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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Interview With Former New York Congressman Michael Grimm; Tillerson on Trump; Furious Fallout; Grimm Distances Himself from Bannon As Campaign Continues; Tillerson: Relationship Between U.S. & Russia "Strained". Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired January 5, 2018 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[16:00:07] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: So, President Trump has a new nickname for his former chief strategist.

He calls him Sloppy Steve, Sloppy Steve Bannon. I might have gone two Stevie Two-Shirts. THE LEAD starts right now.

President Trump facing a bomb cyclone of revelations and attacks from inside his own West Wing, as a book he tried to stop flies off the shelves this morning and the president tries to fight back with a new nickname.

He once reportedly called the president a moron. Today, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sits down with CNN and breaks with his boss about the impact of the Russia probe around the world.

And the author of "Fire and Fury" today standing by the picture he paints of a White House filled with madness fueled by President Trump's own erratic behavior. Has any war inside the West Wing ever come anywhere close to this?

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Defying the advice of his aides and the generally accepted belief that giving a scandal more oxygen only serves to further ignite the flames, President Trump is lighting up Twitter today with a new line of attack against his former chief strategist Steve Bannon, whom he has now dubbed Sloppy Steve.

The attempt to change the subject and Mr. Bannon's sartorial style and the president's unique gift for nasty branding does not, of course, erase the book "Fire and Fury" by author Michael Wolff that has so upset the president.

The book contains quotes from Bannon assailing Donald Trump Jr. as unpatriotic and treasonous for his meeting with the Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton, nor does it change the accounts in the book or in "The New York Times" today raising questions about whether President Trump was viewed by members of his own legal team as attempting to object justice and imperil his own presidency.

"The New York Times" today reports that President Trump ordered White House lawyer Don McGahn to try to stop Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the Russia investigation and that a deputy for Mr. McGahn purposefully misled the president about whether the president could fire FBI Director Comey without cause, the attorney trying to protect the president from his own worst instincts.

"Fire and Fury," which went on sale this morning, depicts the president and his inner circle on Air Force One concocting the false story that the Trump Tower meeting with the Russian lawyers was about adoptions.

Writes the author: "It was a real-time example of denial and cover-up. The persistent Trump idea that it's not a crime to lie to the media was regarded by the legal team as at best reckless and in itself potentially actionable, an explicit attempt to throw sand into the investigation's gears."

The spokesman for the president's legal team, Mark Corallo, resigned -- quote -- "privately confiding that he believed the meeting on Air Force One misrepresented a likely obstruction of justice," the author writes.

My political panel is here with me to break down all of today's developments.

But let's go to the White House, where we find CNN's Jeff Zeleny.

And, Jeff, the White House says that the author, Michael Wolff, barely spoke with the president. They're calling the book fantasy, fiction. You're at the White House every day. Did you run into him?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Jake, we saw Michael Wolff a lot here last year. He was a fixture on the campaign trail in 2016 and that continued here in the West Wing.

You would see him coming and going, but not through the same entrances that reporters like myself and others use.

Through the actual official entrance. So, he was able to watch the comings and goings, essentially be a fly on the wall in the West Wing. All of this now as the White House for the third day in a row tries to discredit this book.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump heading off today for a weekend retreat with Republican leaders.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're going to Camp David with a lot of the great Republican senators and we're making America great again.

ZELENY: But not answering questions about his anger over the bombshell book about his first year in the White House. As "Fire and Fury": Inside the Trump White House" was released today, four days early, the president took his contempt to Twitter.

"I authorized zero access to White House. Actually turned him down for 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 what happens to him and Sloppy Steve."

And with that, a not-so-flattering presidential nickname was coined for Steve Bannon, his former chief strategist now embroiled in a feud with the Trump family over his blistering comments in the new book. Author Michael Wolff speaking out today for the first time about his withering picture of the president and his fitness for office.

MICHAEL WOLFF, AUTHOR, "FIRE AND FURY: INSIDE THE TRUMP WHITE HOUSE": I will tell you the one description that's everyone gave, everyone has in common. They all say he is like a child. And what they mean by that is he has a need for immediate gratification. It's all about him.

ZELENY: Appearing on NBC's "Today Show," Wolff defended his portrayal of a deeply dysfunctional West Wing.

[16:05:00]

WOLFF: My window into Donald Trump is pretty significant, but even more to the point, I spent this -- I spent -- and this was really sort of the point of the book -- I spoke to people who spoke to the president on a daily, sometimes minute-by-minute basis.

ZELENY: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told CNN's Elise Labott he did not agree with those who questioned the president's ability to serve.

REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I have never questioned his mental fitness. I have no reason to question his mental fitness.

ZELENY: For a second straight day, allies of the president also defended his capacity for the Oval Office, a central question of Wolff's book.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is just an absurd allegation by someone who has talked to a lot of disgruntled people at the White House.

ZELENY: Meanwhile, the president once again mocked the Russia investigation, saying on Twitter: "Collusion with Russia is proving to be a total hoax."

Yet it's new questions about potential obstruction of justice that now hang over the White House. A source close to Attorney General Jeff Sessions confirmed to CNN that White House counsel Don McGahn tried to dissuade Sessions from recusing himself in the Justice Department's Russia investigation.

"The New York Times" was first to report the president ordered that effort and also said an aide to Sessions sought to find damaging information about FBI Director James Comey four days before he was fired.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: Now, as for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, he is not on the invitation list for the Camp David retreat with several members of the Cabinet. The defense secretary is there, the secretary of state is there, the secretary of education is there, as well as other members of the Cabinet.

Jeff Sessions not on that list with Republican leaders that is going on this afternoon, tonight and into tomorrow.

A White House official had this to say about why the attorney general is not on the list. Let's take a look. "The press should stop using the long-planned meeting with congressional leaders to take cheap shots at the attorney general. The White House stands firmly behind him."

Jake, that may be, but the invitation still did not go to the attorney general -- Jake.

TAPPER: Yes, we're the ones taking cheap shots at him. That's right. Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thank you so much.

Let's get to my political panel.

Let's talk about this book to start with. The White House says the president never sat down with author Michael Wolff and only had a brief conversation on the phone. Here is Michael Wolff's side of the story.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WOLFF: 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 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.

But even more to the point, I spent this -- I spent -- and this was really sort of the point of the book -- I spoke to people who spoke to the president on a daily, sometimes minute-by-minute basis.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: President Trump also tweeted last night that he authorized zero access to the White House for Michael Wolff, which caused some White House reporters to note maybe you didn't, but somebody did, because they saw him at the White House all the time. So who do you believe?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, I don't believe for a second that he was not granted any access, because Trump would have said something about it if he didn't want him there. He's not super shy about pushing back on people he doesn't want around.

Look, I think this book feels a bit like a symbol for the unreliable narrator problem we have in this administration. It's sometimes the president himself. It's sometimes the people who surround the president. Sometimes, it's the reporter or the author of the book, where we don't

know where they're getting their information and whether it's on the record and who it is coming from. It's not clear who to believe on each individual part, each individual story here. And I'm trying to evaluate each one. That seems like sort of the pickle that we're in here.

But I think he 100 percent had access because this White House is sort of famously reckless about who it gives access to, and as in the case of Scaramucci, unclear about whether they're on the record or not at any given time. And that's not the reporter's fault.

TAPPER: Yes, I think that's right.

Hilary, what do you think? President Trump is saying this guy didn't have access, he never interviewed me. And Michael Wolff is saying...

HILARY ROSEN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: And we have Jeff Zeleny saying that reporters saw him at the White House all the time.

TAPPER: Yes.

ROSEN: I think that story goes by the wayside.

Look, I think this is a broader issue. I mean, I have, you know, worked for presidents. I have -- there is this sort of managing up that occurs when you work for a president or, frankly, any, you know, major figure, so that there is a little bit of a, what's the mood like, how are you handling this, what's the best way to get the answer you want? There is some of that.

But what we see with this White House is the degree to which there is a lack of faith in the solid core of this president in this reporting is really I think what is so astounding and how widespread it is.

And the fact that all of these people consistently make these points anonymously to other sources -- Michael Wolff is not the first reporter to get this kind of a story out of the White House -- it just goes to show you how little Donald Trump actually seeks genuine input, how difficult it is to actually work with him as on a collegial basis, because if you have got a boss that's listening to you, that's absorbing, that you believe in, that you fight for, that has a similar philosophy, you don't go and do all this.

[16:10:18]

TAPPER: No, you don't trash him.

ROSEN: You don't talk to reporters that way.

TAPPER: And, Jackie, initially, people who were quoted in the book said, I never said that, I never said that, and then it was revealed that Michael Wolff had recordings of conversations.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.

TAPPER: Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WOLFF: I work like every journalist works, so I have recordings, I have notes. I am certainly and absolutely in every way comfortable with everything I have reported in this book.

QUESTION: Would you stand by everything in the book? Nothing made up?

WOLFF: Absolutely everything in the book.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KUCINICH: All we have sort of heard is what might -- what the disconnect might be is that he was -- may have been talking to some of these people and they didn't realize they were on the record.

He sort of has a reputation for doing that. And, again, to Hillary and Mary Katharine's point, they let him in the White House anyway. There is a "USA Today" ad for Michael Wolff's column where someone is sitting in their office and he finds out Michael Wolff is coming to their office and he jumps out the window with a rope.

Seriously, a 15-second ad that "USA Today" put out advertising his column. So this was not a secret that this person could come back to bite you. And yet it seems like all the reporting seems to point to Steve Bannon's vanity that allowed him in the door.

ROSEN: I think it's more than that. I think these guys are hungry for people to know a story about Donald Trump they're afraid to stay directly.

HAM: Well, wait. Hold on. There is another issue here, and it's confirmation bias, which is a lot of people are hungry to hear that story.

ROSEN: Yes, that's true.

HAM: There are a lot of people -- there are reporters who suspect it. And, by the way, I'm inclined to believe...

(CROSSTALK)

ROSEN: They may be both true.

HAM: They could be both true.

I'm also aware that I'm inclined to believe some of these things about the president. I have been pretty skeptical about him the entire way here.

But I also want to be wary of the fact that the Trumps are strange people, different people. They live in a different world than I do.

TAPPER: Yes, sure. Unique. HAM: And so you can put out a lot of things about them and you can

say, huh, well, I could see that happening. But I want to be careful about how this is sourced and which of these things I actually believe.

I think a lot of people are looking to believe a lot of the things.

KUCINICH: And some of these things are rumors, nasty rumors, that we have all heard about Donald Trump.

But, on the other hand, you don't believe them, because it doesn't seem plausible that he can't read. Things like that are in this book that, again, it's just nasty and it's in the ether. Everyone's heard it, but no one's ever written it down as fact.

ROSEN: It doesn't say he can't read. It says he won't read, that he's not a studier.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Referred to him as semi-literate.

Everyone, stick around. We have a lot more to come about.

Coming up, burnt bridges over "Fire and Fury." One former Republican congressman who wants his job back is now picking President Trump over Steve Bannon. New York's Michael Grimm is here to tell us why next.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:16:33] TAPPER: Welcome back. I'm Jake Tapper.

Let's continue with our politics lead. President Trump trying to bury his former chief strategist Steve Bannon. First the president said publicly that Bannon lost his mind. Then the White House said "Breitbart", where Bannon serves as executive chairman, should consider firing him. And now, President Trump wants to hit Bannon where it hurts, his wallet, by talking to Bannon's biggest financial backer, Rebekah Mercer.

Trump tweeting this morning, quote, the Mercer family recently dumped the leaker known as sloppy Steve Bannon. Smart.

On top of all of that, candidates backed by Bannon seem to be distancing themselves from him in the wake of the revelations from this book, including my next guest Michael Grimm, who after a seven- month prison term for tax evasion is now running for his former congressional seat which represents Staten Island, New York.

Mr. Grimm, thank you so much for joining me.

I want to ask you about your distancing yourself from Bannon. You tweeted this picture of you and Bannon on October 4th, three days after you announced your campaign. This week you, quote, strongly denounce the comments from Steve Bannon.

What does this mean? Is Bannon not going to play any more role in your campaign at all?

MICHAEL GRIMM (R), NEW YORK CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: No. Well, I mean, from the very beginning I said one of the main reasons why I'm running for Congress is to forward President Trump's agenda and the pro-American agenda. And I cannot work with anyone that does not want to forward that agenda and that will do anything that will harm the Trump administration. And I think that this book as a whole is harmful because it's a major distraction. We just came off a great year for the president and for the administration, and yet what we're talking about are these salacious allegations in this book.

TAPPER: What is it about specifically that bothers you the most about the allegations? Is it the way that Bannon describes Donald Trump Jr. as unpatriotic and treasonous? Is it his criticisms of the president's temperament or not taking advice? What specifically has upset you?

GRIMM: Well, I think, you know, first and foremost, I've been strongly saying over and over again that anyone that gives any credence to this Russia-gate or the Russian collusion story is adding fuel to a fire that is only, in my humble but professional opinion, is a political witch-hunt. So that in and of itself is very harmful to this administration.

And I don't think anyone should ever take shots at anyone's children. That's just I think something that -- that's how I was raised and I think especially when you're talking about the president of the United States.

Listen, I understand that, you know, especially in the media there are a lot of people that don't like the president. He's had a tough run with the media. He often is out there, you know, counterpunching and defending himself. But to go after his family to me is crossing a line.

TAPPER: Let me ask you, you called the Russia investigation a witch- hunt. What was your response when you read the e-mails that Donald Trump Jr. himself put out that show he had a meeting in Trump Tower with a woman that had been sold to him as a Russian government lawyer promising dirt on the Hillary Clinton during the campaign.

Did that not alarm you? That even if there wasn't evidence of collusion from that meeting, there was a willingness to get dirt from a foreign government about a political opponent?

GRIMM: Well, I think when -- you know, again, when you're doing operational research during a campaign, you take whatever information is at the table. Now I would never work with a foreign government, but, again, these are people that have never been in politics before. It certainly doesn't show collusion. You know, there is no evidence so far well over a year of an investigation that shows any collusion whatsoever. And that's the point.

Listen, there is a special counsel put in place, but yet no one can say what specific statute has been breached.

[16:20:04] You know, I don't know of a collusion statute. But what statute has been breached that this investigation is predicated upon?

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Well, there have been two -- I mean, with all due respect, there have been two guilty pleas, lying to the FBI, both times about conversations with Russians. And then two indictments for money laundering having to do with a pro-Russian party in Ukraine. I mean, it's not like there is nothing there.

GRIMM: Right. But, again, what you're looking at is none of those indictments have anything to do specifically with Russia collusion or more specifically the Trump presidency or candidacy. You know, what Paul Manafort may or may not have done before has nothing to do with the campaign from Donald Trump.

TAPPER: I could go on about that but I do want to ask you about Bannon because you I know consider yourself a loyal guy. You talked about that earlier today, that loyalty is very important to you.

Let me play devil's advocate here. You're a convicted felon. You once threatened to throw a reporter off a balcony and break him half like a boy. You apologized for that. The reporter accepted the apology. But you would probably admit it wasn't your greatest moment.

Bannon stuck his neck out for you after you were released from prison and you wanted to get back into public life. For a guy who went to jail, don't you think you're being a little unforgiving?

GRIMM: Well, first, let me say, you know, when you say that convicted felon, it's very important, you know, and no reporter ever prefaces this, it was a civil matter, three delivery boys off the books. I'm literally the first restaurant owner in the history of New York City not to be given a fine. Not to be given fine. That's a political witch-hunt.

That's why I'm so upset when I hear people fueling the fire of the political witch hunt of this Russian-gate.

TAPPER: You pleaded guilty, though.

GRIMM: That being said -- yes, just like -- listen, I didn't have $500,000 to go to trial. I'm sorry, I'm not wealthy and I couldn't risk both my mother and sister being thrown out into the street because I'm the one that supports the household.

So, when the entire weight of the Obama Justice Department is against you and they're singling you out for delivery boys off the books, literally four people off the books at a restaurant, that I sold five years before, that, my friend, is the definition of a political witch- hunt.

TAPPER: So, you're much more of an expert on your case than I am, but my understanding is one of the reasons you were sentenced to prison is because the judge thought you we unrepentant and you needed to go to jail to realign your moral compass. Let me just ask you --

(CROSSTALK)

GRIMM: An Obama-appointed judge, OK, that snarked at the -- when we put in a motion for selective prosecution saying we're literally the only case in the entire history of New York City, and the prosecutors didn't refute that. They said, yes, this is the only case in the history of New York City, they went five years, for delivery boys off the books. So --

TAPPER: Maybe they were trying to make an example of you because you were a member of congress. Higher standards for you.

GRIMM: Right. But it happened -- with all due respect, it happened well before I was a member of congress. But to single someone out for something that everyone else gets a civil fine for, I'm sorry, that's a political witch-hunt to me.

TAPPER: Well, let me ask you while we're on the subject, because obviously you're still not repentant. You feel as though you were unfairly treated by the justice system. Why should the voters of Staten Island give you a second chance?

GRIMM: Well, number one, there is no question as a civil wrong, I was absolutely wrong. I take full responsibility for that and I paid a horrific, horrific price. All I'm saying is everyone should be treated equally under the law, OK? As an FBI agent, that's what I did. OK. I was a good U.S. marine. I was an excellent FBI agent.

And the reality is here, in New York for you want to have a dishwasher and delivery boy, unfortunately, it's very hard to get them on the books. That being said, it was wrong and I deserve the civil fine 100 percent.

So, it's not like I think that it's OK to do that or I'm advocating that I'm not sorry for doing that, I am. But I was also an excellent congressman. OK, during Superstorm Sandy, I produced for everyone. I passed national legislation, national legislation that reformed the flood insurance that we still have today, Grimm-Waters bill is still the law of the land today.

So, I moved mountains and I led as a congressman nationally, on a national stage with my heart and soul to take care of the people of Staten Island. And I think the voters in Staten Island remember how hard I worked and I also think because I get it every day in the streets when I get stopped that they know it was a political witch- hunt. Yes, I deserved the fine but there's no way I deserve the criminal prosecution.

TAPPER: Michael Grimm, thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it.

GRIMM: Thank you.

TAPPER: How does the Russia investigation impact the United States' relationship with our allies or our enemies? We'll ask the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:28:09] TAPPER: We're back with our world lead.

New claims first reported in "The New York Times" that President Trump tried to shield himself from the Russia investigation by demanding Attorney General Jeff Sessions not recuse himself so he could protect him. This comes at a time of deep strain between Washington and Moscow about -- and questions about the direction of U.S. foreign policy under President Trump.

CNN global affairs correspondent Elise Labott just wrapped up an interview with the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

And, Elise, you raised the question about how election meddling has impacted the line of communication between the United States and Russia.

What did the secretary have to say?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jake. Well, it was a really wide-ranging interview, but we did talk a lot about Russia and I asked the secretary if he agreed with President Trump that the Russia investigation was not only hampering U.S. relationships with Russia but other allies as well.

Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, it has been a difficult year with Russia. We clearly, and I've said clearly, the president stated clearly our two nations should have a more productive relationship. Today, it is a -- it's very strained for all the reasons that I think the American people well understand.

Having said that, we have maintained a constant engagement with Russia, very active engagement. We have to be very open and candid and frank with one another about what both of us, and I think Foreign Minister Lavrov is as committed to trying to improve this relationship as I am. These are difficult issues. And we have made it clear that the keystone is really Ukraine.

Having said that, we have found areas of cooperation in Syria that have led to the near defeat of ISIS in Syria.

LABOTT: President Trump said that this whole Russia investigation has been a kind of drag on your foreign policy, that it hurts you with allies, that there is a lot of confusion. How has that impacted your dealings with world leaders in terms of this cloud, if you will?

TILLERSON: It has had no impact.

LABOTT: Really?

TILLERSON: It's had none. It never comes up in our conversations or in my bilats or my dialogue with world leaders elsewhere.