Return to Transcripts main page


Friend: Trump Considering Firing Robert Mueller; Closed-Door Drama of GOP Health Care Talks; Interview with Sen. Jeff Merkley. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired June 13, 2017 - 07:00   ET


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN: -- value added, as always. Thank you for being with us.

Thanks to you, our international viewers. Thank you for watching us. For you "CNN NEWSROOM" is next. For our U.S. viewers, the president is tweeting. He is making news. And guess what? We're doing to get after it.


[07:00:18] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have to start asking, what is the president so desperate to hide from the American people?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's considering perhaps terminating the special counsel. He's weighing that option.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What the hell are we investigating?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This seems more like an evident to prosecute Donald Trump.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (via phone): We're not doing to let the president choose who conducts this investigation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Attorney General Sessions has an explanation he needs to give.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you believe that he should invoke executive privilege?

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It depends on the scope of the question.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it important to establish why he was involved in the dismissal of Director Comey, since he had recused himself.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: The whole thing is sour grapes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did Sessions meet with a Russian ambassador?

PAUL: We shouldn't get carried away with things.

(END VIDEOTAPE) ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to your NEW DAY.

Special counsel in the Russia investigation is under fire. A longtime friend of President Trump said the president is considering firing Robert Mueller. The White House denies that the president ever discussed this issue with his friend.

CUOMO: All right. In just a few hours, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is going to face tough questions at a Senate hearing mainly about his contacts with Russia and his involvement in the firing of James Comey. What did the attorney general know about what the president's intentions were about the conversation with Comey? Will he answer those questions?

We have it all covered? Let's begin with CNN's Ryan Nobles, live on Capitol Hill -- Ryan.


Attorney General Jeff Sessions expected to be grilled today by members of the Senate Intelligence Committee. But just how forthcoming the attorney general will be remains to be seen. His testimony comes at a time where President Trump and his associates appear to be interfering with the work of the special counsel, Bob Mueller.


CHRISTOPHER RUDDY, FRIEND OF TRUMP'S: I think he's considering perhaps terminating the special counsel.

NOBLES (voice-over): Just hours after leaving the White House, President Trump's longtime friend, Newsmax CEO Christopher Ruddy, claims the president is considering firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the man in charge of investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

RUDDY: I think he's -- he's weighing that option. I think it's pretty clear by what one of his lawyers said on television recently. I personally think it would be a very significant mistake.

NOBLES: White House press secretary Sean Spicer insisting "Mr. Ruddy never spoke to the president regarding this issue."

But hours earlier, Spicer's deputy said that Ruddy, quote, "speaks for himself."

Several Trump allies now attacking Mueller's credibility, despite initially praising his appointment. Former Trump campaign adviser Newt Gingrich tweeting Monday, "Republicans are delusional if they think the special counsel is going to be fair." But only last month, Gingrich praised Mueller as a, quote, "superb choice."

One of the reasons for the revolt? Who Mueller has hired for his legal team. CNN analysis of FEC records reveals three of the five lawyers on Mueller's team have donated almost exclusively to Democrats, with two giving the maximum donation to Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign.

Still, White House sources tell CNN Trump's advisors are urging him not to fire Mueller, a move lawmakers feel could backfire.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA), RANKING MEMBER, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE (via phone): It would be absolutely astonishing, were he to entertain this. The echoes of Watergate are getting louder and louder.

NOBLES: All of this comes ahead of today's public testimony by embattled Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions is expected to face a grilling about his contacts with Russia and the firing of James Comey.

JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: He was very close to and inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons. We also were aware of facts that I can't discuss in an open setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic.

NOBLES: Sources tell CNN Comey told senators behind closed doors that Sessions may have had a third meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, which the Justice Department denies. It will likely be brought up today, along with Comey's account that Sessions was booted from an Oval Office meeting back in February before Comey said the president asked him to drop the Michael Flynn investigation.

COMEY: My sense was the attorney general knew he shouldn't be leaving, which was why he was lingering.

NOBLES: It's unclear whether Sessions will invoke executive privilege to avoid answering questions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you believe that executive privilege in conversations between himself and the president...

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think it depends on the scope of the questions.


NOBLES: And the idea that President Trump may attempt to fire the special counsel Robert Mueller, is being roundly condemned by both Republicans and Democrats, and among them the House speaker, Paul Ryan. Appearing this morning on Hugh Hewitt's radio show, Ryan told the guest host, Guy Benton, quote, "I think we should let Bob Mueller do his work" -- Chris and Alisyn.

[07:05:12] CAMEROTA: OK. Thank you very much, Ryan.

Let's discuss this with panel. We want to bring in Chris Cillizza, reporter and editor at large for CNN Politics; A.B. Stoddard, associated editor and columnist at Real Clear Politics; and CNN senior legal analyst and former federal prosecutor, Jeffrey Toobin. Chris Cillizza, the possibility that Robert Mueller could be fired.

You know, look, obviously, you hear people saying that would be a very bad idea. But had they known that James Comey was going to be fired, they would say that before then also. What have you -- what are you hearing?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS CORRESPONDENT AND EDITOR AT LARGE: Well, look, anyone that you would talk to, and I've talked to about this will say it's a terrible idea. It would be politically disastrous. But that doesn't mean Donald Trump -- you can rule Donald Trump out from doing it.

My read on the Chris Ruddy thing is the time line seemed pretty clear. He goes to the White House. We now know he does not meet with the president. He then comes out, gives an interview to PBS in which he says, "They're thinking about doing this. I think it would be a really bad idea." Which seems to me someone probably at the staff level he meets with at the White House says this is in the mix. This is a possibility. Ruddy thinks it's a really bad idea and knows that the best way to communicate that it's a bad idea to his friend, the president of the United States, is to say something on television immediately.

Now, all of that said, does it rule out the possibility Donald Trump still does it? You know, remember the times Ivanka Trump has his ear. She knows. She'll steer him. He'll do what he says. Well, not in the Paris Climate Accords. Steve Bannon has his ear. Reince Priebus has his ear. Kellyanne Conway has his ear. You know, everybody theoretically has his ear until he does what does he wants to do anyway.

So I think Donald Trump is sort of an island unto himself even within his White House. And that's what makes predicting what he will do virtually impossible.

CUOMO: A.B., what's your read on this? I mean, I was joking in the last hour, "with friends like this, who needs enemas." And Chris Ruddy is supposed to be his buddy and goes out and puts him in this kind of box. That's not a good act of friendship there.

But do you believe there's any substance to the suggestion that the president might make a move on Mueller?

A.B. STODDARD, COLUMNIST, ASSOCIATED EDITOR, REAL CLEAR POLITICS: Well, I think, Chris Ruddy -- I mean, Chris Cillizza is right that Ruddy might have been trying to telegraph that it would be a mistake.

But I think that, when we look at the Gingrich comments and, you know, sort of some other criticism of Mueller, it's not entirely out of the realm of the possible that that would be something that Trump would consider, you know, that he wants us to end. And we know he acts on impulse. So it's not entirely impossible to imagine a scenario in which he does it.

CUOMO: Wouldn't he has to get an agreement from Ryan and probably McConnell to block any move by Congress afterwards? STODDARD: Well, as I understand it, he actually has to have Deputy

Attorney General Rod Rosenstein...

CUOMO: I know, but I'm saying, I'm jumping ahead. So he can't fire them directly. It's got to be Rosenstein. He goes to Rosenstein and says, "You do what I say." Rosenstein folds. I'm saying this is what would have to happen. And he gets rid of him. But then Congress could make a move. So he'd have to know in advance, Toobin, that "Ryan and McConnell will protect me. They won't do anything."

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: I think they will protect him, because the Republicans who -- who are in control of Congress basically are very supportive of Trump. And you'd need two-thirds of the House and Senate.

CUOMO: Veto-proof.

TOOBIN: Veto-proof. You're not going to get that for an -- you know, an anti-Trump initiative of any kind.

But I mean, I do think, you know, when we talk at the possibility of firing, it's not as simple as, just "You're fired," like on "The Apprentice." He would have to get a Justice Department official, presumably Rod Rosenstein. Rod Rosenstein might refuse and quit, and then he would have to go down to Rachel Brand, who is the associate attorney general. And then she might quit.

That would be exactly what happened in the Saturday Night Massacre in 1973, when they eventually did fire Archibald Cox. So, you know, the political cost is -- is even greater, because he would have to involve other people.

CAMEROTA: OK. So Chris Cillizza, let's talk about what we definitely know this afternoon. And that is Attorney General Jeff Sessions is going to testify in open session in front of Senate intel. What do we think he is going to say?

CILLIZZA: I'm doing to downplay expectations and say, "Not all that much." So he -- here are the things we know will be asked. And he has to come up with some sort of answer.

Certainly, he has to talk about the rumored third meeting. We don't know whether -- James Comey said in private session with the senators following his testimony he may have met a third time with Sergey Kislyak. Now, remember...

CUOMO: Russian ambassador.

CILLIZZA: ... he did not disclose the two -- the first two meetings with -- with Kislyak during his confirmation hearing. So I think that then the Comey interaction. So the first one being the February 14 meeting in which Sessions, as well as everybody else, is asked to leave the room so Trump can have a one-on-one with Comey.

[07:10:10] Comey says Sessions lingered, knew he shouldn't do it. Then the other one is when Comey asked Sessions, "You need to stop the president from calling me and asking me these direct questions." To Comey's recollection, Sessions says nothing and sort of shrugs his shoulders, like, "What can I do? It's this guy."

My guess is Sessions will have a different recollection of that. But remember, these will be under oath Comey recollection, and I presume what will be a counter-narrative under oath Jeff Sessions' recollection that will run directly into one another.

CUOMO: Right. And we are expecting, Jeffrey, the attorney general will say, "My meeting with Comey didn't go that way. I didn't sit there passively when he said this. And that's not what he said to me." So you'll have that "he said, he said."

But he's in a box on the "what did you know" questions when it comes to Trump. Because if he says, "Well, yes, I knew he was going to move on Comey." If he says anything like that, he's got one set of issues to deal with. But what about if he says, "I didn't know? I didn't get any of it."

"So afterwards, this meeting with Comey when the president told you to leave, you didn't ask any questions after that?"

"No, I didn't. I never asked."

"and when Comey came to you and said he didn't want to be alone with him anymore, you didn't ask him why?"

"No, I didn't ask him why."

Those answers hurt also.

TOOBIN: They do potentially, if he gives any of those answers. My understanding is that he will not answer any questions about his interactions with the president.

CUOMO: What's his basis?

TOOBIN: Well, that's the interesting question of what -- what he will say. You know, we talk about him citing executive privilege. He doesn't have an executive privilege. Donald Trump has an executive privilege. And so if he says, "I cite executive privilege," the senators will be very much within their rights in saying, "Did the president instruct you to do that?"

CUOMO: And if he says no?

TOOBIN: If he says no, he has no legal basis.

CUOMO: And if he still won't answer them, what can they do?

TOOBIN: Nothing. That's the problem?

CUOMO: Can they cite him for contempt?

TOOBIN: Well, they could eventually. But I mean, in fact, he is in control of what he says tomorrow. And the Senate has very few options in a practical sense to make him talk. But yes, they could cite him for contempt, and they could have litigation for months.

But I mean, in terms of what we learned today, it's really going to be very much up to Sessions.

CAMEROTA: A.B., we need to talk about this amazing cabinet meeting that the president held for the first time. You know, his full cabinet meeting around the table. And they each went individually and engaged in a sycophantic-palooza that we will now show you and the viewers.



And this is the greatest privilege of my life, to serve as vice president to a president who's keeping his word to the American people.

ALEXANDER ACOSTA, SECRETARY OF LABOR: Mr. President, I'm privileged to be here, deeply honored. And I want to thank you for keeping your commitment to the American workers.

DR. TOM PRICE, SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES: Mr. President, what an incredible honor it is to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. At this pivotal time under your leadership, I can't thank you enough for the privilege that you've given me and the leadership you've shown.

REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: Mr. President, thank you for the honor to serve the country. It's a great privilege you've given me.

REINCE PRIEBUS, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: On behalf of the entire senior staff around you, Mr. President, we thank you for the opportunity and the blessing that you've given us to serve your agenda and the American people.


CAMEROTA: Amen. A.B., you've been in Washington a long time. Have you seen a cabinet meeting like that?

STODDARD: No. No, of course not. And I think you could sort of see how maybe, as Maggie pointed out last hour, it wasn't exactly Trump's idea, but someone on the staff thought it would be great if people sort of just got together for the first time in this sort of week, a couple of weeks of mayhem and chaos, and make it seem like everything was on track and they're making progress and say some positive things about the agenda.

But it really came off like an order. And that was what was so disturbing, was to only see General Mattis be the sole person to sort of focus on just being proud to represent his department and the men and women in uniform and the sacrifice they're making. But it wasn't really about the American people. It was about their boss. And the presidency is not about one man. It's about us. And so it was really extraordinary. And because it came off like an

order, I think it blew up in their faces and became something that, you know, "Saturday Night Live" wouldn't even know what to do with, it was that surreal.

CUOMO: And that has become a new establishment trend. But the -- General Mattis saying that he was grateful for the opportunity to serve with the men and women. He made it much more about the "we" instead of the "me" f the form.

STODDARD: And looked the president right in his eye when he was saying it.

CUOMO: That's exactly right. He did.

Now, Chris Cillizza, there is something for which to give thanks in all of this, which is an opportunity to discuss what is the role of the media here? You hear from Trump supporters and from the president himself: "The media stinks, because they are not nice to me. They are too mean."

[07:15:14] What is your response to the idea of balance of naughty and nice?

CILLIZZA: And by the way, Chris, just to add, the president up and tweeting this morning...


CILLIZZA: ... bashing the phony media, I think.

CUOMO: He might as well be calling you by name.

CILLIZZA: Yes, I know, which would be fine and probably help my Twitter following. There it is, yes, "Fake news media has never been so wrong or dirty. Purposely incorrect stories and phony sources to meet their agenda of hate. Sad." That was my dramatic reading.

Look, this is tremendously corrosive to democracy. I can't say it in any other way. Undermining an institution that is aimed at trying to be fair, trying to get the facts for the people who represent us.

Again, A.B. makes a very right point. We pay the president's salary. Not we, the media; we, the people. Right? We pay the president's salary. He is ultimately responsible to report back to us, the people.

Donald Trump's conception of what is good and what is bad in media, which means what is -- is all based on who is nice to me and who is not nice to me? And then it is not fundamentally the job of the media. Good and fair. Nice to him and fair are not synonymous.

Our job is when there is something like that White House cabinet meeting to say -- for me, I've been doing this for 20 years. I've not seen something like that, this praise-fest, in which the president sits and just sort of soaks it all in. "Thank you. I appreciate it." That's not a normal thing that we have seen. That is the media's job.

The media's job is not to say, "Hey, Mr. President, great job. Loved that cabinet meeting. Really solid."

TOOBIN: I do think, though, it is important for us to acknowledge that criticism of the news media is perfectly appropriate and often justified, and so there's nothing inherently wrong with the president saying that we do a bad job at this or that. His rhetoric, though, you know, talking about our hate and we're enemies of the American people, that I think -- I don't think that's helpful.

CAMEROTA: Yes, I think that's fair. We're doing some soul-searching, obviously, at the moment. But the rhetoric.

TOOBIN: We always should be.

CUOMO: Damning our existence is probably a little bit too much.

TOOBIN: That's too much. Yes.

CUOMO: CNN's special coverage of the Sessions hearing begins at 2 p.m. Eastern. Please stay with CNN for that.

CAMEROTA: Panel, thank you very much.

Meanwhile health care, of course, on the minds of Americans, as well as Republican senators, who have been crafting a bill behind closed doors. So what's in it? What can the Democrats tell us about it? We ask Senator Jeff Merkley next.


[07:21:52] CAMEROTA: When deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein named Robert Mueller special counsel, we saw something rare, bipartisan agreement about his credentials on Capitol Hill. But now, Trump allies are turning on Mueller, and a friend of the president says the president is actually considering firing Mueller.


RUDDY: I think he's considering perhaps terminating the special counsel. I think he's -- he's weighing that option. I think it's pretty clear by what one of his lawyers said on television recently. I personally think it would be a very significant mistake.


CAMEROTA: Joining us now, Democratic Senator of Oregon.

Good morning, Senator.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY (D), OREGON: Good morning, how are you doing?

CAMEROTA: I'm doing well. So the White House refutes that. They say that Chris Ruddy, whom you just heard there, did not meet with the president. Have you heard anything about the president considering firing Bob Mueller?

MERKLEY: Well, certainly, what we've heard is Ann Coulter and Newt Gingrich jumping into the public space and saying that he should be fired. So something is going on behind the scenes. It seems like a coordinated effort by the president's allies to raise concerns that Mueller isn't the right person, someone who everyone respects. I think the president is very concerned about having such a competent, seasoned, respected investigator on the case.

CAMEROTA: One of the things that we've heard, the criticism of Bob Mueller, is that there are three attorneys on his team that donated to Democrats over the past more than 20 years. Here are the -- this is from the FEC records. So as you can see, there's one, James Quarles, who donated to mostly Democrats but also some Republicans. And then two other attorneys who don't -- maybe two Democrats. We don't know about the other two attorneys and whether or not they donated to Republicans. Should who you donate to disqualify you?

MERKLEY: No, it certainly shouldn't. In fact, what he's doing is drawing on seasoned folks who have been at the Department of Justice or served in the law firm that he knows and respects. This is just a partial picture of the team. I suspect the full team will look balanced, more balanced in that respect.

This shouldn't be the qualifying factor. Are you bringing the skills necessary? Do you have a reputation for good investigation and balanced investigation? And I think that's the type of team that Mueller is assembling.

CAMEROTA: Oh, my gosh. These attorneys go back to, some of them, Watergate.


CAMEROTA: Some of them, Enron. They -- their credentials have never been questioned before now. However, do Republicans have a point that, if you've only donated to Democrats, that that fundamentally shows that you're biased in some way.

MERKLEY: Well, I don't think so, no. In fact, you could look at folks who have probably served just Republican presidents. Is that -- is that a bias? If they served in a professional capacity, behaved in a fully professional fashion, they have the right skills to bring to the effort, then that's what should be considered.

CAMEROTA: OK. Let's talk about what's going on with the Senate. Is there a plan in the Senate -- we know that your Republican colleagues have been working on their plan to repeal and/or replace Obamacare. Do you expect to see that plan this week?

[07:25:05] MERKLEY: Well, we sure hope to see it. But the rumor is they want to hide it to the very last second.

I mean, 16 days from now, two weeks from this coming Thursday, the Republican plan is to bring it to the floor, be able to do it as an amendment to the House bill, and thereby provide as little notice and public scrutiny as possible. No committee hearing. This is really a completely outrage situation that involves heat index of millions and millions of Americans.

So I'm hoping that the grassroots will pay attention, even though it's summertime, even though we're deep into the Russia investigation. They really need to pay attention, because a lot is at stake for the peace of mind and quality of life of millions of Americans.

CAMEROTA: Let's talk about this. Because as you know, the CBO rated the original House plan. They said that under that plan, 23 million fewer Americans would have health insurance in the space of probably eight to ten years. Has that been fixed in the Senate plan?

MERKLEY: Well, what we're hearing is we're going to throw in some -- some -- basically, some nice things like more -- more money to take on opiates, maybe lock down the cost sharing that the government is supposed to give that -- that Trump has not been willing to commit to.

They'll throw in some special features, make this a little softer, maybe phase it in more slowly over time, the elimination of the expansion of Medicaid.

But I can tell you in Oregon, you're talking just with the expansion of Medicaid, which in our state is the Oregon health plan. You're talking about 400,000 people losing their health care. So whether it's done over six years or a couple of years, it's still a devastatingly diabolical plan to damage the lives of Americans. So I think they'll put a softer version out, but I think it's going to hurt a lot of people.

CAMEROTA: Do you know about the provision for pre-existing conditions? Would that still be in there?

MERKLEY: Well, the rumor is that they will probably drop the waiver for the pre-existing conditions. These are all rumors, because we haven't seen the bill.

I mean, we should absolutely be having the press stop senators in the hallway and say, "Are you willing to vote on something that will eliminate health care for your constituents without holding a town hall after you've seen the text and the public has seen the text? Are you willing to vote on this without it going to committee, where certainly its predecessor had dozens of days and meetings and hundreds of amendments adopted from Republicans, a lot of bipartisan input. Are you willing to do this with no committee meeting?"

People have to be held accountable for this -- this process of this secret 13 producing this at the last minute, have a few hours of debate and trying to pass this thing.

CAMEROTA: But isn't that an awfully dangerous gamble that Republicans are making? In other words, if they do push it through, without any of the things that you're talking about, we've already seen the anger at town halls around the country. They would be held responsible. It seems inconceivable, given what they've confronted at town halls, that they would try to do what -- the scenario you're describing. MERKLEY: This is why we keep hearing about the sweeteners that are

thrown in and the delays thrown in, so that people won't see a big impact on the 2018 election or maybe not even by the -- by the 2020 election.

But the -- the Republicans say, well, they passed something that repeals the expansion of Medicaid and trims back, in general, the exchanges. But I hope they'll be held accountable. Phasing in something slowly is like boiling a frog in a pot. As you gradually raise the heat, you still kill the frog.

CAMEROTA: We can just end it on that topic right there.

Senator Jeff Merkley, thank you, very much for that analogy and for being here with us on NEW DAY.

MERKLEY: You're very welcome. Good to be with you.


CUOMO: All right. So this story has just grown in proportion and importance. We started with President Trump's friend, Chris Ruddy, who is with Newsmax, saying that he believes the president is considering firing Bob Mueller.

The White House comes out and says Ruddy speaks for him. The president speaks for himself. They never talked about this. Now Chris Ruddy is attacking the White House: It's true. The friend of the president, what he's saying next.