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New Book Highlights White House Dysfunction; Trump Attorney Sends Bannon Cease-and-Desist Letter; Trump Dissolves Controversial Voter Fraud Commission. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired January 4, 2018 - 10:00   ET


[10:00:53] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Top of the hour, 10:00 a.m. Eastern. Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm John Berman. The phrase of the morning is you can't make this blank up. That is reportedly a quote from former press secretary Sean Spicer, became something of a mantra to him according to this new book, "Fire and Fury" by Michael Wolff. He reports what he says he saw inside the White House nearly a year inside the West Wing doing reporting. He says he saw White House that was aimless and clueless, beset by feuds and really with senior staffers mocking the president.

HARLOW: And remember, this is on top of those quotes yesterday attributed to Steve Bannon that left the president furious and disgusted, those words from the White House, going after the president's family, calling the meetings between Donald Trump, Jr., Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner and Russians unpatriotic and treasonous. Today, the president's former chief strategist is clearly trying to mend fences. Listen.


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.


HARLOW: Kaitlan Collins is at the White House. I'm not so sure the president sees it that way, but what else can you tell us?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes, especially after the president issued a very lengthy statement yesterday saying that Steve Bannon had lost his mind. But Poppy and John, these excerpts are continuing to dominate the news cycle and this book has not even been published yet with more coming out this morning including one where Michael Wolff writes that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump had not only two of the top aides to the president here in the White House but his very own family, were trying to distance themselves from the president just six months in to the administration in trying to save themselves from them. And Michael Wolff quotes Steve Bannon at one point saying, "The daughter will bring down the father." Now as you've known, Steve Bannon and Ivanka Trump were on two different sides in those warring factions that we saw in the early days of this White House with Steve Bannon spearheading the more nationalist type group and Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, Gary Cohn, being part of the more global-minded group. But you're continuing to see just what the level of animosity was between the staffers here in the White House in the early days of the administration.

BERMAN: Kaitlan, we're also learning that the president is trying to take actions through a private attorney to get -- to try to get this to stop, cease-and-desist letters, not just to Steve Bannon now but others as well.

COLLINS: Yes. That's right. A familiar action by the president when something is said about him that he doesn't like, but overnight his lawyers did send Steve Bannon a cease-and-desist letter telling him to stop making defamatory statements about the president and his family because as you both know the president was furious yesterday after it was revealed that Steve Bannon had said he believed that meeting that Donald Trump, Jr. and Jared Kushner participated in, in Trump Tower, was treasonous and unpatriotic.

And the more these excerpts are coming out we're really seeing the fallout between the president and someone who was his former top political ally, with the president issuing that very lengthy statement yesterday alongside saying that Steve Bannon had lost his mind. Also seeking to really downplay any role he had, not only in the campaign but here in the West Wing and saying that they rarely met one-on-one. But we know that Steve Bannon actually had walk-in privileges to the Oval Office and often went in there to speak with the president and he played a very big role in his campaign. But we're continuing to see that fallout and right now the president is staying behind closed doors today with nothing available to the press for right now, John and Poppy.

HARLOW: Kaitlan Collins outside the White House, thank you very, very much for the reporting.

With us now is Matthew Bellony. He is the editorial director of "The Hollywood Reporter." He personally edits Michael Wolff who of course penned this explosive new book. Thanks for being with us. There's a lot to get through.

Look, the White House has sent this cease-and-desist letter. Do you know by the way if Michael Wolff has received this cease-and-desist letter directly?

MATTHEW BELLONI, EDITORIAL DIRECTOR, "THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER": I don't actually. That's something that his publisher would probably receive.

HARLOW: OK. All right, so can you talk to us about the fact-checking process that went into all of this?

[10:05:00] BELLONI: Well, that's a question for the book publisher, but I do know that when I've edited Michael Wolff for "The Hollywood Reporter" and he interviewed Trump, he got the Trump interview on tape. So, we understand there are tapes that have been made from his time in the White House. The other thing is I know the president issued a very lengthy statement but as we know and CNN has reported, a lot of times this White House's reputation for pushing out the truth is not stellar.

BERMAN: You talk about the book, but there was also this article posted this morning in the "The Hollywood Reporter" written by Michael Wolff. Sort of a summary, I think, of what we're about to see in the book that comes out. Talk to us not about the fact-checking process but about how he got in there. He was inside the West Wing as he says it, sitting comfortably on a couch for much of a year and then back and forth between across the street. So, how did that work?

BELLONI: Right. The process started when Michael wrote a piece for "The Hollywood Reporter" in June of 2016 pegged at the California primary and he sat down with Trump in Los Angeles when he was here campaigning. That piece, we didn't realize at the time, but Trump apparently loved it and invited, through his people, Michael to come to the White House and spend some time for reporting for a potential book. That opened the door into this world where once Trump had blessed him being there, he pretty much got carte blanche to go where he wanted, set up meetings with whomever he wished and spend as much time as he could in the White House. This lasted for much of the first year of the presidency.

HARLOW: Yes. It's remarkable access. Talk to us about, for anyone who hasn't read the article that you edited, Michael Wolff's article this morning in "The Hollywood Reporter" - they should. What - if you were reading this and editing this, what is it that struck you just the most?

BELLONI: To me, it's alarming. It's alarming the extent to which those closest to Trump have been frightened and have come to the conclusion that he is not fit for this role. And that's due to a number of things, including the infighting that he not only allowed but apparently encouraged, some of the decision-making process, the way that he would sequester himself and, you know, take in the amount of cable news that he has, and, you know, this apparent decline in even everything from his speech pattern to, you know, not recognizing someone at Mar-a-Lago. A lot of the things that he has reported are pretty alarming and disturbing.

BERMAN: Some of the people who are mentioned in this book are suggesting, you know, whether it be on Twitter or through friends that they thought a lot of it was off the record. They thought a lot of these conversations were off the record. Now what's not said is they specifically stated it out loud which you need to do. But as far as you know for Michael, speaking to him either about the book or about the piece he posted this morning in "The Hollywood Reporter," you know, were these conversations off the record?

BELLONI: My understanding from Michael is that the feeling in the White House was that some things were off the record. Then put on the record, some people were not professional enough to even know when they were speaking on the record. Michael has been doing this a long time. He's very diligent. You know, I think this happens a lot when people regret what they say or they don't like how it's categorized. But I -- you know, he was there in the White House. That is the most professional setting that you can imagine and these were professional people doing the work of the government.

BERMAN: And they learned a lesson if they thought they were off the record and didn't specifically clarify it at the time. Matthew Belloni, thank you so much for your time, sir.

Here to discuss with us now, CNN political commentators, Mary Katharine Ham, Paul Begala and CNN political analyst Karoun Demirjian.

Paul, I want to start with you, as you told us before, you've been a part of some sort of tell-all books from inside the White House or political operation before. And it doesn't always feel good.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No. But it's nothing like this. Nothing.

BERMAN: Well, let's talk about what makes this different.

BEGALA: Well, here's what make it -- Bob Woodward wrote a book about Bill Clinton's economic policy and there was a group that was a little more populist like me. It's a little more Wall Street like Bob Rubin. We had our fights over policy. What policy should we follow to stimulate the economy? And that's one thing. Sometimes those fights can get personal. That's what Woodward covered.

At the time I was a part of that and still regret that. I said mean things about my colleagues. This is very, very different. This is as Matthew said earlier, about the president's fundamental fitness to serve as president. No one on either side of the fights in the Clinton days or frankly the Reagan days or the Bush days, when there was always a war for the soul of the presidency. We have never seen a White House where the senior most officials believe that the president is unfit to serve and that's what this book is telling us.

[10:10:10] HARLOW: So, to that point, Mary Katharine Ham. I mean, it is the central argument that Paul gets to here, and some of the quotes attributable to folks, Sam Nunberg who advised the president for a time saying he's just an f'ing fool. You've got senior staff, almost all of them according to Wolff's reporting, that on repeated occasions, said the president was, quote, "like a child." What does this leave you thinking about this White House that we knew was different than any prior White House, but these are from some of the people at the top?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I'm thinking -- I don't think anything terribly new. It's one of the reasons I didn't vote for him, because I didn't think that he should be the president.

But you know, we're finding out new things. Some of the things I will say sound a little on the nose. The part where he doesn't know who John Boehner is even though he's tweeted about him many times, he plays golf with him. -

HARLOW: Right, golf with him.

HAM: So there's that. The idea he's semi illiterate. The guy got through school. He mentioned where he went to school quite often. And I don't think he synthesizes information in a very unconventional way, a different way. But like some of it just seems like it's a bit of a reach. Look, this is an unconventional White House. To me, it was not going to shape up into the kind of White House I thought like this president should be leading and I think we're just finding out more about that as we go along here.

BERMAN: You know, it is interesting, Karoun Demirjian, because we also see in the new piece that came out this morning by Michael Wolff and "The Hollywood Reporter" some of it we saw yesterday, which is this divide between Steve Bannon and the president's family, the president's kids. There was a quote here, I don't know if I have it in front of me, about Jared and Ivanka, right.


BERMAN: "By July, Jared and Ivanka, who had, in less than six months, traversed from socialite couple to royal family to the most powerful people in the world, were now engaged in a desperate dance to save themselves, which mostly involved blaming Trump himself. It was all his idea to fire Comey. The daughter, Bannon declared, will bring down the father."

Again, you know, you've seen battles and infighting inside a White House before but sort of the bile being spewed by Steve Bannon there is remarkable.

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. And it's almost Shakespearean in a way that we're just kind of having these very -- the commentaries are being made. Look, we knew that there was a division in the White House already, that there was the Bannon wing of influence, there was Trump's own family and that they were not in lockstep with each other.

But having these details and seeing these -- how colorful really it was and how vicious it got to be at times is kind of putting that in a whole new light and bringing that to a much more vibrant light. The thing that's notable to see that right now is it's still very relevant. We're heading into a midterm election season right now.

What -- which side of the -- who has more influence over the president can have more influence over the GOP and that can have an effect on how the primary season runs in the next several months and that has an effect on basically many things in 2018 including potentially Congressional control which party controls which -- the Chambers of Congress. So again, this is building on stuff that we already had inklings of through other reporting, but it's certainly much, much more vivid now after seeing these accounts come out.

BERMAN: That's one word for it. HARLOW: That is one word for it. Paul Begala, do you -- go ahead.

DEMIRJIAN: I was just going to say, I think perhaps the bigger implication at this moment as you were saying is for the political side of this because when we were talking about post-Doug Jones winning in Alabama people saying is there an appetite for Bannon-ism and there always will be an appetite for Bannon-ism and these candidates who will say whatever it is they want to say. But they need to make an argument to the people who want that kind of candidate.

Look, maybe Donald Trump can get away with this but no one else can and you're going to lose. Bannon was making the argument, no, we can win this way. Trump telling those voters no, this isn't working as he did in that burn letter yesterday. That is the thing that might change their minds and might change those primary seasons.

BERMAN: Why Republicans were high fiving each other, you know, or close to it on Capitol Hill yesterday where all this was happening.

HARLOW: Paul Begala, to you, for Americans watching this morning and looking at this and some of them saying, I can see some folks saying, this is just more gossip inside the beltway. This doesn't affect my life. It doesn't matter to me at all, talk about why you think it does or it doesn't?

BEGALA: Well, first, Mary Katharine makes a great point. The politicians in the Republican Party will watch this and can we follow Trump-ism without Trump? I think she makes exactly the right point. Foreign leaders are watching this. Our adversaries around the world are looking -- I want my president to succeed. The North Koreans are evil, the Iranians are evil. We do have enemies in this world. And this will embolden our adversaries and it will frighten our allies. This has a huge effect on our lives and it's not really about -- this person or that or this feud or that, it's about the president. The reason the Trump White House looks dysfunctional and dishonest and disloyal and dirty and dumb is because the president of the United States is dysfunctional and dishonest and disloyal and dirty and dumb. And that's the conclusions that adversaries are going to take and allies. I think it does tremendous damage to the United States.

[10:15:03] BERMAN: Karoun, some other political news that happened and maybe happened because of this, maybe the president was trying to use the clout of this to get some other news out as he disbanded the Voter Fraud Commission -

HARLOW: Not great news for him.

BERMAN: Well, not great news but you can hide something in not great news right there. You know, he said, the Voter Fraud Commission which he said, you know, 3 million votes he didn't lose by 3 million votes because illegals voted in the last election that panel is done but he put out a statement this morning where he still says that he believes the vote was rigged. Your take on all of this, Karoun?

DEMIRJIAN: The president has to thread a very delicate needle here, which is that he has got to distance himself from some of the policies and some of the campaigns that were more Bannon pushed because there is now this wide gaping rift between the president and Steve Bannon. But he also can't completely do a 180 turnaround otherwise people will start say, wait a second, you're contradicting yourself. That's very hypocritical.

And so, I think, this is an example of that sort of dance that we're going to be seeing played out probably over and over again as we head into other areas where Bannon had a lot of influence over what the president was saying and doing and demanding in terms of policies and in terms of political campaigns that he was making from the Oval Office.

HARLOW: Mary Katharine, also just coming out in the last, you know, 30 minutes or so, you've got representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, who we had on the program yesterday and Representative Mark Meadows, both this morning calling on Jeff Sessions to resign saying he has, quote, "no control at all of the premier law enforcement agency in the world." We knew he wasn't a fan. We knew they wanted him to appointment a special counsel on all things -- DNC and Hillary Clinton and e-mails, et cetera. What do you make of them saying he can't control law enforcement, he needs to go?

HAM: Frankly, I'm a little surprised by it and I'm not sure that Sessions, after having weathered the Trump storm, succumbs to the Meadows/Jordan storm. I mean, he's been beat up about as much as you can be beat up and still in that position.

BERMAN: Yes, once you've survived bombogenesis, you know, Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows may not upset you too much. But it is interesting to see this. You know, the president tweeting about is one thing, Mary Katharine, but we start to see some of your firmest supporters in Congress coming out and saying it, particularly when Congress was a group defending Jeff Sessions before -- may have an impact.

HAM: That's true.

Well, yes. And it's also just symbolic of the fact that as I always say -- and probably the GOP won the presidency of the United States, while having a giant ugly divorce and they continue to have that ugly divorce while they're in office and it's just a question of whether they can co-parent the United States of America successfully.

DEMIRJIAN: There's a lot of scrutiny right now generally coming from the GOP especially in the House of the DOJ and the FBI in general. And one thing to remember about Jeff Sessions if he goes, whoever replaces him, probably does not have to recuse himself over the Russia probe. And so, that could have implications all the way down to what Mueller is doing which is definitely a focus for the Republicans in the House right now.

HARLOW: Paul Begala, the cease-and-desist letter from the president's private lawyer, to, you know, over this book, it's a little late for that, the book is written about to come out, that aside -- and the letter says threatening imminent legal action. This is a president who threatens imminent legal action all the time rarely to follow through on it at least since he's been a candidate and in office. BEGALA: Well, first off as a lawyer who never has practiced but trained as a lawyer. This is why normal people hate lawyers. Let's compromise. I'll ceases but not desist. OK. This is redundancy and it's also after the fact as you point out. If, in fact, Mr. Bannon is defaming the president I suppose he has a cause of action but I wouldn't bet a lot on that.

HARLOW: The bar is high for that for a Republican.

BEGALA: The president is upset because this violates what he believes to be a nondisclosure agreement, he is telling the truth. This is just -- it's not going to scare Steve Bannon. He's not going to shut up. Nothing to make --

HARLOW: Although he's not talking this morning.

He's talking this morning but about how much he likes the president.

BEGALA: Yes, sure. Just keep talking, Steve. That's all we want. Keep generating this. It's not going to work. He may be trying to intimidate lower level people from talking but that's not his problem. They have to talk to Robert Mueller under oath in that grand jury and no cease-and-desist order stops that.

BERMAN: Paul, Mary Katharine, Karoun, thank you so much for being with us. Appreciate it.

HARLOW: So, we are going to dive in more to these calls for Jeff Sessions to step down coming from Republican lawmakers. Also more on the stunning details we're hearing about the inner workings of the White House.

BERMAN: And bracing for bombogenesis. How do you prepare for a word with so many syllables? The monster storm down in the East Coast.


[10:23:16] HARLOW: All right. Some breaking news just in. The president's attorney, private attorney, has sent a cease-and-desist letter to the company, the publisher, of this new explosive Michael Wolff book, all about the Trump White House.

Brian Stelter just broke the news. He's with us now.

BRIAN STELTER, SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Another escalation here, Trump's attorneys trying blatantly to take down this book. You were talking about Steve Bannon receiving a threatening letter from Trump's attorneys, that's Charles Harder, who previously represented Hulk Hogan against Gawker, also representing Melania Trump in the past.

Well now, this morning, Harder just sent me this letter he has sent to the publisher of the book, Henry Holt as well as to Michael Wolff directly. The letter says the book is -- may be defamatory and accuses Wolff of actual malice which is a legal standard that would suggest a future potential lawsuit. But the more immediate concern here is that they are demanding the publisher not release the book. Remember, thousands of copies have already been shipped to book stores across the country. It's number one on Amazon. There are tens of thousands of preorders. This is the president of the United States' personal attorney saying do not publish this book or we'll see you in court. Now let's be clear, though, there's a history here of President Trump before becoming president sending cease-and-desist letters to people. He frequently threatens lawsuits, doesn't always follow through. Remember he threatened to sue "The New York Times" last year and did not follow through. But by any measure this is a pretty serious escalation of his war against the media to have one of his attorneys send a cease-and-desist letter to a book publisher.

BERMAN: And of course, it may be just shines a new light on the book and makes people more interested.

STELTER: I think so -

BERMAN: That's a political discussion. Let's talk about the legal issues here, joining us now, CNN national security and legal analyst, Susan Hennessey.

Susan, you know, this is interesting you know, the president writing letter now, not just to Steve Bannon but to the book publisher and the author here. Any way that a judge would say this book cannot come out?

[10:25:06] SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: Well, to that actual malice standard that he references you know sort of regarding defamation is extraordinarily high whenever it comes to a public figure so the odds of a lawsuit on those grounds being successful are relatively low. You know the notion that a cease-and- desist agreement is actually enforceable in this circumstance is probably not. We would need to see the language of that.

One thing that this does illustrate is sort of the Trump doesn't understand the difference between the rules regarding a private business and the rules regarding running the government. So in a private business you can enter into contracts with people expecting their secrecy. In the government we have a broad assumption or presumption of transparency. The American people are supposed to be able to know this information except in these very narrow circumstances related to executive privilege or classified information. And so, what we're really seeing here is Trump and his lawyers acting like businessmen in a realm of sort of White House staffers, government officials, where this is really not supposed to be sort of the relationship between the American public and the White House and sort of the facts on the ground.

HARLOW: I mean, that's fascinating, they would need to prove that this was some sort of national security violation or classified information or something like that, but the other thing is, this isn't just an article, this is a full book with a year's worth of information that Michael Wolff got sitting on that couch in the West Wing. Would they -- I mean, could they ban the whole book or bar the whole book from being published if say one excerpt from it was proven to not be accurate? Or just have that -- I mean nixed, how do you do that because the book is already at the book stores. HENNESSEY: Right. So, the horse is sort of out of the barn in terms of the information that Bannon has provided and other White House officials. This was probably more about messaging to other people, other individuals, right, saying you can't share these stories, you can't publish this information. Maybe they can prevent the broader release, the actual publication of the book. Again, legally that's quite questionable but if they were to prevail they could prevent the book from being sold in stores. That said the notion that they can actually prevent the information from coming out into the public when literally thousands of journalists have advanced copies at this point they're not going to be able to do that.

BERMAN: Also, opens you up to Michael Wolff trying to make the case these things are true whether or not he has tapes, he can show his notes. Things like that. And that may not be ultimately what the president would like which brings me to the Paul Manafort lawsuit against Robert Mueller because there's something similar sort of at play here.

Paul Manafort suing the special counsel saying that the special counsel's indictments that were issued are outside the purview of the original investigation, so Susan, your take on that but also, again, does this open Paul Manafort and the White House up to Robert Mueller saying hey, wait a second, let me tell you exactly why this all has to do with the Russia investigation.

HENNESSEY: Well the real tell that's sort of the Manafort lawsuit is maybe more of a PR stunt than something genuine. He chose to file it as a standalone lawsuit as opposed to just a motion to dismiss in his ordinary criminal trial. That's what we would sort of expect if it was actually - he actually expected to prevail. Now he's sort of making an argument regarding kind of the broad constitutional argument regarding the scope of prior special counsel regulations and sort of asserting that Mueller has exceeded his jurisdiction. You know, ultimately, that decision is one that's made between the Special Counsel Robert Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

There are actually specific provisions in DOJ regulations for whenever there's any kind of conflict over jurisdiction, a need for a new jurisdiction grant to change that. We've seen absolutely no evidence. Rod Rosenstein has affirmed that he doesn't think that Mueller is exceeding the scope of his jurisdiction. And so, you know, sort of for the relevant actors, there appears to be no conflict whatsoever. I mean, really, even if you could imagine Paul Manafort prevailing on this lawsuit and frankly from a legal perspective you can't, there would be nothing but -- to prevent Rod Rosenstein from simply appointing a new special counsel with a broader mandate that he didn't exceed. This is really sort of less about a real legal issue and more about PR posturing.

HARLOW: And a civil case, not a -- not moving to dismiss this which is also interesting about the approach here. Susan, we appreciate the expertise as always.

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