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White House Aide's Comments; Trump Blew up at Nielson; AT&T on Hiring Cohen; Kelly's Comment on Undocumented Immigrants. Aired 1- 1:30p ET

Aired May 11, 2018 - 13:00   ET



[13:00:08] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 12:00 noon in Mexico City, 1:00 p.m. here in Washington, 8:00 p.m. in Jerusalem. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

Up first, a crude joke that turned out to be no laughing matter. White House aide Kelly Sadler sent off a firestorm with an insensitive remark about Senator John McCain. Sadler joked that McCain's opinion to the president's pick for CIA director doesn't matter because, quote, he's dying anyway.

Of course, Senator McCain is battling brain cancer. Today his daughter, Meghan, and her co-host, Whoopi Goldberg, responded on "The View."


MEGHAN MCCAIN, SEN. JOHN MCCAIN'S DAUGHTER: Since my dad has been diagnosed the past -- it's almost a year, July 19th, I really feel like I understand the meaning of life. And it is not how you die, it is how you live.



MCCAIN: And 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.


MCCAIN: And that's all I have to say about it.


WHOOPI GOLDBERG, "THE VIEW" CO-HOST: I guess the fish stinks from the head, because it's easy to say something like that and not think that, oh, that is a wrong-headed comment to make out loud. You can think what you want, but you don't say this kind of thing out loud.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: All right, let's go to our senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, a source tells CNN that Kelly Sadler did call Meghan McCain to apologize. But how is the White House responding publicly to the fallout over Sadler's remark?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, she did call and have a private apology, but there's been no public apology from here at the White House. The only statement about this officially is the White House released one last evening saying that they do respect Senator McCain and his service to the country, but they did not apologize or say anything beyond that.

Now, we do know that she is working at the White House today and all indications are that she will stay working here. I do expect, Wolf, this to become a tropic, at least a question, at the daily briefing in the next hour with White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders. But so far the White House standing behind her and not saying anything else about this so far today, Wolf.

BLITZER: There's been another disruption over at the White House. I want to talk, Jeff, about the president's blowup at his secretary of homeland security, Kirstjen Nielsen. He accused her of not doing enough to secure the border. He rebuked her in front of all the other members of his cabinet. Pretty humiliating. Very embarrassing. A White House official describes the president's remarks as angry and heated. "The New York Times" says Nielson considered resigning. She denies that. But what more are you learning about this incident?

ZELENY: Wolf, I think it just shines a light on how difficult it can be oftentimes to work for this president. This was a meeting in the cabinet room earlier this week when, you know, when Secretary Nielsen was surrounded by other cabinet officials. And the president, you know, was enraged by immigration. Of course it's one of his topics he talks about frequently.

But we are told that it was quite a heated back and forth, quite a heated exchange. She pushed back and tried to explain what they are doing on the border. And her spokesperson at the Department of Homeland Security is saying that she did not threaten to resign.

But, Wolf, we do know that she was furious about this. She was angry about this. This is someone who worked inside the White House here, the West Wing, before she went to the Department of Homeland Security. So it just simply shines a light on the fact that the president is, you know, is demanding in these respects.

But the chief of staff -- the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, who is, you know, supportive of her and she was his deputy here at the White House, he had some interesting immigration comments to say as well on NPR this morning. So it certainly highlights the fact that the president not pleased by not building a wall, other things. But, of course, he plays a role in this as well, not getting the funding for that in the budget. But he often likes to pass the blame and on Wednesday it seemed it was Secretary Nielsen's turn, Wolf. BLITZER: Yes, pretty, pretty -- pretty awkward, I must say.

Jeff Zeleny, at the White House, thanks very much.

The former vice president, Joe Biden, just a little -- only moments ago weighed in on the McCain comment. He said this. 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 will it be? I am certain it will be John's.

Strong words from former Vice President Biden.

Let's bring in our CNN politics reporter, editor at large, Chris Cillizza, and our CNN legal analyst, Carrie Cordero.

[13:05:05] Chris, let's talk about this. You know, normally even a joke like this would be so inappropriate, the White House would want to immediately distance themselves and immediately, you know, reprimand, if not fire, this individual.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER: You're right, Wolf. I think two things. Number one, I think it is important to note that this staffer felt comfortable enough to make the joke. I think that tells you contextually about what kind of atmosphere, broadly speaking, Donald Trump has set, Wolf, in his White House and in the country. Remember, Donald Trump ran a campaign that was heavy on bullying, on political incorrectness that often -- political incorrectness is cover for some quite xenophobic and racist view. So that's number one. That you would even feel as though you could joke about that, point one.

Point two, this is not a person who I think the White House should continue to employ. I don't call for people's firings all that lightly. But these are views that you simply cannot express in a semi- public setting. I don't know why the White House continues to not really say anything other than, we respect John McCain and he's an American hero. Well, sure, but that's not -- that's not the point here.

I don't think Jeff mentioned this. I don't think we've heard the last of this. Sarah Sanders will be asked about this and should be asked about it. I think the White House is going to have to decide, is this the hill on which they want to fight?

BLITZER: How do you see it, Carrie?

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, look, there's a lot of people in the policy community that were unwilling to work for this White House. You know, I was one of more than 100 foreign policy and national security people who said that they were -- we were opposed to Donald Trump's candidacy, in part because of his temperament and the way in which he ran the campaign, you know, the things -- the types of things that Chris is describing. And so in some ways this is kind of who you're left with.

I understand that there's some people who have been willing to work in this White House because they feel like they can do some good, policy- related work. But on the other hand, in some circumstances you end up with people who not only think something like this, but feel comfortable to say it in a meeting of White House personnel.

And my other question is, I saw some reporting that there were, you know, maybe some gasps and a couple people even chuckled when she said this. Did anybody speak up? I mean did anybody actually say, you know, that's inappropriate, what are you saying? And the fact that there wasn't any reaction, what else does that tell us about the people who were present?

CILLIZZA: I -- just to add to that. I -- look, Charlottesville and Donald Trump's reaction to it I think is the -- is the prototypical sign of this, which is Donald Trump's reaction to White nationalist violence that left someone dead was many sides, both sides to this. OK, well, what does that tell us, Wolf?

BLITZER: Fine people on both sides.

CILLIZZA: Fine people on both sides. What does that tell us? It tells us that the president, Republican, Democrat, has always seen himself as a moral leader in the country. Then on matters of -- whether that's race or ethnicity or big, big issues, right, tolerance, broadly -- broadly spoken. The president of the United States feels as though he has something that needs to be said. That I am going to lead in a -- we're not going to leave a moral vacuum. I'm going to step in it and say, this is right, this is wrong, we can, as reasonable people, agree. Donald Trump doesn't do that.

He often says, well, I can -- Roy Moore is another example. Well, I mean Roy Moore says he didn't do it. Well, all these women who say he did pursue underage relationships with him in one or two cases, first, well, kissing and groping, well, sure, but he says he didn't do it, so who could know? That's not what a president has typically done. Donald Trump is an unconventional, unorthodox president. It's why got elected. But in this way, the abdication of moral leadership I think is hugely problematic. This is a small case, but we've seen it over and over again.

BLITZER: All right, everybody sick around. There's a lot more we need to discuss.

There's more news, including what's being described as a big mistake. AT&T's CEO publically expressing his regret for hiring Michael Cohen, the president's long-time personal attorney, paying him $600,000 for access to the president.

Plus, John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, is stirring the pot today on immigration, arguing those crossing the southern border into the United States don't have the skills to integrate. A U.S. senator is standing by to respond live.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [13:13:37] BLITZER: A big mistake and serious misjudgment. That's how the CEO of AT&T now calls his company's previous ties with President Trump's personal attorney, Michael Cohen. This after reports the telecommunications giant paid Cohen $600,000 in 2017. AT&T says those payments were made as political consultation fees to help and understand where President Trump stood on regulatory issues, tax reform and anti-trust enforcement.

But some are now questioning the nature of the relationship. AT&T, by the way, is trying to purchase CNN's parent company, Time Warner.

Back with us once again, Carrie Cordero and Chris Cillizza.

AT&T, Chris, put out a statement. Our company has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons these last few days and our reputation has been damaged. There is no other way to say it. AT&T hiring Michael Cohen as a political consultant was a big mistake.

And the individual, the representative of AT in Washington, who hired him, is now gone.

CILLIZZA: Yes. Here's what they did. So did Novartis. They --

BLITZER: The pharmaceutical --

CILLIZZA: The pharmaceutical company. No one thought Donald Trump was going to win, including the corporate world. Donald Trump wins. They say, man, we need to figure out a way to get our voices heard by this president-elect. This guy's going to spend four years. We didn't do the sort of tilling of that soil during the campaign because, largely speaking, we assumed Hillary Clinton was going to be president. How can we get in?

[13:15:04] Well, there's Michael Cohen making his pitch. I'm Donald Trump's guy, I know him. If you want to go to him, you need to come through me. These massive companies -- look, $600,000 is -- I'd love to have that amount of money. It's a massive amount of money. But for these huge, multinational companies, $600,000 to them is -- if it can get us in to have the president hear our point of view on issues, it's nothing, so they do it.

Now, what they're really apologizing for candidly, Wolf, is that it got found out. They're not really apologizing that they did it. They did it for that reason, to gain some level of access that they did not currently have or possess to the president and his inner circle.

BLITZER: Carrie.

CORDERO: Well, so I think it's important to distinguish what are the potential criminal aspects and what is normal Washington what happens. I mean there's a lot of law firms and lawyers who make a lot of money doing this exact kind of work where they are -- they have access to whether it's executive branch or legislative branch officials, and companies pay them a lot of money to be able to have influence into decision making. That is legal as long as companies and the lawyers involved and the lobbyists involved file all the appropriate paperwork and register and do what they're support to do on that end, whether it's a domestic company or a foreign company, which has additional requirements to register.

But with respect to Michael Cohen, if he was doing certain -- first of all, we don't even know if he was doing really any work, whether he had anything of value to provide these companies. If he did, if he was improperly influencing the executive branch, again, we don't know that, then there are potential issues of public corruption, whether or not they were paying him to obtain a result. We don't know what the communication was between Michael Cohen and the president or other White House officials as to whether or not he was actually doing any of this work.

But he was a person of access. And so the potential legal issues can fall potentially into sort of the public corruptions side of things or there could be technical violations that Michael Cohen might be on the hook for as far as registering for having represented some of these foreign entities, for example.

BLITZER: If he didn't register as a foreign agent on the Foreign Agent's Registration Act.


CILLIZZA: That's right. And Carrie makes the right point, which is, the truth of the matter is, what we know is a lot less than what we don't know. We know about the payments now. We know the nature of them. They -- they are significant. $1.2 million for insights into the president of the United States. That's from Novartis. $600,000 for guidance. These are code words for access. I mean let's call it what it is. They're trying to get a way in. They're trying to find a vehicle in.

We don't know the extent of it. My guess is, remember that Bob Mueller talked to AT&T about this in November 2017. Well, we're in --

BLITZER: Six months ago.

CILLIZZA: We're in May 2018.


CILLIZZA: So my guess is Bob Mueller, in those intervening six months, has found out a lot more than we currently know. So will we eventually know? Yes. But always remember, Bob Mueller knows more about almost all these (INAUDIBLE) --

BLITZER: Yes, he knows a lot more about all of this. Guys -- and Novartis is the Swiss based pharmaceutical giant. So if he was representing them, presumably, he should have registered as a foreign agent.

CORDERO: And there's also -- one -- there -- one more point. There also are potential tax issues on Michael Cohen's end. So sometimes I've seen this, essential consultants described as a quote/unquote shell company. Well, if he was providing a thing of value and getting paid for it, it's not a shell company any more.

BLITZER: That's right.

CORDERO: It's just something that lawyers do all the time, which is set up a business entity for purposes of providing consulting services. If, however, he wasn't paying taxes on some of this information or things like that, then there's another potential sort of regulatory issue for him.

BLITZER: I'm sure Bob Mueller's looking into all of that.

All right, guys, thanks very, very much.

CILLIZZA: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Coming up, John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, says that they don't integrate well, quoting him now, and they don't have skills. More on the chief of staff's very, very controversial labeling of undocumented immigrants into the United States.

Plus, a fresh threat from Iran. The nation vowing to restart its nuclear program on the heels of President Trump's withdrawal from the deal.


[13:23:20] BLITZER: Rural and uneducated. The White House chief of staff, John Kelly, coming under a lot of fire right now for his controversial comments on undocumented immigrants coming into the United States. Here's what he said.


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. They're coming here for a reason and I sympathize with the reason. But the laws are the laws.


BLITZER: All right, joining us now from Capitol Hill is Hawaii's senator, Mazie Hirono. She's a Democrat on the Armed Services and Senate Judiciary Committees.

Senator, what do you think of those comments by the president's chief of staff?

SEN. MAZIE HIRONO (D), HAWAII: When he says that he sympathizes with them, they -- actions that this administration is following with regard to undocumented people, bely those sentiments. And as an immigrant myself, people come to this country because they want to have a better life. And they are working in our agricultural sector, in other sectors, where, frankly, U.S. citizens are not working. And so they are a big part of our economy.

And so to only call for those with (INAUDIBLE) backgrounds, et cetera, I think is a really a narrow, narrow way of understanding how immigrants have helped to build our country.

BLITZER: I want to get though several other points, senator. The confirmation fight underway right now for the CIA director nominee, Gina Haspel, is clearly heating up. Where are you? Will you vote to confirm her or against her confirmation?

[13:25:03] HIRONO: I recently reviewed some of the classified material regarding her, and I had concerns about her. After reading these materials, it would be difficult for me to vote for her, so I will not be voting for her.

BLITZER: Another issue I want to get to. The White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders actually related to Gina Haspel. She tweeted this, and I'll put it up on the screen. There is no one more qualified to be the first woman to lead the CIA than 30-plus year CIA veteran Gina Haspel. Any Democrat who claims to support women's empowerment and our national security but opposes her nomination is a total hypocrite. You oppose her nomination. What's your reaction to what Sarah Sanders said?

HIRONO: Calling other people hypocrites from an administration that doesn't even know the meaning of the word or the meaning of the words moral core, that's rich.

You know, this is an insult to all of us, and particularly the women who are not going to be voting for this nominee, to characterize it as somehow the anti-women. You know, we care about the -- about who's running our CIA, what their background is, what their views are regarding torture. So I say this is rich coming from an administration that demonizes women and marginalizes all minority groups. Give me a break.

BLITZER: Let me get your reaction to the White House aide, Kelly Sadler, who as a way -- as a way to discount Senator John McCain's opposition to the CIA nominate Gina Haspel, she said this, and I'm quoting her now, he's dying anyway. What did you think of that when you heard that?

HIRONO: It was appalling. But, you know, I've run out of adjectives to describe the lack of any kind of a moral core from this administration. It starts from the top. It was appalling. And Senator McCain has provided service to our country for decades. And to be flippant, and this is no laughing matter, and to frame it in that way, I think it's indefensible. And I, frankly, expect the White House to come out and say this is -- this is unacceptable even for us. But so far, nothing.

BLITZER: Yes, we'll see if she says something, Sarah Sanders, about this at the briefing that's coming up in the next hour. Your committee chairman, Senator Chuck Grassley of the Judiciary Committee, he has some advice for any Supreme Court justices thinking about retiring. Listen to what he said. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HUGH HEWITT, "THE HUGH HEWITT SHOW": Are you prepping for a Supreme Court vacancy this summer, Chairman Grassley?

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: I hope it's now or within two or three weeks because we've got to get this done before the election. So my message to any one of the nine Supreme Court justices, if you're thinking about quitting this year, do it yesterday.


BLITZER: All right, what did you think of that comment from Senator Grassley? Do you think he was speaking directly to Justice Anthony Kennedy?

HIRONO: Well, whoever he was speaking to, it just goes to the goal, the goal of Chuck Grassley and Mitch McConnell to pack the courts with the most idiotically oriented judges who have lifetime employment in both the Supreme Court and the other courts. So a huge percentage, over 70 percent or so, of all of the nominees who the Trump administration either are members of the Federalist Society, which they acknowledge themselves as a conservative organization, either they're members of the Federalist Society or they have a stamp of approval from them.

So court packing is going on even as we speak, and, therefore, individual rights, voting rights, minority rights, which the Constitution should be that document that protects minority rights, but apparently this majority is not interested in those kind of justices. I totally disagree with my chairman's perspective on that.

BLITZER: Before I let you go, I just want to wish -- send all of our viewers best wishes in everyone in Hawaii. I know you guys are going through some tough periods right now out there in the big island, but our best wishes to all of you as well.

Senator Hirono --

HIRONO: Thank you. The community -- the community has come together. So, thank you. Aloha.

BLITZER: Yes, thank you. And we hope it's over with, at least for now. But we're watching it very, very closely. Thanks so much for joining us.

HIRONO: Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up, Iran threatens to turn Tel Aviv into dust. This just days after President Trump withdraws the United States from the Iran nuclear deal. And it wasn't just the nuclear deal that pushed President Trump onto the global stage this week. We'll have more on the president's rebranding overseas when we come back.