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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES
Source: Trump's V.A. Pick Not Withdrawing For Now; Interview with Sen. Jon Tester (D), Montana; President Trump Lashes Out Amid Cohen Investigation; Source: White House Debating if Pruitt Can Stay at EPA; President Trump and First Lady Host French President at First State Dinner. Aired on 8-9p ET
Aired April 24, 2018 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[20:00:13] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Good evening.
We begin tonight, keeping them honest, with some simple questions that took on new urgency tonight, with late developments and breaking news on the president's choice to run the Department of Veterans Affairs, second in size only to the Pentagon. If the president hires only the best people, why aren't they still on the job? Why have so many left the administration? Why are others serving other ethical clouds? Why are some facing so much difficulty getting confirmed?
Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson met with the president late today. The White House physician is facing allegations from whistleblowers of excessive drinking and improperly dispensing prescription drugs and creating a toxic work environment, allegations being investigated by the Republican-controlled Senate committee handling his nomination, which suspended hearings on it.
And that's on top of long standing bipartisan concerns that Rear Admiral Jackson has no experience running large organizations which the V.A. certainly is, more than 300,000 employees working there. Yet, with all that, sources tell us he's not bowing out, not tonight at least, and the White House is gearing up to defend him, releasing testimonials from President Obama and George W. Bush.
In a moment, a senator of the Veterans Affairs Committee joins us. We'll certainly ask him about a larger question that this nomination brings to light. How does a president who champions extreme vetting on foreigners, not even do basic vetting of people responsible for multibillion dollar agencies or the country's national security? How does what we've seen again and again over the last year and a half square with the promise the president made again and again during the campaign?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're going to make America great again. We're going to use our best people.
I'm going to get the best people.
We're going to deliver. We're going to get the best people in the world. We don't want people who are B-level, C-level, D-level. We have to
get our absolute best.
We're going to use our smartest and our best. We're not using political hacks anymore.
It's a sophisticated chess match. But I have the best people lined up.
You need people that are truly, truly capable. We have to get the best people.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: We have to get the best people. Statements don't come much plainer than that or promises. Yet time and time again, the record shows this president has failed to live up to the pledge. In fact, when you look back on the last year and a half, a pattern emerges of the president making personal -- bad personnel choices and paying the price for it.
And by bad, we're not talking about policy or even political choices. That's what elections are for, to endorse or reject the given political agenda.
No, by bad, we mean undisclosed conflicts of interests bad. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, for example, the best people.
Alleged corruption bad. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the best people.
Poor judgment bad. Secretary Treasury Steve Mnuchin and his wife who Instagrammed the pictures of leaving their taxpayer-funded government jet bragging about the designer brands Ms. Mnuchin was wearing. The best people.
Accused spousal abuse bad, that would be fired White House staff secretary Rob Porter. The best people.
And even felony indictment bad, national security adviser Michael Flynn and campaign chairman Paul Manafort. This is an administration has seen all of the above and critics say brought most of it on itself.
Take Dr. Jackson. Earlier today, before meeting with him this evening, President Trump all but showed him the door.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: What does he need it for? To be abused by a bunch of politicians that aren't thinking nicely about our country? I really don't think personally he should do it, but it's totally his decision. I would stand behind him. Totally his decision.
(END VIDEO CLIP) COOPER: The president said he was not aware of the allegations against Dr. Jackson. The question, of course, is why? Our sources tell us there was no vetting at all, none, call it extreme non-vetting if you will.
So, the question is, how did Rear Admiral Jackson get the job? Well, as we know, there's a report that the president was impressed by his press conference, the one where he talked about just how incredibly healthy the president is.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DR. RONNY JACKSON, WHITE HOUSE PHYSICIAN: He has a lot -- he has a lot of energy, a lot of stamina, hands down. There's no question that he is -- he is in the excellent range from a cardiac standpoint. His overall health is excellent. His heart exam, like I said, I think was in the excellent category for his age and sex. I think he will remain fit for duty for the remainder of this term and even for the remainder of another term if he's elected.
REPORTER: Can you explain to me how a guy who eats McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken all those Diet Cokes and never exercises is in as good a shape as you say he's in?
JACKSON: It's called genetics. I don't know. Some people have, you know, just great genes. The answer to you question is he has incredibly good genes. And it's just the way God made him.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: So, Dr. Jackson, he praised on his patient. Yet, CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta pointed out at the time, he described symptoms in the president of heart disease while calling him, as you heard, excellent from a cardiac standpoint. So, the very least, he said medically questionable things. He certainly said flattering things and he looked good on TV which counts a lot with the president. The best people.
The president chose Scott Pruitt to slash EPA regulations. However, lately, he's been making headlines for a variety of conflicts of interest and alleged corruption, some of which dates back to before his appointment, but did not prevent him from getting the job.
The supposedly best people have been hired and fired at a brutal clip.
[20:05:01] Rarely has the phrase "serving at the pleasure of the president" been taken quite so literally. And rarely or never have hiring decisions come with so seemingly little preparation.
As we said, Dr. Jackson's troubles began on Capitol Hill with the bipartisan slate of senators, one of whom joins now. He's Senator Jon Tester, ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
Senator, thanks so much for being with us.
SEN. JON TESTER (D), MONTANA: It's great to be with you. Thank you. COOPER: There are a number of allegations and there's a lot of information I know that you are allowed to share with us I think for the first time. I understand there are three major allegations and I kind of want to go through them one by one. First of all, the allegation that he improperly dispensed prescription drugs -- do you know what drugs were dispensed?
TESTER: Yes, I can't tell you exactly the name because I'm not a pharmacist but these are drugs that are meant to put people asleep and wake them back up. They're controlled substances. They're prescriptions. The word is, is that on overseas trips in particular, the admiral would go down the aisle way of the airplane and say, all right, who wants to go to sleep and hand out the prescription drugs.
COOPER: So, you're talking about like an Ambien type?
TESTER: Yes, that's exactly right. And put them to sleep and them give them the drugs to wake them back up again.
COOPER: The wake-up drugs you're talking about I assume is something like Provigil.
TESTER: That's correct.
COOPER: Officially for narcolepsy or (INAUDIBLE) dopamine.
TESTER: Yes, no. I mean, it's -- you know, these are called controlled substances for a reason. We have --
COOPER: So, you'd actually just go down the aisle and sort of say who wants to go to sleep? Who wants to wake up?
TESTER: That's the reports we got from the people, the 20-some people who got ahold of us and said, we got a problem. This doctor has a problem because he hands out prescriptions like candy. In fact, in the White House, they called him the candy man.
COOPER: So, just want to be clear. Ambien is actually one of the drugs?
TESTER: I can get you the --
TESTER: You know, it's a drug, it's a prescription drug and I can get you the name -
COOPER: Your staff had told us Ambien and Provigil.
TESTER: Bingo. Those are the ones.
COOPER: OK, all right. And I understand he had a nickname in the White House, among some of the White House staff?
TESTER: Yes, and it was the "candy man" because he handed out prescriptive drugs like they were candy. COOPER: The White House doctor is nicknamed among some people in the
White House was the "candy man"?
TESTER: That's correct. That's correct. That's what we were told.
COOPER: That's not a nickname you want in a doctor.
TESTER: That's not a nickname you want in a doctor. And if you consider the prescription drugs we have a problem with in this country right now, it's the example we need to have set.
COOPER: The second allegation is that Dr. Jackson was repeatedly drunk on duty while overseas with the president. Under which administration did this happen?
TESTER: It was the previous administration. It was the Obama administration. And the truth is, is that Admiral Jackson was the primary health care provider for the president.
And if you're drunk and something happens with the president, it's very difficult to go in and treat the president or (ph) need to be done. So, this is totally unacceptable under this environment. And that's what multiple people told us this was the case on several different trips.
COOPER: Do you know under what circumstances he was drinking? Social occasions?
TESTER: I believe they were social. You know, there were comments about him being in the hotel room and couldn't respond because he had been drinking so much.
COOPER: He couldn't actually respond to request (ph) somebody made with him?
TESTER: That's right. Somebody else did it. That's right.
COOPER: Someone else had to fill in.
TESTER: Yes, that's correct.
COOPER: Was the Secret Service aware of this, do you know?
TESTER: I believe the Secret Service was aware of it, but we haven't talked to any Secret Service agents.
COOPER: And just to be clear --
TESTER: The folks we talked to, by the way, to be clear, are active military and retired military completely. They were not civilians off the street. They were working in the White House. These were military folks that worked in the White House medical unit (ph).
COOPER: So these are people actually worked in the office?
TESTER: Active duty and retired. COOPER: In the medical office in the White House?
COOPER: And you said you talked to as many as 20 people.
TESTER: That's correct.
COOPER: And so, these allegations come from -- I assume not all 20 but multiple people among those 20?
TESTER: Multiple sources. That's correct. Yes.
COOPER: The other allegation, the third allegation; creating a toxic work environment, also allegations of harassment. What exactly is being alleged there.
TESTER: Well, I mean, and this was people that were below him, not people above him. We were told time and time again, the people above him, he treated like gold. The people below him, he belittled, screamed at them, really created a very toxic environment to the point where the people that worked around him felt like they had to walk on egg shells because of -- because of his lack of respect for their jobs.
COOPER: There have been no allegations of sexual harassment, correct? Or --
TESTER: None that I know of.
COOPER: None that you know.
Do you know what sort of -- the allegations of harassment, do you know what that entails? He was just?
TESTER: Well, I -- what it entailed I think was a toxic work environment that included screaming and belittling, talking down -- talking down to the employees. And quite frankly, as the secretary of the V.A., you are the top of the food chain. I mean, the president is --
COOPER: Of one of the largest organizations --
TESTER: The second largest in the government. And so, if you start treating your people, we've got -- we've got a problem with morale right now in the V.A. You start treating the management around that's bad, it's going to compound that problem.
And I will say this, Anderson, the veterans of this country deserve better than that.
[20:10:04] Our vetting is not through yet. We still have more information to gather.
But if this turns out to be solidly factual, then we've got a big problem with Admiral Jackson.
COOPER: You -- do you have some doubts that it's not solidly factual?
TESTER: Not yet. I mean, everybody is telling the same story from different views in each of these three buckets.
COOPER: So, in terms of alcohol, was he able to -- you're saying -- from what your sources are saying, there were times he was not able to function in his job.
TESTER: That's correct. That's correct. And there were other times that he inebriated and wasn't called upon to do his job because there were nothing wrong with the president.
COOPER: Was it -- were there times where he was inebriated and doing his job? Do you know?
TESTER: Not that I'm aware of. No.
COOPER: I understand you've got a call from Chief of Staff John Kelly about these allegations. Can you say what that conversation?
TESTER: Yes, we had -- we had a good conversation yesterday. Chief Kelly was -- thought that these allegations could be made up and the truth is that he was concerned about them not going through the chain of command. I believe these people did go through the chain of command and quite frankly didn't get the results and when this nomination came up, they came to us. We didn't go to them. They came to us.
We are following the chains that are there to see if we can get to the bottom of, of what has transpired over the career of Admiral Jackson.
And like I said, Anderson, why this is important is because this is secretary of the second largest agency in the federal government. This job is to take care of our veterans. It's a very, very important job and we -- and the V.A., by everybody's assessment, needs some work.
And if we've got a person in that position that has the issues that you talked about in your opening, plus these additional issues about his management style, we've got severe problems.
COOPER: If you have trouble managing an office as small as the medical office of the White House, exponentially larger, the V.A. of 300,000 people.
TESTER: It's totally compounded, and it becomes a huge problem. And our veterans, we have to get the best person we possibly can in the V.A. to take care of our veterans. It's an obligation that we made to the people who signed up and served in this military. And so, that's why getting to the bottom of these accusations is critically important and there should be -- there should be no stone unturned.
COOPER: So was he vetted by the White House before the president made this decision? TESTER: That is -- that is a really good question, Anderson. It
doesn't appear that he did -- that he was.
COOPER: I mean, it's one thing to be vetted as a medical officer. It's another thing to be vetted than to take on this management responsibility.
TESTER: Yes. No, you are exactly right. I mean, secretaries have a higher level of perfection.
COOPER: Will the committee reschedule Jackson's hearing?
TESTER: So, it's up to Chairman Isakson. I visited with Johnny this morning and we decided to postpone the hearing. They were supposed to be tomorrow. It is up to the chairman to re -- you know, reschedule that hearing.
What I anticipate Johnny is going to do is over the next week and we are out and we are back in our states over this next week. It will allow us and our staffs to do some more additional bipartisan work in getting to the bottom of this.
And then if it looks like it's possible to reschedule them, it will happen. If it doesn't, it won't.
COOPER: Some of the people currently still work in the White House medical unit, do they fear retribution?
TESTER: Yes, absolutely. That's a big, big problem. And it's one of the problems that we have of people coming out because if Admiral Jackson does not get confirm as secretary of the V.A., he goes back to his old job, and some of these people work with him and they are afraid if their name comes out, there will be retribution against them.
COOPER: He will be able to stay in his current job --
TESTER: Yes, I believe so.
COOPER: -- even with these allegations.
TESTER: Yes, that is a call I believe the president would have to make. But I think that we are in process. We sent a letter out today asking for information from the White House on a number of issues, reports that are out there, emails that are out there to try to be able to get to the bottom, and inspector general reports to get to the bottom to find out what has transpired over the last several years.
COOPER: And just to be clear, you talked of these allegations being in the Obama administration in terms of the drunkenness.
COOPER: I believe you said.
TESTER: That's correct. COOPER: Do some of these allegations go far back to the George W. Bush administration?
TESTER: I don't believe so. The staff -- we've got mostly happened during the eight years of President Obama.
COOPER: Is any of it in this administration, in this past year?
TESTER: No, not that we have been reported.
COOPER: I guess after reviewing all this, do you think Dr. Jackson should withdraw?
TESTER: Well, look, I think my goal here is to give folks a fair shake and when we get reports of wrongdoing, it's our job as senators to make sure that we get to the bottom of it. And that's what we're doing right now.
I can tell you, the information we got on Admiral Jackson is not good. And I told Chief of Staff Kelly yesterday if we had that hearing on -- tomorrow, on Wednesday, that there would be questions asked and we would be very uncomfortable and that he would be under oath.
[20:15:00] And so, I think -- I think it would be wise for the admiral to do some self -- self-assessment and ask himself if this is out there.
If this stuff is true, it's certainly not going to happen for him.
COOPER: Just going back to that medication, of him going down the aisle of the plane dispensing it. I mean, Ambien is obviously widely used. Provigil, from my research on this, basically, you really need a doctor to know who you are, to know what your history, to know what are the medications you're taking, to know why you actually -- do you actually need this? I mean, traditionally, I think it was for narcolepsy, for nightshift workers. But you are supposed to go through rigorous examination with a physician before being prescribed something like Provigil.
TESTER: Well, you may be -- you maybe correct.
I'm a farmer. I'm not an M.D. But I will tell you that they are called prescription drugs and controlled substances for a reason. It's because you need to have somebody prescribe them to you and you don't just give them out because you say, hey, I think that's a good idea, I like to have one of those.
And so consequently, if that happened, I think it is a very, very serious offense for a medical doctor.
COOPER: We are told that the White House is sort of marshaling testimonials from former President George W. Bush, also from President Obama. If President Obama comes forward and says, look, he was a good medical doctor, as far as I knew, does that weaken the allegations that in your mind that you have heard. TESTER: Well, I think once we get through with the vetting process and talk to the folks that are out there, because we're getting new calls every day, new contacts every day --
COOPER: More people are still contacting you?
TESTER: Yes, more still contact us, and not only me, both sides of the aisle, then we'll have a good idea.
The truth of the matter is, I don't think President Obama was aware of this stuff or he wouldn't have tolerated it if it's true.
COOPER: Senator Tester, I appreciate your time. 2
TESTER: Thanks, Anderson.
COOPER: Thank you very much.
We're waiting to hear a toast from President Trump and French President Macron at the White House, at the state dinner, the first state dinner of the Trump administration. We'll bring them to you live.
Also, the Michael Cohen question -- will the question pardon his personal attorney? We should point out he's yet to be charged with anything. The president was asked and his answer made news. You'll hear why. "New York Times'" Maggie Haberman joins us as well.
And later, keeping them honest, shattering the president's claim he never spent the night in the Moscow, a night the Steele dossier made so notorious. The question, if nothing happened that night to be ashamed of, why did the president seemed to lie about it twice to James Comey in those memos? Details ahead.
[20:20:57] COOPER: The president and first lady are hosting the French first family at a White House state dinner tonight. At an earlier event with President Macron, President Trump snapped at a reporter when asked about his person attorney Michael Cohen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REPORTER: What about Michael Cohen?
TRUMP: Thank you very much.
REPORTER: Are you considering pardon for Michael Cohen?
TRUMP: Stupid question.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: Well, this weekend, a reporter and CNN political analyst, both we and the president know quite well, wrote about the possibility that Michael Cohen could flip. And the president lashed out at her. He tweeted: "The New York Times" and a third-rate reporter named
Maggie Haberman, known as a "Crooked H. Flunky," who I don't speak to and have nothing to do with, are going out of their way to destroy Michael Cohen and his relationship with me in the hope in that he will.
Again, the president and Maggie go way back and have had plenty to do with one another, including exclusive interviews over the years.
The way the president responded to Jonathan Karl, I mean, to you, is it a sign that this has really -- I mean, that this is still really bothering him?
MAGGIE HABERMAN, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Yes. And I think it is one of many signs this is still really bothering him. I think he's -- however many tweets it was, tweet storm over the weekend was part of it. He frustrated by questions like this.
In fairness to him, it's a hard question to answer, since Michael Cohen has not been charged with anything yet.
HABERMAN: So, I don't really know what we would be pardoning at this point. But I do think he hates these questions. I think he hates this topic. I think it gets to a danger spot for him that he doesn't want to touch.
COOPER: Well, he clearly hated the article that you wrote as well. I know you don't like being part of the story.
COOPER: But he obviously, you know, subjected you to his criticism, you know, saying basically he doesn't know you or never spends time with you, which is obviously not the case. But the -- do you think his reaction to that article is because -- I mean, as I read that article, I thought those details were pretty devastating of the account based on multiple sources of how he has treated Michael Cohen, both in public and in private for years and years and years.
HABERMAN: I mean, I think one of the things we know about this president is nothing is ever his fault. So, for instance, you know, when he make answer appointment of somebody for a cabinet position and that person hasn't been vetted, it's everybody else's fault for looking at them, it's not his fault for being impulsive. It's the same thing with Michael Cohen. It's not -- it's not the president's fault that he has treated somebody pretty abusively and that that could end up -- again, may not, was could be -- a factor in a decision about what to do going forward if there is pressure from prosecutors to cooperate.
I think that anything related to the Michael Cohen issue in general touches a nerve for him. And I think that it was very hard for him to read that it is possible that Michael Cohen could flip and that it is possible that he could have helped do something to make that happen. And to be clear, people don't flip unless there is something to flip on. This isn't just, you know, being pressured by prosecutors.
COOPER: But you don't know -- I mean, does he not know how he has treated Michael Cohen? Or is he not aware of how he treats people?
HABERMAN: I think it's more the latter. I don't think it's -- I mean, Michael Cohen I think has come in for pretty specific abuse in the sense of what Michael Cohen has always sought is sort of an attaboy from the boss. One person I spoke to when I was reporting out the story said to me, you know, when I said the president has been abusive to Michael Cohen over many years, the person said he's abusive to everybody.
And there is some truth to that. It's not in equal parts. It's not in equal measure to everyone. But almost everybody comes in for something at some point.
COOPER: Just I mean, in to your reporting, did you get any sense of why Michael Cohen continues to seek the approval and the -- I don't know if it's the love or respect of somebody who has clearly demonstrably treated him poorly over years and years?
HABERMAN: I think Donald Trump has a history of getting people to seek his approval. I don't think Michael Cohen is the only person who's again this that role before. I also think they had a pretty symbiotic relationship.
I do think that the president does have -- and we said this in the story that I wrote. He does have genuine affection for Michael Cohen. I don't think it is all just, you know, go do this, go do that. I think that -- my understanding is that he went to Michael Cohen's children's bar and bat mitzvahs, for instance.
[20:25:01] I think he does actually have some feeling toward him.
But I think that Donald Trump is very good at getting people to crave his approval and he's very good at meeting it out in very small doses.
COOPER: Again, I know you don't like being part of the story, but what do you make of what the president said about you, about your lack of access. I mean, it --
HABERMAN: First of all, this thing that he comes back to about access constantly, it's always sort of strange because we don't cover the White House based on whether we have, quote-unquote, access or not. We're going -- we don't need permission to cover the president.
But in his mind, he thinks that's how this works. So, he thinks he's conveying something to his supporters. You know, I read my stories, you've read whether they come true or don't come true and I think that sneaks for itself.
COOPER: Maggie Haberman, thanks.
HABERMAN: Thank you.
COOPER: Well, quick reminder, tomorrow night, CNN Town Hall, "James Comey: Truth, Lies & Leadership," the fired FBI director answering questions from me and members of their audience, the audience tomorrow at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, right here on CNN.
With all that on the White House radar, there's even more breaking news tonight. As we said, the besieged EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is hanging on to his job by what may be a slender thread. We have details when we continue.
COOPER: Some more breaking news tonight. We have new information on Ronny Jackson.
Jim Acosta is there for us tonight at the White House.
We understand you have some new reporting. What have you learned?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Anderson, I think it's interesting to note this. We're definitely getting a defiant tone out of this White House this evening when it comes to Dr. Ronny Jackson, President Trump's embattled pick for the V.A. We're hearing that at this point, we know that he's hearing was postponed, as you were talking about with Senator Tester there a few moments ago.
But a White House official told me just a short while ago that the White House does plan to request that his hearing be rescheduled. That's an indication, as Dr. Johnson, has been saying earlier today and we've been hearing this evening from the White House , that he plans to fight on, he plans to fight against these allegations clear his name and get confirmed. Of course we'll see if that happens.
COOPER: I understand you also have new information from your sources about the EPA administrator hearings later this week.
ACOSTA: That's right. And keep in mind Anderson, this ethical questions swirling around Scott Pruitt, they probably I think for a lot of Americans rise to a different level than this allegations that are facing Dr. Jackson. At least from what we know of at this point. And one thing I can tell you is that Scott Pruitt has hearings coming up on Thursday in the House. He's expected to be grilled on a whole host of ethical questions saying in this lobbyist condo, his travel expenses and so on.
And I talked to an official here earlier this evening who said, that they offered to assist Scott Pruitt to prepare for these hearings and that he declined. He refused to any assistance from the White House and he wants to sort of go it alone is what I'm hearing. And so the White House feels Scott Pruitt is probably prepared to answer policy questions at these hearing on Thursday, but not these ethical questions.
COOPER: Does the President still have confidence in Pruitt?
ACOSTA: At this point he does have confidence in Pruitt according to our sources but that basically hinges on Pruitt's ability to advance President's agenda on this idealogical issues that they care about over here at the White House. They like the fact that Scott Pruitt has taken an ax to environmental policies all over the country, they want to see that continue, but at the same time this ethical clouds hanging over the EPA administrator, they are becoming a major distraction. And a lot of people over here at the White House, that some people inside the White House are concerned that the President is sticking with Pruitt too long and according to this senior official I spoke to earlier this evening, there's going to be a lot of people over at the White House watching how Pruitt performs at the end this week.
Because that's -- we're all talking about Dr. Ronny Jackson all day long today what is looming over this White House and what is looming over the EPA is whether or not Scott Pruitt can survive. And there are serious questions over here at the White House, perhaps not the president, but people working just under him as to whether he can, Anderson.
COOPER: All right, Jim Acosta. Jim, thanks very much.
There's also reporting tonight on some of the close Oklahoma friends that Scott Pruitt brought with him to Washington. When he became the EPA administrator. Those friends don't exactly have spotless records.
Here's CNN's Sara Ganim.
SARA GANIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This man Albert Kelly may be a disgraced former banker having been banned in 2016 by the FBI see from bank for life. But that this didn't stop Scott Pruitt from putting him charge of the task force reforming EPA Superfund Cleanup Program. Which is suppose to address the most toxic and harmful sites across the country.
ALBERT KELLY, FMR SPIRITBANK CEO: At SpiritBank, we are proud of our 95 years of service to our customers.
GANIM (voice-over): Back in 2003, Kelly was the owner of SpiritBank in Oklahoma. Financing Priutt's multiple homes, and part ownership of a minor league baseball team. At the time Pruitt was making just over $38,000 a year as a state lawmaker. But Kelly approved him of a $2 million loan to buy a percentage of team. Dazzling many.
Another senior EPA adviser, Ken Wagner is one of Pruitt's buddies from law school. And may have been intertwined in business together for decades. Wagner hired Pruitt to work in his law firm in the early 2000s and after Pruitt, became attorney general years later the law firm state contracts increased six fold to more than a half a million dollars. But the close ties don't end there. Wagner also worked closely with Albert Kelly buying his own share of the baseball team.
The EPA tells CNN that the finances of the team were approved by major league baseball and they met banking standards. They are dedicated employees who have earned the respect and admiration of EPA career employees across the country. But questions of Pruitt's past are drawing criticism. Even from Republicans on the Hill including his mentor from Oklahoma, Senator Jim Inhofe.
SEN. JIM INHOFE, (R) OKLAHOMA: A lot of serious allegations against him that I would want to check out and I'm doing it.
GANIM (voice-over): And the supporting side, the White House seems to be waning too.
SARAH SANDERS, PRESS SECRETARY, WHITE HOUSE: We're continuing to review a number of the reports that you mentioned.
GANIM (voice-over): Meanwhile, two more top advisers who came with Pruitt from Oklahoma are embroiled in one of Pruitt's latest controversies. Sarah Greenwalt and Milan Hupp received a combined $84,000 in raises through a loophole in the EPA Clean Water Act. Pruitt says he later rescinded them.
COOPER: And Sara Ganim joins me now. In terms of ethical or legal wrongdoing, where the things stand with Pruitt?
GANIM: Yes. So Anderson, to be clear, when you're talking about hiring friends and former business partners, that's not necessarily uncommon in politics except that in this case, it comes weeks of allegations about ethical lapses and they're just piling up on Scott Pruitt.
[20:35:11] So naturally, there is an added scrutiny on his past business dealings and on his relationships. Now that said, we did see today at least two public letters to the EPA and inspector general calling for an investigations into the hirings of those two men Kelly and Wagner. And so we are likely to hear more about this in the coming weeks.
COOPER: All right, Sara Ganim. Sara, thanks very much.
Just ahead the discussion about whether the minefield of ethical questions of Scott Pruitt will amount to anything in the long run.
COOPER: Again, our breaking news, White House officials were debating whether EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt should stay on the job. But is it now, the President still hasn't soured (ph) on Pruitt, and there's no indication that he is about to.
White House officials plan to closely watch Pruitt's congressional testimony on Thursday. He is a favorite of President Trump, because he's carrying out the President's agenda obviously.
Joining me now is Norm Eisen, the ethics czar under President Obama and former Republican Senator and presidential candidate, Rick Santorum. Ambassador Eisen, I mean beyond Scott Pruitt's -- beyond your -- I'm sure your criticism of his environmental policy, do you think he can still serve as the head of the EPA with all this other stuff?
NORMAN EISEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Anderson, I think he has been fatally wounded by the ethic scandals. The $43,000 isolation booth that the GAO has found. Violated law, the luxury lobbyist family condo for $50 a night. He only had to pay for the night he used it.
[20:40:15] The -- a hundreds of thousands of dollars spent without need on luxury travel, first class travel military air and on the security detail which EPA memos say are unfounded and worst of all Anderson, the retaliation against whistle blowers. Five whistle blowers have alleged retaliation there. And these are not deep state liberals. Base some of them are Trump campaign people that went to EPA. They make Senator Santorum look like Bernie Sanders. OK, these are conservatives who objected and retaliation, no, I do not think he can survive this mess.
COOPER: Senator Santorum, I mean obviously he is effectively executing the President's agenda certainly at the EPA. Do you think he can survive?
RICK SANTORUM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, he has been one of the best cabinet secretaries that the President has and following through what the President promise in this election. I mean if you look at this is being compared to Tom Price because of the similarity and travel. But the difference between Tom Price and Scott Pruitt, is Tom Price wasn't able to carry out and deliver on health care and the things that President.
And he -- Scott Pruitt is doing a great job and doing it, you know, people of the left doesn't like what he's doing, but he's doing it in an effective way a very -- a very measured way. He is not an anti environmentalist, he's actually doing more to clean up super fund sites. I mean he's doing a lot of good environmental things, he's not just getting rid of a lot of the bad Obama policies, because he's actually moving forward and actually improving the environment.
COOPER: Does though -- I mean these ethical questions, does that cast a shadow over the --
SANTORUM: Well obvious he does. I mean when you have members like Jim and Hoffin (ph), Jim Lankford from his home state saying, we have to look at this, I don't think Jim Acosta's characterization is that -- you know, people are questioning him, but what they're saying, is, look you need to look at this. I mean your hitting us with all this stuff. We have to give him his day in court to be able to answer these questions as well as for us to be able to do our research. I don't think that's people backing away from him.
I think any rational politician is not going to run and say, we don't care what anybody says about him, they're going to look at the accusations, they're going to find out the truth and we'll see. And if -- if it is as heinous as Norm suggests that this are, you know, outlandish and outrageous things that he's done. I can say at least some of them don't sound that outrageous to me. You know, every elected official has a travel budget. And, you know, the travel budget of the secretary of EPA, you know, pales in comparison to a weekend at Mar-a-Lago.
I mean the entire year budget compels in comparison of the cost of the President taking a trip to Mar-a-Lago. So, the idea that a few thousand dollars here and there is going to be the end of the secretary of EPA. I just don't see that.
COOPER: The security did tell though is more than a few thousand dollars and we're talking significant expenses.
EISEN: Hundreds of thousands of dollars and the same with the travel, Anderson, and there's no need for him to take first class travel, there's no need for him to take military air. Rick its being investigated by the inspector general. And it's not just that the worst part is the retaliation alleged against these people. I think that they -- that the allegations piling up and now we're hearing about similar allegations. They're just allegations from back in Oklahoma.
And when you have Senator Inhofe, a good and honorable man he was as it happens, he was a big supporter of mine when I was going through confirmation. But when you have senator Inhofe saying there are things that need to be looked at. Senator Lankford, the White House is investigating him. There are 10 investigations into the man. He's turned the EPA into an ethics super fund site.
SANTORUM: On the travel budget, let's just be very clear. He has a budget. Is he over his budget? No. He's spending money within his budget. You may say I don't like the way he is spending his money, but he's not over budget, he's wasting tax payer's dollars. You can say well, he has security details. This guy is getting more threats at than probably any EP -- any official in the administration maybe others than the President and probably he has some legitimate security concerns.
EISEN: But the people inside the EPA Rick say, that this travel spending is not necessary, it's under IG investigation and there are memos inside the EPA, that say the threats don't merit the extra security. GAO found that he broke the law. Why does he need a $43,000 isolation phone booth in his office Anderson? No prior EPA administrator has that anything like this. But, you know, the worst part and I know you wouldn't stood for when you were a senator, the alleged retaliation against these five whistle blowers including Trump campaign aides who tried to say don't do this.
[20:456:03] COOPER: But Senator, what do you make of the, you know, there's news that Pruitt refused White House assistance to prepare for hearings in the House this week. Is that -- is that trouble you? Because it seems like, I mean White House official said the President appears to support Pruitt, but that -- they said the performance by Pruitt this week during the hearings could change that.
SANTORUM: I -- that's a calculation on his part. I mean, I suspect he feels like the team he has around him will sufficiently prepare him for the questions. I don't think he's going in there not anticipating, he's going to be asked every single question that we've talked about and more at these hearings and I suspect he feels like he has a good team that preparing for.
COOPER: I mean he sat down for a Fox News interview that do not go so well for.
SANTORUM: I would suspect that that's not going to happen again and if it does, its probably not going to be good for him in staying in that position.
COOPER: Senator Santorum, Ambassador Eisen, thanks very much.
A lot ahead. Up next, we'll take you to the White House as we wait to hear from President Trump and his guest the President of France.
[20:0:12] COOPER: We're expecting to hear shortly from President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron. They are sharing dinner -- a state dinner. The first of this administration at the White House. CNN's Jeff Zeleny, Kate Bennett have the toughest jobs on television tonight. They join us from the White House. Jeff Zeleny does.
Kate, what do we know about the guest list?
KATE BENNETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: So the guest list is actually much smaller that it has been from recent state dinners. And we didn't see a lot of Democrats on this list. We actually any French on this list, and we didn't see a lot of the President's cabinet on this list as well. We saw secretaries that are -- cabinet members that are sort of in Trump's consensus (ph) if he will, the ones that are sort has been on the headlines like Zinke and Pruitt, Ben Carson, they were not in attendance.
Certainly not all Democrats if any and most of the folks there were Trump supporters, with all of New York crowd, some money folks. Tim Cook of Apple was there. The head of Louis Vuitton was there to represent the French fashion side. All in all, a much smaller crowd than past state dinners.
COOPER: And the first lady -- well, actually, Jeff, both Presidents talked a lot about foreign policy earlier today. It's interesting to see former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in attendance.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That was interesting. He was walking in and was certainly one of the more experienced members of the crowd. Certainly probably has been to more state dinners than anyone else here in attendance here this evening. But certainly it was a day of handshakes. And, you know, that we've seen this relationship between the two Presidents really unfold before our eyes here. In their previous meeting, I was thinking back to last July when the President was there and sort of, you know, watching the military parade of the (INAUDIBLE) --
COOPER: Sorry Jeff, I just want to tell the audience is standing for the President, we expect the President to come in momentarily. Let's just listen in.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES: Thank you very much. Thank you.
President Macron, Brigitte, Melania and I are profoundly honored to host you and your entire French delegation for our first official state dinner.
TRUMP: And to America's absolutely incredible First Lady, thank you for making this an evening we will always cherish and remember. Thank you, Melania.
TRUMP: Tonight we celebrate nearly two and a half centuries of friendship between the United States and France. Yesterday we had a wonderful visit to Mt. Vernon, a place that is truly special in the history of this very remarkable friendship.
TRUMP: It was there that General George Washington met with General Rochambeau to finalize battle plans for victory at Yorktown, many, many victories. It was there after the war that General Lafayette returned to visit his adoptive father, George Washington. Lafayette named his only son after Washington as a tribute to respect and love for his dear friend.
[20:55:04] TRUMP: And there at Mt. Vernon hanging on the wall for all to see is a key to the Bastille, a gift from Lafayette to Washington. This tool of imprisonment had become a symbol of liberty, the desire for freedom that burns brightly in the heart of every French and American patriot.
TRUMP: This is the divine flame which Victor Hugo wrote that evil cannot ever wholly distinguish and which good can make to glow the splendor.
TRUMP: This is the flame that spurred American soldiers to join the French on the battlefields of World War I. This is the flame of French resistance of which Charles de Gaulle rallied his country in 1940. More than a million Frenchmen took up arms to defeat fascism in World War II, and this is the conviction that unites the French and Americans all as we work together every day to build a future that is more just, prosperous and free.
TRUMP: The veins that link our nation are forged in battle, strengthened through trial and defined by the finest principles that make us who and what we are. Respect for life, love for our neighbors, pride in our traditions, defense of our heritage and reverence for the rights bestowed on us through grace and the glory of God.
TRUMP: So tonight I ask that we raise our glasses as I offer this toast to President Macron and Brigitte, to the French delegation, and to every proud citizen of France. May our friendship grow even deeper, may our kinship grow even stronger, and may our sacred liberty never die. God bless you, God bless France, God bless our alliance, and God bless America. Thank you.
COOPER: President toasting his French counterpart at the first official state dinner at the White House. Jeff Zeleny and Kate Bennett also join us. Let's listen in to the President of France.
EMMANUEL MACRON, PRESIDENT OF FRANCE (through translation): Mr. President, dear Donald, Madame first lady, dear Melania, ladies and gentlemen, dear friends. It is an honor for Brigitte and me to be here with you in this legendary place the White House for this sumptuous dinner, surrounded by friends of France that you were so kind to invite.
[21:00:04] COOPER: So, we'll go back to our Jeff Zeleny and Kate Bennett. Jeff, this is -- why is this the first state dinner? Is it tradition that its take so long to have one?