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Reports: Trump Legal Team Trying to Undercut Mueller. Aired 7- 7:30a ET

Aired July 21, 2017 - 07:00   ET

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


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JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: New reporting that the president's legal team is trying to undermine the special counsel.

[07:00:22] UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The special counsel should not move outside OF the scope of the investigation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was basically saying, I'll fire you if you go beyond this limit.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The president has asked the question about whether he can pardon his family members, himself.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's something about Russia that sets him off.

O.J. SIMPSON, FORMER NFL PLAYER: I'm sorry it happened. Nine years away from your family is just, just not worth it.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: He claimed that he had led a conflict-free life. He is a confessed domestic abuser.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They have the audacity not even to bring that up?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The system worked as it should have today.

(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. It is another big day, where I am here in Washington. Chris is off this morning. John Berman joins me from New York.

BERMAN: Yes.

CAMEROTA: John, great to see you.

BERMAN: So much news, we had to be in two cities at once.

CAMEROTA: That's right. So let's get right to it.

Up first, "The New York Times" and "Washington Post" with new reporting that President Trump's legal team is trying to undercut Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The president's lawyers are investigating the investigators in hopes of discrediting the Russia investigation.

BERMAN: "The Washington Post" also reports that the president is asking advisers about his ability to pardon his aides, family members, and possibly even himself. This as the president has re-shuffled his legal team.

We have it all covered for you. Let's begin with CNN's senior Washington correspondent, Joe Johns, live at the White House. Good morning, Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: John, I think reshuffling is the word. The president has already signaled that he is gearing up for a fight against the special counsel investigators, citing conflicts. And it appears now that the president's team is looking to the past for information to discredit the investigators.

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JOHNS (voice-over): "The New York Times" and "Washington Post" are reporting that the president's lawyers and aides are looking to undermine the special counsel's investigation. "The Times" says Trump's team is scouring the professional and political backgrounds of Robert Mueller and other investigators, looking for conflicts of interest they can use to discredit the investigation.

"The Post" also reporting that the president has been asking about his authority to pardon aides, family members, and even himself, in connection with the probe.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions refusing to answer questions about whether he's discussed pardons with the president in testimony before Congress last month.

JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I'm not able to comment on conversations with high officials within the White House.

JOHNS: All this as the Russia investigation appears to be widening, Bloomberg reporting that Mueller is expanding his probe to include a broad range of financial transactions involving Trump businesses and associates.

HABERMAN: Would that be a breach of what his actual purview is?

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I would say yes. Yes, I would say yes.

JOHNS: The president warning Mueller against delving into his finances earlier this week.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: The president is making clear that the special counsel should not move outside of the scope of the investigation.

JOHNS: "The Washington Post" reports that the president has told aides he's especially disturbed after learning that Mueller would be able to access his tax returns. The president has refused to release them, citing ongoing IRS audits.

Mueller has broad latitude. Sources say the president has also vented in recent weeks that his legal team has not done enough to beat back allegations.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ladies and gentlemen...

JOHNS: Sources tell CNN Marc Kasowitz, the president's longtime attorney and lead lawyer on the Russia matter, will see his role reduced, after the spokesman and communications strategist for the legal team resigned.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. President, does Jeff Sessions still have your full support?

TRUMP: Thank you, everybody.

JOHNS: President Trump ignoring questions about his embattled attorney general, after blaming him for the special counsel probe.

TRUMP: Sessions should have never recused himself. And if he would -- if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job, and I would have picked somebody else.

JOHNS: Sessions signaling Thursday he has no plans to step down, despite the president's remarkable public rebuke.

SESSIONS: We love this job, we love this department, and I plan to continue to do so, as long as that is appropriate.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS: And the six-month mark here in this administration, the pattern continues, attempts to focus on policy overshadowed by the president's own words and the Russia investigation. We do expect to see President Trump in the Oval Office this afternoon with the survivors of the "USS Arizona" -- Alisyn and John.

CAMEROTA: Joe, thank you very much.

Let's bring in our panel to discuss all of it. We have CNN politics reporter and editor at large, Chris Cillizza; CNN political analyst Abby Phillip; and CNN political and national security analyst, David Sanger. Great to have all of you.

[07:00:08] Abby, let me start with you. "The Washington Post" is your paper, and it's reporting that the Trump team, legal team is looking into the backgrounds of all of the Robert Mueller's legal team.

Is the assumption that, if they find someone on there who has given money to a Democratic candidate, that that prosecutor or that lawyer cannot be impartial?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think they're going to make that case. I don't know that that's actually true. I think that, first of all, these are lawyers. So it's very common for lawyers and the way that our legal system works, to make political donations. But they're going to raise all of these issues publicly. It's not clear that there is even a sort of non-public venue for them to air these complaints.

I think the idea is that they want to publicly discredit whatever comes out of this investigation, by undermining the people who are involved in it, by trying to, in some ways, some people might consider this an attempt to intimidate the investigators, by saying, "If you go here, we'll find things on you and air that out publicly."

So it's a really interesting strategy, but again, not one that's -- that's strange for Donald Trump. I mean, he has a long history in his legal dealings of doing exactly this kind of thing.

CAMEROTA: And by the way, while we're at it, not one that is strange for other politicians, as well. We heard Jeffrey Toobin talk about how, in fact, they did this during the Ken Starr investigation with Bill Clinton. They wanted to look into what they thought was an overly conservative panel.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS CORRESPONDENT AND EDITOR AT LARGE: Right. It -- it makes a level of sense. If you see a prosecutor who is -- has pretty wide latitude to start -- special counsel, I should say -- and then you know from the reporting that we've seen that it's ramping up and broadening, not narrowing, it does make some level of sense.

The thing that I wonder about, and I just don't know is, what we've seen so far, is there's a lawyer that Mueller picked, one of the investigators said that he picked who has donated to Hillary Clinton. We know that. Bob Mueller and Jim Comey, the fired FBI director, are friendly. We know -- I mean, that's public knowledge.

Bob Mueller, according to Trump, was in his office, interviewing for the FBI job. We know that.

CAMEROTA: So does that taint everything?

CILLIZZA: And I don't -- I don't think it does. I think what -- I'm not even sure Trump, necessarily, thinks it does. I think what Trump is doing is he's making sure the case exists, particularly for his supporters. That if and when he wants to get rid of Bob Mueller -- now, I don't -- I don't think that's where we are yet, but if and when we wants to get rid of Bob Mueller, there's been some groundwork.

Remember, as soon as the special counsel is announced, political witch hunt, biggest hoax -- you know, political hoax, biggest witch hunt in history. So it's not as though he was saying, like, "Bob Mueller is the greatest human being ever." I mean, he's -- he's from the start laid this path, I think.

BERMAN: Put this in a bigger context. Let's put this in a bigger context. Because this is happening, raising the conflicts of interest, boxing Robert Mueller as happening the same week that the president knifed his own attorney, right? Went on the record and interviewed and criticized in question, whether should he even be in the job right there?

You know, the same week now that people close to the president are floating the idea that he's considering, you know, pardoning or at least asking about whether or not he can pardon people who work for him, his children, even himself.

We know he has reshuffled his legal team overnight, including, we've just confirmed the spokesman, Mark Carallo (ph), who was the spokesman for that legal team. He's out. He's quit here.

You know, David Sanger, the question is, you know, again, has this White House lost control of its messaging? What's the message they're sending here?

SANGER: Well, remember, this was supposed to be the week for "Made in America" and the week for the health care bill. And -- remember those, John? And here we are, you know, once again, discussing Russia, discussing the president's strategy and so forth.

Look, if this is a brushback pitch in some ways to Mueller and his team, it's an understandable tactic. As Alisyn pointed out, Bill Clinton used it. I covered the Clinton administration. I was a White House correspondent for "The Times" at that time. And he certainly attempted this.

But the Justice Department has very clear, strict guidelines about what does and does not constitute a conflict of interest. And even political donations to candidates is not listed among those. That doesn't mean if they were excessive, that they might not qualify.

But it strikes me, it's going to be a very uphill battle to make the argument that Mr. Bipartisan, Robert Mueller, the former FBI director, the decorated war hero in Vietnam, who was -- whose appointment was greeted by many Republicans for exactly the reason that he's considered so down the middle, it's going to be a pretty uphill case for him to say that Mueller himself is biased. I think that's going to be a hard political argument.

[07:10:19] CILLIZZA: By the way, just quickly on that, Alisyn. David's exactly right, legally. And politically, for people who are not Trump's base. I mean, I think independents will look at it and say, "Well, Bob Mueller was the director of the FBI for 12 years." I mean, this is not a guy who's been a partisan.

But Trump's base wants things to believe that the establishment is fundamentally corrupt, fundamentally biased against him. So for them, I think this will work. And I do think he spends a lot of time thinking about the care and maintenance of that base and laying the groundwork to make sure he can sell this.

Now, whether that's a broader political strategy that can help the Republican Party in 2018, help him in 2020...

PHILLIP: Though it is hard to see the argument against Bob Mueller, when Trump himself considered Mueller to serve as the FBI director. So, I mean, we're going to come up against reality on that very quickly. Trump thought of this guy as, you know, lacking in conflict enough that he was willing to hire him, at least for some period of time.

And so I think that's why you've seen the sights of the Trump aides and the lawyers going to those lower-tier attorneys who are more rank- and-file...

CAMEROTA: Their impartiality...

PHILLIPS: Exactly. Lesser known and perhaps are the greatest risk. These are people who are experts in white-collar crime. That is the crux of the problem here for Trump.

CAMEROTA: Abby, I want to stick with you for a second, because "The Washington Post" has other new reporting this morning about the powers of the pardon, and whether President Trump's legal team is looking into who the president can pardon. Can he pardon family members? Can he pardon himself? I should say that John Dowd, part of his legal team, was just on another morning show and said this reporting is complete nonsense? Do you want to comment on this?

PHILLIPS: I'm going to say, we're going to stand -- we stand by our reporting on this. And what is interesting, this is a completely unsettled issue, whether the president can pardon himself.

It has never been done. It has never been adjudicated. It would likely go straight to the Supreme Court.

But the idea is, and in our reporting, we made it very clear. This -- where they are on this is, the president wants to know what are his powers? Where -- where can he go? Who can he pardon?

And the reality is, he can pardon anyone. He can potentially even pardon himself, but the pardoning of himself is the part that would essentially throw this into a legal quagmire. It would be extraordinarily controversial. And even pardoning other people as a part of this case would be extraordinarily controversial.

It would likely prompt, we know, based on the comments from lawmakers on the Hill, it would prompt, you know, the Congress to take their own actions to appoint another special counsel to basically get in front of this. It would be an incredibly -- it has already, I think, become an incredibly controversial -- even the idea being thrown out there into the public sphere has been incredibly controversial.

BERMAN: Chris Cillizza, I want to get your take on one of the, you know, latest threads that has developed over the last 24 hours. And that's Bloomberg.

You know, the president warned Robert Mueller not to expand the investigation into his finances. Well, guess what Bloomberg is reporting? That the special counsel is expanding the investigation right now into possible financial dealings of the Trump corporation right now.

What do you think makes the White House so nervous about this? And is this, you know, a good hill to fight on if you are the White House, politically?

CILLIZZA: I don't know -- I don't think it's a terribly good hill to fight on, but I know which one they're going to fight on, John. I thought the most interesting line -- and Alisyn mentioned it -- in "The Post" reporting on this whole thing is Donald Trump grew increasingly concerned when he was told that Bob Mueller can access several years of his past tax returns.

Let's remind people. Donald Trump is the only modern American presidential candidate to -- and certainly the only modern American president, to not release his taxes. Any of them. He has been extremely cagey about it. He's offered a number of reasons, most often that they are still under audit, though Kellyanne Conway said differently after the election, essentially saying, "Well, this has been adjudicated by the public."

I think it is telling that that is the thing that may be the impetus that is driving Trump to say, "We've got to be more aggressive about this." There's -- he made a calculation during the campaign that it made less political sense for him to release his -- or it was more politically dangerous for him to release his taxes than the flack he was taking over not. There's a reason for that.

BERMAN: Interesting to see how far he is willing to take it.

All right, guys. Thanks so much.

Is the president laying the groundwork to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller? A key member of the Senate Judiciary Committee weighs in, next.

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[07:19:05] BERMAN: "The New York Times" and "Washington Post" both reporting that the president's legal team is trying to dig up dirt on Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigators.

Joining me now to discuss this and a whole lot of other stuff going on overnight, Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. He is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senator, thanks so much for being with us.

Now, digging up dirt is one thing, but discussing or raising possible conflicts of interest, even small conflicts of interest that may arise from within the investigative team, is that out of bounds? I mean, Paul Begala was on before. He, of course, did it famously with Kenneth Starr back during the impeachment proceedings.

You know, Jeffrey Toobin, you know, look, it's OK to look at these investigators and see if they have other things going on.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: It's a standard tactic. As a former prosecutor, I can tell you that there were defense counsel who attacked me in the courtroom and before we reach the courtroom. But Bob Mueller is a prosecutor's prosecutor. Apart from his war record and all of his personal credentials, he has been around this track quite a few times. And he has the grit and backbone to stand up to those kind of tactics.

[07:20:13] BERMAN: You know, I'm old enough to remember, you know, obviously, the impeachment proceedings. And you are also -- of President Bill Clinton. And it feels like the president's team went after Ken Starr every day.

BLUMENTHAL: They may have tried to put him on trial, and that is the standard tactic, but trying to draw lines, red lines or boundaries or put certain subjects off-limits, and then intimidating or threatening a prosecutor, if it's the president of the United States, I think verges on potential obstruction of justice.

BERMAN: So what exactly verges on potential obstruction of justice? Are you talking about the president saying to "The New York Times" in that audio that we have, saying, "Look, if he starts looking into my finances, that's out of bounds"?

BLUMENTHAL: I think any attempt to draw lines around a prosecution, to intimidate or influence a prosecutor, if it's the president of the United States, with that tremendous power he has, raises very severe legal questions.

And let's remember that he, himself, in that "New York Times" interview, very revealingly said that he knew about the e-mails that led to the early June meeting, even if he denied that he knew about the meeting. So he has some knowledge here that he is really trying to conceal, perhaps.

BERMAN: His language, murky and confusing enough. Hard to know when exactly he was saying he knew about those e-mails. It may have been after they were revealed in "The New York Times"...

BLUMENTHAL: The question is what did he know and when did he know it?

BERMAN: I do understand. But you were saying, just the fact that he told "The New York Times" that he doesn't want Robert Mueller looking into his finances, that in and of itself, you think is an obstruction of justice?

BLUMENTHAL: No. Combined, perhaps, with other things that he's done, for example, firing Comey, which is the topic that Bob Mueller presumably is reviewing and investigating. Other circumstances surrounding everything that was done in connection with the Trump campaign, perhaps colluding with the Russians in...

BERMAN: But you don't think he -- all the praise you heap on Robert Mueller, you don't think he would be intimidated by this, do you?

BLUMENTHAL: I am very confident that Bob Mueller is going to pursue this investigation, vigorously and fairly.

BERMAN: What happens -- just quickly, what happens if the president does fire him or tries to?

BLUMENTHAL: There will be a firestorm of reaction. And I would lead an effort to legislate a special counsel, as was done during Watergate, perhaps appointed by a three-judge panel.

Let's remember, we're very far from a conclusion about obstruction of justice. But there needs to be a full, fair, vigorous investigation here.

BERMAN: Let's talk about the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, someone you do not support in that job, in any which way. But the president this week sort of suggested he regrets having him as attorney general. If he knew that as attorney general he would recuse himself from the investigation, he never would have appointed him. You take issue with that, even though here's an attorney general you never wanted the job to begin with.

BLUMENTHAL: I opposed Jeff Sessions for that job. I was the first member of the Judiciary Committee to speak against him. But he recused himself by following the rules of ethics and the rule of law. And so he should not be fired for doing the right thing.

What the president wants in that position is a political lackey. He wants a lap dog, not a watchdog. And the attorney general of the United States should follow the rule of law.

BERMAN: If you were in that position right now and the president said about you what he just said about Jeff Sessions, what would you do? Would you stay on the job?

BLUMENTHAL: I would stay on the job, because the president is plainly wrong about the reasons that he's dissatisfied with Jeff Sessions. Obviously, the president of the United States losing confidence in his attorney general is a very serious development.

But the president has a tendency, apparently, to unloose his tirades against all of his people around him. And so I think Jeff Sessions would be well-advised to consider whether he wants to stay there, personally, but there's no reason for him to resign.

BERMAN: Interesting, there is irony. You want this guy to stay who you opposed from the beginning. But let me ask you about the Senate Judiciary Committee, because next week scheduled to hear from Paul Manafort, the president's one-time campaign chair, and the president's son, Donald Trump Jr., scheduled to appear. Have you heard whether or not they will be there on Wednesday?

BLUMENTHAL: They have been requested to appear. And I believe that they will voluntarily. If they don't, there will almost certainly be subpoenas for them to appear.

BERMAN: When you say you believe they will, is that because you've heard that they will, or you believe they will because you think it would be the right thing to do?

BLUMENTHAL: I think a combination of both. I have no authoritative knowledge as to whether they will or not, but I think their comments to date and their attorney's comments indicate that they will.

[07:25:04] But let's be very clear. We have a bipartisan investigation here. There's been cooperation between the chairman, Senator Grassley, and the ranking member, Dianne Feinstein, in a very bipartisan way. And I believe that we need to hear from Manafort, Trump Jr., about what the president knew, what other documents there were, what other meetings occurred. And those kinds of questions deserve to be fully explored.

So I think, one way or the other, there ought to be subpoenas if they don't appear voluntarily.

BERMAN: We are waiting to hear what happens from those gentleman. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, thank you so much for being with us.

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.

BERMAN: Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: All right, John. He is one of President Trump's strongest supporters. So how does Congressman Chris Collins feel about the developments in the investigation and that of special counsel, Robert Mueller? I'll ask him. He's here, next.

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CAMEROTA: New reports this morning that the president's legal team is looking into ways to undercut Robert Mueller's investigation. President Trump already hinted at a "New York Times" interview that he's holding some kind of damaging information on Mueller and his potential conflict of interests.

Joining us now to discuss all of this is Republican Congressman Chris Collins of New York. Great to have you here.

REP. CHRIS COLLINS (R), NEW YORK: Great to be with you, Alisyn. Welcome to D.C.

CAMEROTA: Thank you. It's hot and steamy.

COLLINS: As always.

CAMEROTA: Figuratively and literally.