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Biden on Trump Attacks; Mueller to Speak on Russia Probe; Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) is Interviewed about Mueller Speech. Aired 9:30- 10a ET

Aired May 29, 2019 - 09:30   ET



[09:30:37] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Democratic front runner Joe Biden kicked off his presidential campaign with a harsh rebuke of President Trump. But if you were expecting that same fighting strategy against the president's latest personal attacks on the former vice president, you did not see it last night. Biden back on the campaign trail, but not taking aim at the, quote, low IQ digs from the commander in chief, and one that he shared, of course, with the North Korean dictator. The former vice president saying off camera that he's, quote, not going to get down in the mud wrestle with this fella.

CNN correspondent Jessica Dean joins me now from Washington.

So, Jessica, you've been covering the campaign here. Is this going to be a consistent strategy from Biden to sort of let these things pass and focus on his message?

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, this campaign is banking on Americans wanting a return to normalcy, to have this old hand at the wheel to kind of return things back to normal. And what you notice with the statement that they put out after all of those critiques and criticisms and slams on Twitter from the president, first of all, the statement came from a deputy campaign manager. They also made a big deal, pointing out they waited until the president was back on American soil to make this statement here to be on foreign soil on Memorial Day and decide repeatedly with a murderous dictator against a fellow American and former vice president speaks for itself.

And what you're seeing is, when Trump lashes out like this, it allows them to create this contrast and to say, we waited until the president was back on American soil to even comment on this because that's what has been the norm, that is how we do things in America. And they keep kind of returning back to that angle. And you mentioned that he said last night at a fundraiser that he wasn't going to get down in the mud with him. I think they recognize that it's one thing to go after policies and where they see he's gone wrong on foreign policy, it's another thing, Jim, to get into a Twitter battle with President Donald Trump.

SCIUTTO: To be clear, though, this is something of a change for the former vice president because in the past he has not pulled punches. I mean you remember the famous line, you know, you want to take him behind the schoolhouse and, you know, punch him in the nose.

DEAN: Right.

SCIUTTO: You know, I'm paraphrasing there. But he has not, in the past, hesitated to take on the president directly. So it sounds like they made a political calculation here.

DEAN: Yes. I think that -- and remember yesterday he also, too, rolled out his big first policy rollout which was about education. They wanted to make sure that that message was getting out as well.

But as so many of these 2020 candidates are trying to do, former Vice President Biden chiefly among them, find out where to take on Trump, what battles to pick. And, again, how to draw that contrast if the vice president starts tweeting back at him, does that really help draw the contrast of that argument they're trying to make, which is that Joe Biden can take America back to its place among the world and kind of restore what they consider these norms back to the office -- to the White House, the office of the presidency.

SCIUTTO: Jessica Dean on the Biden campaign, thanks very much.

DEAN: Yes.

SCIUTTO: Just a reminder that Democrat presidential candidate Senator Michael Bennet, he will join my colleague, Dana Bash, for a town hall live from the CNN Center in Atlanta. That will happen tomorrow night at 10:00 only on CNN.

Well, Democrats may be ready to dig into the president's personal finances, but will they actually be able to? I'm asking one lawmaker what is their plan b if a judge denies their latest request. That's coming up.


[09:38:34] SCIUTTO: Welcome back.

And we have this breaking news just into CNN. And that is that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, will speak on camera about the Russia investigation at 11:00 Eastern Time, about an hour and 20 minutes from now. This will be the special counsel's first public comments on the Russia probe since the completion of the probe, really since the start of the probe as well. Truly remarkable.

We are told he will make a statement on camera, again, at 11:00 Eastern Time. This statement will be on camera at the Department of Justice. It is not clear at this point whether he will take questions. But this sets up really a remarkable moment here because, of course, others have spoken for the special counsel to this point, including the attorney general, who, of course, released his own summary of the special counsel's filings before releasing the whole report after which the special counsel wrote not one but two letters to the attorney general saying in those letters that the attorney general had not fully reflected the findings of the special counsel's investigation here. This sets up a remarkable point, perhaps counterpoint from the special

counsel to what the president's appointed attorney general has said about this investigation.

We have our Jessica Dean, who is following this as well.

Jessica, I don't think we can underestimate the meaning of this, especially since we have not heard from him in public yet. We don't know if he'll take questions here, but sets up the possibility of a different portrayal of his findings than that we've heard from the attorney general.

[09:40:08] DEAN: Yes, Jim, that's exactly right. This is the person everybody wants to hear from, Mueller himself, and thus far, as you pointed out, we have not heard from him. There have been calls on him to testify. There have been, you know, will he testify in public, will it be behind closed doors, will he speak out, because, again, as you alluded to, some of this -- some of his report left up to interpretation with -- because he didn't find -- make a determination on that obstruction of justice.

And so now we are going to hear from him himself today, as you mentioned, at 11:00. Unclear at this point if he'll be taking questions, if this will be more of a statement. But you can --

SCIUTTO: Jessica, on that point -- on that point, I'm sorry to interrupt because -- because looking at the announcement from the Department of Justice, it says there will be a statement only, no question and answer period to follow. So that answers our question on that.

And that sets up something potentially unsatisfying here, right, because, of course, some of the special counsel's findings beg for follow-up questions there.

I want to bring in Jeffrey Toobin, who, of course, has been covering this investigation from the beginning here. Set up the significance of this, the first public comment from the special counsel since really the start of this investigation.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST (via telephone): Well, it's significant at many levels, Jim, including the location. The -- he will be making the statement from the Department of Justice and I think that's important to keep in mind because he is an employee of the Department of Justice. He is a subordinate of William Barr, the attorney general. And that suggests to me that he will be trying to explain how his work is consistent with DOJ policy.

Now, what exactly he's going to say, I certainly don't know, but it will be interesting whether inside the Department of Justice, physically inside, he will continue to express his disagreement with his boss, the attorney general. Obviously one issue that we want information about is whether he will testify before Congress about his findings in his report. I have to believe that the statement will involve that to a certain extent. But I am happy to admit that I'm in the dark about what he's going to say and why he chose to say it now. But certainly the biggest pending issue regarding Mueller is his possible testimony before a congressional committee.

SCIUTTO: No question. Significant -- and as Jeffrey Toobin says there, is he going to comment on his congressional testimony solely? Will he contradict the attorney general? Will he in any way characterize his filings or attempt to clear up?

And we should note, he did send not one but two letters to the attorney general following his summary of the special counsel's findings to say that, in fact, they had not been reflected accurately in those statements coming from the attorney general.

Sarah Westwood is at the White House now.

Sarah, probably too early to get reaction from the White House, but I imagine this is a statement that they will not only be watching very closely but perhaps nervously as well.

SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: That's absolutely right, Jim. We don't know what Mueller is going to say. We don't know if the White House was given a heads up that the special counsel was going to make a statement. And President Trump has sort of gone back and forth on whether he believes that Mueller should speak out publicly. He has said that it should be up to the attorney general whether Mueller should testify, but he's also taken to Twitter to say that Robert Mueller should not testify, that there's no need for the special counsel to speak out publicly.

And, of course, President Trump has relied heavily on Attorney General Barr's assessment of the findings. President Trump has been very highly praiseful of his attorney general for the way that he summarized Mueller's report initially, even though Attorney General Barr has received a lot of criticism for sort of whitewashing some of the stickier reports in the Mueller report. So President Trump may be really wanting to rely on Barr's version of events and not so much looking forward to Mueller finally having a chance to speak out on his version of the events, Jim.

SCIUTTO: And that is one piece of significance of Justin Amash, the Republican lawmaker's comments about the Mueller report because he -- you now have a Republican very publicly saying that Barr misled, in his words, the American people on his interpretation of the special counsel's filings. So we are in a different place than we were even a couple of days ago.

We're joined now by Gerry Connolly, Democratic congressman.

Congressman Connolly, as we see this news just breaking now, I'd like to ask you what you would want to hear from the special counsel now, what would you like him to address in this public statement? What do Americans deserve to hear from him in this public statement now?

[09:45:03] REP. GERRY CONNOLLY (D-VA): Well, Jim, first of all, let me say, I'm disappointed that he's not going to take questions because I think that's the only way to get sort of at what's behind that report. I doubt very much that a statement without questions is going to clarify some of the unanswered questions or some of the lines of inquiry that need to be pursued. I find it disappointing that this public statement is going to be issued from the Department of Justice. That suggests to me that it's orchestrated by the attorney general and his people at the Department of Justice and, therefore, would suggest rather narrow confines for Mr. Mueller, either addressing why he's not going to appear or doesn't want to appear before a congressional committee, or to reaffirm that he didn't mean that Attorney General Barr had deliberately misled in his four-page summary of a 108-page report.

SCIUTTO: Well, we'll see -- we will certainly see on that.

It was interesting to watch the attorney general in his public testimony make not too subtle reminders that Mueller, in effect, works for him as the attorney general. A lot of folks who know the law and the Justice Department better than me noted those comments in effect declaring precedence over the special counsel.

But as you know, and I'm sure you've encountered Robert Mueller in your many years in Washington, he has served Republican and Democratic presidents, he is his own man, he has not shied away from stating his own positions. I wonder if you see the possibility here that he would say, well, listen, I'm the special counsel, this is what I found, and leave it at that.

CONNOLLY: He may very well do that. There's a certain irony, though, Jim, in his deciding to have a public appearance to address his report. It kind of undermines the argument of, but I can't do it before Congress. If you're going to -- if you're finally going to break your silence after two years and issue a statement, why wouldn't you come before Congress and let the American people hear what you've got to say with respect to what that report means or does not mean.

SCIUTTO: To be clear, in your view, do members of Congress, members of the public or even journalists in a statement like this one have the right and does Robert Mueller have the responsibility to be asked and answered question?

CONNOLLY: Yes, Robert Mueller has to be accountable, like anybody else in public life. He is obviously a very consequential figure. When you read the report, it is anything but exonerating, both with respect to Russia and certainly with respect to obstruction of justice. And I think he needs to clarify, what did you mean? What went into your thinking? Why did you decide to do some things and not some others? For example, why didn't you insist on deposing the president? Previous special counsels have done that. Certainly in the case of Bill Clinton. Why did you ultimately decide not to do that and did that affect your findings?


CONNOLLY: Certainly we want to know a lot more about why you decided not to indict the president because in the report he basically says because the Department of Justice wouldn't let me.


CONNOLLY: That would suggest the president is very indictable and has, in fact, crossed the line in terms of criminal behavior.

SCIUTTO: Congressman Connolly, thanks very much.

CONNOLLY: My pleasure, Jim.

SCIUTTO: We have Laura Jarrett, justice reporter at the Justice Department, right now.

Now, Laura Jarrett, he hasn't spoken yet, of course, and won't for an hour. Do you have any guidance from your sources there as to what the function of this statement is and what he will address?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, as you can imagine, that's what we're working on right now, Jim, trying to figure out what exactly he will say after nearly two years of absolute silence. We have never seen him in court. We've never seen him at the Justice Department in all the times that the deputy attorney general, who was sort of overseeing the investigation, would come up and make statements. You remember the indictment of those 12 Russian nationals, Mueller was nowhere to be found. When the attorney general, the current one, Bill Barr, closed the investigation and he made a public statement, Mueller was nowhere to be found.

And so this time Mueller's going to get a chance to come to the microphones all by himself. You know, the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, is no longer here. Bill Barr is actually out of the country. And so Mueller will have the stage all to himself. And the big question is what exactly will he address? Will he get into the substance of the report, sort of answering some of those lingering request that have remained for the past two months since the report was concluded, or will he address his testimony?

There have been a lot of questions about whether he will even appear in public. We know from House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler last week who said that Mueller essentially wants to make an opening statement before members of Congress, but then take questions behind closed doors, something that rank and file Democrats are not happy with.

[09:50:07] So all of this remains to be seen, exactly what he will say after so long, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Yes, we should note that what little we know from the media advisory here is it does say he will make a statement on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Does that signal that he will talk about the investigation itself rather than his own intention to testify before the House or Senate?

Let's go to Sarah Westwood now, because it is our reporting that the White House got a heads up that the special counsel was going to make this statement today.

What do you know, Sarah?

WESTWOOD: That's right, Jim, a White House official tells our colleague, Jeremy Diamond, that the White House did get a heads up that Special Counsel Robert Mueller was likely to make a statement about the investigation today. That official says that the White House is going to wait until after the statement from Robert Mueller to put out any kind of reaction. So we are going to have to wait to see what the official White House line will be. But certainly eyes will be glued to the TVs here in the White House watching what Robert Mueller has to say about the investigation.

And we should also just note that Robert Mueller is speaking out as President Trump and his allies have been stepping up their attacks on the investigators. They've been railing to declassify some of the materials that went into the investigation because they are accusing Mueller without evidence of bias, of corruption. So that is the backdrop at which Mueller is finally emerging from behind the shadows, breaking his silence, as the president has been spearheading this effort to discredit his investigation now that it's over, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Thanks very much, Sarah Westwood at the White House.

And if you're just joining us now, the Justice Department has announced that Robert Mueller, the special counsel, will make a statement at 11:00 Eastern Time, this from the Justice Department. And the way they describe it, he will make a statement on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

This will be the first time we've heard in public from the special counsel since the start of the Russia probe and, of course, since the conclusion of it and the issuing of his report.

Sunlen Serfaty is on The Hill now.

This, of course, happens as negotiations are underway regarding his testimony on The Hill. Still no agreement yet. What's the latest on the status of those negotiations, the timing, and the circumstances under which he will speak on The Hill?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, still no agreement yet, Jim. And I think many Democrats on Capitol Hill will be paying very close attention to if Robert Mueller addresses the issues still outstanding of his testimony on Capitol Hill. There have been very active negotiations over the last days and weeks. This has really been held up because CNN's reporting reflects that the special counsel's team is really hesitant to put Robert Mueller out there, seeming that it would be too political, the fact that this would potentially be an in-public, in front of TV cameras testimony, and that his preference is to go behind closed doors for at least the Q&A portion of the testimony.

That not satisfying many Democrats. They feel that the gravity of the situation calls for a public testimony and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who, of course, has been pushing hard to get him in front of his committee has said, one way or the other, we are going to hear from Robert Mueller. I will subpoena him if need be. But there certainly have been active negotiations reflecting that they're giving him room to figure that out. So, of course, that issue certainly for Democrats on The Hill who want

to speak to Robert Mueller, want to question him in public, is going to be top of their mind listening to him later today.

SCIUTTO: Well, we ask a lot of officials who don't want to be seen as political to testify in public, whether they be intelligence officials, military commanders, people accused of crimes. So, the question is, why would the special counsel be given that privilege?

Sunlen Serfaty, thanks very much.

Shan Wu, he's been covering this story for some time. He was involved representing one of the witnesses in this, Rick Gates, for some time.

Shan, the significance of hearing the first public comments from the special counsel?

SHAN WU, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it's like hearing the sphinx finally say something. So I think we're very anxious about it.

It is unusual circumstances. He's making a statement from the Department of Justice. So I don't know how much we should expect from it. He might simply be confirming he's going to testify.

He might just make an affirmative statement with regard to his findings. I -- this is total speculation, but I would doubt he's going to say something very controversial, given what the circumstance is here. So it might be that the purpose of having him talk right now is to eliminate some of that space that people may perceive as building up between him and the attorney general. So my guess is we may see a statement that tries to reconcile some of these issues and calm things down some.

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you this. So, by the structure, the chain of command, the special counsel is under the authority of the attorney general here.

WU: Right.

[09:55:00] SCIUTTO: Can we assume that the attorney general, of course, appointed by this president and made his opinions and interpretations of the special counsel findings very clear here and has been accused of politicizing them, would the attorney general have veto power or editorial power over any words that come out of the special counsel's mouth in this statement?

WU: I think that he would, in a chain of command sense. But given who Mueller is, given Barr, knowing him for a while, I doubt that he would be very blatant or overbearing about it. But I can imagine him having a conversation with Bob saying that, hey, this is not good for the department, it looks like we're at odds with each other, you know, can you say something that helps with that? I think he would be very hesitant to tell Mueller to say something that he thinks Mueller's going to disagree with or he's being forced to come up with a conclusion. SCIUTTO: Well, this, though, is a special counsel who wrote letters to

the attorney general, letters that the public has since seen, in which he says, Mr. Attorney General, your public comments do not properly reflect the findings of my report.

WU: Yes. And that's probably why Barr would be reluctant to make Mueller do anything like that again. Again, I think, though, when we read Mueller's letters, they're still carefully worded. I mean he's being very cordial. He's trying not to make it sound like a disagreement. He wants to give the full picture. And, you know, that would be great to have it from him. I just don't know that this is the right kind of forum that we're going to get a very comprehensive view from him.

SCIUTTO: Shan Wu, thanks very much. Stay with us.

Again, if you're just joining us now, for the first time, we're going to hear from the special counsel since the start of the Russia investigation. It's going to happen in just over an hour. An hour and three and a half minutes at the Department of Justice.

Sunlen Serfaty, on The Hill, I want to bring you back, if I can, for a moment, because this will be his first public comment, but not, we think, his last public comment, because he is expected to testify on The Hill. The question really is timing and circumstances, is it not? It's no longer a question of if, but when and how.

SERFATY: That's right. And that's according to Jerry Nadler, who, of course, is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. He's threatened to subpoena Robert Mueller if this does not get worked out in due time. And it seems like he's giving him a little bit of time to figure this out. This has been actively negotiated between the special counsel's team and the committees on Capitol Hill, trying to get him in front of Congress. And they've negotiated over the terms of the testimony. What part is in public? What part is behind closed doors? And this has really irritated a lot of Democrats on the committee, saying that this is a huge and very important issue and we need him to say these things in front of TV cameras, in front of the public, and they won't -- they do not want for him to appear behind closed doors.

So a little bit of negotiations and things still, of course, have not come together. There was the hope from Jerry Nadler, the chairman of the committee, that this -- he would have appeared already. He was really circling in, penciling in on the calendar the middle of this month, and that did not happen. That deadline came and went for Jerry Nadler. But he has said that he will get Mueller in front of the committee. He will hear from Mueller one way or the other. Of course, those details are the things that are still being worked out.


SCIUTTO: So these comments at 11:00 could be the beginning of public comments from the special counsel after more than two years of work completing this investigation.

Sarah Westwood remains at the White House. This, of course, happens, Sarah, as this president and his advisers

have continued to broadside on really any investigation into them. First of all, claiming falsely that the special counsel's report exonerated the president both on collusion and obstruction of justice, because it did not. In fact, it stated explicitly that it does not exonerate the president on obstruction of justice. But on all other Democratic investigations, whether it be a financial records requests, subpoenas for documents, et cetera, how will Mueller's comments on the Russia investigation play into that and this White House strategy?

WESTWOOD: Well, Jim, the White House has employed the strategy of all- out stonewalling on all fronts, and they've made the argument that all of the questions about Russia, about obstruction has been asked and answered by Robert Mueller. And so Mueller staying silent, remaining in the background really helps that strategy because it helps the president to be able to portray this as a done deal.

With Mueller reemerging, perhaps confronting some of the questions, that could really hurt the president's ability to undermine the Democratic probes, as just reinvestigating something that's already done with. Here Mueller is emerging. So, clearly, there are still some lingering issues that the special counsel needs to address.

And the president has relied heavily, as you said, on this perception, this false perception, that the Mueller report did exonerate him. That's largely because of the way Attorney General Barr has spoken about the Russia investigation. And the fact that Barr has been really the only voice speaking out on this has fed that perception. So with Mueller now finally adding his voice, that will hurt the president's ability to continue this line of total exoneration, Jim.

[10:00:07] SCIUTTO: Right, especially when it's not true. Doesn't match.