolf, into three buckets.
Improper prescriptions given to individuals, improper personal conduct related to alcohol, and the toxic work environment that you heard Barbara lay out from that report.
I want to play something that he said related to that I.G. report, because the committee has actually gotten word from whistle-blowers going deeper into those allegations. Take a listen.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
SEN. JON TESTER (D), MONTANA: Some of the exact words that were used by folks who we talked to were abusive towards staff, very explosive personality, belittles the folks underneath him, staff that he oversaw, screamed towards staff, basically creating an environment where the staff felt that they needed to walk on eggshells when around him.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
MATTINGLY: So, Wolf, that issue has certainly resonated with lawmakers in both parties as they try to go through these allegations.
But one that Tester pointed out in particular, with a lot of specificity, more than we have heard up to this point from our sources, was about allegations of improper conduct related to drinking.
Take a listen.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
TESTER: It was on travel. And he is the physician for the president.
And in the previous administration, we were told stories 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 AUDIO CLIP)
MATTINGLY: Senator Tester not mincing words there.
And it's worth noting, according to Senator Tester, more than 20 individuals, many of them uniformed military personnel, coming to the committee to raise these concerns.
And this really underscores, Wolf, why you have seen the scramble over the course of the last 36 hours, as these allegations have come to light. It's not just Democrats. It's Republicans as well. Very cognizant of the fact that the vetting process from the White House was limited, at best, when it came to Ronny Jackson, and that all of this is coming to light right now creates very significant problems.
And it's worth noting, I have heard this from both Republican and Democratic aides today, Wolf, that the VA is a very hyper-local issues for senators. It's very important to their constituents. They're dealing with these issues on a daily basis.
For Republicans in particular, this isn't the kind of vote that they can just take and vote yes because the president says so. This is the kind of vote that they will have to answer for.
The other key issue, given the vetting or lack thereof and given how Ronny Jackson was tweeted into the nomination earlier this year, is the fact that Ronny Jackson does not have a lot of serious allies on Capitol Hill, Republican or Democrat.
So as he has hung out there over the course of the last 24 hours, even though he says he is going to fight, the White House is standing firmly behind him, you don't have a lot of Republicans behind the scenes, Wolf, that are willing to go to bat for this nomination. That, more than anything else, is why you're continually hearing about both Republican and Democratic aides that, at this point, they're just not sure how much longer he can actually hang out there, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, it's a tough, tough process. Thanks very much, Phil Mattingly, for that report.
Joining us now, Congressman Ted Lieu. He's a Democrat who serves on both the Foreign Affairs and Judiciary Committees.
Congressman, thanks for joining us.
REP. TED LIEU (D), CALIFORNIA: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Even the president admitted today that there's a lack of experience on the part of Dr. Jackson, and he said he would understand completely if Jackson withdrew his name.
But the White House, at least as of right now, says Jackson won't bow out, at least not yet. And they're planning to defend him.
In light of the new details that you just heard that Senator Tester, among others, are saying, what do you think?
LIEU: Thank you, Wolf, for your question.
Being president is a serious job. You can't just make rash and impulsive decisions, and when you do, you run into problems, like Ronny Jackson. There was very little vetting. Donald Trump seemed to have just picked him because he happened to be his doctor in the White House.
And now we see that Ronny Jackson is getting multiple allegations of misconduct from different people. I think Ronny Jackson should withdraw his nomination and take the hint from President Trump that they're not really going to support him very much.
BLITZER: Dr. Jackson apparently wasn't vetted very seriously before the president announced his nomination on Twitter. What does that say about how the Trump administration, specifically the president, operates?
LIEU: It seems like the president makes decisions based on impulse, without considering all the facts.
And what we have here with Ronny Jackson is a person who has now multiple allegations against him. He's now thrown into the national spotlight. This is not good for Ronny Jackson. None of this had to happen if Donald Trump simply would have allowed the White House staff to do the appropriate vetting procedures.
I happen to have the largest VA in my district, the West Los Angeles VA. We need a powerful leader who is above-board, clean, and ethical. Ronny Jackson does not seem like that person.
BLITZER: And somebody with a lot of management experience, if you're going to be operating a huge, the second largest department in the federal government, the department of Veterans Affairs.
Let's get some news on North Korea while I have you, Congressman.
Last year President Trump was calling Kim Jong-un Little Rocket Man, among other things. He gave a speech at the United Nations. He blasted the human rights record in North Korea. But today he actually called Kim Jong-un very open and very honorable.
Is this laying the groundwork for his upcoming meeting with the North Korean leader?
LIEU: I served on active duty under Pacific Air Forces. And it's very clear to me that the U.S. has no good military options against North Korea, so I support diplomacy.
And I support the Trump administration engaging in diplomacy with the North Korean leader, and I hope that this summit, whenever it happens, goes well. And I really hope we can mitigate the risk of North Korea and do it without having an all-out war in Asia.
BLITZER: That would be a disaster, indeed, for so many, not just hundreds of thousands, but maybe millions of people.
The president was very clear on what he wants from his talks with the North Korean leader. He said he wants North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. No more nukes. Do you think that's possible?
LIEU: I think it's possible. I think it's unlikely. I can see the North Koreans not doing anymore in terms of their nuclear weapons development. But for them to give up their existing nuclear weapons, I think it's hard for them to do that, because they view that as really their ability to deter aggression from the United States and from other countries.
So I'm not sure that that's likely going to happen.
BLITZER: At the same time, as you know, Congressman, the president is calling the Iran nuclear deal, he hates it, as you know, he calls it insane, ridiculous today.
So, how do you think the North Korean leader will negotiate, will deal with the U.S., if the president, by May 12, rips up the Iranian nuclear deal?
LIEU: That's a great question, Wolf.
I think the North Korean negotiations will hinge on what they see Donald Trump do with the Iran deal. There is no evidence that Iran is not complying in any significant manner with the Iran deal. And if all of a sudden the United States just rips it up, the North Koreans will be asking themselves, how can we trust the U.S. in future negotiations?
I think there are ways to use other agreements to address some of the efficiencies in the Iran deal. But to completely rip it up, I think, would make it difficult to go with North Korean negotiations on another deal with North Korea.
BLITZER: On another issue, you reacted to CNN's reporting on President Trump's personal use of a cell phone by -- a personal cell phone, I should say, by tweeting this. I will read it.
"Dear President Trump, you can either use secure communications and General Kelly will know who you are talking to, or you can use your unsecured personal cell phone, and foreign intelligence agencies will know who you are talking to and record your conversations. I would go with Kelly."
Is this just a national security issue? Do you believe Congress should have some oversight as far as the president's use of a personal cell phone with security risks at stake?
This is a significant national security issue. There is an existing flaw known as the signaling system number seven flaw. I'm a recovering computer science major. But I know that this flaw is not fixed, which means that foreign intelligence agencies can listen in on your cell phone conversations, just knowing your cell phone number. And there's really no good way to stop it.
So I think they are targeting Donald Trump's phone. I would be surprised if they were not. And I hope Donald Trump is not saying anything important in those phone calls.
BLITZER: Congressman Lieu, thanks, as usual, for joining us.
LIEU: Yes, thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Just ahead, the president gave his doctor some advice, so why isn't Dr. Ronny Jackson taking the hint and withdrawing his nomination to head the Veterans Affairs Department?
And pardon politics. Mr. Trump getting snarky when a reporter brings up the criminal investigation of his lawyer.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: All right. Thank you very much.
TRUMP: Stupid question. Go ahead. Any other -- anybody else, please?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: We're following breaking news.
President Trump's embattled nominee for the VA secretary position isn't stepping aside, at least not yet, despite the president's publicly signaling to Dr. Ronny Jackson that if he were Dr. Jackson, he would call it quits.
We're joined right now by our political and legal experts.
Gloria Borger, we got some new details on the allegations against Dr. Jackson from Senator Jon Tester, the ranking Democrat on the Veterans Affairs Committee.
Listen to what he just told NPR.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
TESTER: Some of the exact words that were used by folks who we talked to were abusive towards staff, very explosive personality, belittles the folks underneath him, staff that he oversaw, screamed towards staff, basically creating an environment where the staff felt that they needed to walk on eggshells when around him. (END AUDIO CLIP)
BLITZER: He also said there was a drinking problem on trips. When he was supposed to take care of the president, he was drunk. Those are pretty strong words. What are you hearing?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, our White House team is reporting that, for now at least, the president and the White House is standing by him. We all heard the president earlier today when he was with Macron said, look, if it were up to me, I said to him, why would anyone want to go through this and why would you do this?
But they met, and I think it's very clear that Jackson wants to hang in there. And if he wants to hang in, I think the White House is going to support him, because the president likes him so much.
But I must say that if you were doing a usual vet on a nominee for an important Cabinet position, these things should up come beforehand, and not after you have already nominated someone.
BLITZER: Yes, listen to what the president, Rebecca, said about the Jackson nomination earlier in the day at his news conference with President Macron.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: I said to Dr. Jackson, what do you need it for? So, we will see what happens. I don't want to put a man through who's not a political person, I don't want to put a man through a process like this. It's too ugly and too disgusting.
So, we will see what happens. He will make a decision. The fact is, I wouldn't do it. I wouldn't do it. What does he need it for?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Certainly sounds like he's giving Dr. Jackson an easy out.
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.
I mean, the president sees the headlines. He watches the news, just lake we all do. And so he sees the negative coverage that Jackson getting. And I'm sure he's hearing as well from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, probably urging him to maybe make a different decision here.
But the fact of the matter is, it is not the fault of the process that these allegations are now coming to light regarding Jackson. It's the fault of the president and the White House for not doing the vetting that they were supposed to do, but you don't hear the president taking that responsibility.
Instead, he's blaming lawmakers for doing their job. BLITZER: How concerning are these allegations? Because he did serve,
not just during the Trump administration, as the president's physician, but during the Obama administration as well.
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN COMMENTATOR: Right, someone should ask someone in the Obama administration what they knew about these allegations going back to that time frame.
Look, Wolf, no one likes and it's not good management to have an abusive boss. But it's especially bad in a situation where you have someone going in to lead an organization that really does need reform.
The VA needs someone who can build consensus to make reforms that people on both sides of the aisle say need to be made. So I think...
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: But wait a second. We're talking about a doctor drunk on duty? I mean, if that's true, he's not going to get it. It doesn't matter if he withdraws. He's going to lose. A doctor drunk on duty? What is that?
BLITZER: Let me read to you what Senator Tester, the top Democrat on the Veterans Affairs Committee, said on that specific allegation against Dr. Jackson.
"Once again, it was on travel. And he is the physician for the president. And in the previous administration, we were told stories 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."
That's specifically what Senator Tester said, Jeffrey.
TOOBIN: Well, unless he can refute that, I mean, the story is over. It looks to me like the story is over anyway, but, I mean, you know, I'm not a doctor, but I think you're not allowed to be drunk when you're on duty. Isn't that like kind of a rule?
BORGER: Yes, it's kind of a rule. And if you're the president's doctor and you're traveling with the president, you know, it would seem to me that if the White House isn't doing due diligence, Congress needs to do due diligence.
The White House can say we're behind Ronny Jackson and we want him to be confirmed. But Congress is going to have to investigate this, if the White House won't.
BLITZER: He says he wants to be able to defend himself and go through a confirmation hearing. What do you think, David?
SWERDLICK: Yes, this will all come out in the hearing. And I agree with Jeffrey think that drinking on duty is also something that he's going to have a hands to explain, but could be fatal to his candidacy.
I think just the one other point about Admiral Jackson is this, that, look, President Trump kind of signaled today in that clip you played, Wolf, that he's willing to just sort of let him just sort of walk out stage left. That is not a good sign for Admiral Jackson, that the administration, perhaps, even if they will go forward with this, it's not going to dig in and fight for him.
BERG: There is a risk to going through with a hearing. That's a risk that the White House should recognize, because it's political, it's P.R.
It's having your nominee out there getting roasted by these lawmakers in public view, getting harangued for things that he's done. The White House should have never put him in this position, if they had done the due diligence to look into his past.
BLITZER: Yes, go ahead.
TOOBIN: And remember -- and remember the way the president has insulted President Obama's treatment of veterans. He has gone on and on about how he's for the veterans, he's for the veterans. And this, this is who he puts up as secretary? I mean, come on.
BORGER: Well, but this is part of the new Donald Trump, who believes that he wants to put people who give him comfort, close to him, because now he has sort of got this thing about being president and how to be president.
So he wants people that he likes near him. And he likes this doctor, who said that he has the genes to live until he's 200 years old.
BLITZER: But look at the damage he's done to Dr. Jackson.
BLITZER: He's embarrassed him, humiliated him. The guy was pretty well respected as the White House physician, was well-liked during the Obama administration, and now he's emerged as this horrific person, if you believe all of these allegations against him.
SWERDLICK: But, of course, if some of that is true, turns out to be true, Dr. Jackson should have known that about himself before he accepted the nomination.
BORGER: And they should have known things about Price. They should have known things about Shulkin. They should have known things about Pruitt. The list goes on and on.
BLITZER: The bottom line, if the president likes someone and wants to nominate that person for a Cabinet position, no matter how much you like that person, vet him or her thoroughly before you go ahead and put them up for confirmation process, which can be very tough in the United States Senate.
All right, there's more news we're following. What would happen if President Trump tears up the nuclear agreement
with Iran as he prepares for talks with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un? The dictator now praised by the president as open and honest.
[18:34:43] BLITZER: Breaking tonight, a White House official says the president's choice to be the Veterans Affairs secretary is not withdrawing his nomination, not right now, as stunning accusations against Dr. Ronny Jackson are revealed.
We're also following breaking news on President Trump's efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with North Korea while threatening to rip up the U.S. involvement in the nuclear agreement with Iran.
Let's bring in our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.
Jim, what would happen if the U.S. walked away from the Iran nuclear deal? Would it still be enforced? Would Iran race to develop nukes?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, first, look at the European partners. Because of course, you have European partners. You have China, Russia. Would they continue to do business, to buy Iranian oil if the U.S. were to pull out of the deal and face possible penalty from the U.S. government, the U.S. Treasury? Highly unlikely. That would remove, really, that half of the deal. Hard for it to survive, really impossible for it to survive without that.
As far as Iran's position, the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, has already been raising in public the possibility of Iran then withdrawing from the nuclear deal, which would allow it, would remove the restrictions on its nuclear program. He's even raised the possibility of withdrawing from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, which would remove really any monitoring or commitments from Iran regarding its nuclear program.
Now, asked about that prospect today, the president had some very stern words for Iran.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They're not going to be restarting anything. They restart it, they're going to have big problems. Bigger than they've ever had before. And you can mark it down. They restart their nuclear program, they will have bigger problems than they have ever had before.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SCIUTTO: Now, it was the president there laying down a marker, Wolf, for military action against Iran, if Iran were to restart its nuclear program? It's a fair question, and it sounded like he was. Would the U.S. act alone? Would it be prepared to be drawn into a regional war? That's a question for another time. But the president, if we accept him at his word, and that he was
laying down a marker there, that appeared to be what he was threatening Iran with.
BLITZER: It certainly sounded like a military threat to me.
Is it possible, Jim, to renegotiate a deal with Iran? What would be in it, and why would Iran, at least at this point, say yes?
SCIUTTO: It's hard to see why they would say yes. Because from the Iranian perspective, the U.S. is already reneging on the Iran deal. Because part of the deal was, "We stop our nuclear program, we get to sell our stuff, our oil to the world." The U.S. has already stopped this, not buying Iranian oil, not doing business, not allowing its companies to do business. European companies, spooked by the prospect of the U.S. leaving the deal.
So Iran is, in effect, giving up its nuclear program, for now, without the reward. So what incentive would they have to negotiate with a party that they see as reneging on the deal? And it really sets up for a real challenge, going forward.
BLITZER: President Trump, today, clarified what he's expecting when it comes to North Korean denuclearization. He said that simply means they have to get rid of all of their nukes. Are President Trump's expectations for this upcoming summit that he's going to have with Kim Jong-un in alignment with the expectations of North Korea?
SCIUTTO: Well, no. No, they're not, based on what we understand to be North Korea's definition of denuclearization. At least to this point, they view it differently. Not giving up all of their nuclear weapons, because that's a matter of survival for them.
The president has -- has gone out on a bit of a limb here, because he seemed to be defining success in these talks, to some degree, of the negotiations, on complete denuclearization, which it doesn't mean that's an impossible task. There are paths to get there, there are offers that the U.S. Can make. But is that a concession that North Korea is willing to make? And it's not clear.
But the president, we talked about the marker that he threw down on Iran. The president threw down a marker, you can say, with North Korea, as well.
BLITZER: Certainly did. All right, Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.
And David Swerdlick, the president clearly doesn't trust the Iran nuclear deal. He'd like to rip it up, if he could, and he might. He's got until May 12 to make a decision. But would he really, realistically, have faith in a nuclear deal with North Korea?
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I don't think so, Wolf. First of all, the president, again, is looking at this wrong. The JCPOA, the Iran deal, was just meant to buy time. It wasn't a peace treaty or spiking the football in the end zone, it was to buy time for us to continue to try and repair relations with Iran. And it was a trust but verify approach that we would monitor to make sure they didn't continue with building nuclear weapons.
If you're North Korea, you're sitting there looking at this process and going, No. 1, President Trump doesn't have any faith in the process that the United States set up. And No. 2, so far, we're getting what we want -- publicity, possibly a visit from the president -- without having to even really discuss any of that.
Like Jim said, you know, victory in this situation for President Trump is not getting a meeting. It's getting something done.
BLITZER: Gloria, you and I watched the news conference that the president had with the visiting French president, Macron. Clearly, these two men have a different attitude towards the Iran nuclear deal, but, you know, he was trying to finesse it, President Macron, to convince President Trump, you know, maybe we can expand it and come up with some other ingredients.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I think Macron is kind of brilliant in the way he knows how to handle Donald Trump. He's very complimentary, and he says, "Working together, we can do this."
[18:40:06] And looking at it, and we talked about it this afternoon, Wolf. You know that he's meeting with Macron. Then he's meeting with Angela Merkel. Then he's talking to the British.
And it seems to me that our allies, in their own way, are doing some kind of intervention with the president, to try and get him, at least partly on their page. Because they understand what Jim Sciutto was just saying, which is, what's in it for Iran to -- to be a party to this, since they're saying that they've abided by the rules? And if the United States withdraws, they're going to say, "Forget about it."
BORGER: And so Macron is trying to convince the president, "Well, maybe we have a different deadline. Maybe we push it back a little bit." And I think he's going to hear the same thing, if I had to guess, from the other allies, and we'll have to see where he comes out, because if we withdraw, I think Iran says, "No dice."
BLITZER: And then the president issued a tough warning to Iran today, as well.
You know, Jeffrey, it was not that long ago that President Trump was referring to Kim Jong-un as Little Rocket Man. But listen to how he referred to him today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're having very, very good discussions. Kim Jong-un was -- he really has been very open and, I think, very honorable from everything we're seeing. Now, a lot of promises have been made by North Korea over the years, but they've never been in this position.
(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: What do you think?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I mean, it's really remarkable. You know, we are in the middle of a negotiation, so I don't know how seriously you should take any -- anything anyone says on a given day.
But we're talking about perhaps the most repressive dictator in the world. And the president, obviously, just has an affection for authoritarians. I mean, whether it's Duterte in Philippines, Putin in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey, you know, he just has an instinctual affection for people -- for leaders who are authoritarians. And it just comes through over and over again.
BLITZER: Well, you know, Rebecca, he also seems to have a good personal relationship with Emmanuel Macron of France. Watch some of the body language that was exhibited today. Watch this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: A piece of dandruff off --
EMMANUEL MACRON, PRESIDENT OF FRANCE: Thank you.
TRUMP: Thank you very much.
MACRON: Thank you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: It's pretty good -- pretty good bromance.
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. It's more like a lovefest, Wolf. I want them to get a room. It's a little too much PDA.
But it's important. Because if you look at some of the relationships that Trump has failed to develop with some of our other key European allies -- Theresa May in the U.K., Angela Merkel in Germany -- those are traditional U.S. allies, who the president has not warmed to those leaders.
And so it's so important, in terms of our relations with Europe, that they have developed this friendship, however unlikely it is. They still seem like something of an odd couple to me. But they know how to approach each other, and Macron knows that praise works well with this president; and he showered him with it.
SWERDLICK: France was the most hawkish on the Syria missile strikes. And they got what they wanted out of President Trump.
BORGER: And I think that's why he's here first. He's here first. He kind of softens him up a little bit. And then Angela Merkel comes. I mean, this is -- you know, this is choreographed. This doesn't happen by chance.
BLITZER: What did you think, Jeffrey, of the president getting rid of a little dandruff from President Macron's shoulder over there?
TOOBIN: I mean, that struck me as a very alpha dog move. You know? I mean, like, who wants to have their dandruff pointed out on national television, international television? I thought it was weird. And I thought it was weird. I don't know. I just -- you know? Perhaps others disagree.
BLITZER: Maybe President Macron should be using Head and Shoulders a little bit more once in a while to get rid of --
TOOBIN: And wouldn't he enjoy that we're having this conversation?
All right, guys, everybody, stick around. There's a lot more news we're following. Just ahead, the EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, refused any help from the White House as he prepares to help lawmakers who are fuming about his ethical lapses. New details on his troubles, that's coming up.
[18:49:18] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Tonight, as the president's nominee to lead the V.A. defies growing pressure to step aside, a current member of Mr. Trump's cabinet is feeling the heat as well. That would be the EPA chief, Scott Pruitt.
CNN has learned that White House officials are debating whether Pruitt should stay or go.
Let's get some more from CNN's Sara Ganim.
Sara, even some top Republicans now are very worried about Pruitt.
SARA GANIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. As one Republican put it today, it's been weeks of allegations against Scott Pruitt and the goodwill that he has built up from his aggressive EPA policies is starting to wane as supporters become fed up with the headlines.
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 details on personal trips, to a sound proof phone booth and questionable staff pay raises.
[18:50:15] 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 a lot of 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 environmental 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 PRUITT, EPA ADMINISTRATOR: 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 the White House too.
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: 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 cleanup program, which is supposed to address the most toxic and harmful sites across the country.
ALBERT KELLY, FORMER BANKER: At Spirit Bank, we are 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 advisor, Ken Wagner, is one of Pruitt's buddies from law school and they have been intertwined in business together for decades. Wagner hired Pruitt to work in his law firm in the early 2000s, and after Pruitt became attorney general years later, the law firm's state contracts increased six-fold to more than a 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.
GANIM: Wolf, not everyone in the White House is voicing concern. In fact, one source says that the president at this point is the only one who seems to still support Scott Pruitt. BLITZER: Sara, thanks so much. Good report, Sara Ganim reporting for
There's much more breaking news right after this.
[18:57:53] BLITZER: Tonight, we're told former President George Herbert Walker Bush is alert and talking as he's being treated in intensive care for a potentially life-threatening infection.
We're joined by our special correspondent, Jamie Gangel.
Jamie, tell us a little more about what you're hearing from the family right now.
JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: So, we have some good news today, some hopeful news. We're told that he has been responding to the antibiotics and other treatment and that he seems to be -- he appears to be recovering. As you said, he's alert, he's awake, he's been talking, and I don't think it will surprise anyone who knows him that the first thing he said was, I'm told, that he wants to get better so he can go to his home in Kennebunkport, Maine, for the summer.
He loves it up there. The only summer he's ever missed was during World War II, when he was serving.
I think the real question here has to do with attitude. We're in a wait-and-see, but his attitude is very good and he has rallied before.
BLITZER: L hope he does again this time. I've been to Kennebunkport up there with him and it is lovely, I don't blame him for wanting to be there.
But remember, her funeral, Barbara Bush's funeral was Saturday, we were covering it, and then within a few hours, the next morning, he was rushed to the hospital.
GANGEL: So, I think in many ways, this was shocking because it was the day after her funeral and he buried her. And we were told Saturday night he was doing well, that he went out to dinner with his family. But this had to have had a huge impact on him, an emotional impact.
We heard Sanjay talk about heartbreak syndrome. And so, I think this was probably a confluence of events. He had this infection, was exhausted, and he had this crisis on Sunday.
BLITZER: His family is there in Houston with him?
GANGEL: So a lot of the family lives in Houston. His son, Neil, lives right across the street. I'm told his daughter, Doro, is there. Some of the family had gone home but there's plenty of family around him.
BLITZER: We wish him a complete recovery.
BLITZER: Only, only the best.
We'll stay in close touch with you because you're very close up with the family.
Jamie, thanks for that update.
GANGEL: Thank you.
BLITZER: Appreciate it very much.
That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.