Return to Transcripts main page


White House Aide Kelly Sadler Mocks Senator John McCain, Says "He's Dying Anyway"; DHS Secretary Threatens to Resign After President Trump Berated Her During Cabinet Meeting; John Kelly Weighs in on White House Chaos and Russia Probe; Giuliani's Ex-Law Firm Rejects His Defense Of Daniels Payment; Ryan Backs Nunes In Latest Dispute With The Justice Department. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired May 11, 2018 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:16] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.


So this shouldn't be about politics or policy or partisanship. This is about basic human decency and manners. When someone is battling a particularly insidious form of brain cancer, you don't make fairly public jokes about that person dying. You don't do that to any person, and that includes Arizona senator and former POW, John McCain.

HARLOW: But that's exactly what White House aide Kelly Sadler did. After learning that Senator McCain opposed the president's pick for CIA director, Sadler said in a White House meeting, quote, "It doesn't matter, he's dying anyway."

Well, this morning only after this has become public, Sadler is apologizing. The administration is trying to clean up this mess, while not denying the comments were made or even apologizing with a White House statement.

Abby Phillip joins us outside the White House with more.

No official apology from the White House, but condemnation from both sides of the aisle this morning in Congress and among the American public.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Kelly Sadler, a White House aide in charge of surrogate relations, is under fire this morning from both parties for her comments in a communications meeting this week about John McCain. She was referring to McCain's opposition to President Trump's CIA nominee, Gina Haspel, in which Sadler said that McCain's comments basically don't matter because, quote, "he's dying anyway."

Now the White House in response to these reports didn't deny that Sadler said that in this meeting but they did issue this statement in response saying, "We respect Senator McCain's service to our nation and he and his family are in our prayers during this difficult time." But you'll notice that in that statement, there was no apology and perhaps it's because the president himself has been very critical of John McCain in the past, criticizing him for being captured during the Vietnam war.

In response to all of this, John McCain's wife, Cindy McCain, was forced to go on Twitter to respond to Sadler saying, "May I remind you, my husband has a family, seven children and five grandchildren."

Now sources tell us that Sadler made a phone call to Meghan McCain, John McCain's daughter, to apologize to her. It's not clear what McCain's response to that was, but Meghan McCain says that she'll respond on "The View" later this morning.

Meanwhile this whole controversy just adding on to the pain for this family as McCain is fighting for his life in this brain cancer fight -- John and Poppy.

BERMAN: So, Abby, we've also learned that another Cabinet secretary has threatened to quit after a confrontation with the president. What's going on here?

PHILLIP: That's right. This is becoming a common refrain in this White House. The secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, was in a meeting with President Trump, several other Cabinet officials, several other White House aides about the issue of immigration. And President Trump in that meeting berated her for an increase in immigration in the last several months compared to last year that he apparently wanted to stop and blamed her for not doing enough.

Now, according to our sources, Nielsen held her own, citing the law in some cases to defend herself, saying that she's doing as much as she can. But the president went on for quite some time criticizing her. Nielsen reportedly threatened to quit, threatened to resign after this meeting. And in response to all of this reporting, she issued a statement that did not address whether or not she threatened to resign, but she did say this.

"The president is rightly frustrated that existing loopholes and the lack of congressional action have prevented this administration from fully securing the border and protecting the American people. I share his frustration."

Nielsen's spokesperson also denied "The New York Times" report which was the first to report this but no one is denying that this incident happened. And of course Kirstjen Nielsen is someone who has of late been in the president's crosshairs because he's really frustrated with what he sees as a surge in -- undocumented immigrants coming across the border in recent months. He's blaming her personally for it -- John and Poppy.

BERMAN: Abby Phillip for us at the White House. We'll keep our eye on that all morning long.

Also this morning the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, on the record with National Public Radio and striking down reports, the most recent round of reports. HARLOW: Right.

BERMAN: That he's been thinking about quitting.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Have you seriously considered leaving?

JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: No. There's times of great frustration, mostly because of the stories I read about myself or others that I think the world of, and wonder if it's worth it to be subjected to that. But then I grow up and suck it up.


BERMAN: So Kelly did go on to address the chaos that seems to consistently, you know, hound the West Wing.


[09:05:02] KELLY: In retrospect, I wish I had been here from day one.


KELLY: Well, because in terms of staffing or serving the president, that first six months was pretty chaotic. There were people hired that maybe shouldn't have been hired. But it's not that things were a disaster that first six months, but I believe they could have been better.


BERMAN: An admission maybe that things were not running as smoothly as the president likes to say they were at the time.

HARLOW: Right. Also another a pretty surprising admission in this interview, a wide range interview in the Russia investigation. Here's what the chief of staff said when asked whether it was a witch hunt and how it's impacting the White House and the president personally. Listen.


KELLY: From what I read in the newspaper, something that has gone on this long without any real meat on the bone suggests to me that there is nothing there relative to our president.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is there a cloud because of it hanging over this White House?

KELLY: Well, yes. You know it's -- it may not be a cloud, but certainly the president is somewhat embarrassed, frankly, when world leaders come in.

(END VIDEO CLIP) HARLOW: Because you don't hear the word "embarrassed" and the president put together in one sentence often especially by his chief of staff.

BERMAN: No. But the chief of staff is suggesting what's bothering the president is he doesn't like to have to talk about it.

HARLOW: Right.

BERMAN: It's embarrassing for him to have to deal with this, not that he's concerned --

HARLOW: The justice part.

BERMAN: About the legality of justice, Russia meddling, any of those things, it's just personally embarrassing.

HARLOW: Joining us now, CNN political commentator Errol Louis and CNN contributor Brianna Golodryga.

Nice to have you both here.

Errol, let's begin with John McCain. A hero, a undisputable hero in this country. His wife has to go on Twitter and remind, you know, everyone of course, he's a father, he's a grandfather, he served this country his entire life.

The White House is trying to back pedal this, trying to say this is a joke. It's not a joke. It could never be a joke. And why isn't the White House apologizing?

ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, that's right, if it was a joke, you could simply apologize. It was a joke in poor taste but we're sorry. The reality is this is where some of the chickens come home to roost, something that we've seen really since the campaign. The crudeness of the president, the cruelty of the president verbally and otherwise, where he has mocked the disabled, he has mocked Senator McCain. And specifically mocked his heroism.


LOUIS: To do that over and over and over again really sets the tone from the top and on what grounds could you now chastise a staff member for doing what the president has done over and over and over again for years?

BRIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: The leadership really does take the tone here and you see the president doing this repeatedly. We haven't heard from the president at all. And you hear from many others in past administrations that say if something like this would have happened, that person would have been gone by now.

BERMAN: And the person is still there. And of course this comes I guess, what, two weeks after --

HARLOW: Yes. BERMAN: -- there was outrage by Trump allies everywhere for jokes

that were made about the White House Correspondents -- at the White House Correspondents' Dinner about eye shadow. You compare eye shadow jokes to a joke about a senator who is battling brain cancer.

LOUIS: And incidentally, they have the math wrong. I mean, the reality is you can take his vote away or give them his vote. They still have a problem with getting some of these appointments passed through. And joking about it or hoping he vanishes or hoping the vote isn't around is not going to change that.

GOLODRYGA: But it's also interesting that we led into this segment with John Kelly, because I always go back to that presser that he gave, remember, before the White House Press Corps where he talked about how this country has lost its moral compass, right, and this was talking about Gold Star families following the death of the soldiers in Niger. And when you compare that to this crass talk now that we're hearing from this staffer right now and for Cindy McCain and for Meghan McCain to have to now be addressing this instead of focusing on their father is disheartening. And I'm sorry, my 6-year-old wouldn't talk like this.


GOLODRYGA: Nobody thinks this is funny. It's not funny.

BERMAN: By the way, Marine General John Kelly has been silence on this as well.

HARLOW: Right. Tied to John Kelly, chief of staff, is Kirstjen Nielsen, who worked right below him at DHS before and whom he's very close to. And the reporting out of "The New York Times" that she was very close, I believe drafted a resignation letter, was going to resign after the president berated her in this Cabinet meeting on Wednesday.

She pushed back, Errol, but apparently it was explosive. What does it say that this keeps happening at the White House and can the White House afford any high profile departures like this again?

LOUIS: Well, there's that question. I think the underlying question to me or dynamic is fascinating, which is that people have told this president over and over and over again, pundits have said it, politicians have said it, border state supporters of his have told him that folks don't just come drifting over the border this time of year every single year because the borders are porous. They do it because there are economic forces pushing and pulling them. That there are employers waiting for them on the American side who really need them to bring in the harvest and other kind of things.

HARLOW: Exactly.

LOUIS: And there are forces that are pushing them there. And that, you know, to sort of make it personal, to act as if she personally just isn't doing a good enough job takes us back to a reality show understanding of a very complex dynamic there on the border. [09:10:03] GOLODRYGA: And it's a recurring theme, though. It's not

just Kirstjen Nielsen who's been talked down to this way. You've heard repeatedly that people, everyone from Jeff Sessions, McMaster, to John Kelly who said I've never been spoken to this way as an adult and I won't tolerate it.

BERMAN: What is it with people threatening to quit, though, and not doing it? Right? I mean, that seems to be a recurring theme here. Kirstjen Nielsen, you know, Jeff Sessions, John Kelly himself, Gary Cohn did it. If you're going to quit, quit. I mean, I don't quite understand what leverage they think they're getting by this kind of brinksmanship.

GOLODRYGA: Yes. And if you're trying to get the president to maybe change his attitude or how he addresses you, and you don't quit, then this is not setting a good precedent, right? Because we've now have repeated cases where we're hearing allegations of people threatening to quit. They don't follow up on it, so you know, the president can take it as a sign of them not being very serious on doing so.

HARLOW: It was interesting, too, what -- we didn't play it there, but what Kelly said about, you know, immigration. And he said, look, when you're talking about people coming over the boulder illegally, Errol, he said they're not criminals, they're not MS-13, they're not people that would easily assimilate into the United States and then he talked about, you know, the difficulties there. But it seemed to undercut the president a little bit, saying look, the majority of the people crossing the border illegally aren't criminals, they aren't gang members.

LOUIS: Well, there are interesting nuances within the immigration or anti-immigration, if you want to call it that, sort of factions within the White House. Right? I mean, there are reasons to want to tighten the borders. One, it's the law. That's one faction. There's another faction that says they are actually dangerous criminals. This is what the president has said and he has harped on it again and again because it's what builds political support for what would otherwise be very unpopular in the public mind and unreasonable policies.

And then he has somebody who's in the middle like General Kelly. They're the realists. They see the situation on the ground. They say, look, yes, we want to do this, the president promised it, it's better for the country and so forth but let's not act as if there's some rampaging mob of would-be murderers who are pouring over the border. It's just not like that.

GOLODRYGA: He talked about a path to citizenship for some of them that have been here, that have been displaced, that have been here for decades.

HARLOW: Yes, he did.

GOLODRYGA: But he did support a path to citizenship for some of them as well.

BERMAN: It's interesting we heard General Kelly talk about the Russia investigation and said, you know, it's a little embarrassing, it's a little embarrassing for the president that world leaders have to come here and -- you know, and it's being discussed all around him. Should be -- personal embarrassment be the biggest concern here for the president on this, Bianna?

GOLODRYGA: He sort of implicated that out of all of this investigation and all this time that it's taken that there has been no smoking gun in terms of the president. There's no meat on the bone, I believe is what his exact quote was. And it goes back to what Mike Pence said yesterday and people are wondering --


HARLOW: The wrap it up comment.

GOLODRYGA: Both of them saying, you know, wrap it up. It's time to bring this to an end.

HARLOW: Here's the thing, though. This sort of wrap it up witch hunt campaign seems to be working for this White House among Republicans. We have a brand new CNN poll on the Russia investigation. Two interesting things stood out to us. First of all, when you look at those that approve of Mueller's handling of the Russia investigation, it was 29 percent of Republicans in March, now it's 17 percent of Republicans, so they're winning at least the sort of PR battle on that front among their group.

And then also asked if the president should testify under oath to Bob Mueller, in March 54 percent of Republicans said yes. Now only 39 percent, Errol, say yes.

LOUIS: Well, thankfully the investigation is not going to be driven by polls.

HARLOW: Right.

LOUIS: So I guess the PR campaign to try and discredit the entire investigation is operating as well as could be expected. On the other hand, they might get what they are wishing for in which case they should be careful. I think if Robert Mueller and the folks involved in the investigation were to simply dump all of the information that they have, simply make it available to Congress and the public, I think it would be explosive.

I don't think we have to wait until there's some set of clean indictments that are waiting to sort of, you know, put people in some sort of legal jeopardy for it to really, really damage this administration.

GOLODRYGA: But one person who does follow polls, you know, is the president. So for those who are concerned that he may fire Robert Mueller, right, or Rosenstein, this may actually give them a bit of solace right now.

HARLOW: Yes. GOLODRYGA: Because maybe if he's seeing that a lot of Republicans

think that this isn't going the right direction that he may not fire him.

BERMAN: Errol, I think this is prebuttal. I think he knows exactly what he's doing. It's a prebuttal for his base when that report does come out if it does have damaging things.

So, Errol Louis, Bianna Golodryga, thank you very much.

HARLOW: Thanks, guys.

BERMAN: The president's attorney, Rudy Giuliani, playing cleanup on the cleanup on the cleanup.

HARLOW: On the cleanup.

BERMAN: After his former law firm rejects his reasoning for payments made to Stormy Daniels.

Plus, U.S. flags on fire, signs mocking the president as anti-American protests fill the streets in Iran. We'll take you there live.

HARLOW: And an explosive device detonates at a Texas church. This is just two weeks after police stopped another device from exploding. What's happening?


HARLOW: President Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, is trying this morning to clean up comments that he made after suggesting it is common practice for lawyers to make hush money payments for their clients without their clients knowing about it.

BERMAN: The law firm which Giuliani just resigned from rejects that defense of the $130,000 payment that Michael Cohen made to Stormy Daniels. Giuliani said he was referring to non-disclosure agreements, not hush money.

Joining us now to discuss this and much more, Democratic Congressman Mike Quigley, a member of the House Intelligence Committee. Congressman, I know you would like to see your committee reopen the Russia investigation based on a lot of the developments. I don't think that's likely to happen.

However, there has been a lot of activity by the Committee Chairman Devin Nunes over the last few days. He went over to the DOJ for this classified briefing with Trey Gowdy over documents they would like to see as part of the Mueller probe right now.

And your colleague Eric Swalwell said this about that.


REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D), CALIFORNIA: If they are inviting them to tell them we're not going to give you this information, yes, it's the right call because, Wolf, they are only seeking to act as the president's fixers in Congress. We don't turn over the keys to the FBI evidence locker to subjects of investigations.


[09:20:03] BERMAN: We don't turn over the keys to the evidence locker in FBI investigations. Is that how you see it?

REP. MIKE QUIGLEY (D), ILLINOIS: Well, sure. And this is an interesting week of contrast. While my colleagues were over at the Justice Department finding another way to attack them, we were releasing and publishing 3,000 ads that the Russians used to attack our democratic process through Facebook and other social media platforms.

If we're ever going to inoculate ourselves from these kind of Russian attacks, we have to understand them better. So, our attempt this week was let the American public know how they weaponized social media, how to prevent it in the future.

At the same time, further information comes out about Mr. Cohen, payments from Russian oligarchs, and our investigation is shut down.

What else have we learned since the shutdown of the investigation? That Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates were communicating with people connected with Russian military intelligence. That the president's lawyers were discussing pardons of those who have pled guilty or been charged in this Russian investigation. Everything relating to Cambridge Analytica. The list goes on.

So, you can either do what Mr. Gowdy, my colleague, a man I respect, has said to the president, if you're innocent, act like it. Or as has been suggested earlier, you're going to be part of the process that obstructs, continues to obstruct and attack our own government.

HARLOW: You're talking about transparency and the need for transparency as sort of a central pillar of American democracy. However, your Republican counterparts would argue, look, we want these documents from the Department of Justice for full transparency.

Republican Congressman Chris Stewart says, look, Congress has oversight over DOJ. In his words he said earlier this week, these guys work for us. And he said denying these documents to Nunes and Gowdy and the rest of the committee is constitutionally unsound.

Technically, he's right in terms of sort of who works for whom, if you will. Is it that you have a problem in the generic sense with this congressional oversight or you have a problem with Nunes, for example, and you don't trust his motives?

QUIGLEY: His first purpose was to act as legal ally and political defense for the White House beginning with his midnight run. He went along with the White House gag order.

Here we are trying to find out from witnesses exactly what took place. I was there when witnesses refused to answer key questions, particularly as it related to the White House, after the inauguration.

Mr. Nunes went along with the White House gag order. You don't have to participate. You don't have to answer questions. They refused to subpoena key witnesses at critical times, key documents.

They refused to subpoena social media platforms, communications between Trump associates and Russian allies. So, where does this end?

So, it's pretty clear where Mr. Nunes has been all along on this process. If your intent is to obstruct this investigation, this is all the things that you'd want to do.

I believe their real purpose here is either to attack the Justice Department or to turn this information over to the Trump legal team to help them prepare their defense.

BERMAN: That last part is an explosive charge right there. You're charging that the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee is handing over information to the president's personal legal team. Do you have any proof of that?

QUIGLEY: No. I certainly don't. What is their purpose? Prove me wrong. None of this makes sense in the opposite direction. Trying to prove the other thing makes absolutely no sense at all, that they would be so blindedly attacking the Justice Department.

Why are you doing this? It's either to aid the president legally or politically, which I'm suggesting here, or just to obstruct the investigation. Prove me wrong. Prove that you haven't - I want to hear the chairman tell the American public he hasn't turned over or leaked any of the information they got from the Department of Justice.

HARLOW: But there's a risk, no, to the American public and the confidence in the system to make an assertion like that without any evidence and to put the onus on someone to prove you wrong when you haven't seen any evidence of that?

QUIGLEY: I think - what I'm pointing out is that Chairman Nunes and the Republicans have done just the same thing. They have put the Department of Justice on trial.

The Department of Justice is independent. This is a key component of the rule of law. I think you flip this - they don't really work for us. They are independent of us. That is the whole purpose.

Otherwise, we could obstruct those investigations, as the Republicans have so far in this investigation. I'm not suggesting I know. I'm suggesting what they have done is the exact thing you're talking about with me. That is, they put the Department of Justice on trial because they're trying to protect the president legally. Prove me wrong.

[09:25:11] I'm putting them in the same position they're putting the Justice Department in.

BERMAN: Got you. We've got to run. Just very quickly, just so I understand, would you trust someone like Gowdy going over and seeing these documents if he thought there was a legal reason to and not just Nunes?

QUIGLEY: I have no reason to distrust, Mr. Gowdy. I have every reason to distrust Mr. Nunes, particularly when (INAUDIBLE) my questioning about his memo with the White House. It's very clear that he put that memo together working with the White House.

BERMAN: Congressman Mike Quigley, thanks for being with us.

HARLOW: Thanks, Congressman.

QUIGLEY: Thank you.

HARLOW: Ahead, anger and outrage in the streets of Tehran this morning. What the protesters are saying about President Trump's decision to pull the US out of the nuclear agreement.