Return to Transcripts main page

WOLF

Trump Offers To Interview; Secret Society Joke; Trump Vows to Cut Aid; FBI Recovered Texts. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired January 25, 2018 - 13:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Washington, 7:00 p.m. in Davos, Switzerland, 9:00 p.m. in Moscow. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

Negotiations underway. The president's legal team trying to clean up his vow to testify under oath with Robert Mueller as the president comes up with a new definition for obstruction of justice.

Plus, the secret society theory falling apart quickly. Why the Republican efforts to undermine the Robert Mueller investigation may, in part, be based on a text message that was made in jest.

And the U.S. says the Palestinian leadership has insulted President Trump and the United States, and now the president is issuing a new threat -- come to the table, negotiate peace with Israel, or else.

But let's start with the president apparently jumping the gun a bit with his offer to testify under oath in the Russia investigation.

Here's what the president said to reporters.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you going to talk to Mueller?

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

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You want to?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you have a date set?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Here's the story, just so you understand. There's been no collusion whatsoever. There's no obstruction whatsoever. And I'm looking forward to it.

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

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Oh, I would do it under oath, yes, absolutely.

(END AUDIO CLIP) BLITZER: Pretty clear the president offering to testify under oath to special prosecutor, Robert Mueller.

But the White House lawyer quickly came out, we're talking about Ty Cobb, saying that that isn't necessarily the case and that the president was merely speaking hurriedly before leaving Washington for Davos.

Meanwhile, the president's lawyers have been given a range of topics from the special prosecutor's office.

We have learned, the first is the allegation that the president asked then FBI Director James Comey to lay off Michael Flynn, his national security adviser, who since has pled guilty to perjury charges.

They also want to know the president's reaction to Congressional testimony given by Comey in May of last year. Comey was fired days after the hearing.

They also expect -- they are also expected to ask about the president's reaching out to intelligence leaders here in Washington about the Russia investigation itself.

Joining us now, Peter Zeidenberg, a former federal prosecutor. He was a member of the special prosecutor's team in the Scooter-Libby case.

Peter, thanks so much for joining us.

PETER ZEIDENBERG, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Happy to.

BLITZER: So, let's talk about the ground rules now. What do you anticipate are the key questions that need to be negotiated when the president does sit down with Robert Mueller and his team?

ZEIDENBERG: They're probably just talking about logistical issues. You know, where the interview is going to take place. How long it's going to be. Who will be present during the interview? What the ground rules are during the interview. What the ground rules are during the interview.

That's what I would expect they're discussing right now.

BLITZER: The president says, you know, he's going to listen to his lawyers. But he says he's more than happy to go ahead and testify under oath.

Would it be probably at the White House? It wouldn't be written form, would it?

ZEIDENBERG: No, I imagine it would be done at the White House as a courtesy and as a convenience, having to -- rather than have him -- make him travel to the prosecutor's office.

This idea about it being under oath is a little bit, I think, off base. Interviews with the FBI are not done under oath, nevertheless they have to be truthful. Because if you make a false statement to the FBI in the course of an investigation, that's a violation. That's false statement. A violation of the U.S. code.

And in the course of an investigation, if you do it, it's also possibly obstruction of justice.

But the FBI agents are not going to be, I don't imagine, swearing him in under oath.

BLITZER: Similarly, when Hillary Clinton answered questions in her investigation. She was not sworn in. She was not, quote, "under oath."

But if you lie to federal investigators, federal prosecutors, the FBI, that's a violate-- that's a criminal act.

ZEIDENBERG: Exactly. There is no formal oath. There's not going to be, I wouldn't imagine, a court reporter present.

BLITZER: The president, in his comments with reporters, seemed to have a new definition -- a bit of a new definition, when it comes to obstruction of justice.

Listen on this.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

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

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're going to find out. We're going to find out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you concerned about it?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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? If you fight back, you say --

(CROSSTALK)

You fight back. John, you fight back. Oh, it's obstruction.

So, here's the thing. I hope so.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

BLITZER: So, he says he was simply fighting back and this would not be obstruction of justice.

You've got a little smile on your face.

ZEIDENBERG: Well, I mean, I guess it depends what you mean by fighting back.

If fighting back is going and giving a statement to the press and explaining your conduct, that's fighting back. If it's issuing statements through your press secretary, that's fighting back.

If it's telling the FBI director to lay off a prosecution or then if he doesn't agree to that, firing him, that may be fighting back but it may be also crossing a line.

[13:05:09] So, those are important words, indeed. In the next two or three weeks, the president speculated, this all could happen.

We'll be watching it very closely. A critical moment, indeed.

Peter Zeidenberg, thank you very much for coming in.

Breaking news. The Department of Justice now says it has recovered those missing text messages sent by two FBI officials under scrutiny for comments about the president and a so-called secret society over at the FBI.

I want to bring in CNN's Jessica Schneider. She's joining us right now.

Jessica, what can you tell us?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, after days of speculation and some intrigue here, we have learned, from the Department of Justice inspector general, via a letter that they sent to Congress, that, yes, in fact, this big gap of text messages have, in some part, been located.

So, we know that those texts -- there was that gap between December 2016 to May 17, 2017.

And, of course, Republicans have seized on this, called this into question.

But we know, in the meantime here, the inspector general, they've been investigating this for several months now. Of course, it's the inspector general who actually even discovered that these texts existed in the first place.

So, what they've just alerted Congressional committees to is that they have been able to -- through the devices themselves, as opposed to the storage system that the FBI had. Through the devices, they have been able to locate some of these text messages.

In particular, I'll read for you the portion of the letter where they address this. It says that the OIG has been investigating this matter.

And this week succeeded in using forensic tools to recover text messages from FBI devices, including text messages between Mr. Strzok, the FBI agent, and Ms. Page, she was the FBI attorney or is the FBI attorney, that were sent or received between December 14, 2016 and May 17, 2017.

But what they go on to say in this letter is that while they have recovered some of these text messages, they have not recovered all of them. That's something that the inspector general's office continues to do.

And they say, at this point, they won't go -- these text messages won't go directly into the hands of Congress, members of Congress.

Instead, the inspector general will hand over these text messages, that they've so far retrieved from the devices themselves. They will go to the Department of Justice. And then the Department of Justice will determine what to do.

Of course, Wolf, we've seen the Department of Justice hand over two batches already of these text messages. First, they handed it over to Congress, as well as gave reporters a look. And then, this most recent batch that came out in the past few days, about a week ago, they gave directly to members of Congress.

And we've seen that slow drip, drip, drip, bit by bit release of some of these text messages, including that secret society text message that has drummed up a lot of controversy, a lot of speculation over the past few days -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It certainly has.

Jessica Schneider, I want you to stand by.

Manu Raju is also following these late-breaking developments for us.

Manu, as you know, Republicans have been expressing outrage about that reference in one exchange, two of those FBI officials had involving a so-called secret society.

But now, one important U.S. senator is now admitting it may have all been a joke among those two FBI officers, those two FBI agents. Tell us about that?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right. Senator Ron Johnson is the chairman of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. He had been raising concerns about the secret society text.

He went on Fox News earlier this week. He suggested that there's something that he wanted to dig further into.

Yesterday, when I had a chance to talk to him, he talked about how there was a -- he learned from a separate informant that there were meetings occurring offsite. Perhaps that could be something tied to this secret society. He said he didn't know what those meetings offsite were about.

And after it was revealed publicly about what these exchanges were, he, sort of, changed his tune. Wolf, I can read to you exactly what this text exchange said, according to what we have obtained. He said, are you even going to be giving out your calendars? Seems kind of depressing. Maybe it should just be the first meet of the secret society. This happened after the elections.

Now, when I went up to Ron Johnson just moments ago and I ask him, if this was a joke -- this text message was a joke, he seemed to suggest it could have been a joke. Here's what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: Senator, this text message seems to be a comment about secret society was in jest. Do you agree that it appears to be in jest?

SEN. RON JOHNSON (R), WISCONSIN, CHAIRMAN, HOMELAND SECURITY AND GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: It's a real possibility.

Thank you, all.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: So, we're trying to learn a little bit more about exactly his thinking now, after he raised some very significant concerns earlier this week.

And whether he still shares those same concerns, given that Republicans seized on this text message as an effort to go after this investigation. Suggesting these agents were biased. Suggesting there was a larger plot within the FBI, perhaps to try to discredit the Trump presidency, to discredit the campaign.

[13:10:08] We'll learn a little bit more about this thinking here. But perhaps, based on the context of this message, these agents were just joking about a secret society. And it seems the senator may think that's at least a possibility that they were joking.

And we'll see what he says when these new messages, too, are released to Congress. His committee is going to a have a chance to review them. But there have not been any other references to a secret society that we know of. We'll see if any references were made in this new batch of documents seen by the Congress -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, it seem -- it seems like that whole secret society thing was made in jest by these two individuals working at the FBI.

And I want to get, quickly, back to what Jessica Schneider was reporting, that, all of a sudden, they found those missing text messages between those two FBI -- those two FBI agents, Manu. The -- it wasn't just them.

There was a new cell phone, a new smartphone, that was provided by Samsung to a whole bunch of FBI personnel. And those text messages were missing not just for those two individuals, right?

Manu, did you get the question? RAJU: Sorry, Wolf, we lost you for a second there. What was the question?

BLITZER: And we're talking about what Jessica Schneider was reporting about the missing text messages between those two individuals, those two FBI officials, that caused this uproar. That there was --the president was complaining about it.

But, all of a sudden, it's become clear they have found a lot of those e-mails. And it wasn't just the two of them. There was, apparently, a new Samsung smartphone that was distributed, thousands of them, to FBI personnel. And the same glitch was occurring all over the place, right?

RAJU: Yes, that's right. That's what we were told initially, too. That this glitch was occurring to, roughly, 10 percent of these phones within the FBI. And so, these two agents weren't the only ones who lost these text messages.

But now that the inspector general has recovered this through its own investigation, this could seem to, perhaps, quiet some of the concerns on Capitol Hill from some of these members, is that this is suspicious that these have gone missing, asking for information about exactly why those five months of text messages have gone missing.

The president himself saying that as well. We'll see if that alleviates the concerns on the Hill or what these member -- what these two agents were talking about. And whether they were criticizing the president. And, also, Hillary Clinton, as they have done in previous text messages.

But clearly, Wolf, this is part -- the inspector general releasing these messages maybe it can -- it will soften some of the rhetoric here on the Hill that this is maybe an effort to conceal some more damaging messages, damaging, at least, it could optically to the FBI. We'll see what they have to say when they actually review these messages.

BLITZER: Yes, well, let's see if there are some public apologies coming forward as well from various news organizations and Republican politicians who were -- who were making outrageous claims about the FBI. And now, they're going to have to back down away from that.

Let's see what -- let's see what happens.

Manu, thank you very much.

I want to bring in Dana Bash and Gloria Borger right now.

You know, Gloria, both of those elements had caused enormous, enormous coverage, enormous angst among conservatives. But now, they're going to have to back down.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANAYST: Never mind, as Roseanne Roseannadanna used to say. I think that, you know, it just shows you that there are lots of

people out there who want to discredit the FBI and discredit the investigation into Donald Trump. And discredit the mullet -- the Mueller team. And I think that there are lots of ways of going at it.

And this is just part of an effort to, kind of, muddy the waters. And I think that is exactly what's being done every single day.

And Bob Mueller, for his part, as Dana and I know, they don't comment on any of this stuff. They just keep on doing their work.

BLITZER: And the president was outraged by both of these developments. And he's going to have to back down now as well, in light of what the Justice Department has just released. His Justice Department, led by the attorney general, a former Republican senator, Jeff Sessions.

It's a very significant development, as well as the text messages that had gone missing, not just from these two FBI officials but from a whole bunch of them.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, in a normal world, in the world of, sort of, real politics in Washington that we have all known for decades, that would happen, likely. --

I'm not so sure that those other news organizations that you're referring to, or these Republican politicians who were muddying the waters with this, are going to do anything, anything. That they're going to back down at all.

If what we now think is the truth is the truth, then they should. I don't have a lot of faith in the fact that that's going to happen.

BLITZER: Because when news organizations make a mistake, good ones, they --

BASH: Yes.

BLITZER: correct those mistakes and report that

And clearly, if the Justice Department is saying, you know what? There really wasn't a serious -- a deliberate effort, to delete those e-mails between these two individuals.

[13:15:04] There was a glitch. We figured it out. We've recovered the e-mails now.

And it wasn't just their two smartphones, it was a whole bunch of smartphones.

BORGER: Right. And then there is this question about whether you trust the Justice Department. And, you know, this is a president who has talked about his own FBI using derogatory terms, making the case that, oh, well, I'm really talking about the FBI before I put my people in there. But, you know, who knows whether this president and his team would actually listen to anything the Justice Department -- BASH: That's a really good point.

BORGER: The Justice Department said. I mean --

BASH: Or care to.

BORGER: Right.

BASH: Or care to.

BORGER: I mean it's --

BASH: I mean they've got it in their -- in their --

BLITZER: Well, it looks like Senator Ron Johnson --

BASH: Yes.

BLITZER: Republican of Wisconsin, who's a serious guy, and he's the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, he has now accepted this explanation that it was made in jest about the secret society --

BASH: Right.

BLITZER: Over at the FBI.

BASH: Right. I mean he said to Manu, it's very possible.

BORGER: Right.

BASH: I mean it's pretty clear in that amazing, classic Manu, you know, chase down the hallway that he ran into that office, the senator, and they're trying to figure out exactly how to deal with this in the future.

Senator Johnson is somebody who, at least in my experience, if he turns out -- if it turns out that he was wrong, he would say. Others maybe not so much, particularly the outlets that we were talking about that feed on kind of churning this kind of stuff in order to muddy the waters.

BLITZER: The whole purpose of this churning is to sort of undermine the whole Robert Mueller investigation --

BORGER: Right. Exactly.

BLITZER: In case he does come out with charges, let's say, or some sort of negative report about the president, at least the base of the Republican Party --

BORGER: Right, and --

BLITZER: Who supports the president, will say, well, it was all just fun (ph). BORGER: Well, that's -- you know, that's part of it. I mean that's obviously what underlies all of this. And, of course, these two agents were removed immediately as a result of their text messages without a lot of fanfare. Before we even knew about it they were removed by Mueller.

BLITZER: Mueller removed them. Yes.

BORGER: A long time before we found out. So I think that, you know, Mueller continues to do his job the way he should do his job, and all of this, all of this tumult is sort of around him, but he's just -- he's just plowing right ahead, Wolf.

BLITZER: I want you guys to stand by because there's more breaking news we're following. The president opens the door to citizenship for the estimated 800,000 or so dreamers here in the United States. This as the White House is set to unveil a new legislative framework for immigration in the coming days.

Plus, President Trump's deal-making skills on full display in Davos as he threatens to cut off aid to Palestinians if they don't come to the negotiating table with Israel. A White House spokesman standing by live will discuss that and a whole lot more right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:21:57] BLITZER: President Trump is high in the Swiss Alps right now, he's in Davos for the World Economic Forum. He arrived there earlier in the day, and he's already making headlines by criticizing Palestinian leaders and threatening to cut off critical aid for Palestinian civilians while sitting next to the prime minister of Israel. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When they disrespected us a week ago by not allowing our great vice president to see them, and we give them hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and support, tremendous numbers, numbers that nobody understands, that money is on the table and that money is not going to them unless they sit down and negotiate peace, because I can tell you that Israel does want to make peace, and they're going to have to want to make peace too, or we're going to have nothing to do with it any longer.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The president's remarks come a little more than a week after the State Department here in Washington announced that it would be withholding some $65 million to a U.N. relief group, UNRA (ph) it's called, that helps Palestinians. At the same time, the State Department denied it was withholding the aid as punishment.

I'm joined now by the White House principal deputy press secretary, Raj Shah. He's joining us from Davos, Switzerland.

Raj, thanks so much for joining us. RAJ SHAH, WHITE HOUSE PRINCIPAL DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: Wolf, thanks a

lot for having me on.

BLITZER: So, is the president threatening not only to cut off funding for this U.N. relief agency, UNRA, as it's called, but also threatening to cut direct U.S. economic assistance to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank?

SHAH: Well, the president's message was pretty clear in that all options are sort of on the table when it comes to U.S. aid to the Palestinians and, you know, to UNRA, to the U.N. agency.

And this -- and his overall message is obviously very clear as well. We're not going to be subsidizing voices that attack the United States and, you know, promote anti-American resolutions and insult the vice president. It's pretty much that simple.

You know, we're working with the Israelis. We want to continue working with the Palestinians moving forward on a prospect for a peaceful settlement to their issues. And, you know, you really can't do that if you're not talking and if you're throwing insults.

Negotiating and disagreeing over issues in a respectful way is one thing, but trying to embarrass the United States on the world stage is something else. And, you know, the president's not going to put up with it and the White House is not going to put up with it.

BLITZER: Well, so just to be precise, Raj, if the Palestinian leadership, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, if they don't come to the negotiating table and sit down, negotiate peace with the United States and with the Israelis, others who may be involved as well, the U.S. is going to completely cut off economic aid to the Palestinians? Is that what I'm hearing?

SHAH: I'm saying that restrictions in all forms to aid are on the table.

BLITZER: Just be precise, because this is causing headlines, as you know, you're there in Davos right now, around the world.

SHAH: Right.

[13:25:04] BLITZER: The U.S. provides the Palestinians with several hundred million dollars a year in various forms of humanitarian and economic assistance. All of that will be gone if they don't change their minds and start the negotiating process once again?

SHAH: I'm not drawing a hard line right here. What I'm saying is that the many forms of aid that the United States gives to the Palestinians, directly and indirectly through UNRA and other agencies, you know, the levels of aid and the amount of aid would be all up to subject to changes if they don't come to the table or change, at least calm down some of the anti-American and anti-White House rhetoric.

BLITZER: All right, let's move on to another headline that has just emerged here in Washington. The president's been talking about it, as you know. Now Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, he's the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, he had earlier claimed that there was a secret society that he had heard about inside the FBI that was anti-President Trump, working to overthrow President Trump. Here's what he told CNN earlier.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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

SEN. RON JOHNSON (R), WISCONSIN: Listen, all I said is when I read those in those texts, that's Strzok and Page's, term, is, again, we're a committee of jurisdiction that protects whistleblowers. We have whistleblowers coming to from us across agencies. That didn't surprise me because I've heard from an individual that there were FBI agents, or, you know, management at the FBI holding meetings offsite.

RAJU: Offsite to do what exactly?

JOHNSON: I don't know.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, in contrast, Senator Johnson, just a little while ago here in Washington, Raj, he admitted that the whole idea of a secret society in that text that was discovered between these two FBI officials may simply have been a joke. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: Senator, two -- this text message seems to be a comment about secret society was in jest. Do you agree that it appears to be it was in jest?

JOHNSON: It's a real possibility.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you all.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: It's a real possibility, he says. What's your reaction?

SHAH: Well, I haven't seen everything that Senator Johnson has access to, but we would say that there are serious questions about political bias at high levels at the FBI. They've existed for some time under the leadership of the previous director, James Comey. This is why the president nominated Chris Wray to be the new FBI director to kind of clean house at the political leadership of the FBI.

You saw, frankly, political manipulation of Hillary Clinton's e-mail investigation, and, you know, Peter Strzok, the agent that Senator Johnson referenced there has been removed from the investigation related to the president because of his own political bias and some of the text messages that he had sent to another DOJ personnel.

So, you know, a lot of questions have been swirling around. We need to get to the bottom of this. We know the Department of Justice's inspector general has opened an investigation into this matter. We shouldn't jump to conclusions, but we should figure out everything that's going on and let the public be made aware of it because the FBI and all of its many brave men and women, their agents are the top law enforcement agency this world has ever seen, and we want any questions about impropriety to be resolved.

BLITZER: As you know, Raj, last night, before you guys left the White House, the president met informally with a gaggle of White House correspondents, and he was irate, he was very angry that a whole bunch of text messages between these two FBI officials had gone missing from December 2016 until May of 2017. He compared it to, you know, to Watergate, with them missing 18 minutes, as you know, on that tape.

But now -- and you're in Davos, so you may not have seen this, but the Department of Justice, your Department of Justice, the inspector general, Michael Horowitz, has just released a letter saying they've discovered, they've found a lot of these text messages, and there was a glitch, apparently, not just on the Samsung smartphones for these two individuals, but thousands of smartphones provided by Samsung. They seem to have discovered how that glitch occurred. They've retrieved a lot of those messages.

The president was angry about it. He wanted to know where those messages were. And now they've discovered, at least so far, a lot -- a lot of those messages and more are on their way. What's your reaction to this late-breaking development?

SHAH: Well, I'm not familiar with all the facts, but it's good that they have recovered some of those messages. What's important is what is in those messages and do they reveal political bias? This agent, Peter Strzok, was already removed from the case over the summer because of political bias he had shown months ago. Now there are months of text messages that, you know, had gone missing and now seem to have been recovered.

We'd like to see what's in them. We'd like to understand what level of political bias may have influenced this investigation.