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Homeland Security Secretary Threatens to Quit?; White House Press Briefing; White House Under Fire For Disparaging Remark About John McCain. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired May 11, 2018 - 15:00   ET



BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: At the White House press briefing, where a major topic will be a comment that was made by White House aide Kelly Sadler.

You may have not heard of her, but you probably heard of what she said now. She was reacting to Senator John McCain's opposition to President Trump's pick for CIA director, Gina Haspel, someone who McCain is opposed to.

And when she said something that was intended to be a joke, she said, "He's dying anyway," dismissing his objections.

The White House issued a response.

They -- quote -- "We respect Senator McCain's service to our nation and he and our family are in our prayers during this difficult time."

But many people are calling her out, including Senator McCain's daughter, Meghan.


MEGHAN MCCAIN, DAUGHTER OF JOHN MCCAIN: Whatever you want to say in this kind of environment, the thing that surprises me most is -- I was talking about this with you, Joy, that we -- I don't understand what kind of environment you're working in when that would be acceptable, and then you can come to work the next day and still have a job.

My father's legacy is going to be talked about for hundreds and hundreds of years. These people, nothing burgers. Nobody's going to remember you.



KEILAR: Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is a longtime friend of McCain's, was just visiting him in Arizona, slammed the aide's comments, saying -- quote -- "People have wondered when decency would hit rock bottom with this administration. It happened yesterday.

"John McCain is a genuine hero, a man of valor whose sacrifices for his country are immeasurable. As he fights for his life, he deserves better, so much better. Given this White House's trail of disrespect toward John and others, this staffer is not the exception to the rule. She is the epitome of it. Our children learn from our example. The lingering question is, whose example it will be? I am certain it will be John's."

I want to bring in Kaitlan Collins. She's our CNN White House reporter.

The president has been silent on this, although, considering his criticism of John McCain even recently, he may not be the best messenger to respond to this controversy anyway.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's the question here, Brianna. A lot of this stems from the top.

It would depend on who would be calling for her to be fired. But I am told that Kelly Sadler at work today in her office, business as usually, sending her typical e-mails out to surrogates for the White House talking points, things of that matter.

So, it seems to be going along like it was any other day, not that she made a comment that has caused a lot of blowback from people outside this White House. And so that is the question of, where do they go from here?

Certainly, Sarah Sanders is going to be asked about this at this briefing, because in the White House's response, when they reached out to get a comment on the fact that Sadler had made this remark, the White House didn't apologize, didn't deny the remark, but just simply said they were praying for McCain's family.

So, now the question is, what are they going to do about it, having this staffer here? And this is just another self-made crisis by this White House. This is something that any other White House, this person would likely be fired within a matter of hours.

But the question is, is this something that would get the president's attention? Of course, this is -- the president has also made disparaging remarks about Senator McCain before, certainly about his time when he was a prisoner of war, and saying he preferred people who did not get captured.

So, a lot of things do stem from the top, Brianna, and that's a question here. What I'm told from people inside the White House is, her comment isn't really the subject of much discussion behind closed doors today.

The communications staff, which Sadler works on, typically meets every morning around 9:00. Sometimes, they cancel those meetings. This morning, they canceled that meeting, so there was no discussion about that remark.

That was the same meeting that she made this remark in a few days ago when they were discussing his opposition to Gina Haspel being the next the CIA director nominee, Brianna. But now the White House is going to have to face questions on this and why they're keeping a staffer around who's made such a disparaging comment about someone who has cancer who has served our country and who currently is a lawmaker on Capitol Hill.

KEILAR: And we should mention Kelly Sadler did call Meghan McCain to apologize. We don't know the outcome of that call, but then Meghan McCain did as you saw, as we all saw, react on "The View."

Something else that no doubt Sarah Sanders is going to be asked about, comments by Chief of Staff John kelly. He's getting a lot of blowback for what he said on during an NPR interview about undocumented immigrants.

Let's listen to this.


JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: Let me step back and then tell you that the vast majority of people that move illegally into the United States are not bad people. They are not criminals. They are not MS-13.

But they're also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States. They are overwhelmingly rural people. In the countries they come from, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm.

They are coming here for a reason. And I sympathize with the reason, but the laws are the laws.


KEILAR: It's going to be interesting, Kaitlan, to see how Sarah Sanders responds to this, because while Kelly has gotten a lot of pushback for saying what he said, the president has actually been more extreme.


I mean, at the beginning of those comments, you heard Kelly saying that most people who come are good people. We have heard the president say some people who come are good people, but Mexico isn't sending its best; it's sending rapists and criminals.

How does she thread that needle?

COLLINS: Well, that's the question.

Of course, John Kelly and the president largely see eye to eye immigration. They disagree on a lot of issues. This is one where they seem to be in lockstep on.

So these aren't -- these likely will not be comments that get the president's attention, that cause him to say anything. Of course, we have reported extensively in the past that John Kelly is an immigration hard-liner.

He has said things like this before about who they're letting into the United States. He would be fine if it was a number between zero and one. Those are comments that John Kelly has publicly said.

So that's not likely to be something that draws the president's ire. But another remark during that rare interview that John Kelly did -- he is someone we rarely hear from -- is when he said that he believes the Russian investigation was an embarrassment to President Trump.

Now, President Trump has derided this investigation, been very critical of it, saying it's a witch-hunt on multiple occasions. But John Kelly also made headlines during that interview with NPR when he said that the president was embarrassed of the Russia investigation and that it's hampering his ability to forge relationships with world leaders, saying it's it's essentially an elephant in the room.

Now, my colleague Jeff Zeleny caught up with John Kelly in the Rose Garden just a few minutes ago as the president was holding an event on drug prices, and John Kelly said that he corrected that remark about it being an embarrassment during that interview -- he did not correct it, I should say, but he did later call it a distraction twice.

Of course, he was essentially saying as much to my colleague Jeff Zeleny, saying it is a distraction, saying it's a witch-hunt, which is an echo, of course, of what the president said. But he did seem, Brianna, to be trying to do some clean-up on that embarrassment remark.

Of course, this is a president who sees embarrassment as a weakness and likely not a comment he would want his chief of staff making about his state of mind.

KEILAR: Indeed.

All right, Kaitlan Collins, thank you so much, as we await the White House press briefing.

Joining me now is CNN political commentator Ana Navarro.

I want to talk to you about John McCain in just a moment, but first let's talk about John Kelly's remarks, where he said that there's a good kind of immigrant and a bad kind. According to Kelly, the good kind speaks English, has at least a college education, can easily assimilate.

The meaning of assimilate, of course, is something that is open to interpretation. This -- I just wonder what you think about his remark, Ana.

ANA NAVARRO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Hurtful. Unnecessary. Frankly, un- American.

Listen, John Kelly first talked about TPS and talked about policy, immigration policy, which I thought was very appropriate and a substantial discussion. These remarks are unnecessary, and they are -- they are particularly disturbing coming from somebody like John Kelly, who is an Irish Catholic from Boston, a city that was largely built by Irish immigrants, Italian immigrants, poor immigrants who came here, many of them poorly educated, who came here with what I guess he would describe us no kills or being unskilled, and who today are the city leaders.

But, more than that, let's remember John Kelly is also a general. He has commanded men and women who were willing to do what Donald Trump wasn't willing to do, sacrifice their lives, risk their lives in service of this country.

And if you go to the military cemeteries or the military hospitals, you will find a lot of people named Rodriguez and Martinez, people whose parents, people whose ancestors or people who themselves came here as immigrants, poorly educated, but who did assimilate, and did assimilate in the most American of ways, being willing to serve this country.

KEILAR: I do want to ask you about John McCain.

You worked with him on his 2008 presidential campaign. You heard Meghan McCain today responding to this White House aide who a lot of people would have never even heard her name before this, Kelly Sadler, who said, in dismissing John McCain's opposition to the president's CIA pick, said, "Well, you know, he's dying anyways."

What do you think? Do you agree with her? Do you think that Kelly Sadler should be fired? Or do you think that, considering what we have heard Donald Trump say about John McCain, that it just creates a very different situation here?

NAVARRO: Of course Kelly Sadler should be fired.

And, by the way, for anybody that wants to give Kelly Sadler their opinion on what she said, it's @KellySadler45 on Twitter.

Look, in any other White House, she would be fired. She would be at the very least suspended from her job, because what she said is offensive and it's hurtful. There are so many Americans today who are facing their own mortality, who are facing down terminal illnesses or who have loved ones who are.


The John McCain I know doesn't give a damn about what Kelly Sadler says. This doesn't make a dent on him.

But I can only think about how this makes people like Cindy McCain, like their seven children feel, his five grandchildren, his 105-year- old mother, Roberta. And it's got to be incredibly hurtful to be dealing with the illness of somebody you love so much and at the same time hear some kook on FOX Business take a shot at him about torture, and then hear this, you know, White House official, whose salary we are all paying, take a shot at a man who is facing his own mortality and who has been serving this country and sacrificing for this country since the age of 17.

It is, frankly, amoral. It is absolutely deplorable. She should be fired. But how can she be fired, when we have heard Donald Trump do the same, starting with the campaign? He has been mocking and attacking John McCain, an American hero, a war hero, who did what he was unable to do.

While Donald Trump was dodging the draft, John McCain was tied up in Vietnam and getting tortured in Vietnam. And he had attacked John McCain before his illness and after his illness. This is not the first time that Meghan McCain gets a call apologizing.

When is this White House going to stop apologizing for mocking a man who is facing a terminal illness? When?

KEILAR: I do want to ask you, Ana, about Sarah Palin, John McCain's former running mate.

And NBC spoke with her because they wanted to know what she thought about a passage in McCain's memoir where he says that he regrets selecting her over Joe Lieberman, who was a Democrat turned independent at that time.

Let listen to this.


QUESTION: Did that they hurt to hear him say he would rather choose Lieberman?

SARAH PALIN (R), FORMER ALASKA GOVERNOR: Well, I don't lie, so I will tell you a bit. I think I described it earlier as a gut punch.

But, again, I'm going to choose to look back on the good times that we did have together, because, you know, a lot of that campaign really was actually fun for us personally and for our families.

And, you know, I will never disparage someone who has served our country and made a lot of sacrifices, as of that now, and that's how I look at him, as someone who had -- who served all those years.

And I certainly appreciate that and many other aspects that I see, characteristics that I appreciate in Senator McCain.


KEILAR: That's a pretty classy reaction there, Ana. What did you think about it?

NAVARRO: Look, I have the book right here. I am reading it.

There is no such passage in this book where John McCain says that he regrets picking Sarah Palin. He says he regrets not having picked Joe Lieberman.

Let's remember that Joe Lieberman and McCain are and have been extremely close. They have worked together on policy for decades. They have a very special bond.

I think John wishes he had picked the man who -- with whom he had this very special bond. But I can tell you from personal experience that anybody who has ever said anything remotely disparaging about Sarah Palin gets an earful from John McCain.

I remember having done so once, and John McCain got as angry as I have ever seen him with me. Cindy McCain was there. Lindsey Graham was there. They will remember.

So I think this is a big misunderstanding. I think it was a headline that came out in an outlet, maybe "The Hill," saying that he regretted picking Sarah Palin. He did not say that. He said he wished he had picked his friend, not because he didn't want Sarah Palin, but because of the special friendship with Joe Lieberman.

Look, John McCain is this guy who has got this old-fashioned sense of chivalry and loyalty. He is grateful, he is respectful for anybody that helped him, that worked with him, that was part of his team.

And so, you know, can we just clarify that he does not say that in the book, that he regrets picking Sarah Palin?

KEILAR: But that he regrets not picking his friend, which you feel certainly is an important distinction there?

NAVARRO: I do. I do, because I'm telling you, I faced his wrath once in no uncertain terms over Sarah Palin.

This is a man who has never said anything disparaging about Sarah Palin and never allowed it said in his presence.

KEILAR: All right, Ana Navarro, thank you so much for being with us.

Just moments from now, the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, will be taking questions. We're going to bring that to you live.

And among the possible topics, AT&T's CEO calling the company's payments to President Trump's personal attorney a -- quote -- "big mistake."


Also, did the secretary of homeland security threaten to quit her job after President Trump reportedly berated her? What we have learned about a tense Cabinet meeting.



MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: So, in order to achieve that, it will require a robust verification program and that one that we will undertake with partners around the world which will achieve that outcome in a way that, frankly, no agreement before it has ever set forth, a big undertaking, for sure, but one that Chairman Kim and I had the opportunity to have a good, sound discussion on, so that I think we have a pretty good understanding between our two countries about what the shared objectives are.


POMPEO: I'm sorry?

QUESTION: What was he like?

POMPEO: Good conversations.

I think there's some videos that have been released. You can see our conversations were warm. We were -- we were each representing our two countries, trying our best to make sure that we were communicating clearly, that we had a shared understanding about what our mutual objectives were.


But we had good conversations about the histories of our two nations, the challenges that we have had between us. We talked about the fact that America has often in history had adversaries who we are now close partners with, and I hope that we can achieve the same with respect to North Korea.


Our next question goes to Yonhap News Agency.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Could I just answer that question?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, pardon me. Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think your question about sanctions relief, I think we're very clear that...

KEILAR: All right, that is the secretary of state.

That is the secretary of state meeting with his South Korean counterpart there, ahead of what is expected to be a potentially pivotal, certainly high-stakes meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un in Singapore.

So we will continue to monitor that press availability.

In other news, sources are telling CNN that the president and his homeland security chief, Kirstjen Nielsen, had a lengthy, heated argument during a Cabinet meeting while talking about immigration and border security.

The president reportedly accused Nielsen of not doing enough to secure the border. And following that tirade, Nielsen told colleagues that she was on the verge of resigning. That's according to "The New York Times."

And with that threat, Nielsen joins a rather crowded room of Trump aides who reportedly have threatened to quit.

CNN politics reporter and editor at large Chris Cillizza has been keeping track -- Chris.


A number of senior and Cabinet level officials in the Trump administration have threatened to quit in just the 16 months he's been in office. Let's run through real quickly.

So, on our left here, this is Don McGahn, the White House general counsel. He threatened to quit when Donald Trump threatened to fire bob Mueller as special counsel.

Over here, you have Kirstjen Nielsen -- this is the most recent one -- threatening to quit, according "The New York Times," after a back and forth with Donald Trump on immigration.

Let's keep going, because there's plenty more. OK, from left to right, this Jeff Sessions. He has been under fire almost since he got this job and recused himself in the Russia investigation.

Sessions has offered to quit a number of times because Trump has been frankly very nasty to him. Chris Wray in the middle, FBI director, very concerned, advised against the release of the Devin Nunes memo from House Republicans on the Intelligence Committee.

They did it anyway. He did stay. And then on the far left, that's -- on the far right, that's Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, very, very concerned about the fact that Donald Trump painted him at least at one time as the reason that James Comey was fired.

Remember, Rosenstein wrote that memo outlining why Comey had acted poorly during the 2016 campaign.

Now, we got another big one here that I want to go to, John Kelly, the White House chief of staff. It feels like every other week John Kelly threatens to resign.

Here's January 18, the chaos president vs. his iron-fisted chief of staff, that John Kelly frequently used the threat of resignation to get the president to do what he wanted, sort of a hitting the nuclear button in some ways in managing Donald Trump.

And then, in March, Kelly and Trump again going back and forth, Kelly threatening to quit.

Now, Kelly has largely dismissed the idea that he keeps threatening to resign. Here's what he told NPR just today.


QUESTION: Have you seriously considered leaving?

KELLY: 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.


CILLIZZA: Now, all of those folks threatened to resign, but are still in the Trump administration.

Here's a look at some of the people who threatened to resign and eventually made good on it.

So, H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, by the way, not the first national security adviser for Donald Trump. That was Mike Flynn. He...

KEILAR: All right, Chris, so sorry to interrupt.

Let's go to the White House for the briefing.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Richard, who lives in Austin, Texas, is turning 112 years old today. He served in the Pacific theater from 1942, to 1945, as part of the all-black Engineer Aviation Battalion. Happy birthday, Richard, and thank you for your service.

Speaking of birthdays and those with a lot of candles on their cake, I'd also like to wish General John Kelly a happy birthday.

And, finally, looking ahead to Sunday, happy Mother's Day. And, as a note of free advice, don't forget to call your moms. Might even buy flowers, if you feel inclined.

And, with that, I will take your questions.

Jonathan (ph)?

QUESTION: Sarah, on the Kim Jong-un summit, we're told that the summit will be a day long, possibly extending to a second day.

What is the best-case scenario for what can be accomplished in a single day? What does the president think can be done in a single day with Kim Jong-un?

SANDERS: Certainly not going to get ahead of those conversations. As you stated, we plan for a full day of meetings on the 12th, with some time reserved to carry over, if necessary.

Certainly, the best outcome would be an agreement for complete and total denuclearization. But this is the beginning part of these conversations. I'm not going to get ahead of what we expect for that day, but certainly that would be, I think, the best outcome. And we've been pretty up-front about that.

QUESTION: Do they think that could actually happen in a day? Or is this...


SANDERS: Again, I'm not going to get ahead of this conversation in the process. But there have been several conversations that have taken place leading up to both Secretary Pompeo has had now two meetings that have been part of this process.

So it's not just one day that is - you have to look at the broader picture, but certainly we have that time set aside at this point.

Justin (ph)?

QUESTION: I wanted to ask about the auto meeting earlier today. I know attendees have sort of spitball sessions, not leave with the impression - but President agrees with their position. So I wanted to see if you could clarify, both if the President or the administration has agreed to open negotiations with California on a national CAFE standard.

Rather than sort of the dual system that could exist. And ...

SANDERS: We haven't finalized what that looks like, but today was a part of that conversation, part of the discussion on how best to move forward. We're going to continue these conversations. As we have a specific policy announcement on that front, we'll let you know. John (ph)?

QUESTION: If I could come back to North Korea. President says that he believes it is Kim's intention to denuclearize. But when you listen to Kim Yong-chun, who's in charge in North Korea of North South relations, he's saying listen, the reason why we're doing all this is because our nuclear program is complete.

The reason why we're shutting down our test site is because we don't need it anymore, our nuclear program is complete. I mean it's kind of akin to somebody who builds a house and then enters a negotiation to tear it down.

What gives you confidence that Kim actually wants to take apart something that he just built?

SANDERS: Look, the President is going into this with eyes wide open, as he's said many times. We'll see what happens, but this is certainly a process that has moved in the right direction. We've seen some signs of goodwill from North Korea.

Just this week, with the three Americans brought back home, also the stopping of the ballistic missile tests, them stopping with their research and development on their nuclear program. And we're going to continue to push for complete and total denuclearization.

We're also going to continue maximum pressure until we see that happen.

QUESTION: But again, stopping the ballistic missile tests and stopping all this testing, according to Kim Yong-chun is because they don't need it anymore. They're done. It's kind of like you can put the saws and hammers away because the house is done.

SANDERS: Again, the President has been very clear that we're going into this - certainly we would like to see something happen, but as he has said many times, we're going to see what happens. And we hope not just for North Korea but for the entire world that they do the right thing.

And that this goes forward in the way that I think every one would like to see. Amon (ph)?

QUESTION: Thanks, Sarah. This week, the CEOs of AT&T and Novartis both said that they thought it was a mistake for their companies to work with the President's lawyer. Does the President think it was a mistake for his lawyer to work with them?

SANDERS: I think that this further proves that the President's not going to be influenced by special interest. This is exactly the definition of draining the swamp, something the President talked about repeatedly during the campaign.

And for anything beyond that, I would direct you to the President - the President's outside counsel.

QUESTION: ... definition of draining the swamp, right? I mean ...

SANDERS: I think it's pretty clear that the Department of Justice opposed the merger and so certainly the President has not been influenced by any - or his administration influenced by any outside special interests.

QUESTION: So is the President aware of those things?

SANDERS: Blake (ph)? Sorry, Blake (ph) go ahead.

QUESTION: Sarah, thank you. You said in this room the other day that it is unlikely there's going to be an infrastructure bill this year. That was supposed to be the signature legislative item of 2018 for Republicans and this administration.

Can you lay out for us what exactly is your - is this White House's legislative agenda for this year?

SANDERS: Certainly, we'd love to see something done on immigration. It's something the president has been talking about for a long time. We've laid out the principles and the priorities that we'd like to see as part of an immigration package. There's still some movement on that front, and we would still like to see something happen. We'd love for Congress to actually show up, do their jobs; Democrats to stop opposing good legislation, and actually fix our broken immigration system.

QUESTION: So is it fair to take from that answer that immigration is now the -- the signature priority item this year?

SANDERS: It's -- it's been a constant priority for the president, and something we'd certainly still like to see.

David (ph)?

QUESTION: Sarah, thank you. Two questions.