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Trump Denies Reports He Tried to Fire Mueller. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired January 26, 2018 - 07:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to your NEW DAY. Chris is off. John Berman joins me. You bring the news.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: I bring the news. Breaking news all over the place, you know, on many continents, as you see.

CAMEROTA: Good point. So we do begin with breaking news for you. President Trump dismissing the bombshell report that he tried to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller last June but then backed off. A source tells CNN that White House counsel Don McGahn refused that order. This revelation could be a key piece of evidence for the special counsel as they try to decide whether or not they're looking at obstruction of justice.

BERMAN: And there is a legal debate about how significant this might be to the investigation. But there is no debate that, if the story is true -- and CNN has confirmed that -- the White House and the president lied about whether the president ever considered firing Bob Mueller. They 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 -- did not travel with the president to Davos. He's not there. In about an hour, the president will address leaders at the World Economic Forum. We will bring you that speech live when it happens.

Let's begin with CNN's Jeff Zeleny live in Davos with the breaking news -- Jeff.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, good morning. There are new questions, as you said, about inquiries about the president and that Russia probe.

Now, this of course, takes us back about six or seven months or so. Remember in the weeks after the firing of the FBI director, the president was furious when there was a special counsel setup.

A lot of his friends and advisers around him were telling us at the time that he was worried that this could unravel many things. You know, from his tax returns to other matters here. Well, now, this is coming full circle, and it is being reported that

he was threatening to fire him. Well, of course, his top lawyer at the White House stopped all of that. Many advisers believed that it would be simply politically untenable for him to do that. We heard from the president this morning on this directly as he entered the forum at Davos. This is what he said.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you seek to fire Mueller?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What's your message today?

TRUMP: Typical "New York Times" fake stories.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you try to fire Robert Mueller?

TRUMP: Thank you. Fake news.


ZELENY: So those are the questions, of course, being asked for the president. Of course, he's not answering them, reverting to his old line, "fake news."

But what we do know at the moment in the time, back in May and June, that the president was not happy that there was a special counsel named to this.

Of course, he has learned so much more than that. Always important to keep in mind the president and his lawyers know more about this than we do. They know exactly where this is going, what questions are coming. So this will come to a head if the president ever sits down with Mueller. Of course, earlier this week, he said he would. His lawyers say, "Whoa, we need to negotiate the details of that."

One thing we're not expecting the president to mention any of this at that speech coming up next hour here in Davos.

CAMEROTA: OK. We'll be covering that live, Jeff. Thank you very much for that background. We are joined now by CNN political analyst and "New York Times" White House correspondent Maggie Haberman. Maggie and her colleague, Michael Schmidt, broke the story about the president's order to fire Robert Mueller.

Maggie, it's great to have you here with us so that you can walk us through all of your reporting. I think it's fair to call this a bombshell, because this is the scenario that millions of Americans have feared might happen. Democrats have feared for a long time might happen, that the president actually did try to fire Robert Mueller but was stopped by Don McGahn, White House counsel. What can you tell us?

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. So what the White House will say now is, you know, McGahn is still -- excuse me, Mueller is still there, so clearly, nothing happened.

But what we have learned is that last June the president relayed to advisers that he wanted Mueller fired. And Don McGahn threatened to resign if that went through. That was ultimately the catalyst that talks the president off of this. At the time the president was considering three issues as possible conflicts of interest involving Mueller.

One was a dispute over fees at a golf club that the president owned that Mueller had been a member of. Never completely understood what was that about. But it was seen pretty widely by legal experts I spoke with as a flimsy reason.

The second reason was that Mueller had, up until that point, worked at Wilmer-Hale (ph), the law firm that also employed a lawyer for Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law.

And then the third was Mueller had interviewed to be the interim FBI director replacing James Comey and could be a witness in the case. The last was the only one that had even sort of a whiff of credibility about it. But it still, based on everyone I spoke to, made no actual sense as a conflict.

[07:05:10] The last two, I would point out, both of those issues were pushed out by Trump advisers at the time on background to discredit Mueller, not to say, "And therefore he should be fired but certainly, to stoke the perception that he should not be in the job that he was in."

But I would also note that at the time in June, Chris Ruddy of NewsMax went on TV, and I think he went on this show, and said that he had a reporting that the president was seriously considering firing Robert Mueller. The White House denied this aggressively. People denigrated Ruddy, denigrated how frequently he talks to the president. That was true. And it was more than true.

BERMAN: Let's talk about that they denied this, Maggie. Let's just put up the sound, because if your story is true. And look, it's true. It's not fake news. You do not report fake news. Kellyanne Conway and the president lied, flat-out lied. Let's play their sound here.


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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But will he commit not to fire?

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

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you considering 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, ATTORNEY FOR DONALD TRUMP: You know, I saw a couple people talking about that this morning, and the answer to that is no.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you considering firing Robert Mueller?

TRUMP: No, I'm not. No.


BERMAN: The president flat-out said he never thought about it. That's a lie. Kellyanne Conway said he never discussed it. That, too, Maggie, apparently, a lie.

HABERMAN: I mean, I don't know why you're zeroing in on Kellyanne Conway. There's a number of people there who were quoted, including his lawyer, Jay Sekulow, who last I remember, also said that we were wrong about the fact that the president had approved of his son's statement about a meeting with the Russian lawyer. He went on TV and insisted that was false.

So this is a pattern and a habit. And we are aware of that. But it is -- it is a problem when -- a problem for several reasons. One is, you know, they will say at the White House it's not a crime to lie to the media. And that is true.

But there are times when you need your credibility. And the fact that this was not true and that people who were denying it at the time have now acknowledged to me that it was true is a problem. It's a problem for people who want to accomplish policy. It's a problem for people who want to be taken seriously about their own accounts.

CAMEROTA: Here's what the president said about -- in Davos about your story. Listen to this.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. President, did you seek to fire Mueller?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you try to fire Robert Mueller?

TRUMP: Fake news, folks, fake news.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What's your message today?

TRUMP: Typical "New York Times" fake stories.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you try to fire Robert Mueller?

TRUMP: Thank you. Thank you very much. Fake news.


CAMEROTA: OK. So Maggie, obviously, we know that when the president says "fake news," that's his code for "a story I don't like."

But why doesn't he own this? I mean, he's already been on on the record as saying that he doesn't consider things obstruction. He considers it fighting back. He thinks it's his prerogative to fight back. And his lawyers have said that it actually would be legal for him to fire Robert Mueller. Why doesn't he own this?

HABERMAN: I think for a few reasons. I think, No. 1, it has become ingrained in his head by his current legal team. It changed hands at the time, remember, back in June. His lead counsel was his personal lawyer, a long-time personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz.

He has been -- the strategy by Ty Cobb, who is now essentially the front on this, who works out of the White House, has been full compliance, full transparency, respect for the special counsel's office. And so I think that that is -- a lot of it is is not to be too antagonistic.

The president has heard that. Ty Cobb, for all the criticism he gets, has actually ingrained that in the president's thinking.

There's also the quality, Alisyn, that you're very well aware of with this president, which is that, if you write something that he doesn't like, he will say it's not true just so that he is saying the opposite. And I don't know that there's much more thinking going into that. Let's see how he handles it throughout the day.

BERMAN: Maggie, first, two things. One, the reason I focus on Kellyanne and the president is because they put no time frame on it. The others were speaking, they could have literally been saying, "He's not talking about it right now." The other -- the time frame was more extensive.

But I want to go back to June itself. At the time that you brought up. At the time, what was going on inside the White House and the country? June 7, the Comey memo was released, talking about the interactions that James Comey, the fired FBI director, had had with the president. James Comey testified before Congress. Robert Mueller began interviewing and requesting interviews with people inside the White House and the Intelligence Committee about all of this. And the president blasted the Russia investigation as a witch-hunt, even tweeting about the fact that Robert Mueller was now investigating obstruction.

[07:10:00] Where exactly -- do you know when exactly the president ordered Robert Mueller to be fired? Beginning of June, middle of June, end of June?

HABERMAN: I don't know the specific date in June. It was at some point in June. And if you look back at the clips of when Chris Ruddy was talking about this, I think it was June 12 or June 13. I would assume it was sometime around then.

CAMEROTA: Maggie, why didn't the president just do it himself? Why does he need Don McGahn, the White House counsel, to carry out this directive? Why couldn't he pick up the phone and call Robert Mueller, if he felt this strongly?

HABERMAN: He doesn't -- he doesn't usually fire people directly, as -- as we know. And I would not expect this to be any -- any different.

CAMEROTA: Despite the "Celebrity Apprentice" aside, where he forced to do...

HABERMAN: "You're fired" was created by, essentially, a promotional team. That is not something that Donald Trump was ever known for in his real life or has been since.

Berman: So Maggie, there were a lot of people wanting to know who the sources are, and I would never ask what the sources are a bout this. But a lot of times, we do know that stories come out because people are trying to send different messages here, sometimes often to the president, who despite what he says, is one of the biggest consumers of media on planet earth right now.

So what message should the president be getting from this? Is the message -- one of the messages, look, Robert Mueller knows all of this, because a whole lot of people have sat down with him and explained to him the story? Or is it maybe, look, your session with Robert Mueller might be really dicey, because he knows things that indicate you may have lied in public.

HABERMAN: I think that the reporting speaks for itself and everybody likes to assume that everything take place for some reason or other, because sometimes stories take place because reporters are searching for a story.

What the president takes from the content of the story, McGahn has spoken with Robert Mueller.

So I guess -- you know, I don't know the specifics of what he told him. But our understanding is that Mueller is aware of this. And so the president's going to take that and do what he's going to do.

I will tell you, though, that in my conversations with people at the White House this week, they're not really concerned he's going to fire Mueller going forward. There is a pretty widespread belief that that has been dealt with.

What they are very worried about is that he's going to go talk to federal investigators. Remember, he had posted the other day that he's looking forward to it. And he is going to walk himself into a very, very troublesome spot, because lying to federal investigators, whether he's under oath or not, is a crime.

BERMAN: I guess that's what I was getting at right there. Because what this illustrates, as we play that sound, is that the president has lied about this in public. And if he goes and testifies to Robert Mueller and says the same type of thing, it won't fly.

HABERMAN: Right. I mean, I could see a world where the president goes in and gives a lesser version of this. I don't want to speculate about what he may or may not say. If he does that, we don't even know if these are going to be written answers.

You know, the president historically, I will say, despite his pretty well-documented penchant for untruths from either his approach on the White House or when he was a candidate or when he was a real-estate developer, if you watch the videos of his depositions or read the depositions and lawsuits he's been involved with over the years, he does seem to know where the line is when there is a legal threat involved.

CAMEROTA: Yes, he is -- I agree with you. When you read those, he's more disciplined than, say, Twitter.

HABERMAN: Correct.

CAMEROTA: So he does have, you know, experience or at least antenna about -- what's interesting, Maggie, is your reporting, you say that Robert Mueller has interviewed, I believe, 20 White House staffers, eight of them in the White House counsel's office. And it is just interesting to think about the moment that Robert Mueller finds out that Donald Trump wanted him, in fact, fired. Obviously, I'm sure he considered that possibility.

HABERMAN: It's funny. You know, Michael Schmidt and Peter Baker and I were in the Oval Office in July. We interviewed the president, and he very pointedly would not point out he would not fire Mueller. I mean, he wanted that known.

At the time, what advisers to the president said, you know, "Well, he thinks this is a way to make sure that Mueller is fair. And Mueller realizes his job is on the line." I never understood that rationale. But that's how it was put back then.

So I think Mueller has known that this is something that this president was capable of talking about for a while.

But, yes, I suspect there was probably an arched eyebrow moment. But Mueller is a pro, and he is a former FBI director, and he's done this for a very long time, and he has seen a lot.

BERMAN: So Maggie Haberman, one big scoop is not enough for you. You have to have two in the paper all at once.

CAMEROTA: Overachiever.

BERMAN: I know. I know. Making us all look bad.

Chief of staff John Kelly, there is reporting that there is tension, new tension between the chief of staff and the president or, maybe more accurately, the president and the chief of staff.

And you mentioned this on NEW DAY yesterday, about the president's, you know, walk through of the -- what was supposed to be a background meeting between John Kelly and reporters was intended to send the message that "You work for me, pal."

You know, how high is this level of tension right now? HABERMAN: It's -0 look, it's not as high as we have seen it be with

other aides who have come and gone. But I will say, because Kelly just sort of doesn't care is my understanding. And he doesn't respond the way that Trump is used to people responding to his wrath. But -- or even his irritation.

[07:15:14] But that having that said, every relationship with Donald Trump has a shelf life. Now it can -- it can then be rejuvenated, but usually speaking, a clock starts to catholic. When John Kelly went on FOX News saying the president was not fully informed about a border wall and the practicality of it. Whatever that was now. It feels like eight years ago, but I think it was two weeks ago.

Once that happened, that sort of began the countdown on how much longer this relationship could stay anything close to this anyway.

CAMEROTA: That is so true, Maggie. I mean, look, I think we've all learned, sometimes the hard way. The president tires of people.


CAMEROTA: He can be fickle.


CAMEROTA: And so even without crossing him, if that's how he perceives what John Kelly said, even without a dustup, he gets tired of people.

HABERMAN: Correct.

CAMEROTA: And so is there any plan for if John Kelly himself gets tired of this and bows out, or if the president gets rid of him?

HABERMAN: The names of possible replacements are really circulating outside the building more than inside. But for people who know the president well. And look, several people around the president stressed to me yesterday there is no change. He wasn't angry at Kelly. He was in a great mood when he went down there.

And Kelly did tell him that he was going to have reporters in his office. And it reminded Kelly, who was in charge.

But you know, that was reporting that I had heard that the president was caught off-guard by this. He wasn't -- he didn't learn of it from some other -- he learned from Kelly. But, you know, it was literally like, you know, being drawn uncontrollably to a source of oxygen for the president.

There was a bunch of reporters in the office. And it reminded Kelly, again, who was in charge. But you know, there is conflicting information about exactly how tired of the -- his chief of staff, the president, is. Several people I spoke with who have known the president for a very long time, described it as an unmistakable turning of the screw, where he is starting to lose his patience with someone.

BERMAN: I love the idea of a shelf life for people who work for the president, where the only people who are Twinkies, you know, a shelf life of forever, is kids, right? You know, they're like the cellophane wrapper Twinkie. It never gets old.

You know, is John Kelly the only thing now keeping the president under this new regime of "discipline"? And I put that in quotation works because everything is relative, Maggie. But is he the only one keeping the phone calls at a minimum, keeping the access at a minimum? Without John Kelly, does the dam break and do we go back, you know, to the willy-nilly days of chaos?

HABERMAN: I think that's a bit of an overstatement, but I do think that, look, Kelly has not been great about controlling the president. I don't know that that's possible, to control this president. Kelly has created a much more orderly structure. What several people have said to me is Kelly stopped the leaks. Now, he didn't. That's clearly not true.

But it is not sort of the sense of psychological warfare playing out in the press that it was in the days of Jared Kushner versus Steve Bannon. That felt much more like the wild west. People feel safer. Ivanka Trump sometimes vented her frustration about John Kelly.

And it's interesting. I asked about that, and she put out a statement defending Kelly, which surprised me. But, you know, and attesting to her faith in him.

I do think that they all recognize there is a need to have Kelly there, both to make the staff safe from each other and the staff, frankly, safe from the president.

I don't think he's the only thing. I do think he is a key -- a key person. He's also a key person with his own policy views, and I think that's been complicating for people who are trying to read into how he thinks.

BERMAN: Particularly as this immigration debate goes forward.

CAMEROTA: We did read that statement from Ivanka that you got. And she said that, basically, their bond has never been stronger. That they're at a particularly tight-knit moment.

HABERMAN: yes, I mean, I think two things can be true at once. I think it can be true that the staff is feeling better and that a -- that a devolution has begun.

BERMAN: All right. Overachiever, super reporter Maggie Haberman, thanks so much for being with us this morning.

HABERMAN: Thank you, guys.

CAMEROTA: Thanks, Maggie.

BERMAN: President Trump will address world leaders at the World Economic Forum at 8 a.m. Eastern. In the midst of all of this going on, that will be something. We'll bring it live to you when it happens

CAMEROTA: OK, so what are lawmakers in Washington saying about Maggie's bombshell report? We hear from a Democratic congressman what he wants to do next.


[07:23:22] CAMEROTA: A source tells CNN that President Trump ordered the firing of Special Counsel Robert Mueller last June but then backed off when the "New York Times" says his White House counsel threatened to resign.

President Trump dismisses these reports as fake news.

Joining us now is Democratic Congressman Jim Himes. He is a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, great to see you this morning.


CAMEROTA: This is what you and other Democrats have come on our air and said was sort of their worst fear or worst-case scenario that you assumed to play out. It turns out it almost came to pass. The president tried to fire Robert Mueller in June. What's your reaction?

HIMES: Well, it's not just Democrats, Alisyn. This is really fundamentally, or at least should not be a partisan issue. You know, if the president is being investigated, if anybody is being investigated, the investigation should be allowed to play out.

Obviously, in this case, firing Robert Mueller would be a massive political problem, as his lawyer recognized if the story is to be believed, would be a couple of very big steps towards obstruction of justice.

And finally, Alisyn, you know, there's something we can do about this and that we must do about this. But Congress should pass legislation that essentially gives the special counsel statutory standing authority so that the special counsel is not firable by the president.

CAMEROTA: Where are you on that? I'm just curious, because we keep hearing -- we hear Democrats say that from time to time, that it's time to pass legislation. Where are you with that?

HIMES: Well, it's -- you know, needless to say, given Republican control of both houses, it hasn't exactly, you know, been on a greased rail in the United States Congress.

But look, the president of the United States says, "There's nothing there. It's all a hoax. I'm totally innocent. No collusion." [07:25:07] If that is true, there is not a single reason for anybody

to oppose the legislation, which would -- which would, you know, give the special counsel protection from being fired by this guy who says that he's innocent.

CAMEROTA: Yes, but you know what, Congressman? He doesn't exactly frame it the way you do -- you are. He actually is a little bit more specific. He said it wouldn't be obstruction.

I mean, in other words, his lawyer has gone so far as to say it can't be obstruction. Because it's the president -- it's the president's prerogative. It's the president's prerogative to fire whomever he wants, including the special counsel, so it cannot be obstruction.

And the president has framed it as fighting back.

Now, about this "New York Times" reporter, the White House has not denied it. The president, you're right, has called that fake news. His lawyer says they're not going to comment.

However, he has said of things like this, this is just fighting back. And he's allowed to fight back.

HIMES: Yes. And both those points are -- are -- you know, there's something to them. Obviously, you know, Donald Trump, his whole brand is about fighting back. But you know, we all fight back against things. That doesn't mean we can fight back by pulling out knives and killing people.

The president is technically, obviously, the head of the executive branch and has authority over the executive branch. That doesn't mean the president can perform an illegal act.

You know, here's where you get to intent. If the president fired the FBI director Jim Comey or if the president were to fire Mueller with the intent of stopping an investigation, the president is not above the law. That would be, if the intent was to stop an investigation, that would be obstruction of justice.

CAMEROTA: But do you, from what you've seen today from this "New York Times" and CNN reporting, in terms of wanting to fire Robert Mueller and Don McGahn stopping him, do you consider that obstruction of justice?

HIMES: You know, he didn't actually fire Mueller. So no act was committed.

Now, that takes us back to Jim Comey, who actually did get fired. And then the president goes on Lester Holt and says he did it, you know, to make the Russia thing go away. That's, I think, a much more serious episode.

But what it does do is it shows intent. And it's not surprising. Look, I don't -- I don't think the president -- you know, this is not a subtle legal mind. I think the president sees a problem in front of him and says, "I'm going to solve this problem by making it go away." And that's, I think, exactly why his lawyer stepped in and said, "Sir,

you're not going to do this. This is puts you, you know, three- quarters of the way to a charge of obstruction of justice."

CAMEROTA: Congressman, I want to see what you about what we've seen this week with attacks on the FBI, and the evolution of this rumor, this innuendo of a secret society. Here is where Senator Ron Johnson started and then what he said yesterday about the secret society. Listen to this.


SEN. RON JOHNSON (R), WISCONSIN: I can't ignore these texts. I can't ignore this unvarnished narrative from two individuals high up in the FBI that have contact with the director, Andy McCabe, and Bill Prestap (ph). I have some very serious concerns. The American public should have some very serious concerns.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This text message seems to be -- the comment about secret society seems to be in jest. Do you agree that it appears to be it was a jest?

JOHNSON: It is certainly a possibility.


CAMEROTA: Congressman, from the existence of some so-called subversive secret society to yesterday, it's possible it was a joke. What is Senator Ron Johnson doing?

HIMES: Ron Johnson is doing what Devin Nunes has been doing, what so many, sadly, Republican members of Congress have been doing, which is seizing on rumor, seizing on fantasy to create doubt around the integrity of the FBI. And it's a really sad thing to say.

You know, when right-wing radio hosts do this, it's one thing. But when United States senators and United States congressmen sacrifice their integrity and their legacy -- you know, Ron Johnson will be reminded of that moment 20 years from now when he seized on one rumor of a text that might have mentioned a secret society to allege -- you didn't play to clip -- to alleged that there was corruption at the highest levels of the FBI.

You have traded your integrity for the sugar high of, you know, a moment on FOX supporting the president. A president, by the way, who would stab you in the back if he had the opportunity.

CAMEROTA: So why are they doing that? I mean, beyond the sugar high, then why are they doing that?

HIMES: They're doing that because the White House -- you said it. You know, the White House is constantly generating ideas like, oh, he's just fighting back, and the president has the right to obstruct justice. And Devin Nunes comes up with the four-page memo which the moment I read, I knew was a, you know, a shoddy piece of work. It's all about distraction in the service of feeding the right-wing

narrative that the FBI, the DOJ are corrupt. And to see the Republican Party, which usually stands for law enforcement, has a bias towards saying law enforcement is a key institution, do everything they can and, as I said, trade their integrity to damage this storied American institution is a really sad thing to watch.

CAMEROTA: I'm almost out of time. But very quickly, you just called it a shoddy memo, what Devin Nunes created, this mystery memo that no one in the public knows. But the Democrats have their own memo, right? Do you have a counter mystery memo to counter Devin Nunes's mystery memo?