Return to Transcripts main page


Clinton Blocked Firing of Adviser; Trump's Plan for Dreamers; Immigration Outline Under Fire From Both Sides; Shifting DACA Deadline. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired January 26, 2018 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Washington, 7:00 p.m. in Davos, Switzerland, 8:00 p.m. in Jerusalem. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

A bombshell report. President Trump trying to have special counsel, Robert Mueller, fired. Why his plan didn't work.

Plus, the president's frustration growing with his White House chief of staff, John Kelly. A familiar pattern emerging which could signal of what's to come of their rocky relationship.

And the White House unveiling its legislation proposal on immigration, angering members of both parties. Is it already dead on arrival when Congress takes the matter up next week?

All that coming up. But let's begin with that bombshell report.

A source confirms to CNN that, back in June, President Trump ordered his special counsel -- the special counsel, Robert Mueller, to be fired. The only reason he wasn't, the White House counsel, Don McGahn, threatened to resign.

Today, President Trump denies this bombshell reporting. Here's what he said before leaving Davos to come back to Washington.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you seek to fire Mueller?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you try and fire Robert Mueller?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What's your message today?



(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: All right, let's go to our Justice Correspondent Jessica Schneider who is working this story for us.

Jessica, take us behind the scenes of the White House last June.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we know that there was tension inside the White House that threatened to boil over in June, when the president called for Special Counsel Robert Mueller's ouster.

At that point, Mueller had only been appointed a few weeks prior. So, a source tells us it was White House Counsel Don McGahn who refused to order the Justice Department to fire Mueller.

But the threat to actually resign, McGahn didn't make it directly to the president. And McGahn refused the president's call because we know that he disagreed with President Trump's reasoning.

So, the president had expressed concern about three possible conflicts of interest. First, the special counsel had actually been a member of the Trump golf club in Sterling, Virginia. But then, we know that Robert Mueller left the club after a dispute over membership fees. So, the president had concerns about that.

Second, the president believed that it was a conflict of interest that Robert Mueller was a partner at the Washington law firm that represents his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, on a top adviser.

And third, the fact that Mueller had actually been interviewed for head of the FBI, director of the FBI, one day before being actually named special counsel. The president also believed that was a conflict.

So, this desire to fire Robert Mueller came from the president in June. But for months after that, the president and his staff denied it, as did his lawyers.

Well, now, though, there has been a bit of a change in tune from the president's lawyers. Consider this statement from White House lawyer John Dowd. That was back on August 8th when he was asked if a firing was possible.

John Dowd said this. He said, that's never been on the table, never. It's a manifestation of the media.

But just last night, after these reports came out, White House lawyer Ty Cobb, he deferred questions, saying that, we decline to comment out of respect for the office of the special counsel and its process.

So, notably White House lawyers last night did not explicitly slap down these reports.

But, of course, Wolf, the president still calling it fake news before he left Switzerland -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, he did. All right, Jessica, thanks very much.

Let's quickly take a look at what was happening last June, when President Trump reportedly ordered his White House counsel to fire Robert Mueller.

As you know, Mueller was appointed in May, after the president fired the former FBI director, James Comey.

Here's what went on in the month that followed. On June 7th, Comey releases a written statement about his interactions with the president. That statement alleges that, in January of last year, the president asked Comey for loyalty and to stop investigating his friend and former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

One day later, Comey publicly testifies before Congress about these allegations detailing how uncomfortable these conversations with the president made him.

And about a week later, on June 15th, Mueller requests interviews with top intelligence officials, including the director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, and the National Security Agency chief, Mike Rogers.

According to reports, the president had previously asked both of these men to intervene in the Russia investigation. And on this very same day, the president logs on to Twitter and blasts the special counsel investigation as, quote, "a witch hunt."

Today, we now know that while all of this was happening, behind the scenes, the president was ordering his White House counsel to fire Mueller. Something White House staff and the president, himself, have repeatedly denied.

[13:05:06] Listen to this.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ANCHOR, ABC NEWS: Does the president commit to not firing Robert Mueller?

KELLYANNE CONWAY, WHITE HOUSE SPECIAL COUNSEL: The president has not even discussed that. The president is not discussing firing Bob Mueller.

MALE: But will he commit not to fire him?

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

MALE: That's not what I'm asking.

CONWAY: And, in fact, Ty Cobb -- well, hold on. I'm not the president's lawyer here. But I will tell you, as his counselor, he is not discussing that. 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.

I mean, I want them to get on with the task. But I also want the Senate and the House to come out with their findings.


BLITZER: All right, let's bring in our panel to assess and discuss. Here with us, CNN Legal Analyst Laura Coates, CNN Political Director David Chalian, Amber Phillips, Political Reporter for "The Washington Post" political blog, "The Fix," and former counsel to the U.S. assistant attorney general for national security, Carrie Cordero.

David, the president and his staff repeatedly were denying what we now know was true. That the president ordered Don McGahn, his White House counsel, to fire Mueller. And Don McGahn said, you know what? I'll resign if you do that.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Right. So, one of two things are going on here, right? Either Kellyanne Conway in the clip you just played, another staff at the time was deliberately misleading the public or was out of the loop of what the president was thinking. Neither is a really good outcome.

I also thought it was quite interesting in that clip that you played, granted that was August and it was two months later. She kept relying the word, discussing.

Well, I guess it all matter -- you know, what does discussing mean? Perhaps she didn't consider ordering to his White House counsel to have the special counsel fired a discussion.

So, perhaps she was having some word play there. Clearly, there was a misleading of the American public here as to what was going on.

In your timeline, Wolf, in June, you remember the president's good friend, Chris Ruddy of Newsmax. He gave PBS News Hour's Judith Woodruff an interview. He, basically, in June, was reading this "New York Times" story word for word, back in June, explaining what the president's thinking was and what the justification in his mind was for thinking that Mueller may have to go.

BLITZER: And the White House rejected his account. They said it wasn't true. That he really didn't know what he was talking about, when he actually did know what he was talking about.

Carrie, walk us through the process of firing the special counsel, Robert Mueller. The president went to Don McGahn, his White House counsel, the lawyer there for the White House. But he could have gone directly to the Justice Department, to the deputy attorney general or the attorney general, for that matter, and say, fire him.

CARRIE CORDERO, FORMER COUNSEL TO THE ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL FOR NATIONAL SECURITY: He could. The normal way that actually things are supposed to work is the president is supposed to work through the White House counsel's office and communicating with the Justice Department. Certainly, this would have been an extraordinary circumstance.

The deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who is the acting attorney general for purposes of the Russia investigation, really is the person who holds the most control over the appointment or the firing of the special counsel.

And so, really, if -- even if the White House counsel's office would have gone to the Justice Department, he would have had to have convinced Rod Rosenstein to fire Director Mueller.

Mr. Rosenstein has said, he's doing that. Many observers think that Mr. Rosenstein would have to resign and someone else assume his supervisory authority over the special counsel's office for the special counsel to actually be removed.

BLITZER: So, the channel of doing this. You go to the White House counsel, who then goes to the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. And he's supposed to fire him.

Rosenstein might have quit, too, not only Don McGahn. There could have been what happened during Watergate, another Saturday night massacre if this thing unfolded and the president backed off.

Anthony Scaramucci, who was the communications director in the White House for about a week, told our Chris Cuomo last night, Amber, that none of this matters. Because, in the end, the president didn't fire Mueller.

AMBER PHILLIPS, POLITICAL REPORTER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Yes, that -- I think that misses the entire point, and that the president is under investigation we know by Mueller's team, for obstruction of justice.

And from the outside looking in, the president's actions have given a lot of reasons for that investigation to be happening.

I've counted six top FBI and-or Department of Justice officials that the president has been reported to be -- to have considered firing. Or, in the case of James Comey, the FBI director, and Sally Yates, the top Justice Department official, actually fired.

Which, to go back to David's point, raises the question, you know, for the first six months of his presidency, did he genuinely believe that the FBI was out to get him, politically, and he needs to stop this from happening? Or was he trying to cover something up?

BLITZER: You know, Laura, the special counsel, Robert Mueller, presumably knew all of this conversation back in June, long before "The New York Times," "The Washington Post," CNN. We were all reporting it last night.

[13:10:02] So, how does this fit in, this order to the White House counsel, to fire -- to go ahead and fire Mueller? How does this fit into this investigation of possible obstruction of justice?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think it summends his investigation in this respect. His end game is not obstruction to figure out whether or not the president of the United States was trying to undermine their justice endeavor or trying to undermine their finding out some truth. That's not his end game.

But as far as the contextual clues, you have, yet, another weight that's on this scale that's saying, I have another indication that this person was trying to undermine the investigation.

Now, why you were trying to do that is the bigger question for Mueller. What it is you don't want me to see is my greater adventure here.

But in terms of what this being under a contextual clue. It's there, absolutely. And I'm sure that Mueller -- this wasn't news to him.

It probably was news to him to think to himself, wait, did this person understand that Archibald Cox was not a comic book character in Riverdale? That he actually has a resonating value here in this new administration?

And so, I think he was probably befuddled in that but certainly not surprised.

BLITZER: The president can fire Mueller, right?

CORDERO: The president has executive authority. I mean, he can do it but it has to go through this process.

The interesting point, also, on obstruction is that the -- in order to have obstruction, there is a pattern of activity. And the reporting that he was considering or that he ordered the firing of Mueller, who had only been in the position for about a month, I think, casts doubt on the purported reasons for firing Director Comey.

In other words, the president and -- has come up with a reason that they have given as a pretext for firing Director Comey. The fact that now they were going to fire Mueller as well indicates that what he really was trying to do was get at the investigation. And it wasn't for all these other pretextual reasons.


CHALIAN: Sorry. What was not in the published pretext of why he fired Comey was on camera in an interview with Lester Holt when the president said, he fired Comey because of the Russia investigation.

COATES: And let's be clear, Scaramucci is wrong when he says that this is all for not -- just not the reasons you gave and well, Amber. That this is a violation you can endeavor to commit and that's a violation, too.

The fact you weren't able to accomplish obstruction does not immunize you from prosecution for that very charge. If you try to do these things, if you endeavor to do that, that can carry as much weight as the overall accomplishment. Like he did with Comey, if it turns out that was for obstruction of justice.

BLITZER: Everybody stand by. There's more coming up. It's very intriguing why this bombshell report is emerging right now.

There's a lot more coming up, including the Trump administration now putting forth its promised plan for immigration reform. But it seems a few Democrats, even some Republicans, are not happy with it.

Our Phil Mattingly is standing by. He's got a live report with new information.

Plus, tensions escalation in the west wing of the White House. The president at odds with his White House chief of staff, John Kelly. Our Kaitlan Collins will have that report.

And a strong denial from the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, to the outlandish rumor she's having an affair. What she thinks is really at play. We'll update you on that.

Lots of news. We'll be right back.



[13:17:18] BLITZER: There is breaking news. Hillary Clinton is now facing accusations that she harbored an accused sexual harasser during her 2008 presidential campaign. "The New York Times" reports that Hillary Clinton stepped in to save the job of her then faith adviser, a man by the name of Burns Strider. He was accused of sexually harassing a female subordinate. Strider was sent to counseling. He was allowed to keep his job while the woman was reassigned. At the time, campaign officials were deeply troubled by Hillary Clinton's response.

Strider hasn't responded to CNN's request for a statement, but we did get this from the law firm that represented Hillary Clinton in the 2008 campaign saying, quote, to ensure a safe working environment, the campaign had a process to address complaints of misconduct or harassment. When matters arose, they were reviewed in accordance with these policies, and appropriate action was taken. This complaint was no exception, closed quote.

"The Times" reports that Burns Strider later joined an independent group supporting Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign, but he was fired a few months later under another cloud of sexual harassment claims.

So let's bring back our panel.

And, David, you know, this is a pretty -- a pretty shocking story when you look at the details of it, that Hillary Clinton, in effect, the allegation is, protected this guy.

CHALIAN: Right. And the way that "The Times" reports the story, Patti Solis Doyle, the campaign manager at the time, a contributor here at CNN, recommended the firing. And Hillary Clinton, according to "Time," says, no, I don't want to take that course of action. I want him to stay on.

It seems to me it's pretty clear, Hillary Clinton is going to have to address this at some point. She can't let this stand (ph). I -- you know, it's -- in the broader context, Wolf, of this moment that we are in, in our culture, and pairing that with the line of attack against Hillary Clinton from Donald Trump directly and his allies during the campaign that she enabled Bill Clinton's behavior -- you'll recall when Donald Trump showed up with all the woman accusers of Bill Clinton at that presidential debate in St. Louis -- this is a larger question about Bill and Hillary Clinton's role in the Democratic Party this year, an election year, in this current me too environment. And I think the story raises a lot of question and I think that Hillary Clinton is going to have to answer them.

BLITZER: And it was co-written by Maggie Haberman, one of our CNN contributors, and Amy Chozick, is that correct?


BLITZER: So these are very, very solid reporters.

The fallout -- political fallout from this, what do you think?

AMBER PHILLIPS, POLITICAL REPORTER, "WASHINGTON POST'S" POLITICAL BLOG, "THE FIX": Yes, well, obviously Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign is over and this one was over in 2008. But, exactly right. I see two fallout points from that.

[13:20:07] And to pick up on one David made is, if Hillary Clinton wanted to fashion herself as any kind of spokeswoman for the Democratic movement in the Trump era, and particularly for women in the Trump era, she's going to have a very difficult time doing that unless there's a clear explanation for this.

The second one is, as we continue to see who got tied up and who knew what and when and, you know, whether it was other top Democrats, there could be potential fallout for anyone who wants to run in 2020. You know, I don't know who might be connected or who was involved, but that certainly is something we're -- a number of reporters are going to dig through because this is such a big story. Anyone who might be remotely connected to what could be a toxic story might be in for a rude awakening.

COATES: And, you know, this is not the first time that Hillary Clinton, just in recent history, since the Harvey Weinstein scandal, has had to address claims about whether she's enabled, either through the acceptance of money from him in campaign contributions or otherwise. And, you know, what you're seeing here and why this story is so timely, legally speaking, is just think of what happened this week with Larry Nassar and the idea of now USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University are all being taken to task on the notion of whether they enabled or whether they had suspicion, parameters in place to avoid this behavior, do discipline this behavior. This issue came up with Fox News and Roger Ailes and the idea of,

look, it's no longer agreeable or enough in our legal system, or certainly our court of public opinion, to say that the fault and the blame lies with one person. If there was a system of behavior -- or a system in place to enable it to continue or to be pervasive, they will be taken to task as well. She'll have to address it given this climate, particularly in terms of legal context.

BLITZER: Yes, different climate today than back in 2008. There's no doubt about that.

All right, everybody stand by. There's more news we're following.

President Trump's framework on immigration is coming under fire from some on the left and the right. Among other things it includes a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million young undocumented immigrants, including the so-called dreamers, the DACA recipients, those who have registered so far, about 700,000. Also, some hardline conservatives, they are now angry. They are calling this amnesty. Many Democrats are upset, on the other hand, over what the Trump administration would get in return, including money for a border wall with Mexico and major cuts to legal immigration into the United States.

Let's go to our congressional correspondent Phil Mattingly. He's joining us from Capitol Hill.

First of all, walk us through the president's immigration proposal.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and, Wolf, this is very important because you get a sense of why people are upset in their various places right now and whether or not this actually has a future on Capitol Hill. And the short answer to that is, it's very unlikely right now just given who it's upset, but it will absolutely play a role in the negotiations going forward.

So, as you noted, there is -- at least for the Democrats, for people who want dreamers, and that includes Republicans as well, to have a pathway to citizenship, in the administration's proposal, that would exist. As you noted, it wouldn't just be the 698,000 individuals that have the DACA protection as it currently stands. It would be the entire universe of individuals that would be eligible for that. The White House estimated that would be about 1.8 million people.

Now, you look at kind of what conservatives would want out of this proposal. $20 billion in a trust fund for the wall, plus another $5 billion for other issues, like technology, personnel, interior enforcement. That would be a big kind of plus that the White House wants. Something they clearly have emphasized going forward.

But I think you noted the key points when you get into the weeds of this plan, Wolf, that everybody's really looking at right now. Family migration, limiting that just to spouses and children. That is a major reduction in legal immigration. And then you also have the ending of the diversity lottery visa program. Those are two pieces right there that are crucial from the White House perspective, that they've said they want no matter what, but will be problematic if they want to move anything forward on a bipartisan basis, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Phil Mattingly, let's see what happens in the coming days if this is just the opening round in negotiations and if they can reach some sort of agreement.

The roughly 1 million green cards given out by the United States each year allowing legal status here in the United States could be reduced by as much as half according to experts. And that's just part of the president's plan to reduce legal immigration into the United States while giving so-called dreamers a clear path to citizenship, as the president said the other day, after 10 or 12 years here in the United States.

So walk us through the political battle that is about to unfold, because at stake also is a government shutdown in the coming days.

CHALIAN: Right. It's hard to see who is happy with this deal announced by the White House because it certainly has more critics than it has fans at the moment.

You've talked about how the Democrats are enraged, not only over the wall funding issue, which, as you know, Chuck Schumer had as a part of the negotiations last week trying to avoid the shutdown. But really, over this issue of so-called chain migration, family-based migration, limited to just the nuclear family, that is something that activists and progressives on the pro-immigration reform movement are very, very upset about. I think it's going to have a hard time getting any Democratic support as structured the way it is.

[13:25:09] And on the Republican side, you know, with Breitbart blaring headlines calling the president "amnesty Don," if -- I don't yet see how this proposal can cobble together -- if it can get 60 votes in the Senate, Wolf, I don't see how it can cobble together a majority in the House.

BLITZER: Because the president, in this latest proposal, seems to have gone further -- and this is to the angers of those on his right, than earlier proposals that allow 700,000 dreamers to stay in the United States legally and eventually have a pathway to citizenship. Now it's almost 2 million, almost three times as much, 1.8 million. That was a surprise to a lot of folks when that number came out yesterday.

PHILLIPS: Yes, absolutely. It's almost like the president, in drafting this proposal, went to the polls of either side of his party, either side of the immigration debate, excuse me, and nobody is happy with it. There are more people who find things to dislike in this bill than like it.

And I think because he put out two such extreme proposals, it's going to be very difficult to get to the center of a compromise because, you know, why would you support something that you literally hate more that's in the bill than you like what's in the bill?

BLITZER: Listen to what the president said. He gave an interview to CNBC. And he was asked about DACA, the dreamer program. Listen to this. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Nobody wants to take care of DACA more than myself and the Republican Party. We want to do what's right and we're going to do what's right and we're going to solve the DACA problem. And I don't think the Democrats would want to pull another shutdown, but we'll get it solved. And if we need a little more time, we'll take a little more time. I want to get the problem solved correctly.


BLITZER: And more recently, he tweeted this, DACA has been made increasingly difficult by the fact that cryin' Chuck Schumer took such a beating over the shutdown that he's unable to act on immigration.

So this is a complicated issue. They've got less than two weeks if it's part of the shutdown negotiations to resolve it.

COATES: Absolutely. And good luck with trying to do that in a way that's going to be dignified and avoid another shutdown. But, you know, Jeff Sessions did give this president a lifeline to that defense of saying that he's amnesty Don. Just recently he came out with -- or a requirement that different sanctuary cities, which was one of the goals they're trying to have, talking about reducing crime and associating that with the DACA program inexplicably in many ways, that he's trying to say, I'm still tough on crime and still tough against immigration, illegal immigration, by requiring that certain grants, you have to prove that you're complying with that in a -- with the ICE agents and whatnot.

So I think they're doing this kind of parallel PR campaign, on the one hand having this very controversial, perhaps not palatable DACA proposal, and on the other hand saying, but I'm still standing true on my ideas that I don't like sanctuary cities, I'm not for illegal immigration. I'm going to crack down on the crime that I assume is associated with it.

BLITZER: I could see a compromise emerge in the Senate where you've got a lot of Democrats who want a compromise, a bunch of Republicans. You know, the Lindsey Graham/Dick Durbin talks that have been going on. The question, though, even if it were to pass, get more than 60 votes in the Senate, would it even come up for a vote in the House of Representatives?

CHALIAN: It's a good question, Wolf. So the reason you could see compromise in the Senate, and I think Mitch McConnell's statement yesterday after this framework came out gave the reason why you might see that, because he kind of said, we'll take that as some important guidance from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, but we're going to keep working in the way we're working in the Senate. So I don't think they were taking it wholesale, despite the fact the White House said take it or leave it, basically.

But you are right, Paul Ryan has a decision to make here. Is he going to employ the Hasterk (ph) rule, that you only bring something to the floor if you know you have a majority of the majority who's going to vote on it, or not? If he plans on doing this with the majority of the majority, this current bill, I do not see how House Republicans, who are more concerned about being challenged from the right in a primary, specifically over this issue, are going to get on board with 1.8 million (INAUDIBLE).

BLITZER: Because, remember, in 2013 there was comprehensive immigration reform. The legislation passed the Senate overwhelmingly. And when it went to the House of Representatives, nothing.


BLITZER: Didn't even come up for a vote. So we'll see what happens. There's a lot of work that needs to be done.

The only way potentially it could come up for a vote in the House, if the president really gets involved and works with that Republican base and says, you've got to do this, you got to do this. We'll see what happens.

CHALIAN: We'll see.

BLITZER: All right, guys, thanks very much.

Lawmakers up on Capitol Hill have plenty to say about that blockbuster report that President Trump trying to fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller. We're going live to Capitol Hill when we come back.