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Kavanaugh Confirmation Hearing Marked by Protest, Dissent; Interview With Congressman Adam Schiff. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired September 4, 2018 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: His chief of staff is quoted as calling the president an idiot and unhinged and -- quote -- "We're in crazy town."
Orange jumpsuit? Woodward's book says the president's lawyer John Dowd rehearsed the potential Mueller interview with the president, but it went so badly that Dowd warned -- and I'm quoting now -- "Don't testify. It's either that or an orange jumpsuit."
Sixth-grader. Woodward's book also has Defense Secretary Jim Mattis describing President Trump as having the understanding of a fifth- or sixth-grader who had to be told that the U.S. needs troops in South Korea to prevent World War III.
And Supreme fight. The Senate Judiciary Committee breaks down in a partisan battle over documents pertaining to Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, with Republicans accusing Democrats of mob rule.
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We're following breaking news.
New questions tonight about President Trump's fitness for office amid a devastating new portrait of the president painted by top administration officials. In a truly explosive new book by "Washington Post" journalist Bob Woodward, they're quoted describing Mr. Trump as an idiot and a liar with the understanding of a fifth- or sixth-grader.
We will talk about it with top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee Congressman Adam Schiff, and our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.
First, let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.
Jim, this book shows a White House truly gripped by chaos.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Fear and loathing over here at the White House, Wolf. The White House released a statement this afternoon slamming the
Woodward book. Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said -- quote -- "This book is nothing more than fabricated stories, many by former disgruntled employees told to make the president look bad."
But the Woodward book is just the latest deep dive into the Trump White House full of bombshells that reveal top administration officials are very worried, deeply worried, about the president's behavior.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Hello, Bob.
BOB WOODWARD, "THE WASHINGTON POST": President Trump, how are you?
ACOSTA (voice-over): Before the release of his new book on the Trump White House entitled "Fear," legendary reporter Bob Woodward managed to get the president on the phone. Mr. Trump's assessment of the Woodward book, not good.
TRUMP: Sounds like this is going to be a bad one.
ACOSTA: There are devastating episodes throughout the book. Woodward explains how the president's former lawyer John Dowd attempted to do a mock interview with Mr. Trump to demonstrate how he could perjure himself if he sits down special counsel Robert Mueller.
According to Woodward, Dowd explains the stakes for the president in stark terms. "Don't testify. It's either that or an orange jumpsuit."
Woodward says Dowd, who would later resign, called Mr. Trump a liar. The author also describes how former economic adviser Gary Cohn once removed a document from the president's desk to prevent Mr. Trump from exiting a trade agreement with South Korea. Cohn said: "I stole it off his desk, I wouldn't let him see it. He's never going to see that document. Got to protect the country."
One of a number of actions Woodward describes as no less than administrative coup d'etat.
Woodward says other top officials were equally harsh, from Chief of Staff John Kelly, who said: "He's an I idiot. It's pointless to try to convince him of anything. He's gone off the rails. We're in crazy town. This is the worst job I have ever had."
The White House released a statement from Kelly saying he never called the president an idiot. Then, according to Woodward, there is Defense Secretary James Mattis, who said the president has the understanding of a fifth- or sixth-grader.
To former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, who said the president's bedroom was the devil's workshop. Woodward also offers nasty comments from the president, who says Priebus is like a little rat who just scurries around and refers to Attorney General Jeff Sessions as mentally retarded and a dumb Southerner.
According to Woodward, the president once told Giuliani, "Rudy, you're a baby. I have never seen a worse defense of me in my life. They took your diaper off right there. You're like a little baby that needed to be changed. When are you going to be a man?"
Woodward also revisits the president's handling of the deadly riots in Charlottesville, saying Mr. Trump regretted a speech he gave at the White House. That was the president actually condemned the white supremacists in Charlottesville.
But Mr. Trump said that speech "was the biggest mistake I have made."
The next day, the president went back to blaming both sides for the violence.
TRUMP: Excuse me. And you had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.
ACOSTA: Woodward says the president complained that he wasn't asked for an interview, but in audio released by "The Washington Post," Woodward reminds the president he made multiple requests.
TRUMP: Nobody told me about it. And I would have loved to have spoken to you.
WOODWARD: Senator Graham said he had talked to you about talking to me. Now, is that not true?
TRUMP: Senator Graham actually mentioned it quickly on one meeting. You know, that is true.
ACOSTA: President Trump sat down with the conservative Daily Caller Web site to call the Woodward book a bad book and to accuse the author of having credibility problems.
The president's former outside lawyer John Dowd pushed back on parts of the Woodward book, saying -- quote -- "There was no so-called practice session of a mock interview at the special counsel's office," adding he did not refer to the president as a liar and did not say he would end up in an orange jumpsuit.
So some pushing back from John Dowd. But, Wolf, throughout the book, there are many accounts of factional infighting. But it's former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus who sums up the dynamic best, saying -- quote -- "When you put a snake and a rat and a falcon and a rabbit and a shark and a seal in a zoo without walls, things start getting nasty and bloody."
Wolf, it all adds up to how the chief of staff, John Kelly, referred to this White House, when he said it was crazy town -- Wolf.
BLITZER: What a picture Bob Woodward paints of that White House.
Jim Acosta, thank you very much.
Let's get some more on the stunning claims in Woodward's new book.
Our special correspondent Jamie Gangel is joining us.
Jamie, you read the book. You were the first to get it outside of "The Washington Post." Walk us through his methods. We have known Bob Woodward for a long time and clearly is a world-class journalist.
JAMIE GANGEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Bob's book has something that the other books haven't, and that is his reputation, his credibility. He's won two Pulitzer Prizes.
He spoke to dozens of firsthand sources, people who were in the room with President Trump. And he also has hundreds of hours of taped interviews. So this book, he is a legendary investigative journalist. He is a meticulous fact-checker.
But the other thing about this book is, there are so many sources on it, multiple people in the room. And one of the problems President Trump is going to have this, in the past, President Trump has been very complimentary of Bob.
And just to go back to the tape, the audiotape of their phone conversation on August 14, I think we should play a little bit more of that, because you hear President Trump say something very interesting about how he feels about Bob.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
WOODWARD: And I have would liked to have done that, and I maximized my effort. But somehow it didn't get to you or it's...
TRUMP: Really too bad because nobody told me about it. And I would have loved to have spoken to you. You know I'm very open to you. I think you have always been fair, but we will see what happens.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
GANGEL: "You have always been fair."
And, as we know, the president in that phone conversation actually admits that he was told about it. And I'm told that Woodward spoke -- made a request from six different people, including Kellyanne Conway, who is in the Oval Office during that phone call.
You should go to CNN.com, read the transcript. It's a little surreal. He hands her the phone.
BLITZER: Well, we actually have the clip.
This is a conversation between Bob Woodward and President Trump which Bob Woodward recorded. And he told the president he was recording, with the permission of the president. (CROSSTALK)
BLITZER: And Kellyanne Conway was in the Oval Office when they had the conversation. Listen to this.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
WOODWARD: You and I spent a whole lunch on it, Kellyanne.
And I said, I want to cover the substantive issues in foreign policy and domestic policy. And you said you would get back to me. Nothing.
KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: Yes, so I did. I presented it to the people here who make those decisions.
But, anyway, I will give you back to the president. And I'm glad -- I'm glad to hear that you tried through seven or eight different people. That's good. You should tell him all the names. Thank you.
TRUMP: But you never called for me? It would have been nice, Bob, if you called for me in my office.
I mean, I have a secretary. I have two, three secretaries. If you would have called directly, a lot of people are afraid -- to Raj. I hardly have -- you know, I don't speak to Raj.
TRUMP: I do. I do. And Kellyanne went to somebody, but she didn't come to me. And she should have come to me. She does have access to me. Absolutely. She has direct access, but she didn't come to me. And you know what? That's OK. I will just end up with another bad book. What can I tell you?
(END AUDIO CLIP)
BLITZER: Now, are we really supposed to believe that Kellyanne Conway and Raj Shah, the deputy press secretary, principal deputy press secretary, never reported to the president that Bob Woodward is doing a major book about the Trump White House and wants to do an interview with you?
GANGEL: It's strains credulity that that didn't happen.
I mean, there is Kellyanne right in the Oval Office. She does have direct access. And I think -- I think it's quite clear. Look, he said that Senator Lindsey Graham told him about it. So he did know about the interview.
I think at the end of the day, what do we know about Donald Trump? He does what wants to do. If he had wanted to do this interview, he would have done it.
BLITZER: Yes, but then he has this conversation in which he -- I didn't know anything about it. Well, Lindsey Graham did tell me about it. Raj Shah, I barely know the guy. I never talked to the guy. I don't even know who he is, for all practical purposes.
GANGEL: It's surreal.
BLITZER: Yes, it's hard to believe any of that.
Let's talk a little bit about a fascinating nugget that we get in this book about the negotiations that the president's lawyers had with Robert Mueller, the special counsel, about a presidential interview and why the lawyers for the president told Mueller, he can't do it because he lies.
GANGEL: So what we're telling now are the highlights of the book.
What is extraordinary is the level of detail. Woodward has meeting after meeting with Robert Mueller. You see it week in and week out. And one of the things that you discover is that Trump's personal attorneys go to special counsel Robert Mueller and say to him, basically, our client is not capable of telling the truth. You got to let him out of this interview because he can't do it.
And to prove it to Mueller, they reenact for him a mock interview that John Dowd had done, according to Woodward's reporting, in the White House residence several weeks earlier, where John Dowd plays Mueller, Jay Sekulow, a current personal attorney, plays Trump.
And they stand there and playact the whole thing for Mueller. At the end of it, it is interesting. Robert Mueller is not buying any of it. He wants to know one thing. And we normally don't hear, capture the words of Robert Mueller. They're notoriously secretive.
Robert Mueller says: "I just want to know if he had corrupt intent about Comey," all according to Woodward's reporting.
BLITZER: There's another fascinating element.
The president, according to Woodward, likes to humiliate top aides, especially the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions. And at one point in the book, this is how he describes the attorney general. "This guy is mentally retarded. He's this dumb Southerner."
And then, according to Woodward, he feigns a Southern accent.
That's pretty awful. I mean, all the stuff he said publicly about Sessions is bad enough. But to hear that from Woodward, that's awful.
GANGEL: I think this is a good example of what you're going to read when it comes out in the book.
And that is that as bad, as the things are that we have heard, that we have read on Twitter, what goes on behind the scenes is even worse. Saying that the attorney general is mentally retarded is beyond the pale. Saying that he is -- quote -- "a dumb Southerner," I don't -- I can't imagine that's going to play well with President Trump's base. But this goes on and on throughout the book. There are details of him
being at the Pentagon at a meeting and just dressing down the generals who were there. He does seem to enjoy whatever, doing -- humiliating people.
BLITZER: Great reporting, Jamie. Thank you very much. And good work on getting that book that is obviously key to all of this.
Our Jamie Gangel reporting for us.
Let's get some more on all of this.
Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff of California is joining us. He's the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.
Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.
REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: Good to be with you, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, we got lots to discuss. Let's go through it point by point.
Bob Woodward reports that top White House advisers were so concerned about the president that they would actually steal documents off the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office before he could see them or sign them. Have you ever heard of a situation like that?
SCHIFF: No, I haven't.
And I think if you look at the portrait that is painted of the president in this book, you couldn't have a portrait of someone that was more unfit for the office of president than Donald Trump, someone who is described essentially as incapable of telling the truth, who lacks the knowledge and comprehension -- comprehension and judgment to put the national security interests of the country first, who risked getting us into war potentially.
This is quite a damning portrait, and I think what is most damning about it is, none of it is that surprising. So much of it is consistent with what we have heard and seen of this president since his first days in office.
And, for me, it underscores why it's all the more important that Congress serve as a check, that we not have this rubber stamp that the Congress is today.
BLITZER: Woodward reports that the chief of staff called President Trump an idiot. The defense secretary, James Mattis, described the president as having the understanding the fifth- or sixth-grader.
We just put a graphic up on the screen, John Kelly saying that the president is an idiot or unhinged, according to the book. The defense secretary, James Mattis, says he behaves like a fifth- or sixth- grader, has that kind of understanding of national security.
[18:15:10] Rex Tillerson, the fired secretary of state, says the president was a F'ing moron. Gary Cohn, the top economic adviser to the president, according to the book, called the president a professional liar. And John Dowd, the former personal attorney for the president, called the president an F'ing liar again.
Those are the president's current and former advisers. You hear that, that's got to be so concerning to you.
SCHIFF: Well, it absolutely is.
And if you look at some of the areas that are of most profound concern to us, you look at the situation the Korean Peninsula, and you have his aides and Cabinet members essentially removing documents, preventing him from doing things that would jeopardize our national security.
You have him completely relying on his egotistical sense of self, that he can somehow dominate, win over Kim Jong-un, where it appears that Kim Jong-un has eaten his lunch, because he was so ill-prepared for the summit and the aftermath.
You have the situation in Afghanistan, where he's asking a general and Secretary Mattis, why can't we just kill people? That's just your job. Just we can kill our way out of this.
And, similarly, the discussion of killing Bashar al-Assad. The level of lack of sophistication, understanding, knowledge, judgment, and, most serious, his unwillingness to learn from those around him who know more really threatens our national security.
BLITZER: What does it tell you, Congressman, that according to Woodward's reporting, the president's former lawyer John Dowd and current lawyer Jay Sekulow tried to explain to the special counsel, Robert Mueller, that the president was simply incapable of testifying without perjuring himself?
SCHIFF: Not at all a surprise.
From the very beginning, they viewed any interview that this president would give us a perjury trap. Now, why is that? Because they think there's going to be some trick question? No, because they know this president is incapable of telling the truth. And we have seen that in the fabrications that have now been catalogued, thousands of them since his first day in office.
And it all to me gets back to the same fundamental flaw. And that is this president lacks character. And we are finding out in spades, and have over the last year-and-a-half, just how much character matters in the highest office in the land, because, when you lack it, that flaw is spread throughout the whole of government.
And, as you say, Wolf, these are recollections coming from, in large part, people who are survivors in the Trump White House, that are continuing to work with him, all of whom are hired by him. But it shows that those who know him best see the character flaws most up front and in-depth.
And, again, me, it says we need a Congress that is going to be willing to stand up to him, that's going to be willing to check the dangerous impulses that Bob Woodward so often writes about.
BLITZER: Woodward reports that John Dowd, the president's former lawyer, put it to the president this way after that trial, that Q&A session that they practiced: "Don't testify. It's either that or an orange jumpsuit."
John Dowd today, he denied that. But should Robert Mueller, Congressman, subpoena the president and force him to testify?
SCHIFF: I believe he should. And I have been saying this for months, as the Trump defense team has essentially strung along special counsel.
Look, I'm a strong believer the president is not above the law. You do not treat him differently than an ordinary citizen. You would not basically tell a defense lawyer, OK, I will go along with not interviewing your client because you tell me, essentially, he's a pathological liar.
That would never be sufficient to tell an investigator, no, you shouldn't interview, you have got to let him off the hook. He's just not capable of telling the truth.
Bob Mueller has got a job to do. And a big part of it is to report to Congress on whether the president has obstructed justice. And a key fact in that is whether the president had corrupt intent when he took certain actions like firing James Comey. And the best evidence of that is the opportunity to question the president.
BLITZER: All this comes a day after the president seemed to accuse the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, of using Justice Department investigations to influence the midterm elections.
You saw that tweet that he posted: "Two long-running Obama era investigations of two very popular Republican congressmen were brought to a well-publicized charge just ahead of the midterms by the Jeff Sessions Justice Department. Two easy wins now in doubt because there's not enough time. Good job, Jeff."
How do you -- how do you view that tweet?
SCHIFF: Well, again, this is the president talking about a case, two cases involving the first two Republican members of Congress, the two first members of Congress, period, to endorse Donald Trump.
And Donald Trump is nothing if not loyal. Whether people have broken the law, it doesn't matter, as we saw with Paul Manafort. What matters is, do you stick with Donald Trump?
And these two Republicans have stuck with Donald Trump, so he's sticking with them and using them as a cudgel to once again attack his attorney general and suggest that his attorney general should have either gone easy on them because they're Trump backers, not prosecuted them at all, or prosecuted them on a different timetable where it would have helped him politically.
Once again, the president showing that he believes the attorney general's job is to be his political hack. And one of the things I found so disturbing over the last two or three weeks is some of the members in this body, in the U.S. Congress, and in particular in the Senate, saying, that's OK with them.
And if he wants to get rid of Jeff Sessions as, you know, those that are basically evangelizing that on FOX News or telling him to do, that these Republican senators are more than fine with it, even though they know the president's problem with Jeff Sessions is not one of policy. It's that he won't make a criminal case go away that may implicate the president, and he won't persecute the president's political rivals.
And that anyone in this body would condone that kind of an attack on the rule of law, I just find a shocking. And it once again tells you, I think, what a rubber stamp this place has become.
BLITZER: There's more breaking news, Congressmen, coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.
I need you to stand by. We're going to continue this interview. We're going to get more on the explosive reporting in the new Bob Woodward book about the Trump White House, including the truly shocking terms the president used to describe the attorney general, Jeff Sessions.
Plus, the Trump tweet slamming Sessions over indictments against two Republican congressmen, was it an impeachable offense? I will speak to the -- to a former Justice Department spokesman.
Stay with us.
BLITZER: We have more breaking news.
And we're back with Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
Congressman, "The New York Times" has just now reported that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, has told the president's lawyers that Mueller will accept written answers from President Trump about whether his campaign conspired with Russia and Russian interference in the election, but Mueller will not ask for written answers on possible obstruction of justice with the president, this according to "The New York Times."
What's your reaction to this report?
SCHIFF: Well, speaking as a former prosecutor, I can say written answers to questions are of very limited value.
I would never accept them as a substitute for an interview. They're completely inadequate for that. You don't have the ability to ask follow-up questions. The answers you're getting are really the lawyers' answers, as much as their client's answers.
If this is part of a bargain to get his interview on other aspects of the investigation and avoid the necessity of litigating it, it may be worth it. But if all you're getting are written answers to the questions, I think that is of very little value. And if this is being done in the hope that the president's legal team will later make him accessible for an interview, I wouldn't make a deal on written questions until I had a locked-in commitment on an oral interview, because that's, frankly, where you get to the truth.
BLITZER: Well, do you think Mueller will be able to interview the president on the issue of obstruction of justice?
SCHIFF: I would be very surprised if he's able to do that, unless he subpoenas him. And I think if Mueller does subpoena the president, and the White House fights it, that the White House loses, and that may be the only way Bob Mueller gets an interview.
And I think it's worth pursuing it. And I think that was -- that's probably the most sensible course, if you need to know what the president's intent was when he took certain actions that look a lot like obstruction of justice.
BLITZER: When you say the White House loses, there would be a legal battle, and potentially it could go all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, right?
SCHIFF: That's exactly right.
And, of course, that's why the hearings going on in this building are so important, because Kavanaugh has written, apparently had an epiphany after working on the Ken Starr team, that presidents are busy people and shouldn't be subject to investigation.
He also obviously takes a very critical view now of an investigation involving an ongoing president. And that may color his judgment on the subpoena question. But I think the law is sufficiently clear that, nonetheless, he would lose, even with this court and even with Kavanaugh on it.
But, of course, there's no guarantee of that. And that may be why there's a negotiation over, well, we will accept written answers to some questions. But I hope they're getting the commitment to the oral interview as a part of that bargain.
Otherwise, they just need to issue the subpoena and fight it out. I think that's the only way to get to the truth.
BLITZER: Why do you think it's taken this long, what, eight, nine months, to get to this point, maybe written answers to some questions, but maybe leaving open the possibility of an oral interview on others?
SCHIFF: Well, I think it's entirely possible that, in the beginning, when the Trump legal team was in a cooperative mode, they perhaps believed, the lawyers believed the client and the client's protestations of what he did and what he intended to do and what he knew.
But, as they learned more, they learned that his explanations were inconsistent with the facts, and there was more jeopardy in putting him before someone in which -- you know, lying to "The New York Times" or to CNN is one thing.
As the president has told us, who cares if he lies to the public, he's basically said. It's not like lying to a magistrate. Well, lying to Mueller is like lying to a magistrate.
[18:30:22] So they clearly adopted a different strategy. And I think for several months now, the Trump legal team has decided that time is on their side if they can delay and delay and delay and at the same time blame Mueller for the lengthy investigation, that's a winning public relations strategy.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Congressman Adam Schiff, thank you so much for joining us.
SCHIFF: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Let's get some more on the breaking news. I want to bring in former Justice Department deputy spokesman Ian Prior.
Ian, thanks very much for coming in.
First of all, what's your reaction to this "New York Times" story? Mueller will accept some written answers from President Trump, but still wants to do a former sit-down on other issues, including obstruction of justice?
IAN PRIOR, FORMER JUSTICE DEPARTMENT DEPUTY SPOKESMAN: I think it trends positively for the president. I think it shows that his legal team, their more aggressive approach in the last few months, is starting to pay dividends. This is what they've wanted. This is the path they've been going down. And they finally got what they have been looking for.
BLITZER: They haven't completely gotten it, because there's still a possibility that Mueller will seek an oral interview, an actual sit- down interview on questions of obstruction of justice. The "New York Times" reporting that on conspiracy with the Russians, maybe he'll accept written answers on that.
PRIOR: Yes. But I think it's a step in the right direction, if you're looking at it from the Trump legal team. This is the path they want to go down. And it looks like, at least from this report, that they're starting to make progress.
BLITZER: Let's get to the Bob Woodward book, a real bombshell today, and I'm sure you've seen all the reports, including CNN's excellent reporting on this. The president in the book describing your former boss, the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, this way: "This guy is mentally retarded. He's this dumb Southerner." And then he feigns a Southern accent, according to Woodward.
What's the effect of all of this public humiliation, these constant attacks on Jeff Sessions?
PRIOR: Well, I'll tell you what. The attorney general has been in politics for decades. He's developed a very thick skin. He's also not somebody that's on Twitter. He doesn't spend a lot of time watching television.
He does travel around the country a lot. He goes and he meets with United States attorneys and state and local law enforcement. When he meets with them, he is met with universal praise. In fact, just the other day the president of the National Sheriffs' Association said that Jeff Sessions, from the perspective of law enforcement, may be the best attorney general ever.
So it's not just criticism that he hears. He also hears praise. Now --
BLITZER: Let me just interrupt for a second. He hears a lot of praise for a lot of the issues he's dealing with, and on so many of those issues, he's right in line with conservative Republicans.
But to hear the president of the United States on Twitter, public statements, just yesterday going after him so brutally, and now in this book calling him mentally retarded, a dumb Southerner. I mean, you know, he might get praise when he goes and meets with sheriffs, but this is awful.
PRIOR: No, understood. And, of course, the attorney general would prefer not to be the target of the president's attacks. But he's navigated tough political waters over the years.
BLITZER: Nothing like -- nothing like this before. Nothing like that.
PRIOR: He's been called some terrible things over the decades. Understood. But he has a job to do. He's going to put his head down and do it. This has been going on for a year and a half. At this point, everyone there has developed a thick skin. They know there's nothing they can do about it; and they have a job to do, and they're going to focus on that.
BLITZER: Because the president apparently hates him, because he recused himself in the Russia investigation. Was it a mistake for Sessions to recuse himself?
PRIOR: No, absolutely not. He recused himself pursuant to federal law. He should not supervise an investigation that potentially involves a campaign with which he had a political relationship with. It's 25-CFR-45.2. BLITZER: Let me get your reaction to what the president tweeted going
after Jeff Sessions brutally yesterday, on the way the Justice Department, the U.S. attorneys handled the recent indictments of two U.S. Republican congressmen, Chris Collins of New York, Duncan Hunter of California.
The president tweeted this. Quote, "Two long-running Obama-era investigations of two very popular Republican congressmen were brought to a well-publicized charge, just ahead of the midterms by the Jeff Sessions Justice Department. Two easy wins now in doubt, because there is not enough time. Good job, Jeff."
What was your reaction to that?
PRIOR: Well, first of all, that's not how Department of Justice should operate. It's not how Department of Justice does operate. Political considerations should never factor into prosecutorial decisions.
And there's two factual things I want to clear up here. First of all, those prosecutions came out of the Southern District of New York and the Southern District of California. Those are two U.S. attorneys that are appointed by this administration. Also, neither Jeff Sessions nor anyone in main Justice would be required to sign off on those indictments.
BLITZER: I mean, it's pretty awful. And those investigation attention of these two lawmakers didn't begin during the Obama administration. They really came to a head during the Trump administration.
PRIOR: Well, the Hunter investigation started in the Obama administration and carried over into the Trump administration.
[18:35:00] BLITZER: But as you point out, the Republican-appointed --
BLITZER: -- U.S. attorney in California is prosecuting this case.
PRIOR: Correct. And I think as the attorney general said, you know, whether it was last week or the week before, political considerations are not going to play into this Department of Justice.
BLITZER: But doesn't it concern you that the president of the United States thinks that this isn't OK? That the attorney general shouldn't be allowing this kind of stuff to go on with two sitting members of Congress? And by the way, we should point out that both of these members of Congress were the No. 1 and No. 2 endorsers of Donald Trump's presidency.
PRIOR: Certainly. Look, you want the Justice Department to be a bastion of integrity and impartiality. And that's how it's going to be run. That's how this attorney general is going to do it, and he's going to keep on doing it until he's no longer there.
BLITZER: You think he'll stay?
PRIOR: I think he's going to stay as long as the president wants him there.
BLITZER: Until the president fires him, right after the midterm elections, which apparently, he's thinking of doing. But it is pretty humiliating, I must say.
It's one thing to be criticized. And Jeff Sessions over the years has been criticized on a partisan basis, whether in Alabama or here in Washington. But it's another thing to be so brutally attacked by the president of the United States. That's another matter.
Ian, thank you very much.
PRIOR: Thanks for having me.
BLITZER: We'll have you back. Appreciate it very much.
Just ahead, there's more breaking news. According to Bob Woodward's very disturbing new look inside the Trump White House, senior officials would actually steal documents from the president's desk in the Oval Office to prevent him from harming U.S. national security.
And an extraordinary recording. You're going to hear President Trump asking Bob Woodward why he wasn't interviewed for his book, even though Woodward says he made repeated requests to do so.
[18:41:17] BLITZER: We're following breaking news. CNN has confirmed that President Trump's attorneys received a written response from the special counsel, Robert Mueller, last Friday.
"The New York Times" is reporting Mueller's letter says the special counsel will accept written answers about Russia, but won't ask for written answers about possible collusion.
Let's dig deeper with our correspondents and specialists. And Gloria, I know you've been doing a lot of reporting on this. Why is it taking so long to come up with at least some sort of agreement about the president cooperating with the Mueller team?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, if what we've been reporting from Bob Woodward's book is true today, the president's lawyers are very worried about the fact that he could perjure himself in any kind of s sit-down interview with Mueller.
And what they're doing is they're separating things. They're saying, "Look, we'd be more likely to have the president answer questions about things that happened before he became president, i.e., this notion of collusion, in some form of a Q&A. But when it comes to after he became president, there's -- and that would be obstruction, there are real questions about privilege."
For example, they don't believe Mueller could succeed in a subpoena, in asking about, say, the president's conversations about firing James Comey with Jeff Sessions or Rod Rosenstein. And perhaps if they wanted answers on those questions, then the president would get a take-home test and would get to write -- and would get to write answers. And that may be a way to deal with a compromise on that.
But it's been very complicated, because you also have a president who has said to people that "I want to testify. It would look very bad for me politically." And this, again, was in Woodward's book. "It would look very bad for me politically if I just said, 'No, I'm not going to talk to you in any way, shape or form'."
So they may be coming to some kind of combo platter here, a little from one group and a little from another group. So it might be an ounce of progress. But, again, it's gone on for months.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: The Paris peace talks to end the Vietnam War were fast compared to this negotiation.
TOOBIN: Look, you know, the Mueller -- obviously, like any prosecutor, doesn't want written answers. I mean, lawyers write the written answers, not -- those are almost useless.
BORGER: It's an open book take-home test.
TOOBIN: It's an open book test.
But -- but he may accept that as a -- as the price of getting -- getting the president to answer questions, you know -- orally.
Personally, I think none of this is going to happen. I think they are going kicking the can down the road, trying to get past the midterms. And then if Mueller subpoenas, he subpoenas. And then we have months of court fighting.
BLITZER: But there is a precedent in terms of written answers during the Iran-Contra investigation. I remember covering it. President Reagan did cooperate, but only in written form with the independent counsel.
TOOBIN: Right. I was on the staff of that independent counsel, and, you know, we got those answers, and they were somewhat useful.
But, you know, the whole point of interviewing someone is to test their demeanor, to test their -- just how they -- how they sound. And, you know, written answers, any responsible lawyer will scrub those, you know, for any --
BLITZER: Why did they accept it then?
TOOBIN: Because there was -- he was not as central a figure. It was much later in the process. And we didn't have the leverage. We just -- the -- they were -- it was a long time ago.
BORGER: When you want to talk about obstruction, you really want to get to this notion of intent.
BORGER: What was the president's intent?
[18:45:01] The only person who knows the president's intent intimately is the president of the United States. And that's why they would want him to answer.
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And you've seen how differently the president is in statements that the White House put out, that they say are from the president. And when you hear from the president when he's doing an interview, giving a press conference, they are two different worlds. You can see exactly why Robert Mueller would want to talk to the president one-on-one and then have a generic statement written by an entire legal team.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: You cover the Justice Department. What are you hearing?
LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, according to Woodward's reporting, at least, Mueller said to John Dowd, the president's lawyer, I have to talk to him about Comey. I have to be able to test intent, since the whole point of anything on obstruction would involve corrupt intent. That's the whole purpose of it. So it's clear, at least on that piece, he doesn't want to accept written answers, at least not yet.
But I really do agree with Jeffrey. I think all of this is sort of a wash at this point. I think if he was going to subpoena him, he would have done it already. And you can easily see him writing a report, saying, here were the gaps. Here were the things we were not able to fill out, because the president refused to cooperate.
BORGER: No, and the president's lawyers believe, by the way, what you just said, which is they don't think Mueller is likely to subpoena the president, particularly on issues involving privilege. So, this is getting played out.
I mean, they wrote the letter back to Mueller three-and-a-half weeks ago. That is snail mail. Okay? And they haven't heard back until last Friday.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: What a subpoena means, if it happens, is there will not be a resolution, probably until June. Just of the legal case.
TOOBIN: Until June of next year when the Supreme Court term ends. That's not Mueller's interests. Mueller wants to be finished before then. And it's not in the president's interests, either, to have this kicking around. So, there's a game of chicken going on.
BLITZER: If there's a subpoena, it could wind up at the Supreme Court. You're absolutely right. You know, Kaitlan, in the new bob Woodward book, there is a dramatic
moment described by Bob Woodward, whether the president's lawyers felt there was no way the president should sit down with Robert Mueller. The president's former lawyer, John Dowd, told the president, quoting from the book, quote, don't testify. It's either that or an orange jumpsuit.
Now, today, Dowd is denying that. But what does it tell you about what's going on inside that White House?
COLLINS: Well, we've seen the strategy change over the last few months of going from the president really wanted to sit down with Robert Mueller and speak to him. And now, the president has expressed hesitancy in recent days and recent weeks over sitting down with him and whether or not that would be a good idea. And that has been a big battle with the president and his legal team, and it's a big part of the reason why we have seen a lot of changes in the legal team, which is why John Dowd ultimately left is because he felt like he couldn't convince the president not to sit down with Robert Mueller.
So, a lot of what's written in this book, John Dowd has denied he said those quotes, does reflect what we have seen take place in the White House, especially with the president's legal team and who is there advising him.
BORGER: Don't forget, we reported last may that there was an interview set up on June -- January 27th at Camp David. And the president was going to testify. And suddenly, John Dowd pulled it and changed his mind. And now we know why.
BLITZER: That's right.
BORGER: Because the president went through these -- whatever you want to call them, mock sessions or informal Q&A's and got a big F. And they knew that it just wasn't going to work out.
BLITZER: He would have been convicted of perjury if that had been the real thing, because he was lying repeatedly.
BLITZER: You know, Laura, take a look at the way in this new bob Woodward book the president describes some of his closest advisers. We'll put the pictures on the screen.
There you see the White House chief of staff, the president calls him, according to Woodward, an idiot, an unhinged. James Mattis, defense secretary, describes the president as knowing national security issues along the lines of a fifth or sixth grader. Rex Tillerson, the former secretary of state, quote calls him an F-ing moron.
Gary Cohn, the president's former top economic adviser calls the president, according to Woodward, a professional liar. And John Dowd, his personal attorney at the time calls him a f-ing liar.
TOOBIN: But also, some nice things. I'm kidding. BLITZER: Go ahead.
JARRETT: It is not normal. None this is normal. Those are unbelievable statements.
But at least in my mind, what's even more appalling is the idea of officials taking documents off of the president's desk, because they were so worried about what he would do. And they were so worried that his behavior was so reckless. But at least, according to Woodward's reporting, you get the sense that they thought they had to do it to save the democracy. They thought they had some obligation to the country to do it.
COLLINS: It also pushes back on that whole notion that no one tells the president no ever, because clearly, the people are trying to influence the president's decision when they don't feel that they can. They go to these great lengths to do things like that. But the White House is painting this book as written by these disgruntled former employees.
But as we have been reporting, preparing for the release of this book, we actually know there are people still inside the White House who did sit down with Bob Woodward and did talk to him about the book because they felt like they could argue their point better if they did sit down with him.
[18:50:08] BORGER: Well, you know, Woodward made this great point here in describing all of this. And he said what you're witnessing is no less than an administrative coup d'etat, which is people taking papers off the president's desk, which apparently he never missed. Taking papers off his desk, hiding it from him essentially because they felt their leader was a national security risk in some way, shape or form. I mean, it's astonishing to think of that.
BLITZER: It's astonishing to think of the details in the book. And the fact he calls the attorney general, according to Woodward, Jeff Sessions, he says this guy is mentally retarded. He's a dumb southerner.
Everybody, stick around.
There's a lot more we're covering including Brett Kavanaugh's U.S. Supreme Court hearings have just finished for the day. We have details of his opening statement and the rather raucous showdown.
[18:55:41] BLITZER: Day one of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings was marked by loud protests and Democratic dissent.
Our justice correspondent Jessica Schneider is with us with the latest.
Jessica, Kavanaugh gave his opening statement just a little while ago. JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: He did, Wolf. And
Brett Kavanaugh is promising to be a team player, also a pro-law judge who doesn't let politics come into in his decisions, but Democrats have already mounted a bitter fight. They're raising concerns over everything from documents to Kavanaugh's positions on abortion and presidential power.
SCHNEIDER: Within seconds of the start of Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearing, the discourse devolved into dissent.
SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: We cannot possibly move forward, Mr. Chairman.
SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R-IA), CHAIRMAN, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: I extend a very warm welcome to Judge Kavanaugh, to his wife --
HARRIS: We have not been given an opportunity to have a meeting --
SEN. CORY BOOKER (D-NJ), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: We are rushing through this process in a way that is unnecessary.
SCHNEIDER: Democrats taking issue with a document dump overnight of 42,000 pages from Kavanaugh's days in President George W. Bush's White House. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley saying his staff reviewed every page by late Monday night.
SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: The point is that no one could prepare and review 42,000 documents in one evening. We know that no matter how much coffee you drink.
SCHNEIDER: Another 100,000 pages from the same time period have also been held back. The Trump administration says they are likely protected by constitutional privilege. Democrats though say it's suspicious.
SEN. DICK DURBIN (D-IL), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Judge Kavanaugh, America needs to see those documents.
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D-CT), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: We have been denied real access to the documents we need to advise --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Chairman, regular order is called for.
BLUMENTHAL: -- which turns this hearing into a charade and mockery of our norm. And, Mr. Chairman, I move to adjourn this hearing.
SCHNEIDER: CNN has learned the show of force was orchestrated during a weekend conference call led by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer even though Democrats don't have the votes to block Kavanaugh's nomination alone. Many of the obstructing senators are possible presidential hopefuls for 2020.
The deep partisan divisions though extend beyond documents. Brett Kavanaugh's documentation and the conservative tilt he would likely bring to the Supreme Court has unleashed anger that spilled into the hearing room.
SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R-UT), JUDICIARY COMMITTE: Mr. Chairman, I think we ought to have this loud mouth removed. We shouldn't have to put up with this kind of stuff.
SCHNEIDER: But Republicans rallied behind Kavanaugh calling Democrats sore losers.
SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: I believe this fight is nothing more, nothing less than an attempt by our Democratic colleagues to relitigate the 2016 election.
SCHNEIDER: In a play for bipartisanship, a former law clerk to Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke endorsing Judge Kavanaugh and lamenting how political the judicial nomination process has become.
LISA BLATT, FORMER CLERK FOR JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Judge Kavanaugh is the best choice that liberals could reasonably hope for in these circumstances. I am sure that some members of the Senate knew that they would disagree with Justice Ginsburg's legal views when she was a nominee, but Justice Ginsburg was confirmed 96-3.
SCHNEIDER: Judge Kavanaugh attempted to bat down the claims of pure politics at play, saying he will adhere solely to the rule of law.
BRETT KAVANAUGH, SUPPREME COURT NOMINEE: I do not decide cases based on personal or policy preferences. I am not a pro-plaintiff or pro- defendant judge. I'm not a pro-prosecution or pro-defense judge. I am a pro-law judge.
SCHNEIDER: And Kavanaugh said working with his fellow justices would be paramount.
KAVANAUGH: The Supreme Court must never, never be viewed as a partisan institution. The justices on the Supreme Court do not sit on opposite sides of an aisle. They do not caucus in separate rooms. If confirmed to the Supreme Court, I would be part of a team of nine committed to deciding cases according to the Constitution and laws of the United States.
SCHNEIDER: And tomorrow is when the real questioning begins. Brett Kavanaugh will face an onslaught of inquiries about his position and, Wolf, that starts at 9:30 tomorrow.
BLITZER: And I'll be back at 9:00 a.m. to anchor our all day special coverage of that Q&A with Judge Kavanaugh.
Thanks very much for that report.
Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.