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Robert Mueller Wants to Question Trump on Comey and Flynn; President Trump Asked Acting FBI Director Who He Voted for in 2016; Commerce Secretary On Trade Actions: "There's More To Come". Aired 9- 9:30a ET

Aired January 24, 2018 - 09:00   ET



[09:00:33] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.


A dizzying 24 hours in the Russia investigation. No longer just inching toward the president. This morning it is more like careening.

We now know that Special Counsel Robert Mueller wants to question the president, and more important this morning, we know why. Sources tell CNN the special counsel wants to hear directly from the president about the details surrounding the firing of FBI director James Comey and National Security adviser Michael Flynn.

HARLOW: This as we're also learning the FBI director who temporarily replaced Comey faced an eerily similar line of questioning about loyalty from the president.

Andy McCabe purportedly very disturbed after the president asked him whom he voted for in the 2016 election and then confronted him about past campaign donations to his wife from a group with ties to Hillary Clinton.

BERMAN: Our Shimon Prokupecz with us from Washington. He's there with more.

Shimon, what are you learning?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes. That's right. So that story published by "The Washington Post" yesterday says that during an Oval Office meeting the president asked then acting FBI director Andrew McCabe, who is right now the deputy director, about who he voted for.

McCabe then went ahead and shared details of that conversation with some of his executive staff and in the conversation apparently according to "The Washington Post" the president asked McCabe who he voted for. McCabe didn't feel comfortable and essentially told -- didn't tell the president who he voted for.

And then also apparently in that conversation the president was frustrated, sort of raised the issue about McCabe's wife receiving donations from the Democrats. She ran for a state office in Virginia.

Remember now Andrew McCabe has caught a lot of fire, has taken a lot of heat for his wife, for her running for this office as a Democrat. Also he led the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation. So there's been really a lot of sort of fire thrown his way. He's had to sort of been the punching bag of sorts for the Republicans and for president in his attacks against the FBI.

HARLOW: We're also learning, Shimon, there are new potentially significant developments involving Rick Gates, someone who's been indicted, someone who worked on the Trump campaign, was very central at points. What do we know about this?

PROKUPECZ: Right. So we've learned that Rick Gates has hired -- there's a new attorney apparently, a white collar crime attorney who is now working for him, and it's leading us to believe that there are negotiations under way perhaps for some sort of plea.

His lawyer has also been seen at Mueller's office. This would certainly be a significant development in the case. This would then take him away sort of from a joint defense with Paul Manafort. It would separate his case and it would appear that he's kind of doing his own thing here, now perhaps hoping for some kind of a plea.

HARLOW: Shimon, thank you for the reporting. Bring us more as you get it.

Let's turn to the White House, get some reaction. Our Kaitlan Collins is there with the latest.

Good morning.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning, Poppy. Yes, we're getting a lot of pushback from the White House. The Press Secretary Sarah Sanders was asked directly yesterday if the president would sit down with the Special Counsel Robert Mueller if it was requested. And though the president has said before he would have no problem sitting down with Mueller, Sanders did not directly answer the question, instead saying that the White House is fully cooperating with the special counsel, but she would not definitively say if the president would sit down with Mueller.

And then on another front, the White House was asked, if the president thinks that this whole investigation into Russia is just such a hoax, a waste of taxpayer money, why doesn't he just fire Bob Mueller? And the White House said that part of that reason is because of how the press would react and that it would cause a PR headache.

And to be clear, John and Poppy, the White House may not be able to handle another scandal like that because they're already drinking out of a fire hose with all the bombshells that dropped yesterday. And in a typical administration, what happened yesterday would be a very significant, a very monumental day in its history. But for the Trump White House, it was just Tuesday.

BERMAN: And Kaitlan, another interesting development overnight, CNN learning that the president is inclined to allow this memo drafted by the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, about alleged FBI abuse. He's inclined to allow it to be released. Explain what's going on there.

COLLINS: Yes, that's right, John. This memo, the president's allies and even one of his sons are calling for it to be released. It purportedly shows serious misconduct by the FBI and the DOJ against the president, against the Trump campaign.

[09:05:06] And though the president -- and though a source familiar says that the president would be ready to release this memo if it was declassified, the White House isn't quite taking that step yet, only saying that they believe in transparency. But a person familiar says that the president is ready to release it if he needs to.

Now critics say that this memo is just part of a larger effort to discredit the whole Russia investigation, of course.

BERMAN: Kaitlan Collins for us at the White House.

As we said, a dizzying number of developments in the last 24 hours.

HARLOW: I know.

BERMAN: Let's try to understand them insofar as that's, you know, possible.

Joining us now, Laura Coates, CNN legal analyst, former federal prosecutor. Also we're joined by former federal prosecutor Samuel Buell.

And Professor, you now work at Duke University. You were very interesting in this case because you know Andrew Weissmann, you worked with Andrew Weissmann who is the prosecutor on the Mueller Team and I believe somewhere we have a picture of the two of you together.


BERMAN: He is the one who will likely be questioning the president when this happens. You both look younger now than you did back then.

HARLOW: Young chaps.

BERMAN: Let me say. Look, how do you think the special counsel's team, and maybe your friend, Andrew Weissmann, how do you think they will approach the questioning of the president?

SAMUEL BUELL, FORMER ENRON TASK FORCE LEAD PROSECUTOR: Well, whenever you go to question somebody who is at the center of an investigation like this, you always wait until you've got all your ducks in a row. So they've talked to a lot of other people about all the relevant conversations that may have occurred during the transition, around the Comey firing, that whole period of time. They've got Flynn cooperating. Presumably they've got a lot of information from him. They've looked at all kinds of e-mails and documents. And so you're hoping that by the time you sit down and talk to that

witness, you've got that witness fairly boxed in. That they're not really going to be able to just kind of give you their own version of what they would like to have had happened.

And you know, you really aren't expecting that witness to suddenly break open your case obviously.

HARLOW: Right.

BUELL: You're expecting that witness -- you want to lock them in to what you know the facts to be.

HARLOW: You know --

BUELL: And so -- it would be more like a cross examination than an investigative interview.

HARLOW: Right. And you know the temperament and you know the style of Weissmann, pitbull-like and all this.

So let me ask you quickly before we get to Laura. You have said that you don't see any scenario in the questioning of the president by this team where he isn't hurt in some way. Why?

BUELL: Well, you know, I think that this individual, the president of the United States, has shown himself to have a very difficult time keeping his story straight or even caring about keeping his story straight. And normally that's the kind of client that a lawyer would be loathed to bring into an interview where false statements are under, you know, possible felony penalties.

So for -- you know, in an ordinary criminal case, there's no real upside here. Now I guess in the political environment, there is a potential upside which is that, if he can limit the scope of this interview and kind of get out without damage, then he can claim that -- you know, he'll claim, I've answered every question there is to ask, I've answered every question under the sun, there's no collusion, I've been cleared, et cetera, et cetera, even though that might not be the case.

BERMAN: You know, Laura, we just heard from Sam here that he thinks that the special prosecutor will dotting, you know, all the I's and crossings all the T's before sitting down. As they approach the president on these issues that we now understand, the firing of James Comey and the firing of Michael Flynn, you know, how will they approach that? What resources do they now have at their disposal?

I was thinking about the fact that James Comey has now talked to them about the memos he wrote.

HARLOW: The memos.

BERMAN: Michael Flynn has pleaded guilty and is now cooperating. So how does that influence things? LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It all helps because all of those

people are part of this corroboration team here for Mueller to say, what do we already know, what evidence do we have or testimony to corroborate?

Remember, George Papadopoulos still don't know what it is he's provided, how long he was cooperating before it became public, what he was able to provide, conversations we may not know about, Hope Hicks. There's a variety of people who may come into play here.


COATES: But all it tells you, think about the jigsaw puzzle. Up until now, we in the media have seen all these pieces around. But Mueller's team has the job to try and figure out how many pieces they need to get a clear picture of what they need to complete. And so every investigation, every interview is going to give that a much more clear shape. And when you get higher and higher to Trump, we're not talking about somebody who on a fishing expedition trying to figure out what possibly could be find. They probably already know the answer to every single question they intend to ask.

HARLOW: Laura, just, you know, continuing on that, what kind of access would the president's lawyers, the president himself have to anything that folks who've met with Mueller's team, have been interviewed by Mueller's team, including the Attorney General Jeff Sessions just last week, can they just tell the Trump lawyers and the president himself, here is everything that Mueller asked me?

COATES: Why would they possibly have the incentive to do that? If you're Trump's team, you of course want all that information.

HARLOW: Right.

COATES: You want everything to prepare. But if you're Mueller's investigative team, and if you're other witnesses who may have been cooperating to the detriment of the president of the United States and currently hold positions where they are vulnerable to his pleasure and to his whims, you would not have an interest in actually doing that.

[09:10:06] So I highly doubt he'll have access to the information, but he has been reading reports like everybody else. He's aware that it's getting closer and closer to his inner circle. I'm sure all those he talks about not being nervous at all, it's got to ruffle his feathers to know that a seated attorney general has been answering questions. There are other people, like a National Security adviser, who are answering questions.

HARLOW: Right.

COATES: It didn't (INAUDIBLE) in the noose, he's probably starting to feel its effect.

BERMAN: We got two other really important --

(CROSSTALK) BERMAN: Hang on one second first because I want to cover two other -- really, really quickly. Thirty seconds each if we can. This news that Andy McCabe, that the president asked Andy McCabe directly, you know, who did you vote for in the last election.

Sam, you know, you talked about the fact that firing James Comey in and of itself may not be grounds to prove obstruction, but other things that have happened since then make the case more robust. Is this one of those things that gets to that issue?

BUELL: Yes, it's another piece of -- you know, as we just said, the jigsaw puzzle on this. I mean, it's -- you know, you're corroborating, you're strengthening a consistent story that the president is acting not just, you know, what he thinks is in the best interest of the executive branch, but to protect his own team and himself from legal problems. And so it adds to the story about motive.

He just seems to be an individual who just at no level understands the independence or professionalism of law enforcement. He thinks they're his instrument.

BERMAN: And on Rick Gates, Laura, if you want to answer this quickly. The idea that Rick Gates who has been indicted in this case may have a lawyer now that CNN is reporting is talking to the special counsel, seemed maybe to work out some kind of plea deal in his case. What does that tell you?

COATES: It tells me that Manafort's knees are probably knocking very, very quickly together. Number one. And the attorney that he has is not just any attorney. It's an attorney who's well-versed and who's been defending people from Watergate to Iran contra and all in between. I mean, this is somebody who is very seasoned and prepared not only to go to trial if need be, but also to make his client to be in the best position for a cooperative plea deal.

And remember, the person who has the most to lose if Gates starts speaking and singing like a canary is probably Paul Manafort.


COATES: And so I would be nervous if I was his team. And they had an advantage when they were together. And now that they're separate, it doesn't bode well.

HARLOW: Right. They don't have this joint defense agreement. Right?

COATES: Right.

HARLOW: The interests are not necessarily aligned and they don't have to defend them on the same page.

Laura Coates, Samuel Buell, we appreciate it guys. Thank you very much.

COATES: Thank you. HARLOW: So also, big news, the clock still ticking on any sort of

immigration deal. Republicans still think they don't even know what the president wants at this point. Senator Lindsey Graham says the White House is all over the place.

Is any compromise at this point DOA?

BERMAN: Plus terror in our schools. A 15-year-old charged with murder after opening fire at his Kentucky high school, killing two, injuring 18. We're live at the scene with new developments.

And they were soulmates. That is his defense. A congressman used taxpayer funds to settle harassment claim by an ex-aide and now he's trying to spin his way out.


[09:17:12] HARLOW: Special Counsel Robert Mueller wants to chat with the president. They want to have a conversation and CNN has learned that Mueller really wants to talk to the president about his dismissal of former FBI Director James Comey and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

BERMAN: You make it sound like they want to have coffee together.

HARLOW: I bet coffee would be in the room.

BERMAN: They may have coffee, but coffee will not be the end here. It will be a meeting of so much else. Here to discuss, we're joined by CNN political analysts, Matt Viser and Alex Burns, and CNN contributor, Bianna Golodryga.

You know, Bianna, eight in 10 Americans at this point now say they want the president to testify under oath. It's part of a new CNN poll here. You know, should the president testify, 78 percent say yes.

Jeffrey Toobin, our friend calls this potentially the biggest moment of the Trump presidency to date. It sounds -- that's setting a high bar, but do you agree?

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, the president is known to be unfiltered and can sort of get himself into positions not because of what others have said, but because of what he said. He's gotten himself into trouble with his own words specifically as to why he fired Comey in his interview with Lester Holt.

So, I think a lot of his counsel would even agree that they would be concerned about what the president could say. He's given a lot of depositions. He's very familiar with this type of situation.

But he's also very familiar with putting his foot down and speaking his mind. It could very well get into a situation where the prosecutors, maybe Mueller himself, know how to press his buttons and know what they want to get out of him, and how to do it.

HARLOW: There was a deposition a while ago about his net worth when he's like it fluctuates with the market and also how I'm feeling. That can get you in trouble in a deposition. Alex, you say how the president handles it not only behind closed doors but publicly, is very, very significant, crucial not only to him but to Republicans at this point. Why?

ALEX BURNS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, the relationship between the president and the Republican Party has been tenuous for a long time. He has gotten pretty substantial covering fire from especially the House side, that they have been willing to essentially abdicate much of their oversight responsibilities and give him the benefit of the doubt on an awful lot.

Devin Nunes as we've obviously talked about a lot over the last week has been really, really pushing this idea that the investigation has been tainted from the start. If the president can stay disciplined over the next few weeks, that will go a lot towards sort of maintaining that level of support he's getting from the Republican Party.

If they start hearing that he blew it in a private deposition or that he gave a deposition and then went out and attacked Robert Mueller again the next day, that's going to make people who are already really nervous even more nervous.

Those elections are getting closer and closer. By the way, they've already finished tax reform. So, maybe they don't need the close relationship with the president that they've depended on up to this point.

BERMAN: Much more to discuss when it comes to Nunes in those issue in just a moment here. But Ronna Romney McDaniels in an interview earlier today, Matt Viser, asked about the news overnight that Andy McCabe was asked by the president who did you vote for when they met in the oval office some time ago.

[09:20:07] And listen to the answer from the chair of the RNC, the Republican National Committee. This is the cover fire that Alex Burns was just talking of. Listen.


RONNA MCDANIEL, RNC CHAIRWOMAN: It's just a conversation. I don't think it intends, you know, all these terrible things that people are trying to put forward.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Was it inappropriate?

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



BERMAN: Getting to know you, getting to know all about you, Matt Viser, to your incoming acting FBI director. Is that a plausible explanation on planet earth?

MATT VISER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: No, of course not. I mean, it is obviously inappropriate to ask that sort of question, but it's also utterly expected from President Trump. You know, it's not hard to imagine him asking this question given his past actions and given to where we are at this point.

Some of his conversations with Comey, and so to the extent that Mueller is looking at this, you know, he's establishing Comey as a credible witness with his memos. So, adding on top of that these questions of Andrew McCabe help bolster a case potentially of obstruction of justice on the actions on the part of the president.

So, I think it does appear based on the current reporting that Mueller is trying to build a case by looking at different examples, showing sort of the same thing. So, this is troubling and it's interesting with party leaders like Ronna McDaniel backing the president off on this.

HARLOW: A stunning moment if you were watching the White House briefing yesterday with Sarah Sanders. One reporter said if this whole thing is a hoax, as the president has repeatedly called the Mueller investigation, why doesn't this lead to Mueller being fired? Why doesn't the president just fire Mueller? Here is what Sarah Sanders said responding.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think we all know what everybody in this room would do if the president did that. I don't think that's helpful to the process.


HARLOW: Oh, my, Bianna, you're a journalist. She's saying part of the reason is because of how you guys, the press, would respond.

GOLODRYGA: We've been talking about this and speculating for months now as to whether he would or wouldn't fire Mueller. I think a lot of people were surprised by hearing that Mueller interviewed Sessions and will be potentially interviewing the president in the next few weeks.

How far along Mueller has gone in this investigation and how many people he has actually interviewed, he and his prosecutors, over the past few months which maybe gives you a sense that Mueller possibly thinks he's on borrowed time and wants to conclude this sooner rather than later.

BERMAN: By the way, she may not be wrong, right? If the president did do it, there would be a reaction, but that's not the reason.

BURNS: She's certainly right that there would be an outcry in the press and the public. It's also a cheap dodge in terms of the politics of Washington and the legal ramifications of this.

If you fire Mueller, that's the one spot where virtually every Senate Republican has said that's a red line for them. If you fire him, maybe you end the investigation in the short term, but he'll be up on Capitol Hill testifying to the Intelligence Committee the next week.

GOLODRYGA: I may be a cynic here, I think fewer and fewer Republicans these days, at least some of them would be that shocked or that outraged. We've been building up to that by going after his credibility.

BERMAN: I will say when you have the Freedom Caucus calling the president saying, we've got this Devin Nunes memo out there that we want to release, having a conversation about somehow coordinating its release.

It lends credence to the idea that there are Republicans who have backed the president no matter what. Matt, I wonder if you can talk about this because we have seen all this evidence the last few days with the release of some of these text messages between the two people who were working with the FBI on the campaign.

Do you see or what's behind the coordinated effort to get this information out? Is it just about transparency as we're hearing from the White House and from some Republicans?

VISER: I mean, when you see answers like Sarah Huckabee Sanders, of course, we won't fire him, it's important to have these investigations and get to the bottom of these things, then it does lend this idea that there is a concerted effort to discredit the FBI and the Justice Department.

You see that with things like the Nunes memo that they're not releasing but are sort of trying to use to discredit the FBI. I think that is an ongoing effort on the part of Republicans, a party that used to be a law and order party that's sort of doing everything that they can to draw discredit on legal institutions in this country.

That's not to say that there aren't instances where there are some troubling aspects. Some of the text messages do raise some red flags.

HARLOW: For sure.

VISER: But that sort of -- they're kind of going over their skis on other issues, I think, draws into question their legitimate concerns.

HARLOW: We are going to touch on all this a lot more in a little bit, guys. Thank you very much, Matt Viser, Bianna Golodryga, Alex Burns. Stay with us. We have a lot more to get to.

[09:25:08] Meantime, the commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, says there is more trade action to come. This comes a day after the president decided to slap some pretty big tariffs on solar panels and washing machines imported from China. He's heading to the World Economic Forum in Davos today to sell the American first brand.

BERMAN: CNN chief business correspondent, Christine Romans joins us now moments away from the opening bell. CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Hi, guys. You know, ten cabinet secretaries, the president, a huge U.S. delegation making the case to the world's elite that America first is not necessarily America alone. That's a message to a globalist crowd, increasingly nervous about American protectionism.

The commerce secretary defending those new tariffs on solar panels and washing machines. Wilbur Ross telling reporters many countries are very good at the rhetoric of free trade, but actually practice extreme protectionism.

That is a problem with which the president is quite determined to deal, and you saw some of that already yesterday. He's talking about those tariffs and more could be coming on aluminum and steel.

The administration stands against many of the very things that have been hammered out by globalists in places like Davos where the president has threatened to pull out of NAFTA. He's abandoned the Paris Climate Accord.

He's bailed on TPP, and that trade deal, by the way, goes forward. A counterweight to Chinese trade domination in the region without the U.S. it goes forward. These countries are moving ahead.

The president says his new tariffs will not start a trade war. But, you know, Ross, the commerce secretary, has some tough language in Davos to reporters. He said that trade wars are fought every day.

Our trading partners are not playing fair and, quote, "The U.S. troops are now coming to the ram part. That's got a lot of attention. There are some delicious irony here. Donald Trump campaigned against the very idea that these global elites hold dear, everything they stand for.

And they privately disagree with many of his policies. Yet, tax reform and the stock market rally over the past year has made them even richer and today probably a fresh round of record highs in stocks, really kind of a Davos irony.

BERMAN: Stock market headed up before the open, Romans, is that what you're telling me?

ROMANS: There's probably a fresh round of records today. A lot of good earnings.

HARLOW: Just shocking.

BERMAN: Christine Romans, great to have you with us. Thank you very, very much.

So, no wall, no dice. That's the president's message on negotiations. The current state of negotiations insofar as they exist at all over immigration.

HARLOW: All right. We are also waiting for a very important sentence to come down against former Team USA gymnastics doctor, Larry Nasser. Many, many charges of criminal sexual misconduct. We will hear from three more of his victims this morning and we will bring that sentencing to you live right here. Stay with us.