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Trump Aides Seek to Discredit Special Counsel; Report: Trump Team Researching Pardons; WAPO, NYT: Trump Lawyers Trying To Undercut Mueller; Michigan Rep. Kildee On Flint And U.S. Government Help. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired July 21, 2017 - 09:15   ET


[09:00:12] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good Friday morning, everyone. Top of the hour. I'm Poppy Harlow.

This morning, explosive new reports of law and disorder at the White House. President Trump shakes up his personal legal team as he ramps up his attack on the Russia investigation.

The new leadership reportedly assigned to a new mission. Both "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post" are reporting that the legal team is scrambling to discredit Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his investigators. The goal, according to both papers, expose conflicts of interest that the President says are there, try to undermine the investigation.

Meanwhile, "The Washington Post" reports the legal team for the President is also investigating or taking a look at issues related to pardoning potentially his aides and family members, if necessary. And the report does say that the President has even inquired about the ability to pardon himself.

Well, this morning when asked about it, the President's lawyer called that reporting, quote, nonsense.

We are covering all of the developments this busy Friday morning. Let's get to Capitol Hill where we find our Suzanne Malveaux.

And before that, Joe Johns is at the White House. Good morning, Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Poppy. So that question of whether the President has the power to pardon aides, family members, and certainly himself is somewhat of an open question in the courts.

It has not been settled. Many legal experts question whether it's possible. And it comes on the heels, that report does, of reporting by Bloomberg that the personal finances of the President of the United States are now being investigated, which would be an important turn in the investigation.

Meanwhile, as we've been reporting all morning, there has been a shakeup of sorts in the President's personal legal team, which indicates that the President's long-time personal advisor and attorney, Marc Kasowitz, would be taking, at the very least, a somewhat diminished role while some of the other attorneys who've been brought on to represent the President take a role in the forefront, if you will.

That will include Ty Cobb, a long-time insider Washington attorney and, of course, Jay Sekulow, who's been somewhat the face of this legal issue.

Other things have been happening on this. We do know in fact that the press aide, the communications spokesman, for this legal team, Mark Corallo, has now stepped down. He confirmed that to CNN.

Many other questions remain about how this investigation is going to go, what the administration is going to do. Indications this morning that the President very much is looking at the idea of investigating the investigators, looking into their personal backgrounds, finding about conflicts they may have had in the past in order to use that at least in a political way.

But a source also telling CNN this morning that the President's legal team does intend to cooperate fully with the investigation as they continue to try to get to the bottom of Russia's interference in the last election. Back to you.

HARLOW: Joe Johns at the White House. Thank you very much for that.

Also today, there is a deadline in the Russia investigation. Donald Trump, Jr., the President's son, and former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, haven't said yet whether they will testify in front of the Judiciary Committee as scheduled next Wednesday.

The Republican chairman of that committee says if he doesn't have those answers today, he is willing to subpoena both of them. All of this as the President's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is expected to meet with Senate staffers next week behind closed doors.

Our Suzanne Malveaux is on Capitol Hill. Are we getting any indication about whether or not Trump, Jr. and Paul Manafort will say by the end of the day, yes, we're coming before your committee, or are they going to wait for a subpoena?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we know that they have invitations, that they've received those invitations. We don't know yet whether or not they're going to accept them, but we do know that it is deadline day. The Senate Judiciary Committee very much set on getting a response by the end of the day, so they still have some time here, Poppy.

We heard from Dianne Feinstein, Senator -- Ranking Democrat on the Committee, who says that they did get the clearance from Special Counsel Bob Mueller that they would be able to testify publicly if that is something that they are willing to do, that that would not be a conflict with his investigation.

And Senator Chuck Grassley, the Chairman, making it very clear, time and time again, that he -- yes, he is willing to use subpoena power to try to force them to go before that Committee. Both of them saying that they sent a letter to them, and it has been

received. They want to know more information about that meeting that took place in June of last year involving eight different individuals. And of course, one that was started or the impetus of that meeting from the Russian official, the lawyer, who said that they had some sort of damaging information on Hillary Clinton.

[09:05:13] So we are waiting for that. Also, Poppy, of course, look to Monday. Monday is going to be a particularly important day. Should be able to get some information out of this closed session meeting, but it is a closed meeting, and that is with Jared Kushner before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Not before the senators themselves but staffers. It is (INAUDIBLE). It is also considered an interview, not necessarily sworn testimony but an opportunity for him to answer some questions, to go before those staffers' initial questions and then later at another date actually meet with those senators.

And so that's going to be something that we should glean some information about that meeting. This all at the same time as the Special Counsel continues its own investigation and Congress -- the testimony in the Congress' policies simply languish, Poppy.

HARLOW: Indeed, that agenda trying to catch up with the Russia cloud that is surrounding this White House. Suzanne Malveaux, in Washington, thank you very much.

Joining me now to discuss, CNN Political Analyst Abby Phillips and Alex Burns. And Michael Zeldin, CNN legal analyst and former special assistant to Robert Mueller, now Special Counsel, when he was at the Department of Justice. Thank you very much for being here.

So, Michael, to you, since you have vast legal expertise in this and because of your experience working with Mueller.

The news out of "The Washington Post" that the President's attorney this morning is calling nonsense is that, look, the President was talking with aides and others, you know, in -- within the White House and saying what are my options when it comes to pardoning aides, family members, even myself if necessary?

Some of the reporting we have now from our reporters is that he was just having this conversation trying to find out what his authority is. You say this is fiercely debated. But this is an unresolved legal question, isn't it, really?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, FORMER SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO FBI DIRECTOR ROBERT MUELLER: Well, it's not unresolved whether or not he can pardon his friends and family members and associates.

HARLOW: But himself.

ZELDIN: That, he can do. As to himself, it's open constitutional question. But you can't pardon yourself from impeachment. So if he does that, he can still be impeached and then that would be the end of his presidency.

HARLOW: So just following that, you've written about this. And actually, in a prescient move, you wrote about this about a month ago. And in terms of all of the talk now about whether or not the President, Michael, would fire Bob Mueller, something he didn't rule out in that "New York Times" interview, you wrote it is so unlikely. Why?

ZELDIN: Because of the way the regulations are set up. The regulations that govern this require the firing of him for cause and only by Rosenstein.

So Rosenstein has said that he would not fire Mueller without cause. He would resign instead. And then it would go to the Associate Attorney General.

And I think that that process of resignation after resignation because there's no cause would make it almost impossible, politically, for this to occur without there being such a firestorm as to, you know, threaten the presidency. And so I think that this is a lot of bluster but not with legal support behind it. The regulations just don't allow for it easily.

Now, I could be mistaken. You know, the President behaves in a very mercurial way, but it's just not likely in my estimation from a legal standpoint.

HARLOW: So, Alex Burns, multiple outlets -- "The New York Times," "Washington Post" -- are reporting that there is a concerted effort among those in the White House to dig up what would be seen potentially as conflicts of interests for Bob Mueller, right?

The President said in that "Times" interview, well, he was sitting in here, interviewing for the FBI chief post just a day before he was named Special Counsel, that eliminates him. Now, they're leaking other reasons they think he is not fit to do this job.

You know, it's not like this is a first. I mean, there may be certain parts of it that are a first, but the Clinton White House was anything but kind to Ken Starr and certainly tried to discredit him many, many, many times.

ALEX BURNS, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Sure. I think what's different about this situation is that you didn't have President Clinton himself out there every day --

HARLOW: Talking about it.

BURNS: -- talking about it, right. That I think any lawyer and certainly any political strategist advising a president on how to manage a situation like this would tell him to try to segregate these issues, to, you know, leave the legal stuff to your legal team and focus on governing the country. But this --

HARLOW: Sure. It just doesn't mean the efforts are different though. BURNS: It doesn't mean the efforts -- well, it doesn't mean the

efforts are different and that you -- you didn't see necessarily the overt power and prestige of the presidency concentrated against a Special Counsel with whom the administration was at least nominally cooperating, right? That's really different here.

[09:09:57] And for allies of President Trump, what's been, I think, most disconcerting about this week is the sense that the President himself just can't kind of get off that topic. That even when it is clearly counterproductive politically and probably counterproductive on a legal basis, he just goes out there and says what he wants to say about this investigation.

HARLOW: So, Abby, to you. Jake Tapper spoke yesterday with four sitting Republican senators, OK, and they're responding to the attacks of this president on his entire Justice Department, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

One of them told Jake, quote, the Attorney General is America's top law enforcement official. It's unclear if he understands that and that's pretty disturbing.

Another one of the senators said that discussing the firing of Special Counsel Mueller or not ruling it out, right, is chilling. And then went on to say if that were to happen, somehow Congress would hire a Special Counsel of their own. What do you make of that? Four sitting Republican senators.

ABBY PHILLIP, WASHINGTON, D.C. REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: It really reflects a concern that is pretty widespread among many Republicans, though not all of them, that firing Mueller or even the President talking so openly about the possibility is incredibly disturbing. It would really shift the political dynamics in this situation. And

many of them are, maybe through these comments to Jake and elsewhere, are trying to warn the President, don't even go there.

But at the same time, I have also heard on the other side of this. There are a lot of Trump loyalists who are, in many cases, resentful of kind of institutional Republicans pushing back on Trump constantly, who say why can't the President fire Mueller? He is the President of the United States. Why doesn't he have that authority?

So there are forces on both sides of this. And it's very clear that no matter, you know, what is being said on the outside, this is something that is being mulled over by the President himself.

He is focused on it. He is disturbed by Mueller's investigation. And he, in no way, agrees with this idea that the Special Counsel investigation is actually something that could help keep this whole conflict out of the front pages.

In fact, the President thinks that it's an even greater risk partly because Mueller's investigation could really spawn into something that he really would not be able to control. This personal finances thing is really something that digs deep for him, and he doesn't like it at all. And it's become really the crux of his problem with the investigation, the fact it even exists.

HARLOW: Because that's what happens, as we learned from the Clinton White House, with these investigations. They start with one thing and they balloon into, sometimes, something else.

Michael, the White House, trying to put together what they deem to be these conflicts of interest to be able to make the case, they think, on legal ground, that Mueller can't do his job. What conflicts of interest would actually constitute that?

I mean, would it hold water to say that he was in there interviewing for the FBI chief job the day before? Is that enough?

ZELDIN: No, it wouldn't hold water at all. It's a sieve. The water would flow right through. The issue with Bob Mueller is that he is pretty unassailable.

Ken Starr was a different matter. He never had been a prosecutor. He had close political ties to the party and -- the Republican Party.

Bob Mueller is a registered Republican. He is a career federal prosecutor, FBI director, assistant attorney general of the criminal division. He is not going to be susceptible to the same challenges that Clinton made of Starr.

I think it's an unavailing legal strategy. I also think that it actually hurts the President to make these veiled threats in this respect.

Remember, Comey testified that the President made these same veiled threats to him, the loyalty test, the back off Flynn with the hope thing. Comey said, I heard all these things as threats.

And so now you see the President doing the same thing, using the same sort of language with respect to Mueller. And it, I think, essentially bolsters Comey's claim as to the tone and import of what the President was saying to him. And so in the end, if there's a credibility contest between the President and Comey with respect to whether or not there was an obstruction of justice, I think the President is hurting himself in legal terms.

And I'm surprised that his lawyers are allowing him, if they can control him, to speak this way because it undermines his credibility as a witness and undermines his legal standing as a consequence. So it's a big problem for him.

HARLOW: Alex, it is clear that this president thinks there are parameters to what -- and lines that the Special Counsel can't cross. But even if he believes that, there are others working the White House, veterans in Washington, who know that's not the case. And they know there are -- it's not, as Jackie Kucinich said yesterday on the program, red light, green light. You can't say stop and go.

[09:15:07] But Sarah Huckabee Sanders again yesterday is trying to defend it, and she said, look, this is about the Russia investigation and shouldn't be anything more and she said, quote, nothing beyond that.

The president is making clear special counsel should not move outside of the scope of the investigation. Why is the White House continuing to use this explanation?

BURNS: I think for someone like Sarah Huckabee Sanders, you're in the position of essentially having to defend and magnify whatever the president has already said, right?

I think we've never seen a spokesman for President Trump go out and say, actually the president misspoke, that was a big mistake and now I'm taking it back, right? So, I wouldn't necessarily read so much into the repetition.

I do think the fact that the president said it in the first place is revealing in terms of how he sees the appropriate relationship between himself and the Justice Department. And as you say people who've been around this --

HARLOW: They know around him, they know.

BURNS: They know this is not how this works.

HARLOW: Alex Burns, thank you very much. Abby Philip, Michael Zeldin, we appreciate it.

Ahead, lawmakers not at work at least in the district. They are out of town. Many of them at home with their constituents. But when it comes to health care, are they out of ideas? And will there even be a vote next week?

And multiple errors and failure to take action, an initial investigation this morning into that deadly "USS Fitzgerald" collision is blaming the U.S. Navy itself. What went wrong?

The U.S. government slapping Exxon with a $2 million fine for allegedly violating sanctions on Russia, calling it egregious. This is all while the now-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was the CEO of ExxonMobil. The oil company fighting back this morning. A live report ahead.



HARLOW: More questions than answers on Capitol Hill as lawmakers head home for the long weekend. Several GOP senators leaving with no idea whether they'll be voting on a plan to repeal or replace Obamacare next week.

This comes amid stunning reports from "New York Times" and "The Washington Post" this morning that the president's lawyers are now working to dig up dirt that could undercut the man investigating the president around all things Russia.

Joining me now, Democratic Congressman Dan Kildee of Michigan. He is halfway to Michigan in Pittsburgh, making a stop on his drive home. It's nice to have you.

Let's just begin with your reaction to specifically also "The Washington Post" reporting this morning that the president has at least inquired about the ability to potentially pardon himself if need, something that his lawyer calls nonsense.

REPRESENTATIVE DAN KILDEE (D), MICHIGAN: Well, it sure raises a lot of questions as to why President Trump is so nervous about the investigation that is taking place. I mean, Mr. Mueller has a track record of being a man of great integrity. He will follow the facts wherever they may lead.

And, you know, the president I think raises even more suspicion perhaps maybe where there isn't suspicion -- or isn't warranted suspicion, we'll have to find that out. But he sure makes people curious about why he's so obsessive about trying to tamp down or stop or somehow distract this investigation.

HARLOW: So, Congressman, we have a new poll out, a new CNN poll this morning, and these are the numbers that surprised me a bit and I want your reaction to them. What you're looking at on the screen is the number of Americans that are concerned about contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign.

That's actually gone down six points from March. It's 49 percent now. And then if you dig in a little bit more, only 27 percent of Americans in this brand new poll this morning say they are very concerned about contacts between Russians and the Trump campaign.

Now, as you know, a number of your fellow Democrats have focused so much on this that you would think that this is the platform that they are running on in 2018 and 2020. Would they be remiss to do that given these numbers?

KILDEE: Yes, I actually think it's a mistake for us to focus so much attention on this issue. Now, the committees that are looking at this, the Intelligence Committee, the Senate Committee, Mr. Mueller, they should continue to pursue this.

The American public should know that we are watching this and we are paying attention to it, but I think what we're seeing with this polling I think is correct. People want us to work on issues that will affect their lives immediately.

They're worried about their jobs. They're worried about their kids being able to have opportunity. We should be focusing on infrastructure, for example, we should be focusing on growing the skills of our workers so they can get better jobs and make better wages.

And when they see us talking about everything else over and over again, they rightfully get frustrated. As Democrats, we have to put forward an agenda that really speaks to what people are thinking about every day.

HARLOW: I think you must hear it quite a bit considering the fact that in Michigan of the 83 counties only eight went to Hillary Clinton. You represent one of them that did, but even in the five counties that border you you've got the president getting a ton of support more than -- nearly a 40 percent margin in the number of them. So, you're hearing from those around you stop talking so much about Russia, Democrats?

KILDEE: Yes. I mean, it's more an affirmative message. They say, look, work on growing the economy, work on jobs. They don't give the president a pass on Russia. They just would prefer that we focus more of our attention on real issues.

HARLOW: So let's talk about a real issue, Flint, Michigan, you represent the people of Flint. I and so many others from CNN were there covering this, you know, I interviewed the governor of Michigan there as he was under fire for all of this.

It's been a while and Flint is not in the headlines, but those children are still impacted for their entire life because of the lead that was in the water. How are they doing and are you getting the resources you need from this White House?

KILDEE: Well, you know, things are getting better, slowly. I guess we've in some ways turned the corner. The pipes are being replaced over a three-year period. But the long-term needs of the community have really not been completely met, and this White House so far really has ignored Flint. The president at one point in time said that he would fix it.

HARLOW: Right.

[09:25:05] KILDEE: I asked the president for something very simple, give me a point of contact within the administration to work with the Flint recovery. President Obama did a lot, directed all of his agencies and departments to work with us and they really delivered.

So far other than executing the things that Congress has already done, the resources that we provided, I can't get an answer from the Trump White House.

HARLOW: No answer?

KILDEE: Nothing.

HARLOW: When did you send them this letter that I believe you wrote?

KILDEE: Immediately after the president was sworn in, I reached out, wrote a letter, said I just would simply like to have a point of contact so that we know who we should be dealing with on Flint recovery. No answer. We reiterated that request. Still no answer.

This is, I think, the problem. The president is so focused on his own reputation, his problems, his messaging, he's not governing. Whether it's Flint, Michigan, or the lack of an infrastructure plan or not moving forward on taxes, or having no idea whatsoever he wants in health care reform, he's not doing his job. HARLOW: Final question to you before I let you go. You've been pretty candid that you think there are problems with Obamacare and there are things that need to be fixed. And you and many other lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they want bipartisan work to get it done. What is most broken with Obamacare right now, Congressman?

KILDEE: Well, I think the thing that's most broken is the individual market where in some places we see competition evaporating and in many places the premium costs are just too high. That's about 6 percent or 7 percent of the market. We really need to focus on improving that.

For example, allowing people to have an early entry into Medicare, for example. There are other -- there are technical ways we can deal with that. Negotiating prescription drug prices would be another.

But it's that individual market where we're seeing the biggest problem. We need to really focus our attention on solving that. Democrats and Republicans ought to be able to get together and do that together.

HARLOW: One would think, but we haven't seen it yet. Congressman Dan Kildee, thank you very much. Good luck on the second half of your drive home.

KILDEE: Thanks, Poppy.

HARLOW: A slew of things went wrong. This morning new information on the "USS Fitzgerald" collision that cost seven Navy sailors their lives, and who is at fault.