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Interview With Texas Congressman Vicente Gonzalez; Democrats Withdraw Offer on Funding Trump Wall; Trump and Sessions Pressuring FBI Director?. Aired 3-3:30p ET
Aired January 23, 2018 - 15:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: OK. Mark Geragos, I wish we had more time on all things Stormy Daniels, but we don't.
MARK GERAGOS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I know. I'm your designated adult film star payment expert.
BALDWIN: Add a new job title for you, my friend.
We are out of time. I'm going to move on and just leave it there.
Let's get going at the top of the hour here. We've got this breaking news.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BALDWIN: I'm Brooke Baldwin. You are watching CNN.
Three major developments tied to the Russian investigation. And they involve these big names in law enforcement. Sources now tell CNN that special counsel Robert Mueller's team interviewed James Comey last year, as first reported by "The New York Times."
Comey, as you know, was the FBI director who Trump fired back in May. Mueller's investigators have also interviewed Attorney General Jeff Sessions. A source says that the conversation lasted for several hours and inquired about whether the president obstructed justice.
The president just weighed in about the Sessions interview today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
QUESTION: Are you concerned about what the attorney general told the special counsel?
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No, I'm not at all concerned.
QUESTION: Did you talk to him about him?
TRUMP: No, I didn't, but I'm not at all concerned.
Thank you all very much. (END VIDEO CLIP)
BALDWIN: And that was that.
So, the president responded to another story, this one about the current FBI director. A source says that Christopher Wray threatened to quit after Attorney General Jeff Sessions pressured him. Sessions wanted Wray to make senior staffing changes, including replace his deputy, Andrew McCabe.
The president maintains, again, when he spoke out just a couple minutes ago, he said that's not true. That didn't happen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: No, he didn't at all. He did not even a little bit. No. And he's going to do a good job.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BALDWIN: Let's go to Jim Sciutto, our chief security national correspondent.
First, Jim, just on the story on the fact that we now know Mueller interview -- or Mueller's team interviewed Comey at some point last year.
And the key here is those memos, right, those memos, those contemporaneous memos that Comey kept prior to his termination. And that is what he handed over to Mueller, which is key in the obstruction case.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Listen, big picture here, you look at the Comey, you look at Sessions, clearly, the special counsel is taking at very serious look at obstruction of justice.
We know that that was a path. And he's interviewing all the key players on that question. With Comey, the memos -- should be clear "The New York Times" first to report this -- CNN now confirming -- in those memos, as you mentioned, this is where Comey recounted conversations with the president in which the president, one, asked for a loyalty pledge and also indicated that he wanted, or seemed to indicate that he wanted the investigation into Michael Flynn to go away, which gets to -- certainly at least raises the question as to whether this was undue influence by the president in an ongoing investigation.
And then you look at Sessions, of course, who would have been another player involved along this path. And it is CNN's reporting that part of the likely questioning of Sessions included questions along the lines of obstruction of justice, in addition to Russian meddling in the election.
You have the key players here now. The special counsel has their accounts, as well as other senior officials in the Trump administration. And, you know, as he continues this investigation, he is going to have to make a judgment, is there evidence here that a crime was committed?
BALDWIN: Let's talk. Let's hone in specifically on this Sessions interview with Robert Mueller and his team which happened for a couple of hours last Wednesday and how Sessions and his testimony is so valuable, A, because of, you know, he was knee-deep in that Comey firing, but also because of Russian contacts during the campaign.
SCIUTTO: That's right, and Russian contacts that, to be clear, he initially disclose, right, because in hearings, he did, and then later added in these conversations, including with the former Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, which -- and it's because of that he had to recuse himself, right?
Keep in mind, he had to recuse himself from the Russia investigation because of that lack of forthcomingness, if you want to call it that. So the attorney general can't be involved.
And that's where Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, in effect overseeing this. And, of course, he played a role as well, because when Comey was fired, it was Rosenstein who then appointed the special counsel.
It's this web of all these very key players and decisions that they made along the way and that the president made along the way that led us to where we are right now.
BALDWIN: Then you have this third layer of the story, which is the news -- and again we heard the president denying it -- that Chris Wray, who is the now FBI director, and, as the story goes, it was Sessions, originally from the president, who wanted Wray to terminate his deputy, McCabe, who, by the way, set to retire in two months' time.
Why would they want him gone so badly?
SCIUTTO: Who knows?
But it raises a question again. Here you have the president's attorney general going to the FBI director, pushing him to clean house, and the FBI director saying, no, I don't see a reason to do this, standing up, in effect.
But it is in that same vein, right, of the possibility of undue influence in ongoing investigations, right, on the FBI. And let's be frank. The president himself has not been subtle about this, right? He tweets frequently and aggressively very harsh criticism of the FBI, saying the FBI is in tatters in a tweet in December.
Even just this morning, he was questioning the FBI about the release of text messages between two former -- two current FBI employees, but going back a number of months, and raising questions about what the FBI was hiding. So the president has been very public about that criticism. And
Sessions here, does it look like he was doing the president's bidding? Possibly. Regardless, the FBI director said, no, I'm not going to do that.
And you may remember, Brooke, that during his confirmation hearing, he was asked by Senator Patrick Leahy what he would do -- this is Christopher Wray, the FBI director -- what would he do if the president asked him to do something unethical or unlawful? He said, I would refuse to do so.
And here you have him showing some of that backbone, it appears, as well.
BALDWIN: Jim Sciutto, thank you so much for all of that.
SCIUTTO: Thank you.
BALDWIN: Let's take a deeper dive into all of what Jim just reported out.
I have got with me CNN contributor Norm Eisen, former ethics czar in the Obama White, House and CNN legal commentator Ken Cuccinelli, former Virginia attorney general.
Welcome, gentlemen, both, to you.
And, Mr. Ambassador, let me just begin with you here with regard to Comey and this interview that he had with the Mueller team at some point last year.
It is significant that he shared with Mueller all those contemporaneous memos about his conversations with the president, about how he says the president wanted his loyalty, about how he says the president wanted him to stop investigating his former national security adviser at the time.
How is all that key evidence in painting an obstruction case?
NORMAN EISEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Brooke, thanks for having me back.
And the question that the special counsel is grappling with is obstruction of justice. That is, did President Trump try to interfere with the FBI investigation with corrupt intent, right? He needs to have some wrong reason to do it, to protect family himself, to protect family members, to protect Mike Flynn perhaps.
And that is what Mueller is probing. And he has heard Comey's words, he's seen Comey's documents, he's finding corroborating witnesses, and he's working his way up.
Ultimately, he's going to ask those questions to the president of the United States. And the president, unlike his usual M.O., better tell the truth.
BALDWIN: Ken, it's no surprise that Mueller would be interviewing Comey at some point in time. But what does it tell you where this investigation is right now, and the speed, the depth of the investigation?
KEN CUCCINELLI, CNN LEGAL COMMENTATOR: Well, first of all, we had previously heard from Comey that he documented his conversations with the presidents. So, this is sharing that documentation with Mueller.
I think when you look at the special counsel getting to Jim Comey, after we were not too long ago talking about Steve Bannon, is, they are finishing touching everybody on the list that they need to talk to.
I agree that at some point they're going to want to communicate with the president, whether that's through a sit-down or written questions, but in some way or another, they're going to want to have direct communication that the president either signs his name to or answers to directly.
So, that's coming here. It doesn't seem like too far down the road, because we are at the kind of top of the heap politically with Steve Bannon. We're at the top off the heap in terms of law enforcement with the attorney general and the head of -- the former head of the FBI.
So, I think we're probably getting to the end of their witness list of people they at least want to get through to talk to once. That's not to say they won't go back and have more questions for some people. I'm sure that's been going on, even though we probably don't know about it, with some folks.
And it strikes me that they're getting near the end of gathering all their information. And then, as you just heard, they're going to have to process that and make some decisions about how to proceed.
BALDWIN: Sure. We will get to what a sit-down with the president may look like in just a second.
But, Mr. Ambassador, back over to you. We remember seeing Comey testifying in front of committees on Capitol Hill. But take us behind closed doors. I mean, how would that questioning differ from the questions that he would receive from the Mueller team?
EISEN: Well, of course, I have worked with Bob Mueller. He and his team are pros.
The questioning from members of Congress, sometimes, it's good. Sometimes, it's not right on the money. These questions will be right on the money. They are prepared. They know the documents. They know what the other witnesses have said.
They will probe. It is not a gentle examination, even with a former colleague like Jim Comey. They're testing his story. He does have a good reputation for veracity. They're pushing him, Brooke.
BALDWIN: How do they push him? How do they test his story and know he's telling the truth?
EISEN: They will look for inconsistencies. They will have prepared before they go into that room.
Did he say something slightly different in one memo than in another? Did he have a motive? Did he have a bias? The same way you examine on the stand. They're looking for any area where they can probe or push him. Did he say something different?
Comey has talked a lot. Did he say something slightly different when he testified before Congress from what he wrote on the paper? All that stuff.
There is some cross-examination that happens there. And, you know, that is a -- even for a man of Jim Comey's caliber, it's not easy to sit there and be examined by the team that way.
He does have a powerful story to tell. He has a strong reputation for veracity. The president has the worst that we have ever seen from an American president, 2,000 lies in his first year.
And I have to disagree with Ken's otherwise sound analysis. Bob Mueller is not going to settle for written answers from President Trump on this stuff. He's going to want to look him in the eye, just like he did Jim Comey, and cross-examine him.
BALDWIN: You think he will do it himself?
EISEN: And that's going to happen.
BALDWIN: You think he would want to do it himself?
EISEN: I do believe he will do it himself, yes.
BALDWIN: You do.
You have, though, Ken, you have Comey's word vs. the president's word. The president public vehemently denying all these different allegations that have come out of Jim Comey.
How does Bob Mueller navigate these two competing narratives of what really happened?
CUCCINELLI: Well, you do look for -- it isn't the same when you sit down with a witness as on the stand, because you have a lot more time and opportunity to try different avenues on the same subject that you don't necessarily get in a courtroom.
And it doesn't look as good in a courtroom, frankly, when you're trying to present a case. So, they will keep coming at the same subjects. And one of the challenges, you mentioned, Brooke, what would it be like to sit down with the president?
The big personality challenge with him -- and I talked about it earlier with Steve Bannon -- their personality types are prone to hyperbole, shall we say? And that sort of approach to communication is not well suited for that kind of sit-down with a special prosecutor who is performing an investigation.
It's going to take some very serious discipline on the part of the president and of course truth-telling. Whatever he may want the story to be, and whatever hyperbole he may have used in the past, this is a time and a place for all that to be set aside.
BALDWIN: Are you saying his lawyers are going to have to have a sit- down -- are you saying his lawyers are going to sit down with the president and say, Mr. President...
CUCCINELLI: You absolutely will practice this.
CUCCINELLI: And they will do it over and over and over, to the point of distraction.
And that's part of the point, because one of the interesting things about Bannon's testimony, they said he made a slip-up 90 minutes in, before that -- I think it was the Senate committee.
Normally the slip-ups don't come until four or five hours in. And that is -- as someone who takes depositions, that's where you're looking for more information coming from a less disciplined witness, is later on in that questioning.
One thing about the president, though, certainly Mueller will want to sit down with him in person. But you also may have time restrictions with the president that you may not get with other witnesses.
BALDWIN: Yes. You're right, though. It was a slip-up. It was a House committee. It was a couple of weeks ago. But you are correct that that happened 90 minutes in.
BALDWIN: Ken Cuccinelli, Ambassador Norm Eisen, gentlemen, thank you so, so much.
We're going to move on, though, because moments from now, we are going to have this White House press briefing. Reporters getting seated. How will the White House respond to this Comey news?
We are going to take that live, and it begins in just a little bit.
Also ahead, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer now yanking that offer he handed over to the president from a week ago involving funding for his border wall -- the White House response to that move coming up. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.
BALDWIN: All right.
Let's talk a little bit more now on the reporting that the FBI director threatened to resign. A source tells CNN that the attorney general here, Jeff Sessions, pressured Christopher Wray -- that's the head of the FBI -- to make staffing changes at the senior level, including Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.
Wray reportedly threatened to quit if that pressure continued. McCabe, keep in mind, oversaw the Clinton e-mail investigation and he has been a frequent target of both the president and his allies.
These are just a couple of the tweets that President Trump has sent out since July about McCabe.
So, I have with me Garrett Graff, who wrote a book about Robert Mueller's time at the FBI, and Josh Rogin, CNN political analyst and columnist for "The Washington Post."
Garrett, first up just to you. Just knowing the fallout, everything about the firing of Jim Comey, how unbelievable is it to you that, despite months of knowing, after Comey, that Sessions and Trump still pressured Wray?
GARRETT GRAFF, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, what I think we're seeing is that none of this sort of seemingly anomalous behavior when it happened the first time around was actually anomalous, that President Trump and Jeff Sessions are feeling free to ignore years of intelligence and sort of separation and independence between the Justice Department, law enforcement and the president, that this is something that we are -- that we should not actually be all that surprised by.
What we shouldn't be surprised by, in fact, is that Chris Wray stood up to this, that Chris Wray has been very clear about where his moral compass lay, and, in fact, he was part of that team in 2004 with Jim Comey and Bob Mueller who threatened to resign over the Stellar Wind domestic wiretapping controversy.
BALDWIN: We should also point out, as I'm listening to you, that when we heard from the president just a little bit ago, with the White House press pool shouting questions, he has said -- he is obviously -- he is denying that any of this took place.
Josh, just over to you. Do you think that this was a -- I don't know, a pressure test from Trump-Sessions to Wray?
JOSH ROGIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. The president is denying that Wray threatened to resign, but he's not denying that he pressured Sessions to pressure Wray to get rid of McCabe.
He can't deny it because, as you have showed, he's been tweeting about it for the better part of six months. So, Sessions doesn't have to be Kreskin to figure out what the president wants him to do.
It's important to note here that Andrew McCabe, there's no direct evidence that he did anything wrong. His wife ran for office as a Democrat, raised money from Democrats. That is now being used to allege that he had some sort of bias in the Hillary Clinton investigation, when that hasn't been demonstrated at all.
But it plays into this very strange and ongoing dynamic between the president and the attorney general, where he's very publicly calling on him to investigate, continue investigating his political rivals, and he seems to be doing it, despite all the criticism.
BALDWIN: Despite all the criticism.
And here is what I also -- a lot I don't understand, I guess. But, Garrett, here is one of the bigger questions. We know that McCabe was set to or is set retire at some point in March. Why would Trump want him out so badly, knowing he would be gone soon?
GRAFF: Well, I think that's just the Trump personally and the administration even more broadly sort of not understanding the tradition and the way that these systems normally work.
You know, it is entirely normal and entirely consistent with the history of the FBI that the deputy director would step down three to six months into a new administration to allow that new director a chance to bring in his own team. That's beginning to happen.
CNN actually was reporting earlier today that Jim Rybicki, who had been Jim Comey's chief of staff, then Christopher Wray's chief of staff, is moving -- has actually moved on now to the private sector, which is, again, exactly what we would expect to see as a new director begins to settle in.
BALDWIN: But you don't think the administration was even aware of that? You don't think they realized he was on his way out?
ROGIN: I have to say here Donald Trump tweeted very clearly that he was angry that McCabe was being allowed to retire with full benefits. He sees that as some sort of injustice. Right?
If he gets him out before he retires, they can sort of portray it as an admission of guilt of some kind and a humiliation, and, therefore, a victory in their ongoing effort to keep the Hillary Clinton investigation alive and to keep their investigation of the FBI alive. That's what they're doing here.
BALDWIN: Maybe that was it. GRAFF: Yes. And Josh makes a great point.
BALDWIN: Yes, yes.
GRAFF: Go ahead.
BALDWIN: Go ahead, Garrett.
GRAFF: I think that sort of part of the challenge here is that he's actually making it very hard, President Trump is making it very hard for a natural process to play out here, that if and when Andy McCabe retires at the end of March, when he becomes eligible, that will be seen as him resigning under pressure, and in some ways we're creating a situation where Chris Wray may want to keep Andy McCabe around for longer than he would have normally.
BALDWIN: All right, Josh and Garrett, thank you so much...
ROGIN: Any time.
BALDWIN: ... on Chris Wray and McCabe.
Moments from now, how does the White House respond to all of this, what we were just discussing, to the James Comey news, the fact that we have now confirmed that Comey did sit down with Mueller's team last year?
We will take that briefing live in as soon as it begins in just a couple of minutes.
Also ahead, the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, he is now yanking the offer he made to the president a week ago involving funding the president's border wall. We have those late details coming up.
BALDWIN: Breaking news in the fight over DACA and the border wall.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer withdrawing major funding for the president's border wall from negotiations. He says President Trump didn't keep his end of the deal.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: That was part of a package. It was the first thing the president and I talked about was finishing it by, as he said, Tuesday night, three days.
And the thought was that we could come to an agreement that afternoon, the president would announce his support, and then the Senate and House would get it done, and it would be on the president's desk. He didn't do that. So, we are going to have to start -- start on a
new basis, and the wall offer is off the table.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BALDWIN: After voting to reopen the government yesterday, several Democrats said that Schumer caved, their word, to Republicans.
Joining me now live from the Hill, Texas Democratic Congressman Vicente Gonzalez.
Congressman Gonzalez, nice to have you on.
REP. VICENTE GONZALEZ (D), TEXAS: Good to be here, Brooke. Nice to see you.
BALDWIN: Congressman, Senator Schumer had agreed initially to put Trump's request for a $20 billion wall, put all those chips on the table as part of negotiations when they met in the Oval last Friday.
Are you OK with a deal that includes a $20 billion wall?
GONZALEZ: Well, obviously, I'm not.