Return to Transcripts main page


Source: Trump Tried To Fire Mueller Last June; Sources: Trump Growing Frustrated With His Chief Of Staff; Trump Denies Reports He Tried to Fire Robert Mueller. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired January 26, 2018 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:00] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: He is leaving Davos, Switzerland right now, you see him there in Marine One as he heads for Air Force One.

Here at home, though, a firestorm over new headlines on the Russia investigation. Earlier this morning the president worked hard to discredit new reporting that last June he tried to have Special Counsel Bob Mueller fired by his own White House attorney.

A source tells CNN that White House lawyer, Don McGahn, refused to fire Mueller and threatened to quit. The president for his part denies it all. Listen.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Did you seek to fire Robert Mueller?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: -- tried to fire Robert Mueller?


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What's your message today?

TRUMP: Typical "New York Times" fake story.



HARLOW: Keep in mind firing Mueller is a red line that many in the president's own party have repeatedly said he should not cross.

Our Jim Acosta is traveling with the president.

Good morning, Jim. We'll get to the details of the speech in just a moment. But what can you tell us on this front?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Poppy, as you said, the president is getting ready to depart Davos. He gave a speech here at the World Economic Forum, laid out what he believes to be a pretty spot-on economic record for the U.S. over the last year since he came into office. But as you were just mentioning a few moments ago, the president did

respond to the Robert Mueller story in "The New York Times" that he tried to fire the special counsel in June of last year prompting his own White House counsel, Don McGahn, to threaten to resign.

The president referring to all of that as fake news but that cloud has been hanging over this World Economic Forum over the last several hours. We've been trying to get some kind of reaction from Cabinet officials here. And as you know, it's sort of a who's who from the Trump administration.

Here is a sample of some of our interactions with both the Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson earlier this morning. Here is what they had to say.


WILBUR ROSS, COMMERCE SECRETARY: It's doing wonderful and the speech will be enormous.

ACOSTA: And how do you think the Mueller news is going to affect this trip, sir?

ROSS: We'll see. Nothing is going to change. The president is in very good spirits.

ACOSTA: Are you concerned about how this Mueller investigation is affecting the conference? Is it putting a cloud over things here, would you say?


ACOSTA: And are you concerned that the president tried to fire Robert Mueller?

TILLERSON: I know nothing about that.


ACOSTA: Now we should also point out, we also caught up with the Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. He said he was not concerned about the Mueller story and its impact on this trip. But obviously people here in Davos are feeling some concern about the press, you know, going around and trying to talk to various officials here including the president about all of this.

As a matter of fact, just before the president started speaking here we had somebody from -- claiming to be with security here at the World Economic Forum telling us that we should not be chasing down Cabinet secretaries and trying to talk to them. I reminded this person that we're with the press, and we're just trying to do our job and ask questions.

But as this is all wrapping up now, obviously that's not going to be a concern for the folks here anymore. But clearly this was a concern for officials with the Trump White House. We talked to one earlier this morning who said, yes, they're aware of these questions. They understand people are going to be talking about all of this. But they feel, Poppy, that they've had a pretty successful trip here to Davos -- Poppy.

HARLOW: Jim, I've been to Davos many times and covered it. You're doing exactly what you should be doing. Cameras are all over that building all the time chasing down officials for pertinent answers.

Keep on it. Thank you, Jim Acosta. We appreciate it.

Let's get straight to our Kara Scannell.

And Kara, you broke some very important news on all of these fronts last night. You have some more information on the reasoning the president has given or gave, I should say, Don McGahn, his White House attorney, for saying I want Bob Mueller out and here is why.

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right. So the president had laid out three areas that he viewed as conflicts and rationale why Bob Mueller should be fired. One of them was that years ago when Bob Mueller was a member of the Trump National Golf Course in Virginia, there was a dispute over fees. And Mueller left the club over that and so Trump laid that as one reason.

The second reason was that Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner was using lawyers at a Washington law firm where Bob Mueller was a partner before he was named special counsel. And the third reason, the potential conflict the president used as rationale for wanting to fire Mueller was that Mueller had been interviewed to be the FBI director under Trump the day before he was named special counsel.

And so those were the reasons that the president had told Don McGahn he wanted him to direct the Justice Department to fire Mueller. McGahn obviously disagreed with that and threatened to resigned over it. We -- our crack research team here has gone back and looked into that since August, the president, the White House and aides have denied eight times that the president ever considered or contemplated firing McGahn so it's very interesting today to see Trump calling this fake news. And we'll see what the White House has to say later on today.

HARLOW: Yes. The president himself has said that on camera. We'll play it for you in just a moment. Before you go, though, look, I thought it was fascinating or very telling what Ty Cobb, one of the White House attorneys, came out and said last night and gave us in response to all of these. Because it was not a denial.

[09:05:03] SCANNELL: Right. It's not a denial. No one has denied it at all. They're just pushing forward that, you know, they're cooperating with Mueller's investigation. That has been the narrative that the White House has been pushing under the new lawyers and when Trump threatened to fire Mueller, he was being represented by a different legal team. So they've been putting forth that they're cooperating.

They've said that there have been 20 White House officials who have interviewed with Mueller, eight from the White House counsel's office and that they're currently in negotiations about whether the president will or won't sit before Mueller and answer questions. And that decision we expect to be made in the next few weeks.

HARLOW: All right. Kara Scannell, great reporting. Thank you so much.

So let's just pause for a second because timing here matters a lot. Let's take a step back. Let's remember what was going on in June of last year. One source tells CNN the president demanded that Bob Mueller be fired.

Let's go back to May first. May 9th, President Trump fired FBI director James Comey, he was leading the Russia probe. And before you know it, on May 17th, just days later Bob Mueller was hired to lead that probe as special counsel. Then on June 7th, Comey's memos come to light, detailing his account of meeting with the president, the president asking him for loyalty.

On June 8th, Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee and says he can't comment on whether there was evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. The very next day, the president says, he is, quote, "100 percent willing to testify under oath about his conversations with Comey."

Fast forward, June 15th. There's a report that Special Counsel Bob Mueller is now investigating the president not just for collusion but also for potential obstruction of justice, and that Mueller was requesting interviews with senior White House officials. That's also the day that President Trump tweeted that the Russia investigation is, quote, in the president's words, "the single greatest witch hunt in American history."

And that, folks, brings us full circle to where we are today, learning that at some point that same month in June, the president orders his White House attorney to fire Bob Mueller. White House counsel Don McGahn says no way, threatens to quit. The president backs down. That hasn't happened.

Let's discuss with CNN legal analyst Paul Callan, CNN national security analyst Susan Hennessey.

Nice to have you both here. Let's all listen to the president in his own words when he is asked back in August by a reporter, are you thinking about firing Mueller? This is two months after he asked Don McGahn to do exactly that. Here is what the president said.


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

TRUMP: I haven't given it any thought. I mean, I've been reading about it from you people. You say, I'm going to dismiss him. No, I'm not dismissing anybody.



PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: You know, the president, the way he phrases things, it's just amazing. He said -- he says no, and then he says but you guys have been talking about it and I've read about it. All right. The no is an answer to the question, have you thought about it? Well, if you read about it, you were thinking about what you were reading. Right? So on its face that's an inaccurate answer to a question. He's slippery on the way he answers questions. And that's an example.

HARLOW: But now from our reporting it's false.

CALLAN: It's totally false, completely false. Because obviously what the reporting indicates is he was obsessed with the appointment of Mueller. He was angry that Mueller was appointed. He talked to his counsel about how can we fire Mueller. And not only did he talk to him about it --

HARLOW: He asked --

CALLAN: -- Trump came up with at least three rationales that he thought would justify it. Now those three rationales, by the way, wouldn't pass the laugh test under analysis by most judges.

HARLOW: Right.

CALLAN: But obviously he was not only thinking about it, he was analyzing it.

HARLOW: Susan Hennessey, to you, so now that we know from our reporting, "The New York Times" reporting, our outlets, that the president asked Don McGahn to fire Mueller in June of last year, what does that do to the ongoing Mueller investigation when it comes specifically to potential obstruction of justice?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: Right. So it's important to note that Trump actually didn't undertake this activity. So it's a little bit different than how we would consider something like the Comey firing, which he actually just tried.

HARLOW: But what about intent? Intent?

HENNESSEY: Right. So I -- one thing that's sort of a striking resemblance between this episode and the Comey episode is that Trump appears to be offering a pre-textual legal reason. Right? So he's saying that he fired Comey because he didn't like the handling of the Clinton e-mail investigation. Now he's offering these very, very tenuous conflicts of interest as a rationale for firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Robert Mueller had been cleared by career ethics officials in the Justice Department who looked at those conflicts and decided that they were not a violation of the rules. And so once again, just as in the Comey episode, we are seeing the president latch on to a set of legal rationale or legal justifications that he wants to offer. This is the reason why I want to fire someone when, you know, common sense and then the rest of the evidence would indicate that's not really why he's acting.

[09:10:02] HARLOW: Right. Just, you know, akin to that letter that was written about -- you know, the reasoning for the firing of James Comey by Rod Rosenstein.

OK. Paul, how significant is it that Mueller is continuing this investigation at the same time that he's now known for months, according to "The New York Times," that the president wanted him fired? Does -- I mean, how does that play into things?

CALLAN: Prosecutors deal with this all the time. And we also have precedence in American history. When Archibald Cox investigated Richard Nixon.

HARLOW: Right.

CALLAN: He knew that Nixon wasn't too happy about the investigation. And special prosecutors proceed and they do their job. The people who are under investigation don't usually like prosecutors, but if they are professionals, they get their job done in a professional way.

HARLOW: Do you remember, Susan Hennessey, one of the president's lawyers, John Dowd, told Axios a few months ago, quote, "The president cannot obstruct justice because he is the chief law enforcement officer." He claims that's under Article Two of the Constitution.

I mean, that -- the Constitution doesn't address that, right? That would have to still be determined by the courts, but that's the White House position.

HENNESSEY: Right. So this really is a very, very extreme position. It's essentially akin to saying the president can't violate the law, the president is above the law. Now there are complex legal questions about whether or not you can indict a sitting president.

HARLOW: Right.

HENNESSEY: That's a separate question about whether or not the president can violate the law. You know, ultimately here we probably aren't looking at Donald Trump being indicted at the end of sort of -- the conclusion of the Mueller investigation, even sort of the most extreme examples. That's pretty unlikely. But that doesn't change the fact that there is a serious inquiry into whether or not the president was involved in or directed criminal conduct.

You know, ultimately the political consequences here is going to be what's most important. You know, how are -- how are Senate Republicans and congressional Republicans reacting to the news this morning. That's going to be more significant than the technical legal ramifications. HARLOW: All right. And Paul Callan, final question to you. Is it

possible, if the president chooses to reverse course here -- this morning his answer was totally fake news, none of this is true, even though multiple outlets have this reporting.

Could the president claim, look, Bob Mueller can no longer lead an unbiased investigation because he thinks that I wanted to fire him. So flip it on its head. Do you see what I'm saying?

CALLAN: No, no, I see that.

HARLOW: Can he do that?

CALLAN: He can try that. But --

HARLOW: Would that have any ground?

CALLAN: It's not a legitimate grounds to fire Mueller. And by the way, you know, the president is always referring to fake news. By my account, his definition of fake news is news that's unflattering to him. It's not inaccurate news, it's just news that he doesn't like. He labels it as fake news. And it's clear as day that he was thinking about, analyzing firing Mueller in the summer, and my bet is many other times. But you know something? That's not a legal ground to fire Mueller. There may be legal grounds. But that's not one of them.

HARLOW: And as you saw, his own attorney, you know, the White House counsel wouldn't do it.

CALLAN: No, he wouldn't do it. Thank you.

HARLOW: Thank you very much, Paul Callan and Susan Hennessey. Have a great weekend guys. We appreciate it.

A lot ahead for us this hour. The West Wing or the fighting wing. Sources tell CNN the president's relationship with his chief of staff growing tenser by the day, and the White House dubbing it a dramatic concession, now proposing giving 1.8 million undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship, but what does the president want in exchange? $25 billion for his wall and more.

The president pushes America First on the world stage but makes it clear that it is not America alone. Are other nations on board?

We are live in Davos, Switzerland.



HARLOW: All right. Back now to the major developments on the Russia investigation. This morning, the president flatly denying multiple reports that he tried to fire Special Counsel Bob Mueller last June.

With us our political commentator, Errol Louis, CNN contributor, Brianna Golodryga, and CNN Politics reporter, editor-at-large, Chris Cilizza. Nice to have you all here.

Chris, your piece was the first thing I read this morning when I woke up. Where do I begin? The president says typical "New York Times," fake news, fake news. This is not just one news outlet that has this. This is multiple news outlets that have this from very credible sources.

CHRIS CILIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER AND EDITOR-AT-LARGE: Yes. I just don't think that we should -- I don't think this is a denial. This is -- that these stories are out there and Donald Trump says fake news. I don't know that those two things equal one another.

I think -- the question that he needs to answer, if he wants to make good on this alleged denial is, did you tell Don McGann to fire Bob Mueller. If he says no, I absolutely did not, OK. Now we have something.

To just say fake news, fake news, "The New York Times" is fake news, it's a copout. This is the president of the United States. Did he or did he not order the special counsel to be removed.

I would remind people, a month-ish after he fired the acting FBI director who was the head of the Russia investigation. I don't think you just get to say fake news, fake news. But what's fake about it? Given the depths of the reporting as you note, Poppy, and the seriousness of the charges.

HARLOW: It's a great point. Errol Louis, it's matched by the point that Ty Cobb, the White House counsel responding to all this last night to our Gloria Borger did not deny it. Ty Cobb said we're cooperating with the investigation and I'm not going to say more out of respect for the investigation. How telling is it to you that no one from the White House has flat-out denied this?

ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No, no one can. Let's keep in mind another CNN contributor, April Ryan, actually reported this at the time. She didn't have the details, that there was chaos inside the White House, that the president tried to fire Robert Mueller.

And there are multiple credible reports, right, that you start piecing together all the different kind of early reporting with this now confirmed from multiple sources.

[09:20:10] And I don't know if they could just turn around and say this never happened. So, as we know, when the president says someone is being unfair to him, it means something negative. When he says something is fake news, it means it's a negative news report.

HARLOW: But they could because, as we just played in the last block, Bianna, the president himself when asked this in August. So, this is two months after he ordered Don McGann to fire Bob Mueller. Don McGann says no, I'm walking out if -- you know, I'm not doing this. The president backed down.

Two months after that in August, the president said I haven't given it any thought. I have been reading it from you people. You say I'm going to dismiss him, no, I'm not dismissing anybody.

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, because in one regard it's not that surprising in a sense that we as journalists have constantly been asking this question, will he fire Bob Mueller? Will he fire him and we had countless people from within the administration and his counsel saying, no, that's ludicrous, it hasn't even been brought up, including Kellyanne Conway.

I think what's more stunning is that it happened one month after he fired Comey. You can say Comey and that firing was a gross miscalculation, right, because Comey wasn't necessarily loved by the left. You heard reports that Jared Kushner had been pushing for the firing saying that it's a win-win, the left doesn't like him, the right doesn't like him, let's move forward.

We saw what transpired after Comey was fired. To do this one month after he saw this blow up in his face, from an optics perspective, at least it does seem to reflect that whatever the president is hiding must be so bad that he's willing to endure another round of these hits.

BERMAN: Kaitlan, let's remind everyone, here is what she said when another reporter asked her, why doesn't the president just fire Bob Mueller. Let's play it.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We want to see this come to a complete and full conclusion. I think we all know what everybody in this room would do if the president did that, and I don't think that's helpful to the process.


HARLOW: So, how do you look at that differently this morning?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: We've heard these denials from not only Sarah Sanders, but back when Sean Spicer was the press secretary. Kellyanne Conway, the president himself, so many people have denied. The president considers, thought about it, tried to fire the special counsel.

It is highly possible that Sarah Sanders didn't know about this, Sean Spicer didn't know about this, and maybe even Kellyanne Conway didn't know about this. But it all comes down to the president himself lied about these multiple times on the record, on camera, in front of reporters.

This wasn't just a one-off where he was asked about it and said I'm not considering it at the time. He said he's never given it any thought. That is a lie. The president thought about it. He tried to do it and he wasn't able to.

HARLOW: By the way, I was thinking if and when likely Bob Mueller questions the president, this will be one of the questions. Did you want me fired? COLLINS: Exactly. How does that play into that? How would he be questioned by the special counsel about this?

HARLOW: Kaitlan, you have some fascinating very important reporting out of the west wing this morning and that is that the divide between John Kelly, the chief of staff, and the president grows and grows. John Kelly didn't go to Davos because he's working on immigration. The president walks into the Kelly meeting on immigration and takes over with reporters this week. What are you hearing?

COLLINS: Yes, that's right. There's been some tension between these two men. It's pretty obvious that this would happen eventually. It's a very free-wheeling president, a very structured chief of staff. It came to a head on Wednesday night in that briefing that Kelly was briefing reporters on immigration. The president totally upended it.

Started taking questions from reporters and then afterwards, one source said that he put Kelly in a box because he has this growing sense that Kelly is trying to undermine him. He doesn't respect him. He's putting on the front that he's protecting the American people from President Trump himself.

That's something that frustrates the president. He does not like that. Then he got on a plane and went to Davos without his chief which is typically always by his side we should note for this. It really shows how the tension between these two men has really grown.

The president does not like to be undermined. We've seen this with several other staffers. This isn't the first time we've seen this flare-up between them in recent weeks. It happened with that interview with John Kelly on another network where he said that the president's views had evolved on immigration and the wall. Quickly the president got on Twitter and said, no they haven't.

HARLOW: Chris Cilizza, to you, one of the most fascinating nuggets from Kaitlan's reporting this morning, Trump has a growing feeling that Kelly is quietly trying to signal to people outside the White House that he's here to protect the country from him, him the president. That's what sources said. That's problematic for the relationship to say the least.

CILIZZA: Right. We've been hearing Mattis, Kelly and Tillerson, before Kelly became chief of staff when he was at Homeland Security, that the three of them were doing a patriotic act, that they believed if they didn't, Donald Trump unfettered without their guidance was dangerous.

So, in some ways it's not new, but Kelly being in the position he's in, it is. Here's the thing, you're never going to be a successful chief of staff for Donald Trump because Kaitlan is, of course, right, which is he doesn't like to be undermined.

[09:25:10] The problem is he thinks he's constantly being undermined. So, it's very difficult I think he views himself as his best spokesman, strategist, pollster, his best everything. When you're the chief of staff and doing what John Kelly has tried to do which is restrict the access in terms of news sources.

So, he is not getting information that is blatantly false and then broadcasting that information, the president is going to chafe. He does not like to be managed in way, shape or form and thinks he's smarter than everyone who works for him. You're doomed to fail.

If John Kelly left and they bring someone else in, I guarantee Donald Trump would say, now this guy will be -- but that person in six months, Kaitlan Collins will be reporting the same stuff about.

HARLOW: There were so many examples in recent history, big personality, big profile chiefs of staff, Rahm Emanuel, James Baker. But for this president doesn't like to be overshadowed in any way. How do you see the significance of this?

GOLODRYGA: You can argue that Kelly has lasted this long because he said I'm going to stay in my lane, right. I'm not going to stop the president from tweeting. I can't Trump from being Trump. What I can be is more of a gateway and a filter, right, as to what he sees, who he sees, the phone calls that he gets, whether or not he'll have access to his daughter and Jared Kushner the way he did.

And it seems like now following up on your reporting and other reporting on the matter is that's even frustrating the president, the sort of gateway player that Kelly has been. On the other hand, he's been a stabilizer as well internally. I think it puts the president in a box.

HARLOW: Does the president need John Kelly, Errol?

LOUIS: I think the country probably does in the following sense that we need a chief of staff. You need an administration that's coherent, that speaks with one voice where you don't have things like what we saw the other day. It's great for us as journalists that the president walks in and gives an impromptu -- breaks a bunch of news and then flies away, right.

That's great. For everybody who was there, it's a wonderful moment. It's not great for the country to always be wondering what is the policy. A bunch of negotiators spent a lot of time trying to fix immigration policy. They sit down with the president. They leave. The chief of staff promptly overrules the whole arrangement.

This is not going to be good in the long run, not just for the administration, but for the country. We need a chief of staff and we need a president who recognizes that although he may truly believe that he be his own chief of staff, communications director, pollster, campaign manager and everything else, it's a government of a lot of people.

GOLODRYGA: The other thing would be is if Kelly pulls a McGann and threatens to quit.

HARLOW: We have to wrap up. You don't have that --

COLLINS: This is a president who detests being managed, but look at what is happening with this Mueller-McGann stuff. He wanted to fire Mueller, wanted McGann to do it. McGann told him no. The only reason he didn't was because McGann threatened to quit. That is being managed.

HARLOW: There you go. Good point. Thank you all very much. No shortage of news this morning. We appreciate it.

Ahead for us, the White House proposes a new framework on immigration, laying out what it wants. The president signaling he's going to take a different approach when it comes to dealing with Democrats. Listen to this.


PRESIDENT TRUMP: I don't want to say Schumer got badly beaten. Why should I do that? You look at what happened, the people want security and they want DACA taken care of and I don't think the Democrats would want to pull another shutdown. We'll get it solved. If we need a little more time, we'll take a little more time. I want to get the problem solved correctly.


HARLOW: Very different tone than that crying Chuck tweet a few days ago. Also, it's not just Democrats. Will the president have to convince immigration hardliners on the right that he's right, too? Stay with us.