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NY Times details evidence in obstruction of justice probe; NY Times: Mueller examining statement on Trump Tower meeting; NY Times: White House attorney misled Trump before Comey firing. Aired 11- Midnight ET
Aired January 4, 2018 - 23:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[23:00:00] PAMELA BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: This is Trump one year later, a CNN special report. Tonight, a new bombshell report about President Trump's efforts to keep control of the Russia investigation.
An eye-opening new details of what looks to be an obstruction of justice inquiry by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. I'm Pamela Brown.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: And I am Jim Sciutto. Also tonight, CNN has a copy of this stunning new book that has forced the Trump White House into damage control, attempting to push back against vivid descriptions of a chaotic dysfunctional first year of the Trump presidency, and also, raising new questions about Mr. Trump's fitness for office.
First let's get to tonight's breaking news. A new report by the New York Times, detailed direct attempts by the president to scuttle the Russia investigation and describes potentially damaging evidence now in the hands of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
The Times reports the president dispatch White House Counsel Don McGahn to lobby Attorney General Jeff Sessions to keep control of the Russia investigation and not recuse himself. Sessions rejected that request.
The Times also revealed that four days before the president fired FBI director James Comey, one of Session's aids asked a Congressional staff member, whether that staffer had damaging information on Comey.
Another startling revelation, a White House lawyer was so unnerved by Trump's talk of firing Comey. He actually misled the president about whether he had the legal authority to do so.
Also the Times reporting that Mueller is examining the false statement dictated by the president on Air Force One, soon after news broke that his son, Don Jr. met with Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton. A lot there tonight. Pamela.
BROWN: Let's bring in our legal and political experts here with us this evening. Joining us is our political commentator, Jason Miller.
He is a former Trump campaign senior communications advisor, CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor, Laura Coates. Brian Fallon, who was Hillary Clinton's press secretary and CNN political analyst, Brian Karem, executive editor of the Sentinel Newspapers.
Thank you all for coming on. So much to discuss, yet another night this week, with a lot of news. Laura, first to you, about this New York Times report that came out tonight, and I want to read you a portion of it.
It says, President Trump gave firm instructions in March to the White House's top lawyer, stopped the Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself and the Justice Department's investigation into weather Mr. Trump's associates had helped the Russia campaign to disrupt the 2016 election.
The White House Counsel Donald McGahn carried out the president's orders and lobbied Mr. Sessions to remain in charge of the inquiry according to two people with knowledge of the episode. So what are the legal implications of an order like this from the president?
LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well the key term here is the White House Counsel, not the personal press -- personal lawyer of the president of the United States.
The White House Counsel is there to serve the office, not the occupant of that particular office. And so, when you have that at the get go, you realize that the president of the United States believed he could use a kind of marionette function to control who had access and who would be able to give advice to the head of the Department of Justice.
That's never been how it was supposed to work. And so, from the outset, you see yet again with the other contextual clues we've had over the course of past six or seven months.
You're seeing that the president of the United States seems to fundamentally misunderstand the role and the independence of the Justice Department, and certainly Jeff Sessions' decision...
SCIUTTO: Don't stop there.
COATES: His decision to not accept that request shows that he was following regulations to actually recuse himself. He was more prudent than the president.
BROWN: And I want to bring in -- I want to bring in Jason Miller. Jason, the New York Times reports that the president erupted in anger after Sessions recused himself, saying he needed his attorney general to protect him. Protect him from what, exactly?
JASON MILLER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, we're seeing a lot from this story of unnamed sources and such. So I think it's important to point out. We got to take that with a little bit og context.
BROWN: But, Jason, we know that he is not happy that Sessions recused himself. He's been public about that part. MILLER: Right, and he's absolutely right because I think what
happened was the attorney general was hearing the chattering folks in Washington saying that he needed to go and recuse himself.
And though that if he did go and recuse himself, that that would make those -- the political opponents die down with their criticism of him.
And I think what the president knows is whether it be from the campaign or in his time in office as president, is that's not going to slow people down at all.
All it's going to do is make people double down and say, see, see, see. There must be something wrong. So I think President Trump was absolutely right and say no, you don't need to go and step aside and recuse yourself. So the president was spot on here.
SCIUTTO: Brian, you've heard the defense of the president there. Give us your response.
BRIAN KAREM, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, SENTINEL NEWSPAPERS: Well, this is -- you know, my dad from Kentucky had a saying. I've been to three county fairs and a goat wrangling and I've never seen anything like this.
[23:05:00] And you can call it the goat wrangling. But the point is, this presidency hasn't told me once that they have ever made a mistake. I've been in the pressroom for more than a year now, since before them and back to the 80's.
This guy has never said he done and made a mistake. This guy has never admitted wrongdoing of any sort. This guy has come forward and manipulated -- and what you are talking about earlier, he doesn't understand the fundamental ways this government works. And I think it's very...
BROWN: And you think that extends to him not understanding the role of the attorney general.
KAREM: I think he doesn't understand the role of the federal government. I don't think there is -- I think he thinks that he is -- he thinks of himself as a despot or a king. And that we should all be vassals in his vast empire. And that's the impression you get everyday when you are in that pressroom.
SCIUTTO: Jason, I have to ask you, this is part of a pattern here of this president seeking, it appears, to undermine this investigation, right?
Whether it's telling his attorney general not to recuse himself, whether it's directing apparently the attorney general to look for dirt on James Comey, and then of course he fires James Comey. And he's said as much in public that he fired James Comey because of the Russia investigation.
MILLER: Hold on, Jim, I've got to correct you, because I did go through and read the story twice to make sure I was getting this right.
Not only does it not say in the story that the president asked for someone to go and look for dirt on Comey, the allegation was that someone in the Justice Department asked some low level staffer to do it, and the Justice Department has flat out denied that.
KAREM: You're just parsing words.
MILLER: And said that absolutely did not -- no, because it's very important, because if it's not true, then we need to go and make sure that we're being clear very here. So, please don't try to throw shade, just because I'm making sure that...
KAREM: I'm not throwing shade, I'm just trying to stay flat.
MILLER: No, you are.
KAREM: The simple fact is, this president has never been...
MILLER: ... start telling the story properly.
KAREM: ... at all during his entire year.
MILLER: Look, I'm sorry that you hate the president so much.
KAREM: I don't hate anybody. I'm just the guy asking questions.
MILLER: Yes, you do. You are sorry about criticizing the president...
SCIUTTO: How could you make that judgment that I hate the guy, simply because I ask a question about him and I made notice...
MILLER: Because you absolutely started off criticizing...
KAREM: He hasn't been truthful things.
BROWN: Let's listen to what Jason has to say this.
SCIUTTO: No, but, Jason, you haven't answer the fundamental question here which is this is part of a pattern of the president taking multiple steps by his own admission to get in the way, it seems of the Russia investigation.
Because he said, for instance, with the firing of James Comey, that's why he did it, he instructed his attorney general to try to get -- rather the White House Council to instruct the attorney general or encourage him not to recuse himself, it's part of a pattern here, is it not?
MILLER: It's absolutely his prerogative if he wanted to fire the FBI director. And there's nothing wrong with that. I mean the legal experts have come on and talked about it at length.
I mean he can go in and fire him any time he wants. In that case, he can fire come in and fire the current FBI director tomorrow, if he wanted to. There's absolutely nothing...
KAREM: That would be interesting.
MILLER: There's nothing wrong with that. They serve at the discretion of the president of the United States.
BROWN: And I want to bring in Brian Fallon here. Brian Fallon, you worked at the Justice Department. How do you see it?
BRIAN FALLON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, let me go back and correct something that, Jason, said. He just covered minutes ago, speculated that Jeff Sessions was bowing to pressure from his outside liberal critics by recusing himself.
That's none sense. There's a -- there's a formal process within the Justice Department where there are career ethics lawyer to whom a political appointee like Jeff Sessions would and seek their guidance.
And council on how at particular set of circumstances might fit, the regulations which govern when an official like Jeff Sessions should recuse himself. So he would have gone through that process then told point blank, you need to recuse yourself.
BROWN: And he said he was told by career department officials.
FALLON: Exactly, for him to have rejected that advice and continued on and not recused himself, he would have lost the confidence of the building. I think he's probably lost it by now anyway.
MILLER: Not necessarily, there is a chance that he may have stayed. And I think he should have gone on as long as he could have.
FALLON: So what's clear is that he acted base on the guidance that he was given by the career lawyers, whose job it is to give suggestions in these scenarios, and what has he done despite that?
He didn't recuse himself, but he's gone about trying to please Trump in every other way, including by deputizing. Not some random funky at the Justice Department, Jason, to go ask somebody on the Hill to smear Jim Comey.
But Sessions aide, according to the New York Times report. And I'm sorry, but the spokesperson at the Justice Department who's denying it, she has been caught denying things that have been proven true in the past.
SCIUTTO: He denied everything.
BROWN: But look, what we do know and according to the article, Mueller is looking at all of this, this has all been handed over to him, and everything is a piece in the puzzle, as you well know, Laura, including the crafting of that first misleading statement aboard Air Force One.
That's talked about in Michael Wolff's new book. Wolff writes in the book that the president's legal team thought that statement was an explicit attempt to throw sand into the investigation's gears, and that it led one of Mr. Trump's spokesmen to quit, because he believed it constituted obstruction of justice. How significant is that?
COATES: Extremely significant. Because if you were to look at those things as the tendency is by many people that are partisan and lenses are on, look at it in isolation, you cannot do that.
[23:10:00] You have all of the context that's been provided to say, you have a pattern and a theme here that's emerging, the president of the United States, who is having a hand in either crafting or trying to spin a particular narrative as opposed to providing truth.
And that is what the premise of any obstruction of justice charge is going to be, essentially saying, are you getting in the way of an investigation -- an active investigation? Are you doing all that is within your drudgers to try to undermine our ability to seek the truth?
BROWN: Even if it's lying to the media?
COATES: Even if it's lying -- well, you can lie to the media any time you want. But remember -- what you should remember at this point in time, they were aware that it wasn't just the media who was listening, it was Robert Mueller.
And his very existence and edict at that point in time, said that when they were lying to the media, it may be a suggestion that they were trying to have the true audience be Mueller and his team.
One would hope that Mueller and his team probably are -- probably much more well versed in this than certainly the non-media savvy Trump campaign team was. But this is what Mueller already knows.
SCIUTTO: Let me ask you this -- Jason, before you go, this gets to an essential legal question here. And I should note that it's not just Michael Wolff's book that has the details of this Air Force One crafting of what was really a false statement about what that Trump Tower meeting was about.
Saying it was about adoptions, while in fact, when we know that Russians were offering dirt on Hillary Clinton. So that matches what we have reported at CNN as well.
From a legal standpoint, if a president crafts a false statement about this with his staff members present, and then taking part, from a legal standpoint, does that constitute instructing subordinates to lie?
COATES: What it constitutes in instructing subordinates to try to not provide forthcoming truth and be forthright in their statement... SCIUTTO: Not provide forthcoming truth.
COATES: Right, now that's very nuance and the reason I'm making it a nuance statement is because, Mueller's objective here is to figure out whether a crime has occurred and whether or not somebody is impeding his ability to do that very thing.
And so, part of the inquiry will always be whether or not somebody has played some very relevant hand in trying to undermine his ability to do so.
So if somebody is saying, that I'd like you not to be forthcoming, I would like you not to disclose the truth, even though we know that the FBI probably already had the e-mails in their possession, and the e- mail trail that said which was not just about, you know, Natalia Veselnitskaya talking about adoption. It was more than that.
KAREM: And can we go back -- let's keep the facts and order because we were told in the pressroom, in the beginning there was no collusion, no contact with Russia, then there was limited contact.
And oh yes, somebody else had contact. Now, you've had two people that pleaded out, and two others that have been charged. There's obviously been some contact, and also, go back to what the president himself said as a candidate, when he encouraged Russia to check into e-mails from a podium during a public event.
So the -- the truth of the matter has always been very different from the narrative that has been spun from the White House. And it's disturbing to anyone in that room who's in search of mere facts to have to sit there and listen to that story change.
And to be told day after day, that we're the fake news, that we're the false media, and then -- then they tell us stories that never pan out.
MILLER: And you know who what...
BROWN: Jason Miller.
MILLER: Exactly, because when you have reporters who go and bundle things all the way up like this, and come to their own conclusions and skip way ahead. I mean let's talk about what he did.
I mean he basically tried to say, that -- back there in your statement a moment ago, that people on the campaign were colluding with a foreign entity.
Well, what you had is, you had a couple idiots who clearly weren't completely forthcoming when they had their interviews with the FBI, that doesn't mean that the campaign was including with a foreign entity. I mean the fact of the matter is...
KAREM: Of course, that's not the entire truth.
MILLER: President Trump won this election. Hey, I'm sorry that Secretary Clinton didn't win. You don't get a do over. If you want a do over...
BROWN: But, Jason, it is true that the president came out and said, there was zero contact with any Russians, it was after a report we did. And then it's like a slow slip, drip, drip.
SCIUTTO: Let's be frank, one of those couple of idiots was his former national security advisor, a three star general.
COATES: One was his son.
MILLER: That wasn't -- that's why he got fired, because he lied.
FALLON: And the rub --the rub of the New York Times story tonight is, that whatever you think of the collusion investigation, that there's a very viable obstruction of justice potential charge against the president and members of his senior team.
And as a result of what we've learned from the New York Times story tonight, Jeff Sessions is caught up in that. He's at the very least a witness, based on the attempts to pressure him into recusing himself.
And he's potentially on the line himself over potential obstruction depending on what he may have deputized an aide to go do in terms of smearing Jim Comey.
And I think at the point -- at this point, his tenure is unsalvageable. I mean I know that Democrats are a little bit bitwise in between. There were a couple of conservatives in the House today that call for Session to step down.
That's clearly a bad fake attempt to get somebody installed there that can maybe run an appearance for Donald Trump. The Democrats are sort of stuck in this position to try to defend Jeff Sessions to keep him there as a worry that Mueller would get fired.
[23:15:00] I don't think they can abide Jeff Sessions in this job any longer. If we looked everything -- if Jeff Sessions is able to go and have time with the president, we can't trust Christopher Wray, the head of the FBI, Rod Rosenstein to do their job and act honorably, and stand up...
KAREM: What's important though, if you go to the Hill today, and you were talking to people, that's exactly where they're at. They're like, we don't want Sessions, but it's six of 1.5 dozen of the other.
What do we get if we push for him to come out. The problem with this administration is there's no viable path for Sessions at this point. He may stay.
BROWN: Let me jump in really quick because we keep talking about this notion of Comey dirt who ask for it. I want to read from the New York Times what it said, and get your analysis. Two days after Mr. Comey's testimony, an aid to Mr. Sessions
approached the Capitol Hill staff member, asking whether the staffer had any derogatory information about the FBI director.
The attorney general wanted one negative article a day in the news media, about Mr. Comey, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting.
Now, we knew that the White House instructed Rosenstein and others to find cause to fire Comey, but going to dig up dirt, an aide of the attorney general going to dig up dirt so that there are negative news stories day in and day out, your reaction.
KAREM: It's very scary that we are even discussing that in this day and age. And when you look at it on the face of it, it speaks to the very depths of depravity that I think we're seeing from this White House.
MILLER: Well, first of all, the DOJ says that didn't happen.
KAREM: Have we seen anything like this? And this is only the third day of the year.
SCIUTTO: Jason, I have to ask you, what's interesting about this, is this sounds a lot like what the White House is doing to James Comey today.
SCIUTTO: And has for several months. I mean it sounds like a consistent strategy, because they've been attacking his credibility since the moment they fired him as well.
MILLER: Are you talking about the former director who leaked his confidential work product to the media, and is now working on the book deal and the movie deal and everybody else?
SCIUTTO: We're talking about the FBI director James Comey who served under Republican and Democratic administrations for years, frankly and when -- let's be frank, when he was leading the investigation into Hillary Clinton's e-mails, the president praised him repeatedly.
MILLER: And you know what -- there's no reason to go dig for any dirt, which of course the DOJ has said didn't happen. All you have to do is go back and pull quotes from the, Brian, and other folks from the Clinton campaign.
You spent all of last year bashing him. Saying he was doing a terrible job and misdirecting the FBI. And they even tried to blame the entire election on former director Comey's incompetence.
BROWN: Let's not forget, the irony here, is that if he hadn't fired James Comey, then none of...
SCIUTTO: There wouldn't be special counsel.
BROWN: There wouldn't be special counsel. And perhaps it wouldn't be where it is.
FALLON: But also remember -- also in the New York Times story tonight, there is a piece of reporting that Reince Priebus' notes are in the possession of Special Counsel Bob Mueller and it confirms Jim Comey's theory.
SCIUTTO: We have a break coming up now. We do have a lot more time. Next, the Times revelation, that a White House lawyer deliberately misled the president about whether he had the authority to fire FBI director James Comey, and later, new excerpts from the bombshell book raising questions about President Trump's White House and his mental fitness.
[23:20:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
SCIUTTO: Welcome back. One of the most stunning allegations from tonight's New York Times report on Special Counsel Robert Mueller's obstruction probe, describes how a White House lawyer deliberately misled President Trump about whether he had the authority to fire FBI director James Comey.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BROWN: According to the Times, Uttam Dhillon, a deputy to the White House Counsel, assigned a junior lawyer to research that very question, and the staffer determined that nothing was stopping President Trump from removing Comey.
According to the Times here, Mr. Dhillon who had earlier told Mr. Trump that he needed cause to fire Mr. Comey, never corrected the record, withholding the conclusions of his research.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BROWN: Wow! All right, Laura Coates, first to you, how just significant, extraordinary is this that a White House Council lawyer would purposely mislead the president.
COATES: It shows you a conjunction we have learned last night about the fact that this president may not have any interest in constitutional standards, and also, the way in which the branches of government are supposed to be separate, or in which how are we supposed to run the executive branch of the government.
You have this impression that the president of the United States has to be misled in order to kind of guide the hand of perhaps, the petulant child.
And so in doing -- listen, this is going to be a grave mistake that you would make, it would lead to a domino effect. And in fact, it did. It led to the hiring of Special Counsel Robert Mueller who has
remained the opaque thorn in the side of the Trump administration ever since.
And so, it had grave consequences and probably a demonstration that the attorneys yet again, were trying to exercise necessary foresight, and you had a client who's unwilling to listen.
MILLER: Yes, I don't buy this story at all. I mean, first of all, anything illegal within the White House is going to -- hey, you know what, I didn't interrupt you. Let me go ahead and finish.
SCIUTTO: Go for it.
MILLER: Anything legally -- thank you. I mean, the Hillary Clinton rallies all ended last November. So, anyways, anything legally in the White House, would have gone up through Don McGahn.
And Don McGahn wouldn't have allowed something that was erroneous or false to be presented to President Trump. I just -- I don't buy this story.
I think when we have these unnamed off the record sources, who are offering things up like this, I think we really we have to likely said, take it with a boulder salt here.
And it's just -- it's not believable that some lawyer who again isn't the top dog in the White House is going to and have that authority to go and give some misleading information to the president.
SCIUTTO: Let me ask you...
MILLER: There's one more important point here, and that's that -- look, since the president's detractors can't beat him on the policy issues, they're now moving to these efforts to try to mock him by throwing out these false claims and then how do you go.
And try to -- you're basically punching at ghosts trying to say that oh, this thing didn't happen. I mean look, it's a brilliant strategy from the political left, from the president's political detractors. That's...
MILLER: I just want to take issue with one thing because you make a point that -- and I'm not sure that this comports with a story, that this went through Don McGahn.
But it looks like here, is that Uttam Dhillon asked a lower level staffer to research this and then did not sheer what that research headed. In affect saying that the president did have the right to do it.
[23:25:00] So that's one deal that's different there, but the other thing is, is it not conceivable here that his legal team was trying to protect him from doing something that they perceived would be damaging to him.
MILLER: I mean the top people that the president has around him in the White House, are people that he trusts and he respects, and they present him...
KAREM: Really, because he's gotten rid of a lot of them. I mean, come on...
MILLER: Come on.
KAREM: He was told...
MILLER: Are you going to let me finish?
KAREM: We were told at the very beginning...
MILLER: Are you going to let me finish?
MILLER: Then I'm just going to keep on talking.
KAREM: We were told at the very beginning...
SCIUTTO: Let, Jason, finish.
KAREM: OK, go ahead.
SCIUTTO: The president respects the people around him. They present him with the information and then he's the one who actually makes the decision.
But this whole thing that they have to go and hold things back, I mean this is just utterly ridiculous, and just -- it's just not believable.
SCIUTTO: Brian -- Brian...
KAREM: It is believable. I've been in that pressroom and I've watched it. There are things that are not told to senior staff members, and I'm sorry, we were told from the very beginning, for example, he hires the best people -- the very best people,
Now, he's canned a bunch of them, some of them have quit, a lot of them have fled. And so, my question after they were indicted or pleaded out, were these the best people? I don't buy any of that.
What I look at is whether or not that particular bit of nuance is factually accurate for Trump supporters, is irrelevant to the fact that he fired Comey.
That he has a special prosecutor. It's almost like the Saturday night massacre with Nixon all over again. And you're looking at an expanding investigation. And they keep trying to tell us that the investigation is shrinking
and going away. And I'm sorry, you flipped two people, you have somebody working with you. It's not going away.
COATES: Well there is a tendency as well. And I hear, Jason, keep saying this, there's a tendency when everyone ever objectively criticizes the legal parameters at the president's actions, that there is this idea that it's all about partisanship and issues.
And frankly, it's very worthwhile to objectively criticize the president and his actions without having to think about partisan, you know, the Hillary rallies have no relevance here.
What does have relevance, is that there was a set and a plan that was set into motion by the president's own conduct. It's not about whether he had the prerogative to do so.
It was whether it was legally prudent and whether it would signal to the rest of the people in America, under the court of public opinion or perhaps the court of law that he had something to hide and had nefarious intent.
BROWN: But really quick, Brian Fallon, I mean doesn't this raise questions about the White House Counsel's office, too?
FALLON: Absolutely. But this is not an outlier anecdote. I mean if the big story before this New York Times bombshell report came out tonight, it was about this Wolff book which basically casts a portrayal of the president as somebody that none of his advisers or aids trust, and don't think has the attention span to sit through briefings.
Everyone from Gary Cohn to Rex Tillerson has privately called their president that they serve a moron. I mean the image that came out in that book is that his aids send him off to play golf as often as possible, and when he has to be in the White House, they tuck him into bed at 6:30, and feed him a cheeseburger.
BROWN: Some people have denied -- some people who are on the record in the book have denied some of the quotes. Some of them...
SCIUTTO: That's true.
BROWN: But others have been proven. I mean the dinner with Roger Ailes -- with Roger Ailes, three people have corroborated that, including someone who was on our air earlier today.
SCIUTTO: Detail for detail.
BROWN: Detail for detail.
SCIUTTO: And Steve Bannon has not backed away -- he's had multiple opportunities to do so, he was doing his radio program last night and today, and I was listening to it.
I have to ask you though because, Jason, you say that this is basically a partisan attack on the president, in effect, and I know the relationship between Bannon and Trump is not particularly good right now.
But this is Bannon who helped get him elected, right? Who is giving this counter narrative, and if you look at the New York Times story, you have Reince Priebus here.
The former chief of staff who was confirming the account that Comey or the Special Counsel has confirmed the account that the president urged Comey to say in public that he was not under investigation, he had function from inside the White House, inside the Republican Party who are confirming these details and accounts.
MILLER: Well, so on that, which of course neither one of us were around for any of these conversations, but didn't Director Comey tell President Trump three times that he was not under investigation?
KAREM: Were you there? Do any of us know?
MILLER: I'm asking the question.
BROWN: Comey has testified. Comey has testified that he didn't do that.
FALLON: The caveat of that, Jason, is saying, that what he said at any moment could change based on the evolution of the case, and I suspect that right now, if Bob Mueller was put on the spot and asked that question, he couldn't provide the same reassurance.
COATES: And that's largely our problem of Comey's own making, of course, because he's lead the public into believing somehow that the FBI is very used to presenting public testimony and public hearings, and public press conferences on issues of active investigations or even the existence of them.
And so he put himself in his own conundrum, by on the one hand, holding a press conference to alert the public that he was actually going to be transparent and forthright, and on the other hand saying that, I can't actually tell the president about an on going investigation. So that's Comey's own making.
KAREM: And then, you know what, dealing with the FBI over many years, the FBI has always -- I remember the standard rule of thumb was, neither confirm nor deny that there's an investigation, and thank you very much, and we'll take whatever you got and we'll see you.
SCIUTTO: Well, that rule went out with Jim Comey's press conference.
KAREM: Very true.
SCIUTTO: One thing that is clear here is that the question of obstruction of justice is still very much alive, certainly in the special council investigation here, whether he gets there, and I know it's a very high bar, because do you not, Laura Coates, have to prove corrupt intentions?
LAURA COATES, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Intent is everything. But obstruction -- I know that it's a hot topic for people, but it's very rarely the end game in a prosecution. Obstruction would be like watching somebody speed away from the scene of the crime, giving them a speeding ticket, and ignoring what happened that they are actually be running from.
And so you may have that as part of an additional charge he may have. It could be a standalone as well, but to suggest that the goal of the Mueller investigation is simply to hand out a speeding ticket and ignore what you're fleeing from would be absurd.
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: All right. We got to go to break.
JASON MILLER, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN SENIOR COMMUNICATIONS ADVISER: Here we thought the Mueller investigation was supposed to be about Russia.
BROWN: OK. We got to go. Everyone, hold on. So much to discuss in this spirited discussion. More excerpts coming up from the tell-all book on the Trump White House, including Steve Bannon agonizing about whether firing special counsel Robert Mueller would lead to President Trump's impeachment. We'll be back.
[23:35:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
BROWN: CNN has obtained a copy of Michael Wolff's bombshell new book, "Fire and Fury," which portrays the Trump White House as dysfunction and the president as unfit for office.
SCIUTTO: Tonight, the publisher is defying a cease-and-desist letter from the president's lawyer. Instead of pulling the book, the release date is being moved up to tomorrow.
BROWN: And while we should note that some of Michael Wolff's reporting has been corroborated and some errors have been identified, we believe the book's revelations are worth examining.
One passage of the book describes a scene where Trump's strategist Steve Bannon was agonizing about the possibility of President Trump's firing special counsel Robert Mueller, quoting now, Bannon's tone veered from ad absurdum (ph) desperation to resignation. If he fires Mueller, it just brings the impeachment quicker. Why not? Let's do it. Let's get on. Why not? What am I going to do? Am I going to go in and save in? He's Donald Trump.
Brian Fallon, how remarkable is this? Someone so close to the president thought impeachment was such a strong possibility.
BRIAN FALLON, SENIOR ADVISER, PRIORITIES USA: It's extremely remarkable. This tweet from the president tonight responding to the book as well as a cease-and-desist letter sent from the president's lawyer, I mean, the publisher could have been asked for a better (INAUDIBLE) for this book. It's only going to send it further up the charts.
And I would be inclined to think that some of this was exaggerated and embellished. But in many ways, the Trump team's main defenses, they have no idea how this guy got in here, that he didn't have as much access, and to me that just confirms the sort of chaotic image of this White House that the book (INAUDIBLE).
White House as to have somebody with so much unfiltered access and nobody knew who decided to give him this approval, nobody authorized this. And so much of the composite that you get from the president. This guy that is fundamentally unfit for the job that he holds, is just corroborated by so much other evidence.
Bob Corker around the time that he announced his decision to resign, said that he had had private conversations with top White House officials, where they likened their job to baby-sitting at a day care. And so this is not just coming from the sources in this book, it's not just coming from Steve Bannon.
This is coming from other people, other top advisers in the cabinet. And the fundamental question that needs to be asked is, how much longer are congressional Republicans going to look the other way at a president that is fundamentally unfit?
SCIUTTO: You mentioned the tweet. This came just moments ago. Donald Trump responding to this book. He goes, I authorized zero access to the White House, actually turned him down many times, for author of phony book, exclamation point, I never spoke to him for book full of lies, misrepresentations, and sources that don't exist. Look at this guy's past and watch what happens to him and -- this is a new one, by the way, sloppy Steve.
I have to ask Jason Miller if I can here. He authorized zero access, the president. So, how did Michael Wolff spent so many days and hours sitting on that couch in the west wing and get so much access to so many White House staffers?
MILLER: I think there are a couple of things here, Jim. If you go back and look at the foreword of the book, there's a big long explanation about how the author essentially attributed some of these quotes. And sometimes they were direct, sometimes they were indirect. I mean, going way back in the time machine. Almost kind of reminding of primary colors where all these things were kind of --
SCIUTTO: How did he get in the White House? I'm curious.
MILLER: A lot of this goes right to, sounds like Steve Bannon was the one who let him in on a lot of this.
MILLER: And that's obviously, I think part of the reason why the president is so rightfully upset right now. That's why yesterday, one person said to me, this sounds like this is some of, you know, a family feud, but it wasn't. It was much more like a public beheading. That's why I think that obviously you're not going to see Steve at the White House any further.
BROWN: Steve Bannon let him in, you covered the White House for so many years, under President Obama, for example, if one of his deputies decided he wanted to let in an author, I mean, that wouldn't just fly, right? There would have to be --
KAREM: Well, there's a couple of things that I tweet that are interesting too, Pam, actually turned him down many times. The president is so insulated from those decisions. Those decisions are made -- you're going to go through a (INAUDIBLE), you're going to go through lower press, you're going to go throughout the press --
KAREM: You're going to go through the chief of staff, you're going to go to a lot of people before you get to the president, unless, of course, you were one of those people who had his cell phone and could call him all the time.
But the simple fact of the matter is, I'll say that he's -- he was right about that, Bannon let him in, and --
BROWN: No one really --
KAREM: The thing -- it speaks --
SCIUTTO: Bannon was there every day, letting him in.
BROWN: Yes, exactly.
KAREM: It speaks to the chaos and the dysfunction inside that White House. We can't get e-mails returned to us. We ask for things. We don't get answers. For example, I'll go to this point, every quarter he has come out and said what he's going to do, donate his salary too.
We've been asking, or I have, at least for the last two -- what are you going to do with the salary? We'll get back to you. We'll get back to you. They never get back to you. They go back to you three or four weeks later. You ask to meet, never get back to you.
[23:40:00] So, that tweet speaks to the fact that he really doesn't know what's going on in that White House. And no one else does either.
SCIUTTO: We're going do have to leave it. We're going to have to leave it there. Thanks to all of you. We went through a lot tonight. Thanks so much. Next on our special report, more on the aftershocks from tonight's New York Times report revealing evidence special counsel Robert Mueller is looking at as he decides whether President Trump obstructed justice.
SCIUTTO: Welcome back tonight, The New York Times published a blockbuster story about President Trump's efforts to keep control of the Russia investigation. The story includes stunning new details of evidence that the paper says special council Robert Mueller has obtained.
We're here now with our panel of experts and reporters who have been on. Evan Perez, you've covered Justice Department for a long time. What are the implications of the president ordering the White House council to stop or attempt to stop Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from an investigation where he had reasons to recuse himself?
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right. I mean, the thing is, everybody knew that Sessions was going to face this issue. I mean, he was a prominent surrogate of the president or the candidate, you know, at the time. He played a big role in the campaign. He was out there campaigning for him.
So, there was absolutely no doubt inside of the department that he was going to have to recuse himself. So, it appears to be that the president was the only one who was kind of left there, not knowing that.
[23:45:00] Sessions, certainly, I think got to that decision very quickly. So, the idea that McGahn sort of didn't understand that and couldn't explain that to his client, the president, --
PEREZ: -- is remarkable.
SCIUTTO: I heard from a lawyer from a previous administration, they had explicit roles that the president would not correspond, communicate with the A.G. about any ongoing investigations. I mean, like, rock solid firewall.
BROWN: Strict protocol of the communications between the White House and the Justice Department for good reason, because traditionally there's supposed to be independence. But with this reporting, Manu, you put this in the context of the Trump-Sessions relationship.
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: As we know, nothing has infuriated the president more than this Russia investigation, and what he believes is the attorney general not -- should not have recused himself. He believes that he should have protected him from this Russia investigation, and this report really shows that to be the case.
What's also interesting is that increasingly, you're seeing some folks, his allies on Capitol Hill, agree with them, that he should not have recused himself, to conservatives today, Jim Jordan, Mark Meadows of the House, freedom caucus, both of them coming out and saying very clearly that Sessions should not recuse himself and Sessions should resign.
But also, an interesting twist is that Democrats on the other hand are saying, he should not resign because if he were to resign, presumably Trump could put a loyalist in as attorney general, someone who would be in charge of the Russia investigation, and that could change things completely.
BROWN: I think we're at a point where Democrats don't want Sessions to resign.
SCIUTTO: How things change. Timothy Naftali, you hear a story, you've covered an administration or two. Part of the argument, according to Michael Wolff's book, he said the president said, hey, I want a Robert F. Kennedy to my JFK, I want an Eric Holder to my Obama.
Does that match up with the facts as we know them? That those attorneys general work to defend their bosses in effect?
TIMOTHY NAFTALI, FORMER DIRECTOR, NIXON PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY: Well, Robert Kennedy was certainly his brother's protector. Robert Kennedy tried very hard to get his brother to stop fooling around with women that had shady pasts. But that's different from asking Robert Kennedy to obstruct justice on your behalf or to engage in otherwise illegal activities.
The real problem here, and that's what makes The New York Times story so important, is that we are seeing not just -- we're seeing evidence or if this reporting is true, that the president is micromanaging the -- a cover-up. That he is trying to deflect an investigation, initially to prevent one, and now to deflect this investigation.
That's a real problem for him. This reporting if it proves accurate, is very damaging. It also suggests by the way, for the first time, that the Mueller investigation is leaking, something that we haven't seen before.
BROWN: Well, I wouldn't say that, we don't know for sure that the Mueller investigation is leaking. I mean, it could be people who have handed over information you were talking about --
SCIUTTO: A lot of lawyers talking --
BROWN: Lot of lawyers talking, go ahead.
PEREZ: It's important what he just talked about there, that, you know, one of the things that we hear from the president is that there's nothing here, right? There was no crime committed.
Look, you could still be guilty of a cover-up, you could still be guilty of a crime, even if you were covering up something that wasn't -- ended up not being a crime. I mean, that is still a big problem for the president.
SCIUTTO: Look at Bill Clinton. Look at previous investigations where it started with one thing.
BROWN: There is this argument, and you brought this up, he talked about it, where he claims that Holder, you know, that Eric Holder protected Obama. And then Robert Kennedy and his brother. Is that a fair comparison, Manu?
RAJU: I'm not sure because this is an investigation that's ongoing, directly related to the president of the United States, his campaign, his closest associates.
And, look, in this report, it shows that there was a White House lawyer who was very concerned about the president taking steps to fire James Comey, saying if you were to fire James Comey, this could impair your presidency, this could lead to a new investigation and that is problematic.
I don't think you would see the same thing in the Obama years. Even -- you know, Evan covered the Justice Department, I don't know if this is --
PEREZ: No, this is the not something you would normally see. First of all, the idea that there's nobody else in the White House who could talk to the president and sort of explain to him what a terrible idea this was going to be.
I mean, the idea that he was spending time stewing about this investigation. And that nobody could sit him down and explain to him what the proper role of the attorney general is supposed to be --
PEREZ: -- and what -- you know, what you can and cannot do.
BROWN: Let's just talk about -- I mean, there's a lot of focus on the president, but also just the White House Counsel Office. Tim Naftali, you have White House counsel going to tell the attorney general not to recuse himself on the order of the president.
Someone else in the White House Counsel withholding information to the president about whether he could fire Comey. According to this report, he initially told the president that he couldn't just fire an FBI director without cause. Did further research
[23:50:00] that showed, yes, you actually can fire the FBI director if you're president for no reason, but didn't share that information. What does all that tell you?
NAFTALI: Well, first of all, Pamela, one of the first things you learn if you joined the U.S. government, is the lawyers of the agency you work for don't work for you, they work for the agency. So, it's highly unusual for the White House counsel to be giving personal legal advice in the way he was to the president. He should be defending the office of the presidency.
The other issue that is really important is that there are times in our history when members of an administration have not told the truth to the president. It is not a good thing. It shouldn't be done often. It happened in the Nixon administration a few times. So this is not unusual. It is just very sad. It is the sign of a lack of trust in the president.
BROWN: OK. Thank you so much. Really appreciate it, gentlemen. Up next, a preview of an upcoming CNN special, "The Trump-Russia Investigation."
BROWN: Before we go, we want to give you a sneak peek of tomorrow night CNN special report, "The Trump-Russia Investigation."
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice over): Ten days before the inauguration of Donald Trump --
[23:55:00] UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice over): We are live in Chicago tonight.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice over): On the same night, President Barack Obama was giving his farewell address to the nation.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have breaking news in the nation's capital tonight that we need to tell you about. I want to go straight to Jake Tapper.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice over): A team of CNN reporters broke a stunning story.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Jim Sciutto, Evan Perez, Carl Bernstein and I have all been working on the story.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice over): About America's new president.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Claims of Russian efforts to compromise the president-elect Donald Trump.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice over): The president-elect and the outgoing president had both been briefed on the most sensational charges on the dossier.
SCIUTTO: Allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice over): U.S. officials with direct knowledge told CNN that Trump had been warned. Russia could have compromised on him. That is the damaging information often gathered through a surveillance that Vladimir Putin is believed to collect on powerful people.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Was your concern that the Russians could have leverage over the president of the United States?
JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER UNITED STATES DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Well, yes.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice over): Former Intelligence Chief James Clapper.
CLAPPER: Gaining leverage. That's their objective. If they can compromise somebody, they have a term for it. Compromise. (END VIDEOTAPE)
BROWN: And be sure to watch our special report, "The Trump-Russia Investigation." That's tomorrow night at 10:00 Eastern.
SCIUTTO: And thanks so much for joining us tonight. The news continues next here on CNN.
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