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Trump Expresses Desire to Talk to Special Counsel; President Trump Flip-Flopping on Dreamers?; Did Republicans Push Joke Secret Society Conspiracy?. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired January 25, 2018 - 15:00   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: All right. We continue on. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

Listen, two words for you, facts matter. And today we're seeing that mantra prove its value on Capitol Hill. Some Republicans have been sounding the alarm about a so-called secret society of anti-Trump agents within the FBI.

We're now learning that this was all apparently a gag gift or a 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 that 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."

That's the text. Sources tell CNN that the calendars mentioned there were some sort of gag gift, Putin-themed calendars that Strzok purchased for employees working on the Russia investigation.

This is coming into us today as one of the Republicans who sounded the loudest alarm over this whole secret society conspiracy is now apparently having a change of heart.

Let's go to our Jessica Schneider with more on this from this Republican senator, who is now, what, saying it's a joke?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, backpedaling here, Brooke, and that's after several sources had come forward to CNN to really clarify these texts after we have seen from Senator Johnson and a lot of Republicans they have been implicating scandal with this text as the basis.

The sources are telling us this. They say that that message you just read there, it's from November 9, it referred to the calendars and the secret society. But, really, this was all an attempt at humor, they say, one day after the election. And we know that agent Strzok, he was part of the Russia investigation

even before the special counsel was appointed. And, like you said, Brooke, he had bought these Putin calendars for people who are working on the investigation in the early stages of it. So one of the sources, they do tell us after the calendar distribution, it seemed a little less funny the day after the election, after Donald Trump won the election.

But they do say that that whole text in itself, it was in jest, including the secret society reference. But, of course, Senator Ron Johnson, he has been hammering on this, this single text exchange, for at least a day or two now. He's been raising suspicion about the secret society bit.

But he has suddenly backtracked. We want to give you a glimpse at what he said first and then what he said later. First, listen to what he told FOX News yesterday.


SEN. RON JOHNSON (R), WISCONSIN: What this is all about is further evidence of corruption, more than bias, but corruption at the highest levels of the FBI and a secret society. We have an informant that is talking about a group that were holding secret meetings off-site. There is so much smoke here, there's so much suspicion.


SCHNEIDER: That was an outraged Senator Johnson there, calling it corruption.

But, Brooke, our Manu Raju caught up with the senator earlier today, and at that point the senator acknowledged the text, it may have just been a joke. Listen.


MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: The text message seems to be the comment about secret society was in jest. Do you agree that it appears to be it was a jest?

JOHNSON: It's a real possibility.


SCHNEIDER: So, a very brief answer there, Brooke, before he ducked into an office.

But what's important to note here, Senator Johnson, he still hasn't explained his allegation about this informant he says he has been talking to that told him a group of high-level agents were having secret meetings off-site. He still hasn't addressed that.

But now, though, with the release of this text, it does seem, for now at least, that the secret society speculation, it has died down somewhat, Brooke. BALDWIN: But there is a little bit more, right? Yes, OK, so they

have been hanging on this trove of missing texts from these two. But you have new reporting on, what, additional texts to come?

SCHNEIDER: Right. One of their rallying cries was also this batch of missing texts. We don't know how many.

But we do know now that a portion of these missing texts, they have been found by the inspector general. This is the inspector general who has been investigating this whole text exchange issue for months now. So, we know this because the inspector general just sent a letter to Republican senators, one of them Ron Johnson, the other Chuck Grassley, informing them that the I.G. staff, it actually -- instead of going to the FBI server, it was using forensic tools to recover some of those missing texts from the FBI-issued devices themselves, since they were missing from the server.

So, the DOJ, they had initially disclosed that this missing text thing was the result of a technical glitch. Brooke, we understand it affected about one in 10 phones. This wasn't just the phones of Agent Strzok and Lisa Page. And the missing texts, they were from December 2016 to May 17, 2017.

That was the day that special counsel Mueller was appointed. And of course the timing of those date, right after the election until the special counsel was appointed, that led Republicans to cry foul, saying it was suspicious.


But, yes, we know that the I.G. has found some of these texts now. They're working to find others. And then they will hand those texts that they found to the DOJ. Then we will see if they become public yet again in another round of these -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: OK. Jessica, thank you so much.

I have Jake Tapper with me to talk much more about this, including just what is your just initial reaction, sort of the arc of the week and especially using this U.S. senator, Senator Johnson as the loudest alarmist or peddler of this conspiracy theory to basically saying it's a joke?

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Well, I guess a couple thoughts.

First of all, one of the things that is so extraordinary about all of this is that it is congressional Republicans vs. Department of Justice Republicans. That's honestly what's going on here.

You have people at the Justice Department, political appointees, politically appointed by President Trump and his team, who are throwing shade at congressional Republicans, saying, calm yourself. We're working on this. Don't get ahead of yourself, whether it's about the secret society text or about the missing texts or about the Nunes memo, et cetera.

That's one of things that is so extraordinary is that Democrats aren't really even a player here.

BALDWIN: Republicans vs. Republicans?

TAPPER: It's Republican-on-Republican crime.

Second of all, there's something legitimately to be concerned about in the Strzok-Page texts. It does show people who are supposed to be implementing fair and impartial justice showing real bias and saying things that are inappropriate.

Why anybody would want to try to not just focus on the facts is beyond me, given that it is a damaging story that undermines the Mueller investigation, even though once Mueller found out about it, he reassigned the agent in question.

And then third thing I guess I would say is that throughout this entire period of the Russia investigation, we have seen Democrats, we've seen people in the media and we've seen Republicans get ahead of themselves, get ahead of where the facts are. Here, we're seeing Republicans get ahead of where the facts are.

And it's very important for people to really follow the example that we're seeing from the prosecutors, which is everybody be deliberate, everybody be calm. Report what we know to be fact. Don't go further than that.

And I think the other night on that other channel, we saw a senator

BALDWIN: Go beyond.

TAPPER: -- getting excited about something that doesn't appear to be supported by the facts.

BALDWIN: So this rose to the level, the fact that a reporter asked the president about this last night in this whole impromptu conversation over at the White House about whether or not the president trusts the FBI. That was the question that was put to Trump. Here is the exchange.


QUESTION: Do you trust the FBI? Do you trust the FBI?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, we're going to see. 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, with a step, right? This is a large- scale version.


BALDWIN: The point being with Rosemary Woods personal assistant to President Nixon, equating this to Watergate, again --

TAPPER: The missing 18 minutes of the Nixon tapes.

BALDWIN: The missing 18 minutes.

TAPPER: This is obviously not that. And the president is saying he's very disturbed.

Look, I can see a president being upset by what we have seen factually in those text messages. They certainly are not -- they don't reflect well on the investigation. But the idea that this is bigger than Watergate, which seems to be his suggestion there, not to mention the fact that the inspector general of the Department of Justice came forward today and said we have managed to get them.

The idea that the president's own Department of Justice was trying to hide something from him, it just shows a level of suspicion that really boggles the mind.

One would think a president would say -- and we have heard Republicans who work for the Department of Justice say they're doing everything they can. They want to get to the bottom of this. They're trying to recover these text messages. But the suggestion -- first of all, he has been factually inaccurate saying there are 50,000 text messages missing, which are not accurate.

But the suggestion that this was people in the FBI deleting, hiding things illegally is a rather stark thing for a president to say about his own Department of Justice.

And I can't imagine if I were an FBI or Justice Department employee, one who legitimately was upset by the Strzok-Page texts, I couldn't imagine what it would feel like to have the president of the United States constantly impugning my integrity just because things are not always going his way.

And one of the other problems is, Brooke, I don't think the president's sources of information are always the most reliable, the shows he watches, the Web sites he reads.


I don't think he's getting the up and up. He should rely more on what he's hearing from General Kelly and less from what he's seeing on certain other channels. Just a word to the wise.


BALDWIN: Tapper, thank you. Good to see you. We will see you at the top of the hour on THE LEAD.

Meantime, coming up next here: President Trump makes a surprise visit to a meeting room full of reporters and probably hit his lawyers with anxiety. He says he would be happy to testify under oath with special counsel Bob Mueller and shares his unique definition of obstruction of justice.

An attorney who worked on that Whitewater investigation will join me live to explain what this could all mean. Also ahead, conservatives are calling out the president, calling him

Amnesty Don, after he changed his stance again on dreamers, now saying he is open to a pathway to citizenship. We are going to debate where the negotiations go from here.

This is CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.



BALDWIN: Negotiations are now under way on how potentially the most consequential face-to-face in generations is about to happen.

I'm talking about special counsel Robert Mueller's interview of President Trump, all as part of the Russia investigation. Sources say that Mueller has given the president's lawyers a range of topics that investigators could ask about and that Mueller is seeking to do the sit-down interview.

The president said he would love to talk to Mueller. That comment came during this whole impromptu Q&A before he left for Switzerland last night. And what is more, President Trump said that he would do the Mueller interview under oath.


QUESTION: Are you going to talk to Mueller?

TRUMP: I'm looking forward to it, actually.

QUESTION: You want to?

QUESTION: Do you have a date set?

TRUMP: Here's the story, just so you understand.

There's be no collusion whatsoever. There's no obstruction whatsoever. And I'm looking forward to it.

I do worry, when I look at all of the things that you people don't report about, with what's happening if you take a look at, you know, the five months worth of missing texts. That's a lot of missing texts.

And, as I said yesterday, that's prime time. So you do sort of look at that and say, what's going on?

You do look at certain texts where they talk about insurance policies or insurance, where they say the kinds of things they're saying, and be concerned. But I would love to do that. And I would like to do it as soon as possible.

Good luck, everybody.

(CROSSTALK) QUESTION: Do you have a date set?

TRUMP: So here's the story.

QUESTION: Do you have a date set, Mr. President?

TRUMP: I don't know. No, I think -- I guess they're talking about two or three weeks. But I would love to do it.

Again, I have to say, subject to my lawyers and all of that. But I would love to do it.

QUESTION: You would do it under oath?

TRUMP: You mean like Hillary did it under -- who said that?

QUESTION: I said that.


QUESTION: Would you do it under oath?

TRUMP: Oh, I would do it under oath.

QUESTION: You would?

TRUMP: Absolutely.


BALDWIN: Joining me now, Kim Wehle, who was associate independent counsel during the Whitewater investigation involving then President Bill Clinton. She's now professor of law at the University of Baltimore.

So, Kim, welcome.


BALDWIN: You heard the president saying, "I'm looking forward to it," it being this conversation, this interview with the Mueller team.

Walk us through negotiations with Mueller. Where do Trump lawyers have leverage here?

WEHLE: I think Trump lawyers have leverage because it's Trump being Trump.

That is, Trump at any point in the process can basically say, I'm not going to comply with the next stage of things. And ultimately that could lead to a constitutional crisis. If we end up with a subpoena he won't comply with and then we have contempt of court and a court order, he could take the position that I'm head of the Justice Department, I'm head of the Article II branch. I determine that this prosecution does not go forward. So, of course, Mr. Mueller's Trump card, for lack of a better word, is

the subpoena power. The president can't refuse to testify under oath before the grand jury. And in that context, he wouldn't have his lawyers with him. And any defense lawyer is going to be really worried about putting a client that circumstance.

BALDWIN: And then just quickly before I play another sound bite when he said, I will even do it under oath, isn't it a crime to lie to the FBI? Why is the under oath part so key? Or is it?

WEHLE: It's a crime under 18-USC-1001 to lie to the FBI, but perjury has different implications. They are similar crimes, but they're two separate statutes here. They're two separate crimes, yes.

BALDWIN: OK. The president also commented on this potential obstruction case. Listen to this.


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

TRUMP: We are going to find out.

QUESTION: Are you concerned about it?

TRUMP: But here is what we will say, and everybody says, no collusion. There's no collusion. Now they're saying, oh, well, did he fight back?


TRUMP: You fight back. Oh, it's obstruction. So here's the thing. I hope so.


BALDWIN: By the way, listen, we don't -- no one really actually knows what he meant when he was saying fight back, but what do you make of how he's defining obstruction, Kim?

WEHLE: Well, there's two things. One is that the president seems to not understand or at least doesn't appreciate the structure of our constitutional government to the extent to which the executive branch, the investigative arm, is out there to actually call balls and strikes based on the facts, and it's not a politicized situation.

The second thing is, to prove obstruction, Mueller has to show an intent to hinder an investigation. And so for Trump to say I'm fighting back because I think it's a fake investigation actually might be a legitimate defense. That is -- I mean, legitimate -- depends on whether a jury would agree with him.

But the idea being, listen, I didn't obstruct an investigation because I thought it was silly to begin with. So, I don't have the criminal intent. It's a difficult thing to prove.

BALDWIN: Yes. Yes. If that's what he meant by fighting back.

I talked to Solomon Wisenberg yesterday, your old colleague on the Whitewater investigation. And this is what he said to me about this whole case of obstruction.


SOLOMON WISENBERG, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Based on the public record I have seen, I don't think there is much of an obstruction case, unless there are things that Mueller knows about that we don't, which is quite possible.


BALDWIN: Do you agree with him?

WEHLE: When you look at prior presidential investigations, you're talking about witness tampering or we're talking about tampering with evidence.

And that isn't the situation here. Here, we have Mr. Trump having discussions with people within his chain of command about matters that are really are within his authority.

On the other hand, we also have him saying listen, yes, publicly, I fired Comey because of the Russia investigation.

I'm not sure exactly where Sol is coming from. I'm sure he has a lot more to explain in that regard, because he's a superb lawyer. But I think it's, in any situation, a very tough case to bring.


I don't think it's a nonstarter, though, given the president's public statements about why Mr. Comey was fired.

BALDWIN: Kim Wehle, thank you.

WEHLE: Thank you.

BALDWIN: Coming up next: The president has infuriated the right after flip-flopping again on the dreamers. What happens next now that he says he's open to a pathway to citizenship?


BALDWIN: President Trump now saying that he will support a pathway to citizenship for dreamers, as long as he still gets the money he wants for his border wall.


That surprising statement happening during this impromptu conversation discussion with reporters last evening, and the president also telling undocumented young people to -- quote -- "not worry," not worry about being deported.


QUESTION: Do you want citizenship for dreamers?

TRUMP: We're going to morph into it. It's going to happen.


QUESTION: What does that mean, morph into it?

TRUMP: Over a period of 10 to 12 years, somebody who does a great job, they have worked hard -- it gives incentive to do a great job. But they have worked hard, they have done terrifically, whether they have a little company or whether they work or whatever they're doing.

If they do a great job, I think it's a nice thing to have incentive of after a period of years being able to become a citizen.


BALDWIN: Some call it an evolution of thinking. Others saying it's flat-out flip-flop.

Here is a look back, though, at what President Trump has had to say about dreamers.


TRUMP: I will immediately terminate President Obama's illegal executive order on immigration. Immediately.

What about our children? Why can't our children that are in the country, why can't they be the dreamers? Nobody ever talks about that.

It sounds cold and it sounds hard. We have a country. Our country is going to hell. We have to have a system where people are legally in our country.

It's a very, very tough subject. We're going to deal with DACA with heart.

We love the dreamers. We love everybody

Well, I have a great heart for the folks we're talking about, a great love for them.

Because this should be a bipartisan bill. It should be a bill of love. Truly, it should be a bill of love, and we can do that.


BALDWIN: And check this out. This is from Breitbart. The headline, "Immigration Shock." They're calling him Amnesty Don,

suggesting citizenship for illegal aliens.

Let's talk this over.

Alicia Menendez, Democratic strategist and host and producer for HuffPost Live, and Andre Bauer, CNN political commentator and a former lieutenant governor of South Carolina.

Great to have both of you on.

And, Andre, let me just start with you. The president, specifically on this, you just heard the mash-up. This is a man who changes his positions day to day, sometimes hour by hour. I can't keep up. How can you? How can Republicans?

ANDRE BAUER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think he is evolving, much like I have.

Quite frankly, when I served in the legislature, I was much harder on where we were with illegal immigration. I have evolved since then and said, look, some of these folks, by no choices of their own, are here. They have become great contributors to our society.

And, look, we have got a system where we don't really think that it's realistic to send them back and create all that chaos. But way back when you look at President Reagan, even he had to deal with illegal immigration problem.

And we haven't done anything to curtail the continual problem building.


BALDWIN: And, Alicia, I want to hear from you, but I'm still sort of stuck on the word evolving.

And, listen, evolving can be a great thing, but at the same time, it's like -- I feel like the country, and especially I'm thinking of these hundreds of thousands of dreamers, are stuck in this middle of this herky-jerky, one day it's this, another day it's this, until -- depending on who the last person he talked to.


ALICIA MENENDEZ, THE HUFFINGTON POST: Brooke, to you point, evolution tends to go in one direction, not forward and backward. And so that is what has advocates so upset.

BALDWIN: Right. Right.

MENENDEZ: They feel like they have seen this before, that promises have been made before, that this is a crisis of the president's invention, and that if he wants to actually get this done, they had a framework that worked that he agreed to on a Tuesday and changed his mind on a Thursday. At the end of the day, you have a bipartisan group. The gang of six

has now exploded to include many more members of the U.S. Senate. Everyone at that table seems to be working toward a pathway to citizenship for these young dreamers.

The question really comes down to, is the House going to pass that legislation?


BALDWIN: That's the money question.


Or are they instead going to lean into one of the proposals they have, which makes radical changes to legal immigration in this country, including asylum laws and what I would call family reunification, what many hard-liners call chain migration.

BALDWIN: Andre, if you want to give him the credit in this, your word, evolution, that he's on the side now for these dreamers, let them have this pathway to citizenship.

You saw the Breitbart headline, I mean, Amnesty Don. How the heck is this going to get through the far right, I'm thinking, in the House?

BAUER: Again, part of the legislative process -- and I have served in both bodies and in the executive branch -- is working together.

And I believe, I truly believe this is such a big issue. I think it's the biggest issue of 2018. That you will see something pass. Look, nobody is going to love it. It's kind of like going through divorce. If both sides aren't happy, then it probably worked out probably fairly.

The right wants to see -- or conservatives want to see a stop. They don't want to continue to see illegal immigration. They're willing to let these dreamers come in or stay in, but they want to see a way that we stop it and we have a vetting system and let people -- Look, I would like to walk into the White House today, but I don't get to do that.

There's a system that keeps me out. I may be able to go through a chain of things and get in, but I have to do certain things. And citizens should have to do the same in this country.

They shouldn't be able to sashay over the southern border, and all of a sudden, political people get behind them, and they --


BALDWIN: I'm don't think anyone is talking about people sashaying.