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FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe Steps Down; White House Daily Briefing. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired January 29, 2018 - 13:30   ET

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


[13:30:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: An update on the breaking news. FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe stepping down, effective immediately. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders getting ready to face questions on this any moment now. We'll have live coverage of the briefing when it begins.

Let's go our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju, up on Capitol Hill.

Manu, what's the reaction you're getting there?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: A lot of surprise, real surprise, but members thought McCabe would stay here until at least March 18. The sudden decision catching members of Congress here by surprise. Members are still getting into town. It's a travel day on Capitol Hill. Not a lot of reaction at the moment.

But we know Andrew McCabe is mentioned in this very controversial Republican memo that Devin Nunes' staff drafted as part of the House Intelligence Committee effort. The memo cites both McCabe and deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, their role in overseeing the Russia investigation. We don't know if this has any connection with the sudden decision of McCabe to announce his decision to step aside, but clearly, if this memo is released, Wolf, more pressure almost certainly will be put on McCabe from Republicans here on Capitol Hill.

We still don't know exactly the timing of this vote to release this memo. It could happen as soon as tonight. But the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, not saying specifically if that is going to occur, but they're bracing for the possibility of it being released by the White House today, for the president to make the decision about whether to reject to its release or allow it to come out publicly. Presuming it does, it could shed some negative light on Andrew McCabe. And Democrats say there is a partisan document. Republicans say this is in line with the underlying intelligence. But just shows how much of a target Andrew McCabe has been for a number of members, particularly Republicans, in the House over the last several weeks and months here -- Wolf?

BLITZER: They've been going after him, and now Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, as well. That meeting behind closed doors of the House Intelligence Committee scheduled to begin around 5:00 p.m. eastern.

Manu, we'll get back to you. In the meantime, I want to get more reaction to the breaking news, the

deputy director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, stepping down immediately.

New York Congressman Eliot Engel is joining us, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

What's your reaction, Congressman, to the news about Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe leaving?

REP. ELIOT ENGEL, (D), NEW YORK: It's not a surprise to me. He's been undermined since day one. He's been attacked since day one. And this administration and Republicans in Congress are doing everything they can to discredit the FBI, to discredit the Justice Department. They really ought to stop. And I think this will be the first of a lot of people leaving because nobody wants to see their good work undermined. It's just awful.

BLITZER: The White House is pointing to McCabe and its claims of an anti-Trump bias in Robert Mueller's overall Russia investigation. Where do you see things going from here?

ENGEL: Well, you know, this paranoia about an anti-Trump bias, we hear certain claims one day, and it's disputed the next day, and then it's rebuked the day after that. It's been a steady flow, one after the other. Now they want to release this Republican memo. We demand that if they're going to release that, they ought to release the Democratic memo. It's just absolutely, again, ridiculous, these attacks on the Justice Department and the FBI. It all stems, of course, from the Mueller investigation. They want to undermine it, they want to discredit it, they want to have a lot of smoke. It's just awful. It's really an attack on the basics of our democracy, as far as I'm concerned.

BLITZER: Have you read this four-page memo that Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Committee, and other Republicans, would like to release? I know they made it available to members of the House.

ENGEL: Well, I sent them a letter telling them I would like to see it. I have not seen it yet. But again, if they're going to release the Republican memo, we want the Democratic memo released as well. We want balanced opinions. We want all sides to be shown. And of course, if they just released what the Republicans say, it's only half a story. It's not really fair and it's not what should be done.

BLITZER: There was a letter written to Devin Nunes, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee by Stephen Boyd, the assistant attorney general. Let me read a paragraph of this letter that says don't release this four-page memo. Here's the paragraph. "In addition, we have also heard that the House Special Committee on Intelligence is considering making the classified memorandum available to the public and the media an unprecedented action." The assistant attorney general writes, "We believe it would be reckless for the committee to disclose such information publicly without giving the department and the FBI the opportunity to review the memorandum and to advise the House Select Committee on Intelligence on a risk to harm to security and ongoing investigations that could come from public release. Indeed, we do not understand why the committee would possibly seek to disclose classified and law enforcement sensitive information without first consulting with the relevant members of the Intelligence Community."

Clearly, the Justice Department is afraid that sensitive, classified information, including sources and methods, could be undermined.

Have you ever seen the House Intelligence Committee or the Senate Intelligence Committee release this kind of classified information without first allowing the Intelligence Community to review it? Because they're not sharing this four-page memorandum, basically, with anyone outside the House.

[13:35:55] ENGEL: Well, no, I haven't. And I think the fears are very well-founded. And that's why I'm saying that if they make the decision to release what the Republicans said, they ought to release the Democratic response for balance.

You know, it's really shocking, Wolf, that there is just such an attack again on the FBI, on the Justice Department. When the president first took office, he attacked all the intelligence. There seems to be a continuing coddling of Russia, this not going after the Russians. There is a bill which we passed back in August of last year with over 400 votes in the House, it was bipartisan, demanding that some of the sanctions be imposed on some of these Russians for interfering in our election. The president blew past the deadline, and about a month later came forward with the names. Today, is the deadline for him to come forward with the sanctions. We haven't heard a word other than the fact that he's going to do it. But meanwhile, he hasn't done it. I don't understand. This administration seems to go lightly on Russia and attack U.S. intelligence. To me, it just boggles my mind.

BLITZER: In this letter, I'll read another line from it. The assistant attorney general, remember, this is the Justice Department under Jeff Sessions, the former Republican Senator from Alabama. "The damage potentially would have damaging impact that the release of classified material could have on our national security and our ability to share and receive sensitive information from friendly foreign governments."

All of that warning. Let's see what the House Select Committee on Intelligence does later today, whether they ignore these warnings from the Justice Department or go ahead and release this sensitive four- page memo.

Eliot Engel, thank you so much for joining us.

ENGEL: Thank you, Wolf. Always a pleasure.

BLITZER: We're standing by for reaction from the White House. Sarah Sanders running a little late. We'll have that briefing coming up. Our panel is still here. Much more on the breaking news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [13:40:56] BLITZER: An update on the breaking news. The FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, number two at the FBI, now stepping down effective immediately.

The White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, will be facing questions on this any moment now when the briefing starts. We'll have live coverage. You're looking at a packed briefing room at the West Wing of the White House.

Let's bring back our panel.

Gloria, it's a surprise that he did it now. He was supposed to do it later in March. But it looks increasingly like this wasn't mutual, he was pushed.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: It looks like he was pushed, and we have reporting that we're gathering to that effect. But look at the context of all of this. You have a president who was pressuring publicly for McCabe to be gone, pressuring his attorney general. The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, there were reports earlier this month that Sessions was applying pressure to Wray to get rid of McCabe, and that Wray was so upset about it that he went to the White House Counsel Don McGahn and complained about it. So you have -- there's no doubt about it, you have pressure from the top on this. Who effectively decided to pull the plug and how this transpired, we are still pulling out, but I think there is no other way to look at it because of the disordering manner in which this occurred, this was somebody who was pushed to leave before his time.

BLITZER: He was feeling the heat big time, Andrew McCabe.

Rachel, this is not somebody who was sort of a career FBI agent. He was someone right in the heart of these attacks.

RACHEL BADE, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, POLITICO: Yes, Republicans have been going after him for months now. I remember in 2016 his wife was obviously running for Democratic office in Virginia, and Republicans tried to pin that on him and say, you have a left bent, we can't have you at the FBI.

I think what's interesting in what we're seeing today is that this memo, they're clearly laying the groundwork for even more shuffling. A case against Rod Rosenstein, potentially, for him basically approving to continue the continuation of surveillance of Trump officials. And Republicans are going to be saying in this memo that he had no right to do that. He's the guy who has the power to fire Mueller. Potentially, they're making the case to push him out. That's the thing I think we should really watch as this memo comes out in the next few days.

BLITZER: And, Karoun, a lot of us remember, a lot of Republicans certainly remember that Andrew McCabe's wife was running as a Democrat for State Senator in Virginia. The then-Democratic governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, in a PAC, he gave almost $500,000 to her campaign. She collected money from other Democrats as well. He recused himself at the time of any FBI activities involving the Commonwealth of Virginia.

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right, but the current concern that they have is that he did not recuse himself from activities the FBI was doing like looking into things like the Hillary Clinton e-mail probe --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: That was later.

DEMIRJIAN: Later.

BLITZER: He didn't recuse him from that, even though Terry McAuliffe, the then-governor of Virginia, was very close to the Clintons.

DEMIRJIAN: These are the dots that have connected that led to the political scrutiny on him, even though he did take certain steps to remove himself from inquiries directly tied to what his wife was involved in. There is this general shadow Republicans are casting with anything he touched that was affiliated with anything to do with prominent Democrats and all the high-profile stuff we've been looking at involving at FBI and DOJ because one had focused on Clinton, the other had focused on Trump, and that's been out there and reported on social media. And various members of Congress also raising these inquiries. Then you see texts come out between lawyers that worked closely with McCabe and one was the deputy head of the Intelligence Division with the FBI. It also brought up new questions about political bias. And that's what led to this firestorm we're in right now that McCabe is in. It can't be easy to be Andrew McCabe for the last couple months since this has all been swirling around. The question we're left with is, how much is his decision, how much is Wray's decision, or is it somebody else pulling the strings.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta might be getting more information on the question you just raised.

Jim, what are you learning?

[13:45:11] JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIRO WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it does sound like Andrew McCabe was forced out from what we're hearing from a source familiar with this matter. Chris Wray, the new FBI director, had a conversation with McCabe, basically told him the writing was on the wall, that he was bringing in his own team and that Andrew McCabe was not going to be on that team. So he was essentially being told that he was on his way out and that it was his move to make at that point. And apparently, that's what Andrew McCabe decided to do, decided to go ahead and announce his resignation. It sounds like, at this point, what we were hearing earlier, Wolf, this was a mutual decision between Andrew McCabe and the White House. The only way to describe it at this point is I think when you're told you're no longer a part of a team and the writing is on the wall, it's hard to say that's mutual, Wolf. I think that's basically being told you're being forced out, you're being pushed out. It sounds like that is what happened with the deputy FBI director.

I think the question at this point, Wolf, is, how much pressure did the White House have on Chris Wray in terms of making this decision. As we've been reporting, Andrew McCabe was making it clear he would step down, retire in March. But from what we're hearing from sources, Wolf, is that this White House, the president, on down, they were extremely uncomfortable with Andrew McCabe being in that position. They were getting angry with Andrew McCabe being in that position.

I think one of the open-ended questions, Wolf, is whether there was pressure brought to bear on the new FBI director, who we know has only been in this job a short while, to make it clear to McCabe he is on his way out. From what we know, the FBI director did have a conversation with Andrew McCabe and said, you're not on this team anymore -- Wolf?

BLITZER: We'll see what kind of pressure Christopher Wray, the new FBI director, was under.

Stand by, Jim.

We're also awaiting Sarah Sanders. She's going to be walking out, we're told, fairly soon and start answering reporters' questions. And we know there are a lot of them. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:51:06] SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Over the weekend, the White House released a framework for responsible immigration reform that will protect our people, put the interests of American workers first, and provide a permanent solution to DACA. Our framework includes four pillars, border security including the wall, DACA legalization, ending extended family chain migration, and eliminating the visa lottery, moving us toward a merit-based system of immigration. We look forward to working with Congress to pass and sign legislation that addresses each of the four pillars.

Looking ahead to tomorrow, as you know, the president will deliver his first State of the Union address. The theme of the address is building a safe, strong, and proud America, which is exactly what the president has worked to do during his first year in office. I don't want to get ahead of what the president will say during his remarks. It will obviously be must-watch TV.

But I do want to make an announcement about one of the most important traditions, the guest who will be sitting in the first lady's box. I'll name a few of those individuals and a little bit about them.

First, Cory Adams is a skilled welder at Staub Manufacturing solutions in Dayton, Ohio. Last year, Cory and his wife were able to become first time homeowners and they will invest extra money from the Trump tax cuts into their two daughters' education savings.

Elizabeth Alvarado, Robert Minkins, Freddy Cuevas are the parents of Nisa and Kayla, who were murdered by MS-13 gang members.

Corporal Matthew Bradford in 2007 stepped on an IED while deployed in Iraq. He was blinded by the blast and lost his legs. After multiple surgeries and therapy he became the first blind double amputee to reenlist in the Marines.

John Bridgers. Mr. Bridgers founded the Cajun Navy in 2016, a nonprofit rescue and recovery ocean that responded to flooding in south Louisiana and in 2017 to Hurricane Harvey in Texas. He and his team helped thousands of people across the south.

David Dauberg, a fire technician who saved 62 children and staff members from a raging wildfire that encircled their camp in southern California.

Officer Ron Holitz serves as a police officer in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In his six years on the force, he's been shot twice and experienced several near-death encounters. The officer and his wife adopted a baby from parents who suffered from opioid addiction, breaking down walls between drug addicts and police officers to help save lives.

Ashley Lepert rescued dozens of Americans during last year's devastating hurricane season.

Agent C.J. Martinez. Agent Martinez is a special agent for ISIS Homeland Security Investigations Unit. His investigations have led to more than 100 arrests of MS-13 gang members prosecuted for crimes including homicide, assault, and narcotics and weapons trafficking.

Staff Sergeant Justin Peck. Last year, Staff Sergeant Peck was part of a team clearing IEDs from territory previously controlled by ISIS. When one of his compatriots was hit by a blast he rushed to their side.

Preston Sharpe has organized the placement of more than 40,000 American flags and red carnations on soldier graves as part of his goal to honor veterans in all 50 states and to challenge others to join the flag and flower challenge.

Steve Staub and Cindy Keplinger, they started Staub Manufacturing solutions 20 years ago. Thanks to the Trump bump in the economy, they grew to new heights in 2017. Thanks to the Trump tax cuts, they were able to give their employees larger Christmas bonuses.

Some of these individual stories are heroic. Some are patriotic and others are tragic. All represent the unbreakable American spirit and will inspire the nation to continue growing stronger, prouder and more prosperous.

With that, I will take your questions.

John?

[13:55:31] JOHN ROBERTS, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, FOX NEWS: Sarah, the news came down in the last hour that the deputy director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, is stepping down. Will we get reaction from the White House? Is the president back at the end of December was tweeting about Andrew McCabe in a less than praise manner? What's he thinking about on that? SANDERS: We have seen numerous reports as you have. Any specifics, I can tell you, none of this decision was made by the White House. I would refer you to the FBI who I believe will make a statement later today.

ROBERTS: You say the White House wasn't involved in the decision, but clearly the president seemed to be involved in public relations campaign against McCabe.

SANDERS: Look, the president stands by his previous comments. But in terms of the situation today, as I said, we have seen reports as all of you have. We don't have any specific comments. I would refer you to the FBI for specifics on the things that are taking place today.

Jill?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You said you have seen reports. Does that mean the president wasn't involved by anyone at the FBI this was happening? Is there conversation there?

SANDERS: No, he hasn't.

Cecilia?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Can you say that the president didn't play a role in Andrew McCabe stepping down?

SANDERS: Yes. The president wasn't a part of the decision-making process. We would refer you to the FBI where Christopher Wray serves as the director. Which I said last week, and I'll repeat today, the president has full confidence in him and has put the decisions at the FBI in his hands.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Did the president at any time convey he wanted to fire Robert Mueller to anyone on staff here?

SANDERS: Not that I'm aware of.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Just to finish this loop, so no one at the White House contacted the FBI about McCabe, no one put any directors or had any discussions about his tenure at the FBI? Did anyone at the White House?

SANDERS: Not that I'm aware of. Nothing specific to McCabe and his stepping down as of today. If that's what's being reported.

Jim?

ACOSTA: Sarah, what would you say to critics who believe that this White House and this president have had almost a steady pressure put on the Justice Department, put on the FBI since the president came into office, on this special council investigation, whether it be conversations with Jeff Sessions' office about recusal, whether it be about the desire for Robert Mueller to go away, and now with Andrew McCabe. There are even reports that Rob Rosenstein was feeling pressure from the White House. It sounds like multiple officials at multiple levels that are being pressured by the White House and the president. What would you say in response to that?

SANDERS: I would say what I have said probably a hundred times before and continue to say a hundred times today that the White House has been fully cooperative and will continue to be fully cooperative. In fact, we have gone above and beyond many times, and certainly done everything we could. The White House has provided over 20 witnesses and tens of thousands of pages of documents to the special counsel. We have done everything we can to be transparent and will continue to do that throughout the process.

ACOSTA: What about that the president has been applying pressure for months --

(CROSSTALK)

SANDERS: The only thing the president applied pressure to is to get it resolved so you guys and everyone else can focus on the things Americans actually care about. Making sure everybody gets the Russia fever out of the system once and for all, that you are all reminded once again there was no collusion, and that we can move forward to focus on things like national security, the economy, solving the immigration crisis that we have here in our country.

ACOSTA: So no obstruction of justice? Nothing improper? Nothing inappropriate at all whatsoever from the president since he came to office when it comes to the investigation?

SANDERS: No. We have been clear on that.

Steven?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: I want to know if the president has confidence in the man he appointed to be Deputy Attorney General Rob Rosenstein.

SANDERS: When you guys asked this question about a number of individuals, when the president no longer has confidence in someone, you'll know. On the memo -

(CROSSTALK)

SANDERS: -- you have another question?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: I do have a question. The House Intelligence Committee could vote today to release this memo that Chairman Nunes has reportedly crafted. The House rules contemplate the president would get five days to determine whether he has any cause to object to its public release. What's the current thinking, the current level of White House involvement in the decision? Can you shed light on the process between this White House and Capitol Hill on this question?

[14:00:13] SANDERS: Look, no one at the White House has actually --