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AT THIS HOUR

Turmoil, Turnover Roil The West Wing; Source: Trump Fuming After Sessions' Pushback; WAPO: Mueller Probing Trump's Effort To Oust Sessions; Kushner Faces Federal State Scrutiny Over Loans; Trump Shakes Up Gun Conversation But Debate Rages On; Sources: White House Aides Caught Off Guard By Tariff Announcement. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired March 1, 2018 - 11:00   ET

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


[11:00:10]

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. I'm Erica Hill in today for Kate Bolduan.

The turmoil, the turnover and we're not just talking about the west wing here, but within the president's inner circle. Hope Hicks dropping that bombshell, she is leaving. The president's fourth communications director, but more importantly, she's been one of his closest and most trusted aides. That announcement, of course, coming just a day after she admitted to Congressional investigators she told white lies on the president's behalf.

Meantime, Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner fighting to survive himself in the White House, though, that may not be his biggest problem. Federal prosecutors reportedly looking at massive loans given to his troubled business.

And Attorney General Jeff Sessions pushing back after the president calls his handling of complaints against the FBI disgraceful. The "Washington Post" saying their relationship has hit a new low with Mr. Trump labeling his long-time supporter Mr. McGoo behind closed doors.

We begin this hour at White House with CNN's Kaitlan Collins. Kaitlan, in terms of Hope Hicks, and this resignation, is it tied to that testimony?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: It is not directly tied to that actually, Erica. But many drew that conclusion when she stepped down suddenly yesterday after being in front of the House Intelligence Committee the day before for several hours.

And as Hope Hicks told the communications staff here at the White House good-bye, she said and made very clear she felt like now is the right time for her to go, but it had nothing to do with those recent headlines, which some took to say she was denying that speculation it was because of that testimony.

But, Erica, there is no denying that this is one of the most significant departures we have seen in this White House in these last 13 months. Because Hope Hicks is not just a top aide, but also one of the president's closest confidantes and was often compared to being one of his family members.

So, it's very significant that she's leaving. This is someone who rarely left the west wing because the president would so frequently yell for her to come into the oval office to discuss whatever was on his mind.

So certainly, significant and it also goes to show just how much the president's inner circle in the west wing is shrinking because now Keith Schiller, his long-time bodyguard has left. Hope Hicks is leaving. His daughter and son-in-law, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump are not seemed to be long for this world

So, it is a very big question of just how many of the president's top aides are really left here that truly know him and who will fill that role. As we just said, that's a role that has been entertained by many people and just 13 months here, Erica. It's a question of who really wants a job like that.

HILL: It is not an easy one. Even the most transparent of administrations. Kaitlan, you have new reporting this morning on Jeff Sessions, pushing back against the president's insults. What more are you learning?

COLLINS: Well, the president is actually furious with Jeff Sessions, not just as he has been over the almost year now. He's furious with Jeff Sessions because of what he did yesterday in response to the president's tweet where he called Jeff Sessions disgraceful and criticized the way the Department of Justice is handling those alleged surveillance abuses.

The president saying it was disgraceful in a tweet, and though, Jeff Sessions has not responded when the president called him weak, very weak or said he regretted picking him as the attorney general, Jeff Sessions did put out a statement yesterday, pushing back against the president, defending the Department of Justice and that did not sit well with President Trump.

And a source familiar with his demeanor tells me that he was indignant yesterday after that statement from Sessions came out. And it is just the latest spat in this long simmering feud between the president and his attorney general, so when he's been frustrated with, since he recused himself from overseeing the Russia investigation last March.

HILL: I want to ask you about Chief of Staff John Kelly, Kaitlan, making light in some ways of the dysfunction in the White House. What is he saying?

COLLINS: Yes, that's right. The chief of staff, John Kelly, actually disappeared at a Department of Homeland Security event (inaudible) he used to helm, and he has something to say about what it is like in the west wing. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GENERAL JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: Six months, the last thing I wanted to do is walk away from one of the great honors of my life, being the secretary of homeland security, but I did something wrong and God punished me, I guess.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COLLINS: So, Erica, John Kelly laughing there, but it is hard to deny this is quite some job he's had for the last few months, especially over the last few days with the flurry of headlines, lots of turmoil happening currently in the west wing.

HILL: Yes, turmoil that does not appear to be letting up anytime soon. Kaitlan, thank you.

In terms of that toxic relationship between President Trump and his attorney general, it is raising more than eyebrows. It may also raise legal questions. The "Washington Post" reporting Special Counsel Robert Mueller is looking into the president's apparent efforts last summer to oust Sessions.

CNN justice reporter, Laura Jarrett joins now from the Justice Department with more on that. So, what are we learning here?

[11:05:04] LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Erica, while the president is fuming, lashing out at his attorney general, the "Post" is reporting that Special Counsel Mueller is looking back in time, really, zeroing in on a period of time in late July and August of last year where we all remember Trump lashing out again on Twitter about Jeff Sessions, calling him everything from weak to beleaguered.

Going as far as telling the "New York Times" that if he had known that Sessions was going to recuse from the Russia probe, he would not have hired him in the first place. But the "Post" is reporting that Mueller is paying attention to this, not just because of name calling, but because it could potentially go to issues of obstruction of justice.

Because, of course, the issue of -- in all of this, in the legal sense, is whether the president had a corrupt intent. And so, the "Post" reports that Mueller's team is actually questioning witnesses about this issue and about the reason fueling those tweets.

And if the reason behind it was to oust Jeff Sessions, so that it would essentially change the course of the Russia investigation, then that could be potential sticking point for the president -- Erica.

HILL: Laura Jarrett with the latest there. Laura, thank you.

JARRETT: Thanks.

HILL: President Trump's son-in-law meantime Jared Kushner facing blistering scrutiny over his finances. The "New York Times" reporting his troubled family business received more than half a billion dollars in loans after White House meetings with potential lenders. A source tells CNN that New York's banking regulator is looking into Kushner's ties to three banks.

I want to bring in our panel now, Patrick Healy, CNN political analyst and deputy culture editor for the "New York Times," Caitlin Huey-Burns from "Real Clear Politics," and CNN senior political analyst, Mark Preston.

As we look at all of this, look, there is the chance here, everything could be completely above board, but this is why we know government officials divest before they move into those roles. The optics alone, Mark, raises serious questions.

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Erica, the hubris alone raises questions. The fact that he would actually do this, that he would meet with these folks knowing full well that his company was trying to obtain these massive loans to keep his company afloat and to move forward is just absolutely outrageous.

You know, Erica, the only thing that is really protecting the Trump campaign right now or rather the Trump associates and the president himself from actions such as these is just this vitriol and hatred for Washington. People are looking in at Washington and they're saying, listen, if Donald Trump is going to do it, they always do it.

They have always done it. We know what people think about the institution of Congress, we know how low the approval ratings are. And in many ways, I think the likes of Jared Kushner is getting away with that because of the antipathy and anger directed at Washington.

HILL: When you look at it through that lens, we can't ignore this is really the latest in a series after voidable headlines. The "Wall Street Journal" Editorial Board today making the case that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner would actually be serving the president much better if they were outside of the west wing. So, when does this actually become a liability, Caitlan, for the president?

CAITLIN HUEY-BURNS, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "REALCLEARPOLITICS": Well, it already seems to be becoming a liability because we have seen these headlines over the past couple of days, remember, earlier this week, Ivanka Trump, a lot of questions about the lines in which she was a representative of the delegation in South Korea, but also taking that first daughter role.

You had Jared and the security clearance revoked, raising a lot of questions about what exactly he would be able to do in his role with this vast portfolio you have and now with this, you have the optics are very important and the questions of pay for play.

And those are some questions that were raised by the Trump campaign about the Clintons during the presidential campaign. So, this all looks -- this all looks bad. And it also comes as Kaitlan mentioned earlier that the president's inner circle has been diminished in the White House.

Which makes me ask the question, what will this mean now for Trump when you have his daughter and son-in-law on the ropes, you have his close right hand woman leaving the White House, what would this prompt Trump to do in this moment of insecurity?

HILL: I like it that you read my mind for where I would like to go next with this, something I wanted to post to you, Patrick, when we look at this inner circle shrinking with Hope Hicks leaving at this point, the remaining inner circle in the west wing, loyalty is paramount as we know to this president, what is the impact now? When we're down to really two players.

PATRICK HEALY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: This is huge, Erica. Hope Hicks was so close to President Trump from the very beginning, and President Trump, throughout his career, has kept a very tight inner circle of business associates, close friends, aides, and especially family members. He's not someone who is, you know, on the phone all the time drawing in from different people.

[11:10:04] He's someone who had a very tight knit world and this -- I think that is really the question that is hovering over this White House now, which is how will President Trump operate both effectively or temperamentally without the sort of band of loyalists and allies who really matter to him?

And in some ways, you can certainly see the argument for Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner staying in maybe in different, you know, different levels of visibility than they have now, but staying by his side. He is someone who is essentially sort of losing people and that is destabilizing for him.

So, again, Hope Hicks departing is such a big deal because he has taken, you know, he's taken sort of confidence, he's really -- it has been important to him to have these kind of -- intimates he can confide in and that is definitely shrinking.

HILL: Is there anyone, Mark Preston, who can fill that void as we are seeing this shrink and there are, as you point out. We know about the phone calls, we know about this tight circle that the president can call on, but is there anybody within the circle that the president trusts who could step in at this point?

PRESTON: You know, it's a very good question and not off the top of my head. I would say this, certainly not within the administration. I don't think there is anybody there that will rise to the level of as Patrick says a family member.

Hope Hicks wasn't a family member, but in many ways so close to the family, she had worked for Ivanka Trump. So, I don't know who goes in and really becomes this soother in chief, right, somebody -- the person who can go in and perhaps dial back some of the frustration and anger we have come to know from President Trump when he watches television or feels that he is slighted.

Now, the second question is who is going to be the communications director. This is a position that in past administrations has been a gigantic job. This is something that you strive to go for. Perhaps when named within the administration would be Mercedes Schlapp (ph), somebody who has been around for a while that could fill that role.

But I don't want to underestimate the fact that they actually need some kind of communications strategy because they don't have one.

HILL: We're going to have to end our communication there. Mark Preston, Caitlin Huey-Burns, Patrick Healy, thank you all. Coming up, the NRA pushing back against President Trump after he endorses a variety of measures the gun lobby does not support. Will the president stand his ground?

Plus, breaking this morning, Russian President Vladimir Putin today unveiling a new nuclear missile, and boasting it is invincible to all existing defense systems. Now, the U.S. is responding. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:16:51]

HILL: One Republican senator calling it surreal. During yesterday's brainstorming session with lawmakers on guns, President Trump tended to agree with Democrats and even put some ideas on the table that have riled the NRA. These comments really, though, raise some eyebrows. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Some of you people are petrified of the NRA. You can't be petrified. In your bill, what are you doing about the 18 to 21?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are going to change that.

TRUMP: OK, are you going to leave that? You're afraid of the NRA, right? This is not a popular thing to say in terms of the NRA, but I'm saying it anyway. It doesn't make sense I have to wait until I'm 21 to get a handgun, but I can get this weapon at 18. I don't know. I like taking the guns early -- take the guns first, go through due process second. If you add conceal carry to this, you'll never get it passed.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: CNN's Sunlen Serfaty joins us from Capitol Hill. So, how are the president's comments going over today?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think it continues to really stun a lot of lawmakers up here on Capitol Hill, Erica. Many of whom returned back up here on the Hill really scratching their heads at many of the specific things that the president had to say yesterday.

And really questioning how this changes and mixes up the dynamics of a politics of this debate going forward. You have many Republicans clearly frustrated that that kind of freewheeling open session that played out in front of live tv really led the president to embrace some Democratic policy ideas that many Republicans up here on Capitol Hill do not support and they know that the leaders know cannot get passed through in this political climate up here.

You have many Democrats fiercely skeptical that -- of what President Trump said, what he did embrace and what he did endorse essentially yesterday, speaking of Chris Murphy, who is working on some legislation with Senator Cornyn up here. He was very frustrated, saying I wonder if essentially the president is going to stick with what he said. Here is what he had to say last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY (D), CONNECTICUT: He's such a good dealmaker, go out and find 10 or 15 Republicans who will support it. I don't know yet whether that was just a performance or whether that is actually the new position of the White House.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SERFATY: And that use of the word performance really key, we've heard that from many lawmakers since that meeting yesterday, the fact that this did play out in front of live tv and lawmakers up here want the president to be very specific at legislation.

He not only does support but what legislation he's willing to push for and fight for and that was what Chris Murphy was essentially saying, by saying he has to deliver the votes, he has to deliver the amount of Republicans and give them some political cover so that they can get to a legislation that can get 60 in the Senate.

That said, Erica, we will potentially see if there will be more clarity that comes from the White House today as they discuss their gun and school safety proposals.

HILL: So that is happening today. But real quickly, is there a feeling, there is frustration as we heard there in this question about what will we see from the president in terms of specifics and support moving forward. Is there a sense that anything is going to start to move today?

SERFATY: Likely not. That's the feeling up here on Capitol Hill. We heard from the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on the floor moments ago and he did not mention this debate at all. It was complete silence from him about everything going on.

[11:20:07] The real reality of the situation is you have multiple proposals, you have a lot of ideas, the president hasn't come fully behind one and one that could potentially pass.

HILL: We'll be watching that as you point out the president holding more meeting with lawmakers on school safety today, so we'll look for that as well. Sunlen, thank you.

Let's dig in a little bit deeper. CNN political commentator and Democratic strategist, Joe Trippi, and former presidential writer for George W. Bush, Ned Ryun, who is now head of the conservative group, American Majority. Both joining me. Gentlemen, good to have both of you here.

There is a lot of questions and legitimate questions this morning about where the president stands, and what his words will mean not just today but tomorrow. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: Crossed everybody's mind, is this a Tuesday Trump or the Thursday Trump, it is a Wednesday, so don't know. We'll see. I hope that he sticks to it. He expressed support to raise the minimum age for assault weapon purchase to 21. Senator Feinstein and I have legislation to do that. So, it is just introduced today. So, I hope that he sticks to it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: Skepticism there, not just coming from Democrats but from Republicans as well. The president and the White House have not been firm specifically when we talk about raising the age limit to 21. We have seen the president go back and forth before. Immigration a perfect example here, Ned. So, do you agree with Jeff Flake? Is there a legitimate question about where the president will be today or even tomorrow?

NED RYUN, FORMER WRITER FOR PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I think what we saw yesterday was, again, another very open session, spit balling ideas that I think some people want to read a lot of things into. But I will say this, as a Trump supporter, what gave me pause was when he said let's take guns and we'll worry about due process later.

What I hope he was talking about, and again, we'll get clarity, is if he's talking about a gun violence restraining order approach and properly written would allow police to secure weapons from a dangerous person after a judge's consent and allow that person to have recourse in 72 hours, I'm open to having that conversation.

So, I think we need to clearly define what was actually being discussed. In regards to racing the age limit from 18 to 21, I mean, that opens up a whole other can of worms. Are we going to talk about military age, voting age, bifurcated system where you can do some things at 18 but not others?

I think the thing that needs to be clarified in all of this, there is broad bipartisan support for fixing the national instant criminal background system. I think that needs to be fixed. It needs to be fully funded.

I think these federal agencies, everyone needs to be compelled to upload the correct information, whether it is dishonorable discharge, domestic abuse, felonies, so that these things can be done correctly moving forward.

But my concern is, Erica, when people try to go too far, and I actually agree with Trump, there shouldn't be national reciprocity in this bill, at the same time when Dianne Feinstein is bringing up let's ban all weapons of war -- let's focus on what we can do to get real reform. Background check is where we have bipartisan support.

HILL: Well, background checks and fix-nics are two different things. We are talking about universal background checks, that's different. Are you saying that reforms should stop at fix-nics, basically enforcing what is out there? RYUN: First of all, we have to actually fix what is out there in regards to nics because there are a lot of things. Let's think about the Sutherland Springs shooter, if we -- if the Air Force had properly notified the FBI, he wouldn't been able to get a gun.

HILL: Absolutely and we've seen -- some of our own reporting here has dug in, digging in and letting us know that thousands have been now added in the wake of Texas because of that from the military. But just yes or no on that, are you saying we need to stop at fix-nics and that's good enough?

RYUN: No, I think that's the first step. Let's get that fixed and then if we have to have the conversation about going further, let's have that conversation. I feel like people want to go from Point A to Point Z and let's say -- let's do a, b, c first and if that doesn't work, we can have the conversation about other things in the future.

JOE TRIPPI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: The problem here is that the president is at Point A and Point Z. I mean, you know, basically, this is about presidential leadership. There has been a big shift in this country, it is clear, the ground is shifting beneath everybody's feet on this issue, the Republicans in the House and the Senate know that.

And the president is the one person in his party and in the country right now who could lead -- Nixon goes to China kind of thing, where he can actually lead the rank and file in this party and his base to common sense gun laws that start to address this problem. But no one knows where he is.

This is, like, the bill of love that got people all excited and thought we would have a DACA fix that has never happened and still a problem. This one is not going to happen that way.

HILL: In terms of -- and you're putting out here the president could really lead on this, the NRA not surprisingly coming out against many of the proposals that were discussed yesterday, calling this great tv, but not much more than that, but the president this week said, look, you can't be afraid of the NRA.

We've heard him say it during the meeting yesterday. He said sometimes you have to be willing to fight the NRA. So, Joe, do you believe that this is the president who could stand up to the NRA and say, we need to have a real conversation?

[11:25:10] TRIPPI: Well, he said things like this before in other instances and then backed away once the backlash came from the base. So, we'll see what happens. I agree with Ned, the real interesting one was taking guns and then doing due process later.

HILL: That had a lot of people scratching their heads. We should point out. But the country, you look at the country itself, the country isn't waiting for Washington to act because we have seen this in the past, and we have seen not much happen.

We're looking at companies stepping forward, looking at the kids who are incredibly vocal. We see the polling showing 70 percent of Americans want to see stricter gun laws in this country and it is not the first time we have looked at companies, at kids, at the American people lead the way. So, Ned, when does Washington start to catch up?

RYUN: Well, I think we'll see the first real test this fall in the elections. I would like everybody to be very clear, Republicans and Democrats, how they're running on the gun issue in November. Democrats put up a bill in the House in which they said they want to ban and do away with all semi-automatic weapons. Fine.

Run on that bill very clearly in November. Republicans should be very clear as to where they stand on the gun issue and let's let the American people decide in the midterms how they actually feel when push comes to shove on the gun issue.

And, you know, Erica, I would actually challenge if Democrats feel this strongly about it, be very clear, especially with the 10 Democrat senators that are up for re-election in red states, run on that gun bill in which they want to do away with all semi-automatic weapons and see how it works for them in November.

HILL: Well, listen, in terms of Democrats, I think we can say very clearly here, they are not in lockstep with one another for all the finger pointing from Democrats and Republicans for not doing anything, there are the Joe Manchins of the world.

And so, what will it take for them to move on and these are the words of the president, he wants to see a comprehensive bill. What will it take for the Joe Manchins of the world to move on a comprehensive bill?

TRIPPI: I think there are plenty of Democrats who are willing to meet halfway and start to make real common sense -- a plight for a common- sense bill. It is unclear enough Republicans in -- they have the majority, are going to stand up to the NRA and it is unclear by the way, Ned talks about Democrats need to be clear, the president is the one who can lead on this.

And that's where I really think we're at that moment where he really can give everybody enough of a shield to join with him and reach across and start building -- doing real sensible things, making it 18 to 21, you know.

Just a lot of common sense things that majority of the people, 70 percent, 97 percent for universal background checks, but Washington can't get that done and the president is the one that can lead enough Republicans and I think bring Democrats together to get it done and get something done for once.

Instead of what happens after all of these tragedies, a lot of talk, a lot of posturing, before the cameras, like the show that was put on, like the DACA bill of love thing and then nothing happens.

HILL: We will have to watch and see. The president may step into that role, he's hearing it from a lot of people and we'll have to see what happens next. Joe, Ned, we have to leave it there. Appreciate it. Thank you, both.

I want to get straight to some breaking news from the White House. Aides scrambling to prepare a trade policy on steel and aluminum. The president apparently wants to make an announcement today, the issue, the policy wasn't ready.

CNN White House reporter, Jeremy Diamond, is here with more. So, Jeremy, what are you learning?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes, that's right, Erica. The president told aides yesterday that he was eager to make this policy announcement on steel and aluminum. White House aides have been crafting this policy in recent weeks. The president has been eager to impose these trade tariffs on steel and aluminum imports to protect the domestic manufacturers of those products.

But the president, despite wanting to make that announcement, the policy isn't actually ready. White House aides yesterday morning were meeting with lawyers from the Office of Legal Counsel, the White House Counsel's Office, who indicated that it would take perhaps weeks before they could actually have a policy ready to issue this proclamation that would levy these steep tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.

There was a lot of confusion and chaos at the White House this morning, even among those aides who have been working to craft this policy over the last days and weeks. And this morning White House official telling me they were still going back and forth on whether this announcement would actually happen.

The latest from the White House is that it now appears that those aluminum and steel executives who were quickly ushered over to the White House overnight will now instead of being present for a major announcement on steel and aluminum trade tariffs will instead be participating in a listening session behind closed doors with the president and the Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. But a lot of this still in flux.