Return to Transcripts main page
Lawmakers in Congress Divided Over Protecting Mueller. Aired 6-6:30a ET
Aired January 29, 2018 - 06:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president has never intimated in way he had the desire to fire Robert Mueller.
[05:59:08] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think if he did do this, it would be clear obstruction of justice.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I've got legislation protecting Mr. Mueller. And I'll be glad to pass it tomorrow.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think there's a need for legislation right now to protect Mueller. Right now there's not an issue.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Welcome to this, the 60th annual Grammy Awards.
JANELLE MONAE, SINGER: To those who would dare try and silence us, we offer you two words: Time's up.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bring us your tired, your poor, and any immigrant who seeks refuge.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We remember that this country was built by dreamers, for dreamers, chasing the American dream.
HILLARY CLINTON (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: He had a long-time fear of being poisoned. One reason why he liked to eat at McDonald's.
ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota.
CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Surprise, surprise, there at the Grammys. We'll talk about that.
POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Yes.
CUOMO: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is your NEW DAY. It's Monday, January 29, 6 a.m. here in New York. As you can see, Alisyn is off, and Poppy Harlow joins me. Always nice because I get you twice. There's two of you.
HARLOW: The last Monday for sure that I'm going to be here.
CUOMO: All right. It's been -- we wish you all the best. HARLOW: Thank you.
CUOMO: It is amazing how you are working and doing everything perfectly. Great to have you.
HARLOW: I'm glad you see it that way, my friend.
CUOMO: Just keep everything calm and easy. I don't want to have to jump in any different mode this morning.
All right. So let's get to the starting line. President Trump looks to reset his presidency in his first State of the Union address tomorrow night. The president faces a tough task. He is expected to call for unity, but he has been so intent on division.
So how will he do that? Somewhat of a mystery. Much more easy to understand is what the policy side of this will be. The president is expected to tout his business tax cuts and a strong U.S. economy while pitching the American people on his controversial immigration plan.
A big question there is, is he going to come out tonight and say something that he doesn't have to? Boy, will it be helpful to lawmakers. Could he announce that he will not try to remove or fire, in any way, the special counsel? Lawmakers are divided over the need for legislation to protect Bob Mueller and his investigators after reports that President Trump tried to fire him last June. The GOP's House majority leader insists there is no need for that legislation right now.
HARLOW: So the president's frustration with the Russian investigation may now have Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in the crosshairs. "The New York Times" is reporting that a House Intel Committee memo shows that Rosenstein approved an application to extend surveillance of former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. The president once again at odds with his own Justice Department over releasing this controversial memo or not.
And did you see it last night? The music industry's biggest night got very political. Hillary Clinton made a cameo at the Grammy Awards, trolling President Trump in a skit that had hear reading from that bombshell book, "Fire and Fury." Not everyone was laughing. We'll dig into that. We have it all covered.
Let's begin now at the White House with Kaitlan Collins. Good morning, Kaitlan.
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning, Poppy.
The president spent his weekend here at the White House, preparing for his first State of the Union address, a speech that aides say will focus on building a stronger, prouder and better America. I mean, certainly, he'll look to reset that controversial first term in office. Aides say that tomorrow night we can expect the president to set aside his typically combative tone and instead seek to strike one of compromise and bipartisanship as he lays out his agenda for his second year here in office.
But Poppy, the question on everyone's mind is will the president's moment in the sun be overshadowed by the Russia investigation?
COLLINS (voice-over): President Trump gearing up for his first State of the Union address where he's expected to tout the economic progress of his first year in office while rallying support behind key legislative initiatives like infrastructure and immigration.
MARC SHORT, DIRECTOR OF WHITE HOUSE LEGISLATIVE AFFAIRS: I think the president is going to talk about how America is back.
COLLINS: The immigration plan unveiled by the White House last week would provide a pathway to citizenship for nearly two million undocumented immigrants in exchange for $25 billion to fund the president's border wall. The plan would also make major changes to legal immigration, a key sticking point that Democrats have called dead on arrival.
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), MINORITY LEADER: That plan is a campaign to make America white again.
SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D), WEST VIRGINIA: We don't need that type of rhetoric on either side. The president has laid out what he wants. That's a good starting point.
COLLINS: The president's high-profile speech coming amid controversy over Mr. Trump's reported attempt to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller last June.
SHORT: The president has never intimated to me in any way wanting to fire Robert Mueller.
COLLINS: Republicans warning the president against taking this step.
GRAHAM: Everybody at the White House knows it will be the end of President Trump's presidency if he fired Mr. Mueller.
COLLINS: But showing little urgency to take action on two bipartisan bills that would protect the special counsel.
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (D), MAINE: It certainly wouldn't hurt to put that extra safeguard in place given the latest stories. But, again, I have faith in the deputy attorney general.
MICK MULVANEY, DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF MANAGEMENT AND BUDGET: I don't think there's a need for legislation. Right now there is not an issue. So why create one when there isn't a place for it?
COLLINS: The majority of Democrats arguing that Congress must take action.
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: There is a case of obstruction of justice against the president of the United States. COLLINS: CNN has learned that in recent weeks, Mr. Trump has been
complaining about wanting to fire Deputy Attorney Rod Rosenstein, as well. Rosenstein oversees Mueller in the special counsel investigation. The "New York Times" reports that the controversial memo spearheaded by House Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes reveals that Rosenstein approved an application to extend to the surveillance. Former campaign Trump associate Carter Page last spring, indicating the Republicans may be moving to seize on Rosenstein's role as they seek to undermine the special counsel.
COLLINS: Now, Chris, the president, all these developments in the Russia investigation come as the president is facing a major deadline today to use the Russia sanctions power that Congress overwhelmingly voted to give him last fall -- Chris.
[06:05:09] CUOMO: All right, Kaitlan. Everybody should be prepared down there. The NEW DAY team is coming to Washington, D.C. We're going to be live from the Capitol tomorrow ahead of President Trump's first State of the Union address.
CNN's primetime coverage begins at 5 p.m. Eastern tomorrow.
HARLOW: All right. If there are so many concerns about whether the president is going to try to have the special counsel fired, why won't some lawmakers take action, just in case, to protect Bob Mueller? We'll discuss that next.
CUOMO: So we do know that lawmakers on Capitol hill are debating legislation to protect special counsel Robert Mueller following reports that President Trump tried to fire Mueller last June. So, how real is this? What's going to happen?
Let's bring in on our political analyst David Gregory and John Avlon. Good to see you both, gentlemen.
David Gregory, what is your take on whether this will happen? Is there any chance that the president dispenses with it tonight -- tomorrow night at the State of the Union and just says, "By the way, I'm not moving on the special counsel. Let the investigation play out. Let's move on"?
DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I don't see him doing that. I just think he's too intent and undisciplined, frankly, to let this go. And won't even leave it to other people, allies of him, to make the case against the special counsel, against the deputy general. Well, he's got to lead that fight.
[06:10:06] I also think Congress is a bit too divided to pursue this legislation. Even Lindsey Graham, who said it would probably be a good idea, you know, who thinks it may not be necessary to read between the lines, because everybody knows it would be the end of his presidency, he says, if he were to fire Mueller. I'm not sure the president believes that.
But you see a lot more division on the House side. Kevin McCarthy, I think, reflecting not just leadership but the rank and file, who wouldn't see this as a necessary step.
JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, I mean, the Republican leadership's reluctance to back legislation that they backed before in the wake of what with we now know that President Trump called for the firing and Don McGahn stood in front of it, is just gutless. It's denial. It's sticking your head in the sand because it's uncomfortable if you're a Republican to try to take on this president.
But in the separation of powers structure, it is self-evident that we need this law. And that if we don't, it's really just baiting the president. Because you're basically encouraging a constitutional crisis if you don't take the necessary first step, and it's pathetic that folks who backed this legislation in the past are now trying to duck and weave on it.
CUOMO: Well, they don't need to be afraid of the president, though, Poppy. Because we know that one of the few things that both parties agree on, is that they didn't like the old special prosecutor law.
HARLOW: Yes, yes.
CUOMO: Both parties had a chance to read up on that. They didn't like how it had worked with them. But also their logic doesn't work here, David. So Kevin McCarthy is saying, "Well, we don't have any crisis, so why do we need a law like this?"
If the president moves on Robert Mueller, it's too late to have a law. So the logic doesn't work. But it doesn't seem like it's going to happen. So you know, what does that ultimately mean here?
GREGORY: Well, we have to look at what the playing field looks like in a moment. You know, if the president were to make this kind of move, remember his attorney general is still conflicted out of this investigation by his own decision. So Rod Rosenstein, who is the one who has assigned a special prosecutor, I'm sure would resign.
And then the question is, who do you put in that place? You know, there are folks who work within the Justice Department all over the country who are not political appointees who are not going not be used in the way that Rosenstein was careful not to be used in a political fashion, who would come in and presumably do the right thing.
But there's no question that this would -- this would create a crisis.
HARLOW: So John Avlon, just moving on to this very controversial four-page memo written by Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee Devin Nunes about what he alleges are violations of FISA surveillance laws. All tried to the Trump dossier. We now have some more developments.
Interesting developments from "The New York Times" over the weekend. Well, they say that Rod Rosenstein, you know, went further in terms of approving surveillance of Carter Page while the president was in office. The president wants this things released. He wants it out there. The Justice Department said that it would be reckless to do that without us seeing it, and what's classified.
Devin Nunes says that "You can't see it, because it's about you guys." Where does this go?
AVLON: This is fascinating. Just first, the White House and his allies in Congress are in direct conflict with President Trump's Justice Department on this. They're being told, "Look, it's about us. We are not -- we are being denied the ability to see it. It would be reckless to release it." And yet the president is encouraging its release. The Senate Intel Committee not being able to see this.
HARLOW: The chairman, exactly. The Republican chairman. So this is -- this is really setting up a larger conflict. And it appears that this memo is basically a Christmas tree of Trump critics being attacked via the memo. And what the memo so far has not shown any evidence of being is something more serious and substantive than a partisan attack and deflection on Devin Nunes.
So that's a high bar. People are going to lather about this. But if it's designed to discredit Trump's critics, and if there's not the normal developments within the Justice Department, in the Intelligence Committee, in the Senate leadership, that's totally truly troubling, and it's clearly designed to distract and deflect.
CUOMO: David, do you think the memo is more helpful if it's released or if it isn't released? The hype around it seems to be far outpacing what you'll actually get if you read it.
GREGORY: Well, that's probably right. But I do think if there's enough in there that could be argued, even if it's selective, we see it with the release of the text messages among the FBI agents who were working on the investigation. It's enough for Trump allies to seize on, to argue that the investigation itself is not on the level, that it's somehow corrupt. And I just see the White House hammering away at this to undermine the investigation.
CUOMO: All right, guys, appreciate it. Thank you very much. We'll check back with you in just a second.
So big question here: does Bob Mueller have enough evidence to charge President Trump with obstruction of justice? There's a lot of talk about that crime. But what are the facts? What's the reality? Next.
[06:18:53] CUOMO: President Trump has denied it a lot, you know, the idea of him getting rid of Bob Mueller. But now, in the face of this "New York Times" reporting, the report we matched and others, those denials, they're not so compelling.
Ken Starr, the independent counsel who investigated President Bill Clinton, of course, says Mueller must look into whether President Trump lied to the American people when he said that he had not thought of firing Mueller. Take a listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KEN STARR, FORMER INDEPENDENT COUNSEL IN BILL CLINTON INVESTIGATION: I think lying to the American people is a serious issue that has to be explored. I take lying to the American people very, very seriously.
So absolutely. I think what Dan was talking about was this effort to get rid of the investigation. You're now talking about something called lying to the American people. And I think that is something that Bob Mueller should look at.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CUOMO: Now, of course, remember, Ken Starr hung his hat on this concept when he went after President Clinton. But that was perjury. He had him in front of a grand jury. It's a little different.
So what are the implications of this? Let's discuss with CNN legal analyst Michael Zeldin, who worked with Bob Mueller; and CNN legal commentator Ken Cuccinelli. It's good to see you both.
[06:20:04] Counselor Zeldin, what Ken Starr says about this, of course it matters. Whether or not a president lies to the American people, but what does it mean in the context of an actual investigation?
MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: So I think that the context with which Judge Starr was talking about this was lies that further interfere with the ongoing investigation.
In Clinton's case, his lies to the American people, according to the Ken Starr report to Congress, were lies that were intended to delay or impede in some way the investigation that he was undertaking. And I think it's a fair standard to look at. It's not a crime, per se, to lie to the American people.
But if your lies are -- there are endeavors to, you know, distract independent counsel or, in some way, involve themselves in an effort to delay the prosecution, then it's worthy. And if it's worthy of consideration, the bigger lies here, then, whether he was going to fire Mueller or not were the lies about the meeting on June 9 on Air Force One.
I think that takes front and center stage, because it's a written document which was proven to be a lie. And whether or not it's a lie that he never asked, according to him, he never asked Comey to back off the Flynn investigation, nor did he ever ask Comey for a loyalty test. Those lies are more profound than whether or not he asked McGann to ask Rosenstein to fire Mueller.
CUOMO: Well, Ken, they certainly would be if he had said those mistakes to a federal officer in an interview, saying to the American people, I don't know whether that's going to attach in terms of significance to the prosecutor.
But let's start with the general question. Do you see a case for obstruction? We know that they're looking at it. Do you think anything comes of it?
KEN CUCCINELLI, CNN LEGAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I certainly think that Mueller is probably at the tail end of his investigation. And they have to go over every option, every possibility. And this is one of the possibilities.
And so I think, just as a matter of professionalism, they'll consider it. I tend to agree with Michael that the discussion about firing Mueller is really not part of -- not part of that consideration. First of all, it didn't happen. And second of all, there are other issues that really are more relevant. And whether you played some clips earlier of the president saying is, "No, I'm not thinking about firing Mueller." And at the time he said those, they appear to have been true. But it's not a relevant -- it's not a relevant lie from an obstruction standpoint. What matters...
CUOMO: Hold on, Ken. When you say it appears to have been true -- Ken...
CUCCINELLI: Let me just finish.
CUOMO: Well, I just want to get that one statement.
CUCCINELLI: It tends to mislead.
CUOMO: I just want to get that one context statement true. You're saying when the president said, "I'm not thinking about getting rid of the prosecutor," he was talking about the special counsel. He was talking about right then. But he was asked repeatedly, have you ever thought of it? He said, "No, I have not."
CUCCINELLI: Right. But, again, back to Michael's point, let's say that's a lie even then. It's not relevant. It doesn't do anything to impede the investigation. It can't possibly, intelligently, be intended to impede the investigation.
When you compare that -- and I actually find Ken Starr's commentary a little peculiar. Because in fact, the president, you know...
(DOING BILL CLINTON IMITATION) "I did not have sex with that woman..."
(SPEAKING NORMALLY) ... that was directly related to the subject matter, the lies of relevance in that case were the ones told under oath in -- to a grand jury. We haven't had that situation here.
CUCCINELLI: And Ken Starr, in fact, didn't use that as a basis to proceed against the president. So I find his comments inconsistent with his own actions back in the '90s.
CUOMO: Michael, the idea of -- the reason that it doesn't matter is that he didn't fire Mueller. True, in terms of being a complete act to impeded the investigation, but many in your guys' world of federal prosecutions say, "But it may be the best look they've had yet at the president forming corrupt intent." That his desire to order the firing at that time, when it had just come out that Mueller was looking at obstruction is maybe the clearest look at where his head is on why he wanted to take action. What's your take?
ZELDIN: That's what I believe as well, Chris. I think that that view into his intention will be -- inform, Mueller about a lot of the other things that he did prior to and after that June order to McGann.
So yes, I think it is a window that the prosecutor will use into evaluating whether or not these other acts were acts that were intended to interfere with the investigation. So I think it's important in that respect, for sure.
[06:25:05] CUOMO: All right. Let's leave it there. Gentlemen, I appreciate your thoughts. They are helpful, even on a Monday morning. Be well, both of you.
HARLOW: All right. With another government shutdown looming, how will the president sell his immigration plan tomorrow night during the State of the Union address? We'll take a closer look next.
HARLOW: President Trump will deliver his first State of the Union address tomorrow night. You will be in Washington...
HARLOW: ... previewing it tomorrow morning. Of course, he's going to focus a lot on his controversial immigration plan. The battle over DREAMers will be a major focus. What can we expect?
Let's bring back CNN political analyst David Gregory and John Avlon. So David Gregor, to you, I mean, just looking back at how Sean Spicer previewed the president's inaugural, he said it would be optimistic. And then we got American carnage. The White House preview of tomorrow night, if it will be unifying, what will we get?
GREGORY: Well, I tend to think we're going to get a little bit more of what we saw from President Trump in Davos, you know, which is an opportunity for him to use the platform to go big...