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Trump to Pardon Campaign Finance Violator Dinesh D'Souza; Trump Hits Canada, Mexico and EU with Steel and Aluminum Tariffs; Trump Falsely Claims He Did Not Fire Comey Because of Russia; Aired 10- 10:30a ET

Aired May 31, 2018 - 10:00   ET


[10:00:00] KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Pretty unexpected here, Poppy. The president just tweeted this minutes after he had been speaking with reporters at Joint Base Andrews as he's on his way to Texas today. But he made no mention of this pardon and then tweeted out that he is going to give Dinesh D'Souza, this right conservative author and filmmaker, a full pardon saying he was treated unfairly by the government.

Of course D'Souza did plead guilty to these -- violating these federal campaign finance laws back in 2014. He did not do any time in jail. Instead, he spent a few months in a confinement place, he was also fined $30,000.

The president here announcing this quite surprisingly. I've been reporting on this White House for the past 16 months the president has been in office and I've never heard him mention Dinesh D'Souza before or any of his allies or friends. But here today, he is announcing that he's giving him a full pardon.

Now D'Souza is a very controversial figure. Typically presidents in the past have waited until the end of their term to issue pardons like these. Either after lobbying from that person's friends or because they have a personal relationship with them, but the president here tweeting this out now. But I should note that D'Souza is a controversial figure, he's made some inflammatory remarks about President Barack Obama, Adolf Hitler, and several other people as well.

So certainly someone very interesting for the president to pardon, but it does seem to fall in line with other people that the president has pardoned. Of course, they're also controversial in their own ways. You think of -- to come to mind, former vice president Dick Cheney's chief of staff Scooter Libby who the president recently pardoned. Also that former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio as well, he was the president's -- one of the president's first pardons back in the fall.

So several figures like that, and, of course, Poppy and Brianna, this here is going to raise questions of whether the president is sending a message with these pardons, sending a message to people like Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, those are the obvious questions that are going to come about here for why the president somewhat randomly is issuing this pardon for Dinesh D'Souza today. BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, it's a really good point.

Kaitlan Collins at the White House. Thank you.

I want to bring in CNN's chief political correspondent Dana Bash to talk with us here. It also seems to be a message that the president is sending that says if you're with me, I'm with you, right? Because if we -- if we look at -- I don't know about the Scooter Libby one aside. That seemed to be an exercise in power, but even his -- you know, President Bush did not pardon Scooter Libby. Right? He commuted the sentence, but he didn't actually pardon him.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: And his relationship with Dick Cheney who Scooter --

KEILAR: Suffered because of that.

BASH: Suffered big time.

KEILAR: But you look at Joe Arpaio, this is someone who disobeyed a federal judge's orders when it came to racial profiling. Now you have someone who is admittedly committed a campaign finance violation giving money in the name of others for a New York Senate race. Right? So he's admitted wrongdoing. He's sending a message to people who are in his corner, Trump is.

BASH: You're exactly right. You know this just happened as Kaitlan was saying. This is not something that was expected. So we're all doing reporting to try to figure out what was behind this. But I think on its face, knowing the way this president makes decisions, and I think you hit on a really important point, first and foremost, he likes to send messages to conservatives especially that he's going to stick with you.

This is also somebody who is wildly popular among many in the GOP base, on the conservative side. From -- for his books, for his commentary, for his films that he makes, and so he is kind of a cult figure, a pop culture figure, if you will, within the conservative movement. So that in and of itself is kind of an indicator that President Trump was very likely talking to somebody who is a friend of his, of D'Souza's, or watching something on conservative media, getting a call from one of his friends late night, you know, maybe all of the above.

But I think at the end of the day, your point is dead on, Brianna, and that is that despite the fact that it is the norm for presidents to wait until the end of their terms or even the end of the year around Christmastime to do pardons, this president is doing it to send very clear messages.

KEILAR: What is the fun of having the power if you can't use it, I guess, right? That's --


KEILAR: Maybe how this feels. BASH: Wouldn't be surprised if that was almost a direct quote.


KEILAR: All right, let's -- sorry, Poppy, go ahead.

HARLOW: No, no, no, that's fine. I'm just fascinated by all of this. And -- but, Dana, because we have you, you have new reporting on Rudy Giuliani, someone you talked to frequently. And I wonder if you could tick through just some of the thinking he. He gave this sort of long, sort of contemporaneous interview yesterday to Kaitlan Collins outside the White House that made a lot of headlines. And you argue he knows exactly what he's doing here.

BASH: That's right. And I think that that was -- that impromptu press conference yesterday was a classic case of the president's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, being, as I call it, sort of crazy like a fox because look, let's be honest.

[10:05:14] Those of us who have covered White Houses under siege, under investigation, lawyers, if they go and meet with their client, the president, they go in, they have a meeting and they stay behind the scenes. He made a B-line for the press yesterday, Rudy Giuliani, which is in keeping with the strategy, which is big picture, to basically take hits for the president and to chip away at public support for the Mueller investigation.

And in order to do that, you have to have somebody like Rudy Giuliani who's got a very thick skin, thanks to his years dealing with New York media, the New York tabloids especially, and somebody who speaks fluent Trumpian. And he does both. And so he's gotten a lot of -- taken a lot of hits for not being the most traditional lawyer and the most traditional representative of the president when it comes to the legal strategy but Giuliani is so much more than that.


BASH: And he is somebody who is trying to represent the president in the court of public opinion and is not afraid to say things that get him in trouble and things that would make other people cower, but for him, he just -- he doesn't really care. And at the end of the day, he and the president are kindred spirits. I mean, as I say in the piece, they're both Geminis from New York City who are in their early 70s and Rudy Giuliani is more than happy to be back in the game and take on this mission.

HARLOW: Hey, when the stars align, you're both Geminis, you know.


KEILAR: That's right.

HARLOW: It's fascinating to watch. I mean, just your interview, Dana, within this weekend on "STATE OF THE UNION," I was just sort of jaw on the ground for all the things he was just willing to say, you know, about how obstruction makes him nervous, et cetera. BASH: Very transparent.

HARLOW: Very. Dana Bash, I point everyone to the piece on Thank you very much.

We do have more breaking news out of the Trump administration. If you can believe it. More breaking news this morning. The Trump administration, the Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, has just slapped some hefty tariffs on our allies, we're talking Canada, Mexico, the European Union, and the question is, is this good for American jobs? What does this actually mean?

Our chief business correspondent Christine Romans here with more.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: And could it raise prices for American consumers?


ROMANS: That's the other big question there. Let's talk about the news here. You knew that there was this exemption for tariffs on steel and aluminum for America's biggest trading partners, Canada, Mexico and the EU. The president has decided, according to the Commerce secretary, the president made the call to let those exemptions expire at midnight tonight. So that means for American companies that are importing aluminum and steel, it will be a 10 percent to 25 percent tariff respectively on those products.

This is meant to be the America first strategy we've been hearing so much about. The EU angry about this, saying that they are now the free traders and hold the free trade beacon for the rest of the world. They will retaliate, they say. They have threatened retaliating on everything from, you know, genes to bourbon to whiskey to motorcycles and a whole bunch of other things, too.

This comes at an interesting time, Poppy, because at the same time you've got the Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross who just wrapped up a call with reporters. He's also negotiating with the Chinese. There was a framework, an overall framework, the Treasury secretary said we hit the pause button on tariffs with China, and then this week we announced new tariffs with China and the Commerce secretary has to go to China and try to work this out.

So we are -- on multiple fronts dealing with trade issues here and at least on this one, right here, the EU, Canada and Mexico, there will be tariffs on those metals.

HARLOW: And that means NAFTA negotiations go where?

ROMANS: So this complicates NAFTA negotiations. What we heard from the Commerce secretary is that in these negotiations, the United States is not getting what it wanted. These negotiations were dragging on.

HARLOW: Right. ROMANS: If you read the president's book, "Art of the Deal," you have

to know when to walk away. They gave these exemptions in March until June and this is clearly the president walking away from the deal.

HARLOW: Walking away. Christine Romans, thank you.

ROMANS: You're welcome.

HARLOW: Appreciate it very, very much.

Coming up, the president this morning falsely claiming that he didn't fire James Comey because of the Russia investigation even though he said exactly that on tape. You'll hear it here.

KEILAR: Plus, the president is not backing down from claims of a spy planted in his campaign by the Obama administration, claims that were debunked by a top Republican lawmaker briefed on that topic. We'll get new GOP reaction.


[10:13:43] KEILAR: This morning, President Trump is claiming that he did not fire former FBI director James Comey over Russia. It is a point that he's tried to make before, but here is the big issue with that. He's on camera saying the exact opposite thing just last year.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He made a recommendation, but regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey. I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.


HARLOW: OK, so the president said the exact opposite thing in a tweet this morning. And then there is this "New York Times" report this morning complicating things. This says that former deputy FBI director Andy McCabe was so concerned about the motive behind Comey's firing that he took contemporaneous notes and turned that memo over to Mueller's team. First time we're learning about that.

A lot to unpack. CNN political analyst Ryan Lizza is here. Also CNN legal analyst Shan Wu is here.

Gentlemen, thank you for being here.

Ryan, the political side of it first, it doesn't seem like this FBI, you know, report is a bombshell in terms of us knowing that Russia was on the president's mind and part of his reason for -- if not the whole reason for firing James Comey.

[10:10:02] But what is the significance here when you put it all together and then look at the president trying to say the exact opposite thing this morning? RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it gives us one more piece

of information about the process of firing Comey and how Trump was sort of manipulating that, that process, right? And the fact that McCabe was concerned enough that President Trump was pushing the Justice Department into making this recommendation on the basis of Russia rather than some other reason on the merits, that -- you know, that speaks to this whole question of obstruction of justice.

Was his firing part of -- was that -- did he cross the line into obstruction of justice when he fired the FBI director? So I think it is important. We all know that the memo that Rosenstein wrote criticizing Comey for the way he handled the Hillary Clinton investigation, we all know that Donald Trump did not fire Comey because of that. We know that Donald Trump celebrated the way that Comey handled that investigation in 2016. So it was always absurd on its face, that Rosenstein memo.

And now we have new piece of information saying that Trump wanted Rosenstein to mention Russia and we know from, you know, half a dozen different pieces of information that Russia is the reason that Comey was fired. And now, of course, we saw Trump tweet today, something to the opposite effect, but there is a long pattern here that Russia was on his mind when he fired the FBI director.

KEILAR: And mentioned Russia, right, Shan, in the way according to a source in the story that it would be to essentially exonerate Donald Trump to say that, you know, there was no problem for Donald Trump with the Russia investigation. What does that tell you? We know that in the memo it said he wanted Russia mentioned, right? That was his guidance. McCabe details that. But then other sources say the kind of mention he wanted was basically one that he later stressed with Jim Comey when he fired him, which was and Jim Comey told me that I'm not under investigation. That's what he wanted. What does it tell you?

SHAN WU, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think that's a very important point because it continues to support the idea that Trump really wanted to get that piece of information out, which he's going to get out somehow. Even if he has to say it to himself.

I think something that troubles me about this, which could be a problem, I don't want to make any suggestions to the president's legal team, but if the issue presented by the McCabe memo is that Rosenstein was asked by the president to do something, refuse to do it, obviously he needs to be questioned by that. It potentially leads to him being more of a fact witness in the probe than we may have realized. And that could potentially cause a problem with somebody trying to say, well, he should be stepping down, he has a conflict as well.

HARLOW: Right. But -- and, you know, to that point, Ryan Lizza, you'll remember, Rosenstein sat down with the folks that oversee this, the ethics folks, right?

LIZZA: Right. Yes.

HARLOW: And then like, can I ethically lead this, oversee the Mueller probe independently, and the determination was yes. Do you think this changes that in any way?

LIZZA: He is in such an unusual position in all of this because he's a witness in the investigation. We knew before this "New York Times" report already that he was a witness in the investigation just because he wrote that memo. Now we have an additional piece of information that puts him more at the center of the firing of Comey.

HARLOW: Right.

LIZZA: And, of course, you know, because of Jeff Sessions' recusal, he's overseeing the Mueller investigation as a witness in that investigation, and he has said that he consulted with the ethics advisers at the Justice Department, the same kind of people who recommended that Sessions recuse himself and that they have said that he doesn't see a reason to recuse himself -- there's no reason for him to recuse himself yet. And he's also said that if that changes, you know --

HARLOW: He would.

LIZZA: Yes, he will be public about that. There's certainly people who think he should recuse himself because of that. A lot of other people think he is the -- you know, the only thing coming in between Donald Trump firing Mueller and that he's actually, you know, doing his best to sort of protect that investigation. But he is in the center of this thing in so many ways.

KEILAR: Shan, one source told CNN's Jim Acosta that the president is really directing much of the political strategy on the investigation. The legal strategy actually seems to be a political strategy here. Rudy Giuliani is embracing that. But I wonder what you think his lawyers should be thinking about this approach?

[10:20:04] WU: Yes, I think Giuliani's tactics are beginning to bear some fruit. He's getting more consistency in terms of what he's putting out there, but it's clear, his role is completely that of a spokesperson, a PR person, looking to plant the seeds to undermine any eventual result. I mean, his idea, the assertion he makes that things will be wrapped up by September 1st with regard to the president's obstruction just seems really unrooted in any semblance of the investigative reality.

I mean, it's fine to try to compartmentalize the president's obstruction issues, but realistically the probe has got to finish looking at the other witnesses, other cases, other possible cooperations before you could get there. So his strategy seems clear, but you know, what it is grounded in seems increasingly weak.

KEILAR: Unrooted in the investigative reality. Shan, thank you so much. Ryan Lizza, really appreciate you being with us as well.

Coming up, President Trump doubling down on his unproven claim that FBI spies infiltrated his campaign. We'll be getting reaction from a Republican who sits on the House Intelligence Committee.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [10:25:34] HARLOW: Welcome back. The president once again this morning claims there were spies in his campaign. And this comes after Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy who has seen the intelligence says, that is just not the case.

With me now is Republican congressman Chris Stewart of Utah. He sits on the House Intelligence Committee.

It's nice to have you here. Thanks for joining us during your week at home.


HARLOW: Good morning. So I'm sure you heard, Congressman, your fellow Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy yesterday say, look, the FBI in the early days of the Russia probe in 2016 did exactly, exactly what the American people would want them to do. They acted appropriately, these were not spies in the Trump campaign. The president says the complete opposite. Who's right?

STEWART: Yes. Yes, the thing is, Poppy, we don't know yet. And part of the reason we don't know is because we actually haven't seen the documents. Now Trey was briefed on this. But we haven't actually seen the documents, which I think is very, very important for -- if the FBI has nothing to hide --

HARLOW: To be clear, Congressman --


HARLOW: I mean, Trey Gowdy has seen all -- you know, the most amount, given that he sits on oversight, given his position. Have you seen any documents then that would point you to believe that the president's assertion that there are spies has any merit?

STEWART: No. None of us have.


STEWART: And that's one of the concerns I have is, no, wait --


HARLOW: But then it's OK that he's saying it. If he can't point to the document and you haven't seen documents that say there were spies, can the president -- should the president keep pointing to this completely unfounded claim?

STEWART: Well, I don't know. Look, a couple of things, number one, is you report and others report on things all of the time which is undocumented, from unverified sources and from documents which we haven't seen. So that can't be the threshold for making a comment on something. That happens virtually every day. What the president is reporting --


HARLOW: Well, we verify our sources, that's the whole -- hold on, Congressman. That's the whole definition of a source is that you verify who the source is, you -- yes, and oftentimes we have two and three and four sources on the thing to be that careful.

STEWART: I understand that. And I know you try to be careful, I think most of the media does. But the truth is we do report on things without having the documents before us. And this is a good example of this. There is one of two things that is either true, either all of the reporting on this, which is coming from the "New York Times," the "Wall Street Journal," the "Washington Post" and many others, either all of that is wrong or there are questions here that we need to have answered, and that was, was this individual placed within the campaign, did he reach out to individuals within the campaign, was he wearing a wire, was he being monitored during these conversations, he did report back to the FBI?

If those things are true, and we don't know if they're true yet, because we haven't seen the documents, but if those things are true, then that would be very troubling and that's what they were trying to find out --

HARLOW: Why? Why would that be troubling? Because what we do know -- let me just -- I want to understand fully here your argument because we do know that there was a confidential source working with the FBI who spoke to George Papadopoulos who spoke to Carter Page because , they were concerned about Russia's nefarious actions and intent here, and reported that back to the FBI.


HARLOW: And that is how counterintelligence investigations work. So what is wrong with that? There is nothing to point to it being Trump is a candidate being a target. So I'm confused at what the problem is with the FBI operating, utilizing a confidential source in a very careful way.

STEWART: Well, look, first place, of course he was the target. The FBI -- director Comey made that very clear in our hearing in March.

HARLOW: Excuse me, you --

STEWART: He said Trump --

HARLOW: You believe that the FBI was targeting President Trump? Is that what you're saying?

STEWART: He was targeting the campaign. That was no question about that. That was Director Comey's very words, we were investigating the Trump campaign.

HARLOW: Investigating whether Russia -- investigating whether Russia was acting nefariously through trying to use the Trump campaign to impact the election. They're very different things. STEWART: No, look, you can parse this any way you want, but it's

very, very clear. He said we were investigating Russian ties to the Trump campaign.

HARLOW: To find out --


HARLOW: It is not parsing words, you know they are two distinct things.

STEWART: Poppy, you've got to let me answer, if I could. You say it's a confidential source. The president says it's a spy. Rather than use a word, I'll describe what they have reportedly done. Once again, directed by someone in the FBI, reach out to people you don't know, go talk to them, record and report back on what you've learned. Continue to foster relationship with him. To most Americans --