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Trump Slams Russia Probe: "Total Witch Hunt"; Another Explosion Rocks Austin; Republicans Raise Concerns over Trump's Mueller Attacks; Interview with Rep. Charlie Dent. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired March 19, 2018 - 10:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.

The president, going with brevity this morning in a new attack on the special counsel's Russia investigation, just nine words from executive time, but enough to make the point. It says, quote, "A total witch hunt with massive conflicts of interest."

This latest statement followed the barrage of attacks over the weekend which included the first time the president attacked the special counsel by name. It was so much that the White House lawyer had to issue a new statement overnight that the president has no plans to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Our Kaitlan Collins, live at the White House this morning. And again, Kaitlan, you've been doing some digging, giving us a sense of just what the president is thinking here.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes, that's right. As we just saw from Twitter there, John, what exactly the president is thinking. But yes, White House lawyer Ty Cobb did have to issue a statement over the weekend and he said blamed media speculation as the reason he had to issue that statement, saying quote, "The White House yet again confirms that President Trump is not considering or discussing the firing of the Special Counsel Robert Mueller."

But the only reason the media was speculating about the president potentially firing the special counsel is because of the president himself directly attacking Robert Mueller, which we should point out as the first time he's done so by name on Twitter. So that was the reason that the media was thinking it. Another reason that it was on everyone's mind is because the president's outside lawyer John Dowd issued a statement saying that the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein should follow in the steps of the Attorney General Jeff Sessions after he fired Andrew McCabe on Friday night by ending the Russia investigation. And then he later said, John that he was not speaking on behalf of the president.

But yes, publicly, we saw the president going after Robert Mueller and the investigation over the weekend, saying that it is unfair and biased against him, even though we should point out that Robert Mueller is a Republican, but we also know privately that the president was going and alternating between celebrating that McCabe -- boasting about the fact that McCabe had been fired on Friday night, but also being angry about the special counsel's investigation because he clearly realizes here, John, that it is not coming to an investigation - it's not coming to an end anytime soon as we have seen it continue to ramp up. So we're told that his anger over that kind of overshadowed his delight over the fact that McCabe was fired.

Now, if you're wondering if Sessions firing McCabe is going to patch things up between him and the president, we're told by sources that that's just not likely, because the president was pleased with Sessions and his decision to fire McCabe, but it doesn't seem like it is going to make him forget anytime soon that Jeff Sessions has recused himself here, John, from overseeing the Russia investigation.

BERMAN: All right, Kaitlan Collins for us at the White House. Thank you very much.

Here to discuss, CNN political commentators Doug Heye and Patti Solis Doyle and Washington bureau chief for the "Chicago Sun-Times" Lynn Sweet. You know, Lynn, Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer is blaming the media for wondering whether the president is going to fire the Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Where would ever the media get that idea? You know, could it be tweets like the president's calling the investigation a witch hunt or the president's other lawyer John Dowd saying the investigation should end or the tweet from the president over the weekend saying the Mueller probe should never have been started in the first place? You know, the president obviously sending these messages. The question is what is he trying to do with it if not fire the special counsel?

LYNN SWEET, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "CHICAGO SUN-TIMES": Well, he certainly -- this isn't even telegraphing your -- telegraphs suggests subtle difference, or a signal. This isn't a signal. It is not a smoke screen. It is Trump laying the ground work to get rid of people he doesn't like. We have seen this time and time again. So I don't know why there would even be much of a mystery as to what the president wants, which goes to state of mind. So when you look at obstruction of justice charges, this is the boss basically saying I really wouldn't like that guy around. So, John, that's why this is not mysterious.

BERMAN: Yes. It is a single entendre we like to say. The president is saying exactly what he means. Telling us exactly what he is thinking.

SWEET: No decoder necessary.

BERMAN: No decoder ring, which is good because I left mine at home. You know, Doug, there are some Republicans who are speaking up against this right now. Trey Gowdy - most of them retiring I should note. Trey Gowdy from South Carolina is one of them. This is what he said.


REP. TREY GOWDY (R-SC), HOUSE OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE CHAIR: To suggest that Mueller should shut down and that all he's looking at is collusion. If you have an innocent client, Mr. Dowd, act like it. Russia attacked our country. Let Special Counsel Mueller figure that out. And if you believe as we found there is no evidence of collusion, you should want Special Counsel Mueller to take all the time and have all the independence he needs to do his job.


BERMAN: Are Republicans who are not retiring, Doug Heye, doing enough here to say Mr. President, you're going too far.

DOUG HEYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: The short answer is no. I think Paul Ryan's office put out a good statement this weekend, saying that the special counsel ought to be able to do his job. I would like to hear from more Republicans saying that. This is where electoral politics come into play here.

[10:05:02] And Republican candidates know -- Republican incumbents know that Donald Trump remains overwhelmingly popular in their district. And if they cross Donald Trump they will do so at their own peril. You know it is a shame that politics has gotten involved here but it shouldn't be any surprise.

BERMAN: He's testing. He's testing the Republicans to an extent here. They're the ones who control the future if he were to fire the special counsel. And he's perhaps testing to see what the response might be.

You know, Patti Solis Doyle, there is precedent for attacking a special counsel's investigation, calling it political. We saw it happen. It was the independent counsel in the 1990s. It was Kenneth Starr. But you know the Clinton White House, which you were part of for some time, did attack the independent counsel's investigation and did it a lot. Is this different than that?

PATTI SOLIS DOYLE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think so, John. Look, without question we, in the Clinton White House, did sort of attack Ken Starr, tried to discredit him, in anticipation of whatever results may come out. This is different in that, you know, President Trump may actually fire the special counsel. He has fired other people when we didn't think it was going to happen. Most notably over the weekend McCabe -- with the firing of McCabe, which, you know, is a pretty rhymes like Rick move if indeed he -- it wasn't warranted. We'll find out during the ID report when that comes out. But to deprive, you know, someone with 22 years of service of their pension -- 36 hours before the pension was supposed to kick in is just really something that I don't think any working person in America can respect or look well upon.

But, you know, we know -- going back to Mueller, we know that Donald Trump wants to fire him. What we don't know is why. Is it because he does believe in his heart of hearts it is a witch hunt and there is no collusion? If that's the case, then let the investigation continue and he'll be exonerated and he'll ride into the midterms you know saying I told you guys, I told you guys. But if it is because he feels Mueller is closing in, whether it is because of the subpoena to the Trump organization, or whether it's because he feels the questions that are coming from Mueller to his lawyers, you know, are too close, then that's because he feels he's guilty. And that's obstruction of justice. And there is no way the American people will stand for that. BERMAN: You know it is interesting, when he keeps attacking the special counsel's investigation as a witch hunt and says no collusion. Yet his own government just issued new sanctions on three entities and a dozen individuals that have been listed in an indictment from the special counsel, so the -- his government is endorsing to an extent the special counsel's finding at the same time he's calling it a witch hunt. It is extraordinary.

SWEET: Well, I want to make a point that I think sometimes needs to be amplified, underscored in this. A few things can be true at the same time. President Trump may know, he personally had no interaction. That's his allegation. He doesn't know everything about what everybody else did on the campaign. So that is where collusion investigation can also go.

So you cannot say there is no collusion until you know for sure and that's the whole point of the investigation. And that's the point that President Trump seems to lose in his assertions that he's making from the beginning, because even the president, even if this was a normal time, you would have an inquiry because he -- there is no way reasonably he could have known everything about everybody and all the context in a campaign that had offshoots.

BERMAN: And, look -

SWEET: That's where we're at on it.

BERMAN: The investigation may be going on beyond just collusion. Obviously, there is an obstruction angle. Also, Axios reporting, Doug Heye, that one of the things that, you know, the special counsel has been asking the White House about, specifically things having to do with the issue of obstruction. Doug, the Andy McCabe firing is something that we're getting a lot of opinions on both sides. But there is no question that it has given the White House and the president, they feel -- he feels like he has got some new ammunition.

HEYE: Yes, he sure does. And Maggie Haberman has reported that he feels emboldened, which I think is pretty interesting to see a president who depending on what poll you look at as either it you know 39 percent approval or 42 percent approval which is really as high watermark these days. He feels emboldened, which means buckle up, we'll probably see a lot more of this.

BERMAN: It is interesting. I mean, you're seeing it not just on this front, but also you're seeing it on all issues domestic policy, foreign policy as well. Patti Solis Doyle, lost in all of this is the Stephanie Clifford situation, Stormy Daniels situation, which I still find to be an extraordinary case, both legally and politically. And one of the things that happened, roughly at the same time that Andy McCabe was being fired, is that the president had a lawyer, a lawyer working for the president has joined in this lawsuit to keep Stormy Daniels quiet and trying to move it to federal court. It seems to me to be something that is worthy of note that the president is now admitting that he is part of a legal action to keep a porn star quiet.

[10:10:15] DOYLE: That's exactly right. I mean, if nothing happened, if there was no hush money paid, then why, why be a part of this lawsuit, why sue her for $20 million to keep quiet. So -- and the timing also of it is for me very interesting in that politically, in that next week if reports are true, we will hear directly from Stormy Daniels on Sunday with Anderson Cooper on "60 Minutes." And then soon thereafter we'll hear from James Comey a few weeks after that on his book tour and his much publicized interviews. And then we're going to hear from Bob Mueller. We're going to hear, you know, the results of his investigation, whether it will be more indictments, whether the president is exonerated and then we're going to have the midterm elections. So we have all of these momentous, you know, points heading towards the midterm elections and they're all going to have an effect, John, and it very - it is going to be a tumultuous few months.

BERMAN: A hell of a spring television season right there, you just announced. All right, Patti Solis Doyle, Lynn Sweet, Doug Heye, thanks so much for being with us. Appreciate it.

HEYE: Thank you.

DOYLE: Thank you, John.

BERMAN: We do have breaking news out of Austin, Texas, a new explosion that happened overnight. This is the fourth explosion just this month. And in about an hour we're going to get an update from the police on the investigation. This is what we know at this moment.

Two men were hurt. Police are scouring the area, warning people to stay inside. That is because officials tell us the bomb might have been set off by a trip wire. Again, as we mentioned, this would be the fourth explosion. Police say they're acting as if this new bombing is connected to the past bombings. I had a chance to speak to the mayor of Austin a little while ago.


MAYOR STEVE ADLER (D), AUSTIN, TEXAS: The warning that we're giving to our community is broader now than it was 24 hours ago. At this point, we're telling people, to call in to 911 if they see anything that is suspicious.


BERMAN: All right, CNN's Ed Lavandera right now in Austin, Texas, for us to give us a sense of the very latest in the investigation. Ed?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John. We're here, about 100 FBI agents and ATF agents have descended here on this neighborhood where the latest explosion took place Sunday night. They have been canvassing the neighborhood. Authorities here have been waiting until the sun broke here and to get into the neighborhood to begin processing the crime scene. But at this point, still no suspects. Still no motive for what is behind these parcel attacks, these explosions in various neighborhoods, this particular one on Sunday night, very different from the previous three that we have seen over the last couple of weeks. The first three took place on the eastern side of Austin. This is in far southwest Austin and obviously as you mentioned, talked about there, the possible use of a trip wire, this particular situation. Two of those victims were believed to be either riding their bike or walking their bike near where this package was left on the side of the street here in this residential neighborhood. And that's when the explosion occurred. We're told those two victims will be OK. You can listen to some of the scanner -- radio scanner traffic from the first responders that arrived here in the scene Sunday night and were transporting the victims out of the neighborhood. That's where some of the first indications. This talk of the trip wire came from. Take a listen to some of that audio here that we can play for you.


EMS: Our patient that we are transporting is a 22-year-old male patient. Can you give me my closest trauma center? Is that going to be South Austin?

DISPATCH: That's affirmative (INAUDIBLE) three closest trauma facility is south Austin at seven minutes.

EMS: We have a second adult male patient that they will be transporting shortly. As far as we can tell from conversing with the officers on scene, this is a single incident, there is no second incident a block over.

2ND OFFICER: Yes, be aware Josh, we've got trip wires there in the grass, they are going to (INAUDIBLE). We could have some more stuff active right there.


LAVANDERA: So that is from some of the first responders that were coming into this neighborhood last night. Now what is interesting John is just several hours before this latest explosion, the police chief here in Austin was actually trying to communicate with the person or persons responsible for these attacks urging them and telling them essentially that they believe that there was some sort of message being sent with these explosions. And they wanted to be able to communicate with them, that they were interested in hearing what the culprits might have to say. They were trying to open up some sort of line of dialogue. So far clearly that hasn't happened and just hours after that statement was made, this fourth explosion went off in southwest Austin. John?

[10:15:00] BERMAN: Ed Lavandera for us in Austin with the very latest. Again, we'll hear from the police, an update on the investigation very shortly. So stand by for that. Ed, thank you very much.

Some Republican lawmakers say they have their own red line when it comes to the president. If he tries to have Robert Mueller fired, at least one Republican says it would be the end of his presidency.

Plus, mounting pressure on Facebook after a data firm linked to the Trump campaign reportedly obtained private information from millions of users.

And the president heads to the state he once called a drug infested den to push his own new opioid policy. He's not the only Republican lawmaker who might be eyeing to run for the White House headed to New Hampshire. What's going on with that?


BERMAN: For the first time, the president of the United States is attacking the Special Counsel Robert Mueller by name. Is this some kind of -- indication that perhaps he'll try to remove the special counsel?

[10:20:01] Joining me to discuss, Congressman Charlie Dent, Republican from Pennsylvania. Congressman, thank you so much for being with us. This is something of a milestone from the president over the weekend, for the first time going after Special Counsel Robert Mueller by name. What does it indicate to you?

REP. CHARLIE DENT (R), PENNSYLVANIA: Well, first, I believe Director Mueller is a man of integrity. He should be allowed to do his work uninterrupted and unimpeded. It would be a terrible mistake for the president to fire him. I don't think it serves the president's own interests to attack him. If the president has done nothing wrong, as he and his attorneys have asserted, why interfere?

I mean he should just be happy to let the special counsel do his job and then he should say I'm looking forward to being exonerated when it is all over. By attacking the special prosecutor, and by -- intimations that he might be relieved, it appears that he has something -- the president has something to hide. I hope that's not the case. But I think it is very alarming that we're seeing attacks from the special prosecutor.

BERMAN: Your colleague, Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, who is on the House Intelligence Committee, says if you're innocent, act like it. Is he acting like it?

DENT: Well, Trey Gowdy gave some really good advice. I really was frankly stunned by Mr. Dowd's comments over the weekend that he would say that the special prosecutor should back off or end the investigation. And he said he put that out as a private citizen. Well he's really not just some private citizen. He's the president's lawyer for heaven's sake.

I'm a public official. I just can't go out there on show and say I'm just talking as a private citizen today. It is really hard to separate myself, you know, from my official duties and my private statements. I'm just shocked that Mr. Dowd would have said something like that. So, again, let the special counsel do his job, and if he's really -- I'll tell you that would be the equivalent of a Saturday Night Massacre just like when Archibald Cox was fired during the Nixon days. It will be a political earthquake.

BERMAN: Lindsey Graham says it would be the end of the presidency. Do you think it would be that grave? DENT: Well, I don't know if it would be the end of the presidency, but would set off a -- I just think it would be a catastrophic on many levels politically. We'll just bring Washington to a standstill. That's the whole issue. I mean we would be fighting over how do we let the investigation proceed, any other business would not be able to get done. So in many respects, it would throw us into a complete and utter stalemate. And Lindsey Graham maybe right, maybe it does end the presidency.

BERMAN: Let me just map up two key points here. Number one, do you think the president is acting like he's innocent right now?

DENT: Well, again, I -- if I were the president, I would be completely and utterly silent about the special prosecutor. I -- he's not acting like -- he's acting like he's concerned about something. When -- in fact, you know, he's -- I have not so far seen any evidence of collusion between the president and Russians. I haven't seen it. Doesn't mean there isn't any. I haven't seen it. But if the president, you know, asserts that he's done nothing wrong, well, then, he should just be silent and just let the special prosecutor go about his business and be prepared to -

BERMAN: Do you think -

DENT: -- to talk about his innocence at the end of the process.

BERMAN: You said that the special counsel should be able to complete his investigation uninterrupted and unimpeded. At this point, given where we are, given what the president keeps saying, do you think legislation is necessary to protect the special counsel?

DENT: Well, I would support that legislation. I believe there is legislation in the Senate, Senator Coons and Tillis have legislation. I would certainly support that type of legislation to protect the special prosecutor if necessary. And we may need to do it because of these most recent actions and statements.

BERMAN: The firing of deputy FBI director -- former FBI Director Andy McCabe 26 hours before he would reach his full pension, apparently fired because of a lack of candor is what the inspector general found and also the office of professional responsibility. How did you find the timing?

DENT: Well, I first started learning about this I guess on Thursday. Then a Friday night by 10:00 p.m., Mr. McCabe was fired. It struck me that this process was a bit rushed and forced. That is his firing. Look, I haven't read the inspector general's report, it is not public. It is a very serious issue they're accusing Mr. McCabe of not being candid.

That said, I would have let him complete the weekend and if we find out later that these allegations are as serious as they seem, then we could always go back and perhaps go after his pension if they wanted to. But it seems that it was a bit petty and vindictive and almost an act of retribution to fire him, you know, a day before he would become eligible for his pension. I didn't particularly like that. I thought that was a -- maybe a bit unnecessary. But, again, I like to see the inspector general's report before I say too much in defense of Mr. McCabe.

BERMAN: It's a great point. None of us have seen the inspector general's report. That will be a key piece of information here.

[10:25:03] Congressman Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, always a pleasure to have you.

DENT: Thank you, John, great to be with you.

BERMAN: All right, private information for some 50 million Facebook users reportedly exploited by a data firm connected to the Trump campaign. How did this happen?

And is it time for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to face lawmakers. One more, just came out and said yes.


BERMAN: All right. New this morning, Facebook has suspended Cambridge Analytica, the firm reportedly paid by the Trump campaign to use their data to target voters. But is this data still out there?

Joining us now, Matthew Rosenberg, CNN national security analyst, national security correspondent for "The New York Time," Matthew is part of the team that broke the story over the weekend. There is a lot in this story, Matthew. So help us -- help us understand it. Cambridge Analytica harvested private information from more than 50 million users.