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Trump: Troops Will Remain IN U.S.-Mexico Border "Until We Can Have A Wall"; DHS Secretary: We Will Send As Many Troops As We Need; Top Aide To Embattled EPA Boss Resigns; Pruitt Bristles At Ethical Concerns Over Room Rental; CNN: Mueller Team Questions Wealthy Russians About Election Meddling; CNN: Trump Upset With Advisers Over Syria Withdrawal Warnings. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired April 5, 2018 - 11:00   ET

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


[11:00:00]

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Hi there. I'm Brianna Keilar in for Kate Bolduan. With the stroke of a pen, President Trump signs a memo and mobilizes National Guard troops to the U.S./Mexico border. As of this moment, we don't know how many troops will be deployed, where they're going to be sent, or how long they'll be there, what we do know is this abrupt move comes after days of the president railing against immigration laws and border security.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Until we can have a wall and proper security, we're going to be guarding our border with the military. That's a big step.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: CNN's Abby Phillip live for us at the White House. So, Abby, we heard this morning from the secretary of Homeland Security, was she able to fill in any of the blanks here?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning, Brianna. So much of this has played out on social media and in public, but the president making pronouncements before his administration had the time to really implement it.

Kirstjen Nielsen spoke to reporters this morning talking about the progress that's being made on some of these issues, but she didn't have a whole lot of answers. Take a listen to what she had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: We'll send as many troops as we need to get the mission done.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No numbers?

NIELSEN: No numbers. The reason it is a partnership with the governors --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mexican officials said they will be unarmed. Is that true?

NIELSEN: As you know, in the past, they have had -- in 2006 there were weapons. So, it has been done before. The weapons didn't have any -- as you know, we're continuing the negotiation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PHILLIP: So, not only is this a sensitive international situation that needs to be dealt with, with Mexico, it also needs to be negotiated with these states as Kirstjen Nielsen just said. She said she has spoken to the governors of all of the states along the border, most of whom are amenable to this.

But the question is going to be really around California, a state that had some tangles with this administration on immigration-related issues. Nielsen said she's optimistic about that, but, of course, they're scrambling at this last minute to kind of figure out how to make this work.

Meanwhile, the president tweeting frantically about this, even up until this morning, talking about the border crossings, we should note at the same time that all of this is being said, border crossings still are at a 46 year low as the president himself pointed out this morning.

There has been a recent surge in recent months, but ultimately the broader trend over the last several years has been lower border crossings rather than more -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Abby Phillip at the White House, thank you.

New this morning, a top aide to the embattled chief of the environmental agency has turned in her resignation. This comes as the latest blow to Scott Pruitt as he himself is fighting off calls to resign after a series of negative headlines and questions about ethics.

Pruitt likely didn't help himself with the heated interview with his boss' favorite cable news channel. Here he is discussing a sweetheart deal on a condo rental far below market value.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: President Trump said he would drain the swamp. Is draining the swamp renting an apartment from the wife of a Washington lobbyist?

SCOTT PRUITT, ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY ADMINISTRATOR: I don't think that that's even remotely fair to ask that question.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: CNN politics senior writer, Juana Summers is here with the latest on the story that she has been covering for some time now. What else are we learning about this condo deal and also these big pay raises for these two aides? JUANA SUMMERS, CNN POLITICS SENIOR WRITER: Absolutely, Brianna. CNN learning new details late last night about EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and this rental agreement. Now if you recall last week, the EPA's top ethics watchdog puts out this memo that suggests that Pruitt rented this room in a Capitol Hill town home, this condo was within federal ethics regulations regarding gifts.

Our colleague, Cristina Alesci, has obtained a new memo from that same ethics official and he clarifies his earlier analysis in that memo saying that he was looking at the lease as it is written on paper.

So, the actual legal document, but that he wasn't looking at Pruitt's performance under that lease. So, when I say that I'm talking about things like how often Scott Pruitt was staying there, and he said he didn't take those kinds of things into account when he made this determination.

Now, we reached out to an EPA spokesperson about this secondary memo and they tell our colleagues that there was no wrongdoing, they maintain that this lease is lawful and you heard kind of this denial from Scott Pruitt, nothing to see here is kind of the role he's playing.

We also want to talk about these pay raises. Now Scott Pruitt reportedly bypassed the White House to make raises for two top aides. Raises that total more than $80,000 when combined. In that same Fox News interview, he denies that he knew anything about this.

He says he didn't grant those raises, that he told -- he told Fox that his staff was responsible, he found out that about it a day prior to that interview with Ed Henry and he immediately changed it.

When asked if anyone was going to lose their jobs over this, Scott Pruitt saying that there would be accountability, but he didn't say what that accountability would be. One thing that's important to note here, Scott Pruitt says he knew nothing about that. That contradicts reporting that we at "The Atlantic" and other have that he was in the know about these pay raises.

[11:05:10] KEILAR: Very interesting. So, Scott Pruitt, part of the reason he has some cover is because he's been doing exactly what the president wants him to do at EPA. Is that enough? Is that going to help him survive this?

SUMMERS: That's absolutely right, Brianna. As I reported earlier this week, he has been someone that people see as one of the president's most effective cabinet secretaries. On the campaign trail, then Candidate Trump really campaigned as someone who is going to cut, cut, cut these regulations and Scott Pruitt has done exactly that.

The president has been fond of him. That said, we're seeing signs of frustrations, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders addressing this yesterday, saying the White House isn't OK with this, that they're looking into it, not really giving a ringing vote of confidence. It's important to know behavior such as what we're seeing that Scott Pruitt allegedly did stories like these has gotten other cabinet secretaries kicked out the door, most recently former V.A. Secretary David Shulkin.

We know that this is a president from day to day, what is top of mind about these ethics allegations changes, and so it will be very interesting to see if he shows Scott Pruitt the door.

KEILAR: It is so interesting because I think of it in terms of what is Sarah Sanders saying, so often there might be a false positive, as in a positive remark about endangered official. There's not too often a false negative, right, about someone like Scott Pruitt.

SUMMERS: What we're hearing from the White House now, Sarah Sanders saying yesterday, you know, we'll look into this. Hogan Gidley, deputy White House press secretary, was just on another outlet a couple of minutes ago and he says he's not really going to get into that. This reminds me very much of what we just saw about the VA secretary and just not being able to engage and days later he was out of the job.

KEILAR: Very good point. Juana Summers, great reporting. Thank you so much.

And joining me now to discuss this, we have CNN political commentator and Democratic strategist, Joe Trippi, with us, and Steve Cortes, he's a CNN political commentator and former Trump campaign adviser.

So, Scott Pruitt wouldn't answer the question, but I'm going to ask you, Steve, is renting an apartment from the wife of a lobbyist in keeping with the president's campaign promise to drain the swamp?

STEVE CORTES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Brianna, no, it sure isn't. And Ed Henry, who is an excellent journalist, asked the right question. I think for Scott Pruitt to say that was inappropriate is absurd. He needs to answer these questions and answer them fully.

My advice to him, my advice to the White House is that he needs to hold a press conference and he needs to explain himself, what has already been done and what he's going to rectify it going forward.

Now having said that, I think his performance at the EPA has been fantastic. But we ran on a platform of draining the swamp, which means when it comes to these kinds of optics, we have to be cleaner than clean. And renting at bargain basement prices from a lobbyist you're housing is just not cleaner than clean.

KEILAR: Joe, there's also this issue of the raises, right. More than $80,000 in raises for two of his closest aides. This is how Pruitt explains it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRUITT: I did not know that they got the pay raises until yesterday. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, one of them got a pay raise of, let's see, $28,000. The other was $56,000. Do you know what the median income in this country is?

PRUITT: No.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's $57,000 a year.

PRUITT: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, one of your friends from Oklahoma got a pay raise that the median --

PRUITT: They did not get a pay raise.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They did.

PRUITT: They did not. I stopped that yesterday.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You stopped it. Are you embarrassed that --

PRUITT: It should not have happened. It should not have happened and the officials that were involved in that process should not have done what they did.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: So, you heard, Joe, in Juana's reporting, that actually runs contradictory to what she has heard, which is he did have some awareness of this. Is it possible, in your estimation, that Pruitt would have been unaware of that?

JOE TRIPPI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I don't see how that is possible. But the other thing I don't understand is how -- actually one of the more revealing things he said in that interview was that he didn't know what the median income in the United States is.

He was asked that by the questioner there, Ed Henry. And just totally, you know, didn't get it, didn't know what -- about the raises, stopped the raises, when he found out about them, none of it rings true.

And I think this is where, Steve, I agree with him, press conference explaining all of this, but I don't think that's going to save him. I think from reading the tea leaves of the Trump White House and how they talk about these things, I don't think Pruitt is long for the job regardless of how he's doing.

CORTES: I think he should do it anyway, just in the era of transparency that I think he owes it to the American people to give an explanation and to not tell the questioner that is an inappropriate question.

TRIPPI: Absolutely.

KEILAR: That was pretty startling how he said that for sure. I want to talk about immigration now. Joe, when you look at this plan to put the National Guard on the border, that the president has here, there is so many details that we just don't know about.

How many Guard members will be deployed, you heard Secretary Nielsen there, are they going to be armed? She talked about the past, but she didn't say what's going to happen. Where are they going to be? What is the mission going to be? How much is this going to cost?

[11:10:11] Why do you think these things weren't squared aware before this announcement?

TRIPPI: They have been done in the past. Obama and Bush have done this, but it was planned out. There was a response, working with the governors in the Bush administration, it was the governors that requested it. There was a need at the time.

Certainly, in March, there is an upswing in attempts as weather gets better on the border, but you would have thought that would have been planned out and they would have been ready for it.

None of the other presidents did it in response to seeing something on television that made them think a caravan was a thundering hoard that needed to be stopped with troops. So, I think that's why we don't have any answers to any of this and it is not clear what the need really is, and whether the governors even had a clue that it was coming.

KEILAR: Steve, what do you think because it seems like this was a pretty impulsive decision?

CORTES: Well, I wouldn't say impulsive. But, yes, I will agree with you that certainly they're trying to quickly get their plans together. I think there are two reasons for that. Number one is the caravan. So, there is new news there.

The fact that Mexico was allowing, and in some ways even encouraging a group of would be illegal immigrants to march to our border I think was very unsettling to Americans and certainly was to the president. That's one thing.

The other thing, the Congress failed in that massive spending bill that they passed, they failed to give adequate resources for the border and what the president requested, what he ran on in 2016.

So, the president, I think, is rightly responding by saying, if we're not going to have the actual wall we want and need, we're going to have a de facto human wall, a military wall, human wall in place so that we can get control of our southern border because unfortunately, the numbers lately are trending in the wrong direction.

They were going in the right direction in 2017, and now they're starting to go in the wrong direction again of more and more illegal crossings. We have to secure our border.

TRIPPI: That's just not true. KEILAR: You look at the numbers, your point about the caravan, the president's tweet himself, he said, "The caravan is largely broken up, thanks to strong immigration laws in Mexico." That's actually incorrect. The caravan is an annual event organized by activists and it also disperses into separate small groups. I take issue with your point, it doesn't really seem to be based in fact.

CORTES: What is based in fact is that Mexico, for internal political reasons, Mexico was not just allowing the caravan, but aiding the caravan along the way. But, look, caravan or not, we arrest about a thousand people a day illegally crossing our border.

How many are getting through that we are not arresting. If we want to do immigration right in this country, and I want to, I love legal immigration, Exhibit A, Exhibit A is part of that plan of doing illegal immigration correctly is getting control of our border. We haven't had control for decades, under Republican administrations, under Democrats. Trump --

KEILAR: We're almost out of time. Joe, quick final word to you.

TRIPPI: We're at a 46 year low. The president pointed that out in his own tweet. And the last caravan that came, last year, three -- people who requested asylum were allowed in the United States.

This is just not -- let's just admit it, he saw something on television, he got freaked out and sent troops down there, couldn't send troops and now they're sending the guard, the guard with either no weapons or weapons with no ammunition in them.

It plays to his base, it works for him, it alleves whatever, you know, he's feeling from seeing that tv report, but that's all it is. It wasn't a plan, wasn't thought out and it won't be.

KEILAR: Joe Trippi, Steve Cortes, thank you so much to both of you, Gentlemen. I do appreciate it.

Coming up, we have a CNN exclusive, investigators for Special Counsel Robert Mueller questioning Russian oligarchs on whether they illegally funneled cash to Trump's presidential campaign. We'll have details ahead.

Plus, new details on the president's efforts to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. Sources telling CNN that the commander-in-chief fumed at his top military brass when they cautioned against the move. Stay with us for that.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:18:26]

KEILAR: Now a CNN exclusive about a new twist in the Russia investigation. Sources say Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team is now questioning Russian oligarchs about interference in the U.S. election. Investigators want to know if super rich Russians illegally funneled money into the 2016 Trump campaign. CNN's Shimon Prokupecz has more details about this. Shimon, what do we know about these interviews?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes, that's right, Brianna. Certainly, the Mueller team now looking at some of the money that has gone perhaps into the campaign, perhaps into other parts of the Trump orbit.

And what we've learned is that at least three Russian oligarchs, super wealthy Russians, have been either approached by FBI agents or some have voluntarily come to meet with special counsel or have provided documents to the special counsel.

One of these oligarchs was stopped as he arrived from overseas at a New York area airport, he was met by FBI agents where he was questioned. They served a search warrant on his electronic devices. And then he was questioned by FBI agents about his knowledge concerning the presidential campaign.

And one of the things we're told that the special counsel is looking at is whether or not these oligarchs were using -- where the Russian oligarchs were using straw donors to feed some of the money to and that money went to U.S. citizens, money that went to U.S. citizens, straw donors, but then went into the campaign -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Very interesting. Shimon Prokupecz with some new details there. We appreciate it.

I want to bring in Jamil Jaffer. He's a former associate White House counsel under President George W. Bush, and CNN national security analyst and former adviser in the Obama administration, Samantha Vinograd with us.

[11:00:00] What does this tell you, Sam, that the Mueller investigation is now focusing on these uber wealthy Russians?

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I think the FBI and Mueller are going to question every single oligarch that they can get access to because the oligarchs are arms of the Russian government. They get patronage from Vladimir Putin, and historically, they've moved money, goods and services around the world.

The FBI probably now wants to know did these oligarchs do any of Putin's dirty work in the election interference. We know Congress thinks that they did. That's why the oligarchs were specifically called out in the bipartisan legislation that passed in August.

And I think that the FBI is probably going to want to know, as Shimon mentioned, about any money that they laundered through the campaign, but also about information that they may have passed on, on behalf of Vladimir Putin or any quid pro quos on policy, for example, that they were transmitting on behalf of the Russian government to members of the campaign or transition team.

KEILAR: And as you said, called out by Congress in sanctions that were passed overwhelmingly, but that the Trump administration chose not to enact. That that was key, they had a list of oligarchs, they didn't sanction them. So, Jamil, how unusual is it in the situation like this to question foreign nationals?

JAMIL JAFFER, ADJUNCT PROFESSOR OF LAW, GEORGE MASON UNIVERSITY: I think if they think they have information about the underlying crimes, it is not unusual. What I think is unusual is what they're doing here as they come in, stopping them at the border, grabbing their devices, giving them warrants for that.

Some are subpoenaed to come back and testify before the grand jury. So, they're doing a lot of knock and talk classic law enforcement work, but here at the border as they come to the United States.

I think Sam is right to say this is an interesting scenario now because the FBI will question as many as they can. And so, as these folks try to flout U.S. law enforcement and come into this country, we're going to grab them and talk to them.

KEILAR: OK. So, keeping that in mind, Sam, now we understand the president could be sanctioning oligarchs, that's a real possibility here in the near term. How, if they're sanctioned, presumably they wouldn't be allowed to travel to the U.S., right?

I wonder what Mueller's aim is here, how many of these uber wealthy Russians does he want to interview? Probably a lot. How does that work if they're not allowed legally to come into the country?

VINOGRAD: Well, it would restrict his ability to actually interview these guys, but I think what we might be seeing is the intelligence community working together and the policy process functioning because remember, the FBI and Treasury are both part of the intelligence community.

Any information that Treasury uses to actually designate these oligarchs can be shared with the FBI. That information flow should go back and forth, so we saw this happen a few weeks ago when the FBI indicted several individuals and sanctions were levied by the Treasury Department and the White House. So, I think we'll see more mirroring happening going forward.

KEILAR: Well, that sounds functional, Jamil.

JAFFER: Well, one can only hope. Sam knows better than anybody else having been at the NSC. When the community can work together efficiently and share information, really sort of structure a process where they get the information they need and then sanctions them and put the penalties on them, it can work beautifully.

Doesn't always happen. The government itself has its own challenges and as we know, the administration has its own challenges (inaudible) between their policy decisions and what the intelligence community wants to do. That's a hard part of the process here.

KEILAR: Jamil and Sam, thank you to both of you.

Coming up, President Trump reportedly getting testy with his top military advisers when they cautioned him against withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria right now. We have details ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:27:51]

KEILAR: President Trump was pretty irritated with his national security team and his military advisers after they told him that withdrawing U.S. troops immediately from Syria would not be the right move. The White House says the president wants allies to, quote, "put more skin in the game in Syria."

In the meantime, Russia, Iran and Turkey met and promised to achieve a lasting ceasefire in Syria, but there were no representatives from the U.S. or Syria at those talks.

Joining me now, we have CNN global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott, who helped us break this very fascinating story, and CNN military analyst, Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona.

Elise, this is pretty interesting because it gives you a sense of what happened in this meeting. You're not normally privy to. What more can you tell us about what happened? The president was clearly irritated, but you have a lot of juicy details

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean, look, he was going on about how much this is costing the U.S. people. He, obviously, and his campaign, since then promised supporters he wants to bring all that money back home and he said, you know, I don't -- looking at the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent in Syria, he said the U.S. isn't getting anything for it.

And he wants to know why the job against ISIS is not done and he said to his military advisers, I want troops home in four to six months and you have his top military advisers like the joint chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dunford, Defense Secretary Mattis saying, look, the job is not done.

You said you want an enduring victory against ISIS and we can't get the job done in four to six months, and President Trump said, you know what, you have four to six months to defeat ISIS, get it done, and, you know, he's also wants as the White House is saying, he wants more gulf allies to pick up this tab. He's looking at rich gulf nations, feels the U.S. is shouldering too much of the burden.

KEILAR: Colonel, the White House as Elise is explaining there, he wants the president wants allies to put more skin in the game in Syria, wants them to shoulder the burden. Is that a feasible thing that would really allow the U.S. to leave without leaving a vacuum that you would have Russia and Iran filling?

RICK FRANCONA, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: No, not at all. I mean, remember, this is a U.S.-led coalition, it was the United States that put this coalition together. Now about 75 countries involved in one form or another.