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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Robert Mueller Seeking to Interview President Trump. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired January 23, 2018 - 16:30   ET

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


[16:33:10]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: We're back with breaking news in the Russia investigation.

"The Washington Post" is reporting that special counsel Robert Mueller is seeking to interview president trump in the coming weeks.

We also have some brand-new CNN poll breaking this hour. The polls show that 78 percent of those polled, 78 percent of the American people, believe that President Trump should testify under oath before special counsel Robert Mueller if asked to do so. That includes 59 percent of Republicans, 75 percent of independents, and 95 percent of Democrats.

Well, 5 percent of Democrats saying that he shouldn't have to do it.

Back with me is former Republican Congressman Mike Rogers.

MIKE ROGERS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I don't think you needed a poll to figure that number.

TAPPER: He also served as an FBI agent.

But here's the big question, because President Trump months ago said 100 percent he would be willing to meet with Mueller. The last time he spoke publicly about this, he hemmed and hawed. He was much more ambivalent and, in fact, said if there's no collusion, there might not need to be an interview.

We have reports of lots of friends and advisers saying, don't do it, channeling Admiral Ackbar, it's a trap.

What do you think?

ROGERS: Listen, if his inner circle were really looking at this, and as an investigator, you love a big personality to walk into that room, because that's the best way to get somebody to say something they probably wouldn't normally say.

TAPPER: Because their egos are so big.

ROGERS: Well, these are big personalities. They're used to being the biggest personality in the room.

TAPPER: Martha Stewart.

ROGERS: Martha Stewart was a great example of that, right?

And the legal part of it is not something they grew up and understand. And they think, hey, I have talked my way out of everything in my life. I'm going to do it again here.

Talking about real criminals out in the streets, right, they have that big personality. They walk in the room, they think they can own it.

So in this case, it would not surprise me if his lawyers and his associates and his advisers are saying, don't do it. As a matter of fact, you can wait. You have work to do as president of the United States. You should wait on doing that interview.

[16:35:01]

I think, for the good of the country, they should work out a deal to have this done, so that we can put this behind us one way or the other. The whole mess, the optics for the FBI are not great, candidly, right now. And it's unfortunate.

And the optics certainly for the president and the attorney general are not good. I would like to see all of this get settled, so we can get about the business of what we do around the world.

This is having that impact. And I think the president has made this case before, and I think he's right, that, listen, this is impacting my ability to perform the duties as president of the United States. We need to get it done. I agree that he's right.

Postponing it? I think his advisers would be well to say, postpone your -- any time you talk to the special counsel. He's not obligated to do it. And then take that investigation from there, so he can get about it.

I think the public is probably right. They want to see resolution and that would mean the president testifying, being interviewed.

TAPPER: I want to ask you about several items in the news.

One of them is CNN has learned that Christopher Wray, the FBI director, threatened to resign after he was repeatedly pressured by the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to make changes to the senior leadership at the FBI, including the deputy director, Andrew McCabe, and the FBI's top lawyer, James Baker.

President Trump has obviously been attacking the FBI and attacking Andrew McCabe specifically for a long, long time on Twitter, questioning his credibility.

In July 2017, the president wrote -- quote -- "Why didn't Attorney General Sessions replace acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe?"

What do you think of Sessions trying to pressure Wray to do this, of Wray saying, no, you will have to fire me first? ROGERS: Yes.

And, candidly, I have asked a few questions of some old friends today, and I can't anyone that can confirm that he actually said he was fired. Do I think the conversations happened where he was saying, why is this guy here or why is he in this job?

The optics for the FBI are bad in this particular case. It doesn't mean he did anything wrong, but the optics don't look good. And just as it doesn't look good that the attorney general, who may be a witness on any Russia probe, was even considering having the conversation about moving a guy along.

None of that looks good. I'm a little skeptic that it came down that hard. I think there were conversations. I think that Wray did the right thing and said leave my management to my FBI, to me. I will handle it.

And, again, doesn't mean McCabe is running the Russia investigation. As associate director, he also has a responsibility for a lot of other things. We just had a big China spy case break. I can guarantee you he's in that. We have some organized crime families doing really bad things in the city of New York. I guarantee you he's taking a look at those things.

And that's where he needs to go. He's announced in December that he was going to retire.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: I think in March, yes, just a couple more months.

ROGERS: And so none of this really jibes with me.

I do believe there were conversations. It sounds to me like somebody a little wider than was in the room decided what they thought happened in that room. I'm just -- I'm not buying it yet. Until Director Wray comes out and said, I said it, I'm not sure I buy it.

TAPPER: We will wait for his book.

I do want to ask you about the Senate Homeland Security Committee chairman, Senator Ron Johnson, released some new text messages from the case that you were talking about, the FBI agent Peter Strzok who has been reassigned, after political texts came to light that he had been sending to a woman at the FBI.

In these texts in February 2016, FBI lawyer Lisa Page says it is -- quote -- "unbelievable" that the 2016 race would come down to Clinton vs. Trump. Strzok responds: "Now the pressure really starts to finish MYE."

MYE appears to be a reference to midyear exam. That was what the FBI called the Clinton investigation. In another exchange highlighted by Johnson, Strzok bemoaned the timing of the news that Loretta Lynch, the attorney general, was recusing herself from the investigation. And he said: "Timing looks like hell. Will appear to be choreographed."

Page then texts back: "And, yes, it is a real profile in courage since she knows no charges will be brought."

This is being cited by Republicans and supporters of President Trump that the fix was in and the investigation stinks.

ROGERS: Again, the optics of this are really bad. And you also had McCabe right around that same time frame who went down to see McAuliffe, who was the Democratic governor of the state of Virginia, who helped finance his wife's Democrat campaign. All of that looks bad.

It doesn't mean there's anything illegal, number one. And it doesn't mean the investigation was necessarily tainted. I do believe someone should review it. I argued early on the FBI should do this on their own. Bring a group of independent thinkers. Review the facts around all of these particular instances, because it is starting to serve to diminish the credibility of the FBI.

What is happening is we're watching in real time here basically is the impeachment of a witness. So in any good defense case, they're going to go in and impeach the witness, including, by the way, FBI agents who take the stand in criminal cases. They use the old line of, really, you're a special agent. Is there any other special agent?

[16:40:01]

Are you the only special -- everything they can do to impeach the credibility of that witness, you're seeing this happen in real life in the court of public opinion, where everybody is going to go after their witnesses, the FBI and others.

(CROSSTALK)

ROGERS: I think this is a dangerous trend. I completely think this is wrongheaded.

But I do think the FBI needs to get a handle on what the optics are of this investigation. You have to be able to maintain the credibility of the FBI investigate any crime of any party of any politics in the country without bias. That absolutely has to be protected.

TAPPER: All right, Congressman Mike Rogers, thanks so much for being here. We really appreciate it.

Let's turn back to my panel.

First of all, let's talk about these text messages and the campaign, I think it is fair to call it a campaign, of attacking the FBI. What is your response?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, on one hand, I agree with the congressman that you want to project integrity from the FBI.

But the material problem is the lost texts and some of these things that we have seen and you actually do have to address those. And this is something civil libertarian liberals used to understand like, I don't know, six months ago.

Federal agencies can abuse power. And the folks there can have an axe to grind. And we should be concerned about that and we should be concerned about them losing six months of texts that are really pertinent that Mueller himself has said, look, the folks here had to be -- or at least one person had to be dismissed for bias because of this in that really critical time period.

It is important to have that stuff. Just as it is shady when Trump covers stuff up, it's shady when it happens the other way, whether it is sloppy or intentional.

TAPPER: Yes. And I remember before the election, Rudy Giuliani went on FOX News and talked about how there was a surprise coming.

Two days later, Comey announced he was reopening the case. And then basically Giuliani said he had heard about this from former and current FBI officials -- he later took back the current FBI officials -- about how it was a powder keg.

And there was a lot of call by Democrats for an investigation into, what did Giuliani know? And the FBI was being politicized against Hillary Clinton.

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right.

I think it goes to the point that Chairman Rogers makes that the FBI needs to get to the bottom of this. It needs to restore the confidence. I remember sitting in July at the convention in Cleveland and watching Director Comey come out and talk about the Clinton investigation.

And there were lots of hems and haws that she was getting away with it. But I believed him at the time, because I had faith in the FBI. I had faith in Director Comey. And I think that people in America want to have that faith again.

I think it is incumbent upon the FBI to kind of investigate this, clear the air, believe everybody wants to have faith in the FBI.

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I agree. I don't agree at all.

I feel like my Republican friends think that..

(CROSSTALK)

JEAN-PIERRE: No, I get the sense. I heard M.J. say, hey, it is the same thing. There are some bad actors.

And I agree. There are some bad actors. And the FBI needs to get to the bottom of it.

But I do -- and I'm not the only one. I'm not the only Democrat that believes in Robert Mueller. He has a solid reputation. So, in the special counsel in that investigation, I trust in what Robert Mueller is doing.

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: Robert Mueller is a patriot.

(CROSSTALK)

JEAN-PIERRE: Let me finish.

TAPPER: A Vietnam veteran.

JEAN-PIERRE: Right, Vietnam veteran.

And he dismissed that one individual that seemed incredibly problematic. I agree there.

But I do have to say this. I think what Donald Trump is doing, though, is dangerous. The way he attacks the FBI. The way he asks for loyalty tests from Comey. And now we see Sessions doing that with Wray, assuming that reporting is true.

And that is incredibly problematic and we should not see that in an administration.

HAM: It is also incredibly problematic to have sort of a narrative that does not allow the questioning and the skepticism of someone like a Mueller, who I actually have confidence in.

But then you get down to Comey. Comey has been contradicted by some of these texts about when Loretta Lynch knew this information. I don't why we have to assume he is the only honest man in Washington at all times. Clapper is another example.

He has admitted that he lied to Congress about surveilling the American people. And yet we're told when he talks about the Russia investigation that everything he says must be taken at face value and never questioned. So I think that hinders our critical assessment of this investigation as well, although I agree with you about Trump's approach to it.

TAPPER: White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders just said that no one cares about Russia, that the American people are more interested in other things.

Is that true, no one cares about Russia?

HAM: No. I think people care about Russia. I think they care -- I care deeply about figuring out what they did so we can prevent in it 2018 and 2020. So, I think it matters.

She is right that many people have things at the top of their head that are not this investigation, that are not Mueller. They're not deep in the weeds about this. They're deep in the weeds about their family and putting food on the table.

And some of them are actually enjoying some of the things that Trump has created, like the tax cut.

TAPPER: We have a lot more to discuss. Keep it here.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:45:00] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And we're back with the "POLITICS LEAD" as the Washington Post reports that Robert Mueller is looking to interview President Trump in the coming weeks over his firings of Michael Flynn and James Comey. There are also some questions about whether there are some other staff changes in the horizon. Let's bring in CNN's M.J. Lee. And M.J., the White House is defending one of those members, Wilbur Ross, the Commerce Secretary whose fate has seemed up in the air recently.

M.J. LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: Yes, but at least publicly they're defending Wilbur Ross. The message from the White House is essentially nothing to see here. Press Secretary Sarah Sanders telling reporters yesterday that Trump has full confidence in Secretary Ross saying "he loves Wilbur, thinks he is doing a great job." Well, for whatever reason, Jake, there have been some unflattering headlines about Ross lately including a story in Axios that said Trump was unhappy with the Secretary's handling of trade and also this, that Ross has been falling asleep in some meetings.

Now, one Hill source tells CNN that there has certainly been talk of ross having fallen out of favor with the President and that that could explain why we are suddenly seeing these embarrassing stories in the press. Now I was able to reach Secretary Ross yesterday very briefly on the phone, and when I asked him about these headlines, he told me, "that's an obsolete story." Look at these press release from the White Hosue. Look at the President's press release." I should say though, Jake, that he did hang up the phone before I could ask him anything else.

TAPPER: M.J. Lee, thanks so much. My political panel is here with me. And if you work for the White House, your fate is always up in the air especially it seems in this administration. Just moments ago, Gary Cohn who's the Director of the National Economic Council at the White House and the National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster were asked just moments ago if they are staying in the jobs. Here's what they have to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER, WHITE HOUSE: Well, I have a job and it is my intention to go as long and as hard as I can to service to the President and the nation in this job.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So let me first ask you if you're staying in your current job too.

GARY COHN, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL ECONOMIC COUNCIL: Over here?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: That's a yes. Obviously there were rumors last year that Cohn was on the outs. That was after the Charlottesville incident. And Gary Cohn feel the need to speak out that he didn't think the President handled it very well. But Karine, I mean, you know, this is -- there have been a lot -- there have been a lot of staff turnover in the White House.

KARINE JEAN PIERRE, SENIOR ADVISOR AND NATIONAL SPOKESPERSON, MOVEON.ORG: Yes, I mean, unbelievably amount of a lot of staff members. I don't have the numbers with me or I don't know them off the top of my head but I worked in the White House. I worked in the White House for the first two years under the Obama administration and it is tough. It is tough to work six, seven days a week, 12 plus hours a day and you know, it is a -- it is a tough job. I cannot imagine doing their job, this job, being in the White House, under a President who can't stay off Twitter, who says really bigoted, racist things, who is under a rush investigation. I mean, there's so much going on. I mean, hey, Gary Cohn said he was really upset about what -- how Trump handled Charlottesville so I'm not off on the things that he says. So I just can't even --

TAPPER: It does seem to be a bit more stability since General Kelly took over. It feels that. I mean, after he fired everybody on his way in.

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, I think they have a great staff. These are A-list players, right, from General Kelly on down, General McMaster, Gary Cohn. And look, Washington is a place, if you don't have thick skin, you shouldn't look for a job. I mean, it's pretty -- this is -- this isn't bean bags as they say.

TAPPER: Yesterday the White House defended the President's relationship with Wilber Ross saying that President has 100 percent confidence in the Secretary. But the question of course is, is that an endorsement or that a kiss of death? Take a look. Do we not have the sound ready? Let's roll this out.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: Yes, General Flynn does enjoy the full confidence of the President.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, first of all, Sean Spicer is a fine human being. He's a fine person.

I thought Tom Price, Dr. Tom Price, who really is amazing on health care and his knowledge. I thought he did he a fantastic job.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Of course not long after, that Flynn, Spicer, Price. So when they say that President Trump has 100 percent confidence in Wilber Ross, should he start packing his bags?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No. Because I think we've reported on a lot of kisses of death that never came fruition, right?

TAPPER: That's Tillerson

HAM: You're not sure -- the palace intrigue is somewhat inscrutable and I think that's part of just who Trump it's and part of what this White House is. I think it's exhausting for the people in there. And they also have the added problem that they have not staffed up the federal government in some of these appointments the same way that another administration would have. So they're running with a sort of a skeleton crew to begin with.

TAPPER: We're having light issues in the studio right now. Another rumored -- thank you so much -- another rumored fallout the President and Chief of Staff John Kelly. This morning President tweeted, "Thank you to General John Kelly who is doing a fantastic job and all the staff and others in the White House for a job well done. Long hours and fake reporting makes the job more difficult but it is always great to win and few have won more than us." That seemed to be perhaps a response to an article in Vanity Fair that suggest that had President Trump was -- that General Kelly had fallen out of favor with President Trump.

URBAN: Yes, I don't believe it to be true. The President loves the General Kelly. General Kelly is an American patriot, great guy, he ran (INAUDIBLE). He's not going anywhere.

TAPPER: Besides the cabinet issue, let's turn to the next subject if we can. There's another issue, the Trump administration is dealing with the left leaning good government group Common Cause, is asking the Justice Department to investigate a reported six figure payment then candidate Donald Trump's Lawyer Michael Cohen made to a porn star just before the presidential election. The group claims that the payment was meant to influence the election and should have been considered a campaign contribution. Now, David Urban, this was reported at least twice by the Wall Street Journal which is not known as a publication that has it out for President Trump about this payment. If you saw evidence that there actually had been a payment to Stormy Daniels, would you -- would that raise your eyebrows? Would you be concerned about it?

URBAN: So the question they have, is it somehow a violation of campaign law? No. And you know, it's all been -- they can go back, take a look at the checks, it didn't come from the campaign. It's not a violation. Nothing to see here. Move on.

TAPPER: Is that really all it comes down to?

URBAN: That's what it all comes down to.

TAPPER: I mean, like, even if his business gave her $130,000?

URBAN: I think the American people, if elected this President, doesn't seem to bother them that it's been out there. If it is true, right? I mean, who knows if it's true. The President hasn't spoken to it, right? The Vice President says he doesn't know anything about it. So I take them to face value on this one. There's lots and lots of rumor and innuendo don't say anything --

HAM: There's also just weird sexual story fatigue. Like people don't want to get into the details. I agree that it's not campaign finance violation but -- this is a problem that a year ago, a lot of people would have had a problem with.

TAPPER: Yes, I mean --

URBAN: People -- listen, there was a lot of talk about different things on the campaign. The President got elected overwhelmingly. I think, move on.

TAPPER: Well, what -- that may be fair. I do want to ask about one thing that does seem strange though in this story which is that the high level evangelicals supporters of President Trump are really just shrugging about this story. Franklin Graham said he believes the President is a very different person than he was four or five years ago. Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONY PERKINS, PRESIDENT, FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL: We kind of gave him -- all right, you get a mulligan. You get a do-over again here. They were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists and I think they're finally glad that there's somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: I get that President Trump has the positions that evangelical conservatives support. I totally understand that. But I wonder, is there a credibility issue at all if they don't even at least say something like, I don't know if that story is true, but if it is true, that's immoral behavior.

HAM: Yes, I think you lose as a leader in your faith, you lose some moral authority when you do that. But he is correct about the transactional nature of the calculation that folks made and people of faith made, that they hired a bully to punch back for them. And I don't -- it wasn't a decision that I made but that is -- that is part of what's going down here.

TAPPER: What do you make of all this?

JEAN PIERRE: You know, it looks like -- guys will probably be shocked. I think this is something between Donald Trump and Melania. They need -- it looks like it was consensual. They need to figure that out. What I care more about actually is the what 19 women who came out in 2016 and said that Donald Trump either harassed them, sexually harassed them or sexually assaulted them. The stories of him walking through teenage pageants in their locker room while they were naked. I think that's more of what I'm concerned about because those are real true harassment and assault charges that we should be talking about that now --

TAPPER: Let me just ask you. Do you think that the Trump presidency is putting an end to any scandals involve consensual sexual relationships? I mean, is that -- I'm asking you David. I mean, like, I mean, is this -- are we into territory now that like Tony Perkins and Franklin Graham no longer can comment on that? If candidate Smith in the future who's a Democrat has a relationship with a porn star and pays her money like, I'm sorry, you can't talk about that.

URBAN: You heard what Franklin Graham said. He said, look, I know this President. I believe him to be a different person than he was five, six, or seven years ago. I mean, each person like that takes a measure of a man and makes a decision based upon who they know that person to be. That's what Dr. Graham did and I think that's what some of these other individuals did. So I can't comment on the wider -- you know, if it is going to be a trend but I can just comment on those that Tony Perkins and Dr. Graham's comments. I think they measure them up, said he is somebody different than he was back then and they take it at face value, move forward.

TAPPER: I just wonder if what's happening now is similar to what happened with feminist leaders during the Bill Clinton administration.

HAM: Right, and I think that's actually part of the calculation, is that look, many conservatives feel like, we had a fight over whether character mattered in this way and the verdict was resoundingly that it did not and Clinton remains one of our most popular presidents. So we're going to play on the same field. And I think they lose some moral authority in some of the ways they talk about it. Redemption is real but the way they talk about it sometimes I think throws me off but I do understand the calculation that was made and it began with some of the Clinton stuff.

URBAN: Listen, again, I think there's -- there are huge issues here on the table, not to minimize anything you're mentioning Karine but you know, we're talking about, still we have a very, very dangerous situation in North Korea, we've got a very aggressive Russian state. We've got a lot of big things we need to deal with as a presidency and I think Americans are worried about a lot of those things, not to minimize anything you've said Karine.

TAPPER: Got it. Mary Katharinie, David, Karine, thank you one and all for being here. I appreciate it. Be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @JAKETAPPER or you can tweet the show @THELEADCNN. That's it for THE LEAD. I turn you over now to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Thanks for watching.