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Trump Asked Key Witnesses About Special Counsel Interviews; Corey Lewandowski Testifies Again Before House Intel Committee; Democrats in House Intel Committee Want Trump Associates Questioned Again. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired March 8, 2018 - 10:30   ET



[10:31:12] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump asked key witnesses in the Russia investigation about their conversations with Special Counsel Robert Mueller. This is according to "The New York Times."

Our justice correspondent, Jessica Schneider, has more on this from Washington.

Jessica, what have you learned?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, the special counsel is aware of these conversations that the president had with two key witnesses where he did inquire about their interviews with Mueller's team. That's all according to the "Times."

So in one instance, the president reportedly asked former chief of staff Reince Priebus if the special counsel's team had been nice during his interview. And "The Times" has told that Priebus responded to the president that investigators were in fact courteous and professional but Priebus did not give more specifics.

And them in that second instance, the president reportedly told an aide that White House counsel Don McGahn should issue a statement denying what was a January article that reported McGahn told investigators that the president once asked him to fire Special Counselor Robert Mueller and that McGahn actually later had to remind the president that the president did ask McGahn to oust Mueller when the president pushed back against that account.

So two separate instances here that were reported to the special counsel, but of course it is not illegal for witnesses to talk about what they told investigators, but these inquiries by the president, they do seem to go against what his lawyers have been advising him and that's, of course, to keep a low profile, avoid any appearance of potentially interfering.

And we do know that in addition to the Russia side of things, Mueller's team is also probing possible obstruction of justice. So the people who learned about these inquiries from the president, they did report them directly to the special counsel. Now, when it does come to Mueller's probe, Paul Manafort, the former

Trump campaign chairman, he appears in federal court in Virginia this afternoon. In Virginia federal court, he's facing 18 counts of bank fraud and tax crimes. This is the first time we'll see him in that Virginia court facing these specific crimes.

This indictment is actually separate from the indictment that he faces in Washington, D.C. and, of course, John, Manafort has continued to maintain his innocence in the face of what are really mounting charges even after his former co-defendant and former campaign deputy Rick Gates pleaded guilty two weeks ago -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Jessica Schneider in Washington. Jessica, thanks very much.

More news on this front, any moment now, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski is set to arrive on Capitol Hill. This will be the second time that he will testify before the House Intelligence Committee.

Our Manu Raju on Capitol Hill with the latest from there -- Manu.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, John, the first time that Corey Lewandowski came before this committee, he declined to answer a range of questions about any topic after he left the Trump campaign in June of 2016. First, he said he was not prepared to answer a number of those topics and then he refused to say that -- afterwards that Democrats needed to come back and answer questions but then he refused and said he wasn't going to come back and now he's agreed to come back and answer more questions.

The questions right now is will he actually answer those queries about topics that occurred after the campaign? Will he answer questions about any of these conversations that he had with Trump when he became president? Those have been off limits when other people have -- other witnesses have come forward, like Hope Hicks, Steve Bannon, both of whom have suggested that executive privilege needed to be asserted to protect the president's private conversations. Will Corey Lewandowski do the same thing before this committee?

Well, John, this could be one of the last major witnesses to come before the House Intelligence Committee, as Republicans seek to wrap up this investigation very quickly and Democrats say there is a lot more to probe -- John.

BERMAN: So, Manu, you have new information this morning about that meeting in the Seychelles last year that involved associates of the president and maybe the Russians.

RAJU: Yes, that's right. Erik Prince, who's the founder of the security firm Blackwater, has actually -- told the House Intelligence Committee last year that when he went to this meeting, which was -- he said it was not a backchannel discussion between Russians and the Trump campaign.

[10:35:11] Not an effort to try to create any sort of backchannel between the incoming administration and the Russians. And he said really only met with officials from the United Arab Emirates and Russian banker who was suggested by the UAE officials for him to meet with separately, they didn't really discuss anything other than business opportunities.

Well, we have now learned that George Nader, a Middle Eastern businessman, someone who has ties to the Trump administration and someone who is actually cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, he was at one of -- at least one of those meetings in the Seychelles. And Prince did not disclose this information when he met with the House Intelligence Committee earlier this -- late last year, raising questions among Democrats in particular about whether or not he misled the committee and we now know that Bob Mueller is also investigating that Seychelles meeting, and about whether it was in fact a backchannel effort to create this communication between Russia and the White House. But that's something that Erik Prince has denied furiously, including under oath - John.

BERMAN: All right. Manu Raju for us on Capitol Hill.

Joining me now, former federal prosecutor and Columbia Law School professor, Jennifer Rogers.

Professor, thanks so much for being with us. Let's start where Manu finished up. This meeting on the Seychelles. "The Washington Post" is reporting, you know, even something more than what we have here, which is that the special counsel is looking into the possibility that the Trump team and at that point a transition team was looking to set up this backchannel with Russia. It was before the inauguration. What would be the problem with that?

JENNIFER ROGERS, PROFESSOR, COLUMBIA LAW SCHOOL: Well, there is nothing wrong with an actual president, of course, and government setting up different channels to talk to different countries, whether, you know, out in the open or backchannel, that's fine. But doing it before they took over and so close to the inauguration, I mean, why would you even bother if it is so close to the inauguration? It makes it seem like they're trying to make deals before he becomes the president.

And he doesn't speak for the country before he becomes the president. So you get back into what people have discussed, the Logan Act, you know, people who are representing themselves as speaking for the country, and they're not actually doing that. They're a private citizen which President Trump was until January 20th. So the problem is, it's before the inauguration, and when you try to do negotiations with other countries before that, it is not actually possible.

BERMAN: And was there a quid pro quo there? Were sanctions discussed in any way and then Erik Prince, there are Democrats in the House Intelligence Committee who said that this man who was there may have lied about who he talked to when he was there, that's an issue that he'll have to deal with as well.

The other story has to do with the president talking about people who have testified before the special counsel's team. Why would that raise red flags?

ROGERS: Well, it is for some of the reasons that the reporter was saying earlier, you know. The FBI and the special counsel and the DOJ are supposed to be independent, especially when they're investigating the president himself. So any interference in that investigation by the president is problematic, especially when he's talking to people who still work for him and so might feel like they have to answer those questions.

So it is again part of this attack on the independence of these institutions and that's problematic for a whole host of reasons.

BERMAN: Reince Priebus no longer worked for the president when he talked to him, he just wanted to know if the special counsel was being nice. Don McGahn, this is a different can of worms. Right? He was asking Don McGahn not just about the testimony, but also apparently wanted the White House counsel to go out and publicly refute a story that had appeared in the paper, the idea that the president had asked McGahn to fire Special Counselor Robert Mueller and McGahn basically told him, I can't do that because it's not true.

Look, there are questions then about the president's memory of it, which is a legitimate question, but there are also questions about possibly, was the president trying to control the message or send, you know, an incorrect message and does that show a pattern of obstruction?

ROGERS: So you're exactly right. It can be one of two things. If it's just, oh, I remember it differently, OK, let's agree to disagree and we're done, then, you know, it's not a problem. It could be obstruction in its own right if he actually went further and said no, no, I insist that you go back to Mueller and you tell him that that's not right and you fix the testimony in the following way, sounds like it wasn't that far either.

But, you know, again, it's an example of kind of adding something to the pile of obstruction evidence that's been gathering for some time now. What we want to know is what was in the president's head, what his intent was when he fired Jim Comey and when he tried to fire the special counsel, right? And this is another piece of evidence showing that he still is so concerned with and interested in and almost obsessed with what is going on in the Russia investigation, who is saying what to whom, what the special counsel is doing.

It makes it more likely that the time he took those actions he was thinking the same thing. Let's get this thing off the rails. So to me, it's another piece of evidence for obstruction. It's not the biggest piece, but it's something and these things continue to add up and add up.

BERMAN: Professor Jennifer Rogers, thanks so much for being with us, appreciate it.

Just a short while, the president expected to sign something on tariffs. What exactly it is, we do not know because the White House doesn't actually know yet. Up next, we're going to speak to voters in steel country and what it might mean for them.


[10:44:05] BERMAN: All right, the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff speaking to reporters right now.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), RANKING MEMBER, HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: A different version of events in the sense that this Seychelles meeting was part of an effort to establish a backchannel to Russia, that the meeting that Erik Prince had with the Russian banker was not happenstance is obviously at odds with what we heard in the testimony before the House Intelligence Committee.

It would be my hope that we could have Mr. Nader, special counsel permitting, come before our committee at the appropriate time. And that we also have Erik Prince come back before the Intelligence Committee so we can determine which account is accurate.

This has obviously been a recurrent issue during the investigation whether there were meetings designed to set up secret backchannels. There were of course the allegations pertaining to Jared Kushner and the Russian ambassador, that there was an effort to establish a backchannel operating through Russian diplomatic facilities.

[10:45:05] That allegation if true would be very disturbing considering that using Russian diplomatic facilities for a backchannel would only be designed to hide those communications, not from the Russian government, but from our own government.

So this is an issue I think that is certainly pertinent to our investigation and it would be my hope that we could secure the appropriate time Mr. Nader's cooperation with our committee as well as obtain the return testimony of Erik Prince and documents that Mr. Prince was supposed to provide to the committee that we have yet to obtain and happy to answer questions.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Can you talk to George Nader? Has that request been made?

SCHIFF: We have not transmitted the request yet. We have expressed the interest for some time now in being able to interview witnesses that are cooperating with the special counsel. We obviously would like to hear from George Papadopoulos. He has some very important testimony to offer in terms of what was communicated to him by the Russians, by Russian intermediaries about the Clinton e-mails that the Russians has asked and what their intentions were.

It's obviously of deep interest to us as well to know who did George Papadopoulos discuss this with in the campaign, Mike Flynn also cooperating with special counsel, Gates is cooperating. We would like to hear from all of those witnesses.

And one of the reasons why this is so important is the special counsel's obligation is to find out what laws have been broken and decide who should be prosecuted. It's not the special counsel's job to tell the country what happened. That's really our job. So these witnesses will help us make a complete report to the public.

RAJU: Do you think Erik Prince lied to the committee about the Seychelles meeting?

SCHIFF: I don't know whether the public reports of what Mr. Nader may be saying are accurate or not. All I can say is if those reports are accurate, there is clearly a significant discrepancy between that version and what we heard in Erik Prince's testimony, which is accurate, I don't know, and we should find out, but clearly both can't be true.

It either was a backchannel or it wasn't, it was either a meeting arranged as a result of other discussions in December in Trump Tower or it wasn't. And we need to get to the bottom of it.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What if any indication do you have from the majority that they share your interest in bringing in Mr. Nader (INAUDIBLE) --

SCHIFF: Well, I don't know. You know, clearly we've had the greatest difficulty in wrestling with the issue of collusion writ large. I think there is a lot of agreement on part of our investigation, that is the Intelligence Community's assessment of Russian activity, what the Russians did, as well as the integrity of the Intelligence Community's conclusions about their efforts to sow discord to hurt Clinton, to help Trump.

I think there's broad agreement, I would hope, on that. Then I would hope that we can work together on presenting that to the public. There ought to also be broad agreement on what the response ought to be in terms of how we protect the country going forward. But obviously there have been difficulties on other issues. I'm going to need to head down to the committee. Thank you.

BERMAN: All right. The ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, right there, weighing in on this story in the "Washington Post" and CNN about this meeting that was allegedly perhaps set up a backchannel between the Trump team and the Russians.

We'll have much more on this right after a quick break.


[10:53:13] BERMAN: Just moments ago, we heard from the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, weighing in some new developments in the Russia investigation, mainly information about this meeting that took place in the Seychelles just days before the inauguration.

Our Manu Raju part of the team questioning the congressman.

Manu, what did you learn?

RAJU: Yes, the House Intelligence Committee's ranking Democrat, Adam Schiff, wants Erik Prince, who's the founder of the security firm Blackwater, in addition to George Nader, the Middle Eastern businessman, who's been in the news as of late. Both -- he wants both of them to come before the committee and give their accounts about what happened in this Seychelles meeting that occurred in January 2017 that has been viewed as a possible attempt to set up a backchannel discussion between the Kremlin and the incoming Trump administration.

Now Prince has testified already before this committee. He met in November. And when he met with the committee, he said it was not a backchannel discussion, he said that he met briefly with a Russian banker at the request of United Arab Emirates officials. They did not discuss any sanctions or any effort to create a backchannel discussion. But we've learned that Bob Mueller's team is investigating whether or not this was, in fact, a backchannel discussion and we have learned that George Nader was also at this -- one of the -- at least one of the Seychelles meetings and Erik Prince did not reveal that when he was questioned extensively about the Seychelles meeting during his November testimony.

So Adam Schiff, as he headed into a meeting just now, with Corey Lewandowski, the former Trump campaign manager, says that he wants both Nader to come back, come for the first time before this committee and he also wants Erik Prince to provide more records and provide more details about exactly what happened.

I asked Schiff if he thought that Erik Prince was lying to this committee, he said he does not know yet.

[10:55:02] He said there are significant discrepancies about the public accounts about George Nader's involvement as well as the private testimony that Erik Prince gave to this committee -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Manu Raju on Capitol Hill, much more on this coming up.

Also, we're going to see the president in just a few minutes. This is the first time he will get a chance to speak publicly about issues including, one, what's he going to do on tariffs, two, now that the White House has essentially acknowledged some kind of role in an agreement with Stormy Daniels, what will he say about that? Stay with us.


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Hi there, I'm Brianna Keilar in for Kate Bolduan.