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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Giuliani's Strategy?; President Blasts Trump-Russia Probe. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired May 17, 2018 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:10]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: By my calculations, the Mueller probe has now lasted 36-and-a-half Scaramuccis.

THE LEAD starts now.

"Bigger than Watergate." A year into the Mueller investigation, President Trump is airing claims about an FBI informant spying on his campaign. But what are the facts?

President Trump contradicting his own national security adviser on North Korea. Do they disagree, or does the president not really understand what John Bolton is talking about?

And a harrowing new video shedding light on the tragic attack in Niger that killed four American service members. We will show you what really happened that night.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We are going to start with politics and President Trump sounding off today, as the special counsel investigation into Russian election interference and any possible Trump team collusion officially enters its second year.

President Trump taking to Twitter to call special counsel Mueller's investigation a -- quote -- "disgusting, illegal and unwarranted witch-hunt."

Fact-check, it is certainly not illegal, and certainly the Trump- appointed Justice Department and law enforcement officials think that the investigation is warranted.

The president also alleged today that an FBI informant on the Trump campaign first revealed by "The New York Times" is a bigger scandal than Watergate.

CNN White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins starts us off.

And, Kaitlan, the president just asked about North Korea, but based on his tweets, he's clearly focused quite a bit on the Russia investigation as well.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: He is.

What answer you get, Jake, really depends on whether or not the president is in public or in private. When he's in front of the cameras, the president today offering very measured responses in response to North Korea's threat to call off that summit, but in private the president seething about the investigation that he believes is a witch-hunt.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS (voice-over): President Trump expressing confidence and downplaying North Korea's threat to scrap the historic summit in Singapore.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Nothing has changed on North Korea that we know of. If the meeting happens, it happens.

COLLINS: Contradicting his national security adviser while he was in the room after John Bolton said Libya could serve as a role model for disarming North Korea.

TRUMP: The Libyan model isn't a model that we have at all when we're thinking of North Korea. This would be with Kim Jong-un something where he would be there, he would be in his country, he would be running the country. That model would take place if we don't make a deal.

COLLINS: Bolton's comments angered North Korea, as Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was eventually overthrown and brutally killed.

TRUMP: We may have the meeting. We may not have the meeting. If we don't have it, that will be very interesting.

COLLINS: The president keeping the public focused on North Korea, as staff did their best to keep him from answering questions on special counsel Robert Mueller on the one-year anniversary of the Russia investigation, scrapping a planned press conference with the secretary-general of NATO.

QUESTION: Why did he cancel his news conference this afternoon?

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president will have press at the -- his event here shortly, which is why we're going to have to keep it quick and short today, and likely take a few questions at that event.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Time to go! It's time to go!

COLLINS: And at almost every public event this week, aides hustling reporters out of the room.

Trump staying silent on Mueller in front of the cameras, but not on Twitter, where he fumed about the investigation, calling it "the greatest witch-hunt in American history, bigger than Watergate, and despite all of that the most successful first 17-month administration in U.S. history." Aides insisting that the Russia probe isn't a distraction.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: This president also doesn't let him distract him.

COLLINS: Though just last week, Chief of Staff John Kelly said it embarrassed Trump when world leaders came to Washington, later saying:

JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: The president is somewhat embarrassed, frankly. When world leaders come in, the first couple of minutes for every conversation might revolve around that kind of thing.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Now, Jake, the president, the vice president and his aides all publicly clamoring for the end of the investigation.

But as we reach the one-year mark today, his aides privately realize that the longer the goes on, the easier this is to dismiss it as a witch-hunt.

TAPPER: All right, Kaitlan Collins at the White House for us, thank you so much.

Joining me now to talk about this and more is CNN political analyst Maggie Haberman. She's also a White House correspondent for "The New York Times."

Maggie, let's start with the story you just broke, that the White House is taking some rather stark measures in an attempt to cut down on leaks. This obviously follows the leak that one of the staffers, Kelly Sadler, made that sick joke about how John McCain's vote against the CIA nominee's irrelevant because he's dying anyway.

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.

Look, the argument that was made to me by a couple of people is these meetings were not particularly productive, these larger ones. They were roughly 30 people or so.

[16:05:03]

TAPPER: And they have been canceled, these meetings?

HABERMAN: They have been canceled, this daily coms meeting that has taken place as long as I'm aware of.

There might have been one this past Monday, but there wasn't for the rest of the week. There is instead a smaller group of about a dozen aides, more senior White House coms aides, who meet and go over strategy.

It is related to what happened last week. You know, there was that leak from Kelly Sadler and then there was Sarah Sanders, the press secretary, admonishing her staff for the leaks, and then saying this will probably leak too.

And, sure enough, Axios has a story about it soon after. This is something that we know has vexed the president. I have been told by several people the president has been very frustrated about these coms shop leaks. He often talks about the coms shop derisively. He says that he has got the biggest press shop and gets the worse press.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Their fault, obviously.

HABERMAN: It's their fault, not his.

And they don't -- he doesn't seem to quite understand that the press is covering what he does and everything that they do is thrown by what he does.

But I think you are going to see more of this kind of an effort going forward to try to streamline who is in what meetings.

TAPPER: And clearly they still think that the problem is not that Kelly Sadler would think that it's appropriate to make a joke about a war hero dying of brain cancer, but that it leaked out.

HABERMAN: Right.

Look, I think that they actually think that that was not appropriate, but I think the issue is they work for somebody who thinks that any acknowledgment of fault or of doing something that was mistaken or saying you're sorry is an exercise in weakness.

And so I think that even if people thought this was the worst thing to say in the world, they're never going to be allowed to apologize. However, people have the option of quitting. This is not compulsory work.

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: That's a good reminder.

Let's talk about the president's tweets today because this is the best direct line from his id to the rest of the nation. The president blasting the special counsel's probe now heading into year two.

In a tweet, he noted -- quote -- "There's still no collusion and no obstruction."

Do you think President Trump -- he constantly says this. We have no idea what Mueller has. And we have no idea what the conclusion will be, but his repetition of this, almost like a mantra, do you think that he thinks that he can convince the country of this if he just repeats it enough?

HABERMAN: Certainly convince some people of it.

And I spoke to a Democratic pollster this morning who told me that in the surveys this person is seeing, it's convincing at least certain Republicans, not just his base, but a broader group. There's planting a seed of doubt about this investigation.

I don't think that he will convince everybody. And I think that there are going to be people, obviously, his critics, who believe, even if nothing materializes related to him, that there was something.

TAPPER: Right.

HABERMAN: But I think that he is banking on a couple of things. I think he is banking on the idea that there will be nothing shown that touches him personally, and that if he just keeps saying that, that it will color the issue one way or the other.

Talking about obstruction, remember, that's the piece that Mueller is really very interested in on the president over the last year, is whether he tried to obstruct justice. It is a main factor in why Mueller's folks would like to interview the president, because only the president, in their rationale, as I understand it, can speak to what was in the president's mind.

TAPPER: The president also tweeted -- quote -- "The Obama FBI spied on the Trump campaign with an embedded informant."

Rudy Giuliani brought this up first. It started with reporting from your newspaper, "The New York Times," which reported -- quote -- "At least one government inform met several times with two Trump campaign aides, Carter Page and George Papadopoulos."

This seems like a fairly big deal, and we should know more about this, this government informant. Is that -- the president calls it worse than Watergate. It's hard to make that argument.

HABERMAN: And that's the -- we don't know -- it's hard to make any argument because there's a lot we don't know.

It was fantastic story by my colleagues, not my reporting. So, I don't want to speak too deeply about it. There are obviously some unknowns related to it.

I do agree it's something that would certainly raise questions for the president and people around him. But he has always -- makes then this leap to a conclusion, and there's just nothing to support that conclusion right now.

TAPPER: Yes. It's certainly something that the president, if I were him, I would jump on it, too.

HABERMAN: Sure, absolutely.

TAPPER: And we need to know more about it.

In this third tweet, we see new language by the president, calling the Mueller probe a -- quote -- "disgusting, illegal and unwarranted witch-hunt." This is all part of the Giuliani case that he's making that the whole thing should be thrown out, trying to get it -- pressure on Mueller before the president is forced in any way to sit down and do an interview.

HABERMAN: Yes.

And you have seen the Giuliani strategy kind of shift. The Giuliani strategy is it absolutely was Giuliani who was pushing to get out the fact that the president had reimbursed Michael Cohen. That is true. It did not thrill the president the way it was done, but he did want that out and the president agreed.

They are working on a strategy together. And you will hear people close to the White House, close to the legal team say, you know, there are people who are doing the lawyering and then there are Rudy and Trump.

And the Rudy and Trump team is largely a P.R. war, to your point. It is about coloring either the investigation or coloring people's perceptions of it to try to put their thumbs on the scale about what happens with an interview.

To be clear, it might make people uncomfortable, because it's president doing this, and this president has not really strongly acknowledged that Russia meddled in the election.

[16:10:06]

TAPPER: That's a nice way to put it.

(CROSSTALK)

HABERMAN: I'm being very diplomatic today.

(LAUGHTER)

HABERMAN: But there -- what they're doing is understandable in the context of a president being under fire.

TAPPER: All right.

Maggie Haberman.

HABERMAN: Thanks.

TAPPER: Called her scoop Haberman here.

Thanks so much.

HABERMAN: Thank you.

TAPPER: We have breaking news just in from Capitol Hill, where the U.S. Senate has confirmed President Trump's nominee, Gina Haspel, to be new director of the CIA. The vote was 54-45. Gina Haspel would be the first woman to lead the

CIA. There was of course fierce opposition to her nomination because of her perceived role in the controversial enhanced interrogation program after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but sufficient opposition, there was not.

Sticking with our politics lead, what's the real reason Rudy Giuliani keeps saying that one cannot indict a sitting president? Well, we think we know why.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: And we are back with the politics lead.

[16:15:00] President Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani claiming he's been assured by special counsel Robert Mueller that the special counsel's office believes a sitting president cannot be indicted. And Giuliani says that Trump, therefore, cannot be subpoenaed to testify.

But did Mueller actually say that or might this all be a PR campaign to push the notion that the president cannot be charged and therefore there's no need for him to sit down for an interview? CNN's Sara Murray joins me now. And, Sara, Giuliani saying the president still wants to testify, however.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Still wants to testify, but oh so many caveats, Jake. And the latest notion that the president cannot be indicted might be another excuse for the president's legal team to try to put off the special counsel sitting down with President Trump.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY (voice-over): A bold claim today from the president's lawyer. Rudy Giuliani saying special counsel Robert Mueller's team has concluded it cannot indict a sitting president.

RUDY GIULIANI, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S ATTORNEY: All they can do is write a report.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right.

GIULIANI: How bad that is --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sure.

GIULIANI: We can write, too.

MURRAY: Giuliani telling CNN they can't indict, at least they acknowledge that to us after some battling. That conclusion from the special counsel likely based on longstanding justice department guidelines, not an assessment of the evidence of wrongdoing Mueller has collected. Observers wonder how much of the new push from Giuliani is based on an

attempt to get the president out of having to do an interview with Mueller.

GIULIANI: We're demanding from him, tell us what you have to get from an interview you don't already have.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Giuliani trying to lay the groundwork for the proposition that the president because he can't be indicted doesn't have to testify. I don't think that's legally correct.

MURRAY: At the one-year mark, the special counsel's team brought charges against 22 people and companies, notched five guilty pleas and seen one person sentenced. A number of those charges were tied to Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election, but so far, none of them has extended to potential collusion between Trump associates and the Russians, despite protests from Trump's team.

GIULIANI: So it's about time to get the darn thing over with. It's about time to say enough. We have tortured this president enough.

MURRAY: There's little sign the investigation is wrapping up. Today, Mueller filed an unredacted version of this memo of federal court, revealing just how broad his mandate is after the federal judge overseeing charges against former Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort demanded to see the document. But just how broad the scope of the investigation is, that's for the judge's eyes only. Mueller arrived at his nondescript government office building early this morning. His team continues to call in witnesses, covertly picking them up with a roving fleet of cars with tinted windows and whisking them through the loading duct and into a parking garage, out of sight from the media.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, the Mueller probe has, of course, been shrouded in secrecy and Americans have differing views about the legitimacy of it. But one thing that's overwhelmingly clear, when you look at polling, they want to know what Mueller is up to and believe that he should issue a public report regardless of what he finds.

TAPPER: All right. Sara Murray, thanks so much.

Let's bring in my panel.

I'm going to start with you, Laura Coates. If President Trump cannot be indicted under this theory, can he still be subpoenaed and can he still be forced to sit for an interview?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Of course he can, Jake. They're two very separate matters. Whether you can indict someone versus when you can subpoena. If Giuliani is to be believed that he believes that the only way to have a grand jury witness testify via a subpoena is if that same witness is going to ultimately be indicted, you would never have a need for a grand jury. In fact, no grand jury witness would ever be somebody who would

testify because defendants don't testify in front of a grand jury. Only witnesses to support information or provide evidence in some way. And so if you are to believe his really asinine remark that there's no way you can have a connection there, then we should have no grand juries in this country whatsoever.

An indictment is a very separate thing and it's still an open question although the Office of Legal Counsel has said that a sitting president should not be indicted, OLC opinions are not written in stone and the way that perhaps Supreme Court precedent may be. It's binding until it's not. It can be rewritten. Kenneth Starr tried to do so with the Clinton investigation. It could be written to have a very focused inquiry and whether or not to indict a president or they just simply not indictable.

TAPPER: All right. The big question, of course, is Rudy Giuliani, President Trump have this PR strategy while their lawyers and president's lawyers have the legal strategy. Is this a smart PR strategy? I'm going to ask you guys that question right after this quick break.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:23:43] TAPPER: And we're back with my panel.

Let's continue the conversation. So, we're talking about Rudy Giuliani out there making the case very aggressively that since presidents can't be indicted therefore presidents can't be subpoenaed therefore, President Trump cannot be forced to talk to Robert Mueller.

Take a listen to Rudy Giuliani as part of this PR campaign.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GIULIANI: Tell us what you have to get from an interview that you don't already have because he has all the facts to make a decision.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Smart strategy or not?

MARGARET HOOVER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It's a very smart strategy. I mean, there's a reason he's doing that on FOX News and he's not coming on here with you, Jake Tapper, to make the same case, and he's going on friendly outlets to try to drum up support of the base.

It's not entirely out in of thin air, either. There's a memorandum from the OLC memorandum from 1988 --

TAPPER: Office of Legal Counsel --

HOOVER: Office of Legal Counsel and Justice Department in 1988 that says that the president -- while he can actually receive -- you can subpoena a president, you also have -- the justification for pushing back on the subpoena has to be grounded in what is the information that the subpoena looks for and what is the nature of the crime.

So, Rudy's not entirely correct. I mean, there is confusion about this and he's trying to drum up that confusion. In other words, with the base and with the audience that's going to be sensitive to the question of whether there is a justification for subpoena or not.

TAPPER: But this wouldn't necessarily have any affect on Robert Mueller I would think.

[16:25:03] JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: No. Not even a little bit. I mean, look, the strategy of playing to the court of public opinion is one track they're working on clearly but it's a limitation of sort of partisan media is all you're doing solidifying the base. You're not actually creating a large swath of public opinion in your favor necessarily.

And the other problem, the logic's fundamentally faulty with due respect to Rudy who was a great prosecutor back in the day. There's clearly a precedent for presidents being subpoenaed. As Laura was making the case earlier, you can't indict a sitting president, you can have -- a president be part of a criminal trial as president. That's clear, that's not contested. Doesn't affect whether a subpoena can be adjusted, and also there's a question of Leon Jaworski during Watergate who listed President Nixon as a non-indicted co-conspirator.

So, there are clear precedence for this. This is tricky territory, but I also got to call out one other thing because Rudy Giuliani said the facts don't support the extension of this prosecution. This investigation. First of all, Watergate, Iran-Contra, Whitewater, all lasted at least four years. So, one year is a short period of time, just reality check on that.

Second thing is, already, we have had 22 people and individuals be charged. We have had five guilty pleas. So, it's been -- you know, far from nothing occurring that's worthy of attention, there are clearly marks on the board to say it's been a fairly productive first year of the investigation and we're not at the end yet.

TAPPER: Laura?

COATES: Well, you know, I'm glad you mentioned Leon Jaworski, because talking about the Watergate controversy is really important talking about here because the Watergate counsel actually found that they could indict a sitting president. They chose not to do so because they knew that impeachment proceedings were in the wings. And so, it was a decision made basically politically speaking, not about what they could ultimately do with that particular president.

And remember, the most important thing to think about is here is the Clinton v. Jones case, yet another president that reminds people of what's going on right now. The Supreme Court said you cannot use things like you're too busy or you can't possibly be bothered to have to deal with the rigmarole of due process or anything like that to say that you cannot be bothered. Well, part of a subpoena and part of the function is, is due process of law, in order to say you must be bothered with these things especially if you're the head of the executive branch.

And, finally, you know what you have to be when you make demands? You have to be in the position to actually make those demands and have justification. Asking for all of the information outright from Mueller is not only inappropriate, Rudy Giuliani knows it's inappropriate. He was the chief prosecutor in New York.

TAPPER: And one of the things that's interesting is President Trump through Giuliani seems to be making this argument that the collusion is all about whether or not President Trump himself personally had anything to do with the conspiracy. And that obstruction is silly.

Take a listen to Rudy Giuliani talking about these two issues and what the president might say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GUILIANI: The president wants to testify. He wants to -- he wants to give his side of the case, which he believes is the truthful one. He keeps saying to me, I never talked to any Russians. I have nothing to do with any Russians.

What is this nonsense about Russians? And about obstruction of justice, what he says very simply is, I'm just expressing my opinion.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Now, obviously, part of the obstruction of justice charge is not just him expressing opinion, saying, for instance, to Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, you shouldn't have recused yourself, et cetera. But firing James Comey, threatening to fire other people. That's not just an opinion.

HOOVER: Right. I mean, there's -- obstruction of justice and also -- I mean, look, this is a good strategy. I mean, the reason Rudy's there sort of spinning this up is because also he is sowing the seeds of doubt in the case if there is a subpoena issue.

TAPPER: To the base, to Republicans.

HOOVER: Yes, precisely.

(CROSSTALK)

AVLON: But there's also a reality-based standard. I mean, the president is not an analyst or an observer. He is a prime actor in this and he may feel he has nothing to hide and I hope he does testify simply for transparency, so this can be resolved one way or another, rather than having a permanent club over this presidency and others.

But, you know, so it's clever in terms of playing to the base, but I'm not sure in the court of public opinion, but it will not necessarily translate to the court of law. COATES: Well, I was going to say, it might in this case, however,

because you heard Rudy Giuliani just say is, the president said to me, the president told me. It's not an effective strategy because now you actually have a record of what the president says and you have the ability to contradict him through other testimony. You now have the exposure of him, Rudy Giuliani, potentially being a witness and being able to talk about this because removed the attorney/client privilege by telling Fox News and friends and everybody else what the president told him about a sensitive issue, about his role and intent and motivation behind what is being investigated.

So, you see, there is this conflict of things that happening in the court of public opinion and the court of law, and when the strategies at odds like they are right here, it can't be effective strategy that's going to have a long-term benefit to Donald Trump.

TAPPER: And one of the things that's interesting, you talk about sowing the seeds of doubt in the investigation, Rudy Giuliani seizing on the news broken by "The New York Times" yesterday about somebody, a confidential informant, in the Trump campaign that had spoken with the FBI.

Take a listen to Rudy Giuliani using that as the latest color on his palette to paint this entire investigation as illegitimate.