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Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein Says No Reason to Fire Bob Mueller; Aired 10:30-11a ET
Aired June 13, 2017 - 10:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[10:30:00] REP. DINA TITUS (D), FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: -- political fray, not be part of anybody's personal agenda, and that's why he didn't answer the questions. I, frankly, don't believe he's going to fire the man he appointed to head up this investigation.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Jeff Sessions, you noted, the attorney general of the United States, he does testify later today before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Where do you have questions with him, Congresswoman?
TITUS: Well, I think he has a lot to answer. He recused himself, then he's back in the middle of it. He met with the Russians, well, maybe not the third time, but we aren't sure. What did he know? When did he know it? I think all of those questions are going to be asked over and over. It will be interesting to see if he uses executive privilege to avoid some of those questions.
POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: All right, we're going to -- thank you, Congresswoman Dina Titus.
TITUS: Thank you.
HARLOW: We appreciate you being with us.
Let's listen in to Jeanne Shaheen, the Democratic senator from New Hampshire, questioning Rosenstein.
SEN. JEANNE SHAHEEN (D), NEW HAMPSHIRE: The special counsel may be disciplined or removed from office only by the personal action of the attorney general. The attorney general may remove a special counsel for misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or for other good cause, including violation of departmental policies. The attorney general shall inform the special counsel in writing of the specific reason for his or her removal.
Now, as I understand, Mr. Rosenstein, in this matter, you are actually the one exercising hiring and firing authority, because Attorney General Sessions is recused. Is that correct?
ROD ROSENSTEIN, DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: Yes, that is correct.
SHAHEEN: And at this point, have you seen any evidence of good cause for firing of Special Counsel Mueller?
ROSENSTEIN: No, I have not. SHAHEEN: And have you given the special counsel full independence
from the Justice Department to conduct his investigation?
ROSENSTEIN: Yes, Senator, and I appreciate that question. At the last hearing I attended, I explained it. It would require a long time to explain exactly why I am confident that he has full independence. The short answer is, though, that that regulation, as you may know, was written and implemented during the Clinton administration, under the authority of Attorney General Reno. I know the folks who wrote that. They wrote it to deal with these sort of situations, and I am confident that he will have sufficient independence.
And it's certainly theoretically possible that the attorney general could fire him, but that's the only person who has the authority to fire him. And in fact, the chain of command for the special counsel is only directly to the attorney general, or in this case, the acting attorney general, so nobody else in the department would have the authority to do that, and you have my assurance that we are going to faithfully follow that regulation and Director Mueller is going to have the full degree of independence that he needs to conduct that investigation appropriately.
SHAHEEN: And is there a record that gives him that full independence? Is that done in a letter or an order from you as the deputy attorney general?
ROSENSTEIN: Yes, Senator. It's done in the order, which I believe was issued on May 17th, and the order references the regulation from which you've read. And so that is the source of his authority.
SHAHEEN: Thank you. You mentioned in your opening comments about the importance of the budget request for 230 assistant U.S. attorneys. I certainly agree that that's important. I am concerned, however, that we still -- we had an en masse firing of U.S. attorneys in the country and as far as I know, at least in New Hampshire, we haven't made any nominations to replace the person who was fired.
Can you tell me how many U.S. attorneys have been nominated throughout the country?
ROSENSTEIN: I believe, Senator, that the president announced his first set of nominations yesterday, and I believe there were seven or eight in that first round. And what I can assure you is that we are moving very expeditiously, and I think that there's been some press that I think maybe somewhat misleading about that. And I believe we're actually going to be ahead of most recent administrations in the speed by which we're appointing U.S. attorneys.
It's obviously very important to me because I spent 12 years serving as a U.S. attorney, and I know how important good U.S. attorneys are to the operations of the Department of Justice. In fact, the last two Saturdays I've spent in the department interviewing candidates for about 10 districts each weekend, and so we anticipate that by the end of the summer, we'll see a large number of U.S. attorneys nominated throughout the country. SHAHEEN: Well, I certainly am glad to hear that. I'm -- it's my
understanding, at least in New Hampshire, we haven't seen wholesale firing of U.S. attorneys in the way that we did in this administration. Was there a reason why every U.S. attorney in the country was fired on the same day?
ROSENSTEIN: So, Senator, I'm pleased to tell you not everyone was fired because I was one of the U.S. attorneys that day.
ROSENSTEIN: There were four. There were four who were not fired, but I was not in the department at that time. I learned about the firings after the decision had been made, so I have no insight into why that decision was made.
SHAHEEN: You mentioned in your opening statement the tragedy in Georgia and the officers who were killed, murdered.
[10:35:03] It's a reminder that those who work in our prisons do have a very difficult job that is very dangerous. And I am troubled by the fact that while the administration's hiring freeze was lifted in April, that the Department of Justice has been under a self-imposed hiring freeze since mid-February. And while there was a blanket exemption for positions relating to public safety and national security, it doesn't include the Bureau of Prisons, which is still under a freeze.
And in fact, in New Hampshire, FCI Berlin had extended conditional offers to seven potential employees, five of whom were correctional officers, but due to the imposition of the hiring freeze, those positions were canceled by DOJ, so they were not able to go forward with that hiring.
As you point out, this is a difficult job. Can you explain why we continue to have a hiring freeze on correctional officers within the Bureau of Prisons?
ROSENSTEIN: Senator, I appreciate that question. I think there may be some misunderstanding about this. We -- the department froze BOP hiring at the headquarters in Washington and at the regional administrative offices, but my understanding is that the department allowed BOP institutions to continue hiring up to their staffing levels as of January 22nd, which means that if people left, then they would be able to fill those vacancies. So within that overall level of staffing, I believe we've left the discretion with BOP to hire for whichever positions it believes are most critical to its operations.
Now obviously there has been a continuing decline in the number of federal prisoners, and commensurately, probably --
BERMAN: All right, a really important moment just now from the deputy attorney general of the United States, Rod Rosenstein. He was asked about this swirl of questions about whether the White House wants to have Special Counsel Bob Mueller fired. He would be the first with that authority. He was specifically asked whether or not he sees any reason, any cause to think that the special counsel is not doing his job well, any reason to think the investigation is not going well. His direct answer was, "No, I have not." And then he said Director Mueller is going to have the full degree of independence that he needs. A very clear statement from the deputy attorney general there.
We're going to get all of your takes on this.
Michael Zeldin, as the resident attorney here, what was your impression of what he said?
MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I thought it was very good, in a word. He says that there is no reason for cause at all, and so I think he is dismissing the notion that a political contribution made by some of his staff may rise to the level of pause. That's reassuring and --
BERMAN: OK. Hang on one second, Michael, because Susan Collins just asked Rosenstein, if he was asked to fire Bob Mueller, what would he do.
ROSENSTEIN: -- Mueller may be fired only for good cause, and I am required to put that cause in writing. And so that's what I would do. And if there were good cause, I would consider it. If there were not good cause, it wouldn't matter to me what anybody says.
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: Thank you. I want to turn to the opioid crisis which plagues my state and so many others. Last year, drug overdoses were responsible for more than 59,000 deaths in this country, including a record 376 --
HARLOW: OK. Let's get back to our panel. And Symone Sanders, to you. Between Paul Ryan, basically message to the White House, don't fire Bob Mueller, right? And then Rosenstein saying essentially the same thing, there's no reason to. He'll have full independence in this investigation. Are, you know, Republicans and then the deputy attorney general here sort of boxing the White House and the Trump administration in?
SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I don't think so. Look, we know that Donald Trump is someone who doesn't care what anybody else thinks, and if he decides he wants to fire Bob Mueller, he is going to give the directive.
I'd like to note that concern over Trump potentially asking the deputy attorney general to fire Mueller is the reason for Senator Kamala Harris' exchange last week, and we saw in that exchange between herself and the deputy attorney general, he did not give a straight answer. She asked, would Mueller have full independence? Would he put this in writing that regardless of what anyone would say, Mueller would have full independence? And Rosenstein kind of buck the issue and didn't really answer the question.
So it does not reassure me that Paul Ryan has full confidence in Bob Mueller. Paul Ryan just, you know, orchestrated a vote to end too big to fail and Dodd-Frank. So I don't have full confidence what Paul Ryan has to say.
I'm very concerned about Donald Trump because this is a guy that, you know, came to prominence over the -- a couple things, but namely, over the phrase, "you're fired." So if anybody thinks that what's going on on the Hill today is going to affect Donald Trump's thought process, I think you're sorely mistaken.
BERMAN: All right, Doug Heye -- and Doug Heye, hang on one second, guys.
[10:40:02] Because Doug Heye, I just want to read you what Rod Rosenstein just side when he was asked directly, if he was asked to fire Bob Mueller, what would he do? He said, "I'm not going to follow any orders unless I believe those orders are lawful." And previously before, remember, he said he sees no cause to fire Bob Mueller. He then went on to say, "If there were good cause, I would consider it. If there were not good cause, it wouldn't matter what anybody said." That's a marker, Doug Heye.
DOUG HEYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes.
BERMAN: You know, if Rod Rosenstein said, I do not see any cause, and if I was ordered to do it with no cause, I flat out wouldn't do it. That seems to be a marker.
HEYE: That's absolutely a marker. Look, there's a little bit of wiggle room in there. So you're saying there's a chance, if he thinks there is cause. Clearly, Republicans, but we're seeing whether in the administration or in Capitol Hill, don't think that cause is there. But I'd also go back to Paul Ryan's earlier comments. He wasn't just talking about Robert Mueller. If you look at what he said, he also demonstrated the problems that Republicans have had so far this year and in past years, and that's that Republicans writ large have a problem walking and chewing gum at the same time.
Every time we have another Trump shiny object du jour, whether it's the attorney general, whether it's a special prosecutor, whether it's a tweet, Republicans aren't able to talk about those issues that they want to, growing jobs, job training, growing the economy, all those things that Republicans campaigned on to fix for America, they don't get attention because we're talking about the latest Trump-driven directive.
HARLOW: Right. Last week was infrastructure week.
SANDERS: Taking away our healthcare.
HARLOW: If you asked the administration, and this week it's jobs and apprenticeship week. Quickly before we go, Amber, big picture? We're looking ahead to Attorney General Jeff Sessions about to testify publicly in just a few hours. What are the stakes? What does it mean for the administration?
AMBER PHILLIPS, POLITICAL REPORTER, WASHINGTON POST'S "THE FIX": Yes, this is a huge moment. I think it's because Jeff Sessions has really played a starring role in a lot of the controversies with regard to the Trump administration. You know, the investigation on whether the campaign included with Russia? Well, Jeff Sessions is one of the most high-profile members of the campaign and now the administration to have met with Russian officials and not disclosed it.
With regard to the Comey firing and questions surrounding whether the president tried to interfere, Jeff Sessions was Comey's boss, and Comey, quite frankly, laid out a case last week that Jeff Sessions knew something wasn't going on quite right. You know, Comey said, oh in the Oval Office, Jeff Sessions was lingering when the president asked everyone to leave, so he could be alone with me. Comey also indicated that Jeff Sessions has violated his recusal.
PHILLIPS: I think there's a lot of stuff Sessions has to answer for. I'll be looking to see if this becomes another he said-he said between Comey and the Trump administration.
BERMAN: That would be he said-he said-he said just to keep track right now. All right.
HARLOW: And he said.
BERMAN: And I just said it. Thank you, guys.
HARLOW: Thank you, guys. Doug Heye, Symone Sanders, Amber Phillips, and Michael Zeldin.
We'll be right back.
[10:47:06] BERMAN: You're watching the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, being questioned by Hawaii Democrat Brian Schatz.
SEN. BRIAN SCHATZ (D), HAWAII: There's a memorialization of that recusal. There's a delineation of what is in and what is out of that recusal, and there's also a process by which we can determine whether or not there is compliance with that recusal. Is there such a document?
ROSENSTEIN: The way the department operates is very different from a law firm, and --
SCHATZ: I know that, but is there such a document?
ROSENSTEIN: Well, no, because it's not necessary because the department is a hierarchy, and so nothing gets to the attorney general about the matters he's recused from unless they come through my office.
SCHATZ: What if they come through the Oval Office?
ROSENSTEIN: If they come through the Oval Office? Well, we're not briefing the Oval Office about our investigations either, so I don't know how they would get there. SCHATZ: I am -- it could be my lack of a law degree and maybe there
are a couple of lawyers on this panel or in the public who can help me to understand the most basic question here, which is that the attorney general had a press conference and said, given all of these challenges, given all of this controversy, I'm out, I am recused from these matters. And now the question becomes, what matters? Which matters?
So I'm just going to ask one final time if you can just try to describe for the public, for the lay person, for the person who's following this but may not possess a law degree, what is the attorney general allowed to be involved in and what is he not allowed to be in involved in? And who makes that determination? And how do we know whether he's complying or not?
ROSENSTEIN: Yes. I appreciate that sincere question, Senator. I want to try to explain. And you're right. I spent 27 years in the Department of Justice. I think about these things differently than people who are not in the department, that are not lawyers.
What's important for me to explain, you know, in this matter, I'm acting as attorney general of the United States, and that means a lot to me. And one of the things it means is that I have a responsibility not to talk publicly about what we're investigating or who we're investigating because that could adversely affect the investigation and because it would be unfair to people who may be under investigation.
SCHATZ: Is it possible -- is it possible that the attorney general is a witness in this investigation?
ROSENSTEIN: If he were, Senator, I wouldn't talk about it.
SCHATZ: What about you?
ROSENSTEIN: Senator, I am not going to be talking about the investigation. Again, the purpose of my appointment of Special Counsel Mueller was to ensure that there'd be public confidence in the outcome of that investigation, and he now has responsibility for that, and I think that if there are any questions, they should be directed to him, and I know he's going to do the right thing, as I would, and defend the integrity of that investigation --
SCHATZ: If you -- just one final question, because I'm out of time. If you become a witness in this investigation, do you think there's a conflict of interest there?
ROSENSTEIN: I'm not going to answer hypothetical questions, and the reason, Senator, is I am working with career professionals who know these rules and are responsible for enforcing these rules, and I can ensure you that we are going to do the right thing and we're going to defend the integrity of that investigation.
[10:50:06] SCHATZ: Can you just consider this a question for the recovered, if you could please put in black and white for the committee the scope of the recusal and how this all works? And I think then you can be a little more careful. I mean I understand you have to be careful about not referring to an investigatory process, I get that. But still I think the public deserves to know exactly how this all plays out, and I can't imagine that you can't describe it even in the abstract so that we are assured that there is a fair and thorough investigatory process. Thank you.
ROSENSTEIN: I appreciate the question and we will make an effort to do that in writing in a way that maybe, hopefully, better than my efforts. But as I said, I just want to assure you and assure everybody, you know, that's what I'm about here is making sure that the rule of law is followed and that we reach a fair result in which people can have confidence, and I am working with career professionals in the department who are going to help me to do that.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senator Lankford.
SEN. JAMES LANKFORD (R), CALIFORNIA: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Mr. Rosenstein, thanks for being here. You've testified in front of every senator in closed sessions. You've testified in front of the Intelligence Committee in open sessions. You've had lots of conversations on this, so I appreciate you being here again today and we will go through some budget areas.
I do want to help clarify one thing. I read with some interest in the paper that there was some secret plan to be able to privately remove the special counsel who you just put in place to be able to see that. All I could think about was Jim Comey's statements publicly saying how many times he read newspaper stories with unnamed sources that as he read them, he thought, these are completely false.
Is there anything to some secret plan that's out there from you or anyone the administration to try to go and remove the special counsel?
ROSENSTEIN: There is no secret plan that involves me. No, Senator.
LANKFORD: I would just say, no one in America is above the law and no one in America is not faced with accountability and checks and balances. Every one of U.S. has checks and balances, the president every member of the Cabinet, the vice president, every judge has checks and balances in the system.
I can't seem to understand the fascination to say we need to create some special counsel that would be the only person in America that has no accountability structure anywhere for anything. I would assume everyone has a check and balance somewhere, but that doesn't mean it's under consideration in the process, so I appreciate you trying to clarify that for us.
I do want also to thank you and the Department of Justice. Senator Warren and I do not agree on everything, but last year we started working on a process for the Department of Justice to stop these slush funds in the background where the Department of Justice was forcing businesses to be able to spend money in third party groups or not revealing the nature of those settlements. The Department of Justice just last week -- BERMAN: All right, the deputy attorney general of the United States,
Rod Rosenstein, just said there is no secret plan to remove the special counsel, Bob Mueller, at least no secret plan that involves me, which was an interesting add on there.
But look, he made clear that right now he sees no cause whatsoever to fire the independent counsel, Robert Mueller.
BERMAN: That he would be the only one who could fire the independent counsel, and that without cause, even if he were asked to fire the special counsel, he would not do it.
HARLOW: Very important statements from a very important man right now, ahead of very important testimony in a few hours, from the attorney general himself, Jeff Sessions.
Back with us is our panel. It was interesting, Senator Lankford asked him, Symone, is there -- I didn't get the exact verbatim of the question, but the answer was there was no secret pledge that involves me when it comes to firing Bob Mueller. Again, you said you don't think this is folks around the administration trying to box them in, but haven't they essentially done that?
SANDERS: Well, I think we are forgetting that these are not normal times. And so, under regular circumstances, literally, really regular normal circumstances, yes, the administration would now be boxed in, the president's hands would be tied, and if he wanted to do anything heinous or egregious in regards to the special counsel, he -- that would now be out of the window.
But we have to remember who we're dealing with, and we're dealing with a man who is used to bending the rules to get his way, someone who is not clearly adhering to the rule of law. And because of that, I think we need to understand that if there is a loophole here, if Donald Trump wants to find it, he will find it. So I think the deputy attorney general, he does not want to continue to get caught up in this political circus. But unfortunately, he is in this thing, and again, if Donald Trump wants to fire somebody, they're gone.
BERMAN: All right, we now know if he does, though, it could be ugly with the deputy attorney general.
Michael, last word to you, we got 60 seconds left. He said, clearly, if there were not good cause to fire Bob Mueller, it would not matter to me what anybody said. In other words, he said I just wouldn't do it, Michael.
ZELDIN: That's right. That's what I said in the earlier segment that I think that if he were given an order to fire him without cause, he'd quit before he executed that order. But he said something also that was I think very important, and it goes back to the testimony he had and the conversation with Senator Harris, where she was asking about his independence.
[10:55:09] ZELDIN: I think he was pretty clear here that the mandate which he has given Mueller, which is a written document, which everyone can read, which gives him pretty broad authority, including obstruction of justice, and the 28 Code of Federal Regulations 600.6, which gives him the authority to act in the place of the attorney general, is pretty much pure full independence. So I think that Senator Harris should be satisfied with the answer that Rosenstein gave today.
BERMAN: All right.
HARLOW: All right. We have to leave it there. Thank you all very much.
Michael, Amber, Symone, and Doug.
HEYE: Thank you.
HARLOW: This hearing continues on Capitol Hill. The deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, being questioned by Senator Lankford now. Coming up, the Attorney General Jeff Sessions will speak. Will he answer questions? What will he say? Our special live coverage continues right after this.
SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: -- to the Victims of Child Abuse Act unanimously we're authorizing that in both chambers and the Children's Advocacy Centers funded by this law conduct important forensic interviews that help serve law enforcement needs and meet the needs of child victims, and I'm pleased the president's FY '18 budget request fully funds these programs. So I thought we'd start with at least one positive thing we could talk about.
ROSENSTEIN: Thank you.
COONS: As has been discussed by several others, it is the scope of recusal that is utterly unclear, both to lawyers and non-lawyers on this committee. You're here instead of the attorney general, and you're here as acting attorney general with regard to the special counsel, and you exercised the hire and would exercise the fire decision with regards to Special Counsel Bob Mueller. That's because Attorney General Sessions is recused from that matter.
On May 9th, you delivered a memo to Attorney General Sessions entitled "Restoring Public Confidence in the FBI," and your memo exclusively focused on Director Comey's conduct during the Clinton e-mail investigation and concluded, quote, "The way the director handled the conclusion of that investigation was wrong." And you ultimately stated, "Having refused to admit his errors, the director cannot be expected to implement the necessary corrective actions."
Is that roughly correct in my citing that memo?
ROSENSTEIN: I believe it is, yes. COONS: And on that same day, Attorney General Sessions then sent a
memo to President Trump, relying exclusively on your memo, where the attorney general recommends Director Comey be removed. Is that correct?
ROSENSTEIN: I believe that's correct.
COONS: And during his January 10 confirmation hearing, AG Sessions stated he would recuse himself from any matters involving campaigns for president of the United States and specifically investigations into Secretary Clinton's e-mail server. Is that correct?
ROSENSTEIN: That's my understanding, Senator.
COONS: So why did you write a memo to Attorney General Sessions exclusively discussing a matter that, as I understand it, Attorney General Sessions explicitly told us in Congress he was recused from? And why was that an appropriate basis for him to make a hire-fire recommendation to the president on?
ROSENSTEIN: Well, Senator, I don't think that's a question for me to answer. I have said in my previous briefings of the Senate and the House that my memo truthfully reflects my views. I'm not in position to comment on anybody else. So from my perspective, Senator, that memo is about what it's about. I do not know what was in anybody else's mind. I understand there are serious allegations that have been raised, and I think that it's up to Director Mueller to determine in the first instance whether any of these issues are within the scope of his investigation. That's why I haven't commented on it.