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Source: Trump Tried to Fire Mueller Last June; Clinton Blocked Firing of Adviser Accused of Harassment; Nikki Haley Slams "Disgusting" Rumors of Affair with Trump. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired January 26, 2018 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:20] BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: Hi, there. I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you so much for being with me here on this Friday afternoon. You're watching CNN.

Here we go. After days of stunning news erupting out of this whole Russia investigation, we end the week with really the biggest bombshell of them all. A source says President Trump tried to fire the man leading this entire case, special counsel Robert Mueller. And the only reason the president didn't go through with it, according to the source, is because White House counsel Don McGahn refused.

Today, the president had this to say after this account.


REPORTER: Mr. President, did you try to fire Robert Mueller?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Fake news, folks. Fake news. Typical "New York Times" fake stories.

REPORTER: Did you try to fire Robert Mueller?

TRUMP: Thank you. Fake news.


BALDWIN: Well, there went the president but here is more to the story. This is according to the source, that the president tried to fire Bob Mueller back in June. That means Mueller was just weeks on the job. He was appointed to lead the investigation on May 17th after President Trump fired FBI director James Comey May 9th.

So, while the president claims the story is false, I want you to check out this interview his friend Chris Ruddy did with Chris Cuomo in June of last year.


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Do you believe that the president is seriously considering getting rid of Bob Mueller? And why do you think that?

CHRIS RUDDY, TRUMP FRIEND: I think it's a consideration the president has had because Mueller is illegitimate as special counsel. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: Let's start with my friend, Abby Philip, there in Davos, Switzerland, where the president has been.

And so, Abby, you know, we heard the president denying the story there in Davos. But what about Don McGahn, this attorney who's the one who have said he would quit, you know, if the president wanted him to do this. What is he saying today?


There's been some conspicuous silence from some of the people involved in this, including Don McGahn. He said absolutely nothing in response to "The Times" story which has confirmed by numerous other news outlets and also the White House is also not saying much at all.

What we did hear is from the White House attorney, who deals with Russia-related issues, deals with the special counsel, Ty Cobb. And he put out this really non-statement. He says that we decline to comment out of respect for the office of the special counsel. Now, this is a story that the White House has been dealing with for quite some time.

And, remember, around this time, the president himself was engaged in sort of an assault on Robert Mueller, criticizing the special counsel as a witch hunt and also Chris Ruddy, as you just played, came out publicly, publicly and on the record saying repeatedly that he believed his friend, President Trump, who he talks to regularly, wanted to do this and he thought it was a bad enough idea that he needed to say it publicly, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Conspicuous silence.


BALDWIN: Go ahead. Go ahead.

PHILLIP: Yes. And in addition to that, I mean, one of the reasons that Don McGahn, according to "The New York Times," wanted to go ahead and push back on this suggestion from the president is because he believes the underlying reasons why President Trump wanted to fire Robert Mueller were essentially illegitimate. The president had cited a couple of things that seemed quite unrelated to the issue, including an alleged dispute between Bob Mueller and his Trump International Golf Course in Virginia, the fact that Mueller worked for a law firm that represented his son-in-law, Jared Kushner and also that the president had actually considered appointing Robert Mueller as the FBI director when he fired James Comey.

So, all of these are the reasons that were apparently percolating in the president's head. But Don McGahn felt those were not sufficient in order to fire Bob Mueller, a move that both Republicans and Democrats believed would have been catastrophic to the Trump administration.

BALDWIN: Abby Phillip, thank you so much for the setup here.

Let's take a deeper dive on what this new piece of information could actually mean in the broader picture of the Russia investigation. With me, I have CNN legal analyst Michael Zeldin, who used to serve as Robert Mueller's special assistant when they were at the DOJ. Elizabeth Beck is back with us today, an attorney who deposed Donald Trump in 2011, and CNN contributor Walter Shaub, who quit his job as the director of the office of government ethics under the Trump administration. He now works at the Campaign Legal Center.

So, happy Friday to everyone. And let's get to it.

Michael Zeldin, first to you.

[14:05:00] You know, based upon the president's actions in trying to fire Bob Mueller last summer, did the case for obstruction just get a bit stronger?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, Brooke, I'm not sure that the case for obstruction got stronger. But what got stronger was the window into the president's thinking for Bob Mueller, which is to say that in order for Bob Mueller to bring a case for obstruction of justice, he has to prove that the actor -- in this case, the president -- acted with intent to obstruct.

So, to prove the intent, what's in a person's mind, is not easily done. It's done by circumstantial evidence. Here, with this allegation that he ordered McGahn to order Rosenstein to fire Mueller on bogus charges, he gives Mueller interviewers an opportunity to see what his mental processes are, and then they can analyze all his actions in relation to that. So, it made the opportunity to understand the president's motives much simpler.

BALDWIN: So on motives, let's just all look at this pattern of behavior. I made this list here. You have the president telling Comey to stop looking into his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. You have the Trump firing of Comey, Trump angry at his A.G., Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from the Russia investigation. You have the president trying to have Mueller fired.

And also in this "New York Times" piece, it reports that the president also considered firing the deputy A.G., Rod Rosenstein. So, again, this is all part of the bigger picture, Walter Shaub. And my question to you is, what does that tell you about the president and, perhaps, repeated attempts to undercut this investigation?

WALTER SHAUB, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I think the president told us himself, didn't he, when he was on the air with Lester Holt and said he was thinking about the Russia investigation.

BALDWIN: He did. He did.

SHAUB: And, in fact, your list highlights some of the strongest items. But there's also other things that we're going to throw in the kitchen sink, we can start adding up, like his targeting of McCabe or crowing about the assignment of the general counsel at the FBI or firing Sally Yates, which is presumably because of the immigration ban that she refused to enforce.

But he could have actually replaced her and put somebody else in the attorney general position long enough to enforce that ban.

ELIZABETH BECK, ATTORNEY: Why are you subjecting me to this?

BALDWIN: I'm sorry?

SHAUB: Sorry. I just heard a voice in my ear.

BALDWIN: I did, too. Whose voice was that? Was that you, Elizabeth? No.

OK. Sorry. I don't know what's going -- keep going, Walter. Go ahead.

SHAUB: So there's a lot of pieces floating around in there, not all of them are conclusive. Some of them can be explained legitimately.

But then you also have the president coming up with a story about three different reasons why Mueller should be fired and they're all pretty flimsy and, frankly, a little bit weird. And then you have him denying that he did it, and the White House consistently denying that he did it. I think those denials, which seem now based on the well- sourced stories to be lies suggest that they know it's wrong and that consciousness of guilt is, perhaps, the thing that would tip the balance, as Michael said, in analyzing the motives.

ZELDIN: Brooke, may I add one thing to your list?

BALDWIN: You can and then I want to get to some sound of all these advisers denying this much of the air. But go ahead. Go ahead, Mr. Zeldin.

ZELDIN: The one thing I would add to your list is back in March, he asked his national security people to intervene with the FBI to try to put a halt to this investigation. To me, that's the most problematic. That's most like what Richard Nixon did when he asked the CIA to interfere in the FBI investigation there. So, if I were making a list, I think I would put that --

BALDWIN: You would add that to the list?

ZELDIN: Yes, at the top. Yes.

BALDWIN: OK. So, the list is getting longer. When it comes to the White House and these public denials, from, you know, high members of the staff, Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Sanders and even the president himself. Gentlemen, listen to this.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: While the president has the right to, he has no intention to do so.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: The president has not even discussed that. The president is not discussing firing Bob Mueller.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS ANCHOR: Will he commit not to fire him?

CONWAY: We are complying and cooperating with -- he has not even discussed not fire -- he has not discussed firing Bob Mueller.

TRUMP: I haven't giving it any thought. I've bee reading about it from you people, oh, I'm going to dismiss him. No, I'm not dismissing anybody.

REPORTER: Did you consider firing Robert Mueller?

TRUMP: No, not at all.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Is there any chance at all that the president will try to fire Robert Mueller?

JAY SEKULOW, TRUMP ATTORNEY: No. You know, I saw a couple of people talking about that this morning. The answer to that is no.

REPORTER: Are you considering firing Robert Mueller?

TRUMP: No, I'm not. No.


[14:10:02] BALDWIN: So my question, Walter, was, you know, take the president out of that. He certainly is a key piece. But if you listen to all these other advisers, how do you determine if this was, you know, just willful deception or they just simply didn't know the truth?

SHAUB: Well, you know, as often happens with these White House officials, none of them are saying I think he's not thinking that or I presume he's not doing that. They're saying definitively this is not happening.


SHAUB: And so, that gives the impression that they communicated with him, that they have the full universe of facts at their disposal and they certainly have more information at their disposal than we do. So, I'd say that immediately qualifies as deception because the minimum they could have done is articulated that this is mere speculation or an opinion on their part.

BALDWIN: OK. So you say deception. Here is my question about Don McGahn. Listening to a lot of the Democrats today -- and obviously a lot of this is legal and political. Democrats are saying why this guy getting canonized? You know, yes, he threatened to quit overall this last June, Michael, but listening to a former Obama staffer, it's essentially on TV saying like, whoa, whoa, whoa, you know, the White House counsel is central to deciding what is said publicly about any legal issue.

Should he have spoken out? Should he have corrected these staffers and advisers who were clearly not telling the truth?

ZELDIN: So, first of all, I don't know that McGahn should be canonized. But I think he should be congratulated for doing his job. That was his job to provide the president with legal advice and he gave him sage counsel on that, perhaps saved his presidency.

But with respect to the statements, it looked to me -- they went faster than I can read but it looked to me like most of them were after June. So, one could posit that after the Riot Act, if you will, was read to the president by McGahn, he no longer entertained the belief that he could fire Mueller. And so, all those statements thereafter may actually have been

truthful statements. We just don't know that yet. And that's something for Mueller to determine as well.


BALDWIN: Last question, gentlemen. How does he sit -- how does Mueller and his team sit in front of the president and say did you try to fire me? I mean, isn't that part of his questioning now?

ZELDIN: I think that would be a question that he would ask McGahn, in McGahn's interview and Rosenstein in Rosenstein's interview.

BALDWIN: OK, OK. Gentlemen, thank you. We will speak again, I am sure. Michael and Walter, good see both of you.

Let's move on to some other breaking news. CNN is learning Hillary Clinton protected a top adviser who was repeatedly accused of harassing a young female subordinate. And, we're learning, that she personally requested that he stay on during the 2008 presidential campaign. We have those new details ahead.

Also ahead, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, slamming these rumors she's having an affair with the president, calling it disgusting and a familiar attack on successful women. We're going to have that conversation today.

And he's a four-star marine general who has braved some of the world's most dangerous war zones. But can the White House Chief of Staff John Kelly survive these new reports that he is now on thin ice with the president?

I'm Brooke Baldwin and you're watching CNN.


[14:17:44] BALDWIN: Got some breaking news for you on a Friday afternoon about Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton is facing accusations that she shielded an accused sexual harasser during her 2008 presidential campaign. CNN has learned Clinton stepped in to save this man's job of then faith adviser Burns Strider. He was accused of sexually harassing a female subordinate. Strider was apparently then sent to counseling while the accuser was reassigned.

Strider has not yet responded to CNN's request for a statement. But we did get something from the law firm who represented Clinton in her '08 campaign.

Let me read this for you: To ensure a safe working environment, the campaign had a process to address complaints of misconduct or harassment. When matters arose, they were reviewed in accordance with those policies and appropriate action was taken. This complaint was no exception.

I should tell you that Burns Strider did later join an independent group supporting Clinton's 2016 campaign but was fired after a couple of months under a cloud of sexual harassment claims there.

So, with me now, Rebecca Berg, CNN political reporter, and David Chalian, our CNN political director.

So, David Chalian, first to you. Let me -- can we step back three steps and tell me more about who Burns Strider is, his role in the '08 campaign, and some of these allegations?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: So, as you mentioned, he was a faith adviser to the campaign. You may recall, back around this time in American politics, '06, '07, '08, Democrats were trying to deal with some of the cultural divide they had with voters, certain voters in certain areas and sort of putting forth the notion of importance to speak about faith in ways that didn't cede the entire conversation about faith to the Republican Party.

So, Burns Strider was a faith adviser to Hillary Clinton, gave her daily devotionals to read. We know that's a practice she did in the '16 campaign as well. And, clearly, she was made aware of these complaints against him and chose to override her campaign manager and senior aide and say, he shouldn't be fired.

BALDWIN: So, then, the obvious question is, well, why not? I mean, we're talking Patty Solis Doyle, who was a campaign manager at the time. It's my understanding she had no comment for "The Times" who originally broken this story.

[14:20:01] Rebecca, do we know why this man wasn't fired? Because it's my understanding then, as we reported, he went on to work with a support group to help out with the 2016 campaign and then separate to what happened allegedly in '08, there were other, you know, allegations of sexual harassment and that they finally quietly let him go.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: That's right, Brooke. So, the short answer to your question, according to "The New York Times" reporting and the reporting we have so far in this at CNN is simply that Hillary Clinton decided she did not want to fire Burns Strider. She overrode her campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle upon hearing these allegations. The allegations were serious enough that Patti Solis Doyle recommended that Burns Strider he be fired.

He was sharing an office with a woman who alleged he inappropriately gave her massages, kissed her on the forehead, sent her suggestive e- mails. So, pretty textbook sort of sexual harassment in the workplace. And it was serious enough that they did recommend he be fired. But instead, Hillary Clinton wanted to keep him on the campaign and so they docked his pay, they urged him -- ordered him, rather, to seek counseling and the woman was reassigned out of his office.

But as you said, this was a problem that came up again ultimately for him in relation to him. And so, there are questions still about what is Hillary Clinton going to say, how is she going to explain her decision on this?

CHALIAN: She's going to have to explain it, Brooke. There's no doubt.

BALDWIN: She is.

CHALIAN: This can't be left where it is. She is going to have to make a statement about this in her own voice to address why she chose to handle it this way.

You know, I just think this overall raises questions about Bill and Hillary Clinton's role in the Democratic Party. Here we are, in a mid-term election year. Are they, in this sort of me too environment and with the allegations in the past against Bill Clinton and Donald Trump's accusations of Hillary Clinton for being an enabler and now seeing this decision of Hillary Clinton. Is this what today's Democratic Party wants sort of as their Democratic superstars, as surrogates out on the campaign trail? I think that remains to be seen.

BERG: And, you know, just to piggyback off of that, David, I think we've already seen the Democratic Party moving beyond the Clinton era with Senator Gillibrand coming out recently and saying had she been around during Bill Clinton's presidency, she thinks it would have been appropriate for him to resign in the face of the sexual assault and sexual harassment allegations that he faced when he was president and when he was candidate for president.

So, we're really I think we're already in a new era for the Democratic Party here.

BALDWIN: Moving off of the Clintons for a second, I do want to get in -- David, let me ask you about this "Wall Street Journal" reporting that dozens of people are reporting sexual misconduct at the hands of the Las Vegas mogul and RNC finance chair Steve Wynn. What do you know about that?

CHALIAN: Well, yes, you're right, "The Wall Street Journal" reporting these horrific details. I mean, one bad story here, Brooke, about mistreatment of women in the workplace. But, you know, besides being sort of a corporate CEO with accusations of this bad behavior as part of his messy divorce, it seems why this is coming to light, according to "The Wall Street Journal", there is a political angle.

You mentioned he's the RNC finance chair. He donated to the RNC in the general election to help elect Donald Trump. He got appointed to that position, donated to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. So, here, too, just like Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had to answer about Harvey Weinstein last fall and they had taking his money, so too will President Trump, the White House, the RNC, NRSC have to answer questions about the Wynn money.

BALDWIN: Yes. David Chalian, thank you. Rebecca Berg, good to see you.

We move on to one of President Trump's cabinet members who is defending herself in the face of a salacious rumor. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Halley is vehement disputing these suggestions that she is, quote, having an affair with President Trump. Again, it's a rumor, not a report. Those are huge distinction there, which started with the controversial book "Fire and Fury". The author Michael Wolff alleges, quote, that the president had been spending a notable amount of private time with Haley on Air Force One and seen to be grooming her for a national political future. Wolff exacerbating the simple sentence by telling Bill Maher he is, quote, absolutely sure the president is having an affair right now.

But what's newsworthy about all of this is the way in which how the ambassador has responded to this rumor.

And for that, we go to you, Elise Labott, our CNN global affairs correspondent.

And it is -- she makes a great point. Tell me what Ambassador Haley says.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, and to be clear, you know, Michael Wolff himself never said that the president and Nikki Haley were having an affair. But, you know, a lot of when he's told Bill Maher this, he jumped on it and kind of assumed that it's Nikki Haley, which, you know, the idea that they would be spending private time together, having an affair on Air Force One, I don't even know what to say.

BALDWIN: Amazing.

LABOTT: But, you know, also Nikki Haley just, you know, kind of called the rumors disgusting, said she has only been on Air Force One one time with people around and never had that many conversations with the president about her political future.

[14:25:13] Take a listen to what she told the "Politico's" Eliana Johnson in Johnson's podcast.


NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED STATES: It is absolutely not true. It is highly offensive and it's disgusting. This isn't something that's just happened as a cabinet member. I saw this as a legislator. I saw this when I was governor. I see it now.

People see lies for what it is. Do I like it? No. Is it right? No. Is it going to slow me down? Not at all.

Any time this has happened, it only makes me fight harder. It only makes me work harder. And I do it for the sake of other women that are behind me.


LABOTT: And, you know, Brooke, as you know, I travelled to Africa with Nikki Haley in November, which was when the whole kind of sexual harassment issue really started to gain a lot of momentum and I asked her about sexual harassment at the time. You know, she has admitted to facing sexual harassment in her career, when she was an up and comer in South Carolina. And she said that she respected the women coming forward, that this country is not perfect and that, you know, everyone needs to go forward.

But, you know, again, you can't only blame Michael Wolff for these salacious allegations but also all the other people that are kind of jumping on it, and saying, you know, these types of things which is really laughable.

BALDWIN: No, it's the notion of having an attractive woman doing well --

LABOTT: Right.

BALDWIN: -- and detractors saying, oh, obviously she was doing well because she was hmm with the president. We're going to get into that and have that conversation next hour, I can assure you.

But, Elise, I want to get to your other reporting for the day. You have some exclusive reporting on current State Department employees charging political retribution over their previous work under the Obama administration. Tell me more.

LABOTT: That's right. Well, you know, we've been talking for months about, you know, the morale problem at the State Department. A lot of foreign officers leaving and a lot about Secretary Tillerson's redesign.

Now, you know, when Secretary Tillerson came in, he had a backlog of Freedom of Information Act request, a lot of these requests, about 22,000 of them, had piled up over recent years when journalists and conservative groups were asking for Hillary Clinton's e-mails. So, he came in. There's 22,000 e-mail requests of Freedom of Information requests and he said, I've got to clear this backlog. And he assigned a lot of people to this job.

Some of them didn't have really jobs anymore because they were in old offices that President Obama's State Department created. They would be doing clerical work, Brooke. A lot of them are doing data entry, not commensurate with their rank in the civil service or with their expertise, and they feel that they've been, you know, targeted politically.

It's something that the State Department denies. They say, you know, everybody is really chipping in to clear this backlog of work that needs to be done, an all-hands-on-deck effort.

Yet, several State Department officials, civil service members, have told me that they've hired attorneys because they've tried deal with the State Department on this with no results. Very frustrating.

BALDWIN: It's great reporting and it's yours. And we'll go to to read more.

Elise Labott, thank you very much.

President Trump launching a new attack on Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer as a growing number of conservatives are blasting the president's framework for immigration deal. Meanwhile, both sides are running out of time to reach a deal and avoid another government shutdown. We'll talk about that, next.