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Giuliani Comments on Trump Tweet; Trump Calls for End to Russia Probe; Gates May Not Testify. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired August 1, 2018 - 13:00   ET



[13:00:20] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Washington. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

We're following breaking news.

Only minutes away from the White House press briefing. And it comes as President Trump makes his most direct move yet, at least publicly, to end the Russia investigation. The president saying in an official statement, quote, this is a terrible situation and the Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this rigged witch hunt right now before it continues to stain our country any further.

The presidential statement on Twitter comes just days after "The New York Times" reported that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, is scrutinizing the president's Twitter feed in the obstruction of justice portion of his investigation. Specifically, previous tweets by Mr. Trump. Tweets the president has written in which he puts pressure on Sessions.

On top of all of this, Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, will likely also be asked about the president's attempts to distance himself from his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, whose trial is in its second day right now, as well as the hostile attacks on the press from the president's most fervent supporters at a rally in Tampa, Florida, last night. Those attacks not only being supported by the president, but also by his family.

Let's go to our senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny. He's joining us from the White House, just ahead of this important press briefing.

We're expecting some answers, Jeff, as you know.

Stand by because our chief political correspondent, Dana Bash, is also with us right now.

And, Dana, I first want to go to you because you've just received a statement from Rudy Giuliani defending the president's tweet on Jeff Sessions earlier this morning. Tell our viewers what the president's personal attorney is now saying. DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, probably more

cleaning up than defending. Explaining and clarifying more than defending. Trying to calm the very real understandable concern, considering he is the president of the United States and this is a federal probe of great importance.

Here's what Rudy Giuliani said to me about this tweet -- series of tweets. The president was expressing his opinion on his favored medium for asserting his First Amendment right of free speech. He said should, not must, and no presidential order was issued or will be.

So, there you go. Basically saying he's -- this is -- these are my words now, Wolf, not his. He's blowing off steam. He's giving his opinion, but he's not shutting down the investigation.

BLITZER: Well, let me read between, Dana --

BASH: But as you can imagine, Wolf, it's -- sure, go ahead.

BLITZER: I just want to read the tweet. The words that the president used in the statement on Twitter that he released earlier this morning. This is a terrible situation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this rigged witch hunt right now before it continues to stain our country any further. Bob Mueller is totally conflicted and his 17 angry Democrats that are doing his dirty work are a disgrace to USA.

I just want to be specific what the president has said because, Dana, this is the most bombastic statement he's made yet on this entire Russia probe. And it comes as Mueller is now engaged in the first trial that's actually started yesterday.

BASH: Yes, no question. And, look, when -- and this goes to the heart of part of the Mueller investigation. When a boss, or when the president, says -- makes a suggestion to a subordinate, is it really a suggestion? David Chalian was saying earlier, Wolf, when your boss or my boss suggests something to us, is it really just a suggestion, or is it, please do this. And it's not different when you're looking at this issue and when you're talking about these players. And that is why Giuliani came out in a very carefully worded statement that he gave to me to make clear that this is not what the president's intention is.

What question is not answered, which we are all asking, is why the president is doing this in the first place. This tweet, a series of other tweets this morning, sure looks like somebody who is very preoccupied with this and very concerned about something maybe we don't know about, yet.

BLITZER: Well, let's go to Jeff Zeleny over at the White House. We're standing by for Sarah Sanders. Her press briefing was supposed to begin at 1:00. It's now been delayed at least until 1:15.

But what is motivating, driving the president right now to issue these kinds of very, very blunt, tough statements? JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, there's

no question these statements are another step further from what the president has normally done. He, of course, has railed against the investigation for so long. The president has made clear that he is furious at Jeff Sessions since the day he recused himself back in the spring of 2017 that, you know, the president believes that he shouldn't have done that. He's talked about it openly.

[13:05:12] But this is a step farther. And we must consider it in the context in which it is given. As, Wolf, as you were saying, and as Dana was reporting, this, of course, the second day of the Paul Manafort proceedings, the court proceedings, the trial. The president, I am told, is watching this very carefully. So that is the context this is coming in.

But, Wolf, it's also important to point out that the tweet this morning essentially calling on the Attorney General Jeff Sessions to stop the investigation is not necessarily how it would work. The president has always stopped short of firing Jeff Sessions. He has had that ability to do so, you know, as long as -- as long as he's been angry at him. But he's never fired him.

It is actually the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who is in charge of this investigation. So the president didn't necessarily, you know, say that he was going to ask Rod Rosenstein to have Mueller end the investigation. So it does seem as though he was blowing off some steam, again trying to discredit this investigation.

But, Wolf, it will be interesting to see if the press secretary, Sarah Sanders, here reflects the same explanation or definition or defense that Rudy Giuliani was giving to Dana earlier because clearly this is as far as the president has gone. Clearly this is a different moment in this investigation. And the president, if you look at the tweets from the weekend on when he was directly going after Bob Mueller, directly going after this investigation, it does seem that he is more agitated by it. Perhaps he does know more than we know in this investigation. We'll see what the White House has to say in just a few minutes, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, we certainly will.

Jeff and Dana, I want you to stand by.


BLITZER: Gloria Borger and our panel are here as well.

You know, the allegation immediately after the president tweeted these words about Jeff Sessions should stop this rigged witch hunt was that potentially he's obstructing justice.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I -- you know, that has been a question that we've all looked into, whether the president's tweets are being looked into by the special counsel as potentially obstructing justice. But I want to remind everyone, because we've all reported -- CNN has

reported that Trump personally pressured Sessions on multiple occasions to recuse himself from this investigation. He has been angry about Sessions recusing himself for months.

But this takes this whole thing to a different level. And, once again, we find ourselves parsing the president's words. I mean Rudy Giuliani's statement to Dana is he said should, not must. Last week we were talking about would versus would not. They're trying -- I mean they're the shovel brigade here, trying to clean up this mess that the president is making. Tweeting about Bob Mueller and his attorneys. I guarantee you, Jay Sekulow being one of them, are probably pulling their hair out a little bit about this -- about this today because it's the last thing they want to hear from the president, particularly when they're engaged or sort of engaged with the special counsel about trying to figure out whether the president testifies or not.

BLITZER: You know, Jim, this is a moment right now, a very critical moment, because on top of all of this, the president is now weighing in. There's a federal trial under way in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. Mueller and his team, they're going after Paul Manafort, the man who was the president's campaign chairman. And all of a sudden the president's weighing in on Paul Manafort as this trial is just beginning. It's day two.

Looking back on history, he tweets, who was treated worse, Alfonse Capone, legendary mob boss, killer and public enemy number one, or Paul Manafort, political operative and Reagan/Dole darling, now serving solitary confinement, although convicted of nothing. Where is the Russian collusion?

It's -- I don't remember a time when a sitting president of the United States has gotten involved in discussing an ongoing federal trial.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Except maybe Nixon, right, if you think about it. I mean, on principle, and precedent, and the norms of the office, the president should not be commenting publicly on any of this because it might come across as undue influence from the president, whether you're talking about the Manafort trial, an ongoing trial, or the Mueller investigation, where the president and his allies still are potential targets of that trial. So they have an interest. They have skin in the game. Again, principle and the norms of the office matter in this but we've seen those -- we've seen those shredded and passed over many times before.

On the language, it's interesting that Giuliani is trying to establish some sort of code for Trump's language when he issues these public orders because there's really been no consistency there. The president has launched substantive things in the past without, you know, rite or hereby ordering the travel ban, based on a public comment. They followed through on that as an administration.

There have been policy decisions that have followed the president's public comments both as candidate and as president. So if we look at the way this administration has operated, those public statements by the president matter, regardless of what the actual language of those statements is.

[13:10:14] BLITZER: Carrie Cordero, you're our legal analyst. Is this obstruction of justice?

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it's certainly -- every time he pressures a Justice Department official in some way related to ongoing investigations, I think it potentially can fall into the pattern of activity that could form the basis of an obstruction allegation. So his tweets are one part of it. His actions are another. Different efforts that he's taken over the course of his presidency. But certainly it's one piece.

You know, it's interesting on the statement that his Twitter feed is just his own personal opinions, you know, there was a case brought by the Knight Institute at Columbia University and the judge found that his Twitter is a public forum. So there actually has been some legal consideration from the court's perspective that it's not just -- he's not at a private capacity when he makes statements on Twitter.

And the last thing I'll mention, just with respect to his pressure on the attorney general. His statement today is really consistent with what he has been doing. It was last July, July of 2017, that he gave a "New York Times" interview where he also was placing pressure on the attorney general to take certain action with respect to the then- acting FBI Director Andy McCabe. And that month, July of 2017, that were just days after days where he was in some way placing pressure on the attorney general.

BORGER: But isn't their agreement that he can hire and fire anyone he wants because he's the president of the United States?

CORDERO: There is a legal argument, sometimes referred to as the unitary executive, that says that he can hire and fire anyone that he wants, but that doesn't mean that he can do anything in his constitutional role. And what this president continues to struggle with, or perhaps just disregard, is his -- the difference between his personal opinions and his weighing in as a private citizen and things he might not like versus he actually is in a constitutional role.

BLITZER: Because Rudy Giuliani, in the statement that he released, and Dana Bash reported, said, quote, the president was expressing his opinion on his favorite medium -- that would be Twitter -- for asserting his First Amendment right of free speech.

But everything the president says, as a sitting president of the United States, whether it's on Twitter or an official White House statement or at a news conference, that is historic. That is a presidential statement.

JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: That's right. He is the president, and words matter. And this isn't something that's new to him. If you think about his days as CEO, obviously the head of a company, when he said things, people acted. So you can't just say well now he's just kind of blowing off steam and, you know, letting us know his opinion. The issue here is that, you know, we cannot get numb to this. We talk

about these norms. And I know that, you know, the president will steam roll a norm if it doesn't fit his liking. But this is dangerous for the country if you look at what we're talking about here.

With respect to Jeff Sessions, first of all, there's a very specific issue. He has recused himself in this case. Can you imagine recusing yourself because you're conflicted and then now coming in and saying, not only am I going to get involved, but I'm shutting this thing down because my boss told me to do so, which is very dangerous.

There's the larger principle here, our institutions of justice. This White House continues to blur that line, whereas if you look at previous administrations where they realize we have to be hands-off with these institutions, they're now coming full force and saying, we're going to intervene as evidence by the fact that we now have him not only talking about Sessions and the witch hunt, as he calls it, but also Manafort, an ongoing criminal investigation.

BLITZER: And bringing up Al Capone in connection with Manafort as this trial is only just beginning.


BLITZER: Everybody stick around. We're going to take a quick break.

When we come back, we anticipate that the White House press briefing, Sarah Sanders, will be at the podium answering reporters' questions. We'll, of course, have live coverage. There are a lot of questions. We'll see how many answers we actually get.


[13:18:09] BLITZER: A very dramatic day here in Washington.

We're standing by for the press briefing over at the White House. Sarah Sanders, the press secretary, expected momentarily to walk in, start answering reporters' questions. We'll, of course, have coverage of that.

At the same time, there's other related news that we're following. A political consultant and an FBI agent have now taken the stand on day two of Paul Manafort's trial. In opening statements the prosecution portrayed Manafort as living an extravagant lifestyle fueled by secret income from lobbying in Ukraine. But the defense says it was Manafort's former deputy, Rick Gates, who lied and stole money.

Let's go to our crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz. He's joining us here in Washington.

Shimon, Rick Gates, he's been -- he had been expected to testify for the prosecution. Now there seems to be some questions about that. What can you tell us?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes, certainly, Wolf, there has been certainly by the defense team. And Rick Gates is on the witness list for the prosecution. But nothing holds them to that. Doesn't mean prosecutors have to call them.

And what happened just about an hour ago in court, it was during testimony by this FBI agent who was talking about documents and other information that he recovered from Manafort's home during a search warrant execution, the prosecutor was asking him questions about some of those documents and Rick Gates came up and the judge, trying to move things along, says, well, why are you essentially asking this agent about this? Well, you're going to have Rick Gates here. And at that point is when the prosecutor said, well, we may or may not call Rick Gates.

Obviously, the idea that the prosecution would not call Rick Gates is somewhat newsworthy. The defense has made a big deal out of it in their opening statement saying that -- pinning everything on Rick Gates. So it would leave an interesting strategy here for the defense, a position here for the defense, as to whether or not they're going to go ahead and call Rick Gates if the prosecution does not.

[13:20:05] BLITZER: Well, maybe the prosecution thinks they don't need to call Rick Gates, who's already -- he's already admitted lying to federal authorizes. He's plead guilty. Maybe they think they have enough other evidence, documents, all sorts of other evidence, they don't need to call him.

PROKUPECZ: That's exactly right, Wolf. And, quite honestly, based on some of the reporting we've done here, we were kind of surprised that Rick Gates would be on the witness list because we've been all along told that when Rick Gates was working on his cooperation agreement with the special counsel, they said to him that they didn't really need him on the Manafort stuff. And when you look at least, you know, through now the second day of this trial, all the documents that have been recovered and other information, it would seem that Rick Gates would just be kind of a bonus to them. And perhaps given the strategy here by the defense, prosecutors are now saying, well, why do we need to call him? It could only dirty our case up. And, therefore, there's no need for us to call him. We could just make our case and prove our case through other witnesses and through a lot of the documents that they have now recovered and are using in this trial. So that's a good point, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, then the defense would have to decide if they call them as a witness?

PROKUPECZ: That's right.

BLITZER: Would he be a hostile witness? Those are to be determined.

All right, Shimon, thank you very much.

You know, Gloria, the president tweeted this morning on this Paul Manafort case, which is pretty unusual at the start of a federal case. The president's tweeting again. This is a different tweet from earlier. Paul Manafort worked for Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and many other highly prominent and respected political leaders. He worked for me for a very short time. Why didn't government tell me that he was under investigation? These old charges have nothing to do with collusion. A hoax.

It's pretty unusual. Once again, trial starts and he's weighing in on Paul Manafort.

BORGER: Yes, he is. And what's odd about this, to be honest, is that Donald Trump and Paul Manafort were never close. Paul Manafort was brought into the campaign by a friend of Donald Trump's who recommended, hey, this is a guy who knows how to count delegates. That's when we thought that there was going to be a delegate fight at the convention, which there turned out not to be, by the way, because Donald Trump went over the finish line, if you'll recall, after Indiana.

BLITZER: Of course.

BORGER: So they actually didn't need him.

But then they liked him and they promoted him to run the campaign effectively. That's when they ousted Corey Lewandowski. He is -- so he is somebody who's not personally close to Trump. But I feel that Trump feels personally threatened by Manafort because if there is a conviction here, what this does is it gives the Mueller investigation credibility.

And so he's been calling it a witch hunt and a hoax. You have all the indictments of the Russians, which shows that it's not a witch hunt and a hoax. But if Manafort were to get convicted, that does give Mueller some wind at his back. It's very, very important to him. And I think Trump understands that.

BLITZER: And it's important to remember, Jim, and I know you've done a lot of reporting on this, that Manafort was working for pro-Russian, pro-Putin, pro-Kremlin rich guys in Ukraine, including Viktor Yanukovych, who was a pro-Putin leader of Ukraine. And that sort of fits in to this investigation.

SCIUTTO: Listen, his client -- Manafort's client, who paid him tens of millions of dollars, was not a good guy. I mean, first of all, he was Putin's guy in the Ukraine. He was corrupt. He's accused of overseeing the shooting of civilian protesters during the Maidon (ph) protests. He jailed his political opponent there, Yulia Tymoshenko. And one of the things Manafort did was try to build support in the west for the jailing of his political opponent.

I mean this is the thing. If you're thinking about the kind of work he was doing there. Yes, it was prior to his time with Trump, but it was significant work for someone with Russian ties who was not a boy scout, right? And now, to be fair, he was not the only one working for him. You have to mention that Tony Podesta also did some work for this (INAUDIBLE).

BLITZER: A well-known Washington lobbyist. The brother of John Podesta, who was the Hillary Clinton campaign chairman.

SCIUTTO: And brother. Exactly. But the level and duration and amount of work that Manafort did for him was important and relevant and long running.

The other point I would make is this, is that it's a bit rich for Trump and his allies to claim that Paul Manafort was in effect some sort of short-term coffee boy here. I mean he was -- yes, it was three months, but they were a key three months, as Gloria was saying, to get the delegates at the convention, through the convention. And he was the head of the campaign. It was not a low-level position. But, again, you know, time and position doesn't mean much here because they will -- I mean with Michael Cohen, for instance, who worked for the president for more than a decade, in a very intimate role, they are now claiming that they always knew he was a liar. So, you know, there's not a lot of -- you know, there's some -- there's some thin arguments being made about their relative connection and importance to this president.

BORGER: And he was also in the Trump Tower meeting with Don Junior.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Yes.

BORGER: And that may be something that troubles the president.

BLITZER: Right. Everybody hold their breath. There's a lot more we need to discuss.

We're, once again, waiting for the briefing to begin any moment now. There you see live pictures. The reporters, they're all in their seats already. We're waiting for Sarah Sanders to show up.

[13:25:05] Also, this just in, the president doing an interview in which he says a government shutdown over his border wall with Mexico is a great campaign issue. He also says there's a lot of evil people here in Washington. Get ready. We'll discuss.


BLITZER: We're standing by for the White House press briefing running a little bit late. We'll have live coverage as soon as Sarah Sanders walks over to the microphone. There are certainly a ton of questions reporters have for her today. We'll see how far she's willing to go, see how many questions she's willing to answer. Stand by for live coverage.

All this happening as the president, Gloria, has just given an interview to Rush Limbaugh, a radio interview, in which he doubled down on his decision that unless there's a border wall with Mexico and other immigration issues, he's willing to shut down the federal government.

He says, and I'm quoting the president, a lot of good people ask me, could we do it after the election? They've been good to me? This is what the president told Rush Limbaugh, quote, I think it's a great campaign issue. I think it would be great before. But I don't want to disappoint a lot of great people.

So he's insisting, he's ready to shut down the government at the end of September when the fiscal year ends but -- but -- BORGER: It sounds like he's listening to them.

BLITZER: To Mitch McConnell, and Paul Ryan --


BLITZER: A lot of, in his words, great people.

BORGER: People who want to keep their majorities in the Congress.

[13:29:42] What I'm sure Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan are saying to him is, are you kidding me? We have -- we have people in the House, for example, in suburban Republican districts that are in danger of losing their seat and we want to try and keep those seats. And not only are women going to come out and vote, but this would be a real problem. Government shutdowns are generally, let me just say, not popular when people understand what it means to them.