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Bomb in Austin Possibly Triggered by Trip Wire; President Trump Criticizes Robert Mueller by Name on Twitter; Trump Escalates Attacks On Mueller Republicans Raise Concerns; Will Congress Protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller?. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired March 19, 2018 - 8:00   ET


[08:00:00] ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Police are urging residents of the area to stay inside their homes. This blast coming just hours after police made a rare public appeal to the bomber or bombers to reveal the message reason behind the attacks. And it also continues to raise the question of whether this is the work of serial bomber. CNN's Ed Lavandera is live in Austin with those breaking details for us. Ed?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Erica. A great deal of activity here in this neighborhood in southwest Austin. Dozens and dozens of FBI and ATF agents descending upon this neighborhood, waiting for the sun to come up here in Austin so they can begin canvassing the neighborhood and looking for any kind of clues that mind lead them to who set off this latest explosion here. Two men in their 20s were injured in this latest explosion that occurred here in this neighborhood in southwest Austin, very different from what has happened before. The three previous explosions occurred on the east side of town. This here in the southwest part of town also involved what authorities suspect at this point could be a trip wire to detonate this explosive device, and that has the chief of police here in Austin urging residents across the city to be vigilant about their surroundings.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is very possible that this device was a device that was activated by someone either handling, kicking, or coming in contact with a trip wire that activated the device. So that changes things. We now need the community to have an extra level of vigilance and pay attention to any suspicious device, whether it be a package, a bag, a backpack, anything that looks out of place, and do not approach it.


LAVANDERA: As I mentioned, the two victims from last night's explosion expected to be OK. Those authorities arriving here on the scene right now, Chris, they are just waiting for the sun to come up so they can look for any kind of clues they might be able to found here in this neighborhood in southwest Austin. Chris?

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Ed, thank you for being there. Please, you and the team stay safe. Joining us now is CNN counterterrorism analyst Phil Mudd. A point

that you often instruct the audience on, I have been doing it all morning, but Erica and I have been saying, we're not hearing the word "terror," Phil. And the reason we're not hearing terror or terrorism is because investigators don't know why this was done. So even though it may look like something that terroristic, they need to know more. Is that true?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: That's fair. If you're looking at trying to characterize this as an act of terrorism, that would assume that you know what the target is. To be considered to be an act of terrorism someone has to have political intent. When you look at the targets here, this conversation just got even more complicated with this latest device. You have a trip wire. That suggests to me that the individual laying the trip wire didn't have a particular individual in mind. Obviously they can't guarantee who is going to hit the trip wire. So you can't call this an act of terrorism, Chris, when you don't know what the target is.

HILL: There's also the question, too, we still don't know what we're still looking into obviously, or what officials are looking into is if all of these are now connected. So there is this fourth bombing, but as you point out, Phil this is done differently, this is the trip wire. We don't know if it was intended for someone as opposed to packages that were left before. How does that muddy the waters?

CUOMO: One of the first things I'd ask when you talk about whether these are connected is whether they have forensics on this device, even bits of paper, signatures from the electronic material in the device, for example the triggering mechanism. They may know already, I'm not sure they're telling us all the details. I wouldn't if I were them. They may know already if these are connected simply by looking at the forensics. If those forensics indicate they are connected, then you have the beginnings of clues.

For example, in the area do you have video from places look banks, et cetera, stores, restaurants where you can look at facial recognition and determine if someone in this area was also in those other areas. Do you have license plate readers in those areas? That's an untold story in America. License plate readers are becoming more and more critical in solving crimes. So my guess is they are connected, and those clues from this location and other locations may start to slowly come together to give you a picture on who might have done this.

HILL: Stay with us, Phil, because we're going to move on now to politics. President Trump of course lashing out at the Special Counsel's Russia investigation, accusing Robert Mueller's team of being partisan, attacking Mueller by name for the first time in a weekend tweet storm. And key Republicans are now raising concerns, warning the president to keep his hands off Mueller. White House attorney Ty Cobb responding to all the speculation with a statement saying the White House yet again confirms the president is not considering firing the special counsel.

CUOMO: Joining us now, CNN political analyst Joshua Green, CNN counterterrorism analyst Phil Mudd both here. So Josh, what's the political play I hear for the president? Is this just venting going on or do you think that this is some point of momentum?

JOSHUA GREEN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: This seems like new momentum. We have not seen Trump until these Twitter attacks mention Mueller by name. And in fact for months and months Trump's lawyer have been imploring him not to do this, not to go onto Twitter and directly attack the special counsel for whatever reason.

[08:05:04] Maybe it's because Trump is especially angry, maybe it's because Mueller has been subpoenaing documents from the Trump Organization which Trump himself famously set as a red line. He said Mueller couldn't do this. For whatever reason he's gone further now than he ever has before and attacked Mueller by name in a tweet, calling it a witch hunt.

HILL: We also have this reporting from Maggie Haberman that the president is feeling more emboldened that he is ready to keep doing his own thing, trusting his own instincts.

CUOMO: He's a little sheltered up till now. He's been holding back.

HILL: He's really been holding back a lot. But in all seriousness, feeling more emboldened, and part of that coming from even just taking Gary Cohn as an example. We heard this is going to be terrible for the stock market, it's going to be an awful day. It really wasn't. North Korea meetings, you know what, not a lot of fallout from that. He's getting some praise for that. So the president now feeling more emboldened to throw whatever it is out there that he's feeling. Where does that take us, though?

GREEN: I don't think we know, exactly. The story of Trump's first year in office essentially was he was new to a job that he had no preparation for, had never been a candidate, and yet managed to surround himself with some pretty impressive people. In terms of economics, Gary Cohn, a former Wall Street Goldman Sachs executive. On the defense side, H.R. McMaster, real big names. But I think what we've seen is Trump bridle at the restrictions that they set, whether it was imposing steel and aluminum tariffs which is something that I know Trump has wanted to do from the outset, or whether it's getting rid of people like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who he has not meshed with and have said some pretty insulting things about him.

I think for whatever reason, at some point offer over the last few weeks, Trump has decided I'm done listening to these senior staffers tell me no. I'm the president, I can do what I want. So he slapped on steel and aluminum tariffs and he fired Rex Tillerson. And now we see this morning he's gone ahead and attacked the Special Counsel by name.

CUOMO: What do you think about that, Phil Mudd? What do you think about the president going after the Special Counsel? You saw the case he laid out in his tweets. It's basically just a regurgitation of what you hear from rightwing propaganda about how this all being a political stunt from the beginning.

MUDD: There's a small piece and a big piece, Chris. The small piece is if you're looking at this case, one of the most difficult things to assess is intent. Going back, for example, to the removal of James Comey, his FBI director last year, questions were was that an intention to shut down the case? We now have the president of United States himself speaking about the case, saying I want it shut down. When he tweets, he gives the special counsel indications of intent. He's giving them a gift.

At a broader sense, there is one thing nobody is talking about that's my biggest concern in this swirl of activity, and that is he's got obviously a confrontation, that is the president with Jeff Sessions. If Sessions ever resigns, if the president ever removes Sessions and puts in his own man as attorney general, that individual does not have the responsibility to recuse themselves from the case. What if that individual then, a new attorney general, says I'm shutting down the Mueller investigation. That's a scenario I think is possible in the future.

HILL: Which would be fascinating. There's also the polarization of everything that happened with Andrew McCabe. It's been a very busy, we're not even at 72 hours yet at this point, 48 and change. But as we look at this, and we're hearing a lot on both sides. What is remarkable, though, is that we are seeing some Republicans come out and say, OK, look, time to take a step back. Just, does any of that have any impact, though, on the president? Does that actually get through? And does he care what those people have to say?

GREEN: Erica, if you look at the Republicans who came out on the Sunday show yesterday and criticized this, the two that stood out to me were Jeff Flake, the Arizona senator, Trey Gowdy, of course a prominent House member, but both of those Republicans are leaving. One is retiring to be a judge, Flake has decided not to run for reelection. What you heard, though, from the Republican leadership was absolutely nothing at all, crickets.

I think that Trump is doing these sort of things to probe and test what the party response might be. And other than Lindsey Graham, I didn't hear any Republicans yesterday who are going to be around as members of Congress a year from now, two years from now come out and say, no, you can't do this sort of thing. Paul Ryan, House Speaker, had his press woman put out a statement, didn't say much. Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority Leader, was absolutely silent. Trump is getting no real pushback from the leaders of his own party, so I think that just emboldens him to go further.

CUOMO: Look, the inability of members of that party to step forward is, you've done this very well, Josh, you know why they're not stepping forward, because they like what they're getting down. They're getting their judges, they've got regulations taken away, they got pet projects and politics that they're taken care of.

[08:10:01] So they don't want to get into that fight with Trump so they're going to let him say whatever he does. That's political calculation they should be judged for. But to your point, Phil, answer your own question. He wants to get rid of Sessions. He puts in somebody else. They're not recused so they say this probe is over. Then how is that good for Trump? Because right now Trump folk believe he had nothing to do with this. They don't need any convincing. It's over and nothing that this Special Counsel says will likely shake them of that determination. But he's got to grow to win, Phil. And if this special counsel is gone, how can all of those independent voters and voters from the center and a little bit center left ever believe that Trump and his people were clean if they don't get the answers from this probe?

MUDD: I'm suggesting that that's something the president might do. I'm not suggesting it's going to work. I don't think it will. Going back to the Comey removal last year, the president doesn't think about second order consequences. He's a one dimensional guy, and he removes Comey and thinks this is going to make it easier. What do you get when you take out Comey? You hammer Robert Mueller, the Special Counsel. So somebody might think that they can do this.

The other thing of course is anybody he nominates if he thinks he can remove the investigation by getting his own guy in there is going to go in front of a confirmation hearing where there's going to be one question, will you or will you not allow the investigation continue? And I think any nominee has got to offer one answer, I've got to let it continue. So they're boxed in from day one in the office.

CUOMO: That's a strong point, that final point, Phil Mudd. I'll give you that one. You can have it. Happy Monday.

MUDD: It's a rare day I win one.

HILL: He's a giver, that Chris Cuomo, especially on a Monday.

CUOMO: Josh Green, thank you as well. You always win.

The White House denies President Trump is considering or discussing firing Robert Mueller. So should we believe that when the president seems to suggest the opposite? A former senior adviser to the Trump campaign joins us next.



CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump doing something that he has not done to this point. We've heard him attack the probe a million times of course, but he's never mentioned the Special Counsel Bob Mueller by name. He's doing it now by Twitter.

And despite the stepped-up rhetoric, the White House has been trying to cover for the president here saying that he is not considering or discussing firing Mueller. Can that be believed given the tweets?

Joining us now is former Trump senior adviser, Michael Caputo. Michael, always a pleasure. Thank you for doing this this morning.


CUOMO: Do you share the words of Lindsey Graham who said this?


SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: The only reason Mr. Mueller could ever be dismissed is for cause. I see no cause when it comes to Mr. Mueller. He needs to be able to do his job independent of any political influence. Pledged to the American people as a Republican to make sure that Mr. Mueller can continue to do his job without any interference.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Are you worried that the president is preparing to order the firing of Mueller? It sure looks that way from his tweets.

GRAHAM: Well, as I said before, if he tries to do that, that would be the beginning of the end of his presidency.


CUOMO: Do you agree?

CAPUTO: Yes, you do. I also believe that the president is not really seriously considering firing Director Mueller. You know, this is, I think, as usual the president trying to define the terms of the conversation surrounding this investigation and also, if you think about it, it's probably also the president trying to, you know, kind of devise the parameters of the interview that the director seems to be looking for.

CUOMO: Do you think the president is going to sit down with Bob Mueller?

CAPUTO: I wouldn't advise it. I hope he doesn't, but I think he looks like he wants to. That's going to be a situation fraught with peril but one the president believes he's ready for.


CAPUTO: Well, I think anybody sitting in front of a special prosecutor stands a chance of a process crime like unintentionally lying. We think --

CUOMO: Unintentionally lying, you must intend to lie by definition.

CAPUTO: Well, if you look at the way that these and other investigations going forward, people like myself as a witness in this investigation would lawyer up, and even if they have done nothing wrong just to be sure that they stay straight with investigators and the interrogators. And that's what's really froth with peril here.

CUOMO: Well, but it's only fraught with peril if you don't have the ability to tell the truth about everything that's being asked of you and the president, unlike you, said, boy, I really want to go in there and talk to Mueller. I can't wait and I definitely want to do it under oath. And now everybody is saying he shouldn't do it. It doesn't give a lot of weight to the suggestion that the president can tell the truth. I got to be honest.

CAPUTO: I know that's what you think. I don't believe that --

CUOMO: Why wouldn't you want him to sit down? Why shouldn't he be able to sit down? I could go sit down with the guy right now about all this stuff. I'd be fine, you know, why can't the president do that if he has nothing to hide as he says?

CAPUTO: I didn't want Bill Clinton to sit down. I wouldn't want any --

CUOMO: You didn't want Bill Clinton to sit down?

CAPUTO: No. Abs -- I mean, if I were --

CUOMO: Is this thing working right?

CAPUTO: -- not to do what he did.

CUOMO: Hold on.

CAPUTO: Yes, absolutely.

CUOMO: You thought that Bill Clinton sitting down and being in front of that grand jury was a bad thing?

CAPUTO: I thought it was a mistake for the president, absolutely. It would be a mistake for any president.

CUOMO: You said you don't want him to do it. I just want to be clear because I will buy you whatever you want, wherever you want if you can show me one piece of proof. Why am I making this point? Because this is all about political motivations here, OK.

The people on the right don't want the president to sit down because they think he's going to get tripped up. Now, you hear his own people saying, well, it's a perjury trap. So, the special counsel offers up a list of questions to the White House saying these are the kinds of things we want to discuss. That's playing pretty straight. Wouldn't you acknowledge that, Michael?

CAPUTO: Well, I think I may disagree with some of my colleagues on this, but I think Mueller has played this pretty straight from the beginning. I expect him to play its straight until the end. That's why I don't think the president should fire him.

I think at the end of all of this the president and the rest of his aides and those involve in the White House now -- we will prove there was no collusion. And the best and loudest voice on that is Director Mueller.

I just don't think the president should sit down with him. I don't really see how he can really avoid it at this point, though.

CUOMO: Well, he could probably avoid it. I mean, he played it out in fairly simple steps. They come to say they want to sit down. The president says, you know, I thought better of it. I don't want to do it. [08:20:05] They say, well, now we're going to subpoena you. So, they subpoenaed him, and he comes and sits down and says I'm going to plead the Fifth. So, now unless they immunize him, he doesn't have to speak. And he has the ability to turn around to the base and say, why would I cooperate with this witch hunt once I knew what he wanted to ask me.

So, I think politically he'll have his cover. But here's a political question I don't know the answer to. Michael, help me with this. He said this probe stinks. It's got to go away, got to end. Why?

He stands to benefit the most. If what he believes is true, the only way he can grow his base on this issue is by Mueller completing, not being hindered, concluding his investigation, telling Rosenstein information comes up President Trump had nothing to do with these efforts.

People around him, there was no criminal activity that we can trace. There are some questions, but there's nothing. That's it. Democrats bring up that they think they're questions about Trump. He can turn and say that's not what your man, Bob Mueller, said. Why doesn't he want that closure? It would do more for him than anyone else.

CAPUTO: And I know his legal team is counseling him in that direction. If I were to sit down with the president, I'd say the same thing. I think we have a lot of supportive members of Congress who were counseling him in that direction as well.

I think that this is going to play out the way that we expect him to play out. I think Director Mueller will complete his investigation and we'll move on. But the problem we have here is, Chris, the president, most of all and all of us around him are exhausted of this investigation. It's been well over a year --

CUOMO: That's not that long for a federal investigation. They go on for years. This is not unusually long.

CAPUTO: I get that. This one is particularly vitriolic. They are all a problem as you just said, but the president's agenda is stalled in many ways. He wants to move forward with his plans and he's ideas that he promised during the campaign and he's really hamstrung by this investigation in many ways.

CUOMO: Well, but it's a little bit of his own undoing, right? I mean, he could go and cut deals and do other things. He's the one who obsesses on this. Nobody told him to tweet about this all five million times that he's done it, and trying to malign the effort. He brings that on himself.

CAPUTO: Well, again, I think that's him trying to define the terms of the conversation like he always has done --

CUOMO: Right. But I'm saying he could just ignore it. He could just ignore it and say I want to infrastructure done.

CAPUTO: That's not the kind of president we have and by the way, how can he ignore it, Chris when we've got it on CNN 24/7 --

CUOMO: Most of the time we have it on --

CAPUTO: Every single day, all across the country, all around the world.

CUOMO: Well, first of all, it matters. Russia interfered, we need to know why. We have a White House that ignored that largely, which makes us feel like it's more likely it will happen again and then we hear from the people who are in charge of stopping it from happening --

CAPUTO: That would be the second White House in a row to ignore it.

CUOMO: And you know what, an Obama and that administration made a mistake, made a political calculation, it was a wrong one. But in their defense, as you know, on just the fact basis, they didn't know what we know now in terms of the breadth and depth of what it was. But they definitely have some stink on them, no question about it, but it's in the president's lap right now. We'll see what he does with this.

CAPUTO: And we'll see what he does.

CUOMO: We will.


CUOMO: But there's plenty of them to deal with. Look what's coming this Friday, he's got to figure out how to get done to hold this government open. No reason to be tweeting about this, Michael. You be well. I'll see you again soon, I'm sure.

CAPUTO: Have a great day, Chris.

CUOMO: You too, sir -- Erica.

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Will Congress take action to protect Robert Mueller's Russia investigation? We'll speak with a senator behind a bipartisan bill meant to shield Mueller next.



HILL: President Trump ramping up his attacks on Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. That coupled with comments from the president's personal lawyer fueling concern the president may try to fire Mueller, more Republicans sounding the alarm.


REPRESENTATIVE TREY GOWDY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: To suggest that Mueller should shut down and that all he is looking at is collusion, if you have an innocent client, Mr. Dowd, act like it.

GRAHAM: The only reason Mr. Mueller could ever be dismissed is for cause. I see no cause when it comes to Mr. Mueller.

SENATOR JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: Once he goes after Mueller, then we'll take action. I think people see that as a massive red line that can't be crossed.


HILL: Joining us now, the author of a bipartisan bill to protect Special Counsel Mueller, Democratic Senator Chris Coons. Good to have you with us, sir. So, you issued a statement on Sunday which read in part that the comments from the president's lawyer, John Dowd, initially on behalf of the president are unacceptable, but unfortunately, not surprising.

Noting that any attempt by the president to obstruct or remove the special counsel would create a constitutional crisis, calling it an attack on the core American principle that nobody, including the president of the United States, is above the law. His attorney came out and said, look, we're not trying to fire Robert Mueller. Is that enough for you?

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: Well, sadly, this is a typical of a pattern we've seen with President Trump where he initially makes very strong statements recently about his commitment to gun control, immigration reform, and then within a day or two either a spokesperson walks it back or he issues a retraction.

It's hard to know exactly what direction the president is taking. But you just played a number of senior Republican leaders in the House and the Senate saying obstruction of Mueller's investigation would be a red line, would create a constitutional crisis, would show that we are not a country where we are committed to the rule of law.

There were other strong statements put out by Senator Langford, Senator Rubio, Senator McCain. I think this is a time when all of us, Republicans and Democrats, need to stand up and make it clear that we're committed to the rule of law and for the president or his lawyer to even in jest talk about firing Mueller or ending his investigation is unacceptable.

HILL: You have put out as we mentioned this bipartisan bill with Senator Tillis that prevent the firing of the special counsel unless he violates the Code of Ethics. But in January, we saw Senator Tillis, but wasn't really pushing for that anymore, his office says he still supports it.

And there's also this other bipartisan bill from Senators Graham and (inaudible) that goes a tiny bit further. Those are both on essentially on a holding pattern. So, what would it take to move that forward?

COONS: After the statements by the president on Twitter this weekend, I think every Republican senator should be on one of these two bills. I think there is a consensus draft that we would like to move forward with, but if Chairman Grassley means what he has said in a recent statement that --