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WH Source: VA Nominee Jackson not Withdrawing for Now; Mulvaney Tells Bankers He Only Talked to Lobbyists who Paid Up; Soon: French President Addresses Congress. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired April 25, 2018 - 10:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm John Berman.

This morning, growing concerns over the man nominated to care for our nation's veterans accused of casually handing out prescription drugs, being drunk on the job, creating a hostile workplace environment and a new allegation that the Secret Service had to get involved after Dr. Ronny Jackson allegedly got drunk while on an overseas trip with President Obama and then loudly banged on the door of a female employee.

Moments ago, I asked lead Democrat of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee about this latest claim.


SEN. JON TESTER (D), VETERANS' AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: We've confirmed with the people who told us and quite frankly, moving forward we just need to do more finding the sources to finding it out. I mean, the bottom line is there are over 20 people that have come forward. These are active military people, retired military people, who actually put their jobs on the line if their name becomes public. And so we've got to take it seriously.


BERMAN: All right. Despite this, the president is still standing by the nominee, we think, at least this morning so far.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins, live at the White House with where things stand. Kaitlan, I understand the White House is actually sending out talking points on this.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: They are, John. They're rallying behind him after the president said yesterday that he wouldn't blame Dr. Jackson if he withdrew his nomination. But that he was not going to call for him to do so. We know the two of them met in the Oval Office later on. And Dr. Jackson walked away with not withdrawing his nomination.

So, of course, now the White House is doubling down on this and even sending out statements from President Barack Obama who, of course, Dr. Jackson was also the White House physician during his years in office, his words of praise including one statement where he said that Dr. Jackson's positive impact could not be overstated. He said that he was a tremendous asset to the entire White House team saying already the level of performance and responsibility that far exceeds his current rank. Of course, they are using that to defend the fact that they are continuing his nomination for VA secretary, but Senator Jon Tester used this as an explanation for why President Barack Obama may have written that about Dr. Jackson.


TESTER: The reports we have heard is he treated the people above him very, very well. He treated the people below him very, very poorly. That's creating the toxic work environment. So, it's not surprising that the president and the president's chief of staff, people that surround the president, we think he's doing a really good job. But once again, John, we just need to get to the bottom of it.


COLLINS: So, John, we're continuing to see the White House defend him, but the fact of the matter is his chances of becoming the next VA secretary are growing increasingly slim. Because of course, he was already facing an uphill battle before this allegation came out because of his lack of experience. Something that not only Democrats, but Republicans as well are concerned about. And the president even admitted as much during that press conference yesterday when he was asked about Dr. Ronny Jackson, saying he realizes there is an experience problem here. So, John, the White House is defending him, but these chances for Dr. Jackson do not look good.

BERMAN: All right, Kaitlan Collins, at the White House. Kaitlan, keep us posted on what you hear.

Joining me now, Molly Ball, CNN political analyst and CNN political commentators, Alice Stewart and Robby Mook.

You know, Molly, to you, I am surprised by the volume of these allegations that have come to light within just the last day. The number of them, the number of sources and the fact that they were apparently not just unknown to this White House, but the last White House, as well.

MOLLY BALL, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. I mean, this is the kind of thing that vetting was invented for, right? It would not have been hard to get this information before he was nominated if the president had gone through the normal process, if he had run it by anyone, basically. And you know, you hear it from the Hill. Republicans are feeling increasing levels of angst that they sort of get, you know, get whipsawed by the president's whims and then they have to either defend him or clean up after him when he does something like make this nomination without doing any vetting beforehand.

BERMAN: You know, Alice, we don't know. We don't know if these allegations are true. We do know that there are multiple sources. We don't know if they're true. What we do know is that the White House was caught flat footed here. We do know that the Senate committee was surprised when this came to light. And that shows a real problem, a process problem in the White House.

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Sure. You do not want to be caught flat footed when you're nominating someone in any way, shape or form, or when you're running for office. You do, as Molly mentioned, you do some vetting. You do a - with call of vulnerability study to see where your strengths and weaknesses are. But that being said, based on what we're hearing from Dr. Jackson and those in the White House, these are allegations and he plans to fight them.

And look, I think this is one person's or a few people's words against a doctor who, as we've seen, has tremendous reports from not only President Trump, but also Obama who says he is poised under pressure. President Obama even recommended, flagged him for promotion, so I think it is important to at this stage of the game, the allegations are troubling if they're true.

[10:05:08] He wants to fight them. He wants to clear his name and one of the aspects that Tester brought up is that he was known as the candy man for giving out prescriptions. But one thing to note that he has made quite clear that they've done audits on the types of medicines he was able to distribute. And he came out clean. He passed the audit, and there were no problems. So, I think it's important that we take all this information, take a look at it. He says he's done nothing wrong. I think he should be given the time. That's what the confirmation process is for and let him have his time to explain himself. And I think he would be someone well served in the VA given he has the trust and confidence of the president and the past president and let's let all of these allegations be heard.

BERMAN: Look, it might be that he was not being well served by the current White House by the fact that he wasn't vetted. They could have helped him prepare better for the fact that these allegations would come to light.

And Robby, one of the things they're doing now is they're sending out statements by former President Obama. You heard one a moment ago from Kaitlan Collins. Here's another, "Ronny does a great job -- genuine enthusiasm, poised under pressure, incredible work ethic and follow through. Ronny continues to inspire confidence with the care he provides to me, my family and my team. Continue to promote ahead of peers."

And honestly, it is confusing. It's very difficult to reconcile, this job review from President Obama. The fact that people who worked for President Obama would let him write this if there was some kind of knowledge within the administration or the Secret Service, or anyone, that he was drunk on overseas trips, banging on women's doors.

ROBBY MOOK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. And John, to the points that have already been made, you know, we just don't know what the facts are here and clearly he does have a record of distinguished service that we do know about. I think this is classic Trump in as much as what really matters here are veterans and that they get the best possible care in the world. BERMAN: Right.

MOOK: This is the second largest department in our government. It has the second highest number of employees and they care for people who have served our country. I don't think we're serving them well by putting someone up for nomination who is creating such controversy. This is an agency that has faced tremendous headwinds, that has not been serving people well. We need someone to go in there who is respected, who has the strength to make important changes and who isn't going to be besieged starting on day one.

BERMAN: And Veterans Affairs groups, to be clear, had concerns completely independent of these issues that have about Dr. Jackson. They don't know where he stands on the issues that matter most to them and whether or not to privatize veterans care. There are some who are against but they just don't know where he stands on that.

Moving on to another current cabinet member of the president, Mick Mulvaney, who runs the Office of Management and Budget, and currently overseas the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, he was giving a speech to banking executives, when he was trying to rally their support, apparently their financial support to reform the Financial Protection Bureau and he made this statement that's causing a lot of waves, Molly. He says of his time in Congress.

"We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress. If you're a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn't talk to you. If you're a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you."

Now, he did say he would always talk to constituents whether they gave him money or not. But the fact, Molly, he's admitting that as a lobbyist money might get you a meeting. You don't often hear that from a politician.

BALL: You don't hear them say it out loud, but it is sort of an unspoken common knowledge, unfortunately, on Washington and on Capitol Hill. But obviously, this does not make Mulvaney look particularly good. When I first read it, I thought, well maybe he's joking but it doesn't seem like he was. It seems like he was actually encouraging more contributions from the industry. And I think the bigger issue on a policy level is that Mulvaney's detractors do believe that he is too close to the industry that he's supposed to be regulating at the CFPB. And so this, I think, is the larger controversy that's been surrounding him and his work is that according to, you know, a lot of Democrats that is who he's working for principally.

BERMAN: And, Robby, even with the disclaimer that he would meet with constituents whether or not they gave to him or not, it's pretty swampy to say that lobbyists who pay get precedent over lobbyists who don't.

MOOK: I mean - right, this is everything that's wrong with our politics right now. -- The campaign finance system we have really does incentivize politicians to spend more time with people who contribute to them than their everyday constituents. It's a huge problem. I wish voters would hold people more accountable to change it. But I actually -- I wish we were talking about this kind of thing a little bit more because to the point Molly just made, I think Mick Mulvaney is there to serve these lobbyists. He was basically coaching them in this meeting on how to do their bidding.

[10:10:00] And this is fundamentally what is wrong with the Trump administration right now. They are for the big banks and they are trying to undermine an agency that was set up to protect the rest of us from being abused by these organizations and from what happened on "Wall Street" that crashed our economy. So, I think this is a huge warning signal. Unfortunately, we will probably go on to the next scandal tomorrow. But I hope voters are paying attention, this is what is wrong right now.

BERMAN: Alice, Republicans trying to put together a slate of candidates to maybe maintain the Senate and maintain the House. There is a Republican candidate for Senate in West Virginia, Don Blankenship. People might remember his name. He actually went to jail for a period of time because of his ownership of a coal mine that had a bit of a disaster and explosion and killed 29 people. Mitch McConnell doesn't want this guy to be the nominee, I don't think, even less so now. Listen to what Blankenship had to say about Mitch McConnell.


DON BLANKENSHIP (R), SENATE CANDIDATE FROM WEST VIRGINIA: I have an issue when the father-in-law is a wealthy Chinaperson, and there's a lot of connections to some of the brass, if you will, in China.


BERMAN: He's talking about Mitch McConnell's wife Elaine Chao. It's pretty remarkable to hear that kind of statement out loud for a candidate. Now, he hasn't won the primary yet. It's a pretty closely bunch group right there. But does this type of candidate he posed problems for Republicans.

STEWART: Sure, I think this will call attention to the need to have good candidates that are strong with the GOP, strong on conservative values and this will highlight this particular race and make sure that we nominate a candidate that will not only do well in the primary, but also win in the general election. I do want to call attention to the race we had in Arizona last night where we had the Republican candidate win.


STEWART: That goes to show that the GOP getting in early in these elections, educating voters on the issues and the conservative candidates and voting dates and voting times, that's the way we're going to win on not just primaries but certainly in the general.

BERMAN: That's a glass half full depiction of that Arizona race. There are those who look at it from a glass half empty perspective. We'll talk much more about that in a little bit. Molly Ball, Alice Stewart, Robby Mook, thank you very much for being with us. We were just talking about Mick Mulvaney under fire for apparently letting bankers in on a secret how to get Congress to back their agenda, much more on that. Plus a possible legal angle there.

Also, the showdown in the Supreme Court, justices now hearing arguments on President Trump's travel ban, protests already underway.

And just minutes away, the French President Emmanuel Macron will address a joint meeting of Congress. We'll watch them carefully. Stay with us.


[10:16:38] BERMAN: All right. This morning, Mick Mulvaney, the acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is under fire for a talk he gave to banking executives. Mulvaney revealed that as a Congressman, he would only meet with lobbyists if they contributed to his campaign. Now he did also say that he would meet with constituents regardless of whether they contributed. If you are a lobbyist you had to pay to get in.

Here to discuss, CNN legal analyst, Shan Wu. Also, we should note, former attorney for Rick Gates who is involved in the Russia probe right now. Shan, I want to ask you about this specific statement we have from Mick Mulvaney. He says, according to "The New York Times," "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're a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you."

Now, again, he did also say he'll speak to his constituents no matter what, but this notion that if you're a lobbyist who pays, that money might get you a meeting with me. Is there any legal liability there? Is that not pay for play?

SHAN WU, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, he's going right up to the line. That's what I would call reckless candor. And he's really opening up some potential cans of worms. He is possibly skirting some ethics issues within the House, as well as, of course, you say a pay to play situation where it looks like there is a quid pro quo. Now, of course, those cases are very hard to prove. Take a look at the Virginia case with the governor with Bob McDonald. And so, whether he's actually opened himself up to some sort of admission of criminal liability, unlikely. But he's certainly being reckless in making statements like that.

BERMAN: Yes. I mean, the convictions are very hard in this case and he's not saying that he won't meet with people if they don't give money, but I don't know that I've ever heard someone so clearly say before that if you give money it might get you in the door.

WU: Yes. That is a remarkably startling admission to make although people often suspect that's the case and of course, that's part of his message that the administration is sending. They want this control back in Congress.

BERMAN: He's reading the stage directions out loud can sometimes be problematic.

A report out of "Bloomberg" that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has decided not to recuse himself from the investigation, the criminal investigation of Michael Cohen, the president's personal lawyer. This is now being overseen by the southern district of New York. Again, Sessions has recused himself from the Russia probe, but not the Michael Cohen investigation. How do you think that is?

WU: Logically, that's a little bit hard to fathom. The same concerns he would have had with why he delegated to the deputy attorney general should apply here. That sounds like more of a politically influenced decision. He's tired of taking a lot of flak from the president that he should never have accused himself to begin with. But logically, he should also delegate to the deputy.

BERMAN: One of the things he made clear in the filings the government has is that this investigation has to do with Michael Cohen and his business dealings. It doesn't seem to be directly a campaign-related issue, but could you foresee problems where it all gets tied together.

WU: Oh, absolutely, because the business dealings in particular or the payments with regard to trying to keep quiet and issues with the affairs the president may have had. One of the concerns there is going to be whether or not it was done in an effort to influence the campaign, the election. And of course, there's also the looming question of really what was the source of the funds?

[10:20:01] He says it's from a home equity line, but if it turns out that there's some sort of reimbursement to him from a campaign finance fund, that's going to be a problem.

BERMAN: Jeff Sessions can end up recusing himself if he has to. It will just be up to the Justice Department that's indicated it would happen if that matter arises. Of course, the timing on that can't be suspect. Shan Wu, great to have you with us. Thanks for helping us understand these things.

WU: Good to be with you, thanks.

BERMAN: All right, as we speak, the Supreme Court hearing arguments over the president's travel ban.

CNN's Laura Jarrett, live outside the court. Laura?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN REPORTER: Well, John, people have been lined up for days here in Washington hoping to snag a seat at one of the most closely-watched cases of the Trump presidency. The justices will be examining the third version of President Trump's travel ban which essentially tries to limit immigration from several Muslim-majority countries including Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, North Korea and some officials from Venezuela.

As for the arguments we expect to hear, the defenders of the travel ban say that it's all about national security and courts really have no role to play here. Attorney General Jeff Sessions put out a statement just a few minutes ago saying, the following, John. "President Trump has been steadfast in his commitment to the safety and the security of all Americans. The Constitution and Acts of Congress confer on the president broad discretion and authority to protect the United States from all foreign and domestic threats."

But John, the core of the argument for the opponents here will focus on President Trump's campaign statements which they say shows his discriminatory intent, but the Justice Department will try to refocus the court, emphasizing his broad powers under federal immigration laws and hoping they will ignore his statements and tweets. John?

BERMAN: Laura Jarrett at the Supreme Court. Thank you very much, Laura.

The French President Emmanuel Macron addresses Congress very shortly. This will be near the conclusion of his visit to the United States. What has this visit achieved? Has Emmanuel Macron pushed President Trump on the Iran nuclear deal? Stay with us.


[10:26:30] BERMAN: All right. Any minute now the French President Emmanuel Macron will address a joint meeting of Congress. That happens on Capitol Hill. Our Sunlen Serfaty is there. Sunlen, what are we expecting to see?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, we just saw just a few minutes ago the French president arrived here on Capitol Hill, entered in of course through the House side where he will appear before that joint meeting of Congress, the joint meeting of the House and Senate lawmakers coming together to hear this speech today. Also arriving just a few minutes ago, Vice President Mike Pence who will preside over this joint meeting along with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. This formal address to Congress where notably many lawmakers up here on Capitol Hill certainly will be paying very close attention to what policy aspects the French president addresses today especially coming after those meetings over at the White House with President Trump yesterday, of course, topping the list, Syria, North Korea and certainly Iran. Really, the centerpiece of the French president's pitch here in Washington. The purpose of this visit is to really make the case for staying in the Iran nuclear deal. To certainly many lawmakers looking for clarity today and what came out of those meetings that the French president had with President Trump yesterday. Certainly, lawmakers are watching every word very closely today and this joint address will be starting in just a few minutes. John?

BERMAN: All right. Sunlen, we have our eye on it. Thank you very much, Sunlen Serfaty on Capitol Hill.

Michelle Kosinski at the State Department. Michelle, the status of the Iran nuclear deal and where President Trump stands on it? Where are we this morning?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I think that is a very big question mark and it depends on what day you're talking about, what statement you're referencing and who you are talking to behind the scenes. What we've hearing from U.S. allies.

And you know I want to say something about Macron here. He wants to present himself as this tough, dynamic world leader who is not afraid to speak his mind, who knows how to handle President Trump, and to try to get him on his side. We know that President Trump often, whenever he's sitting down with somebody, he will sound at least for the time being very amenable to what they're trying to convince him of, whether it is on immigration or tariffs. In this case the Iran nuclear deal.

So, we saw Macron show up yesterday. They met and spoke. And then all of a sudden President Trump who had earlier called the Iran nuclear deal insane and ridiculous was saying that we could be seeing something kind of agreement soon. He was saying, well, at the very least maybe we'll have this agreement among ourselves on how to move forward.

So, behind the scene, here's what's been going on. There have been a series of meetings of various levels now moving up to the State Department level between the U.S., the UK, France and Germany. The Europeans want the U.S. to stay in the deal. So they've worked out this plan together with the U.S. to craft another deal after this current Iran deal expires. That they see as fixing the problems.

And in the meantime, of course, to make sure that enforcement of the current deal is tough. To make sure that everybody is dealing with Iran's other bad behaviors like its ballistic missile program that aren't included in the Iran deal. So, they want to do as much as they can to satisfy the U.S. and keep the U.S. in the deal. That could mean coming to some political agreement for what everybody does together once the Iran deal expires.

It sounds like that's what Trump might have been talking about. So that would be an indication that for those that want the U.S. to stay in, there's reason to be hopeful that the U.S. will. We know that the State Department has had a lot of buy-in into these meetings with Europeans. But there's still this question because you never know in the end which way Trump will go.