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Mueller to Interview Trump; Mueller to Interview Bannon; No Wall No DACA. Aired 1-1:30p ET
Aired January 24, 2018 - 13:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.
We have breaking news in the Russia investigation. After 24 hours of bombshell reports and developments, another one just in.
CNN has now learned that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, wants to question the president's former White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon, about the firings of the FBI director, James Comey, and the national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
And the interview, the interview, could happen by the end of this month. Significant development indeed.
Let's bring in our CNN Legal Analyst, former special assistant to Robert Mueller at the Department of Justice, Michael Zeldin. And our CNN Political Correspondent Sara Murray, who helped break this story for us.
Sara, what are you learning about Mueller's interests right now? He clearly thinks Steve Bannon can help.
SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right. And, obviously, we've seen Mueller taking on a number of higher level administration officials.
We saw him bring in Jeff Sessions. Now, he's moved on to Steve Bannon, who's the former chief strategist at the White House.
But one of the things that's interesting is when we saw Bannon go on the Hill, he refused to talk about his time at the White House whatsoever. Sources are telling us they expect that to be a key area of focus for Mueller.
What exactly happened when Bannon was in the White House? And, specifically, what happened around the decision to fire Michael Flynn? What did these various advisers and the president learn about Michael Flynn's discussions with the Russian ambassador about sanctions?
What went into the decision to fire the acting attorney general, Sally Yates? And then the decision to fire FBI director, James Comey? So, this will be a fascinating interview because it's not at all what we saw or heard or reported on from Bannon out of his hearings on the Hill.
BLITZER: Because when he was before with the House Intelligence Committee, he was willing to answer questions about the campaign, not willing to answer any questions about the transition or the time he served in the White House as chief strategist.
But we're now told, this time, he's going to be answering questions on everything.
MURRAY: That's right. That he will not be able to invoke executive privilege when he does go in and meet with Mueller, the way that he did on Capitol Hill.
And it does tell you that Mueller believes that there could be revelations, moments Bannon could shed light on that happened in the White House. Both in terms of collusion, perhaps when it comes to what Flynn knew and what these various advisers knew about Flynn's discussion about sanctions. But also, when it comes to obstruction of justice.
I mean, we know, for instance, the president's decision to fire James Comey is a key area of focus in Mueller's investigation into whether the president was trying to obstruct justice.
BLITZER: And it could be before the end of this month, meaning next week, as early as next week.
MURRAY: It could be soon. As of right now, we're not aware that any firm date has been set.
But, obviously, we know Steve Bannon's team has been preparing for this. And they're watching the news developments just like we are. They know that Mueller is in full swing and certainly isn't worried about bringing in high-level players, at this point.
BLITZER: So, Michael, what about the executive privilege? I take it he's now getting ready to answer questions on everything and won't exert confidentiality executive privilege.
MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, so, executive privilege resides with the president. It's the president who asserts the privilege and he instructs the person who is going to give out information about the policy communications they had not to answer that question.
So, it's not really on Bannon to decide whether something is an executive privileged communication or not. It's on the president.
So, we'll see whether or not the president, through White House counsel or his private counsel, tells Bannon not to answer that question, as he said he was told during his House Intelligence briefing.
So, we'll see about that.
BLITZER: It was in the briefing, when he refused to answer questions --
ZELDIN: When he refused.
BLITZER: -- about that nature.
I want you to listen to what he said on "60 Minutes" when he was asked about the president's decision to go ahead and fire Comey.
Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHARLIE ROSE, ANCHOR, "60 MINUTES": Someone said to me that you described the firing of James Comey, you're a student of history, as the biggest mistake in political history.
STEVE BANNON, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF STRATEGIST: That would be probably -- that would probably be too bombastic, even for me. But maybe modern political history.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: So, you're smiling. But he's, obviously, a very blunt guy.
ZELDIN: Well, yes. I might put Archibald Cox up there, as well as blunders by presidents.
But, clearly, this is what set in motion the entire special counsel investigation.
But for the president having done this, it's not likely that there would have been a need for a special counsel. There may have been a need for Sessions to recuse himself because he worked on the campaign and that's what the DOJ regulations require. But not necessarily a special counsel.
BLITZER: And I'm sure the special counsel, Sara, is going to want to question him about what he said in that Michael Wolff book about that Trump Tower meeting being treasonous. That money laundering, potentially, is at the heart of all of potential crimes there. They're going to want to get into all of that.
MURRAY: That's right. Steve Bannon says in that interview, that's maybe too bombastic for him. But he's, obviously, is very colorful, very bombastic in his language, as we saw in that Michael Wolff book.
[13:05:02] And a number of his comments there really did raise the interest of investigators, not only on Capitol Hill, but also among Mueller and his team. And so, they're going to be parsing what he said in the book.
And, look, we know, from Steve Bannon's testimony on Capitol Hill, that he acknowledged that some of these things were just hyperbole. But Mueller's going to want to know is what did he say that he actually has the facts to back up? Even if he wasn't involved in a key decision, for instance the decision to fire James Comey.
What was the president's mindset at the time? What were the conversations among the president's aides around him?
So, even if he wasn't party to one of these decisions that set off so many alarms with investigators, he was in the White House. He certainly saw a lot.
He certainly talked to a lot of people, including the president, very regularly. And Mueller is going to want to know about a lot of those conversations.
ZELDIN: That's right. And one perfect example of that is the Donald Jr. meeting on June the 9th where Bannon --
BLITZER: At Trump Tower.
ZELDIN: -- at Trump Tower, where Bannon has a point of view about that. Whether the president was informed of the meeting. Whether he met the actual Russians.
What the president's mindset was when they were on Air Force One when drafting their response of statement.
Bannon doesn't have to have been on the ground at the time of knowledge of those facts.
BLITZER: That was a meeting in which it was designed to obtain dirt on Hillary Clinton --
ZELDIN: That's right.
BLITZER: -- from the Russians, who showed up there.
All right, everybody stand by.
There's more news we're following. The special prosecutor's desire to talk with Steve Bannon just one in a series of bombshells to drop in the Russia probe.
And on the White House. The flurry of action could also be a sign that the special prosecutor's investigation may be entering its final phase.
Let's go to our Senior White House Correspondent Pamela Brown over at the White House.
Pamela, take us through these late-breaking developments.
PAMELA BROWN: Well, Wolf, there, really, has been an avalanche of Russia-related headlines, much to the irritation of White House officials who want to keep the focus on the president's trip to the world economic forum in Davos. So, we have learned that Robert Mueller, special counsel Mueller, is seeking to question the president, specifically on topics related to obstruction of justice.
His decision to fire James Comey as well as his decision to fire former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. The circumstances surrounding that.
Investigators want to learn more about the president's state of mind, his intention with the firing of those officials.
In fact, we have learned, Wolf, that Robert Mueller has interviewed James Comey, the former FBI director, about the circumstances last year.
He's also interviewed Jeff Sessions, as recently as last week. Of course, the attorney general, sources tell us, that interview lasted for hours.
Jeff Sessions, as we know, was involved in the decision making to fire James Comey. He spoke to the president about it before it happened.
So, all of this is part of what Robert Mueller is looking at.
My colleague also broke the news, Wolf, that Rick Gates has hired a new white-collar attorney. And that is a signal that, perhaps, he's changing his strategy to his not guilty plea and negotiating behind the scenes with Robert Mueller.
Rick Gates was a former campaign aide, Trump campaign aide. Close to Paul Manafort who was also charged and pleaded not guilty.
And all of this -- as we learn all of this, Wolf, we're also learning about a conversation the president in the Oval Office with Andrew McCabe, where he reportedly asked him who he voted for. And McCabe -- that made Andrew McCabe feel uncomfortable, sources say.
The president has been very outspoken on Twitter about that. In fact, the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, according to sources, went to Christopher Wray, the FBI director, asking him to remove his top leadership, including Andrew McCabe.
So, you know, when you look at the big picture here, now, Wolf, 17 former and current administration officials have now been interviewed by Robert Mueller.
And, of course, the next big interview we'll be waiting for is the interview with the president. If and when that happens, only time will tell -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes. And maybe before the end of this month with Steve Bannon before the president. Then, the president, presumably, will be one of the final witnesses to appear.
Pamela, thank you very much. Pamela Brown over at the White House.
Robert Mueller could have the president in the hot seat, in a matter of weeks as well.
So, what questions could the president face? That's coming up next.
And from accuser to soul mate. The Republican Congressman, who used taxpayer dollars to settle a sexual harassment claim, has a new line of defense.
And after seven days and more than 150 victims coming forward with their stories of sexual abuse, an ex-USA gymnastics doctor is now sentenced to 40 to 175 years of prison. You're going to see what happened in court.
Stay with us.
BLITZER: Questioning the president. There are still many details to be worked out before the special counsel gets to interview President Trump as part of the Russia investigation.
Once again, Michael Zeldin is with us. He's our CNN Legal Analyst, former special assistant to Robert Mueller over at the Justice Department, Department of Justice.
So, how do you see this interview with the president eventually playing out? What will they focus in on?
ZELDIN: So, I think there are five broad areas. The first one is Comey. What did you think when you were going to fire Comey? What did you think when you were asking for loyalty? What did you think when you called him, at the first responders meeting, over?
Was all of this an effort to buy loyalty, intimidate? And when you didn't get your outcome, fire him?
And so, I think that whole interview of Comey is -- topic is about obstruction of justice. That's the first primary area that, if I were Mueller, I would be asking about.
BLITZER: I assume they'll get into the whole issue of that sensitive June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower, in which the Russians participated, supposedly providing, quote, "dirt on Hillary Clinton."
ZELDIN: That's right. That's the second area which we'll call coordination, some people call it collusion. But it's coordination.
[13:15:00] What did the campaign do in its communications with Russians? Whether it be the June 9th meeting with the Russians at Trump Tower or the communications that Don Jr. had with WikiLeaks or the Papadopoulos or the Carter Page meetings. What was going on around that communication process? Cambridge Analytica fits into that as well.
BLITZER: I assume he'll ask the president also about Michael Flynn, his national security adviser for a month or so, about his communications with the Russians.
ZELDIN: That's right. So there are a couple of things about that. There are the December 22nd and December 29th conversations that Flynn had with the Russians about sanctions and settlements and then his potential Logan Act violations with respect to that. Then his lies to Michael Pence, Vice President Pence, about his communications. But that whole outreach, what was at play there and how did that come to inform the campaign about how it should be proceeding with this Russia/Trump campaign relationship.
BLITZER: What about communication or alleged coordination with other Russians?
ZELDIN: Well, there are Russians that are, you know, direct state actors, Kislyak and the foreign minister.
ZELDIN: Exactly. There are them. And then there are the surrogates, of which the U.S. Intelligence agency considers WikiLeaks one of them. And then there are all of those eight or nine participants at the June 9th meeting, some of whom are supposed to be private people but are alleged to be actually state actors hiding behind private people, you know, personages (ph). So I think there's a lot of territory there to cover.
BLITZER: And there's also the issue of money laundering.
ZELDIN: That's right. Money laundering is a creature of statute. And it prohibits money from coming in or money going out. In this case, the allegation is that the Trump organization, the financial real estate organization, while floundering in the 1990s and in the mid- 2000s, was receiving infusions of illegal oligarch or illegal -- alleged illegal Russian organized crime money to keep itself afloat. Don Junior, in 2008, gave a speech that says, we don't need banks -- they weren't going to get any anyway except for Deutsche Bank perhaps -- we don't need banks because we have Russians, especially in our high-end real estate ventures. So that -- bringing into the United States of illegally sourced money is money laundering. And so -- it's a crime in and of itself potentially, Wolf, but also potentially an understanding of how it came to be that the Trump people had contacts with Russians that then ported over to the coordination question that we just talked about.
BLITZER: And Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, who is about to be interviewed in the coming days by the special counsel, he's the one who raised this issue of money laundering, improprieties in this new book by Michael Wolff.
ZELDIN: He said it was as plain as the hair on your face.
BLITZER: All right, Michael Zeldin, thanks very much for all of that.
The president's reasons for firing James Comey over at the FBI have changed over time. I want to remind our viewers right now what he said last spring during an interview with NBC News.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Oh, I was going to fire regardless of recommendation.
LESTER HOLT, NBC NEWS: So there was (INAUDIBLE).
TRUMP: They -- he made a recommendation. He's highly respected. A very good guy, very smart guy. The Democrats like him. The Republicans like him. He made a recommendation. But regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey, knowing there was no good time to do it. And, in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right, with me right now, our CNN political analyst David Gregory and our chief political analyst Gloria Borger.
I want to get to that in a moment.
But the news we broke right at the top of the hour that Steve Bannon, in the coming days, maybe as early as next week, before the end of the month, is going to sit down with Robert Mueller and his team and answer all the questions they have.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right, which is what he did not do in Congress, and he has to answer all of Bob Mueller's questions.
So I think what Mueller really wants to ask him about is the Comey firing and what happened with Flynn. What did people in the White House really know about Flynn and Flynn meeting with the FBI?
I mean, Bannon was not at New Jersey that weekend that the president decided to fire Comey. But it is very clear that he is -- has been involved in discussions with people about what occurred that weekend. And there's a group of people inside the White House and outside the White House who say that, for example, Jared Kushner was a driver of that -- of that firing. What will Bannon say about that? Why -- why would people believe that Kushner was a driver of that? Why would he -- why would he have done that? Kushner, I will add here, denies that he was a driver. Says it was the president's decision.
[13:20:14] What did they know inside the White House about Flynn's conversations with the Russians, about his interviews with the FBI? These are all things that Bannon can shed some light on.
BLITZER: And Bannon's the one in this new book, as we've pointed out, he raised the possibility of money laundering that should be investigated as well.
DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. And even though he and Paul Manafort were not there at the same time, he's still a senior adviser to the president, then goes inside the White House. Certainly knew a lot of people who were having conversations about things that Manafort might have been involved in.
So, look, Bannon has some credibility questions, some credibility problems, but that's not as important. If you were doing a story on this or if you're running an investigation, there are things that he might be able to confirm or provide some insight on.
Remember how this is all working. There are lower level folks that investigators are talking to. They get information and they -- they then -- they go up the ladder to talk to people as that information comes in. So he becomes incredibly unpredictable and perhaps very important for any case that they bring against the president or anyone around the president.
BLITZER: And sooner rather than later, probably sooner --
BLITZER: The president himself is going to have to sit down with Mueller and his team and start answering questions.
BORGER: Right. I mean, and it -- the -- his attorneys, I think, would prefer to have the questions be answered on paper. I think the question we have now is whether that -- it would, in fact, be acceptable to the special counsel. And I doubt it. I mean I think you have to hear from Trump.
GREGORY: I can't believe -- I mean -- well, can you imagine a more undisciplined subject of an interview for a deposition or for this kind of interview that will not be under oath? Still, this is an opportunity for the special counsel to either answer some questions that make the issue go away or to certainly press the president about what he specifically was involved in and what else he's being told. So it becomes very important.
BORGER: And, you know, the president has been telling his friends that he would like to --
BORGER: In fact, talk to -- talk to the special counsel. He's done this many times. Don't forget, he's a serially litigious person.
GREGORY: Right. Right. And there's lots of people who are -- who are cocky enough to think, oh, I can deal with these lawyers and their questions. I'll just put it all to bed. And doesn't always work out that way.
BORGER: I think his lawyers would like a take-home test, open book, where you get to write the answers to the questions.
GREGORY: Yes, that might be better. And that applies to a lot of people.
BLITZER: I don't think that -- a written Q&A is going to -- necessarily going to happen.
Everybody stand by. There's much more we're following.
No wall, no DACA. The president is blasting the Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer after the top Democrat takes funding for the border wall off the negotiating table right now.
Plus, as the Russia probe picks up steam, Republican leaders are on the attack with claims of an anti-Trump FBI secret society.
[13:27:12] BLITZER: We're starting over. That's how the Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer describes negotiations over the fate of dreamers, those young immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children. Earlier, President Trump lashed out at Senator Schumer for taking the border wall with Mexico off the table.
The president tweeting this. Quote, crying Chuck Schumer fully understands, especially after his humiliating defeat, that if there is no wall, there is no DACA. We must have safety and security together with a strong military for our great people, closed quote.
David and Gloria are still with us.
So what are we back to square one right now? We're talking about 700,000 or 800,000 DACA recipients, these dreamers, who have until early March for the government to figure out whether they stay or go.
BORGER: Yes, Chuck Schumer took his marbles and went home and he decided that that's not the game he's playing right now. And, yes, we are back to square one. I mean I think that I'm of the Lindsey Graham school, that the president has to kind of tell people what he will accept and what he wants, and then you'll get to yes sooner because then Republicans in the House will be able to see if they can live with it. But the president just kind of sitting back now, these guys are going to be children all over again.
BLITZER: Because at the end of the negotiations to reopen the government, Schumer was on the record saying, yes, we'll support the billions and billions of dollars for the border wall in exchange for the dreamers.
GREGORY: Right. Well, and I guess it was a question about whether he was willing to authorize it versus actually pay for it. But I had this math teacher in high school who would say, I can't take knowledge from you. Well, you can't take the knowledge from President Trump that he knows the leader of the Democrats was willing to back the wall and pretend like it didn't happen.
GREGORY: He's going to insist on it. Democrats, I think, are going to have to cave at some level to the concept of a wall, whatever form that ultimately takes. The president campaigned on it. He's adamant about it. He's influenced by people all the way up to his chief of staff who want him to fight for it. He's got, you know, people like Lindsey Graham who want it. So, in some fashion, I think Democrats are going to have to give on that. And Louis Gutierrez, the congressman from the Chicago area, and Schumer have indicated that they're probably going to give. So I just think we see the contents (ph) of it.
BLITZER: Gloria, let me read to you --
BORGER: You call it border security --
BORGER: And you make believe that it's not a wall in some way, shape or form and you kind of try and fudge it with semantics.
GREGORY: Everybody has to pretend a little bit.
BLITZER: There are different elements.
BORGER: Yes. There's the wall. There's the fence.
BLITZER: There's, you know, there's drones and all sorts of electronic equipment.
BORGER: Right, virtual. Yes.
BLITZER: You know, Lindsey Graham had a message for the president. I'll read it to you. You better start telling us what you're for rather than what you're against. To my friends at the White House, you've been all over the board. You haven't been a reliable partner, and the Senate's going to move. He's obviously, together with a lot of his colleagues, Republicans and Democrats, frustrated.
[13:30:03] BORGER: He might not be invited on the golf course any time soon with the president.