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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Stormy Wants Trump to Testify Under Oath; Did Trump Lawyer Float Presidential Pardons in Russia Probe?; Interview with Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 28, 2018 - 16:00   ET

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


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: And here we thought the porn star was going to be today's headline.

THE LEAD starts right now.

"The New York Times" reporting that President Trump's attorney discussed presidential pardons for two former Trump advisers who were later charged by special counsel Mueller. What was the White House worried the advisers might say?

[16:00:08]

And Stormy Daniels' attorney wants Donald Trump to testify under oath. Can Trump be compelled to testify? And what would he say?

Plus, the president says there is a good chance that he will solve the North Korea problem at a proposed summit with Kim Jong-un. But there are new signs that China could be working against the U.S.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto, in again for Jake Tapper.

We begin with breaking news in the Russia investigation, news that begs the question, might this be the very definition of obstruction of justice?

"The New York Times" reporting today that then Trump attorney John Dowd discussed presidential pardons last year for General Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and is cooperating with the special counsel's investigation, and pardons for former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who is now facing multiple criminal charges.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is at the White House.

Jeff, is the White House denying these discussions?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, good afternoon.

The White House is pushing back on this, saying that these conversations simply did not happen. Now, first we're hearing from White House lawyer Ty Cobb, who said this earlier this afternoon. He said: "I have only been asked about pardons by the press and I have

routinely respond on the record that had no pardons are under discussion or under consideration at the White House."

But, of course, this was a central matter of questions here in the White House Briefing Room just a short time ago with White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, asking about the president's authority and if he ever had any conversations. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Does he believe he has that right?

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Look, I would refer you back to Ty Cobb's statement. There is not discussion or consideration of that at this time, so there would be no reason for me to have had a conversation with the president about that, because that is not being currently discussed at the White House.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Whether he believes he has the right to use the power of his office.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: The president has the authority to pardon individuals. But you're asking me about a specific case in which it hasn't been discussed, so I would not have brought that up with him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZELENY: Certainly some room there for some wiggle room.

But "The New York Times" is reporting, based on sourcing, that these conversations did take place. Now, Jim, this raises questions, as you said, about possible obstruction of justice.

Was the president through his lawyers trying influence the investigation in some way? So that is why this is a major concern potentially here. Is this adding to what Bob Mueller is already investigating?

So certainly another day with this in the headlines. Some unanswered questions here. The White House saying it didn't happen. "The New York Times" and now "The Washington Post" confirming that report, so certainly complicating it, Jim.

SCIUTTO: That's right. We know we have spoken to witnesses who have been asked about obstruction of justice issues.

Now, Jeff, we know the president himself has been asked about presidential pardons before and commented on pardons before.

ZELENY: He did. And I was just thinking back to that.

About two weeks after Michael Flynn pleaded guilty, the president was asked directly about pardons. Take a look at what he says in the context of today's news. Let's watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't want to talk about pardons for Michael Flynn yet. We will see what happens. Let's see. I can say this. When you look at what's gone on with the FBI and with the Justice Department, people are very, very angry.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZELENY: So, of course, they handle this in very different ways. Paul Manafort, the campaign chairman for a time in 2016, he's not cooperating and he is fighting this.

But Michael Flynn, of course, a short-lived national security adviser, is cooperating and has pleaded guilty. So, Jim, as this plays out, the big questions, is this adding at all to the obstruction case that Bob Mueller is also apparently looking into?

SCIUTTO: Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thanks very much.

I want to bring in the panel now to talk about this.

Jeff Toobin, you know a thing or two about the law. From a legal standpoint, would a presidential lawyer raising the issue in conversations with folks who at the time were being investigated, now have been charged, is that evidence of obstruction of justice?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: You would have to know a lot more about what the conversation actually consisted of to know whether this was evidence of obstruction of justice.

The president does have the power to pardon. That's something that is in the Constitution and there's nothing inappropriate about that. A promise of a pardon in return for not testifying, in return for doing something that interferes with the Mueller investigation, that could be obstruction of justice.

But this "New York Times" report does not suggest that anything like that took place. It certainly raises the possibility. It might be something Mueller might want to look into. But I don't want to get too far ahead of what the facts are here, which is that the subject of pardons came up. But in what context, it's not clear.

SCIUTTO: Sara, you heard the president's comment there from a few months ago. He doesn't exactly put a damper on the possibility of pardons. He said there, we will see, a lot people angry with the investigation, blah, blah, blah.

[16:05:10]

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: He didn't exactly kill that idea.

No, he didn't rule it out. And the interesting thing is obviously the White House insists there's no discussion of pardons. The president's lawyers are insisting there's no discussion of pardons. But we know it is something the president has at least thought about,

because he's been asked about on it a number of different occasions. The other thing we know about this president is, he does legitimately feel badly about the position that Paul Manafort has found himself in, about the position Mike Flynn has found himself in.

And he feels a certain sense, the only reason these guys are in this boat now is because they came to work for me. And obviously we have seen the president call the Russian investigation a witch-hunt on more than one occasion. And so you can imagine how all of these thoughts swirling in his head might lead him to wonder what his powers are to make this go away.

SCIUTTO: It is a little hard for the president to make that argument with Paul Manafort, who is facing the possibility of dozens and dozens of years for criminal charges.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Sure.

And here's another sort of data point. We do know that last summer, the subject of pardons came up when the president was having a meeting with his attorneys. And one source described it to me as kind of a civics lesson where the president asked about his authority and how widespread his authority to pardon was, and they told him that it was pretty deep and pretty widespread.

But they said it was just about, you know, the potential terms that investigation might take, not specifically of course about pardons for any particular people.

But we also should add that Dowd has denied this. The White House legal team has denied it.

TOOBIN: They have denied it in a present-tense way.

BORGER: Exactly.

TOOBIN: I was trying to listen to everything that was said there.

As I understand what they're saying is that there are no discussions of pardons now.

BORGER: Right.

TOOBIN: They are not saying that the subject has never come up in the past.

SCIUTTO: And let's be frank. The president said on camera that it was an open question.

(CROSSTALK)

SCIUTTO: Is it ultimately -- Gloria, it is a legal question, but it's also a political question, is it not? Because really like with the question of firing Bob Mueller, he can do it. But the real question is, does he feel he could get away with it politically? BORGER: Well, yes, it depends when you -- on the pardon front, it

depends when you pardon someone. Most presidents pardon people the day they leave office and they pardon the most controversial people the day they leave office, when they don't really care anymore.

I think the big question here is, if indeed this is true, and "The New York Times" piece is pretty well-sourced, it seems the me, was the president aware of any of this? And, of course, people at the White House are telling me today that the president was not aware of this. He was surprised to read this in "The New York Times" or to hear about this story from his aides.

But, again, you have to ask the question, did he know, were there conversations? We know that Dowd, for example, talked to the president an awful lot before he said things in the past or tweeted in the past. So was this kind of an off-handed conversation that they had? That's something Mueller has to look into.

SCIUTTO: Sara, this is happening as the president is having some trouble, one might say, finding, hiring more lawyers who are willing to work with him.

MURRAY: Yes. And you can imagine why. There might be some difficulty.

This is a difficult client to deal with. He has his own ideas of how you should deal with Mueller. He has his own ideas of whether he should sit down with Mueller. He's not necessarily going to listen to the legal advice. He has the tendency to vent to friends and family about issues that are going on. And he apparently has a tendency to hire what may be some kind of unpredictable lawyers in that sense.

(CROSSTALK)

TOOBIN: And don't forget doesn't pay, doesn't pay his lawyers.

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: But the RNC is paying. So not to worry.

MURRAY: He has a history sometimes of not paying his lawyers.

(CROSSTALK)

MURRAY: But it's certainly not the kind of situation -- in most instances like, law firms would be tripping over themselves to try to defend the president, try to represent the president in some kind of case. That's certainly not the issue that Trump has.

And the more witnesses, and the more people that get embroiled in this, the harder it is for him to find a law firm that doesn't have a conflict of interest.

SCIUTTO: What is the issue beyond -- you talk about difficulty. Is it that they're worried that he is not going to tell the truth in front of a judge? BORGER: He is a lousy client. That's the truth. He doesn't take

your advice.

I think John Dowd discovered that. He didn't want Joe diGenova on the team. It turns out that Joe diGenova wasn't -- didn't end up on the team anyway. The paying is an issue, but also conflicts with law firms.

They're also afraid that, believe it or not, representing the president in this case could cost them business and could cost them attorneys.

SCIUTTO: A complete 180 from any other presidency, where working with the White House would be a career maker. Right?

TOOBIN: It's different from Barack Obama. Remember, Obama, he was the one before Trump. He never had to hire a lawyer. So we don't know what kind of lawyer...

BORGER: But Bill Clinton did.

TOOBIN: But Bill Clinton did.

But Bill Clinton had Williams and Connolly, who was very proud to represent him and still represents the Clintons, both Bill and Hillary, to this day.

[16:10:03]

BORGER: Right.

TOOBIN: So, the idea of -- there was certainly -- Bill Clinton had a lot of legal problems, but he was not so tainted that lawyers didn't want to represent him.

(CROSSTALK)

SCIUTTO: We know that state attorneys general are looking into charges as well, in part because that cannot be subject to a presidential pardon.

TOOBIN: Correct.

But I don't think people should get their homes up dramatically that state attorneys general are going to sort of take over the Mueller investigation. There is a reason why major white-collar investigations in this country are conducted at the federal level, U.S. attorneys, FBI, postal inspectors.

They are the groups that have not only the resources, but also the laws. Most states don't have laws that you can prosecute people under. Even New York state, Eric Schneiderman, the attorney general, who has been very outspoken on these issues, there are not criminal laws that the attorney general uses that are at all comparable to what Robert Mueller has at his disposal.

So I think people need to be a little realistic about that.

SCIUTTO: Focus on Mueller.

TOOBIN: Yes.

SCIUTTO: Jeff, Gloria, Sara, thanks very much.

What a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee conducting its own Russia investigation says he really wants to know about more.

That's right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:15:19] SCIUTTO: We are back now with the breaking news.

"The New York Times" reporting that last year, President Trump's lawyer floated the idea of pardoning former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort.

Joining me now is Republican Senator John Kennedy, from the great state of Louisiana. He's on the Judiciary Committee.

Senator, thanks for taking the time with us today.

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R), LOUISIANA: You bet.

SCIUTTO: So, you heard that new reporting from "The New York Times" there. I want to ask you this question. Would it be appropriate in your view for the White House lawyer to discuss pardoning two witnesses to the special counsel's investigation?

KENNEDY: You know, I don't know the answer to that, Jim. That is a question for the president and his attorneys. I'm not really interested in all the subplots and all this.

Here's what I'm interested in -- I believe and I think the evidence will bear this out, that a number of countries, one which of we know, Russia, tried to influence our election. Now, you can debate whether they did or didn't, but -- actually have influence, but they did try to influence the election.

I want to know what happened. I want to let Mr. Mueller finish his investigation, gather the facts, report to the American people, and then I trust American people to figure it out and make up their mind. I also want to talk about how we can stop it from happening again.

No disrespect, but Mr. Putin is a thug. He'll push you right through the wall if you let him, trying reason with him and is like trying hand feed a shark. And we're just going to have to hit him right in the face with sanctions. And --

SCIUTTO: Listen, I get the importance of that. I actually have a question on that, because there's been another revelation this week about contacts during the campaign.

KENNEDY: I saw that.

SCIUTTO: But on this issue, because we know that the special counsel, in addition to looking at meddling in the election by Russia, is looking at least at the question of potential obstruction of justice. Would a president's lawyer dangling pardons to potential witnesses, in fact targets of the investigation, constitute obstruction of justice in your view?

KENNEDY: You know, I don't know. I'm not trying to be evasive. I just don't know. That's what is frustrating about this process, though inevitable.

We get dips and dabs here and pieces of this and rumors of that. And the truth is, none of us know. That's what we have Mr. Mueller working on. And the sooner he gets the facts, let's the chips fall where they may, reports to the American people. Congress can then decide what if anything we need to do.

But more importantly, the American people will understand and they'll figure this out. They may not -- you heard me say this before, but the American people may not read Aristotle every day, but they -- they're smart. They will figure this out.

SCIUTTO: As you're aware, some of your colleagues floated the idea of passing legislation to protect the special counsel from any potential decision by the president to fire him. Would you support such legislation?

KENNEDY: I don't think it's -- number one, I don't know if it's constitutional. If President Trump issued an executive order tomorrow telling the United States Senate to take Kennedy off the appropriations committee, I think he would be -- it would be unconstitutional. I don't think it's -- I'm not sure it's constitutional for us to tell him who can fire and can't fire.

Having said, I don't think Trump's going to fire Mueller. There's no indication to me that he is. I know he's issued some tweets, but you got to watch what politicians do, not what they say.

SCIUTTO: Speaking again of the investigation, in court documents we learned about this week, the Mueller team revealed that Trump's former deputy campaign manager, of course, Rick Gates was working with, and with knowledge, he was working with a former Russian intelligence agent during the 2016 campaign.

Is that acceptable in your view? Does it raise larger questions about the kinds of people that Trump campaign aides were in touch with during the campaign?

KENNEDY: Well, it depends what they were working on and we don't know that. It depends on the context. I've been in a few campaigns. I mean, you interface with a lot of people. You want to be careful and try to not do something improper or illegal or violate campaign finance laws.

But that's what's frustrating about all of this. We get -- but again, it's inevitable. We get little bits and pieces and you have to be very careful about drawing conclusions.

That's why god made special counsels. It's to come in and let's get the facts in an objective, dispassionate way. I believe Mueller is doing that and then report to the American people and let the chips fall where they may.

(CROSSTALK)

SCIUTTO: Very briefly, that I know during campaigns, they speak with a lot of people from around the world.

KENNEDY: Yes.

[16:20:00] SCIUTTO: But you would -- if you were running for president, would you have your deputy campaign manager speak to a former Russian intelligence agent?

KENNEDY: I would be very, very careful. In today's environment, of course not. At the time, I wasn't. Things were a little different. But you have to be very, very careful, because people come to you on the campaign. In most cases, they have an agenda, and especially if it's somebody connected with the foreign government.

It doesn't mean it's always improper. And again, I don't know what happened here, but you got to be very, very careful.

SCIUTTO: I want to get to the issue of Facebook, because I know that this is something that you're very interested in. The Judiciary Committee, which you were on, is asking the Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify in two weeks. What exactly do you want to ask him about?

KENNEDY: Oh, I've got -- I've got a number of questions to ask Mr. Zuckerberg. My first question would be, is it a fair bargain for me to give up all of my personal data to Facebook and apparently everybody else in the Milky Way, in exchange for me being able to see what some of my high school buddies had for dinner?

I'd like to ask him what happened with Cambridge Analytica. Why didn't they protect my data -- our data? I'm going to ask -- I would ask him, what are they going to do to protect our data in the future?

I would ask him, why can't they make the service agreement -- our agreement with Facebook simpler? Why isn't it easier to opt out? Does Facebook really know who all its advertisers are?

Facebook says it's going to stop fake news. Has it done that? And about the way, while we're on the subject, what's fake news?

A couple years ago, the Kremlin through a hedge fund actually owned 8 percent of the stock of Facebook. What was that all about?

I'd like to ask Mr. Zuckerberg if he thinks it's in the public interests for Facebook to buy up all of its competitors. You know, I don't want to regulate Facebook to death here. I really don't. But some of this activity we're now learning about is a little bit -- it's creepy. I mean, it's creepy. And privacy matters.

SCIUTTO: It sounds like it's going to be a tough session for the Facebook CEO.

Senator John Kennedy, thanks very much for taking the time with us.

KENNEDY: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Has President Trump been out-trumped by Stormy Daniels' attorney? That's right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:26:34] SCIUTTO: Welcome back.

Today marks the fifth straight day that President Trump is keeping a low public profile, with no public events on the commander-in-chief's schedule. But now, Stormy Daniels' lawyer is hoping to end the president's uncharacteristic silence regarding the adult film actress, filing a new motion that could compel the president to testify under oath about the alleged affair.

CNN's Athena Jones is covering this case for us.

Athena, do we know what prompted this new move from Daniels' attorney?

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Jim. Well, this is another attempt by Stormy Daniels' lawyer, Michael Avenatti, to turn up the heat on the president and his team. This latest salvo comes just days after Avenatti amended Daniels' original lawsuit to now sue Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen for defamation, arguing Cohen has implied that Daniels is lying about the affair she says she had with Trump.

We've been talking a lot about how quiet President Trump has been on this Daniels story. And with this move, Avenatti is trying to force the president to answer his questions about it.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JONES (voice-over): New day, new move by Stormy Daniels' legal team to ramp up the pressure on President Trump and his personal attorney Michael Cohen. The adult film actress' lawyer Michael Avenatti filing a motion overnight asking a federal judge to allow him to question Trump and Cohen under oath for up to two hours each.

MICHAEL AVENATTI, STORMY DANIELS' ATTORNEY: We want to know truth about what the president knew when he knew it, and what he did about it.

JONES: Part of an effort, Avenatti says, to get to the truth, as his client fights to be let out of what he argues is an invalid hush agreement, aimed at preventing Daniels from talking about an alleged 2006 affair with Trump, a relationship the White House denies.

AVENATTI: When we get to the bottom of this, we're going to prove to the American people that they have been told a bucket of lies.

JONES: In addition to asking for documents directed to Trump and Cohen related to the nondisclosure agreement, Avenatti wants to know whether Trump knew about the hush agreement and the hush payment, the $130,000 Cohen says he paid to Daniels to keep quiet, who provided the money for the payment, what role Cohen played, and whether Trump was personally involved in efforts to silence Daniels to benefit his presidential campaign by preventing voters from hearing the plaintiff speak publicly.

The media-savvy Avenatti also raising his own questions on the airwaves about Trump's role in the deal, saying he asked Trump's lawyer Charles Harder in a meeting last week whether the president was a party to the hush agreement.

AVENATTI: And we heard crickets. They don't know. He said they don't know yet whether Mr. Trump was a party to this agreement. He said we haven't figured it out yet, to which I responded, well, why don't you just ask Donald Trump?

JONES: David Schwartz, Cohen's lawyer in another matter who is also serving as his spokesman, called the motion to depose Trump and Cohen a reckless use of the legal system and a politically motivated charade.

Avenatti says he is confident his motion will succeed, citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent in the 1997 Bill Clinton versus Paula Jones case, writing, it is firmly established that a sitting president is not afforded special protection from a civil suit regarding conduct before he or she entered office.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JONES: Now, CNN has reached out to Trump's lawyer in this matter, Charles Harder, but has not gotten a response. A hearing date on the motion to depose the president and Cohen is set for April 30th. Avenatti is also asking that a jury trial be set for no later than 90 days after the court decides this motion or as soon there after as is convenient to the court.

And meanwhile, Avenatti now says that eight women have contacted him with stories he says are similar to Daniels, though he has not revealed any details is that says his team is still vetting those stories. So, there could be more to come -- Jim.