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White House Staffer Makes Controversial Comment on John McCain; President Trump Criticizes Homeland Security Secretary During Cabinet Meeting; John Kelly Gives Interview on Tenure as Chief of Staff; Interview with Heather Nauert. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired May 11, 2018 - 8:00   ET




CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: We don't know that a Russian oligarch gave him money directly.

HABERMAN: Correct.

CUOMO: But we do know that these companies thought, and maybe rightly so, that the Trump team is open for business. Maggie, stay with us. We're following a lot of news. My friends, let's get to it.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to your new day. It is Friday, May 11th, 8:00 now in the east. Leaks and infighting once again competing with a big week for President Trump. A White House aide sparking this backlash after dismissing Senator John McCain's opposition to the president's CIA nominee by saying, quote, it doesn't matter, he's dying anyway. The White House not disputing this remark about a war hero fighting brain cancer. This as a source tells CNN the president berated his homeland security secretary in front of his entire cabinet, insisting she's not doing enough to secure the border.

CUOMO: Despite all these issues, it was a significant week of foreign policy accomplishments for President Trump. He pulled the U.S. out of the Iran deal. He brought back three captive Americans from North Korea. And on Monday the U.S. is going to open its embassy in Jerusalem.

So let's bring back CNN political analyst Maggie Haberman. Look, what is notable about what one of the staffers said about McCain, because who is she, what was the context, I really don't care about any of that. It was an obvious example of a moment where the president could have stepped up and said not on my watch, we don't talk like this about people, this is too much, this is mean. The man is in the fight of his life, let's have some decency. That's not in the White House statement, it's not from the president directly. That has to mean he's OK with this.

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Or at minimum it means that he or at some level it's that he never apologizes and he doesn't want other people doing it either. There is a tremendous mean spirit about the comment about John McCain that was made. You simply do not say things like that.

It is a culture that gets created at the top. This is a president who lampoons and is nasty about people who he perceives as rivals even if they're not, or critics even if they're not. He has no problem personalizing everything and that is what that remark was. Kelly Sadler, a lot of people like her in the White House, a lot of people felt very bad this went down this way. She apparently tried to reach out to Meghan McCain, or did, and that did not go very well. I'm not really sure what they were expecting, because if you're not going to apologize publicly, the you just might as well not do it.

CAMEROTA: Yes. And also this just suggests that she thought that this was going to go over well. You don't make a joke --

HABERMAN: Or there wouldn't be repercussions, right? I don't know that it was thinking that you were going to get a great audience. It's just that in a culture where there is constant back-biting, an undercurrent of mean-spiritedness, it does not occur to you this could be a problem. And the initial report by "The Hill," and it was a very good story by them, but the initial report said that nobody reacted. My understanding from a White House official is that a couple of people did laugh, and some gasped because they were surprised. But certainly nobody stood up and said, you know what, this is a problem.

CAMEROTA: Yes, and so then explain what happens next, which is that somehow we all know about it because people in the room either are trying to bring down Kelly Sadler for some reason, or they were so offended by a joke about John McCain that they felt compelled to leak it. So what does that tell you about what's going on in that room?

HABERMAN: I think it's a mix of both, and I think that's what you repeatedly see with leaks that come out of the White House. Not every leak, but sort of there is this rival gangs aspect where somebody is trying to win a point over another person and embarrass them. A lot of this with this White House as we know is played out in the press in ways we are unused to seeing it in previous administrations. There is always rivalry.

I don't know how much of it was the discomfort what people had with what she said. Again I have to keep going back to the fact that there are a lot of people in that White House who I think were very troubled by what she said, but I think people have become numb to the idea that there is a line that you can cross because this president has repeatedly erased the line.

CUOMO: Although a leak like this -- the media can be toxically gossipy. You don't see people covering each other in this. This is not exactly a team mentality, but politics is usually not this way. To leak something like this, Maggie, this is a kill shot to somebody.


CUOMO: Usually you protect your own in some way from this. We're not seeing that in this White House. One of the reasons is, like you say, culture, it starts at the top. The president has a problem with the enactment of the policies he wants on the border. He gets his homeland security secretary in a meeting, Secretary Nielsen, and he upbraids, he goes after her for it in a personal way such that the reporting is she may have even thought about resigning. Relevance?

HABERMAN: I think that there's a couple of things. I think that people thinking about resigning in this administration, we have heard repeatedly this one came this close to resigning, John Kelly has been threatening to quit in one way or another despite denying that since he got the job. It is one of the tools that people use to try to get the president to back down from certain things.

[08:05:11] In this case I don't think that's what she was doing, to be clear. The relevance is that this was a cabinet meeting. It was in front of members of the cabinet. It was in front of other White House officials. It was a crowded room. And it felt, again, going back to the personalizing thing, to people who were there, his anger seemed to get very personal and targeted. People don't like being berated in front of others. He is, again, not the first president to berate someone in front of other people, but to your point, we have not always seen it leak out in real time in this way because people end up in these interactions with him feeling pushed around in ways they don't like.

CAMEROTA: John Kelly, one of the people who was in the graphic who, as you point out, has threatened to resign in the past --


CAMEROTA: Good to know, because he does say something different now. He just gave an interview to NPR, interesting source since the president often goes after the press, as you know. So John Kelly talks about what his only regret is -- one of his regrets about how the whole thing played out at the beginning in the White House. So listen to this.


JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: 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, and there were people hired that maybe shouldn't have been hired.


CAMEROTA: Your thoughts, Maggie?

HABERMAN: I think it's interesting because, on the one hand, he is saying that he wishes that he had been in place to put systems in from the get-go. But on the other hand he's also still blaming -- he has done this job longer than Reince Priebus did, the first chief of staff, but it's still that things were so messed up there's almost nothing he can do and, therefore, he can't be blamed. There are people that really like John Kelly within the White House.

There are people that think there are areas where he has done a good job. Dealing with staffing has not been an area where he has won much praise. There was a lot of people that feel he let people hang on in roles that shouldn't have been, that he could have gotten rid of what people have described as dead weight or in jobs that didn't really have real roles earlier on.

What I think is significant about this interview is that this is not driving a message about the administration, this is driving a message about John Kelly. And I think that John Kelly, who has gotten very beaten up in press accounts recently, is concerned about personal brand damage.

CUOMO: It's interesting you say that, because when Kelly came in and then intermittently during his tenure, I've heard from those in the service who have worked around him, and they keep pointing out to me, generals are politicians. This is a man of decorated service, his family made the ultimate sacrifice to the cause of American freedom, he deserves his respect, his deference, and his honor. But then when you get to the level that he's at, they're politicians. They're worried about how they're perceived. They're worried about their own future. And that's something that Kelly, I guess evidenced by this interview, has to balance -- devotion to country, doing right by the president, but I can't let this guy drag me down with him, and I don't want to be seen as being the same kind of political animal.

HABERMAN: I think that's right. And I think you have seen people over and over who have hitched themselves to President Trump end up just essentially as roadkill in terms of their own personal reputation. I think he is wary of that. I think that he wants to make sure that he is not completely defined and that he is defining himself. There is always speculation about how long John Kelly is going to be in this job. I really don't think that the president has it in him to fire a four-star marine general. I could be wrong. But I do think that he has created a climate where it would be uncomfortable for John Kelly to stay. If John Kelly chooses to go, he will. The more he gives interviews like that, the more it is going to raise questions about what his long-term plan is here.

CAMEROTA: Maggie, I don't know if he was listening to the president's rally last night, but he introduced the possibility that perhaps two terms would not be enough for him, and the crowd ate it up. Listen to this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So I said unless they give me an extension for the presidency --


TRUMP: -- which I don't think the fake news media would be too happy about.

(BOOS) TRUMP: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Actually, they would be happy because when I'm not here, their ratings are going to sink.


CAMEROTA: How many terms will he be serving, do you know?

HABERMAN: I don't think anybody credibly believes that Donald Trump is looking to spend more time than he needs to in this office, even though I think he is having fun right now. I think the problem with a remark like that is this is not they give me an extension on term limits. There are laws about this. This is not sort of up to people's whim.

[08:10:00] It's interesting, his current lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, did a similar thing in New York right after September 11th where he tried to get an extension on his own term. And it did not meet very well, except Giuliani was serious about it. I don't think Trump was serious about that. I think that's a device to get his crowd worked up against the media, which is Trump's favorite, clearest punching bag.

CUOMO: And then Bloomberg actually did get it extended.

HABERMAN: Correct.

CUOMO: People in the city wanted him as mayor so much they changed their own --

CAMEROTA: So it can happen.

HABERMAN: Him or Anthony Weiner, those were the options, and people went with extending term limits.

CUOMO: Maggie, strange days to be sure. Thank you for your insight as always. Have a good weekend.

HABERMAN: You too.

CUOMO: President Trump thanking North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un after the release of three American prisoners. Does the leader with an atrocious and well deserved bad human rights record deserve praise? Let's break it down with State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert and news of day, next.


CUOMO: This has been a big week of international developments. We got three Americans home under President Trump's stewardship and urging. He's taken the country out of the Iran nuclear deal.

[08:15:01] He's set up the date and place for the North Korean summit. We have the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem coming next week. And all of that now in the context of this very ugly incident that the White House has all but ignored.

So, let's get a take on it all from someone in a position of power. Heather Nauert, acting undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. She traveled to Pyongyang with Secretary of State Pompeo this week to secure the release of three American detainees, a mission that was, of course, successful.

Heather, thank you for joining us.


CUOMO: All right. Let's dispense with something that should be pretty simple. Do you believe the White House should come out and say what was said about John McCain is wrong, shouldn't be said, it's mean? And should the president echo that message and right away?

NAUERT: Chris, I'm not exactly sure what you're referring to.

CUOMO: Really?

NAUERT: We here at the State Department of been focused on the issues that you mentioned earlier. We've been focused on bringing home those three Americans from North Korea, a tremendous success for those three men, their families, this administration and also Secretary Pompeo and the State Department.

We've been focused on the totality of Iran's bad behaviors around the world, which for far too long have been ignored by many other countries, and this administration has said no longer. We will focus and we will make sure that we are focused on the bad acts that they have been involved with, which includes firing rockets and missiles onto our strategic partner, Saudi Arabia, endangering its citizens and civilians and doing same type of thing in Israel as well.

We've been focused on those very serious issues and not the politics here at home.

CUOMO: It's not politics. Everything you just said is really important, heather, and we'll touch on all of it.

NAUERT: Chris, I don't know why you want to start this being argumentative.

CUOMO: I'm not being argumentative.

NAUERT: I am. Let me just say --

CUOMO: It's a pretty easy say. I'm letting you say what you want in response, that's your choice. But this isn't politics, this is about decency.

NAUERT: OK, Chris, have you told me you wanted to talk about Senator McCain, who by the way I have a tremendous amount of respect for.

CUOMO: I'm sure you do.

NAUERT: And I'm in touch with his family. My father died of the same type of cancer that he did. He is an American hero. Had you told me that you wanted to speak about Senator McCain, I might

have something to say about that, but I can tell you here from the State Department, that we are focused on all the activities that we have been very committed to over the past few months and several weeks.

CUOMO: All right. But obviously when something like that is said, and we have somebody who's a state official with great authority and insight into how matters like this should be handled --

NAUERT: Chris, again, let me tell you --

CUOMO: That's why I'm asking you. You can't expect not to be asked about this, Heather. We both know that. You did this job.

NAUERT: I'm not familiar with what you referring to. If you want to send me --

CUOMO: You're not familiar with what was said about "he's dying anyway" by one of the White House staff in a meeting? It's been all over the media for the last 24 hours?

NAUERT: I've seen that. I don't know this individual. I don't know this individual. I've seen that and now thank you for telling me exactly what you were referring to. I don't know this individual who allegedly said that. I'm not familiar with it and I'll leave it at that.

CUOMO: OK. Let me ask you what happened with the detainees. So they're brought home. That's unqualified good news and the administration deserves the bravo, amazing that you went over there with the secretary and got it done.

What does that mean in terms of how the context of the U.S./North Korea relationship is perceived? Because the president said Kim Jong- un was excellent here. Now, that seems to go beyond flattery, right, because he took them wrongfully in the first place. What's the strategy there and how to deal with Kim Jong-un and what to say about it?

NAUERT: Well, look, I think it's a positive step in the right direction that the three American prisoners were released. We had said to them all along that that is something that we would want.

When the president spoke about -- in a positive sense about Kim Jong- un and his willingness to do that, sure, that is a positive development. We want to make progress with the North Korean regime and that's something that we've talked to them very clearly about. We go into this clear eyed and realistic.

Obviously, they have their nuclear program, which is a tremendous concern to the United States and many other countries around the world, as we have achieved in our maximum pressure campaign of getting people to kick out North Korean diplomats, North Korean all around the world, that has put pressure on North Korea. Now, North Korea is coming to the table to have these conversations. This administration has made more progress in the past eight weeks on

North Korea than other administrations have in the past eight years. We think we are on the other right footing, we are on the right track, but still, we go into this clear eyed and realistic.

CUOMO: Well, I think we've been here before with North Korea. We haven't gotten here this way. The president says he believes his tough talk is what got us to this point.

And let's say that's true. Let's say that's exactly why we're here. Let's say it's the only reason. That's why I ask you about what the principle you ignore you empower. If you talk about --

NAUERT: Excuse me, what I ignored? I don't know what you're talking about.

CUOMO: You ignored the question about what really matters about what's going on in the White House and treating McCain in such an undignified way but the president is ignoring Kim Jong-un's record --

[08:20:00] NAUERT: I think I answered that for you very clearly.

CUOMO: I don't think so, but we've moved on. I'm giving you proper context for this question.

NAUERT: OK, OK, go right ahead, Chris.

CUOMO: I'm talking about what the president seems to ignore by saying Kim Jong-un was excellent here is that record of human rights abuses and the fact that he took these people wrongfully in the first place. So I'm asking that balance.

How do you balance the tough talk with having a forgiving perspective to try to promote peace?

NAUERT: Again, look, that is your word, forgiving. This administration is hardly forgiving. We've been tough on North Korea. No one takes issue with that whatsoever.

The State Department recently put out its human rights report where we took North Korea to account for its human rights abuses which are well-documented. So, I think this administration has been significantly and sufficiently tough on North Korea. I'm proud to stand behind that.

CUOMO: And you say you are going into it clear eyed and that's an important perspective also.

NAUERT: Well, that is something that the administration has said. And Secretary Pompeo has said as well. He's been tough. The administration has been tough in its dealings with North Korea and we are committed to the complete verifiable, irreversible, denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

We've been clear with North Korea about that and we've also been able to paint for North Korea that they have an opportunity to have a very different kind of future if they -- if they commit to denuclearization and they actually follow through on that. And that is they could potentially down the road have access to capital markets. Envision a country -- which by the way, is a beautiful country. Envision a country some day where people are able to visit, where you have hotels around the world, where you have visitors coming from around the world.

That's part of what Secretary Pompeo had painted for Kim Jong-un, that they have a brighter future ahead of them if they follow through on their commitments.

CUOMO: The idea of what America is willing to give, where in the process would you see reduction of force on the peninsula, is that something that might be up front or is that something that would have to be much later on after you'd gotten guarantees of performance on the Korean side?

NAUERT: Chris, I think we're getting ahead of ourselves. We have U.S. forces obviously in South Korea and Japan. As far as I can tell, there is no change in that whatsoever.

CUOMO: The president brought it up that's why I ask.

NAUERT: Let me finish. That is something that the Department of Defense would decide and I think we're just getting ahead of ourselves at this point right now.

CUOMO: I ask you because the president brought it up.

NAUERT: And I gave you an answer, Chris.

CUOMO: I got it. But I'm not suggesting it. The president suggested it so if someone got ahead of it, he did.

The Iran and Israeli situation, is there any concern that pulling the United States or threatening to pull it out of the Iran deal precipitated or helped provoke the actions that Israel is pointing out now in terms of missiles that were launched from Syria into the Golan Heights?

NAUERT: You know, it's unbelievable that some would try to blame the United States for Iran's actions. It's unbelievable that others would try to blame Israel for this.

Iran is responsible for many bad acts around the world. We've seen that as Iran has provided weapons, money and all of that to Hezbollah operating in Syria, we've seen as Iranian revolutionary guard corps operate outside of Syria as, by the way, they continue to back the regime of Bashar al Assad.

Let me just remind you, it wasn't that long ago that that regime gassed and killed many innocent civilians, not just once but many, many times. So, let's take a look at where these bad actions are coming from. They're from Iran and not other countries.

CUOMO: Totally understood. Do you think we're going to see more of that now that Iran is in a hostile disposition? We see what's happening on their streets. We see them burning the American flag.

NAUERT: Chris, they have been -- we have seen them in a hostile disposition for many, many years. No one knows that better than our folks here at the State Department when back in the 1970s they held many of our people hostage for far too long.

CUOMO: So you don't think what they did in the Golan Heights had anything to do with them feeling like it's time to be more muscular and more militaristic?

NAUERT: I'm not going to assume why Iran is doing what it does. I can just say that there has been a long history of Iran's terror actions and its bad acts. And we can look to another example and that is their backing of the Houthi rebels in Yemen, for example.

We were just -- I was just with Secretary Pompeo in Saudi Arabia just a week ago in fact. When he was in Saudi Arabia, that was one of the big conversations that was being had about those Houthi rebels supplied by Iran firing rockets and missiles into Saudi Arabia, threatening their civilians.

It's something that we continue to back Saudi Arabia and many of our other partners. Let's remember who was responsible for these actions. It's no other country but Iran.

CUOMO: Understood. Heather Nauert, thank you for coming on the show to talk about what matters.

NAUERT: OK, Chris.

CUOMO: Alisyn?

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump undoing seven Obama-era policies. Up next, we talk to former Obama senior advisor David Axelrod, how he feels about this.


CAMEROTA: An aide to President Trump is accused of mocking Arizona Senator John McCain, or at least making a joke about him battling brain cancer. A White House official says that Kelly Sadler, this staffer, joked that McCain's opinion on Gina Haspel's confirmation for CIA director does not matter because he's dying anyway.

Senator McCain's wife responded with this tweet: May I remind you my husband has a family, seven children and five grandchildren.

Joining us now is CNN senior political commentator David Axelrod.

Great to see you.


CAMEROTA: You tweeted out, we're all dying, Kelly Sadler. The question is what have you done with the years you have? Senator McCain has lived a life of sacrifice and service for which Americans of all stripe should be eternally grateful. Can you say the same?

This was a closed door meeting where she made a joke. As you and I know, you only make a joke when you think it's going to play well with your audience.


CAMEROTA: So, what does that tell you about what's happening?

AXELROD: Look, we can be appalled by what was said, but we can't be shocked by it because in any White House, in any organization, everything flows from the top. We have a president who's said cruel things, untoward things about John McCain and many other people. That is an accepted ethic. That's an accepted practice around there.