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Source: Trump Tried To Fire Mueller Last June; Did Trump Obstruct Justice?; President Trump To Address World Economic Forum. Aired 7:30-8a ET
Aired January 26, 2018 - 07:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[07:30:00] ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Very quickly, you just called it a shoddy memo, what Devin Nunes created. This mystery memo that no one in the public knows.
The Democrats have their own memo, right? Do you have a counter- mystery memo to counter Devin Nunes' mystery memo?
We are working on a -- on a memo which is more about the facts. Look, don't -- you don't even need to trust the Democrats on this. You saw the letter that the Department of Justice sent to Devin Nunes which basically said two things, you know. It would be very, very dangerous to expose the classified information.
And, by the way, show us this memo. What does it tell you that Devin Nunes will not share this memo with the very people he's accusing of wrongdoing or even with Senate Republicans? That should tell you something about the integrity and the quality of that memo.
CAMEROTA: Congressman Jim Himes, thank you very much. Nice to talk to you.
HIMES: Thank you, Alisyn.
CAMEROTA: John --
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right.
President Trump's lawyer says that a president cannot commit obstruction of justice, so is that true? We're going to ask a former Trump White House lawyer, next.
BERMAN: A source tells CNN that President Trump ordered the firing of Robert Mueller last June, but later backed off after "The New York Times" says his White House counsel Don McGahn refused the order and threatened to resign.
[07:35:00] President Trump, his aides, and his legal team have repeatedly denied this and on several occasions just lied about what the president discussed about firing Robert Mueller -- listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SARAH 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. That the president is not discussing firing Bob Mueller.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ANCHOR, ABC "GOOD MORNING AMERICA," HOST, ABC "THIS WEEK WITH GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS": But will he commit not to fire him?
CONWAY: We are complying and cooperating with -- he has not even discussed not firing -- he's not discussed firing Bob Mueller.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I haven't given it any thought. I mean, I've been reading about it from 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, not at all.
WOLF BLITZER, ANCHOR, CNN "THE SITUATION ROOM WITH WOLF BLITZER": Is there any chance at all that the president will try to fire Robert Mueller?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, I -- you know, that -- you know, I saw a couple of 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.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BERMAN: All right.
Joining us now, Michael Smerconish, host of CNN's "SMERCONISH." And, Jim Schultz, a CNN legal commentator and former lawyer inside the White House counsel's office.
And, gentlemen, I've got to do some housekeeping here with you, Jim, because of your proximity to everything that is now being reported this morning. You were inside the White House counsel's office.
Did the president say he wanted to fire Robert Mueller?
JIM SCHULTZ, CNN LEGAL COMMENTATOR, FORMER TRUMP WHITE HOUSE LAWYER: Well, I have no inside information or any information whatsoever regarding what he did or didn't say. That wasn't part of my portfolio while I was in the White House.
BERMAN: You never heard it -- you never heard him say that he wanted to fire Robert Mueller?
SCHULTZ: No, and I couldn't talk about it even if I did, so let's move on from that. Let's talk -- let's talk about --
BERMAN: Well, hang on, hang on, hang on. I've got to -- because I just want to get through this very quickly and then talk about the bigger issue here because I do think it's important.
Number two, do you have any knowledge -- you know, Don McGahn. If you worked in the counsel's office you worked for Don McGahn. Any knowledge -- did you ever hear that he threatened to quit to stop the president from firing Robert Mueller?
SCHULTZ: I wouldn't be on this television show today if I had any information or knowledge regarding this issue because I wouldn't be able to do it under my obligations, anyway. So the answer to that is no.
BERMAN: OK, have -- OK, so no.
And then, the third question is have you testified to the special counsel because we've heard that eight lawyers -- eight people within the White House counsel's office have?
SCHULTZ: No. Again, I wouldn't be sitting here today if I -- if I had been interviewed. So the answer to that is no, as well, because of my ethical obligations, having left the White House recently.
BERMAN: OK, good. Now that we have that behind us, what is your take on the reporting this morning, that CNN has confirmed, that the president said he wanted to fire Robert Mueller and that Don McGahn threatened to resign if he did?
SCHULTZ: Look, I think this quote-unquote "bombshell story" really isn't all that much of a bombshell story.
I think what you have here -- and let's assume for a second that there was a discussion regarding conflicts of interest and potential issues regarding Mueller and potential conflicts he had in representing Jared Kushner. The issues with the Trump golf property and so on and so forth.
I think that it's the White House counsel's job, right, to go in and talk with the boss, to have a discussion with him, give him the best legal advice. And it appears that, to the extent that these reports are true, if he did go in and give that advice, the president followed it. So I don't know what the big deal is.
BERMAN: Michael Smerconish?
MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR, HOST, CNN "SMERCONISH": Why create a pretext if truth is on your side? I mean, it hardly seems a basis to fire Robert Mueller because he once misplaced your nine iron at the golf club? So why create those examples if you've really got a legitimate basis to want him fired?
And it reminds me, John, of the stated purpose in getting rid of Jim Comey because that Rosenstein paper trail said what? It said oh, he so mishandled Hillary's e-mail investigation that he's got to go. Nobody believes that President Trump wanted Jim Comey out because he sided with Hillary Clinton relative to how Jim Comey handled the investigating of her e-mail.
I think the relevance of this is that intent is key when you talk about obstruction. And if, in fact, the president's intent was simply to fight back, if the president's intent was simply to go after a bogus investigation that wastes resources and distracts from his mission of delivering middle-class jobs, then why not say that? And why doesn't the paper trail say that instead of drumming up excuses to get rid of the guy?
BERMAN: Jim, you're absolutely right. The president did not fire Robert Mueller so that, in and of itself, is not an action that has any pertinence here.
But, the fact that he wanted to or tried to, does that influence an investigation into why he ultimately fired James Comey or why he may have asked James Comey to back off the Michael Flynn investigation?
Is there this pattern that Michael Smerconish, Jim, is alluding to?
SCHULTZ: Look, "The New York Times" created this narrative by way of the story and identified concerns that the president had regarding Mueller's ability to handle the matter from a conflict of interest perspective. Assuming all of that is true and "The New York Times" is correctly reporting this, on its face, he was asking questions regarding conflicts of interest.
[07:40:05] It's the White House counsel's job to address those potential questions. He did so, according to news reports. And if that's the case -- if all of this is true, Don McGahn did the right thing and the president did the right thing.
BERMAN: Well, "The New York Times" story, which has not been corroborated and confirmed and pushed forward in other ways by "The Washington Post" and CNN and other news organization, is the president tried to fire Robert Mueller and Don McGahn stopped him. And "The New York Times" goes into detail about what some of the reasons were and Michael Smerconish calls them pretext right there -- pretext and not the real thing here.
So, Michael, you're a lawyer also here. If you're Robert Mueller looking at this now, where does this fit into your obstruction investigation, Michael?
SMERCONISH: Well, I think it really makes the upcoming investigation, if the president's right that it's in the next two to three weeks -- the upcoming interview of the president pertaining to the investigation, that the stakes go up and it's one more indication that Mueller knows far more than the rest of us who are watching from the outside in. And I think therein lies some of the dangers for the president.
We all heard him say en route to Davos that he's looking forward to that opportunity and then he quickly offered a caveat, you know, as long as the lawyers allow him to go forward with it.
I would be shocked, especially now in light of this report, if the president isn't counseled by his attorneys to stay away from an under- oath conversation with Mueller's representatives. I also think, John Berman, it makes it difficult for Mueller, himself, to be the questioner of the president given the personal stakes now.
BERMAN: We don't know if he would be the questioner. He's got other people -- Andrew Weissmann -- the pit bulls who sometimes, we think, are doing a lot of this questioning here.
Jim, should the president sit down for an interview? If you were advising him as his lawyer would you say hey, it's a great idea? Go answer questions of the special counsel's team.
SCHULTZ: Look, I don't have the facts. None of us have the facts as to whether or not -- whether or not -- the issues that are going to be faced by his lawyers relative to this interview.
I will tell you this, that I would negotiate with the lawyers to perhaps have something up front that is in writing and written questions so that he can respond to and limit the scope to those questions. That's probably what I would do.
BERMAN: Let me ask you this because it -- you know, you worked in the legal office there.
Kellyanne Conway, she isn't speaking as a lawyer and the president himself is not speaking as a lawyer, but you are willing to stipulate that maybe the president had discussions about firing Robert Mueller.
You know, Kellyanne Conway flat-out says he never did. The president flat-out says he never did. Based on these reports this morning, do you acknowledge --I mean, those apparently were lies?
SCHULTZ: I did not say I was willing to stipulate. I said let's assume for a second that they're true. I didn't say that we were willing to stipulate to that.
But if we're going to speak in hypothetical terms then that's how I was addressing the question. I did not say I would stipulate to those facts.
BERMAN: But -- OK. If they did discuss it, then Kellyanne Conway and the president -- what they said aloud to the press would be lies?
SCHULTZ: Well, I don't know the facts, you don't know the facts. So, you know, the White House is responding to allegations. We -- you know, the White House has an obligation to advise the public. They're doing that and they've made statements.
I'm not going to get into who was telling the truth and who doesn't because none of us have the facts here.
BERMAN: Jim Schultz, Michael Smerconish, busy morning with a lot of interesting things going on. Appreciate your time. SCHULTZ: Thank you.
BERMAN: Now, a reminder.
We will carry the president's address at the World Economic Forum that is going on in the middle of all of this. How will he look, how will he address this, if at all? That speech is at 8:00 a.m. Eastern time -- Alisyn.
CAMEROTA: OK, so you've heard us covering this story. Sources tell CNN that President Trump wanted to fire special counsel Robert Mueller. Did Mr. Trump obstruct justice?
Former attorney general Alberto Gonzales here with his thoughts, next.
[07:47:35] CAMEROTA: Multiple sources tell multiple press outlets that President Trump ordered the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller last June. But, according to "The New York Times" he then backed off after the White House counsel Don McGahn threatened to quit rather than to carry out that order.
Is this obstruction of justice?
We discuss with former U.S. attorney general and former counsel to President George W. Bush, Alberto Gonzales. He is the dean of Belmont University's College of Law and the author of "True Faith and Allegiance," a story of service and sacrifice in war and peace.
Dean Gonzales, thanks for being here.
ALBERTO GONZALES, DEAN, BELMONT UNIVERSITY COLLEGE OF LAW, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL, FORMER COUNSEL TO PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH, AUTHOR, "TRUE FAITH AND ALLEGIANCE": Good morning.
CAMEROTA: OK, so giving an order to fire Robert Mueller, is that obstruction of justice?
GONZALES: Well, you know, first of all, there's so much here, Alisyn. I don't know how much of this is true. I don't know whether or not President Trump actually gave an order. I don't know whether Don --
CAMEROTA: Well, we have multiple -- let me -- let me just tell you so that you and the viewers understand.
CAMEROTA: CNN has confirmed the story, "The New York Times" has multiple sources on this, so highly legitimate outlets --
GONZALES: And I don't know whether --
CAMEROTA: -- with legitimate sources who are inside have said this --
GONZALES: All right. CAMEROTA: -- not just one.
GONZALES: Let's assume what's being reported is actually true. You know, as to whether or not there's obstruction of justice, I'd have to know the motivation behind the order from the president.
Was the order from the president based upon his concern that the -- that the investigation was out of control, that the investigation itself was corrupt, or was the order given in order to stop an investigation of possible wrongdoing by the president himself or by senior officials in the -- in the administration or in the campaign?
GONZALES: So there's still a lot of information we don't know.
CAMEROTA: I think what you're getting at and what we've heard from our legal experts this morning is that it's about intent. So you're not willing --
GONZALES: That is correct.
CAMEROTA: -- to say that it's obstruction of justice unless you know the intent was to scuttle the Russia investigation.
GONZALES: That is correct because, again, you could have a special prosecutor that is out of control or that isn't -- you know, that people -- that the president should rightly -- and the attorney general and the deputy attorney general should rightly be concerned about.
CAMEROTA: Sure. Do you think that --
GONZALES: But there's so much here, Alisyn.
CAMEROTA: -- Robert Mueller is out of control?
GONZALES: Based on what I -- what I observe, no. I believe that -- I have great confidence in Robert Mueller --
CAMEROTA: Of course.
GONZALES: -- and the investigation. It's not a perfect investigation. There's some things that I think Bob Mueller, I think, would like to do over differently if given the opportunity.
GONZALES: But I have confidence in Bob Mueller and his team.
CAMEROTA: And so many other people do, as well. I mean, we hear over -- time and again that he has a sterling reputation.
[07:50:01] So given that, and knowing that, and knowing what you know, does it stand to reason that the president is just trying to stop the Russia investigation? GONZALES: Listen, I don't know all the facts here and I can't get into the president's mind, so I think it would be irresponsible for me to reach that kind of conclusion, Alisyn. But obviously, this is something that Bob Mueller's going to get to the bottom of and we'll have to wait and see what happens.
CAMEROTA: We just heard Michael Smerconish say why try to fire Robert Mueller if the truth is on your side?
GONZALES: Well, that's an -- that's an interesting point.
You know, sometimes in an investigation, other people may not give the whole truth and you're worried about what other people have said. You may be quite comfortable testifying or giving interviews to the counsel but you don't know what others have said. Others may not have been truthful.
And so, you want to be careful. You may be totally innocent but no one, I think, wants to go into an interview by the special counsel. No one -- I think anyone should be concerned about an investigation, even though you may have done absolutely nothing wrong.
CAMEROTA: Listen, you have told us before that when you were in the White House that President George W. Bush would never have made a request like this. He knew when there was an investigation to stay as far away from it as possible -- to not meddle.
So, are you comfortable that President Trump made the request of White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Robert Mueller?
GONZALES: Well, you're absolutely right. The protocol would be for us that we would stay as far away from this investigation as possible.
You know, if I would have been the counsel and the president expressed concern to me, I would have had a communication with the deputy attorney general who actually would have hired the special counsel. And I would have asked the deputy attorney general -- I would have said this. I would have said you know what, people in the White House are concerned about this investigation. What do you think about it?
And then, I might also say people in the White House are actually thinking about having the special counsel removed. What do you think about that?
And then, I would take that information back to White House. I would have a conversation with the White House counsel. I'm not sure that I would have a conversation with the president.
I would wait and see -- to see whether or not the president actually gives the order to fire the special counsel and at that point, I could tell the president listen, I've had a conversation with the deputy attorney general. If we do this, this is what the deputy attorney general is going to do. Do you want to do this?
So, yes, this is the way that I would have handled it.
I don't know Don McGahn. I don't know the relationship Don McGahn has with the chief of staff and the President of the United States --
GONZALES: -- or with the deputy attorney general, so -- but I'm just saying that this is how I think this would have been handled in the Bush White House.
CAMEROTA: Yes, that --
GONZALES: But to get to your initial point, it never would have gotten this far.
CAMEROTA: That's really helpful. It's really helpful to hear how you would have done it and all of the wrongs along the way.
But if you determined in those questions that the investigation was legitimate and the special counsel was operating with, you know, good intention and good credentials, would you have offered to quit as a result, if that request was made of you?
GONZALES: You know, I think what I would have done -- what I would have done is communicated the president's directive to the deputy attorney general. If the deputy attorney general, who's going to make that final decision as to whether or not to remove the special counsel --
Now, the deputy attorney general, knowing Rod Rosenstein, I think likely would have said I'm not going to do that. I'm going to go ahead and resign.
I don't know whether it would have gotten to the point where I would have -- I would have -- I just can't see the scenario. It's just very difficult for me because of my relationship with President Bush and the kind of person that I know that he is.
GONZALES: And I also know that Andy Card, the chief of staff, would have stood behind me 100 percent. It just never would have gotten this far under President Bush.
CAMEROTA: I understand and I hear you. It's inconceivable for you to imagine a scenario like this.
So, was it wrong? Was the president's request to have Bob Mueller fired wrong?
GONZALES: Again, one of the things that I'd have to -- I would have to know -- understand fully is what is the purpose behind this order? Is the president concerned -- and it may be -- it may be that I don't agree that the investigation -- with the president's assessment that the investigation's out of control but he may truly believe that. Or, is this really an effort to stop an investigation of possible wrongdoing?
So, you know, this -- it's not as easy as simply laying out this question. I think -- I think it requires some very careful soul- searching and very careful fact-finding before making a decision as to whether or not it was wrong. This will be -- this will be a conclusion reached by Bob Mueller.
CAMEROTA: Alberto Gonzales, we appreciate your perspective. Thanks so much.
GONZALES: You bet -- you bet.
CAMEROTA: John --
BERMAN: All right, thanks, Alisyn.
In the midst of all of this, this morning, the president -- any minute, he will walk on that stage and address world leaders at the World Economic Forum. How will he -- will he, at all, address the situation now, and the new questions arising here in the United States as, once again, he travels overseas and questions about scandal bubble?
We'll carry that speech for you live, next.
[07:58:55] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
CAMEROTA: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to your new day. It is Friday, January 26th, 8:00 in the east.
Chris is off. John Berman joins me. A very busy hour ahead.
BERMAN: A big hour ahead. A big speech in the light of a lot of other information.
CAMEROTA: We do begin with breaking news. Here are some live pictures for you. This is from the World Economic Forum, as you can see there.
You see President Trump preparing for a big speech. He will take the stage moments from now at this World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
The president's address is set not only against the Swiss Alps but also the bombshell reports here at home that he tried to have Robert Mueller fired. The president dismissing those reports by multiple news organizations, including CNN, that he ordered Mueller to be fired last June.
According to "The New York Times" the president backed off his request after the White House counsel Don McGahn refused the order and threatened to resign.
BERMAN: Now, these revelations could be a key piece of evidence for the special counsel Robert Mueller if, in fact, he is trying to build an obstruction of justice case against the president. We will discuss how important that is or is not.