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New Book Highlights White House Dysfunction; Trump Attorney Sends Bannon Cease-And-Desist Letter; Manafort Sues DOJ, Mueller Over Russia Probe Authority; Attorney General Ends Policy Not To Interfere With State Pot Laws. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired January 4, 2018 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:00] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: There's news on the Russia investigation, news on the chaos that enveloped the West Wing. Pretty stunning observations attributed to senior advisers to the president about his disposition and his memory, and infantilizing the president saying he is, quote, "like a child."

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Remember, this is on top of quotes yesterday that enraged the president from Steve Bannon, going after the president's family, calling meetings between Donald Trump, Jr. and Russians unpatriotic and treasonous.

Well, today, this morning the president's former chief strategist seen maybe to be trying to repair some of that damage.


STEVE BANNON, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF STRATEGIST: By the way, nothing will ever come between us and President Trump and his agenda. Don't worry about that.


BERMAN: There you heard it right there.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins at the White House.

Every hour that passes we get more from Michael Wolff about his time in the White House, these new revelations about how things operated or frankly didn't inside the West Wing -- Kaitlan.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right. This book has not even been published yet, John and Poppy, and it's continuing to dominate the news cycle with more excerpts coming out this morning including one about Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump trying to save themselves only six months in to the administration with one quote from Bannon quoted by Michael Wolff saying, "The daughter will bring down the father."

As you know, Bannon and Ivanka Trump were part of two very different factions in the early days here in the West Wing, with Bannon spearheading the more nationalist group and Ivanka Trump being part of the more global minded group. But, John and Poppy, we are really seeing the fallout continue to

happen with the excerpts released in this book with the president's lawyers sending a cease and desist letter overnight to Steve Bannon telling him to stop making defamatory comments about the president and about his family after he was quoted saying that what he thought Donald Trump Jr. taking that meeting along with Jared Kushner was treasonous.

And the president is furious about this and, although time and time again, and when he's fired people he managed to stay in contact with them, my sources tell me that yesterday the president spent the day telling people privately that he was done with Steve Bannon this time around. And even though he put up that statement saying that Steve Bannon lost his mind when he lost his job here at the White House and really seeking to downplay any role that Steve Bannon had in this White House, he was his campaign manager and he was his chief strategist, and above that, he was also one of the president's top political allies here in the White House.

So we have not heard from the president on this book yet today, and right now on his schedule, there are no public events. We'll be waiting to see if any of those open up to the president, if he will make a comment about this.

But for right now, John and Poppy, we are continuing to see the fallout from this book about the relationships inside the West Wing.

HARLOW: It is stunning. And as you said, the book isn't even out yet.

Kaitlan Collins at the White House. Thank you very much.

Here with us, Bill Kristol, editor of the "Weekly Standard," Patrick Healy, CNN political analyst and deputy culture editor at the "New York Times," and CNN political analyst and the author of the book on Bannon, "Devil's Bargain," Josh Green.

So, gentlemen, it's just incredible how much there is to talk about despite, I don't know, I certainly don't have my hands on the book yet. Very few people have gotten to read it.

Josh, let's begin with you and this sort of agreement, it seems, according to Michael Wolff's reporting that the president was, quote, "like a child." Michael Wolff writes, "He was in words used by almost every member of his senior staff on repeated occasions like a child." This from someone who sat on the couch in the West Wing for nearly a year observing this.

JOSH GREEN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I mean, look, what Wolff reports in the book as far as, you know, how senior staffers view Trump's temperament and intellect and capability is pretty consistent with the sorts of things that White House officials say to reporters off the record all the time. The difference here is that Wolff has put this on the record and, you know, and included it in an explosive book that really bends over backwards to present Trump as an imbecile. And if there's one way to guarantee a negative reaction from Trump and

a positive reaction for your book it's to offer that kind of portrayal.


GREEN: To poke the bear and watch him respond on Twitter or in Trump's case in a statement yesterday.

BERMAN: You know, Bill Kristol, you have been a senior staffer inside a White House. I know every employee likes to complain about their boss, except for me of course.

HARLOW: I don't.

BERMAN: My boss is terrific.

HARLOW: He does.

BERMAN: But, Bill Kristol, when you hear Sam Nunberg, who worked on the campaign briefly, he's been an adviser to the president for a long time, say the president, quote, "He's just a blanking fool," except blanking begins with an F in this case. They just demean the intellectual capacity of this president time and time again, in some cases on the record in quotation marks there. This is not something you see typically in politics.

[09:05:07] BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: No, you certainly don't. It's an unusual moment for this president and this White House. But, you know, Josh Green mentioned the -- and I should recommend his book, which is available even if, you can buy me lunch after this.

GREEN: Of course.

KRISTOL: Even though Michael Wolff's isn't yet, but it's a good book on Bannon. But what strikes me is this. Trump didn't just respond by attacking Bannon, he had his lawyers sent a cease and desist letter to Bannon.


KRISTOL: Citing the non-disclosure agreement that they all kind of signed during the campaign. Bannon obviously is somebody who talked to Wolff. That was designed to intimidate others. But I think from coming forward. And it strikes me as a real sense of Trump's panic. I mean, you know, maybe he's just the kind of guy who likes to call up his personal lawyer.

Think of that, though, the president of the United States, who calls his personal lawyer -- I don't think the White House counsel even know about this. Did John Kelly know about this? Is it appropriate for the president of the United States to be ordering his personal lawyer to send cease and desist letters to people who are talking about matters of public interests and matters that are some of which happened while they were working at the White House, around the transition which is of course publicly (INAUDIBLE) out of presidential campaign.

But anyway, think how panicked -- what does it show about Trump's mindset? Not just that he's angry at Bannon. I think he is panicked. What was the thing that panicked him? Bannon saying the Russia investigation may well come up with something.

HARLOW: Right. It's a great point, Bill.

So, Patrick, to Bill's point about the cease and desist, I know your colleagues at the "Times" this morning point out very aptly that the argument here for the cease and desist letter from the president's lawyers is, well, you signed a nondisclosure agreement, you can't say this stuff, but then the president saying all of this is BS, none of this is true. So which is it? It can't be both.

PATRICK HEALY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. It's sort of a problem for the president because we spent the last year hearing and use the words, no collusion, no collusion, no collusion, and you have this devastating quote from Steve Bannon basically saying that it's hard to imagine that Don Junior and Jared didn't bring the Russians up to the 26th floor to see Donald Trump. Directly contradict the supposition of what Steve Bannon is saying, directly contradicts what Trump has been saying for the last year.

So the fact that he's not disputing facts, but -- the president is not disputing facts, but sending a lawyer in to basically say shut up Steve Bannon, I don't want you to say anymore things really sort of suggests what does Steve Bannon know.

BERMAN: You know, Steve Bannon didn't shut up this morning, Josh Green.


BERMAN: But didn't exactly say the same types of things that are being quoted by Michael Wolff either. Steve Bannon went on the radio this morning, did it last night also, to say how much his agenda and the president's agenda coincide.

What is he playing at here, Josh? Why would he say that on the one hand and then say these other things about the Trump family, the Trump kids?

GREEN: You know, well, you're right. I mean, Bannon is almost impossible to shut up. I think what Steve Bannon is doing this morning coming out and kind of abasing himself before Trump is essentially plea bargaining for his political reputation and to maintain some shred of influence over Republican politics.

I am sure somewhere in his mind is the awareness that while Trump often throws advisers overboard it's not at all uncommon for him to come back, make up for them later on and bring them back into his inner circle. We've seen that with Corey Lewandowski, we've seen that with Paul Manafort.

You know, a milder version of this happened with Steve Bannon after my book came out. He was sort of out but then he was back in. And so Bannon may be thinking a few steps ahead saying look I can recover from this. He's going to need me some day.

HARLOW: What strikes me, Bill Kristol, is all of the things and we've only touched the surface of what is in this article this morning. A lot of these folks -- some of them are still there. Kellyanne Conway is still there, right. A lot of folks are still there, and they stuck around. They didn't -- they didn't just leave one month in, most of them.

So what does this say about the staffers at the White House, who say this on the record about the president, he's like a child, et cetera, talk about his demeanor in this way but then stick around and go on cable television and defend him to the end?

KRISTOL: Well, let's see if they deny the actual direct quotations that Wolff ascribes to them, and maybe Wolff is getting things wrong, he's been told things by third parties that aren't correct. Let's see what Kellyanne Conway and others who are still there, others who've been there, they're trying to be maintain a good relationship with the Trump White House because they want for various political reasons and maybe financial reasons.

They want to be considered confidants to the president but let's see what Reince Priebus says, let's just see what Kellyanne Conway says. Let's see what Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump say. I mean, I think it's totally legitimate to ask all of them now, OK, is this account of the conversation that's now been put in a book --


KRISTOL: -- by a reputable reporter, is it true or not?

BERMAN: You know, it is interesting, though, when you're talking about people who work for the president, Rex Tillerson also, you know, Michael Wolff mentions Rex Tillerson who hasn't denied calling the president a moron. You know, as far as we know, that happened. The secretary of State said that about the president of the United States. And then you have these things said inside this article.

Look, maybe someone will deny all of it, there's a lot in there, Patrick Healy. But again, I just wonder what it does perhaps to the president, what it does to peoples' faith in the president, what does Congress think about this when they look up there and say, all these people inside the White House are telling this reporter lurking that the president is an idiot?

[09:10:14] HEALY: Well, let's be honest, John. I think a lot of members of Congress have President Trump's number. They have been in meetings with him, where they have tried to talk about policy details on health care, on tax reform, and the president as we know goes very broad. He likes to talk about his polling numbers, he likes to talk about how great he is, you know, what his leadership is.

I think a lot of members of Congress, a lot of people know that this isn't someone who likes to delve into sort of the intellectual nuances, you know, here. But I mean, the question, I think, but to your point, for a lot of people is how much does this destabilize his credibility and the presidency? And I think you're going to start seeing as we saw last night from the Republican National Committee a real attack on Michael Wolff as someone who makes things up or someone who gets things wrong. You're going to -- that is their play.

HARLOW: It is.

BERMAN: You know, in this book, I mean there's no --


BERMAN: In this book, there's a lot of mistakes that people found already in this book.

HARLOW: Yes. There are some things that he pointed out about CNN's reporting that we know to be false so that he doesn't know John Boehner when he's golfed with John Boehner. It's a fair point.

HEALY: Right.

HARLOW: Let me just ask you, Josh, though, you know, if this is a crisis for the White House, then it is in part at least a crisis of its own making by inviting, welcoming Michael Wolff inside.


HARLOW: Michael Wolff calls the president after the election, I want to come, I want to write a book, can I come? Sure. And he sat on a couch in the West Wing for almost a year.

GREEN: Yes -- no, it is an absolute indictment of the political judgment, not just to Steve Bannon and Donald Trump, but everybody in the West Wing of the White House who cooperated with this book. And according to Wolff and according to people I've talked to, it literally was almost every senior official talked to Wolff, so they are all complicit in this humiliating disaster.

BERMAN: Bill Kristol, as you look at this, again, and I'm talking to someone who had worked, you know, inside the Bush -- the first Bush administration. You've seen the inner workings of a White House before. You're also someone who's been very critical of Donald Trump for a long, long time, Bill.

You know, what does this book now mean, all these revelations now mean? And I put revelations in quotation marks, you believe the ones you want to believe, some things, you know, no one is denying. But what do you take away from it? Is anything different today than it was yesterday?

KRISTOL: Yes, you know, there were tell-all books, and how I think about it in the first Bush White House, I think Bob Woodward wrote one, and people ripped at the people that talked to him, background and he had certain quotes from meetings and stuff. But nothing like this, obviously. I mean, what I take away from it is that an awful lot of people who have been close to Donald Trump have a certain amount of contempt for him, and that really is different from any I think White House that I know of.

BERMAN: All right. Bill, Patrick, Josh, thank you all so much.

Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, we just heard it, praising the president even after his former boss said that he has, quote, "lost his mind." And receiving a cease and desist lawyer from the president's personal lawyer.

Well, I want to talk about the legal fallout here because there are some interesting questions.

HARLOW: Also, they are calling it a bomb cyclone. Seriously, that is apparently the technical name for this huge winter storm up and down the East Coast. Millions of Americans in that path. We'll have the forecast for you in what's happening right now.


[09:17:07] HARLOW: Welcome. The president's personal lawyer has sent a cease and desist letter to the president's former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, demanding he stop making disparaging comments threatening imminent legal action.

Joining us now CNN legal and national security analyst, Asha Rangappa. So, Asha, to that point, you know, this is cease and desist saying don't say this stuff. But here is some of the twist to it, right, as "Politico" notes, the White House cannot simultaneously argue that the book is completely incorrect, and Bannon violated a nondisclosure agreement. If he violated a nondisclosure statement, something he said was right. Legally speaking, is that true?

ASHA RANGAPPA, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: That's true. There's actually a couple problematic issues here. So, first, the cease-and-desist letter is coming a little too late. This book is going to come out, and at that point, they can sue for defamation or something if there's anything inaccurate.

But as you mention, if they are basing it on a nondisclosure agreement then they are essentially conceding that some of these things are true. I think there's actually a question on whether the White House can have government employees, former government employees actually sign nondisclosure agreements about their time there.

I mean, they can make them promise not to reveal classified information, for example, but there are whistle-blower statutes and a lot of rights that you have as a government employee to be able to discuss things that have happened. So, nondisclosure agreements, while normal in companies and private settings are not typical for government employees.

BERMAN: Yes. It appears this was either the campaign or the Trump organization going back to the White House, and it's unclear if it would go all the way into his months at the White House as well. Does this serve any legal purpose, Asha, other than to try to flex your muscles and vent your anger and try to intimidate other people from saying anything? RANGAPPA: I think it's mostly symbolic to say, yes, to flex some muscle. You know, this is not a path that I would think the White House, and particularly the president, would want to go down.

If you actually went down the path of a lawsuit and particularly one that might include something like defamation, the defense to defamation is truth, which means that then, you know, Bannon would able to say here's why everything I said was true, and more importantly it would subject people in the White House to depositions, potentially including Trump himself. I don't think he wants to testify.

HARLOW: Which are taped, yes, videoed. Let's move on to Paul Manafort, also someone who ran the president's campaign for a stint, suing the special counsel, Bob Mueller, basically saying you're way outside of purview here. I'm bringing this indictment against me, et cetera, et cetera. Any merits to this lawsuit?

[09:20:07] RANGAPPA: This lawsuit is very bizarre. It does not seem to have any legal legs at all. So, first of all, this is a civil lawsuit. This isn't something that's being filed in the criminal case as a motion to dismiss, which on its face is a little odd.

But secondly, what the lawsuit is alleging -- what Manafort is alleging is that essentially the appointment letter that Rosenstein wrote giving Mueller authorization to conduct this investigation, that one portion of it is too broad, it doesn't specify -- it doesn't limit his scope.

And that this, essentially, makes many of the crimes he was indicted on outside of his scope. The problem here is that these special counsel regulations actually build in a mechanism for Mueller to go and get authorization to expand the scope of his investigation.

And Rosenstein testified several weeks ago that he had blessed every part of this investigation. So, I don't think a court is going to second guess those kinds --

BERMAN: And one other interesting part here which is that there have been legal analysts, who have noted that what Manafort and his team may have done is open up themselves up to Robert Mueller and his team writing a legal response to this explaining in great detail why their charges fit inside the Russia investigation, and maybe they would do it in such a way that the White House would not be too happy about either.

RANGAPPA: That's right. So, there's two ways this can back fire. One is that if the court basically throws this out, they essentially strengthened Mueller's position, that he is authorized to do all the things and the red line Trump has been saying is not one that exists.

To your point, John, I think that's a great way to look at it, which is that actually Mueller's criminal case is very narrow, he can only layout the facts that fit into specific crimes.

In this civil lawsuit, if he wants to layout the big picture and why these are all connected to his mandate to investigate links to Russia and coordination, even if they don't rise to the criminal level, he can now put out the full story if he wants to.

I mean, obviously, there are sensitive methods and sources he may not, but it does open the door for that. It's a vehicle that could really back fire in a couple different ways for Manafort and the administration.

HARLOW: Asha, thank you for the expertise. We appreciate it.

Our panel is back, Josh Green, Patrick Healy, and Bill Kristol. Guys, thank you for being back with us. Just on this lawsuit and the strategy here, Josh, what is your overall read? The president has threatened -- there's a few lawsuits this morning, but the president threatened to sue people that said negative things about him (inaudible) over and over and over again, and just it hasn't happened.

GREEN: My read is that there's not a lot of strategy here. As Asha pointed out, if Trump were to sue, it would open Trump up to discovery and the press and his enemies would have an absolute field day going through the particulars of what crazy things Trump did and did not say in Wolff's book.

So, I don't imagine this is going to happen. Trump has a long history of threatening legal action. It's kind of one of his default moves when he's under attack, but I don't think his thought through or his lawyers have thought through what the second and third steps are going to be in this process.

BERMAN: If we can shift gears --

KRISTOL: I totally agree with that. I think there's more -- I mean, he's trying to intimate people. I edited magazines for 20 years. If you get a lawyer's letter, you think twice about pursuing something you were going to pursue.

Maybe you don't go follow-up on a story, and if you are a young person that worked on the Trump campaign and you think I have stuff I would like to talk about, but I signed that agreement, I can't --

GREEN: You don't think he will follow-through on the lawsuit against Bannon and --

KRISTOL: Who cares? If he intimidates people from coming forward, that's what he's trying to do. I don't think it's going to work. I think it's very important that lawyers step forward and say we will represent somebody who presents information to the public, but I wouldn't underestimate -- Trump is a bully and is trying to intimidate.

GREEN: I don't think he would follow-through on suing Bannon and opening himself up to that kind of discovery.

HEALY: Everybody is trying to get an interview with Steve Bannon, and there will be tons of questions for days and weeks and it's a shot across the back. BERMAN: One question on Steve Bannon before we go. Does he have any political legs left? If you are a candidate and you get a call from Steve Bannon saying I think you should run in this state, you will hang up the phone or take the call? What would you do?

[09:25:01] HEALY: He absolutely has political legs. He still has a Breitbart constituency that is real and very similar to the Trump base, and as much as different parts of America see President Trump's credibility and truthfulness, the base is still with him.

And a lot of people still feel like Steve Bannon speaks for them and to them particularly some of the sort of economically deprived and frustrated people, and him going to war with Trump is something a lot of sides can dismiss and think it's media noise and will stick with Bannon.

BERMAN: All right. Patrick Healy, Josh Green, Bill Kristol, Gentlemen, thank you all very much.

We have some breaking news. Attorney General Jeff Sessions expected to reverse an Obama era rule. CNN's Laura Jarrett on the phone with the details on this. Laura, what is going on?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER (voice-over): John, Poppy, well, this is a significant shift that is going to happen later today I am told by a source with knowledge (inaudible) says he was in the works on this for quite a while. We have been watching it and waiting to see what will happen.

And what is now going to happen, we have learned, later today he is going to reverse some Obama administration memos that essentially adopted a policy of noninterference with marijuana-friendly states.

This happened because so many states are legalizing its use, and it's still illegal under federal law, and so under the Holder era, what they did is as long as you are not selling to kids or anything like that, we will essentially have a hands-off approach, and Sessions is going to reverse that entirely today.

What we don't yet know is if he is going to issue something new in its place or going to revert back to the legal uncertainty that kind of puts this federal and state law in conflict, so that's the big looming question here. This is a huge monumental shift and probably one of the more important decisions that was on the attorney general's plate.

HARLOW: Laura Jarrett, thank you for the reporting. What is so interesting is federally it's still illegal, so they have big banking issues. What do you do with all the money, the revenue? The states were handling that --

BERMAN: This will send states into a tizzy, perhaps, and including in California, it would be a real issue. Jeff Sessions, a fierce opponent of marijuana for some reason for a long, long time.

HARLOW: Another reversal of an Obama era rule. All right, Laura, thank you. All right. We are moments away from the opening bell on Wall Street. Stocks are set to open higher. Will this be the Dow 25,000 day? Christine Romans knows and will tell us next.