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Trump's Controversial Pardons Under Scrutiny. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired June 1, 2018 - 07:00   ET




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Looks like the president is using his pardon power to send a message to the Mueller investigation.

[07:00:34] UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The president is clearly within his constitutional power.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: The president saying, "I treat my friends a lot better than I treat my enemies."

JEFF TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: He wants Sessions to help him limit the Russia investigation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president doesn't understand that he can't just exert his will on law enforcement officials.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This step to interview Comey does mean they are taking it seriously.

SAMANTHA BEE, COMEDIAN: Ivanka Trump. Put on something tight and low-cut and tell your father to (EXPLETIVE DELETED) stop it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You are applauding Roseanne being fired while you are excusing Samantha Bee.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think that's hypocritical.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It isn't Roseanne Barr. The problem is Donald Trump.


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Alisyn Camerota and John Berman.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Happy Friday, everyone. You've made it through a week.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Absolutely. It's happy Friday. I'm not even a former contestant on "Celebrity Apprentice." So you know --

CAMEROTA: Then you --

BERMAN: Imagine how happy I would be this morning if I had be. CAMEROTA: Then you stand no chance of being pardoned.


CAMEROTA: We're going to get into all that. Good morning, everyone. Welcome to your NEW DAY.

President Trump is using the power of the pardon and courting controversy in the process. The president erasing the conviction of conservative commentator Dinesh D'Souza. D'Souza spoke out just moments ago. He talked about a phone conversation that he had with the president which may shed new light into the president's motivations.


DINESH D'SOUZA, CONSERVATIVE COMMENTATOR: He said, "Dinesh, you have been a great voice for freedom." And he said, "I've got to tell you man to man, you've been screwed." He goes, "I've been looking at the case. I knew from the beginning that it was fishy." But he said upon reviewing it he felt a great injustice had been done. And using his power, he was going to rectify it, sort of clear the slate. And he said he just wanted me to be up there to be a bigger voice than ever, defending the principles that I believe in.


BERMAN: A bigger voice than ever. Is that a quo in a quid pro quo? "I'm going to pardon you. You just go out there and continue to say nice things about, say, me."

CAMEROTA: Sounds like it.

BERMAN: Sounds like a quo.

CAMEROTA: And the things that he's been saying, we'll read some of them to you coming up. But like going after Parkland students, the victims of the school shooting.

So that's one of the things.

BERMAN: Go out there and keep saying what you're saying, the president told Dinesh D'Souza.

The president also signaling two former "Celebrity Apprentice" stars, Martha Stewart and Rod Blagojevich, they could be next. Does this raise -- it does raise, frankly, big questions about how the president has chosen to use his pardon power.

But your question about why. Is this about settling old scores or signaling something to those caught up in Russia investigation? Roger Stone, the president's political adviser, says, "Yes, this is a clear signal."

Let's begin our coverage with CNN's Kaitlan Collins live this morning at the White House -- Kaitlan. KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, you're

asking the question there, why is the president pardoning people like Dinesh D'Souza, who said there, said that the president told him he was a great voice for freedom?

I should note that D'Souza has a very controversial past, where he's made inflammatory remarks about not only President Barack Obama, but also Adolf Hitler and Rosa Parks.

But back to why the president is pardoning these people. There is an underlying theme between everyone the president has pardoned or has considered pardoning. And that is that he believes they were treated unfairly by the United States justice system.

For D'Souza, he said he was treated unfairly. For Blagojevich, he said he was treated unfairly. Martha Stewart, treated unfairly. Joe Arpaio, treated unfairly. Scooter Libby, also, the president believed, treated unfairly.

Now John and Alisyn, there are two other people the president has also said have been treated unfairly. And that is Michael Cohen and Michael Flynn.


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, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I liked 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.

[07:05:10] 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.

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, I should note that the president had never actually met Dinesh D'Souza, so until -- or spoken to him until this week. So it raises the question of what the president would do for people he has met and does know very well.

Now all of that is going on also while there is big news here at the White House today. The president is expecting a delivery from Kim Jong-un's right-hand man, the former top North Korean spy chief. A letter that could potentially raise that -- put that summit in Singapore back in.

You can see Kim Yong Chol there, leaving his hotel there in New York. We are expecting that he is going to be on his way here to Washington very soon.

BERMAN: We'll watch that very closely. Kaitlan Collins at the White House, thanks so much. Back with us, CNN political analysts John Avlon and David Gregory.

You know, Kaitlan Collins raised the question, is this some kind of signal? Are these pardons some kind of signal to people in the Russia investigation?

CAMEROTA: Or is it a neon sign?

BERMAN: They're a big neon sign. And we know that, because one of the president's big political advisors over the last several decades, Roger Stone, says, "Yes, it's a signal and we're getting it."

Let me read you what Roger Stone told "The Washington Post" overnight. "It has to be a signal to Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort, even Robert Mueller. Indict people for crimes that don't pertain to Russian collusion and this is what could happen. The special counsel has awesome powers, as you know, but the president has even more awesome powers."

That's Roger Stone, who by the way, could end up being a focus of this Russia investigation, saying, "I got the signal loud and clear."

AVLON: He's going to be called to testify in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee. And he's just saying -- he's laying it all out there. I mean, this is not worth debating. It's being read that way by people who could very well be caught up in this investigation. So it's not subtle. And to Mark Warner's point, it's a dangerous precedent.

You know, presidents have pardoning power. We've seen bad pardons before, favors to donors and things that are shady, pursuing political agendas. This is something different. This is about -- part of being president is a get-out-of-jail free for your friends.

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And also to undermine the Justice Department. I mean, here, the president is in the crosshairs for potential obstruction of justice, maybe other crimes. And he is essentially saying, "Look, this is the Justice Department running amok. It was selective prosecution." He's choosing these cases really impulsively, based on what he's read that fit a pattern that could be helpful to him or that he's getting petitioned on the outside by people, as was the case with Scooter Libby.

So I think a big piece of this, sending a signal to those, certainly, who might be in the crosshairs. But really, as I said earlier this morning, just trolling the Justice Department, saying you know, the FBI, the Justice Department can't be trusted.

CAMEROTA: So I mean, since this is a -- not a coded signal, it is a billboard.

BERMAN: Single entendre.

CAMEROTA: Exactly. What does this mean for Paul Manafort, for Michael Cohen? If they're reading this signal loud and clear, it means I don't talk. I stop cooperating? I'm going to get a pardon? AVLON: It may mean that you don't flip, because you feel the

president's got your back as long as he thinks you've been loyal. That's one argument.

[07:10:05] But also, look at the fact pattern of the crimes these people have committed and, in some cases, pled guilty to that he's now basically pardoned. You've got obstruction of justice, perjury, lying to federal investigators, campaign finance violations, corruption, extortion, fraud. These are all things that are in the broad argument around the investigations of team Trump.

So he's set sending a very clear signal not only with who he picked but what he is pardoning them for.

GREGORY: But there's also a different political argument. He's making the case here he wants us to focus on these individual cases, and certainly, his supporters will look at these cases where they may not be familiar with to say, "Oh, yes, this is what it looks like if you get selectively prosecuted. This is what it looks like --"

AVLON: That's right.

GREGORY: "-- it's a political hit." There is, of course, discretion in -- by prosecutors. So this is as much a political argument to say what you're going to get out of special counsel is more of this.

BERMAN: I've got to say I'm also fascinated by what we just heard Dinesh D'Souza say about all this, describing his phone conversation. Let's listen one more time here, because I think there's a lot in here.


D'SOUZA: The president said, "Dinesh, you've been a great voice for freedom." And he said that "I've got to tell you, man to man, you've been screwed." He goes, "I've been looking at the case. I knew from the beginning that it was fishy." But he said upon reviewing it, he felt a great injustice had been done. And using his power, he was going to rectify it, sort of clear the slate. And he said he just wanted me to be out there to be a bigger voice than ever, defending the principles that I believe in.


BERMAN: First of all, I don't believe FOX ever asked him if he broke the law, which he did, and admitted to and pleaded guilty to. That aside, John Avlon, in there, when D'Souza is saying, "The president told me, 'I'm going to pardon you. Now go out and keep on saying the things you've been saying. You know, go out and maybe say nice things about me, for instance.'"

AVLON: "Oh, and attack my enemies." This is a kiss the ring moment. This is "I'm giving you a pardon. Now you go forward, and you promote my stories, my agenda and attack my enemies." Because Dinesh D'Souza is somebody who began life maybe as a self-styled conservative intellectual and has basically been a Twitter troll. And now he's going to be a Twitter troll for Trump. With personal fealty.

CAMEROTA: It gets worse. I just -- I just have to say it's not just him defending the president.


CAMEROTA: Dinesh D'Souza's messages, let's just let everybody know, if this is what the president wants more of. He sent out the tweet about the Parkland students in the middle of their grief, after the school shooting: "Worst news since their parents told them to get summer jobs." Just sickening.

BERMAN: And the president says, "Go out and say more of that."

CAMEROTA: Spread more of your message. He also, for whatever reason, likes to defend Hitler. "Hitler was not anti-gay. He refused to purge gay brownshirts from Nazi ranks, saying he had no problem, as long as they were good fighters." I don't know about Hitler, but we do know that Dinesh D'Souza is anti-gay, since he, started his Dartmouth career by outing gay students. So I'm not sure which of the messages that the president is excited about him spreading.

GREGORY: You know, it's -- those kinds of things are just unconscionable and I just don't think are worth a lot of discussion, because it's so wrong, especially when he's talking about Hitler. He just clearly doesn't know history. So it's not worth spending time on that.

But I think what this highlights, too, is this is a president asserting executive power through caricature. You know, and other presidents have -- certainly, Obama used executive power in a way that drove conservatives crazy. Here this president is using it in a kind of caricature fashion of what his power is: to use to pardon people and to send a message to kind of unleash somebody like Dinesh D'Souza out, you know, into the public sphere. A lot of people support that.

AVLON: But it does matter, because now that kind of Twitter talk has a presidential benediction. Right? That's -- that's not subtle. That's important.

And also -- and also just the tide of situational ethics we see. If a Democratic president was using pardons like this, let alone launching trade wars sort of willy-nilly and impetuously, on and on and on again, the conservagentsia would be screaming from the rooftops. Instead, there's either silence or full-throated approval, because he's on their team.

BERMAN: I think we have one more piece of sound from Dinesh D'Souza, talking about, I think, how his prosecution was political. Let's listen.


D'SOUZA: No American in our country's history has ever been indicted, let alone prosecuted, let alone locked up, for doing what I did. There's just not a single case. And so what happened here is that Obama and his -- and is team -- Eric Holder, Preet Bharara in New York -- these guys decided to make an example of me. And I think that the reason for this was Obama's anger over my movie that I made about him.


BERMAN: A judge in this case, a federal judge, says there's absolutely no basis to the claim that the prosecution was political. I don't even know if the president knew about it. Preet Bharara was the U.S. attorney who prosecuted that and, you know, the judge gave the conviction.

[07:15:07] GREGORY: But you know, this is really the point, which is we -- we don't have to comment on the merit of the case. We know what the result was.

Dinesh D'Souza is certainly right. I mean, there are certainly times when the government makes an example of someone, that you choose to prosecute certain people to make cases for lots of different reasons. It doesn't mean that it was corrupt in the way that he is suggesting.

But bigger than that is to make the argument that he's making. He might as well be making the argument about the special counsel. That is what the president wants.

BERMAN: He is making the argument about the special counsel. That's exactly what he's doing. That's exactly the message.

CAMEROTA: The reason that we also know this is because Patti Blagojevich, Rod's wife, was on FOX last night. And she went after Mueller and James Comey. So that is the -- if you pardon Rod Blagojevich, he's happy to go on television and make that point.

AVLON: In the Amen corner. And also the message in particular with Blagojevich is something you're starting to hear from the Trump team and legal defense team. You're going to hear more, which is this is about the criminalization of politics.

GREGORY: Yes. Exactly, exactly.

CAMEROTA: OK. Thank you.

The White House pushing a clear message the Mueller investigation should not be trusted. Is that working and with whom? Well, we have former Clinton White House press secretary Joe Lockhart. He's going to join us with his thoughts on all of these pardons and about the controversial Clinton pardons. Is there a difference?

BERMAN: And the next season of "Celebrity Apprentice."

CAMEROTA: There you go.


[07:20:23] CAMEROTA: President Trump is raising eyebrows with a pardon for controversial conservative Dinesh D'Souza. D'Souza pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance law in 2014. Critics say this is a political pardon, a message that the president is sending to witnesses in the special counsel's Russia probe.

Joining us now is CNN political commentator Joe Lockhart. He was the White House press secretary for part of President Clinton's second term.

Joe, great to have you here.


CAMEROTA: You know the thought process behind pardons. So here are the pardons thus far of President Trump's term. Joe Arpaio, a controversial Arizona sheriff. He was convicted of contempt of court. Christian Saucier, mishandling classified information. Scooter Libby, of course, obstruction of justice, false statements, perjury. Jack Johnson, the violation of the White Slave Traffic Act, posthumously. Dinesh D'Souza, illegal campaign contribution. Is there a theme here that you see?

LOCKHART: Yes. The one I'm not sure about is Jack Johnson, but the rest of them there is a theme.

Traditionally, residents do controversial pardons near the end of their -- their term. You saw Obama do that with Chelsea Manning. You saw Clinton do that with Marc Rich. There was a lot of controversy over that.

Trump is using it differently. He understands that, in order to survive the special counsel probe, he has to keep his base together. So he's -- he's doing that to feed his base. But probably more importantly, to send a message to anyone who might hurt him that he will take care of them.

CAMEROTA: You see this as a direct message to the likes of, say, Michael Cohen?

LOCKHART: Absolutely.

CAMEROTA: And that message is what?

LOCKHART: That message is "I'll stick with you. I'll be loyal to you if you're loyal to me. And here right here, is you can get out of jail free. Because the president -- I as president will use my executive powers to take care of you."

CAMEROTA: Meaning don't cooperate?

LOCKHART: Don't cooperate. Don't tell them what you know, and you'll be OK.

CAMEROTA: Dinesh D'Souza was just on FOX this morning, and he explained that he got a phone call from President Trump, and the president explained why he pardoned him. So here's that moment.


D'SOUZA: The president said, "Dinesh, you've been a great voice for freedom." And he said that "I've got to tell you, man to man, you've been screwed." He goes, "I've been looking at the case. I knew from the beginning that it was fishy." But he said upon reviewing it, he felt a great injustice had been done. And using his power, he was going to rectify it, sort of clear the slate. And he said he just wanted me to be out there to be a bigger voice than ever, defending the principles that I believe in.


CAMEROTA: What do you think of that?

LOCKHART: Well, at least they're honest and candid about it. Yes. He wants him out there, speaking, promoting these conspiracy theories. Remember, they agreed on birtherism. Neither one of them has ever come clean on that. He wants this voice out there to continue to whip up this contempt for law enforcement, for Mueller. And you know, in a sense it's working. Because I think the base is happy. They -- they think that Trump's doing a great job.

CAMEROTA: Yes, I mean, but I guess. I mean, it's beyond the base in terms of pardoning all of these people. Like, for instance, he's also considering, he says, Martha Stewart and Rod Blagojevich.


CAMEROTA: What's that about?

LOCKHART: Well, you know, I think it's fascinating, these pardons. Because it gives you some insight into his mind.

The first thing is a personal thing, which is Trump clearly believes that, if you're a celebrity not only can you get away with what you want with women, but the laws don't apply to you.

And the great irony is his base are the people that he really shuns. He thinks that, "Yes, they have to follow the law, but the law -- these laws like campaign finance law and this and that, that they don't apply to people like me." And that's clear.

Secondly, the pardons, as we were talking about, go to this idea that he will use his power to send a message TO these people that "Don't cooperate, don't cooperate."

CAMEROTA: There were controversial pardons, of course, under every president.


CAMEROTA: President Clinton, in particular, took a lot of heat for some of these. So let's just remind people.


CAMEROTA: Roger Clinton, his half-brother, drug trafficking, cocaine possession. Suzanne McDougall, a friend, former Clinton business partner, contempt of court for her Whitewater silence. Henry Cisneros, the HUD secretary. He had lied to the FBI. Marc Rich.


CAMEROTA: That was one of the most controversial. ex-husband of a Clinton donor, big huge donor, indicted for racketeering, mail and wire fraud.

So what is the behind -- let's peel back the curtain. How are these decisions made in the White House when you're going to make a controversial pardon?

LOCKHART: Well, there is a process, a process that's not followed that involves the Justice Department and the White House counsel.

[07:25:04] CAMEROTA: You mean it's not being followed now?

LOCKHART: It's not being followed now.

CAMEROTA: How can you tell it's not being followed?

LOCKHART: Because even the Department of Justice is saying it's not being followed. So that's how you can tell.

The difference between the ones with Clinton -- and you can defend or criticize however you want -- was these were not done in the middle of an investigation. These were done when the investigation was over. So he made a series of -- these were not done to benefit him, to get him -- to get him a get-out-of-jail card free.

CAMEROTA: Right. But you could argue, like, for instance, that Marc Rich had benefited him in the past. And this was the reward for the fundraiser.

LOCKHART: Sure. But it was done on the last day of his presidency. So the -- it is a very different argument from the argument that I think many people are properly making, that Trump is now trying to influence the investigation. He is, in a way, obstructing justice by issuing these pardons.

Because if you're Michael Cohen or you're Paul Manafort, what message should you take from this? Which is I'm just not going to tell anybody anything, and I'll get taken care of.

CAMEROTA: So you see these pardons as an obstruction of justice. Do you think that the investigators see it that way?

LOCKHART: I think the investigators do a good job of keeping what they know to themselves, and they'll tell us when they're ready.

CAMEROTA: Joe Lockhart, great to get your insight into all this. Thank you very much --

LOCKHART: Thank you.

CAMEROTA: -- for being with us.


BERMAN: All right. Thanks, Alisyn.

Former Republican House speaker, John Boehner, says the Republican Party is taking a nap. Is it time for a wakeup call? We will talk to a couple Republicans next.