Return to Transcripts main page
NYT: Mueller Gives Questions for Possible Trump Interview. Aired 6-6:30a ET
Aired May 1, 2018 - 06:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a broad list of questions. A lot of those questions are going to be darn difficult for the president to answer.
[05:59:26] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is still very much an active discussion. Will the president sit down and testify?
RUDY GIULIANI, ATTORNEY FOR DONALD TRUMP: When Mueller is finished, he's not going to have a stitch of evidence that he colluded with the Russians. Now that's a disgrace.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president does not answer to Mueller. He answers to the people.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think the president, for all the posturing, can avoid this interview.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: White House chief of staff John Kelly told national security officials he believed the president was becoming, quote, "unhinged."
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's sad. It's disappointing. There's a lot of chaos in the White House.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's a snake pit inside.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They're all gunning for Kelly.
ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota.
ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is NEW DAY. It is Tuesday, May 1, 6 a.m. here in New York. Here's our starting line.
We now know more about the questions that Special Counsel Robert Mueller provided to President Trump's legal team that he wants the president to answer if the president were to sit down for an interview.
Mueller's focus is on a few things: the Trump campaign's ties to Russia, Mr. Trump's motivations for high-profile firings and whether any of this amounts to obstruction of justice.
How do we know these questions? Well, "The New York Times" obtained the list containing nearly four dozen questions that cover several categories the firing of national security adviser Michael Flynn, the firing of FBI director James Comey, questions related to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his recusal, and President Trump's knowledge of campaign communications and business deals with Russia.
CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: And that will be a very interesting part of this story is who -- and this person must be very close to the president of the United States -- would leak out this kind of information? Why would the Trump team want these questions out there?
We do know that the president has a lot on his plate. President Trump weighing the fate of the Iran nuclear deal. Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, claims he has proof Iran is lying about their nuclear program. It comes as Iran and Israel are drawing closer to war than ever before in Syria. We will talk live with Benjamin Netanyahu in just minutes.
And the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, calls total B.S., pushing back on reports that he called the president an idiot and says that the president is becoming unhinged. He denies both of those allegations, but it raises an obvious question: how are they doing? Is this relationship on firm ground?
Let's begin our coverage. We have CNN's Abby Phillip live at the White House. A little "I'm OK, you're OK" going on down there.
ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: As usual, Chris. Good morning.
The president lawyers a few weeks ago, we know, sat down with the special counsel team to learn a little bit about the parameters of a potential interview with President Trump and Robert Mueller. But now thanks to "The New York Times," we have a list of potential questions that were transcribed by Trump's lawyers that give some insights into what Robert Mueller might want to ask the president.
PHILLIP (voice-over): Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team is interested in asking President Trump at least four dozen questions as part of their Russia probe. According to notes transcribed by the president's lawyers and obtained by "The New York Times."
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, would you still like to testify to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, sir?
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You would?
TRUMP: I would like to.
PHILLIP: A large portion of the questions appear to center on obstruction of justice, including the president's high-profile firings of national security adviser Michael Flynn and FBI director James Comey.
The questions specifically cite a number of the president's own statements, including these remarks.
TRUMP: Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey knowing there was no good time to do it. And in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, "This Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story."
PHILLIP: The special counsel also seeking insights into the president's response to Attorney General Jeff Sessions's recusal from the Russia investigation.
TRUMP: The attorney general made a terrible mistake when he did this and when he recused himself. Or he should have certainly let us know if he was going to recuse himself, and we would have used a -- put a different attorney general in.
PHILLIP: "The New York Times" reports that another category of questions deals directly with Mueller's inquiry into potential coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, including the now infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians promising dirt on Hillary Clinton.
TRUMP: It must have been very important. It must have been a very important meeting, because I never even heard about it.
PHILLIP: Mueller's team is seeking information about the president's involvement in crafting the misleading initial statement about the purpose of the meeting.
SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president weighed in as any father would, based on the limited information that he had.
PHILLIP: "The Times" reports that investigators are also interested in learning about what the president knew about Russian hacking and communication between long-time adviser Roger Stone and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
TRUMP: Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing.
PHILLIP: One question raising intrigue: "What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?"
No such outreach by the president's former campaign chairman has been reported. Manafort's former deputy, Rick Gates, is cooperating with Mueller's probe.
The special counsel is also pursuing information about President Trump's knowledge of his son-in-law Jared Kushner's attempt to set up a back channel to Russia during the transition. SEAN SPICER, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He was a conduit to
leaders, and that's until we had a State Department, a functioning place for people to go.
[06:05:10] PHILLIP: The president's businesses also under scrutiny, with Mueller seeking information about Mr. Trump's 2013 trip to Moscow and discussions he had with his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, about Russian real-estate developments during the campaign.
Cohen is now the subject of a separate criminal investigation. The FBI seized records from his home, office and hotel room last month.
PHILLIP: Now, in spite of all of this, it is still unclear whether President Trump will eventually sit down with Mueller's team. He's gone back and forth on this, saying at times that he's willing to do it. But after the Cohen raid, we know, according to our sources, that the president cooled off on that idea.
He's now added a new attorney, Rudy Giuliani, who met with Mueller in the last several weeks about a potential Trump interview, but that issue definitely remains still up in the air, Alisyn and Chris.
CAMEROTA: OK, Abby, thank you very much. Let's talk about this. Let's bring in CNN chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin and CNN legal analyst Michael Zeldin, who also served as Robert Mueller's special assistant at the DOJ.
So Michael, let me start with you. Before we get into the direct questions and we will, because there are 40 of them, just give us your thoughts. Give us some context on what -- what you think the motivation would be for putting this out in the public sphere. Who wins by us knowing these questions?
MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: That's a very good questions that we don't really know the answer to. It would seem to me, potentially, that the White House counsel's office let this float out into the media in an effort to influence the president's thinking about whether or not to do an interview. And I think that they'll gauge reaction of people to these questions and help influence the president to decide whether he should sit down or not sit down.
I think that there's a great debate going on within the White House counsel's office about this. And I think this may be one way to try to shape the president's thinking about it in addition to the advice that he's getting from his lawyers.
CUOMO: Jeffrey, when we look at these questions, there's nothing unusual, assuming that these are accurate representations. OK? There's nothing unusual in the rhythm to them. Some are open-ended. Some are point specific.
But it does give you a sense that the landscape is that there is a lot of jeopardy here in terms of requiring candid and honest and truthful disclosure. There are a lot of traps within these questions if somebody is trying to spin a story.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: You know, my reaction to this list was sort of it's good news and it's bad news for the president. The good news for the president is there are really no surprising categories here. I mean, there's nothing -- some bombshell subject that we hadn't heard about, like some sort of money laundering investigation. There's none of that. That's certainly good for the president.
The bad news is this is obviously a very extensive obstruction of justice investigation. I mean, they are obviously very concerned about many stages of the president's behavior, not just the firing of James Comey, and there are lots of specific questions about what he knew when.
Now, all of us have heard Donald Trump answer questions. It's very hard for me to believe that he will actually answer all these questions.
CUOMO: Right. That's the point, though. Some of these questions are worded in a way that investigators like them, like that we wouldn't ask. Like, "What was your purpose in doing this?" That sounds like an easy enough question, but let's say I say, "I didn't really have any real purpose."
Then you have found out that I told somebody that I was going to try to craft this statement in a certain way because I wanted to influence it. So now, depending on how they decide to reconcile that --
CAMEROTA: A lie.
CUOMO: It could be something that was something material and untruthful and intent to deceive. That's the trick between talking to us and talking to investigators.
CAMEROTA: Let's dive into some of the questions, just as an example, Jeffrey, and then you can expound on it.
No. 1, what was the purpose of your February 14, 2017, meeting with Mr. Comey and what was said? That was the meeting where, as Comey tells it, President Trump said, "I sure hope you can let this Michael Flynn thing go." So, is that one of those open-ended things?
TOOBIN: Well, absolutely. And you know, that sets up a conflict between Comey and Trump about what happened, because the president has already said that -- that he did not tell Comey that, you know, "Please let Michael Flynn go. You know, let this go."
You know, the question for some of these is, is there a, you know, person to person conflict which the president, you know, you can't resolve dispositively, but are there questions that there are specific answers to that, either by e-mails or tapes or something, where they have the president's position locked in, and they want to see whether the president contradicts that?
CUOMO: That's where it can get a little tricky. Also, I know there are a lot of questions here, and often that makes it seem like it must be exhaustive. But there's no reason to believe that, Michael.
[06:10:06] I mean, the problem with your answer is that it can introduce a new question. So yes, they've given him a long list of things, but we don't have any reason to believe that these, to use Jeffrey's word, that these are dispositive. This is a complete list of everything that they would ask, yes. The answers wind up dictating where the interview can go.
ZELDIN: Right. And in fact, we his morning have been calling these questions that Mueller has propounded, I don't believe that that's actually what these are. I think these are notes taken by the recipients of a conversation with Mueller's office where he outlined broad topics, and these guys wrote down questions that they thought these topics may raise.
CAMEROTA: Why do you think that? Why don't you think that this is a realist, that this is more like notes?
ZELDIN: Because of the way the questions are written. Lawyers wouldn't write questions this way in my estimation. Some of the grammar is not even, you know, proper. So I don't see this as a list of written questions that Mueller's office gave to the president. I think these are more notes that the White House has taken, and then they have expanded upon the conversation to write out these as questions. And that's where we are.
So, I think Jeffrey is right that these are introductory questions that then introduce a lot of sub-questions in a longer interview. And the thing that you can see from this is this interview is not going to end any time quickly, because these are a lot of questions and this will take potentially more than one day to answer, which is why I thought originally this may be an effort to influence the president's thinking about whether he's going to try to resist an effort to interview him or not.
TOOBIN: And I think, if I can just add to that, the question of a time limit on the interview is extremely important, especially now, having seen -- having seen these questions or subject areas, whatever you want to call them. If the president is really asked about all these areas, that will take many hours.
And the question will be, in advance, will Mueller accept a time limit recognizing that he wouldn't get to so many of these questions. That's going to be a -- that is certainly a big subject of the negotiations now going on between Mueller and Giuliani. How long any interview would take.
CUOMO: Well, let's chew on that for a second, Jeffrey and Michael. So let's play it out. If they say, "We'll give you five hours." OK? At the end of the five hours, four hours, two hours, whatever it is, if they don't feel that they have the information they need to complete the investigation, this isn't like a deposition or an interview. Who says that that means, "Well, that's it. We had our one bite at the apple. We can never have another one. I guess we have to close the investigation unsatisfied." Why do we think that's how it would go? ZELDIN: I don't think it will go that way. Actually, my time with
Mueller in the Justice Department informs me that that's not something that he will accept, that this will go on as long as Mueller needs for it to go on.
If we remember correctly from the Starr investigation of Clinton, there were more than -- there was more than one interview with Clinton. And that could well be the case here.
Jeffrey is right that they will try to negotiate tight -- as tight parameters as they can. But Mueller, I think, still holds all of the legal cards in terms of being able to force an interview. because I think the law supports him, generally speaking, that if he served a grand jury for this testimony he would prevail in the court of law.
CAMEROTA: Hey, Jeffrey, let me get into some of the questions. Before you answer, let's just get -- so the viewers can know what some of these questions are, and then you can build on that.
So here is a question about the interview with Lester Holt, OK, from May 2017. What did you mean in your interview with Lester Holt about Mr. Comey and Russia? And let me -- let's remind people by playing that interview that has gotten their attention.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey. Knowing there was no good time to do it. And in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, "This Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won."
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CAMEROTA: Not surprisingly, that has come to the attention of Mueller's investigators.
Here's another one: "What was the purpose of your May 12, 2017, tweet?" They want to know. Here's that tweet. "James Comey better hope that there are no tapes of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press."
That would be a good question, Jeffrey. What was the purpose of that tweet?
TOOBIN: It's a great question. And I'd certainly like to know the answer. I mean, going back to the Lester Holt -- you know, the Lester Holt question and answer. What makes that answer so significant is if you remember when Comey was fired, the White House put out the explanation that the reason he was fired was because of the way he conducted the Hillary Clinton investigation before the election. And the way he announced it.
[06:15:00] The -- then the president comes around and says, first to Lester Holt and then to the Russian diplomatic visitors, "No, no no. It had nothing to do with Hillary Clinton. It was all about stopping the Russia investigation," which is a much more suspicious explanation. Trying to get the president to explain what the justification was for firing James Comey is an absolutely critical part of the Mueller investigation.
CUOMO: All right, so let's take a quick break here, guys. We know the questions are out there. "The New York Times" has them, but the question really becomes what are now the specific areas that the president would have to look out for the most? So that's where we have to turn our attention.
CAMEROTA: That's right. We have 37 more questions for Jeffrey and for Michael. We'll be right back.
CUOMO: All right. So the president's always talking about leaks and how pernicious and wrong they are. Well, he's got trouble in his own house, because somebody very close to him leaked out these potential questions from the Mueller investigation.
CAMEROTA: Unless you think the Mueller investigators leaked, which they have not done, so that would be highly unusual.
[06:20:00] CUOMO: And "The New York Times" says that this list of questions that they're seeing in front of their face right now came from someone connected to the White House, not from the Mueller probe team. And we do know that the probe team gave some suggestion of possible questions to Trump's legal team.
CAMEROTA: Wait a minute, but I thought it said that document was provided to the "Times" by a person outside Mr. Trump's legal team.
CUOMO: So it could be -- it could be from Mueller. It could be from anybody.
CAMEROTA: It could be from anyone. It could be from a cleaning person who found them in the garbage.
Times said Mueller went to Trump's legal team and they got it but not from the legal team.
Right. But people have left the legal team.
People have left the legal team. Politically, there's a team around the legal team that you have to believe would be told about this information. So, you have somebody who knows something leak these questions, right? It's not like some underling should have had their access to this.
And then there becomes a big question of why would you leak? OK. What would you be trying to do?
Let's bring back Jeffrey Toobin and Michael Zeldin. And I really think that's an important question, Jeffrey, and not because of political intrigue and not because of potential, you know, contradiction of the president's own suggestion about who does leak, but because when you look at these questions, you have to assume that the investigators know things. It's not like, you know, Alisyn and I are doing the interview where --
CAMEROTA: It's not like clueless people.
CUOMO: We don't have any other information. We only know what the president is going to tell us, right? That's not true with these investigators. And when you read through these areas, what was your purpose, this specific date, you know, why, motivational questions, what did you know about coordination?
Every time you give an answer, it could be something that runs at odds with what somebody else told them that you know. That's big-time jeopardy with somebody who has the power of perjury.
TOOBIN: It is, but I have to say, when I saw this list I thought, "Well, there's nothing here that is a complete shock."
I mean, there are two broad areas that they are asking about. One is obstruction of justice: the firing of Comey and efforts to stop the Russia investigation. And the other area broadly defined is collusion. Relationships between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Those are the two broad areas that Mueller is asking about. Those are not surprises. And implicit in the questions, there are not suggestions of bombshell facts that we are unaware of. So in that respect, I think the leaking of the questions actually works to Trump's advantage in the sense that it gives the impression that Mueller has nothing spectacular that we haven't seen before.
OK. Let's look at some of the questions. This is about Michael Flynn. So Michael, if you could pay attention to these. Here's the first question. "Decision to fire Michael Flynn. How was the decision made to fire Michael Flynn on February 13, 2017?"
Here's what Sean Spicer said at the time was the motivation.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SPICER: The president was very concerned that General Flynn had misled the vice president and others.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CAMEROTA: OK. So that was the party line. Was that all there was? Then this question. After the resignations, what efforts were made to reach out to Mr. Flynn about seeking immunity or possible pardon? Because we know that here was a tweet that the president sent out on that very topic.
Mike Flynn should ask for immunity in that this is a witch hunt, excuse for big election loss by media and Dems of historic proportion. So, what do you see in those questions?
ZELDIN: A couple of things. First, of course, they are interested in what gave rise to Flynn's firing. We had to remember the party line at the outset, which was that this was because he lied to the vice president about his calls with Russians.
Then -- then former attorney, now former attorney, John Dowd said, "Well, this may have been about lies to the FBI, which the president knew about, which implicates Sally Yates and her conversation with the White House counsel's office.
And then you have this pardon question. And that is, you know, toward Jeffrey's point, that a broad topic here is obstruction and was the discussion of a pardon a possible obstructive act by the White House. So these things all merge together.
And then they coalesce, too, with the question that you asked Jeffrey earlier, which was the meeting with Comey in the White House on Valentine's Day where he asked, according to Comey, that Comey let the Flynn investigation go. So there's clearly interest in all the events that surround the firing of Comey, the aftermath -- the firing of Flynn, the aftermath of that firing, and then the issue of whether he was going to be pardoned in an obstructive way.
CUOMO: Jeffrey, why should we assume that investigators would give bombshell facts or insight-driven questions in this list to lawyers?
TOOBIN: Well, we can't be sure, but I mean, it does appear that this is a good-faith list from Mueller's office explaining the context -- I mean, explaining the nature of the questions he wanted to ask.
[06:25:05] Now, whether these are the verbatim questions or interpretations of what Mueller said, I mean, it does seem that this is a fairly extensive list of what Mueller is interested in. And there is nothing in that list that suggests some sort of bombshell information that we -- that has not become public yet. I could be wrong about that. It could be that Mueller is hiding some stuff still, but at least in terms of what's visible here, there is no new bombshell.
CAMEROTA: But why do you provide a list to a witness? I mean, we don't provide lists of our questions to our interview subjects before we get them on camera. Why do you ruin the element of surprise by providing a list?
TOOBIN: Because he's -- because he's the president of the United States. And he has a position -- that, yes, it's true under Supreme Court precedent that he probably has to answer some questions, but he also has some negotiating leverage himself in the sense that he can't just be subpoenaed and spend days in the grand jury. He has a unique place in our constitutional system.
So Mueller, I think, you know, has to give something to get something. And one of the things he has to give is general subject areas of what he's going to ask.
CUOMO: Michael Zeldin, with all due respect to the Mueller team and the investigators, you know, Jeffrey, we've been dealing with the FBI for a very long time and how they do business. I am not sold on the idea that they're giving an exhaustive set of questions: "Here is everything we have. You should feel comfortable to come and sit down." I have never had that experience with any kind of investigation that's been carried out by anybody connected to the Department of Justice.
ZELDIN: Well, so to that point, though -- and I agree with what Jeffrey said -- it also undermines those who claim that what Mueller is trying to do is set up a perjury trap. When you sort of essentially give the witness the broad areas that you want to talk about and, you know, the outline of the possible question topics that you want to talk about, is pretty hard to claim thereafter that this was a perjury trap designed to entrap the president into creating a lie so that he could be charged with lying.
So I think that is a good faith effort, as Jeffrey says, and the president has to just answer these questions truthfully, and then we can move forward.
CAMEROTA: Guys, Michael Zeldin, Jeffrey Toobin, thank you both very much for all of the expertise and context. Really helpful.
All right. So the White House is deciding at the last minute to delay tariffs against key U.S. allies. What's behind that move? We have that next.