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NYT: Trump Tried To Block Sessions' Recusal; Book: Trump Insisted On False Story On Russian Meeting; Feds Actively Investigating Clinton Foundation. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired January 5, 2018 - 11:00   ET


ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: Happy Friday. I'm Ana Cabrera in for Kate Bolduan. Thanks for being here. This morning, a stunning report sending shockwaves through the White House raising new questions about whether the president of the United States attempted to obstruct justice.

"The New York Times" is reporting President Trump gave firm instructions in March to the White House's top lawyer, stop the Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself in the Justice Department's investigation into whether Mr. Trump's associates helped a Russian campaign to disrupt the 2016 election.

And the "Times" reports that the president wanted Sessions, a loyal ally, to protect him from the Russia probe. It says Special Counsel Robert Mueller uncovered that lobbying attempt and other incidents that could potentially factor into an obstruction case.

CNN justice correspondent, Jessica Schneider is in our Washington bureau. Jessica, bring us the details.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ana, the president apparently erupted in anger in front of several White House officials when Jeff Sessions did recuse himself from the Russia probe because White House Counsel Don McGahn, he was unsuccessful apparently in lobbying the attorney general to stay on in overseeing the probe.

So, "The New York Times" reports that president repeatedly voiced his belief that the role of the attorney general is to protect the president and that Jeff Sessions should, in turn, protect him.

According to the "Times, they put it this way, they said Mr. Trump said he had expected his top law enforcement official to safeguard him the way he believed John F. Kennedy and Eric H. Holder Jr. had for Barack Obama.

So, Mr. Trump then asked, where is my Roy Cohn. Now the president there referring to his former personal lawyer, known as a fixer, and Roy Cohn was also Senator Joe McCarthy's top aide during the investigations into communist activity back in the 1950s.

But really, it's these themes of loyalty, protection, those have been the themes of the Trump presidency, President Trump's belief in urging that top officials in his government in law enforcement should be loyal to him. It's something the president touched on in that "New York Times" interview last week. He talks about Attorney General Holder, attorney general for Barack Obama, who, in his belief, had been loyal to President Obama.

So, Ana, we really have seen this here, this kind of putting a point on it. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been in the cross hairs of President Trump repeatedly over the first year and we're sort of seeing this as it played out throughout the past year in this "Times" article -- Ana.

CABRERA: And, of course, the theme of loyalty came up with James Comey and his testimony to Congress. "The New York Times" reporting that the president lashed out about then FBI Director James Comey. Tell us more about that.

SCHNEIDER: Yes. The president reportedly erupted again when James Comey testified publicly for that first time last March and at the time, FBI Director Comey, then FBI Director Comey refused to answer questions when asked about whether or not the president was personally under investigation.

That was something that Comey later testified that he did tell the president at the White House but didn't want to come out with publicly. The "Times" reports after the hearing in March when Comey was still FBI director, that's when the president first began to openly discuss his desire to fire Comey.

And, of course, that firing eventually came in May. So, in addition to that, the "Times" is also reporting this, saying that the special counsel has received handwritten notes from Mr. Trump's former chief of staff, Reince Priebus showing that Mr. Trump talked to Mr. Priebus about how he had called Mr. Comey to urge him to say publicly that he was not under investigation.

So, these notes from Reince Priebus now in the hands of the special counsel. Of course, that's something that James Comey testified about after he was fired in June, he was fired in May, but it was June public hearing.

And Comey did say that he took notes after the president made his play, and Ana, now we're seeing from this "Times" report that it looks like Special Counsel Mueller's team has these notes from Reince Priebus also backing this up. That the president asked him to make public that he wasn't under personal investigation -- Ana.

CABRERA: One more piece of the puzzle, more evidence now we are learning that Mueller has at his disposal. Thank you very much, Jessica Schneider, for that report.

Another headache for the White House this morning is this bombshell book that officially is on sale now and flying off the shelves. The author and publisher are ignoring the threats of the White House lawsuit and they are rushing distribution of "Fire and Fury" inside the Trump White House. One of the more troubling claims revolves around that 2016 Trump Tower meeting with the Russian lawyer who claimed to have dirt on Hillary Clinton. These were the players and people at that meeting. See it included Trump's son, son-in-law, then campaign manager.

Author Michael Wolff says President Trump personally got involved in crafting a false cover story. He writes, the president insisted that the meeting in Trump Tower was purely and simply about Russian adoption policy.

[11:05:03] That's what was discussed, period. Period. Even though it was likely if not certain that the "Times" had the incriminating e- mail chain. It was quite possible that Jared and Ivanka and the lawyers knew the "Times" had this e-mail chain. The president ordered that no one should let on to the more problematic discussion about Hillary Clinton."

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is at the White House with the fiery response there -- Kaitlan.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes. Ana, certainly a key passage there that you just read in this new book that is dominating the news cycle because Trump Jr. himself acknowledged that he took that meeting because he was promised incriminating information on Hillary Clinton.

So, if what Michael Wolff writes there is true, it raises the question of why was the president insisting that that meeting was about Russian adoption when it so clearly was not, and it also could form the basis for those allegations of a cover-up and personally involves the president in that statement.

So, certainly a lot of questions being raised there. But for right now, the White House is dismissing many of the claims in this book as complete fantasy with the president himself specifically saying that he did not grant Michael Wolff access like Michael Wolff says he did.

With the president tweeting overnight, "I authorized zero access to the White House, actually turned him down many times for the author of the phony book. I never spoke to him for the 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."

Now, of course, the author of this book, Michael Wolff, directly contradicted the president this morning in an interview when he said this.


MICHAEL WOLFF, AUTHOR, "FIRE AND FURY INSIDE THE TRUMP WHITE HOUSE": What was I doing there if he didn't want me to be there? I absolutely -- I absolutely spoke to the president, whether he realized it was an interview or not, I don't know. It was not off the record. I spoke to him after the inauguration, yes, and I had spoken to -- I've spent about three hours with the president over the course of the campaign and in the White House. So, my window into Donald Trump is pretty significant.


COLLINS: So, as you see there, Ana, certainly two different stories coming from the author of this book and from the White House. But what is clear today is the president's cease and desist order that he sent to the publisher of this book has backfired because not only has the book been published and released they decided to release it four days early here -- Ana.

CABRERA: Kaitlan Collins at the White House, thanks.

Let's bring in panel, Richard Ben-Veniste, a CNN legal analyst and a former Watergate special prosecutor, and Chris Cilizza, reporter and editor-at-large for CNN Politics. Guys, thanks. Lots to talk about here.

Richard, let's talk about that latest reporting from Kaitlan, Michael Wolff saying the president had great input, in fact, on the statement that was crafted on board Air Force One about the Trump Tower meeting and that statement we know did not give the whole story. In fact, it didn't give the part that really matters here, and the president knew it. He wanted to make sure that Hillary Clinton stuff wasn't revealed. Do you see a crime here?

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, you don't have a crime in making a false public statement, but what it is, is a part of what seems to be a tendency of the White House to go to cover up wherever there is a choice between telling the truth and coming up with some fabricated story.

Here again, as we saw from the very beginning, the inconsistencies in the story led directly to Donald Trump dictating a false story about adoptions in place of what actually happened at this meeting when there were so many people who could contradict that initial cover-up story.

CABRERA: So, a cover-up isn't a crime, though?

BEN-VENISTE: A cover-up, if it's an obstruction of justice and has other aspects to it, most definitely can be a crime. It is not a crime simply to make a false public statement.

CABRERA: Got you.

BEN-VENISTE: And if so, the president would be indicted for a thousand counts of making false statements in public. But it is a piece, as I say, a more serious inquiry into whether the president was at the center of directions for Flynn and others to tell investigating authorities a different story than comports with the truth.

CABRERA: Right. And you talk about the idea of obstruction of justice which we're going to get into more, but Chris, the president and the White House, is now saying that this whole book is full of lies. In fact, they say that's where the falsehoods are. They aren't pinpointing specific things other than disputing the assertion that the president didn't know John Boehner, for example, politically how strong is their defense?

CHRIS CILIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER AND EDITOR-AT-LARGE: Well, it's probably necessary more than it is strong, Ana. They couldn't ignore this book, given the allegations, given the way in which it casts President Trump, given the way it casts the sort of broader Trump world.

[11:10:11] They had to engage. Is their engagement effective? Among people who already believe everything that they say, sure. What's hard is they're trying at least to have their cake and eat it too. They are trying to say the book is all lies, totally made up, never met with the president, 30 requests Sarah Huckabee Sanders said were denied by Wolff to meet with the president and senior staff, that's one.

On the other, the president is now describing Steve Bannon, his former top strategist, as Sloppy Steve, calling him a leaker, so all of that is through Wolff's book. So, it's hard to reconcile the idea that the book is all made up and he had no access -- Wolff had no access with the fact that the president seems to be taking Steve Bannon's quotes seriously and all those quotes are on the record. Those quotes from Michael Wolff's reporting as well.

CABRERA: And Bannon hasn't denied any of those quotes.


CABRERA: Richard, I want to turn to "The New York Times" report that the president ordered the White House lawyer, Don McGahn, the White House lawyer, not the president's own personal lawyer, but the White House lawyer, to urge Sessions not to recuse himself from this Russia probe because he needed Sessions to protect him. The president is even quoted as saying where's my Roy Cohn. Richard, what's your reaction to that?

BEN-VENISTE: Well, this strikes me as one more bizarre example of how the president has no familiarity with what the norm is in terms of his relationship to the federal government and the institutions of the federal government.

He seems to be channeling his inner Sonny Corleone, who in "The Godfather" was upset because Tom Hagan was insufficiently Sicilian and he puts Sessions in the role of Tom Hagan and says I need a war time conciliary (ph) like Obama got with Holder and Jack Kennedy got with Bobby and all I got was Sessions.

Where is my Roy Cohn, referring to the pond scum of the New York BAR, Roy Cohn, who had an inglorious history of being thrice indicted for federal crimes and was reviled among people for his work with Joe McCarthy.

CABRERA: Ben, on that bigger picture, though, is it OK for him -- appropriate for him to be ordering the White House counsel to go tell Sessions not to recuse himself?

BEN-VENISTE: Well, it's quite inappropriate and Sessions was following the advice of long-time professionals at the Justice Department who quite clearly looked at the facts and said, look, Mr. Sessions, as attorney general, you cannot be in charge of an investigation in which you are implicated as a witness and perhaps have done something inappropriate in how you have responded to questions about your contacts yourself with the Soviet -- with the Russian Ambassador Kislyak and so attacking that --


BEN-VENISTE: -- is extraordinary. Of course, Trump finds himself in the remarkable position of having an independent person of the highest repute, Robert Mueller, being in the position to conduct an investigation. He was like hit on the head with a mallet when he recognized how events had evolved and --


BEN-VENISTE: -- and was so disoriented and enraged by this that he lashed out about everybody at everybody near him including his White House counsel, Don McGahn, who apparently saluted and dutifully trotted over to the Justice Department to try to persuade the attorney general not to recuse, which was futile and appropriately so.

CABRERA: We know how that ended. Chris, this is yet another example, as Ben mentions, that the president seems to be treating the Justice Department in a way we haven't seen before.

CILIZZA: Yes. Richard is right. I think what you see is in Donald Trump, this is true in this case and true sort of more broadly across how he treats the government and members of the House and Senate. He doesn't seem to either grasp or care to grasp, and I don't know which one it is.

The difference between being a businessman who runs a company, you know, all these people work for you, you want to fire them, do your bidding they can quit or do your bidding and sort of the norms that past presidents have acknowledged and operated under.

[11:15:11] Which is yes, the Justice Department is technical under the broad umbrella of the federal bureaucracy which Donald Trump sits atop, but has long sort of treasured and cherished the role of independent. It's not a Trump Justice Department or Obama Justice Department. It's the Justice Department.

CABRERA: For the American people.

CILIZZA: Correct. Donald Trump doesn't seem to care about that the way he doesn't grasp the idea that members of Congress are elected in their own right, and their own bosses as opposed to them doing whatever he tells them to do.

CABRERA: Instead of serving the president. Chris Cilizza and Richard Ben-Veniste, thank you very much for the conversation.

We have a programming note, tonight, a CNN special report "The Trump- Russia Investigation". CNN's Pamela Brown will break down all the key players and where the investigation could be headed next. That's tonight at 10:00 Eastern only on CNN.

It's time for Jeff Sessions to go, that's a quote. An explosive rallying cry now coming from a pair of conservative lawmakers in a blistering op-ed targeting the attorney general. They are blasting his handling of the Russian investigation the same Russian investigation from which he has recused himself.

Plus, breaking news this morning, the feds are now actively investigating the Clinton Foundation amid allegations of promising special favors and access in exchange for donations. Stay with us.



CABRERA: We have some breaking news out of Washington, federal authorities are investigating claims of corruption tied to the Clinton Foundation. That is the charity of Bill and Hillary Clinton.

CNN justice reporter, Laura Jarrett is joining us with more details on this. Laura Jarrett, fill us in.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Hi, Ana. Well, CNN has learned that federal authorities down in Arkansas are now actively investigating the Clinton family foundation for public corruption -- alleged public corruption.

A U.S. official tells me that the FBI and federal prosecutors down in Little Rock are specifically digging into whether foundation donors were improperly promised policy favors or special access to Clinton while she was secretary of state in exchange for donations to the charity's coffers.

They're examining whether non-profit tax laws were followed. CNN reported back in November of 2016 that the FBI had opened preliminary inquiries into whether there had been any sort of impropriety with the foundation's dealings and money and that caused some tensions within the bureau and the Justice Department.

And so, the current inquiry, at least in part, as a continuation of that probe, that originated before the presidential election, but what's unclear is precisely what new evidence, if any, ignited the current federal investigation after those initial inquiries were stalled.

Now the Clinton camp is pushing back very hard against this news as Nick Merrill, a spokesman, for Clinton told me. Let's call this what it is, a sham, and a spokesperson for the Clinton Foundation said the Clinton Foundation has been subjected to politically motivated allegations and time after time those allegations have been proven false.

Nevertheless, this probe comes in the midst of a really sensitive time for the Justice Department under this administration as the president continues to demand time after time that his political rival be investigated while the Justice Department stays silent -- Ana. CABRERA: The question surrounding Jeff Sessions coming from both camps, in fact, Democrats and Republicans alike. Laura Jarrett, thank you.

I want to talk more about Attorney General Jeff Sessions. There are now calls for him to resign, growing louder from within the GOP, Conservative House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan, a member who sits on the Oversight and Judiciary Committees, they've written an op-ed for "The Washington Examiner," and in it, they criticize Sessions handling of the Russia election meddling investigation.

Here's Congressman Jordan speaking a short time ago to Fox News.


REPRESENTATIVE JIM JORDAN (R), OHIO: I like Jeff Sessions. I want you to do your job. We expected a different process and treatment and a different Justice Department when you took over.


CABRERA: Joining me now Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of California. Congressman Rohrabacher, thanks for being here. So, now we have Sessions facing calls to resign from Meadows and Jordan over the Russia probe. You and others are angered over his latest action on marijuana. Does Sessions need to resign?

REP. DANA ROHRABACHER (R), CALIFORNIA: Let me put it this way, the American people and now are getting a taste of what people in Washington have known over this last year and that is Jeff Sessions betrays the people who have had faith in him.

Faith in him to do his job and faith in him not to succumb to pressures from the outside like from CNN and other news bureaus to try to do their bidding. This is -- when he recused himself from this whole Russia thing, he knew he was setting in motion the establishment of a special prosecutor.

And a special prosecutor as happens in Washington, we understand is just giving unlimited power to someone to go after you, and not just you, but to go after anybody they want to go after. And you don't do that unless there is some really tangible reason for that and Jeff Sessions had no real reason to recuse himself.

CABRERA: So does he need to resign?

ROHRABACHER: Well, you know, I think -- I don't -- I can't call out myself. All I can tell you is people have a legitimate right -- the president has a legitimate right to say that he was betrayed just like Jeff Sessions betrayed us --

CABRERA: You don't want to answer that question.

ROHRABACHER: This issue was supposed to be about cannabis. Let me note -- CABRERA: We'll talk about cannabis for sure.


CABRERA: I definitely plan to get to that. But this is, obviously, news of day real fast.


CABRERA: On the issue of Sessions' involvement in the Russia investigation, that leads us really to "The New York Times" reporting that the president ordered the White House counsel to urge Sessions not to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. And now some are saying that could be obstruction of justice. Is it?

[11:25:11] ROHRABACHER: That's exactly why you don't want a special prosecutor. Here you have a special prosecutor who set in motion to try to find collusion between Trump -- the Trump campaign and the Russian government, all right, and now, is obstruction of justice about the conversations had about that. This is -- this is just why you don't want a special prosecutor because it's making this into a felony because there's no restrictions on special prosecutors at all, zero.

CABRERA: Let me remind you the special counsel is a Republican who served under both Democrats and Republicans, and was appointed as an FBI director by a Republican president. When you talk about no reason for recusal, forgive me in all due respect, other legal minds have suggested --

ROHRABACHER: With all due respect --

CABRERA: -- he had to recuse himself. Just a moment, I mean you have Walter Shop, the former ethics czar under President Obama saying that because Sessions was a member of the Trump campaign, we heard this from Richard Ben-Veniste saying in our last segment, because he was a member of the campaign he could be a witness involved in the Russia probe and for that very reason --

ROHRABACHER: Your guest say a few words -- maybe somebody who is your guest should be able to say a few words. Your last interviews had nobody on the other side of the issue coming in to have the discussion with CNN. Maybe you should give me a chance when you have -- when you have me on your program to express my opinion rather than have you try to refute every point that I make.

Let the public decide some of these things and in terms of what's going on with the special prosecutor, it is exactly why the president should have been concerned. Now we have a situation, the special prosecutor is supposed to look at a collusion between the Donald Trump administration and the campaign and the Russian government, all right.

And instead, now, they're getting into was his reaction to this, was some words he said to somebody, obstruction of justice. This special prosecutor has only come up with a couple of things and they were all happened before the election, before there was an election. Manafort who the special prosecutor has indicted and gotten to agree to some sort of plea bargain, he's -- he's been looked at --

CABRERA: He hasn't --

ROHRABACHER: Before he had any association.

CABRERA: Paul Manafort has not pleaded guilty.

ROHRABACHER: That's why you don't want to have -- that's why you don't want to have a special prosecutor. Please, you might let me make my point and --

CABRERA: You did. I have to make sure we have the facts.

ROHRABACHER: -- to try to refute me. This isn't a news operation. This what is the president is upset about. He's not getting a fair share from you and from the other media and things like this that will try to build into something sinister has happened. Oh, he had a conversation because he was upset that Jeff Sessions recused himself and thus laid open everybody to unlimited investigation and innuendos like the ones we're hearing today.

CABRERA: OK. Well, I think that the jury is still out whether there was obstruction. The jury is out whether there was collusion.

ROHRABACHER: There's no jury out. A special prosecutor who is out of control. No, there's a special prosecutor who is out of control --

CABRERA: You made your point on that.

ROHRABACHER: -- who is taking his direction from the news media like yourself.

CABRERA: So, you do not have confidence in Robert Mueller?

ROHRABACHER: No. I don't have confidence in Robert Mueller. I don't have confidence they should have -- that a special prosecutor should be brought in to look at specific actions. Rather than giving them what we -- what happens and what's happened with Robert Mueller, just a universe from what they can select on what they're going to focus on.

CABRERA: Have you talked to the FBI or Robert Mueller?

ROHRABACHER: Look, the only thing Manafort has been -- is now been looked at and exposed for is something he supposedly did long before he had anything to do with Donald Trump.

CABRERA: OK. And he is now suing the special counsel because of that.

ROHRABACHER: Let me finish my point.

CABRERA: Excuse me, Congressman, excuse me --

ROHRABACHER: Excuse me --

CABRERA: You have made that point. May I ask you another question, a follow-up question.

ROHRABACHER: Yes, you can interrupt me again. Go ahead.

CABRERA: Paul Manafort is pushing back on that himself and we have reported on this very program about his lawsuit against the special counsel right now and as well as the Justice Department for the appointment of the special counsel and his authority. So that we have talked about.

But I'm curious if you yourself have talked to the FBI or Robert Mueller's team? I know you have gone before the Senate Intelligence Committee to talk about your contacts with Russia, your meetings with Russians, with Wikileaks leader, Julian Assange, as well?


CABRERA: Have you talked to Mueller's team as well? Have you been interviewed?

ROHRABACHER: I've -- I have talked to everybody who wants to talk to me.