Return to Transcripts main page


Jeff Sessions Pressed FBI Director to Fire His Deputy; White House Claims FBI's Reputation Tainted; Trump: "Nobody Knows" If DACA Deal Possible By February 8; White House: DACA Deal Dependent On Border Security, Wall; Reports: Sessions Pressed FBI Director To Fire Deputy. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired January 23, 2018 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:15] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Poppy Harlow. The president already fired one FBI director and this morning new reporting that the current FBI director became so enraged he threatened to quit.

BERMAN: In the news site Axios says Christopher Wray refused demands by the Attorney General Jeff Sessions to fire the bureau's deputy director, that's Andy McCabe. McCabe had been a public target of President Trump for months, largely for his role in the Hillary Clinton investigation.

CNN's Shimon Prokupecz has much more on this from Washington.

Shimon, what are you learning?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes, that's right, John. You know, this is another example of the White House putting pressure on the Department of Justice and Sessions to do something about the FBI.

Now the Axios report says at the urging of the president Sessions told the FBI director Chris Wray that he wanted the deputy director Andrew McCabe fired and in turn, the FBI director threatened to resign over the issue.

Now it's important to keep in mind that McCabe can't be fired. He's a career FBI agent so Wray's only option perhaps would have been to re- assign him and that's what we've reported previously for months. McCabe has been telling people that he plans to retire in March completely aware of some of the political fire that he's been taking from the president and his allies over the FBI's handling of the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation and his connections to the two FBI employees who has been revealed sent anti-Trump messages, these text messages.

They had an affair and they were sending text messages between each other and the president, you know, has publicly called for McCabe to step down. He's repeatedly tweeted these attacks on the FBI and McCabe, in one tweet saying basically, when he learned that McCabe was going to retire saying the FBI director Andrew McCabe is racing the clock to retire with full benefits. 90 days to go.

And you know, McCabe has been sort of this punching bag of sorts for the president and Republicans who have taken issue over many of things that have gone wrong, they say, at the FBI.

Now after this report from Axios surfaced last night, the former FBI director sent his own tweet, sort of saying, you know, how good this was that someone was standing up and this is what he said, good to read reports of people standing up for what they believe in, and then he went on to quote MLK saying, "The ultimate pressure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

Now, Poppy and John, I can tell you that people inside the FBI are taking good to this. They're happy to see that the FBI director is perhaps standing up to Sessions and the president.

HARLOW: Shimon, we appreciate the reporting. Thank you very much for going through all of that.

What's really interesting about the White House response is they're not denying it. They are saying that the president does have a problem with some, quote, "senior leaders" of the FBI.

Kaitlan Collins is at the White House with more. Good morning.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, good morning, Poppy and John. That's right. The White House did not deny this in a very lengthy statement that they issued. They did not deny this reporting specifically, but they said that the president has enormous respect for the thousands of rank and file FBI agents who make up the world's most professional and talented law enforcement agency.

The statement continued he believes politically motivated senior leaders including former director Comey and others he empowered have tainted the agency's reputation for unbiased pursuit of justice. The president appointed Chris Wray because he's a man of true character and integrity and the right choice to clean up the misconduct at the highest levels in the FBI and give the rank and file confidence in their leadership.

Now it's worth noting that the president has had a troubled relationship with the FBI ever since he first took office nearly a year ago, and just in December he tweeted that he believed the FBI's reputation was in tatters and the worst it's ever been. But Chris Wray is someone the president handpicked and now we are seeing him put him in a very difficult position with these comments that he's made.

Now today this is noteworthy because the president could comment on this to reporters because we will see him for the first time here at the White House this afternoon as he signs off on some trade actions. The first time we're going to see the president since the government shutdown midnight on Friday -- John and Poppy.

BERMAN: All right. Kaitlan Collins, we'll be watching that very, very closely. Joining us now, CNN chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

Jeffrey, you heard that White House statement that read in part the president believes politically motivated senior leaders including former director Comey and others he empowered have tainted the agency's reputation for unbiased pursuit of justice.

Leave aside for a moment whether you think that charge is accurate, we will get to that, I promise.

[09:05:02] But can a president or an attorney general fire a deputy FBI director if they think that that person is biased?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, not under the letter of the law, but, I mean, what we are learning is that the president believes that the FBI is like any other -- like any other agency, like the Department of the Interior, that the president has absolute authority to control and fire anyone who works there. Traditionally that has not been the case.

The reason the FBI director has a 10-year tenure is because he is supposed to be insulated from these sorts of political pressures but the president has made clear from the day he took office that he thinks the FBI director owes him loyalty, him personally, loyalty, not the government, not the rule of law, and that has led to certainly the firing of Comey and now this conflict with Wray.

HARLOW: What about the fact, though, that Wray pushed back, that Wray threatened to quit? What does that tell you?

TOOBIN: Well, that tells you that like Comey, Wray is trying to preserve the independence and the integrity of the FBI.

HARLOW: And the White House has said that the fight wasn't worth it, wasn't worth the firestorm. The firing wasn't worth the public firestorm.

TOOBIN: Right, but -- and that's true, but look at, you know, what the White House is trying to do. I mean, they are trying to control the FBI every day in politically motivated -- politically sensitive cases and in cases that involve the president as a potential target.

BERMAN: All right. Now you take great umbrage. We promised we would get to this, you take umbrage with the notion that there is a political bias inside the FBI. Why?

TOOBIN: Right. Well, Andy McCabe is a distinguished agent who is now at a senior level that the only charge against him that, as far as I'm aware has any, you know, factual basis is that his wife ran for state -- the state legislature in Virginia during the 2006 campaign and was a Democrat and was supported by --

BERMAN: Terry McAuliffe.

TOOBIN: Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic governor of the state. There's no evidence that McCabe did anything to help his wife win. There's no evidence that he was a partisan. You know, He, presumably like every other FBI agent, votes in elections, but you know, the idea that, you know, his wife's candidacy makes him unqualified to be a senior leader of the FBI is just something that doesn't have any precedent in our law.

HARLOW: But since the revelation of these text messages between Peter Strzok and Lisa Page to FBI folks that were working on the Clinton investigation, the Russia probe, one of them as you know, we already knew about this, in Andy's office. They think they're talking about discussions about Trump in Andy McCabe's office. A few more have come out.

We at CNN have not seen them. These have been released by Republican lawmaker Ron Johnson, but here are some of them. Lisa Page saying, "Unbelievable that the 2016 presidential race would come down to Clinton versus Trump." Peter Strzok responding, "Now the pressure really starts to finish the MYE," the mid-year review about Hillary Clinton's e-mail investigation.

Another series of texts, "So look, you say we text on that phone when we talk about Hillary because it can't be traced." Those are just a few.

TOOBIN: But I mean, so what?

HARLOW: Well --

TOOBIN: What does that tell you? I mean -- yes, the fact that this investigation was going on in the middle of a presidential campaign, everybody knew that. Obviously, they had to resolve it. I don't -- I mean, you know, this idea that FBI agents can't acknowledge what's going on in the real world. I read those text messages and I think so what?

BERMAN: There's also this new revelation that some six months of texts --

HARLOW: Are gone.

BERMAN: -- were not saved at this point. They can't find them. They were not stored they way they should be. In any way is that suspicious to you?

TOOBIN: Well, let's see. I mean, there be an investigation of why these text messages disappeared. We've all worked in big bureaucracies. Stuff gets lost. It happens in law enforcement where I worked for a while. You know, if there was someone who got rid of these text messages for some sinister reason, that we should know. If they disappeared just in the normal course of business, we should know that, too.

HARLOW: Care to weigh in to the Stormy Daniels tempest at all this morning? And the latest -- the latest page of it, that this group, the sort of liberal-leaning group is saying look, DOJ, FCC, you have to investigate whether this is improper use of potentially, you know, campaign donations? TOOBIN: You know, there -- the prosecution of John Edwards.

HARLOW: Right.

TOOBIN: Several years ago, the former senator from North Carolina, was based on a similar theory that these sorts of expenditures could be seen as an illegal campaign contribution. John Edwards was acquitted. So, you know, I do think legally it's probably a long shot, but you know, the question of who -- where this money came from and why is certainly one that I would imagine would be of interest to voters and the public.


TOOBIN: Whether it's a crime, it's hard for me to say.

[09:10:03] HARLOW: Thank you very much. We appreciate it.

BERMAN: Counselor --

HARLOW: We got through a lot there.

All right. So this morning the government is open, so now what?

BERMAN: The president just wrote in the last hour, "Nobody knows for sure that the Republicans and Democrats will be able to reach a deal on DACA by February 8th, but everyone will be trying with a big additional focus put on military strength and border security. The Dems have just learned that a shutdown is not the answer."

CNN's Suzanne Malveaux live on Capitol Hill to take the temperature of where things really are this morning -- Suzanne.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hey, good morning, John and Poppy. Well, there are negotiations that are taking place on the budget side as well as immigration reform. What's going to happen on the budget side is they're going to have to come with an agreement here on spending caps and domestic and military spending. At the same time they're going to be dealing with this DACA deal, and whether or not they can get something done in this very narrow window, that February 8th deadline, or whether or not Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell will take it up after that, after the deadline, but before March 5th when that DACA deal expires.

Now I had a chance to talk to Senator Susan Collins of Maine. As you know, she was one of the Republicans who hosted and brokered this bipartisan group to come forward with this agreement that ended this shutdown, and she told me about, first of all, her conversation with the president that she had after the deal was done. She said that he did not outline any specific red lines or parameters about the DACA deal or immigration reform that he mostly listened, but he did express some optimism getting to the March 5th deadline. Didn't mention the February 8th deadline.

Also Susan Collins, she is one who is really going to have to hold Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell's feet to the fire in terms of promises here. A lot of people, Democrats, as well as some Republicans not quite sure if that is a deal that is good on paper, that is a real commitment here. Some Democrats feeling cheated. Well, Senator Collins addressed that criticism specifically about the promise that was broken when she brokered her own deal with McConnell over health care reform.


SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: The deadline of the majority leader's promise to me on health care issues certainly slipped and I was not at all happy about that, but the fact is that we are continuing to work on that.


MALVEAUX: And the senator says she'll continue to work on that with her colleagues in the next couple of weeks. As you know, just two and a half weeks before that next deadline, whether or not the government is going to be funded again, and the big question, what the president wants, what he's willing to sign on, and whether or not House Republicans will actually take on this immigration issue as well -- John, Poppy.

BERMAN: All right. Suzanne Malveaux on Capitol Hill. Suzanne, thanks so much.

We do have some breaking news this morning. U.S. State Department officials tell CNN that U.S. citizens were among those killed in the attack on a hotel in Kabul this past weekend. The Taliban released a statement claiming responsibility for this attack.

HARLOW: All right. Much more on that as we get it. Meantime, the storm after Stormy, the watchdog group says this morning that those alleged payoffs from Donald Trump's personal lawyer to a porn star may have broken the law. Does this go anywhere?

Also, a first volley and a new trade war. The president slaps new tariffs on Chinese goods. Will there be a response?

BERMAN: And the president heading for the glitz and glamour of Davos, but who will not be going with him? The first lady. Raising all kinds of new questions.



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: This morning the government is back open. Congress now has 16 days not only to keep it open, but try to salvage a deal to protect some 800,000 DREAMers living in this country.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: The president says he is ready to negotiate, but could new developments in the Russia probe get in the way?

Joining us now is CNN political commentator, Matt Lewis, CNN political analysts, Karoun Demirjian and Patrick Healy. So, the government's open. That's great. Everyone wants to talk, that's great, but they want really different things.

Patrick, Republicans are claiming a victory and you know, look, Schumer's got a major challenge on his hands. His leverage is gone. What do Dems do now?

PATRICK HEALY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, it's a real problem. Chuck Schumer is -- he's great at winning elections. He's terrific at -- he very much helped the Democrats get the majority back in the Senate in 2006. He built it out in 2008, but here he's without leverage.

I mean, his -- the Democrats didn't have strong leverage on tax reform last month. That got away from them. Now they're basically looking at a situation in three weeks where they need to put together a deal both on DACA and on government spending.

And they don't at least right now, they don't have the votes. They certainly don't have the votes in the House, and what they've really sort of given up, frankly, is the weapon that the shutdown gave them.

HARLOW: Right.

HEALY: To sort of say to the House you're going to have to vote both to reopen the government and on something on immigration and on something on spending. Right now, it's sort of Chuck Schumer is the master political tactician. He's really good at winning elections --

HARLOW: But maybe not here.

BERMAN: Right now, though, the political tacticians in the White House are talking a lot and some may suggest talking too much. We heard Mick Mulvaney who is the budget director moments ago speaking to Chris Cuomo on the issue of what the White House wants for DREAMers here. Listen to what Mick Mulvaney said.


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: What his position is on it? How do they get to stay? Who gets to stay?

MICK MULVANEY, WHITE HOUSE BUDGET DIRECTOR: Again, depends on what we get in exchange. What do we get for a border security? What do we get for a wall? Senator Schumer this weekend said that he gave the president everything he wanted on the wall. I challenge that. Senator Schumer says he insists that he gave it. We'll have a discussion. Did he really offer $20 billion in appropriated funds or did he just offer $20 billion in authorized funds? Keep in mind, there is border security that was authorized in 2006.

CUOMO: Right.

MULVANEY: That Senator Schumer voted for.

CUOMO: Right. MULVANEY: But that still has not been built yet because no one has actually appropriated the funds. So, where are we on that?


[09:20:09] BERMAN: The very key there was all the way at the beginning, Karoun, when Mick Mulvaney was asked, you know, what happens to the DREAMers, who gets to stay, and he basically said --

HARLOW: What do we get?

BERMAN: -- it depends on what we get. So, the White House saying all of this big love that the president has for the DREAMers is conditional and transactional.

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. Everybody is probably going to be playing the exact same game in three weeks that we were seeing play out over the weekend where you cannot talk about the DREAMers without talking about the border wall.

Once you start talking about the border wall, how much money and what format is quite enough to make that handshake happen? This is what has been so frustrating for many of the lawmakers watching this.

Both Republicans and Democrats have said that they feel especially in the Senate like they get close, but then the terms kind of switch and change because the White House is looking for a more do you put on the table from their list of demands.

So, the government's open now for three weeks, but this is really just, you know, act one of a play that we will see continue as we get into February because the issues have not changed. You're hearing that the morning after they struck the deal, it's the same issues on the table. Wall, but border security versus DACA and that's not going away any time soon.

HARLOW: All right. Matt Lewis, two quick questions for you. The first is do you think the president himself can really claim victory here, himself, because he was a persona non-grata on Capitol Hill. We literally didn't see him for three days. Is this a win for him and his messaging? Was his tweeting enough or is it hard for him to say I won on this?

MATT LEWIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, look, I think it's a win for him and I applaud him for going dark. I think that it's not easy for Donald trump to keep his mouth shut. The fact that he was able to do it, I think really paid off. I'll just make this point.

I've been very critical of Donald Trump, but I think there is also a possibility that Donald Trump does things that a normal, sort of sane, competent Republican president couldn't do. The Republicans haven't been very good at winning shutdown battles, but Donald Trump just won one.

It looks like Donald Trump's actually going to move the capital to Jerusalem. So, Donald Trump has broken norms. In some cases, I think that's very dangerous. The norms were there for a reason and they were very important norms and it's dangerous. But on other cases, Donald Trump has broken norms that were arbitrary and there's a reason for Republicans to applaud that.

BERMAN: Matt, you also say when you're giving credit to the president here or at least saying he's getting what he wants, you're saying there isn't enough focus a split, a divide or a civil war inside the Democratic Party?

LEWIS: Absolutely. Look, I wrote a book about the Republican civil war, and I'm not alone. We've been chronicling the Tea Party and the split between the so-called, you know, Republican establishments, and now you have the Trump thing.

So, there's been so much effort and energy focused on the problems on the right, and I think that there really is something happening on the Republican side, but we've mostly ignored the schisms and the cleavages on the left and whether that's the rise of the Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren faction or not.

I think it's very clear that what happened where you have Democrats basically caving into pressure and worried about losing elections, but now you have the liberal base very upset with people like Chuck Schumer calling them sellouts. This is an underrated story, but the Democrats as they seek to win the midterms, this is going to be a subplot we really should be paying attention to.

HARLOW: So, let's switch gears to what's going on. The "Axios" reporting, Patrick, that the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had been pressuring the FBI director, Christopher Wray, to fire his deputy, Andy McCabe, who we know the president very much dislikes and it enraged Wray so much so that he threatened to quit.

The fact that the president keeps up this fight with the FBI whether it was Comey and now the deputy director, on and on and on. The significance of this and the fact that Wray wouldn't do it and said I'll quit over this.

HEALY: Right. I mean, whether directly or indirectly, all of this pressure is coming from Donald Trump. He told my "Times" colleague, Mike Schmitt last month, I can do whatever I want, whenever I want with the Justice Department and that is his attitude. That is how he ran his company.

That is something that he's chosen, President Trump has chosen not to adjust to in the federal government, in terms of being a leader who is not just sort of strong arming individuals. He still believes in the strong-arming approach.

He wants this guy gone. He sees Wray and Sessions clearly as instruments of his own authority, but he oversteps. He oversteps time and again, and to end -- in terms of the -- their play, and the president's play certainly has been to cast doubt on at least the FBI investigation, but to try not to undermine the FBI itself, he's sort of leaving that to Congress, but it's --

HARLOW: Not so much that you can do that.

[09:25:02] BERMAN: Look, Wray was supposed to be the guy that was apolitical, if he drags him into that mix that could be problematic. Karoun, you know, simmering on the outside and still on the outside I think of all of this discussion is the Stormy Daniels issue.

Michael Cohen, you know, allegedly paying off this adult film actress $130,000 to stay silent about an alleged affair she had with the president. Michael Cohen and this woman denied the affair, but no one denies the payment still and now common cause wants to get involved following a suit saying there is a violation of election law here. How long does this stay in the background? How long before this starts to be something Democrats want to talk about it, if Republicans get nervous about it?

DEMIRJIAN: Probably into the midterm elections unless there is something sticks and becomes an actual case that an entity that has to go through reviews and discovery and investigations would pursue.

But certainly, this is, you know, it's a whipping point for people who want to kind of point out that -- to try to shake Donald Trump's hold on the Evangelical base because this is a question of adultery. It's a question of something that's a bit tawdry.

It grips our attention and headlines very, very well and it doesn't necessarily mean that that will happen, but it's certainly a very -- it's politically advantageous although not necessarily overplayed and various groups that want to charge Trump over this will and are coming out saying that they shall.

But the question really for everything that will be happening this year is going to be so governed by the political season that we're in, which is completely focused on November.

HARLOW: And it's not really a question so much of did the president cheat on his wife or not, was there a payoff weeks before the election to keep someone quiet and how is that money allocated? Where was that money from? That was the crux of it.

DEMIRJIAN: What about rises to the investigation that actually takes hold and yes, FEC can take a long time. This will be happening and operating in parallel to the season that we're in and so the way people interpret it and the way people see it will not be purely as a matter of was this an inappropriate use of funds and people will be arguing over it in the political sphere.

HARLOW: Thank you, guys. Karoun, Matt, Patrick, we appreciate it very much.

All right. We have a lot ahead. The first lady was going to go Switzerland, Davos this week to the World Economic Forum with the president. She's not going. Why?

We are moments away from the opening bell on Wall Street. Christine Romans joins us with a preview. Good morning. CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Hi, there. Good morning. Speaking of Davos, the president will be on his way to speak even as though he's announced a couple of big tariffs that are making a lot of news and headlines on washing machines and solar panels.

Some whispers of protectionism potentially and that's something they're talking about in global circle. But at least for stocks mixed. The futures are mixed and maybe if you'll get momentum you'll see record highs again. All-time highs yesterday.

Watch Netflix when the opening bell rings in about 2 minutes. We expect Netflix to hit a record high. It had a record number of new subscribers for the quarter and also outlined a $39 million cost associated with Kevin Spacey. I'll have that after the break.