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NYT: Trump Ordered White House Lawyer to Stop Sessions from Russia Recusal; President's Fitness for Office in Question. Aired 6- 6:30a ET

Aired January 5, 2018 - 06:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: The "New York Times" published a blockbuster story about President Trump's efforts to keep control of the Russia investigation.

[05:59:19] UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You have White House counsel going to tell the attorney general not to recuse himself on the order of the president.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It speaks to the very depths of depravity from this White House.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Sending someone from the Justice Department to find dirt on Comey. I've never heard of anything like that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's actually his prerogative if he wanted to fire the FBI director.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: The Wolff book suggests that the president is putting out a false story.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This author is, quite frankly, a crackpot, fake news, fantasy fiction writer.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've got serious stuff to deal with. And instead, we're caught up debating the mental health of the president.


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is your NEW DAY. It's Friday, January 5, 6 a.m. here in New York. And here's our starting line.

A brand-new "New York Times" report bringing to light a case for potential obstruction of justice in the Russia investigation. And it goes all the way up to the president of the United States.

The "New York Times" reporting that President Trump ordered a White House lawyer to stop Attorney General Jeff is Sessions from recusing himself in the Justice Department Russia probe. "The Times" says Special Counsel Bob Mueller is aware of the president's unsuccessful attempt to lobby Sessions, that there may even be written notes from Reince Priebus about the same.

Would that, if true, be obstruction of justice? That is not a simple question. We're going to get deep into it for you this morning.

Also, a new excerpt from journalist Michael Wolff's bombshell book, obtained by CNN, reveals that President Trump had involvement in crafting a misleading statement about the 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Russians and members of the Trump team, including Don Jr. and Jared Kushner. The book claims Trump insisted on an incorrect narrative.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: So the book paints a picture of chaos in the West Wing and it begs a lot of questions about President Trump's mental stability and competence. Wolff portrays Mr. Trump as erratic, easily distracted, uninterested and unsure about even the basics of his job.

Press secretary Sarah Sanders called those suggestions, quote, "disgraceful and laughable." CNN has obtained the book. We've read through it. We have not yet independently confirmed Michael Wolff's assertions.

President Trump has strong feelings about the book. He's tweeting that it is full of lies and the author had zero access. He's come up with a pet name for his old top adviser Steve Bannon, whom he now calls Sloppy Steve.

We have it all covered for you, so let's go first to CNN's Joe Johns. He is live at the White House. What's the latest, Joe?


A lot to unpack here. There are new allegations raising questions about attempts by the president to exert control over the Russia investigation. That new book, "Fire and Fury," goes on sale today, four days early, despite attempts by the president's lawyers to block publication.

The president himself stepping up attacks on the book.


JOHNS (voice-over): President Trump attacking the new tell-all book that's claiming chaos inside his White House, calling the expose phony and full of lies, before lashing out at his former chief strategist Steve Bannon, nicknaming him Sloppy Steve.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did Steve Bannon betray you, Mr. President? Any words about Steve Bannon?

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't know. He called me a great man last night. So you know, he obviously changed his tune pretty quick. JOHNS: The Trump administration attempting to discredit the book, which contains stunning new allegations about the president's firsthand involvement in crafting a misleading statement about the now-infamous June 2016 meeting between top Trump staffers and Russians.

Wolff writes that "The president insisted the meeting in Trump Tower was purely and simply about Russian adoption policy. That's what was discussed, period. Period. 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 this e-mail chain. The president ordered that no one should let on to the more problematic discussion about Hillary Clinton."

Wolff goes on to write that the president's lawyers thought the statement was "an explicit attempt to throw sand into the investigation's gears" and that one of the president's spokesmen quit afterwards, because he thought it was obstruction of justice.

According to "The New York Times," Special Counsel Robert Mueller is now examining the statement.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president weighed in, as any father would, based on the limited information that he had.

JOHNS: "The Times" reports that Mueller is also aware of an unsuccessful attempt by the president to stop Jeff Sessions from recusing himself.

TRUMP: I am disappointed in the attorney general. He should not have recused himself.

JOHNS: According to "The Times," Mr. Trump ordered White House counsel Don McGahn in March to lobby Sessions against recusing. When McGahn was unsuccessful, Mr. Trump erupted in anger, saying he needed his attorney general to protect him.

The president lashing out at Sessions after then-FBI director James Comey's May 3 congressional testimony.

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R), IOWA: Is there an investigation of any leaks of classified information relating to Mr. Trump or his associates?

JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: I don't want to -- don't want to answer that question.

JOHNS: Two days after Comey's testimony, "The New York Times" reports that an aide to Mr. Sessions approached a Capitol Hill staff member, asking whether the staffer had any derogatory information about the FBI director. The Justice Department denies this account.

According to "Fire and Fury" author Michael Wolff, the president referred to Comey as "a rat." [06:05:05] Another name Wolff allegedly overheard in the White House,

"Jarvanka," a nickname coined by Bannon to describe the president's daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner. The first family and Bannon shared a contentious relationship, described by Wolff as a death match, due in part to the "conviction that Bannon had played a part in many of the reports of Kushner's interactions with the Russians."

Wolff writes that Jared and Ivanka exhibited an increasingly panicked sense that the FBI and DOJ were moving beyond Russia election interference and into family finances. "'Ivanka is terrified,' said a satisfied Bannon."


JOHNS: The president has no public events on his schedule today. The only time we expect to see him is when he heads out to Camp David. He is expected to spend today and tomorrow huddling with the vice president and congressional leaders -- Chris and Alisyn.

CUOMO: All right, Joe. Appreciate it.

There is a lot to discuss this morning. Not just about the book, but also this "New York Times" report. So let's get into it. We have CNN contributor here, John Avlon, who also is, obviously, the head of "The Daily Beast." And we have Carrie Corrallo [SIC], who's a former counsel to the U.S. assistant attorney general for national security. Carrie Cordero.

Professor, thank you for joining the team. We get names right on the second try here all the time.


CUOMO: Good thing we're not in court.

Let me apologize by starting with you. I want to start with this excerpt from "The Times" that goes to the meat of their suggestion that this could have been obstruction all the way up to the president. 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."

OK. Professor, if true, do you believe that that would constitute obstruction of justice by a sitting president?

CARRIE CORDERO, FORMER COUNSEL TO U.S. ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL FOR NATIONAL SECURITY: I think -- first of all, good morning. It's nice to be with you guys.

CUOMO: Good morning and welcome.

CORDERO: I think it indicates that this is probably one more notch in the belt that creates obstruction. So in other words, I don't think this one fact, if it was taken in isolation, necessarily would create a case of obstruction. But I think it's just one more indicator, one more fact that has been revealed over this long stretch of period of time that we know dates back to late winter, when the president first was meeting with the FBI director, asking him to shut down certain investigations, asking him for loyalty up until the time that then he fired the director. I mean, there's been a long path of activities by the president to try to shut down the investigation.

CAMEROTA: Great point. I mean, there are just -- we have a timeline of all the different things. So there's many pieces to this puzzle, between asking Comey for loyalty, asking Comey to publicly disclose that the president wasn't somehow involved or under investigation.

Here's another thing from the book that we want to read to everybody, John, before we get to you. Oh, sorry. This is from the "New York Times." "The New York Times" report about obstruction today says, "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, then head of the FBI, to urge him to say publicly that he was not under investigation. The president's determination to fire Mr. Comey even led one White House lawyer to take the extraordinary step of misleading Mr. Trump about whether he had the authority to remove him" -- John.

JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: So what's incredibly significant about that isn't just the contemporary and his corroboration of Comey and his side of the story. It's that this other deputy council actually took this extraordinary step of trying to convince the president that he couldn't fire James Comey as head of the FBI, because he felt that would set off a chain reaction that would lead to obstruction of justice accusations against President Trump. It's one of the fascinating things in this "New York Times" report. It really does paint a broader portrait.

And the professor is correct. This is about a larger pattern. A tick-tock we're seeing. Mueller, one of the clear focuses of his investigation is the question of obstruction of justice. And there are lots of little incidents, from the time on Air Force One, to the firing of Comey, to this new information that really starts to create a larger picture of a problem for the president.

CUOMO: All right. So professor, though, I always put the brakes on this conversation, and here's why. And feel free to take my foot off the brake if you think it's appropriate.

All of these things don't constitute a crime, even if you take them in totality. The president has the ability to fire Comey. He has the ability to stop any investigation he wants. He wasn't a target of the investigation. He was told that by Comey. If he didn't want Sessions to recuse himself, he was free to say so. He was free to lobby against him using his White House staff.

So it wouldn't amount to a crime. And that is what Mueller is looking at, being able to indict on crimes. What is your take on that analysis? CORDERO: Well, here's what I would say. I mean, there's a variety --

there's sort of different buckets of avenues of investigation that the special counsel is likely looking at.

But just on the obstruction piece, I mean, nobody is above the law, not even the president. And obstruction is getting in the way of an investigation. The president knew that there was an ongoing investigation, just as everybody in his inner circle did. And so if he actively took steps, and let's take the example of firing the FBI director. You're correct that the president has, under executive authority, the ability to fire the FBI director.

But the FBI director also is a unique position. It had a 10-year statutory term, which was specifically intended to insulate it from political influence. So obviously, this is sort of an out of the usual and historical event, where an FBI director would be fired three years into that 10-year term.

FBI directors can be removed if there's some substantive reason, something that they did wrong in their job they weren't performing effectively. But what we're learning is that the explanation for firing the director really was most likely about tamping down or derailing the investigation.

CAMEROTA: The president said that himself.

AVLON: The president said that himself, completely undercutting White House talking points in the interview with Lester Holt, which was probably the last objective interview he gave.

CUOMO: When he said, "Even if I hadn't had the memo from Rosenstein, I was going to fire him anyway. I was working on firing him anyway."

AVLON: And it was about Russia, right? I mean, you know, which completely blew up the talking points from the White House. So out of his own mouth we know that. And I think the presser he gave was a very polite smackdown to your theory, Chris.

CUOMO: Well, look, the job is to test the supposition.

AVLON: That's right.

CUOMO: Because you'll get legal -- you'll get professors on here, as you know, Professor, who will say you couldn't indict a sitting president. You'd have to impeach him first and then indict him so that there's no chance that Mueller is going to hand down an indictment on him with a grand jury, because that's outside the purview of him. So that's why I like to test it.

AVLON: It's important. It's important to drill down on this.

CAMEROTA: Go ahead, Carrie.

CORDERO: Sure. There's -- there is a legal debate about whether or not a sitting president can be indicted. That doesn't mean that the special counsel can't be -- can't conduct the investigation. CUOMO: Sure.

CORDERO: That doesn't mean that he can't decide -- I'm sure he has people on his team who are looking at this specific legal issue of whether they can launch an indictment against the president. And there can be a couple different ways it could go. He could -- he could actually take that step if he has the facts that would support bringing that indictment. Because the special counsel has to adhere to normal Justice Department guidelines, which is they can't bring a case unless they believe there's a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits.

CUOMO: Right.

CORDERO: And so he could do that. Or he could have his findings, write those in a prosecution memo. And then there would have to be some mechanism to deliver that to Congress. So there are different ways that this can play out.

CAMEROTA: OK, one more -- one more thing. And this is from Michael Wolff's book. Because this is another piece in terms on of how the president tried to intervene in what was, you know, damning -- some damning moments or damning evidence. This was about the Trump Tower meeting with Don Jr. and the Russian lawyer.

OK, so on Air Force One, Michael Wolff has reporting that goes a little bit farther than we had known. It says, "The president insisted that the meeting in Trump Tower was purely and simply about Russian adoption policy. That's what was discussed, period. Period. Even though it was likely, if not certain, that 'The New York Times' had the incriminating e-mail chain -- in fact, it was quite possible that Jared and Ivanka and the lawyers knew 'The Times' had this e-mail chain" -- the one that said it was about more than that and dirt on Hillary Clinton -- "the president ordered that no one should let on to the more problematic discussion about Hillary Clinton."

Very quickly, John, your thoughts.

AVLON: That is a huge deal. And this leads to one of the president's lawyer's spokesman resigning for fear it's obstruction. That's one of the things that's alleged.

Look, the president is not an expert in Russian adoption policy. This is actually the Russian talking point they were saying. This is about the Magnitsky Act. This is about, you know, Russian adoption.

So if this tick-tock is correct, if this detail is correct and the president is explicitly saying to lie from Air Force One to the American people about an ongoing investigation against the advice of counsel. That's the implication. So it's a fascinating detail and yet another significant notch in this telltale sign of potential obstruction of justice.

CUOMO: Professor, you've been involved in these kinds of investigations. Your take? CORDERO: Well, what I would say on that particular point, so my work,

when I was in the Justice Department, had to do with counterintelligence investigations, counterterrorism investigations.

And from a counterintelligence perspective and the investigation on the Russian meddling and the potential cooperation that's being conducted by the special counsel as well as by the Senate Intelligence Committee is why? Why would the president try to give a different impression of what took place in that meeting other than what it actually was?

In other words, if he created a scenario with others about what the meeting was about, why were they trying to hide whatever else was discussed at that meeting?


[06:15:07] CAMEROTA: OK. Interesting insights from both of you. Thank you very much, Carrie Cordero, John Avlon.

CUOMO: Welcome, professor. Great to have you.

CAMEROTA: Great to have you.

All right. So Michael Wolff's explosive book, of course, raises new questions, as well, about the president's competence and his mental fitness for office. The White House is pushing back on any of those questions. So we discuss all of that next.


[06:24:02] CAMEROTA: These excerpts published in Michael Wolff's tell-all book about the president and the White House suggests that Mr. Trump is mentally unstable, and of course, it raises questions about his fitness for office. This as the White House defends the president.

So let's talk about all of this. We're back with John Avlon. Joining us now is associate editor of RealClearPolitics, A.B. Stoddard.

A.B., listen, if you read through this book, you know, we talked a lot with you on this program about is the president strategic, or is he impulsive? When you read through this, it's so much more disturbing than that. He's -- he's neither. He's not strategic. Yes, OK, he's impulsive, but it's actually worse than that. I mean, the picture that Michael Wolf paints is that -- of complete--

CUOMO: Michael Wolff, who was defending the president early on in his reporting, saying that the media was too negative about him. So remember, the source matters, as well.

CAMEROTA: And you know what? We will get to that. We will get to what he -- how he explains his reporting.

But if you take this book at face value, it is -- paints such a disturbing picture of how the president is behaving, and the people around him know it. And they're trying to manage around it.

Here is one -- this is a reporter's note from Michael Wolff about some of his process. And what the people around the president told Michael Wolff. "Hoping for the best with their personal futures as well as the country's future depending upon it. My indelible impression of talking to them and observing them through much of the first year of his presidency is that they all -- 100 percent -- came to believe he was incapable of functioning in his job."

CUOMO: And remember, Wolff was a guy who was saying that the media was being hard. I'm just saying that this was not a man who went into this assignment trying to take the president down.

CAMEROTA: So A.B., what -- what do you make of that?

A.B. STODDARD, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, REALCLEARPOLITICS: Well, several things. I think that all of the criticism of Michael Wolff's reporting, and there's a lot of it, and probably a lot of it is founded from someone like Trump's close friend, Thomas Barrett, to Tony Blair saying that these conversations that appear in the book with them are fictional. There are obviously concerns about the way this was put together.

The problem for the White House is that this still, in sum, affirms what has already been reported throughout, starting in June of 2015. That Donald Trump doesn't like to read and consume information, doesn't have any interest in doing so, has a very short attention span, is not strategic, sayeth Maggie Haberman, who I think is the best authority on the president. But it is all about the five seconds of oxygen in front of him, and there is never a master chess game going on with what he's doing with those tweets.

He acts recklessly and impulsively and we know this. It doesn't take a psychiatrist or a leadership member in Congress who's been with him privately to tell me or any other American that, when he tweets about Mika Brzezinski's face or threatening nuclear war on Twitter or any of this stuff -- he did that for the first time, by the way, in September -- that this is something that is imprudent and that he acts on impulse, and emotion and anger most of the time.

So the problem for this, no matter how much they try to dump on Michael Wolff, is that it confirms a narrative that's two years old and that's incredibly damaging.

CUOMO: The president--

STODDARD: It doesn't matter if it leads to indictment or impeachment, by the way. Congressional Republicans in swing districts that Hillary Clinton won know that voters will make a conclusion about this, no matter what happens in the Congress or with the Mueller probe.

CUOMO: So John, weigh in and then we'll go to the next point.

AVLON: Look, I think, you know, the question of his fitness for office, by any 25th Amendment standard, is different from what we are seeing from the people who are closest to him, which is that you've got someone with major impulse control who is incurious who maybe seemed more the mind of a child on a throne that is built for the powers of a president. And that is a real problem, because we assume prudence.

I mean, our basic documents assume that a responsible person will be in office, who will think before they speak. That appears to be not what we have.

But I think people get ahead of themselves for partisan reasons and other reasons, and skate immediately towards a fantasy about invoking the 25th Amendment that I think is unwise. Because that is a different standard, as it was contemplated when the amendment was issued.

CUOMO: Right. And it also comes down, just like impeachment, to numbers.

AVLON: Right.

CUOMO: It's a political process. You just have to read the 25th Amendment. It will take you literally three minutes. And you'll understand why it sounds enticing to people who are critical of the president. But as a practicality, it's very remote.

Now A.B., to your point, one, this is not new about what we're hearing about the president. It is new in terms of its depth of context by Michael Wolff. And again, Michael Wolff was not enemical to the president. He was actually going after the media early on, saying, "You're too negative about the president." If he was doing that to gain access or not--


CUOMO: -- we don't know.

CAMEROTA: I think, yes, to curry favor with the president.

CUOMO: But he was doing it. He was doing it, and he's never been an outspoken Trump critic to my knowledge, back to his New York reporting days.

Also, Bannon has denied none of the stuff that's attributed to him in this book, and he's had plenty of opportunity to do so.

And then you get to the reporting. Let's put up what Michael Wolff says, because this was an unusual situation. "It's worth noting some of the journalistic conundrums that I faced when dealing with the Trump administration, many of them the result of the White House's absence of official procedures and the lack of experience of its principles. These challenges have included dealing with off-the- record or deep-background material that was later casually put on the record; sources who provided accounts in confidence and subsequently shared them widely, as though liberated by their utterances; a frequent inattention to setting any parameters on the use of a conversation."

It's interesting--

CAMEROTA: I agree it's chuckle-worth, because it's like rookies. Rookies don't know that when a reporter is living in your midst, embedded in the White House, there are certain rules you're supposed to be following if you don't want a book like this to come out.

CUOMO: And they have their protocols. We saw Anthony Scaramucci got caught up in one way with this. And A.B., and I'm sure you and I have had the same experience. What he just said there, I have experienced firsthand myself, where you're told something: "Keep it to yourself," "just so you know." And then you hear that the same person told the story two, three times to other reporters.

[06:25:11] Interestingly, he uses a word in this that we didn't put in that. He uses the word "samizdat," which is a Russian propaganda term--


CAMEROTA: Underground newspaper.

CUOMO: -- for how things were put out even through nonintentional terms. Why would he use that term? It's the only thing that made me think that that's a "gotcha" term to use, given all the Russia context.

AVLON: I -- I love that term. It was the secret means of communicating among sort of the resistance of the dissidents who were resisting the Russian -- the Soviet imperialist state. And they would pass things around in note form. And it would take on sort of a life and mythology of its own. So it's a dig with the Russia, but it's a really evocative phrase of a terrible time in human history.

CAMEROTA: But also what he's referring to is the way things are passed around among the aides in the White House.


CAMEROTA: That there is the whole -- there is a sort of open whisper campaign.

AVLON: Yes. You know, that--

CAMEROTA: That you never know what's on the record and what's off the record, because everyone is whispering.

AVLON: Well, the truth is being told, but sort of under the surface.

CAMEROTA: Sub rosa.

AVLON: Sub rosa.

CUOMO: He could have said "sotto voce." He could have said a lot of things. But using that term, A.B--.

AVLON: Samizdat, yes. CUOMO: -- you know, seems like an intentional thing by Wolff. Do you have problems with the reporting technique here?

STODDARD: Well, again, I'm not going to stick up for Michael Wolff's reporting, because as I said, there's too many people that are credible critics of it to ignore.


STODDARD: It doesn't mean, as I said before, that all of this is not true.

It affirms and confirms what we've already heard, both from senators I've spoken to him who've been with him in private, or congressmen, and then things that made it into "The New York Times" and other mainstream publications.

The problem, if you read Axios this morning, is that all of the staffers and all of the things that they've said to Michael Wolff they've said to other reporters, like Michael Allen. And they're basically saying they have -- they don't appreciate everyone's scorn at them serving the president while leaking on him and talking badly behind their back, because they see themselves as patriots trying to hold back some kind of disaster.

And so this is something, as I said, this is a narrative that's already been preset. And that's why it's so damaging.

CUOMO: All right.

CAMEROTA: All right. Stick around. John Avlon, A.B. Stoddard, thank you very much.

So that new book that we've been talking about also details rampant in-fighting and dysfunction inside the White House. How is all the chaos actually impacting the country? That's the big question. So we tackle that next.