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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Will Trump Fire Attorney General?; Interview with Republican Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa; White House: Trump Believes He Has the Power to Fire Mueller. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired April 10, 2018 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:00]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: The president's outburst on Twitter and in person are leaving everyone in town wondering whether he will fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller, or Attorney General Jeff Sessions, or the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein.

And this is the mind-set the president is in as we await his major decision on possible military action in Syria. And the president will have one less voice to listen to on that matter as well, after today's resignation out of nowhere seemingly of Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert, who was reportedly forced out.

CNN's Pamela Brown is at the White House for us.

And, Pamela, a source telling CNN that the president is still fuming today about the raids on Cohen's office, home and hotel, and that this is almost a new level of anger that people at the White House haven't seen from him.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Jake.

Sources familiar say that the president's anger over these raids has really reached a boiling point, that his anger has even surpassed previous outrage he's had over the Mueller investigation, some aides even saying this is a turning point for President Trump.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (voice-over): In the days since the raid on Michael Cohen's office and hotel room, we have learned the FBI wasn't just looking for records about payments to porn star Stormy Daniels, but also documents on a deal between former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal and the owners of "The National Enquirer" to buy and bury her alleged affair with Trump, an affair the White House denies.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president has been clear. He's addressed this several times. I don't have anything else to add.

BROWN: We have also learned the raid included a request for documents related to Cohen's ownership of New York City taxi medallions. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who was nominated by Trump, had to sign off on the raid. QUESTION: Are you thinking about firing Deputy Attorney General Rod

Rosenstein?

BROWN: Trump wouldn't answer questions today, instead taking to Twitter to declare "attorney-client privilege is dead" and to call the investigation led by the Justice Department "a witch-hunt."

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It is a disgrace. It's, frankly, a real disgrace. It is an attack on our country in a true sense. It is an attack on what we all stand for.

BROWN: Trump also again publicly turning on his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who has the power to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, but recused himself from the Russia investigation.

TRUMP: The attorney general made a terrible mistake when he did this and when he recused himself, or she have certainly let us know if he was going to recuse himself, and we would have used a -- put a different attorney general in.

BROWN: And firing a warning shot to Mueller himself.

TRUMP: Why don't I just fire Mueller? Well, I think it is a disgrace what is going on. We will see what happens. But I think it is really a sad situation when you look at what happened. And many people have said, you should fire him.

BROWN: The threat of firing Mueller has leaders in the president's own party sending warnings of their own.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think that would be a mistake.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: He should be allowed to finish the job he was appointed to do.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R), IOWA: I think it would be suicide for the president to fire him.

BROWN: But when asked today if the president believes he has the power to fire Mueller, the White House said this:

HUCKABEE SANDERS: He certainly believes he has the power to do so.

BROWN: With Trump's anger at a boiling point, news of the president's hastily canceled trip to South America and the departure of Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert, a source telling CNN there is a deep sense of anxiety and uncertainty in the West Wing as aides wonder what is next.

CNN has learned Bossert was pushed out by newly installed National Security Adviser John Bolton, just days after an appearance on television on behalf of the administration.

TOM BOSSERT, WHITE HOUSE HOMELAND SECURITY ADVISER: I think the president has a point that has been very clear, and I'm going to reiterate that point BROWN: With his departure nearly half of top-level staff inside of

the Trump White House has turned over, according to a Brookings Institution study.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: And the president, who shortened his trip to South America and has been grumbling that he didn't want to go at all, is actually staying back in part to figure out the next steps at his Department of Justice, according to sources familiar with the matter.

The White House, as you know, has said, Jake, that he's staying behind to monitor the situation in Syria, but, as you know, last year, the president made the decision to launch the strikes from Mar-a-Lago. So it is unclear why he wouldn't be able to make any decision abroad -- Jake.

TAPPER: But, Pamela, just to underline this, you are saying that you're hearing from a source that one of the reasons he's staying back and not going on the trip is so he could figure out what to do with his Justice Department?

BROWN: He's clearly fixated on the raid on his personal attorney and he's angry.

All of this is factoring in, and he's trying to figure out what the next steps are. Unclear if anything will happen, but all of this is factoring into this decision on a trip that the president didn't even want to go on in the first place.

But, again, the White House is saying officially that all this has to do with Syria and the president staying behind to monitor the U.S. response to the apparent chemical weapons attack in Syria.

TAPPER: All right, great reporting. Pamela Brown, thank you so much.

My panel is here with me.

Jeff Zeleny, you cover the White House for CNN, along with Pamela and some other members of our team. The president is said to be in a state that people haven't seen him in.

[16:05:04]

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: And that is because it's Michael Cohen.

There is no one closer to this president than Michael Cohen, potentially his children, but not even in that way. Michael Cohen is an appendage of the president in every gamut.

There is not one part of the president's life that Michael Cohen has not been involved in, the politics, the business, everything else. That is why he's furious. You could see the look in his face when he was sitting with his military commanders, which was extraordinary in and of itself. It took many people in the White House by surprise he was saying that, but there was no talking him off the ledge, if you will.

I am told he was as furious this morning, he's remained furious. The question, as Pamela is saying, what is he going to do about it? He has been mad before. He's been seething before. Is this a different moment? That is what we're still reporting out. But he's certainly being presented with a range of options, including firing Rod Rosenstein, firing Jeff Sessions, something he's not been able to do, been willing to do, Republicans advising him not to.

We will see if he does anything. But that is the key question here. What is he going to do about this? I do believe that that is why he's staying here in Washington, not going to South America, on Friday, several days between now and then. Something -- he's at least considering something.

TAPPER: And with the report that Rosenstein signed off on this raid of Michael Cohen's office, hotel and home, a lot of people are speculating that Rosenstein's job might really be the one that is in jeopardy.

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Sort of. But let's play this out.

First, if he wants to take out Rosenstein, what does the attorney general do? What does Jeff Sessions do? Does he sit and say, this is OK? What does the Congress do? Because we know Mueller doesn't report to the attorney general, he reports to Rosenstein.

My point is, does Congress then say, the only reason he's replacing Rosenstein is potentially to put somebody in place who puts a clamp on the Mueller investigation? The president doesn't play chess. We saw that in the Comey replacement.

Anybody watching that in Washington is going to say, if you take out Comey, it is going to get worse. I'm look at the Rosenstein issue, saying, I can understand why somebody playing checkers would do that, I want to avoid the near-term pain. If you take him out, though, the second dimension problems are al to more significant than he thinks.

TAPPER: Let me play devil's advocate here, Laura. What will Congress, what will Sessions do if he fires Rosenstein? Nothing.

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, and that is pretty much why everyone is looking at this and balking, thinking what is going to be the recourse and domino effect of all of this?

But, remember, you have to do the equivalent -- if you were to fire Rosenstein, that doesn't automatically bounce back to Jeff Sessions. It then goes to somebody who is now an associate attorney general and then the head of the Office of Legal Counsel.

You have to assume if you are Donald Trump...

TAPPER: You're talking about control of the Russia investigation.

COATES: Control over the Russia investigation. Exactly. So bouncing it off of Rosenstein doesn't mean it goes back to the person who has already recused himself.

You have to be betting if you were a gambling man like Trump to say both of these two people in the line of secession will be willing to also fire or clamp down on Mueller's investigation. And remember Mueller has a built-in protection here. He's not there simply at the will or the pleasure of the president of the United States or Rod Rosenstein or whoever may be in a position to fire him.

He has a good cause and a dereliction of duty requirement to be fired. And if that is found, Congress gets to weigh in and say, OK, I see that you fired this person, it is in writing, the reason for doing so under the statute. I will now have a hearing to investigate whether good cause was actually found.

And so you're exactly right while talking about the idea that it's not going to end. It won't be the beginning of the end. It will be pretty much the start of a brand-new investigation. And now Congress will have its fingers in the president.

TAPPER: And speaking of Jeff Sessions, he was at the White House just now. There was an event honoring Alabama football and he was asked if he had spoken to President Trump. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Mr. Attorney General, have you spoken with the president today?

JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Not today. Roll, Tide.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Not today. Roll, Tide.

But President Trump made it very clear about the special counsel, Mueller, and whether or not he thinks he has the power to fire him. The White House said today that they have been advised that he does and President Trump even spoke about this yesterday during that briefing that you're talking about.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: It's a disgrace. It's frankly a real disgrace. It's an attack on our country in a true sense.

It's an attack on what we all stand for.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: And he goes on to say: "Why don't I just fire Mueller? I think it is a disgrace, but we will see, we will see what happens."

But who is he mad at more right now? Mueller referred this case to the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, but he actually didn't enact the search warrant. That was the U.S. attorney's office. ZELENY: I believe he's the angriest at Jeff Sessions. That is the

beginning of all of this, because he has never have forgiven him from recusing himself from this more than a year ago.

I believe Rod Rosenstein is right below there. It seems the anger, at least from what we're hearing from people talking to the president today, is more directed at those two gentleman more than Bob Mueller.

[16:10:08]

But I think going back to those comments there, the president was asked about firing Mueller. He did the rest of it on his own. He brought up Jeff Sessions brought on his own, as he was sitting there with the nation's top military commanders.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: To talk about a life-or-death issue, whether or not they are going to launch any sort of attack on Syria.

ZELENY: And many presidents, many advisers would sort of welcome a serious conversation, as opposed to talking about politics. But the president started it with this.

So this is what is going through his mind. And now by him bringing up Jeff Sessions, he's still, I believe, advised from people on the Hill he talks to and others that firing Jeff Sessions would be a bridge too far.

I'm not sure if Rod Rosenstein is in that same category or not. This is the president's decision.

TAPPER: Phil, I'm interested. You worked for the FBI and the CIA. The president described this raid on Michael Cohen's office, home and hotel as an attack on our nation.

MUDD: Yes.

TAPPER: You're somebody that actually knows what an attack on our nation is. What was your take when you heard that?

MUDD: Two takes.

First, if you are in the line, investigative or analytic position, as I was at the bureau, in the leadership position, you are going to say, look, we have a job to do. And that is whether you are the dogcatcher, the mayor or the president, if you have probable cause to go into a lawyer's office, his hotel room, his residence, you are going to follow probable cause.

If Jake Tapper did something wrong, if I did something wrong, it doesn't matter. We still follow the facts. So, in some sense, you're stepping back and saying, actually, this heartens me in terms of what the American public did.

On the other hand, you say the president of the United States is suggesting that in a country where a sixth grader and eighth grader and a 12th grader is taught we're all born equal and we're all equal under the law, that the president himself can say, I think it is appropriate for me to determine where an investigation goes.

Boy, that looks like a Third World dictatorship. That doesn't look like the United States to me.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around.

Would Republicans really call for the impeachment of President Trump if he were to fire Robert Mueller? We're going to talk to a key Republican senator next.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:16:06] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And we're back with our politics lead.

President Trump slamming his own Justice Department for issuing search warrants to raid the home, hotel and office of his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, calling the investigation a, quote, witch hunt and a disgrace, though, legal experts do point out that the move was likely signed off on by the highest levels of his Justice Department and FBI.

Joining me now is Republican Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa. She served in the Iraq war and is currently a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Senator Ernst, thanks so much for joining us.

SEN. JONI ERNST (R-IA), SENATE ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: I want to ask you about a Syria, but before we do, the president called the legally authorized raid a break in, called it an attack on our nation. Do you see it that way?

ERNST: I would not describe it as that. I do feel that the president believes he was violated. But certainly, I wouldn't describe it as an attack on our nation.

TAPPER: The president also suggested that this is all being carried out by Democrats who are against the Trump administration. Obviously as a factual matter, the people heading this all include Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, FBI Director Christopher Wray who are both Republicans, I could go on and on in terms of the U.S. attorney for the district of New York being a Trump appointee or Robert Mueller being a Republican, et cetera.

What do you say to constituents who hear this kind of falsehood and ask you, do you think that the deep state is trying to bring down the president?

ERNST: Well, I do hear from both sides on this issue. There are a lot of concerns out there. But as far as Iowans are concerned, I let them know, let the investigation go where it will. Follow the evidence. And if there is evidence in another matter, then certainly that should be followed.

But bottom line with the Mueller investigation, what I want to know as a senator is, what was Russia's involvement in our election process? Was there collusion? That's what we need to get to the bottom of. Let's let the investigation go. Let's see where it turns up.

Certainly, at some point, there has to be a conclusion to this investigation and I hope at that time, the results are presented to Congress so we can understand what happened in that 2014 election cycle.

TAPPER: Your comments --

ERNST: Or, excuse me, 2016.

TAPPER: 2016. Your comments to our constituents sounds like your fellow Iowa senior senator from your state, the Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley.

Take a listen to him earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R-IA), CHAIRMAN, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: I think it would be suicide for the president to fire him. I think the less the president said about this whole thing the better off he will be. And I think that Mueller is a person of stature and respected and I respect him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Do you agree with Senator Grassley?

ERNST: I do. I agree with my senior senator. He is the chair of the judiciary. He is a very reasonable man, well-respected by his colleagues and constituents alike. So, I again will state that I think the investigation -- let it go where it needs to go. Follow the evidence.

At some point, though, it does need to come to a conclusion and so we can understand the effects of Russia in our process. And we have another election cycle coming up and we certainly need to learn from what happened in the past and make sure it doesn't happen again.

TAPPER: How concerned are you about President Trump firing either Mueller or your former colleague Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, or Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general?

ERNST: Honestly, I am not that concerned. I don't believe the president would do that. I think that many of us in the Congress have stated that we do believe the investigation needs to continue. And I think the president does heed those words. It is ultimately up to the president. But I don't see him doing that. TAPPER: The president's tirade yesterday about Michael Cohen and the

raid came during a meeting with his military team and the national security officials to discuss a response to Syria, the president has vowed to respond in the next 24 hours.

[16:20:05] I want you to take a listen to fellow Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: If this is not an all-out assault on Assad's capability to deliver chemical weapons, if it is not an effort to degrade his regime, it is a miserable failure. If at the end of the day, he doesn't pay a big price, then President Trump becomes like Obama, weak in the eyes of our enemies and unreliable in the eyes of our allies.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Do you agree with Senator Graham that not only does there need to be a military strike, it needs to be one that actually is debilitating. What type of response would you like to see?

ERNST: Well, I would tend to agree with Senator Graham. I do agree.

What we have seen from the Assad regime is unconscionable and we have seen innocent men, women and children killed through the use of chemical weapons. Assad is a war criminal and so, we do need to retaliate in some form or fashion, and it needs to be swift and it needs to be hard. Whether folks like it or not, we are leaders in global security and making sure that we can stabilize that region is very important. It can't be done if the Assad regime continues to use chemical weapons.

TAPPER: Senator John McCain said that he thought president Trump's call to remove all U.S. troops from Syria had possibly or probably in John McCain's view emboldened Assad. Are you concerned with that at all?

ERNST: Well, I am concerned whenever a president or a leader would signal to adversaries a withdrawal plan. I think that is something that should be very close hold. I think that is something we should not be signaling to others who could use that statement against us.

So, I think that we need to follow our military advisers' advice in this concern and if we maintain a presence there, certainly we should do it under their advice. If the president wishes to see a withdrawal, that would be fine as well, as long as it's s done following that advice. But we certainly shouldn't signal it to our adversaries if that is the president's plan.

TAPPER: All right. Senator Joni Ernst from the great state of Iowa, thank you so much.

ERNST: Thank you.

TAPPER: It's always great to have you on, Senator.

ERNST: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: The White House says President Trump believes he has the power to fire Robert Mueller. Are we staring down the barrel of a constitutional crisis? That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:26:41] TAPPER: This afternoon, White House President Secretary Sanders said that President Trump believes he does have the power to fire Robert Mueller and that the president thinks the special counsel probe has gone too far with yesterday's raid on his personal attorney Michael Cohen.

Let's bring in veteran journalist and author Carl Bernstein, who along with Bob Woodward, of course, broke the story of the Watergate scandal wide open.

Carl, good to see you as always.

Sources telling CNN that President Trump is mostly furious with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders to dispute that, referring the press corps to the president's comments last night. Do you think it's a matter of time before one or both of the men are fired?

CARL BERNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That seems to be every indication from people I speak to and in the White House and I think it's the belief of too many people on Capitol Hill, Republicans who are afraid that is going to come to pass and we're on the edge of a constitutional crisis.

One thing that is very clear is that this president does not give a damn -- and it is a reportorial fact, not merely an opinion or assertion, about the rule of law and yesterday he once again declared war on the rule of law. This is not a witch hunt. There is no evidence of this being a witch hunt and if it were, there would be hell to pay at the end of Mueller's investigation. And there ought to be hell to pay if it really were a witch hunt.

But there's no indication of that. Trump is trapped. He knows that he is trapped. This investigation is closing in on him and the prosecutors in New York now have his lawyer's computers and what is on them. That is a big fact here.

TAPPER: It's certainly a huge moment in this investigation.

And I want you to take a listen to White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders today when she was asked if President Trump sees a distinction between the Mueller investigation and the raids on his personal lawyer Michael Cohen, which was carried out by a separate office from the U.S. attorney of Southern District in New York. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think certainly that they are separate investigations but I think that publicly they have been conflated quite a bit.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Who's the one conflating? Is it the president that's conflating it, Carl?

BERNSTEIN: Well, the fact there is a relationship between the two, because on those computers, if there is no privilege because there is a conspiracy between the president and his lawyer and, in fact, if there is exculpatory material on that computer that is relevant to the Mueller investigation, the prosecutors in New York have the right and will send back to Mueller's investigation what is on those computers and other evidence that figures in the Mueller Russia investigation. And that is one more reason why Donald Trump is so exercised at this point and might probably going to be willing to once again put an end to this investigation if he can figure out how to do it.

It's very difficult to do. It doesn't necessarily go away if you fire Mueller or Rosenstein. But there is one other fact here. I mean, there really is a possibility and it's only a possibility that those computers can be somewhat the equivalent of the Watergate tapes.

There could be explosive information on them involving whatever conspiracy had to do partly with why a warrant was sought between the president and his attorney. But this is new territory because of the legal vulnerability, and what has occurred. And we can understand perhaps the president now seeing that he is in a place of vulnerability that he has not been until now and that a line of vulnerability has been crossed.