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Dr. Ronny Jackson Withdraws As VA Secretary Nominee; Trump Blames "Obstructionist" Dems After Jackson Withdraws; Soon: EPA Chief Pruitt Faces Capitol Hill Grilling On Ethics Scandals. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired April 26, 2018 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:33] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Hello, everyone. John Berman here.

First, Mr. President, thanks for watching. The breaking news this morning, a giant news bomb from the president of the United States. A rare interview speaking at length, at times it was a word salad, and frankly a tossed salad, veering from subject to subject but there were big news croutons inside saying a lot about his friend and fixer, Michael Cohen, maybe more than the president's lawyers would like him to say.

Almost definitely more than Michael Cohen's lawyers would have liked him to say. He seemed to directly contradict past public statements on this matter. Also he apparently had new positions on whether he will testify in the Russia probe.

All of this happening as the president's pick for VA secretary is out. His EPA chief is about to get grilled on Capitol Hill.

A lot going on. Our Abby Phillip following all of this from the White House.

That was an extraordinary stream of consciousness venting we just heard from the president -- Abby.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It really was, John. It was very reminiscent of a Trump that we often saw on the campaign trail calling in to cable television giving an interview on all matter of subjects and really throwing some new curveballs in a very thorny legal issue that he is involved in.

The president talked at length about his personal attorney Michael Cohen and the relationship that he has with him. Take a listen to what he had to say.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Michael is a businessman. He's got a business. He also practices law. I would say probably the big thing is his business and they're looking into something having to do with his business.

I have nothing to do with his business, I can tell you. STEVE DOOCY, FOX NEWS HOST: How much of your legal work was handled

by Michael Cohen?

TRUMP: Well, as a percentage of my overall legal work, a tiny, tiny, tiny little fraction, but Michael would represent me and represent me on some things. He represents me like with this crazy Stormy Daniels deal. He represented me. And, you know, from what I see, he did absolutely nothing wrong. There were no campaign funds going into this.

AINSLEY EARHARDT, FOX NEWS HOST: Then why is he pleading the Fifth?

TRUMP: Which would have been a problem. Because he's got other things. He's got businesses and from what I understand they're looking at his businesses and I hope he's in great shape but he's got businesses and his lawyers probably told him to do that, but I'm not involved.


PHILLIP: Now this directly undercuts the argument that his lawyers have been busy making in this Michael Cohen situation. Remember, the president's lawyers have been saying that there are documents that were seized by the FBI that pertain to attorney-client privilege between the president and Cohen but the president just said in that interview that Michael Cohen did very little legal work for him and that Michael Cohen had -- and he also acknowledged that Michael Cohen had handled this Stormy Daniels' situation for him perhaps suggesting that he knew about Cohen's work on his behalf when it comes to Stormy.

So there was a lot there. In addition to that, the president had just several weeks ago talked about his relationship with Cohen and said something radically different. Listen to this.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Then why did Michael Cohen make this if there was no -- if they're allegations?

TRUMP: You have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael's my attorney and you'll have to ask Michael.


PHILLIP: Now the president confirmed that he was recently told as CNN has reported by the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that he is not the target of the probe that resulted in that raid on Cohen's office and home, and the president seems to be reveling in that. He repeated that assertion this morning and suggested that the legal troubles that his personal attorney is in has to do with private business dealings that he has nothing to do with, but clearly Michael Cohen is being thrown directly underneath that bus by the president, someone who just weeks ago called him my attorney -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Abby Phillip at the White House.

Let's try to understand what the president just did there intentionally or unintentionally. I'm joined now by CNN political commentator Matt Lewis, CNN political analyst Ryan Lizza, and CNN legal and national security analyst Asha Rangappa.

First, the law there and what the president's lawyers and Michael Cohen's lawyer might have liked or not like him to say. He just did two things there at once. Number one, he said perfectly clearly for the first time, Michael Cohen represented me in this crazy Stormy Daniels thing.

[09:05:02] He hasn't said that before. In fact he tried to wiggle out of it on Air Force One there. But on the other hand he also said that other than that he really didn't do much for me. He -- you know, he's a businessman. What kind of problems does that create?

ASHA RANGAPPA, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, John. I think he's complicated things for himself and for Michael Cohen, so by stating that Michael Cohen represented him on the Stormy Daniels' case, perhaps he's trying to shield some of the communications he had about that but by acknowledging that he may have actually known about that payoff that creates the possibility that he may be now in jeopardy of violations of campaign finance laws.

Remember that funds don't have to directly go from a campaign to be a -- to the campaign to be a contribution. They can be an in kind contribution if it's made for the purpose of benefiting the campaign and his knowledge would go to that.

The other thing he's done is really directly contradict what Michael Cohen has said publicly, which also now undercuts Cohen's credibility which could impact him in both his criminal and civil suits.

BERMAN: Yes. Double whammy there. And Ryan Lizza, you know, it's possible, our Shimon Prokupecz said this could come up today when Michael Cohen and his lawyers appear in court.

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. The prosecutors have repeatedly argued that Cohen doesn't really have many clients and that the work he does for his current clients, the three that have been mentioned in court is minimal. Remember they had that line in one of their filings that said, you know, we've had access to his email, for instance, and we didn't see any communication with Trump.

So they have repeatedly argued that his citing of attorney-client privilege with the documents that they've seized is overblown and Trump has now aided their argument in court by saying, well, he didn't really do much work for me any way, and there is -- I believe there's a hearing today and it'll be very interesting to see if the government cites Trump's own words this morning on "FOX and Friends" in bolstering their arguments.

BERMAN: They have before. (CROSSTALK)

BERMAN: The government has a history of using the president's own comments in these legal cases which is why you might think his lawyers would say be careful when you go on and do these interviews.

Let's listen to a little bit more now of what the president said, Matt Lewis. The president talked about the current Russia investigation writ large. Let's listen.


TRUMP: They have a witch hunt against the president of the United States going on. I've taken the position -- and I don't have to take this position and maybe I'll change, that I will not be involved with the Justice Department. I will wait until this is over. It's a total -- it's all lies and it's a horrible thing that's going on. Horrible things. I'm very disappointed in my Justice Department, but because of the fact that it's going on and I think you'll understand this, I have decided that I won't be involved. I may change my mind at some point because what's going on is a disgrace. It's an absolute disgrace.


BERMAN: So, Matt Lewis, at the very end there after going on to say he wasn't going to make any changes, he undercuts everything he had just said before and frankly all of his allies are saying on Capitol Hill he's not going to fire Mueller, he's not going to do this, he says, well, you know, I may change my mind.

MATT LEWIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right. Some people could even maybe interpret this as obstruction of justice, as a warning, you know, communicating through the media a warning sign to officials in the Department of Justice that the president -- their boss is not pleased and that he may fire them, that would be one interpretation.

But I think you're right about something else, too. Republicans like Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has said there's no need for us to have any sort of legislation that would protect Robert Mueller because the president has -- you know, has said he's not going to get rid of them, we don't believe he's going to get rid of them and yet today on "FOX and Friends" Donald Trump calls into question that assumption.

BERMAN: He says I might change my mind at some point. You can look at the record right there.

Asha, I want to clear up one thing on the Michael Cohen thing because I do think it's interesting here because the two things he did there are at odds. Right? He said that Michael Cohen represented me on Stormy Daniels, which he hasn't said directly before, and then also said, he's mostly just a businessman.

By admitting that Michael Cohen represented him on Stormy Daniels, does that then mean that their communications on that matter, if there were any, that those would be protected by attorney-client privilege?

RANGAPPA: Not necessarily. If Michael Cohen was representing him on the Stormy Daniels' matter, yes, presumptively there would be some privilege over those communications, however it really depends on how those communications took place, if he waived his privilege, for example, by sharing any of those communications with a third party, they could still be seized by the government and, if any of those communications concern an ongoing facilitation or concealment of criminal activity or anything that could be criminal activity, then there'll be an exception to the privilege.

[09:10:04] So it doesn't fully protect him even if he was representing him depending on the circumstances.

BERMAN: Sorry, Ryan, you were about to jump in.

LIZZA: Well, just to go back to what he was trying to say about the Justice Department. It was -- I mean, obviously it wasn't that clear. Was he trying to say when he's saying I'm not going to be involved, was that some kind of indication about whether he would sit down for an interview with Mueller?

BERMAN: Well --

LIZZA: What did he mean I'm not going to be involved --


BERMAN: That's a great point. It's open for interpretation. And later he did talk about whether or not he would sit down with Robert Mueller. And he made clear that it's still up for discussion. But he certainly didn't say as he used to say, I want to do it, I'm dying to do it, I'm dying to do it. He seemed to cast a little bit of doubt on that subject.

LIZZA: Yes, yes. And on the one hand, was he saying I'm not going to be involved in the Justice Department, I'm sort of letting them do their investigation without interfering? It's very confusing. Or was it some kind of -- as Matt was pointing out, some kind of veiled threat?

BERMAN: One of the other extraordinary things, and I made light of it at the beginning of the broadcast today, is that President Trump told everyone that he watched James Comey, the town hall with James Comey with Anderson Cooper that was on CNN last night. It took place at William and Mary, He said he watched. And again, thank you for watching. It was fascinating to see what was said there.

But President Trump continued to go after James Comey and very specifically on this one issue of how many nights he spent in Russia when he was at that Miss Universe Pageant where these salacious things happened. James Comey in a memo says that the president I guess twice told him, I didn't even spend a night there. Well now this is what the president says.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) TRUMP: He didn't write those memos accurately. He put a lot of phony stuff. For instance, I went to Russia for a day or so, a day or two, because I own the Miss Universe Pageant, so I went there to watch it because it was near Moscow. So I go to Russia. Now I didn't go there -- everybody knows, the logs are there, the planes are there. He said, I didn't stay there a night. Of course I stayed there. I stayed there very short period of time. But of course I stayed.

Well, his memo said I left immediately. I never said that. I never said I left immediately.


BERMAN: In fact, it does appear, by the way, that he did leave very quickly after the Miss Universe Pageant. The issue was the night before if you look at the flight details and the travel records and listen to people who were there.

But, Matt Lewis, what you see there is Donald Trump interacting real time with the information that's coming out in these memos and it comes down to a matter of credibility on this subject. Who are you going to believe? James Comey or the president?

LEWIS: Right, and neither of these two figures right now are, you know, utterly believable. I mean I think both of them have had kind of like problems and holes poked in their story, I think probably James Comey has the better reputation of the two, but you know, I want to go back to something you said earlier, John, which is Donald Trump should not be talking about this. He should not be talking about these things publicly and there have been multiple instances where he has said things on the record that actually put him in legal jeopardy or his policies in legal jeopardy.

Remember the first thing he did when he became president is the so- called Muslim ban, which, you know -- then he later tried to say no, no, it's not a Muslim ban, but guess what? He had singled out that religious group in tweets that was used against him in some of the -- you know, some of the court decisions, the appeals. Right, here again, Donald Trump by sort of parsing language, by disputing what he may or may not have said to James Comey, I think opens himself up down the road to future problems.

BERMAN: There was a moment during this conversation where it seemed to veer deep into this subject matter, the FOX News host said, let's talk about Kanye. It was a way I think to veer him into a safer place.

All right, Matt, Ryan, don't go anywhere. Asha, thank you very much. There is so much going on. A big price to pay.

The president now threatening the top Democratic senator on the Veterans Affairs Committee after the president's nominee has dropped out of the running.

Plus EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, facing a grilling on Capitol Hill in just minutes. Will another one of the president's Cabinet members face possible doom?



BERMAN: All right. Dr. Ronny Jackson, the president's physician who was his nominee to be the next secretary of Veterans Affairs has pulled out. Backed off now the nomination, he will not be the nominee. The president is blaming what he calls obstructionist Democrats for this, this after a number of allegations against Dr. Jackson came to light and came to light through the top Democrat on the Veterans Affairs Committee, Jon Tester. Listen to what the president said about Senator Tester.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA (via telephone): For Tester to bring up stuff like "Candy Man" and the kind of things he was saying and then say, these are just statements that are made, there's no proof of this and he has a perfect record. He's got this beautiful record, unblemished. I think Jon Tester has to have a big price to pay in Montana --


BERMAN: All right. Once again, Matt Lewis, Ryan Lizza with me. Gentlemen, a lot going on in this situation. First of all, you know, Dr. Jackson has withdrawn his nomination, which is big news this morning given how it all unfolded and there is still -- we don't know for sure whether these allegations against Dr. Jackson are true.

We know they're made by multiple sources. We know they come out from Jon Tester on this committee. We know the Republicans on the committee delayed the confirmation process. So, it's very confusing frankly at this point.

Matt Lewis, do you think making it political and saying that Jon Tester's doing this for political reasons and that will hurt him electorally, do you think that will have legs?

MATT LEWIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Not really, no. I think that this is Donald Trump maybe trying to salvage something, maybe there could be some political gain in the U.S. Senate from this, but basically as a national story, I don't think it resonates, because I don't think that this nominee was actually qualified for the job.

[09:20:09] I don't even know, if any, of these latest allegations are legitimate or not and they may, in fact, not be, who knows? But I do know that Ronny Jackson was not actually qualified to run the VA. I think that in and of itself is, you know, deserves him to have withdrawal.

BERMAN: In a sense, Ryan, you can make the case as deflecting here, the president's deflecting on Jon Tester because, again, while we don't know whether these allegations against Dr. Jackson are true, we do know he wasn't vetted by the White House. So, if they're not true, the White House didn't do him any favors by preparing him for it. You know, if they are (inaudible) they didn't do many favors by nominating him.

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely. A couple of things, one, this is Trump's fault. If you're going to nominate someone into the meat grinder of partisan politics in Washington, do some vetting so you don't embarrass the person and embarrass yourself.

I think Trump has a point that the way that Tester released this negative information in a sort of press release with a lot of very, very serious anonymous accusations, that doesn't seem to me the way the process should work.

I mean, the Senate has a job in vetting these candidates, but to do it the way Tester did it outside of a formal process, that seemed a little bit unfair to the nominee. That being said, this guy is now going back to work in the White House.

BERMAN: I can read you a tweet. It says, this is from Ivanka Trump, "Admiral Ronny Jackson is a man of exceptional integrity, character and intellect. We are grateful for his long and distinguished service to our nation and look forward to continue to see his warm smile each day at the White House."

LIZZA: I mean, these allegations were very much about his job performance in the White House, about how he managed the office and really, really serious allegations about, you know, misconduct on the job and I don't know if it's the Navy's responsibility now to look into that or if Congress will continue to do it. But it does seem that enough stuff has been raised that, you know, the president's physician has some pretty serious allegations against him, that does seem like --

LEWIS: The sad thing here too is that this is yet another example of Donald Trump actually taking somebody who had a pretty sterling reputation. I think this guy was highly respected and regarded by Presidents Obama and Bush.

And I think in Washington, D.C., well thought of and now his reputation is in tatters, that's what happens. For some reason Donald Trump has this sort of reverse midas effect on people that he interacts with.

In some cases, I think it's because he is promoting people who are not qualified for the jobs because he likes them. Remember, he wanted his personal pilot to head the FAA. You know, this is a pattern of Donald Trump promoting people who are not qualified. It's a disservice to them. You're not doing people a favor when you do it.

BERMAN: Key midas in reverse, by the way, is a song by Graham Nash. The president in the White House made it seem like it was Dr. Jackson ultimately made this decision during this interview earlier this morning, he made clear he's been thinking it would go this way for a while. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) PRESIDENT TRUMP (via telephone): I think we'll have somebody great, somebody that's more, you know -- look, the admiral is not a politician, which is what I like, by the way.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is your nominee somebody in politics right now?

PRESIDENT TRUMP: Somebody with political capability, yes.


BERMAN: So, the president obviously knew this was coming has someone else in mind, somebody with some political capability. We will see who that is. Matt Lewis and Ryan Lizza, thanks for being with us.

We're just moments away from hearing from EPA Administration Scott Pruitt, a hearing on Capitol Hill, both Democrats and Republicans, they have a lot of questions for him on a long list of spending and ethics scandals. We'll speak to one congressman who will be doing the questioning next.

Also, we're moments away from the opening bell. The Dow set to rise at the open as fears of rising interest rates are overshadowed for now by some strong corporate earnings. Stick around.



BERMAN: All right. In just a few minutes, the embattled EPA Chief Scott Pruitt is expected to face blistering questions. He's in two hearings today. Democratic and Republican sources say that the administrator will be hammered on his long list of ethics, possible ethics violations.

CNN's Rene Marsh on Capitol Hill with the very latest -- Rene.

RENE MARSH, CNN GOVERNMENT REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John. I can tell you it will not be a walk in the park for Scott Pruitt. This hearing is supposed to focus on EPA's budget, but a large chunk of this hearing will be about tough questions on Scott Pruitt, those ethical questions you mentioned as well as other scandals.

We're talking about that sweetheart deal from a lobbyist for that condo that he lived in for a short period of time, violating spending laws, buying a privacy pod within his office for $43,000, of course, his first-class flights as well as the 24/7 security.

I've been speaking to Democrats and Republicans here on Capitol Hill and they say that he should expect tough questions from both sides. Really, John, this hearing could be a moment where we see the erosion of GOP support for Scott Pruitt on full display.

It is interesting to know that Pruitt, he actually denied the White House of giving him any prep for this hearing. He said, no, thank you to that.