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Trump Blames Obama for Inaction Over Meddling; Special Counsel Mueller Asking About Kushner Business; Mueller Charges Lawyer With Lying About Interaction With Gates. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired February 20, 2018 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:16] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. John Berman here.

It's Obama's fault. That is what the president is saying this morning. Well, he says a version of that almost every morning. But this morning it concerns Russia and the attempt to disrupt the 2016 election.

In a series of statements, President Trump blamed President Obama for allowing the Russian meddling to happen. He blamed Obama for saying it wasn't happening and then blamed Democrats for saying that it did happen.

Now you might be forgiven for getting lost in the logical gymnastics here and while it is true that even Democrats now question the Obama administration's response, President Trump has barely acknowledged that the meddling happened at all and as far as we know has done next to nothing to keep it from happening again.

These are just a few of the issues that could arise in a jam-packed White House briefing today. This the first time for the White House to respond to a dizzying number of new developments from the school shooting in Florida, to the indictments against Russians for trying to help get Donald Trump elected, to security clearances in the White House following a domestic abuse scandal, to new reports of payouts to another woman to keep quiet about an affair with pre-President Donald Trump.

I'm sure I'm leaving something out here. Oh yes, there's also exclusive new CNN reporting that the special counsel has been asking questions about the financial dealings about senior adviser and yes, the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Much, much more on that in a minute. But first, we begin with CNN's Abby Phillip at the White House today where it will be interesting to see how the White House responds to all of these things -- Abby.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John. It will be a big day for meeting with the press for Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The public is really looking for answers to a lot of questions about where the White House and the president stands on some big issues.

The most glaring right at this moment is the Parkland tragedy last week, and the national conversation about guns that has been sparked by the children victims of that tragedy. The White House and the president signaled some openness to gun control. But there are still questions about whether President Trump -- how far he's willing to go and how much he's willing to lead on this issue.

But as you just mentioned, there are a slew of issues on the agenda, unanswered questions including about the reaction to these 13 indictments of Russian nationals that were announced last week. Those questions about whether the president's aides and friends paid off women who allegedly had affairs with him before he was president, and many, many other things on the president's agenda today.

We will see him at least once during an event that he was going to have about honoring public service officials with the Medal of Valor. He'll also have a couple of other meetings with his Cabinet, with Defense Secretary James Mattis and also with Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary.

Now also on social media, the president has been tweeting quite a bit this morning and last night. But it's the tweet last night directed at Mitt Romney who is running for Senate in Utah that is raising some eyebrows. The president full throatedly endorsed Romney in that message. And it's Romney's acceptance of his endorsement that's also making some people look twice at social media.

Romney was one a very strong critic of President Trump's. And now it seems both men are willing to put that aside for this Senate race. The president clearly wanting to weigh in early and often on this race as Republicans seek to hold on to the Senate in the 2018 midterms -- John.

BERMAN: You know, maybe it's just 2012 nostalgia, tweeting about Obama and Romney within the same 24 hours.

Abby Phillip, at the White House, thanks so much.

Now the CNN exclusive reporting on the special counsel and Jared Kushner.

CNN's Kara Scannell part of the team that broke this story.

Kara, what is at the center right now of what the special counsel is investigating?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, CNN has learned that the special counsel Robert Mueller is now asking questions about Jared Kushner's business dealings during the presidential transition. We're told by people who are familiar with the investigation that Mueller's lawyers are asking about discussions Kushner had with potential Chinese and Qatari investors.

This is the first indication that Mueller wants to know about contacts that the president's son-in-law had with foreigners outside of Russia. The discussions revolved around this building in Manhattan at 666 Fifth Avenue, which Kushner's company owns. The financing on the building is in debt by over a billion dollars. It's not clear happened what's behind Mueller's specific interest in

the financing discussions. But we're told that the special counsel hasn't asked the Kushner Companies for information and he also has not asked for interviews with other executives from the Kushner companies. A spokesman for the special counsel has declined to comment. But we do have a statement our from Jared Kushner's attorney Abby Lowell responding to our story.

Lowell said, quote, "Another anonymous source with questionable motives now contradicts the facts. In all of Mr. Kushner's extensive cooperation with all inquiries, there has not been a single question asked nor documents sought on the 666 building or Kushner Company deals, nor would there be any reason to question these regular business transactions."

[09:05:12] Now, John, we have multiple sources for this story who told us that these questions were being asked. Kushner himself may not have been quizzed on the company's dealings. But multiple people familiar with Mueller's probe has told us investigators have been exploring these questions in interview with people over the past two months.

BERMAN: Interesting. We'll get to the denials in just a moment, Kara. But what are the details of the meetings themselves?

SCANNELL: So Mueller's team is exploring two meetings. One of them involves a Chinese insurance company called Anbang. It's a big conglomerate. And "The New York Times" reported about this meeting in which they -- Kushner and others from Kushner Companies met with Anbang one week after the election and discussed financing for 666 Fifth Avenue. No financing was ever reached and no deal was struck.

Another deal that we know that Mueller's team is exploring is the meeting that Kushner had with a prominent Qatari investor. The Intercept reported about that meeting. And as far as we know, no deal ever happened. Those talks stalled as well.

BERMAN: So, Kara, any sense of what the special counsel's team might be trying to figure out in asking these questions?

SCANNELL: Well, it's tricky because we know that they're asking witnesses about this. But there's -- it's not clear why they're asking these questions. It could be that they want to check the box and determine that there's no impropriety with these conversations. But it's also true that Kushner was the main person who's dealing with foreign contacts during the transition. He was also wearing a hat as a businessman leading his family's business. So I think that's an area that they are digging into just to explore and see if there's anything there.

BERMAN: All right. Kara Scannell, there is a lot here to digest. Thanks so much for being with us. I appreciate it.

Joining me now CNN chief legal analyst, former federal prosecutor, writer for "The New Yorker," Jeffrey Toobin.

Mister Toobin, fill in the blank for me if you will. The most significant aspect of this is blank?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, that there is a possible major conflict of interest here on the part of Jared Kushner. Now we are very long -- very far from asserting any crime took place. But this is the reason why senior government officials don't simultaneously have major business interests. Jared Kushner and the White House has been extremely involved in making China policy and making policy regarding Saudi Arabia.

Here we have a situation where at least potentially he has been negotiating with Chinese companies and Qatari companies -- Qatar is now involved in a major dispute with Saudi Arabia -- about his own personal business interests. His business is in a great deal of trouble because the 666 Fifth Avenue building is in enormous debt and they need more financing.

If he is simultaneously going to Qatari companies, state-owned, Chinese companies which are very much affiliated with the Chinese government, and negotiating American policies in those two areas, I think the potential for conflict is obvious.

BERMAN: Way back last summer in an interview with "The New York Times" President Trump suggested that investigating his finances or his family's finances would cross a red line. The word he used is violation. But he doesn't really get to decide that, does he, Jeff Toobin?

TOOBIN: No, he doesn't. The jurisdiction that Mueller has which he received from Rod Rosenstein last May when he was appointed is very broad. It's basically Russian collusion and anything related. But it seems as written that it's Mueller who gets to decide what's related or not.

Keep in mind, though, that Donald Trump always has in his pocket the possibility of directing the Justice Department to fire Mueller. But in terms of day-to-day activities, it's very much up to Mueller what he investigates.

BERMAN: If we could up on the screen, Rod Rosenstein, when he appointed Robert Mueller specifically said, and I will read this to you because it's worth reading every time, that he could investigate Russia but also any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.

So if this arose during the investigation, fair game, at least according to Rod Rosenstein, for Robert Mueller.

Let's talk about the Abby Lowell denial, if we can. Abbe Lowell, you know, a world renowned attorney who defends a whole lot of very, very powerful people. He responded to this article saying that in all of Mr. Kushner's extensive cooperation with all inquiries, there has not been a single question asked nor document sought on the 666 building or Kushner Company deals.

This is a pretty broad denial, Jeffrey. You would think that the special counsel would be asking questions here if it were something he was seriously interested in.

TOOBIN: Absolutely. And I think it's very much worth paying attention to, what Abbe Lowell said. It is also true that these investigations don't evolve immediately, and you certainly -- if you are investigating a person, he's the last person you ask, he's not the first person you ask. But it's also true if Mueller's people have not sought documents related to the 666 transaction, and I am sure there are thousands if not millions of documents related, that does suggest that this is not a focus for Mueller.

[09:10:14] But one thing I think we have all learned is that it is very difficult to predict where Robert Mueller is going. Last Friday's indictment --


TOOBIN: -- was certainly a surprise to me and I think to most people who've tried to follow the investigation. So I'm afraid Mueller has been very successful --


TOOBIN: -- in keeping us all at bay knowing about what precisely he's doing.

BERMAN: So very quickly, Jeffrey Toobin. I mean, Donald Trump over the years has said he only had very minimal businesses in Russia, very minimal business interest. You have a fascinating piece in "The New Yorker" today and there are some intersection here with the whole Jared Kushner thing that looks into just what Donald Trump tried to do over the years in Russia and deals specifically with the Miss Universe Pageant. What did you find? What was most interesting to you.

TOOBIN: Well, one of the things that's so extraordinary is that Donald Trump's interest in Russia go back to the days of the Soviet Union. You know, he went there in 1987 trying to make a deal when the communists were still in charge. And, you know, if you want to talk about collusion, the single most obvious example of collusion so far, the June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower, with Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, with Donald Trump Jr. is -- was directly set up because of connections that Donald Trump made during the Miss Universe contest in 2013.

So, you know, that is the most direct evidence of collusion that has been produced so far. It goes to Miss Universe. Miss Universe is just a bizarre story in and of itself. Donald Trump personally chose the finalists, not the judges.


TOOBIN: How about that for a scoop?

BERMAN: As they often say, all roads lead to Miss Universe.

TOOBIN: To Miss Universe.

BERMAN: Jeffrey Toobin --

TOOBIN: Indeed. All right.

BERMAN: Thank you so much for being with me. Jeffrey, I appreciate it.

Joining me now, Josh Dawsey, CNN political analyst, reporter for the "Washington Post," Mary Katharine Ham, CNN political commentator, and Caitlin Huey-Burns, national political reporter for RealClearPolitics.

Josh, I want to start with you because you cover the White House. You watch them like a hawk. When things delve into the family realm, when you start asking questions about Jared Kushner, when reports start to arise that the special counsel might be focused on that, typically what's the response in the White House? Do things get more combustible as you get closer to the center of the family?

JOSH DAWSEY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Jared Kushner and his representatives certainly mount a vociferous defense of him when these sorts of accusations are raised. You read Abbe's statement on air, and as they have a right to.

What we're seeing right now is a bit of a conflagration around Jared Kushner. On Friday, you know, John Kelly put out this memo saying folks without permanent security clearances, you know, could no longer work in the White House in these sensitive jobs as of this week. Jared Kushner has not been able to get clearance. You're seeing a lot of reporting around his business dealings and you're seeing an intensifying focus from Bob Mueller in recent weeks with the 13 indictments.

I certainly do not see the limelight going away from Kushner any time soon. And I think we have a few interesting weeks ahead.

BERMAN: I've got say, Caitlin, and this interest me also, Abbe Lowell not only defending Jared Kushner in the Russia dealings, but he's also giving the public statements when it comes to security clearance issue, also. I think that's just bizarre.


BERMAN: I mean, I understand where these issues intersect per se, but when you're having a private defense attorney speak for a White House employee -- let me just read you the quote.


BERMAN: You know, he's talking about the new security clearance policy. Abbe Lowell, the attorney for Jared Kushner, says it will not affect Mr. Kushner's ability to continue to do the very important work he's been assigned by the president.

HUEY-BURNS: Right, which having that statement suggests that it is interfering. Right? I mean, Jared Kushner has an extensive portfolio. We're not quite sure exactly what he has been doing. The background checks and the security clearances have been one issue. This would be another.

The interesting thing is that when it comes to the family, we have seen Donald Trump respond in real time to the entire Russia investigation. We saw that, of course, over the weekend. I'll be interested to see kind of what his response is to something like this, whether he thinks it is actually narrowing in.

BERMAN: Mary Katharine Ham, I think you're sort of the arbiter of the swamp. I look at you and I feel like you judge fairly --

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I don't know if that's a compliment.

BERMAN: What delves into the swamp here? So, no, look, I mean, Robert Mueller will be the ultimate arbiter of whether Jared Kushner broke any law here, but there's also just the swampiness.

HAM: Yes.

BERMAN: Issue. If Jared Kushner is having meetings that deal with his businesses during the transition, and he's got this private defense attorney -- you know, are we now in full swamp mode?

HAM: Well, and that's one of the ironies of the Trump administration, is that there was always this element. But it's sort of a slightly different kind of swamp, right? Slightly different kind of businessman association with the government.

Look, none of their stuff has ever been separate. There is no line between the family business and the presidency. That's always been of issue. By the way, it's unfortunate for them that the building address is 666, it's not a great look.



HAM: But this lack of separation has always been an ethical issue. We will find out if there's anything really here. We're where we always are, which is it may be something, or it may be nothing. But having that ethical line clearly drawn is something that they have been incapable of doing and will continue to be a problem for them.

BERMAN: So, Josh Dawsey, we're getting some new-ish from President Trump over the last 24 hours and certainly this morning. We are starting to see President Trump say, look, this is all Obama's fault when it comes to Russia.

Obama didn't do anything to stop the Russian meddling. By the way, you can hear plenty of people in the Clinton campaign complain that President Obama didn't do enough to stop Russia as well.

And certainly, Democrats are now saying it, too, but it's interesting to hear it now from President Trump who again is barely, barely acknowledged that Russia meddled in the election at all. Really, as far as we know, hasn't taken a single meeting to stop it from happening again.

JOSH DAWSEY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That's the irony of this. The president continues to litigate the 2016 election and what Obama did and what it matters to him. We've seen no vociferous condemnation of the Russian meddling by this president.

We've seen no task force, no punitive measures taken in recent days after these indictments. We've seen no harsh rebuke of the Russians. Most of his response to this has been to defend himself, to say they were not part of my win. I went on my own. I was a great candidate, Hillary Clinton was not.

We have not seen the outrage you might expect or umbrage from a president with a United States attacked by Russia as Bob Mueller's team alleges. The question is why not? I think a lot of Trump's folks will tell you, he doesn't want to see say that Russia did anything to help him.

Even his allies, H.R. McMaster saying there's evidence that's incontrovertible. Even people in administration saying you need to do something about this, this is problematic.

BERMAN: So, the why not is certainly fascinating here. Thomas Friedman wrote a column for "The New York Times," the most widely shared Thomas Friedman column ever where he raises the other possibility on why the president hasn't done much.

Let me read you a quote, "Trump is either hiding something so threatening to himself or he's criminally incompetent to be commander- in-chief. It is impossible yet to say which explanation and first behavior is true, but it seems highly likely that one of these scenarios explains Trump's refusal to respond to Russia's direct attack on our system.

Mary Katherine, that's what Thomas Friedman writes and that's why maybe the president is responding today I've been much tougher on Russia than Obama has.

HAM: Yes, I mean, I often describe things (inaudible) in this administration until proven otherwise. Look, I think he should respond on the Russia stuff. I think he's defensive because he thinks this speaks to his legitimacy as president. He has a point when we are talking about some of the coverage of that and some of Democrats' reaction to some this.

But the best way and he's motivated by this, the best way to troll Obama would be to be tough on Russia and to mention over and over again that Obama was president -- the '80s called and wants foreign policy back. You can take a couple swipes at him that would be legit but also do the right thing on Russia, combine those two into a beautiful Trumpian combo.

CAITLIN HUEY-BURNS, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "REALCLEARPOLITICS": If you saw some of the other tweets this morning, I mean, the president has said again that the Democrats have been using the Russia investigation as a way to explain their loss which completely negates anything he's trying to make --

BERMAN: Obama let it happen but it's a hoax. It's hard to mesh those two. Mary Katherine Ham says incompetent until proven nefarious. All right. Guys, stick around, if you will.

First, they mourn, then they march. Next hour, Parkland students attend the funerals of two classmates before boarding buses to the state capitol demanding stricter gun control laws.

A majority of the country agrees with them. A new poll says more than 50 percent of Americans do not think the government is doing enough to prevent mass shootings. What will lawmakers do about it?

You can meet someone named Donald Trump if you are willing to shell out money for a condo in India. Paying for access is one reason watchdogs are worried about Donald Trump Jr.'s trip overseas.



BERMAN: All right. We do have breaking news in the Russia investigation. We are just getting word of new charges from Special Counsel Robert Mueller charges for an individual lying to the special counsel during the investigation.

CNN's Jessica Schneider has the details. Who and what are we talking about here, Jessica?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, this is yet another indictment from the special counsel. As we're reading this, this is just coming to us, it does seem to be a bit of a tangential indictment here. This is an indictment against an attorney for the prominent law firm, Skadden Arps. His name is Alex van der Zwaan.

This is indictment is a very short one. It's two pages long and involves allegations that this attorney lied to the special counsel, in particular lied to the special counsel about his interactions with Rick Gates back in August and September of 2016.

And also, the allegations that he lied about communications and didn't turn over everything he needed to turn over to special counsel. So, again, somewhat of a minor and tangential indictment here.

But this further speaks to the wide-ranging inquiry that this special counsel has really given in the past several months. These are for false statements. Of course, we know that a previous guilty plea involved George Papadopoulos because of false statements that he made to the special counsel's team.

But this is yet one more indictment in this case, the latest being handed down by Robert Mueller's team here. This actually relates to -- Skadden Arps was actually dispatched by Paul Manafort in regard to his work with the Ukrainian government back in 2012.

[09:25:06] Skadden Arps actually did a report for the Ukrainian government of Viktor Yanukovych and it actually worked to justify the jailing of one of Yanukovych's opponents in Ukraine.

So, again, this is a very wide-ranging reach by the special counsel involving Paul Manafort's work in Ukraine. Of course, that was the initial indictment back in October.

Today this latest indictment against a lawyer for lying to the special counsel's office in relation to his communications with Rick Gates -- of course, Rick Gates, the deputy campaign manager for the Trump campaign and also indicted for lying about some of the communications that he may have withheld from the special counsel.

So, this all bit by bit, John, the special counsel handing down these indictments, somewhat becoming more of a rapid succession. We saw the indictment just on Friday of those 13 Russian nationals as it pertains to election meddling and now yet another indictment.

So, we are seeing a lot of activity in the special counsel's case, today just the latest in this indictment for false statements against an attorney at the prominent law firm, Skadden Arps -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Jessica Schneider, thanks so much for that.

Let's get a little more on this. I'm joined again by CNN chief legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin. It's a two-page indictment, Jeffrey. I'm not sure you've had a chance to dig through it yet.

But Jessica points out correctly this is a figure with connection to Rick Gates. This is something that exists seemingly in that Paul Manafort world, Rick Gates world when you're dealing with money laundering charges, those crimes allegedly taking place before the presidential campaign itself. But this individual lying about these conversations very much during the presidential campaign. What does that tell you?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, you know, it tells you don't mess with Robert Mueller. Lots of people come in to U.S. attorney's offices and they don't tell the full truth and prosecutors start working with them. They say, come on, you've got to tell us the full story.

Here it looks like, according the Mueller's office, this associate at Skadden Arps came in and lied, and the first thing they did was hit him with an indictment, which is obviously a very big deal.

This does relate to the Ukraine part of the investigation. Greg Craig, who is the former White House counsel under President Obama led an investigation in the Ukraine -- that was essentially at Manafort's request for Viktor Yanukovych who was the president there.

They prepared a report, that has been subject of some controversy, but it also is something that Mueller was obviously looking into it because it connects to Manafort. It connects to Gates. According to Mueller, this lawyer made a false statement in the course of the investigation.

If I can just say one thing that I think we need to say out of fairness, this appears to have absolutely nothing to do with Donald Trump, with the White House, with collusion. It appears to be a very discreet indictment.

BERMAN: As far as we know right now, we keep on learning new and more things about this. One aspect of this that is interesting, Jeffrey, we know from reporting from the "Los Angeles Times" and CNN that Rick Gates could be very close to a plea deal, I mean very close.

The reason Jessica is at the courthouse is that everyone thinks it could happen in the next few days, including today. As part of this, Rick Gates got to be queen for a day, we've been told, with the special counsel's team, where they got to ask him all kinds of questions where Gates himself wouldn't be in any legal jeopardy here.

One might think that that's how they found out or that's how they put a button on the fact that this new individual, Alex van der Zwaan, lied to them, it was in a conversation with Rick Gates.

TOOBIN: Well, that's certainly possible. Whenever you see an indictment as we did several months ago with Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, where one person is very prominent, and the other person is much less prominent, the possibilities of a plea deal for the less prominent person are always great.

One thing about federal courts people that I think people need to understand is that judges reward cooperators a great deal. If you cooperate and testify against others, you can reduce your sentence tremendously. Judges give incredible deals to people who cooperate.

Many people may remember Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, who cooperated against John Gotti, who admitted to 15 murders and only got a few years in prison. That's how it can work. Rick Gates certainly had a big incentive to cooperate.

BERMAN: Don't go anywhere, cancel your plans for the day, Jeffrey. We might need you in a little bit. I want to get to Christine Romans at the start of trading for the opening bell. Romans, what are you seeing?

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: I'm seeing a market that looks like it will fall a little bit this morning. You know, John, last week was the best week in years for some of these stock average. You know, bouncing back after --