Return to Transcripts main page


White House Communications Director Hope Hicks Resigning; Jared Kushner's Business Got $500 Million in Loans After White House Meetings; Robert Mueller Probing Trump's Efforts to Oust Jeff Sessions in July; Putin Touts "Invincible" Missile With "Almost Unlimited Range"; Trump Stuns Republican Lawmakers On Guns. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired March 1, 2018 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:02] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Turmoil, tumult, turbulence. Words that fit to a T when it comes to the White House this morning. Want one more? Trouble.

Good morning, everyone. John Berman here.

Trouble brewing inside the White House this morning. Mike Allen, one of America's great reporters, writes, "We have never seen top officials this concerned defeated."

Anthony Scaramucci, the president's friend and briefly a White House insider, put it this way.


ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI, FORMER WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: Morale is terrible. The reason why the morale is terrible is that the rule by fear and intimidation does not work in a civilian environment. I predict more departures.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: You predict more departures.


BERMAN: More departures. Key people going out, the continued news bombs coming in. Hope Hicks, one of the president's closest advisers, maybe the closest that isn't a family member, is leaving. And as for that family, they are staying and questions of conflict of interest growing. "The New York Times" reports that the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, met with two finance executives inside the White House, then later his businesses received more than $500 million in loans from their companies.

Does that cross a legal line or just a swampy one?

And in a few hours, the president will be in the White House near the attorney general less than 24 hours ago when he called Jeff Sessions disgraceful. Where will that go today given new reporting that the special counsel has a keen interest in how the president has treated the attorney general?

So big picture you might ask, why does stability in the White House matter?

Well, Vladimir Putin announced this morning that Russia has an invincible new missile that will render NATO defenses completely useless. So there's that.

A year's worth of news to fit into one hour, we will try. Let's begin with Abby Phillip at the White House.

Abby, let's begin with this key departure, Hope Hicks on the way out.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John. It is hard to overstate how important Hope Hicks is to this building, to the president, and how stunning her departure is. It comes in a week in which she's the second senior aide to leave this White House and it comes at a time when the president is under siege now more than ever.

Hope is one of the closest advisers to the president. She has been with him since before this campaign. She is known here in the White House as a gatekeeper and a source of emotional support for a president who likes to keep trusted friends and advisers close. Now, with Hope gone, it leaves him bereft of a lot of people who have known him prior to this campaign. Dan Scavino comes to mind, he's the social media director, is one of the few aides who fits that bill.

But the White House also now faces the prospect of filling a role that has been filled with turmoil since the beginning of this administration. Four previous communications directors have come and gone in this building. And now they need to replace this person again.

Meanwhile, the Mueller investigation continues a pace, and Hope testified this week bringing some headlines with this comment that she's had to give white lies on behalf of this president. But now we are also learning through CNN's Jim Acosta that a source says that Mueller is asking questions about what Hope Hicks knows.

She is one of those few people in this building who is in most meetings that the president is in. She is there for a lot of these pivotal moments. And now Special Counsel Mueller wants to know what she knows.

BERMAN: And there's all that, Abby, plus there is this story in "The New York Times" reporting that senior adviser Jared Kushner who has been with the president since the beginning. New questions facing him about $500 million in loans he received from these executives after he met with them inside the White House.

PHILLIP: That's right. "The New York Times" is reporting that Jared Kushner has been having some meetings at this White House. He's had dozens of meetings with businesses. But the ones that are coming up here are two meetings in which people met with Kushner and then their companies went on to lend hundreds of millions of dollars to his private real estate company after the fact.

Apollo Capitol and also Citigroup both here lending $184 million and then $325 million to Kushner Companies. His lawyers say that he's had no involvement with his businesses. But of course, John, that's the reason why these types of meetings are not supposed to happen. They look like there is a pay-to-play happening here or some form of misdeeds and that Kushner is not responding by acknowledging that at all. It raises some significant questions about where is the line here between Kushner and his family businesses while he's been in the White House.

BERMAN: All right. Abby Phillip at the White House. Much more on Kushner and those business deals in a moment.

But first the big glaring headline in the "Washington Post" this morning, Trump's apparent efforts to oust Sessions last year are said to be focused of Mueller's probe.

Rosalind Helderman, one of the reporters who broke that story, joins me now.

Thanks so much for being with us. First the past, then we'll move to the present, if you will. Your reporting is that the special counsel is focused on the president's efforts to push Sessions out back in July. Explain.

ROSALIND HELDERMAN, POLITICAL INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, WASHINGTON POST: Well, we know that President Trump has been displeased with his attorney general basically since his attorney general recused himself and said that he would not be the one to oversee the Russia investigation, that he would leave that to the deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein instead.

[09:05:15] And so we now understand that Mueller is probing Trump's sort of months-long effort to apparently try to shame Sessions into quitting. There was a time right after Mueller's appointment when there was a big blowup and then there was this second episode that came in July where Trump gave an interview to "The New York Times," where he criticized Sessions and he started this sort of daily berating of Sessions over Twitter.

What we understand is that Mueller is looking into what he was saying privately at the time and what was the goal of those tweets. Was it just that he, you know, didn't like what his attorney general was doing on a policy level, or was it that he wanted to gain control of the Russia investigation? Was he attempting to obstruct that investigation through this public shaming of Jeff Sessions?

BERMAN: Yes, you use a phrase state of mind. The special counsel is trying to figure out what the president's state of mind was there. I wonder what kind of questions you asked to figure that out, Rosalind?

HELDERMAN: Well, I think what you do is you talk to people who are around the president at the time, in his inner circle, and ask him what else was he saying? We know what he was saying publicly. This president is very public with some of his emotions. But what was he talking about at the time? Was he talking about just, you know, he thinks Jeff Sessions is weak, or was he talking about the Russia investigation and how displeased he was that Jeff Sessions didn't seem to be defending him in the Russia investigation. And we do know that he has done a good bit of the latter.

BERMAN: Yes. And we also know that he berates the attorney general in public. We saw it again just yesterday but also according to your reporting, in private, pretty harshly as well. Comparing him to Mr. Magoo?

HELDERMAN: Yes, that's right. We understand that he really kind of rips into the attorney general all the time in private, including in really demeaning ways, including, you know, comparing him to that cartoon of the kind of bumbling elderly guy, Mr. Magoo.

BERMAN: All right. Rosalind Helderman, thanks so much for your reporting. Appreciate you being with us today.

Let's talk more about this. Joining me now CNN legal analyst, former federal prosecutor Michael Zeldin.

Michael, thanks so much for being with us, Counselor. Now you say one of the key issues here in terms of the legal consequences is to determine whether there was a corrupt intent with the president's thinking, what he was trying to do with Jeff Sessions, and whether or not you can prove there was an effort to interfere with an official proceeding. Explain.

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: So the way the law of obstruction of justice works is the prosecutor has to prove essentially two things. One, the person who is the obstructer is acting with corrupt intent, meaning not accidentally, and two, that they're doing so with an -- in an effort to interfere with an ongoing investigation.

So Mueller has to determine whether or not on these questions about what Sessions was being badgered into doing, quitting or not quitting, whether Mr. McGahn was being asked to beg Sessions not to recuse himself, whether McGahn was being asked to go to Rosenstein, to have Rosenstein fire the special counsel.

All of these things speak to the state of mind of the president. And Mueller has to determine whether that equals corrupt intent. So that's what these questions are designed to elicit.

BERMAN: Because there's no question that in a vacuum the president has the power to fire or even attempt to fire in this case the attorney general or try to force him to resign. The issue here is, was there a pattern, correct?

ZELDIN: That's right. You look at this behavior in the context of multiple other things that the president is accused of having done, asking for a loyalty test from Comey, firing Comey, asking Priebus, his former chief of staff, to push back against stories, asking Coats and Rogers, the national intelligence advisers, to intervene with the FBI to put an end to this investigation. All of those things create a pattern of behavior which has to be looked at in terms of whether this is obstructive behavior.

And John, I should say one thing. When we talk about obstruction of justice, just to be clear, this doesn't necessarily mean statutory violation of obstruction of justice. This could be -- we're using as a shorthand in a sense, this could be equally abuse of power, impeachable offense as we saw in Clinton's case.

BERMAN: Right.


ZELDIN: So we'll just use obstruction of justice --

BERMAN: The jury here that matters -- right. The jury here that matters is the House of Representatives ultimately because this won't get to a court of law any time soon.

Last question, quickly, on Jared Kushner right now, this notion his businesses received $500 million in loans after he met with executives from a couple of companies in the White House. Does this get close to any kind of legal danger zone, Counselor?

ZELDIN: Well, it's I think much more optics than legal. I think there is no proof yet of causality.

[09:10:02] That is, these meetings gave rise to these loans which is sort of what you'd need from a legal standpoint. Optics it's terrible. Legal it's not yet clear.

BERMAN: Counselor Michael Zeldin, thanks so much for being with us to help us understand a few of the major stories today.

There is one more major story I want to go back to right now, that's Hope Hicks, the White House communications director who is leaving. I want to bring in CNN senior political analyst David Gergen, a former White House communications director himself for more than one president, I might add.

David Gergen, so Hope Hicks is out, one of the people closest to the president, closer than anyone else maybe than the folks who are not in the president's family. She was there since the very beginning. What kind of a loss is that for the president? It's important for any president to have these types of people around, correct?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It is. John, I think that it has to be weighed on two bases. One, as a communications director, is this a big loss? No, because it's -- you know, we've had a merry-go-round of communications directors. Everyone has failed. You cannot plan strategy as a communications director would, you cannot plan themes, you can't sort of build political coalitions around your coalition when every day the president smashes through things either with Twitter or, you know, some erratic statement or something like that.

No communications director can succeed in that environment. And she did the best she could under the circumstances. She wasn't well qualified for the job, frankly. But that leads to the other issue. And that is, she was and does know the president well. And you do need people around the White House who understand a president's moods, his predilections, what makes him comfortable. You don't want your president on edge all the time or angry or

frustrated. You want somebody who anticipates and can figure out. You know, George Stephanopoulos did that for Clinton, for example. And he was very good at sensing that. And I can just point to there have been individuals in every White House. And I think Hope Hicks was pretty important to that mission and keeping the president calm and sort of thoughtful and deliberative.

A president needs emotional support in the White House, John. It's really -- I once asked a historian, what's the most important thing a president needs, and he said a friend. Hope Hicks was partly that, she was partly that friend. And I think he's going to miss that. And it may leave him less anchored. And he's already got an issue at home, where, you know, his wife is sending out signals that are hardly warm and fuzzy. And so he would be looking to people around him in the office to provide some of that emotional support.

BERMAN: You're saying that you think the president is increasingly isolated?

GERGEN: That's the sense of it, one has. I know he's on the phone to a lot of people. He calls a lot of folks he's known for a long, long time. But you -- it's like coming into a work environment that you really look forward to or coming to a work environment you'd rather not be there or it's just uncomfortable for you. And I think she provided, you know, some of the -- not only the emotional support, but she's provided some of the glamour that he clearly likes to have around him.

I mean, it's just part of who he is. Now we may not like that or we may think it's inappropriate. But for his comfort level, I think having people who are glamorous around him is actually important.

BERMAN: So that aside, with this force gone, someone close to him in the White House gone, what do you think the implications are going forward? Do you think there could be even more disarray? We've been told that Hope Hicks is one of the people that actually kept things running there.

GERGEN: Yes. I -- John Kelly -- obviously General Kelly represents a disciplined approach, but it's more distant emotionally and it chafes on some of the staff. I think we are going to see more departures. Some of the people in there, John, have to weigh what their futures are. And as you go out into the real world, leaving the White House and started looking for jobs, it matters what your reputation is.

In some parts of this country, working for Donald Trump and the White House is going to be a badge of honor and there will be people out there welcoming him. In other parts of the country, it is a reputational loss.

BERMAN: David Gergen, we're going to have you back in a little bit to talk about some of the other major issues. Thanks so much for being with us this morning.

GERGEN: Thank you. BERMAN: Some of the big news this morning, Vladimir Putin bragging

about this invincible new missile, one he claims cannot be stopped by U.S. Defense systems. Is this all part of some new Cold War rhetoric?

Plus the president stuns on gun control. He calls a Republican senator afraid of the NRA and leaves some Democrats cautiously optimistic. But where does this go now after the wild White House meeting?

And piling on. Lavish spending. The White House in damage control mode after one agency just splurged on a pricey dining set.


[09:19:12] BERMAN: New this morning, Russian President Vladimir Putin touting a new invincible missile with almost unlimited range saying it would render defense systems around the world completely useless.

Joining me now Senior international correspondent, Matthew Chance, and Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. Matthew, let's start with you. What exactly is Vladimir Putin saying he now has?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: First of all, John, this was one of the toughest sort of anti-western speeches that Vladimir Putin has made in years. He spent almost half of this address to the two houses of the Russian parliament talking about Russia's new invincible military missile capability, including the one that has unlimited range he said and can strike any target in the world.

There are a number of other missiles which he highlights as well, one of which he said was developmental or just finished development and is hypersonic and in his words like a meteorite as it comes back to earth.

[09:20:11] So, it would be essentially unstoppable by the U.S. defense shield in place in various locations including Eastern Europe and ones that are very maneuverable as well. It can also (inaudible) U.S. missile defense shield.

He also spoke about underwater drones that could carry a nuclear payload. So, a whole range of these previously undiscussed at these publicly weapons technologies that Vladimir Putin was putting out there and saying, look, we're a real nuclear power, a real military power and a force to be reckoned with -- John.

BERMAN: It feels like language of the cold war. It feels like the kind of language you use in an arms race. So, Barbara Starr, the Pentagon, is this surprising to them?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: No. On the face of it, it really isn't. They are well aware, the intelligence community, well aware of what Russia is working on according to all the officials we're talking to. But there's a couple of things as you unpack it.

Vladimir Putin, as Matthew has talked about, running in an election in his own country. So, he's got political reasons to talk about it. Why is he putting all this out there in public now knowing that the U.S. intelligence community already knows about it?

It may be his own political agenda, it may be intimidation of President Trump in the current political environment in the United States. But what are they really working on this notion of hypersonic missiles that can go five times the speed of sound.

New intercontinental ballistic missiles, missiles that can reach around the world and defeat U.S. missile defenses. The reality is U.S. missile defenses are not aimed at trying to stop the Russians because there's no sense that the Russians are planning to attack the United States.

Those missile defenses are aimed at stopping a single North Korean or Iranian missile. Putin well knows that. There's no indication he planned to attack the United States. He wants to have these capabilities. He wants to be able to talk about him and an intimidation factor.

That's really what the underlying U.S. military assessment is, and that is why you see the U.S. military, the Pentagon, responding in terms of increasing U.S. military deterrents, building and modernizing the U.S. nuclear force as a deterrent capability, a message back to Putin, don't even think about it -- John.

BERMAN: Interesting. A response when it comes to physical terrestrial weapons maybe greater than that and we have seen with cyber or virtual weapons over the last several months. Barbara Starr, Matthew Chance, thanks very much.

Democrats cheering, Republicans reeling after the president came out with apparently new positions on guns. The big question now for both parties, will he stick to what he said?

We're just moments away from the opening bell, stocks set to open flat amid lingering fears of rising interest rates. A little bit of green right now, at least up a little bit. It comes on the heels of Wall Street's worst month in two years. Stay with us.



BERMAN: All right. This morning Republicans are frankly stunned after the president seemed to buck his own party on the issue of gun control during this bipartisan meeting. This morning, the president says he is confident that a bill will happen.

Let's go to CNN's Suzanne Malveaux on Capitol Hill with the state of play this morning -- Suzanne.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John. Stunned, perplexed, confused, frustrated, those are just some of the words that Republicans, members of his own party are using to describe that hour-long discussion that we saw play out in realtime. One of the things that they said is that, first of all, Trump was backing the bipartisan bill, the Manchin-Toomey bill for broader background checks, is much more comprehensive than what many Republicans wanted to back, he supported raising the purchase age from 18 to 21 for long guns, something that many people say is not going to solve the problem.

He stunned everyone with a suggestion that some individuals could have their guns taken away from them, deal with the courts later, that there would be a lack of due process there. And also, he shut the door in concealed carry reciprocity. That's something he said, hey, put it in another bill.

The Democrats are not going to support that. That also frustrated folks. Perhaps what was most frustrating and stunning was the fact that the president confronted Republicans to their faces with this accusation and this taunt that they are afraid of the NRA.

I had a chance to talk to Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican, who had that extraordinary moment with the president when he said he was afraid of the NRA. Here is how he responded this morning.


SEN. PAT TOOMEY (R), PENNSYLVANIA: I'm the Republican who stood up to the NRA. When I think they're wrong, that's what I do. The NRA opposed it completely, downgraded my rating, wouldn't endorse me or contribute to me. I'm the guy that stood up to the NRA.


MALVEAUX: Toomey also said they're going to keep pushing their plan. They don't know what the plan is that the president will support, but they will continue to try to find support where they can. We're going to be looking at Senator Marco Rubio who is going to be unleashing his plan later today -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Suzanne Malveaux on Capitol Hill, thanks so much. Joining me now, CNN senior political analysts, David Gergen and Ron Brownstein, and CNN political analyst, Amie Parnes.