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Trump Versus Cabinet Members; President's Power; Another Trump Ally Leaving. Aired 10-11p ET

Aired July 20, 2017 - 22:00   ET



[22:00:00] DON LEMON, HOST, CNN: ... that looking into his family's finances would be a fireable offense. White House spokesman Sarah Huckabee Sanders saying Trump's warning made clear Mueller, quote, "should not move outside the scope of the investigation." Now members of the president's own party are warning him not to fire Mueller.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Jeff Sessions vowing to stay on the job. In his words, "As long as that is appropriate."

We have a lot to get to this evening. I want to get right to CNN's senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny. CNN politics executive editor at large, I should say, Chris Cillizza, and political analyst April Ryan.

My goodness. Every night there's something. Jeff, I want to get to this big news from the Washington Post tonight. Here's what the post is reporting.

Some of -- and this is a quote, "Some of President Trump's lawyers are exploring ways to limit or undercut special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's Russia investigation building a case against what they allege are his conflicts of interest, and discussing the president's authority to grant pardons according to people familiar with the effort."

Jeff, why would the president be asking about a pardon?

JEFF ZELENY, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, CNN: Well, Don, this is something that we got a glimpse of in the president's own interview with the New York Times that is still causing shockwaves more than 24 hours later. And it was -- he was raising the question of a conflict of interest of Robert Mueller.

The special prosecutor in this case who is, you know, really conducting what is now a widening, deepening investigation that appears to go beyond election meddling in the 2016 election.

And it is clear the president and his team are focusing intently on the potential conflicts of interest as they're saying. But they're also talking about pardons. This Washington Post story very interesting in the sense that the president is basically talking aloud now. We've heard him in so many respects, when he was talking about

legislation, other things, now he's doing it on this legal case here and he is, indeed, asking about his options. If, you know, as president, if he could pardon someone, if he could possibly even pardon himself.

Now, this -- I'm told that these are just discussions happening. This is at the very beginning of this investigation here. Don, it just shows you how much time, energy and effort is now consuming the White House on this on the sixth month of the president's time in office, this begins the sixth month, or ends the first six months and it's something that is really all-consuming here.

And that Jeff Sessions' interview with the president about Jeff Sessions had a chilling effect in the words of one White House official told me earlier today, Don. They said that the thinking generally is if the president can say that about the most loyal soldier that he has, what will he do to some of us if we don't do the right thing here?

So, at the end of the six-month mark, this is not where anyone thought they would be, Don.

LEMON: Interesting. Chris, let's talk about what's going on here. Because, in fact, the president talked about what he says are Mueller's conflicts of interest. And I want to read from the New York Times.

He said, "We were interviewing" -- he's talking to Maggie Haberman and Mr. Schmidt of the New York Times. He said "We're interviewing replacements at the FBI. Did you know Mueller was one of the people that was being interviewed? Haberman, I did, actually. Trump he was sitting in that chair. We had a wonderful meeting. Haberman, the day before, right? And then Schmidt said, did he want the job?"

"And then Trump says, the day before, of course. He was up here and he wanted -- he wanted the job. Haberman, and he made that clear to you? He would have. And Trump says now what happens is he leaves the office, Rosenstein leaves the office. The next day he's appointed special counsel. I said what the hell is this all about? Talk about conflicts. But he was interviewing for the job. There were many other conflicts that I haven't said but I will at some point."

Chris, is he laying the groundwork there?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, POLITICS REPORTER AND EDITOR-AT-LARGE, CNN: Yes. And, frankly, has been, Don, for a long time. I remember talking to you a month or two ago about this when Trump was -- Trump had done this before, but when he started describing it as this whole special counsel investigation as a witch hunt, as a hoax. That's what he's doing.

He's laying the groundwork, not that he's going to fire Bob Mueller but that if he does, he will be able to point back and say, look, this guy wanted the FBI job, he didn't get it, he was mad. They -- you know, him and Rosenstein got together, he's really good friends with Jim Comey. So we know Comey doesn't like me.

One of his -- spin it around, one of his lawyers -- I'm getting too worked up. One of his lawyers donated to Hillary Clinton. You know, there's all these things. All of these are just points that he is throwing chum to the water, Don. That's what he does. He's throwing chum in the water.

He's saying, I don't know, you know, we'll see what other conflicts of interest there are, but the point is of all of this, it is to lay the groundwork for if he does it, that he will have put justifications behind it.

[22:05:00] Now, are they justifications that I think are ultimately sort of sellable to people outside of his base? No. But I don't think he's concerned about that. He's concerned about selling things to his base and this stuff will work. He knows it. He's very good at that.

LEMON: Yes. So, calm down there. I mean, we don't want...


CILLIZZA: I know. I'm sorry. I'm Italian. I talk with my hands. I start shaking around.

LEMON: We don't want you to spin out of control. But April, this is something that the New York Times is reporting just tonight in addition to the Washington Post reports about possible parts, and this is another quote, OK?

"President Trump's lawyers and aides are scouring the professional and political backgrounds of investigators hired by the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III looking for conflicts of interest they could use to discredit the investigation or even build a case to fire Mr. Mueller or get some members of his team recused according to three people with knowledge of the (AUDIO GAP)"

A concerted effort is ramping up, April, to defend the president and they are exploring all their options including discrediting the people who are investigating.

APRIL RYAN, SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST, CNN: Don, I'm glad you said that. Yes. There are a lot of options on the table including that. I heard that as well. And this goes -- all of this goes to what democrats, some democrats I've been talking to, have been saying.

They're saying that this president is not acting like a man who is innocent with all of these options that are on the table. And not only that, there's another option that I heard about tonight, Don. Before we went on. Just before we went on from a republican source.

They said, look, they said, you know, Deputy U.S. Attorney general Rosenstein is -- Rosenstein, excuse me, is under the microscope, the negative microscope, and what's happening is they're trying to craft it saying that he is allowed, this special counsel, Mueller, to go beyond his scope. They're saying that Mueller's scope is limited. They're saying that he's going beyond his scope. And now they're looking at Rosenstein to see if, indeed, that they

might be able to change out Rosenstein, be it executive order from the president, to go to another person, and if it does go to another person, if you look at succession, it could go to Rachel Brand who is someone who is a supporter of President Trump. And if, indeed, that's the case, she could actually rein Mueller in possibly. So they're looking at so many different options in this scenario.


CILLIZZA: Hey, Don, could I add something quick?


CILLIZZA: Jeff mentioned a chilling effect as it relates to Sessions and Trump's comments about Sessions. I think that part of the purpose of this, we now have the Washington Post and the New York Times reporting very similar things which is essentially they're looking into Bob Mueller, where they're going to find out dirt on Bob Mueller. That's clearly also meant strategically speaking to have a chilling effect on Mueller and his investigators. That we are out there looking at you.

RYAN: Intimidation.

CILLIZZA: You know, we're going -- we are not going to just sit back and let you roam all over his finances. We're going to draw lines and if and when you cross them, we're going do have stuff on you. That is not an accident. That is purposeful to make sure Bob Mueller knows the stakes that he's playing at here. And I think the Trump campaign -- the Trump White House, it seems to me that's a strategic effort on their part.

LEMON: All right. As if there wasn't enough reporting tonight. Jeff, as I understand we're learning the spokesman for President Trump's legal team is resigning tonight. What do you know? Why?

ZELENY: We do know that Mark Corallo, the spokesman for the president's legal team, has really been in this role for really a couple months or so. He is no longer part of this -- of this organization, of this effort here at the White House to speak for the president's outside legal team and the reality here is, Don, there are some shifting legal strategies and legal teams as well.

As the president is bringing in a new lawyer, Ty Cobb, to essentially, you know, be the quarterback, if you will, for, you know, the legal strategy here at the White House, the other lawyers in the earlier legal team are receding a bit from public view in the main view here.

But the spokesman here, Mark Corallo, he is more than a spokesman, though, Don. This is very interesting, because I remember back covering the Bush administration. President Bush. Mark Corallo was a prominent spokesman, communicator at the Justice Department at that time. So he is viewed as a strong asset to have at this moment to be speaking on behalf of the president, but he is stepping away from that role, resigning from that role. We have not -- we've confirmed this through a senior administration

official, my colleague, Jeremy Diamond, confirmed this a few moments ago and we've not yet heard from Mark directly, himself.

[22:09:57] But it does speak to the fact that this is a fully engaged legal strategy here and I think that, you know, before we get too far ahead of ourselves on, you know, what types of oppo research they're doing on people who work for the special prosecutor, and special investigators, that's standard practice.

Of course, you're going to look at every single lawyer, you know, if they gave any money to another candidate or things, but the reality here is, Robert Mueller's been in this town a long time. He hired specific lawyers with specific, you know, skillsets on money laundering, on other things. So, he is surely to use their skill sets here.

So this is not going to be simply a matter of discrediting Bob Mueller. He's hired a full team here. So this fight now, six months in, is starting to become fully joined.

LEMON: One could assume the type of lawyers, investigators he's hiring as to what's he's looking into.

ZELENY: Right.

LEMON: And I think I'm sure the lawyers representing the president and whoever may be involved in that they know that.

The Post is also reporting tonight the president was, quote, "disturbed," after knowing Mueller would be able to access several years of his tax returns.

Yesterday, the president laid down a red line, according to the Times saying Mueller should not look too far into his family's finances. Well, Bloomberg reporter, his name is Greg Farrell, has been doing some digging on exactly that. So, I want you to listen to what he told Anderson just a short time ago.


GREG FARRELL, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, BLOOMBERG NEWS: What we've learned is that he's taking a broad view of the investigation and not a narrow view. So the mandate he was given in mid-May is open to interpretation. Anything related to Russia and that might have resulted in interference in the election.

He's clearly going back more than a decade to any real estate transactions. He's clearly focused on any major transaction that has taken place like the Miss Universe, you know, 2013 pageant in Moscow, et cetera, the flipping of the Florida mansion. In order to get information, yes, he'll have to issue subpoenas.

ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, CNN: So do you know the exact financial interest that he's looking into? Donald Trump had bought a house in Florida... (CROSSTALK)

FARRELL: Yes, in Palm Beach, Florida.

COOPER: For like $41 million.

FARRELL: Good memory. Yes.

COOPER: Yes. And then sold it.

FARRELL: Four years later in 2008, March of 2008, sold it, having done almost nothing with it for $95 million, to a Russian oligarch.


LEMON: So CNN hasn't independently verified his reporting. But it seems like Mueller is aiming directly at Trump's finances. If that's the case, has Mueller already crossed the president's red line, Chris?

CILLIZZA: It certainly seems to be the case. Again, CNN hasn't independently confirmed that Bloomberg reporting but assuming the Bloomberg reporting is right, and you add that to what the Post and the Times which is that this is a sort of broadening investigation, rather than a narrowing investigation. The Trump folks are trying to fight that.

It seems as though that is what's happening here, Don. What I don't really know is what Donald Trump's out is. If you would ask me a couple weeks ago, would he fire Bob Mueller? I would say, no. That would be from a purely political handicapping pundit perspective that would be devastating politically. It would make you look guilty.

But then you read these pieces and you read what he told the New York Times. This is not -- you know, that stuff wasn't based on anonymous sourcing. That was Donald Trump talking to the New York Times. And you think, golly, is he at least giving himself that option as he sort of considers what's next?

One other quick point, Donald Trump, it is worth remembering, saying over and over again, the only and first major party presidential candidate to not give out even one year of his tax returns.

Now, he has said it's because it's under an ongoing audit, he will do it as soon as the audit is over. It's obviously quite a long audit. But he is clearly concerned about doing it. He took a lot of flak in the campaign for it. He still refused to do. He's refused to do it as president.

And that line in the Post, that to me was the line that stood out the most which is Trump is concerned about Mueller's ability to get some of those tax returns, which no one has really been able to see except for drips and drabs here.

LEMON: That whole tax return and auditing, we know that's a ruse because the internal revenue has already said, you know, you can still... (CROSSTALK)

CILLIZZA: Well, don't forget Kellyanne Conway, by the way, Don, Kellyanne Conway said after the election, the American people voted on that. He's never going to release now.

LEMON: So there you go. We'll believe it when we see it.

RYAN: The American people didn't vote on that one, though.

LEMON: Yes. April, we're learning more about the Jared Kushner closed-door appearance before the Senate Intel committee on Monday. He will be interviewed by committee staff. It's not under oath. But lying should be a criminal offense.

[22:15:00] Why not in front of the full committee? Why not the full committee?

RYAN: This administration wants to do as much as they can to keep anyone and everyone in the inner circle away from under oath, cameras, anything. They want to make sure that they do the least as possible to make sure that they are OK, but right now, it is under scrutiny. Whatever he says will be under scrutiny.

And, Don, once again, the process, it's about the process and how the process plays out and the lack thereof. So the question is, how does this process play out with Jared Kushner Monday? And how does it continue to paly out, that's the big issue. That is the big issue.

Democrats and republicans want it to play out and if he is not forthcoming, and if he is forthcoming, we will hear information I'm quite sure out of that room but if he is forthcoming, what will he say?


RYAN: Will he omit? I mean, it's so many questions on the table with Jared Kushner, as well as Donald Trump, Jr., as well as this president. So the questions still are coming even though he may sit and talk Monday.

LEMON: Speaking of Donald Trump, Jr., Senator Chuck Grassley, Charles Grassley, said today that he wants an answer from Donald Trump, Jr. and Paul Manafort by the end of this week on whether they will testify. He issued a subpoena. Could they fight a subpoena, April?

RYAN: They could fight, but, again, it's about the process. And they may not win this time because this -- I mean, people -- the smoke is getting darker and darker. When there's smoke, there could be fire.

And the more they push against, the more the people in the Senate, the more the American public wants to find out. It's about credibility and you have to be transparent now. It is opening up and people want to know what is going on. They want to make sure that everything is on the up and up. So they're going to fight, but we'll see who wins. LEMON: The chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, Senator

Richard Burr, talked about the Mueller investigation today to CNN's Manu Raju. Listen.


MANU RAJU, SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT, CNN: Do you have any concerns about the president saying that Bob Mueller should not look into the finances of the Trumps?

RICHARD BURR, (D) UNITED STATES SENATOR: Well, I haven't seen that specific thing, but Bob Mueller should look at anything that falls within the scope of the special counsel's mandate.

MANU: President shouldn't fire him? I don't think you think -- you think the president should fire him?

BURR: No. No.


LEMON: So Jeff, there's no doubt that Mueller has the power. Does it sound to you like the president may be laying the groundwork to fire Mueller?

ZELENY: I'm not sure, Don. I think that, you know, there'd be so much blow-back from republicans as well. You know, we're not even really talking about democrats in the equation. There would be considerable angst and consternation among republicans.

I think firing the special prosecutor here, the special counsel, would be a pretty extraordinary step and there are also some questions if he can even do that, actually. So I think that at this point, it is about discrediting the investigation more than dismissing the person who's running the investigation.

You know, and the -- he was pretty clear as I was sitting in the White House briefing today, Sarah Huckabee Sanders was saying, look, the president has no plans of doing that, of getting rid of Mr. Mueller at this time. Although she said, of course, he believes he has the right to.

There are a lot of people in this town who don't necessarily agree to that. That would be an epic fight, epic legal fight here. So I think that I would be surprised if that would happen.

But Don, here we are six months in, I would also not have said the FBI director would have been fired, et cetera.

CILLIZZA: That's right.

ZELENY: So we'll have to keep an open mind over it. But I do think that that would be a bridge here that would create an explosive atmosphere even more so than it already is.

LEMON: It's interesting to undercut or discredit the investigator and the -- and his team and the investigation if you have nothing to hide. That's a big question.

We'll continue on. Thank you, panel. I want to bring in now Matt Axelrod, the former top deputy to the former acting Attorney General, Sally Yates. Let me ask you, that's my first question to you. If there's -- talk about this Washington Post reporting and New York Times reporting, if there's -- on pardoning and so on, and undercutting Mueller and his investigators. If there's nothing to hide, why undercut? Why not say, investigate me, I have nothing to hide?

MATT AXELROD, FORMER SENIOR DOJ OFFICIAL: You raise a good question, Don. And I think it goes back to the comments that the president made to the New York Times reporters the other day when he attacked the Jeff Sessions recusal. And really an attack on the recusal is an attack on the independence of the Department of Justice. And that's an attack on the Department of Justice's commitment to the rule of law. And that's a problem, right?

Because ordinarily, you would expect that the president would allow an investigation to proceed to its conclusion and the notion that there are sort of discussions or thoughts about short circuiting that investigation is very troubling.

LEMON: Hey, Matt, what is his power to issue pardons? Can he issue for his family, can he issue for his staff, can he issue for himself?

[22:20:01] AXELROD: Yes, so the last question I believe is the trickiest one. I'm not a subject matter expert in this area, but I believe there is some legal debate over the propriety of issuing a pardon for himself.

It would -- you know, the analogy is if a judge were to preside in his or her own case, that's not something that is recognized in our legal system. Pardoning friends and family or other associates who work at the White House is within, my understanding, is within the president's constitutional pardon power.

To me, it seems that an interesting legal question might arise, though, if that pardon power were being used. Not just to pardon close associates but hypothetically to pardon close associates because you are worried those close associates might have information that would implicate you, then maybe the legal scenario would be different, but like I said, that's not my particular area of expertise.

LEMON: Let's talk more about the Post reporting tonight. The Post also reports the president is disturbed after learning that Mueller would be able to access several years of his tax returns. He has gone to greater lengths than any president before him to keep those tax returns secret.

Can you speak to whether obtaining tax returns would be in the normal scope of a special counsel investigation?

AXELROD: Sure. And I served as a federal prosecutor for quite some time and obtaining tax returns is a fairly standard investigative step in appropriate cases. The Department of Justice has very strict policies and procedures

about when tax returns can be accessed and how they must be stored. They're given a very deliberate and careful handling so that they are treated with confidentiality.

LEMON: So you're saying it would be appropriate for him to do that?

AXELROD: It all depends on the predicate, but if as I believe the discussion with the panel earlier was saying, if there are allegations that there were -- that what happened with Russia somehow related to prior financial dealings, then, yes, think that makes...


LEMON: That's what the directive to Mueller says, it says -- I don't have the directive, I'm paraphrasing here, to the best of my recollection here, that when it has to do with the Russia investigation, any investigation following that, or that that may lead to. So it appears that would be in the scope of Robert Mueller.

AXELROD: I think that -- well, it's Robert Mueller's decision as to whether it's within the scope of the investigation or not, and as we know, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, is the person who oversees the special counsel and if someone thought that the special counsel or his team were accessing or attempting to access evidence or documents that were beyond the scope, they could say something about it.

I should the flip side is true, too, which is that if the special counsel during the course of his investigation discovered additional areas that he thought were worthy of investigation, the regulations in place deal with that scenario and that possibility and the special counsel then has to go back to the attorney general and in this case it's the acting attorney general for this matter, Rod Rosenstein, and ask for permission and additional grant of authority to broaden the scope of his investigation.

But I don't think he would need to do that to seek tax returns assuming, again, that his view is that the tax returns are relevant to the topic he has already been mandated to investigate.

LEMON: Matt, I want to ask you about what the president told the New York Times about how he sees the role of the FBI director. This is a quote, he said, "But the FBI person really reports directly to the President of the United States which is interesting, you know, which is interesting. And I think we're going to have a great new FBI director."

Can you speak to the idea, seemingly the president has, that he thinks that the FBI director and the attorney general work for him personally?

AXELROD: Yes, sure. And first I should say, I agree with the last part of that quote. I think we are going to have a great new FBI director. I think Chris Wray was a terrific choice by the president. I think he'll serve the FBI and the country well, but the president is wrong on the organizational chart of the Department of Justice.

The FBI director quite clearly reports to the deputy attorney general and then, you know, through the deputy attorney general to the attorney general. The FBI director does not report straight to the president.

LEMON: The deputy press secretary said today that the president has confidence in Attorney General Jeff Sessions but, I mean, if you read the quotes and you read that New York Times, what he told the New York Times and if we do -- if we have the sound, I would love to be able to play it. It doesn't seem like he has confidence in the attorney general. In the job that he's doing, does he? Even though, the deputy press secretary said that.

AXELROD: Well, I think the thing that's so surprising is the attack he made on the attorney general was for the attorney general having recused himself from an investigation that he clearly needed to recuse himself from.

[22:25:05] He did that based on the recommendations of career ethics officials at the Department of Justice saying recusal was necessary. So what the attorney general did in the circumstantial was perfectly in keeping with expectations and the way the Department of Justice operates.

LEMON: But he's saying I would never -- I would not have hired him had I known he was going it recuse himself and that he, you know, didn't answer the questions properly. Some very simple questions. That doesn't sound like he has confidence in him.

AXELROD: Well, I -- that's the part of the interview I think that's so extraordinary because if you unpack that, essentially what the president is saying is I thought -- I'm entitled to have a loyalist in that position and that -- the person I thought was going to be my loyalist stepped aside and now I have to deal with people who are going to do it without a thumb on the scale like I expected my loyalists to.

And that is not the way the system works. That has never been anyone's expectation of how their attorney general would function. The only loyalty that the attorney general pledges is not to a particular person or political administration. It's to the Constitution and to the rule of law.

LEMON: Every American should be concerned about what he said to the New York Times last night. Thank you very much. I appreciate that, Matt Axelrod.

AXELROD: Thank you, Don.

LEMON: When we come right back, much more on our breaking news, the Washington Post reporting the president is exploring his options so pardon aides and family and even himself. What that will mean for the investigation.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) LEMON: Breaking news, the Washington Post reporting tonight that President Trump's lawyers are seeking to undercut Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

Let's discuss now, CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, and senior media correspondent Brian Stelter. Jeffrey, I'm shocked that you're still awake. We're glad that you're here.


BRIAN STELTER, SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT, CNN: Did something happen with O.J. Simpson today?


TOOBIN: What? Yes.

LEMON: We're going to discuss O.J. but we've got this breaking news. I want to get your -- your response to the president asking about pardons already.

TOOBIN: Well, look, I mean, it's obvious that he is full of rage about this investigation. He thinks he -- you know, he thinks it's unjustified, inappropriate, perhaps over expansive. So he's looking at his options.

You know, I think we have to be careful about, you know, getting too excited about some of these things. You know, he suggested or some people in the White House have suggested looking into the backgrounds of some of the people in Mueller's staff.

[22:30:01] You know, when I covered Ken Starr in the late '90s, I looked into some of the people on Starr's staff and found out that they had very conservative views and I thought that was newsworthy and people in the White House thought that was newsworthy and people in the White House thought that was newsworthy.

And I see no reason why if that's the case that Mueller's staff has lots of big democrats on it. That's not a legitimate subject to investigate. Pardons, you know, it is the president's power to pardon anyone he wants. Pardoning himself is a constitutional tricky question.

But if he does that, you know, I think people can all draw their own conclusions about why he's doing that. And it may -- it may get significant -- create significant problems on Capitol Hill, but given how loyal republicans have been to him on these Russia issues, maybe he could get away with it. I don't know. So, you know, I think he's looking into these options but I don't think that it's necessarily sinister that he's doing so.

BRIAN STELTER, SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT, CNN: Doesn't it show weakness, though? We're supposed to be marking the six-month anniversary of the Trump administration. We all think back to January 20th, an inauguration day. Now it's July 20th talking about whether the president can pardon himself. The Washington Post saying he's asking those questions. Even if he's

innocently asking those questions doesn't it show weakness rather than strength for this administration?

TOOBIN: I mean, I think it's just realistic. I mean, he's under -- his administration is under investigation.

DON LEMON, CNN HOST: He says some very -- he told the New York Times, he's not, his family is not under investigation and actually...


TOOBIN: You know, I don't know what he's talking about.


TOOBIN: I mean, you know, rhe Times and the Post have both reported and my information is that they are investigating the president. That doesn't mean he's going to be charged with anything. It doesn't mean he's guilty of anything. But, you know, what else are they investigating? They're investigating the leadership of the Trump campaign. He was the leader.

LEMON: If you have nothing to hide -- I understand what you're saying. If you have great lawyers, they're going to explore every option and they should. But if you have nothing to hide, you're the president of the United States, which you should know before you run that everything is going it be scrutinized, by the way. Wouldn't you, why would you be trying to figure out how to pardon yourself at this point?

TOOBIN: Well, I -- you know, I don't know what he's really considering about pardoning himself. That's pretty vague...


LEMON: Or even family members.

TOOBIN: Well, I mean, I think he -- one of his options is he wants to forestall this investigation any way he can. And if any person under investigation is pardoned, then there's nothing for Mueller to do.

STELTER: And then the Post quote someone saying one adviser to the president simply expressed a curiosity in understanding the reach of his pardoning authority. That could be -- that could be a source trying to downplay the significance of this. But these leaks, these leaks to the New York Times and the Post at almost exactly the same minute tonight really comes across as a message to Mueller.

There's a Bloomberg story in the morning that says Mueller is extending his scope. And then less than 12 hours later, these leaks two of the biggest papers, two of Trump's papers that he reads every mornings, it definitely feels orchestrated, those coordinated in some way, the Trump world wants to send the message to Mueller.

TOOBIN: Everything I know about Robert Mueller, and I know a great deal about him and the people around him,


TOOBIN: Is that they are not going to be intimidated by this. They are going to go full speed ahead, do what they think is right. If the president pardons people, he pardons people. That's not something or any...


LEMON: So if he pardons people, is that essentially the end of the investigation? Because then no one pays a consequence for it if there's any wrongdoing.

TOOBIN: Well, you know, it's an interesting question about whether if lots of people or anyone under the ambit is pardoned, whether he would still file some sort of report on his findings, anyway. Certainly none of this has ever come up before. There have never been mass pardons at the beginning of an investigation.

President George Herbert Walker Bush pardoned a number of Iran-Contra figures at the very end of his presidency but by that point, Lawrence Walsh, for whom I worked, had mostly completed his investigation and he did file a report but how that would work on this, I don't...


LEMON: There's still the congressional investigation, the Senate intelligence investigation, the counterintelligence investigation, beyond the special counsel investigation.

TOOBIN: That is true.

STELTER: And there are whistleblowers inside the government that are ensuring some of this information gets out.

TOOBIN: Right. And the Post and the Times are doing brilliant, as our many journalists in all of this and that's a great thing for American democracy.

LEMON: So if he, would that present a constitutional crisis if he did try to pardon himself? Because it's really interesting to me, maybe this is, listen, yes, I'm guilty but I pardoned myself, and therefore...


TOOBIN: I think it is, it would be the definition of a constitutional crisis. It really would because the validity of it would be up for grabs and also just look at how it sounds.


TOOBIN: You know, putting, taking yourself off the hook. I mean, it just -- it's terrible.


STELTER: And the Post quote...

LEMON: Hang on, Brian.

STELTER: ... like a judge presiding over their own trial.

LEMON: "The power to pardon is granted to the president in article 2 section 2 of the Constitution which gives the commander in chief the power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment," it says.

[22:35:03] TOOBIN: Right.

LEMON: So, how do the courts interpreted that in that power? And then I'll get you in, Brian. Go ahead.

TOOBIN: Well, that it is -- that it is an absolute power and that, you know, a pardon is even different than a commutation. A commutation is a sort of get out of jail free card. If you get a pardon, now only can't you be prosecuted, if you've been convicted, you can write on an application, I was never convicted.


LEMON: But it says it doesn't apply to impeachment.

TOOBIN: That's right. You can't -- when Bill Clinton was under impeachment investigation in 1998, he couldn't issue himself a pardon to the House of Representatives didn't impeach him. That's what that part of the article 2 means.

STELTER: And Ford pardoned Nixon preemptively.

TOOBIN: Right.

STELTER: It wasn't Nixon doing it for himself. I just, I don't mean to make light of this, Don, but this is supposed to be made in America week, right? This is supposed to be the president celebrating jobs and it's the, et cetera.


TOOBIN: And almost his biggest successes as infrastructure week was.

STELTER: And who knows what next week will be. It seems like next week will be Russia week. Mueller week, just like every other week.

TOOBIN: Every other week.

LEMON: So this is made in America week, and what is -- and what actually happened, imagine what's going to be here.

STELTER: Exactly.

LEMON: So finally, Jeff, the Washington Post is also reporting tonight that many in the president's orbit expected Sessions to resign and some republicans who are in frequent touch with the White House said that "They viewed the president's decision to publicly air his disappointment with Sessions as a warning sign that the attorney general's days were numbered."

"Several senior aides were described as stunned when Sessions announced Thursday morning he would stay on at the Justice Department. They're stunned but you're not.

TOOBIN: I'm not. I think Jeff Sessions really wants to be attorney general. I think this is extremely embarrassing for him to have the president attack him. But you know, he was today announcing a big investigation in cybercrime. He really cares about this work.

I'm actually going to see Jeff Sessions tomorrow in Philadelphia where he's announcing another important initiative. I mean, he likes the work. The president, while embarrassing him, hasn't stopped him from doing the work. You know, it's always hard to predict what's going to happen in the Trump administration, but I think Sessions is going to be there until the president tells him that he has to leave.

LEMON: Because of all of this, Brian, is this potentially with the war, why there's the war on the media, and to discredit the media...


STELTER: It does always come back to that.


STELTER: When he attacks institutions whether it's the media or whether it's judges, whether its courts, it's to discredit the messenger. But you know, that New York Times interview that where he made these comments about Sessions.


LEMON: He said it himself.

STELTER: This interview was supposed to been an off the record meet and greet. Trump wanted to meet a couple reporters. They brought them in for a meeting. Then the reporters wisely started asking questions, pressing for on the record quotes. And the president was happy to talk. He wanted to talk with these reporters. He ended up talking with them for almost an hour.

There's drama inside the White House tonight about whether this interview should have happened, whether it was allowed or not. But the point is the president wants to speak to reporters. He wants to talk about this stuff. Apparently, he wanted to criticize Sessions publicly.

He's being held back by some of his aides. But let's see if he kind of seeks out more chances to speak his mind even if his lawyers don't want him to. He seems eager to talk about.

LEMON: It's hard for him and his aides to say that he didn't say it when it was recorded on the record, these aren't -- he is the source.

STELTER: Recorded. And even -- that's absolutely right.

LEMON: Of what he said to the New York Times.


TOOBIN: Hard to deny.


LEMON: It's very hard to deny that. Thank you, gentlemen. I appreciate it.

STELTER: Thanks.

LEMON: Up next, more of our breaking news. The White House reportedly trying to undercut the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller.


LEMON: Breaking news, the White House reportedly trying to hobble Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. The New York Times and the Washington Post both report that the president's legal team is in effect investigating the investigators. Scouring their personal and professional backgrounds, looking for conflicts of interest.

Joining me now is Matthew Murray, the Deputy Assistant Commerce Secretary for Europe, Middle East and Africa during the Obama administration. And CNN legal analyst Michael Zeldin, the former special assistant to Robert Mueller at the Justice Department. Gentlemen, thank you for joining me.

Michael, so we have this Washington Post report about President Trump's lawyers, seeking ways to undercut special counsel Mueller's investigation.

Here's what the president, his private lawyer, Jay Sekulow told the Post. He said "The fact is that the president is concerned about conflicts that exist within the special counsel's office and any changes in the scope of the investigation." Sekulow said, "The scope is going to have to stay within his mandate. If there's drifting, we're going to object." What do you think of that, Michael?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, LEGAL ANALYST, CNN: Well, they can try to object, but actually it's only Rosenstein who can object. Mueller works under the mandate that Rosenstein gave him which says any links between Russia and the Trump campaign, any matters that arise out of it.

Mueller then has the authority to ask Rosenstein under the CFR that governs him to expand the investigation into matters that arise out of the current mandate. And that's up to Rosenstein to do. It's not up to the president to decide what's the swim lane and what's not the swim lane. And Rosenstein can decide with consultation with anyone he wants

within the Justice Department whether this is appropriate matter for them to investigate or whether this is something the Justice Department can investigate independent of Mueller.

So, I don't think the president or Sekulow has really a legal leg to stand on with respect to the threat that they may shut this down. If they want to fire Mueller, they have to do that through Rosenstein. Rosenstein said he'd quit before he fired him.

The only standard for firing is really misconduct and I don't think that there's any misconduct that Mueller is going to engage in. So I think there's a lot of bullying and threatening but there's no real legal there, there, at the end of it.


ZELDIN: I can say one other thing, if I may, Don.


ZELDIN: On the pardon question that you were just talking with Jeffrey Toobin about, I agree with Jeffrey except to add one additional thing which is under the code of federal regulations that govern Mueller's conduct here, he has to submit a report to the attorney general and the attorney general has to give that report to Congress.

[22:44:58] And that report is to say this is why I prosecuted people, this is why I declined to prosecute people. So if he pardons everybody, Mueller can still investigate and say I would have indicted these people but for the pardons, and therefore, I'm submitting my report and you give it to Congress and then Congress can figure out whether or not there's an abuse of power and impeachable offense there. So I don't see this as a viable legal strategy on behalf of the president.

LEMON: Matt, you're agreeing with him.

MATTHEW MURRAY, FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF COMMERCE FOR EUROPE AND EURASIA: Yes, indeed. I mean, I think he's getting some very questionable legal advice. And I think what we're seeing is Donald Trump trying to press the case that he's above the law. He's trying to test the proposition that no person, no man, no woman, in this country is above the law but him.

LEMON: But him.

MURRAY: And he's -- we saw signs of this in the campaign. We've seen signs of it throughout his career. He's been one who's operated very effectively in the gray area of the law and he -- in a campaign, he bragged about he could kill somebody on Fifth Avenue and get away with it.

LEMON: Shoot someone on Fifth Avenue. MURRAY: Yes. And so, you know, this is -- he has -- Michael is

absolutely right, he has no authority to determine the subject matter of this investigation. He has no ability to draw a red line around what can be investigated and what can't be. And the red line that he would like to draw has already been crossed, I think.

LEMON: About his -- about Mueller investigating his finances.

MURRAY: Absolutely.

LEMON: Let's talk about this. Speaking -- we were just talking about Jay Sekulow, his attorney earlier. Jay Sekulow also reacted to this Bloomberg report, it's about Mueller scrutinizing the president's business dealings.

Here's what he says. He says, "They're talking about real estate transactions in Palm Beach several years ago," Sekulow said. "In our view, this is far outside the scope of legitimate investigation."

He was referring to this. This is back in 2004. "Donald Trump bought a beachfront mansion in Palm Beach, Florida, for $41 million. Four year later in July of 2008, after it sat on the market for two years, he sells that mansion for $95 million to a Russian oligarch."

So, Sekulow is saying, don't go there, but is there anything about a transaction like that that raises red flags?

MURRAY: Absolutely. It was a deal that was done reputedly without the oligarch even seeing the property. And without Donald Trump even meeting the purchaser of the property.

And so under our standard sort of know your customer rules that are designed to prevent money laundering, this transaction looks very suspect because it was done -- there was a huge profit, apparently cost was not at issue. And that sends off red flags in itself.

It looks to an investigator that when money is being thrown around like this that the real goal is just to get the money offshore to another location and get it away from whoever could tax it or whatever.

LEMON: Michael, if I may, I want to play this. Because right after President Trump told the New York Times that delving into his family's finances would cross a red line, President Trump went on to say this. Watch this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: By the way, I don't -- I don't -- I mean, it's possible that it's a condo or something. I sell a lot of condo units. Somebody from Russia buys a condo. Who knows?

I don't make money from Russia. In fact, I put out a letter saying that I don't make -- from one of the most highly respected law firms, accounting firms. I don't have buildings in Russia. They said I own buildings in Russia. I don't. They said I made money from Russia. It's not my thing.

I don't -- I don't do that. Over the years, I've looked at maybe doing a deal in Russia, but I never did one. You know. Other than I held the Miss Universe pageant there, eight, nine years.


LEMON: So, Michael, as a former federal prosecutor when you hear the president essentially say there's nothing there, what are you thinking?

ZELDIN: There's something there. And in fact, the son, Donald Junior, gave a speech in 2008 where he said in their high-end real estate properties, especially in New York, they have Russian money pouring in.

And so Donald Junior is explaining to this real estate conference where they're getting their money from. Because remember, only Deutsche Bank is lending them money from, you know, financial institutions. Otherwise they have to get money from private sources and Donald Junior says those private sources are principally Russians.

The other thing is that, what Sekulow I think is mistaken in, is that this is not the only property where there are allegations of purchases by Russian oligarchs and, in fact, in the New York Soho properties, there are allegations and properties have been seized and forfeited because the source of funds are illegal.

So this is a big -- bigger issue. I think Mueller will look at it -- when I was chief of the money laundering section in the Justice Department and then Mueller's special money laundering counsel, we would look at what would motivate people to behave as they behave? And these financial ties are motivations potentially and that's why you look at it so say, why did a person behave this way? Why did they resist so much?

Well maybe they resist so much because they have big financial debt to these people and, therefore, they feel exposed.

[22:49:58] And so you look at that stuff because it's relevant to why they're doing what they're doing now.


ZELDIN: You know, it's basic money laundering investigation 101. The lawyers that work for me in the money laundering section of the Justice Department, if they didn't do this, they'd be disciplined.

LEMON: Yes. Michael and Matt, thank you as usual.

When we come back, much more on our breaking news. President Trump reportedly asking lawyers about his power to pardon those in his inner circle.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) LEMON: Tonight President Trump marks his first six months in office and that makes it really extraordinary that our breaking news on this day is about a possible presidential pardon for members of his inner circle and even himself.

Joining me now, CNN political analyst, Patrick Healy of the New York Times, and CNN contributor Michael D'Antonio, the author of "The Truth about Trump." Good evening, gentleman. Patrick, to you first. What do you make of these reports that the White House is trying to undercut Mueller's Russia investigation?

PATRICK HEALY, POLITICAL ANALYST, CNN: I mean, this is classic aggressive Donald Trump. When he was a businessman in New York, he had lawyers in his office. He had had law firms lined up. They were all about undercutting the opponent. Getting the terms of the deal that he wanted and not the other guy.

And then he comes into Washington and he's faced with independent branches of government. He's faced with cabinet secretaries who under the Constitution have to follow their own rules, their own, you know, their own set of laws.

And now, he's, you know, he's going to sort of what he knows, which is oppo research, which is digging into people's, you know, donations to democrats. Anything to kind of it now discredit -- investigate the investigators and discredit.

LEMON: It worked for him -- yes. It worked for him in business.

HEALY: Right.

LEMON: Does it work for him in Washington?

HEALY: If he, from his point of view, if he can get scouts on this, I mean, if he can sort of find like one person on that investigative team who would have to recuse themselves or even sort of resign, I mean that's the sort of thing that he takes like a ball and just runs down the field with.

LEMON: Say and look, I told you so, rather than saying, hey, I don't have anything to hide, do your thing.

HEALY: Right.

LEMON: So do your thing. Get something there.

HEALY: Right.

LEMON: Michael, do you think this is coming directly from the president?

MICHAEL D'ANTONIO, CONTRIBUTOR, CNN: I do. You know, this is, as Patrick said classic Donald Trump. But I think beyond having a disregard for the independent power of other institutions, he actually doesn't imagine that people have values and people have a set of believers and even core integrity that would motivate them and drive them to do the job they've been elected to perform or appointed to perform.

[22:54:57] It's for him always about gain and everything is a zero sum game. So if he's going win he's going to try to exploit what he thinks is a vulnerability in the other side.

In the case of Mueller and I think even those he's brought on to his team who may be donors to democratic candidates, they're still going to have their own ethical compass. And I don't think that this is something the president allows for.

LEMON: Patrick, a White House official tells the CNN that the president trashing of several of his administration's top officials in the recent New York Times interview, especially Attorney General Jeff Sessions, that has a chilling effect on the White House because Sessions was one of his earliest supporters and they're wondering if their loyalty is going to be reciprocated.

HEALY: Al right. I mean, the reality is, Jeff Sessions was at a level a lot higher than, you know, senior staff members. He recused himself from the investigation that President Trump saw that's so critical to discredit. To circle the wagons and have everyone oppose this investigation.

Instead, you know, Jeff Sessions gave him, from his point of view, kind of, from the president's point of view, sort of a patina of credibility by saying, OK, I'm going to now recuse myself and step back and let the professional lawyers do that work.

So, and I think for the -- I certainly make for the rest of the staff in the White House they've been asking themselves now for months. OK, is actually defending the president and sticking to a set of talking points, in fact, going out on a limb because the president could wake up the next morning and tweet something that completely undercuts, you know, what we said? So, I mean, I think they sort of go into that, into that job sort of every day wondering are they going to get the rug pulled out.

LEMON: Yet, even today, though, the deputy press secretary try to sort of -- no, try to said that he didn't say he said he said.

HEALY: Right. Right. I mean, this is, I mean, every day there's often a hall of mirrors. We just can't see it because their cameras aren't allowed in the press briefing.

LEMON: Michael, do I hear you in the background there?

D'ANTONIO: Well, you know, this is all about loyalty running in one direction with Donald Trump. He's demanding loyalty of everyone around him if he goes off in a new direction, you're supposed to follow him and erase everything that was said the day before.

And this is why I think we're seeing so many leaks. Who can trust that they're going to be there in another day and how much of this insulting behavior, how much of this intimidation and bullying are the people around the president supposed to accept?


D'ANTONIO: Eventually they're going to get angry themselves and lash out and run right to the Washington Post or the New York Times.

LEMON: As we have been seeing happening so much in the last six months and even beyond that.

Thank you. I appreciate it. When we come back, much more on our breaking news. President Trump's lawyers reportedly trying to undercut Robert Mueller's Russian investigation.

Plus, O.J. Simpson back in the news and soon to be a free man.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN breaking news.

LEMON: The breaking news is President Trump's lawyers reportedly seeking to undercut Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.