Return to Transcripts main page

AT THIS HOUR WITH BERMAN AND MICHAELA

Obama, Biden Briefed on Russia Report Before Trump; Nominees Don't Agree with Trump Policy Positions; Chaffetz Accused of Strong- Arm Tactics against Trump Critic; Bush First Daughters' Letter Advises Obama First Daughters. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired January 13, 2017 - 11:30   ET

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


[11:30:00] JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: But what is happening, what he and his team have done, constantly beating the drumbeat about fake news, is essentially designed to muddy the waters and increase legitimacy of partisan outfits that are very favorably skewed towards him, and degrade the idea of objective, fair truth.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: You bring up one point here. We just read that tweet, where he put intelligence in quotation marks. He said, "probably released by intelligence," knowing there's no proof.

I want to put up the tweet he wrote about Meryl Streep. It seems similar. He said, "Meryl Streep, one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood, doesn't know me but attacked last night at the Golden Globes."

Is it an issue? Or how much of an issue will it be going forward? There doesn't appear to be much of a distinction between the way he battles against someone like Meryl Streep, even though she could probably play anyone in the intelligence community on screen -

(LAUGHTER)

-- and how he refers to, again, members of the intelligence community, whose job it is to keep this nation safe?

HEIDI PRZYBYLA, SENIOR POLITICS REPORTER, USA TODAY: Going back to Dana's point about institutions, there's certainly a big difference between a celebrity taking the podium and criticizing you, and very respected intelligence reports coming out with information that maybe you don't like. And, yes, it is probably problematic that you would deal with that type of unpleasant information, as you see it, in the same way.

But I'm going to take this also and look at the political dimension here of what is happening with this new information coming in, which is that we have yet another example of Russian -- potential Russian antics in dealing with our political system. We had the hacking, the broad fake news, and now we have information that they're trying to gather information on our elected leaders. Why is it not then in Donald Trump's interest, above everyone else in this nation, to try and get to the bottom of this, because he's beginning his presidency definitely under a cloud of questions about all of this. And I think, if anything, what will happen, as a result of this new information, is that Democrats are just going to start to pound the drum harder for this more independent investigation into what happened here. So far, the Republicans have resisted that.

But what we've seen is that the various committees that would be responsible are headed by Republicans. It's not necessarily going to be seen as a bipartisan venture. And at the end of all of this, if there is nothing there, it's in no one's interest more than Donald Trump's to get to the bottom of it and to clear the air so we, as a country, can go on and we can govern effectively in a way that unites Americans.

@: All right, thanks, guys.

Again, we haven't seen yet there haven't been committees taking this up in a more extended way, although John McCain and others have been investigating it.

Guys, thanks so much.

Donald Trump on torture, trade, Russia, and the southern border. He's talked about where he is on these issues during the campaign. His cabinet nominees have a different idea altogether. So, is that a problem or is that a strength for the incoming administration?

Plus, a powerful Republican lawmaker going after the independent ethics watchdog who called President-elect Trump's new business plan meaningless. Jason Chaffetz threatening the ethics official, wanting him to come in and talk to him. We'll have details ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:37:45] BERMAN: The headline in "The New York Times" this morning, "Latest to disagree with Trump, His Nominees." Nominee after nominee has staked out different views than the president-elect on issues that Donald Trump ran on. But Donald Trump tweeted this morning, "All of my cabinet nominees are looking good and doing a great job. I want them to be themselves and express their own thoughts, not mine."

The nominees for attorney general, secretary of state, defense, Homeland Security and CIA director, have all split or, at a minimum, diverged from Trump on crucial issues, including Russia, trade, torture and immigration.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN KELLY, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY NOMINEE: A physical barrier, in and of itself, will not do the job. It has to be really a layered defense.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're going to build a wall.

REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE NOMINEE: My view of Putin is that he has chosen to be both a strategic competitor, to quote the chairman's opening statement, and an adversary in key areas. TRUMP: If he says great things about me, I'm going to say great

things about him. I've already said he is very much of a leader.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, (D), CALIFORNIA: If you were ordered by the president to restart the CIA's use of enhanced interrogation techniques that fall outside of the Army field manual, would you comply?

REP. MIKE POMPEO, (R), KANSAS: Senator, absolutely, not.

TRUMP: What do you think of waterboarding? I said, it's fine. And if you want to go stronger, I would go stronger. too.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: I want to bring in former communications director for Marco Rubio's presidential campaign, now a partner at Firehouse Strategies, Alex Conant; and a former Clinton administration official and co- founder of the centrist left think tank, Third Way, Matt Bennett, with us as well.

Matt, Trump supporters say this is just a team-of-rivals situation. Donald Trump himself said you want to bring in people with divergent views, who have different opinions, bring them to the table, hash it out to come out with a better solution. Is that what's going on here?

MATT BENNETT, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST & CO-FOUNDER, THIRD WAY & FORMER CLINTON ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't know. For Democrats, like me, this is really difficult. On the one hand, we agree with the views just expressed in that package, the people that he nominated are right about things like torture and the border wall and Russia. And the president-elect is very wrong. But the problem is, you can't govern as president with some kind of chaos theory of government. You've got to have some sort of direction and you have to have some degree of predictability. This isn't like a set of real estate negotiations where you're trying to keep everybody off balance. You have to have some degree of order. And there does not appear, at least initially, that there's going to be any order coming out of the Trump White House or the Trump administration. So, it's both heartening, on the one hand, and also troubling.

[11:40:19] Alex, I laid out the team-of-rivals argument, and you heard Matt explain why it's heartening. There is in or about argument which is, it's odd, right? Where were these people, were they listening during the 16 months of the campaign where Donald Trump was on the issues? And then you had in these hearings Rex Tillerson, for instance, who is up for secretary of state, he was being questioned by Bob Menendez, Senator Menendez on the issue of Russia, and this is what he told the Senator. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TILLERSON: The president-elect and I have not had the opportunity to discuss this specific issue or the specific area.

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ, (D), NEW JERSEY: I would have thought that Russia would be at the very top of that, considering all the actions that have taken place. That did not happen?

TILLERSON: That has not occurred yet, Senator.

MENENDEZ: That's pretty amazing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Is the Senator right, Alex? Is it pretty amazing?

ALEX CONANT, PARTNER, FIREHOUSE STRATEGIES & FORMER COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR FOR MARCO RUBIO'S PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN: It was surprising that they haven't talked about what is obviously going to be one of the biggest, most immediate challenges that the new president and new secretary of state are going to have to face after January 20th.

That said --

BERMAN: Is it believable?

CONANT: Sure, it's believable. I believe him. He was under oath. Of course, it's believable.

That said, Donald Trump likes to set up competing power structures in his organizations, and it works for him, it's successful. We shouldn't be surprised that's how he's setting up his cabinet. We want a diversity of thought inside the cabinet. I think it's healthy that you have people that disagree with him on issues like China, on Russia, on torture and trade.

BERMAN: On the issues he ran on?

CONANT: But once the president makes a decision, you want people who will be implementing them. He obviously trusts these people to implement his policies, otherwise, he wouldn't have nominated them.

BERMAN: Time for 20 minutes left to answer this question. I want to show you the Gallup poll on the Trump transition right now. 44 percent approve, 51 percent disapprove.

20 seconds each.

Alex, first to you.

What does Donald Trump have to do to turn this around?

CONANT: Turn around his approval numbers?

BERMAN: Yes. A low number for a guy coming into office.

CONANT: It is a low number but it's a very divided country. He needs to do what he said he was going to do on election night, reach out and try and be a president for all Americans.

BERMAN: Matt?

BENNETT: He has to start acting like a president and not a spoiled brat. He's still talking about his poll numbers and complaining about Hillary. He's got to step into the job and be dignified.

BERMAN: Matt Bennett, Alex Conant, thanks so much for being with us. I appreciate it.

BENNETT: Pleasure.

CONANT: Thank you.

BERMAN: Accusations of strong-arm tactics after a Republican lawmaker calls in the head of the ethics watchdog who has blasted Donald Trump's plan to separate himself from his businesses. We have details ahead.

Plus, a really nice letter from two former first daughters to the current first daughters. What Jenna Bush and Barbara Bush told Sasha and Malia Obama about what to do once they leave the White House. That's coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:47:28] BERMAN: The Republican chair of the House Oversight Committee has summoned the head of the government ethics office to explain why he has been so tough on Donald Trump. Earlier this week, Walter Schaub said the president-elect's plan to hand over his businesses to his two grown sons is meaningless and inadequate when it comes to avoiding conflicts of interest. Maybe that criticism was a bit too strident for House Oversight chair, Jason Chaffetz.

I want to bring in Ambassador Norman Eisen. He is a former White House czar chair of the government watchdog and a fellow at the Brookings Institution, where Schaub spoke a couple of days ago.

Ambassador, when I saw the headline flash by yesterday that Jason Chaffetz had summoned Mr. Schaub to come up and talk about Donald Trump's business plans, I actually thought, I assumed it was to ask him what he thought of the plans from the president-elect. But that doesn't seem to be the case. The question is, has he been too tough or acted inappropriately towards the president-elect? Your take.

AMB. NORMAN EISEN, FELLOW, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION & FORMER WHITE HOUSE ETHICS CZAR: John, thanks for having me.

I do not think that Walter Schaub has done anything out of the ordinary here in terms of his views. There's a broad bipartisan consensus, Republicans and Democrats alike, that the Trump plan is inadequate to solve his conflicts. Schaub was just the latest to join that consensus.

And what the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Mr. Chaffetz, is doing is wrong. He wants to have a secret star chamber- style tribunal to hear privately from Schaub. The Democrats are saying, why can't we have a public hearing, which would be the normal way to do these things. We're not in the Middle Ages here where we haul people in that way. And he's prejudged. He hasn't heard what Schaub's reasoning is. And Mr. Chaffetz is blessing the Trump plan. John, it's not just me saying this, but the Republican, Bush ethics

czar, Mr. Painter, a distinguished American scholar, says the same thing. It's outrageous.

BERMAN: I should say, Elijah Cummings, the Democrat who sits on the House Oversight Committee, he contacted us during the break to say he is calling for this hearing to be public.

Is the president-elect's plan to separate his business the type of thing you would like to see as the subject of a hearing from the Oversight Committee?

[11:49:54] EISEN: Of course. The Oversight Committee should have a hearing about the war on ethics. First, the House Republicans made a sneak attack over the weekend, a holiday weekend. No notice to destroy their own ethics watchdog, the Office of Congressional Ethics. That was beat back by a furious public outcry, led by Donald Trump. I heard the switch boards were flooded, John. Then in the Senate they tried to run through four nominees with notice ethics vetting. Well, that won't fly. Again, public outcry. Hearings postponed. Then Mr. Trump announces his patently inadequate ethics plan. It does nothing to resolve conflicts, including constitutional limitations on his behavior. Now there's this attack on the director of the Office of Government Ethics.

(CROSSTALK)

EISEN: I think that should be examined.

BERMAN: Has the director of the office ever been as public as Walter Schaub has been the past couple of weeks?

EISEN: Well, you know, yes is the answer. The Office of Government Ethics has been very public. The problem is that the ethics consensus that has stood for decades, John, is being attacked now. So, there were many occasions when OGE has pronounced on ethics.

Every president for four decades has put their investments into a blind trust or the equivalent. Republican or Democrat, with far less conflicts than Donald Trump and no constitutional clash. What he is doing with these foreign government payments and other benefits that are coming in is directly contrary to the U.S. Constitution. With less reason, everybody else has done a blind trust or the equivalent. Why not Donald Trump? But apparently, that's not good enough for the chairman of this committee.

BERMAN: Ambassador Norman Eisen, I think we know where you stand on this issue. We do appreciate your time weighing in.

EISEN: Thank you, John.

BERMAN: All right, they spent eight of their most-formative years in the White House. In just one week, Sasha and Malia Obama will return to life on the outside. Now a couple of former first daughters, Jenna and Barbara Bush, are giving their advice. That's coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:55:07] BERMAN: This is a pretty exclusive club. After the 2008 election, Barbara and Jenna Bush, the twin daughters of George W. Bush, they paid a visit to the White House to help Malia and Sasha Obama adjust to their new life in the spotlight. Now, eight years later, the Bush twins wrote an open letter to the Obama daughters imparting their wisdom on life after the White House. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JENNA BUSH, DAUGHTER OF GEORGE W. BUSH: You've listened to harsh criticism of your parents by people who have never even met them.

BARBARA BUSH, DAUGHTER OF GEORGE W. BUSH: You stood by as your precious parents were reduced to headlines. Your parents, who put you first and not only showed you, but gave you the roles.

JENNA BUSH: As always, they will be rooting for you as you begin this next chapter.

BARBARA BUSH: And so will we.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: I don't think the letter itself contained that saccharine.

With me now to discuss, Kate Anderson Brower, author of "First Women, The Grace and of Power of America's Modern First Ladies." Uniquely equipped to discuss this subject.

Kate, it is a thing being a former first child. If you live in the White House and then move out of the White House, that's got to present some unique challenges.

ANDERSON BROWER: Like you said, John, it is an exclusive club, just like first ladies are in a club. I think that these children have a lot of empathy for each other, I mean, seeing that letter. I interviewed former children of presidents who talked about what it was like when they saw Chelsea Clinton, for instance, the only child in the White House, and feeling bad for her because of how difficult it is. And, in fact, one -- President Ford's son, Steve, said he wrote a letter to Chelsea saying make friends with your Secret Service agents because you'll be seeing them more than anyone else. They get what it's like.

And I was struck by how light-hearted that letter was, too. Jenna and Barbara Bush talked about, you know, sliding down the bannisters at the White House and how it allowed them to relive some of their childhood, showing Sasha and Malia in the White House, and looking at it through their eyes as young girls. And that was very sweet.

BERMAN: There was also some self-deprecating humor when they talked about their own time in college.

I think we have that soundbite. Let's play that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JENNA BUSH: Enjoy college.

BARBARA BUSH: As most of the world knows, we did. And you won't have the weight of the world on your young shoulders anymore.

Explore your passions. Learn who you are. Make mistakes. You are allowed to.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: All right. Their college years aside, they also noted in the letter in a really, really touching way how close they were -- how close they still felt to everyone who worked in the White House. I thought that was really nice.

ANDERSON BROWER: I really liked that, too. I mean, when I interviewed resident staffers at the White House, they talked about how -- they specifically mentioned -- the Bush daughters mentioned Nancy Clark, the head florist at the White House, and how for their grandfather's inauguration, they were very young girls, and they got cold, and Nancy Clark, the White House florist, brought them in and made a bouquet of flowers with them in the flower shop of the White House in the basement. It was really fun for them. It was a great memory of their time there.

And you can't overstate how close the first family becomes to the staff because they're the only people they see every day who don't want anything from them. They just want to make their lives more normal. And so, they become so close to the staff that Laura Bush and Jenna Bush went from Texas to D.C. to the funeral of a butler within the last couple of years. And Laura Bush read the eulogy at his funeral, and I think people don't see that side of the White House very often.

BERMAN: That's really nice.

Now, of course, the Bush daughters were in college when their father was in the White House. Obviously, the Obama girls, they grew up in the White House, and Sasha is staying in Washington to finish high school. What's that going to be like?

ANDERSON BROWER: Well, it's going to be incredible if you think of just the geography of it. You have Ivanka in Calarama (ph), this very nice neighborhood in D.C. You have President Obama and Michelle within a couple of blocks of her. And then you have the Clintons' House not far away either.

Having a former president in D.C. is very different. We haven't seen this in a long time. So, seeing how they position themselves with the Trump administration and, you know, if they sort of try to galvanize Democrats as I think they will, not in the shadow White House, but actually kind of weigh in on topic from time to time and try to support more Democrats running for office in the midterms and things like that. I think it will be fascinating to see their presence still in Washington, you know, still going to restaurants in Washington. And I think it will be fun and interesting to see Democrats and Republicans in town.

BERMAN: It will be different. Flat-out different.

All right, Kate Anderson Brower, thank you for being with us. I appreciate it.

ANDERSON BROWER: Thanks, John.

BERMAN: We should also note there will soon be a first son who may move to the White House soon, Barron Trump.

One programing note. A CNN special report, "History Made, The Legacy of Michelle Obama," that airs tonight, 9:00 eastern. Explore the first lady's journey from Chicago to the world stage, 9:00 eastern, only on CNN.

Thanks so much for watching us AT THIS HOUR.

"Inside Politics" with John King" starts now.