Return to Transcripts main page

THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Will Trump Fire Man Investigating Him?; Interview With Former National Intelligence Director James Clapper. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired December 18, 2017 - 16:30   ET

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


[16:30:02]

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Is that what you're saying here?

JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER U.S. NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE DIRECTOR: Yes, I think, clearly, I mean, he said that during the campaign. If people say nice things about him, he will reciprocate. And that's certainly been the case in spades with Putin.

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you this, because there is a fundamental contradiction between the president's comments about Russia and this public warmth that he will express and sometimes get in return from Russia and the written word.

If you look at this national security strategy, pretty straightforward. It identifies Russia and China as rival powers trying to undermine the U.S. economy, et cetera. When Russia sees that printed word and then they hear the president's comments, what do they listen to as America's strategy?

CLAPPER: Well, I think, as always, they're going to listen to the word that comes out of the mouth of the president, what he actually says vs. what's in the printed word.

This national security strategy, just like all the others that I was associated with, lots of fanfare, very important interagency process, but in the end how much real impact do they actually have?

In this case, as I think in past administrations, there is generally a very involved interagency process to get all the interagency, all the Cabinet departments that are relevant on board, so that we have a coherent, coordinated policy, which in this case can certainly be negated pretty quick by ad hoc tweets.

And so I think the real litmus test here is going to be to what extent we adhere to all the good words and the written strategy.

SCIUTTO: And even moves by Congress, because one concern is that Congress passed by an overwhelming margin new sanctions on Russia and, in fact, tied the president's hands to some degree.

CLAPPER: Right.

SCIUTTO: And yet the criticism has been that the White House, the administration has not yet imposed those sanctions. CLAPPER: Well, they haven't. And the president took strong exception

at the time when he was kind of compelled to sign the legislation. He took exception to them with a pretty strong signing statement.

SCIUTTO: Is it your impression he's slow-rolling the sanctions?

CLAPPER: Well, that's your phrase. He hasn't been real rapid about implementing them, to say that, no.

So, yes, I guess so.

SCIUTTO: Director Clapper knows a thing or two about intelligence.

Thanks very much. Thanks for taking the time.

CLAPPER: Thanks, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Lots to talk about. Again, President Trump insisting he is not considering firing special counsel Robert Mueller, but is there another way for him to put a stop to the Russia investigation? That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:36:57]

SCIUTTO: Welcome back. More with our panel in just a moment, but first, President Trump is tamping down speculation that he might fire the special counsel ,Robert Mueller.

But CNN has learned that some of the president's own aides are worried the president has unrealistic expectations about how quickly Mueller will complete his investigation into Russia's meddling into the election.

CNN White House correspondent Sara Murray joins me now.

So, your sources saying even they're concerned about the president's state of mind on this.

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they are because they look at this president and they say he's actually less agitated, which in many way is a good thing. He actually believes he's going to get a letter of exoneration from Mueller.

When he's speaking to his lawyers, his lawyers are painting a very optimistic timeline for him, that Mueller is close to wrapping up the investigation. Soon Trump and other members the White House will be cleared.

Now, if you talk to other lawyers with other clients involved in this investigation, if you talk to legal experts, they say it really does not look like Mueller is on the brink of wrapping this up.

And so Trump's allies are concerned if we get past this deadline, this deadline his lawyers are setting for him, he could end up even more irritated. He could one adviser said a meltdown and potentially do something dramatic.

And of course we're looking this week for the meeting between Mueller and his team and Trump's lawyers. That could be an important tipping point in giving a signal of where the investigation is headed. If it's not an indication that it is close to wrapping up, that, of course, could set off the president.

SCIUTTO: They have, of course, given deadlines that didn't stand up to the test of time. Over by Thanksgiving, over by Christmas.

MURRAY: The deadline has shifted over and over again. Some in the White House say, look, we need to have a light at the end of the tunnel. This is a good way to sort of keep everyone optimistic. It's certainly a better message than saying, oh, no, this is going to go on forever.

But when you're talking about the president's own mind-set, that is what has people concerned, that they will fall short of expectations and that will set him off.

And I think we have already seen some of the president's political advisers out there criticizing Mueller's investigators, criticizing the investigation. That could be an indication of more to come.

SCIUTTO: Sure. Or maybe they're trying to speak to the boss, right? Sara Murray, thanks very much.

Let's talk about this now with CNN legal analyst Preet Bharara.

So, Preet, you heard Sara Murray there, the president having it seems from people close to him unrealistic expectations about when this is going to be resolved. Are the president's expectations unrealistic, in your view?

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it's impossible to know because I don't know what's going on with the Mueller investigation. I'm on the outside like you and like the viewers are.

But it does seem he's being a little bit unrealistic, given how much work the Mueller team has to do and how much it has to go through, the fact that you have now a pending indictment against two individuals that has to go to trial.

I think there are of stones they still turn over and a lot of records they still have to examine. I do think the Mueller team is moving quicker than you might have expected, but that doesn't mean you can wrap something up in just a quick few months.

I know Donald Trump likes to say things like, when he's referring to real estate projects, that something came in under budget and ahead of schedule. I don't think that's a phrase that we're going to be able to apply to the Mueller team investigation.

SCIUTTO: "The Washington Post" is reporting that Trump is still unhappy with his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and has been referring to his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, as a Democrat and a threat to his presidency, although we should note that Rosenstein is actually a Republican.

[16:40:05]

As you hear that public signaling there, are you concerned that their jobs 3might not be safe?

BHARARA: Yes, I'm concerned that no job is safe in the Trump administration, particularly in the Justice Department, for various reasons, some personal, some otherwise.

Of course, it's in the president's authority to fire the deputy attorney general or the attorney general. And just because he has said with respect those two individuals through spokespersons and himself -- and he said the same thing about Bob Mueller -- that he doesn't have the intention of removing anyone, I think we have come to understand and learn that what the president says today, if it's an accurate reflection of what's in his mind today, doesn't mean that is going to what be his intent will be tomorrow or the next week.

So I think for a lot of reasons this president doesn't shy away from taking dramatic action, as shown in the firing of Jim Comey, as shown in the pardoning of Sheriff Joe Arpaio that he knows will give him a lot of blowback.

It's unclear. I think he's somebody that is governed by his emotion a little bit and anger in the moment. And we will just have to wait and see, like he likes to say.

SCIUTTO: There has been some reporting that Chris Wray, who of course replaced James Comey, is also the target of his ire.

You're aware of the flap over the Mueller investigation accessing e- mails from Trump transition officials. Mueller office pushing back very hard on that, saying, listen, this is part of an ongoing criminal investigation. We have a right to do this.

You spent a lot of time in a courtroom as a lawyer. Was there anything wrong with the access to those e-mails?

BHARARA: Yes, I don't know what all the legal arguments are from where I sit on the outside.

I don't see what the criticism is. Nobody who is a subject of an investigation or whose associates are a subject or a target of an investigation like their materials to be produced to prosecutors, but that's how we always get information. That's how we prove any case we have ever proven.

You get bank records, you get telephone records, you get e-mails from third parties. In this case, it happened to be the GSA that was overseeing and housing I think the servers for the transition.

I have heard some mention of executive privilege, that there's some privileged that fall under the executive privilege category. I don't understand how that works because during the time of the transition, by definition, obviously the president-elect was not the president, and so no executive privilege would apply.

I have also seen reports that seem credible to me that there were conversations between, you know, various people in law enforcement and the GSA folks and also the transition folks making them aware of the fact there was no expectation of privacy in those e-mails.

So no one's happy about their e-mails getting produced in a law enforcement inquiry, but that's what happens routinely in this country every single day.

SCIUTTO: Yes, there are a few text messages that were revealed, of course, in recent days as well.

One thing the president has been publicly signaling about somewhat back and forth contradicting himself is about his intentions, whether or not he intends to pardon former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

He said, well, we will see. Then he said I have no plans to do that. Is there anything wrong legally, constitutionally, for the commander in chief to be publicly signaling about a pardon to someone who is currently under investigation, in fact, in an investigation that might touch the president's inner circle?

BHARARA: You know, I think it's not something we have seen before and it's not something that I think is good for the rule of law, it's not good for people's confidence and faith in the rule of law.

But, by his own terms, he's not saying he is going to do that, he's just sort of indicated he's not intending to do it yet, and we will see what happens.

I think we see -- as I mentioned a moment ago, we see from the example of Joe Arpaio that he will not shrink from pardoning someone who is his ally who he thinks has not been treated well, even if the process is not complete and even if he hasn't gotten input from the pardon attorney at the Department of Justice, which is how it's always worked during the time I was at the department.

I guess we will just have to wait and see. But I don't think it's great for the process and for ultimate faith in the process for there to be any kind of signaling at all, other than to say, I'm going to stay out of it and we should let the special counsel do his job.

SCIUTTO: Preet Bharara, it seems simple. Thanks very much.

BHARARA: Thanks.

SCIUTTO: Embattled Senator Al Franken has not set a date to resign from his Senate seat. Is he actually going to leave in the end? That's right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:45:00] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: We're back now. Sticking with our "POLITICS LEAD," I want to bring my panel back to discuss the question of Al Franken where rumors of his departure perhaps exaggerated. Let's start by playing some sound from Democratic Senator Joe Manchin just this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D), WEST VIRGINIA: I definitely think he should not resign. I think he should submit himself, which he has willingly done and offered to do and go through this complete process of an extensive ethics review. And whatever the outcome is, I will live with it. I can live with that. I'm sorry. You have faults that you maybe never recognized and these ladies have basically brought those forward.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: And then a short time afterwards, another Democratic Senator, Senator Leahy released the following statement on Franken as well. "I have stood for due process throughout my years as a prosecutor and in chairing the Judiciary Committee. I regret not doing that this time. The Ethics Committee should have been allowed to investigate and make its recommendation." Chris Cillizza, if I could go to you, that's two Democratic Senators now rethinking the forcing out of one of their colleagues.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND EDITOR-AT-LARGE: Yes, worth noting. Joe Manchin never called for Franken to resign, Leahy did. What's going on here, Jim, I think is relatively obvious. The reason there was a movement on Franken was another story came out but also last Tuesday, six days ago, was when the Roy Moore Alabama Special Election happened. And there was a belief, was wrong it turns out, but a belief among Democrats that Roy Moore was probably coming to the Senate. And this was a clearing of the deck's maneuver. John Conyers resigned, the Democrat from Michigan and Al Franken resigned.

And so it was an attempt I think to deal with the likelihood of Roy Moore and how to draw a very clear line between the two parties. One thing just by way of noting, a lot of Al Franken's Democratic colleagues, including a number of his female colleagues, not only called for him to resign then because of the allegations but have not rescinded it. So yes Joe Manchin, yes Pat Leahy, but, remember, there are 48 of them, 49 with Doug Jones. And you have not heard from most of them. I think the cake here is baked whether or not they like it.

SCIUTTO: Well, let's -- I mean, notable that's two male senators, shall we note, who are saying, look, let's rethink this. We haven't heard that from Gillibrand or others. And I'm joined by three smart women here. Do you think there should be any rethinking of it?

KIRSTEN POWERS, COLUMNIST, USA TODAY: No, there should not be any rethinking of it. And I also -- I have a different you know, reporting than what Chris just said, which is that the -- this was not just something in response to Roy Moore, this was something that had been bubbling up for a while. The female Senators were very frustrated that he wasn't stepping down. They believe the women. But even if it was because of Roy Moore, he was held accountable. So now how would it be good for the Democrats to not hold their own person accountable? That math just doesn't really work, you know? So I think like, for them to turn around and say, oh, now that -- I just -- I can't even follow that.

SCIUTTO: Well, I should note, the highest ranking Democratic Senator, female Senator Patty Murray has said she has no second thoughts about this.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes, that's right. But -- and to see Leahy's statement is so striking because it wasn't that long ago that he was saying he should step aside. So what changed in between saying that Franken should step aside and saying, oh, I'm not so sure, I should have given him more due process. And then Manchin, on the other hand, is saying that he believes women should come forward when they've been sexual assaulted or harassed, but then he's saying that he doesn't believe he should have resigned. You can't have it both ways. You can't say women should come forward with credible accusations against powerful men, lawmakers, and then say that also that Al Franken, someone who there was a photo of him groping a woman shouldn't have resigned.

POWERS: Due process -- due process --

COLLINS: That's why people don't like Washington because it's very hypocritical.

POWERS: Due process is for courts. We really need to get this through to people. Due process, you do not get due process when you are chronically late for work and they fire you. You know -- and that's -- and that's we have to look at this. So people say we'll let the punishment for the crime --

SCIUTTO: There is no due process in a corporate environment.

POWERS: Right, yes. In an environment that your boss looks at the evidence and decides whether it's credible. We have a bunch of women, mostly Democrats, making these accusations. So there's no political motivation. They are eminently credible. They don't get to cross- examine them.

COLLINS: And if a regular person would get fired for sexually assaulting someone, a lawmaker should not be able to continue to have their job and be held to a different --

SCIUTTO: Alice, please.

ALICE STEWART, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: (INAUDIBLE) certainly be held to a higher standard. Fortunately what we're hearing from Manchin and Leahy are two voices with a chorus of voices saying enough is enough. And for Franken to come out and say some of these stories aren't true, well, he's acknowledged that some of them are. One is too many. One admission in allegation of sexual harassment is enough for them to take a one-way ticket out or Washington.

SCIUTTO: Is there a danger here, Chris Cillizza, politically for the Democrat, less important than the personal situations of the women involved, but just politically because the Democrats clearly were trying to make a stand, right, claim the moral high ground in effect and say that we have no -- we're not wavering on this in advance of the Roy Moore vote in other things.

CILLIZZA: That's right.

SCIUTTO: But it looks like, in fact, there are divisions in the ranks.

CILLIZZA: Yes, politically speaking it makes no sense. It's essentially saying we took a stand. About that stand we took, you know what I mean? It's not -- you don't get credit for it if you're now going back on it. Again, it's odd to me politically, too, Jim, because this -- I feel pretty confident this isn't going to happen. Al Franken is not going to unresign. Tina Smith, the Lieutenant Governor who Mark Dayton picked in consultation with Al Franken who was hired two of Al Franken's top staffers is in Washington. I mean, like, this is already down the road. You can't pull that back in. And I will say, yes, Pat Leahy, yes, Joe Manchin. We have not heard Al Franken or anyone close to Al Franken says he wants to do this, though Alice makes the right point. In the speech he announced he was resigning, that was not an apology speech, not even close, but he has not said anything about this. So it feels a little bit like voices in the wilderness at the moment.

SCIUTTO: Yes, and he also did not name and since then has not named a date. Thanks very much to all of you. I appreciate it. He couldn't answer basic questions about the legal process. Now there is more fallout for one of President Trump's judicial nominees. That's right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:55:00] SCIUTTO: President Trump's controversial District Court Nominee has now pulled his name from consideration and in case you forget, here's why.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN NEELY KENNEDY (R), LOUISIANA: Have you ever tried a jury trial?

MATTHEW PETERSEN, DISTRICT JUDGE NOMINEE: I have not.

KENNEDY: Civil?

PETERSEN: No.

KENNEDY: Criminal?

PETERSEN: No.

KENNEDY: Bench?

PETERSEN: No.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: Matthew Petersen, the nominee at the center of this disastrous hearing went viral. In a letter to Trump, the President said he did not want to be a continued distraction and said that he had hope that my nearly two decades of public service would carry more weight than my worst two minutes on television. Be sure to follow me on Twitter and on Facebook @JIMSCIUTTO or tweet the show here @THELEADCNN. That is it for THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto in for Jake Tapper. I turn you over now to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM."