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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Will Trump's Own Words Doom Travel Ban?; Jeff Sessions Stays Quiet on Resignation Threat; White House Stands Behind Controversial VA Nominee; Interview with Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts; Trump Thanks Kanye West for Support on Twitter. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired April 25, 2018 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:03]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: The White House says that the president's pick to head the Veterans Administration was thoroughly vetted.

Wait, before today?

THE LEAD starts right now.

One day after the president gave him an out, the White House comes to the defense of Admiral Ronny Jackson. How much did the president know about these allegations involving the White House physician?

Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the spot. Would he resign if the president fired those in charge of the Russia investigation? His answer given just minutes ago may surprise you.

Plus: rare audio from inside of the highest court in the land over the Trump travel ban. Will President Trump's own words on the campaign trail doom one of his most controversial policies?

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapter -- Tap -- my name again. I'm Jake Tapper.

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: After President Trump opened the door wide open for Dr. Ronny Jackson to step aside from his nomination to lead the VA, a source telling CNN that the president is now telling Dr. Jackson, don't go. Stay and fight.

And this afternoon the White House carried on that fight, asserting that Admiral Jackson's record is "impeccable" and claiming he's had more vetting than other Cabinet nominees, this despite allegations, unproven as yet, shared with the U.S. Senate that are giving senators, including Republican senators, concern, allegations as yet unproven that have burst into the public sphere in the last day.

That the White House physician casually handed out drugs such as Ambien to the White House staff, to the point that he was reportedly nicknamed the candy man, allegations that Admiral Jackson drank excessively, including when he was on call for the president, including one incident on a trip during the Obama years where Jackson was allegedly so intoxicated he was banging on the hotel room door of a woman, and the Secret Service feared he might wake the president, so they intervened, according to a source.

CNN's Pamela Brown is at the White House for us right now.

And, Pamela, these allegations are shocking. They're being shared with the public by various sources, including on the record by Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat.

What is the White House's response?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the White House basically is saying that these new allegations made public by Senator Tester are something that it will look it.

And it's pointing to the four background investigations that Dr. Jackson had passed as justification for the fact that he was properly vetted, even though White House staffers were caught by surprise by these new allegations against Jackson in recent days.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (voice-over): The president's pick to lead the Department of Veteran Affairs is vowing to 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.

BROWN: Despite the numerous allegations surfacing over past inappropriate behavior.

SEN. JON TESTER (D), MONTANA: They're very serious accusations, whether it's prescription drug handing out like it was candy or whether it's intoxication or whether it's toxic work environment.

BROWN: The top Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee telling CNN Jackson was known as the candy man inside the White House and passed out prescription drugs on international flights. It is something that Jackson has spoken about before.

JACKSON: I recommend that everyone on the plane take a sleep aid at certain times, so that we can try our best to get on the schedule of our destination.

BROWN: Today, the White House calling that claim unfair.

MARC SHORT, WHITE HOUSE DIRECTOR OF LEGISLATIVE AFFAIRS: Every year, they come in and they do a review of the White House Physician's Office on things like prescriptions, and every year they said that he's totally in compliance with what he's been prescribing.

BROWN: Jackson also facing an allegation that during an overseas trip in 2015 he was intoxicated and banged on the hotel door of a female employee, according to four sources familiar with the incident. TESTER: We have confirmed it with the people who have told us and, quite frankly, moving forward we just need to do more finding of sources to finding it out. The bottom line is there is over 20 people that have forward. These are active military people, retired military people who actually put their jobs on the line if their name becomes public.

BROWN: Yesterday, Trump giving Jackson a chance to leave the nomination process.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I really don't think personally he should do it, but it is totally his. I would stand behind him. Totally his decision.

BROWN: Jackson later met with Trump and it was decided he would not withdraw. The White House now working to salvage Jackson's reputation and nomination, including releasing handwritten notes from Trump calling him two-star material and one from President Obama in 2014 asking for Jackson to be immediately promoted.

But Republicans on Capitol Hill are growing frustrated with the lack of information coming from the White House.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: A lot of us had questions about lack of experience. We obviously didn't know about any of these allegations.

BROWN: And saying the vetting process is partially to blame.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: All I can say is that there has been a history here of people coming to the Hill not very well vetted.

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: Maybe in this particular case, a better job should have been done.

BROWN: The Trump administration defending its vetting of Jackson today, saying he has had four independent background investigations during his time at the White House.

[16:05:05]

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Dr. Jackson's record as a White House physician has been impeccable. In fact, because Dr. Jackson has worked within arm's reach of three presidents, he's received more vetting than most nominees.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: And Press Secretary Sarah Sanders dodged questions today on whether Jackson underwent additional vetting before he became the nominee.

But we can tell you, Jake, in talking to White House sources, that the president's insistence that Jackson become the VA nominee led to a less than thorough vet of his political suitability, which, of course, is a different kind of vet than the four type of FBI background investigations that Sanders pointed to today -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Pamela Brown at the White House for us, thanks so much.

My political panel joins me now.

David Urban, let me start with you.

Look, obviously these are allegations, these are not proven facts. But what should the White House be doing? If it's not true, then I don't think they're doing him any favors by letting these allegations hang out there. If they are true, then they didn't do him any favors by nominating him without answers to these questions ready.

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right. That is the tough part here. Right?

We don't know exactly what is in the black box again. Right? What is true? What is in the report? What in the FBI background report? Presumably, he's had four TSSCI (ph) background checks done to be that close to the president for that many years, that many presidents.

You get a very thorough vetting. I think the White House is doing exactly what they should. There is going to be a report that goes up to the Hill for him that answers all these questions. The members get to take a look at the file.

I'm certainly they are going to get to take a look at it before his hearing. They are answering exactly as they should at this point.

TAPPER: And, Nia, you heard Lindsey Graham, Bob Corker and other Republican senators expressing dismay. This is just another example of somebody who has not had their background adequately vetted going up to the Hill prematurely.

And again I don't know what the truth is. Maybe this is all unfair to Dr. Jackson, to Admiral Jackson. But if it is unfair, the White House is partly to blame.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, because this was essentially a decision made by the president because he liked his relationship with Dr. Jackson, he likes their interaction and he liked his presentation on television.

And then you had people after this nomination was made, people like Lindsey Graham did come out and say this was a home run. He was pretty laudatory about this pick. And now he's in a position where all of this additional information comes out about Dr. Jackson.

I think one of the problems they're going to have is that typically from the White House you will hear them essentially say, this is a witch-hunt, this is partisan. The president in some ways said that in his press conference yesterday when he said maybe Dr. Jackson shouldn't even stay in the running for this because who wants to put up with this.

The problem is, it is like 20 people, right, who come forward...

TAPPER: The 20 background sources doing the allegations. Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

HENDERSON: Yes, making these allegations, some active military and some retired military.

So they're going to have a real kind of problem, I think, suggesting this is some sort of coordinated attack on Dr. Jackson.

TAPPER: Yes.

And, Kirsten Powers, you worked at the White House. On the charge specifically that Dr. Jackson as White House physician freely dispensed to White House aides on trips either Ambien to help them sleep or some other drug to help them wake up, is that unusual?

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: Well, so I worked in the office of the U.S. trade representative, which is one...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Part of the White House.

(CROSSTALK)

POWERS: So I didn't travel often with the president, but there was one trip when I was in Indonesia. And actually I was given some of the kind of drugs that they are talking about.

And I think a lot of it is because you are in a country where you can't actually go to a CVS and get a prescription filled. So they have drugs with them that they can to hand out.

I don't know when he was doing this. I don't know the extent of it, if he really was just passing them out on the plane. And I think we have also to remember I think we have become much more aware of how addictive a lot of these drugs are, and how problematic they are.

I think there was a time when a lot of doctors even were just handing out the prescriptions too easily. So, we're really sensitive. And I think we need to know when this happened.

TAPPER: The other thing has been raised is, for example, this allegation that he was intoxicated on a trip or had a drinking problem, that he would be drunk on a trip.

And there is this one incident where allegedly he was banging on the hotel door of a female colleague, a female employee. And the Secret Service intervened because they thought that he might wake up President Obama.

One of the things I'm hearing from conservatives if he had all threat problems during the Obama White House, how come President Obama kept on writing him glowing reviews? Here is one from President Obama, 2015, saying -- quote -- "Ronny does a great job, genuine enthusiasm, poised under pressure, incredible work ethic, follow-through. Ronny continues to inspire confidence with the care he provides to me and my family and my team. Continue to promote ahead of peers."

URBAN: Right.

And you heard there was a Secret Service agent talking on earlier today about how he had frequently during trips abroad asked folks to quiet down in the hallway because they would wake the president. So it wasn't unusual. He didn't find that particularly unusual.

(CROSSTALK)

[16:10:02]

HENDERSON: I think he did find it unusual, given that this is possibly -- at least this allegation...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Theoretically, it might not have been unusual, but drunkenly banging on the...

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: My point is, that is a mere allegation he is drunk banging on somebody's door.

TAPPER: Still.

HENDERSON: And it would be problematic in this instance because it is the president's doctor. And you would think that if you're the president's doctor, you don't want to...

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: But then again, that begs the question, how does he remain the White House physician for all these years?

(CROSSTALK)

POWERS: Look, we have all worked in Washington for a while. I think we know this person that exists that is very good at catering to people above them and very mean to people below them. And these people thrive.

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: This is the White House physician. He's the doctor that stands next to the president, whether it's President Obama.

(CROSSTALK)

POWERS: But if everybody knows that the president likes him this much, they're going to be much less likely to come forward and complain about him. I think that now... (CROSSTALK)

URBAN: Listen, I agree in most instances.

(CROSSTALK)

POWERS: I think that now people are feeling much more empowered about coming forward and making allegations against powerful people.

I think we have to go back to it used to be like. And what it used to be like, if somebody was really powerful...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Even during the Obama years, you're saying?

POWERS: Yes.

And if someone is close to the president, people would be afraid to say anything against them, because they would feel they have more power than I am. They're in with the top people, the president of the United States. And if I say something, I could lose my job.

TAPPER: Now, you don't know anything specific about this allegation.

POWERS: No. No. No.

TAPPER: You're just saying theoretically it could be a similar situation.

URBAN: And I would agree with you, Kirsten.

I would say that I don't dispute that. This is the White House physician, the person who is responsible for the health of the commander in chief, whether it is President Obama.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: The White House staff secretary the other...

URBAN: No, no, but being in the food chain and the power structure, the doctor is kind of outside of that structure.

The doctor is there to make sure the president's healthy on these trips, doesn't get sick. He takes care of the needs of the folks on the trip. He's outside that power structure, so I don't think that takes...

TAPPER: One thing I think we can all agree on, which is we need to know a lot more, the public needs to know a lot more about the allegations.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Coming up, everyone, stay here. We have a lot more to talk about. Did one of President Trump's top Cabinet members give us a window into

how Washington really works? The speech that led one U.S. senator to call this the most corrupt administration ever -- next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:16:18] TAPPER: In our politics lead today, Mick Mulvaney, the president's budget director and now also the acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau gave a speech to bankers this week that raised some eyebrows.

First, he said he didn't want to, quote, run a Yelp for financial services sponsored by the federal government, unquote, and he wants to shut down public access to a Website where consumers could see complaints about banks. And then also in that same speech he talked about his relationship with lobbyists and constituents and said, quote, we had a hierarchy in my office in Congress. If you were a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn't talk to you. If you were a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you. If you came from back home and sat in my lobby, I talked with you without exception regardless of the financial contributions, unquote.

Joining me now is the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren. She helped create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. It was her idea.

Senator, let's start with the part that has to do with lobbyists and campaign contributions.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Yes.

TAPPER: What do you make of that?

WARREN: Most corrupt administration ever. I mean, come on. This is a man who stood up in front of 1,300 people and said, you get to listen -- you know, the congressman will listen to you, but only if you pay. That's called pay to play. And that's just another way of saying it.

This joint runs great for those who can hire armies of lobbyists and lawyers and have them make big campaign contributions, but not here for real people.

TAPPER: So, just to play devil's advocate. Is it not possible that Mick Mulvaney was talking about the reality of the Washington, Democrats or Republicans, that if you give campaign contributions, you'll get to meet with a member of Congress?

WARREN: Well, look, if he is, then he's describing widespread corruption and there is widespread corruption in this place. But let's be clear, he described a policy in his own office. That was exactly his description. And that's the part really that gets me about this.

He wasn't even embarrassed. You know, it's not like he whispered this off stage. He said it to a couple of people and someone secretly recorded it.

He is so corrupt that he is willing to just lay it all out there in front of everyone. He said, I am a government official ho pays attention to those who pay me, and if that's not corruption, I don't know what the definition of corruption is.

TAPPER: I want to also talk about the part of this having to do with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau since you helped invent it up. This data base that he wants to shut down access to, how important is that.

WARREN: Oh, it's powerfully important and it is right there in the statute. The statute when we created the CFPB says that consumers can file complaints. So, just assume you get cheated out of $10 on your checking account and they put a charge in and you think it is wrong and they won't resolve it, or somebody won't give you back, you know, $15,000 down payment on your house, or your student loan servicer won't answer the phone or put you in the wrong programs, where do you go to fix any of that stuff?

And the answer is you could file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. It is cfpb.gov and it's a little button for complaint. You fill out the information, the complaint goes in, and the consumer agency sends it on to the creditor you're complaining about.

And they get resolved. Not all of them. Not 100 percent of the time. But they're getting complaints resolved literally, hundreds of thousands of complaints that are getting resolved. So that's part one. Good for the consumer.

But part two, you know me, Jake. I'm somebody who wants to see markets work right. And the best way to make a market work right is to get information out there.

[16:20:01] So, you're trying to decide which bank to pick. You can right now go to cfpb.gov and go to the complaint section and you can see which banks get the most complaints, which ones are having the most trouble? The agency itself, others can look at it and say, wait a minute, I think there is a particular problem that's starting to emerge. What Mick Mulvaney wants to do is shut that down, or at least what he said he may do.

And in other words, protect the people who are out there cheating Americans, protect the people that kept your 10 bucks or your $11,000 or put you in the wrong student loan program, the CFPB is not there to protect those folks. It is there to protect the American people.

TAPPER: Senator, I want to ask you about other incidents today involving Trump cabinet officials, Attorney General Sessions wouldn't say during congressional testimony if he would resign if his deputy Rod Rosenstein or special counsel Robert Mueller was fired. What did you make of that? And do you have faith in Sessions to lead the Justice Department?

WARREN: Look, I -- I just don't know. I don't know what this means with any of these people. The whole notion that they are going to stand up for basic principles and tell this president that no one is above the law, not even the president of the United States, just seems to be vanishing among this current -- Jeff Sessions to his credit is the one who stood up who recused himself and has stayed in that A.G. spot. But I don't know.

I think that is exactly what he's telling the American people. Don't count on me if Donald Trump starts coming after people in the Department of Justice over this investigation. I think that is the reason that we need to pass a law over here in Congress to say that Donald Trump cannot fire the people who are investigating him. No one is above the law. Not even the president.

TAPPER: What do you make of the accusations against the president's nominee to be head of the V.A., Dr. and Admiral Ronny Jackson?

WARREN: Well, look, I'm very glad that Jon Tester and others are on this. You know, they want to do a thorough background check. Being the head of the V.A. is really important. But for me, the big issue is an issue around policy. It's who is going to be there to protect the independents of the V.A.

I don't want to see a V.A. that's privatized, and all three of my older brothers, military service and all three veterans. I get a very first-hand look at how important the Veterans Administration is to our veterans. We need to keep it funded. We need to keep it strong and we need to keep it independent and not privatized.

TAPPER: Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

WARREN: Thank you.

TAPPER: I want to continue this conversation with the panel. Stay with me. We'll take this quick break. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: We're back with the politics lead and my panel and words I thought I would never say, President Trump just tweeted: thank you music mogul Kanye West for his support.

Back up a little. Kanye had tweeted, you don't have to agree with Trump but the mob can't make me not love him. We're both dragging energy -- I'll just repeat that, that's not a typo. We are both dragging energy. He is my brother. I love everyone. I don't agree with everything anyone does, that's what makes us individuals and we have the right to independent thought.

This comes after a week of Kanye West tweeting some controversial affirmations for opinions that maybe in the progressive community are not shared. President Trump re-tweeting it, says, thank you so much, very cool.

It's interesting. This does put him at odds with his wife -- I can't again, once again, Kim Kardashian-West, this puts him at odds. She was a -- she was a Hillary Clinton supporter.

Why? Why would the president want to bring attention to Kanye West saying that he doesn't hate Trump and he supports him, he's his brother, they're both dragging energy?

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I don't know how to get into his head. I guess he likes -- he likes celebrities and -- and he wants their approval and now he has the approval of one of them.

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, I think Kanye West is a cultural icon.

TAPPER: Sure.

URBAN: Look at the price of Yeezys, I gone online and tried to get -- I'll tell you, I tried with my son and tried to buy a pair actually. My son would not let me buy a pair.

TAPPER: Yes. He's very -- I mean, he's incredibly talented musician. He's also a controversial public figure. But it is interesting that he has been expressing support for the president. I mean, it does show the president loves people who love him.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes, I think that's right. And that is why you see the president saying, you know, this is a cool thing, it came up in the briefing.

It's almost not surprising. I mean, Kanye did meet with the president or -- when he was the president-elect in New York. He also tweeted that he loves Hillary Clinton and his wife is tweeting back at people saying don't be too hard on my husband, don't necessarily make it seem like he's going through a mental break down which we know he's had mental health problems. So, yes --

(CROSSTALK)

HENDERSON: And I think he tweeted about --

TAPPER: That was the accusation that people are making and Kim Kardashian --

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: And she said that when he expressed himself, that's when he's out of his pit. So, anyway -- we have a lot more to talk about. It's not Kanye related.

We have some breaking news on the Hill. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the hot seat, refusing to say moments ago if he would resign if the president desired to fire his number two Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. The host of questions this raises next.

Plus, we have some breaking news on Dr. Ronny Jackson. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)