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Source: Two Other High-Ranking Officials Also Pressured Attorney General Jeff Sessions Against Recusal; Interview with Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut; GOP Senators Seek Criminal Probe to "Trump Dossier" Author; Wolff: I Stand by Absolutely Everything in the Book; Official: Feds Looking at Whether Tax-Exempt Funds were Misused. Aired on 8-9p ET

Aired January 5, 2018 - 20:00   ET


[20:00:15] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Good evening. Thanks for joining us.

With the sheer volume of news now turning every week into what seems like a year, this week felt like two years. Today was quite something all by itself. Plenty of news broke today.

It all seemed revolve around the Russia probe. There was news on the president's opposition to it, news on his attorney general's recusal from it. And White House efforts to keep that attorney general in charge on presidential rage, reportedly when that effort failed. And news breaking just now that others beyond White House counsel Don McGahn were doing the arm-twisting.

Also today, what some see as fair game and others call a smokescreen, two Republican senators asking the FBI to investigate the author of the now famous dossier and something the president once slammed his attorney general for not pursuing, investigating the Clinton Foundation. We learned today that is happening.

Overhanging all of it, reaction to Michael Wolff's tell-all book and the central figure in it, the fired chief strategist President Trump now calls sloppy Steve Bannon, Wolff's defense of his reporting and the remark he attributes to Bannon about the president's fitness for office.

All of those threads intertwine tonight, adding new facts, new context and much more color to the entire Russia saga and a picture of a president and a presidency under pressure to say the least. We'll talk about all of that tonight. We have the reporting from CNN and others, including "The New York Times" on the roots of the president's ire at Jeff Sessions which came to a head as you may recall late last July.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I am disappointed in the attorney general. He should not have recused himself almost immediately after he took office. And if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me prior to taking office and I would have quite simply picked somebody else. So I think that's a bad thing, not for the president, but for the presidency. I think it's unfair to the presidency. And that's the way I feel.


COOPER: Well, same day the president tweeted, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a very weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes. Where are e-mails and DNC server and intel leakers?

The president publicly humiliating his attorney general. He reported on it then on the pressure on him to resign, but today's reporting as well as scenes in the Wolff book add new dimensions, not just to what we know but also our indications of what special counsel Mueller knows and might be folding into his probe.

For that, as well as the larger investigation, I want to bring in CNN chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

So where does the reporting stand on what President Trump wanted from Jeff Sessions?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is what we know, a source tells CNN that McGahn, the White House counsel, did in fact reach out to Jeff Sessions to urge him to not recuse himself from that investigation, despite the fact that Sessions had issues that could be potential conflict of interest, including the fact that he met with Russian officials and had not disclosed those meetings.

A White House -- I should say another official telling my colleague Jim Acosta that others were involved in that effort as well to urge Sessions not to recuse himself, those include Sean Spicer, of course, the White House press secretary, and Reince Priebus, who at the time who was the White House chief of staff. "The New York Times" adds that this was done under the direction of the president. That the president asked his lawyer and other staffers to reach out to sessions not to recuse himself and that Robert Mueller, the special counsel, is aware of this and that this is part of his obstruction of justice investigation.

CNN has previously reported that Mueller is looking into the possibility at least of obstruction of justice and that is based on another issue, of course, that we've talked about many times, which is the firing of the FBI Director James Comey.

Anderson, you know, the bar is very high for obstruction of justice. You need to prove corrupt intentions as well. But we do know that this is something that the special counsel is looking into and what we've learned in the last 24 hours is at least another thread in that possible case.

COOPER: It does seem, and everyone we talked to last night about the story about Don McGahn reaching out said, well, look, if any White House is going to reach out to the Justice Department, it should be done through the general counsel, the White House attorney. The idea that others -- high-level officials were pressured to reach out to Sessions, that seems kind of surprising. SCIUTTO: Well, it speaks to -- listen, if there is a channel, that

may be the channel, but I spoke -- last night I spoke to a lawyer who was very senior legal position at a previous administration. I won't identify that administration, but he said under that administration, there were very clear firewalls between issues like this. That White House lawyers could explicitly not reach -- the president could not explicitly reach out to the justice department during active investigations and that that was a rule.

This is, I mean, when you look at this case it's clearly beyond just a blurring of the lines. It was an active effort, at least according to "The New York Times," reporting an active effort by the president himself to try to interrupt the attorney general's recusal from something where you had what appeared to be clear conflicts of interest.

[20:05:02] COOPER: Yes.

SCIUTTO: Listen, it's interesting enough for Robert Mueller to be looking into it. Whether it leads him to an obstruction of justice case, we don't know that yet.

COOPER: All right. Jim Sciutto -- Jim, thanks very much.

As Jim just mentioned, there is yet another dimension to the effort to keep Sessions involved in the Russia probe, which we're just now learning.

Our Jim Acosta joins us now with a story he broke.

Jim, what have you learned?


As Jim Sciutto was just talking about in the last couple of minutes, there were more officials involved in this pressure campaign to urge Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, to recuse himself or to not recuse himself in the Russia investigation. I talked to a source familiar with these conversations just a short while ago. That senior administration official told me, quote, I think it is fair to call it pressure. That is a quote from this official describing these conversations that went on between top White House officials and staff members in the attorney general's office, including the Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

And I should also point out, according to the senior administration official, this person described what was going on and the conversations regarding Jeff Sessions' decision to recuse himself or not recuse himself as being, quote, chaos. So, it sounds like, Anderson, when this was going on, when this conversation was happening between the White House and the attorney general's office, there was a very vigorous debate as to what the attorney general should do. And it sounds like, according to the senior administration official I talked to earlier this evening, that it was not just the White House counsel at the urging of the president who was leaning on the attorney general to not do this, but also top White House officials here as well -- Anderson.

COOPER: Has the White House responded to this new reporting?

ACOSTA: They have not responded and we are in the process of contacting some of these top officials, former top officials who were involved in those conversations. And we'll get back to you if that information develops.

COOPER: The president's meeting at Camp David this weekend with members of Congress, cabinet secretaries. One person who is not going to be joining him is Jeff Sessions.

Do we know why?

ACOSTA: Well, we don't -- we don't know exactly why. I did talk to a senior administration official earlier this evening about this who said, listen, the attorney general will be involved in other events with the president in the days and weeks ahead. The attorney general is not on this trip and he was not invited on this trip, but this official said this should not be looked at as a snub.

And the White House said earlier this evening, despite the fact you have various cabinet officials, you have top congressional officials and as well as top members of the president's staff, not to mention the vice president, despite the fact that they're all up there, that this should not be read as any kind of snub or message to Jeff Sessions. The White House said earlier this evening that the White House stands firmly behind Jeff Sessions.

Of course that statement coming from the White House did not say the president stands firmly behind Jeff Sessions. They're only saying the White House does at this point, Anderson.

COOPER: All right. Jim Acosta, appreciate that. Thanks.


COOPER: Whether it's the president asking Don McGahn and others to try and keep Jeff Sessions on board or the reported effort to gather dirt on James Comey, or the depiction of Michael Wolff's book of the president laying down talking points on the Trump Tower meeting that he must have known were not true, it's all focusing attention on a single question, does it add up to obstruction of justice or merely a president exercising his legitimate authorities as chief executive?

Joining us now is Richard Blumenthal, Democratic member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senator Blumenthal, we now know it wasn't just Don McGahn pressuring Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself, two other high-ranking White House officials. Do you see this as obstruction of justice?

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D-CT), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: This excellent reporting certainly indicates a key element of an obstruction of justice case, which is corrupt intent. And what is building here, it may not have reached the threshold of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, to try to shut down the investigation, to interfere with it by telling Jeff Sessions he had main control over it and stymie it if possible. And the standard here has to be a high one for any kind of obstruction case, but clearly when you're dealing with senior White House officials and the president of the United States, the bar is especially high.

But here is one point for sure -- Jeff Sessions ought to explain this kind of contact from the White House. The White House staff ought to be called before the grand jury. And I would predict there'll be convictions and indictments early in the New Year.

COOPER: Convictions and indictments of people currently on the White House staff?

BLUMENTHAL: Currently on the White House staff or past White House staff, because the momentum of this investigation is clearly building, and what is striking here is the fact that the Mueller investigation is moving methodically and meticulously. He is proceeding with great care and caution, keeping out of the public eye what we know about it comes from this extraordinary reporting, which establishes this explosive facts about obstruction of justice.

COOPER: You know, we were talking to John Dean last night on this program, obviously who was a White House counsel under the Nixon administration and did testify.

[20:10:05] He was pointing out that Don McGahn's obligation is to the office of the presidency, not to this individual president, not to President Donald Trump but to the office of the presidency. As such, I mean, he was at the center of a lot of these conversations.

If he was privy to or believes there was any kind of illegality or anything inappropriate, do you believe it's his obligation to come forward with that?

BLUMENTHAL: He has an obligation as an attorney, as well as the White House counsel, whose client is the presidency, not personally Donald Trump, to cooperate with any legitimate law enforcement investigation. So, he has some obligations here.

But what's striking also is the president's fundamental misunderstanding of the role of attorney general.


BLUMENTHAL: He wants someone to protect him. A Roy Cohn, a fixer, a henchman. And that is certainly far from what the attorney general of the United States should be.

And I'll be very blunt, Anderson, I was one of the first members of the Judiciary Committee to oppose Jeff Sessions as attorney general. I voted against him. And I've differed with him repeatedly on policies.

He did the right thing by recusing himself, there is no question about it. And for Don McGahn to try to talk him out of it I think was really a mistake.

COOPER: It's also stunning the example for the president to use of the kind of attorney general he wants being Roy Cohn, who I -- if memory serves me -- was disbarred ultimately towards the end of his career.

BLUMENTHAL: He was disbarred for a very good reason. He represented certain mob figures. He was Donald Trump's personal lawyer, as well as his fixer. That's the identification given to him in "The New York Times" story. And he also was at Senator McCarthy's side at some of the lowest points in the United States Senate.

COOPER: Look, when Sessions did recuse himself, the president, according to "The Times," erupted in anger saying he need an attorney general who protected him who he believed Bobby Kennedy did for JFK or as he believed Eric Holder did for Obama. I mean, that is not how it's supposed to work. An attorney general is not there to protect the president.

BLUMENTHAL: Far from protecting the president, he is supposed to protect the people of the United States. He is the people's lawyer. They are his client.

And this point is really fundamental to the Department of Justice, and so important for Rod Rosenstein to carry out as well. In protecting the special counsel from any kind of political interference, any kind of fear or favor and it, again, goes to one of the points I've been making that we need as Congress to protect that special counsel through legislation that would stop his firing.

There should be legislation, I hope it will be bipartisan, the bills I've introduced along with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle are bipartisan, to make sure that the president cannot fire the special counsel or fire Rod Rosenstein on the way to firing the special counsel.

COOPER: I want to turn to former FBI director Comey. According to "The Times," an aide to sessions approached a hill staffer looking for dirt on Comey because the attorney general wanted one negative article a day about the FBI director. DOJ spokeswoman denied that this happened.

But if it's true, is that appropriate? I mean, do you believe -- if that's true, do you believe Sessions should resign?

BLUMENTHAL: Inappropriate and hard to believe that the attorney general of the United States would seek dirt on his own FBI director. It so contravenes the ethic of the Department of Justice that it seems unbelievable.

But my view is that Jeff Sessions should stay in office because the calls for his resignation are part of an effort to discredit all law enforcement and to distract from the investigation as well as possibly subvert the special counsel investigation. It would be a step toward firing the special counsel, and that's why I think that the attorney general should remain in office. The calls for him to resign come mainly from the Trump sycophants and henchmen who want the investigation stopped.

COOPER: Senator Blumenthal, appreciate your time. Thank you.

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.

COOPER: Coming up next, our investigative and legal experts weigh in on what you just heard. Carl Bernstein, John Dean and Richard Ben- Veniste.

Later, more reaction to Michael Wolff's book. New reporting on Steve Bannon's reaction and Wolff's defense of his own reporting. That and more when we continue.


[20:17:46] COOPER: The breaking news that two other high-ranking officials were also involved in the attempt to keep Attorney General Sessions from recusing himself on Russia adds yet another question to the question of obstruction of justice.

Here's Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal who serves on the Judiciary Committee said about it just minutes ago.


BLUMENTHAL: This excellent reporting certainly indicates a key element of an obstruction of justice case, which is corrupt intent. And what is building here, it may not have reached the threshold of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, is clearly an effort to shut down the investigation, to interfere with it by in effect telling Jeff Sessions he had main control over it and stymie it if possible.


BURNET: So I want to continue this issue. Former Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste joins us. Former Watergate participant, star witness and defendant, Richard Nixon's White House counsel, John Dean. Also with us, CNN political analyst Carl Bernstein, who some might remember from that Washington local newspaper back in the '70s.

Carl, I mean obviously, look, the president's allies are going to say Richard Blumenthal is obviously a Democrat. He's going to say what he's going to say.

Do you think this is a possible obstruction of justice case moving closer to the president himself?

CARL BERNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. It's a possible obstruction case. There is a pattern of apparent obstruction, but that's different than a cold case.

What's extraordinary is how much we do not know about the Mueller investigation, and that makes the attempts by Donald Trump and those around him to shut down the Mueller investigation all the more vile, inappropriate and in itself perhaps an obstruction. He's being joined in this and enabled in this by senior Republicans in Congress.

And we have to ask at this point, are not these senior people in the Republican Party interested in the truth about what has happened here? Are they really that interested in putting partisan and ideological interests above the truth and above what's good for the country?

And we're rapidly approaching that as they double down. Even as the same people, some of the same ones that we're seeing quoted trying to go after this investigation are those who have told me and other reporters in private they doubt the president's stability.

[20:20:02] The same people. So --

COOPER: They've actually said that to you?

BERNSTEIN: Oh, yes. And you and I have discussed this on the air before, how many intel people, senior military leaders and Republicans in Congress going back three months ago, four months ago, you can look the clips of up you and I discussing it, having saying in private, they doubt the president's stability.

COOPER: John, I mean, Michael Wolff quotes Steve Bannon as saying, of the president, quote, he wants an unrecused attorney general. I told him if Jeff Sessions goes, Rod Rosenstein goes, Rachel Brand, the associate attorney general next in line after Rosenstein goes, will be digging down into Obama career guys and an Obama guy will be acting attorney general.

I mean, does it surprise you it was Steve Bannon of all people reportedly trying to talk the president out of a Nixon-style Saturday Night Massacre?

JOHN DEAN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, it doesn't because I think he knows his history which maybe many of the others in the White House don't. He certainly understands that. I think that was good advice. In fact, somebody in the counsel's office didn't tell him all the facts with the hope that he wouldn't fire the attorney general.

So, there are lots of problems here. I think one of the things -- one of the points Carl made, I'd like to re-enforce, and that is how little we know. Because I know how much we knew inside the White House when Carl was reporting and it looked like they had the story but they were months behind what was actually happening.

COOPER: And do you think that's the case today? For all the reporting that's gone on, you think possibly we're all months behind where Robert Mueller is?

DEAN: I do think that, yes.


Richard, how concerned should President Trump be about what Don McGahn knows and whom he has or will talk to?

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE, FORMER CHIEF OF THE WATERGATE TASK FORCE: Well, I think the president has to be concerned that his counsel is now going to be caught up in the investigation, sending his counsel over to the Department of Justice to try to countermand a decision which was recommended by the -- as far as we know, without dissent all of the professionals at the senior levels of the Justice Department who looked at the facts and said to the attorney general, look, you have got to recuse yourself from supervising an investigation in which you are a witness and possibly more seriously have involved yourself in giving testimony that is inaccurate about your meetings with the Russian ambassador.

And so, doing this certainly gives the impression that the president was very concerned with someone independent looking at the facts associated with the Russian interference with our election and related matters.

COOPER: Carl, I mean, the key point that I think is so important that Jeff Toobin made last night is that even if there was nothing illegal about anything that the Trump campaign did or had any contacts with Russia, the attempt to -- an attempt to obstruct justice, even if it's an unsuccessful attempt to obstruct justice, that in itself court after court after court has said, that is illegal.

BERNSTEIN: Of course. You know, in Watergate there was this trope that the cover-up is worse than the crime, which wasn't true. The crimes in Watergate were incredible, abusive, beyond astonishing. Yet now what is possible is that here the cover-up could be worse than the crime.

There is no question that from the beginning, Donald Trump has attempted to cover up all things Russian, tried to demean, undermine and obstruct this investigation. At what point that crosses the line into criminality and a charge of obstruction of justice, that's where we don't know enough. But certainly the pattern that we are seeing is so suggestive of no -- of obstruction of justice -- at no point since this president has taken office has he said let's do the right thing with this investigation.

COOPER: John Dean, was it ever clear if President Nixon personally green lit the Watergate burglary? That's not what really forced him from office, it was the pending articles of impeachment that included obstruction, right?

DEAN: No, it is very true he did not green light the Watergate break- in. He had no knowledge of it. In fact, to my knowledge, nobody in the White House knew they were going to break into Watergate.

What the cover-up was being motivated by in the Nixon era was the fact -- in fact, Nixon didn't know of this fully initially, was the fact that those who had broken into Watergate had earlier while working at the White House broken into Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office under the pretext of national security to try to see what Ellsberg's medical records had to try to discredit him.

[20:25:00] It was, as John Mitchell, the head of the re-election committee and former attorney general, thought that crime was worse than the bungled burglary that he approved at the Watergate. COOPER: Yes.

BERNSTEIN: There was a whole series of criminal abuse of power, including misuse of the IRS, unprecedented crimes by a president of the United States seeking to undermine the rule of law, going back to his first days in office. Not simply about intelligence gathering and his vast campaign of political espionage and sabotage.

COOPER: We've got to take a quick break. I want to keep the panel because I want to get everybody's take on something else that happened today and Carl referenced just a second. Christopher Steele, the author of the Trump dossier, could face a criminal investigation if two Republican senators get their requests approved by the Department of Justice. What all of that is about when we continue.


COOPER: Tonight, there is a new twist in the Russia investigation, two Republican senators Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and fellow committee member, Senator Lindsey Graham, want Trump dossier writer Christopher Steele to face a criminal investigation. They spelled out their concerns in a letter to the Department of Justice.

Our senior congressional correspondent Manu Raju has details.

So, Manu, what's the latest?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the two senior Republicans, Anderson, are calling for the Justice Department to investigate whether or not Christopher Steele lied to the FBI about his contacts with the news media about this dossier that, of course, that he complied looking at these allegations of Trump, Russia connections as well as Trump associates meeting with Russians during the campaign season.

Now, what Senator Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senator Lindsey Graham, who is also a senior member of that same committee, are saying is that there are some inconsistent statements that Mr. Steele made to the FBI and they want the Justice Department to look into whether or not there was any criminal wrongdoing by potentially lying to them. Now, this is so serious, according to Lindsey Graham, that he believes there should be another special counsel named to investigate this matter fully.

[20:30:00] Now, this is what Lindsey Graham says - he says, "After reviewing how Mr. Steele conducted himself in distributing information contained in the dossier and how many stop signs the DOJ ignored in its use of the dossier, I believe that a special counsel needs to review this matter. The rule of law depends on the government and all who work on its behalf playing by the rules themselves."

Now, Anderson, it's important to note that the dossier was not the basis of the investigation that the FBI launched into Trump/Russia connections. They had their own investigation ongoing. They did meet with Mr. Steele and they helped -- some of the things that he found they used as part of their investigation but it was not the basis of their own investigation.

But, Anderson, no word tonight on whether or not the Justice Department will move forward on its own investigation into Mr. Steele, who Republicans for a long time have been going after as part of their own investigations, believing that his dossier was filled with what they believe are unsubstantiated charges.

COOPER: I mean, just to be clear, they're not alleging that anything in the dossier itself is false, is that right?

RAJU: That is correct. In fact, they make very clear in their letter that the referral does not even talk about the veracity of the claims in the dossier itself. It's strictly talking about whether or not he lied about his contacts with the news media about the dossier itself.

Now, Anderson, Christopher Steele, it's important to remember, was hired by the firm Fusion GPS, that opposition research firm which was first paid for by Republicans during the primary season and was later paid for by Democrats, including the Hillary Clinton campaign during the campaign season.

And Fusion GPS wrote an op-ed for "The New York Times" earlier this week saying that they did not tell Mr. Steele who was funding his research but they just wanted him to look into these business contacts and that's how they -- how he determined that there is potential wrongdoing during the campaign season and that's why he briefed the FBI later. And, Anderson, tonight, Democrats are saying this is all a distraction and they weren't even consulted about this referral to the Justice Department, Anderson.

COOPER: All right, Manu Raju. Manu, thanks.

RAJU: Thanks.

COOPER: Back now with our panel. Carl, I mean do you think this is a distraction? Is this an attempt for -- by Republicans to run interference for the President?

CARL BERNSTEIN, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Yes. It's not just a distraction or a red herring. It's a glowing red herring in the Washington swamp. The idea this is about supposedly Steele, the author of what's called a dossier, which is actually a series of individual reports, talking to reporters. And whatever he may or may not have said to the FBI about talking to reporters. It is such a sideshow. It is another attempt to discredit the Mueller investigation.

And why on earth we cannot allow and why the members of the Congress of the United States cannot allow this investigation to continue so that we can find out what has happened here? There's plenty of time when Mueller is finished to look at all of these sideshows. That's the time to do it. But let's get on with this investigation. Let's find out what this President did, did not do.

He may be exonerated by Mueller. Give him a chance to be exonerated, but let this investigation proceed. It's lawful. It's methodical. We have no evidence whatsoever that Bob Mueller is anything but a straight up public servant. And let's cut the nonsense already because it's a real failure of our democratic institutions if this investigation is stymied any further.

COOPER: Richard, a, do you believe that Grassley and Graham are attempting to run interference, just as I asked Carl, and, b, was there similar political pushback during Watergate?

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE, FORMER CHIEF OF THE WATERGATE TASK FORCE: It looks like they're going right for the capillary here. I'm afraid I have to agree with Carl, that this is certainly not central to anything. It is a sop to the Trump camp. I'm very disappointed in Senator Graham. I testified before his subcommittee. Senator graham was clear in his assurance to me personally and on the record that the Judiciary Committee was committed to protecting the Mueller investigation. And I'm sorry to see that they're engaging in this kind of partisan diversion. It's unfortunate.

COOPER: John Dean, I mean, we talked about this briefly a little bit last night with you. The President reportedly calling -- called Comey a rat, comparing him to you. I want to just read you another brief portion of the Michael Wolff book and get your reaction. Wolff describes the President as a, "John Dean freak," who, "went bananas" whenever you were on TV comparing the situation to Watergate and there are appearances prompting President doing a "talk-back monologue to the screen about loyalty."

[20:35:02] So if the President is watching you right now, I guess what is your message to him?

JOHN DEAN, FORMER NIXON WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL: Well, my message tonight would be that this is another red herring, this sideshow that the Senate is putting on him for, and I'm not sure that there is any criminal case there. As Richard would know, and just mentioned, the relevancy of the question of whether he talked to the media versus whether he's talking to the FBI about his sources and things like that is so out of the main of the investigation that it's irrelevant. And I can't believe a prosecutor would ever pursue this as some sort of false statement to the FBI.

BEN-VENISTE: It looks like the President -- it looks like the President is channeling his inner Sonny Corleone and being upset that his attorney general is not the kind of war time conciliare that he thinks Barack Obama and Jack Kennedy had and he needs a civilian (ph) like Roy Cohn, one of the most reviled human beings of his generation, to be his conciliare here, his attorney general. And a complete misreading of what the function of the attorney general of the United States --

COOPER: And just for those who aren't as familiar with "The Godfather", Sonny was really the worst of the sons in terms of his judgment. He was the hot head. He was -- yes, didn't end well.

BEN-VENISTE: And the accidentally leader of the family when the don was laid up with gun shot wounds.

COOPER: Right.

BERNSTEIN: Let me add one thing about this whole question of leaks and the idea that, again, this sideshow is so upper most in the minds of some members of the U.S. Senate. I'm not going to name names here, but I would venture to say that most members of the U.S. Senate routinely, "Leak information to reporters almost on a daily basis that often it involves national security information, which perhaps they ought not be leaking and they ought to know better than to go down this road because they themselves would be subject to the same kind of investigation." And they wouldn't hold up very well under it.

COOPER: Carl Bernstein, John Dean, Richard Ben-Veniste, great discussion. Thank you.

We've just gotten reaction from Sean Spicer who we named at the top of the program as one of two additional high-ranking officials in trying unsuccessfully to keep Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the Russia probe. Here's what Spicer told us just moments ago, "For eight months the narrative was that I was out of the loop and now I'm part of it? I don't think so." Sort of a non-answer answer actually.

Coming up, the "Fire and Fury" author speaks out. What Michael Wolff has to say about the President's claim that he never spoke to him for that book and that it's full of lies.


[20:41:30] COOPER: Breaking news tonight, another revelation in the "Fire and Fury" saga. A Bannon ally tells CNN that after excerpts from Michael Wolff's book came out quoting Bannon saying Donald Trump Jr. was treasonous and unpatriotic, regarding that Trump Tower meeting, Bannon and his team actually drafted a statement praising Trump Jr. and the President, apparently, Bannon was decided whether to release that statement of praise and then the President released his own statement saying Bannon had lost his mind.

In other news, Michael Wolff spoke out today and said the fact that the President tried to stop the publication of his book not only helped sell the book but helps prove its point. The President's lawyer sent a letter and the President tweeted this, "I authorized zero access to White House, actually turned him down many times for author of phony book. 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 Sloppy Steve." Sloppy Steve apparently being the President's new nickname for Steve Bannon.

Here is some of what Michael Wolff had to say on the "Today" show.


MICHAEL WOLFF, AUTHOR, "FIRE AND FURY: INSIDE THE TRUMP WHITE HOUSE": I absolutely spoke to the President. Whether he realized it was an interview or not, I don't know, but it certainly was not off the record. I have recordings, I have notes. I am certainly and absolutely in every way comfortable with everything I've reported in this book.

My credibility is being questioned by a man who has less credibility than perhaps anyone who has ever walked on earth at this point. I've written many books. I've written millions upon millions of words. I don't think there has ever been one correction.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE, NBC NEWS HOST: So you stand by everything in the book, nothing made up?

WOLFF: Absolutely everything in the book.


COOPER: This is definitely a moment for Michael Wolff but it's not his first reportorial rodeo. Randi Kaye tonight has more on that.


WOLFF: This is the most extraordinary story of our time.

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Once a copy boy for "The New York Times," Michael Wolff is now media's favorite bad boy. At 64, Wolff is immersed in a world of media and money, power and politics.

MICHELLE COTTLE, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, THE ATLANTIC: He has always been very up front about the fact that that's who he wanted to be. He doesn't have an interest in being kind of a shoe leather reporter. He uses media reporting or in this case political reporting as a way to hang out with the elite that he really is fascinated by.

KAYE: Michelle Cottle, a contributing editor for "The Atlantic" who interviewed Wolff years ago describes him as part gossip columnist and part psychotherapists whose writing is so distinctive, it's more like art.

COTTLE: It is his very peculiar writing style where he'll set the scene, so he doesn't say someone said and then a quote, he will say this is what they would have said or should have said in these circumstances. So it's a little bit of art that he's sticking in there that makes it not quite a hard quote.

KAYE: In fact, Wolff has been accused of inaccuracies in his reporting over the years and his style is anything but conventional. Cottle says that Wolff doesn't work the phones like most reporters. He doesn't go on the record and off the record either. In fact, she says he frowns on conventional reporting, instead choosing simply to observe and take in the atmosphere.

Wolff has had a long and polarizing career. In the 1990s, he started an internet company. Since then, he's written for "Vanity Fair," "New York Magazine" and "The Guardian." Most recently, he worked as a columnist and media critic for the "Hollywood Reporter" and "USA Today."

[20:45:05] UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's a Michael Wolff here to see you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Read Michael Wolff and thank your lucky stars he's not writing about you, "USA Today."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is off the record.

KAYE: Wolff once wrote a scathing book about billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch, calling him the whore master of the tabloid business. Niceties are not his specialty.

COTTLE: He will go where other reporters generally won't and that earned him quite a reputation.

KAYE: And it's that buzzy, catty way of reporting and writing that readers gobble up.

COTTLE: He would make really cutting personal observations about the rich and famous and their wives and their children. He once send his child as a spy to Steve Ratner's house when he was writing about Ratner and people were appalled, but he knows that readers love that stuff and controversy is his friend.

KAYE: And that means he's in friendly confines now.

Randi Kaye, CNN, New York.


COOPER: With me now is CNN political analyst and "New York Times" White House correspondent Maggie Haberman, and back with us, CNN chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto. Excuse me.

Maggie, you've read the book. At this point based on what your knowledge of the White House with your reporting, do you have a sense of how much the book is accurate? I mean, can you put a figure on it?


COOPER: Right.

HABERMAN: It was funny, though, listening to the Michelle Cottle interview and thinking about who else we can think of who likes to issue what's described as conventions and make personally cutting remarks, it sounds a lot like the person who this book is about. There is a similarity there. There are absolutely things -- the majority of certainly notional reporting in this book is accurate. There are several --

COOPER: When you say notional reporting, you mean?

HABERMAN: I mean the idea that people working for him who either have known him for a long time or who haven't have some degree of being perplexed by him. That there is definitely a family dynamic that has vexed White House aides for a very long time. We have all written about that for a very long time as well. There is, you know, a degree to which his style is peculiar. He is certainly not interested in learning outside of his comfort zone. My colleague Glenn Thrush and Peter Baker and I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago.

A lot of it is true. There are also a lot -- and I'm not talking about like minor details. There are a lot of details that are just simply not accurate. They're getting a bit of a ride on Twitter tonight. And then there are things that people say they either didn't say or that, you know, were sort of in spirit but not quite right. And then there are things that are simply fantastical, based on what I know, such as the idea that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump had a deal to, you know, one of them run for president first, whoever had an opening. And it's not even really clear how he would have that kind of insight or that kind of an access.

And the book is designed to paint a portrayal of proximity. And he was, indeed, at the White House. I saw him at the White House a couple of times waiting in the West Wing lobby when I was there.

So I mean he was there. Under what circumstances, under what agreements people thought they were agreeing to, who knows, but, you know, the problem for the White House is they often try to have things both ways. And say, you know, not be fully in with someone on cooperating on either a book or a long magazine piece, not be fully out so they can then later disown it. The rules just aren't the same when you're the president. It doesn't work that way.

COOPER: Jim, I mean you've done extensive reporting about this Russia investigation. The things in the book regarding the meeting at Trump Tower, the crafting of the statement about that meeting, how much is in line with your report?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, myself and my colleagues reporting the essential facts or the account, rather, of the President drafting a statement which was misleading to false, frankly, about what took place in that Trump Tower meeting is not in dispute. It's certainly in line with our reporting, Maggie's reporting and others --

HABERMAN: Well, I'll asterisk that in a second.

SCIUTTO: Well, I won't -- I'm not going to say that Wolff's exact words, I'm saying the essential fact at the center of that that the President took part in drafting a -- drafting an account of the Trump Tower meeting that within 24 hours was found not to be true, right, when e-mails reported by "The New York Times" showed in fact that the lawyers involved offered information and we have since spoken to the people involved in that meeting and others where they were offering, in fact, dirt on Hillary Clinton. You know, that is very consistent with the book. Our own reporting is very consistent with the book. And that is, you know, that's a subject of Robert Mueller's investigation.


SCIUTTO: We know that as well because this is the President giving a misleading account, really a false account of what took place in that meeting. The legal questions that then arise from that, these are not resolved. Did he instruct subordinates to in effect lie, give false statements, that's a question for Robert Mueller right now, but we do know that that is something that Robert Mueller is looking in --

[20:50:10] COOPER: Right.

SCIUTTO: -- into as part of a broader look into the possibility of obstruction of justice.

COOPER: Yes. Maggie, you want to --

HABERMAN: Well, he was looking into it before this book, I mean I guess that's the only thing that I would say.

SCIUTTO: No question.

HABERMAN: This was a meeting "The New York Times" first reported on in the summer of 2017. We reported first that the President was involved in -- I balk at the word "drafting" only because that's not really how the President does these things. He kind of barks things out in conceptual and whatever. But he certainly was involved in this, was all done on Air Force One. And we reported that, as well.

So the reporting in the book matches our reporting to the extent that it is -- it is our reporting, much of it initially. And there are some details that are fleshed out. He -- what Wolff is able to do with the book that we don't have to do with daily reporting is he can paint a 300-page narrative that is a much larger picture that I think is easier for people to seize on when they are trying to get a 360 view of this book.

COOPER: Right. Reads like a novel at times.

HABERMAN: Correct.

COOPER: Maggie, thanks very much, Jim, as well.

Coming up, why federal authorities are investigating the Clinton Foundation, this is according to a U.S. official briefed on the matter. What we know, next.


COOPER: Federal authorities are actively investigating the Clinton Foundation, looking into whether donors were promised special access to Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state. U.S. official confirms the investigation to CNN. Laura Jarrett joins us now with more on that.

So what have you learned about this?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Anderson, this is a pretty serious legal development. That U.S. official tells me that the FBI and federal prosecutors down in Little Rock, Arkansas, are actively looking into whether donations to the Clinton Foundation were made in exchange for some type of political favors while Clinton was secretary of state and whether tax-exempt funds were misused in any way.

[20:55:01] But this inquiry isn't entirely new. CNN reported back in 2016 that FBI agents in different field offices had opened preliminary inquiries into whether there had been any improper dealings with donors but they didn't get very far. The inquiries fizzled out before election day, as we reported. But the Justice Department did agree that FBI agents could move forward if and when more evidence emerged down the line. Well, something has now changed, and there's an active probe, Anderson.

COOPER: I understand the investigation is being led out of the FBI field office in Little Rock, Arkansas. Do we know why there?

JARRETT: It's one of the more curious parts of the story. I have to tell you, we know that there's a Clinton Foundation office in Little Rock. And we've reported that FBI agents in Arkansas were certainly part of that original group that I mentioned doing the inquiries back in 2016. But there were also probes in New York and elsewhere. So what we're digging into now is why Arkansas one out on this legal jump ball, so to speak.

COOPER: And what have Hillary Clinton or the Clinton Foundation said in response?

JARRETT: Well, the Clinton camp pretty swiftly dismissed these allegations, calling this a politically motivated sham. And a spokesperson for the foundation told us that, look, time to time the Clinton Foundation has been subjected to political motivated allegations, and time after time these allegations have been proven false, he said.

But we've also already seen today some legal experts raising potential statute of limitations challenges that would essential serve as a bar to a successful prosecution in this type of criminal case against the foundation which is certainly always a routine issue for the defense team to look at. But we're pretty far from that stage right now, Anderson.

COOPER: All right, Laura Jarrett, thanks very much.

Coming up, the latest on another investigation, one that has Washington in its grips with no signs of slowing down. New reporting on the Russia investigation, the President, the Attorney General, and his recusal, and update also from the White House, next.