Return to Transcripts main page
Trump: FBI Chief Didn't Threaten to Resign Over Sessions; NYT: Comey Interviewed by Mueller Team in Russia Probe. Aired 2-2:30p ET
Aired January 23, 2018 - 14:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Many, many decades really. And we're very proud of it. And that's why the stock market is reacting the way it is, OK?
[14:00:02] Thank you all very much. Very proud of this. Thank you.
TRUMP: No, not all. Not at all.
REPORTER: Did you talk to him?
TRUMP: No, I didn't, but I'm not at all concerned.
Thank you all very much.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thanks, everyone.
TRUMP: No, he didn't at all. He did not even a little bit. Nope. And he's going to do a good job.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thanks, everyone.
TRUMP: We're looking at it. We're looking at a lot of things.
REPORTER: Are you concerned about your relationship with the FBI?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thanks, everyone.
TRUMP: Let's see how it all works out.
REPORTER: Are you concerned about (INAUDIBLE)
TRUMP: Thank you all very much.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you, all. Thank you very much.
TRUMP: It won't be a trade war, by the way, only stock increases for companies in this country. And that's what happened today. If you look at solar and if you look at the washing machine companies, that's really what happened today. You're going to have people getting jobs again and we're going to make our own product again. It's been a long time.
Thank you all very much.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thanks, everyone.
TRUMP: Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you.
TRUMP: Thank you both.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: All right. So, we're going to take it. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.
So, a couple of key pieces there with the president, speaking specifically about this story with regard to his A.G. Jeff Sessions, and conversations had with regard to the FBI director and his deputy. And was anyone threatened to resign or threatened to resign -- threatened to resign or not?
Senior White House correspondent Pamela Brown is with us now.
So, I just heard the president say that Christopher Wray, the FBI director, did not threaten to resign, which is different from some other reporting we've had, because it was all about Wray and having Sessions, basically the president pressure Wray to get rid of McCabe.
What did you just hear?
PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right. He also said that the attorney general, Sessions, did not bring up his interview with Robert Mueller's team last week, as you reported, Brooke. The attorney general was here at the White House yesterday, meeting with the president. And you just heard the president say there that he's not concerned by what his attorney general might have told the investigators.
The White House today has come out and said it's being transparent, that it's being cooperative with the Russia probe and expects the probe to wrap up soon. But Sessions is now the 13th person, Brooke, close to Donald Trump, in his circle, that's been interviewed by Robert Mueller's team and third cabinet or cabinet level official in the Trump administration to be interviewed by Robert Mueller's team. It's no surprise that investigators wanted to sit down with him for the first time.
This is an interview that took several hours, because Jeff Sessions did play a role in the Trump campaign. He recused himself from the Russia investigation because he did have contacts with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, that hadn't been disclosed. He also played a role, if you'll remember, with the firing of James Comey, the former FBI director. So, of course, the investigators want to learn more about his role in that, as part of the obstruction of justice probe. But the fact that this interview was just taking place last week is a strong indication here, Brooke, that this probe, this Russia probe is ongoing, that, you know, the White House came out a while back and said that the investigators had wrapped up interviews with witnesses at the White House, but clearly, they are still interested in talking to other people around the president, Brooke.
BALDWIN: Let's underscore that last point, the fact that this did not require a subpoena. This was last Wednesday, this was Mueller's team interviewing the Attorney General Jeff Sessions. And he is key not just because, as you pointed out, any sort of him having a front row seat to any kind of Russian contacts during the campaign but also during the firing of James Comey during the first couple of months of this administration.
BROWN: Yes, exactly right. As you'll recall at the time the president brought in the attorney general as well as the deputy A.G., Rod Rosenstein, and wanted to get their thoughts on sort of a justification for firing James Comey. And then you have this reporting out that the attorney general, you know, reportedly had pressured the FBI director, Wray, to change his top leadership. I would imagine that investigators are, you know, want to look into that, to see why that is, why he was pressuring the FBI director to do so.
Certainly, there are a lot of questions surrounding some of his actions and the involvement he has had with parts of this investigation. But certainly, this is the first time they've interviewed him, Brooke. It may not be the last. We'll have to see what happened.
BALDWIN: All right. Pamela Brown at the White House, thank you so much.
Let's dig a little deeper now into some of this reporting that the director threatened to resign, which again, this is -- we just heard from the president saying Wray did not threaten to resign here. So, different stories coming up at this point in time.
Here's what a source is telling CNN, that the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, pressured Christopher Wray, to make staffing changes at the senior level. This includes his deputy director, Andrew McCabe. Wray reportedly threatened to quit if that pressure continued.
McCabe oversaw the Clinton investigation.
[14:05:01] He has been a frequent target of the president and of the president's allies and these are just a couple of tweets President Trump has sent out since July specifically about deputy here, McCabe.
CNN justice correspondent Jessica Schneider is with me now on this.
And so, did Sessions explicitly call for McCabe to be fired?
JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we are hearing from our sources that yes, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, he did, you know, put this pressure on Christopher Wray, and Christopher Wray then pushed back, threatening to resign. And, really, you know, Brooke, this pressure really plays into the narrative that's coming from Republicans, the White House, you saw it there from the president's own Twitter feed. It's part of their contention, and has been for many weeks now, that the FBI is politically motivated.
And what's interesting to note is that when this news broke, that FBI Director Wray, he felt so much pressure to make those staffing changes at the highest levels, well, the White House, they did come out with a statement where they praised FBI Director Wray, but then they actually turned part that have statement into an attack on other senior FBI officials. In fact, a spokesman referred to them as politically motivated senior leaders and, really, it was Deputy Director Andrew McCabe in particular. He's come under a lot of pressure from the president. You saw it in those tweets there, for his handling of the Clinton e-mail server investigation.
And then, of course, over the past few years, there's been a bit of issue or turmoil and questions because of the fact that McCabe's wife actually accepted political contributions during a statewide run in Virginia from a political PAC that was connected to the Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, who was a close friend of the Clintons. So, you know, we know that there have been issues or questions anyway about Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.
So, all of this came to a head when Sessions did tell Wray he wanted Wray to get a fresh start when it came to senior leadership. Obviously, Brooke, this is raising some concerns with Democrats.
We heard from Senator Mark Warner today. Here's what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. MARK WARNER (D-VA), VICE CHAIRMAN, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: It's one more example of this administration, the president and through his agent, the attorney general, trying to interfere in the FBI's ability follow the law and help with the investigation into the Russian interference in our elections and possible collusion of the Trump administration or Trump campaign.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SCHNEIDER: So, really, the question remains, Brooke, you know, did Attorney General Sessions pressure Wray on his own accord or did the president have something to say about that? That's something that remains to be seen. But, yes, we do know that Christopher Wray, according to our source, did threaten to resign over this pressure to get rid of some of his senior staff -- Brooke.
BALDWIN: On Christopher Wray, before I let you go. You also have some news about some staffing changes under him. What is that?
SCHNEIDER: Well, that's right. So, the two other posts that we talked about, that's not at issue here. But what we have learned in the past few minutes is that Christopher Wray's chief of staff, who is also James Comey's chief of staff, James Rybicki, he will be leaving the FBI in his post of chief of staff in the next few weeks. Christopher Wray actually just put out a statement about it. He said that Jim Rybicki notified me last month that he will be leaving the FBI to accept an opportunity in the corporate sector.
Of course, James Rybicki was on Capitol Hill over the past week or two. He was testifying before two different House committees. So, it's interesting that this announcement of this -- James Rybicki leaving the FBI, even though Christopher Wray said he told him back in December about it, it's interesting that it comes on the heels of this latest reporting that Chris Wray did face some pressure to get rid of other top officials at the FBI.
But yes, the news we're learning is that the chief of staff who was there under James Comey, chief of staff for Christopher Wray, he will be leaving in the coming weeks -- Brooke.
BALDWIN: All right. Jessica, thank you.
Let's go to legal experts for analysis on all of the above here. I have with me, CNN legal and national security analyst, Asha Rangappa, a former FBI special agent who now is a senior lecturer at Yale. And also here, Jeff Cramer, a managing director of the Berkeley Research Group, and a former assistant U.S. attorney in Illinois.
So, welcome to both of you.
Two topics I want to hit on. First, Asha, beginning with you and the A.G., Jeff Sessions, and the fact that we've learned that he was questioned by Mueller's team last Wednesday. Can you just put his role in context here both -- as I was mentioning with Pam at the White House, you know, as a key witness to these Russian contacts during the campaign and also in James Comey's firing? What -- underscore for me the value of his role in this whole Mueller investigation?
ASHA RANGAPPA, CNN LEGAL & NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Absolutely. So, as you mentioned, there are definitely two key areas. One is in the potential obstruction of justice investigation that Mueller might have over the firing of James Comey.
[14:10:01] The second is the Russian investigation into any kind of coordination between members of the Trump campaign and Russia's election interference. And it's important to underscore that those are two separate things, even if the Russia investigation ends up not turning anything up, for example, the obstruction case is separable from that. It's separate.
I would add, Brooke, I think there's a third possibility here, one that perhaps might be used as leverage but I think there's an open question whether Mueller might also be questioning the attorney general over potential false statements or even perjury because of many of the conflicting statements that he has given in his congressional testimony concerning his own contacts with Russian officials. So, three main areas he can really want to grill Sessions on.
BALDWIN: That's where I wanted to go next, because not only sometimes conflicting, Jeff, Jeff Sessions has this history of not recalling things. So, let's take a snapshot. This is one day. He was before the House in November of last year. Roll it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I don't recall such a conversation. I don't recall it. I don't recall. I don't recall it. I don't recall it.
I don't recall it. I don't recall that. I don't recall how that exactly occurred. I do not recall. But I did not recall this event.
I don't recall. I don't recall at this moment, sitting here, any such discussion.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BALDWIN: OK. You feel me. You see the point we're making here. Plus, the attorney general had to return before the Senate judiciary to correct testimony.
Jeff Cramer, what is different about a Mueller interview versus what we just saw on Capitol Hill testimony?
JEFF CRAMER, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Well, the difference is that the Mueller investigation, we've already seen this, is actually going somewhere. The congressional interviews are happening before Mueller and they'll continue. But I think whatever former Director Mueller finds is either going to be the subject of a report to Congress or, as we've already seen, further indictments closer to the White House, perhaps, or things that tag along other indictments we've seen. So, I think it's really two different things. One is going somewhere and one is, frankly, just for show.
BALDWIN: So, we're going to stay with you on the point about going somewhere. I mean, what happens if Sessions tells Mueller he can't talk about certain conversations with the president, citing executive privilege that has not been invoked yet.
CRAMER: Yes, it's interesting. We've seen and we saw with Bannon on the Hill, the White House telling him not to talk.
CRAMER: But they really haven't invoked privilege yet. And when they invoke privilege, at that point, the courts will become involved. Once you have that independent arbiter, I think that's going to be tough. And we've seen that before, going back to the Nixon administration, when the Nixon administration tried to use privilege to protect the tapes. That didn't work.
So, this is going to be a similar situation. I think that's a play that the White House wants to use as a last resort. We're not there yet. But for the attorney general to invoke privilege essentially on behalf of the White House would be unique. It hasn't happened yet.
We'll see what happens when the president's son and son-in-law get interviewed next.
BALDWIN: Right. To the story of the day, arguably the story of the day, Asha, with regard to Jeff Sessions, at the urging of the president, you know, how he had been pressuring the FBI director to fire his deputy director, McCabe. And then moments ago, we just saw the president, right, denying that Wray ever threatened to resign over any of this. But after everything that happened with Comey, the fallout from Comey, how unbelievable is that? That kind of meddling with the FBI?
RANGAPPA: Well, it would be a pattern of trying to interfere with the independence of the FBI, which he has already done with the firing of James Comey. And remember in -- whether it was direct or indirect, trying to pressure Wray to fire his deputy director is essentially trying to force the FBI to conform to a narrative, a political narrative that's being other White House, that there's corruption at the highest levels of the FBI. And I think the director would be in the position of having to throw his own agency under the bus.
So I can see that he would take a stand against doing that. If he did not believe that firing his deputy director was warranted. Just to add, Brooke, the fact that the attorney general was trying to push this on the president's behalf is doubly problematic, first because that he has officially recused himself from anything having to do with the 2016 election, and Andrew McCabe was in charge of the Hillary Clinton investigation. So, there's a conflict right there. The second is Andrew McCabe is likely a witness in the obstruction investigation.
[14:15:00] James Comey undoubtedly spoke with him after his several conversations which he documented with the president before he was fired. And so, I'm guessing that Andrew McCabe is a witness and, as we discussed, so is the attorney general. So --
BALDWIN: Not to mention that McCabe -- not to mention the fact that McCabe was set to retire in March, which leads to the question, well, why would they want him out if that is the true version of events? Why would they want him out so, so badly just ahead of time?
Asha and Jeff, thank you so much for that conversation. We're going to stay on all of that.
Also ahead, breaking news. Offer off the table. Senator Chuck Schumer now yanking the offer he made President Trump a week ago involving funding for the border wall. We have those late-breaking details.
Also ahead, were campaign finance rules violated? New developments today involving allegations that the Trump campaign paid this porn star hush money. A watchdog group is now formally seeking answers from the DOJ.
You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.
[14:20:22] BALDWIN: We are back. You're watching. I'm Brooke Baldwin.
Another huge piece of news here, breaking right now, another massive development in the Russia investigation. "The New York Times" is now reporting that Robert Mueller's team has also interviewed fired FBI Director James Comey, specifically about his memos detailing conversations he had with President Trump on multiple occasions. Comey claimed the president had asked him for his loyalty and that he asked for investigation into his fired national security adviser Michael Flynn, at the time, to be dropped.
"The Times" reporting that Comey was interviewed by the Mueller office last year.
So, let me bring back Jeff Cramer. We also Dana Bash standing by.
Dana Bash, to you, certainly no surprise that Mueller would be interviewing Comey. But what does that tell you where the investigation is right now?
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly where you're going with that question is where I was going to go with how this looks, Brooke, which is Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, James Comey, the FBI director who the president fired, who had started this Russia collusion investigation, the fact that they've been talking to special counsel suggests that special counsel Robert Mueller is kind of getting toward the end of his investigation. We don't -- now, that could be a month, two months. It could be, you know, even further from there.
But, you know, generally, what happened and certainly, we've seen this with the special counsel with Robert Mueller's investigation, is, you know, sort of littler fish first, and then you get the bigger and bigger fish, and the bigger fish are the ones that we're seeing interviewed now. Also, again, James Comey, as somebody who had, you know, kind of laid the groundwork on this investigation is a very different kind of witness than anybody else. But James Comey, as somebody who is a potentially very important witness on the question of obstruction of justice, that is, you know, a real key thing to look at.
Because if Robert Mueller is seriously exploring the notion of obstruction of justice, whether in firing James Comey or maybe in the now infamous statement that Trump aides wrote on Air Force One coming back from Europe to respond to reports that Don Jr. had had this meeting with Russian lawyers back in 2016, whether there was any obstruction there, that is all something that James Comey, obviously, can help with and because of his contemporaneous notes that he had taken while still as FBI director, it's a very -- it's a very specific kind of ball game with him.
BALDWIN: I remember that day we sat in D.C. when those contemporaneous notes were made public, and we were sitting there reading all these details, all these notes that he had written wrote down after he had spoken with the president on multiple occasions.
Then flash forward, Jeff Cramer, to, you know, Jim Comey being called to testify before these committees and before all those cameras on Capitol Hill. What more can he reveal to Mueller's team that we, the public, did not hear?
CRAMER: I think could be some items because he was in the room, some nuances that perhaps didn't come out before. What is very important, as you indicated a moment ago, are the contemporaneous notes that James Comey took. That's very powerful evidence.
These investigations are linear in a sense and we've seen it. They go from one person to the next to the next, and working their way up. But it's also a mosaic of sorts, if you will, different pieces that really tell the narrative. James Comey has a unique perspective on what that narrative is.
And I agree with what you were just saying, is we're now getting near the end of this investigation. There's only a handful of relevant players left to interview and then Mr. Mueller has to decide what he wants to do.
BALDWIN: How about the president? How about the president? I mean, Dana, when you were talking about the little fish, two medium-sized fish, to now we know Sessions. We know Mueller. Do we know anything more about the president speaking to Mueller's team?
BASH: We don't, in terms of how the internal negotiations are going between the president's legal team and Robert Mueller's team. What we have reported and do still believe is the case from our sources is that there is a real split among people who have influence with the president on whether or not this is a good idea.
I've talked to several people who have told me that they have made it clear to him and those around him that it would be horrible for him to do -- to just sit down with Robert Mueller in any way, shape or form for a whole host of reasons.
[14:25:12] One, because they don't -- they think that it would be a perjury trap for him and also because the president and a whole other list of reasons.
But there are those who think that he should try to cooperate. And one of those people who are suggesting that maybe it's a good idea, we're told, is the president himself, who thinks, you know what? I've done hundreds of depositions in my time as a private citizen. Why not this? Obviously, those who are --
BALDWIN: Little different.
BASH: -- saying don't do it are way different.
BALDWIN: We've heard the president say over and over and over again, no collusion, no collusion, that's on the Russian meddling part of the investigation. But the obstruction part, Jeff, what has he said?
CRAMER: He has been silent -- he's mentioned a few times on obstruction but, you're right, collusion is an interesting word but has no legal significance. It's the obstruction is -- I don't want to say the goal here, but that's where it could lie. And it's an interesting dynamic.
It's a political hit, obviously, if the president decides not testify, essentially invoking his Fifth Amendment. But he is unique in the sense that he has had these civil depositions.
However, I think it's safe to say that having a witness, any witness testify before being interviewed by Mueller's investigators where this witness is used to just saying things and not really worrying about if they're true or not, that's fine to do in the political realm. That has criminal consequences if you do it before Robert Mueller. So, I think they may try to go by question and answer. That's really a safer way to go. A written question and answer that answers can be reviewed.
But putting the president in a room with experienced prosecutors, I think that's fraught with peril.
BALDWIN: Let me bring in another voice, stand by, everyone. Michael Zeldin is joining us, one of Robert Mueller's former aides, legal analyst for us here at CNN.
Michael Zeldin, just to you, now knowing that Comey sat and was interviewed by the Mueller team at some point last year -- and we have talked many, many times about, again, those memos and how he says that Trump was asking for Comey's loyalty and how the president was pressuring him not to -- you know, to drop the Flynn investigation, take us behind those closed doors. You know, what would that -- what would that back and forth questioning look like? And again, how would it have differed from what we saw on Capitol Hill?
MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, so previous guests are correct that the setting is much more controlled with Mueller than it is on the Hill. The Comey testimony that Mueller will want to get is all about the White House conversations he had with President Trump, with respect to letting go of the Flynn investigation, I think we way more important is that in the loyalty request and it's interesting that you now have since Comey has testified in the first instance, you have a cooperating Flynn.
So, now, you have Flynn perhaps with some knowledge of what the president may have told him about what he's going to try to do with respect to protecting him and you have Comey informing Mueller in a more concrete way what it was that the president told him. And then, you have, of course, Jeff Sessions who, likewise, has knowledge of that Oval Office meeting.
So, all of this stuff seems to coalesce under the obstruction of justice inquiry, which is one of the three or four lines of inquiry that Mueller had.
BALDWIN: What does it tell you that they've already questioned Comey? You know, again, you hear one story from the White House with regard to where the investigation is, and we thought it would wrap, they thought it would wrap up in the fall or now top of the year, and I don't think anyone really has any grasp of it. But what does it tell you, this key piece that we know? Comey has already been, you know, spoken to. We also now know as of today that the attorney general has been spoken to. What does that tell you about the speed and breadth of the investigation?
ZELDIN: What it tells you that the work stream that Mueller has that relates to obstruction of justice seems pretty far along. There are other witnesses to speak to, for sure, but because -- well, Sessions has a broader mandate for Mueller because he's got Papadopoulos and the other collusion issues, but Comey and Flynn and Sessions all coalesced in part around this obstruction of justice inquiry.
So, Brooke, it's possible that Mueller is closing in on his determination about what obstruction looks like, whether it's a criminal offense, in his mind, whether it's an impeachable offense or whether it amounts to nothing.
But, of course, the $64,000 question is going to be, will Mueller speak to the president?
ZELDIN: Will he speak to him under oath and will the president be truthful? Because that would be the last sort of brick in the wall in his outcome determinative thought process.