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Controversy Surrounds Jackson Nomination; Macron on Iran Deal; Supreme Court Takes up Travel Ban. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired April 25, 2018 - 13:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Washington, 7:00 p.m. in Paris, 9:30 p.m. in Tehran. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

Up first, they called him the candy man. We're learning new details about the allegations against President Trump's nominee for Veterans Affairs secretary. Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson is vowing to fight, but his nomination is clearly in limbo, as lawmakers investigate accusations of misconduct. Among them, that he handed out prescription sleep medications like they were candy during overseas flights. Besides allegations of mishandling prescription drugs, Jackson is accused of creating what's being described as a toxic work environment and excessive drinking, as well. Four sources described an incident during an overseas trip back in 2015. They say Jackson was intoxicated and banging on the door of a female employee. The ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee spoke to CNN about that accusation and others.


SEN. JON TESTER (D), RANKING MEMBER, VETERANS AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: It is one of the allegations that are out there. There are many. And I think it goes to the point that, you know, as a member of the Senate, where our job is to vet and confirm, we need to be able to do our job and we need to get to the bottom of these accusations to find out if they're true. And so 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 a toxic work environment.

There's 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. And we've got to get to the bottom of it. And that's what's going to happen over the next few weeks.


BLITZER: Sources say some in the White House think Admiral Jackson is being railroaded and the president has urged him to stay and fight. Earlier today, the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, defended Jackson's qualifications, while legislative affairs director Marc Short called the candy man label a low blow. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARC SHORT, WHITE HOUSE LEGISLATIVE AFFAIRS DIRECTOR: It was -- no, it was absolutely unfair for you to drop the candy man line. I think that there have been multiple -- 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've said that he was totally in compliance with what he's been prescribing.

SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: There's probably not a person around that has managed a department of over 300,000. And certainly he's a very highly qualified, highly respected person in the military and in the medical community.


BLITZER: Joining us now, CNN White House reporter, Sarah Westwood, senior White House correspondent Pamela Brown, our CNN political analyst David Gregory, and our chief political correspondent Dana Bash.

Sarah and Pamela, you guys have been doing a lot of reporting on this vetting process that was perhaps underway. Not much of a vetting process it looks like What have you learned, first of all, Sarah? What went wrong?

SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, President Trump's push to nominate Jackson and his refusal to seriously consider any other nominees for this position is sort of why the White House is in this mess to begin with. Sources say that potentially they were discouraged from applying as much scrutiny to his political suitability for the job as they might have otherwise if there were other names in the mix.

And we're hearing a sense that because Jackson had worked in such close proximity to presidents across multiple administration, that he had already been vetted. That he was a known quantity. So I think that they maybe underestimated the damage that some of these allegations, which he say Jackson was forthcoming about, could do, and they overestimated the amount of cover that Senate Republicans were going to provide to them.

BLITZER: Because you -- Sarah's right, Dr. Jackson apparently, Pamela, warned White House officials, there could be some allegations that would emerge. But apparently they were never really thoroughly discussed or assessed what the impact would be.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, clearly. And I think, you know, what we're hearing from Sarah is this sort of lack of foresight and due diligence in talking to all of these people who worked with Dr. Jackson. Service -- current service members, past service members, to learn about this and get ahead of it by going to Congress members over the weekend or even prior to that to say, hey, these allegations are out there. We don't believe them to be true.

Because what it sounds like is happening from Republicans on Capitol Hill speaking to my colleague Phil Mattingly is that they were surprised to learn about these allegations. They reached out to the White House for answers, and they said that the White House has not been giving them the satisfactory answers or even, you know, leaving the open question of whether the White House knew about some of these allegations.

Now, we are told, as Sarah pointed out, that Dr. Jackson was forthcoming about some of these allegations that could be out there, that there were some disgruntled past employees that could be saying things about him. But in terms of allegations of excessive drinking on the job, those kinds of things, that really caught a lot of White House staffers by surprise, we're told, and they were essentially caught flat footed, Wolf, which is why you're seeing this late reaction last night with the background -- you know, documents sent out, the talking points into Capitol Hill late last night. It raises the question, why wasn't that done earlier.

[13:05:13] BLITZER: What was the president told? How much did he know about potential problems?

WESTWOOD: Well, that's part of where the communication breakdown potentially happened. Because President Trump was so forceful and that Jackson was always going to be the nominee, I mean to the extent that there was speculation in the press, it was just that, speculation. We know that the allegations were discussed in the meeting yesterday with President Trump and Jackson. But, President Trump is standing behind Jackson as long as he wants to keep fighting. The question is really whether Senate Republicans are going to stay on board.

BROWN: And I think also to make clear, just from talking to sources within the White House, the allegations they knew about, including in the reports that were released last night in 2012-2013, they knew about that prior to the nomination, we are told. Select White House officials did. They did not view them as earth-shattering, as I'm told. That they didn't think it was going to be that politically damaging. And so I think it was sort of -- they didn't sort of calculate how, you know, widespread it could get beyond what they already knew about.

BLITZER: You know, the -- we're getting mixed signals, though, from the president of the United States. Yesterday he said, I don't -- I wouldn't blame him for wanting to walk away. You know, this is something he doesn't deserve. He seemed to be suggesting, you know what, end it. But then later in the day, the president is fully on board.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, he gave him a wide opening to walk through and say, you know what, I'm out. I'm not doing this anymore. And they obviously had a conversation in the Oval Office that you were reporting on, Pamela, and the outcome of that was that he's not leaving. You know, whether it's pride, whether it's ego, whether it's just sort of sticking it to Congress, we don't know. But at the end of the day, this is going to be Ronny Jackson's reputation that is going to continue to get sullied.

I will say, and David and I were talking about this because we've covered the White House together, the Bush White House, the notion of calling him the candy man because he was, as the White House doctor, handing out Ambien and another drug to help people wake up, is flummoxing to people who covered the White House and also to sources who I talked to who worked in the White House, under him as the White House doc and others, because it's actually done a lot, that the White House doctor will hand out Ambien on a foreign trip to help people sleep, and another drug perhaps if they want it to help wake up. It is -- it is documented, but it is -- it is done not just by one -- not just by Ronny Jackson, but by other doctors. So it's not as if he was, you know, just -- just willy-nilly handing out prescription drugs, unless we have information from a whistleblower who's not disgruntled that says something different.

BLITZER: That's absolutely true, David, because I spent seven years as a White House correspondent for CNN during the Bill Clinton administration. I was on Air Force One a lot. And there were Secret Service agents, reporters, staff, couldn't sleep, a long flight from Andrews Air Force Base --

BASH: Exactly.

BLITZER: Outside of Washington to Bosnia, for example, and they would go to the nurse or the physician, the doctor on board, can you help? And he would put out some Ambien. But it happened, as you well know, all of us who have covered these presidential trips, they were giving out these kinds of sleep medications for a lot of people.

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. And people just need to understand, I mean particularly if you're going to Asia where, you know, you're completely upside down in the earth, and the White House is going to work and those of us covering them are working on kind of both ends of the clock, so it can be helpful. And it's also -- you know, White House physicians -- I wasn't around with Dr. Jackson, but, you know, they are very helpful to the president, to the staff alike. If you're stick, if you're -- I mean they play -- they play a very, very big role.

I'm uncomfortable with that. And I'm also uncomfortable -- and I agree with the White House folks on this, for Senator Tester to drop that like he's, you know, handing out narcotics, and he's the candy man, I would -- I would really hold back and not reserve judgment. I think for a senator to do that was getting too far ahead of himself.

Look, I think the bigger issue here is that clearly there are critics of his who are coming out, in part I think because he doesn't have the experience to run a huge agency like this.

BASH: Exactly.

GREGORY: And the president has said how important the VA is. Very highly qualified people have turned down this job at the VA in prior years because it was such a difficult problem to fix. So that's fair scrutiny. And maybe some of these other charges are related to that.

The president is not a normal president, as we know, so he kind of gave them this opening to walk out. But I also think, and we all know this, we all talk about it, the president, in some ways, relishes the fight. Let's have a fight about him being railroaded because his supporters will say, yes, exactly. They're not concentrating on this -- whether he was vetted properly, only whether he was being unfairly treated now. And I think --

BLITZER: And, you know, and I just want to point out, Pamela, that he was the White House physician, not just during the Trump administration --


BLITZER: But during the Obama administration and the Bush administrations. In 2016, President Obama wrote this about Dr. Ronny Jackson. 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.

[13:10:15] BROWN: And you're hearing from other Obama officials, as well, like David Axelrod, who are swiftly coming to his defense. And So I think what happened -- and just behind the scenes from our reporting -- in the change of tune yesterday with the president first coming out, giving him an out, essentially, not really coming to his swift defense, to then the White House really coming out full-fledged defending him. They sort of reached this conclusion that this is a sabotage campaign. I think initially they were caught off guard by some of these allegations of excessive drinking and so forth. And then, as they continued to learn about it, I think White House officials started to believe, look, this is a sabotage campaign. They're trying to railroad him. He has doing nothing wrong. He is still our guy. And that is why you saw sort of the change in the tune last night with them fiercely coming -- coming out --

BLITZER: You know, Dana, the much more serious allegation was that he was drunk, supposedly --

BASH: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Knocking on the door of a female employee. The Secret Service had to intervene. Now, that's a serious allegation.

BASH: No question, that is a serious allegation. And we'll see what the details of it are. Maybe we won't if -- maybe we won't even get that far in terms of his nomination.

But I think that you made a really important point, Pamela, which is, there is no question that something is happening, that 20 people go to the Veterans Affair Committee to give this information. Now, it very well could be that people who work for him or around him or know about his actions are so distraught that they are willing to come forward, as Jon Tester, the lead Democrat on that committee said.

But there is no way that these allegations or questions would have legs or would have a different kind of import if at just at its core, Ronny Jackson was, frankly, more qualified for this job, which David said is a very, very hard job. He, by most accounts, is a terrific physician, had a good experience a lot with the people who he worked for, maybe more than the people who work for him. But that's a completely different skillset than running the VA.


BASH: And I think that is the core of the issue here.


BROWN: Well, just to this point, you know, there were these (INAUDIBLE)) board sessions with him. That was the focus, you know, getting him prepared for the lack of experience questions, what his policy views will be, not all these allegations.

BLITZER: Yes, it's a good point.

All right, guys, stick around.

There's a lot more news we're following, including some breaking news over at the U.S. Supreme Court, where the legality of the president's travel ban is being argued. There's new audio just coming in involving those argument that were just made before the justices. You're going to hear for yourself what was said.

Plus, the art of a new deal. The French president, Macron, pitches President Trump and Congress on a new pact surrounding Iran's nuclear ambitions.

And as the U.S. Justice Department investigating James Comey's leaked memos, we're learning new details about the fired FBI director's legal team.


[13:17:00] BLITZER: A new deal on Iran. That's the proposal being pushed by the French president, Emmanuel Macron. He discussed it with President Trump during a series of meetings and brought it up once again in front of a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress earlier today, saying he intends to stick with the original Iran nuclear deal, but also wants to add to it.



PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON, FRANCE: There is an existing framework called the JCPOA to control the nuclear activity of Iran. We signed it at the initiative of the United States. We signed it, both the United States and France. That is why we cannot say we should get rid of it.

It is true to say that this agreement may not address all concerns and very important concerns. This is true. But we should not abandon it without having something substantial and more substantial instead.


BLITZER: All right, let's bring back Dana Bash and David Gregory. Among the items that Macron is recommending be added to this existing

Iran nuclear deal, Iran's ballistic missile program needs to be curtailed. The volatile influence of Iran in the region, in Yemen, in Lebanon, in Iraq, in Syria. President Trump seemed receptive to some of these ideas. But it's -- you know, he's got to make a decision by May 12th, David --


BLITZER: Whether or not to rip up the Iran nuclear deal or to try to build on it.

GREGORY: And there's a lot of pressure from Trump's base to stick to his guns on this and to just rip it up and not start working with the Europeans. Lord knows there's plenty of his supporters who don't want to see that prospect.

But it's interesting, Macron, who has -- who has been very astute in courting President Trump, is addressing Trump's concerns, which are fair concerns, about the missile program, about the use of billions of dollars that they got in freeing up sanctions and they got in cash payments to wreak havoc throughout the region, which Iran does.

And so I think the president sees twofold interest here. One, can he drive a process to get a better deal? I think the president likes being on the world stage, being a leader on the world stage, being influenced by and courted by a major European power, as is -- Macron is doing with him. It reminds me a little but of the influence Tony Blair had on George W. Bush in that administration.

But there's another factor here. I think President Trump is really focused on North Korea and not Iran. And you can't tear up a deal on nuclear weapons with Iran and think you're going the get a good deal with North Korea. And I think he has his eye on North Korea thinking, I can get an unprecedented deal. So I want to show -- the North Koreans are watching what's going on here is the point.

BASH: Yes, there's no question. That's exactly what I was thinking. Obviously world leaders are looking at and there's no question his aides are as well, which is, if you're on the cusp of really making a potential deal with the most sort of rogue regime on the planet, how do you expect them to trust you or the United States if they see that the successor of the president who was involved in one deal just rips it all up? It just -- it just doesn't make any sense. And if somebody is as skilled a negotiator as President Trump says he has always been, he will understand that.

[13:20:24] I do think that in terms of the added issues that the French president talked about, things about ballistic missiles and about aiding and abetting terrorists, those are all things that a lot of -- there's bipartisan support for that, and there's certainly support among allies. The question is whether you do that as kind of an addendum and separate, or whether you then, in addition to that, rip up the deal. Ripping up the deal simply does not have support among allies. BLITZER: And President Macron also seemed to be talking to President

Trump when he was addressing Congress, saying, you know what, you've got to have an international policy. You can't retreat to isolationism and nationalism.

Listen to this.


PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON, FRANCE: Let me say we have two possible ways ahead. We can choose isolationism, withdrawal, and nationalism. This is an option. It can be tempting to us as a temporary remedy to our fears. But closing the door to the world will not stop the evolution of the world. It will not douse, but inflame, the fears of our citizens. We have to keep our eyes wide open to the new risks right in front of us.


BLITZER: Go ahead.

GREGORY: Yes, I -- a couple points. One is, look, I think President Trump is particularly thin skinned and insecure and he wants and likes to be thought of as legitimate on the world stage, especially since he has no experience in politics or in leadership in this kind of way. And so, yes, more cynically you can say Macron is playing him very, very well.

But I want to be less cynical. And if we look at history, we know that presidents grow in their jobs. And it is totally appropriate that any new president comes in, learns more, gets exposure to other leaders, really gets a grasp of what the problems are and the challenges in the world, how much more complex it is to govern than it is to campaign, and that they embrace the embrace they're getting.

And we're in the middle of that now with Macron, who is a particularly different French leader who's embracing him. Angela Merkel, who will be, I think, a tougher relationship to improve upon for President Trump. But he has this opportunity now to learn from them and work together. I think that's going appeal to Trump.

BLITZER: Certainly will. And we'll see -- we'll see what happens on May 12th --


BLITZER: When the president, President Trump, has to decide to rip up or to keep the Iran nuclear deal. We'll all be anxious to see what he decides.

Guys, thanks very much.

GREGORY: Thanks.

BLITZER: We're also following breaking news on the president's travel ban as opponents and supporters argue the legality of it before the U.S. Supreme Court. There's new audio of those arguments just coming in. We'll have that.

And, not stepping back. Why isn't Jeff Sessions recusing himself from the criminal probe into the president's personal attorney and fixer Michael Cohen? I'll ask a key member of the House Intelligence Committee.


[13:27:36] BLITZER: We're following breaking news at the U.S. Supreme Court, where arguments are being heard over the third version of President Trump's original ban, which restricts travel from several Muslim majority countries. Supporters say the president acted to protect the country's national security and does not discriminate on the basis of either nationality or religion. Opponents, however, say the action represents executive overreach on the nation's immigration laws, citing tweets and campaign promises of banning Muslims from entering the United States.

Our justice correspondent, Jessica Schneider, was inside the court when the oral arguments were presented.

Jessica, what struck you most?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, what really struck me was just how much these justices are wrestling with how much weight to put on the president's statements during the campaign, when, of course, he did say that he wanted to institute an anti-Muslim ban, and also what weight to put on that anti-Muslim rhetoric that he retweeted as recently as November.

But, you know, their questioning really did break down along ideological lines. And Justice Kennedy emerged, as he often does, as the likely swing vote here. Justice Kennedy asked what the court should make of campaign rhetoric by any candidate when it comes to subsequent policy that is implemented, like in this case with this travel ban, the third version of it. But Justice Kennedy also noted that the president has the power to protect the country and that this third travel ban does allow for review every 180 days. So it's not imposed for really an indefinite time period.

But then, of course, on the flipside, there was Justice Sotomayor, Justice Kagan. They took real issue with the president's campaign rhetoric. Justice Kagan, in fact, pitched a lengthy hypothetical asking, what if a future president was an anti-Semite and then issued a ban on all people from Israel? She was concerned about that possibility. She followed up that hypothetical with her skepticism about the president's true intentions with this travel ban.

Take a listen.


JUSTICE ELENA KAGAN, SUPREME COURT: This is an out of the box kind of president, in my hypothetical. And --

SOLICITOR GENERAL NOEL FRANCISCO: We -- we don't have those, your honor.

KAGAN: And -- and, you know, he thinks that there are good, diplomatic reasons. And there might. Who knows what the future holds? Who knows what his heart of hearts is? I mean I take that point. But the question is, not really what his heart of hearts is. The question is, what are reasonable observers to think?


KAGAN: Given this context in which this hypothetical president --


KAGAN: Is making virulent anti-Semitic comments.


[13:30:07] SCHNEIDER: So a very long line of questioning there from Justice Kagan.