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Trump Hints Veterans Affairs Nominee Might Withdraw; Source: White House Debating if Pruitt Can Stay at EPA; Trump Calls Kim Jong- un 'Very Honorable'; FBI Interviewed Manafort Before Trump Campaign; Interview with Rep. Gerry Connolly. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired April 24, 2018 - 17:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: -- I would be honored if you check it out. Be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter, @JakeTapper, or tweet the show, @TheLeadCNN.

[17:00:06] That is it for "THE LEAD" today. I now turn you over to Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks for watching.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. In trouble. President Trump's pick to lead veterans' affairs faces allegations of creating a toxic work environment, excessive drinking on the job and overprescribing drugs. His confirmation hearing postponed and President Trump said, quote, "If I were him, I wouldn't do it." How damaged is his nomination?

New deal. President Trump calls the Iran nuclear deal terrible, suggesting he's considering walking away from it. He also says he wants a new deal but threatens Iran, saying it will pay a price like few countries have ever paid.

And very honorable. President Trump praises North Korea dictator and says he's looking forward to meeting Kim Jong-un soon. After hurling insults like "Little Rocket Man," will Mr. Trump's new approach convince Kim to give up his nukes?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news. President Trump hinting that his pick to head the Veterans Affairs Department might withdraw his nomination. Lawmakers from both parties are expressing deep concern about White House physician Ronny Jackson. Whistleblowers accuse him of questionable behavior, including excessive drinking and a toxic work environment under his leadership.

We'll talk about the breaking news and much more with Congressman Gerry Connolly of the Oversight and Foreign Affairs Committees.

And our reporters and experts are also standing by.

Let's begin with our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. Jim, another Trump nominee is hitting some very serious stumbling blocks. JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And

that's despite the president saying he only hires the best people. Well, today the president seemed to give a nudge to his pick for Veterans Affairs secretary, Dr. Ronny Jackson, to withdraw his name from consideration. The president went as far as to concede Dr. Jackson lacks the experience to run the V.A.

The question now, it appears, is whether the doctor will accept the president's diagnosis.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: -- relationship. In fact, I'll get that little piece of dandruff.

ACOSTA (voice-over): The big brush-off of the day wasn't between President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron. It was the signal sent from Mr. Trump to his pick to run the Department of Veterans Affairs, White House doctor Ronny Jackson, whose experience to lead the V.A. didn't exactly get a ringing endorsement.

TRUMP: Now, I know there's an experience problem, because of lack of experience. But there's an experience problem --

ACOSTA: Despite selecting Jackson himself, the president blamed the media for the questions swirling around the doctor's background that include allegations of excessive drinking on the job and being part of a toxic workplace environment.

TRUMP: I told Admiral Jackson just a little while ago, I said, "What do you need this for? This is a vicious group of people that malign -- and they do -- and I lived through it. We all lived through it." You people are getting record ratings because of it, so congratulations. But I said, "What do you need it for?"

ACOSTA: Democrats argue the president, who chose Jackson, in part after the doctor cheered Mr. Trump's health, only has himself to blame.

SEN. PATTY MURRAY (D), WASHINGTON: It is really frustrating to me that this administration continues to not vet or sloppily send over a nominee that leaves us having to really vet them and look at serious questions, which this Senate is now doing, and that's the right step.

ACOSTA: Making the rounds on Capitol Hill, Jackson sounded as if he would fight on.

DR. RONNY JACKSON, NOMINEE TO HEAD VETERANS AFFAIRS DEPARTMENT: I can answer those questions absolutely. I'm looking forward to rescheduling the hearing and answering everyone's questions.

ACOSTA: The Jackson distraction comes as the president is demanding that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons program, ahead of his potential summit with Kim Jong-un.

TRUMP: It means they get rid of their nukes. Very simple. ACOSTA: Even as Mr. Trump offered some praise for the North Korean

dictator he once dubbed "Little Rocket Man."

TRUMP: Kim Jong-un was -- he really has been very open, and I think very honorable from everything we're seeing.

ACOSTA: As the president is seeking to make an agreement with the North Koreans, he's threatening to tear up the Iran nuclear deal with a dire warning.

TRUMP: But I will say if Iran threatens us in any way, they will pay a price like few countries have ever paid.

ACOSTA: Though Macron hinted that a new Iran deal could be in the works.

EMMANUEL MACRON, PRESIDENT OF FRANCE (through translator): It's not about tearing apart an agreement and having nothing, but it's about building something new that will cover all of our concerns.

ACOSTA: The alpha male bromance between the two leaders was on display all day long, with multiple aggressive handshakes. Some of Mr. Trump's aggression flared up when he was asked whether he would pardon his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, who's under federal investigation.

TRUMP: Thank you very much.


TRUMP: Stupid question. Go ahead, any other -- anybody else, please.


ACOSTA: And there are other cabinet questions for the president, as in the EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt. CNN has learned that White House officials are debating whether Pruitt can continue in his role at the EPA while he's facing so many ethical questions.

We've also learned that Pruitt has refused help from the White House to prepare for his upcoming hearings later on this week.

And getting back to Dr. Ronny Jackson, Wolf, we just found out, my colleague, Jeff Zeleny, reporting that Dr. Jackson was in the Oval Office with the president late this afternoon. No word as to what happened at that meeting. But it's another example of the cabinet chaos that keeps on churning over here at the White House, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, indeed. All right. Thanks very much, Jim Acosta at the White House.

Let's get some more on the troubled Jackson nomination for the Veterans Affairs secretary. Our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju, is working this story up on Capitol Hill.

Manu, what is the state of the V.A. nominee at this hour, at least on Capitol Hill where you are? What are senators telling you tonight?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the support is shaky, and his chances for confirmation are even worse than that at the moment, Wolf. Senators are very concerned about these allegations of excessive drinking, of overprescribing prescription drugs, of this toxic environment that allegedly occurred under -- in his tenure while working in the White House medical unit.

Now they -- what they are saying, however, that they want to know whether or not there's anything to corroborate these allegations that have come forward from whistle-blowers who presented this information to this committee.

But it was serious enough for the two leaders of this committee took a dramatic move to delay his Wednesday confirmation hearing before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and they're also saying, Wolf, it's unclear when they will be rescheduled.


SEN. JOHNNY ISAKSON (R-GA), VETERANS AFFAIRS CHAIRMAN: Everybody in Congress needs to take a deep breath. Just give the man a chance to be heard and give us a chance to ask the questions that need to be asked.

SEN. JON TESTER (D-MT), VETERANS AFFAIRS RANKING MEMBER: I don't have enough information to say this is true, this isn't true; this is true, isn't true. We're continuing the vetting process, and we'll -- we'll get to the bottom of everything.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D-CT): The White House has been consistently and abysmally careless, even derelict in the vetting process, which accounts for some of the problems with their nominees.

SEN. JERRY MORAN (R), KANSAS: He does deny that he's done anything wrong in his service to the country and particularly his time at the White House as a physician in the medical unit.


RAJU: Now that last comment from Jerry Moran, the Kansas Republican senator who sits on the Veterans Affairs Committee, speaking to reporters after he did meet with Ronny Jackson this afternoon. And Jackson saying that none of these allegations are accurate. He said that he -- there's nothing that would actually -- should disqualify him from this position. And he's signaling to senators that he's ready to press forward.

But Wolf, the ultimate question is whether there's enough support on Capitol Hill to push him there and whether he hangs in there before confirmation hearing, if there is one set. It probably would not take place until May. And whether or not there's anything to substantiate these allegations. But at the moment, very grim chances for him to get this post if he does decide to move forward here, Wolf.

BLITZER: And what about the EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, Manu. He's been under a lot of fire on Capitol Hill, as well. How much heat is he getting tonight?

RAJU: Well, Republicans are starting to soften their blanket defense for him amid of all these growing allegations of ethical improprieties, mishandling taxpayer money.

Republicans are now saying they want more answers. They're calling for hearings and to have the EPA administrator disclose exactly what happened here.

And significantly, Wolf, earlier today, I had a chance to ask John Barrasso, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the committee with oversight over the EPA, and he said that he also is concerned.


RAJU: I'm curious if Scott Pruitt, you're concerned about these allegations?

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO (R-WY), CHAIRMAN, ENVIRONMENT AND PUBLIC WORKS COMMITTEE: I absolutely have concerns. A lot of questions that still need to be answered. I've been asking the questions, going to continue to ask questions.


RAJU: And also another loyalist of sorts, Jim Inhofe, former chairman of that same committee, raising concerns, saying there should be at least a hearing to examine these -- these allegations that have emerged.

So even as the president has stood behind Pruitt, concerns on Capitol Hill showing the shaky support that he is also getting and also raising questions about how much longer he could hang on, particularly if more of these revelations continue to emerge, Wolf.

BLITZER: Manu Raju, thanks very much.

Let's get some more on all of this. Democratic Congressman Gerry Connolly of Virginia is joining us. He's a member of the Foreign Affairs and Oversight Committees.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

REP. GERRY CONNOLLY (D), VIRGINIA: Great to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: So you heard President Trump's comments about his nominee to become the secretary of veteran affairs, Dr. Ronny Jackson. It was extraordinary to hear that, saying the president suggesting what does he need it for? He's better off without it. What do you think of those comments? Is Dr. Jackson better off withdrawing?

CONNOLLY: Oh, God, yes. This is one of the most bizarre days in a string of bizarre days at this White House.

Start with Mr. -- Dr. Jackson. Even if the whistleblower reports are not true or exaggerated, his fitness for the job is front and center the issue. And now his patron, who nominated him, has essentially conceded he lacks the experience in a press conference today at the White House and is personally encouraging him to really rethink whether he wants the job, what does he need it for?

And of course, he then attacks critics who are raising legitimate issues on behalf of the millions of veterans who would be affected by an unfit secretary of Veterans Affairs.

BLITZER: I know you have a lot of veterans in your district in Virginia. Does Dr. Jackson, though, deserve the chance to defend himself publicly, openly, during a Senate confirmation hearing against these allegations before his nomination is abandoned?

CONNOLLY: I think the announcement today on a bipartisan basis by the chairman of the ranking member of the committee, that they're going to postpone that nomination hearing indefinitely is a clear signal to Dr. Jackson that he has an honorable way to withdraw his nomination and not be further embarrassed, not have his good name and his career tarnished. He can go forward, but if he does, it's at an enormous professional risk.

BLITZER: Your committee, one of your committees, I should say, the House Oversight Committee, is also trying to look into the behavior of the EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt. You've written to the House Oversight Committee chairman, Trey Gowdy, asking for Pruitt to come over and testify. What does Trey Gowdy have to say about this?

CONNOLLY: Well, Trey Gowdy has not answered those requests. He has indicated in other press shows that he wants to look into it. That's the most he's done.

We need a full-blown investigation now into a scandal-prone ethically- challenged EPA administrator. We now know from "The New York Times" all kinds of shady dealings back in Oklahoma when he was there, and he's taking that tradition and that culture here to Washington.

I thought Trump wanted to drain the swamp, not fill it up with really nasty crocodiles and alligators. We need to investigate Pruitt thoroughly and completely, and it's long past time for Trey Gowdy, the chairman of the committee, to do just that.

BLITZER: As you know, at that -- his news conference today, the president made some news on foreign policy. He sounded very optimistic today on North Korea, calling the leader there, Kim Jong- un, quote, "very honorable."

Do those comments set things up for their face-to-face meeting that's clearly coming up sooner rather than later?

CONNOLLY: It was a jaw-dropping comment. To call Kim Jong-un an honorable man, a man who executed his uncle horribly, a man who had his half-brother assassinated with nerve agents at a foreign airport, a man who runs gulags all over North Korea and absolutely runs the last Stalinist state on the planet an honorable man? What in the world is going through Donald Trump's head? I think the effect of that on everybody else is sobering and alarming,

and I think only Kim Jong-un is licking his chops and opening champagne tonight.

BLITZER: Yes, he's also got three Americans who are still being held in North Korea.

But the president did firmly say he wants Kim Jong-un to give up all his nuclear weapons. Do you believe that's achievable?

CONNOLLY: No. To be honest, I don't see how Kim Jong-un could survive, even in that regime, were he to give up the one jewel in the crown he's got, which is nuclear capacity.

Nuclear capacity guarantees, from his point of view, respectability, stature and, most importantly, longevity of the regime, which is a family-run enterprise, remember. He gives that up, and he makes himself eminently vulnerable to outside influence. And I just don't think he's going to do that. And I think Donald Trump is revealing lack of preparation and lack of understanding of what the dynamic is in the Korean Peninsula.

BLITZER: Do you believe that Iran is ready to agree to a new -- a new deal concerning its nuclear program, its ballistic missile program, a new package as the French president, Macron, is now suggesting?

CONNOLLY: I don't know whether Iran is open to that or not. But what I do know is that President Trump threatening to rip up the Iran agreement jeopardizes the very effort he's trying to undertake in North Korea, because it underscores that the United States cannot be relied upon to enforce, in fact to -- to embrace its own nuclear agreements.

We initiated that effort with Iran, and it's working. And it signals to all of our allies and our adversaries we're not good for our word, and it makes those sense to cut a deal with the United States when it comes to nuclear armaments.

That's enormously dangerous on the part of the president. It's a very reckless statement he issued today yet again.

[17:15:08] BLITZER: Congressman Gerry Connolly, thanks so much for joining us.

CONNOLLY: Wolf, any time. Thank you.

BLITZER: There's a lot more breaking news we're following, including the indicted Paul Manafort, revealed to have been on the FBI radar years before he signed up with the future president.

Plus, the security concerns surrounding President Trump's increasing use of his own personal cell phone.


[17:20:02] BLITZER: There's more breaking news. Court documents now reveal that Paul Manafort was interviewed by the FBI before he became chairman of the Donald Trump presidential campaign.

Our justice correspondent Evan Perez is joining us.

Evan, Manafort has since been indicted by the special counsel, Robert Mueller. So far, at least, he's pleading, what, not guilty.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. He's pleaded not guilty, Wolf. But in these court documents that were filed late last night by the special counsel's office, we learned there are at least four different statements that were made by Paul Manafort that prosecutors believe that they can now use against him.

One of them was made in 2013, another in 2014. These were obviously before the Trump campaign. And twice in 2017 when his apartment -- his condo in Alexandria was searched by the FBI, as well as when he was arrested in 2017. Twice he made statements that they believe they can now use against him.

Obviously, when you -- when you get arrested, people always say don't say anything to the investigators, because everything you can -- everything you say can be used against you.

We also learned a little bit from these court documents last night, Wolf, that the prosecutors clarified, that the warrant that they used to search his condo in July of 2017 was not a no-knock warrant. It was -- the FBI entered at 6 a.m. We and others thought maybe it was a no-knock warrant, simply because we've heard from Paul Manafort, who talked to some of his associates, that he didn't hear a knock at the door when he was -- when he suddenly ran into these FBI agents in the hallway of his apartment.

So it -- according to prosecutors, they're clarifying that this was not a no-knock warrant, that they waited -- they knocked on the door and then they entered when no one answered.

BLITZER: So they knocked, and then they broke down the door.

PEREZ: They picked the lock, and they got in.

BLITZER: That's how they did it to get in. And new information about Michael Cohen, the president's long-time lawyer, fixer, good friend.

PEREZ: Right. Exactly. And the question has arisen as to whether or not the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, should recuse himself from this investigation, as he has done in the Mueller investigation. We're told that the issue really has not gotten there yet, simply because so far, according to prosecutors, Michael Cohen is being investigated for conduct -- his personal business conduct, nothing to do with the campaign. Michael Cohen was never part of the Trump campaign. He never was part of the administration.

And so we're told that, essentially, this is not an issue yet that has gone before the attorney general for him to decide whether or not there's a recusal. Now, obviously, this investigation could change.

The FBI and prosecutors in Manhattan have not yet had a chance to look at the evidence that was seized from Michael Cohen's house, his hotel room, his -- everything that they've been able to gather from his electronics. So we don't know whether that will change. And it will be at that time that the attorney general will have to decide whether or not there's something here that merits his recusal. At this point, not yet.

BLITZER: But it was the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who signed off on referring the Michael Cohen case to the U.S. attorney in the southern district of New York.

PEREZ: That's right. Because he oversees the Mueller investigation, and he oversees all of those decisions.

BLITZER: Even, good work. Thanks very much.

PEREZ: Thank you.

BLITZER: There's more breaking news we're following. President Trump heaps praise on North Korea's Kim Jong-un. Why the dramatic departure from his recent name calling of the North Korean leader.

Plus, what's at risk from the president's use of his personal cell phone?


[17:28:12] BLITZER: Breaking news. CNN has obtained a 2012 report outlining misconduct allegations against President Trump's nominee to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, Dr. Ronny Jackson.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, has the details for us.

Barbara, tell us what you're learning.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this was a 2012 report by the Navy's medical inspector general of White House medical operations.

Ronny Jackson was a Navy captain at the time back in 2012, working as head of the White House medical unit. But there was another Navy captain who was President Obama's physician at the time.

Apparently, the two men clashed. They were of equal rank. It's not like one was the senior officer issuing orders. And so a command climate survey was done. A command climate survey is a military tool to go into an office and see how the people feel about the work environment and whether they think it's a positive work environment.

And the survey found -- the report found it most certainly was not. The two men were bickering. Employees in the office reported, apparently, that it was like two parents going through a bitter divorce.

And so the report recommended, but did not order -- it recommended that there be consideration given to replacing either men or both men. Now apparently, Ronny Jackson came out of this OK, because, of course, he was later promoted. He stayed on the job. We don't know what happened to the other Navy captain that was worked there at the time.

But according to the report, there was a strong critique that the other doctor, not Ronny Jackson, that the medical staff believed that man was, quote, "irrevocably damaged in his ability to lead and to serve."

So what are we left with here? That there is an inspector general report dating back to the Obama administration that Ronny Jackson was bickering with another Navy captain over how the White House medical operation was run, and there was a suggestion that consideration be given to either him, the other Navy captain, or both of them being replaced. But of course, Jackson stayed on the job -- Wolf.

[17:30:21] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Very interesting amid the other allegations against him, as well. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thanks very much.

So Dana, I want to get your reaction to that, but I also want to play a clip. This is the president at his news conference earlier in the day, speaking about Dr. Jackson.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I said to Dr. Jackson, "What do you need it for?" So we'll see what happens. I don't want to put a man through -- who's not a political person, I don't want to put a man through a process like this. It's too ugly and too disgusting. So we'll see what happens. He'll make a decision.

The fact is I wouldn't do it. I wouldn't do it. What does he need it for?


BLITZER: And we're just getting this in from our Pamela Brown, Jeff Zeleny, over at the White House, that the president and Dr. Jackson, they met in the Oval Office just a little while ago following the news conference, and Dr. Jackson, according to this report, sources are saying is not withdrawing as of now. Senior administration official telling our reporters over at the White House that the White House feels Jackson is being railroaded and will push back forcefully. The official added that the president is also not wobbling.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Where do we even start with this? In an era of chaos, the expectation at this point is to have chaos with maybe all of the nominees.

It was already expected that Ronny Jackson was going to have some problems, given the fact that he is a physician. He's certainly a member of the military, as Barbara was just pointing out. But because he has no experience running a big organization.

But the president today put the blame on the politics in Washington. OK. It's fair. There are tough politics in Washington. But the blame is not on the process and on, you know, sort of the sea of sharp daggers. It's on him. He is the person who nominated Ronny Jackson. He is the person who put -- who put Ronny Jackson in a position where he was not properly vetted, clearly; where he is put up for a job that even the president's greatest allies say he's not qualified for -- the president himself said he doesn't have experience for today.

So the idea that he is, A, doing that, and B, then, on top of it, saying, "Well, now it's going to be up to Ronny Jackson to decide whether he's going to withdraw." I mean, he is putting Jackson in an absolutely impossible position. Did Jackson have issues? Clearly, he did. I mean, I'm told that he had certainly some personality and management issues. But that he is and was a fantastic physician. And that is his job. And perhaps that is where his job should have stayed.

BLITZER: Yes. And Sabrina, White House officials also telling our team over at the White House that the White House will soon be putting out statements and letters from previous presidents and administration officials, pushing back on a day that these stories are all emerging about Dr. Jackson.

But the problem, Dana, is absolutely right. Apparently, did not go through a significant vetting process.

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, "THE GUARDIAN": Certainly, the allegations today call into question the vetting process at the White House. But they also reinforce, and I think the president comments did, as well, the implications of the president constantly prioritizing loyalty over qualifications. As Dana said, there are already going to be obstacles facing Dr. Ronny Jackson with respect to whether or not he had the relevant experience to lead one of the largest bureaucracies in the federal government.

But I think what this also does is it creates bipartisan concern. Some of the Republicans are concerned with his experience, but you largely had Democrats who are objecting to what they see as a push to privatize the V.A.

Now you have Republicans on Capitol Hill who are a lot more concerned with Trump's nominee, and I think that will create significant hurdles in the confirmation process, should he continue.

BLITZER: You know, Bianna, the president called this congressional Senate hearing, the process that Dr. Jackson is going through right now, he said it was disgusting.

But in fact, everybody who is nominated for a cabinet position has to go through a confirmation process before the United States Senate, before various committees of the United States Senate. It's in the Constitution. "Advice and consent," that's what -- that's what the law of the land requires.

SIDDIQUI: And many would probably agree with that characterization of it being disgusting there. Garland probably on that list, as well. Having said that, though, Wolf, this is once against another self- inflicted wound by the president. So David Shulkin, it's not as if he resigned. It's not as if they

were urgently in need of a replacement for him. If, in fact, they did want to replace him with Ronny Jackson, all they had to do was go through a proper vetting process and then initiate the change in leadership.

Instead, either the president was once again wronged by his -- by his staff by not properly vetting him before he was named or the president, just on his own on a whim, named him without telling his staff. Remember, we saw the same thing happen in the past with Rob Porter. He was not properly vetted, and the president was really put in an awkward position, I would say, on that front, though he doubled down on it. And the same with Ronny Jackson.

So either Ronny Jackson was nominated by the president without his staff knowing, or his staff once again did not conduct a thorough vetting process, which again we've just found all of this out within 48 hours. So it wouldn't have been hard for them to find this out themselves.

BLITZER: It won't have been hard at all. You know, Joey, let me get to you.

On another sensitive issue, Michael Cohen, the president's personal attorney, a long-time fixer and friend. The president was asked today in the Oval Office -- a reporter shouted out a question, whether he thinks that -- whether he's considering a pardon for Michael Cohen. And the president responded. He snapped at the reporter and simply said, "Stupid question."

Was that a stupid question?

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, here's my view of this, Wolf. Is it a stupid question, because "Of course, I'm going to pardon Michael Cohen"? Or is it a stupid yes because "I'm not considering pardoning Michael Cohen"?

So in essence to me, it's not a stupid question at all. And in fact, you talk about the president's conduct. It's brought about by his own conduct, Wolf. Let's examine the time line.

Michael Cohen's home is raided on April 9, on a Monday. By Friday, he's pardoning Scooter Libby. What's the pardon for? It's about obstruction of justice and perjury. So what does it mean when someone close to you on Monday, their house is raided, and then on Friday, you're pardoning someone else who no one else is talking about, who is convicted 11 years ago and who, in fact, President Bush didn't even pardon him. He commuted the sentence.

Last point, now this past weekend he's talking about Jack Johnson. Now, the merits -- remember, the African-American boxer, who -- very controversial. He, of course, is convicted as a result of, you know, having an association with a white woman. Of course he should be pardoned. But look at the timing. He was convicted in 1913, Wolf. Who's talking about this issue now? And so you bring it up 105 years later. And, yes, I get there's been

a bipartisan coalition that has even been after Obama for this pardon. So I question the timing of all this. And if you want people not to ask you about pardon questions, stop pardoning people that -- you know, it's just something that he brings up. And so I think it is a legitimate question, and it's fair game, no matter how frustrated it may be to him.

BLITZER: Certainly, it was frustrating to him. All right. Everybody stick around. There's a lot more news we're following. We'll be right back.


[17:42:23] BLITZER: Let's get back to the panel.

Dana, as you know, the news conference today with the visiting French President Macron. And President Trump and President Macron, they clearly have a difference of opinion, as far as the Iran nuclear deal is concerned.

The president is suggesting he might just rip it up, as far as the U.S. is concerned, by May 12. That's the deadline. He's got to make a decision. We don't know if he's going to do that.

But he did offer this warning to Iran. He says, "If Iran threatens us in any way, they will pay a price like few countries have ever paid." So these two U.S. -- U.S. and France seem to be on different pages, at least for now.

BASH: I mean, it's fire and fury all over again, except that in this particular situation, in this point in time, he, the president, is sitting with a guy -- a leader that the president has spent a lot of time trying to woo, trying to form a relationship and vice versa. Macron has done the same with Trump. And Macron could end up in the same position that the Japanese prime minister -- Japanese leader, rather, Abe is. Which is, you know, working it really, really hard and walking away without a lot to show for it.

For Abe it was, you know, him getting sort of, you know -- sort of tongue-lashed about the trade deficit. Here it's a multi-lateral issue, and it has to do with not just France but lots of allies, and it's the Iran deal.

And boy, it will be fascinating as we sort of -- everybody sort of digs in and learns, hopefully, more about what really did happen in the conversation that they had about Iran, how the president presented it and, maybe more importantly, how much Macron pushed back and whether he had any effect on the president. So now it sounds like he's -- he's certainly signaling he's going to pull out or at least go --

BLITZER: Yes. And the Iran deal, as you know, Sabrina, was not just the U.S. and France. It was the U.K., Germany. It was Russia and China, as well. You think it's realistic to think all of these countries are going to be able to come up with a new nuclear deal with Iran, something Iran will accept?

SIDDIQUI: Well, it's hard to fathom that that would be the outcome. You already have Iran's foreign minister saying that if the U.S. would -- were to withdraw from the accord, then Tehran is ultimately going to abandon the deal.

I also think that there are serious questions as to whether the other signatories will also sign onto a renegotiated deal and if they don't and you have what is effectively a deal between France and the United States, then there's no real accountability or enforcement measure over there.

And one of the things we know that Trump is seeking, in particular, is -- currently the restrictions on Iran's uranium enrichment, they sunset in 2025. But he wants those to be permanent. I think that's going to be a very challenging task, certainly, to get Iran to agree with, let alone signatories like Russia and China.

BLITZER: That's interesting, Bianna, because he is stepping up his aggressive rhetoric as far as Iran is concerned, but he is clearly softening up his rhetoric as far as North Korea is concerned. Listen to this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Kim Jong-un was -- he really has been very open. And I think very honorable, from everything we're seeing.


BLITZER: The President is getting a lot of criticism for suggesting that Kim Jong-un has been very honorable.

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I'm not sure that was a scripted description there. And obviously, I'm sure the President received some feedback from his administration and advisers as well and not just the media.

I don't know what Otto Warmbier's parents would think about that description and characterization as honorable. In fact, I don't think President Xi of China, who is Kim Jong-un's closest ally, has called him honorable.

So anybody -- any negotiator would tell you that when you're approaching a deal, the last thing you want to have is for the other party to think they have leverage and the upper hand. And it appears that with the President characterizing Kim Jong-un the way he has and coming to the table seemingly wanting a deal maybe more than Kim Jong- un does, that puts him in a perilous situation.

And that was some of the feedback that -- and feedback, again, that President Obama received for the Iran deal. And people were dismayed, thinking that the President, President Obama, wanted that deal more than the Iranians did. The President here now, President Trump, needs to be very careful as we approach a potential meeting on that same regard.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I agree with Bianna, but I also think that it's very clear that the President is using his businessman negotiation tactics, trying to do it on the dictator in North Korea. He's trying to butter him up.

I mean, it -- anybody who has looked at North Korea and sort of the characteristics of the leadership there for five minutes knows that what they want, more than anything, is respect in the world, particularly from the United States. And that, certainly, handed him that. We'll see if it bears fruit.

BLITZER: We'll see what happens. All right, guys, thanks very much.

Just ahead, are President Trump's communications vulnerable to hackers and spies? His use of a personal cell phone raising some red flags. We'll have a full report.


[17:52:05] BLITZER: New tonight, sources tell CNN that President Trump has grown fond of using his personal cell phone for conversations with confidants and friends outside the White House. The habit, though, is raising alarms among many cybersecurity experts.

Brian Todd is on the story for us.

Brian, are the President's communications vulnerable?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They are extremely vulnerable, Wolf. We have spoken today to former CIA spies, NSA spies, who say the President is taking enormous security risks by using his personal cell phone so much. They say there are many different ways that rival spies can breach that phone and tap into the President's most sensitive conversations.


TRUMP: Stupid question.

TODD (voice-over): President Trump's freewheeling style of communicating, presenting serious security challenges tonight.

Multiple sources inside and house the White House tell CNN the President has recently been using his personal cell phone more and more often to contact outside advisers.

One senior White House official says Trump is, quote, talking to all sorts of people on it.

ROBERT BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: They're just totally vulnerable. The President should not be using these.

TODD (voice-over): Tonight, former intelligence operatives and other security experts tell CNN, the President's use of his personal cell phone carries enormous security risks. Spies are everywhere, they say, in Washington and wherever the

President travels. And they know how to tap that phone.

BAER: I can put malware in your phone. I can then bleed out your conversations. I can bleed out your e-mail. I can bleed out your texts. I can turn on room harmonics to listening to conversations around with you.

Look, the entire drone program run by the CIA is based on these cell phones and computers. They're wide open. You might as well write your secrets on a bathroom wall in Penn Station.

TODD (voice-over): This from the President who openly called for Hillary Clinton to be jailed for not properly protecting her e-mail accounts.

CROWD: Lock her up. Lock her up. Lock her up.

TRUMP: She should be locked up. She should.

TODD (voice-over): When President Obama wanted to use a Blackberry, the NSA had to basically rebuild the device with encryptions just to keep it secure.

TODD (on camera): To really protect it, what do you have to do?

DR. VINCE HOUGHTON, HISTORIAN AND CURATOR, INTERNATIONAL SPY MUSEUM: Yes. So, essentially, what you're is you're reacting to outside forces. You're changing the programming, the algorithms. You're looking for vulnerabilities and patch those vulnerabilities. You're going back in and recoding the programming.

TODD (voice-over): It's not clear whether any of those protections are in place on President Trump's cell phone. Experts say even if President Trump isn't discussing top-secret information on his cell phone, it's still a big security risk.

HOUGHTON: Whether it's him trying to get around John Kelly by using this cell phone, and someone could ask, well, what's Kelly going to think? And he responds, oh, it doesn't matter, he's at the Pentagon right now.

That's not classified, but that can tell foreign intelligence agencies, huh, the Chief of Staff of the White House is meeting with people at the Pentagon.

TODD (voice-over): Experts believe America's rivals will have their spies target the President's phone for crucial intelligence.

[17:54:59] BAER: Russians, I would start with. The Chinese, over trade. Over defense issues, North Koreans want to know what he's thinking about going to this meeting.


TODD: Experts say another drawback to the President using his private cell phone is that those phone conversations are not captured for historical purposes or for accountability.

And the White House did not respond to our inquiries about the concerns of security professionals about the risks of the President using his personal cell phone so much -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Brian, thank you. There's more breaking news. President Trump meets with his embattled pick to head the Department of Veterans Affairs as White House officials plot their next move. We're learning new details right now.


[18:00:09] BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. I wouldn't do it.