Return to Transcripts main page

NEW DAY

Trump Lawyers Meet with Mueller's Investigators; Fifth Explosion Rocks Texas; Will Congress Protect Mueller from Being Fired? Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired March 20, 2018 - 06:00   ET

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


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're witnessing a very public obstruction of justice. Trump is Nixon on steroids.

[05:59:15] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president's side, the special counsel's side had a meeting last week.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Fourteen months into this presidency, there isn't evidence of collusion. Let's wrap this up and move on.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: Firing the special prosecutor? That's a red line you cannot cross.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They plotted to destroy him as a president.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: The president clearly wants to start punching.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A whistleblower says that a firm linked to the Trump campaign tried to brainwash the American electorate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Facebook made no effort to go out and tell people.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you think the information influenced the 2016 election?

CHRISTOPHER WYLIE, WHISTLEBLOWER: I think absolutely it played a role.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. This is NEW DAY, Tuesday, March 20, 6 a.m. here in New York. Chris and Alisyn are off. I'm John Berman, joined by Erica Hill.

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Nice to be with you.

BERMAN: Just as we always planned.

All right. Here's our starting line. OK. So now we know what launched the president into new darkness over the Russia probe. News and signs that he is getting nervous about where it is all headed.

Sources tell CNN the president's lawyers met face to face with special counsel investigators last week to outline the topics that Mueller's team would like to ask the president about. CNN has learned that the president is getting agitated as he realized that the Russia investigation is far from over.

The president shaking up his legal team, hiring a lawyer who has argued on TV that the president is a target of an elaborate FBI conspiracy. And "The New York Times" reports that the president is now considering firing one lawyer while another considers leaving.

HILL: All of this as Republicans are largely silent on President Trump's attacks on Robert Mueller and his attempts to undermine the Russia investigation. Why hasn't Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said anything? Two bruising editorials this morning calling on Congress to pass legislation to protect the special counsel from being fired.

And a hidden-camera investigation captures the Cambridge Analytica executive offering to engage in dirty tricks to entrap politicians. This, of course, coming just days after reports that Facebook data was misused by the Trump-linked firm. Now Congress wants to speak with Mark Zuckerberg.

Let's begin our coverage with CNN's Abby Phillip, who is live this morning at the White House -- Abby.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning, Erica. Sources tell CNN that the president could be scheduling an interview with special counsel Robert Mueller's investigators in the next few weeks. But amid these delicate negotiations that are going on right now between the lawyers, the president is actually shaking up his own legal team.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PHILLIP (voice-over): CNN has learned that President Trump's lawyers and Robert Mueller's investigators sat down for a rare face-to-face meeting last week. The two sides hashing out the details about the topics Mueller's team wishes to discuss with the president, including the role Attorney General Jeff Sessions played in the firing of FBI Director James Comey and what Mr. Trump knew about former national security advisor Michael Flynn's phone calls with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December 2016.

"The Washington Post" reports that President Trump's legal team provided the special counsel with written descriptions of these events and others in hopes of limiting the scope of a potential future interview. A source tells CNN that President Trump wavered behind the scenes about whether to agree with an interview with Mueller, despite publicly boasting that he's eager for a sit-down.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you going to talk to Mueller?

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm looking forward to it actually.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You want to?

TRUMP: Just so you understand, there's been no collusion whatsoever. There's no obstruction whatsoever. And I'm looking forward to it.

PHILLIP: As it becomes clear that Mueller's probe is far from over, sources say President Trump is growing increasingly agitated, lashing out at the special counsel and blasting the Russia probe as a witch hunt.

President Trump also hiring long-term Washington lawyer and TV pundit Joseph diGenova, who has repeatedly pedaled a conspiracy theory that FBI and Justice Department officials fabricated the Russia story to frame Mr. Trump.

JOSEPH DIGENOVA, ATTORNEY FOR DONALD TRUMP: There was a brazen plot to illegally exonerate Hillary Clinton and if she didn't win the election to then frame Donald Trump with a falsely-created crime. It wasn't the Russians who corrupted the presidential election. It was the American officials at the Department of Justice and the FBI.

PHILLIP: But as one lawyer joins Trump's legal team, others may be on their way out. "The New York Times" reports that the president is weighing dismissing Ty Cobb, who has argued for cooperation with Mueller's team. "The Times" also reporting that President Trump's lead lawyer, John Dowd, has contemplated leaving, because he's concluded that he has no control over the behavior of the president.

Both lawyers deny that they are going anywhere, and Mr. Trump insisted last week that he is very happy with his lawyers.

The president's escalating attacks on Mueller drawing a rebuke from some Republicans on the Hill.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: It would be the stupidest thing the president could do.

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL ANALYST: How would Republicans react if he fired Mueller?

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: I think it would be total upheaval in the Senate.

PHILLIP: Others, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have remained silent about the president's attacks.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PHILLIP: So in the midst of all of this, the president's advisers say he is not contemplating firing Mueller. And on his schedule today, he's got a meeting with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, where notably a senior administration official says they're planning on discussing ways to make Russia pay for its involvement in Iran and Syria. The president also has a meeting about sanctuary cities today, which

is something he discussed yesterday during a visit to New Hampshire on the opioid crisis -- Erica and John.

BERMAN: Abby Phillip for us at the White House. Abby, thanks so much.

Want to bring in CNN legal analyst who worked with the special counsel, Michael Zeldin; and CNN political analyst Alex Burns.

[06:05:06] And guys, I actually think if you combine the CNN report and "The New York Times" story that came out overnight about what's going on inside the White House with the president thinking about his legal team, all of a sudden, we understand why the president was so ticked off this weekend. He thinks he knows where this is headed, and he doesn't like it, Michael.

His attorneys sat down with the special counsel last week, and they were given information about what kind of questions the special counsel wants to ask. It has to do with the firing of James Comey. It has to do with Michael Flynn and the circumstances around his firing and the specifics about Jeff Sessions and Michael Flynn here.

What does this tell you about where the investigation is going and why it might so upset the president?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, so why it may upset the president is because his lawyers have been telling him, probably because this is what he has wanted to hear that this investigation was going to be over at Thanksgiving, then at Christmas, and then who knows what, St. Patricks' Day. Now we're in the middle of March, and Mueller's investigation seems to be gaining steam rather than winding down. So that has to upset him quite a lot.

Then to the exact point that you raised, John, the issues that Mueller has in his sights for interview questions involve the full scope of his mandate: counterintelligence, coordination, obstruction of justice. What we haven't heard yet, though, is whether Mueller is interested in speaking to the president at this time about the financial information related to the Trump Organization.

Because remember just last week, we read that there were subpoenas issued with respect to the financial crimes. So I expect that this is a much broader scope investigation than the president was led to believe or wanted to believe. And he's grown more and more furious over it, which has led to the tweet storms.

HILL: The tweet storms. Also the changes that we've seen in terms of the president's legal team, which are certainly nothing to ignore. We could see people leaving: Ty Cobb, John Dowd. And then, of course, diGenova brought in here.

And what's fascinating is not just what we have heard from him over the last several months about views that he shares, I would say, with the president about where they believe the FBI is on a number of issues related to the president. But what's fascinating is what he said in the past and certainly when we were dealing with former President Clinton, which you covered extensively, John. And he was talking about diGenova. So this man has now been brought in to help the president saying, "You know what? A president should be able to be indicted. This should happen." Calling it -- saying no one is above the law, and this could be an important civics lesson for the country.

Is there a sense, Alex, that one would wonder whether that may still be his thinking here? And if so, why the president would bring him in.

ALEX BURNS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, that's a question I suspect he's going to have to answer. But look, I think that you have to see that as of a piece with the president's basic inconsistency on matters of, you know, what could be -- what could be presented as matters of principle when it comes to the investigation.

The president shouldn't have to sit for an interview. The president can't be indicted. He has waffled on a number of these sort of important procedural matters where it's now going to be very hard for the president, politically at least, not to sit for an interview. He has said that in the past that he's looking forward to it. So what changed, right?

If it does get to the point of us having a debate about whether a president can be indicted, well, how can you say that you're above the law when your own lawyer said X, Y and Z? Right?

Look, this is of a piece with how the president handles virtually all matters of policy. And I use that term loosely to include also just personal behavior and sort of government ethics, right? That he is entirely opportunistic and entirely inconsistent, based on his mood and based on what he considers to be useful; and when you're in a legal situation that's highly dangerous.

BERMAN: Entirely inconsistent inside the legal team, you know, at the same time. These lawyers are arguing for different things, Michael. And in your vast experience, you know, what does it tell you that this deep into the investigation, the president is adding a bomb-throwing lawyer?

Let's be clear about this Joseph diGenova here. His role seems to be to say what he's saying out loud on FOX News, maybe to the courts, or just to keep on saying it on behalf of the president. What does it tell you about, you know, how stable this operation is?

ZELDIN: Well, it does point to different legal theories within the team about how best to approach Mueller. Excuse me.

We have on the one hand, Ty Cobb and John Dowd, who seem to be conciliatory and want to work with Mueller to put an end to this thing as quickly as possible. Then you have others surrounding them who are, you know, like Joe, more aggressive about this.

I have to say, just by way of sort of full disclosure, Joe and I worked together for a long time. Joe was the independent counsel, and I was his deputy on the in re (ph) Janet Mullins, George Herbert Walker Bush investigation. Joe was very aggressive in acquiring the testimony of Herbert Walker Bush and was aggressive in asserting that President Clinton in his impeachment process had to testify, and there was no standing down in face of the grand jury's interest in his information.

So Joe has a very hard time as a matter of consistency to say otherwise with respect to his new client, Trump.

But Joe is a consummate professional. I like him, I respect him and I think what we're going to see from Joe is a lot of time on television, trying to press the president's claim that Mueller's investigation is tainted without firing Mueller but just trying to undermine the value of whatever Mueller may put forth, whether it be an indictment or a final report.

HILL: And that's something that we've seen for some time, too. The president trying to put forth that message, whether it's coming from himself or others. Of course, for the first time mentioning Mueller in his tweets over the weekend to try to somehow undermine his credibility, to try to undermine this investigation. And yet it keeps coming back up against him. He's hitting a wall against it.

BURNS: And that is an area where, if the president were more restrained it would be entirely in keeping with how other presidents have handled special counsels. The Clinton administration did everything to undermine and attack Ken Starr short of going as far as the president has having the current president -- President Clinton never went on television and said, "This is a witch hunt." Right? It never happened.

BERMAN: The president reads the stage directions. He says out loud -- he reads the sub text out loud.

BURNS: Right. Exactly. And I do think the clips that we saw of Manu on the Hill yesterday talking to Republican senators, you are hearing language from folks in the party who are typically White House allies around this Mueller issue that you have not heard on any other subject.

And you get a lot of eye rolling from people that, well, you know, the Senate Republicans will never stand up to the president. You never heard Orrin Hatch on any matter of policy use the kind of language he is using on this investigation.

BERMAN: I want to come back to that in just a moment. But one final legal matter I want to mop up, Michael. It was interesting to me that in the meetings CNN is reporting that the president's team and special counsel's team, the subject of Jeff Sessions came up. What was Jeff session's role in the firing of James Comey?

And I've got to say, my eyebrows raised there. What could the special counsel be after there in terms of Jeff Sessions? What could his legal jeopardy be? You know, he recused himself from the investigation. Unrecusing yourself unofficially, that wouldn't be illegal, necessarily. That would just be professionally unethical, right?

ZELDIN: Yes. And I don't know that Sessions himself is necessarily in the crosshairs of Special Counsel Mueller as much as it is possible that he wants to know how did it come to pass, actually that Comey was fired? How did it come to pass, actually, that there was this loyalty request? How did it come, actually, that they had a private meeting, the president and Director Comey, in which the president is said to have asked that the Flynn investigation be let go?

I think he wants to know what did Sessions really know about that, in an effort to understand what the president's true thinking was, because that relates to whether he had a corrupt intent and whether or not he obstructed justice in taking any of those acts.

So I think Sessions is more likely a witness into what the president was doing and thinking than being a target or subject of Mueller directly.

BERMAN: And of course, they have a complicated relationship, don't they, the president and Jeff Sessions?

HILL: A little bit. A little big.

BERMAN: All right, guys. Stand by. Because we do have some breaking news that we are following out of Texas. A new explosion has hit this state. This one at a FedEx facility south of Austin. It comes as police and hundreds of federal agents look for a possible serial bomber.

Our Ed Lavandera live in Austin with these breaking details.

Ed, what have you learned?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning, John.

This is a -- very much a developing situation, so it's not clear at all at this point whether or not the explosion that is being investigated at this FedEx delivery facility in the town of Shirts, Texas, which is about an hour's drive south of Austin. It's basically a suburb of northern San Antonio. But we understand that officials are at the scene at this FedEx facility and investigating this possible explosion there.

So, this is a situation that is very much developing here in these early morning hours; and it's not entirely clear if it's connected to the four explosions that authorities here in Austin, Texas, believe are connected. So we will continue to monitor that throughout the day.

Right now we are in the neighborhood where that fourth explosion Sunday night occurred. This is the area where it went off. The only remnants left here is the divot in the ground here on this patch of grass where the explosion occurred Sunday night, injuring two young men in their early 20s. Those young men expected to survive with non- life-threatening injuries. [06:15:00] But authorities here have been really talking about it. What could be interesting if this information in Shirts, Texas, that we were talking about does, indeed, become related to these explosions is the changing method of how these explosions have been carried out. The first three explosions earlier this month were packages left on people's doorsteps.

This particular explosion used a wire -- a trip wire. And that's one of the things that authorities are concerned about is the changing dynamic of how these explosions have occurred, and that's one of the things they're worried about -- John and Erica.

HILL: All right, Ed, appreciate. Thank you. We'll check in with you throughout the morning.

Republicans largely silent on President Trump's repeated attacks on Robert Mueller and the Russia information. Will Congress pass any legislation to protect Robert Mueller? We'll tackle that next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HILL: Members of President Trump's own party warning him to leave the special counsel alone after he attacked Robert Mueller on Twitter.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HATCH: It would be the stupidest thing the president could do is fire him.

CORKER: I think he needs to leave Mueller alone.

RAJU: How would Republicans react if he fired Mueller?

CORKER: I think it would be a total upheaval in the Senate.

RAJU: You think it would be a total upheaval in the Senate?

CORKER: Yes, no question.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: It would be total upheaval in the Senate. Will Republicans, though, turn those words into action, push for a bill to protect Mueller from being fired?

Let's bring back our panel: Michael Zeldin, Alex Burns.

Alex, you made the point a short time ago that we haven't heard such strong words from Republican lawmakers, you know, pointing out everything we just heard in the reporting from Manu yesterday.

[06:20:10] And yet, there is the question, where is Mitch McConnell on this? Paul Ryan, sort of a lukewarm statement that was sent out. So are we really hearing from Republicans here? "New York Times" editorial board today saying it's time. BURNS: We're hearing from important Republicans. We're not hearing

from the most important Republicans, right, that Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan have decided not to really engage on this subject, but you are hearing from members of the Republican conference in the Senate, like Orrin Hatch, like John Cornyn, who are not just the usual sort of Lindsey Graham, Jeff Flake suspects.

We can always point to a couple of Republican senators who are upset with the president, but we're talking about folks at this point who are basically friends and in Orrin Hatch's case personal friends with the president who are just putting up a really, really unmistakable neon warning light here. We'll see if the president pays attention to it. The question of whether they'll actually act on legislation, that's unlikely. Any legislation would have to be signed by the president. So if he wants to get rid of the special counsel, then why would he -- why would he engage on that?

I mean, it strikes me, and we just that Orrin Hatch and Bob Corker and Trey Gowdy yesterday, and we've heard from Jeff Flake on this. And what's the one thing they all have on common? They're retiring. You know, they're leaving. And yes, you mentioned John Cornyn there, and Paul Ryan put out a paper statement.

But the strongest language is coming from the people not sticking around. Clearly, Republicans still feel like there might be a political cost to coming out on this. And I'm curious what that might be?

BURNS: There's no question. You know, there has been a proposal going back to last summer to pass legislation, you know, protecting the special counsel, making it difficult for the president to fire him. That proposal gained, essentially, no traction. It was introduced at a moment when the president was privately calling Republican senators, telling them you've got to protect me.

You've got to shut down the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation, who was giving them every reason to think that it was important for them to do something to protect the special counsel. It's not a place that they've been willing to go so far, and it really does just come down to not wanting to antagonize this guy. They don't know how the president will respond.

HILL: And Michael Zeldin, too, when we look if something were to pass and, of course, Alex makes the point the president would have to sign it, but even if it were to pass, who does it -- who does it benefit beyond Robert Mueller in this case? Is it really a win, or is this simply something that, you know, Democrats can hold up and say, hey, look what we did?

ZELDIN: Well, you know, I don't know about the politics of it. I think, though, from a legal jeopardy standpoint, for the president to cause Mueller to be fired, that would trigger a whole host of other obstruction and abuse of office inquiries with respect to that act.

And I think that those who are counselling him not to do that are protecting him or trying to protect him in -- legally from taking an action that will potentially lead to further complications for him. And I think that ultimately, Mueller will not be fired, because I think that cooler heads will prevail.

There was a story once during the Watergate period. Nixon is speaking with Barry Goldwater. Nixon is counting heads in the Senate to see whether he could be removed. Says to Goldwater, "How many votes do we have?" Meaning "Will I survive the 67 votes that I need to survive removal"?

And Goldwater says to him, "Mr. President, you don't have my vote." And that led to Nixon's ultimate resignation.

I think here the principle of these Republican senators saying to the president, "You don't have my vote. If you fire Mueller, you don't have my vote. We will come back. We will appoint somebody new, if not Mueller himself, and then you'll have to face the consequences of that act." So I think that is what's going on here most.

BERMAN: I tend to agree with everyone who says the cost of doing this is incredibly high. But before we discount the notion that the president would ever do it, we have to remember he tried once to do it. Right? I mean, he asked Don McGahn to go fire Robert Mueller, according to the reports in "The New York Times," and he wouldn't do that.

So it is out there as a possibility. Another big story that's taking place before our very eyes is this Facebook thing, which gets bigger and more complicated as days go on here.

You know, we know that Cambridge Analytica had access to the 50 million voter information and then now we're seeing from Britain these stories about Cambridge Analytica and what they're trying to do to pick up clients here. And I think biggest of big pictures, Alex Burns, here, you see what looks like the shady operations in this shady world of political consulting. What jumps out to you?

BURNS: Look, I think that any other administration, we would be talking about Cambridge Analytica as a colossal explosive scandal for the president, not just for Facebook and not just for the firm and its owners and operators, that if you had a political consulting firm tied to President Bush or tied to President Obama, it was involved in saying on hidden camera that they were setting up foreign politicians in sexually compromising situations. That would be politically devastating.

[06:25:09] The bar is clearly just different with President Trumps in terms of what the public can absorb. But to me, what this -- this opens the door first to a couple things involving President Trump, which is just enormous scrutiny to his relationship with this firm that clearly did a lot of international business; and we'll see who else they did international business for.

I think people have been imagining collusion as, you know, a secret line from the Kremlin to the White House. And in reality, a lot of conflict of interest issues just arise when you have one person working for multiple bosses at the same time. I think in a secondary way but maybe long-term and more important way,

this is going to draw a lot of public attention to the way campaigns actually harvest their private information and how they use them in ways that are legal, but I think, objectively, pretty creepy.

HILL: I like that technical term, by the way, "pretty creepy." Rather creepy.

BERMAN: Pretty creepy.

HILL: I would throw in there shady, too. And you bring up a good point when you use, obviously, campaigns in the plural that this is not just going to end up being the Trump campaign.

Michael, as we know, are there potential legal ramifications that you see at this point moving forward?

ZELDIN: Well, it appears from the reporting, and it's still early and we have to be always careful about that, it appears that there were data privacy breaches here.

That is, even if it's true that Facebook said that this professor received permission of 270,000 people to sign up for his app and take a psychometric test, they then use that data in a link analysis way to acquire the data of others who did not sign up and receive permission. And so you've got this potential -- Facebook is not calling it a data breach, but it's pretty close to a data breach. It's certainly a misapplication of data without consent.

I think that's going to be haunting to Facebook and its potentially be legal jeopardy for Cambridge Analytica who, if they acquired this data in breach of U.K. privacy laws and potentially U.S. privacy laws may subject them to civil lawsuit.

BERMAN: All right. Michael Zeldin, Alex Burns, thanks so much. A whole range of questions there. We're going to be talking to some of the reporters who have been breaking this news about Cambridge Analytica in Great Britain a little bit later this hour.

In the meantime, the fourth nor'easter in less than three weeks. I've lost count. Targeting millions from Washington, D.C., to Boston. We are watching this system very closely. We'll give you a forecast next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)