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Trump Pardons D'Souza; Letter to Trump; Trump's New Tariffs. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired May 31, 2018 - 13:00   ET

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


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[13:00:13] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

President Trump issuing another political pardon of a conservative activist who pleaded guilty. Is this a new move -- is this a signal to witnesses in the Mueller investigation.

Also, as the new report suggests, the fired FBI director was concerned the Justice Department Concocted a cover story about the firing of James Comey.

And the Dow falling right now as the Trump administration slaps new tariffs on key U.S. allies. Many Republicans blasting the move, with one U.S. senator calling it dumb.

But first, let's begin with the presidential pardon that may be sending a very strong, political signal right now and the secret memo in the hands of Robert Mueller's investigators. President Trump announcing today he's giving a full and complete pardon to conservative author and filmmaker Dinesh D'Souza. D'Souza pleaded guilty to violating federal campaign laws back in 2014. Among the president's previous pardons, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Scooter Libby, and former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Is this a message to the president's allies that I'll their backs if they stand by his side.

And, by the way, the president says he's also considering pardons for Martha Stewart and former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.

Also, former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe has turned over a secret memo to Robert Mueller's team. McCabe's memo raises questions about the firing of James Comey and its connection to the Russian probe.

Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny. He's traveling with the president in Houston right now.

Jeff, first of all, what is the president saying about the pardon of Dinesh D'Souza and the others he may pardon? JEFF ZELENY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, certainly the president is

sending the message that he seems to be open for business, the pardoning business. He sent out the tweet earlier this morning about Dinesh D'Souza. Let's start with him.

The conservative author, as you said, who was really a leading proponent of a lot of conspiracy theories about Barack Obama, that he was not born in the U.S., of course not true. But he was convicted for a variety of campaign finance violations. He pleaded guilty.

Well, the president's saying earlier today that he believes he was unfairly convicted. He said he believes he was just doing something that, you know, many other people have done. He said he does not have a relationship with Dinesh D'Souza. He called him last evening and told him he was indeed going to pardon him.

But there is a thread emerging, Wolf, between all of these talks of pardons. As the president was flying here to Houston, he told reporters aboard Air Force One, in the small Oval Office aboard the plane, that he's also thinking about pardoning Rod Blagojevich. Of course, he is the former Illinois governor sentenced to some 18 years in federal prison. He is a Democrat. Rod Blagojevich, in recent days, has been trying to get the president's attention. It seems like he has gotten that.

And Martha Stewart, of course, she was prosecuted and ultimately charged and convicted for lying to investigators.

Wolf, they seem like separate cases, but they're actually not. Rod Blagojevich and Martha Stewart actually appeared on "The Apprentice" with candidate Donald Trump, even before he was running for office. And there's also perhaps a bigger similarity. James Comey, of course, the fired FBI director, was involved in the prosecution of all of these with the exception of Rod Blagojevich, but his best friend, Pat Fitzgerald in Illinois, was the prosecutor in that case.

So, Wolf, it seems to be that the president continuing his assault, his fight with James Comey here trying to undo the legacy that he had in many of these very high-profile cases by talking about pardons.

BLITZER: Yes, he seems to be sending a clear message at the same time to others who may be witnesses, may be involved in the Russia investigation.

ZELENY: Right.

BLITZER: And that's causing some concern. Jeff Zeleny in Houston traveling with the president. We're going to get back to you. We're going to get a lot more reaction from our analysts.

But right now I want to bring this Congressman Steve Cohen. He's a Democrat from Tennessee. He's joining us live right now.

Congressman, so what's your reaction to the president's decision to grant this full pardon to Dinesh D'Souza. Do you believe it's aimed at sending a message to his supporters about the Russia investigation? REP. STEVE COHEN (D), TENNESSEE: I think there's no question it is.

And same thing for the talk about Blagojevich and Martha Stewart.

I was talking -- just kind of random talk with one of my colleagues a week and a half ago, and something came up about a pardon, and he said to me, he said, we're going to show you what pardons are all about real soon. And this is a fellow who talked to the president on a regular basis. And I don't know if he necessarily knew what he was talking about, but I suspect he did, and what he was saying was basically, we're going to have like a Saturday night massacre when there's going to be several pardons in one day. And I think Manafort knows it. I think Michael Cohen knows it. I think others know it. I think Robert Mueller probably knows it. And it has the potential to be an obstruction of justice case.

[13:05:12] You can -- the president has total authority to issue pardons pursuant to the Constitution. It's an unlimited power. But if you abuse the power, and there can be an abuse of the power, and the federalist papers talked about it, the remedy of that is impeachment. Some people say you shouldn't talk about impeachment, but you have to talk about impeachment when the Constitution has been impugned. And if the pardon power is what is being used to obstruct the justice in this case, which is what I see happening, the resolution, according to the federalist papers, is impeachment and it needs to be talked about.

BLITZER: But the president has complete authority, complete constitutional authority, to pardon anyone he wants.

COHEN: He does. But as I say, the federalist papers, and I can't remember the number of the federalist paper, but it was written, and Madison, who was responded to -- said, the power -- the remedy to a president who abuses the power and goes too far, like King George, would be to impeach him.

And impeachment can be on high crimes and misdemeanors not defined, but it can be what the Congress could construe to be abusing that power to where it is malevolent, to where it causes the public to have less confidence in their judicial officials, which is what we saw in the Arpaio case, where Arpaio thumbed his nose to the judiciary and Trump said, fine.

This D'Souza guy thumbs his nose to the election laws and he says, fine. Martha Stewart thumbs her nose to insider trading and he says, fine. And Blagojevich was trying to sell a Senate seat. So he's basically saying all these people who have acted to really put seeds of doubt in the public's mind about institutions and about fairness are going to be freed because he thinks it's OK.

BLITZER: But -- but, congressman, none of these pardons that he's issued have anything to do with the Russia investigation. These are individuals who were convicted. The president has the authority, constitutional authority, to pardon them if he wants to for whatever reason. Every president does issue pardons, as you well know.

COHEN: Well, they do, but, at the same time, during the Obama administration, the thing that I'm most -- I sent Obama a note and I told him that my -- my idea was you had to have three c's to finish up his term well, and that was my program. Cannabis reform, Cuba changes and commutations. And I urged the president for four years to do more and more commutations on non-violent drug offenses. And it took them a long time to get it done.

Finally, Eric Holder, he set up a system in the Justice Department where they had criteria and they reviewed drug cases and they gave about 2,600 commutations. That's not a pardon. It says, you served enough time, you're out. That's what you should have is a system set up, with criteria, to say, if you fit the criteria, you are -- your sentence is commuted. And there are tens of thousands of people. President Obama and Attorney General Holder didn't act swiftly enough or with -- to get as many people out as they should have.

Now, I know these don't have to do with Russia, but it has to do with pardons. And if he pardons Manafort, Cohen, et cetera, et cetera, it's going to be something that's going to enrages the public, and that's the kind of thing, like the Saturday night massacre, that will get the public in a stage to where they will be willing to support impeachment and even Republicans will see that it's the right thing to do because he's thumbing his nose at the entire system.

BLITZER: He may be sending a message out there, as a lot of people suspect. But so far no one has been pardoned in any connection with the Russia investigation. We're going to have a lot more to discuss, congressman. We've got to leave it right there. Thanks, as usual, for joining us.

COHEN: Nice to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: And a reminder, the U.S. Constitution says a president can do this. It gives the president, and I'm quoting now, power to grant reprieves and pardons. That's in the U.S. Constitution.

Let's bring in our CNN legal analyst, Carrie Cordero, and our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger.

So, Gloria, what do you think the president's political motivation is right now?

Well, I think he's trying to undo some big wins by his enemies. I mean it's pretty clear here when you look at what he's already done with Dinesh D'Souza, which was major campaign finance violations, talking about Blagojevich, who, as you'll recall, was convicted of trying to sell a Senate seat, basically, you know, public corruption. And, you know, Martha Stewart was a Comey case and she was convicted of perjury. You know, making false statements.

Blagojevich was done by Patrick Fitzgerald, who was appointed by Comey. I mean, I think there is a pattern here. And I think that the president is making it very clear, there is no nuance to Donald Trump, we've learned over this year. And what he's saying is, you know, I've got a lot of power and I can use it where I want. And you guys had some big wins here. You thought you did. Well, guess what, I'm undoing it. And, for the future, I can do that, too.

[13:10:08] BLITZER: Carrie, you're a former assistant attorney general for national security. How do you see it?

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I was counsel to the assistant attorney general, but thanks for the promotion, Wolf.

I'll tell you what, I think the president, beyond just messaging, I think he is testing the boundaries of the presidency. I think he's potentially trying to use the presidency in ways that we haven't seen, really, in modern times. If we go back to the history of pardons, the president making pardon decisions alone are concentrating the use of pardons in the White House alone dates back to the 19th century. Ever since the late 1800s, actually, the Justice Department has had some kind of office, at a time the State Department was involved, that had an office that actually reviewed pardon decisions as a matter of policy process.

What this president has done, which we have not seen in centuries, literally, is the president making unilateral decisions, not just disregarding a recommendation that might be made from the office of the pardon after a Justice Department review, but absolutely 100 percent bypassing any of that policy process. And so I think that he is looking towards ways to expand his presidency and he's seeing how far the other branches of government are going to let him get away with it.

BLITZER: The president tweeted this earlier this morning, Gloria. Not that it matter, but I never fired James Comey because of Russia. The corrupt mainstream media loves to keep pushing that narrative, but they know it's not true. Listen to what he told Lester Holt of NBC News.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey, knowing there was no good time to do it. And, in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: So it sounds like, in that interview, he was saying, at least in part, he fired Comey because of Russia.

BORGER: It -- I mean that's exactly what he said. So he's even denying what is on camera for everyone to watch and to see.

And if you look at all the questions that the special counsel wants to ask the president, they do want to ask him about what his intent was when he fired Comey. And that is a question that he has answered publicly to Lester Holt, which was, I was kind of thinking about Russia. And if he is saying now that he wasn't thinking about Russia, then they need to ask him about it and get an answer.

KING: Because intent is clearly critical in terms of firing Comey, even though the president has a right to fire him for any reason, for no reason, whatever he wants, just as the president has a right to issue pardons whenever the president wants to issue a pardon.

But you heard the Congressman suggest that intent could be a possible level of obstruction.

CORDERO: Sure. So to prosecute obstruction, one of the elements is that the activity has to be done with some type of corrupt intent or done corruptly, is the words that are used. And so his intent, what he was thinking when he made the decision to fire the FBI director, is absolutely one of the key aspects that the special counsel is probably looking at when it comes to obstruction.

Now, maybe this means that they have decided not to do the interview and that they -- he is just going to do this in a court of public opinion, and so now it's just what he says on TV because, obviously, what he says on TV or what he tweets is very different than what he might have to say in an interview or under oath to a grand jury if he was ever called before a grand jury.

BORGER: Well, and if you listen to Rudy Giuliani, who just spoke with our Dana Bash today, he's completely bypassed the legal process, and says, well, you know, this is a matter for impeachment. I'm not so sure it's so wise for someone who's an attorney of the president to actually say that there's going to be an impeachment proceeding against him.

CORDERO: Well, I think that's what they're doing. I think they're running an impeachment strategy.

BORGER: Yes.

CORDERO: Everything that Rudy Giuliani has done since he's been on board has given that indication, at least.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: All right, guys, we're going to continue to assess what's going on because there's a lot going on right now.

Carrie and Gloria, thank you very much.

Also breaking today, the Trump administration sparking new trade war fears as it announces new tariffs against several key U.S. allies, and why this could mean Americans will start paying more.

Plus, a new twist as Kim Jong-un's former top spy visits the United States, we're now being told he's going to be allowed to deliver a letter to the president of the United States. We have new details.

And an ISIS supporter plotting an attack against Prince George, William and Kate's oldest son. You're going to hear what this jihadi now admits.

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[13:18:58] BLITZER: A sign of progress. That's how a senior State Department official is now characterizing the early ending to a meeting between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korea's Kim Yong Chol. A short time ago the secretary tweeted this, substantive talks with the team from North Korea. We discussed our priorities for the potential summit between our leaders.

But there's more. That senior North Korean official will now receive a special waiver to make a special delivery tomorrow. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I believe they'll be coming down to Washington on Friday. And a letter is going to be delivered to me from Kim Jong-un. So I look forward to seeing what's in the letter.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's bring in our global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott. She's been covering all of this for us.

It sounds like it's a pretty significant win for the North Koreans that their top ex-spy will now be allowed to leave this 25 mile radius of the United Nations.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Right.

BLITZER: First time in a long time. Not only invited to the -- to Washington --

[13:20:02] LABOTT: But to the White House.

BLITZER: But not only invited to the White House, but presumably will also meet with the president of the United States.

LABOTT: That's right. I mean Kim Yong Chol is the highest ranking official to visit Washington in 18 years, since the Clinton administration. He'll be hand-delivering a response from Kim Jong-un to President Trump about this letter that President Trump sent last week canceling the summit. Now, obviously, things have gotten moved forward since then, but, you know, proper Asian manners dictate that Kim Jong-un would respond to this letter, and presumably it's a more encouraging response about he does want to keep this summit on track.

BLITZER: So is the June 12th summit in Singapore between the president of the United States and the leader in North Korea definitely on?

LABOTT: I don't think it's definite. I think you've heard Secretary Pompeo and other U.S. officials say that they're looking to have this meeting on the 12th. And all the signs show that this is what's going to happen. That meeting ended early because a senior State Department official briefing reporters said there's progress at the meeting.

You also have this team, don't forget, in North Korea, Ambassador Sun Kim (ph) is currently talking with the North Koreans about what a draft agreement could look like, what are the contents of those talks and what can they agree to. So if they can narrow the gaps between now and June 12th, it looks like this summit will be on track. If not then, then very soon after, Wolf.

BLITZER: It's a pretty big deal that they gave him permission to leave that 25-mile radius of the United Nations. All North Korean visitors to the U.N. can only spend time within that 25-mile radius and now he's going to be not only, as we say, invited to the White House, but may even meet with the president of the United States --

LABOTT: That's the real big deal here.

BLITZER: Which is what the North Koreans want. They want international recognition.

LABOTT: Exactly.

BLITZER: They want respect. They want to be seen as a world power. And certainly a meeting like this underscores that.

LABOTT: Well, and you saw, you know, Kim Jong-un and the North Koreans, they're really getting a good international status right now. Kim Jong-un has met twice with President Moon of South Korea. He met with Secretary Pompeo several times. And now Foreign Minister Lavrov of Russia is going to be there. So Kim Jong-un, given that world status that he really wants, and President Trump is willing to treat him as, if not an equal, then certainly a fellow world leader.

BLITZER: A lot's at stake. A very significant development. He's met twice with President Xi of China as well.

LABOTT: That's right.

BLITZER: So he's developing that international stature.

All right, Elise, thanks very much.

Up next, President Trump slaps tariffs on some of the closest U.S. allies, prompting retaliation and sparking renewed fears of a global trade war.

And a new book by a close adviser of President Obama outlines the former president's emotional reaction to Donald Trump's presidential victory. Why he second-guessed himself.

Stand by.

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[13:26:59] BLITZER: After months of negotiations, President Trump is formally imposing tariffs on three of America's biggest trading partners and allies, Canada, Mexico and the European Union. The markets clearly fearing a trade war is imminent. Look at this, the Dow Jones now down about 217 points. And our U.S. allies are not calming nerves right now. Both Mexico and the European Union say they will, in fact, retaliate, while Britain says it will seek a permanent exemption.

We're still waiting to hear from Canada right now. The prime minister, Justin Trudeau, is expected to speak any minute. We'll follow that.

So, how far will all this go and how will it affect your pocket?

I want to bring in tax and economics reporter for "The New York Times," Jim Tankersley, and congressional reporter for "Politico," CNN political analyst Rachael Bade.

So will Americas feel any impact of this 25 percent tariff on steel imports, 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports?

TANKERSLEY: Well, Americans don't buy a lot of raw steel just at the grocery store, but they are going to see it in some products. We're seeing a lot of manufacturers, construction companies, retailers worried about increased prices from this. It's not a huge bump in inflation, but it is something. Cars could be more expensive. They rely on imported steel. And we could see a lot of other sort of manufactured goods in particular be something that Americans have to pay more for.

BLITZER: And if they retaliate and impose tariffs on U.S. exports to the European Union or to Canada and Mexico, Americans will feel the pinch.

TANKERSLEY: Yes, that will be American jobs. So if you make bourbon in Kentucky and you try to expert it to the European Union and now there's big tariffs and you can do as much of that, well, that might be fewer people working in that industry. And that -- this is always the fear with the trade war is that everybody ends up losing on both sides.

BLITZER: And Republican Senator Ben Sasse, he's clearly afraid of this. He's a Republican. He's one of the first lawmakers to respond to this fear of a trade war. And he tweeted this. This is dumb. Europe, Canada and Mexico are not China and you don't treat allies the same way you treat opponents. We've been down this road before. Blanket protectionism is a big part of why America had a Great Depression. Make America great again shouldn't mean make America 1929 again.

Are you hearing a lot of similar sentiment, not just from Republicans, but Democrats as well?

RACHAEL BADE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Mostly Republicans. You're going to see a lot of Republicans pushing back on this. Look, in this situation, what is good politically for President Trump is not good for the Republican Party in general. The president ran on America first. He said he was going to crack down on China. And he's doing that. He's saying, I'm checking off a box for a campaign promise.

But Republicans, they want free markets. They want free trade. They believe competition is going to bring down prices. And right now they're running their midterm election strategy based solely on the economy. And so this really throws a wrench into that situation. And if prices go up and if people feel it in their own pocketbook, then that's going to hurt them and it could really hurt the party.

BLITZER: It could hurt some of the farm states out there, agricultural products, a huge U.S. export to a lot of these countries. And if they're going to cut back, that's going to be a problem politically for the president as well.

[13:30:06] TANKERSLEY: This is something we've seen with the China tariffs also, that there's this fear, probably rightly so in the farm belt, that farmers will be the first to get hit here. When exported agriculture is