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Trumps Hosting First State Dinner; VA Secretary Nominee Under Fire. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired April 24, 2018 - 15:00   ET




DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So, we will see what happens. I don't want to put a man through who is not a political person. I don't want to put a man through a process like this. It too ugly and too disgusting.

So, we will see what happens. He will make a decision.

QUESTION: So, are you saying, Mr. President, that you will stand behind him?


TRUMP: Oh, I would definitely stand behind him. He's a fine man. I will always stand behind him. I would let it be his choice.


BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: For his part, here is what Dr. Ronny Jackson had to say in the halls of Capitol Hill, right before the president's news conference.


DR. RONNY JACKSON, PRESIDENTIAL PHYSICIAN: I can answer the questions, absolutely. I'm looking forward to rescheduling the hearing and answering everyone's question.

QUESTION: Is there any truth to these allegations? Will you withdrawal your nomination?

QUESTION: Did the White House ask you to withdraw?


BALDWIN: With me now, Manu Raju, CNN senior congressional correspondent, Juana Summers, CNN politics senior writer, and Sarah Westwood, our CNN White House reporter.

So, Manu, let me just start with you in Washington.

You're talking to these committee leaders. They're reviewing these allegations. Right? They want to know at the end of the day are they true?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, absolutely. They're very concerned about these allegations.

They don't know if they are true, but they do know that whistle- blowers have come before this committee alleging some very serious concerns about Ronny Jackson's behavior while at the White House Medical Unit, concerns about excessive drinking, allegedly, concerns about his mishandling of prescription drugs, as well as a toxic work environment.

This is according to two people who have spoken to Juana Summers.

But the question that the members have is, are they true? They don't know that yet, and they don't know why this didn't come up initially when the White House, if it did vet this nomination, why it didn't raise any red flags before proposing this to Capitol Hill?

But serious enough that the leaders of this committee announced today they were going to delay this nomination indefinitely.


SEN. JON TESTER (D), MONTANA: Because, quite frankly, I don't have enough information to say this is true, this isn't true, this is true, this isn't true. We're continuing the vetting process and we will get to the bottom of everything.

QUESTION: Are you concerned about what you have learned so far?

TESTER: If it turns out to be true.

SEN. JOHNNY ISAKSON (R), GEORGIA: I think Mr. Jackson and myself and Senator Tester and everybody in Congress needs to take a deep breath.

Let's give the man a chance to be heard. Let's give us to ask the questions that we need to be. And, as chairman, I'm going to see to it, if information comes to my attention that ought to be vetted, that it's vetted in the appropriate way in the appropriate order.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: The White House has been consistently and abysmally careless, even derelict in the vetting process, which accounts for some of the problems with their nominees.


RAJU: Now, that concern from Senator Blumenthal has been echoed by Republicans as well.

But in a private meeting just earlier with Jerry Moran, the Republican senator from Kansas, Ronny Jackson made clear that denied that he did anything improper, anything that would question disqualify him from this post. And he's ready to press forward.

But, Brooke, the ultimate question is whether Republicans want him to push forward, including the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, who did not give any sort of ringing endorsement to Ronny Jackson, saying he's waiting for any signal from the White House and the chairman of the committee, Johnny Isakson, about how to proceed.

So, still a lot of questions about whether or not he will move forward and whether or not there will be the support to ultimately confirm him if they do decide to move forward on this nomination, Brooke.

BALDWIN: That's the hill.

But what about the White House, Sarah? From our reporting, the White House did know about these allegations prior to Monday. We know that our source told us that Dr. Jackson was open and honest, there was this possibility these accounts from what he referred to as disgruntled former employees who had raised this issue.

But then you just had President Trump sitting in that news conference saying Dr. Jackson is one of the finest men he had met, which doesn't jibe with what the White House would have heard.

So did the White House even pass along the allegations to the president?

SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, that's the million- dollar question, because right now we don't know how thorough this vetting process was.

The White House publicly is continuing to stand by Ronny Jackson, issuing a strongly worded statement this morning, President Trump hinting potentially Ronny Jackson might withdraw, but he's behind his VA pick all the way through if Ronny Jackson wants to continue down this road.

We do know, like you mentioned, that Ronny Jackson was open about these allegations, the possibility that this could come up during his confirmation hearing, and that he prepared for the hearings accordingly, with the knowledge that this could be an issue.

But lawmakers have expressed the sense that they were taken aback by the allegations when they heard them. And we know there was a delay in getting the paperwork to the committee. That didn't occur until late last week.

Many feel that potentially the White House was too slow in this process. And so the question remains how long the White House can stand behind Ronny Jackson if Republican lawmakers aren't going to stand with them.


BALDWIN: Right. Well, it sounded like the president gave him an out when he was talking about him at that news conference with Macron a little bit ago. So, there's that.

But, Juana, you have been out front on all this reporting. Can you just, for people who don't know, describe these allegations that Dr. Jackson faces? JUANA SUMMERS, CNN POLITICS SENIOR WRITER: Absolutely, Brooke.

I spoke to two former staffers who worked at the White House Medical Unit that Ronny Jackson leads, and they told me they spoke to the Senate Veterans Committee about allegations that Jackson oversaw a toxic workplace and also reports of excessive drinking.

As Manu Raju reported as well, the committee is separately looking at concerns about the way that drugs were prescribed within the White House unit.

Now, of course, it's important to note that the committee has not been able to cooperate these specific allegations because of a lack of documentation. But they are being viewed with some alarm on Capitol Hill by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who are concerned that this is just now coming out.

They want to know more about it. And that's why we really saw the plans to have Ronny Jackson's confirmation hearing tomorrow upended.

Keep in mind, the political context here. When Ronny Jackson was announced to be the nominee for this department in a presidential tweet last month, a lot of people on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill raised the alarm here, because they were concerned that he might not have the right type of management experience for this job.

The VA is a sprawling agency. A lot of problems and a lot of critical decisions that are up for grabs right now. And they want to see a strong leader there. The president speaking today did mention those leadership concerns too.

BALDWIN: But, Juana, why -- this a man who has not only been the White House M.D. for the Trump administration. He would with President Obama. He would with President Bush. Why are these allegations only coming to now?

SUMMERS: I think that's a great question.

I think you heard a hint of that scrutiny in the president's response today. He's suggesting this is a great man. He's served under multiple presidents. Democrats have just been trying to block the nomination of Mike Pompeo for secretary of state.

But the people that I talked to said that these are things that they found. They felt like they had a need to step forward. The types of people that you see working in this White House, it's a huge unit, these are people span multiple administrations like Ronny Jackson, Rear Admiral Jackson himself.

And so I think that he is being nominated to lead the government's second largest bureaucracy. And I think that brings a new level of scrutiny on a person, who, while we had that very public press conference in which he spoke very charitably about the president and had that big back and forth reporters about his health, but this is really the first time we have seen public scrutiny on him and reporters like us digging into his background to see kind of just what's out there.

BALDWIN: Speaking of other scrutiny, Sarah, let me end with the EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, who is also teetering.

CNN reporting a source saying everyone wants him gone except for President Trump. What do you know?

WESTWOOD: Well, President Trump's love for Scott Pruitt is one reason why a lot of folks feel why Scott Pruitt is still here.

He's caused a lot of negative headlines for the White House. They have constantly been on the defense when it comes to their EPA administrator.

And so the question is, if Scott Pruitt were to lose the president's favor, what would it take to get to that point, given that we have already had so many allegations against him, whether that's from his private travel, getting raises some of his aides and on and on.

The problem for the White House would be trying to get another EPA nominee through the Senate. Look at all of the problems that they have had with their nominees so far. Coming up on an election year, getting another EPA administrator through the Senate right now would be a really tall order.

That could be motivating the White House to keep him around, even though he is so embattled right now.

BALDWIN: Sara and Juana, thank you both so much.

These comments we were just discussing with regard to Dr. Ronny Jackson came about during this joint news conference with the French president, Emmanuel Macron.

Macron called for new additions to the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump has called the worst ever. But while the French leader supports changes to the current deal, he stressed he does not want to "tear it up." And that is an option that the president, President Trump, is weighing, as he has threatened to reject an extension of the accord by this May 12 deadline.

Here he was.


TRUMP: It's a bad deal. It's a bad structure. It's falling down. Should have never, ever been made. I blame Congress. I blame a lot of people for. But it should have never been made.

And we are going to see what happens on the 12th. But I will say if Iran threatens us in any way, they will pay a price like few countries have ever paid.


BALDWIN: With me now, CNN national security analyst Samantha Vinograd, who served as senior adviser to Obama's national security adviser, and opinion contributor David Andelman, who is also a visiting scholar at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School.

Great to have both of you on.


And, David, you were just telling me who you spent your evening with yesterday, none other than the foreign minister from Iran, Mohammad Zarif, another, who I can't imagine would agree to any of this notion of ripping up any kind of deal.


What he says is, look, we have a deal. If someone wants to rip it up, then we have to a whole new ball game. He said we could go back to a nuclear option fairly quickly. He also said, by the way, we have no interest in developing a nuclear weapon.

So you have to take that with a grain of salt. But still this a person, this is a country that really believes they had a deal that was solid, they got something for it, the West got something for it. Now we go back. And we keep this deal and let's start to do a side deal?

What is going to have to happen now? Well, we're going to have to give again is something else if the Iranians are willing to do this side deal, something substantial, to get to that next stage.

And I'm not quite clear how that works. I'm not quite clear that them even perhaps Macron understands how that works.

BALDWIN: Looking at the language earlier from President Trump, Sam, President Trump said, nobody knows what I'm going to do on May 12, which is that when it up for recertification.

"Maybe, Mr. President, you have a good idea. It's possible to do a new deal with solid foundation."

So I don't know if that's very sort of Trumpian language of stay tuned until May 12 and you will see what happens. It sounded like President Macron laid out a little bit more as to what he would be willing to do. Explain that for us.


He wants us all to hold our breath until he makes some big announcement or non-announcement on May 12.

BALDWIN: Or non-announcement.


VINOGRAD: Right. How many other times have we heard the president, I think as a

negotiating tactic, say I'm going to pull out of this agreement or I'm going to tear up NAFTA, when in fact he is trying to renegotiate something more to his liking?

But I think Macron played President Trump like a fiddle today.


VINOGRAD: And I think it's good for national security, because I think we're going to stay in the Iran agreement, but I think Macron knew that he had to give Trump something. He had to give him an off- ramp so that President Trump could say, I hate this deal, but I got something else.

And so we're going to have a situation most likely where there will be -- this is not going to be a new agreement. It will be a supplemental agreement on paper only, though. It is most likely that the Europeans will sign the supplemental agreement. China probably won't sign. Russia probably won't sign. And who knows if Iran will find.

BALDWIN: It's a little something extra.


VINOGRAD: Exactly.

ANDELMAN: Right. Right.

But you also have to understand where Macron is coming from. Trump has to give Macron something as well.

VINOGRAD: I agree.

ANDELMAN: Because Macron is really -- he's right on the edge there.

And I know that the president doesn't care very much about history, but you have to go back just five years.

BALDWIN: Hollande.

ANDELMAN: Macron, who is Macron's predecessor, he was at about the same popularity level right now, 35 percent now, 40 percent, as Macron is now.

And after Obama basically hung Hollande out to dry over Syria five years ago, his approval rating sunk to 9 percent and he was a one-term president. Macron does not want that to happen.

BALDWIN: Great point.

Let me move on talk North Korea, of course, ahead of the huge talks between leader Kim Jong-un and President Trump potentially in June, maybe, maybe not. So the president says. This is that what though the president said earlier today in describing the North Korean dictator and he used the word honorable. Watch.


TRUMP: Kim Jong-un was -- he really has been very open, and I think very honorable, from everything we're seeing.

Now, a lot of promises have been made by North Korea over the years, but they have never been in this position.


BALDWIN: When I heard the word honorable, I thought of Otto Warmbier's parents, who sat in these two seats with me just so many months ago talking about their son who was tortured in North Korea.

How is Kim Jong-un honorable?

VINOGRAD: There's nothing honorable with Kim Jong-un. He's a sociopath.

Whether or not he's going to sit down with President Trump and negotiate in good faith on nuclear weapons is one issue. He starves his own people. He has his chemical weapons. He tortured Otto and God knows who whomever else. He assassinated his half-brother.

And so this is who is honorable?

And it's worth noting, Brooke, President Trump spent more time complimenting Kim Jong-un today than he did complimenting previous American presidents. He criticized previous administrations, while complimenting a sociopath who kills his own people? That seems discordant to me.

ANDELMAN: Well, not only that, but you have to understand in previous -- the previous heads of North Korea, his father and grandfather, father and grandfather, they also made these agreements, these marvelous agreements that sounded wonderful on paper, until all of a sudden they weren't being quite respected and we went right back to where we started from.

BALDWIN: I love that you go back to the past, just to remind all of us what happened then and what could happen now.

David, thank you very much. And, Sam, excellent, both of you.

Coming up next: the Dow taking a huge hit this afternoon, down more than -- we will take a look together -- 442 points, 45 minutes to go in the trading day. We will talk about why this dip has happened.

Also, controversy over a video in police in Alabama wrestling this woman to the ground inside a Waffle House. Why they're standing by this Iraq that all started apparently over some plastic utensils.

[15:15:10] But, first, that hat, the hat. Melania Trump steals the show with her outfit this morning. We will talk fashion and all the details ahead of her big state dinner next.


BALDWIN: The first lady of the United States calling the shots, stealing the show for the first state visit of the Trump presidency.

Melania Trump determined to host the French president and his wife in high style, tweeting that she spent "months of preparations" on every last detail of tonight's opulent state dinner.

So, with me now, my favorite Kates, CNN contributor Kate Andersen Brower, and CNN White House reporter Kate Bennett.

Kate Bennett, first to you, because you have got the scoop. Can we talk about the hat?



BALDWIN: When I saw that hat, I thought Beyonce, Formation.

I was just waiting for her to...



BENNETT: A lot of people did, a lot of people.

Some people thought Olivia Pope. I mean, it really inspired a lot of things. We have talked about this before. Brooke. And I think, Kate, you and I and have too.

There is no such thing in my opinion as Melania Trump coincidence. When she walked out there in that hat, she knew all eyes would be on her, this would be a moment, that she would probably steal the scene on a very global stage, so to speak.

The hat was custom-made for her by Herve Pierre, who is her sometimes personal stylist, also a fashion designer in his own right. The jacket was Michael Kors. Of course, Michael Coors was an ardent Hillary Clinton supporter during the campaign.

And another white suit. We have seen her wear white quite a bit, most recently memorably at the State of the Union address, when she wore that white pantsuit.

So, certainly, Melania Trump has a playbook here in a way with her outfit, but that hat -- people are still -- I can't -- my phone blew up.


BALDWIN: I love it so much.

Kate Andersen Brower, hats aside, this is a huge dinner. I have seen bits and pieces. Can we talk about everything from the china they're choosing, the gold, the cherry blossoms?

I mean, you have written the book on first ladies. Tell us about the events.

KATE ANDERSEN BROWER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Like Kate is saying, nothing is sort of a casual coincidence here.

The fact that she, Melania Trump, has chosen to use the Clinton china service, pieces from the Bush 43 china service, the dessert includes honey from Michelle Obama's White House garden, and I think that these are all signs that she really is kind of embodying a little bit of what Michelle Obama said, when they go low, we go high.

It seems like Melania Trump even when she went to Houston over the weekend and posed with the former president and first lady, that she is striking a tone that I think is showing that she's trying to find her footing as first lady.

And all eyes are on her tonight. And so this is her first chance at it. But there are so many things that can go wrong. And I'm sure Kate knows about this. There are social secretaries who will tell you horror stories about Gerald Ford danced with the queen during the bicentennial in 1976, and the Marine Band struck up "The Lady Is a Tramp" during her first song.

And things like that happen. Flags are hung upside down. Certain colors symbolize -- white is the color of mourning in certain countries, so they don't want to use too much white. I mean, it's a complicated endeavor.

BALDWIN: My executive producer is pinching me through this earpiece. I must ask you. According to Eric (ph) -- I'm outing him -- the hat. He wants more on the hat. The hat. Did you like the hat?

Kate Andersen Brower...


BALDWIN: Kate Andersen Brower, we want to know more about the hat. What did you think?

ANDERSEN BROWER: I think that Melania Trump looks good in everything.

She is a former model, so she can pull it off. It's a gutsy move. She makes a lot of -- she takes a lot of fashion chances, so I liked it.


BENNETT: I will say this, too, Brooke. When you commit to a hat like that, you have got to wear it for the

rest of the day, because then your hair sort of...


BALDWIN: You know, you got people, and you can fix your hair.


BENNETT: She walked into the museum. She was wearing it inside. She committed to the hat.


BALDWIN: Love it.

Let's move on from the hat. I'm a fan of the hat. But I'm also just dying to get into -- Kate Bennett, I was glued to your Instagram, looking at the details too that you had about the cherry blossoms and how long that Melania Trump has really taken charge and worked on this dinner.

Tell me all the details.

BENNETT: She has worked for several months on this dinner.

And she really seems to have done her homework. And it's interesting to me this juxtaposition again with the president, who sort of says, in history, and it's sort of wobbly fact time. Melania is very different. She's very calculated.

And in this sense, the state dinner and the aesthetics and picking the cherry blossoms, making sure they were grown in America, deciding to use herbs from the kitchen garden, all of these seems, to me, indicate that she really -- this is her wheelhouse. Right.

She's not so good at crafting policy. She's not terrific at public speaking. She's not a political spouse in the sense that we have seen before from former first ladies of recent history.

However, she does know her social scenes. She has several homes. She's entertained quite a bit. She's a former designer, former model, so she knows how colors work together.


BENNETT: Exactly.

So I think, again, she wanted to take this one. She didn't need an event planner. It's a smaller dinner, though, Brooke. About 130 guests are expected tonight, not the usual 300, 400, as they sort of ballooned into in recent years.

BALDWIN: And not a single Democrat. Not a single Democrat in Congress invited. Whose call was that? BENNETT: Well, typically, the guest list is a combination of the West Wing and the visiting country's diplomatic corps. The State Department has an influence there. So it's unclear until the final guest list is released just if we're really not going to see any Democrats writ large.

But we're certainly expecting, I think the guest list, to feel maybe as insular and reflect the divisive climate of Washington these days, which is a break from tradition.


I'm sure Kate can speak to just how broad guest lists can be at these things. But it is interesting, yet not particularly surprising we won't see a lot of Democrats.


And, Kate Andersen Brower, we know that Melania speaks French, yes? Didn't Jackie O., wasn't that something that her husband loved that she could speak French when the diplomats came by?



And I think it's really interesting that last night the Trumps hosted the French president and his wife at Mount Vernon, which is something the Kennedys did in 1961 with the president of Pakistan.

They had a state dinner at Mount Vernon, which was an incredible nightmare for their social secretary, Letitia Baldrige. She talks about how much work it was and just dealing with getting guests on the Potomac down to Mount Vernon.

But it was the first state dinner held outside of Washington. It was a big deal. And I think that with a nod to Jackie Kennedy last night, even though it was private dinner. I thought it was interesting.

But, to Kate's point, I mean, you do not reject an invitation to a state dinner unless you are deathly ill or have some pressing reason not to be in Washington.

I'm really curious that to see who is on the guest list. And I'm surprised that no Democrats, no journalists -- usually, there are journalists who have some ties to the country who are invited to the state dinner.

And that we're not seeing that tonight I think is a break with tradition and a bit sad and unfortunate.

BALDWIN: Let's remember what Trump said about state dinners once upon a time. Roll it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) TRUMP: We give them state dinners like you have never seen. We

shouldn't have dinners at all. We should be eating a hamburger on a conference table.


BALDWIN: All right.

Well, times have changed. Obviously, they're having a dinner tonight.

I want to end on what Melania will be wearing this evening.

I was talking to Naeem Khan. Naeem Khan, we love him, right, who has designed for Michelle Obama two dozen times. His guess was -- total guess -- shot in the dark on -- Ralph Lauren -- do an American designer.

What do you ladies think?

BENNETT: She did wear Ralph Lauren for the inauguration. It is that blue suit she wore that was very Jackie O.

It could be. She might do a French designer. I don't know. I'm sort of leaning towards a Dior or Chanel or maybe even a custom Herve Pierre. I really -- I have tried to get this out of so many people, and no one is talking. So it's a big surprise.

BALDWIN: Kate, what do you think?

ANDERSEN BROWER: I'm going to go with Dior, if I had to guess. It would make sense to do a French designer. Yes.

BALDWIN: All right, to the Kates, thank you so much. We will be watching.


BALDWIN: We are also following breaking news out of Wall Street.

The Dow is down upwards of nearly 500 points. We will take you to the New York Stock Exchange and try to figure out what's happening this afternoon.

Also, more on the breaking news involving President Trump giving his choice for VA secretary an out to withdraw, as allegations are surfacing against Dr. Ronny Jackson and accounts of his excessive drinking, mishandling of prescriptions.

What we know, what white folks up on Capitol Hill are trying to determine is true or not.