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Trump Denies Reports He Tried to Fire Mueller; Sources: Trump Growing Frustrated with His Chief of Staff; Sources: Trump Growing Frustrated with His Chief of Staff. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired January 26, 2018 - 06:00   ET

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


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is NEW DAY. It is Friday, January 26, 6 a.m. here in New York. Chris is off. John Berman joins me. Another day, another bombshell.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. We've got new developments just in.

CAMEROTA: We sure do. So we begin with breaking news for you. President Trump is denying the bombshell reports that he tried to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller last June. Sources say the president backed off that demand after White House Counsel Don McGahn threatened to resign over it.

This could be a key piece of evidence for Robert Mueller as he investigates possible crimes, including obstruction of justice.

BERMAN: Now, you will hear the debate about how significant this might be in the investigation. What is not debatable is that, if the reports are true -- and CNN has confirmed them -- that the White House and the president lied about whether he ever considered firing Bob Mueller. They lied and lied repeatedly.

Now, in the midst of all this, CNN has also learned that the president is growing increasingly frustrated with his chief of staff, John Kelly, who did not travel to Davos with the president. And in just two hours, the president will address leaders at the World Economic Forum.

Let's begin our coverage there in Davos with CNN's Jeff Zeleny, following the breaking news this morning -- Jeff.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John.

There are new questions being raised about obstruction of justice and President Trump's own role in trying to shut down the Russia probe.

Now, take us back to May and June. We know that he was furious about the fact that special counsel was even named at that point. We are learning that he was now been talking about trying to fire him. Of course, he talked about the investigation being a hoax and a witch- hunt. It clearly was in his head deeply then. All of this coming forward here, and his is overshadowing the president's trip to Davos.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Fake news, folks. Fake news.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's your message today?

TRUMP: Typical "New York Times" fake stories.

ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump dismissing bombshell reports that he ordered the firing of Special Counsel Robert Mueller last June. A source confirms to CNN that Mr. Trump backed down only after White House Counsel Don McGahn threatened to quit rather than carry out the directive.

The "New York Times" reports that McGahn disagreed with the president's concerns over Mueller's potential conflicts of interest. "The New York Times" also reporting that Mueller learned about the episode in recent months during interviews with current and senior White House officials while exploring whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice.

The president's attempt to push aside the special counsel came only weeks after Mueller was appointed on May 17 following Mr. Trump's controversial firing of FBI Director James Comey.

TRUMP: Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey. In fact, what I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, "This Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.

ZELENY: Weeks later, the president's close friend, NewsMax CEO Chris Ruddy, told PBS that Mr. Trump was actively considering firing Mueller, as well.

CHRIS RUDDY, CEO, NEWSMAX: I think he's considering perhaps terminating the special counsel. I think he's weighing that option.

ZELENY: At the time the White House dismissed Ruddy's remarks, insisting he never spoke to the president regarding this issue. White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders telling reporters this the following day.

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

ZELENY: For the last seven months, the president and his aides have repeatedly denied that Mueller's job is at risk.

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you considering firing Robert Mueller?

TRUMP: No. ZELENY: The revelation that the president had, in fact, attempted to oust Mueller raising bipartisan concern.

REP. CHRIS STEWART (R), UTAH: If it's true, it would be concerning to me. If he did, his instincts were wrong. But the people around him protected him from those instincts.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D) CONNECTICUT: These reports are deeply stunning, deeply frightening, because they show, again, that the president will stop at nothing to protect himself.

ZELENY: White House lawyer Ty Cobb telling CNN, "We decline to comment out of respect for the office of the special counsel and its process."

The bombshell revelation overshadowing the president's trip to Davos.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: How's the conference going?

TRUMP: Really good.

ZELENY: Mr. Trump has spent the last day here, rubbing shoulders with an elite set of business and world leaders, including the president of Rwanda, notable, given the diplomatic uproar over Mr. Trump reportedly calling some African countries "shitholes."

Mr. Trump addressing a different controversy in a new interview, saying he was not endorsing the far-right ultra-nationalist group Britain First when he he retweeted three of their offensive posts last November.

PIERS MORGAN, JOURNALIST: Can I get an apology out of you just for the retweets?

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

MORGAN: It would go a long way.

TRUMP: Here's what's fair. If you're telling me they are horrible people, horrible racist people, I would certainly apologize if you would like me to do that. I know nothing about them.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TRUMP: Now, this morning the president will be addressing the crowd here in Davos. I'm told by a White House official he's going to be wearing his salesman's hat, trying to incentivize and bring European businesses into the U.S., trying to do more business there.

Now, all of this is happening, of course, as the Russia investigation intensifying, escalating and coming closer to his inner circle back home. The president will spend the majority of the day on an airplane after giving that speech here. He'll be back in Washington by dinnertime, where all of this, of course, awaits him. CAMEROTA: All right, Jeff, you have a busy day there in Davos. And

we have a busy one here. We will carry the president's address at the World Economic Forum live at 8 a.m. Eastern.

BERMAN: So what was happening last June when President Trump ordered Robert Mueller be fired? We're going to take a much closer look next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[06:05:22] CAMEROTA: President Trump dismissing reports that he ordered the firing of Special Counsel Robert Mueller back in June and only backed down when White House counsel threatened to design over this.

Let's discuss it with CNN political analyst John Avlon; CNN legal analyst Michael Zeldin. He served as a special assistant to Robert Mueller at the Department of Justice.

Michael, let me start with you. There are multiple sources now telling multiple outlets, including CNN, that this was real. The president tried to do this through Don McGahn. What does this mean, legally? What does it mean for Robert Mueller's investigation?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it's pretty hard to understand what the thought process was here. Remember, he fires Comey to, quote, unquote, "take the pressure off," and of course, it did exactly the opposite.

So here he's thinking what, "I will fire Mueller, and this will end the investigation?" Of course, if he were a student of history, he would know that Richard Nixon tried that with Archibald Cox on the Saturday Night Massacre and it led, ultimately, to his impeachment.

So were he to have done this, of course, it would have led to a similar constitutional crisis. But because McGahn saved him from that, we now have, essentially, a window into the president's thinking. That is, when you analyze the president's activities thereafter, understanding that his intention here was to shut down the investigation by firing Mueller, then everything has to be analyzed in terms of either, one, obstruction of justice type behavior or, two, abuse of his constitutional authority, impeachable offense-styled behavior.

So it's a good opportunity for Mueller to understand what was in the president's mind. Because he needs to understand that, because these crimes are crimes of intention, meaning you must intend to obstruct justice or you must intend to abuse the powers of your office.

[06:10:05] BERMAN: Exactly. He didn't fire Bob Mueller. So that, in and of itself, isn't the issue. It's the wanting to fire Bob Mueller, what it tells you about the fact that he did fire James Comey and what was going on in his head then.

And John Avlon, we know what was going on in his head, in June at least, when he was discussing firing Bob Mueller and ordered, apparently, his staff to go do so. You know, on June 7, the Comey memo was released, you know, on Trump

interactions, the interactions that James Comey had with him. James Comey testified before Congress. Robert Mueller requesting interviews with the intelligence chiefs. And the president blasting the Russia investigation as a witch-hunt.

There was also a tweet here where the president directly talks about obstruction of justice. And now they're coming after him on obstruction. So you know what's going on in his head at this time.

JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That's one of the virtues of the president's Twitter tirades, is that you get insight in real-time. You can compare it to the timeline.

Look, here's what we know. Michael made the point if the president was a student of history. The president is not a student of history. We know that. He is not a deep strategic thinker. He is a genius marketer and hype man. But that impulsivity leads to problems like this.

The other thing is that, for all the ratcheting up of pressure on the president at this time, that apparently results in this request, which would have been disastrous, Don McGahn throws himself in front of that train, in effect, to try to save the president and his administration.

The White House and the staff, after some initial trial balloons by Chris Ruddy and other friends of Trump, including on our air, all of a sudden blanket denies. They go on air, and they lie and they lie; and they apparently snow GOP senators...

CAMEROTA: Yes.

AVLON: ... who get convinced that they don't need to protect Mueller.

CAMEROTA: We have all of that. Or at least a small smattering of some of those denials. So let me play it for everyone.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANDERS: While the president has the right to, he has no intention to do so.

CONWAY: The president has not even discussed that. The president is not discussing firing Bob Mueller.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Will he commit to not fire him?

CONWAY: ... cooperating with -- he's not even discussed not firing -- he's not discussed firing Bob Mueller.

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you considering firing Robert Mueller?

TRUMP: No.

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

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

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you considering firing Robert Mueller?

TRUMP: No, I'm not.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CAMEROTA: Is that a problem, Michael Zeldin? Is it a problem that the president is on the record? I mean, obviously, just in the media, lying about that now.

ZELDIN: Well, it's not a crime in a Title XVIII U.S. Code sort of sense of lying to the American people, but it is is a portent, potentially, of the problem that he may face when he's under oath by Robert Mueller. Because he has to tell the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth, or he's going to face the possibility of lying to the FBI charge or perjury.

These indications that he's almost instinctively, willing to not tell the truth about matters about which we now know are truth is a problem.

Ty Cobb and others are trying to, you know, do the best they can to restrict the type of questioning that Mueller will give in these cases.

BERMAN: I think it's a great point. Kellyanne Conway, it is a lie. She said the president never discussed it. That is a lie. When the president said, "I haven't given it any thought," that is a lie. I mean, if he asked the person to do it. And I think -- you know, I think Michael is right. If he tries to give that answer to the special counsel behind closed doors, that's a problem.

AVLON: Well, testifying Trump is going to be very different than Twitter Trump. Right? I mean, you know, he's -- it's not the first time he's met with, you know, attorneys in deposition. And I think he'll be very careful. That's one of the reasons they're trying to avoid it.

Look, when Kellyanne Conway also said no one makes you take an oath when you go on television. The problem is tone comes from the top. The apparent impulse of this White House to just freely lie about conversations that were had, to try to snow the American people and U.S. senators and act like the mere idea of discussing firing Robert Mueller is a media creation, is totally crazy, is a lie, and it shows the deep disconnect between what they say on air and what's the truth.

CAMEROTA: OK. So listen, John Avlon and Michael Zeldin, listen to this new wrinkle. Is President Trump's legal team preparing to defend him by arguing that the president cannot obstruct justice? How does that work? We discuss it next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[06:18:36] BERMAN: A source tells CNN that President Trump tried to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller last June but backed off after "The New York Times" says the White House counsel threatened to quit. So is this the clearest sign yet of an intent to obstruct justice? Does it tell you what was going on in his head?

Let's bring back John Avlon and Michael Zeldin.

That was then. I'm really fascinating by the now. Why this story, John, is coming out now. Now, we don't know who the sources are for "The New York Times," and we're not going to say who the sources are for CNN. But let's just say that people confirmed the story fairly easily. Qui bono here, as they say in the party, who benefits from this story coming out this morning?

AVLON: Well, I think the American people benefit, because it's a little bit more difficult for the Trump administration to pull a fast one. I think Congress, who have all been snowed by the president's assurances, his team's assurances, and backing off any legislation that would restrict his ability to fire Mueller, that benefits. I think McGahn ends up looking like a principled guy who stood in front of a train named Trump on this issue.

So -- but this is a significant pulling the curtain back after all the denials. But even at the time we debated it, really, right here, because so many Trump allies were floating this topic and then quickly denied.

So this is a significant insight into the kind of tempestuousness going on behind the scenes. And how hair-triggered the president could be, with massive constitutional crisis implications.

CAMEROTA: Michael, the president doesn't consider this obstruction of justice. He considers this fighting back. And he considers that his right to do so.

Here is what he said when he walked in unannounced and surprised all of the reporters on Wednesday who were in Chief of Staff John Kelly's office for a meeting on background, a meeting on background on immigration, and they asked him about this. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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

TRUMP: We're going to find out. We're going to find out. Because here's what we'll say, and everybody says, "No collusion, there's no collusion." Now they are saying, "Oh, well, did he fight back?" If you fight back -- John, if you fight back, "Oh, it's obstruction." So here's the thing, I hope so.

(END VIDEO CLIP) CAMEROTA: Just one more thing, Michael, before I let you respond. His lawyer puts a fire point on that. Here's what John Dowd has said: "The president cannot obstruct justice, because he is the chief law enforcement officer under the Constitution's Article II. And he has every right to express his view of any case."

So freedom of speech, I guess or fighting back, is that all true: the president cannot obstruct justice?

ZELDIN: Well, so, there's a whole lot of things in those clips that we should unpack.

Let's start with Dowd. Dowd believes, and some agree that the United States cannot be charged with obstruction of justice tore doing that which he has the constitutional right to do, which is fire Comey.

It's a different question about whether he has the constitutional right to fire Mueller when there's a statute that says only the, in this case, deputy attorney general acting as the attorney general can fire Mueller for good cause shown, and there is no good cause shown here, which is why McGahn would have retire -- resigned rather a than order Rosenstein to fire Mueller. That is issue No. 1.

Issue No. 2 is, if he can't be charged with obstruction of justice for doing that, which he has the constitutional right to do, can he be charged with abuse of office, which is the abuse of his constitutional authority, which is what gave rise to the second article for Nixon and third article of impeachment for Clinton.

So he's got a problem one way or the other. And we'll see how the lawyers, you know, interpret the laws of the United States Constitution in this respect. We have to remember, of course, that on Mueller's staff is Michael Drebin, who is the solicitor general, acting solicitor general of the United States and probably the most constitutional appellate lawyer in the country at the moment.

And I expect that he's fully researched the question of whether, one, you can abuse your powers by firing people and also whether you can be indicted while in office. So that's a secondary question. Because some people say that he can only be indicted after he leaves office. He can be impeached while in office. So there's a lot there.

BERMAN: Even if you say the president has a constitutional right to fire who he wants to fire, no president would have the constitutional right to obstruct justice if that is what Robert Mueller thinks would happen.

AVLON: And let's just distill it to a different historical parallel, folks might remember that Nixon famously said, after leaving office, if the president does it, it's not illegal. That's essentially the argument being made right now. That is chilling. No way. You can cloak it up with a lot of nice legal language.

But if that's the argument being advanced by the president's counsel, everybody better wake up and straighten their civic spine.

CAMEROTA: John Avlon, Michael Zeldin...

ZELDIN: May I...

CAMEROTA: Yes.

ZELDIN: May I just add one thing, too. The Supreme Court of the United States has told us categorically that that is not a viable defense.

AVLON: Good.

ZELDIN: And I don't think it will be a defense in this case either.

CAMEROTA: Thank you for that, Michael Zeldin.

Coming up in our next hour, we will speak with Maggie Haberman. She is one of the "New York Times" reporters who broke the story on the president's order to fire Mueller.

BERMAN: All right. Sources tell CNN that the -- excuse me, the relationship -- I'm getting choked up over this. It's so sad.

CAMEROTA: Relationship news.

BERMAN: The relationship between President Trump and his chief of staff, John Kelly, might be on the rocks. Love on the rocks. Those new details ahead.

CAMEROTA: I'm going to hand you a tissue.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[06:28:21] CAMEROTA: President Trump is in Davos at this hour, where he will speak in about 90 minutes. And of course, we'll bring you that live. But a key advisor is not with him on this trip, chief of staff.

Sources tell CNN the president is increasingly frustrated with Kelly, something highlighted by this moment. This is when the president dropped by Kelly's office unannounced and held an impromptu Q&A with reporters.

Let's discuss with John Avlon. And joining us now is the associate editor of Real Clear Politics, A.B. Stoddard.

A.B., let's start with you. So what that -- some people in the room, reporters, perceived that to be the president big footing the chief of staff. John Kelly sending the message, I am still in charge here. I still do the messaging. What do you guys want to know?

What do you think the relationship is today with John Kelly and Donald Trump?

A.B. STODDARD, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, REALCLEARPOLITICS: Well, there are reports from, obviously, credible reporting like Maggie Haberman set to indicate that President Trump has had discussions in the last week or so about his reaction to John Kelly going out and sort of going off message.

I think John Kelly is way out of character for John Kelly's conduct these last six months. To go to a group, the congressional Hispanic Caucus, in a room full of liberal Democrats and use the word "uninformed" about the president's campaign promises building a wall, knowing that a group like that would leave that out. I think we had that discussion here on your show.

And then, of course, he went to FOX and said that the president's views have evolved between the campaign and the actual office of the presidency. And so that is just naturally something that John Kelly would know would make -- would really enrage President Trump.

CAMEROTA: I mean, so is the suggestion...

STODDARD: I actually believe that he is doing it to push back because internally, his pushback wasn't working.