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Trump Commutes Sentence of Alice Johnson; No Asylum for El Salvador Woman; Top EPA Aides Resign. Aired 8:30-9a ET

Aired June 7, 2018 - 08:30   ET


[08:32:34] ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: A great-grandmother gets a second chance of freedom after President Trump commutes her life sentence. Alice Marie Johnson served 21 years for a non-violent first time drug charge, but a serious charge of drug trafficking and money laundering. Her story caught the eye of Kim Kardashian West, who made a personal plea for the release to President Trump last week. Johnson shared an emotional reunion with her family after walking out of an Alabama prison yesterday.

And Alice Johnson and her daughter, Catina Scales, join us now.

Good morning, ladies.



CAMEROTA: You look happy.

Alice, how --

JOHNSON: I'm so happy to be here.

CAMEROTA: I bet you are.

JOHNSON: I am so happy.

CAMEROTA: How has your life changed overnight?

JOHNSON: This time yesterday I was behind bars. Today, I'm walking around seeing all the sites and hugging everybody.

CAMEROTA: Catina, did you ever think it would come to pass where you were sitting next to your mom like that outside of jail?

SCALES: I didn't know when it was going to happen, but I knew God had a plan for my mama. And she was coming home. So I knew it was going to happen one day, but I did not know it was yesterday.

CAMEROTA: Well, that is certainly optimistic.

The president, Alice, has just tweeted about you. I'll read it to you. He says, good luck to Alice Johnson -- JOHNSON: OK.

CAMEROTA: Have a wonderful life!

What's your reaction?

JOHNSON: Wow. Wow. President Trump made me have a wonderful life possible. And I'm just so thankful to him. I'm just amazed to hear -- to hear that I'm actually in one of his tweets. I love it.

CAMEROTA: Have you spoken to him personally?

JOHNSON: No, I have not spoken to him personally.

CAMEROTA: What would you say if he called you?

JOHNSON: Oh, I would tell him, thank you, President Trump, for really seeing me, not just looking at some data about my crime, but actually looking at the person who I have become now and having faith that I deserved a second chance in life. I just say thank you for this mercy.

CAMEROTA: Well, I don't want to overlook that data, just because I do want to put it in perspective for everyone.

[08:35:02] So, the Department of Justice brief on you, Alice, just so that everybody understands what it was that you were convicted of a life sentence for, possession of 12 gram -- kilogram -- kilos of cocaine with intent to deliver, nine kilos of cocaine with intent to distribute, 75 kilograms of cocaine with intent to distribute, as well as money laundering.

So, what were you thinking back then and how do you plan to change your life now?

JOHNSON: Well, I believe I've already changed my life. And I was convicted under a conspiracy theory, which means that you're responsible for what everyone else does in that conspiracy. So that is not what I personally did. But it's -- it's what everyone else did that is attribute to me because it is a conspiracy charge.

And my life is completely changed. And I'm not trying to underplay any role that I made, but my life has completely changed. And I believe that over these almost 22 years I've proven that I'm a changed woman.

CAMEROTA: What is your plan now?

JOHNSON: My plan is to start work. I've already -- I already have a job secured. And my plan is also to work hard on helping to change some of these laws. Something has to happen. And I believe that what is already begun is a good first step with prison reform. So I'm happy to see that moving forward.

CAMEROTA: Catina, how did it come to pass that Kim Kardashian took up your mom's cause?

Here's Kim Kardashian's tweet, one of them. So grateful to Donald Trump, Jared Kushner and to everyone who has showed compassion and contributed countless hours to this important moment for Ms. Alice Marie Johnson. Her communication is inspirational and gives hope to so many others who are also deserving of a second chance.

How did it come to pass that she got connected with your family?

SCALES: Well, my mom did an interview with (INAUDIBLE) with And God made it so that Kim got on her Twitter at that moment and saw that interview. And it was unbelievable because she felt my mother's pain and change in her heart. And to come through and do that for my mom, forever, forever grateful.

And I've said it before, Kim Kardashian is part of the family now.


SCALES: She has an open invitation to come to Memphis and spend time and -- with the whole entire family whenever she feels like it.

CAMEROTA: I think that means you're going to be -- have to be on a reality show. There's going to be cameras around you guys all the time if you -- if you extend that invitation.

JOHNSON: Oh, I'm ready.

CAMEROTA: You're ready.

Alice, why do you think -- why do you think that she felt so passionately about your cause in particular?

JOHNSON: I tell you, it's a miracle. I believe that anyone who truly looks at this cause will know that something has to be done. And when Kim saw this, she didn't just look at it and walk away, Kim acted. Because many people saw it, but she was the only one who did something about it. So I believe that she -- we have a heart connection. I love Kim. And I'll never forget this. I'll say, I'll never forget what she has done for me. I wouldn't be sitting here if she had not taken me to heart.

CAMEROTA: Well, best of luck to you moving forward. You did get a second chance.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

CAMEROTA: And we'll look forward to seeing what you do.

JOHNSON: Thank you. I'm going to make the best of it.

CAMEROTA: God bless. Alice Maria Johnson, Catina Scales, thank you very much for sharing this moment with us.

JOHNSON: Thank you for having us on.

SCALES: Thank you.

JOHNSON: Thank you. CAMEROTA: All right, a quick programing note, Van Jones is going to interview Kim Kardashian West exclusively tonight at 10:00 Eastern only on CNN.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: A woman who endured forced labor after being kidnapped is now seeking asylum in the U.S. Did she get it? We have a live report, next.


[08:42:59] BERMAN: Asylum denied. A woman who says she was kidnapped by guerillas in El Salvador, forced to do their cooking and cleaning, cannot stay in the United States. An immigration court ruled against her.

Our Joe Johns live in Washington with the latest on this.



This is about a Salvadoran woman. We don't' have her name. First entered the United States illegally in 1991, now facing deportation. A lot of this is about the meaning of the term "material support for terrorism." Divided court rulings says she did cooking and cleaning for the El Salvadorian guerillas under threat of death, that she was forced to witness the execution of her husband after he was forced to dig his own grave. A dissenting opinion said the woman was essentially a slave to the guerillas acting under duress, under coercion, not voluntarily. But the court also said she received military type weapons training from the guerrillas in their violent opposition to the Salvadorian government, along with the cooking and cleaning, which qualifies as material support for a terrorist organization. A huge disqualifier if you're trying to get immigration relief to live in the U.S.

The court ruled that the law does not have an exception allowing special treatment because of duress and that immigrants can be banned, even if the material support was minimal. The concern now is what happens to the woman, especially if she returns to El Salvador. The case has been sent back to a lower court with guidance, but there seems to be a question whether the woman might be tortured if she returns to her home country.

Ultimately, the decision could rest in the hands of either the attorney general or an appeals court.

John, back to you.

CAMEROTA: I'll take it, Joe. Very -- it will be interesting to see how this plays out. Thank you very much for that report.

So, two top aides to embattled EPA Chief Scott Pruitt just quit as he faces even more ethics questions. How can this keep happening? We talk to a former head of the EPA, next.


[08:48:43] BERMAN: Two top aides to embattled EPA Chief Scott Pruitt have resigned. That's the latest development in the growing list of controversies surrounding Mr. Pruitt. The two aides were set to receive Pruitt approved big pay raises, even though the White House refused to sign off on them. And despite these headlines, President Trump praised Pruitt just yesterday.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Administrator Scott Pruitt. Thank you, Scott, very much. EPA is doing really, really well. And, you know, somebody has to say that about you a little bit. You know that, Scott. But you have -- you have done -- I'll tell you, the EPA is doing so well. So many approvals.


BERMAN: Joining us now is Christine Todd Whitman. She was the EPA administrator under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2003, governor of New Jersey and a critic, frankly, of Scott Pruitt.

Governor, thanks so much for being with us.

These two aides resigned. One of them admitted to doing personal tasks for Administrator Pruitt, including apartment hunting and inquiring about obtaining a used Trump Hotel mattress, yet the president continues to heap praise on Administrator Pruitt. Why?

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN, FORMER EPA ADMINISTRATOR: I have no idea. I cannot imagine why this is continuing because the agenda that the president has set out, I may disagree with it entirely as far as EPA and science and protecting human health is concerned, but that's his agenda, and that's going to be carried out by whoever is the administrator.

[08:50:04] But Scott Pruitt is an embarrassment. He's an embarrassment not just to the agency -- I get it, they don't care about that, they want it gone -- but he's an embarrassment to the administration. The ethical tone deafness is just extraordinary. And I don't -- can't imagine what's keeping him there.

Certainly he's terrible for morale. Again, I understand they don't really care about that. But I just -- I don't get it. I mean the president should want him gone.

BERMAN: Well, the answer to your question, why is he keeping him there, may be in part of what you just gave as an answer, which is that you understand what the president's agenda is, you disagree with it, but the administrator is carrying out that agenda?

WHITMAN: But anybody he appoints will do that. It doesn't matter. As an appointee of the president, you are not the policy maker. You serve at the pleasure of. And while you give your best advice and you can disagree and say I think there's a better way to do it or we really shouldn't be going in this direction, once the principal has signaled, this is what we want to do, you salute and you get on with it or you leave.

But I don't -- I didn't -- this extraordinary extra attention of ethical lapses, which spills over to the entire cabinet because then people start looking around. And we've seen other secretaries who have had to resign because of using -- spending too much of taxpayer's money on personal things. It's bad for everybody. So I don't understand what the personal relationship is between the president and Scott Pruitt that is keeping him there, maybe because he wants a mattress from the Trump Hotel and that kind of his service (INAUDIBLE) there.

BERMAN: It is interesting. You know, the administrator, Pruitt, doesn't seem to be behaving like he thinks he's in any trouble or he's got anything to risk. There's this story about Chick-Fil-A, where he asked one of his aides to contact Chick-Fil-A because his wife was interested in opening up a Chick-Fil-A franchise. Again, he asked someone who is paid by the taxpayer to call Chick-Fil-A to set up a business opportunity for his wife. And I want you to listen to what Administrator Pruitt had to say about it.


SCOTT PRUITT, EPA ADMINISTRATOR: Chick-Fil-A is a franchise of faith and it's one of the best in the country. And so that's something we were very excited about. So -- and we need more of them in Tulsa. We need more of them across the country. So, anyway, it's an exciting time.


BERMAN: That doesn't sound like a person ridden with guilt.

WHITMAN: No. I mean that's -- again, it's -- that totally overlooks the question of, you're not supposed to be making money personally from your service as a public servant when you're being paid by the taxpayers. And the emolument clause is just out the window. I mean that wasn't an answer to the question he was asked. And the question he was asked was about that, is it right to use public funds and a person who is working for you, being paid for by the public dollars, to set up a private enterprise or a meeting so you can try to set up a private enterprise from your wife -- for your wife who would presumably make money from it. That's what's wrong with it.

I mean Chick-Fil-A may be a great company and they may need more of them in Tulsa. And God bless them, have more of them in Tulsa. But that's not the issue. The issue is about using your staff, paid for by all of us as taxpayers, to enhance your livelihood and your life's -- wife's livelihood.

BERMAN: So Administrator Pruitt doesn't sound like he's going to quit, not based on that statement. It doesn't sound like the president is going to fire him, at least not based on the statements that we just heard the president make.

So, who is this on right now? Republicans? They control Congress. They have committees with oversight on this. What would you say to the committee chairs in Congress right now?

WHITMAN: Well, they've got to start asking even more questions and harder questions and the Republicans can't leave it to the Democrats to ask the questions, because they should be embarrassed too.

This isn't great. I mean, yes, President Trump's base, and the very hard core base for the Republicans, love everything that's going on, could care less about all of this because they haven't really realized what it costs them and what it means when you have people that go so outside the law and what that implies for our whole system of government. So that's one thing.

But it doesn't play with the rest of the country. The rest of the country is saying, hey, there are rules for me and I can't -- I can't ignore those rules and laws. How come these people are getting away with it? So I think it's tarnishing everybody's reputation on the Republican side and they've got to be the ones to lead some of these hearings and lead some of these really tough questions and not let them back away from it.

They can't fire him. He serves at the pleasure of the president.

BERMAN: Governor Christine Todd Whitman, thanks so much for being with us. Appreciate it.

WHITMAN: My pleasure.

BERMAN: "The Good Stuff" is next.


[08:58:07] CAMEROTA: OK, it is time now for "The Good Stuff."

People breaking a serious sweat for a very good cause. At least 1,000 people turned out in New York Sunday for the annual Tunnel to Towers event. This was at One World Trade Center. And, look at this, participants climbed more than 2,000 steps to the 104th floor. There's this veteran amputee, he raced towards the finish line to a round of cheers, as you can hear. The event honors fallen firefighters Billy Burke and Stephen Siller, who ran through the Battery Tunnel with his gear to the burning towers on 9/11.

This year's event raised money to build a smart home for a service member injured on the battlefield. And, look at this, the climb took a romantic turn for one couple.





CAMEROTA: Oh, my gosh, that is beautiful.

BERMAN: Oh, it's a great organization.

CAMEROTA: Oh, look at that.

BERMAN: I actually did that last year.

CAMEROTA: I heard.

BERMAN: I did that.

CAMEROTA: You ran that race last year.

BERMAN: I -- I -- it wasn't -- it's not a race. You sort of climb up to the top.

CAMEROTA: There you are. That's an action shot. Wait a minute, You're not doing anything.

BERMAN: That is -- that's before. That's before. And I think they have me coming out. At that --

CAMEROTA: OK, wait a second --

BERMAN: Last year they didn't have cameras in the stairwell to see --

CAMEROTA: Do you just idly stroll down a hallway or do you --

BERMAN: That was the end. I had just climbed a lot of stairs.

CAMEROTA: Prove it. Prove it.

BERMAN: I look -- I look tired there.

CAMEROTA: No, you're just standing around.

BERMAN: This is -- I think this is before and then the other one was after.

CAMEROTA: All right. Are there any pictures of you climbing the stairs?

BERMAN: Just take my word for it.

CAMEROTA: I'm going to have to.

BERMAN: You're just going to have to take my word for it.

CAMEROTA: I'm going to have to. Well, good for you. It's a great (INAUDIBLE).

BERMAN: Thank you. It's a wonderful cause.

CAMEROTA: OK. We -- I want to bring in our new interns. We have here Chessa (ph), Macey (ph) and Olla (ph). OK, just kidding, these are my daughters and their good friend. Say hi to that -- to this camera right here, guys. You can wave.


CAMEROTA: They just got out of school. What are you guys looking forward to now?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Summer, no homework, relaxation.


CAMEROTA: That's exciting. Any message that you want to share with, I don't know, dad or somebody.



[09:00:02] CAMEROTA: They're actually triplets.

BERMAN: We've got some recreational math for you after the show since you have no more homework.

Great to have you here.

CAMEROTA: Great idea.

All right.

BERMAN: It's time for "NEWSROOM" now with Brianna Keilar.

CAMEROTA: See you tomorrow.