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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Republicans Seeking to Discredit FBI Investigation of President Trump? Interview With California Congressman Ted Lieu; Ex-USA Gymnastics Doctor Sentenced to 175 Years; Sources: Senate Intel Committee Not Given Access to Nunes FISA Memo. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired January 24, 2018 - 4:00   ET

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


[16:00:01]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Could we be just weeks away from the end of the Russia investigation?

THE LEAD starts now.

He has been credited with getting Trump elected to the White House. He was once described as President Trump's brain. So, what will Steve Bannon be able to tell Robert Mueller when he sits down with him within the week?

Plus, the FBI now the center of an all-out political war, as some lawmakers push claims of a secret society inside the agency that is working to take down the president. Wait, what?

Then, it's likely the worst scandal in sports history. He had almost as many victims as Jerry Sandusky, Harvey Weinstein, and Bill Cosby combined. And today a judge sentenced ex-USA Gymnastic Dr. Larry Nassar to up to 175 years behind bars. But what about the organizations that enabled and protected him?

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We are going to begin with the politics lead.

Today marks the anniversary of an incredibly consequential day in American history, although we did not know it at the time. One year ago today, January 24, 2017, Michael Flynn, President Trump's then national security adviser, met with FBI investigators, and in that meeting, Flynn lied to the FBI about his interactions with the Russian ambassador, the first domino, if you will, which set off a chain of events that continues to send dominoes falling today, Stretching now all the way to the Oval Office.

With special counsel Robert Mueller now seeking to interview the president of the United States, Donald Trump. A year ago this month, White House counsel Don McGahn told President Trump that he believed Flynn had not only lied to Vice President Pence about his contacts with Russians, but that McGahn believed Flynn had misled the FBI as well, a source tells CNN.

McGahn recommended the president fire Flynn, which the president did in February. But before that, on January 27, just three days after that Flynn-FBI interview that we're celebrating the anniversary of today, on that day, President Trump invited then FBI Director Comey to dinner.

And according to Comey, that's when President Trump asked him for a pledge of loyalty.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: I got the sense my job would be contingent upon how he felt I conducted myself and whether I demonstrated loyalty.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: On February 14, the day after Flynn resigned, the president, Comey said, said to him privately -- quote -- "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go" -- unquote.

President Trump denied saying that. But either way, on May 9, with the Russia investigation on his mind, as he later said, President Trump fired James Comey.

Assuming the accuracy of these accounts, why was the president so focused on protecting Flynn? Special counsel Mueller might also be wondering that. Sources tell CNN that he is looking to talk to President Trump about those firings of Flynn and Comey, as first reported by "The Washington Post."

Loyalty to Donald Trump, not loyalty to the law or to the public or to the U.S. Constitution, loyalty to the president has emerged as a theme of this presidency. Shortly after Comey was fired and Andrew McCabe was named the FBI acting director, President Trump summoned McCabe to the Oval Office, "The Washington Post" reports, and asked McCabe, who did you vote for?

McCabe told the president he did not vote. Here's Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel this morning on CNN asked why it was appropriate for the president to ask the acting FBI director who he voted for.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RONNA ROMNEY MCDANIEL, CHAIR, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE: It is just a conversation. I don't think it intends all these terrible things that people are trying to put forward.

QUESTION: But was it inappropriate?

ROMNEY MCDANIEL: I don't know. I ask people who they vote for sometimes. I think it is just trying to get to know somebody. I don't think the intentions as bad as they're being put out.

(END VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: Just some casual conversation. That's of course what we were told when former President Bill Clinton met with then Attorney General Loretta Lynch privately on her plane while Hillary Clinton's use of a private e-mail server was under investigation. Just some casual conversation.

But despite that excuse, it caused a lot of outrage among Republicans.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. BOB GOODLATTE (R), VIRGINIA: You met privately with former President Bill Clinton aboard your plane on the tarmac of the Phoenix Airport, despite the fact his wife was the target of an ongoing criminal investigation.

REP. STEVE KING (R), IOWA: In that happenstance meeting on the tarmac in Phoenix, was there any discussion that might have implied anything with regard to the investigations of the Clinton...

REP. TREY GOWDY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: The public has to have confidence in the justice system. So this dual track, different set of rules for certain people than for others, it frankly should not matter whether you are running for president or running late to a kid's ball game. The same rules ought to apply to everyone.

[16:05:10]

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: There should not be different sets of rules for different people. Congressman Gowdy is right. The public has to have confidence in the justice system. He's right about that too.

The Clinton-Lynch meeting on the tarmac undermined that. Why is there now such silence when the president, according to sources close to Comey and McCabe, made what those two FBI officials thought were inappropriate comments in the midst of an investigation into the president's White House and the president's campaign team?

Again, if you only apply principles to your political opponents and never to yourself and never to your allies, then they're not principles. They're the lack thereof.

Let's talk more about the Mueller probe, because we have some breaking news on that front.

We're learning that special counsel Mueller plans to meet with former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon as early as next week.

And CNN political correspondent Sara Murray joins me now with more.

Sara, do we have any idea what Mueller might be focusing on when he talks to Bannon?

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: One of the interesting things here is that sources are saying we're expecting Mueller and his investigators to focus on Bannon's time in the White House.

Now, obviously, this is something he was not very revealing about when he appeared in front of the House Intelligence Committee. He sort of invoked executive privilege and said he couldn't talk about the transition, couldn't talk about his White House tenure.

But sources say that Comey is -- or -- sorry -- that Mueller is going to be interested in talking on Bannon about that, particularly about that decision to fire Michael Flynn, what the president and his team knew about Flynn's discussions with the Russian ambassador about sanctions, but also the decision to fire FBI Director James Comey.

We know that that's a key element into Mueller's investigation into whether the president obstructed justice. And obviously Bannon was there in the White House for all of that.

TAPPER: Sara, you have more information about another member of the president's Cabinet who sat for an interview with Mueller.

MURRAY: That's right. That is Mike Pompeo. He's the head of the CIA. He sat with Mueller last year. And he sort of rounds out this sort of trifecta of folks in the intel community that we know met with Mueller.

And we know that part of the focus, part of the focus, not necessarily the entire thing, was the president sort of urging of these intel officials to come out publicly and say that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. So we're told that Pompeo went, he spoke with Mueller as sort of a peripheral witness.

At least that was part of the focus of their discussion.

TAPPER: All right, Sara Murray, thank you so much.

My panel joins me now for more.

Let me start with Maggie Haberman at the White House.

Maggie, you just asked Sarah Sanders, the press secretary, at the briefing about how the president is defining there's no collusion when he says there was no collusion with Russia. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: When he says collusion between the campaign, does he mean himself or does he mean that no one on the campaign could have (OFF-MIKE)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Look, I think he is stating for himself and anything that he would be a part of or know about or have sanctioned.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: So that's a pretty significant definition that they have there. When he says there's no collusion, he just means himself and anything he knew about.

HABERMAN: Right. Or anything he signed off on.

She later then added at the end of that answer, but he's been very definitive that he and no one in his campaign sanctioned anything, which I took as somebody of a backpedal.

I did think that answer was a departure from what we have heard before. And I asked it because it is never quite clear exactly what the president means when he says no collusion 10 times in a row. He says it as a way of ending all questions about the Russia probe. He has not answered questions in depth on this issue from reporters in quite some time.

TAPPER: The RNC chairwoman, Josh, you heard her say for the president to ask the FBI acting director who he voted for is just getting to know somebody. Does that seem credible to you?

JOSH HOLMES, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, look, I think we know just based on conversation between administration officials and FBI or Justice Department that there's a certain way of handling that and a certain way of not.

The thing is, with President Trump's interaction, particularly with McCabe, is all he knew going into that meeting is that McCabe's wife received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from his opponent in the recently determined election.

TAPPER: Well, from the governor of Virginia who had ties to Clinton. Yes.

HOLMES: Right, was basically Clinton money, right, which is what he was reacting to. Was that appropriate? Probably not.

But what he was trying to get at was whether or not there was some kind of force within the FBI that had basically prejudged what everything to do with this administration. And on that point, he does have a point.

TAPPER: It seems curious to me, having covered the tarmac meeting between Loretta Lynch and President Bill Clinton, former President Bill Clinton, quite a bit, and asked Loretta Lynch about it, and there was a bid -- I don't know how much people remember, but that was a big deal.

That was a big stink. She actually took a step back from the investigation and basically ceded it to Comey because of that. It seems odd to me that people can be offended by and not even raise their eyebrows at the idea that President Trump saying, allegedly, I want your loyalty, James Comey. Take it easy on Flynn, James Comey. Who did you vote for, Andrew McCabe?

[16:10:11]

TAPPER: It just seems like there's a whole degradation of appropriateness in this. NINA TURNER, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: It depends on which team is

doing it.

You're outraged if it is a member of the other person's team. But if it is your team, you're not as outraged. And the president could have gotten to know -- you usually don't ask people who they voted for. He was you're putting the director on the spot there. It is inappropriate.

It is not illegal, but it is certainly is inappropriate behavior by the president. He could ask a whole array of questions. If he is trying to get into exactly what is happening within the FBI, if he feels like people are trying to undermine him, then ask that question directly.

But to kind of say did you vote for me and depending on what his answer was, that elicits a different kind of response from the president is just wrong.

TAPPER: Maggie, you have covered President Trump for years. What is your take on this asking of the acting FBI director, who did you vote for?

HABERMAN: It is objectively an inappropriate question.

What people who are close to the president will say, and what they have said for a very long time about the nature of question that he asks, or statement that he makes, is that is just how he talks. And that's true that that is just how he talks.

But after he has been in office by the point that he had that meeting, about three months, the world doesn't really care. And it is important to remember that he asked this question of Andrew McCabe just after firing James Comey.

So it is not as if this was all taking place in a vacuum. I do the president -- two things can be true at once. There can be reasons to be concerned about Andrew McCabe's wife and her potential political relationship with Terry McAuliffe, who is a close Clinton ally, and still recognize that you should not ask that question. That's something we have seen this president really struggle with.

TAPPER: There is clearly a case being made by Republicans and by conservative media outlets that the FBI stinks and this investigation stinks, the Mueller investigation.

I want to show you some new polling. This is percentages of people who approve of Mueller's handling of the Russia investigation. Republicans, only 26 percent approve. Independents, 43 percent approve. Democrats, 78 percent approve.

To look at the other side of it, when you break it along party lines, only 26 percent of Republicans approve of Mueller's handling of the Russia investigation. Stark numbers. And those have changed quite a bit since President Trump and his allies started attacking.

HOLMES: Well, they started attacking because there's something to attack.

Look, this has been going on close to a year. What we have gotten to at this point is a whole lot of circumstantial evidence that would allow an investigation to go forward, but no fire to speak of in terms of the original reason, which is collusion. We haven't gotten any further on that.

But we have gotten further on is the idea you have two people who were very close to this investigation who have exchanged text messages that are pretty questionable from a Republican point of view.

TAPPER: I don't think you have to be a Republican to think they're questionable. They're pretty questionable, period.

HOLMES: But I think that's where we start to get political and you start to see the difference between a Republican overview of how this investigation is going and how a Democrat thinks it is going is basically because they both have cases to make here, one that this thing should be over in short order and Democrats obviously don't want that to happen.

TAPPER: I want to bring in Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu right now. He serves on the House Foreign Relations Committee and House Judiciary Committees.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

I want to get your response. RNC Chair Romney McDaniel said this question of Andrew McCabe, who did you vote for, he was then the asking FBI director, asking who he voted for, was just trying to get to know him.

As Maggie pointed out, the president is not a traditional politician. Is it possible he simply didn't know that this would be inappropriate? That he was just making small talk, as McDaniel claims?

REP. TED LIEU (D), CALIFORNIA: Thank you, Jake, for that question.

I have been an elected official for over 15 years. I never asked anyone if they voted for me. That is just not an appropriate question. It's also not the get to know you question that the RNC chair said. That's just a frankly ridiculous assertion that she made.

Donald Trump was trying to assess whether McCabe would be loyal to him, and that's simply not something a president should be doing when he's looking at the FBI director or deputy FBI director.

TAPPER: I have been talking about this today, because I am surprised at Republicans who were very outraged by the Bill Clinton-Loretta Lynch tarmac meeting while Hillary Clinton was being investigated, that they're not similarly outraged by these comments that the president has made to McCabe and to Comey.

But let me ask you the flip side of that. Were you outraged when Bill Clinton and Loretta Lynch met? Didn't that look fishy? Wasn't that inappropriate? LIEU: It did look fishy.

But keep in mind there was no evidence that they said anything inappropriate. In this case, there is actual evidence that the president told Comey to drop the investigation against Flynn. That's wildly inappropriate. That could constitute obstruction of justice.

And special counsel Mueller's team is investigating that actual issue. Did the president obstruct justice during his time in the White House?

[16:15:03] TAPPER: So, CNN has learned that former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates who also served as Paul Manafort's deputy and a business partner, he's been charged by special counsel Mueller and he might be close to entering a plea deal. If that's the case, what might that suggest about where Mueller is headed and what information he might have?

LIEU: So, I'm a former prosecutor. And I have to say Mueller is doing an amazing job. He has already gotten two guilty pleas and two cooperation agreements. Now if Rick Gates flips, that's a third insider in the Trump campaign that's going to be cooperating with Mueller.

And keep in mind, Rick Gates is not only an ally of Paul Manafort. He was Trump's deputy campaign manager. So, that would be bad news for Donald Trump.

TAPPER: We know that the special counsel wants to interview President Trump in some manner. Would it be OK in your view if the president answered written questions?

LIEU: Not at all. The president should be treated like any other witness or any other target of an investigation. He should be put under oath and answer questions from the prosecutors or FBI agents in the room.

TAPPER: Of course, you don't have to be under oath. If you lie to the FBI, whether or not you're under oath, it's against the law.

LIEU: That's correct. Now, that's a very good point because Donald Trump is going to go in an interview largely blind. He won't know what Michael Flynn told the FBI because their attorneys to Michael Flynn ended their cooperation agreement with the White House last November. He won't know what Sally Yates told the FBI. He won't know what Comey told the FBI. He won't any of this.

So, if Donald Trump lies to the FBI, they'll know and Robert Mueller's team will know.

TAPPER: Republicans are considering releasing a memo compiled by House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes of your home state of California, and his staff. It alleges surveillance abuses by the FBI against then candidate Donald Trump and the campaign. The White House says the president is in favor of releasing it.

Have you seen the memo? In the spirit of transparency, should it be released?

LIEU: I have not seen the memo. I think before it is released, they actually have to show it to the FBI to give FBI a chance to rebut the memo.

But keep in mind, nothing about this memo based on the reporting has anything to do with the actual evidence. They don't attack the legitimacy of FBI and Robert Mueller's team has already uncovered. And I think at the end of the day, the American people doesn't look at the evidence and see if crimes are committed and if they were, who committed them?

TAPPER: All right. Congressman Ted Lieu of California, thank you so much, sir. I appreciate it.

LIEU: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: Let me turn back to Maggie Haberman on the White House North Lawn.

Maggie, one thing that perplexes me about the Russia investigation and President Trump, is there any understanding by him and I know aides have told him this, I know advisers have told him this, but is there any understanding that if he had just kept his mouth sealed, and not said comments to Comey, not fired Comey, not made comments to McCabe, et cetera, that it is entirely possible this investigation would have wrapped several months ago and perhaps there would have been an all clear?

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: The people I've spoken the who spoke about the investigation said he has never alluded to any responsibility for how long this has gone down a rabbit hole. That as you have said several times, it might not have otherwise.

Now, we can't see into his brain obviously or his heart. And certainly, I think there are things that even he keeps to himself, despite his frequent words on Twitter and in public. But there is no question about the reality, which is if he had not had this chain reaction of events, and that is always what he does. He does something and then he reacts to himself doing it. There is a lot less of a chance we would be here today.

TAPPER: Comey, for example, wasn't -- apparently had given Manafort a clean bill of health. It was only when Manafort got involved that Manafort was ensnared in this.

HABERMAN: Right. I mean, and you've seen this over and over and over. There were things that were not initially being looked at that then later on were looked at. The presence of Robert Mueller has clearly bothered this president for a very, very long time and possibly will continue to for a long time.

TAPPER: Maggie Haberman, thank you so much.

Everyone, stick around. Just in to CNN, some breaking news about that classified memo drafted by House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes. You may not believe just how closely Republicans are holding this memo if they demand to be released, right after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:23:28] TAPPER: Breaking news now, and CNN sources saying the Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee have refused to turn over the memo documenting alleged surveillance abuses by the FBI to members of their own party, leaving members on the Senate Intelligence Committee in the dark.

Let's get right to CNN's Manu Raju on Capitol Hill.

Manu, what, this is confusing. They want this memo released but they're not willing to show Senate Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's absolutely right.

The Senate Intelligence Committee's Republican Chairman Richard Burr, his staff actually requested a chance to review this memo but they were deny that by the staff of the House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes. This is according to multiple sources familiar with the matter as well as members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Now, this is significant because Richard Burr is one of the few people in Congress who have access to the highly classified intelligence in which the Nunes memo is based on, the memo alleging DOJ misconduct and how it obtained some of these surveillance warrants over members of the Trump campaign during the election season as part of the Russia probe, while Burr has not been able to see the memo and to assess for himself exactly whether that memo is right or wrong. And as we know, Democrats are saying, this is a misleading set of talking points.

Now, I asked Burr about this specifically and he said, look, I am not going to comment about what we've asked or not asked for. But you're going to have to ask Devin about his own memo. Nunes' office has declined to comment on this, Jake, but expect an effort to release it as soon as next week, Jake.

TAPPER: So strange.

And then, of course, House Democrats on the Intelligence Committee who say that the memo is full of falsehoods.

[16:25:04] And again, I don't know what's true, what's not true. I haven't seen the memo. President Trump could declassify all the intelligence tomorrow if he wanted to.

But these House Democrats, they're going to release their memo now?

RAJU: Yes. That -- it sounds like there's going to be a competing set of memos that are going to be pushed forward as soon as next week, that Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee say they will draft their own memo based on those conclusions from that same intelligence and they're going to push for the committee to vote for it next week. If they do vote for it, the full house can view it in a classified setting and then committee will have to decide Jake whether they send it to the president to decide to allow for its release.

We'll see if the president ends up doing that. If he's inclined to release the Nunes memo, we'll what he does about the Democratic memo if it gets to that, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Manu Raju, thank you so much.

Lots more to talk about accusations of a secret society inside the FBI that wants to bring down President Trump. No, this is not a spy movie plot. The text messages Republicans are trying to spotlight next.

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