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NY Times: President Trump Wanted to Order Justice Department to Prosecute Comey and Clinton But was Warned Could Lead to Impeachment; Interview With Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. Aired on 8- 9p ET

Aired November 20, 2018 - 20:00   ET


[20:00:12] JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: Lock her up. Turns out it wasn't just a campaign slogan after all.

John Berman here, in for Anderson.

Our breaking news, new reporting by "The New York Times" and CNN on the president's desire, it seems to, put his opponents in jail. That kind of gets your attention, doesn't it?

Late today, "The Times'" Maggie Haberman dropped a news bomb, citing two people familiar with the conversation. She reported that just past spring, President Trump told then-White House counsel Don McGahn that he wanted to order, think about that, he wanted to order the Justice Department to prosecute Hillary Clinton and fired FBI Director James Comey.

McGahn told the president he didn't have the authority to do that.

I spoke with Maggie Haberman, who is also a CNN political analyst, just a short time ago.


BERMAN: So, Maggie, then-candidate Donald Trump turned to Hillary Clinton on the debate stage in 2016 and vowed to put her in prison if he won. What are you learning tonight about how he might have tried to follow up on that?

MAGGIE HABERMAN, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, NEW YORK TIMES (via telephone): Well, he had a conversation with the White House counsels office earlier this year in the spring when he made clear that he wanted to prosecute Hillary Clinton, along with James Comey. He was told in definitive terms by the White House counsel's office then led by Don McGahn that he could face a range of outcomes, among them, impeachment if he went ahead with this.

And as far as we know, it was dropped. But it is pretty remarkable the degree to which he's repeatedly returned to the levers of power of the executive branch as a way to solve personal problems and personal vendettas.

BERMAN: And this was the spring of 2018. So, he'd been in office a long time and learned about what it meant to be president. Do you know what he wanted to prosecute them for?

HABERMAN: I think a range of things. In the case of Comey, I believe it would have been about handling of information when he was the FBI director.

In the case with Hillary Clinton, it was also a range of things. There was the e-mail server issue, but there was also this constant being around the approval by U.S. officials of a uranium deal. Officials with the company had given some money to the Clinton Foundation.

There's never been any evidence of impropriety. So, this has continued to be a thread that her critics have tried to poke. So, that was one of the areas.

Again, I think this went dark after he was warned against it. But it is a reminder that when Donald Trump wants to go ahead with something, he will keep going until there is some kind of cattle prod that shocks him. In this case, it appears to be his own impeachment.

BERMAN: And Don McGahn really taking evasive action, as that, as you put it, cattle prod.

HABERMAN: Look, Don McGahn wrote a memo making clear the parameters and also what could happen if you violate those parameters. I think on the one hand that was trying to warn Donald Trump who to be clear we don't know if he read the memo. He's not a big memo reader, as you know.

But it also made clear that it happened. It laid it out in pretty stark terms and made clear McGahn had tried to prevent it. I think that is the other purpose of that memo.

BERMAN: As part of your reporting throughout this story, is disappointment and anger with current FBI Director Christopher Wray. Why?

HABERMAN: Because he felt initially that ray was not doing enough to work quickly to try to read the upper echelons of the FBI of Comey loyalists or of Obama people as he put it, as people he felt were partial to Hillary Clinton.

Then when that was done, it became he wasn't really looking at Hillary Clinton's problem. Again, it is the same issue of Trump not understanding or not being interested in understanding what the Justice Department is supposed to do, and not supposed to do. And it is not about serving an individual. It is about serving institutions.

BERMAN: It's fascinating to me that don McGahn, and the former White House counsel is a key player in the drama you're revealing tonight when of course, we also learned months ago, you were part of the reporting on this, that Don McGahn testified for hours, what, 30 hours he spent with special counsel Robert Mueller.

HABERMAN: Yes. Look, I mean, and I don't know that he's got this memo, but I think that if he doesn't, I suspect that McGahn will be called back as many witnesses have been to meet with Mueller's prosecutors. And he could ask for this memo.

I think that Don McGahn is going to be a central player in all of this, and I think that on issues like this, history is going to look favorably on McGahn as trying to maintain the guardrails of (INAUDIBLE).

[20:05:01] BERMAN: Don McGahn is gone from the White House. Jeff Sessions is gone from the administration, and now the president has his own guy, Matt Whitaker as acting attorney general. Again, the thrust of this piece you write is that the president has tried to use the Justice Department to be as a tool to be wielded against his political enemies really like no other president has. With Sessions gone --

HABERMAN: For at least -- or at least not since Richard Nixon.

BERMAN: Not since Richard Nixon.

But my question is, with Whitaker in place, his own guy in place, is there concern maybe he'll feel emboldened to try this type of thing again?

HABERMAN: Well, I think even if he did, it would be difficult with Democrats holding subpoena power in the House beginning in January. I think it's different when it was an entirely Republican Congress. I think there are things he could do in the next two months, but I think it will be -- I think that would be very difficult to sort of go ahead with under cover of darkness.

BERMAN: All right. Maggie Haberman, a lot in here, a lot going on today. Thank you so much for your reporting and your time.

HABERMAN: Thank you.


BREMAN: So, just to expand a bit on the reporting. CNN has learned the president also talked about prosecuting Hillary Clinton with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and yes, Matt Whitaker who was chief of staff to then Attorney General Jeff Sessions. According to a source familiar with the matter, Whitaker briefed the president on what justice was doing with respect to the Clinton Foundation and Uranium One investigations. The source adding that Whitaker was trying to appease the president but did not seem to cross any lines.

So, do our experts agree?

We've got some great experts on this subject tonight. Joining us, investigative reporter and author Carl Bernstein, Nixon White House counsel John Dean, and former FBI supervisory special agent Josh Campbell, who we should add served as special assistant to James Comey.

And, Josh, on that front, you have news. You've just spoken, I understand to the former FBI Director James Comey. What's his reaction to this news that the president was asking to prosecute him? JOSH CAMPBELL, FORMER FBI SUPERVISORY SPECIAL AGENT: So, I was just

chatting with him earlier this evening, John. Tonight he's shaking his head. This is the kind of stuff that had him so worried when he was the FBI director.

You think about the incidence of him sitting before the president and the president demanding loyalty from the FBI director in this kind of mafia-like fashion, fast forward to the oval office where the president is attempting to interfere with the FBI's criminal investigation into Michael Flynn, the national security adviser. So, this is what had him worried then. This is what he's been so vocal about now and speaking out. I mean, he wrote a book about it.

I think he's also pleased "The New York Times" made clear that President Trump and his allies have been lying when they claimed he divulged classified information which he did not. I don't think he's surprised by the lies. I think it's just another indication, another instance of this White House, this president attempting to interfere with the Justice Department in an extraordinary way.

BERMAN: John Dean, this is the definition of Nixonian. Of course, Richard Nixon used the IRS to try to go after his political opponents. This is President Trump asking to use the Justice Department to go after his political opponents.

What is your reaction to the news tonight?

JOHN DEAN, FORMER NIXON WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL: He actually used the Justice Department to back off of some of his friends as well. But what's interesting if I had to channel a little of Richard Nixon, I think he'd tell this president he's going too far.

This is the sort of stuff of a banana republic. This is what an autocrat does. Political scientists developed standards by looking at what they do all over the world, and Trump is checking all those boxes.

It's rather frightening and startling, because he was told about this during the campaign when he started mentioning these sort of things. But he's never backed off. It looks like he won't back off until he's forced to.

BERMAN: John, I want to ask you to repeat that one more time here. It strikes me as extraordinary. You, of course, were involved with Watergate, and you just said that Richard Nixon would tell Trump he's going too far?

DEAN: I think he would. This is a level that Richard Nixon never went to where you went after somebody's personal wellbeing by a criminal prosecution. I've listened to all the tapes that are relevant. While I heard him break the law on some of those tapes, I never heard him do it by turning on his enemies and trying to put them in jail. This is really very, very heavy sledding.

BERMAN: And, Carl Bernstein, one thing I want to point out here is that the timeline in this is spring of 2018. Donald Trump had been president of the United States for well over a year by this point, 14, 15 months. So, the excuse that you might hear from some supporters oh, that he didn't know what the job was. He doesn't know what a president should and shouldn't do. By 15, 16 months into the administration, he should know what the Justice Department can and can't do and what he can and can't order.

CARL BERNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: There are no excuses, and this is a defining moment in the history of the Trump presidency, because this is a demonstration of his unfitness to be president of the United States, of his abuse of presidential power, of his embrace of authoritarianism.

[20:10:16] And also, it is going to get the attention of some, not all, Republicans in Congress. But we are now watching a president of the United States undermine the very principles of our democracy, the president of the United States swears.

Today, I read the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon. Everybody should go read Article 2 of it and how similar it is to what we've seen Trump do here.

But the president takes an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States to uphold it and protect it. This president daily abuses it but never have we seen such flouting of willingness to abuse the Constitution and the powers of the presidency as we are now seeing and what we're learning from Maggie Haberman's story.

And this is going to be investigated. It's going to figure in the Mueller investigation. It's going to figure in investigations on the Hill. And this is a moment that we're going to look back on and say, ah, that's perhaps when the message got across in Washington that the president has crossed lines that must, must be noted.

BERMAN: But let me ask you, Carl, because you say there was a willingness to, and he asked Don McGahn about whether he could order the Justice Department to prosecute these people, but at the end, he didn't. So I could see supporters of the president say, and people who probably work for him in the White House will be out spinning this tomorrow saying he never ordered anything. No one actually did anything. So no harm, no foul.

BERNSTEIN: They will say that. But I think what we know now is that the Mueller investigation is a sprawling inquiry into all areas of the president's conduct, both in possibility with foreign entities, with foreign nationals, and certainly those around him with foreign nationals. But more than anything, it is focused as we know on an obstruction of justice that involves Mr. Comey among others.

Very significant today that Rudy Giuliani talked about questions that the president would not answer and sure enough, they involve the firing of James Comey. And here we are with more and more information and evidence about what the president intended. So people can say oh, yeah, this doesn't cross the legal barrier.

Let's see what happens in real investigation. And that's where we're heading. BERMAN: I want to get a couple more questions in, Josh, to you. Also

in this article repeatedly is the notion the president is very disappointed with current FBI Director Christopher Wray for failing to more aggressively go after Hillary Clinton.

What message do you think that sends to the rank and file inside the FBI right now?

CAMPBELL: So I think there's two parts. There's the message that the president is trying to send and the message that will be received. By now, the men and women of the FBI understand this administration for what it is. From day one when they came in, again, attempting to blur this line between the independence of the White House and the Justice Department.

So they see it for what it is. They're not going to look at Director Wray and look at him as a weak leader because he failed to, you know, act and serve as the president's personal goon here essentially. But also I think the American people understand that. They know that just because the FBI director or the attorney general or anyone in the Department of Justice doesn't jump when the president says go investigate something, that isn't a sign of weakness. If anything, that's a sign of strength.

Standing up and saying, look, we will put our hand up and say, no, this is inappropriate. You're about to cross a line and we'll not be a part of it.

BERMAN: All right. John Dean, I want you to channel your former White House counsel self. I want to read part of this statement from Don McGahn who said the president to his knowledge never ordered anyone to prosecute Clinton or Comey. So, when you see that, how do you interpret that statement and what do you make of the 30-plus hours that we know that Don McGahn sat down with special counsel Robert Mueller?

DEAN: Well, first, on the 30 hours, I would suspect this sort of thing did come up in the 30 hours. So the special counsel probably is aware of it, and I would think that McGahn is smart enough to get it off his chest and to make sure he gave his point of view of it that he didn't do anything with it.

After the fact it's awfully easy to remold and look at your conversations with the president very differently. I have the benefit of having mine all taped. And I can see what I did and what I didn't do. And I can remember, for example, when Nixon told me when I'm trying to get him to stop the cover-up, that he was just joking when he said getting a million dollars was no trouble.

[20:15:03] It wasn't a joke at all. He was dead serious to tell me that the cover-up had to go on.

BERMAN: I could feel Carl Bernstein smile when you said you had the benefit of your conversations being taped.

Carl Bernstein, John Dean, Josh Campbell, thank you for helping us understand this. As I said, this is incredible perspective from you three gentlemen on this story and I really do appreciate it.

We'll have more on this with Richard Blumenthal who is on the Judiciary Committee, next.

Also ahead, the president gives his clearest signal yet in a statement with multiple exclamation point that he's willing to let Saudi Arabia get away with murder, as long as the money keeps rolling in, specifically the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. We're keeping them honest.

And later, with Facebook under fire from multiple directions, an exclusive interview with Mark Zuckerberg. What he said about calls for him to step aside.


[20:20:13] BERMAN: Before the break, John Dean was talking about new reporting that President Trump just this past spring discussed ordering criminal prosecutions of James Comey and Hillary Clinton. John Dean who was White House counsel to Richard Nixon said something mind blowing. He said that his old boss Richard Nixon would have called what the president is now doing a step too far.

In a way, though this should not come as a shock. During the campaign, as we mentioned, candidate Trump said this is what he wanted to do.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation, because there has never been so many lies, so much deception. There has never been anything like it. And we're going to have a special prosecutor.


BERMAN: With me now is Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democratic senator from Connecticut, a member of the Judiciary Committee.

Senator, what is your reaction to this news tonight in the "New York Times," also CNN is reporting it as well, that President Trump -- and we're talking about just this past spring, asked then White House counsel Don McGahn, questioned whether or not he could prosecute Hillary Clinton and James Comey?

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D-CT), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: This excellent reporting is a bombshell, profoundly significant. The fact that there was actually no prosecution in no way means that there wasn't evidence of criminal intent. In fact, intent to obstruct justice.

And it also indicates the profound danger to the special prosecutor, because now McGahn is gone. Sessions is gone. Whitaker is there. He is really a Trump loyalist. In fact, he has no other qualifications for this job, and that indicates that Congress must take action now. There are protocols and practices and policies in place informally

written down in memoranda, but Congress needs to be involved, having hearings and setting boundaries and guardrails on what the White House can do because the Department of Justice needs to be protected. Its independence is a bedrock. The using of this police power against political enemies is characteristic not only of a banana republic but of Saudi Arabia and Russia whose rulers apparently Donald Trump really admires.

BERMAN: I understand the discussion about using the Justice Department as a tool to go after political opponent, and I want to come back to that, but you said this is evidence of obstruction of justice. And I'm trying to understand exactly why in this narrow case, Hillary Clinton was no longer in office. James Comey was no longer FBI director.

So, why would their prosecution be an obstruction of justice?

BLUMENTHAL: In the same way that the firing of James Comey was an obstruction of justice. In the same way that misuse and abuse of the police power to silence critics is a potential obstruction of justice. The fact that a crime is planned or attempted or conspired to be done can be evidence not only of obstruction of justice. It can be a crime itself.

So the intent here is what's important. It's the most difficult element of obstruction of justice to prove.

BERMAN: Now, I know because you told me this morning, that as a former prosecutor one of the things you want to make sure is you have all the evidence before you make a judgment, but there's a memo. "The New York Times" says there's a memo written by Don McGahn which outlined what happened here. What the president asked and why Don McGahn thinks it might not be a good idea to carry through what the president wanted.

Does the House need to get ahold of this memo and is this in and itself an item that you think is worthy of discussing about perhaps impeachment?

BLUMENTHAL: That memo needs to be subpoenaed by the House, and my hope is the Senate Judiciary Committee as well. In fact, I have a real hope. I think it's realistic, that my Republican colleagues are going to see this report as a kind of watershed. It's a moment of reckoning, because clearly the president has such contempt for the rule of law, for the standards and norms that have guided other presidents that we need really enforceable rules against interference with the Department of Justice.

I hope my Republican colleagues will join us in seeking that memo and all of the other evidence that is relevant to formulating rules to protect the independence of the Department of Justice. And as I said before, we need to require disclosure of the findings and evidence of the special prosecutor, because the American people deserve to know.

[20:25:00] Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, thank you very much for being with us. Appreciate your time again, sir.

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.

BERMAN: Next, the president weighs in on Jamal Khashoggi's murder and Saudi Arabia's responsibility and raises a lot of questions about his own priorities. Is he trading longstanding American principles for Saudi money and less of it than he claims to boot?

We're keeping them honest, next.


BERMAN: Breaking news that President Trump reportedly wanted to prosecute his former presidential rival and the FBI director he fired certainly says a lot about how he used the role as president. So might a statement he put out today. It begins with these seven words, "the world is a very dangerous place."

Now, a lot could follow from that. The world is a very dangerous place, for example, so we must do all we can to make it safer. Or the world is a very dangerous place which makes holding wrongdoers can accountable more important than ever.

However, President Trump today chose a different path. Something more along the lines of the world is a dangerous place, and because it is, we should let murderers get away with it, especially if the murders are paying us lots of money. That's the top and bottom line of the president's response today to the murder of the American-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Last month, Khashoggi went into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to pick up papers so he could remarry. While his fiancee waited outside, he was set upon by a Saudi hit team which included a pathologist with a bone saw. They murdered and dismembered him.

The CIA has concluded the hit was ordered personally by the Saudi king and de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, MBS. Those are the facts in front of President Trump.

And make no mistake. They would put any president in a difficult spot. The leader of a close ally implicated in the assassination of a political opponent who've been living on American soil that any president would have tough choices to make about how to balance geo- strategic and economic interests with things like human rights in American values that may seem squishy at first.

Except that opposing thuggish behavior has always been a part, a very self interested part of U.S. foreign policy and ensuring that no country thinks they can reach out and whack somebody is hardly a squishy concept either. President Trump, however, chose to set that aside and make it all very simple.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're not going to give up hundreds of billions of dollars and orders and let Russia, China and everybody else have them. It's all about for me very simple, it's America first.

Saudi Arabia, if we broke with them, I think your oil prices would go through the roof. I think that it's a very simple equation for me. I'm about make America great again, and I'm about America first.


BERMAN: OK. So the President's priorities are plain to see. But keeping them honest, he gets there by playing fast and loose with the facts. That CIA assessment, which we and now other news organizations have confirmed with multiple sources, the President says never happened.


TRUMP: They did not make that assessment. The CIA has looked at it. They've studied it a lot. They have nothing definitive. And the fact is maybe he did, maybe he didn't.


BERMAN: Maybe he did, maybe he didn't. The President used those same words in a statement today. He also added, "We may never know all the facts," which sounds eerily like his statements about Russia's attack on the 2016 election.

Keeping them honest, though, even if he doesn't know all the facts, he certainly does know enough. And according to the outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he should certainly know better.

Republican Bob Corker wrote, "I never thought I'd see the day a White House would moonlight as a public relations firm for the crown prince of Saudi Arabia."

Now, whether you see that as the ugly truth or just the cheap parting shot, there's no disputing that whatever the Saudis are getting, they're likely paying far less for it than the President lets on.

He talks about an enormous weapons deal, except that it has yet to be finalized. And his claims about Saudi money and American jobs have varied all over the place from $19 billion and 40,000 jobs back in March to nearly $0.5 trillion dollars now and 100,000 of jobs.

Putting America first as the President says may actually be selling America short, or critics say, selling American values short. The President, though, he famously sees a zero sum world, a very dangerous place. And by his lights, he is navigating it in the best interest of the American people. But is that even accurate? Does he also have another motivation? Here's how he answered that when asked about it today.


TRUMP: Just so you understand, I don't make deals with Saudi Arabia. I don't have money from Saudi Arabia. I have nothing to do with Saudi Arabia. I couldn't care less.


JOHN BERMAN: Now, just for starters, that is all notably in the present tense. But it's also worth noting we have absolutely no evidence he's not currently benefiting from such deals. The President has not divested himself of his business empire. He's sons are running it. He has yet to release his taxes. And if he is not right this moment personally doing business with the Saudis, he certainly done plenty over the years as he boasted during the campaign.


TRUMP: Saudi Arabia and I get along great with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend 40 million, 50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.


BERMAN: And Saudi money kept coming in when he became President. According to "The Washington Post," Saudi lobbyists spent $270,000 last year to reserved rooms at the Trump International Hotel in Washington. And this year according to the "Post" investigation, his hotels in New York and Chicago reported significant up ticks in bookings from Saudi visitors.

The world is a very dangerous place, but it might feel safer from a nice hotel suite. And there's yet one more aspect to that dangerous place notion also from "The Washington Post." It has to do with the President's reluctance to visit U.S. troops in war zones.

One reason according to the "Post" that he is not done it is that he dislikes long trips. But, there's another, the "Post" citing a senior White House official who says, "He's afraid of those situations. He's afraid people want to kill him." Dangerous place, indeed.

BERMAN: A lot to talk about. I spoke earlier this evening with Republican Congressman and House Foreign Affairs Committee Member Adam Kinzinger.


BERMAN: So, Congressman, you wrote today, "We cannot turn a blind eye to the murder of Khashoggi." Is that what you think the United States is doing?

REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R), ILLINOIS: You know, it's kind of tough. It depends behind the scenes what's happening. What I wish would have happened today, and I think the President ultimately is making the right decision to not fundamentally shift our relationship with Saudi Arabia, because that has very broad implications.

[20:35:07] But I wish in the statement today, in the two-page press release, about a page and a half of that would have been just focused on how wrong this was, the fact that we believe in the First Amendment. Even if it's not in the United States, we believe in journalism and journalistic ideas. And so I was a little disappointed in the statement, but I think the end result is probably the right end result for this issue.

BERMAN: And in his statement, he said the CIA hasn't made a determination yet. But CNN is reporting the CIA has high confidence that the Saudi crown prince ordered this assassination. And the President said today, "Maybe he did, maybe he didn't." Does that not give the crown prince cover for basically murder?

KINZINGER: Well, I think the crown prince is certainly aware that the world is watching now, so I'm not sure about it giving him cover for further murder, but I do think -- that was actually the line that stood out to me the most, and I think to most people the most ,which is he may have, he may not have.

The fact is we'll never absolutely know because that's how intelligence were short of a confession. But with high confidence, we pretty much know. We know that with pretty much certainty. And so I think that was an unfortunate thing to say. I think it was wrong to say. But, again, the end result, I think, is right.

But I wish somebody else had written that statement and that statement would have said something like we never stand for this kind of brutality but given the fact that we live in a world where there's a lot of bad actors, sometimes we have to pick the least bad.

BERMAN: Congressman, you keep using the word unfortunate here, but you realized there is a mountain of difference between what you just said. We never stand for this kind of brutality and what the President said which is, "Maybe he did, maybe he didn't," and they send diametrically opposed messages.

KINZINGER: They do. I think they send opposed messages and that the President needs to be more verbal about the stuff. He needs to be more -- and not just more verbal, he needs to say any time something like this happens, it's unacceptable and wrong.

By the way, Russia does this. I mean, we know that political opposition and media people have been killed in Moscow --

BERMAN: Congressman?

KINZINGER: -- the President should be more spoken out about that as well.

BERMAN: -- should Vladimir Putin look at what happened in Saudi Arabia and be concerned the next time he wants to order the assassination of a murder -- a journalist or a political opponent? What message should he take from what the President just decided to do in Saudi Arabia?

KINZINGER: You know, I don't know. I can't speak for what message he's going to take because I don't think there's ever any doubt that we're going to do anything militarily or whatever, against Russia because of what they already do. I think he's taken a very strong message from the United States and this administration in the past, which is when it comes to the killing of political opposition, there's not a ton we do.

BERMAN: Was this a good day for the American message of human rights around the world?

KINZINGER: No, not a good day for the message of human rights. I think, you know, I think American foreign policy has been strong, but I think the human rights piece hasn't been in messaging. I think that messaging when it comes to things like human rights, we can't intervene everywhere where there's a human rights issue or where there is a problem, any kind of a civil war. We can't intervene on everyone. But what we can do is speak with authority and I think we missed that opportunity.

BERMAN: Congressman, late today there was this new report out of "The New York Times," Maggie Haberman and Michael Schmidt, that writes that the President wanted the Justice Department to prosecute both Hillary Clinton and former FBI Director James Comey. And we're talking about last spring, spring of 2018, so fairly recently. What's your opinion of that?

KINZINGER: Yes. I haven't read that, so I can't fully react to all the details because sometimes I hear something on the front and find out a lot more details later. I think if there were laws broken, you know, there needs to be a justice process.

But I also don't want to get into the position with this country where past administrations are prosecuted by next administrations because that's what happens in a lot of third world countries.

BERMAN: Congressman Adam Kinzinger, thanks so much for being with us. Happy Thanksgiving.



BERMAN: Facebook is under increasing scrutiny over what it did and didn't do to stop the Russia misinformation campaign on their side ahead of the 2016 election. And there are now calls for Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to step aside. Just ahead, he responds to that and more in an exclusive interview.


[20:43:02] BERMAN: Facebook is under fire. The social media website founded by Mark Zuckerberg is under the microscope on multiple fronts, including questions about why it didn't more actively police the Russian misinformation campaign on it's size, as well as new details the company hired a Republican opposition research firm to discredit activist protesters by linking them to liberal financier, George Soros. That new reporting was from "The New York Times.

The "Times" also said that Facebook lobbied a Jewish civil rights group to portray some of the criticism of Facebook as anti-Semitic. Mr. Zuckerberg hasn't talked in an interview about the new allegations until now. CNN's Laurie Segall joins me now from Facebook headquarters, Menlo Park, California, where she spoke exclusively with the Facebook CEO. Laurie?

LAURI SEGALL, CNN BUSINESS SENIOR TECHNOLOGY CORRESPONDENT: You know, very critical time for Facebook. I think a lot of people watching to see what Mark Zuckerberg, what their leadership will do. And I sat down with him today, John and I, you know, I asked him about these allegations and he adamantly (ph) defended the company and its leadership. Take a listen.


SEGALL: I want to start with some of the revelations that came from "The New York Times" piece.


SEGALL: Let's look at Russia. Did you and other leaders try to minimize Russia's role in spreading propaganda on the platform?

ZUCKERBERG: No. Look, here's what happened. In 2016 there was no doubt that we missed something really important, right, the Russian effort to try to have this coordinated information operations on Facebook and also the internet more broadly was not something that we were expecting.

Elections are always a very high security event and we were expecting certain kind of cyber attacks and we found that, right? The Russians were trying to hack into specific accounts and we told the people and we told the FBI and all of that, but we worried on top of these coordinated information operations. So we spend a lot over the last couple of years now basically building up our systems in strengthening them to be able to address this.

[20:45:03] But we've been very focus on this and we've invested a lot on it. And anyone who wants to say that upon learning about this, we haven't been very focused on trying to both address it and also that we have -- I think anyone who says that we haven't met a lot of progress, I just think that that's not right.

SEGALL: I think that folks talk about transparency, though, you know, this idea that the former chief security officer wanted to publish a transparency paper and every mention of Russia was taken out. It was encouraged not to put Russia in that transparency paper. Do you regret not being more transparent at the time or not getting -- you know, not being more vocal about it at the time?

ZUCKERBERG: You know, I wish that we understood the issues sooner, right? I wish we understood it before 2016, before the Russians tried to do this information operations in the first place.

Now, I do think sometimes people say, well, how did you not know this? And, you know, I think in some of these cases, you know, it's a really big deal to come out and say that a nation state is behind something. And before our company puts a stamp on something saying that, I want to be really sure that that's the case.

SEGALL: Quite a few revelations (INAUDIBLE). One referenced a decision to keep up a Trump post that many considered fell under the hate speech category. In part of this revelation, it said that one of the reasons your team decided to keep it up was because they're worried about a conservative backlash.

I know Facebook has a lot of pressure from the Democrats and Republicans and government in general. Are leaders making content decisions based on appeasing political leaders?

ZUCKERBERG: No. Look, in a lot of these cases --

SEGALL: Did they in that situation?

ZUCKERBERG: No, they didn't. And I was involved in those conversations and I think it's very important that people have the opportunity to hear from what political leaders are saying. So, you know, in those cases, I don't think that a lot of the content violated our policies.

We also have a specific point in our policies where newsworthy content. We give a special deference to, which certainly someone who is a prominent politician going out and making a point fits into that. So, no, I think we did the right thing there.

SEGALL: So it wasn't accurate as a part of the reason they didn't take down that post was because there was concern over a conservative backlash?

ZUCKERBERG: No, that was certainly not any part of the conversation that I had.

SEGALL: I was on the reporter call where you repeatedly denied that you knew anything about hiring this opposition group, PR firm. Can you say it for the record, did you know anything about this?

ZUCKERBERG: Well, I -- like I said on the call, you know, I learned about this when I read the report as well. But I'm not actually sure that's the most important point. I think your question is right that this is -- I do run the company. I am responsible for everything that happens here. I don't think that this point was about a specific PR firm. It was about how we act, right?

And that's why it's -- I think it's important not just, you know, what we're doing in relation to this one firm, but that we go through and look at all the different PR firms and folks that we work with and make sure that we're operating in the way that we want to.

SEGALL: You know, the PR firm was founded by a Republican political strategist and it launched a campaign linking Facebook critics to George Soros. This is a common tactic used by anti-Semitic and outright groups that why I think people were so shocked when they found out about this. I think that was one of the parts of the report that a lot of folks had real questions about. Does that strike you as stooping low? ZUCKERBERG: Yes. I wasn't particularly happy about that piece of it and that certainly a big part of what I -- when I read about this, what made me want to look into this more deeply. So, the intention here is never to attack an individual.

SEGALL: I mean, but in this particular scenario, launching -- you know, it's not common for tech companies to necessarily hire these types of firms. And many would argue it's a way of spreading the same type of conspiracy theory that Facebook has worked so hard in the last couple of years to get on top of.

ZUCKERBERG: Yes. Look, from the review that I've done so far, it doesn't appear that anything that the group said was untrue as far as we can tell.

SEGALL: There are a lot of questions now about Sheryl Sandberg's role in the latest controversy. Can you definitely say Sheryl will stay in her same role?

ZUCKERBERG: Yes. Look, Sheryl is a really important part of this company and is leading a lot of the efforts to address a lot of the biggest efforts that -- the biggest issues that we have. And she's been an important partner for me for 10 years and, you know, I'm really proud of the work that we've done together and I hope that we work together for decades more to come.

SEGALL: You are CEO and chairman of Facebook. That's an extraordinary amount of power given that you rule a kingdom of 2 billion people digitally, essentially. Shouldn't your power be checked?

ZUCKERBERG: You know, I've always talked about how we need to partner with governments around the world, and other companies, and non- profits, and other sectors. So, yes, I don't think fundamentally that we're going to be able to address all of these issues by ourselves.

[20:50:02] SEGALL: So you're not stepping down as chairman?

ZUCKERBERG: That's not the plan.

SEGALL: That's not the plan. Would anything change that?

ZUCKERBERG: I mean, I think eventually overtime. I mean, I'm not going to be doing this forever, but I certainly -- I'm not currently thinking that that makes sense.

SEGALL: This idea of transparency is important and we keep hearing it. But then you have these reports coming out that say something otherwise. So how do you ensure that you do win back public trust?

I think this is an incredibly pivotal point for the company, and for you as a leader, because it certainly seems over the last year, we haven't stopped hearing about, you know, one thing after the next that shows otherwise that the company hasn't been as transparent.

ZUCKERBERG: Yes. Well, look, there are always going to be issues. But if you're serving a community of more than 2 billion people, there's going to be someone who is posting something that is -- that is problematic that gets through the systems that we have in place, no matter how advanced the systems are.

And I think by in large, the -- a lot of the criticism around the biggest issues has been fair, but I do think that if we're going to be real, there is this bigger picture as well which is that we have a different world view than some of the folks who are covering this. And --

SEGALL: But if we've given the world a voice, look at what's happened in the last year. You've had elections in the last years, elections manipulated, hate speech that's gone viral and turned offline. It certainly seems like this mission has been accomplished in many ways and there's a whole new set of problems that, perhaps, you guys didn't foresee. And now we're in a very complicated place where there's not an easy solution.

ZUCKERBERG: Yes. There's -- these are complex issues that you can't fix. You manage them on an ongoing basis.

SEGALL: Given what you know now, can Facebook effectively be a part of politics and can you guarantee that you can control it?

ZUCKERBERG: Well, I think it's a positive force because it gives more people a voice.

SEGALL: But it's also given nation states a voice, too, in our democratic process.

ZUCKERBERG: And that part needs to be managed really carefully, but --

SEGALL: And you're confident that you guys can do that?

ZUCKERBERG: With the right support from governments and partnerships and a ton of investment on an ongoing basis, I think we can stay ahead of these sophisticated threats.


BERMAN: Laurie, so interesting to hear him speak at length because we so rarely get that opportunity. Now, he told you he's not stepping down as chairman, as some suggested, but I understand that they are putting some checks on the amount of power that he might yield?

SEGALL: Yes. You know, look, I think a lot of folks are wondering is Mark Zuckerberg too powerful? This is a question I think a lot of folks have at this time given what's happened.

But, you know, when it comes to content and this idea of who decides what stays on Facebook and what goes, I don't think Facebook or Mark Zuckerberg really wants to be in that decision of being editor in chief of Facebook. I think that's problematic and we've seen, as you heard from this interview, are they -- why are they making these decisions? Are they politically biased? And I think those are questions that we're all asking.

So they've added an independent third party where if your content gets taken down for whatever reason on Facebook, you can appeal to that third party. And if they decide Facebook was wrong, your content will go back up. I think that's one step, but that's just one step and I think, you know, the company has a long way to go.

They just announced some changes with their news feed that would help make it difficult to see some of the more sensational headlines and I think that's something maybe, you know, that's something they could have done a couple years ago, but that's something they're doing now.

So, you know, you hear over and over again that we were too slow to act and I think that's an issue and that's something Mark Zuckerberg is trying to get on top of. You know, I'm sitting here outside of Facebook's -- at Facebook's campus outside of Facebook's walls and, you know, inside you have all these posters, John, that have all these inspirational quotes about doing good in the world.

And then on the outside, you have people really questioning the impact of that company. And I think that's something moving forward we're all going to be looking at very closely.

BERMAN: Posters only go so far. Laurie Segall, a fascinating interview. We look forward to hearing much more of it. Laurie's interview with Mark Zuckerberg is part of a launch of a new series called "The Human Code," a weekly look at what's happening now in Silicon Valley and what the future may bring. One interview a week will roll out on and here on CNN.

Let's check in with Chris Cuomo to see what he's working on for "Cuomo Prime Time" in a few minutes. Chris?

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Big news, JB, big news. The President submitting his answers to questions to the special counsel, what was in them, more importantly, what wasn't? More important than that, even, is what's the agreement going forward? I have new reporting for you on all of that and excellent perspective with the 81st A.G. for the United States, Mike Mukasey, worked with George W. Bush obviously after Alberto Gonzalez step down. We'll get his perspective on what are the processes, what these answers might mean. So, we'll take care of that.

[20:55:00] But then, this idea that the President wanted to prosecute Comey and Clinton, how did he say he wanted to do that? To whom did he discuss it with? What would it have meant if he tried to do it? Again, Mukasey a great voice on that.

We're taking that on and a lot of other headlines for you. And I have a special treat in my Thanksgiving closing, JB, maybe a word about your pretty self.

BERMAN: That's pretty good, a special treat as long as you bring cranberry sauce as well, that will make a worthwhile.

CUOMO: You like the jelly, don't you? BERMAN: Thank you very much. Chris Cuomo, thank you. We'll see you in a few minutes.

As recently as yesterday, the Pentagon said it didn't have a cost that it was ready to publicly disclose for the President's border troops but there's breaking news tonight. We're learning what you, the taxpayers, are paying for this particular exercise. That's next.


BERMAN: More breaking news tonight. For the first time, the Pentagon is putting a price tag on the President's operation to send thousands of troops to the border before the caravan of migrant asylum seekers even reaches it. That price tag is $72 million.

Today, the Defense Department said the total cost of the operation has yet to be determined, but that's the estimate for the current deployment of 59,000 troops through December 15th.