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President Trump Echoes Attorney General Barr's Claim of Spying on His Campaign; Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) is Interviewed About Attorney General Barr's Comment and President Trump's Spy Claims; President Levels Treason Accusations Against Democrats. Aired on 8-9p ET

Aired April 11, 2019 - 20:00   ET


[20:00:19] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Good evening.

A very busy hour ahead, whether it's the arrest of WikiLeaks' Julian Assange or the story we begin with tonight, the attorney general of the United States and exactly who he is and is not working for. Is he an impartial lawman or trying to curry favor with President Trump?

The question is being asked tonight because of Barr's most recent Senate testimony and the way he characterized aspects of the FBI's Russia counterintelligence investigation, specifically this.


WILLIAM BARR, ATTORNEY GENERAL: We want to make sure that during -- I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal. It's a big deal.

SEN. JEANNE SHAHEEN (D-NH): So you're not -- you're not suggesting, though, that spying occurred?

BARR: I don't -- well, I guess you could -- I think there is a spying did occur. Yes, I think spying did occur.

SHAHEEN: Well, let me --

BARR: But the question is whether it was predicated, adequately predicated. And I'm not suggesting it wasn't adequately predicated, but I need to explore that.


COOPER: I need to explore that.

A source familiar with the attorney general's thinking later told us he did not mean to use spying in the pejorative sense nor see it as red meat for anyone. Still, as CNN's Chris Cillizza point out, he could have just as easily said surveillance approved by a FISA court instead of spying, because that's what it was. Surveillance approved by a FISA court.

Now, remember, it was approved by several judges and notified about it in May of 2017, top lawmaker on both sides of the aisle, the so-called Gang of Eight, they didn't raise objections. That's according to Assistant FBI Director Andrew McCabe, who we should mention President Trump fired and has verbally attacked on many occasions.

Yet quoting McCabe on the Gang of Eight, no one objected, not on legal grounds, not on constitutional grounds nor based on the facts. Nor have we seen any other evidence it was carried out in anything but a normal fashion.

Yet, despite all that, Attorney General Barr said spying and we still don't know why. Does he know something we or the Gang of Eight don't know about the origins of the investigation? It's unclear. Was it to give the president cover, give him something else to point to when the redacted version of the Mueller report is released? Again, unclear.

Was it just a misstatement? Did he say the word "spy" when he really meant "surveillance"? We don't know.

Now, keeping them honest, what we do know is that whatever his intent, Mr. Barr relit the fuse of conspiracy for the president and his supporters. Rush Limbaugh ran with it. So did Fox News and any number of conspiracy theorists on the right.

As for the investigation's critic-in-chief, he was happy to pick wrap- up the attorney general left off.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think what he said was absolutely true. There was absolutely spying into my campaign. I'll go a step further. In my opinion, it was illegal spying, unprecedented spying, and something that should never be allowed to happen in our country again.

And I think his answer was actually a very accurate one and a lot of people saw that -- a lot of people understand many, many people understand the situation and want to be open to that situation. Hard to believe it could have happened, but it did. There was spying in my campaign, and his answer was a very accurate one.


COOPER: Well, again, defenders of the president echoed that line today. But the president went a step or two beyond.


TRUMP: It's a disgrace what happened. Again, it should never happen to a president again. You're just lucky I happen to be the president, because a lot of other president would have reacted much differently than I reacted. You're very lucky I was the president during this scam. During the Russian hoax, as I call it.


COOPER: We're lucky, he says. It's unclear why he says that.

Does he mean we're lucky because another president might publicly trash the FBI and the Justice Department every chance he gets or fired the FBI director or publicly appear to intimidate witnesses at times on live television or openly praise former associates, including convicted felons for not being rats or characterize a lawful investigation as a coup attempt, or someone oddly and arguably and ominously remind a rally of supporters that he has the armed forces and the police on his side as well as construction workers and bikers?

Are we lucky because any other president might actually do things like that or use his position as president to lobby to have people he sees as enemies prosecuted? I mean, who would do a thing like that?


TRUMP: It's a very bad thing that people have done, and I just hope that law enforcement takes it up, because if they don't take it up, they're doing a great disservice to our country.


COOPER: Well, keeping him honest, whether he intended to or not, Attorney General Barr's choice of the word spying as validated all of that, neither the president or the attorney general offered any evidence.

[20:05:02] Attorney General Barr, on the other hand, having gotten the word spying out there proceeded to use his considerable verbal skills to avoid saying anything more.


SEN. JACK REED (D-RI): It was an investigation by director Mueller into the 2016 campaign and other issues. Have you any evidence that there was anything improper in those investigations?

BARR: I have no specific evidence that I would cite right now. I do have questions about it.

REED: So this panel you're putting together --

BARR: I'm not putting together a panel.

REED: So you just have some interest in this. You don't have any evidence?

BARR: I have concerns about various aspects of it.


COOPER: That was Rhode Island Democratic Senator Jack Reed from yesterday's hearing. We spoke about the fallout earlier today.


COOPER: Senator Reed, you heard President Trump say today that he agrees with Attorney General Barr's claim that there was spiking the 2016 campaign. The president saying it was, quote, illegal spying and unprecedented spying. I'm wondering what your reaction is to that. REED: Well, I think the attorney general was completely off base in

characterizing an FBI counterintelligence investigation as spying. He knows enough not to use those kind of high voltage terminology. In fact, when I pressed him and asked for does he have any evidence to support this suggestion, he said no, I don't. So, again, this seems to be either coincidentally or deliberately synchronized with the president's descriptions going way back to witch hunt now to spying. And I don't think the attorney general did himself or the office of attorney general any service.

COOPER: I mean, Attorney General Barr is no novice to giving testimony. He's been the attorney general before. I mean, he is a well thought of attorney.

So he certainly knows how to pick what words he wants to use. He uses in president Trump's vernacular, the best words. It's not an accident it seems that he used that word.

REED: Oh, it's not an accident. It's a very highly charged word, spying. It has a negative connotation.

And if you have any evidence of that, which he said he has none, well, then you might think about using it. But when you're talking about an investigation into the operations of the federal agency, that's too highly charged a word, and it didn't appear to be accidental. He's too -- again, too well-educated and too well-informed to be using it casually.

COOPER: I talked to David Gergen and Carl Bernstein last night, both of whom said they have talked publicly about kind of giving him the benefit of the doubt through his confirmation process, and once he became attorney general about how he was going to fill out the responsibilities and the duties of attorney general.

I know you voted against Barr's confirmation. I'm wondering, do you see a shift even from what he said during his hearing back then to how he is handling the Mueller report now?

REED: No, I think he has been fairly consistent. He's signaled many months ago with his unsolicited memorandum to the president about how charges against him could not be substantiated as someone who would be I think not only cooperative with the president as a cabinet member, but protective.

And the attorney general has a very virtually unique role. They are not only the president's attorney, they're the people's attorney. They're the ones who are charged with, you know, protecting the constitution and the institutions created by the Constitution. And so, I was not surprised.

I was a bit disappointed, because, again, I would hoped he would have rose to the task and been much more faithful to his duties rather than appear to be coordinating with either implicitly or explicitly with the president.

COOPER: The president also said today of the Mueller investigation, he said, you're just lucky I happen to be the president because a lot of other presidents would have reacted very differently than I've reacted. Do you have any idea what he actually means by that? Obviously his reaction has already shattered countless norms.

REED: I have no idea. Director Mueller conducted one of the most professional investigations that I think I've ever seen. There was no comments by Director Mueller. There was no leaking of material.

And then finally, he concluded, at least so far that we can understand from Attorney General Barr's letter, that there was no charge of conspiracy between the campaign and others, although it was interesting in the Barr letter, said Mueller could not exonerate the president from obstruction of justice charge, he also could not establish a crime.

[20:10:05] So, you know, I think the Mueller investigation report to date has been a model of what you expect from a dedicated public servant like bob Mueller. Letter, said Mueller could not exonerate the president from obstruction of justice charge, he also could not establish a crime. I think the Mueller investigation report to date has been a model of what you expect from a dedicated public servant like bob Mueller. And by the way, a decorated war hero to boot.

COOPER: Senator Reed, I appreciate your time. Thank you.

REED: Thank you, Anderson.


COOPER: Well, we've been talking to someone who came to the job, unlike many, with a long pedigree at the Justice Department, including as attorney general once before, he was.

So to some it was reason to give him the benefit of the doubt, as I said. Others, though, saw in that same record reason for concern about his willing to put serving his boss ahead of perhaps serving the country.

Our Randi Kaye tonight takes a closer look at Barr then and now.


RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Attorney General William Barr's performance this week isn't the first time he's aligned himself with the president he is serving.

BARR: Thank you, Mr. President.

KAYE: Go back nearly 30 years to Barr's first stint as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush. "New York Times" columnist William Safire, a conservative Republican, often referred to Barr then not as attorney general, but as the cover-up general, suggesting he covered up Bush's role in Iraq gate, burying the investigation of how the Bush administration allegedly helped finance Saddam Hussein's weapons. Barr also played a role in the Iran/contra affair, convincing

President Bush just before Christmas in 1992 to pardon six former members of the Reagan administration, including former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who was set to go to trial for allegedly lying to Congress.

The pardons at Barr's urging essentially shut down the independent counsel's investigation, leading some to call it a miscarriage of justice.

In 2001, Barr was asked about the pardons. His response? The Iran/Contra ones I certainly did not oppose any of them.

Also telling in Barr's history is this 19-page unsolicited memo Barr wrote to the justice department in June last year before Trump nominated him. In it, Barr criticizes the Mueller investigation, calling Mueller's obstruction of justice theory fatally misconceived.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): This is what he was hired to do, which was to protect the president. But it is deeply concerning.

KAYE (on camera): Back in 2017, Barr also raised eyebrows, telling the "New York Times" there is more basis for investigating the sale of uranium between the U.S. and Russia while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state than the Trump campaign's alleged collusion with Russia. But when Barr said it, the FBI had already investigated the Uranium One deal and no evidence has ever been made public showing proof of a bribery scheme or wrongdoing. Barr later walked back his claims.

BARR: I have no knowledge of the Uranium One. I didn't particularly think that was necessarily something that should be pursued aggressively.

KAYE: Meanwhile, if you think William Barr may be too close to the president, consider this. His son-in-law works in the White House counsel's office. The son-in-law's role is troubling, says the former director of the Office of Government Ethics because, quote, it raises further questions about Barr's independence.

Randi Kaye, CNN, New York.


COOPER: Well, let's get more perspective now. Joining us is investigative reporter, author and CNN political analyst Carl Bernstein. Also with us CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger and CNN chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

Carl, looking at Attorney General Barr's past, what do you think you can tell about what happens now?

CARL BERNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think we just have to look at it as perhaps being instructive. I brought it up last night, as you know, in Bill Safire's characterization of Mr. Barr as the cover- up general. At the same time, we need to see this report. And what we're witnessing now is a kind of provocative conduct, words, behavior almost inexplicable by the attorney general of the United States. Instead of waiting to show us this report and what's in it, he is feeding the president's rhetoric.

He is -- we heard the president today refer to treason, that this investigation shows that that there has been treason. And those words were enabled by Mr. Barr's provocative comments, whether intentional or not. And it's very hard to believe that somebody who has been around the track as many times as Mr. Barr has in the capitol of the United States doesn't recognize the provocative nature of what he has been saying and doing in the last two weeks.

COOPER: Yes. And, Gloria, again, the use of the word "spying" I know a source familiar with Barr's thinking told CNN he wasn't referring to spying in the classic sense, not as a pejorative. But, I mean, Barr is a smart man --


COOPER: -- who use his words very carefully and lawyerly. He knows exactly what that term connotes.

BORGER: Sure. The term has really dark overtones. I mean, we're not talking about foreign espionage here. We're talking about the FBI trying to do a counterintelligence operation, and sometimes they have to use electronic surveillance.

And, Anderson, I want to point out something to you. That Trey Gowdy, who has now left the Congress, but he is a conservative House Republican, he got a briefing in May of 2018 about what the FBI was up to, and he came out of the briefing and said this: I am even more convinced that the FBI did exactly what my fellow citizens would want them to do when they got the information they got, and it has nothing to do with Donald Trump.

So, this is a conservative Republican after he was briefed. And, you know, we also know the inspector general is doing a report on this. So how about waiting for that to come forth rather than talking about spying at this public hearing.

COOPER: Jeff, the president is now saying illegal spying. If all of this, again, is in reference to the FISA warrants on Carter Page, the warrants were renewed three times and done so by Republican-appointed judges, and Congress members, the Gang of Eight was briefed.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: We're focusing a lot, appropriately, on his repeated use of the term "spying", but to me what was even more disturbing about his testimony yesterday was his promise to do his own investigation of the Mueller investigation, you know, which is not something that attorneys general generally do. There is an inspector general who's supposed to do investigations, although there is no evidence of any sort of impropriety when it comes to Mueller.

And I think he is a case study in the evolution of the Republican Party, which in the '80s and '90s certainly believed in a strong presidency, and that's what led to the pardons. But now, you know, we're into the Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Breitbart conspiracy theorists, Uranium One which he was talking about, that we backed away from that. Now he is talking about spying. I mean, he is a good example of how the Republican Party has moved dramatically and in some cases irrationally to the right.

COOPER: Yes. I mean, Carl, again, the idea that Barr is going to investigate the origins of the Russia investigation, as Jeff said, there is an inspector general already looking into some of that.

BERNSTEIN: Not only, that it's not the time for it. This is the time for the American people and the Congress of the United States to receive Mr. Mueller's report and to learn everything that Mr. Mueller found out. It might be able to exonerate the president. So be it.

We need to know what's in there, not anything from the attorney general of the United States that gratuitously feeds the deep state conspiratorial notions of a president of the United States whose running around calling his enemies treasonous. This is unprecedented, actually. We have not seen this kind of conduct, again, whether intentional or not.

The affect of it is to enable the president to continue to invoke these terrible conspiracies that there is no evidence that they exist, and yet they have become a major factor in our politics, and we are now in a cold civil war in this country. It doesn't begin with Trump, but he's brought it to the point of ignition. And one of the ways he's brought this cold civil war to the point of ignition is through this kind of rhetoric that is not backed up by fact and which the attorney general himself is now enabling.

COOPER: Gloria, the attorney general -- I should say the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein spoke to "The Wall Street journal" today. He defended Barr and said look, he is being as forthcoming as he can. So this notion that he is trying to mislead people I think is completely bizarre.

Does Rosenstein have any motivation at this late point in his tenure to be anything but honest or forthright?

BORGER: Well, you know, Barr is his boss, and he was talking about the way Barr has gone about releasing the letter, which by the way he did with Rod Rosenstein at his side, and, you know, the way he is handling the whole release of the Mueller report. What Rosenstein did not comment on was the spying comment.

BERNSTEIN: That's right.

BORGER: And don't forget that Rosenstein was the person who approved the FISA application to spy, spy if you want to use that word, to surveil carter page that went to the FISA court. So I'm wondering if Rosenstein himself feels a little miffed by this kind of characterization and certainly by the president, which implies that something illegal might have been happening here and whether he's happy or not happy, that Barr played into that whole scenario. [20:20:10] COOPER: Jeff, I mean, if he is miffed, it's odd that he

gives an interview, it's the first interview Rosenstein has given since one day after the Barr spying comment.

TOOBIN: I can't speak to what his motivation was for giving the interview, but he has been a company guy for these two-plus years. He did have the courage to appoint Robert Mueller, and I think that is something history will look very kindly on him for, but except for that, he defended Jeff Sessions, his former boss. He is defending Barr now. And, you know, he is on the team. And the interview today was consistent with that.

COOPER: Jeff Toobin, Carl Bernstein, Gloria Borger, thank you.

Coming up next, the question to Carl's question a moment ago and presidential rhetoric, what happens when the president accuses a political opposition not of obstruction but treason? We're exactly to find out because that's exactly what the president has done. Two views on how serious to take it when we come back.

And, later, Jeff Toobin returns to talk about the charges against Julian Assange, the ones he now faces, the penalties it carries, and some truly incredible details about why the Ecuadoran embassy in London has decided to evict. That and more when we continue.


[20:25:39] COOPER: You heard the president earlier in the program railing against the Russian investigation. Yesterday, he used the kind of language normally used by an authoritarian ruler who claims his opponents are trying to foment a coup. The president actually called the Department of Justice investigation of the Russian interference an attempted coup against him.

That's not normal language for the leader of our democracy to use. He's already repeated said the Democrats are anti-Israel, anti- Semitic, and last night he called them traitors. And I'm quoting now from his tweet, I think what the Democrats are doing with the border is treasonous. Their open border mindset is putting our country at risk. Will not let this happen.

Now, before we go any further, we should just pause to once again say this is not normal. Normal is referring to members of the opposition party, no matter how much they like them or hate them. He is my good friend across the aisle or at worst the obstructionist Democrats or Republicans as the case may be.

It's not normal for any president of any president of either party at any time to accuse the members of the opposition party of treason. Three crimes are mentioned in the Constitution, counterfeiting, piracy and treason. Treason is the only one explicitly defined because of how serious it. Article 3 Section 3 says treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person will be convicted of treason except on the testimony of two witnesses or confession in open court. Now, it's not a term to be thrown around lightly or even in anger,

especially when the accuser happens to hold the highest office in the land.

I want to talk about it now with former Trump campaign adviser Steve Cortes, and CNN global affairs analyst Max Boot, author of "The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right."

Steve, if President Obama had called Republicans treasonous, wouldn't people -- wouldn't Republicans understandably be very upset?

STEVE CORTES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. And, listen, Anderson, I totally agree. You know how much I strenuously support the agenda of this president, but I'm no sycophant, and I don't like this rhetoric at all. I think it's over the top and uncalled for. He shouldn't be using a word like treasonous.

I would remind the president that for the last two years, he and supporters like me, we have all been aghast that the left continually accused him of treason, of being an agent that was beholden to a foreign power. That was a ludicrous and unfair smear. Let's not mirror those tactics. Let's not use the same kind of hyperbole in attacking the policy problems of left.

Look, I totally concur with the president on his policies on the border and I totally concur that the Democrats do favor open borders, but let's leave treason as a term out of it. We don't need to reach always for the most extreme language possible to describe our political opponents.

COOPER: Max, there is not a lot of Democrats I've heard saying I want an open border and people streaming across and people --

CORTES: Well, they don't say that, Anderson. That's not fair because they know how unpopular it is. But that doesn't mean they don't want open borders. Beto O'Rourke wants to tear down existing border walls.

MAX BOOT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Steve, come on, come on.

CORTES: In your city and state in New York, the mayor of New York wants to eliminate ICE, the governor of New York called ICE --

COOPER: Steve.


BOOT: Come on.

CORTES: They just don't want to use the term.

BOOT: Let's be honest here. Nobody in the United States is in favor of open borders. What Democrats are opposed to --

CORTES: I disagree.

BOOT: Oh, OK, come on. Democrats are opposed to separating families, locking kids in cages. Nobody is saying remove the border patrol and that anybody who wants to come to the United States, come.

CORTES: Really? I just named three Democratic politicians who are in favor of that. I just named three.

COOPER: Has any of them called for the elimination of the border?

BOOT: No. Nobody is calling for the elimination of the border.

Let me make a point here, Steve, because we're focusing immediately on where we disagree. Let me focus on where we agree. I'm very, very happy to hear you say what you just said, that there is no room in the national debate for accusing your opponents of treason. I think that is especially corrosive when it's coming from the president of the United States who needs to see his job as uniting us rather than dividing us, appealing to our better angels.

CORTES: Agreed.

BOOT: And I'm very glad, I think it's very important what you just said. Let me just emphasize that, because we can disagree about President Trump's policies, and I suspect we disagree about a whole lot of his policies, including his border policies, but thing is really incumbent upon us living in a liberal democracy to assume that our opponents are making arguments of good faith and they are just as motivated by the welfare of the country as we are. So I'm very happy we can agree on that.

CORTES: Right.

COOPER: You know, does not just tow the party line all the time. Sorry I interrupted you. Go ahead, Steve.

CORTES: No, I would ask you then, Max --


BOOT: I'm happy that we can agree on that.

COOPER: But, honestly, it's one of the --


CORTES: I agree. And I would challenge you and ask --

COOPER: -- because Steve has, you know, does not just tow the party line all the time, so it's one of the reasons it's get to talk about. I'm sorry, I interrupted you. Go ahead, Steve.

CORTES: No, I would ask you then, Max, I hope you would also join me then in saying, for example, that the left often accuses people who are in favor of strong border policies or in favor of perhaps less legal immigration, automatically accuses them of racism.

I think that is equally wrong to -- for the left to reach immediately for that kind of extreme language. I don't like the President saying treason, and I don't like the left saying that if you don't like immigration as is you're racist.

BOOT: Well, I think the reality is, Steve, that the President does appeal to racism, that his language is over the top.


BOOT: It does appeal to xenophobia and nativism. I think there's no question that he does that.

CORTES: Oh, stop.

BOOT: But I think that you're correct that it's going over the line to say that somebody is actually guilty of treason. And a few people have said that Trump is guilty of treason, I think that is going over the line.

COOPER: Steve --

CORTES: No, I asked you about racism and unfortunately, Max, you're joining the left in their smear that anyone --


BOOT: I'm not joining the left. I'm just calling it as I see it. I'm just calling it as I see it --


BOOT: -- because the President stigmatizes immigrants with all his focus on immigration crime, for example, even though we know the crime rate for immigrants is actually lower than that.

CORTES: He does stigmatized immigrants.

BOOT: He calls them animals, Steve.

CORTES: He stigmatizes trespassers.

BOOT: Come one, he calls them animals.

CORTES: No. He called -- listen, that's fake news. He calls MS-13 monsters, animals.

BOOT: That is not fake news. Now, if you want to listen to what he said, he should not be calling anybody an animal.

CORTES: And the only problem of calling them animals is it's unfair to animals to call them. It's unfair to animals to call MS-13 people animals.

BOOT: No, no, Steve, that is not right. That is dehumanizing language, Steve. That's right.

COOPER: Steve, just in general --

CORTES: And that is -- yes, you know what, it is dehumanizing because their behavior is dehumanizing. Have you seen what they do? And what they do by the way primarily to Hispanic-Americans in this country, if you look at the victims of MS-13, they're overwhelmingly Hispanic- American citizens. And those perpetrators, yes, they are animals.

BOOT: The crime rate among immigrants is lower than the native born, Steve. Come on, the crime rate among immigrants is lower than among the native born. This is xenophobia and fear mongering.

CORTES: The crime rate among illegal aliens should be 0.0 because they shouldn't be here in the first place. That's apples and oranges to compare native born to illegal immigrant crime rate.


BOOT: Trump could not run his resorts, Steve, without undocumented immigrants. OK, he's relied on them for years.

COOPER: That is true, isn't it, Steve? I mean, he -- I mean, Trump Tower was built with Polish workers who weren't wearing hard hats and they were, you know, known to be not here legally. He has lots of people working in his resorts who according to "The New York Times" and other investigations have been revealed and now they're just quietly being fired. That's a little hypocritical, isn't it?

CORTES: Right. Anderson, I don't know the details on, you know, what you talked about with Polish laborers, I don't know about that. I do know about "The New York Times" report because that was quite recent.

And, listen, that was an absolute problem for the Trump administration. Clearly, yes, I agree. And the Trump administration -- excuse me, the Trump Organization has to be cleaner than clean when it comes to employing Americans and America first. And I will say that our country, in general, big business in general, has absolutely benefited tremendously from --


COOPER: Right. But if the guy who knows everything that's going on in his company allegedly, because we've heard that time and time again, is employing people who are undocumented and it's a systematic thing that's been going on for years and years and years, and yet is arguing America first and arguing -- I mean, that's just hypocrisy.

CORTES: Look, the Trump Organization, you know, again, yes, has to be cleaner than clean in this regard.

COOPER: Right. The Trump Organization is Donald Trump and his kids. I mean that said, there's not a lot of people.

CORTES: Well, not at this point, I know. He's running a much bigger organization which is the United States government. And I would also too, though, I do object to the term undocumented because it makes it sound as though paperwork is not in order. Well, that's not the case, all right. They're no undocumented.

BOOT: But, Steve -- no, no, but I -- (CROSSTALK)

CORTES: If you break and enter into this country --

BOOT: No, no, I object to the term illegal aliens, because a lot of the people we're talking about are refugees who are seeking legal asylum in the United States. That is actually the surge on our southern border is not people who are sneaking across, it's people who are presenting themselves at ports of entry and asking for legal asylum.

COOPER: You don't want to call them undocumented workers, you could just call them Trump employees. Steve Cortes, thank you, Max Boot as well. We've got to go, I'm sorry.

Still ahead, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange dragged out of the embassy where he's been hiding out for seven years. After the arrest, President Trump claims he knows nothing about the WikiLeaks, which is odd, because remember during the campaign, him saying how much he loved WikiLeaks? It turns out, according to Politico, he mentioned WikiLeaks more than 100 times during the 2016 campaign. We're "Keeping Them Honest," next.


[20:37:55] COOPER: There is breaking news on immigration right now, perhaps with a twist on it that we've never really experienced or heard about before. "The Washington Post" has it, it's just been posted. Quoting now from the lead, "White House officials have tried to pressure U.S. immigration authorities to release detainees on to the streets of sanctuary cities to retaliate against President Trump's political adversaries, according to Department of Homeland Security officials in email messages reviewed by The Washington Post."

Rachael Bade shares the byline on this. She joins us now by phone. Rachael, I haven't even had time to read this full article. Can you just walk us through your reporting what this plan was? I guest it was by from the White House to Homeland Security.

RACHAEL BADE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST (on the phone): Happy to do it, Anderson. Yes, it's a crazy story. Basically, we found out that Stephen Miller, who is one of the top White House hardliners on the immigration, very close to the President, they leaned on ICE to consider this proposal where they would be moving undocumented immigrants they had captured at the border to sanctuary cities or the districts of adversaries like Democrats. And the one that was mentioned in particular was Nancy Pelosi, who is the speaker of the House.

This came twice. It came right after the election at a time when the caravan, remember the caravan that the President always talked about before the 2018 election, they had just reached the border. So these talks started percolating around that time. And, you know, ICE was really alarmed by this.

They seemed to ignore it at first, and then sort of put it on the back burner. But it came up again right after the President decided to reopen the government following the 35-day shutdown in January. The President basically gave lawmakers three weeks to come up with this deal to fund the border. And one of the key issues they were debating was detention beds.

Democrats wanted fewer detention beds for ICE. And so this came back. This idea was pushed again by the White House on ICE in February right in the midst of these talks where Democrats were saying they didn't want to give these detention beds numbers to the Republicans, into the Trump administration.

[20:40:06] So ultimately, according to our reporting and the folks we spoke with, including two whistleblowers who actually came to Congress with their concerns, this never went anywhere because ultimately Democrats relented on the detention bed issue. Obviously, they didn't give the President the wall funding he wanted, but on detention beds they relented.

And also several legal advisers in ICE found that there was no legal justification for doing this. And so, you know, they ultimately pushed back on the White House and said no.

COOPER: So I just want to back up on something you said. They'd mentioned in particular Nancy Pelosi. So they were actually suggesting putting people who had just been arrested from the southern border and driving them to San Francisco or -- I mean, to Nancy Pelosi's district to drop them off?

BADE: That's exactly right, bussing them. There were two sorts of ideas that we heard from folks familiar with these plans. One of them was to take people right from the border who were trying to cross and move them to sanctuary cities, including San Francisco where Pelosi obviously is -- serves the district as speaker. The other idea was to move people who are already in detention in ICE to these districts. So there's sort of two different plans considered, both of them shutdown.

ICE officials not only had legal concerns with this, but ICE from a policy standpoint, they have always argued that we can't move migrants from one area to another because we're not appropriated to do that. We don't have the money to do that. Congress never gave us the authority. We can only take people out of the country.

And so oftentimes they use that excuse when it came to trying to move immigrants from one shelter to another, but this went in direct contradiction to that and as a policy. So both legally and, you know, from a policy standpoint, they just said this doesn't make any sense. And obviously they were very concerned about the optics of this too.

In fact, one DHS official said that this would be, you know, PR catastrophe to look like you were going after your political foes, releasing undocumented immigrants to try to punish people.

And remember, the President has harped on sanctuary cities before. He said that they -- you know, they're dangerous areas and, you know, it's like a wild west. Well, it looks like they were trying to perpetuate that by releasing people that in their mind thought would create some sort of havoc on their Democratic opponents.

COOPER: Right. I mean, it's almost as if they -- you're not actually thinking about that these were actually human beings. You are actually moving and then I guess dumping some place far away after a very long bus trip. Just to be clear, your reporting is that this was seen as retaliation, that this essentially to cause problems for the President's political enemies?

BADE: That's exactly right, 100 percent. You know, one person who I spoke with in DHS said that this would be sort of like teaching Democrats a lesson, teaching people who, you know, oversee sanctuary cities or Democrats who wanted to curb funding for law enforcement at the border or that this would basically be them saying this is what it's like to not have enforcement and to have all this stuff happening on your streets.

COOPER: And have you actually seen e-mails to this effect or is this based on the whistle --

BADE: We have.

COOPER: You have? You've actually seen the e-mails?

BADE: We have. We've seen e-mails from the White House to ICE officials asking them about this and what their options could be. And, you know, the first one we saw was from November, like I said, right after the election.

Leading up to the election, the President talked a lot about the caravan and, you know, a lot of Republicans were concerned about his rhetoric on this, thinking that they would lose their majority because he went too far on taking this horrifying immigration policy.

Well, it seems like that lesson never sank in because this was considered right around that time, right around the time that the migrants or the caravan, as he calls them, were getting to the border. So, yes, it's considered.

COOPER: Can you say -- have you published those e-mails? Or can -- and if not, can you say who they were from in the White House and who they were sent to?

BADE: Yes. We -- I mean, we are sort of reporting this out. As soon as I have more information, I will definitely put that out there. But to be clear, we did have people point fingers at Stephen Miller, who as you know is one of the most hard line immigration policy folks in the White House, very close with the President.

The President has basically said he wants Stephen Miller to be in charge of immigration right now. And especially right now at a time when we're seeing a lot of these top officials in the Homeland Security Department being ousted or pushed out because the President doesn't think they take a hard enough line.

[20:45:03] We have heard from whistleblowers and from people inside DHS that he was a big driver of this. Now, he's not on one of the initial e-mails that we first received from November. However, from the folks we had talked to, it was very clear where this policy was coming from.

COOPER: I mean, if you just think about this for a moment, I mean the idea that they would take people from the border, which is one of the options, put them on a bus, I don't know how long the drive would be from the border to Nancy Pelosi's district in San Francisco.

But -- I mean, if somebody died along the way, in one of those buses or got sick and then died, the administration would be responsible for that, all for a political purpose. I mean, it's -- just the actual logistics of it could lead to many kinds of unintended consequences.

BADE: And that was actually something that one of the ICE officials brought back when they wrote back, and that was a concern about what happens in an emergency situation like this.

You know, we're seeing right now Congress has a lot of questions about what happened to those children that died in custody. And, of course, if something were to happen to these migrants as they're moving from place to place, Congress would be all over that. Of course, Congress is going to be all over this regardless, even though it didn't happen.

I mean, you know, I reached out to Pelosi's office to get statement on this and, you know, her spokesperson said this was another example of sort of, you know, hard line policies that Democrats have long found disgusting. And, you know, I think Democrats are going to be investigating this.

I wouldn't be surprised if we see a bunch of them weigh in over the next 24 hours, but this notion of using migrants and trying to release them to create chaos on a political adversary, it's just -- it's absolutely wild, unlike anything I've seen before.

COOPER: Rachael Bade, extraordinary reporting. It's on "The Washington Post" site right now. You're also a CNN Political Analyst, we should point out. Thanks very much.

Steve Cortes is back with us, along with Max Boot and Jeff Toobin. Jeff Toobin, I mean, what do you make of this idea?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, my first reaction was, huh? I mean, really? I mean the idea of using these human beings as a kind of pestilence to spread around the country? I mean, it is so grotesque. I mean, you took the words right out of my mouth when you said, you know, these are human beings and to treat them like a form of plague that you want to impose on your enemies is really grotesque.

Now, I guess the good news we can say is that it hasn't happened or at least it hasn't happened yet. But I think it's indicative of the attitude towards illegal immigrants or undocumented citizen -- undocumented people, whatever term you want to use, as something less than human. And all I can say is I'm glad it didn't come to fruition.

COOPER: Steve Cortes, I know this is the first you're hearing of it as well. CORTES: Right. I mean, look, I think you can probably understand that I'm obviously not going accept "The Washington Post" word for it. So, I want to see these e-mails. I want to see evidence of the story they're talking about and I don't want to speculate.

COOPER: Assuming they exist and the whistleblowers are telling the truth (INAUDIBLE) Congress, you don't want to assume anything?

CORTES: I mean I don't go down that road, right? And I would say this too by the way, I don't believe we should be releasing anyone who crosses the border illegally, much less targeting where they're released. If you cross the border illegally, you should be detained. I can't --


COOPER: So, but the idea of targeting --

CORTES: -- in the first place.

COOPER: -- targeting the specific districts for political enemies with --

CORTES: Right.

COOPER: -- illegal immigrants or undocumented workers, that is not something you would support is what you were saying.

CORTES: Of course not.

COOPER: Right.

CORTES: Of course not.

COOPER: Max Boot, I mean, when you and I -- when I first mentioned this to you while -- during a break, you said like you thought this almost sounded like an article from "The Onion."

BOOT: Right.

COOPER: It's so absurd that it couldn't be real.

BOOT: Oh, exactly. It's hard to believe that somebody would take this as a serious proposal. Like a lot of stuff that happens in the Trump administration, you don't know whether to laugh or the cry. I mean, that is so ridiculous.

And I think it indicates basically two things, Anderson. One is, A, the crazy level of partisanship in this White House and the fact that the President is calling his enemies treasonous is an indication of the same thing that they will stop at nothing to hurt their political enemies.

But two, I think what it also indicates, Anderson, is their intellectual bankruptcy on the issue of immigration and how frantic and panicked they are because there is a record number of undocumented arrivals in March, 92,000, highest level in 12 years. They're freaking out in the White House. They don't know what to do about it.

This is why Trump is lashing out. He's purging the Department of Homeland Security, but they don't actually have a workable policy solution and that's why they're talking, again, about reviving this horrible idea of separating children or this crazy idea.

[20:50:10] COOPER: We've got to get a break in. Max Boot, thank you, Jeffrey Toobin, Steve Cortes, as well.

Up next, more on this breaking news, plus CNN's Dana Bash on the border late today with Vice President Pence. What he has to say about the President's applying the label treasonous to Democrats who oppose him on immigration policy.


COOPER: Just to quickly recap the bizarre breaking news that "The Washington Post" reporting on a plan that White House was considering, a kind of payback plan to transport undocumented immigrants picked up on the border to so-called sanctuary cities and dump them there.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's district in San Francisco was among those the White House was talking about targeting according to "The Washington Post" citing DHS officials. "The Post" also reporting that White House told ICE that the plan was intended to alleviate a shortage of jail space but to send a message to Democrats.

Meantime, CNN Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash went along with Vice President Pence today as he toured the Mexican border near Nogales, Arizona. In an exclusive interview, she had a chance to ask him about a range of topics, including President Trump's use of the word treasonous when it comes to his political opponent.

Dana joins us now from Tucson. So, what did the Vice President -- did he agree with the President using the term treason?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: He side stepped that. But, Anderson, I have to tell you, just like you see so many times when you go around the world getting a firsthand look at things, this is a classic example of how -- what you just reported and we were hearing from Washington that they're coming up with this, as you said, bizarre ideas how to fix problems.

Here in Arizona at the border where I was with the Vice President, we saw firsthand just how real the spike is in people coming across the border, undocumented families, like they haven't seen in over 10 years. So to get something done, the question is, how do they tone down the rhetoric? And I started by asking the Vice President that question.


BASH: The President tweeted last night the following, "I think what the Democrats are doing with the border is treasonous, all caps. Their open border mind set is putting our country at risk. We will not let that happen." I know you general say that the President has his own style of talking. But to use the word treason, which is supposed to be punished by death, how do you get from that rhetoric to the kind of working across the aisle that you're talking about that's needed to fix things here?

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think what you hear the President expressing is the frustration of the American people, that last month alone more than 100,000 people came across our southern border illegally. We've got to close the loopholes in our law. We've got to end catch and release. We've got to reform our system and that's why Congress needs to sit down.

Democrats and Congress need to sit down and take a break from everything else they're focused on and deal with what the American people want them to deal with which is securing our border, protecting our country.


[20:55:11] BASH: And, Anderson, the question is can Congress at least do this narrow thing. Obviously, we have seen the inability to get anything done because it is such a white hot partisan issue, this notion of immigration.

Obviously the President, as I mentioned, is a big contributor to that. But this is a question that they're going to go back to Washington. He says he's going to talk to members of Congress about it on both sides of the aisle and see whether or not obviously the big, big comprehensive deal is pretty far out --


BASH: -- but at least if they can alleviate the problems they have with these families. One other thing I would tell you, he promised just as the President alluded too earlier this week that there will not be a return to the zero tolerance policy. Families will not be separated, which is why they have to come up with the legislative fix.

COOPER: All right. Well, we'll see what actually happens. Dana, thanks very much. CNN has just confirmed that report in "The Washington Post."

Let's check in with Chris to see what he's working on for "Cuomo Prime Time" at the top of the hour. Bizarre, Chris.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: That is bizarre, until I think about it for a second and then it kind of makes sense. I mean, the only weird part is that they're releasing them at all. I mean, it's supposed to be zero tolerance. He's supposed to take people who broke the law and he can't fix the system or he doesn't want to fix the system so they can be held the right way, treated with the dignity that they deserve, that America deserves to show people, so then you get this.

And the more you think about it, it's pretty much in keeping with what we're seeing. I mean, look at the AG, you know, we're going to take on what he's doing tonight, doing the President's bidding and how he is doing it. We have Senator Blumenthal here, one of the main Democrats, we're going to figure out how they can oppose what mister no holds bar seems to be very clearly desiring to do.

COOPER: All right. Chris, a lot going on. Thanks very much. I'll see you just in about three minutes from now. We'll be right back.