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Cease and Desist Bid Fails, "Fire and Fury" Hits Shelves; Author: "100 Percent" in Trump's Circle Question his Fitness; Trump: "I Never Spoke" to "Fire and Fury" Author for Book. Aired 10-10:30a ET
Aired January 5, 2018 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.
POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Poppy Harlow.
It is now pretty clear that the first week of the New Year will end like so many weeks of the first year of the Trump administration, almost entirely engulfed in revelations and controversies from Russia and the Russia investigation to a chaotic West Wing. Today, the explosive tell-all that President Trump calls phony and full of lies, well, it has been on sale everywhere and I mean everywhere now for an hour, days ahead of schedule, despite the president's best efforts to stop it.
Defending his reporting this morning the author of "Fire and Fury" says 100 percent of the people around President Trump question his fitness for office.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SAVANNAH GUTHRIE, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: What's the suggestion there? Because that goes beyond saying OK, the president's not an intellectual. What are you arguing there? You say, for example, that he was at Mar-a-Lago and didn't recognize lifelong friends.
MICHAEL WOLFF, AUTHOR, "FIRE AND FURY": I will quote Steve Bannon, "He's lost it."
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BERMAN: But wait, there's more. This morning "The New York Times" is reporting that the president personally ordered the White House counsel, not his White House counsel, the White House counsel, to try to stop Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the Russia investigation. This goes to the heart of the obstruction of justice question and apparently hit a nerve with the president. How do we know that? Moments ago, he put out this statement, repeating his claim that collusion with Russia is a total hoax. He called the book "Fire and Fury" not only phony but also sad. CNN's Kaitlan Collins at the White House. You know Kaitlan, I think the White House juggling several controversies all of a sudden this morning.
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes. They certainly are, John and Poppy. One of the key parts in that book that has caused so many headlines is one where the president, Michael Wolff claims, insisted on saying that Trump Tower meeting in the summer of 2016 with Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and the Russian lawyer, was strictly about Russian adoption.
Now the part in this book Michael Wolff writes, "The president insisted that the meeting in Trump Tower was purely and simply about Russian adoption policy. That's what was discussed, period. Period." Now Wolff goes on to say, "Even though it was likely, if not certain, that the Times had the incriminating e-mail chain - in fact, it was quite possible that Jared and Ivanka and the lawyers knew the Times had the e-mail chain -- the president ordered no one should let on to the more problematic discussion about Hillary Clinton."
Now the White House is dismissing many of the claims in Michael Wolff's book as quote, "complete fantasy" and even the president himself is specifically pushing back on the book and the idea that Michael Wolff had a great amount of access to him. He tweeted overnight saying, "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."
Now that directly contradicts what Wolff said this morning in that interview on the "Today" show where he said that he quote, "absolutely spoke to the president for this book" and that he's more specifically said he spent three hours with him over the course of the campaign and during his time in the White House. When Savannah Guthrie asked Wolff if he flattered his way into getting access into the West Wing, he said that he did what he had to do. But what's clear here, John and Poppy, is the president's cease and desist order to the publisher of this book did not work because not only was the book still published, they released it four days early.
BERMAN: Kaitlan Collins for us at the White House. There's a lot about Russia and the Russia investigation in this new book and there's a heck of a lot about Russia and the Russia investigation in "The New York Times" this morning.
Joining us, one of the "New York Times" reporters who contributed to that report, Julie Hirschfeld Davis. Julie, thank you so much for being with us. As we said, you're listed as a contributor. Michael Schmidt is the main reporter here. But there are revelations here which really jump out that are important developments in the Russia investigation. Let me read you a quote from this piece.
"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 had helped a Russian campaign to disrupt the 2016 election."
What's the significance of this statement and where does this fit in to our broader understanding of the timeline here?
JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, listen, the reason that we know about this is because this is one of the issues that the special counsel, Bob Mueller, is looking at as he explores whether there is a case against the president for having tried to obstruct justice. We know that at this point, Jeff Sessions had -- was considering recusing himself from the Russia investigation because he had admitted that, contrary to his initial statements, he had met with Russians during the campaign, met with Russian officials, and he was looking into whether he should be recusing himself. He was exploring that option.
[10:05:15] And the president expressly told him through the White House counsel we now know, not to do that and had Don McGahn go to the attorney general and make the case to him that he needed to stay in his position. He needed to stay in control of this investigation.
And when he refused to do that, when he decided, in fact, to recuse himself, the president was furious and basically said he needed a protector. He needed an attorney general who would insulate him personally the way that he said Robert Kennedy had for John F. Kennedy, the way he said Eric Holder had for Barack Obama, and he said, I want -- where's my Roy Cohn. He really wanted someone whose job he felt it was to protect him personally.
HARLOW: Fundamental misunderstanding of the, you know -
BERMAN: The Justice Department?
HARLOW: The Justice Department. Thank you. It really is. And there are a lot of implications there. Let me get you on this, too. Because it does tie into Sessions and the Justice Department, the reporting that you guys have that, you know, just days before firing Comey, Sessions' aide goes up to Capitol Hill and tries to get dirt on Comey. Whatever he can find, that's big.
DAVIS: Right. Well, I mean, we know that Trump was very angry at Comey for refusing to publicly clear him in this Russia investigation. He had told him privately that he wasn't a target, but he wouldn't say it publicly. And, in fact, he had gone to the Hill and testified and refused to say that. So, he was very angry at Comey and it seems that he enlisted the attorney general in an effort to either directed by the president or on his own volition, to try and sort of smear Comey and make it clear publicly in a way that wouldn't tie back to the administration that they didn't trust him, that they felt he was conflicted and of course this is something that we know some of the president's top aides and even the president himself believe about Bob Mueller.
When he was first named special counsel, there was a real effort, a sort of quiet effort, to discredit him and that's only gained volume recently. But we know that now as far back as, you know, just before Comey was fired, there was this effort to try and make him look bad essentially and to -
DAVIS: -- build the case for why you might want to get rid of him.
HARLOW: Julie, thank you for this. And thank you for your reporting. It's, obviously, very important reporting. We appreciate it.
With us now, Jackie Kucinich, CNN political analyst, Carrie Cordero, CNN legal analyst, Peter Wehner, former senior adviser to President George W. Bush and also, he's worked in the past three Republican administrations and Bryan Lanza, former deputy communications director for President Trump during the transition.
Carrie, legally, let me begin with you. The fact that "The New York Times" has reported that the president ordered Don McGahn, the White House counsel, not his personal lawyer, someone who works for the taxpayers, the office of the presidency, to go to Sessions and do pretty much everything he could to get Sessions not to recuse himself from the Russia probe. Sessions didn't listen, and he did recuse himself, could that in and of itself prove obstruction of justice or is it part of a pattern or a troubling pattern?
CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Right. Well, I think that the -- in order to make an obstruction case, if, in fact, there really is an obstruction investigation of the president and his activities. It would be one fact in a pattern of obstruction. So this one act alone, I don't think would be the basis for an obstruction case, but it would be a long-standing pattern that dates back to last winter. The president's communications and interactions with the FBI director, his various tweets trying to perhaps intimidate the FBI director and other senior Justice Department and FBI officials who might end up being witnesses in any obstruction case, a whole range of activities, calls that he made to members of Congress to try to get the investigation shut down. There's been a whole range of activities that he's reportedly been engaged in over the last 11 months or so. And so this would just be one piece in that.
BERMAN: You know, I think, it's important to note, in all likelihood we're not talking about an obstruction case that will be made by Bob Mueller in a courtroom --
BERMAN: -- against the president of the United States because there are these big legal questions about whether or not the president can be prosecuted for anything, let alone obstruction of justice, but it's maybe more likely that Bob Mueller lays out some kind of road map for Congress to decide what it wants to do and along those lines, Carrie, while we're talking about this, Don McGahn, the White House counsel, now that we know as reported in "The New York Times" he said this, we know he's testified to the special counsel about this. Do you think he ought to come before Congress? What would it mean for him to come before Congress and be questioned about this and could he claim any executive privilege? CORDERO: Well, it's a question -- I know there's questions, you know, should he go before Congress. I guess he could go before the Judiciary, the Senate Judiciary Committee, if they called him.
[10:10:04] I think based on what we've seen of other executive branch officials, he probably would assert some type of privilege, whether that would be an executive privilege or an attorney-client privilege in terms of his advice giving to the president in his official capacity. So I'm not sure that at least at this stage that that would be a very productive hearing, but certainly it does sound like there are members of Congress who might be interested in that.
But it also -- this particular report about McGahn's activities, a lot of it depends on the way in which it occurred. If it is as it was reported which is that he went to the attorney general and sort of was aggressive in giving the president's direction that he didn't want the attorney general to be recused, that's one thing. If he merely was in communication, had a conversation with the attorney general, asked questions, I mean there's different ways that this could have been done, and I think that those details probably matter in this circumstance.
HARLOW: They do matter. I mean, there's a ranking Democrat on the Judiciary said he wants McGahn to go as a result of this and we just had another member of a Judiciary Democrat says she at least wants him to come before them.
Bryan Lanza, to you, as someone who worked closely with the Trump team during the campaign, during the transition, also in this reporting is what seems like a very important quote when it goes to how the president thinks about the role of the Justice Department and the attorney general. Quote, "Mr. Trump said he had expected his top law enforcement official to safeguard him the way he believed Robert F. Kennedy, as attorney general, had done for his brother John F. Kennedy and Eric Holder Jr. had for Barack Obama. Mr. Trump asked, 'Where's my Roy Cohn.'"
Can you help us understand this? I mean, that seems like he thinks that the Justice Department should be like his Keith Schiller, like his bodyguard, rather than working for the American people?
BRYAN LANZA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I mean let's be clear, the attorney general works for the American people but it's also he does it at the discretion of the president. You know the president was right to ask Don McGahn to reach out to Attorney General Sessions to not to recuse himself. At the end of the day this was a judgment call. Whether Sessions was being asked transparent as possible with the confirmation committee, and, you know, we can make the case that he didn't need to recuse himself and that's what president was doing.
That's his prerogative. I mean, the president has say over personnel decisions. He can tell them these things. It's his prerogative. There's nothing illegal or criminal about that --
HARLOW: But just -
LANZA: -- the story -- go ahead.
HARLOW: Is it a misunderstanding though? You know, does it concern you that his primary focus seems to be from this reporting who will protect me, why aren't they protecting me?
LANZA: You know, the attorney general has to protect the president from certain things. I mean there is a lot of legal -
LANZA: -- a lot of legal challenges that show up and warn him about these decisions.
BERMAN: I will ask this to Peter who worked in several White Houses. Is it the job of the attorney general to protect the White House from investigations that might lead to the White House? That doesn't seem to be part of the job description?
PETER WEHNER, FORMER SENIOR ADVISER TO PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: No. In Trump world I guess that's what they think the attorney general does. I think as anybody who works for Donald Trump, that's their job, which is to protect him. But in fact, that's not. You take an oath to preserve and protect the Constitution and to do what is right and to follow the law.
I think it's quite right that this act in and of itself doesn't necessarily constitute obstruction of justice but it is one of a lot of data points that are there. And I think what's going to happen is Bob Mueller is going to reveal a lot more data points and begin to connect them. But you know, you take a step back, this is all of a piece when it comes to Donald Trump. He's a person who's narcissistic and has no moral center, no moral core, and everything in his life seems to be geared around advancing his interests, protecting him, meeting his own appetites and all sorts of different ways. And he demands a kind of loyalty of people which is inappropriate within a White House and, of course, he doesn't give loyalty back to anybody else. This is a man who is unfit on every level to be president.
What's happening now in this book and so many other things is the curtain is just being pulled back. And people are seeing Donald Trump for who he is and one other thing, if you talk to leaders, Republican leaders, on the Hill as I have, or to people who work in the White House as friends of mine have, these portraits of Donald Trump and all of these elements, this is nothing new. It is the people who work most closely with Donald Trump that I think have the deepest content and the deepest worry about him.
HARLOW: Michael Wolff, the author of the book was asked this morning, you know if he has recordings. He said he does have some recordings of these interviews and also has notes as any journalist would. We'll see if some of that comes out. Jackie --
LANZA: Poppy, can I add something - [10:15:00] HARLOW: Hold on, let me -- I want to get Jackie in here, hold that thought one second.
LANZA: Of course.
HARLOW: Jackie, another excerpt from the book that ties into all if this, Comey and the Justice Department, et cetera, is this. According to Michael Wolff, "'Comey was a rat,' repeated Trump. There were rats everywhere and you had to get rid of them. John Dean, John Dean, he repeated. 'Do you know what John Dean did to Nixon?'"
What was your take away from that?
JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, again, it is this -- this is about loyalty. Remember, Trump asked Comey for loyalty and Comey said during one of his testimonies to Congress, I believe, I could be conflating a couple of different things Comey said, so forgive me.
But it is this idea that it's about protecting the throne and it's not. It's about protecting the Constitution. But this conspiracy theory, deep state, some of the things that you've heard the president say on the campaign trail and now in the White House, that hasn't gone away. And while on some of these claims haven't been independently verified that are in the book, it does lay bare some of the things that a lot of us have heard off the record and behind the scenes.
BERMAN: Carrie one more legal question here before we let you go, and it has to do with the Air Force One drafting of the response to all the reporting about Donald Trump, Jr.'s meeting at Trump Tower where the Russians promised dirt on Hillary Clinton. "The president," Michael Wolff says, "insisted that the meeting in Trump Tower was purely and simply about Russian adoption policy," the quote goes on to finish up, you know, "the president ordered that no one should let on to the more problematic discussion about Hillary Clinton."
You know, how much of an issue is this meeting, do you think, and this reporting for the president and the special counsel right now?
CORDERO: Well, that meeting certainly is the focus of the investigation because it was a direct interaction between Russian government, surrogates and members of -- senior members of the campaign. And so any effort by the president or his inner circle's part to try to hide what the content of that meeting was, matters to the investigator.
But just going back briefly with respect to the Justice Department and what these excerpts are revealing and the president's view of them, it really is consistent with the view that the president had expressed throughout the campaign trail and throughout his first year of presidency about his understanding or lack of understanding about the role of the Justice Department and the role of the FBI and their need for independent, neutral law enforcement activities that are separate and apart from political influence.
BERMAN: All right. Guys, stick around. We have a lot more to discuss. Bryan, we promise to let you jump back into the conversation. There are much more on this new book and the claims of dysfunction inside the White House. The claim that 100 percent of the people around the president say he is not fit for office.
HARLOW: Also, will Steve Bannon get bounced from "Breitbart," apparently a push to oust him after what he said to Michael Wolff for this book. Stay with us.
[10:21:54] HARLOW: This morning, a scathing tell-all of the Trump White House is on book shelves across the country, despite the president's all-out effort to stop it. In a new tweet this morning, the president says that he never spoke to the author Michael Wolff for the book and the stories, name calling, distrust all described are misrepresentations.
BERMAN: So that is not how the author described it this morning. Watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WOLFF: I absolutely spoke to the president, whether he realized that it was an interview or not, I don't know but it certainly was not off the record.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BERMAN: All right, our panel back with us. You know, Bryan Lanza, I want to start with you here, the gist of the book, "Fire and Fury," the questions that Michael Wolff poses and the view that he seems to have, is that the president is not fit for office. He says that as a universal theme among the people that he spoke to inside the West Wing. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GUTHRIE: One of the overarching themes is that, according to your reporting, everyone around the president, senior advisors, family members, every single one of them, questions his intelligence and fitness for office.
WOLFF: Let me put a marker in the sand here, 100 percent of the people around him.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BERMAN: 100 percent, Bryan Lanza. You know you worked on the campaign, you are, I imagine, close to people inside the White House. Have you heard that sentiment expressed?
LANZA: You know, I will say this about "Fire and Fury." And the title should actually be "Fake and False." I've never experienced anybody in the administration say anything similar to that. I interact with the senior most people on a constant basis and during the campaign the same. But we also should look at the facts that exist. Just during the Christmas holiday he said -- the president sat down for a 30-minute interview with "The New York Times" which is an opposing newspaper and in no time did the president display any of the erratic-ness that the reporter thus reported on.
So what you have is just a guy who's peddling a book. It's now proven to be fake and false, and, you know, we'll get through this. This is what happens when you're president of the United States. People write a lot of books to try to make a lot of money and the claim to have insides when they don't and this was Bannon's mistake and we're stuck living with it.
HARLOW: Most of the books aren't even close to what this one is. Peter, to you -
LANZA: You're right. Most of the books are actually based on facts.
HARLOW: Peter, to you, you've worked in three -- the pasts three Republican administrations. Savannah Guthrie went on to ask on that same question that John just played part of, you know, do you also mean the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his daughter, Ivanka Trump, and he answered and he said, certainly Jared and Ivanka in their current situation, which is in a deep legal quagmire, are putting everything on the president, not us, it's him." He even points specifically to the people arguably closest enough to the president. What do you make? Bryan says this is all fake fiction?
WEHNER: Yes. Well look, Bryan has got a tough job. He's trying to defend a man who is indefensible. So he's doing the best he can. Look, I guess the point I would make is this is not a state secret what Wolff is revealing. I don't know him as a reporter and can't testify to his sources but this is in the open.
[10:25:02] Read the transcripts that Donald Trump gives to newspapers. This is a man who is cognitively decomposing right before our eyes. His -- it's like a word salad. His points don't cohere. He can't make logical statements. And the other thing I would say is his tweets. The tweets are a road map to his mind. And they are deeply problematic and disturbing.
And as I said, I had conversations with leading Republicans and what Wolff reports are the kinds of things that I've heard including the references to Donald Trump as a child. These are people who both deal with Trump all the time and have a vested interest in him succeeding because they have a vested interest in the Republican Party. This is a man that is emotionally and psychologically and cognitively not fit to be president and people are now seeing it.
And then the question becomes, what exactly do you do about it? But as I say, this Wolff book, this is not a shock. It's not as if any of the claims that are being made have caught people by surprise and they said, wow, could you imagine this about Donald Trump. This is simply validating what people know to varying degrees and have seen and have sensed over a long period of time. It's pretty alarming to have a president come apart like this. So we'll see whether the institutions around the president and the people around the president can contain him. BERMAN: So Bryan -
LANZA: The only thing validating -
BERMAN: Go ahead.
LANZA: I just want to say, the only thing validated about this book is the reporters from the other major news outlets that have questioned the integrity of this author. And I think that's the premise we have to have this conversation with. It's like there's a lot of -- there's a lot of people who questions this author, who have high authority on this issue, there's people who are saying they didn't make these statements, you had Tony Blair who went out and said he didn't make some of the claims that are made in the book, so you have -
HARLOW: Bannon is also not -
BERMAN: But Bannon has quoted on the record and Bannon hasn't disputed -
HARLOW: Any of it.
LANZA: Bannon is accountable for the things that he said.
BERMAN: The president's lost it right now -- Michael Wolff says he has some tapes of these conversations. Let's listen to that.
(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've reported in this.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BERMAN: Look, we're not going to settle the debate I think between Bryan and Peter on this. These are two, you know, divergent views. Right now, Chris Cillizza wrote overnight, he pointed out, take what the president says and the evidence that Peter says. He says and Chris points out that maybe it is the same. He hasn't deteriorated from the campaign. It's the same Donald Trump. Take that for what it is.
You know, Jackie, I want to get your take on another couple of points from what is inside the book, you know number one, there's a lot of focus on the infighting inside the White House, the back and forth between the forces of Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner and Ivanka, you know, after the Paris Climate accord decision when the president pulled out. Steve Bannon, you know, had this interaction we think with Michael Wolff, Wolff writes, "It was likewise the move that Ivanka Trump had campaigned hardest against in the White House. 'Score,' said Bannon. 'The -- is dead.'"
Again, this is a quote from Steve Bannon which he hasn't disputed. So this doesn't go into the fake area that Bryan has been talking about here. Pretty remarkable that Bannon would say that out loud about Ivanka Trump.
WEHNER: It's shameful.
KUCINICH: Coming at Ivanka as recently as a couple of weeks ago when he was in Alabama giving a speech for Roy Moore. He had been attacking the Trump children, particularly Ivanka, and made it known that he wasn't ideologically or personally in line with them. So the fact that he stuck around for so long, even after these things were said, is really -- is really remarkable.
Equally remarkable, Michael Wolff didn't come out of nowhere. He's had a reputation. He's been around for a very long time, and I guess my question for Bryan would be, how this person got so much access inside the White House because he was there. Even if the president says that he didn't necessarily speak to him which Wolff disputes. He had incredible access. Other reporters saw him not with a reporter badge but with a visitor badge in the White House. And that is -- that in and of itself is very remarkable.
HARLOW: And I would note if you really read each word of the president's tweet this morning, he says, he didn't talk to Wolff for the book.
HARLOW: He didn't say he didn't talk to Wolff. Wolff told Savannah he had three hours of conversations with the president.
BERMAN: Jackie, Peter, Bryan, great to have you with us, a lot to digest this morning, these developments --
LANZA: Thank you.
BERMAN: -- remarkable to say the least.
All right, North and South Korea will sit down for their first formal talks in more than two years. We are live in Seoul, next.