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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Robert Mueller to Interview President Trump?. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired January 8, 2018 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:08]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good afternoon, and welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with some breaking news in our politics now.

CNN is now learning new details about how lawyers for President Trump are anticipating a request for the president to sit down for an interview with special counsel Robert Mueller. Mueller, of course, is investigating potential collusion between the Russian government and Trump associates during the 2016 election.

Sources telling CNN that President Trump's lawyers have been preparing for the possible interview request for months, and they hope it will happen soon.

I want to bring in CNN justice correspondent Pamela Brown, as well as CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger. They're breaking the story for CNN right now.

Pamela, what are your sources telling you about this possible meeting, interview, whatever you want to call it, between Mueller and President Trump?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, I'm told, as well as my colleague Gloria Borger, that President Trump's lawyers are anticipating a request from the Robert Mueller's team to interview the president.

And what they're trying to do is define the parameters for a possible interview to limit its scope. As you know, the president's lawyers, they want this investigation wrapped up soon. And the expectation is that it won't wrap up until Mueller's team is able to have some sort of interview with the president.

What that might look like is unclear. Our sources tell us that the matter was broached in a previous meeting between Trump's lawyers and Robert Mueller's team, but they insist that there was no substantive discussion, no active negotiations.

The expectation, Jake, is that those kinds of discussions in terms of what an interview might look like will happen in further meetings, that they will explore that in further meetings. But it's certainly something that they have been preparing for, for months. And now it seems like, Jake, given where things stand in the

investigation, given the fact that the White House witness interviews have wrapped up, according to Ty Cobb, the lawyer in the White House, they are expecting this to happen soon rather than later, this request for Mueller's team, Jake.

TAPPER: And, Gloria, what are the kinds of ways that the president's lawyers could try to limit the president's testimony?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, there are a bunch of ways, Jake.

First of all, they could ask whether, in fact, the president has to testify under oath. They could ask whether the president could just supply written responses to questions from the special counsel. I mean, you will remember that Ronald Reagan did this with Iran-Contra.

They can say, well, we don't want this interview to be recorded in any way. What they don't want is some kind of fishing expedition, where the president sits down and goes in with attorneys for the special counsel or the special counsel himself and has a wide-ranging, kind of open-ended interview on all sorts of things.

So they might even try to limit the subject matter upon which the president is required to answer questions. There are lots of ways. And what they're doing, Jake, is they're looking at precedent and saying, OK, this is what Reagan did in Iran-Contra, for example. Why couldn't we do it that way?

TAPPER: All right. Pamela Brown and Gloria Borger, thanks so much for the reporting. Appreciate it.

My political panel joins me now.

Brian Fallon, put on your former Department of Justice spokesman hat for a second. How much wiggle room is there in what the lawyers for President Trump want and negotiate, as lawyers for Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have done previously, and what the special counsel might demand?

BRIAN FALLON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, so there's certainly nothing that prevents Donald Trump's lawyers from asking for a lenient approach here, in terms of being able to submit answers, for instance in writing.

They wouldn't be doing their jobs if they weren't seeking the easiest way for Donald Trump to handle this as possible, but I don't see a scenario where Bob Mueller is going to go halfway on this and where he's going to submit to something like a written set of answers.

The trouble for Donald Trump, of course, is that for all the bravado we hear from him when he's behind the podium or in an interview, for instance, in that Lester Holt interview, he basically admitted to firing Jim Comey because of the Russia investigation, what you find in these -- whenever he's deposed in a legal scenario, if you look back at the lawsuits he's been a party to over the years, he tends to clam up in those settings.

He tends to frequently say he can't recall things and sometimes changes his statements that he makes in the press. So I think there is a legal consideration here and a political here. The legal one being that if Donald Trump doesn't have anything to worry about, he should be willing to sit with Bob Mueller and answer any question he wants.

On the other hand, politically, it might be embarrassing for him to have to walk back or revisit certainly statements he's made in the past.

TAPPER: And it's been interesting, because allies of the president's in conservative media and on the Hill have been attacking Mueller.

The White House and even President Trump has said that they think Mueller would treat him fairly. It puts the president in something of a predicament. He has to cooperate as least a little bit.

[16:05:00]

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Certainly.

And I think that's why you're hearing his attorneys say they want to find a way to make this happen. I think there is a reason they would like this to go away and that being obstinate and saying he's not going to talk at all is not going to make it go away any quickly.

But I think real peril here is in some ways much less political at this point. The existence of an interview going and talking to Bob Mueller is not the thing that is going to change your poll numbers. It's the cover-up is always worse than the crime principle coming into play here. It's what got Bill Clinton in the '90s. It's what's gotten Michael Flynn at this point.

The idea of not being truthful with authorities when you're under oath or being interviewed is the thing that I think, much more than any political consideration, is what the president should be worried about.

TAPPER: And, Josh, there is new energy about the Russia investigation, at least in the public conversations about it, partly because Steve Bannon, the president's former chief strategist, with whom he's had a major falling out, is quoted in this new Michael Wolff book "Fire and Fury" saying that the meeting at Trump Tower that Manafort, Don Jr. and Jared Kushner took with the Russian lawyer looking for dirt -- supposedly offering dirt on Hillary Clinton, Bannon called it unpatriotic and treasonous.

Now, Bannon tried to walk this back, and being you're our resident Bannon expert being the author of the book "The Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and the Storming of the Presidency" -- we didn't put up the little picture. Anyway, it's on Amazon. There it is. It's on Amazon.

That he did try to walk it back, Bannon. He said -- quote -- "Donald Trump Jr. is both a patriot and a good man. My comments were aimed at Paul Manafort, a seasoned campaign professional with experience and knowledge of how the Russians operate. He should have known they are duplicitous, cunning and not our friends. To reiterate, those comments were not aimed at Don Jr."

But let me just say -- and then I'm going to let you speak -- the author Michael Wolff today said that's not true. Take a listen.

That's not the right SOT. It is SOT -- it's sound of Michael Wolff saying: "I'm very fond of Steve and obviously he's been very helpful, incredibly insightful. This is not true."

As a matter of fact, and this is in the book, he went through the steps. Why did Don Jr. do this? Christiane Amanpour says meeting with the Russians and Wolff says, yes, he did it to impress his father.

JOSH GREEN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Bannon did and didn't walk it back, right? He said my intention wasn't to go after Don Jr., it was to go after Paul Manafort.

But that doesn't get you out of the problem that you called this meeting treasonous. It doesn't matter who your target was. The issue is, is that there was a meeting, that it was highly inappropriate. Everybody would agree with that, maybe everybody except Donald Trump.

And so it doesn't really fix the problem that Bannon created. But what's more important I think in a political sense is it undercuts this Republican narrative that had been building up to the effect that the Mueller investigation is somehow a partisan witch-hunt.

Now you have a chief White House strategists saying, no, in fact, it was treasonous, it was bad. So it kind of knocks down Trump and Republicans' ability to withstand the kind of requests it sound like Mueller is going to make.

FALLON: And keep in mind, it's not like Donald Trump is some ancillary figure in this whole saga. From everything that we've read in reporting that has come out, Bob Mueller is specifically interested in what role Donald Trump had in providing a misleading statement to explain away that Don Jr. meeting in June of 2016.

TAPPER: Misleading to the press and the public, which we should point out is not a crime.

FALLON: Right. But it might go directly to the heart of an obstruction of justice case, which he might be investigating.

And then of course the firing of Jim Comey is at the core of a potential obstruction of justice investigation that Mueller is probably mounting.

So, it seems fair to think or surmise, don't know for certain, that Donald Trump is a subject of the investigation, which makes it all the more compelling why Bob Mueller will want to interview him in person under oath and not just submit some questions in writing, where he could easily evade the questions.

TAPPER: All right, we're going to take a very quick break.

When we come back, even the author of "Fire and Fury" admits he did make some mistakes in the book. Coming up, a closer look at the book that everyone is talking about. Stay with us.

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[16:13:07]

TAPPER: And we're back with our politics lead and the bombshell book giving life to new questions about President Trump's fitness for office.

And while the book is flying off the shelves, so much so that the publishing house is rushing to print more books amid a backlog of orders, legitimate questions are being raised about the reliability of the book's narrative, how the reporting that was done, the sources used or not used, and the details in the book that have since proven to be false.

It's difficult to ascertain, frankly, just what the truth here since we have two unreliable narrators, author Michael Wolff, whose credibility as a journalist has been seriously questioned before and who has in the marketing of this book already made several questionable statements, and President Trump, whose relationship with the facts is tenuous at best.

The president initially tweeted about the book -- quote -- "I authorized zero access to White House, actually turned the author 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. Watch what happens to him and Sloppy Steve."

Sloppy Steve, of course, is a new nickname for the president's former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who is quoted throughout the book making disparaging, insightful and other remarks about various people.

Now, the White House says the last time they have a record of Michael Wolff speaking with President Trump was in February 2017, just barely into President Trump's term. Wolff says he spent a cumulative three hours with President Trump during the campaign, the transition and in the White House.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL WOLFF, AUTHOR, "FIRE AND FURY: INSIDE THE TRUMP WHITE HOUSE": I interviewed him at that point. After that, we would we would speak. I'm sure he didn't think they were interviewed. And, in all fairness, he might say, I was not being interviewed.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: The president's defenders are out in full force attempting to disparage both Wolff and Bannon, though not necessarily effectively. Former aide Sebastian Gorka, who was forced out of the White House in

August, wrote a column in "The Hill" newspaper today, attacking Wolff and attacking the media, including CNN.

[16:15:04] But in Gorka's purported defense of the president, he also writes, quote: I met Michael Wolff in Reince Priebus' office where he was waiting to talk to Steve Bannon and after I had been told to also speak to him for his book.

Which, frankly, doesn't sound like an author with no access and no cooperation from the White House. It sounds like the complete opposite.

But it's not as if all of Mr. Gorka's complaints about Wolff and the book are poorly founded. Wolff's reporting should be met with skepticism. It is riddled with errors and rumors. And in his marketing of the book, Wolff made the unbelievable assertion that 100 percent of the president's family members and top advisers have concerns about his mental fitness for the job, 100 percent. That's simply not true.

And consider this from "CBS This Morning."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

INTERVIEWER: Did you speak with any members of the president's cabinet for this book?

MICHAEL WOLFF, AUTHOR, "FIRE AND FURY": I did not.

INTERVIEWER: You did not?

WOLFF: I did not.

INTERVIEWER: Did you speak with the vice president?

WOLFF: I did not.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: And there's this, three errors in just this one paragraph on page 78, a misspelling of Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen's name. Wilbur Ross is identified as the labor secretary when he's actually the commerce secretary. And Wolff has reporter Mark Berman at a restaurant which Berman says he's never been to.

Now, NBC's Chuck Todd asked Wolff about these errors and why readers shouldn't be concerned about the picture it paints.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHUCK TODD, MODERTOR, NBC'S "MEET THE PRESS": Do you regret some of the errors in there? Do you wish a second -- it feels as you if you didn't get a copy edit?

WOLFF: I think I mixed up Mike Berman and a Mark Berman. For that, I apologize. But the book speaks for itself. Read the book.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: So that's the conundrum we're in. We have an author who had access, an author who had great quotes, but did he have great facts?

Joining me to talk about this is CNN political analyst and "New York Times" White House correspondent Maggie Haberman who has interviewed President Trump on many occasions since he took office. She's even referred to by some as the Trump whisperer. We're going to talk about what she thinks about this book next.

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(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[16:21:11] CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think everybody is just staggered by your declaration that 100 percent, and those are your words --

WOLFF: A hundred percent.

AMANPOUR: -- of the people around the president believe that he is incapable, unfit of carrying out the duties of this office.

WOLFF: A hundred percent. It is staggering. That is why -- well, I think that's why this book has hit such a chord. Everybody recognizes that outside of the White House, and it is the obvious thing to think, to realize that the people inside the White House, who are just the same as you and I, say, what the hell.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: That was author Michael Wolff talking to Christiane Amanpour.

We're back and continuation the conversation about Wolff's bombshell book, "Fire and Fury."

With me now is CNN political analyst and "New York Times" White House correspondent Maggie Haberman.

Maggie, to be clear, Wolff had amazing access and he's got a lot of juicy quotes from people, especially Steve Bannon. I don't want to take any of that away from him, but this book contains several inaccuracies and maybe even more to the point, there is such hyperbole in the book and also the claims we listened to, 100 percent.

There is no way that 100 percent, Hope Hicks, Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump, these people have complete confidence in President Trump.

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Jake, I agree with your -- with all of your assessments. I agree that he got tremendous access and the fact that the White House keeps insisting that he has no access is silly and not true. I mean, those of us who saw him sitting in the West Wing lobby, as I did on more than one occasion, know that he was there. Most of us know that he was in Steve Bannon's office quite a bit.

And Steve Bannon, to be clear, is not the only person who spoke to him. Several speak spoke to him in that West Wing. Bannon has the most elongated quotes on the record, but that is an accomplishment. There is no question.

TAPPER: Absolutely.

HABERMAN: And the portrait that he paint is very close to the one that those of White House have been covering this beat for the last, you know, year and a half of the transition and the presidency and then the campaign before that have seen, which is, you know, some elements of how unusual this all is. People around Trump, some of them who are new to him in particular, trying to understand him. Not understanding what they are seeing. Not understanding the nature of what dealing with.

But to your point, it is not 100 percent of people. It is certainly not, you know, his son Eric. It is certainly not Hope Hicks. It is certainly not Dan Sscavino.

And then when you didn't actually interview the vice president or any cabinet secretaries, that takes away a huge chunk of the pie that you're using to declare how everyone feels.

TAPPER: And let me also say, a lot of the details in the book that some are seizing on, Trump watching an inordinate amount of TV, advisers around Trump having concerns, these have been reported by me, by you, by a lot of people.

HABERMAN: Yes, the TV detail in particular I've reported repeatedly, but I certainly reported on it with my colleagues Glenn Thrush and Peter Baker at the beginning of December. You know, the bits about his schedule sliding were in that story as well. The bits about what people do to try to control him and deal with him.

We have all been reporting this since the campaign, since early in the campaign. This has been the constant running theme. And that is why the narrative -- the main thesis of the book is that there is some kind of degeneration there. That he is different than who he used to be and I think that Wolff posited at one of the interviews.

That simply is not my experience and this is the person who I have been interviewing for six years pretty consistently. He is the same person. There is no change.

The setting has changed. And so, some of his characteristics have been exacerbated. I think certain qualities have come to the fore more than others and that might seem to some people like a degeneration. That's not the same thing.

TAPPER: I want to just also say that Wolff has been attacking the media, especially "The New York Times" and you.

[16:25:03] He did this I think a year ago to sweeten the beat to get access. But then also in the book, he attacks "The New York Times" and others in the Washington press corps for focusing and reporting on the president's, let's call it, unconventional behavior. And yet this book is the most extreme example of that, except with more questionable sourcing.

HABERMAN: Right, I mean, look, I can't -- I don't really understand -- I didn't understand the attacks then. I certainly don't understand them now. I didn't understand the attacks when he was insisting the transition was going very well when the rest of us were reporting what a chaotic mess it was, which turned out to be absolutely true once they fired Chris Christie and decided to take this into their own hands and throw away months of planning.

You know, it look at the time as if he was emulating a lot of Donald Trump's grievances with particular members in the media, including me, in order to get proximity and it doesn't look like he actually got that proximity to Donald Trump. He certainly had it to Bannon, but I think that was a pre-existing relationship, in part because both of their relationships with Roger Ailes.

TAPPER: All right. Maggie Haberman, keep up the great work, as always. Always a pleasure to have you on the show.

HABERMAN: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: Today, the Trump administration's clamping down, telling one group of immigrants it is time to go. The huge implications for my next guest and thousands more like him as the president pushes his immigration agenda. Stay with us.

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