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Trump Commutes Woman's Sentence After Kim Kardashian Visit as He Considers More Pardons; Top Republicans Refute Trump's Unproven "Spy" Claim; McCabe Seeks Immunity Deal Ahead of Congressional Testimony on Clinton E-mail Probe; Primaries Set Stage for Midterm Elections. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired June 6, 2018 - 13:30   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:31:58] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Amid news that President Trump was on the verge of issuing dozens of new pardons, we now know he has offered a lifeline to a woman named Alice Marie Johnson. She was convicted on a federal drug offense. Last week, Kim Kardashian-West was at the White House -- there you see a picture with the president -- to plead Johnson's case.

Let's go to our White House reporter, Jeremy Diamond.

Jeremy, the -- also on the phone by the way, we're going to get he is reaction, is our political commentator Van Jones.

But, Jeremy, tell us about this decision by the president.

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: That's right, Wolf. Today, the president decided and signed the paperwork to commute Alice Johnson, a 63-year-old woman, life sentence in prison. She was sentenced to life in prison more than 20 years ago for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense. She was convicted on charges of attempted possession of cocaine and conspiracy to possess cocaine.

This has been a week in the works, with Kim Kardashian-West traveling to Washington, meeting with President Trump in the Oval Office last week to plead Alice Johnson's case. It appears she did so successfully, working in tandem with Jared Kushner, the president's senior advisor, who has also been working on prison reform efforts. Kim Kardashian thanked the president and Jared Kushner in a tweet earlier today. She also released a statement. And she's made clear she's going to continue working on these types of issues.

We know that the president has been increasingly turning to his power to pardon, his power to offer these acts of clemency. CNN learned that the president is considering and has the paperwork for as many as 30 other potential pardons or commutations. So this is an issue that the president is increasingly looking towards. I've also been told that a handful of applicants for pardons, their cases are being reviewed by the White House counsel's office.

The handful of people that I've heard about would be similar to Alice Johnson, similar people who are nonviolent offenders, not necessarily people linked to politics or celebrity as the president has done previously. We have seen the president pardon a number of political allies, such as Sheriff Joe Arpaio, for example, and several others as well -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Let's get the reaction from Van.

Van, you know Alice Marie Jones, and you've been an advocate for her. What do you think about this decision by the president?

VAN JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMENTATOR AND CNN HOST (via telephone): I think it's an extraordinary victory for people concerned about people going to prison with crazy long sentences with no hope of getting out. This was a particular case where a number of things lined up. First of all, you have Ms. Alice, an extraordinary person. She is a grandmother, she made horrible mistake, but she didn't kill anybody.

She literally had no opportunity for parole ever. She was going to die in prison for a nonviolent drug offense, first time. You also had Britney Barnes, who is a young black attorney, a young female African- American, quit her corporate law job to go full-time trying to get in woman out and other people like her out of prison. You had a viral video that got on Facebook and went nuts showing this woman behind bars, this grandmother. And then Kim Kardashian stepped in.

[13:35:18] But the final piece was Jared Kushner. Listen, I'm on the left. I'm a strong Democrat. I disagree with Jared Kushner on 99 things. But on one thing, prison reform, Jared Kushner has been a shockingly effective advocate inside the White House. He went toe to toe with Kelly and others inside that building and said, this is an injustice and it has to be stopped. And Trump acted. And listen, I think Trump is wrong 99 percent of the time. But on some of these issues around prison reform and criminal justice, I think you're starting to see some bipartisan agreement that, even in the age of Trump, something needs to be done.

But Kim Kardashian-West needs to be given credit. She was beat up in the press, she was vilified, and they made fun of her, but she had a huge victory in the age of Trump. And she needs to be acknowledged.

BLITZER: Van Jones supporting this decision by the president and Jared Kushner.

What you're hearing, Van, to be precise, that John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, he opposed this decision?

JONES: Well, my understanding is that this was strong opposition inside the building from all quarters, and that Jared Kushner was willing to stand his ground to get this thing done and to get it pushed all the way through. And we have seen reporting out there that Kelly was not a fan of this, didn't like this. And I think that, again, Jared Kushner's father went to prison, and he has been an advocate. This prison reform bill has made it through the House with 360 votes to 56, a big bipartisan prison reform bill. Kushner was pushing that as well at the legislative level.

I think we have to acknowledge Jared Kushner. On 99 issues, I think liberals and progressives would disagree with him. But on prison reform, he's been an effective advocate. And we need to keep pushing. More people need to go home. This is particular case was particularly outrageous. But there are other outrageous cases that if Americans knew that people were going to die in prison for first-time nonviolent drug offenses, I think most Americans would do what the president did.

BLITZER: We're hearing there will be more pardons down the road in the not too distant future.

Van Jones, thank you very much.

Jeremy Diamond, thanks to you.

Still ahead, two high-profile Republicans now openly, publicly breaking with the president and defending the FBI. You'll hear what they're saying and why. That's next.

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[13:41:52] BLITZER: Very significant development happening right now. Top Republicans, including the Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, and the House Speaker Paul Ryan, are now openly, publicly siding with Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy over President Trump, today, saying they have seen no evidence to support the president's claim that the FBI placed a spy inside the Trump campaign.

First, listen to the speaker, Paul Ryan.

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REP. PAUL RYAN, (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I think Chairman Gowdy's initial assessment is accurate. I think -- but we have some more digging to do. We're waiting for some more document requests. We have some more documents to review. We still have some unanswered questions. It would have been helpful if we got this information earlier. As Chairman Nunes said just the other day, if we got all the information we're looking for, we could wrap this up faster. But I see no evidence to contrary of the initial assessment that Chairman Gowdy has made.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The president has been repeating this unproven claim now for weeks, even as recently as last night.

Let's go straight to our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju, joining us from Capitol Hill.

Manu, it was your question that elicited the response from the speaker. How significant is that? And maybe even more significant, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, also a Republican, once again siding with Trey Gowdy.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's very significant, those two developments. Burr has refused to talk about what he heard in these private classified briefings last month about this confidential FBI source. But after Paul Ryan did say that to me earlier today, that he doesn't see -- he agrees with what Trey Gowdy said, the FBI did what it was supposed to, Richard Burr said the same thing, he also agrees with Trey Gowdy, that the FBI did exactly what it was supposed to do. So now there are five Republicans who were in that classified briefing. Four of them have poured cold water on the notion that there was any major conspiracy, a Spygate, a big political scandal as President Trump suggested.

One Republican, who has been pushing thing is Devin Nunes, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, who has suggested that the media is not reporting this correctly. He's demanding more documents. I tried to get him to comment about this today and he declined to comment, Wolf.

But Paul Ryan also earlier today pushed back on the notion that the president could pardon himself, saying it's a bad idea if he were to go that route.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Mr. Speaker, do you believe the president has the power to pardon himself?

RYAN: I don't know the technical answer to that, but I think obviously the answer to that question is he shouldn't, and no one is above the law. I'll leave it at that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: Now that echoes what Mitch McConnel said, the Senate majority leader has said, as well as other Republicans. You're hearing some pushback on the president on the president's contention on a couple of key issues. The question is whether the president listens to them, particularly on this Spygate issue, that he calls Spygate. Will he drop this, given that he appears to not have any evidence to substantiate those claims -- Wolf?

[13:44:58] BLITZER: Manu Raju, doing excellent reporting from Capitol Hill as usual. Manu, thank you very much.

This is very, very significant that those Republicans who were in on that highly classified briefing, almost all of them, now going against the president, siding with Trey Gowdy, saying the FBI did nothing wrong.

Let's stay up on Capitol Hill and get more reaction now, these remarks from Paul Ryan and Senator Richard Burr, among the strongest pushback against the president of the United States right now. It's unclear, though, what if any effect it will have on the president and see if he'll stop pushing this unproven narrative of a spy being placed inside his campaign.

Let's bring in Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu, of California. He serves on the Judiciary and the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Congressman, give us your reaction to these late developments, significant pushback against the president by Republican leaders.

REP. TED LIEU, (D), CALIFORNIA: Thank you, Wolf, for your question. As many Americans now know, the president just makes stuff up. And in this case, there's no evidence that there was a spy put into the Trump campaign. But there's a lot of evidence that what the FBI did is they ran a counterintelligence operation because they were so freaked out by what some Trump campaign associates were doing with their interactions with Russia. The Republicans and Democrats looked at this and said it was appropriate what the FBI did.

BLITZER: Let's get to some other news. The president, as you just heard the breaking news, has commuted the sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, serving a life sentence for nonviolent drug offense. Kim Kardashian-West met with the president in the Oval Office the other day to advocate for her release. What is your reaction?

LIEU: The pardon process is supposed to be based on justice and to vindicate the societal values of forgiveness and mercy. Unfortunately, the president has perverted the pardon process and now it seems he's pardoning people on their celebrity status or because a celebrity talked to him. In this case, it's clear that the only reason Trump pardoned Ms. Johnson is because Kim Kardashian talked to President Trump about this case. That shouldn't be how it works. It shouldn't be based on which celebrities have access to the president or the wealthy or who has connections. It should be based on a process. And I urge the president to go back to the same process all previous presidents have used.

BLITZER: Some presidents in the past have averted that process of going through the Office of Pardons and Clemency over at the Justice Department. But this president clearly has done so in these first initial pardons.

We learned, by the way, that he's assembled already the paperwork at the White House, the legal counsel's office, to pardon dozens of other people. Some of the pardons would be instances where he thinks the Justice Department, the U.S. attorneys -- and you're a former federal prosecutor -- overstepped. Would you support these pardons moving forward?

LIEU: It would depend on what those cases are and the facts of each case. But we know from many of the pardons he's already given, they are based on crimes over which he and his associates are being investigated, such as perjury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements. That troubles me greatly. And I hope the president doesn't send a message that he thinks these crimes are somehow OK.

BLITZER: I want to ask you about the former FBI Director Andrew McCabe, who was fired a few days before he was eligible for his pension. He agreed to testify in an upcoming congressional hearing on the FBI's handling of the Clinton e-mail probe in exchange for immunity. Does this give you any cause for concern? Why would he need immunity if he's done nothing wrong that would warrant criminal charges?

LIEU: There are allegations that Andrew McCabe lied to investigators in connection with how he had information disclosed to the press that actually hurt the Hillary Clinton campaign. So I can see why he's asking for immunity. But it's important for the American people to understand, this is related to Andrew McCabe, who potentially hurt the Hillary Clinton campaign. It has nothing to do with Special Counsel Mueller or any of the investigations ongoing against our current president.

BLITZER: I know you have to go vote, Congressman Ted Lieu. We'll continue this conversation down the road. Thanks so much for joining us.

LIEU: Thank you, Wolf.

[13:49:24] BLITZER: Democrats in the U.S. are determined to retake at least one house of Congress in the upcoming November midterm elections. But did they get enough momentum from Tuesday's crucial primaries? We'll break down the results and a lot more news right after this.

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BLITZER: So Democrats are breathing a sigh of relief today. They appear to have avoided a major primary disaster in California. The outcome of some key race there won't be known for several days or maybe even weeks. Meanwhile, it appears there will be Democratic candidates in every competitive congressional district out in California. They're trying to recapture the House. California has what's been called the jungle primary where the top-two vote getters, regardless of party, Republican or Democrat, they advance to a runoff in November.

There's good news for Republicans as well. They avoided a shutout in the state's governor's race. Trump endorsed businessman, John Cox, coming in second. He'll challenge the Democratic Candidate, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, in November.

To discuss this and more, let's bring in our political analyst, Karoun Demirjian, and our senior political analyst, Ron Brownstein, who lives out in California.

Ron, what stood out to you most?

[13:55:03] RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think it was a good night overall for Democrats from coast to coast. They got all of the candidates they wanted in New Jersey, where they may have almost as many opportunities as in California. They had record turnout in Iowa. And most important, they avoided being excluded from any of the races in California, in the House races where it appeared that was a possibility the top two primary was a unique challenge for Democrats. The primary electorate in California is older and whiter and, thus, more Republican than the general electorate. And then they had the new problem of this flood of candidates that came out. The risk of having too many candidates and too few voters and the Democratic National Campaign Committee that gets a lot of grief when it does or doesn't intervene, they won't all hand on deck to get credit to appear being shut out of any key races. BLITZER: Yes, we'll see what happens in those key races in November.

Karoun, the president tweeted this: "Great night for Republicans. Congratulations to John Cox and a really big number in California. He can win. So much for the big blue wave. It may be a big red wave."

Do you agree?

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think it's a little premature to saying a big red wave or a big blue wave in a lot of these key races. Look, it's interesting in California. We're always talking about really great numbers because the victory was coming in second place, and for John Cox, too. That's means you'll have a national two-party race. And in a lot of these races, you don't always have in California. That's good news for both of the underdogs who came in second where they did. But for the president to be saying, "Oh, nothing to see here," for the Democrats, it's trying to see it through a very specific lens of this one race where they're still in the running. But to predict a red wave in California is not happening.

BLITZER: Let me ask Ron. He knows a lot about California.

What do you think? Red wave, blue wave, if you had to bet right now, what do you think?

BROWNSTEIN: I think it's -- the governor's race is not going to be competitive. Gavin Newsom is going to be the governor by a big margin. It will in the process test a big division among Democrats. Most Democrats thought they would be better off if the second challenger in the race would have been a Democrat, the former mayor of Los Angeles because that would have excluded Republicans, depressed Republican turnout and provided incentive for Latino turnout.

Newsom spent heavily for John Cox. We're going to see the seven Republican-held seats that Clinton carried in 2016. Democrats I think are in a strong position to win some of them. They're not going to win all seven of them but in many ways the primary was what the Democrats had to get through in some of these districts because of the structural advances that Republicans have. I think Republicans have fight on their hands, particularly in these five Los Angeles districts that Republicans hold but Clinton carried in 2016.

BLITZER: Democrats are really hoping they can do something in those Republican districts, now held by Republicans.

Another good night for women out there, not only in California but across the country.

DEMIRJIAN: Right. You saw a lot of women getting the backing of their party to go into these governors' races. I think in South Dakota, it will be the first time if there's a victory there. A congresswoman now, but it's a very heavily Republican state. There's a fairly decent chance there. And a lot other place as well. You've seen more women kind of being nominated to be the -- to be the standard bearers for their party in these states that you've got races that are featuring these women now, too. That is maybe kind of keeping in lock step with the trend that we thought this would be the year of the women. That has meant various things to various different political parties. But certainly you're seeing more of the big-name top-of-the-ticket female names out there.

BLITZER: Very quickly, Ron. Some ballot irregularities. Some folks in the Los Angeles area, their names were not appropriately listed. What happened?

BROWNSTEIN: A mess. They say it was a mess. A hundred thousand people were not listed on their ballot in the polling area. They say they'll respect all the provisional ballots.

One final point. One red flag for Democrats in California shows they still have the challenge of turning out minorities and young people in a midterm election. But overall, if you look from New Jersey to California, they have a lot of opportunity in blue states that voted for Clinton to get very close to the seats they need to retake the House.

BLITZER: Ron Brownstein, Karoun Demirjian, guys, thank you very, very much.

That's it for me. I'll be back 5:00 p.m. Eastern in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

For our international viewer, "AMANPOUR" is coming up next.

For our viewers in North America, "NEWSROOM" with Brooke Baldwin starts right now.