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Pressure From Sessions; Border Wall Offer; Schumer Withdraws Offer; Trump's Position on Dreamers; FBI Chief Threated to Quit. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired January 23, 2018 - 13:00   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Washington. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

There's breaking news. The United States attorney general becoming the latest cabinet member of the Trump administration to be interviewed by the special counsel, Robert Mueller. The questions include whether the president of the United States obstructed justice.

Here we go again. The head of the FBI now threatening to quit after being pressured by the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to get rid of his deputy. The question is why the pressure and what role did the president play?

And just in. The Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, withdrawing his offer on the president's border wall in negotiations over the fate of the Dreamers. This as the clock begins in yet another immigration standoff.

But we start with a major development in the Russia investigation. The attorney general Jeff Sessions in the hot seat. Questioned by the special prosecutor Robert Mueller, discussing Russian meddling and possibly obstruction of justice by the president.

Let's go to our Justice Correspondent Jessica Schneider. She's here.

Jessica, the interview, what, took place last week. What more can you tell us?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. We know, Wolf, that the attorney general was questioned for several hours by Mueller's team last week on Wednesday. That's according to a source close to Sessions.

Now, the spokesman for the DOJ, she has confirmed that this interview took place. But she's declining to say if the attorney general handed over any documents or communications as part of that interview.

Of course, this is a major development in the Russia probe. This interview marks the 15th member of the Trump administration, known by CNN to have been interviewed as part of the Russia investigation so far. So, here are some of the significant names that have been questioned after Robert Mueller was appointed on May 17th.

We have former chief of staff, Reince Priebus. Also former press secretary, Sean Spicer. They were both questioned in October.

Then, in November, it was senior adviser and the president's son-in- law, Jared Kushner. He was questioned.

And then, just at the end of last year, two significant interviews of people still in the White House, communications director Hope Hicks, as well as White House counsel Don McGhan. Both of them questioned by special counsel Mueller's team.

And we know from two sources last week that former chief strategist Steve Bannon, he struck a deal with Mueller's team. And he will be interviewed by prosecutors instead of testifying before a Grand Jury.

So, as for the attorney general. We did see him at the White House yesterday afternoon. Our CNN camera spotting him as he was leaving.

But press secretary Sarah Sanders, she said this morning, she doesn't know if the attorney general spoke with the president about his interview with Mueller's team while at the White House.

White House counsel Ty Cobb hasn't responded to our request for comment.

But, of course, Wolf, Sessions of key interest took the special counsel for meetings he had with the Russians ambassador during the election. The disclosure of which led Sessions to recuse himself from the Russia probe. And, of course, spark that ire from the president.

And, of course, Mueller also wants to know what Sessions might have known about the circumstances surrounding the firing of former FBI director, James Comey, back in May.

A lot there -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, clearly. He was interviewed for hours by the special counsel's team.

Jessica Schneider, thanks very much.

And we're going to have a lot more on this breaking story. That's coming up.

But there's another big story emerging right now from the Justice Department. Is the threatened -- the other big story is the threatened resignation of the FBI director, Christopher Wray.

We've learned that Wray was on the brink of quitting after being pressured to change deputies. That pressure coming from the attorney general Jeff Sessions, himself.

Former FBI director, James Comey, weighed in on this late breaking development, tweeting, among other things, quote, "Good to read reports of people standing up for what they believe in."

Meanwhile, the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, said this morning that the president has full confidence in Director Wray over at the FBI.

Our Crime and Justice Reporter Shimon Prokupecz is following the story for us.

So, what more can you tell us about how close the FBI, the new FBI director, actually came to quitting?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Wolf, certainly it was a big concern and came close enough to the point where it appears, at least reportedly, that Sessions backed off of the demands.

Now, these demands, that he fire Andrew McCabe or reassign Andrew McCabe, coming from Sessions, it's been reported, possibly from the president. Putting pressure on Sessions to have the current FBI director make changes at the FBI to, sort of, clear the field there of some of the people who have stayed since Comey has been fired.

Some of the people that have been close to Comey that remain at the FBI. Andrew McCabe is one of them. James Baker, who was the general counsel, has been reassigned. And others.

[13:05:04] And it appears that Sessions was putting pressure on the FBI director to move these people, to get rid of them.

BLITZER: Why did the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, Shimon, want Andrew McCabe, the deputy FBI director, out? And couldn't he just have fired him himself? He is the head of the Justice Department.

PROKUPECZ: You know, he, obviously, is the head of the Justice Department. But it does -- it doesn't really work that way, Wolf. The deputy director reports to the FBI director.

Now, Andrew McCabe, he's a career FBI agent. He has certain protections. He's not a political appointee.

So, you can't just outright fire him without cause. There has to be some, sort of, wrongdoing to go ahead and fire a person who's been with the FBI, who's been a career FBI agent.

So, it's not something that the attorney general could do himself. It also would be pretty difficult for the FBI director to do it. Again, you need to have some cause, some wrongdoing.

He could have reassigned Andy McCabe to a field office, to another position at the FBI. But, as we've been reporting, McCabe is saying that he's going to retire come March.

He plans to retire, you know, given all the political backlash that he has received because of his connections to the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation, to the fact that his wife was running for state office in Virginia. All of that probably weighing heavily on him as he approaches perhaps the last month as the deputy director.

BLITZER: And he's going to retire in March because that -- he'll, then, become eligible for his retirement benefits and pension. He served in the FBI all these years, right?

PROKUPECZ: Yes, that's exactly right. That is when he becomes eligible. He could have left earlier because of accrued time. But it seems, at least among everything we've been told, that he has chosen to stay on.

And keep in mind, Wolf, Andy McCabe has been involved in many different investigations at the FBI for the close to 20 years that he's now been there. Other political investigations against Democrats.

So -- you know, and he still has a hand in the day-to-day activity, the day-to-day operations that go on at the FBI.

And also, Wray wanted to keep him, you know, for -- as he learns the FBI. As he learns how it functions. He couldn't just get rid of him right away. There was concern that it would, sort of, send shock waves through the bureau.

They had already went through enough with the firing of Comey. And he felt it was necessary to keep some of the staff members there from the previous administration as he learned the bureau. As he learned the workings of the bureau.

But we are expecting to see more changes, some more people leave who were associated with Comey. That was always planned for sometime this month.

BLITZER: It's impressive that Christopher Wray, the FBI director, withstood that pressure from the attorney general of the United States.

Shimon Prokupecz, thank you very much.

Let's get some more on all these major developments. I'm joined by Richard Ben-Veniste. He's the former special prosecutor during Watergate.

So, let's talk, first of all, about the pressure that the attorney general puts on the new FBI director, Christopher Wray, to fire his deputy.

What's your reaction when you heard that?

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE, FORMER SPECIAL PROSECUTOR, WATERGATE: Well, Chris Wray is a professional. He's got great respect in the legal community and at the FBI now.

McCabe is very popular, very well respected among the rank and file at the FBI. And Wray was simply not going to take direction about his own personnel decisions, with respect to his deputy.

So, this appears to be Sessions trying to curry favor with the president. He's been out of favor for such a long time.

And here, this might seem to be an easy way to do it, but he's run into the resistance properly of the FBI director in saying, hands off my deputy.

BLITZER: How extraordinary is it that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, himself a former 12-year FBI director, has actually called the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, to come and answer questions before his Russia investigation?

BEN-VENISTE: It's not at all unusual. It's expected. In fact, that's the reason why it was imperative that Sessions recuse himself from the investigation, because of his knowledge as a witness.

First, with respect to the Russians. His interaction with the Russian ambassador.

And, secondly, his knowledge about the firing of the FBI director, James Comey.

You may remember that in Watergate, the interference with the FBI's investigation of Watergate was the direct cause of Nixon's resignation.

When it was proved, beyond a doubt, that Nixon gave the order to interfere with the FBI. That was the obstruction of justice that ended any support remaining for Nixon.

[13:10:04] BLITZER: When Sessions, the attorney general, testified before Congress, you remember, he couldn't remember a lot of facts. He couldn't remember this. He couldn't remember that. He was testifying, of course, under oath.

When he testifies before the special counsel's staff, does -- can he do that? Can he say, I don't remember this? I don't remember that?

BEN-VENISTE: If it's legitimate that he doesn't remember, he can say it. If it is pretextual to avoid answering questions, then that's trouble.

But he didn't testify before Mueller. He was interviewed by Mueller.

BLITZER: So, what's the difference?

BEN-VENISTE: So, there's a difference. Testifying under oath would be before the Grand Jury. And that's a different phase of the investigation.

BLITZER: But the FBI -- but if he's being questioned by the FBI, even if he's not under oath, it would be a crime to lie. BEN-VENISTE: He's not being questioned by the FBI, in this case. He's being questioned by the stand-in for the attorney general of the United States which is what Robert Mueller's position is, as special counsel.

So, the law makes a distinction. Lying to the FBI is a distinct and separate crime. Perjury before a Grand Jury is different.

And so, I think we're going to see the end of the informal, in quotes, "inquiry," the questioning of witnesses before Mueller and his staff leading up to a point at which Mueller will decide whether or not to put witnesses before the Grand Jury which would mark a different and, I think, concluding phase of his investigation.

BLITZER: The fact that he called the attorney general in to answer questions, that's a pretty major decision. You don't do that every day.

It's, at least to me and presumably to a lot of others, set the stage for one higher level person, namely the president of the United States, to come in for some questioning before Mueller's team.

Do you agree?

BEN-VENISTE: I agree. I think, eventually, President Trump will be invited to come in and talk. Or Mr. Mueller may, as an accommodation, go to the White House with his staff to hear answers to questions he poses, should the president agree to that.

But testifying before a Grand Jury is quite another story. He will not subpoena, in my view, President Trump before a Grand Jury.

There is reasons for this. In an investigation, if an individual is thought to be the target of an investigation, he will not receive a subpoena. But he will receive an invitation to testify, should he desire to do so.

BLITZER: Bill Clinton, when he was president, testified before a Grand Jury, via video conference, right?

BEN-VENISTE: Right.

BLITZER: So, that was a -- that was a little different.

BEN-VENISTE: Not subpoenaed.

BLITZER: Yes. All right, thanks very much. Richard Ben-Veniste, thanks, as usual, for joining us.

BEN-VENISTE: Thank you.

BLITZER: There's more breaking news we're following. We're just getting word that the Senate, the Democratic leader, the minority leader, Chuck Schumer, has now withdrawn his earlier offer to the president of putting the border wall on the table in the Dreamer talks. So, how does that change the looming immigration fight? And was it illegal for Donald Trump's lawyer to reportedly pay a porn star hush money to hide her alleged affair with then-citizen Donald Trump?

New questions ahead. Stay with us.

[13:13:48]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:17:50] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: There's more breaking news.

The Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, has now rescinded an offer he made to President Trump during negotiations for a dreamer deal. According to a Democratic aide, a Schumer staffer called the White House on Monday to say the proposal the senator had made earlier on Friday, agreeing to significant funding for a new border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, was no longer an option.

Let's bring in Senator Jeff Merkley. He's a Democrat from Oregon. We'll talk about this.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY (D), OREGON: You're very welcome, Wolf. Good to be with you.

BLITZER: I know you disagreed with Senator Schumer. You voted against the arrangement to keep the government -- to reopen the government yesterday. But do you think he did the right thing now, rescinding that offer to fund a new border wall, or at least a chunk of it?

MERKLEY: Yes, absolutely, because the way that Mitch McConnell has set this up, he says there's going to be a spending bill that we'll resolve on February 8th and then we'll go to the issue of the DACA bill, the dreamer bill. And in that setting, it would be very easy for the president to say, hey, I want that money in the context of the February 8th bill before we go to the issue of immigration. And Senator Schumer is very emphatically clearly saying, look, if you're not willing to step forward and be part of this conversation about DACA, forget the wall.

BLITZER: You disagreed with Senator Schumer. You voted against it. I think 15 of your colleagues -- Democratic colleagues did as well. Two Republicans voted against it as well. Do you think that Schumer blinked?

MERKLEY: No, I wouldn't put it that way at all. I would say -- here's the picture. We were fighting for a three-day continuing resolution to keep the government open while we had intensive negotiations. The reason for that is what we've seen with the continuing resolutions is Mitch McConnell doesn't negotiate until the last 24 hours. And so, therefore, we're going to have several wasted weeks.

So -- but our preferred pathway, we couldn't put it on the floor because Mitch McConnell locked up the amendment box where we would place our amendments to be considered. So we couldn't put either anything that we wanted or anything that had been worked out in a bipartisan fashion. It limits the leverage, it limits the options.

[13:20:01] And so, listen, we're all focused now on the 2013 model where we got a super majority, two-thirds of the Senate, bipartisan, to say, look, here's an immigration bill that will work. And let's do that again now. Let's seize this opportunity.

BLITZER: Yes, but in 2013, you remember, you passed it overwhelmingly in the Senate. It didn't even come up for a vote in the House of Representatives. And a lot of your colleagues fear the same could happen now.

MERKLEY: Well, absolutely, and that is a real threat. I will say that there is a difference in a couple ways. The first, this is an election year. That -- 2013 was not an election year.

Second of all, you had a Democrat in the office and the Republicans were determined not to let him have any success. You now have a Republican in office. And that Republican has said on various occasions, when he's in his Tuesday Trump mode, as we say from a couple of weeks ago, he wants to get a deal done. When he's in his Thursday Trump mode, which is his Breitbart mode, then he's all against everything.

So -- but it will depend upon the president deciding he wants a deal, and he does want that wall, and so we have more leverage this year. We can also pursue a discharge petition in the House should we pass this in the Senate that will put a lot of pressure as people are approaching November.

BLITZER: Listen to what the White House budget director, former Congressman Mick Mulvaney, said earlier today as far as the dreamers, the negotiations, where the president stands right now. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICK MULVANEY, DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF MANAGEMENT AND BUDGET: We want a big deal that solves the reason that we have a DACA problem in the first place. If you simply gave amnesty, whatever you want to call it, to the folks who are here but don't solve border security, then you're simply delaying another DACA problem 10 or 15 years from now.

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

MULVANEY: Again, it depends on what we get in exchange. What do we get for our border security? What do we get for a wall?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: So how far, senator, are you willing to go? What would -- what should the Democrats be willing to give the president in order to allow those hundreds of thousands of dreamers to have legal status and stay here in the United States? MERKLEY: Well, we're all for border security. If we can go back to that 2013 bill that had the support of virtually all of the Democrats, we had significant border security in there. We don't want to see money wasted on a 2,000 mile concrete 30-foot high wall that doesn't stop drugs and doesn't stop people. But certainly this is -- this is a negotiation to be had. We're willing to meet the president partway here. But he's got to be engaged and he's got to be determined to take on the issue of the unfair treatment of members of our community who were brought here as small children, went to our elementary schools, our high schools, they're contributing members to our community, many of them are in college, many of them have important jobs. These folks had the legal status jerked from under them. It's an unfair limbo (ph) and treatment of people who are part of our communities here in America. It has to be addressed.

BLITZER: A quick question on another matter, but a very important matter. We've learned that Christopher Wray, the FBI director, was on the brink of actually quitting, of resigning after being pressured to fire, to change deputies by the attorney general, Jeff Sessions. What concerns does that raise for you?

MERKLEY: More interference in the fair administration of justice. And it's -- just builds to this pattern that we see both from the executive branch and we see it particularly from the House Republicans of trying to interrupt and obstruct the pursuit of justice.

BLITZER: Senator Merkley, thanks for joining us.

MERKLEY: Thank you. Thank you, Wolf. Take care.

BLITZER: President Trump's private lawyer reportedly paying hush money to a porn star to keep quiet about an alleged affair years earlier. The money paid allegedly just weeks before the presidential election. A watchdog group says that that may have broken campaign finance laws. We'll discuss.

Plus, as these reports surface, the first lady of the United States suddenly pulling out of the president's trip to Davos, Switzerland. What's behind the change of plans? We have new information.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:28:21] BLITZER: The watchdog group Common Cause claims Donald Trump's lawyer, his private attorney, violated campaign finance laws when he reportedly paid a porn star hush money to keep her quiet about an alleged affair with Trump many years before he was president of the United States. Listen to why Common Causes is now lodging complaints with both the Department of Justice and the Federal Election Commission.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PAUL S. RYAN, VICE PRESIDENT FOR POLICY AND LITIGATION, COMMON CAUSE: Violation number one, failure to disclose an expenditure by the Trump campaign committee in its receipt of an in-kind contribution in the amount of $130,000. And the second violation that we allege as possibly having occurred is that if this money did not come from President Trump, there was an illegal campaign contribution too. If it came from the Trump Organization, that's an illegal corporate contribution. If it came from some other individual, that's just an illegally excessively large contribution.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: CNN's Brian Todd is joining us. He's been doing a lot of reporting on this.

Brian, any response, first of all, from the president's attorney, Michael Cohen?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Michael Cohen has told CNN that the Common Cause complaint is, quote, baseless, as is, he says, the allegation that President Trump falsified any kind of a report to the Federal Election Commission regarding this case.

The question that we have to look at now is, was the reported $130,000 paid to Stormy Daniels part of some kind of a contribution that might have benefited President Trump's campaign in 2016?

Here are the Federal Election Commission rules on that kind of thing. An individual is limited to $2,700 that they can contribute to a federal election candidate, according to the Federal Election Commission. So, obviously, if that was $130,000 to benefit Trump's campaign from an individual, that would have obviously exceeded that amount.

[13:30:07] Now, a candidate who -- and any candidate who gets a $200 contribution from an individual, if it's over $200, that individual