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Trump Ordered Robert Mueller Fired Last June; Trump to Deliver Populist Message at Davos; Aired 4:30-5a ET

Aired January 26, 2018 - 04:30   ET


[04:30:00] DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: Wait until you hear how the president answered that question. He is set to take his America First message to the global audience at the World Economic Forum this morning. But boy, will that message be overshadowed by once again news back here.

Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Dave Briggs.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Christine Romans. As the president commenting on this "New York Times" reporting this morning that we're about to dive into saying that it's typical "New York Times" fake news. But here's what we're talking about.

If and when President Trump does speak with Russia special counsel Robert Mueller, expect at least one provocative question. Did you attempt to have me fired?

We have now learned President Trump ordered the firing of Robert Mueller last June. One person familiar with the matter tells CNN the president backed off when White House counsel Don McGahn threatened to resign rather than carry out the order.

BRIGGS: The story first reported by the "New York Times" threatening to overshadow the president's speech at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. That address scheduled for 8:00 a.m. Eastern Time.

Senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny traveling with the president, joining us live from Davos.

Jeff, good morning to you. Once again with a familiar refrain, pushing back on this breaking news.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Indeed. Good morning, Dave and Christine. The president really just moments ago as he was heading into a meeting here in Davos, meeting with the Rwandan president, he was asked by reporters about this bombshell report about the fact that he wanted the Special Counsel Robert Mueller fired last June. He responded, as you said, in a typical fashion. He said fake news. Fake news. Typical "New York Times" story.

The president then went on to talk about his warm reception here in Davos. Reporters again asked him a little more specifically about that and he responded the same way. So it's -- it's not likely that will be the final word on this but the president is of course trying to keep the focus here on Davos . When he gives that speech later this morning he's going to essentially

be wearing the salesman's hat. You know, encouraging European companies to invest more in America, talk about the economic successes of his first year in office. But the reality here is this speech here at Davos and his trip here in Davos has indeed been overshadowed by the overnight revelation here that the president was eager to get rid of the special counsel.

Now it's important to think back to what was going on at that time. This was in June. Only a couple of weeks after he fired the FBI director James Comey. Now, of course, the -- his mindset at the time was that he thought the investigation was going in the wrong direction here. But the question now is, is this an obstruction of justice investigation? Is that what the special counsel is looking at?

Of course the president early this week said he would be happy to sit down with the special counsel's office. He may get that wish in a couple of weeks -- Dave and Christine.

BRIGGS: Just past 10:30 there in Davos on what promises to be a very busy day for Jeff Zeleny. Thank you.

ZELENY: Indeed.

ROMANS: All right. Joining us now live from Los Angeles via Skype, CNN legal analyst and civil rights attorney Areva Martin.

Thanks for staying up late for us. A lot of developing news overnight. You just heard that the president telling reporters, telling onlookers there at Davos that this is fake news. Typical "New York Times" which I think is a kind of common refrain from this president. But when you look at that "New York Times" reporting and this idea that this is almost a Saturday night massacre -- second Saturday night massacre for this president, what do you make of it?

AREVA MARTIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Christine, this is a bombshell report by "The New York Times." And it's interesting to note that as Trump is pushing back, calling this fake news, one of his closest allies in June of last year came on national television and said that Trump was considering firing Mueller. And as they attempted to talk to his attorneys, as the story was developing, they didn't deny the story.

So I think we have to take it with a grain of salt when the president calls this fake news. But this is really devastating because this goes to the issue of specific intent. To prove obstruction, Mueller and his team will have to show that Trump had -- was called corrupt intent. Was he interfering with this investigation to protect his own interests or to pursue his own interests? And that's the crux of this entire story.

And when you put together the order to fire Mueller with the outrage over his -- Jeff Sessions recusing himself, reports that he wanted to fire Rod Rosenstein and the firing of Comey, it starts to look like corrupt intent. Like all of this is being done to protect Trump and to prevent Mueller from finding out any wrongdoing that he may have been engaged in with respect to his team's collusion or conspiracy with Russia during the 2016 election.

BRIGGS: You know, it may be tough to label this one fake news when you read into this. It sounds as though this could only have come from his inner circle of confidants. This could not have come from some enemy, some deep state person who's trying to undermine the president. Some suggested --


ROMANS: Air quotes around the deep state.

[04:35:05] BRIGGS: Air quotes. Some suggested it may have come from McGahn himself to protect the president from doing it yet again. But that's all speculation.

As for the legal avenues here, he said there were three conflicts of interest. The president, one was over some fees at a golf club. The president's golf club in Virginia. Two was that Bob Mueller interviewed to be the acting FBI director just before being appointed special counsel. And then he used to work at a law firm that also represented Jared Kushner.

Any of those hold up as a conflict of interest legally speaking?

MARTIN: No, Dave. All of these are completely baseless claims. Clearly just justification that created out of whole cause to support the decision by Trump to fire Mueller. So much so that his own White House counsel pushed back on him. If McGahn thought that these were legitimate reasons to fire Bob Mueller, he would have sanctioned it, he would have followed Trump's order. But he didn't. He relented. And he refused to follow that order because none of those stated reasons would have been justification.

And remember Rod Rosenstein testified before Congress and said he would not fire Bob Mueller. So if Trump was going to get Mueller fired, it wasn't going to be through Rod Rosenstein. So this would have been a Saturday night massacre because he would have had to go through several employees at the Department of Justice before -- you know, assuming that he could have even found someone to carry out this order.

But all of this is really shocking when we look at the president of the United States rather than being transparent, rather than participating in this investigation as he keeps claiming that he wants to do, we are now learning that he had every intention to fire Bob Mueller, to try to shut off this investigation and to prevent the American people from knowing what actually happened during that 2016 election.

ROMANS: All right. Areva Martin, CNN legal analyst, thank you so much for your insight and staying up with us.

You know, the president asked about this -- asked about this story on his way to a meeting with the Rwandan president. Here's what he said.

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


ROMANS: All right. We'll hear from the president in a speech in about three and a half hours.

Mixed reactions to the latest immigration proposal offered up by the White House. It calls for a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million young undocumented immigrants based on employment, education and good moral character. The White House framing this deal as a dramatic concession by President Trump because it affects those who are eligible for DACA and hundreds of thousands of others who meet the broader criteria.

BRIGGS: In exchange the White House wants a $25 billion trust fund for a border wall and border security technology, more funds for personnel, closing legal loopholes so people can be deported more easily, cutting family-based or chain migration beyond spouses and minor children, and an end to the diversity visa lottery program.

ROMANS: Several hard-line Republican senators back the White House plan. The response from House Republicans largely muted. It's a sign I think conservatives are not in love with the president's proposal here.

Democrats aren't in love with it either. Despite the offer of a pathway to citizenship one advocate for immigrants calling the plan a way to get every item on Stephen Miller's white supremacist wish list.

BRIGGS: Democratic Senator Dick Durbin tweeting, "The White House claims to be compromising but this plan would put the administration's entire hard-line immigration agenda on the backs of these young people," meaning Dreamers.

And this from Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, "It would be far cheaper to erect a 50-foot concrete statue of a middle finger and point it toward Latin America. Both the wall and the statue would be equally offensive and equally ineffective."

ROMANS: Another immigration program President Trump decides to reform the h1b visa for high skilled foreign workers, the president says it replaces American workers but a new bill is looking to expand the program.

Republican senators Orrin Hatch and Jeff Flake introduced this measure. It would increase the number of visas granted to 85,000 from just 65,000, and offer an additional 110,000 visas based on demand. Demand often exceeds supply especially in Silicon Valley where the program is near and dear. Tech companies claim it allows them to recruit skilled workers they can't find in the U.S. Execs for Microsoft and Facebook cheered this bill. And industry groups says it helps meet the needs of our economy while boosting commitment to growing the domestic work force. The bill also placate some of the Trump administration's concerns employers may not use the visa to substitute American workers.

BRIGGS: All right. The populist president on the global stage. Three and a half hours from now, President Trump delivers his America First at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Ahead of that speech, the president making some interesting comments on a controversy he himself sparked last year.

CNN's Nic Robertson has more on that live from Davos.

Good morning, Nic.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes, good morning, Dave. We're getting some ideas of the contours of President Trump's speech, expected to be about 15 minutes longer.

[04:40:05] He will hit on some of the hot topics that may include Iran but he'd be opening it by saying America is open for business, that the regulations in the United States being as a business friendly environment. He is likely to tout how well his policies have done so far. But some of the messages will reflect what we heard at the APEX summit there where he spoke back in November, saying that while America is open for business, the trade needs to be fair, it needs to be equitable.

He'll also say the United States will be tough on those that violate the United States intellectual property rights. He is heading into the meeting with Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, who's also the chairman of the African Union. Very likely on the agenda there President Trump's comments just a few weeks ago about some African nations.

Yesterday, he met with Theresa May, the British prime minister there. He said they had a great relationship. She said they had a special relationship. Trying to patch things up. He said that any reports that they weren't getting along were false rumors. But the headline from there Britain extending again the invitation for President Trump to visit Britain. That's likely to happen this year.

And the president also sat down, talked with a British broadcaster about some of those retweets of a British right-wing nationalist organization, Britain First, that so angered so many people and also led to one of the spats. This is how the interview went.


TRUMP: I'm in the United States. So I don't read as much about it. Perhaps it was a big story here in Britain. Perhaps it was a big story in the UK. But in the United States, it wasn't a big story.

PIERS MORGAN, HOST, "GOOD MORNING, BRITAIN": Can I get an apology out of you just for the re-tweets I'm talking about?

TRUMP: Well, if you're telling me --

MORGAN: I think it would go a long way. TRUMP: Then here's what's fair. If you're telling me it's horrible

people, horrible, racist people, I would certainly apologize if you'd like me to do that. I know nothing about them.


ROBERTSON: Well, Piers Morgan there appearing to sort of -- tried to get the president to placate some of the people in Britain who were exceptionally angry and displeased with President Trump for those retweets.

BRIGGS: As we parents tell our kids, Nic, if you want to apologize you say, I'm sorry. Those words sorely missing from that apology.

Nic Robertson live for us in Davos. Thank you.

ROMANS: At least 37 people are dead, more than 100 injured in a hospital fire in South Korea. Fire officials still do not know what caused this blaze. They say it started in the emergency room on the first floor of the Sejong Hospital in the city of Miryang, about 160 miles from Seoul. A spokesman says many of the victims were elderly. They died from smoke inhalation. It is South Korea's deadliest fire in nearly a decade.

BRIGGS: All right. After days of spreading information that could discredit the FBI, Senator Ron Johnson taking a different approach. What he now says about texts between two FBI officials and that, quote, "secret society."


[04:46:59] ROMANS: New excerpts of text exchanges between FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page appeared to show the two discussing the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation including whether or not a special prosecutor should be brought in. Page who is an FBI attorney writing in February 2016, "She might be our next president. The last thing you need us going in there loaded for bear." Strzok's response, "Agreed."

BRIGGS: The Republicans have been using this and other issues to try to discredit the FBI including a text by Page suggesting a secret society within the bureau. Days after raising alarms about this secret society text, Republican Senator Ron Johnson, chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, is now backing off it.


MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Senator, do -- these text messages seems to be a comment about secret society was in jest. Do you agree that it appears to be it was in jest?



ROMANS: Again the reporting now is that this is just some sort of a joke. A joke --

BRIGGS: Referencing a gag gift. Yes.

ROMANS: On -- two people who are, you know, texting each other. The Justice Department's inspector general also informing lawmakers that a trove of missing text messages between the two has been recovered now. He says forensic tools were used to recover text exchanged during a five-month span from December 2016 to May of 2017.

BRIGGS: But of course it's out there now. And you've muddied the water. This is why you should practice patience as a United States senator and wait until you get the full context and some background. And Ron Johnson knows better than that. And he knew better than that yesterday. Pardon me.

President Trump preparing to sign an executive order reversing an Obama directive to shut down Guantanamo Bay. That's according to a draft from State Department cable obtained by Politico. President Obama was never able to successfully shut down the military prison. Forty-one detainees remained there today.

During the campaign Mr. Trump promised to keep the facility open and fill it with what he called bad dudes. He is expected to announce his plans during his State of the Union speech next week. Congressman Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts will deliver the Democratic response.

ROMANS: All right. Congressman Patrick Meehan announcing he will not be seeking re-election. The Pennsylvania Republican under fire for using taxpayer dollars to pay off a former staff member who accused him of sexual harassment.

In an interview earlier this week, Meehan said he felt a deep affection for his accuser. He saw her as a soul mate, but never pursued a romantic relationship. She claims he did. Meehan insists he will repay the public funds used to settle the case if the House Ethics Committee finds he did harass the woman.

The story really interesting and getting a lot of attention this week.


ROMANS: Because she was decades younger than he was, worked with him as an aide and he had developed by his own admission these feelings for her that they were somehow life partners.

BRIGGS: Soul mates.

ROMANS: And work partners. And women really were just sort of appalled and have been saying, look, you know, the younger women who work for you don't want to be your soul mate.



ROMANS: They just want to work, you know, out there. BRIGGS: The longer you hang around. Not just say you won't run, the

longer you hang around is a distraction.

[04:50:02] ROMANS: Yes. Online feud between Wal-Mart and Amazon rages on. Now Wal-Mart looking to Japan for help. CNN Money Stream next.


ROMANS: A grief-stricken mother recalling the final phone call with her daughter who was killed in the Kentucky high school shooting. Bailey Holt's mother says after she heard the terrifying news about an active shooter, she kept calling her daughter's cell phone. It rang and rang. Finally she says Bailey called back.


SECRET HOLT, BAILEY HOLT'S MOTHER: All I could hear was voices and chaos in the background. And she couldn't say anything. I tried to call her name over and over and over and she didn't respond.

[04:55:05] I know he was probably having a hard time, too, but --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He still took her life.

HOLT: And he still took my baby from me.


BRIGGS: Just devastating. Bailey Holt died Tuesday at Marshall County High School in Benton, Kentucky. Another 15-year-old Preston Cope died at a hospital. The shooter also 15 has been charged with two counts of murder and 12 counts of assault. He has not yet been named. And there is still to clear motive. Classes at Marshall County High School resume today.

ROMANS: Eleven school shooting so far this year.

Casey Affleck, last year's Oscar winner for Best Actor, has withdrawn from this year's Academy Awards. If tradition held, Affleck would have presented the Best Actress Oscar to this year's winner. No official reason for the move but Affleck was sued for sexual harassment by two women in 2010. He denied their claims and their lawsuits were settled out of court. Academy officials in a statement say they appreciate the decision to keep the focus on the show and the great work of the past year.

BRIGGS: The president and first lady had their eyes on a Van Gogh at the Guggenheim for their private living quarters. According to the "Washington Post," when the White House asked to borrow it, the museum politely declined and made an interesting counteroffer. A fully functional solid gold toilet.

The toilet was part of an interactive exhibit called "America" and sat in a public restroom on the museum's fifth floor for visitors to use. The Guggenheim's chief curator told the White House the exhibit was finished and the toilet was available if the Trumps wanted it installed.

ROMANS: It what may be the scariest yet least surprising news of the day. Scientists have moved the hands of the symbolic Doomsday Clock 30 seconds closer to midnight. We are now two minutes from global annihilation.

The president of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the non-profit group that creates this clock, cites the extraordinary danger of the moment including concern over nuclear weapons and climate change. The last time the clock was this close to Doomsday was back in 1953 at the height of the Cold War when the hydrogen bomb was first tested.

BRIGGS: Looking at some live pictures of President Trump at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The big address comes in about three hours' time.

ROMANS: Let's listen in. Let's listen to what he's saying.

TRUMP: It's an honor to have you as a friend. Thank you.

PAUL KAGAME, RWANDAN PRESIDENT: The president of the United States, President Donald Trump, and we have the group discussion (INAUDIBLE), in Rwanda and the United States. Rwanda has benefitted tremendously from the support of the United States. In many areas where you support operations. We have the United States on our side supporting us. They have supported our economy and investment. We see also tourists from United States to visit, to come to Rwanda.

And Mr. President, I wanted to thank you for the support we received from you and the administration. And we are looking forward to working with the United States. The African Union where we are moving the reforms in the African Union so that we get our act together to do the right things. And that helps in cooperating with the United States. It would be more beneficial when we are organized. (INAUDIBLE) from the United States.

TRUMP: Sure.

KAGAME: For that cooperation, so I thank you very much.

TRUMP: Well, I thank you very much. And it's a great honor to have all of you here. And we'll speak for a little bit longer. And thank you very much.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thanks, everyone.


BRIGGS: It's been a long time the president of Rwanda. Now a lot of people had their eyes on that interaction because of the s-hole reference the president made to African countries. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said this was to reaffirm the relationship. The Rwandan Foreign minister called those comments demeaning and unnecessary. No sense if they came up there.

ROMANS: It shows that the president has been taking meetings at Davos and his team has been on the ground talking to reporters, talking to people trying to push this America First, but not America alone message. We will hear from the president in his remarks in about three hours.

EARLY START continues right now.

BRIGGS: The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth just got a lot more interesting. President Trump ordered Robert Mueller fired as special counsel last year. Why did he back down?

ROMANS: The White House immigration plan is on the table. It includes a path to citizenship for nearly 2 million but it toughens up many other parts of America's immigration system.