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Trump Pardons Conservative Pundit Dinesh D'Souza; CNN: Trump Pressured Sessions Multiple Times to Overturn Recusal. Aired 6-6:30a ET
Aired June 1, 2018 - 06:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These are people being prosecuted for the same kind of crimes the Trump circle is facing.
[05:59:27] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He actually has to issue pardons.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's clearly sending a message to the people who are wrapped up in the Mueller investigation.
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: The president actually pressured Jeff Sessions multiple times to overturn his recusal.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sessions has personally done an excellent job.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Federal prosecutors in D.C. have interviewed James Comey about Andrew McCabe.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: It puts him in a great deal of trouble.
DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: Puerto Rico still struggling to recover as hurricane season gets under way.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's no quality of life still eight months after Maria.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If we face another event like this, we will certainly be better prepared.
ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Alisyn Camerota and John Berman.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. This is NEW DAY, Friday, June 1, 6 a.m. here in New York. And this is what people in New York are waking up to today. One of the president's favorite papers: "The Apprentice: You're Pardoned" editioned.
ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Oh, good. A new reality show.
BERMAN: Sort of a good news/bad news thing if your picture ends up on this.
CAMEROTA: Who's will be next?
BERMAN: Who will be next? That's a great question. Meatloaf, this is your day.
It is a great morning to be a celebrity supporter of the president who may have committed a federal crime. Even better if you were prosecuted by someone the president doesn't like. Best of all if you were a contestant on "The Apprentice."
Huge questions today about how the president has chosen to use his power to the pardon. But bigger questions about why. He granted a full pardon to conservative pundit Dinesh D'Souza, who pleaded guilty, by the way. So why?
The president said Martha Stewart could be next. Why? Is this about settling old scores or signaling something about future scores? Especially in the Russia investigation
On that front, sources tell CNN the president pressured Attorney General Jeff Sessions on multiple occasions to reverse his decision to recuse himself from that investigation multiple times. That is new. Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, in an exclusive CNN interview, says the president is wrong where Sessions is concerned.
CAMEROTA: And North Korea's former top spy from North Korea heads to Washington today. A source tells CNN that he will hand deliver a letter from Kim Jong-un to the president at the White House. Oh, to be a fly on the wall, that could read, for that letter.
This comes after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reports good progress in those talks with both sides. Ahead of a potential summit just days away.
And President Trump campaigned on going after China on trade, you'll remember. Instead, the president is slapping more tariffs on U.S. allies than he is on China. So why is he doing that and what is the impact on American jobs?
Let's begin our coverage with CNN's Kaitlan Collins. She is live for us at the White House -- Kaitlan.
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Alisyn and John, the president seems to be in a forgiving mood. All of the people he has pardoned or is considering pardoning so far have one thing in common, and that is that the president thinks they were treated unfairly by the United States justice system, and it raises the question of whether or not the president sees a little bit of himself in them.
COLLINS (voice-over): President Trump on a pardoning spree. Hinting he may pardon Martha Stewart and commute the sentence of disgraced former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. The president defending the two former Apprentice contestants, insisting they were treated unfairly.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I like Martha. I've always liked Martha. I still like Martha.
COLLINS: In 2004, Stewart was convicted of obstruction of justice, lying to investigators, and conspiracy after a probe into allegations of insider trading.
TRUMP: So Governor, you have a hell of a lot of guts. I have to tell you that.
COLLINS: In 2011, Blagojevich was convicted of 17 public corruption charges, including trying to sell President Obama's Senate seat. He's currently six years into serving a 14-year sentence.
This coming just hours after the president issued his fifth pardon for the contentious conservative author and filmmaker Dinesh D'Souza, who pleaded guilty in 2014 to campaign finance violations in a straw donor scheme, President Trump once again bypassing the Justice Department to fast track his pardon, arguing that D'Souza was treated unfairly by the government despite D'Souza acknowledging that what he did was wrong. D'Souza claimed he was targeted because he made inflammatory remarks about President Obama.
DINESH D'SOUZA, CONSERVATIVE WRITER: My case is quite clearly a political hit.
COLLINS: But all three cases tied in some way to the president's critics. Stewart's case was prosecuted by former U.S. attorney and fired FBI Director James Comey, whose close friend, Patrick Fitzgerald, prosecuted Blagojevich.
Comey also appointing Fitzgerald to investigate the Valerie Plame leak case, which resulted in the conviction of Scooter Libby, who Trump pardoned in April.
And it was fired U.S. attorney Preet Bharara who prosecuted D'Souza in the Southern District of New York.
Blagojevich's wife drawing comparisons between her husband's conviction and the Russia investigation.
PATRICIA BLAGOJEVICH, WIFE OF FORMER ILLINOIS GOVERNOR: These same people are trying to do the same thing that they did to my husband, just on a much larger scale. You know, they were emboldened. They took down a governor. And now they're trying to -- they've got their sights much higher.
COLLINS: Critics arguing the high-profile pardons could be a signal to the president's allies who are under federal investigation, like his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, and his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who has pleaded not guilty to multiple charges.
The ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee Mark Warner tweeting the possibility that he may also be sending a message to witnesses in a criminal investigation into his campaign is extremely dangerous. The White House denying the pardon is any kind of signal.
[06:05:08] RAJ SHAH, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Each of the president's actions on pardons or on other things should be judged on the merits, looking at the facts and the circumstances surrounding the case. The president felt it was merited.
COLLINS: Now John and Alisyn, these pardons are often announced unexpectedly by the president, usually to the surprise of both the people being pardoned and the president's own staff. So stay tuned for any more announcements coming today from the president. But also, in the meantime, the president is supposed to meet -- or the president is waiting on the North Korea -- Kim Jong-un's right-hand man to come to the White House today. Whether or not he's meeting with the president is still up for a question, but he will be bringing a letter with him from the North Korean dictator. We could find out later today whether or not that summit in Singapore is going to be officially back on.
CAMEROTA: OK, Kaitlan. Please bring us any breaking news as soon as you have it from the White House. Let's bring in CNN political analysts John Avlon and David Gregory. Great to see you guys.
BERMAN: Meatloaf and Gary Busey.
CAMEROTA: They'll be next. But what are we pardoning Meatloaf for? Or what aren't we pardoning him for?
BERMAN: I'm just saying people like Meatloaf and Gary Busey.
CAMEROTA: OK. But so, right, people are saying, "Huh, I wonder if the president is trying to send a message with his pardons?" It's like a billboard. I mean, what part of the message don't people understand?
He is saying, "If you are loyal to me and have my back, I will pardon you. You don't have to worry about the consequences." I mean, is there any other connection between Martha Stewart and Dinesh D'Souza?
JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think the main connection is if you look at what these people have been charged with, it is resonant to some of the problems the president and his larger party may be facing.
CAMEROTA: Lying to federal --
AVLON: Obstruction of justice, perjury, lying to federal officials, corruption, fraud, extortion, campaign finance violations. I mean, this is -- this is the kitchen sink to redefine the new normal. These aren't really -- this is criminalization of politics, people. It's not --
DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it's also trolling the Justice Department. I mean, this is really his way of saying there's all the selective prosecution that the Justice Department for years has been kind of running amok. And that's, to me, at one level, even more surprising. I mean, it's the message to people who could be testifying against him. It's making a point about these charges. Or it's just saying, you know, the Justice Department, the FBI doesn't do his job right. It's -- it's incredibly destructive.
BERMAN: Yes, the roster, the cast of players here is fascinating, right, because the people he has pardoned, thinking about pardoning are all either celebrities or people supporting him in different ways. And the people who put them in jail are all like his arch nemesis. It's like Preet Bharara, whom he fired as U.S. attorney; James Comey who put Martha Stewart in jail. And Patrick Fitzgerald. So it seems like he's, in that case, settling old scores.
AVLON: I would -- I would be a bit surprise if he had that degree of depth of insight into the chess board, who put them away. But it's an added attractive quality.
GREGORY: But clearly people -- he's not sitting down and saying, "OK, well, how can we pardon? You know, who can we pardon? These are being brought to him by his counsel's office, or outside counsel who are petitioning him. But mostly they're petitioning the White House counsel. That is how this works. And I'm sure he could be saying, "Look, let's look for people who fit -- you know, fit a pattern." That's what's amazing is that much he knows. And then these are people who are scrubbing (ph), and then there are people who are lobbying for him.
AVLON: These are people whom he knows, too. You know, previous presidents wait on two years to start going on pardons. And this is a pardon palooza from the president saying, "Oh, I remember you from my reality TV show past. That means I care about you more, and I'll give you that pardon to send a message to my allies who may be under investigation."
BERMAN: Just one point. But David, he's not going through the office, inside the Justice Department on pardons, right? This is offices not being used. And it always is in the past. We have a number here. There are 2,108 pardon requests pending. There are 8,833 commutation requests pending right now. That are, you know, the people who normally get pardoned. Instead, the president is hand- picking the people he watches on TV.
GREGORY: Right. Well, the point is that there are people just like, you know, who -- I mean, no, Scooter Libby. I mean, these are outside counsel, lawyers in Washington who are either directly making the case to him or are going through, you know, the White House counsel. And because he obviously is -- is satisfying a pattern here. I mean, the White House is saying, "There's a process that they're looking through earlier." Come on.
I mean, there's a pattern here that -- where he wants to send a message. And you know, all presidents, one way or another send a message, a pardon. Either on policy of, you know, but this is incredibly personal. And it seems amazingly tailored to his current circumstance.
CAMEROTA: So let's just dive into one of them, OK, for illustration. Dinesh D'Souza. So for people who don't know what he background was and why he needed to be pardoned, according to the president, he's a conservative author and filmmaker, pleaded guilty to violating federal campaign finance laws and turning 14. He used straw donors to contribute to a New York Senate GOP candidate. Not allowed to do that.
He was sentenced to five years' probation and $30,000 fine.
[06:10:05] But let's just remind people of some of the other things that he did. And you can see it writ large on his Twitter account. This is what he has said about Obama. "You can take the boy out of the ghetto. Watch this vulgar man show his stuff while America cowers in embarrassment." That was 2015.
Here's a gem.
BERMAN: Good times.
CAMEROTA: This is what he said in 2010 about the president's father. "This philandering, inebriated African socialist who raged against the world for denying him the realization of his anti-colonial ambitions is now setting the nation's agenda through the reincarnation of his dreams in his son."
AVLON: Such a nice guy.
So Dinesh D'Souza doesn't like philandering?
AVLON: Oh, wait. Hold on now. Yes. No, look, hypocrisy watch when everybody gets on their high horse, Dinesh D'Souza included. But this is also somebody who's been a self-styled conservative intellectual who's really has just been a Twitter troll for a long period of time right now, appealing to all the worst instincts and conspiracy theories. And the fact that this gets legitimized by the president, it self sends a message, I think, to the base.
Gregory: But it's interesting. Those offensive tweets, you know, notwithstanding, that are not really relevant, you know, to --
CAMEROTA: Yes. Those aren't -- those aren't illegal. He's not being pardoned for those. Just to tell people who --
GREGORY: Yes, but it's also -- it's remarkable how the president looks for opportunities, as well, to placate the conservative base. Not just his own base. He will come up and, whether it's on judges or Israel, or the evangelical, I mean, he has ways to stay right with the conservative base in a number of ways that are often surprising.
BERMAN: Yes, three things. No. 1, the coincidence of him pardoning someone like Dinesh D'Souza on a day where race is so much in the spotlight. So much of what D'Souza has said has really stark racial, if not racist, overtones.
CAMEROTA: By the way I omitted the Parkland student one. The one that he actually got in trouble for, the Parkland student. And I guess that they need to -- "Worst news since their parents told them to get summer jobs."
BERMAN: That's actually the one he -- I think that may be the only thing he's ever apologized for. I think sometimes the president may just do these pardons because he can. He says, "I have Camp David and I can pardon people. I'm going to use both this weekend." And I think he likes that.
GREGORY: Yes, but I actually think that the deadly serious part about this is that he doesn't take the presidency seriously.
BERMAN: That's what I mean.
GREGORY: And he doesn't really see this, whether it's the attack on America by the Russians or -- or undermining institutions. He doesn't really think about the long-term implications of this, nor does he see the office as bigger than him. And that's been a criticism I've had throughout.
BERMAN: I do think -- I do think, again, where we are right now, perhaps the most important issue is the message it sends to people who may be touched by the investigation, the Mueller investigation right now.
If you are Paul Manafort, if you are Michael Cohen, possibly campaign finance violations pending, what are you supposed to think about this?
AVLON: I think you see this as the power of the presidency means a get out of jail free card for loyalists.
CAMEROTA: And that means -- just follow that a little further. "I don't have to cooperate. I don't have to tell what I know. I can clam up, because I'll be pardoned."
GREGORY: Yes. If you're facing that sort of jeopardy, I don't know if I would take that to the bank. "He may pardon Blagojevich, so I'll be OK." I think a lawyer might say, "I wouldn't bank on that."
AVLON: Well, that's a jump off, but that is the message that is intended to be set. Right? This is -- at the end of the day, if you are loyal to me, I will be loyal to you. The power of the presidency includes pardoning. They can't take that away. And that it -- itself has a chilling effect on the pursuit of justice.
BERMAN: All right, guys. Stick around. Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon coming to the defense of Jeff Sessions. Why he's saying the president is wrong when it comes to the attorney general. That's next.
[06:17:30] BERMAN: All right. New to CNN, a source tells us that President Trump pressured attorney general Jeff Sessions not once but on multiple occasions the last 14 months to reverse his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Back now with CNN political analysts John Avlon and David Gregory.
You know, David, this just gets to one of the things we knew. The president was really upset that Jeff Sessions recused himself. The idea that he went back to him many, many times.
GREGORY: Well, as remarkable as that and what he has said publicly, the president has said publicly, you know, "President Obama had in Eric Holder a loyalist as his attorney general, and I ought to get the same."
And that's really what he wanted out of Sessions. He wanted somebody who would lead this investigation or make it go away, who would handle it in a way that a loyalist would. I mean, it was just -- from the start, zero idea that the Justice Department ought to have some independence from the executive branch or that Jeff Sessions ought to do the right thing.
Now, we've been batting this around over the past few days. I do think it's a fair frustration for the president to say, "Look, you knew this was all building out here. If you were going to take yourself out of the game, you know, we maybe should have had that discussion."
CAMEROTA: Does the timeline work?
GREGORY: I'm not sure it does. I'm not sure it does. I don't think -- I don't think -- because remember, you only get a special counsel after he fires Jim Comey. So I don't know how you have that conversation.
So what is so painfully clear: Jeff Sessions, as an ultimate Trump loyalist, doing the right thing, having integrity, as his FBI director does. It makes so stark what the president is doing.
AVLON: It's disqualifying. I mean, effectively disqualifying. Remember, Jeff Sessions is the first and, basically, for a long time, only senator to back the Trump administration.
CAMEROTA: Definition of loyalist.
AVLON: Yes. And yet he has been harangued and bullied in public by the president, because he hasn't put personal loyalty ahead of professional obligation.
GREGORY: And I keep coming back to this point. You know, I think we're in real trouble in a bigger sense when, in our political fights and how divided we are, that we can't agree on the basic foundations of an investigation like investigating, you know, what Russia did. And the president wants to turn it into some kind of conspiracy. And that -- and that political supporters have jumped on this to say that everything is rotten in the Justice Department.
You know, we remember the Valerie Plame investigation. The Bush White House was so angry about this. They thought it was so unfair. Never did you see this kind of innuendo. Never were people fired and all the rest. They took it, because they respected the process.
[06:20:10] GREGORY: And that lack of respect does hurt the Justice Department and the FBI.
AVLON: It undermines our institutions. It's an attack on institutions. But also this new news that it's multiple times that, according to new word yesterday, the president urged (ph) him to unrecuse himself. Multiple times. That's not a good fact pattern for the president.
CAMEROTA: It's also been interesting that we've had many people, Republicans included, on who think that, of course, Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself. And it has been particularly interesting, Steve Bannon. OK? The president's chief strategist, the president's brain, whatever he was called back when he was he in the White House, agrees. So listen to this sit-down that he had with Fareed Zakaria.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST, "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS": Donald Trump now says he wishes he had picked another attorney general. Is Donald Trump right?
BANNON: I think the president is wrong. I think the president has been wrong from the beginning about -- if I can respectfully disagree with the president of the United States. I think that -- I think the whole concept of recusal is not even an issue. I think that Rudy Giuliani, a Chris Christie, or Jeff Sessions, anybody associated with the campaign would have had to recuse themselves before Grassley's committee even voted them out to go to the floor for a vote.
So I think the recusal is an issue -- yes, an issue that was dealt with and had to be dealt with. And whether you picked Rudy or Christie.
And by the way, this thing with Sessions was not the first pick. Rudy was always the first pick. Jeff Sessions and Rudy all he wanted was secretary of state. OK? So even Rudy knew at the time there was going to be this issue of recusal. So I think the president is wrong.
I think if you look at what Jeff Sessions has done on immigration, on migration, on all the key issues of the Justice Department, I think Sessions has personally done an excellent job.
CAMEROTA: That's why he's still there. When people say why doesn't the president fire him, it's because of those policies that he just spouted out.
BERMAN: I think the reason the president that he's still there, the reason the president didn't fire him is because his lawyers won't let him fire him. Because he thinks that will be a real problem.
The reason that Jeff Sessions stays and doesn't quit after being repeatedly humiliated is because he wants to do those things. AVLON: And if he resigns, Trump gets to reappoint. If he's fired,
then all of a sudden, you have the prospect of Rosenstein becoming attorney general and the Senate not confirming the replacement. So there's a bit of double jeopardy.
But the point that Bannon is making is, look, Sessions hasn't only been personally loyal to the president during the campaign. He's actually been an incredibly effective implementer of his policies on immigration. Very conservative policies.
GREGORY: But he's also saying -- he's also saying that it was easy to anticipate that he'd have to recuse himself.
GREGORY: And that the others who were in line for that job would have had to do the same. And remember, we should underline, Comey still isn't fired at this point.
GREGORY: Which by the way, Steve Bannon said was a horrible idea.
BERMAN: That's the point that I find fascinating here. Steve Bannon is a pretty interesting witness, perhaps, for the special counsel investigation. Because it's clear that he was uncomfortable at many points during those months that he was actually part of the administration.
GREGORY: I actually -- I actually think this. I don't know that it deserves a ton of credit for this amount of restraint.
I actually think, you know, the president will not fire Sessions or Rosenstein. I mean, I think he -- he fired Comey, because he thought he had a basis to do it, which Rosenstein provided in the -- in the memo. But he thought that there was a kind of, you know, cause (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to do that because of the Hillary Clinton investigation. But you know, he may -- he may chirp from the sidelines here, but he knows that that would be a horrible thing to do.
AVLON: Well, I mean, he's reaped (ph) the whirlwind by firing Comey, which to your point, Bannon warned him against. And that is sort of the original sin in much of this.
I'm not sure I buy that Christie or Rudy would have had the same recusal pattern, and the time line isn't exactly on. But I will say Bannon and Zakaria, that is a buddy comedy I would watch all day long.
BERMAN: No, I mean, look, they have a full hour. It airs tonight. I have to believe this is a fascinating conversation. There are other things there. Steve Bannon does say the president should fire Rod Rosenstein, like now, today.
CAMEROTA: It gets curiouser and curiouser. That logic. I mean, that is also complicated, with a cascading effect, as you point out. AVLON: Well, look, I mean, clearly, that has been the overriding
private impulse of the president.
AVLON: Because that is, you know, in some ways, a cleaner way of making things go away than Sessions.
GREGORY: But why does he -- I don't think he wants to do that at this point. What he's doing is trashing the investigation.
GREGORY: So it's kind of garbage in, garbage out. He can use this; he can play himself as the victim, use this as a tool on the campaign trail. I think now he's kind of welcoming, you know, the rest of what's going to come.
AVLON: I wouldn't say welcoming.
GREGORY: Not welcoming it, but he wants to use it as --
AVLON: He doesn't want to go full Nixon.
AVLON: He just wants to play the victim, which is, by the way, a really absurd thing for a president of the United States.
BERMAN: All right. Meatloaf, Gary Busey.
[06:25:03] BERMAN: Thank you -- thank you very much for being with us this morning. I appreciate it. John Avlon, David Gregory, great to have you here.
And be sure to watch Fareed Zakaria's full interview with Steve Bannon tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern. It is fascinating, and it is only here on CNN.
CAMEROTA: OK. The Trump administration meanwhile imposing steep, steep tariffs on metals imported from America's allies, Canada, Mexico, and the European union. They now vow to retaliate. Is a trade war brewing?
CAMEROTA: OK. It's time for "CNN Money" now. President Trump hitting key U.S. allies with tariffs, and they're hitting back, sparking concerns of a global trade war.
Chief business correspondent Christine Romans is in our money center with more. What are you seeing?
CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Tariff game on. After months of uncertainty, the U.S. slaps steel and aluminum tariffs on the Eu, Mexico, Canada. The three had temporary exemptions, but the White House let those waivers expire after it didn't get what it wanted from these negotiations.
The president calls this fair trade. The goal: to help U.S. steel workers.