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GOP Sounds "Secret Society" Alarm, Now Says Text Was Joke; Trump Stirs Pot With Offer to Interview with Mueller. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired January 25, 2018 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:28] BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: Here we go. We start with some more breaking news on this Thursday afternoon. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

Here's what we have for you. In just 24 hours, a Republican-led conspiracy theory of secret society within the FBI has fizzled to a simple joke between friends. This secret society claim came from a text message exchange between two FBI agents who have since been removed from the Russia investigation.

CNN now has a copy of this secret society text message the day after the election, FBI lawyer Lisa Page says to agent Peter Strzok, quote, are you even going to give out your calendars? Seems kind of depressing. Maybe it should just be the first meeting of the secret society.

By the way, there's no follow-up on the text message.

Sources tell CNN that the calendars mentioned there were a gag gift of Putin themed calendars that Strzok purchased for employees working on the Russia investigation. This is happening as one of the Republicans is sounding the loudest alarm over the whole secret society conspiracy is having, shall we call, a change of heart.

So, let's go to Manu Raju, our senior congressional correspondent up on Capitol Hill, who has been chasing Senator Johnson down. And what exactly did he tell you?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, he is almost backing off these remarks that he made from earlier this week when he said on FOX News that this text message referring to the secret society was very serious, something he wanted to dig in further into and believe it raised some alarms about what was happening within the FBI.

Yesterday, he sounded a little bit squishier on this, particularly when he referenced an informant that he spoke to, who was talking about meetings that the FBI was having off site. I asked him about these meetings that were happening offsite. And I said, what were these meetings about? He said, well, I don't know. He acknowledged saying he didn't know what these off-site meetings were about or who was there, maybe some FBI managers.

Well, today, Brooke, when I caught up with him today after it had been revealed the full context of this text message and when these two individuals may have simply been joking about the secret society, he seemed to suggest that that was a real possibility. This is what he said earlier today.


RAJU: Secret society was in jest. Do you agree that it appears to be it was in jest?

SEN. RON JOHNSON (R), WISCONSIN: It's a real possibility.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, sir.

RAJU: Do you really believe that there's a secret society within the FBI, plotting to take down the president?

JOHNSON: Listen, all I said is when I read those in those text messages, that Strzok and Page's terms, again, we are committee jurisdiction that protects whistleblowers coming to us from across agencies. That didn't surprise me because I've heard from an individual that there were FBI agents or, you know, management in the FBI holding meetings off site.

RAJU: Off site to do what exactly?

JOHNSON: I don't know.


RAJU: So, just moments ago, Brooke, minutes ago, we caught up with Ron Johnson. Again, asked him about his now belief that it's really a possibility that these two were just joking. And we tried to ask him about that. He said, we'll see what the new texts say. That's all he would say, asked multiple questions. He said we will see what the new texts say.

That is, of course, that is in reference to the inspector general saying they've discovered five months of texts that were missing. So, he's raising the possibility that perhaps there's some reference of secret society and new texts are going over to conference. But, of course, as we know, we've not seen any reference to a secret society in the past batch of documents. And now, it looks like these two are joking, and Johnson seems to be acknowledging, but he's not ruling out that perhaps there's some talk about this in this new batch of texts, Brooke.

BALDWIN: So dangerous. Words matter. Manu Raju, thank you so much.

Let's delve a little deeper. Ali Soufan is here. He's a former FBI supervisory special agent. Also with us, Chris Cillizza, CNN politics reporter and editor at large.

Gentlemen, let's get straight to it. Ali, first to you. I mean, to have a U.S. senator essentially go from A to Z in the span of a week without facts to get to this conclusion, which, by the way, he's now saying maybe it's a joke but let's take a look at the new texts and we'll see. Call it out.

ALI SOUFAN, FORMER FBI SUPERVISORY SPECIAL AGENT: This is pathetic. I mean, it could be comic if it's not tragically dangerous. This is not funny. This is a U.S. senator. He's claiming that there's a secret society within the FBI to take down the president of the United States. He went on television, telling that to the American people.

He needs to go on TV again and he needs to apologize.

[14:05:02] It's not only about a text, as he mentioned. He specifically said that there were informants that were telling him about the secret society in the FBI.

What are the FBI doing that's making him so angry? For investigating an alleged conspiracy by a foreign power to influence our politics? That's it? That's what's scaring the heck out of him?

This guy, with all due respect to the office and the people the he represent, he's a demagogue, he's a partisan. He's putting partisanship above country and that is very, very dangerous.

BALDWIN: How many years in the FBI were you?


BALDWIN: Ten, and to some very dangerous places around the world for the safety of the American people.

SOUFAN: That's what the FBI men and women are doing. Not only the FBI --

BALDWIN: It's personal.

SOUFAN: Absolutely, it's personal. It's the FBI. It's the CIA. It's the law enforcement.

We're being attacked, my former colleagues are being attacked every day. For what? For what? Just because these people are sacrificing what remain of their integrity on the altar of partisanship?

That is disgusting. He needs to go on TV and he needs to apologize about this conspiracy that he pedaled. We used to have conspiracy on the far left and the far right. But now, we have all these peddlers who are conspiracy theorists in the U.S. Congress. That is very unfortunate.

BALDWIN: Chris Cillizza, I just read your piece, the last line. Call it the senator who cried wolf. How dangerous is that?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER & EDITOR AT LARGE: I mean, this is the point. First of all, I agree with everything that Ali said. But the point here, too, is let's say there is something in the future that is problematic at the FBI, the CIA, or any government agency, it makes it harder, these sort of things make it harder to have whistleblowers be believed because, look, I spent a fair amount of yesterday going through sort of what -- what were the claims here?

Because I got, as I'm sure as you did, Brooke, I got about 1,000 tweets, saying, why aren't you writing about this? I'm going to go through this and I'm going to figure it out. What you saw very clearly was a piece of a text. They acknowledged that this was not the full text from Page. This was a piece of it that used the words "secret society."

There was no context, number one. Number two, Ron Johnson, as he admitted to Manu, essentially has been saying I have been told by an informant that the FBI conducts off-site meetings. Well, I mean, no kidding. I would expect they -- if they didn't -- I mean, I conduct off-site meetings, right? I'm not involved in anything super secret.

So, yes, to make the logical leap from I have been told by someone that there are off-site secret meetings happening at the FBI to, it must have to do with secret society, a reference, a partial reference in a text with no context. Even if he was right, it's irresponsible to go out and say this is evidence of a large scale corruption at the FBI, right? Even if he was born out it is quite clear I think now that we've seen the whole text, now that we know according to CNN reporting that this was a function of joke, that there was nothing before or after mentioned about a secret society.

Now, we know he was wrong. But even if he was right, he shouldn't have done it.

BALDWIN: But what about the fact that at the very end, you know, Manu had mentioned, now, he's saying, wait until we see the new texts. It's like he's dangling just a little bit of something saying, let's just all wait and see here, as in conspiracy to be continued.

CILLIZZA: Well, again, is it possible there's something in this new tranche of texts that they've come up with that is incriminating in some way? Yes, sure. I haven't seen them.


CILLIZZA: But that's not the argument he made. Go back to Tuesday, he was on another network and he says, corruption at the highest levels of the FBI. That is his words, corruption. Based on a piece of a text with no context and the fact that someone told him that the FBI conducts off-site meetings.

Ali makes the right point. This is a U.S. senator. It's not somebody -- no offense to me -- somebody talking on television. There's only a hundred of these people. And they were looked to lead and set an example about how we conduct ourselves when we possess pieces of information but not the whole picture.

Yes, you can't do stuff like this. He should know better.

BALDWIN: So, this conversation obviously is raised to the level in which the president was asked about this last night, as he was heading out to Davos. He was asked if he, himself, trusted the FBI. Here was his response. (BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

REPORTER: Do you trust the FBI? Do you trust the FBI?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, we're going to see. I mean, I am very disturbed, as is the general, as is everybody else that is intelligent. When you look at five months, this is the late great Rosemary Woods, right?

[14:10:04] With a step, right? This is a large-scale version.


BALDWIN: What did you think about that?

SOUFAN: It's -- he's disturbed, you know, and so is the general. You know, all these things are coming after the news that came out that Mueller interviewed Sessions, Attorney General Sessions. So, this is just another smokescreen in order to damage that credibility of the Mueller investigation and damage the credibility of the men and women of the FBI.

BALDWIN: It's like a bright shiny object saying, look over here, look over here? Focus on this.

SOUFAN: Yes, they just want to damage the credibility of the investigation. It's very -- you know, I mean, the timing is amazing for this alleged secret society. Thankfully, he didn't know about the secret society within the secret society. That's for another day.

CILLIZA: Brooke?

BALDWIN: Go ahead, Chris.

CILLIZZA: Can I add one thing here?

BALDWIN: Yes, please.

CILLIZZA: This is the president of the United States simply saying that, again, let me repeat, a piece of a Texas taken out of context and a report from a senator that someone had told him the FBI has off- site meetings is the equivalent to Rosemary Woods, Nixon's personal secretary accidentally deleting 18 minutes of White House tapes three days after the Watergate break-in. That's what happened last night.

I went through the transcript of Trump's comments, impromptu sort to the press before he left to Davos. That to me stood out. I'm stunned it hasn't gotten more attention. I mean, I know he says lots of things but there's just -- look, I would urge people, you can hate me, you can think we're -- look at the evidence that exists. The evidence that exists doesn't -- it doesn't merit Ron Johnson suggesting there's corruption at the FBI. It certainly doesn't merit Donald Trump make a comparison to Watergate.

I mean, you know, it's the Chris Cuomo CNN facts matter. They do. You can't say things that are both -- look at the data. Look at what's there. And then tell me how you conclude, based on what you know, that this is Watergate or even a piece of Watergate?

BALDWIN: Preach, Chris Cillizza.


BALDWIN: Thank you so much.

It's all right. We live with it. We care. And I wanted to have you on to talk about it, you and Ali Soufan.

Gentlemen, thank you so much.

SOUFAN: Thank you.

BALDWIN: It's important to talk about them, facts do matter.

Also, let's move on, just in, we have CNN reports that the first lady, Melania Trump, has made an unannounced trip to Florida after skipping out on the president's Davos trip. So, what's going on there? We'll look into that.

Also ahead, latest on the behind-the-scenes negotiation between President Trump and special counsel Robert Mueller, this as new questions emerge about the president's own definition of obstruction of justice and why that could be a key part of this case.

Also ahead, the evolution of the president's position on DACA taking yet another turn. The president saying he is open to a path to citizenship. We'll talk to an actor starring in a new hit movie and sitcom who is now speaking out saying he, too, is at risk of being deported.

Do not miss our conversation. That is coming up.


[14:17:33] BALDWIN: We are back. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

Negotiations are underway on how potentially the most consequentially face to face in generations is about to go down. We're talking about special counsel Robert Mueller's interview with President Trump, all as part of this big Russia investigation.

Sources say that Mueller has given the president's lawyers a range of topics that investigators could ask about.

Also today, to show level of cooperation, the president has provided his lawyers released a batch of figures on exactly how much they and the Trump campaign have worked with investigators. Twenty-plus White House staffers gave interviews and thousands of pages were turned over. You can see the breakdown on the dismissals of Michael Flynn and James Comey.

To add to all of that, during this impromptu Q&A before he left for Davos, the World Economic Forum, the president said he would do the Mueller interview under oath.


REPORTER: Are you going to talk to Mueller?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm looking forward to it, actually.

REPORTER: You want to?

REPORTER: Do you have a date set?

TRUMP: Here's a story, just so you understand. There's been no collusion whatsoever. There's no obstruction whatsoever, and I'm looking forward to it.

REPORTER: To reach a higher standard, you would do it under oath?

TRUMP: I would do it under oath. Yes, absolutely.


BALDWIN: Later when asked about the under oath part, the president's attorney, Ty Cobb, would only say that the president was speaking, quote, hurriedly before leaving on his trip to Switzerland. He remains committed to cooperating with special counsel.

So, let's go to our senior White House correspondent Pamela Brown, who was in the room for that unexpected conversation with the president.

Walk us through several major headlines that came out of that impromptu chat.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And before I walk you through, let me set the stage here, Brooke. We were in a background briefing on immigration with the senior White House official. That is very common here at the White House, where there's going to be policy rollout.

And a few minutes in, someone opened the door. We looked over and, lo and behold, it was President Trump.

BALDWIN: Surprise.

BROWN: And I was fortunate enough to be sitting right there by the door. And, of course, we all stood up, as reporters. It was a room packed with reporters and started asking him questions. It really went on for about 10 to 15 minutes.

And, of course, one of the big topics was this interview with special counsel Robert Mueller, that the president seemed eager or told us he was eager to sit down with Robert Mueller, speak to him under oath. As he said, there was no obstruction, no collusion.

His lawyer, as you said, Ty Cobb, released a statement saying he was speaking hurriedly before he left for Davos, but reiterated that he was being cooperative with the investigation and that he wants to speak to the president.

[14:20:10] I can tell you from my vantage point, Brooke, he was not speaking hurriedly. He wanted to be there, talking to reporters, answering our questions. But I can tell you his lawyers probably preferred him not to say that he was eager to speak to Robert Mueller under oath, because right now as we speak, both sides are going back and forth, trying to negotiate the terms. And, of course, you don't want to lose that leverage.

Beyond that, Brooke, the president also talked about the immigration plan, what he might do. And for the first time, Brooke, he said that he would be open to a pathway to citizenship for the so-called DREAMers over the course of 10 to 12 years. That is not something we've heard from this president.

Of course, that's something that's drawn the ire of the more hard- line, hawkish people -- Republicans on immigration. And so that, of course, has caused some headlines today. But from, you know, immigration to Robert Mueller to even turning to his chief of staff, John Kelly, and saying that he's a great guy, the president really seemed to want to cover it all with the reporters in the room there -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: Here's what I want to know. Was General Kelly kind of -- could you see the thought bubble? Was he like, Mr. President, what the heck are you doing here? I mean, was he surprised?

BROWN: Well, you know, I kept looking over at him to see what his reaction was and whether he was going to intervene at some point or what was going to happen. And he stood there with a grin on his face pretty much the entire time.

Now, a couple of White House officials have said that General Kelly knew in advance that there was some coordination with the president before. There are some conflicting accounts of what exactly went down. I can tell you most of the people in that room, though, including White House aides, were surprised.

But General Kelly stood there and had a grin on his face and, you know, in fact, after the president left he sort of made a joke about it. So, really, I would love to know what was going through his mind, though, during that 10 to 15 minutes with reporters on the record, the president speaking impromptu to reporters on the record there, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Covering the White House, Pam Brown, you never know what or who the day may bring.

Thank you so much, Pamela Brown, for us at the White House.

While the president continued to insist there has been no collusion between his campaign and Russia, he did offer a new defense against claims that he may have obstructed justice.


REPORTER: Do you think Robert Mueller will be fair to you in this larger investigation?

TRUMP: We're going to find out. We're going to find out --

REPORTER: Are you concerned of it?

TRUMP: -- because here's what we'll say, and everybody says, no collusion. There's no collusion. Now they're saying, oh, well did he fight back? You fight back -- you fight back. John, you fight back, oh, it's obstruction. So, here is the thing. I hope so.


BALDWIN: With me now, Robert Bauer, he's a former White House counsel for the Obama administration.

Bob Bauer, a pleasure. Welcome to CNN.


BALDWIN: First, just listening to the president, you know, fighting back, obstruction and, P.S., we can't crawl into the president's mind to know exactly what he was referencing when he said fighting back. But what do you -- what do you take of his obstruction of justice definition there?

BAUER: I don't know that he was lawyering. And I doubt his --

BALDWIN: What does that mean lawyering?

BAUER: That is to say I don't know that he was articulating sort of a legal judgment here. I'm not sure on what basis he could. I suppose he meant, if I had to guess, that he has a political right to complain about these obstruction charges and a public complaint calling Russia -- the investigation in Russia a hoax doesn't constitute obstruction of justice.

Now, on another level, you can take other actions that you view as fighting back and they would constitute obstruction of justice. So, there's some confusion there between what he thinks his political defense is and what his legal defense is.

BALDWIN: The fact that he even popped into this meeting where they're supposed to have this background today, the White House press pool was supposed to have this background meeting on immigration, and the president jumps in and keeps talking. You heard Pam say, he didn't seem hurried in his conversation with the press. Do you think that is causing the -- his attorneys to just pull shreds of hair out of their heads?

BAUER: I don't know the temperaments of his attorneys. I think I would be pretty much bald by now. I would have been ripping at my hair --

BALDWIN: Bald by now, Bob Bauer. BAUER: I'd be bald by now. I think that you don't want the president getting ahead of negotiations like the one they're planning to have with Mueller.

I also want to add --


BAUER: -- the president didn't merely get ahead on question of whether he was going to speak under oath, he also basically said, well, I'm going to cooperate. I'm looking forward to having this person-to-person interview, when the terms of his appearance hadn't been negotiated.

BALDWIN: So, how is that supposed to work out with any kind of leverage? Because one side apparently wanted to do written. Obviously, we know Team Mueller wanted it to be face-to-face. You have the president saying that. How does that factor into the whole negotiation?

BAUER: Well, it certainly is an awkward point for the lawyers, which is why they rushed out with the statement saying, well, you know, he's going to do whatever he does under the guidance of his counsel. So, they were quick to --

BALDWIN: Translate that for me.

[14:25:01] BAUER: They were trying to reassert control. To say, well, he may have said, but in the end, he's going to look to us.

And the transcript of the audio shows that Trump remembered that he was supposed to defer to his lawyers. So, at some point in that transcript, he says, well, of course, it's all subject to the lawyers. So, he added that qualification even yesterday.

BALDWIN: At the very end.


BALDWIN: He did.

How much do you think in this conversation, ultimately, when he is questioned by Mueller and Mueller's team can he cite executive privilege?

BAUER: Well, I would have to say that's going to get negotiated in advance, it seems to me. I don't think they're going to want to have a fight over that while he's having the interviews. I think that the likelihood that he's being able to assert that privilege over most of what we think is going to be asked is very slim, to the extent that there are touchy points. I think that's going to be part of a negotiation between the lawyers and Mueller.

BALDWIN: Ahead of time. One of the reporters asked the president as I previous reported, he had this conversation with acting director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe in the Oval and essentially was asking him, well, who did you vote for in the 2016 election? Listen to that.


REPORTER: Did you ask McCabe who he voted for? Did you ask him that?

TRUMP: I don't think so. No.

REPORTER: You don't think you did?

TRUMP: No, I don't think I did.

REPORTER: You did not?

TRUMP: I don't know what's the big deal with that, because I would ask you -- who did you vote for? I don't think that's a big deal, but I don't remember that. You know, I saw that this morning. I don't remember asking him that question.

REPORTER: Is it possible that you did? Is it a possibility?

TRUMP: I don't remember asking him the question. I think it's also a very unimportant question but I don't remember asking him that question.


BALDWIN: OK. I bring that up because the McCabe piece isn't significant in this whole conversation about Russia. And by the way, we did find out McCabe voted in the primary, didn't vote in the general. But it's more on the words he used, I can't remember. The president, I can't remember.

Again, this is the man who boasted I have the best memory in the history of the world is essentially what he said over and over. So, I'm wondering if in conversations with people who really, really matter and he says, oh, I can't remember, is that foreshadowing a defense we may get from the president?

BAUER: I suspect here in the case of Andrew McCabe he's, in effect, saying I sort of remember but it's no big deal. I would take this denial as a confirmation. It had that feeling for me.

But, yes, depending on the evidence that's put in front of him, the nature of the question is put to him, his loss of memory will or will not be credible. You're right, it's a background assumption that he will remember major events, like events related to the Russia investigation. And when he says he doesn't recall, in some cases I suspect that will be a strong credibility issue.

I should mention, by the way, there are norms that govern how presidents behave toward law enforcement. Contrary to what he says, it's not an unimportant question and it is a big deal. And I think it's a mark of how much, how far he's gone in weakening these norms that a day has passed and sort of settled into expectation that he can ask questions like that.

BALDWIN: Welcome to where we are.

Bob Bauer, thank you so much.

BAUER: It's a pleasure.

BALDWIN: Please come back. I appreciate that.

Coming up next here, where does President Trump stand exactly on DACA? My next guest san actor in a major motion picture and he says he could be deported depending on Trump's position and what ultimately Congress decides to do in March. We'll talk to him, next.