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Chief Strategist On Notice; Total U-Turn of Policies. Aired 10-11p ET

Aired April 12, 2017 - 22:00   ET



[22:00:00] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN breaking news.

DON LEMON, CNN HOST: Breaking news. President Trump does a 180 on foreign policy.

This is CNN Tonight. I'm Don Lemon.

For those keeping score at home, we're now on the outs with Russia, China is no longer a currency manipulator and NATO isn't obsolete after all. What's behind the president's about-face on all of this?

Plus, the man who said this to Kellyanne Conway.


MICHAEL WOLFF, THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER COLUMNIST: When they say democracy dies in darkness, you're the darkness.


LEMON: And are Steve Bannon's days in the White House numbered? It's just day 83, by way. Going up against the boss' family is not exactly a guarantee of job security. When that boss, President of the United States, says, quote, "I like Steve but it could be time to dust off your resume."

Let's get right to CNN's Sara Murray at the White House for us live this evening. Sara, good evening to you. President Trump is doing a 180 today on several key foreign policy positions on the U.S. relationship with Russia, on Syria, on NATO, on China's currency. What's with all the U-turns here?

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: There were a lot of changes. He was going to label China a currency manipulator on day one, now he is not so keen to do that. NATO was obsolete when Donald Trump was a candidate. But now that he is a president, less than 100 days into his presidency, NATO is not so obsolete.

Today, Jim Acosta, our colleague, of course, here at CNN, caught up with Sean Spicer and Spicer basically said circumstances changed. Things have changed now that Donald Trump is president, but Don, what you can bet is things change once you have the perspective of being in this White House, of being in this west wing, and Donald Trump is learning firsthand, yes, China is making some changes to its own concern policies, to its own trade policies.

They believe that China is beginning to change its ways but also they can strike a deal with China, particularly when it comes to dealing with North Korea.

And when you're facing NATO, they were saying, yes, people are make -- countries are making some changes to try to increase their defense spending, but they're also realizing that NATO is a powerful ally when you're trying to confront Russia, particularly in the face of what's happened in Syria and the president ordering strikes there.

So, I think you're seeing an evolving view of a president who's getting a sense of what the world looks like when you're sitting in that Oval Office.

LEMON: That's very interesting and interestingly enough, Sara, this is all coming on the same day that President Trump is speaking out on Steve Bannon, and essentially putting him on notice. What's up with that?

MURRAY: Today, Donald Trump described Steve Bannon, his chief strategist in this White House, to the Wall Street Journal as a guy who works for me. A guy who works for me. Not his chief strategist. So clearly this is someone who is on thin ice.

Our sense so far is that Bannon is not getting the boot from this White House. He's certainly his wrist slapped, he's been put on notice. And many before saying to us many sources that now the ball is in Steve Bannon's court, it's up to him whether he decides to stay, whether he decides to play nice with folks in this White House.

But one source told me that what really irked the president is the notion, the analysis that the president is here enacting Steve Bannon's agenda, and not the reverse, that it's the president's agenda that Steve Bannon is carrying out.

Remember, this is a White House where it's basically the hunger games day-to-day, people rise, people fall in favor, people have constantly had the knives out for one another. So, it will be interesting to see how Bannon handles this.

He is not someone who's really come into the crosshairs the way we've seen other staffers and, you know, he could choose to leave at any moment, although right now sources say he's kind of digging in, he's preparing for the fight. He wants to lay low and try to maintain his hold in this White House. We will see if that works.

LEMON: We shall -- you took the words right out of my mouth, we shall see. Alice intrigue to say the least. Thank you, Sara.

MURRAY: Ride them on.

LEMON: I appreciate that. Yes. I want to bring in now CNN global affairs analyst, Tony Blinken, who was deputy national security adviser to President Obama, and Admiral James Woolsey, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Good evening, gentlemen. Thank you so much for coming on. Tony, I'm going to start with you. So let's go through some of these 180's. Here's what President Trump said on NATO, this is during the campaign and what he said today. Listen to this.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Do you think the United States needs to rethink U.S. involvement in NATO?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Yes, because it's costing us too much money.

Number one, NATO is obsolete, number two, the countries in NATO are not paying their fair share. It's obsolete. And we pay too much money. NATO is obsolete.

In my opinion, NATO is obsolete. So here's the problem with NATO, it's obsolete.

It was 67 years or it's over old.

When I said NATO to Wolf Blitzer is obsolete, I got attacked. Three days later, people that study NATO said, you know, Trump is right.

I said it was obsolete. It's no longer obsolete.


LEMON: So Tony, what do you think changed for the president?

[22:05:00] TONY BLINKEN, FORMER UNITED STATES DEPUTY SECRETARY OF STATE: Apparently the president fixed NATO in the couple of months he's been in office. No, look, in fairness, Don, a couple things.

One, any president coming in confronts a barrier and that barrier is called reality, and often the positions they take during a campaign just run right into that barrier and so they change and they adjust and they adapt.

And if that's what's happening, that's a good thing. I think what's unusual about President Trump is the vigor with which he takes on a new position as if he never held the old one.

And counting a little bit on our collective amnesia to forget that he said something diametrically opposed to what he's saying now, but if the end result is a policy and an approach that better reflects reality, and better reflects our interests around the world, that's a good thing.

LEMON: Listen, Tony, no president knows what it's like until you sit in the Oval Office. So is this -- is it that much different than any previous president that you can remember?

BLINKEN: Well, I think it's different in the sense that first we've just seen so many whiplash moments in the last, what, 48 hours, few days. You went through the litany of changes in a very short period of time. That creates a sense of whiplash.

And again, it's also the fact that he simply doesn't acknowledge that he held a diametrically opposite view just a few days, few weeks, or a few months ago. That's what causing this I think moment of confusion. But again...


LEMON: When you look at political part of it, you know, if you're a pundit, and if you're paying close attention, would you say, is this a man who would say anything to get into office, Tony?

BLINKEN: Well, it's definitely an extreme version of that. No politician is immune to that. I think the president arguably has taken it to a new level.


BLINKEN: But Don, here's what concerns me. We're seeing this whiplash. That's one thing. But we're also seeing that he is now trying to rally the world against the misinformation campaign that Russia and Assad are running on the use of chemical weapons in Syria and that puts a premium on credibility.

People need to believe the American president, and yet one thing that hasn't changed even as his policies apparently have is that he continues to put out on a daily basis through his tweets false information. Wrong facts. Misinformation.

Conspiracy theories of one kind of another that undermine the credibility that is one of his most valuable weapons in bringing the world together when faced with a threat like chemical weapons in Syria.

LEMON: Ambassador Woolsey, to you, now, of course President Trump's changing position on Syria following the chemical attack there, here's what the president said on Assad, this was back in 2015 and then today.


TRUMP: So I've watched Assad and a little on the other side. The problem is, the other side of Assad, we have no idea who they are.


ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: So, he's better than that.

TRUMP: They probably are ISIS. I'm saying are we better off with Assad? We have no idea who these people are. We give them weapons, we give them ammunition, we give them everything. Erin, we have no idea who -- maybe it's worse than Assad. So what are we doing? Why are we involved?

Young children dying. Babies dying. Fathers holding children in their arms that were dead. Dead children. There can't be a worse sight and it shouldn't be allowed. That's a butcher. That's a butcher. So, I felt we had to do something about it.


LEMON: So, Ambassador, if you're just watching this at home objectively, you would say this person doesn't know what he's talking about.

JAMES WOOLSEY, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: No, I don't think I would say that. Consistency is not the objective in foreign policy. You're going to be making adjustments and changes...


LEMON: No, I'm talking about when he's campaigning because he said completely different things when he's campaigning then once he got into the White House, there was a different reality and now he know what's happening, but during the campaign he said completely opposite, and if you know what you're talking about, then it shouldn't be different once you get behind that desk.

WOOLSEY: Well, he said that NATO, for example, was obsolete, read in its current form, but he has proposed some changes to it. The allocation of funds, and so forth. So he didn't say it was obsolete and could not be fixed.

And so I think you want to stay away from assuming that each statement is embedded in concrete. Consistency is not what you're after in foreign policy. You have to maintain to it to some degree. But you know, we had most of the United States hated Joseph Stalin in 1940 but we sure had to shift gears in 1941 when he became our close ally against Hitler.

These things are the essence of security and foreign policy decision making and sometimes they change because of politics, sometimes they change because a leader learns something and changes his mind.

It happened to Bill Clinton on dealing with Kosovo. He earlier had stayed away from using force to save the Rwandans and then a lot of -- nearly a million Rwandans were killed.

[22:10:09] And so Bill Clinton thought about that and decided that the next time something like that came up, he was going to use force and he did in Kosovo and it was well done. Should presidents get to change their minds, I think.

LEMON: OK. Well, Tony, to that point, then, my last response and his, let's listen to what the president's take on Russia then and now.


TRUMP: I think I'd get along very well with Vladimir Putin. I just think so.

Putin says very nice things about me. I think that's very nice. I got to know him very well because we were both on 60 Minutes. we were stable mates and we did well that night. Right now we're not getting along with Russia at all. We may be at an

all-time low in terms of relationship with Russia.


LEMON: Well, that didn't take long, did it, Tony?

BLINKEN: Look, it's hard to ignore two things. First, it was impossible for the president to ignore this horrific chemical weapons attack in Syria, and Russia's complicity in that attack. Either by not enforcing the agreement that it brokered in 2013 to stop the regime in Syria from using chemical weapons or perhaps even being directly complicit in the attack, itself.

So having acted rightly, in my judgment, in response to that to the use of chemical weapons, the president couldn't ignore Russia -- Russia's role in it.

The other thing that I think is increasingly difficult for him to ignore is that in place after place around the world, Russia is making real mischief against our interests whether it's in Libya, whether it's in Afghanistan, whether it's in Ukraine or whether it's in Syria.

And so here's another reality moment confronting the president. Now, he still has resisted any effort to get him to speak about Putin, himself, and to condemn Putin's leadership, but you're hearing that from all of his lieutenants and I think he's confronting the reality that Russia is acting in ways amicable to our interests in many places around the world.

LEMON: So, ambassador, let's talk about China. He's saying that China was a currency manipulator and now they're not a currency manipulator. What do you think?

WOOLSEY: Well, they may well not have changed very much in those few days but manipulation is a matter of degree and if you have a foreign policy reason to emphasize that you're starting to get along with China, they voted to abstain rather than veto, for example, on the U.N. resolution on Syria.

If you start to see some positive steps, you can take a positive step without repudiating what you've said or done before. You don't have to stay cleaved to the adjectives that you use the first time through. You can make some adjustments.

LEMON: All right. Ambassador and Tony, thank you very much. I appreciate that.

When we come right back, will all of these changes in policy alienate the president's strongest supporters?


LEMON: Stunning U-turns from President Trump on some of the biggest foreign policy issues. Let's discuss now with CNN political analyst David Gregory is here.

Political commentator, David Swerdlick. Political director, David Chalian, and political analyst, Rebecca Berg. I could have just said a bunch of David's and, you know, a rose. A rose among thorns.

So bear with me, I had a little dental thing today so my mouth is a little swollen. So let's try to get through this. In case you noticed at home.

So you first, David Gregory, we just heard all the president's flip- flops. Russia, NATO, China, on Assad, all changes positions. This is what we tweeted earlier. He said, "One by one, we are keeping our promises on the border, on energy, on jobs, on regulations, big changes are happening." His reaction sounds like some of the news coverage, no.

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think it probably is. You know, I think he -- there's two things that I think go on in his mind. And that is, one, this is all the art of negotiation and that if he pulls back, say, on China, on currency manipulation. Well, he's got a bigger goal in mind and that is that he wants to get help on North Korea and so he is being flexible.

He wants to be unpredictable as well to our allies and to our enemies to scare them, o have them think, gees, what is he capable of? Who knows. I think he looks at these things together and sees the making of a more unconventional foreign and national security policy that can be effective.

And he's flipping in a way that a lot of people don't object to. They think, he's moderating, that's a good thing.

LEMON: But are we, are you, are we being too analytical here? And you know, is there -- was there a strategy or is it he just didn't know until he became president? He said what got him elected.


LEMON: He appealed to his base. And then once he got into the White House, which many people said, you are never going to be able to accomplish that, then he said, well, you know, I just changed my position.

GREGORY: I think in some cases he simply didn't know.


GREGORY: In other cases, I think he -- it's situational awareness. This happens in Syria.

LEMON: Right.

GREGORY: And he does have people around him who are pulling him in a direction that is -- reflects more establishment thinking. Syria is a good example of that with the influence of a Tillerson, of a Mattis, H.R. McMaster. Those are things that you should want in terms of a maturation process from a candidate with no experience to becoming the commander-in-chief.

LEMON: David Chalian, now on China, we got insight into President Trump and his conversation with the Chinese president in the Wall Street Journal today. And Mr. Trump said that -- he said, Mr. Trump said, "He told his Chinese counterpart he believed Beijing could easily take care of North Korea, the North Korea threat."

"Mr. Xi then explained the history of China and Korea." Mr. Trump said, "After listening for 10 minutes I realized it's not so easy." Mr. Trump recounted, "I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power over North Korea," he said, "but it's not what he would think." So, I mean...

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: It reminds us of his words on health care. Who knew it was this complicated?

LEMON: Who knew and a more serious note, though, when you look at what happened in Syria, those horrible pictures have been coming out of Syria for, what, seven years now and he just happened to see them? I mean, many people said he did the right thing, but still, he was -- he just became aware of these things?

[22:20:05] CHALIAN: Well, no, again, I think seeing them outside of being president of the United States and seeing those kinds of images while sitting in the Oval Office is a different experience, no doubt.

I do think we are watching somebody learn on the job. I think that's true for most presidents. There is no comparable position. So I do think in that sense, it's not terribly unusual.

What is a little bit unusual is just because Trump doesn't seem to have real ideological moorings, a real philosophical grounding in sort of a vision for foreign policy, I think that we know that Donald Trump is a pretty flexible person, Don. So I think he's even more flexible in this area because there is no real guiding principle and I think that's what we're seeing unfold.

LEMON: David Swerdlick, the Russia investigation, now heating up once again. Ex-campaign manager -- campaign chairman, I should say, Paul Manafort expected to register as a foreign agent.

The A.P. is reporting that he was paid millions of dollars off the books from a pro-Russian entity, and that was years before the campaign. Manafort says nothing was improper. Here's what President Trump's longtime friend, Tom Barrack, someone who helped introduce Manafort to the campaign, had to say about this.


TOM BARRACK, DONALD TRUMP'S FRIEND: I've known Paul for over 30 years. He's credible. He's reliable. He's an unbelievable pro. I found his character to be bulletproof.

BURNETT: Do you think Manafort was compromised or colluding with the Russians to try to rig this election for Donald Trump in any way? BARRACK: Look, in my personal opinion, it's heresy. It's impossible.

Number one, the president-elect had no inclination of Russia. It wasn't on his radar. It had no purpose in domestic policy.

Number two, Paul Manafort's job, who was working for free, by the way, was singularly a domestic convention which relied on such grassroots politics that Russia, the Ukraine, had no place on this stage.

So I don't know the facts. I'm just saying I know the man. I know the character of the man. I know what happened during that election. I know what happened during the convention. And I would have a hard time believing it.


LEMON: Does it surprise you, David Swerdlick, that Barrack is still vouching for him?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I don't -- it doesn't surprise me. I mean, he knows these individuals. He's a supporter of Trump and the Trump administration and he said he doesn't know all the facts.

I think the trouble with the answers that the Trump camp, that President Trump and his associates have given up to this point, is that it still doesn't answer, Don, the big picture question.

Let's just say for argument's sake that everything that Paul Manafort did was legal and aboveboard, he registers as a lobbyist, he's getting paid by the Yanukovych administration.

Look, people make a living. Lots of Americans work for foreign governments, or lobby for foreign governments. Same goes for Carter Page giving a speech in Russia last year arguing against the U.S. sanctions.

But the question for the Trump administration is, if those guys -- if they were following the law, et cetera, et cetera, why are those the guys in the inner orbit of the Trump campaign and potentially advising a future President Trump on foreign policy vis-a-vis Russia which is a U.S. adversary under which we have sanctioned them since 2014?

They -- and why during all this time was there so much smoke about -- from the mouth of President Trump, himself, about getting along with Russia, you know, speaking -- talking down NATO, talking up the possibility with Russia. It's all smoke but they still really have not satisfactorily answered that.

LEMON: That's a good question. I just proposed that to Rebecca, say what he said. But let me -- let me add that, this on top of that. It's not just Paul Manafort. You also have the Washington Post reporting that the FBI was monitoring ex-Trump adviser Carter Page for acting as an agent for Russia. Carter Page said he wasn't.

So Rebecca, did President Trump just surround himself with doddery people? What's going on here? REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I mean, that's completely a

possible explanation here, Don. And so, you wonder, Donald Trump has said that Carter Page, for example, was not a top aide, he wasn't close to the campaign.

You have Sean Spicer going out there and saying Paul Manafort was nothing more than a volunteer for the campaign and not an important player even at the same time he was campaign manager.

So you have to wonder how influential were these people in the circle? You would think Paul Manafort had great deal of influence and trust in the Trump organization. Carter Page may be not as influential. But then you had Donald Trump mentioning his name second in a list of his foreign policy advisers in an interview with the Washington Post editorial board over the summer.

And so, you have to wonder why these inconsistencies with their stories. But certainly they had some influence in the campaign and it does go back to the judgment of the chief executive of the candidate, and now the president, why did he pick these people to work for him?

[22:25:07] We haven't really had a good explanation from Donald Trump or any of his top advisers as to what qualities he thought were good in these people and why maybe he misjudged them.

The same can go for General Flynn who of course had to resign from this administration because he lied to the vice president, perhaps lied to the president, himself. We don't have those answers yet.

LEMON: All we had is Carter...


CHALIAN: Don, can we just correct the record on one thing Tom Barrack said there?

LEMON: Yes, go ahead.

CHALIAN: I just want to correct the record on one thing in that clip of Tom Barrack. To say that Paul Manafort who was running the convention was dealing with grassroots politics and Russia was nowhere near his mind, I just want to remind everyone that there was a platform battle inside the RNC during the convention that Manafort was managing that was going -- that was a soft on Russia plank that he was responsible for getting inserted into the Republican Party platform. So let's not say that say that...


LEMON: He said that coincidental, had nothing to do with it. But, you know, so far all we've heard is Paul who? Carter who? I don't know those guys. OK. Thank you. Stand by, everyone.

When we come right back, President Trump publicly undercutting one of his top aides. Is the White House in a major shakeup right now?


[22:30:00] DON LEMON, CNN HOST: Is a shakeup coming to President Trump's inner circle? The signs are not good tonight for chief strategist Steve Bannon.

Back now with my panel. I'm not sure if you agree with that, David Gregory. I mean, let's talk more about Steve Bannon. Is he on the way out?

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it's not clear to me that he's on the way out, but he's certainly being marginalized.

LEMON: He's at the kid's table.

GREGORY: Right. Well, functionally. Look, I think the downside to getting rid of Steve Bannon is that he's got a big constituency out there. A grassroots movement that is a big part of the conservative movement, that Donald Trump was relying on and is trying to create with Steve Bannon's help.

But I think the problem Bannon had, was that he was getting bigger than the principal. You know, he was getting too much attention. And frankly, he was responsible for policies that haven't gone so well and they're making the president look bad.

Any president doesn't like to look bad that way. This one, in particular, will not count against anyone being bigger than him or getting more credit than Trump feels that he deserves. And I think that's been a problem.

And of course, if he's at odds with his son-in-law, that's not going to go well, either. Jared Kushner has a very special place in this White House and in President Trump's mind. The contours of that are not, you know, totally knowable, but I think he's a calming influence and certainly directs him in a lot of ways that Trump is very comfortable with. Other people are going to be expendable.

LEMON: At this moment.


LEMON: And who knows what happens in future when it comes to the base, Steve Bannon has way more influence.

GREGORY Right. And I think Trump has always had Bannon around to be a kind of keeper of the flame of that fringe element of the conservative movement that he can offer advice from and keep credibility with because Trump relies on that as part of the -- a leg of the stool of the movement that he's trying to create and that he was successful in creating to get to the White House.

LEMON: That part of the movement may not be helpful in making him a successful president.

GREGORY Right. And they're already -- right, they're already, you know, being problematic on things on Syria, for example. (CROSSTALK)

LEMON: Some of the issues as you said. Right.


LEMON: So, David Swerdlick, any time, you know, you're saying, you know, I like David Swerdlick, but, right, this is from the New York Post. "I like Steve," speaking of Steve Bannon. This is what he said, "I like Steve, but, you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late. I had already beaten all the senators and all the governors and I didn't know -- and I didn't know Steve. I'm my own strategist. And it wasn't like I was going to change strategies because I was facing crooked Hillary."

So it seems like a complete change in tune really for the president almost as if he feels the need to remind everyone who the boss is.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right. It is a change in tune, Don. To David Gregory's point, I think this is an indicator not necessarily that Bannon is going to be dismissed any time soon but that Trump wants to take him down a peg or diminish the perception of his role in influencing policy in the White House.

Donald Trump is loyal to Donald Trump. Donald Trump is the one who likes to make Donald Trump look good. And the other difference between these two men right now in addition to the fact that Bannon is taking some of the blame for the rocky first 80 or going on 100 days of this administration, is that Donald Trump, even though he shoots from the hip, Don, even though he liked to rebel rouse during the campaign, Donald Trump ultimately seeks the praise of the establishment, warrants to be seen as a good guy by all.

Steve Bannon, on the other hands, relishes that role as an irritant, even though Steve Bannon is wealthy, he used to work for Goldman Sachs, went to Harvard, was in the navy, he likes to be seen as someone who is an outsider, an irritant to the Washington class. And I think that those two sort of different positions are rubbing up against each other in a way that's not working for Bannon.

LEMON: You make a very good point. Because for those of us or for people who, you know, have been around Donald Trump for a while, New Yorkers...


LEMON: ... and the people who have been found, he -- the establishment, he wants to be accepted, he wants to be accepted by celebrities.


LEMON: He understands that the New York Times and Washington Post and CNN are American brands and he wants to be loved by those brands but the people in the middle of the country don't get that. That's why he talks about CNN so much and about the New York Times is because -- that's where he comes from.


GREGORY: And I think he gets wrong. Look, Bannon, what did he say, the press needs to shut up or shut its mouth and look other way.


LEMON: That was Bannon.

GREGORY: That was Bannon. Right. And then talking about the press as an opposition. You know, in some ways you could see the influence on Trump when we went off on, you know, on his tangents going after the press. But look how many interviews the guy does. I mean, he loves -- he is both transparent and wants that acceptance. He wants to be legitimate now especially as president.

LEMON: How much do you think, Rebecca, he's bothered by those headlines in the SNL skit, and all of that with, you know, Bannon as the real president? He wants...



LEMON: Go on.

BERG: It's clear that he's hugely bothered, Don. I mean, look at the statements he made about Bannon in the Post and the Wall Street Journal, not only did he dismiss him as just some guy in his administration while he's a chief strategist, and his former campaign chief strategist as well, but he also said in both of these interviews, I am my own strategist.

[22:35:08] LEMON: Right.

BERG: Not anyone else. And of course, the implication being that Steve Bannon is not the one behind the curtain making all of this happens for Donald Trump.


BEWRG: And so you wonder has he seen the president Bannon headlines or has he seen the SNL skit? Whether he has or not, clearly he is irked by this suggestion that Steve Bannon is running the show and really the wizard behind the curtain as opposed to Donald Trump being the one in charge here.

LEMON: I know. And then, him at the small desk. I saw one of those toys in the toy store the other day, too. I almost bought it.

So, listen, David, I have to ask you this, David Chalian, because I don't know if you saw this in the Washington Post, fascinating this evening there's a story in there.

And here's a -- according to sources it says, "Trump's three oldest children, Donald, Jr., Ivanka and Eric, and Kushner, have been frustrated by the impression of chaos inside the White House. The Trump heirs are interested in any changes that might help resuscitate the presidency and preserve the family's name at a time when they are trying to expand the Trump organization's portfolio of hotels."

That's pretty frightening because listen, a possible ousting of Bannon and preserving the Trump brand, I mean, and correct me if I'm wrong here, the sons are supposed to be removed entirely from the political process.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, they have -- they said they removed themselves from the administration, but I don't think it is beyond reason to think that they are concerned with their father's political health as it impacts the Trump brand.

I would be, too, if I were in their shoes. And, you know, David Gregory was talking before about the keeper of the flame and how Bannon could sort of be that role for Donald Trump. Really there's no bigger flame to keep than the Trump brand.

GREGORY: Yes, that's true.

CHALIAN: That is the most important thing to the entire family including Donald Trump.

LEMON: For Trump, you mean, not for the American people.

CHALIAN: Correct. No, no, I do mean for Trump. I am speaking from his perspective. As important as it is to make sure the base of the Bannon base, if you will, stays onboard and is enthusiastic about his presidency, I don't think anything matters to the president more than the Trump brand.

LEMON: All right. Thank you, all. Great panel. See you soon.

GREGORY: Thanks, Don.

BERG: Thank you, Don.

LEMON: When we come back, I'll speak to the man who said this to Kellyanne Conway.


MICHAEL WOLFF, THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER COLUMNIST: When they say democracy dies in darkness, you're the darkness.


LEMON: Conway's response. Can you believe that.

I know, right.


[22:40:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK) LEMON: White House adviser Kellyanne Conway went toe to toe today with my next guest and things got lively, as they always do, with Mr. Michael Wolff, the columnist for the Hollywood Reporter.

Good evening, sir. Thank you for joining us. And he's in D.C. tonight because that's where the story is right now, he says. So, Michael, you interviewed Kellyanne Conway today at this forum about the press and presidency.


WOLFF: I did, indeed.

LEMON: And you asked her about what the media thinks of the Trump administration, mentioning the Washington Post's new slogan democracy dies in darkness. Let's play a moment then we'll discuss.


WOLFF: How personal do you take this?

KELLYANNE CONWAY, DONALD TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: How personal do -- how personally do I take what?

WOLFF: What the -- this coverage of you, democracy dies in darkness, because I'm going to tell you, when they say democracy dies in darkness, you're the darkness.

CONWAY: I'm not the darkness.


WOLFF: You're -- no.


CONWAY: Didn't you see the skit, walking on sunshine?

WOLFF: I don't mean that. That's not --that's not...


CONWAY: You're saying that's what it's meant to be.

WOLFF: Yes. That's not certainly is my fears.

CONWAY: But again, it's what I tell small children, just because somebody says something doesn't make it true. And it's a great lesson for everyone.


LEMON: What did you make of her response, Michael?

WOLFF: You know, well, I think -- I think, you know, it was funny because I was asking her if she took all of this criticism personally, and in answer, she responded taking it very personally, but, and perhaps misunderstanding what I was trying to say.

I mean, I was trying to say that, you know, the Washington Post in the age of Trump, they've now given themselves a new tag line, democracy dies in darkness, which, to me, is ridiculous and preposterous and also pretty pretentious.

And it also sends a clear signal, the Washington Post thinks the Trump administration represent s darkness which I would say is some form of bias. And that...


LEMON: You think they're being specific to -- you think they're being specific to this administration?

WOLFF: Yes, well come on. You know? Democracy dies in darkness. That's a tag line that you put on when Donald Trump becomes president. I would say, yes, and so I asked -- I asked Kellyanne about this and then I think she reacted in a personal -- in a personal manner instead of saying, you know, this is -- this is another indication that the media is in every way, shape, and form stacked against this new administration.

LEMON: Yes. Listen, for those of us who were at the beginning of this, so, Michael, I'm just being honest, it's not that surprising. I mean, Kellyanne often took things personally instead of looking at them in an objective way to the question.

I mean, that's not new for her, but it's surprising that having been in this role for such a while, I would say that she is still doing this. I thought your question was very objective and it wasn't, you know -- there was a way to answer it without saying, no, I don't take it personally but, you know, answer it in the way you did. I do think it's shameful or it's sad that they had to put that moniker on their newspaper.

WOLFF: Yes, I mean, I think she could have answered it in many ways but I do think one of the -- one of the things that actually has made her effective as a spokesperson for the president, at least as -- at least effective for a part of the electorate, is that she responds in this -- in this visceral manner.

[22:45:05] LEMON: Yes. Can we -- I want to play some other things so, listen, we're losing time here. And it's my fault. I sort of meandered a little bit. You also asked her about the news being truthful, and take a listen to this.


CONWAY: Turn on the TV, more than you can read in the paper because I assume editors are still doing their jobs in most places and people literally say things that just aren't true. They're not even disguised as opinion. Yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP) LEMON: The crowd laughed presumably because in February, Conway cited a nonexistent massacre as justification for the president's immigration ban. She also referred to alternative facts. I mean, do you think -- does she have a credibility problem? And is she aware of it, if so?

WOLFF: Well, you know, the other day I was in a discussion actually on CNN which I got a lot of blow-back for in which I said that the New York Times and the Trump administration are equally unreliable narrators, and I continue to think that that is -- that that's true.

That from, we polarized both sides of the aisle, so to speak, here. The media side and the White House side and they are both have become so defensive and aggressive that that truth is a casualty.

LEMON: Why do you think the president keeps going back to, then, you know, if what you say is true, keeps going back to the New York Times, to the Washington Post, to these organizations that he calls not credible?

WOLFF: You know, that was a question I asked Kellyanne today and I specifically referenced Maggie Haberman at the New York Times, and she tried to be -- tried to be diplomatic about this because I said, you know, the president doesn't like Maggie Haberman and she said, no, that that's not true.

And I said, well, actually me, has said to me he doesn't like Maggie Haberman. And the truth is, I have no idea why would he -- why would he single out a reporter who he does not like who actually on a regular basis in front-page stories makes fun of him, matter of fact, her beat is sort of Donald Trump is the aberrant president.

And yet, there he is, calling her up and having her into the Oval Office. I think it must be that he, you know, he wants the New York Times to like him.

LEMON: Well, he's a New Yorker and he thinks the New York Times -- he knows the New York Times is credible. That's why he has really no other answer. Michael Wolff, always a pleasure. I'll see you here in New York soon hopefully.

WOLFF: Great.

LEMON: Thank you.

WOLFF: Thanks.

LEMON: Thank you.

When we come right back, I'm going to ask a former White House press secretary, can Sean Spicer keep his job?


LEMON: Sean Spicer says, quote, "I let the president down." And certainly did with his stunning claim that Hitler didn't use chemical weapons. But will apologies be enough to get him off the hook?

Someone who knows all about the job is , who was the White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan for President George W. Bush. And I bet you watch every day and say thank goodness that's over for me? Am I right?

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I definitely glad I'm not the guy at the podium anymore.

LEMON: You know better than anybody.


MCCLELLAN: I don't have the time to watch him that much.

LEMON: Yes. You know that press secretary is a hard job. I mean, you know better than anyone else. Do you think, does Spicer's comparison to Hitler and Assad, rank among the all-time gaffes in the room?

MCCLELLAN: Well, it was pretty disturbing and it's certainly indefensible. And you know, he should have been, well, he should have never said it first place. But, it took him a couple days to get to where, about 24 hours to get to where he needed to be by saying it was inexcusable and reprehensible and he was right.

But you know, this one, the problem with this, it's that it is starting to be perceived as a pattern. This isn't the only blunder. This was a douse of a blunder. But there are other blunders, then you top that with the fabrications, you top that with the baseless assertions. And people are starting to go, well, wait a second here, this is kind of only reinforcing the worst perceptions of this president and this White House.


LEMON: You say that? Why do you say that?

MCCLELLAN: And it's never good. It became the story.

LEMON: Why do you say it reinforces the worst perceptions?


LEMON: And by the way, it took him, it wasn't 24 hours. I mean, pretty a couple hours afterwards, he was on Wolf Blitzer's show and just, you know, I mean, he was pretty humble saying that he, there was no excuse for what he said.


LEMON: But why do you say this reinforces the worst perceptions of the Trump White House?

MCCLELLAN: Yes. I was talking about the -- about his remarks this morning...

LEMON: Yes. MCCLELLAN: ... I guess where he got to even a stronger apology, if you will. And I think most people look at this and say, except for those hardened partisans. OK, we accept the apology. We understand.

But the problem is, again, there is just that pattern that developed. And when I say it reinforcements the worst perceptions of this president it starts to, people start to look at it and say, well, this is emblematic of a president that lacks a breadth and depth of people.

They are seasoned in governing, they are competent in governing. This is a president emblematic of a president that has a disregard for the truth. This is emblematic of a president who has a staff around him that reinforces his worst instincts and his worst ways of governing instead of helping him to navigate that D.C. landscape and get things done.

And certainly, when you become the story, whether you're Bannon, or Conway or Spicer. When you become the story, it's never good. When you are taken away from the president, the president's agenda and his ability to advance that agenda. It's that person that sits in the Oval Office, that is most important. And you are not the one that should be, becoming that story.

LEMON: So, and I want to play what you said -- he was on Wolf Blitzer's show yesterday on The Situation Room. He was on Fox News tonight, and then earlier today, at the forum, this is part of his apology tour. Listen to this.


SEAN SPICER, UNITED STATES WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I made a mistake. There is no other way to say it. I got into a topic that I shouldn't have. And -- I screwed up. I mean, you know, I hope people understand that, that we all make mistakes. I hope I show that I understand that I did that. And that -- that I saw people's forgiveness. Because I screwed up.

[22:55:07] And, you know, I hope each person can understand that, that, part of -- part of existing is understand that when you do something wrong if you own up to it, you do it. You let people know. And I did.

On a professional level it's disappointing because I think I've let the president down. And so, on both a personal level and professional level that was definitely go down as, not a very good day in my -- my history.


LEMON: OK. So, he threw himself on the sword there. But listen, I'm wondering if that makes up for all of this. Because that's not the first time that he misspoke in the briefing room. Let's listen.


SPICER: And it was just unfortunate that, that my mistake helped create a distraction from the president, the great work that he is doing for this country. And frankly...

Largest audience to witness an inauguration period. On Fox News on March 14, Judge Andrew Napolitano made the following statement, quote. "Three intelligence sources have informed Fox News that President Obama went outside the chain of command.

There's been discussion of Paul Manafort who played a limited role for a very limited amount of time.


LEMON: So the question is, is this, is he too damaged to continue? Or do you think the apology tour is going to work for him?

MCCLELLAN: Well, I think because it's becoming a pattern that he has a -- and he began with a very small margin of error. He had a little bit of a cushion because some of the White House reporters knew him. But then he started off as the you show that very first day. Talking about the crowd size, and people are going what? And coming out there confrontational.

And so I think that that margin of error has gotten smaller and smaller over time. And there is very little room for error anymore. The unforced errors keep coming. And, you are not even 90 days into the presidency. When the president has struggled to advance his agenda through Congress.

And then you have a distraction like this. You have distraction like the infighting. You have distractions like the people trying to promote their own interest. Maybe over the interest of the president and his agenda. And that becomes very problematic.

And so, he needs to be very thoughtful going forward. Because I am sure that the president, chief of staff are looking at this, and I suspect at some point there is going to be a shake-up in this White House. There are -- most White Houses, at some point I think is going to come sooner in this White House than others.

LEMON: Do you think that the president will fire him?

MCCLELLAN: I don't know. It doesn't sound like they're going to do anything immediately right now. And, I'm not sure whether or not that's justified or not. But, you know I can never envision myself in a position that he has put himself in, where he willfully sacrifices his credibility from day one in that press office or that podium to continuing throughout this presidency.

And that's what the president seems to want him to do, be supportive of him doing. But he need to step back and think about this is what I want to be remembered for?

LEMON: Well can I ask you something, since you have been in that position. When do you stand up to the president, say Mr. President I can't say that, or maybe we should, we should, say it this way, or maybe, I don't know if he feels that he can do that. Because when I'm watching him. I know we hear that all the time. He is

the audience of one. Maybe that, maybe he should have an audience of more than one. When should he stand up to the president and say I can't do this because not only does it undermine my credibility but your credibility and the administration's credibility.

MCCLELLAN: Well, he should have on day one when the president sent him out there to the podium to do what he did on day one and state things that were demonstrably false. But, and he need help from that. I mean, you need a chief of staff to be able to step up to the president and say, look this is not going to help you. This is not going to help us advance our agenda.

LEMON: Right.

MCCLELLAN: He needs his credibility. The most important asset you have without White House press corps as your credibility. And you need it in those difficult times. He is going through a difficult time.

LEMON: I got...


MCCLELLAN: He's been through some difficult times before.

LEMON: Yes. I got to go. Scot McClellan, thank you so much.

MCCLELLAN: He's just got to maintain that.

LEMON: Thank you, sir. I appreciate it.

MCCLELLAN: Thank you.

LEMON: Thank you. We'll be right back.