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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Samantha Bee Apologizes; President Trump Sending Message With Latest Pardon?. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired May 31, 2018 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[16:00:10]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Martha Stewart, Blagojevich. If any other "Celebrity Apprentice" contestants are in need of a pardon, now might be a good time to raise your hand. Meatloaf?

THE LEAD starts right now.

President Trump today pardons a political ally and considers clemency for some old pals from "The Apprentice." Why wield this power now? Is Trump's pardon spree a message to potential Mueller witnesses?

Comedian Samantha Bee now saying she crossed the line by calling the president's daughter maybe the worst word you can call a woman. But will the president ever condemn Roseanne's racist remark or any racist, for that matter?

Plus, not the beer. How President Trump's latest trade move could cost you next time you crack open a cold one.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with the politics lead today.

President Trump seemingly passing out pardons to heroes of the far right almost as eagerly as Oprah once gifted Pontiacs to suburban moms. Today, the president gave a full pardon to author, filmmaker and conspiracy theorist Dinesh D'Souza, convicted of federal campaign cash crimes.

And just a few hours later, President Trump told reporters that he's considering commuting the sentence of corrupt former Democratic Governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich and pardoning businesswoman and bestselling author Martha Stewart.

Now, critics and analysts suggest that this all of a piece. These are all individuals prosecuted by people whom the president deems to be his opponents. They're individuals who faced charges that members of the Trump team could face themselves.

Blagojevich and Stewart, they have both appeared on "The Apprentice" or their spinoffs, but they have more than that in common. Both of their convictions have ties to former FBI Director James Comey. Martha Stewart was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction and false statements. The prosecutor in that case, then U.S. attorney and former FBI Director James Comey.

Rod Blagojevich was convicted of 17 public corruption charges, including wire fraud. He was arrested during U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's tenure in Chicago. Fitzgerald is a close friend of Comey's, currently a member of Comey's legal team appointed by Comey to investigate and prosecute the Valerie Plame leak, which, of course, resulted in the conviction of Cheney aide Scooter Libby for lying to the FBI.

And that's another individual President Trump pardoned.

Dinesh D'Souza, by the way, was prosecuted by former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara, whom you may remember was fired by President Trump. And Bharara, like Comey, has emerged as a critic of President Trump, particularly in how President Trump, in Bharara's and Comey's view, constantly is trying to undermine the rule of law.

Now, one might also note D'Souza and Stewart were both prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York. That's the same office currently criminally investigating President Trump's lawyer/fixer Michael Cohen.

So the big question, of course, is a signal being sent here at all by the president about his feelings about that office, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, and the president's willingness to forgive the crimes of those targeted by those law enforcement officials?

After all, critics analysts also note that there seems to be a theme emerging with all these patterns and pardons and potential pardons, the theme being that the U.S. government is treating people unfairly. That was the explanation given by the president for his pardon of Dinesh D'Souza today -- quote -- "He was treated very unfairly."

Of Blagojevich today -- quote -- "I thought that he was treated unfairly."

Of Martha Stewart -- quote -- "I think to a certain extent Martha Stewart was harshly and unfairly treated."

Earlier this year, President Trump said of Scooter Libby -- quote -- "I have heard that he has been treated unfairly."

And of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, once convicted of criminal contempt of court by continuing to racially profile Latinos, but the very first pardon that President Trump gave out last August -- quote -- "I thought he was treated unbelievably unfairly."

Unfairly, unfairly, unfairly. The question, is President Trump preparing to pardon others, maybe people he knows even better than "Apprentice" cast members, for being treated -- quote -- "unfairly" by special counsel Robert Mueller?

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is traveling with the president and has more on the presidential pardon parade.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump sending more signals than ever today. He's in a pardoning mood.

Out of the blue, the president announcing a full-scale pardon for conservative author and filmmaker Dinesh D'Souza, who is perhaps best known for his conspiracy theories about former President Barack Obama.

Flying to Houston, the president telling reporters on Air Force One: "I called him last night, first time I have ever spoken to him. I said I'm pardoning you. Nobody asked me to do it. I have always felt he was very unfairly treated."

D'Souza pleaded guilty in 2014 to violating federal campaign finance laws by illegally asking two women, an employee and a woman with whom he was romantically involved to donate $20,000 to the campaign of an old college friend running against Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in New York.

[16:05:15]

He told them he would reimburse them. The president described those charges today as "a quick minor fine, like everybody else, with the election stuff."

It's that election stuff, specifically Russian meddling and the special counsel's probe, that seems to be weighing on Trump's mind. He's flexing his presidential powers as his own fight escalates with the Justice Department.

The president talking openly about the possibility of even more pardons for Martha Stewart and a computation for former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich in what could be a signal to the president's friends caught up in the Russia investigation.

MARTHA STEWART, CEO, MARTHA STEWART LIVING: I'm here with Donald and Melania Trump, and we're going to make a scrumptious meatloaf sandwich, which is Donald's favorite sandwich, according to Melania.

Is that true?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, because it's very good.

ZELENY: Stewart, convicted of conspiracy and obstruction of justice in a securities fraud case, is an old friend of Trump's, even though she told CNN in 2016 he shouldn't be president.

STEWART: I'm voting for Hillary Clinton. We just can't have a country run by someone who is totally unprepared for what comes.

ZELENY: But a possible pardon for Stewart could also be a way to settle scores with the prosecutor in the case, James Comey.

That's the same James Comey the president fired last year as FBI director. And Blagojevich also has ties to Trump, seen here as a contestant on "The Apprentice."

TRUMP: So, Governor, you have a hell of a lot of guts. I have to tell you that. I have friends where things have happened to them. They crawl into a corner, they die. You're out there punching, so I respect that.

ROD BLAGOJEVICH (D), FORMER ILLINOIS GOVERNOR: I appreciate that.

ZELENY: Blagojevich, a former Illinois governor, convicted of abusing the powers of his office, was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2011.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: And from that federal prison this week, Rod Blagojevich is writing an op-ed in "The Wall Street Journal" just a couple days ago, seemingly trying to get the attention of the man in the White House, to President Trump, saying that he believes that the rule of law in America has broken.

And he said that federal law enforcement simply, if they can't come up with a crime, they make one up. So, clearly, the president seizing on that.

But, Jake, it's an open question if the president is actually concerned about Rod Blagojevich or simply trying to continue the narrative here that the law and the Justice Department is against him -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Jeff Zeleny, thanks so much.

I want to bring in my panel.

Let me start with you, Laura.

How unusual is it for the president to pardon or suggest pardoning these very high-profile, controversial individuals, Rod Blagojevich, Dinesh D'Souza, Scooter Libby, Martha Stewart? Is this odd?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It is.

Most presidents wait until the end of their term normally to make these sort of pardons. Now that in and of itself can be the unusual factor, but the real unusual factor here, Jake, is that there's a theme here.

Every single person he's chosen the pardon, including Jack Johnson recently about -- a posthumous pardon about what he thought was unfair -- and it was unfair -- for the Mann Act -- are all people he believes are celebrity figures who've been taken to task through a witch-hunt of sorts and are mistreated by the prosecutors trying to get a conviction of somebody who's high-profile.

That is the overarching theme here. And, incidentally, every single one of the people and the types of crimes they have been convicted of, from campaign finance to lying to investigators and the like, all have to do with very charges that are swirling around his inside circle. And so that's what the most unusual aspect of it is. And it seems that he is sending a very clear message to the media, to Robert Mueller and to Rod Rosenstein.

TAPPER: And what do you think, David? I mean, you disagree?

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes.

So, listen, I know everyone finds this hard to believe, but federal prosecutors are not political in the least bit, right, Laura?

COATES: I wasn't.

URBAN: Anyone who has watched one episode of "Billions" -- no, no, I'm not talking about appointed, right?

So whether you're Preet Bharara or you're Fitzgerald or you're Comey, these guys are political animals by their nature, right? They prosecute these high-profile crimes.

TAPPER: You think any of those people are innocent?

URBAN: I don't know.

But I'm saying they do it -- they out -- they hunt scalps for a reason, right? They do it for a reason.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Right, but a jury or a judge makes the decision ultimately.

URBAN: Well, they do, right?

And we saw what happened in the Senator Menendez case, right? We see Senator Menendez, high-profile. The Department of Justice goes after him for a long time. Hung jury. Super complex crimes, right?

And to take umbrage with what Laura said about pardons, I mean, President Obama pardoned Chelsea Manning, not so controversial. He had about 200 -- I believe 212 pardons. President Clinton pardoned 400 people.

If we go through the list, including Marc Rich, huge donor, super controversial.

TAPPER: Yes.

URBAN: We can go through the list.

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: If I went through the list of everybody was pardoned, we could fight about each one.

COATES: There was a commutation for Chelsea Manning, not the full pardon, with you speak of, which is very different.

(CROSSTALK)

COATES: But also the idea -- you have pointed out many high-profile cases.

But the vast majority of cases prosecuted by federal prosecutors, many of whom are career-serving people, as opposed to political appointees, are not high-profile.

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: I'm not talking about the AUSA level.

COATES: But that is who is prosecuting a great number of these cases.

[16:10:01]

And although Preet Bharara and people you name are the head honchos above AUSAs, it is the work of AUSAs, which I am a proud alum of, that actually do the work. And we're not political.

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: But is there -- you're saying that there is no political aspect to any prosecution?

COATES: Well, there is a political aspect if you are prosecuting an elected official for wrongdoing in politics and also campaign finance violations and trying to do extortion. That's political.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: I want to bring Kirsten in.

Dinesh D'Souza pleaded guilty. I mean, he admitted -- unlike Martha Stewart and Rod Blagojevich, who fought the charges, unsuccessfully, Dinesh D'Souza admitted that what he did was wrong.

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: Right.

TAPPER: Why pardon him?

POWERS: Well, I mean, he gave illegal campaign donations, which he blamed on being too good of a friend or something like that.

TAPPER: Yes.

POWERS: He's obviously a pretty savvy person who has been around for a long time, and I think would realize that there are laws about how much money you can give to people.

I think he's probably being pardoned because Trump is trying to send messages to people that he's going to pardon people. I mean, that is the easiest way to look at this. And like Laura said, he's also pardoning people who are -- or talking about pardoning people who have done similar things as he may be accused of doing.

On the Obama thing, I think one big difference between what Barack Obama did is that he actually did it through a process with the Department of Justice. He wasn't just sort of freelancing, like, oh, here's some people that I kind of like, and maybe I will pardon them.

He -- and the people that he was pardoning for the most part were low- level drug offenders.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Nonviolent.

(CROSSTALK)

POWERS: And they weren't going to benefit him in any way, really. There was no personal benefit to him.

TAPPER: Nobody is disputing that the president has the pardon power, OK?

But I'm just wondering what pattern you might see here, because there -- seem obvious ones. A lot of these people were prosecuted by Comey or Comey allies. Obviously, there are couple cases of out of the Southern District of New York, were Michael Cohen is being investigated right now.

Do you really not see as if there's any sort of strategy here?

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: I think, right, most high-profile cases are brought Southern District of New York, Chicago, right, big, big, big cities.

Pete Fitzgerald was a very high-profile prosecutor. Comey was a very high-profile guy. The cases that are brought against high-profile individuals are brought by high-profile prosecutors generally.

TAPPER: So you don't think that it's a signal at all?

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: I don't think that there's some three-dimensional chess game going on, that we're going to pardon these people to create a pattern that suggests that I'm going to pardon people in the future. I don't.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Laura, what about the general theme here, which in all of these cases, including with Jack Johnson, the black boxer who was convicted of that ridiculous violation years ago, and was pardoned posthumously by the president, with all these cases, it's the government is unfair, as you point out.

COATES: Right. TAPPER: The government is unfair. It's very similar language to how

President Trump talks about how he and his friends and former campaign aides are being treated unfairly by Robert Mueller.

Do you think that that's a coincidence?

COATES: No.

I think it's in many ways the reason he feels a kinship necessary to expand and utilize his pardoning power, which again no one is questioning. But the overarching theme here -- remember, Jack Johnson, yes, was he victimized and profiled under a law that was intended to criminalize conduct in interracial romance?

Yes. That's why he lost his heavyweight title. That's why he was in prison. But for the remaining aspect of people, the only overarching theme is that they're all celebrities or high profiles in some cases, D'Souza not as much of a celebrity as everybody else, but he feels as though he's victimized and targeted based on his viewpoints and his conservative viewpoints and his attacks on Obama, which is really the theme that Donald Trump believes, that he is -- they're out to get him because he was not Hillary Clinton and he was not Barack Obama.

And but for those things, he would be treated fairly. And so that if the overarching theme here. It's not coincidental. It's strategic, even if he has the right to do so. We got to call a spade a spade.

TAPPER: And, Kirsten Powers, I want you to listen to this.

Blagojevich's attorney released a statement in response to President Trump, saying this to reporters earlier about commuting the sentence -- quote -- "They rewrote the law and told the jury to convict based on the governor's belief that there was a connection between political contributions and official acts. When that didn't work and the first jury failed to convict, the prosecutors again rewrote the jury instructions telling the second jury to reject the governor's defense if he attempted any political deals in office, virtually assuring that he would be convicted."

Now, without getting into the weeds of the Blagojevich prosecution, this is very similar to the other narrative that's being presented, I think, by the president and his defenders about the case against him, that there is prosecutors out -- you're shaking your head.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: But this is the argument you make every day, prosecutors out of control, overextending their...

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: What I would say is let's just push the tape and rewind the Menendez case.

If you just read what you said about the judge giving instructions to the jury, that's what they did to Senator Menendez. They couldn't convict him. They went back again. They couldn't convict him. They were going back again.

They were going to -- they had a mistrial. They were to prosecute him again. The Department of Justice, this Department of Justice, by the way, not a Democratic Department of Justice, but this Department of Justice, said enough.

TAPPER: Because they couldn't get a conviction.

URBAN: Well, but I'm saying they keep changing the jury instructions.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Kirsten Powers, I want to let you have the last word on this panel.

POWERS: Well, yes.

I think that the president has made it very clear that he feels that this is a witch-hunt, that he is under attack, that it's politically motivated.

And so he probably feels some kinship with somebody who is making a similar argument and someone he has a relationship with as well.

[16:15:10]

TAPPER: All right. Everyone, stick around. We got a lot more to talk about. Is President Trump trying to send a message directly to the witnesses in the Mueller investigation? That's next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: We're back and continuing the conversation about President Trump earlier today, issuing a full pardon for conservative author and provocateur, Dinesh D'Souza. That case, of course, was heard in the Southern District of New York. Another case that the president is talking about has to do with Martha Stewart, which was also out of the Southern District of New York.

Let me bring in the panel.

Kirsten Powers, if you are Michael Cohen, the president's lawyer/fixer and you're being criminally investigated by the Southern District of New York U.S. attorney's office as those two, one pardon, one possible pardon, are you thinking of yourself -- boy, the boss man is sending a message to me?

[16:20:13] POWERS: I would. I think, you know, anybody -- he looks like he is sort of handing them out like candy, right? There isn't any reason to believe that he wouldn't do this for Michael Cohen. That said, I think it's a risky -- it's a gamble, right? You don't really ever know what Donald Trump will do.

And so, are you really going to, you know, possibly put yourself in jeopardy over the hope that he is going to end up doing this in the future?

TAPPER: So, David, you've been making the case that U.S. attorneys are political animals.

URBAN: Not all, not AUSA level.

TAPPER: Not the assistant U.S. attorney level, but the U.S. attorney level. And, of course, they are because they are appointed by new presidents. They're political positions. Chris Christie used to be a U.S. attorney, et cetera.

But, certainly, so are politicians, political animals.

URBAN: Right.

TAPPER: Right? So, when President Trump is doing this, you can make the argument that these are zealous prosecutions, perhaps even overzealous in your opinion, I don't know if you actually feel that way about Blagojevich or not, but -- or D'Souza, but is it not also possible that President Trump is playing politics here a little bit?

URBAN: Listen, so, just to address the Michael Cohen piece, he faces state charges. Those cannot be pardoned. He is going to be tried by the state of New York for criminal action if there's a crime there. The president can't pardon that.

So, the president can send whatever message, whatever hypothetical message everyone thinks he is sending, but at the end of the day, he still faces the possibility of going to jail in the state of New York. That cannot be waived.

And so, I think the notion that he's somehow sending a message to Michael Cohen and hope whatever is in the black box that we don't know, I think that's somewhat farcical. I don't think that's an issue. In terms of like the Martha Stewarts in the world, right, I think that, you know, a lot of people would say that what Martha Stewart was convicted of, right, is making a false statement. We know the story, the FBI shows up at 7:00 a.m. and, you know, you are in your pajamas wiping sleepy eyes from your face and they sit down you down and you ask you a bunch of questions. And then you show up with your lawyer and recall facts differently, that's happened in the Martha Stewart's case, and you go to jail.

So, that -- by lots of folks' accounts, Martha Stewart is the example of that kind of press, unfair treatment.

TAPPER: Can I say one thing, Laura, and then I want you to weigh in. In Comey's book, which I actually read, he has a section in there about how he regretted and had misgivings and felt ambivalent about prosecuting Martha Stewart.

COATES: Well, you know, that's an important good point, because you wrestle with the fine lines there. But let me just clarify a point that many people make about this. New York is one of these weird behemoths where you cannot prosecute somebody for a state level crime if the federal charge is looming. They are trying to change that law to avoid what you are talking about in the sense if you have a federal charge, normally, you could pardon that and nothing else. But in New York, it's different. You cannot bring a state action if you have the federal charge looming. So, that maybe different.

Perhaps the message however that people are not hearings is Manafort. Manafort has been left out there with the most number of charges here. And there's no clear message being sent to him because the theme for everybody else seems to be lying to investigators could lead to a pardon, exposing somebody's identity, Scooter Libby, could lead to a pardon. The idea of campaign finance violation, these are swirling around everybody but --

TAPPER: Michael Cohen, possibly.

COATES: Yes, Michael Cohen -- everybody but somebody like Paul Manafort. And for him, I wonder what message you're trying to send to him because in Virginia, you're right about that law?

TAPPER: So, one other thing that President Trump earlier today seemed to be trying to rewrite history as if it's another take in this fiction of board room. He tweeted today, quote: Not that it matters but I never fired James Comey because of Russia.

2018 President Trump, I'd like to introduce you to 2017 President Trump. You told NBC's Lester Holt and the world what was on your mind when you fired James Comey.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When I decided to do just it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: So, I mean, we all saw that. So, how can he claim it had nothing to do with Russia when he fired James Comey?

URBAN: Look, I think what the president is trying to say is the reason he fired him wasn't to do exactly with his relationship with Russia, right? I think he's the overall theme with president colluded with Russia. That's what he's speaking about here. I can't -- I haven't spoken to the president about it, so I can't speak specifically to his state of mind. I don't know the rest of the clip and the tape, the next sentence, I don't know.

TAPPER: Yes.

So, Kirsten, the day after President Trump fired Comey, he met in the Oval Office, you might remember, with two Russian diplomats, Sergei Lavrov, and ambassador to the U.S., Sergei Kislyak, "The New York Times" quoted him saying, quote, I just fired the head of the FBI, he was crazy, a nut job, I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off.

I mean, it certainly does seem like Russia was on his mind. POWERS: Yes, I mean, he said that. This is the thing -- this is the

whole thing he does, the gaslighting thing, where he says things that he knows we know are not true and I don't actually know what you are confused about.

[16:25:06] I really don't. Like what's confusing?

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: -- mens rea is completely different.

POWERS: The tweet saying -- the tweet he sent out is a lie. I mean, it's just a lie. I don't understand, what's confusing about it?

URBAN: So, I guess, Kirsten, my point is, and Laura can speak to this, right, when you're trying to convict somebody, proving mens rea at that time --

TAPPER: Mens rea what's on your mind at the time?

URBAN: The reasoning why he did it at that point in time is different than us sitting around here talking --

(CROSSTALK)

COATES: That's true, David, but the emperor has no clothes on here. And the reason you can prove mens rea a little bit more easily is because he said things like, I was thinking to myself and that proved what he is talking about in his mind. And so, those are the code textual clues give you the information you need.

Now, I agree, that's not going to be in and of itself and not to push the needle in the direction of obstruction, and by the way, no prosecutor is going to have a goal of obstruction. It's like giving somebody a speeding ticket as they leave the scene of the crime. I want to know why you are speeding away, that's my focus. This is ancillary issue as well, but I don't see the confusion. The emperor has no clothes on.

URBAN: So, again, the reason -- you are looking at the reasoning he is speeding away perhaps, right, is that the theory that somehow Russians threw the election at the president's favor, right? I think that's -- if you peel away what's at the bottom of this, it's the president's -- it's the constant media narrative that somehow the Russians gave him the election.

TAPPER: So, everyone, stick around. We've got a lot more to talk about.

If President Trump disagreed with somebody, generally speaking, he certainly does not hesitate to say it. So, why does he have a problem when it comes to people like Roseanne Barr? Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)