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WH Aide Kelly Sadler Mocks McCain: "He's Dying Anyway"; NYT: DHS Secretary Close to Quitting after Trump Berates Her; Kelly: Undocumented Immigrants Lack "Skills" to Assimilate; Anti-American Protests in Iran after Trump Leaves Deal. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired May 11, 2018 - 10:00   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: The White House says joking, about Senator John McCain dying while the veteran and former P.O.W. Is fighting brain cancer at home in Arizona.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Also, the secretary of Homeland Security allegedly threatening to quit after an explosive argument with President Trump over immigration. And this morning, Chief of Staff John Kelly, raising eyebrows for suggesting that undocumented immigrants don't have the skills to assimilate into the United States.

Our Ryan Nobles following the latest developments for us from the White House. Ryan, what are you learning?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we know for sure, John and Poppy that at this point the White House has only put out a very brief statement in response to these comments made by Kelly Sadler, the White House communications staffer who made that comment about John McCain. And this statement is not even attributed to anybody here at the White House.

Let me read it to you. It says, quote, "We respect Senator McCain's service to our nation and he and his family are in our prayers during this difficult time."

Now, we know that this is causing quite a bit of blowback here to the administration. There are many members of Congress including Senator Lindsey Graham, who's very close with Senator McCain, who said that there is no one on Capitol Hill who is laughing about these comments. And we know that Sadler herself did reach out to Meghan McCain, the daughter of John McCain, to apologize for her comments and try and mend the fences. But at this point, the McCain family is still very upset over this.

Let me read for you the tweet that was put out by Cindy McCain directed at Kelly Sadler. It says, quote, "May I remind you my husband has a family, seven children and five grandchildren."

And we shouldn't be lost in all of this. John McCain is still recovering from that brain tumor and the subsequent treatment as a result of it. In fact, Lindsey Graham said yesterday that he visited with McCain recently and that he is improving, that he's continuing to fight and that he still hopes to be back in the Senate in the very near future. But, again, this is a conversation that is dominating the White House today on a day and a time when they have so many big issues in front of them. John and Poppy?

HARLOW: We've also learned that one of, you know, the most critical positions for the president and his immigration hopes from immigration reform in this country almost quit.

NOBLES: Yes, that's right. Kirstjen Nielsen, who is the secretary of Homeland Security, she's someone who is very close with Chief of Staff John Kelly, apparently got into a very difficult and heated conversation with the president after he accused her of not doing enough to protect the nation's border. And to seal up some holes in the border as the president sees it.

And Nielsen pushed back saying she's doing everything she possibly can and working hard. And that led to a very tense moment between the president and the secretary where she reportedly suggested that maybe it is time for her to go. Cooler heads prevailed, she's staying in the job and Nielsen actually released a statement addressing the situation. She said, quote, "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."

But John and Poppy, it is important to point out that there is a growing list of senior members of this administration who have had similar conversations with this president, where they have told him that they're willing to resign if they can't iron out their differences. This is not normal for presidential administration and it is something this White House is continuing to have to deal with. John and Poppy?

BERMAN: Yes, a lot of people threatening to quit, Ryan, a lot of people not actually following through on those threats, which tells you something also. Thanks Ryan.

HARLOW: So, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly is also making headlines this morning for a comment he made in a wide ranging interview with "NPR." Listen to this on immigration.


JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: Let me step back and tell you that the vast majority of the people that move illegally into the United States are not bad people. They're not criminals. They're not MS-13. But they're also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States. They're overwhelmingly rural people. And the countries they come from, fourth, fifth, sixth grade educations are kind of the norm.


HARLOW: All right. With us now are political panel, political analyst, Jackie Kucinich, CNN political commentators, Tara Setmayer and Patti Solis Doyle. Jackie, to you, he's essentially saying there, OK, they're not, you know, rapists and drug dealers, but they're not that smart either and they really can't assimilate. This is a country. This is a nation of immigrants. What do you make of it?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It is consistent with what John Kelly has said in the past. The striking thing is when the president talks about illegal immigration, he doesn't use those terms. He doesn't say they're not dangerous. He ups the danger factor. So the departure from what the president says is extremely interesting. As to his other comments, I mean, what do you say? That is his view on immigration? You see that strain throughout the entire -- the entire administration.

BERMAN: I'm very curious, Tara, if people who can't assimilate is a buzzword for something else. For instance, you know, do you know regions assimilate to harken back to another discussion that president had about the people he wants to see here, the people from blank-hole countries, not assimilate. I'm not sure, first of all, that's true, but is that the subtext of what he's saying, Tara?

[10:05:05] TARA SETMAYER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, here's the unfortunate thing. You know, language matters and I understand John Kelly's point here. He's talking about unskilled labor that comes into this country. I worked on immigration for many years on Capitol Hill, and, you know, it is true. A lot of the immigration that comes through from Central America are people that are lower skilled labor, they come to the United States, it is more difficult to, quote, "assimilate," however you want to define that, they have children here, they're eligible for welfare programs through the children, you know, schools, health care, there is a financial burden, just ask the border states from Texas, Arizona, California. There is a significant cost to people who come here with lower skills.

The National Academy of Sciences has done an expansive report on the economic issues with people who come here that are lower skilled, over longer periods of time. So, there is -- there is a policy discussion to have. Unfortunately, because of the type of language that is used, it turns into something that is more ethnic or something that comes across as being, you know, scare mongering of people coming into this country, and it does not help the policy debate move forward at all.

Obviously the president chooses his words, using the criminal element of illegal immigration and these kinds of things to rile people up. And it works. I think he -- partially why he got elected was over this issue. And it is unfortunate because it is multifaceted and things do need to be fixed at the border with security, but this doesn't advance the conversation when you use language like this.

PATTI SOLIS DOYLE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Can I jump in here, please, as a daughter of Mexican immigrants? John Kelly's words were ignorant, plain and simple. Immigrants have been coming to this country and assimilating just fine since the inception of this country. My father had a third grade education, my mother had a sixth grade education, together they raised six kids, you know an alderman in the city of Chicago, a first responder, a firefighter, educators, moms, dads, we have a marine in our family, and, yes, even a woman who ended up running a presidential campaign for the first, you know, woman to get that nomination for her party. So I just think John Kelly's remarks are just ignorant and he should stop saying them.

HARLOW: Patti, let me stay with you. Because looking at your Twitter feed in response to what the White House aide said about John McCain, because McCain said he could not cast a vote for Gina Haspel to run the CIA and she said, doesn't matter, he's dying. Their Twitter feed just says no, no, no, no. This is someone who ran for president on the opposite party that you ran that presidential campaign in, but it is above politics.

DOYLE: You know, when that item popped up in my news feed, I just -- the first thing that popped into my head is there is no way this can be true. There is just no way that anybody can be as callous and as heartless to say that, to make a joke about anyone who is battling cancer, much less a sitting U.S. Senator, a P.O.W., an American hero.

But, you know, it is a culture and an environment that the president has created in that White House, where people think they can speak this way. He debases people every day. He debases African-Americans, he debases women, he debases Hispanics, he debases people with disabilities, and so he's created this environment and if he -- if this environment did not exist in the White House, Miss Sadler, would have been fired last night. Instead she's there. There has been no public apology. It is just the fish, you know, stinks from the top as they say.

BERMAN: She has called, apparently, Meghan McCain, but she's not issued a public apology and the White House certainly has not issued an apology at all, Jackie. Is there an element to what Patti is saying here that makes it impossible for the White House to apologize? If you apologize for this comment from a White House staffer, how do you not apologize for the things the president has said in the past?

KUCINICH: Right. The president himself has gone after John McCain and said -- and questioned his war record for goodness sake. John McCain's family reportedly doesn't want the president at his funeral. This is -- because of the relationship that he has had with the president. Disrespect is sort of -- this divisive language is how this is, how this White House has been run. And you're right, Patti is saying absolutely on the mark. There is a culture here. And occasionally, it seeps out into the public view and it is ugly.

[10:10:05] HARLOW: Tara, let me ask you about how significant you think it is that Kirstjen Nielsen heading DHS was about to - according to "New York Times" reporting, resign this week. I mean, this is the person that the president has put a lot of weight on to get his immigration agenda through. He no longer has that talking point, right, that fewer and fewer undocumented immigrants are getting across the border and he points at her, blames her, berates her, dresses her down in front of colleagues. She's ready to walk out the door, but then doesn't. How significant for this White House?

SETMAYER: I think that it is par for the course. You see this level of chaos every day. It is also what happens when you don't put the best people in these positions. Kirstjen Nielsen was someone who was not necessarily - didn't necessarily have the gravitas to be DHS secretary. She wasn't even John Kelly's first choice to be chief of staff. She's basically a cybersecurity consultant and was able to maneuver her way with being ingratiating herself to the right people to get to this position. And she's not very well liked within the Department of Homeland Security from what I understand. And so this is what happens.

When you have someone that doesn't have that level of connection to the people that they're overseeing, doesn't have that level of respect, per se, overall, and the president of the United States, he's not even -- he's fallen out of favor a little bit with John Kelly from what we understand and she is a representative of him. So, you know, now, personnel that aside, there is no way I would ever let anyone talk to me like that. And I don't understand why these people stand there and allow the president of the United States to do this to them. He's never going to change. He's going to continue to be like this. This is not really the way that a president should be behaving. And unless people start putting their foot down and saying we're not going to take this, he's never going to change.

I just want to say one quick thing about McCain. Those comments that came out of that, that despicable staffer's mouth about John McCain, who I had my conservative policy differences with, but I have never questioned his standing as a war hero, as a hero for this country, he's the son of a navy admiral, what he did and what he sacrificed for this country as a P.O.W. in Vietnam is courage that the president could never understand. And the fact he goes after John McCain and that he's created this environment to make other people think that they can insult Senator McCain is really frustrating. The president is a silver spoon draft dodger who wouldn't even -- didn't have the courage to do a fraction of what John McCain and others did in Vietnam. And the fact that they would allow this staffer to continue in her position is a disgrace and shame on them for it.

BERMAN: We're going to hear from Meghan McCain a little bit later today. Tara Setmayer, Jackie Kucinich, Patti Solis Doyle, thank you so much for being with us.

All right, a lot of speculation about Chief of Staff John Kelly, was he close to leaving the White House? Why he says he regrets not getting to the West Wing sooner.

Plus, tensions rising in Iran with protesters rallying in the streets, we're live after the president's controversial decision to leave the Iran nuclear deal.

HARLOW: And a big mistake. That is what AT&T CEO is saying this morning about his company's decision to hire the president's personal attorney Michael Cohen, much more on how he's trying to explain this controversial move ahead.


[10:17:43] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KELLY: In retrospect, I wish I had been here from day one. JOHN BURNETT, NPR: How so?

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. It's not that things were a disaster that first six months, but I believe it could have been better.


HARLOW: Chief of Staff John Kelly there admitting that the White House did not run nearly as smoothly as he would have liked to see it run or as the president frankly has said it did in the early days.

BERMAN: Want to bring in former White House lawyer Jim Schultz who worked in the Trump administration for those first six months. Jim, long time, no see, great to have you here. What do you make of General Kelly's comments right there, that people were hired that should not have been hired?

JAMES SCHULTZ, FORMER TRUMP WHITE HOUSE LAWYER: Well, look, he certainly made that decision. There were some folks that were moved out of the administration as soon as he came in. It was his prerogative as chief of staff to make those staffing decisions. So I think that's what he's getting at. He's saying, look, I came in. I brought order to the White House. We moved folks on that we didn't believe were contributing in a way that was positive for the White House and made some decisions to again restore order to the office. Go ahead.

HARLOW: I was going to say, you were there, we weren't there. You were there. So, it's sort of two fold question. One, is Kelly right that things, you know, were not working back then and are working now and if they are working now, what about the chaos surrounding just Rudy Giuliani?

SCHULTZ: Look, Rudy Giuliani does not work in the White House. So let's -- there are two separate things. You have the White House -- the office of the White House and then the president's personal lawyers, his political operation, they're strikingly different things. To lump Rudy Giuliani into chaos in the White House -


HARLOW: Well, he's talking about -- it is not accurate. Hold on.

I don't think it is unfair because he's -- Rudy Giuliani is out there talking about what the president knows, you know, about legal issues, he's talking about legal strategy. He's talking about whether the president will sit with Mueller.

BERMAN: He's also announced the freeing of North Korean hostages and regime change in Iran. He's out there -

HARLOW: He may not technically be an employee of the White House but he inserted himself right into the West Wing.

SCHULTZ: But certainly not under the control of John Kelly. That's the point, right?

[10:20:02] So to the extent that Rudy Giuliani needs to be reeled in as it relates to discussing North Korea issues, that's certainly not his role in his capacity as the lawyer to the president to be doing that. There is no question about that. But as it relates to the function of the White House, policy decisions are made every day, certainly that's not having impact on that.

BERMAN: So was it chaotic to be clear? Was it a little messy the first six months, Jim?

SCHULTZ: Look, any time you go into a new administration, I worked for a governor of a state, a new administration, I worked for the president in a new administration, anytime you come in there is a learning curve that takes place. There were some very, very good people running that office when we came in. Reince Priebus did a very, very good job. He had great political instincts and did a good job as chief of staff. There's no question about that. He did run it the same way John Kelly did? No, he didn't run the same way John Kelly did. It's just because it is different doesn't mean it is wrong.

HARLOW: Let me get your legal expertise on this, Jim, if you will. Because the big president, huge president - huge question right now for the president rather is whether or not if he were to be subpoenaed by Mueller's team in the Russia probe, would he testify or not? Rudy Giuliani had said a whole lot to say about that in the last few days. He also talked about presidents complying with subpoenas back in 1998. Here is what he said then.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If the president is asked to testify, subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury, and says no, not going to do it.

RUDY GIULIANI, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S LAWYER: He got to do it. I mean, you don't have a choice.


HARLOW: It is the polar opposite of what he's saying now. How do you see it legally?

SCHULTZ: I see it as an open question as to whether a sitting president can be called before a grand jury to testify. It hasn't been tested by the United States Supreme Court. The only thing we have seen is documents produced. There have been deals made time and time again like during the Clinton investigation where Clinton testified over the telephone. But that was only after a subpoena issued, the subpoena was withdrawn, and President Clinton then testified. So it is an open question. And I think it will be something that goes all the way to the Supreme Court, if the president decides not to testify, and he's in fact subpoenaed.

BERMAN: So the Supreme Court says yes, he has to testify, and the subpoena can be enforced. Do you see the president taking the fifth? Because to me it looks as if he's laying the political groundwork now to maybe cover himself to do that.

SCHULTZ: I don't think the president is laying the ground work to take the Fifth in any way, shape or form. I think Rudy Giuliani spoke about the Fifth Amendment as an option for the president. That doesn't mean it's something being considered. We've heard a lot coming out of Rudy Giuliani over the last few days that quite frankly doesn't seem to comport with that the White House and what the thinking is in the White House, the thinking of the president is, the fact the president said - came out and said, specifically, Rudy got to speed and get his facts straight.

So I don't know that we can take that as the word of the president. That if he'd be willing to take the Fifth. I believe that's unfair, whether or not he takes the Fifth Amendment, that's where his lawyers to make that judgment when they're having that discussion with him. That's not something I can opine on. I don't know those facts.

HARLOW: Very quickly. As a lawyer who worked in the White House, do you think Rudy Giuliani is helping the president here? Yes or no?

SCHULTZ: I think Rudy Giuliani last weekend, I believe last weekend, when he started talking about scope, he started talking about timing, and he started talking about fairness, as it related to the Mueller investigation, there has to be comfort there on both sides. That the Mueller team is going to be fair to the president, that there is going to be a limited scope as to the question. There's going to be a limited time as to the question. All those things are good things. After that, I think things went off the rails. I said that time and time again, he wasn't getting his facts straight.

HARLOW: Thank you.

BERMAN: So, yes and no there. Jim Schultz thanks so much for being with us.

SCHULTZ: You got it.

HARLOW: Protesters filling the streets of Iran today, protesting President Trump pulling the United States out of the Iran nuclear agreement. We'll have a live report from Tehran ahead.


[10:28:25] BERMAN: This morning, Iranians taking to the streets, protesting President Trump's decision to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal.

HARLOW: Let's go straight to our senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen. He is live in Tehran for us this evening. What did you see today?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I mean, some pretty big demonstrations going on there, Poppy. People stepping on the American flag, burning the American flag, and they also had some pretty harsh words for President Trump. Here's what some folks said to us. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: We have come here to say to all of the people of the world and to Mr. Trump that we stand against Mr. Trump.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: I want to say to American people that we are very sorry that they have -- they have elected such a president.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: I have a message to Mr. Trump. You cannot destroy people of Iran.


PLEITGEN: And, Poppy, those were religious conservatives and hard- liners. There were of course two things that were really angering folks here. On the one hand, it was President Trump's decision to pull out of the nuclear agreement, but then also that skirmish that happened in the Golan Heights where apparently the Israelis that hit some Iranian positions inside Syria, the Iranians still not acknowledging that they had any part of that, but it was interesting because at those Friday prayers, they had a very hardline clerics speaking there as well, and he was saying that Iran does not want a nuclear weapon, but that they will expand their ballistic missile program. That's also interesting because Iran's foreign minister came out just a few hours ago and said that Iran is making preparations to begin once again enrichment of uranium on what he calls an industrial scale without any borders to it. Poppy?

HARLOW: Fred Pleitgen for us, live from Tehran, thank you for the reporting. We appreciate it.