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CNN TONIGHT

NYT Reports Trump Planned to Fire Mueller; Media Feasted on Possible Mueller Firing; Trump Ally Points to the Culprit Leaker. Aired 10-11p ET

Aired January 25, 2018 - 22:00   ET

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


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[22:00:00] CHRIS CUOMO, HOST, CNN: Our coverage continues right now. CNN Tonight with Don Lemon.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN breaking news.

DON LEMON, HOST, CNN: And it is bombshell breaking news on the Russia investigation, really.

This is CNN Tonight. I'm Don Lemon.

And this is hugely significant. The president, President Trump ordered Robert Mueller, the special counsel heading up the Russia investigation fired this past June and the only thing that stopped him was when his own White House counsel Don McGahn threatened to quit rather than carry out the order.

This story was first reported by the New York Times which also reports that Mueller learned about his near firing only in the past few months as his investigators interviewed current and former senior White House officials.

It has now been confirmed by at least two other news organizations. We have all of the breaking news for you. But I want to get right to the New York Times Maggie Haberman and CNN as well. And she joins me by phone. Maggie, thank you so much for joining us.

As I said this is bombshell breaking news. It is a huge scoop along with your colleague Michael Schmidt talked about your reporting and what you're learning.

MAGGIE HABERMAN, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, NEW YORK TIMES: Sure. So we have four people who are familiar with what happened who told us that the president had ordered the firing of Robert Mueller to special counsel back in June of 2017, and that Don McGahn, the White House counsel threatened to resign if that order was carried out.

The president then ultimately backed off because of that. The president also planned to cite three what he thought conflicts of interest. One was a dispute involving fees at the golf club that the president owns that Mueller had belonged to at one point, which is creative and had never heard that one before. The second one was that he had been, Mueller, at the law firm

WilmerHale which employed one of Jared Kushner's lawyers and the third was that Mueller had come in to interview as the interim director for the special counsel's role shortly before he was appointed to the special counsel role.

None of those as far as anything I talked to would stand up as actual conflicts of interest. The latter two were pushed by White House advisers at the time. But they were not pushed in the context of Mueller will be fired but they were pushed in the context of essentially via this information campaign or a singing up Mueller's reputation and in effort to sully his credibility.

It's worth recalling that Chris Ruddy, he is the CEO of NewsMax and friend of the president and speaks with him periodically, had said on TV in mid-June of 2017 that he had been told that the president was seriously considering firing Robert Mueller.

The White House pushed back aggressively on that and now clear it was more than -- it was more than he was thinking of firing him. He wanted it done and there was an episode to deter it.

LEMON: His reasoning, I mean, do you have more about his reasoning that there was a dispute about a membership or a golf club membership? is there any more to his reasoning? It doesn't sound very sound?

HABERMAN: No, it certainly does not sound legally sound but those were the three reasons that were cited.

LEMON: Yes. This order came in June and you mentioned you said Chris Ruddy was on television he was talking about it in the White House tonight, and that was seven months ago. Are you surprised that this stayed under wraps for so long, Maggie?

HABERMAN: I am a little surprised at how effective people in the White House were at lying to us about what was actually going on at the time. And it was untrue to say that he was not thinking of firing Mueller, they all insisted that Ruddy was wrong. People internally start to discredit Ruddy. Ruddy was clearly right and there was even more there. It does make you wonder what else is happening.

LEMON: Yes. You also report -- excuse me, you also report that not only did Trump want to fire Mueller but they also considered firing Rod Rosenstein. Can you talk to me more about that?

HABERMAN: Sure. I mean, there were -- there were sort of -- remember Mike Schmidt, my colleague with whom we broke the story, had reported a couple of weeks ago or actually may have been days ago and feels like weeks ago, the fact that the president had been concerned about essentially the recusal of Sessions and some level of oversight of the probe on the Russia issue.

The Rosenstein firing and the Rosenstein president -- had not trusted for quite some time, is really if ever and again, that was another -- he's in the campaign discuss -- the president kept saying to people that Rosenstein comes from Baltimore, which is not true. [22:04:59] And the idea that he's trying to suggest he's a democrat. But Rosenstein has been in the president's crawl for some time and the idea that if you get rid of Rosenstein, then you would have someone else to become the deputy attorney general in this case it was the number three, Rachel Brand and perhaps she would be a better overseer of the special counsel.

LEMON: Yes. Maggie Haberman, tremendous reporting, thank you very much. We appreciate you joining us here on CNN.

HABERMAN: Thank you.

LEMON: Again, this is our breaking news tonight. Hugely significant. President Trump ordered Robert Mueller, the special counsel heading up the Russia investigation fired this past June and the only thing that stopped him when the White House counsel Don McGahn threatened to quit rather than carry out the order.

Again, the story was first reported by the New York Times. It's been confirmed now by two other news organizations.

So let's bring in CNN senior political analyst Mark Preston, CNN political analyst Carl Bernstein, and white House reporter Kaitlan Collins, also CNN contributor John Dean, who was of course White House counsel, Nixon's White House counsel, and CNN legal analyst Laura Coates joins us as well.

Man, what a story we have here. I'm going to get to all of you. But Mark, I want to get to you first. Let me read this. This is from Maggie's reporting. It says, "The West Wing confrontation marks the first time Mr. Trump is known to have tried to fire the special counsel. Mr. Mueller learned about the episode in recent months as his investigators interview current and former senior White House officials in his inquiry into whether the president obstructed justice."

So, Mark, what's your reaction to this breaking story?

MARK PRESTON, SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST, CNN: You now, unfortunately, Don, I'm not surprised by it at all and I don't think that anybody who is watching tonight should be surprised by it at all. He has been very adamant about his opposition to this investigation, which leads you to wonder, why he has been so fervently against it.

At the same time there's a track record. He fired James Comey, because he wasn't considered loyal enough to him. He wanted Jeff Sessions to leave, his job as attorney general because he wouldn't recuse himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation.

Now, we know that Jeff Sessions had offered his resignation and it wasn't accepted. This is another very big red flag that I think those people out there that are watching who think that this is just been, you know, going down rabbit holes and that this is a partisan attack or a criticism of Donald Trump, they need to stop and start looking at the evidence right now. LEMON: Yes. Of course, if you're only paying attention to

conservative media, you might believe that. You may not even get the news on conservative media.

But Laura, I have to ask you this. The president didn't ultimately go through with it, OK? So can this be used as evidence against Trump for obstruction?

LAURA COATES, LEGAL ANALYST, CNN: Yes, because obstruction is a crime of endeavoring. You can endeavor to actually obstruct justice and that can be enough to move that needle towards obstruction even if you did not accomplish that crime.

And all of the things you're talking about, Mark's discussion about a pattern, these are all patterns of consciousness of guilt. These are all contextual clues telling you that you can infer what his intent would be and he is endeavor to not only do these things.

But in one case, if his own statement to Lester Holt are to be believed, he actually accomplished one form of obstruction by trying to fire and actually firing James Comey because of his handling and continuation of a Russian investigation that circled around him and his inner circle.

LEMON: Yes. John Dean, I want you to hear the reporting first before I got to you. What do you make of all of this? I'm sure this is reminiscent of when you served as special counsel.

JOHN DEAN, CONTRIBUTOR, CNN: Well, in a way it is. Laura is right in saying under the statutory law, this is clearly an endeavor. What we have though, is another set of laws called a law of impeachment, whatever that is what the majority of the House of Representatives says it is and whether they decide it is an impeachable offense of course is a majority vote.

But they often draw from statutes and make those the relevant standard but I think we're just piecing another piece in this big puzzle as to what is intent and he's making very clear his intent was to obstruct.

LEMON: If this had taken place, John, would this had been on par with the Saturday night massacre under Nixon?

DEAN: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think that Don McGahn threatened to resign because he had no choice. He realized he was engaging in possibly joining a criminal conspiracy to remove or to obstruct justice. And that's what a lawyer has to do in a situation like that, is either threaten to resign or quietly resign in some jurisdictions, they actually have to make a noisy withdrawal when they do it.

LEMON: Yes. You were shaking your head in agreement when he said this is another piece in the puzzle, and a big piece.

CARL BERNSTEIN, POLITICAL ANALYST, CNN: Yes. It is because we see the pattern above all things, Donald Trump through his first year in office has done everything possible to undermine, obstruct and demean and halt this legitimate investigation into his conduct, the conduct of his campaign, the conduct of people in his family.

[22:10:10] It doesn't mean they are guilty. He doesn't want this investigation to go forward at all costs. He now has engaged the Republican Party, which is staking its future to some extent in trying to undermine the investigation. What we've seen in the last two weeks from republicans trying to demean Mueller's investigation is quite extraordinary.

LEMON: This has to speak to deeper concerns the president might have to this investigation, Carl, and where it could lead, no?

BERNSTEIN: Well, of course. he's concerned. Look, I can't be in Donald Trump's head, that's a very dangerous place to be. But I think it's obvious and he's talked to others -- he hates where this investigation is going. He would -- he tells his friends, there's nothing there. That this is a witch hunt, that they just want to get into my finances, but this is about his conduct.

About his conduct in the campaign, about his conduct in the transition, about his conduct in possible obstruction as President of the United States. And it is deadly serious and the people around him understand he is in legal danger.

He may or may not understand he is in legal danger but that's what we're dealing with here. But there's an extraordinary second element of that and that is what we are seeing once again, with the White House counsel restraining the president of the United States from following his instincts.

What is going on in the White House now is trying to contain a president's -- a president whose basic instincts are out of control very often and to do things that are neither reputable, often not legal, and certainly not in keeping with the presidential oath to defend the office in a responsible way.

LEMON: And with the tradition of presidents who came before him. What's the White House saying if anything tonight?

KAITLAN COLLINS, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, CNN: The only statement they put out is from Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer saying that they respect -- respectfully decline to comment on this out of respect for the special counsel's investigation and its process. Which is a very interesting comment especially in light of we just saw Anthony Scaramucci speak with our colleague Chris Cuomo saying that he think that it's irrelevant that the president told Don McGahn he wanted to fire Robert Mueller because it didn't happen, which is not how this works.

But it's also interesting. If you look what has happened over the last 36 hours, because the White House has put out this information to reporters saying 20 people from the White House have spoken with Robert Mueller. We've given them all of these documents, we fully cooperated, they're putting on this front but they are fully cooperating with the special counsel's office.

But as Maggie who broke this story just pointed out, the White House has spent the last seven months lying to not only reporters but the American people because they have said that the president did not consider firing him. He did not threaten to fire him.

It was not on his mind at all. From Sean Spicer to Sarah Sanders to Kellyanne Conway, all of these, to the president himself, these people have lied to the American people saying that the president was not considering firing the special counsel when in fact he was.

LEMON: Mark, Kaitlan, Laura, thank you very much. Carl Bernstein, John Dean, I want you to stay with me. When we come back, much more on our breaking news. President Trump tried to fire special counsel Robert Mueller last June and the only threat by his own White House counsel to quit stopped him. Did the president learn nothing from the firestorm over firing James Comey?

[22:15:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: Our breaking news tonight on the Russia investigation. President Trump called for special counsel Robert Mueller to be fired in June but backed down when White House attorney Don McGahn threatened to resign rather than carry out that directive.

back with me now, Carl Bernstein and John Dean. Gentlemen, thank you so much for joining us here and continuing to join us here on the program. John, there have been multiple times since June that the president has denied that he considered firing Mueller. Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, you thought or thought about considered leading to the dismissal of special counsel, or if anything that Bob Mueller could do that would send you in that direction?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I haven't given it any thought. I mean, I've been reading about it from you people, you're saying, I'm going to dismiss him. No, I'm not dismissing anybody. I mean, I want them to get on with the task, but I also want the Senate and the House to come out with their findings.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Another question with Sarah, you discussed with special counsel the investigation, are you considering firing Robert Mueller?

TRUMP: No, not at all.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you considering firing Mueller?

TRUMP: No, I'm not.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: So, John, his staff and his attorneys also denied it, at least five other times, yet we know now that's not true.

DEAN: It is not true. And this all will be used or could be used against him at some point, it's going to come up when he's questioned by Mueller asking him how could he make a public statement that is 180 degrees from the truth when he has clearly has evidence that the exact opposite happened.

His staff is complicit as well. Whether this is sufficient to join a conspiracy to obstruct is not clear but it's certainly a willingness to play along.

We need more evidence to see if they actually agreed to conspire. But this is serious stuff, Don. And it's a remarkable breaking story because it does show and complete the pattern that we've been seeing.

LEMON: Yes. Carl, I've got to ask you and I ask, you now, in the tease before the break, did he learn nothing? I mean, did he learn nothing from the blowback from firing James Comey? Has he learned anything over the past year?

BERNSTEIN: Well, actually, he's been very successful in his own terms, which is to say, he acts as if nothing sticks to him. And in fact, very little has. And he -- if you talk to the people around him, they will tell you, this is his operating presumption.

That if he can get his base riled up about a witch hunt, that is more important than the lying we just saw, more important than firing Mueller or giving pardons.

He believes on some level, I'm told, he can get away with just about anything and in fact he has in many regards. And this goes -- and now he has for the last two weeks the republicans on Capitol Hill tethered to him, tooting a line that is so much in his defense at a moment when they ought to be saying the president of the United States is not above the law.

[22:20:05] This investigation must go forward. We must find out what happened here and instead, McConnell, Ryan have done nothing to say to their members, let our position be we want this investigation to be completed. We support it. Let's find out what happened and then we can move on.

LEMON: CNN has now confirmed that President Trump ordered the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller back in June, the directed though was not followed through. Has he realized, John, and maybe people in the White House maybe they haven't realized because they've never worked there before. Many of them have never held positions in Washington, that very little remains secret in the White House? You know that.

DEAN: That's very true. While it can stay secret for a while, inevitably they slip out, particularly that was evident going in with this presidency that he was going to have great trouble with leaks. And it has borne out.

It's one of my earliest tweets about the presidency, is how porous it was going to be just watching the campaign. So, he's got to assume everything he does is basically going to be reported at some stage. And that he ought to be acting in a way that he does -- will not be any problem to be reported. One thing I can say for him, he speaks his mind, which if he was doing

this behind closed doors, as Nixon did and then it came out, it would be even more devastating. It's pretty devastating coming out the way it is but at least it's not behind closed doors.

LEMON: Does Trump now have to admit to Mueller that he tried to fire him when he interviews him in the face -- face to face, John?

DEAN: Well, he's likely to be caught in a lie if he doesn't. McGahn obviously got the instruction, understood it, realized the implications of that, the criminal implications of it. The conspiratorial...

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: That's perjury right, if he lies?

DEAN: Well, it depends on whether he's under oath. Of course, he said he'd like to be under oath. But it's more likely he'll just be interviewed by Mueller with other aides and other, maybe some FBI agents present as well. And there his threat is under 18 USC 1001 which is the false statement statute. You cannot make false statements to federal officials particularly in an investigary -- excuse me, an investigative setting like this. So yes, he has to tell the truth.

LEMON: Carl, I want to read more, this is from the Times. This is the president's argument for why Mueller should go. OK, why should be fired. First, he claimed that a dispute years ago over fees at Trump national golf course in Sterling, Virginia had prompted Mr. Mueller the FBI director at the time to resign his membership.

The president also said Mr. Mueller could not be impartial because he had most recently worked for the law firm that previously represented the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Finally the president said Mr. Mueller had been interviewed to return as FBI director the day before he was appointed special counsel in May.

Are those legitimate reasons any of those?

BERNSTEIN: No, they're not only not legitimate reasons, they're obviously the product of some quote, "opposition research" to find out everything they could about Mueller that might be some kind of potential conflict of interest. None of them seriously are.

What all of this is about is only his Trump's desire to make this investigation go away. That's what he's been doing for a year, to discredit it in every way possible. To make sure somehow that his family is not brought into this any further and now the tentacles of this investigation are around members of his own family.

Those closest to him and his business organization in this campaign organization, doesn't mean that they are going to be found guilty or even indicted, but this investigation has touched and surrounded the people he's closest to and now himself.

He knows he is in the crosshairs of this, particularly with the obstruction element and he still is determined according to those that he talks to somehow find republicans to find a way to oust them, make this investigation go away so that he is not further burdened by it.

LEMON: Do you remember the red line, John Dean, that he set back in July when he said, he told the New York Times, you know, they cannot look into my finances, they should not be looking into my finances. That was a month after he tried to fire Mueller.

DEAN: That's right. And he's in no position to draw red lines or his staff. Mueller is going to decide the scope of his investigation. He can always go back to the deputy attorney general who is his superior in this instance because of Sessions recusal and get broader authority if he needs it.

[22:24:58] We understand from testimony before the House judiciary committee by Rosenstein, that indeed he has done this. He's constantly been in touch about this investigation. So that red line comment is really meaningless, Don.

BERNSTEIN: And he is looking at those financial aspects. We know this from the lawyers for other people who work at the White House and who have been asked questions by Mueller's investigators about these specifics having to do with Trump organization finances, with Jared Kushner's finances and Donald Trump's finances, he's looking into Donald Trump's finances particularly as they relate to Russians, and Russian nationals, and possible Russian businesses and why would that be?

Because if indeed there is some suggestion or evidence of going along with Russian efforts to undermine Hillary Clinton's campaign, there might be a financial component aimed at making the president open to ending these sanctions.

LEMON: John, I think it's important. I want to put this tweet up. This is from Walter Schwab, he's a former director of the Office of Government Ethics. He said, "Before you canonize McGahn, remember he pressured Sessions not to recuse. I bet his objection was not that firing Mueller wrong but that it was dangerous. Also, this is not the first leak to paint McGahn in a good light at Trump's expense, if I were Trump I would wonder about McGahn."

Is he is implying whether McGahn can make the same decision that you did with Richard Nixon and cooperate with investigators?

DEAN: Well, I don't think -- he has any choice in this instance. His client is not Donald Trump. It's the office of the president. He's going to respond accordingly. I think Walter makes a good point about canonizing the counsel for doing what he's supposed to do.

But he obviously, I think it also suggests that he saw the peril in this and the potential criminality of it and that's why he backed off and it was wise to do so.

LEMON: Yes. We're going to...

(CROSSTALK) BERNSTEIN: And that might be why Trump has also changed his tune and saying I look forward to talking to this guy. He may realize he crossed the line.

LEMON: Other way we're going to talk to Walter Schwab at the top of the next hour. Thank you, gentlemen. I appreciate it. Thanks so much.

When we come back, much more on our breaking news, President Trump ordered Robert Mueller fired last June. The only thing that stopped him, a threat of resignation from the White House counsel. We're going to tell you what Sarah Sanders said just days ago when asked about the president firing Mueller.

[22:30:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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[22:30:00] DON LEMON, HOST, CNN: Here is the breaking news, a source confirms to CNN tonight that President Trump ordered the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller last June, backing off only after White House counsel Don McGahn threatened to quit.

Joining me to talk about this now, CNN political analyst Ryan Lizza, as well as CNN political commentators Robby Mook, and Scott Jennings.

Gentlemen, good evening to you. Ryan, I want to start with you. President Trump tried to pull off his own Saturday night massacre except he couldn't. What's your reaction to this?

RYAN LIZZA, POLITICAL COMMENTATOR, CNN: Well, it is part of a pattern that we've seen now for a year with this investigation whether it was, you know, demanding loyalty from Comey and then of course firing Comey, telling Comey to back off the Flynn investigation, trying to get Sessions not to recuse.

I guess the bright spot is that as hard as he has tried to get the people in his administration to stop this investigation, there have been some breaks. And the fact that he relented when McGahn threatened to quit means there are some breaks on this president, or at least people in that administration that at the very least saving him from himself.

But I think it's -- it's a pattern and it adds to the mounting evidence that there's a serious obstruction case here, whether it's one that can be proved in court, who knows. But the evidence is obviously mounting.

LEMON: What do you think of this, Scott? Because when you think of Robert Mueller investigating obstruction of justice, first he finds out the president wanted to fire FBI Director James Comey and then he did it, and now he find out that he wanted to fire Mueller himself and was only saved from doing it from the White House counsel. Could investigators see it as proof as intent?

SCOTT JENNINGS, POLITICAL COMMENTATOR, CNN: Well, sure. I mean, you could find lawyers that would say that and I'm sure you could find lawyers that will argue otherwise.

I'm curious about the framing of this. I mean, we keep saying tonight that the president tried to fire Mueller. I mean, in my view the president either does things or he doesn't do things. In this case he didn't do it. I've also heard people tonight say that Don McGahn threatened to quit because perhaps he thought he was working for some sort of...

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: The reporting is that he gave the order and then Don McGahn refused to carry it out.

JENNINGS: Right, and so he didn't -- he didn't obviously go through with it. My point is, if he wanted to fire Mueller, he would have just sacked McGahn and fired Mueller. And so, I'm curious to know what else happened around this situation that the president didn't go through with it and ultimately when...

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: Well, he wanted to give an order on -- he wanted to give an order on ban of immigrants. Sally Yates refused. It did not go through. So that doesn't mean just because he didn't -- it didn't happen that he didn't try to do it. His intent was to do it.

JENNINGS: No. I'm not -- I'm not disputing the reporting but I'm also -- but I would also say he has actually gone through with other things. I mean, he obviously fired Comey. So there have been moments when he did things and there have been moments where he didn't do things. And I think the interplay there is important context for this conversation tonight.

LEMON: Robby?

LIZZA: He had someone -- he had someone to -- on Comey, he had someone at the Justice Department to, as a sort of fig leaf and an excuse to do it, right, the Rosenstein memo. I think he was probably hoping he would get the same thing here where McGahn would go through it and he could say, you know, my White House counsel did it, he said it was fine.

LEMON: Yes. Go ahead, Robby. I know you want to weigh in on this.

ROBBY MOOK, POLITICAL COMMENTATOR, CNN: Yes. First of all, the fact that the White House is lying about something that happened, that's not news, but this is another big piece in a picture that's been unfolding as Ryan was saying.

[22:35:02] And this investigation has only gone in one direction since it started. At every point the president and White House have looked guiltier and guiltier as was mentioned earlier, it's not just obstruction of justice, it's also the president's finances.

We haven't heard much about that but I think that is a deep well and I think he could be in much bigger trouble, he and his family than people think.

And to me, this is just one more weight on the scales that republicans are going to have to start considering. My question is, at what point, particularly our House republicans going to start to back away.

I mean, there -- you know, people like Devin Nunes, they're got a long life to live, a career to have, do they really want to get so deep in defending this president when it's looking so likely that something really went wrong and the conspiracy theories, you know, get thrown up and die within 24 hours. I just wonder at what point is this going to be too much and republicans are going to start flaking away.

LEMON: Do you want to take a crack at that, Scott?

JENNINGS: Well, I don't think the Republican Party is going to peel away from the President of the United States based on one article in the New York Times. I think most republicans will watch what Mueller does, we'll see how it plays out and they'll make decisions from there.

We tend to have this conversation after every story. When is the Republican Party going to move? Well, look, they are going to let the process play out and we don't know anything yet, we don't yet when the president is going to talk to the counsel, we don't know what charges if any more are coming, we don't know what the results of this are going to be.

And I don't think one story in one news organization is going to cause republicans to go running for the hills. If they haven't already, they've decided they are going to stick with the president until they've seen some real evidence that they've done something wrong here.

LEMON: Ryan, is it just one story?

LIZZA: Well, no. It's obviously the accumulation of stories and with each of these stories, we get a little bit -- the picture comes into focus a little bit more. But the general pattern is that the President of the United States doing everything he can up until certain -- up until certain lines to shut this investigation down.

It seems like the Comey firing was so politically disastrous inside the White House and I think a lot of republicans warned him that doing something similar to Mueller would end his presidency. So it does seem that cooler heads prevailed when he ordered McGahn to do this.

There are a lot of -- if you remember, there were a lot -- there were republican voices on the Hill when this was being floated this summer, saying don't do that. Don't do that. That would be a red line.

So this firing Mueller has for a lot of republicans has always been the red line and it looks like Trump couldn't figure out a way that he could pull the trigger on firing him, you know, without it being his direct decision. I think it's very interesting that the president wouldn't do it himself. He wanted his White House counsel to do it but he wouldn't do it himself. For some reason he was scared. LEMON: Hey, Ryan, I got -- I have to ask you this because Anthony

Scaramucci, you know a little bit about Anthony Scaramucci, he seemed to try to pin the blame for the story coming out on Steve Bannon. That was just a short time ago. He spoke with Chris. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI, FORMER WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: I find it very ironic that this information is coming out while he's here in Davos while he's had great fanfare. And so, you know, you and me I would love to get a look at somebody like Steve Bannon's phone records to see who he's talking to and how this information is out there.

Second thing I will say, is that the president talks to everybody, and so this information apparently happened in June. Why is it coming out right now like a big water balloon on the president when he's having a fantastic trip here in Davos, meeting with world leaders?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: So, Ryan, how do you think the news tonight is going to reverberate in Trump world, is reverberating? Because, I mean, that won't be the only finger pointing going on, will it?

LIZZA: Yes. I'm sure there -- you know, like Anthony I'm sure there will be a lot of people in the White House trying to figure out who leaked this. If I remember correctly, the Times had four sources and other news organizations have now confirmed this as well.

Look, Scaramucci has had a long running food -- excuse me -- feud with Steve Bannon so -- and Steve is a sort of easy scapegoat because he's outside of the White House. He obviously is unhappy with how he was treated there but just to clear up what he said, that there's no evidence of course that Bannon did this. I think this is just Scaramucci trying to point the finger at the sort of, the current Trump enemy.

LEMON: Robby, I have to give you a short trip, but Sarah Sanders has been standing at the podium denying this, also saying the president is looking forward to speaking to the special counsel and what's -- and so on. But it seems some of the answers given over the past -- I guess over the past year really have been disingenuous to say the least.

[22:40:02] MOOK: Yes. But, you know, the sky is blue. I mean, these guys have lied about things every single day on his campaign and now as president, that's not surprising.

You know, what is also not surprising frankly, is the double standard here. I mean, I think this is another example where Donald Trump for whatever reason appears to get away with things that nobody else can. You know, we obviously had the scandal about him paying a woman off and we're looking at other elected officials, Congressman Pat Meehan was removed from the ethics committee immediately when allegations came out and evidence came out against him. But Donald Trump, it just seems to bounce off him. And it's because --

it's ironic the sheer volume of scandal, the sheer variety of scandal means that nothing ever sticks and I'm sure we're going to be talking about something outrageous that he says at Davos tomorrow.

But this, but Mueller, Mueller's investigation means this will culminate at some point. And I really think some republicans are going to regret how cozy they got with him and how hard they defended him when there was no evidence with which to defend him.

LEMON: Gentlemen, thank you so much. I appreciate your time.

LIZZA: Thanks, Don.

LEMON: We've got much more to come on our breaking news that President Trump ordered Robert Mueller fired last June and White House counsel threatened to quit rather than carry out that order. We'll be right back.

[22:45:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: Our breaking news tonight on CNN, President Trump ordered the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller last June, only backing down when the White House counsel threatened to resign.

I want to talk about this with Evan McMullin is here, he's a former CIA officer, CNN senior political commentator Jennifer Granholm, the former democratic governor of Michigan, Kurt Bardella, columnist for Huffington Post and USA Today, and Rob Astorino, the former republican candidate for governor in New York. We should also say that you worked at Breitbart, in what position? Communications?

KURT BARDELLA, COLUMNIST, USA TODAY: I was their media consultant spokesperson.

LEMON: Their media consultant so you know about this. So, since I have you here, did you see Anthony Scaramucci saying...

(CROSSTALK)

BARDELLA: I did.

LEMON: ... this has Steve Bannon's hands written all over it. Do you believe that?

BARDELLA: Well, one, it was very clear that Scaramucci has some scores to settle and he never misses an opportunity to go after Steve Bannon no matter what the issue is. And Bannon is a very convenient target. He's made himself that. He was the one behind "Fire and Fury." He let Wolff have all that access. So, could Bannon be one of the four people that perhaps talked to Maggie? Very much so, sure.

LEMON: Does that really matter?

(CROSSTALK) BARDELLA: No, of course it doesn't matter. Because it's true.

EVAN MCMULLIN, FORMER CIA OPERATIVE: But I think it may matter in one respect. I sort of look at Don McGahn and wonder, you know, the story puts him in a very positive light. Why now is the story coming out? We've learned recently and that this week we've learned that Jeff Sessions was interviewed by the special counsel's office.

Other intelligence leaders have recent -- it's been reported recently that they too have been interviewed. There are other reports that show that this obstruction of justice element of the investigation has moved forward and is moving forward.

And so, I wonder if the president isn't maybe returning to this idea now as the investigation intensifies, returning to the idea of getting rid of Mueller and this isn't somebody leaking to...

(CROSSTALK)

JENNIFER GRANHOLM, SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR, CNN: My God, if he did that, really.

LEMON: Do you think -- do you think people are concerned possibly that he might try to fire him?

MCMULLIN: Leaks happen often for a reason. Sometimes it's just interpersonal battles like Kurt is suggesting, but sometimes there are other bigger reasons. And I just wonder about that. I think this story paints McGahn in a very positive light and but it also makes it much more difficult for the president to make a move on Mueller right now.

BARDELLA: Remember too, McGahn, Bannon and Priebus all share the same lawyer.

ROB ASTORINO, (R) FORMER GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE: I think McGahn is like Pinto from remember the movie -- with Belushi, "Animal House," you know, the angel and the devil, and I think he was the angel in the voice of Trump who might have had the impulse to say, you know, enough of this but that was early on in the investigation too.

LEMON: What does that make Trump?

ASTORINO: I don't -- but I think look, his initial reaction was let's get rid of this guy, right? But since then, since he was talking to not doing it if that's what happened, this investigation has continued on for months and months and months and it will culminate in a few weeks if Trump meets with the special prosecutor. So I don't think they are leaking this to fire him, I think that well past...

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: Then why you think it's coming out?

ASTORINO: I don't know why, I have no idea why it's leaked now.

GRANHOLM: Let me say, this whole conversation and the conversation yesterday about the secret society and the Nunes memo, all of it is part of an arc to try to discredit law enforcement, in this case the Department of Justice. And for those who worked in the Department of Justice or at least the FBI, has got 35,000 people who work there.

If Trump was so upset that he wanted to fire Mueller, if that didn't happen he's going to discredit it, one way or the other he's going to try to undermine and get rid of this investigation and by doing so, undermining the rule of law.

This is why republicans -- I know that he's got an 80 percent base but the republicans in Congress, leaders in Congress, should step up and say, this is not who we are as a nation. Put your country before your party.

LEMON: How many times, governor have you said that and other people said that.

(CROSSTALK)

GRANHOLM: I know, but this is like...

LEMON: I don't think it's going to happen.

GRANHOLM: I don't know how many institutions you can undermine. I mean, but really, how Machiavellian can you be to put this -- that the ends justify the means. We don't care which institutions of this country we're going to haul under, including the FBI, including the Department of Justice, including anything that gets in his way to be able to be clear of this investigation.

LEMON: This is a republican's best vehicle and they are saying the least they can say...

(CROSSTALK)

GRANHOLM: The best vehicle is what?

LEMON: To get whatever legislation or agenda...

(CROSSTALK)

GRANHOLM: I see, right, it's an ends justify the means is what you're saying.

LEMON: Yes.

GRANHOLM: In fact, Roy Moore let's put him in, we'll get a vote.

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: Same thing, I asked the Evangelicals, the ends justify the means. Go on.

ASTORINO: Can we rewind the tape a little bit back to October right before the election. Harry Reid was throwing fire bombs at the FBI, Harry Reid was saying that the institution is corrupt and that they might have broken federal law when it was against Hillary Clinton at that time.

[22:50:09] So, now the tables are turned. All of a sudden the dialogue is changing. Both parties have attacked the FBI.

GRANHOLM: Well...

(CROSSTALK)

ASTORINO: Both parties have attacked this institution.

MCMULLIN: Yes, that may be the case. But what we see happening now from Trump's loyalists in Congress is an unprecedented in modern times attack by -- by Congress on our -- on our institutions on our law enforcement.

And I have to say, you know, there is a reason why this is happening. You know, the republicans could have opposed Trump. Republican members of Congress could have opposed Trump in the primaries. Many of them remained silent. He won 47 percent of the republican primary vote. He was weaker than he is now.

Now he's got 85 percent approval. So if they didn't do it then they're not going to do it now.

LEMON: Yes.

MCMULLIN: Now they are stuck. And they are the party of government. And they have no one to blame. And so they have to come up with these conspiracy theories that unfortunately are eroding public confidence.

LEMON: Well, I think that's why -- I think that's why most people will disagree with. Because where democrats may have been upset with Comey during the investigation during the election, they said Comey did it wrong. They said they had respect for Comey.

They did not have an orchestrated attack on the institution of the FBI. This has been an orchestrated attack on the FBI and on law enforcement in general from republicans, including conspiracy theories.

GRANHOLM: Yes.

LEMON: That didn't happen with the democrats.

ASTORINO: Don. I don't think so. I think it's...

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: And Mueller and Comey are both republicans.

GRANHOLM: In deep states.

ASTORINO: I don't think it's the top of the FBI is who they were going after. Not the men and women that do the everyday job. I don't think that's who they were attacking. I think they were attacking...

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: So the people they're talking about the e-mails and what have you, that's not the...

(CROSSTALK)

ASTORINO: Well, but they were higher level. You're talking about Strzok and that whole thing.

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: You had people coming out saying...

GRANHOLM: You have people out of 35,000...

ASTORINO: Yes. They weren't attacking 35,000 FBI agents. They're attacking the top and the intent of those two definitely.

GRANHOLM: Well, they're attacking the institution and those two people they are putting a broad brush against it. And now it's infecting what would be normal republicans, like Ron Johnson I feel like he a tinfoil hat on yesterday as he was drooling at the thought of a secret society when he was -- you know it turns out he was embarrassed.

LEMON: OK. Stand by. Hold your thought. We'll be right back. We'll continue this conversation. Don't go anywhere.

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LEMON: We're back now with our breaking news. Evan McMullin is here. Jennifer Granholm, Kurt Bardella, and also Rob Astorino.

So we're talking about the conspiracy -- the undermining of institutions that you brought up and the FBI. With all of these conspiracy theorists and many -- a number of the people bringing up these theories used to be outliers.

[22:55:01] GRANHOLM: Yes.

LEMON: Used to on the fringe. Now they're...

(CROSSTALK)

BARDELLA: They're the new normal. I mean, that's the big issue.

LEMON: That means Devin Nunes.

BARDELLA: And the Republican Party and even the conservative party. It was used to be that Breitbart was the fringe. They were the crazy people. You would have stories come up from them and people will roll their eyes.

Policymakers on Capitol Hill will not take them seriously. Now you look at the content that's on, you know, Fox News which is as you call it the basically Trump TV. (CROSSTALK)

LEMON: Well, I call it -- I call it Trump TV but it is state run television.

GRANHOLM: State run.

BARDELLA: And they might as well be run headlines straight from Breitbart. That's become the new normal the newest television in the Republican Party.

(CROSSTALK)

GRANHOLM: I mean, the crazy thing is that all day yesterday, Fox News was all over this secret society thing. And other than one anchor today they didn't say one word.

LEMON: Shepherd Smith.

GRANHOLM: Right. Exactly. Because they've been embarrassed. But who is that -- you know, who is the biggest proponent of these kinds of conspiracy theories. It's like Sean Hannity, et cetera, who are out there taking pages from Breitbart, from info wars, et cetera.

That should be frightening to everybody. Because you've got a president who had the whole conspiracy thing down pat with Barack Obama and born in Kenya, you know, Ted Cruz's father, conspiracy -- was a conspirator...

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: On the grassy knoll.

GRANHOLM: ... on the grassy knoll. Now it's infected the main stream Republican Party. And that is such a shame.

LEMON: But how does one have any credibility especially when you mention that, with any journalists when you had a grassy knoll conspiracy theorist when you're on the proponent or the perpetrator of the president not being born of a birther, how does one have any credibility when it comes to anything.

MCMULLIN: Well, I would say we're post facts. The game now.

GRANHOLM: I refuse to allow.

MCMULLIN: I know. I hate -- we can't allow it.

LEMON: But let me read your tweet. You said -- and you tweeted this a short while ago. You said, "for Trump to have ordered Mueller fired even when the public backlash over Comey's firing was still intense shows just how bent on impeding the Russia investigation he was and just how much he apparently has to hide."

What do you think the president has to hide? MCMULLIN: Absolutely. Well, I think that the president and his team

at least encouraged if not were more involved in Russia's efforts to influence our election. We'll see what happens.

I think he's probably got something to hide with regard to his business dealings with Russian intelligence and Russian mafia figures prior to the election. And I think also he has a lot to hide with regard to obstruction of justice now.

He's got plenty of -- plenty to hide. We'll see what happens with this investigation. But to think that just a month after he fired Comey.

GRANHOLM: Yes.

MCMULLIN: When there was still so much backlash that he then ordered the firing of Mueller. That tells you -- that tells you quite a lot about what lengths he is willing to go to even when there is plenty of public opposition.

LEMON: Rob, quickly.

ASTORINO: But everybody has already hung the president, he is already guilty, right? We haven't seen one ounce.

LEMON: One said he is guilty.

ASTORINO: Well, but that's the implication here. It's obstruction of justice.

(CROSSTALK)

BARDELLA: A lot of people around him are saying...

LEMON: The complications, the implication -- the implication is that...

ASTORINO: Why did he try to fire Mueller.

LEMON: ... the implication is that he wanted to...

MCMULLIN: Why did he fire Comey if he's got nothing to hide?

ASTORINO: He didn't fire Mueller. He talked to his lawyer.

GRANHOLM: He gave the order.

BARDELLA: It didn't happen because the lawyer said if...

ASTORINO: It didn't happen.

LEMON: All right. I got to run. I got to run. Thank you all.

GRANHOLM: Nice try.

LEMON: Fascinating conversation. I appreciate having you here. When we come back, much more on our breaking news tonight. President

Trump ordered the firing of Robert Mueller back in June only backing off when the White House counsel threatened to resign instead of following the president's instructions. Is this proof that the president is trying to obstruct justice or our experts will weigh in -- I should say. We'll be right back.

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