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Lobbyist Helped Arrange Trip; Migrants Being Processed; Price Says Healthcare Costs Will Increase; Apple Rewards Investors. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired May 2, 2018 - 09:30   ET


[09:30:00] RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION AND GOVERNMENT REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: Pruitt's trip to Morocco was twice as expensive as originally thought. This all according to "The Washington Post."

But back to that lobbyist involved in arranging that trip. Richard Smotkin not only helped arrange the trip, but he participated in meetings during the trip, including meetings with industry. Then, just months later, the Moroccan government hired him to work as a foreign agent. It raises questions, did he get the job because he successfully organized this trip for Pruitt? It's also very unusual for a lobbyist to be so involved in planning a trip for the head of a federal agency.

But there's a lot more Pruitt news today. Just in the last 24 hours, we learned that two key aides abruptly left the agency, including the head of his security team. Democratic lawmakers say that Pruitt tried to set up a new EPA office in Tulsa. That is his hometown, for his convenience. And "The New York Times" reports an email from the lobbyist involved in Pruitt's $50 a night apartment shows that the lobbyist actually recommended people for a science advisory board.

So all of these storylines fit into a larger pattern for what we know about Scott Pruitt dating back to his days as Oklahoma's attorney general. He was criticized then for being too close to lobbyists. And it all raises the question now, in his role as EPA administrator, is Scott Pruitt protecting the public's health or the industry's bottom line?

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Rene Marsh, thank you for the reporting.

Walter Shaub is here, our contributor, and also former director of the Office of Government Ethics.

Just to put it out really clearly, $100,000 trip to Morocco while he's EPA administrator, arranged by a lobbyist and a friend, who then gets hired to make 40 grand a month basically being -- doing PR for Morocco, significance?

WALTER SHAUB, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: This is a worst case scenario for government ethics. I feel like I want my head to explode right now because it's barely possible to process the one thing after another that Pruitt does. It's inconceivable in any other administration that he'd still be in this position. And, of course, this latest revelation about the exorbitant cost of

this trip, $100,000 with the lobbyist helping to plan it, that's just incredible, particularly because the whole point of the trip seems to have been to promote natural gas industry interests in terms of trade with Morocco.

HARLOW: Right.

SHAUB: And it's really not clear what an EPA administrator has to do with that. We already have a commerce secretary and a U.S. trade rep and an energy secretary. Pruitt should be at home looking at the environment.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: What's wrong -- what would be wrong with a lobbyist helping plan a foreign trip?

PRUITT: Well, for one thing, usually the government itself, if it's paying, is going to be planning the details of the trip. So it already shows a very strange involvement of this lobbyist. And the fact that he traveled with Pruitt means that he had very excessive access to the man to bend his ears on policy issues after providing the free services of arranging the trip.

But what's particularly troubling is this contract that the lobbyist landed with the Moroccan government because it really does smell like a reward for having gotten the cabinet official over there. And that would be a misuse of position if that's what Pruitt was trying to help him do.

HARLOW: So, Walter, this is just the latest in a series of huge ethical dilemmas to put it lightly for the EPA administrator. You've got the purchase of this $43,000 soundproof booth for his office, which actually OMB is looking into now. You've got the exorbitant travel expenses. You've got the rental of the cheap housing from a lobbyist wife, 50 bucks a night there. Tom Price, former HHS secretary, was fired for seemingly a lot less, but that was after, you know, the Obamacare repeal failed. So he arguably failed on one of his biggest missions from the president.

Scott Pruitt has been pushing through the president's agenda very successfully. Is that the difference here?

SHAUB: I think it is. Tom Price and David Shulkin should be really upset right now that Scott Pruitt is still running around in his job, but they made it explicit at that congressional hearing last week where there were members of Congress defending him by pointing out what they perceive as his success in deregulatory efforts, which sends a very strong message that as long as we like you, as long as you do things we want substantively, ethics doesn't matter. And that's just really a terrible message because, frankly, that's when it matters the most, to show that you can't buy your way out of ethics trouble with policy decisions that Congress and the White House like.

BERMAN: And, Walter, you're an experienced attorney beyond everything else and I'd like to get your take on a new statement from the president, who seems to be engaged in his own defense in the Russia investigation, his own legal defense. He seems to be addressing some of the questions that came out yesterday that deal to his mindset when he was firing James Comey, suggesting firing Jeff Sessions, suggesting firing Robert Mueller.

[09:35:19] Let me read you what the president just wrote. The questions are an intrusion into the president's Article II powers under the Constitution to fire any executive branch employee. What the president was thinking is an outrageous dot, dot, dot as to the president's unfettered power to fire anyone.

He's quoting someone who almost was his personal attorney, Joe diGenova there. But it gets to this notion that is out there, that the president can't -- it can't be suggested that he obstructed justice if he was doing it using a power the Constitution gives him. He can fire executive branch employees, correct?

SHAUB: What an outrageous tweet for him to have put. I mean the man seems to think he's king, not president. It is true that he has the power to fire anybody he wants. And to the extent that that firing will actually take, I mean, look, Comey's not still in the job, that statement is true.

But what he's really declaring with that tweet is the idea that a president can go around expressly firing people to prevent himself from being held accountable under the rule of law, that he will not be investigated. He did that with Comey and went on TV and admitted publicly that that was his reason, that he didn't like being investigated, and the timing now is a message to Rod Rosenstein and Robert Mueller and Jeff Sessions, that he still doesn't feel he should be investigated.

Well, whether or not this is a crime, if he continues to go down this road and fire people for investigating him, how many will it take for Congress to wake up and make a decision that the rule of law in this country matters and that the president isn't above that rule of law? It's Congress' job to intervene if that happens. And the penalty, if he goes around repeatedly firing people for investigating, should be impeachment.

BERMAN: Walter Shaub, great to have you with us.

HARLOW: Thank you.

SHAUB: Thanks.

BERMAN: So their trip to the border drew the ire of the president. But now dozens of migrants seeking asylum are being processed. Does this create a political problem for the president?


[09:41:25] HARLOW: So far, 28 of those Central American asylum seekers who came to the U.S. border in that so-called caravan have taken the official first step of their journey potentially into the United States. They have entered the U.S. immigration post in Tijuana. Ahead of many months of interviews and court hearings as they are seeing asylum.

BERMAN: Remember, the president called this so-called caravan a disgrace and said he instructed homeland security to keep it out.

CNN's Leyla Santiago has been tracking them in Tijuana.

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John and Poppy, still dozens waiting for their turn to make their claim to seek asylum the legal way into the United States of America. U.S. federal law says they have to go to a port of entry, seek asylum there. That is where they are.

Now, according to Border Patrol, they have 28 people in custody that they are currently processing. So what does that mean? What should we expect to happen next? That means that an asylum officer will be talking to them for what they call a credible fear interview. They'll be asked, why are you leaving? Where are you going? They'll get sort of their story and their take as to why they feel that they should get asylum in the United States of America.

When that will be complete, we're not sure. But if that is -- if they are deemed to have a credible fear, their case will then move to an immigration court, which can actually be a pretty long process. And where they will be in between that is also unknown. Whether they will stay in detention or be released.

But in the meantime, as I mentioned, still dozens waiting for their turn after a month long journey to get here right now, sleeping in the cold, in the dark, but still holding on to that hope that they will one day seek asylum. And given that there are several dozen now that have been able -- have been given the opportunity to do that, for these folks, they tell me it's like a new glimmer of hope. But still such a long and uncertain process ahead.

John. Poppy.

BERMAN: All right, Leyla Santiago in Tijuana.

Leyla, thanks very much.

Joining now, CNN's senior political analyst Mark Preston.

And, Mark, you know, 150 people at the border here. Some of them have begun the process of seeking asylum. The president said he wanted to keep them out. He instructed homeland security to keep this from happening. Nevertheless, it's happening. So is this, in any way, a setback or an embarrassment for the president?

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, not necessarily. I mean I certainly think that as this continues on over the next couple of days, perhaps the next couple of months, this actually might work in President Trump's favor in the sense that the pictures that we're seeing coming out of the border of some of these migrants climbing up the wall and sitting on the wall and basically demanding to come in, those are not very good pictures for the idea of allowing these folks who are trying to get away from these very desperate conditions in Central America. So I don't think it's necessarily going to hurt him, but I will tell

you this, it is going to certainly energize the political bases on both sides. So this immigrant issue, this immigration issue, and this refugee issue is going to be a huge issue heading into November.

HARLOW: Let's just be very clear here. These are asylum seekers. These are people, except for those few in the group, I believe it was 11 who tried to illegally come into the country. The rest of them are seeking to do it the legal way and it will be up to the legal process in this country to decide if they get in.

But has the president, Mark, successfully muddied the waters to message to his base that in some way this is illegal immigration with images like this, which is not the majority of the group?

BERMAN: Yes, I mean, these pictures actually do a disservice to what's going on here.

PRESTON: Right, it does.

HARLOW: Right.

PRESTON: It does.

Yes, look, there's no question about that. There is a process for folks who are seeking asylum status. That means you either are in the country and you approach an embassy or, you know, you go to the government and say, listen, I need asylum. I can't go back to my own country. Or you are actually at the border seeking asylum. That is the difference, of course, when we're talking about refugees and certainly bringing folks into the country proactively from our part.

[09:45:22] But those images are not good for the cause because even though they are seeking asylum and they are coming from very desperate conditions, it looks like it's an organized caravan that's coming up and demanding to be allowed into the United States.

HARLOW: Right.

PRESTON: That is not a good message. It's a lot different than the children's train that we saw come up from Central America where we had these unaccompanied minors whose parents said, I can't help you here, good luck, you've got to go to the U.S. yourself, and they had nothing else. That's a different situation.

BERMAN: It is. But by and large, again, this is not illegal immigration.


BERMAN: This is people trying to come to the United States through a quite legal process.


BERMAN: There is something else in this, though, Mark, which is, there are plenty of people, Tom Cotton and others, who actually do want to reduce legal immigration to the country.

PRESTON: Right, and that's an entirely different issue. But I -- yes, but I do agree with you there, there is a -- and, quite frankly, they're also talking about flat out bringing in skilled workers, you know, in trying to move it in that direction. I'll be flat out honest with you right here, if that was the case, my mother and father would have not come over on a boat from Ireland in 1958. I would not be sitting here with you right now. There is still the American dream. We are still the hope for many around the world.

And America is only a nation because it's a nation of many. So when Tom Cotton talks about that and others, I do think that they need to take a step back and think about where we are, where we came from and where we're going.

HARLOW: Important point. Mark Preston, we're glad they came here too. Thank you.



BERMAN: All right.


BERMAN: All right.

HARLOW: All right, the president's former health secretary, Tom Price, says health care costs are going up in this country and he blames Republicans. The latest, ahead.


[09:51:22] HARLOW: President Trump's former health secretary, Tom Price, says the new Republican tax law, the president's signature legislative achievement so far, would increase the costs of health insurance for some Americans.

Our chief business correspondent, Christine Romans, is here.

I know that was your line. I read over it. I'm really sorry.

BERMAN: It's OK. It's OK.

HARLOW: I love doing that. Just kidding.


HARLOW: Getting back into the swing of things.

BERMAN: For years reading over my lines.

ROMANS: That's really great. Look, we're talking about Tom Price here and this is getting a lot of attention, this comment in particular, because, you know, he was the president's first Health and Human Services director with the job of trying dismantle Obamacare. Now he says the Republican tax reform will raise some people's health insurance costs, in part because it weakened Obamacare by ending the individual mandate to buy insurance.

Here's what he said at a health conference yesterday. Quote, you'll likely have individuals who are younger and healthier not participating in that market. And, consequently, that drives up the cost for other folks within that market.

And, translation, this essentially removes the stick prodding younger and healthier people to sign up for Obamacare. And with only older and sicker Americans on the exchange, prices will rise. Prices essentially echoing what the CBO told everyone last fall, that premiums could jump about 10 percent this year, leaving millions uninsured. Four million fewer by 2019 and 13 million by 2027.

Now, last fall, Democrats used those very same CBO numbers to make the case against the tax bill, but Republicans, including Price, called the mandate a tax burden because it required Americans to have insurance or pay a penalty.

You know, this is the second Republican this week who's gotten some attention. Marco Rubio, Senator Marco Rubio, also commenting on the Republican tax bill, saying that so far there's no evidence that it will be a -- a big poured -- all that money will be poured back into -- into workers. More likely shareholders.

BERMAN: All right, there's actually a tax cut implication in my next question here, which is that Apple is doing something here. A big share buyback. What's going on here?

ROMANS: Eye-popping numbers here. You know, Apple has so much money sitting overseas and now, under the tax reform, it gets a very low tax rate to bring that back. So it told investors that it would spend $100 billion more on share buybacks. That is astonishing, the size of that money. That's on top of the first quarter where you had about 23 billion in share -- I mean that's enough to buy companies, S&P 500 companies, quite frankly.

So it's a huge number here. And it just shows you how the tax reform, these companies, Tim Cook and others, they wanted it so badly. It shows you just how much money was tied up --


ROMANS: Tied up waiting for a tax reform.


ROMANS: You know, Apple has said that it's going to have these big expansion plans in the United States as well. I mean it is --

HARLOW: Yes. ROMANS: It is spending money. But when you look overall at how the money is spent -- has been spent from tax reform, it's 6 billion or so for workers directly in bonuses and raises and now hundreds of billions to shareholders.

HARLOW: Romans, thank you.

ROMANS: You're welcome.

HARLOW: Appreciate it.

New details in the shooting death of Stephon Clark and the information differs from a previous autopsy report. You'll remember that Clark was the unarmed black man who was fatally shot by two Sacramento police officers last March. An official autopsy report released by Sacramento county coroner found that he was shot seven times, not eight as the private autopsy had found. The official report also found that most of the bullets did not hit Clark in the back. And the private autopsy performed at the request of the Clark family had made those claims.

BERMAN: The younger brother of the Parkland shooter was arrested again overnight in Palm Beach, Florida. According to the warrant, the 18- year-old violated his probation by driving a car without a driver's license, being too close to a school he was not enrolled in. Back in March, he was arrested on a misdemeanor trespassing charge at Stoneman Douglas High School. He said he went back to reflect on the school shooting and to soak it in.

So the word "boy" is being dropped from the Boy Scouts' program name. Next year the program for children ages 11 through 17 will be called Boy Scouts DSA. The name change will come with a new slogan, "scout me in." In a statement the organization says the changes are being made to welcome girls and boys into scouting communities across the country. However, the organization's official name, Boy Scouts of America, will remain.

[09:55:24] All right, very shortly we will see President Trump for the first time since reports that Special Counsel Robert Mueller raised the possibility of a subpoena. We'll bring that to you live.

Stay with us.


[10:00:08] BERMAN: All right, good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.

HARLOW: And I'm Poppy Harlow. Top of the hour.

And a looming legal showdown with unprecedented implications.