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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER
Democratic Senator Warns President Trump Against Abuse of Power. Aired 4:30-5p ET
Aired December 20, 2017 - 16:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JOSH HOLMES, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: We found out that some low-level campaign staffers had testified fraudulently in front of the FBI.
We have convicted them. We have sent them away. But we have yet to prove with any evidence that the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia.
And so, from their standpoint, when does this all end? At what point? How much testimony? How many lawyers do you need to hire? How many times do you have to go in and talk to Mueller, and all of the investigators about what happened, when there is no evidence to suggest that anything did?
JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Well, just to push back a little bit, the national security adviser, Michael Flynn, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russians. That's not nothing.
And the investigation is still ongoing. Maybe they will prove collusion, maybe they won't.
HOLMES: Sure. I think that's absolutely right.
But you have to look at the context of it. What he did is during the transition pled guilty to misrepresenting to both to the FBI, to the vice president, the entire White House about his comments and his discussions with the Russian government. OK. We got that.
It has nothing to do with the premise of this investigation in the House, the Senate or the special counsel. And at some point, they're going to have to come up with something that suggests that there is fire there where there is smoke, or else we're waiting a lot of time and a lot of energy on an investigation here.
MAEVE RESTON, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I mean, I think what is clear to everyone is that, you know...
TAPPER: Maeve, I'm sorry. We're going to come back to you.
But, right now, the Senate Democratic leader of the Intelligence Committee is giving a speech about the Russia investigation. Let's listen in.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)
SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: ... to shut down special counsel Mueller's investigation.
At first, these calls came from the fringes of our political discourse, those who would refuse to put our country and our security before base political instincts.
Earlier this year, many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle were right to push back on these misdirected calls and urge that the special counsel be allowed to do his job without interference.
However, in recent weeks, those voices seem to be growing in stridency and in volume.
Just this weekend, one major news organization suggested that special counsel Mueller could be involved in a coup against the president. One senior adviser at the White House has now outrageously alleged that the fix was in against Donald Trump from the beginning.
Those statements are reckless. They are inappropriate. And they are extremely worrying. They are at odds with the president's own lawyers, who have pledged to cooperate with the special counsel.
Beyond being irresponsible, the seemingly coordinated nature of these claims should alarm us all, particularly since in recent days these baseless accusations have been repeated by several members of the House of Representatives.
I believe it is up to every member of this institution, Republican or Democrat, to make a clear and unambiguous statement that any attempt by this president to remove special counsel Mueller from his position or to pardon key witnesses in any effort to shield them from accountability or shut down the investigation would be a gross abuse of power and a flagrant violation of executive branch responsibilities and authorities.
These truly are red lines, and simply cannot allow them to be crossed.
Let's take a moment and remember why special counsel Mueller was appointed in the first place and why it remains so critical that he be permitted to finish his job without obstruction.
Recall last spring. We were all reeling from a series of confounding actions by this president, beginning with the firing of FBI Director Jim Comey on May 9. Mr. Comey was fired just two months after publicly revealing the FBI's ongoing investigation of the Trump campaign, and, as we'd find out later, after several attempts by this president to improperly influence Director Comey.
Try to put yourself back into those dangerous days. Director Comey's dismissal was met with confusion and widespread condemnation. We needed a stabilizing action from our nation's law enforcement leadership. We needed some certainty that the facts would be found and brought to light, regardless of what they were.
Eight days after Mr. Comey's firing, Trump appointee and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller to oversee the investigation into -- quote -- "any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump" and -- quote -- "any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation."
His appointment reassured Americans that there will be a full and thorough law enforcement investigation. The announcement was met with support on both sides of the aisle and received nearly universal praise.
In fact, many of the same people who are attacking him today praised Mr. Mueller's appointment just months ago. Indeed, there is much to praise. The fact is that Robert Mueller has impeccable credentials as a man of the law. He's assembled a team that includes some of the nation's best investigators and he is leading the investigation with the professionalism it deserves.
Mr. Mueller is a dedicated Vietnam War veteran and a lifelong Republican appointed to his current role by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, also a Republican. In fact, all of the major players to date in this investigation, former Director Comey, current FBI Director Wray, Rosenstein, and even Attorney General Sessions, who has had to recuse himself, are all Republicans.
The charges, the charges that some have made that somehow Democratic political bias have crept into this investigation are baseless, given the makeup of the leadership team.
In recent weeks, much has been made of some political opinions expressed by an FBI agent during the election last year. This specious line of argument conveniently ignores the fact that, as soon as Mr. Mueller learned about these comments, he immediately removed that agent in question from the investigation.
If anything, this incident only adds to Mr. Mueller's credibility as a fair and independent investigator.
Mr. President, I stand here as the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. We are in the midst of our own investigation into Russian incursion. And I'm proud of the way that Chairman Burr and our committee has taken on this very difficult task.
We have made tremendous progress uncovering the facts of Russian interference in our elections. Our committee's work helped expose the dark underbelly of disinformation on many of our social media platforms. We have successfully pressed for the full accounting of Russian cyber-efforts to target our state electoral systems.
And despite the initial denials of any Russian contacts during the election, this committee's efforts have helped uncover numerous and troubling high-level engagements between the Trump campaign and Russian affiliates, many of which have only been revealed in recent months. We have got a lot of work to do yet, but our committee has gone out of
its way to ensure a continued bipartisan backing for this effort. And I'm committed to seeing the effort through.
However, it should be very clear that our committee cannot and will not stand as a substitute for Mr. Mueller's investigation. As Chairman Burr and I have noted on numerous occasions, the FBI is responsible for determining any criminal activities related to this inquiry.
As such, Mueller has already moved to indict two individuals and has negotiated two additional guilty pleas. There is an investigative path -- this is an investigative path reserved solely for law enforcement. And it is essential that it be permitted to go on unimpeded.
The country no doubt remains severely divided on the question of the last election. However, the national security threat facing us today should demand that we rise above partisan differences. No matter the political divide, surely each of us and all Americans should want to know the truth of what happened during last year's election.
And, no doubt, we all want know that as quickly as possible.
Now, the president has long called the investigation into the Russian meddling into the 2016 election a witch-hunt. And he's done much to discredit the intelligence community's unanimous assessment of Russian interference in our election.
The failure of this White House to lead a whole-of-government approach to prevent this type of election interference in the future, either by the Russians or some other adversary, defies understanding.
The president's refusal to accept the intelligence community's assessment and his blatant disregard for ensuring that Russia never again infiltrates our election process has been unnerving and cause for significant concern.
In recent days, the president said he is not considering removing special counsel Mueller. But the president's track record on this front is a source of concern. I'm certain that most of my colleagues believed that he wouldn't fire Jim Comey either.
Firing Mr. Mueller or any other of the top brass involved in this investigation would not only call into question this administration's commitment to the truth, but also to our most basic concept, rule of law.
It also has the potential to provoke a constitutional crisis. In the United States of America, no one, no one is above the law, not even the president.
Congress must make clear to the president that firing the special counsel or interfering with his investigation by issuing pardons of essential witnesses is unacceptable and would have immediate and significant consequences.
I hope my concerns are unfounded. In many ways, I hoped I would never have to make this kind of speech. But there are troubling signs. It is critical that all of us, as elected officials and as citizens, speak up against these threats now before it's too late.
Thank you, Mr. President. With that, I yield the floor and note the absence of a quorum.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The clerk will call the roll.
TAPPER: That was Democratic Senator Mark Warner of the Commonwealth of Virginia. He's the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. He was talking about the growing chorus of irresponsible and reckless voices calling for President Trump to fire special counsel Robert Mueller.
He said it was extremely worrying. He said such an action by President Trump to get the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, to fire Bob Mueller would provoke a constitutional crisis. And he was hoping his colleagues would join him in condemning and cautioning the White House not to take any such action.
My panel is with me.
And, obviously, he's concerned. We have heard rumors and whispers, no proof, and the White House said there are no plans to fire Bob Mueller, but there you hear from Mark Warner, the top Democrat, that he's concerned about it.
JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, and many, many Democrats and probably Republicans are concerned, too. That is the big buzz on Capitol Hill right now.
I would say what he said in the beginning is almost the most important point, which is that there has been an orchestrated campaign by some in the right-wing media, he didn't name names, it was FOX News he was referring to, and others who have tried to just and lay the groundwork for Mueller being fired.
Does that mean it's going to happen tomorrow, as was rumored? Maybe not. Does that mean it could happen in a week or two? Sure. And even it could be nine months from now. And part of this is laying the groundwork for, if Democrats possibly retake the House in 2018, what do the politics look like for impeachment and what does the political environment look like?
And is there going to be enough of a stable of people who are supporting Trump and supporting the Republicans at that point in time? But what he was trying to do is lay the groundwork and put the marker down before Christmas, which many Democrats have been trying to figure out how to do.
RESTON: But to that point, exactly, I was talking to a Republican who is close to Trump, and who was saying that a lot of Republicans have been saying to Trump, this is not a good idea for people to be out there talking about this, in part because of the midterms.
I mean, if Trump were to orchestrate that kind of a Saturday Night Massacre, you think about the midterm elections next year. He would lose. There is no way that they could -- the Republicans could capture the middle.
I mean, there would be so many voters who would be angry that, you know, that the -- that they weren't allowed to finish their work and would feel like Trump was trying to protect members of his family and all of that.
There is just -- there is no way that that would be a good political calculation. I think what they -- Republicans are most worried about, though, is as, you know, the probe closes in on Don Jr., everyone feels like it's very unpredictable about what Trump would do to save his son.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Everyone stick around. We've got lots more to talk about. Republican Senator Jeff Flake is going to join us to weigh in on this stark warning from Senator Warner about the impact firing Mueller would have and Senator Flake has his own concerns about DACA. Stick with us.
TAPPER: We're back with more politics. Moments ago we heard Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee draw a line about the President ordering the firing of Special Counsel Bob Mueller. Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona joins me now to discuss this and much more. Senator, let me ask you, what would you do if President Trump had Mueller fired? Would it be grounds for impeachment in your view? What steps would you take?
[16:50:15] SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: Well, first, I don't think he will fire Bob Mueller. He said the other day that he wasn't contemplating that. Now, what I've been concerned about is the casual undermining of Bob Mueller and the FBI, so with the Special Counsel and the FBI. So I'm concerned about that as well and not just a firing. You know, a firing would provoke certainly action here on Capitol Hill. I don't want to say what that would be, but obviously, that's something that we don't want to see.
TAPPER: Today you said that you received a commitment from the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that there will be a vote in January on DACA, that is the DREAMers, the kids that were brought to this country illegally when they were children through no fault of their own and a path to some sort of legal status for them. President Trump seems to have a long wish list of demands to make on a deal on the DREAMers. He's called for border wall funding, a crackdown on unaccompanied minors entering the U.S. as part of the agreement. Does the President insisting on these other provisions violate the commitment you got?
FLAKE: All of us, the bipartisan group that is negotiating this DACA fix recognizes that additional border security elements will be in this package. But, yes, we can go too far. For example, take something like chain migration. That's something we dealt with in the gang of eight bill, in the comprehensive bill that we did, but with regard to the DREAMers, we'll deal with it only as it pertains to those kids. So a lot of these issues are for another time. We'd like to get back to comprehensive immigration reform but this isn't the place for it.
TAPPER: How close were you to voting against the tax bill until you got an ultimate commitment on voting for this DACA provision?
FLAKE: Well, I got the commitment just a few hours before the vote. I obviously have been pushing for corporate tax cuts and overall tax reform for years, and so I wanted to support this package. But obviously, if you have some leverage you want to do some other things that need to be done as well. I've argued that if we're going to have the economic growth that we think we're going to have with this tax bill, we're going to need a workforce, and that means to deal with immigration reform. And if we can't do the easy lift, which is the DACA element, then we'll never get to the other parts that we need to do. So I thought it was appropriate to leverage support for the bill on the DACA thing. And boy, these kids have been through enough. We've been putting off dealing with this issue for far too long.
TAPPER: You aren't running for re-election next year you say because you think your party is in the middle of what you call a fever. Are you worried that the Republican candidate running for your seat, Kelly Ward, is another Roy Moore? A nationalist, a polarizing candidate who if nominated will ultimately deliver a Republican state to the Democrats and the U.S. Senate?
FLAKE: I'm very concerned that we run candidates that will win a primary but can't win a general. And somebody who takes extreme positions on a number of issues won't win statewide in Arizona. So I am concerned about the seat. I concluded in the end that a Republican like me, you know, maybe can't win in a party like this right now/. But I think it's going to be tough for anybody who just down the line accepts the President's positions or endorses Roy Moore, as Kelly Ward did. That's going to make it difficult to win an election in Arizona.
TAPPER: Do you think a Democratic wave is coming?
FLAKE: You know, if you look at Virginia and what happened there and Alabama, if you have a Democrat winning in a deep red state, you've got to think that we've got to change course. You know, we did the autopsy after the Mitt Romney loss and figured that we've got to appeal to a broader electorate. And you can have blips along the way and maybe have one election cycle that is, you know, an aberration, but long-term we've got to appeal to a broader electorate. And I don't think that we're doing that very well. So I am concerned.
TAPPER: Senator Jeff Flake, it's always good to have you on the show. Thank you, sir.
FLAKE: Thanks for having me on.
TAPPER: My panel is back with me. Let's talk about this, Josh because obviously, you have an interest in preserving the Republican majority. And one of the ways that your group wants to do that is to -- by nominating -- by nominating moderate mainstream conservatives, but people not like Roy Moore. What do you think about what Senator Flake just had to say?
JOSH HOLMES, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, he's absolutely right. And that we have to have candidates that win statewide. I mean, this is one of the lessons the Republicans learned the hard way in 2010 and 2012 by throwing away very winnable Senate seats with candidates like Christine O'Donnell and Ken Buck and Todd Aken and Richard Murdoch and all this sort of cast of characters that could absolutely never win a statewide election, much less a Senate race. And we seemed to figure that out in '14 and '16 and start nominating you know, Corey Gardners of the world. You know, you see a Senate full of fresh, bright, young conservative faces as a result of the '14 and '16 election. And now we get Roy Moore which is sort of the Steve Bannon cause celeb to bring in faces like this. For goodness sake, this is somebody who is accused of child molestation. There's absolutely place in the Republican Party or anywhere in politics for something like that. So we've got to figure that out quick.
[16:55:47] TAPPER: And Maeve, you just heard Jeff Flake basically say he is concerned about a Democratic wave. Here's our new CNN polling on a hypothetical matchup between a Democrat and a Republican. 56 percent in this generic poll, 56 percent would vote for a Democrat, 38 percent would support a Republican. That is -- those are pretty staggering numbers. Now, it's just a generic poll, but when you get numbers like that, usually it means something is about to happen.
MAEVE RESTON, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: They are really staggering and I think the question is does President Trump understand that? The conservative Republicans that you're talking about in 23 districts in the midterms that were won by Hillary Clinton, will Donald Trump give them enough running room, you know, to attract those moderate voters? Will he get on board with bipartisan legislation potentially next year, whether it's, you know, an infrastructure bill or whether it's bipartisan immigration reform? He has to do something to attract more of the middle if the Republicans are going to hold on to the House and the Senate. And there are huge consequences for the President, as Jen was saying earlier. I mean, sometimes you wonder if he understands the gravity of the situation for himself, you know if you have Democratic control and potentially a huge discussion about impeachment.
TAPPER: Is Kelly Ward the new Roy Moore?
JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, she certainly doesn't have the same moral issues in terms of being a sexual predator. But, yes, I think the point is she is somebody who is out of the mainstream, even of most Republicans. There is a warning, too, to Democrats, which I think we've learned some of the lessons on from the recent races, but we need to find and nominate people who fit the district. There doesn't need to be a specific litmus test that everyone has to check the box or we can't nominate them. If we do that, we will not win back the House and there are certainly conditions that would allow us to win back the House. TAPPER: You're referring to like the purists, the Bernie Sanders wing
insisting that people be -- for instance, a lot of people -- when I interviewed Roy Davis -- the new Senator-elect from Alabama.
PSAKI: Yes, Doug Jones
TAPPER: Doug Jones. I'm sorry. I'm having a brain freeze. Doug Jones. When I interviewed Doug Jones on Sunday, he said he did not think it was important to talk about the sexual assault charges and sexual harassment charges against President Trump. That it was basically Republican talking points, that that had been litigated before the election and now it was time to look forward and move forward. And a lot of Democrats were very upset with Senator Jones.
HOLMES: Yes, I think you see it. This is a bipartisan problem, right? I mean, the extremes of both parties have begun to control the nominating process for big, big stakes majorities. And you've got to get away from that if you have any hope of competing nationwide. If Democrats want to compete outside the northeast, they certainly need to get out of that. And if Republicans want to continue to have a full breadth of opportunity in every state, not just the southeast, they need to do the same.
RESTON: Or in 2020. I mean, you think about the civil war within the Democratic Party right now, like, who are they going to nominate? Who can actually bring those two sides together, the Bernie Sanders wing and, you know, the folks who want a more moderate candidate? And I don't think that the party has answered that question yet.
TAPPER: And you talked about is President Trump going to give these vulnerable Republicans room to run?
TAPPER: One of the things you're saying is this -- a lot of these people, a lot of these Republicans that you're talking about needing room to run, they're going to have to distance themselves from President Trump because --
RESTON: And they're already doing that.
TAPPER: Yes, because as popular as he is in many parts of the country, he is very unpopular in New Jersey and New York and California.
RESTON: Or Colorado. Some of those upscale suburbs, you have a lot of women who are -- were angry about the way that he, you know, came out in support of Roy Moore and I think that you know, if he goes after people who challenge him the way he has in the past, that's not going to be a good outcome for the party.
TAPPER: Thanks a lot, everyone. Great job. Be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @JAKETAPPER or you can tweet the show @THELEADCNN. That's it for THE LEAD. I turn you over now to one Mr. Wolf Blitzer. He's right next door in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Thanks for watching.