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President Trump's Tweet on Firing of General Flynn Draws Accusations of Obstruction of Justice; Interview with Representative Ted Lieu. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired December 2, 2017 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:00] FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: -- CNN Newsroom starts right now.

Hello again, everyone, and thank you so much for joining me this very busy Saturday. I'm Fredricka Whitfield.

A puzzling and potentially damning tweet from the president of the United States. President Trump now providing a newer explanation for his firing of General Michael Flynn, tweeting this, "I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the vice president and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide." The tweet is a potentially major -- a potential major shift from the explanation Trump gave for Flynn's dismissal back in February.


DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I did. But Mike -- excuse me. No. I fired him because of what he said to Mike Pence, very simple. Mike was doing his job. He was calling countries and his counterparts. So it certainly would have been OK with me if he did it. I would have directed him to do it if I thought he wasn't doing it. I didn't direct him, but I would have directed him because that's his job.


WHITFIELD: OK, so what's critical here is the timeline. If the president now says he knew Michael Flynn lied to the FBI when he fired Flynn on February 13th, then why did the president ask then FBI Director James Comey to let the investigation go the very next day?

In his opening statement to the Senate intelligence committee, Comey wrote that on February 14th President Trump asked him to drop the FBI investigation into Flynn, saying, quote, "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go." Of course the big question now, did the president of the United States just admit to obstructing justice?

For more on these developments now, let's bring back CNN's Kara Scannell and Boris Sanchez. Let's begin with you, Boris in New York where the president is. What more are you learning his tweet?

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, there, Fred. Yes, that tweet was sent out shortly after a fundraising lunch here in midtown Manhattan, the only public event the president is holding today in his short stop in New York.

He didn't really mention Michael Flynn during his speech, so it was a bit surprising to see that tweet come out shortly after he left this restaurant. He did mention Michael Flynn as you showed in that clip earlier when he was departing Washington to New York, saying that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

We've heard from White House sources saying the president is not worried about the fact that the former national security adviser is now cooperating with the special counsel in its investigation. However, the president's tweet and the fact that Flynn has now admitted to lying to the FBI does raise a series of questions. As the White House is trying to distance itself from Michael Flynn, describing him as an Obama era official and making the claim that President Obama gave approval for Michael Flynn to have those conversations with Sergey Kislyak and other Russians, there is the other side where it's been widely reported that President Obama specifically warned Donald Trump, then press president-elect, against hiring Michael Flynn as national security adviser, and the fact that shortly after inauguration you had the acting attorney general, Sally Yates, who was ultimately dismissed by President Trump, warning the White House that Michael Flynn could potentially be blackmailed by Russian officials.

Beyond all of that is the fact that this politically is a cloud that hangs over the White House. Notice that right now we're not discussing the major legislative achievement that this administration put on the board yesterday, passing tax reform after months of working toward it. This is something that the White House is not happy to address but it is something that the president will continue having to answer as he goes through the next several weeks with more and more information coming from that special counsel probe, Fred.

WHITFIELD: All right, let's bring in Kara Scannell now. Kara, the president's tweet today contradicting earlier explanations for Flynn's firing?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: Today the president said he fired Flynn because he had lied to Vice President Pence and had lied to the FBI. What Trump had said previously was that he fired him because he had lied to Pence. Let's take a listen to what he said in February.


DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When I looked at the information, I said I don't think he did anything wrong. If anything he did something right. He was coming into office. He looked at the information. He said huh, that's fine. That's what they're supposed to do. They're supposed to be -- he didn't just call Russia. He called and spoke to both ways, I think there were 30-some odd countries. He's doing the job. You know, he was just doing his job.

[14:05:04] The thing is he didn't tell our vice president properly, and then he said he didn't remember. So either way it wasn't very satisfactory to me.


SCANNELL: One thing that is consistent is that he is distancing himself from Michael Flynn and distancing himself by the conduct involved. He is saying that the only thing Flynn did wrong was lie to the FBI which he's now pleaded guilty to. But he's not saying there was anything wrong with the underlying conduct, which is interesting because in Flynn's paperwork that was filed in court as part of his guilty plea, he said that he had spoken with Russians and other officials in consultation with transition officials and specifically at the direction of one senior transition official which CNN has learned is Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law. Fred?

WHITFIELD: It is very complicated and continues to be so. Perhaps getting even more complicated. Kara Scannell, Boris Sanchez, thank you so much for breaking it down for now.

So just moments after the president offered this new explanation of why he fired Michael Flynn via Twitter today, Walter Shaub, the former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics tweeted this. "Just couldn't resist commenting on Flynn. Are you admitting you knew Flynn had lied to the FBI when you asked Comey to back off Flynn?" I spoke with Shaub last hour and asked why he believed this latest development could have legal implications for the president potentially.


WHITFIELD: Walter, we can feel your surprise about why the president would tweet like this.

WALTER SHAUB, FORMER DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF GOVERNMENT ETHICS: It's just unbelievably mind-blowing. Somewhere in Washington his attorneys are banging their heads against the table because their client lacks the discipline to follow instructions to stay off Twitter and stop admitting things publicly like this.

WHITFIELD: So now, how might this assist the Mueller investigation? Because now the president is contradicting earlier tweets, earlier sentiments about the purpose of the firing, about the honesty or lack thereof of Flynn. This potentially changes some dynamics, doesn't it?

SHAUB: I think it may. The president has just damaged his credibility significantly because -- we have to remember there are two possibilities. One is that he's just lying now, and that him firing Flynn had nothing to do with the criminal offense of lying to the FBI.

But the other possibility is that he was lying back when he announced that Flynn was leaving because he had lied to Mike Pence. And if that is the case, if he knew back then that Flynn had lied to the FBI and had committed a crime, then he is -- had that in his mind when he talked to Comey on that timeline of yours, shortly after all of this, and asked him to back off of mike Flynn, saying Mike Flynn's a good guy. And of course Comey testified in Congress that he was very uncomfortable about this conversation and thought the president was suggesting an order as to what he should do. And that really starts to make you wonder if there might actually have been some obstruction of justice here.


WHITFIELD: All right, so also weighing in on Trump's tweet, Democratic Representative Ted Leiu. He immediately accused Trump of obstruction of justice in a new tweet, and he joins me next. Stay with us.


WHITFIELD: Welcome back. We continue with our breaking news on President Trump's latest tweet, saying in part, "I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the vice president and the FBI." The tweet is a potential major shifter from the explanation Trump gave for Flynn's dismissal back in February.


DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: But Mike -- excuse me. No, I fired him because of what he said to Mike Pence, very simple. Mike was doing his job. He was calling countries, and his counterparts. So it certainly would have been OK with me if he did it. I would have directed him to do it if I thought he wasn't doing it. I didn't direct him, but I would have directed him because that's his job.


WHITFIELD: All right, well, then, President Trump tweeted this on March 31st. "Mike Flynn should ask for immunity in that this is a witch hunt excuse for big election loss by media and Dems of historic proportion."

Joining us now on the phone, Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu. So Congressman, you responded to the president's tweet today, saying, and this is your tweet, "This is obstruction of justice. President of the United States now admits that he knew Michael Flynn lied to the FBI yet Trump tried to influence or stop the FBI investigation on Flynn. So you say obstruction of justice. And we're talking about there is just a day in between the resignation of Flynn and then the next day was February 14th when the president met with Comey and said let this go. So that's what you're calling attention to, and you say that underscores potential obstruction of justice?

[14:15:04] REP. TED LIEU, (D) CALIFORNIA: Thank you, Fredricka. It absolutely is obstruction of justice. I'm a former prosecutor, and that statute is very broad. You just have to endeavor to influence or impede an investigation. And in this case we know that Michael Flynn has pled guilty to lying to the FBI. We now know the president knew he lied to the FBI, and when the president tried to get Comey to drop this investigation, that's classic obstruction of justice, and the American people watching it unfold before their very own eyes right now.

WHITFIELD: Wow. And then former FBI director James Comey, he has been rather loquacious lately via tweet, Instagram, et cetera, and he is doing the same today. He responded to this latest development in the special counsel investigation and the Trump tweet and Comey who was fired of course by President Trump. He posted this on Instagram, saying "Beautiful long island sound from West Port, Connecticut. To paraphrase the Buddha, Three things cannot be long hidden -- the sun, the moon, and the truth." Is it your feeling there is a chipping away in this investigation, not just by the Michael Flynn guilty plea, but even the president through his tweets, through his history of his comments that it is revealing far more about this overall investigation than perhaps even the Mueller team seems to be intimating?

LIEU: Yes. We're seeing the unraveling of the mountain of lies that Donald Trump has been telling, not just his own staff, but the American people. He went publicly out to the press and said that everyone is treating Michael Flynn unfairly. He's a wonderful man, that this is a witch hunt. And now we know that those are all lies because the president knew Michael Flynn lied to the FBI.

And why is that so important? It's important because in a democracy, one the core foundations is respect for the rule of law, which means we need investigations to occur by law enforcement that are not influenced by politicians or anyone else, and that's exactly what Donald Trump had been trying to do in this case.

WHITFIELD: Even by way of the tweet from the president today, does this redirect or in any way intensify a certain direction with the Mueller investigation? Did the president just reveal something or a new direction to the Mueller investigate in your view?

LIEU: I think he just gave significant additional evidence to Special Council Mueller. We already now Mueller is interested in -- I'm sorry -- he's been interviewing people about the firing of James Comey. Only reason he would do that is because he thinks that some criminal conduct occurred there. So this tweet is additional evidence that the president engaged in -- and an interesting fact is that for Watergate, the very first article of impeachment was obstruction of justice, and Richard Nixon was brought down not for the underlying crime of burglary at the DNC but for the cover-up.

WHITFIELD: And prior to the tweet today, what was your reaction to Michael Flynn's guilty plea, and clearly his cooperation with the Mueller investigation, I plead, I lied to the FBI, in exchange for information that the Mueller team already knows that they can get out of Flynn? How damning potentially might that information be?

LIEU: I thought that was an incredibly significant development. You don't do a guilty plea and just do one charge if you think you're going to get information that's not that important. The only reason why Robert Mueller would do this is because he knows that Michael Flynn has damning information on people above him. And the fact that he only charged with him with one count, same thing with George Papadopoulos, by the way, who was also cooperating. Mueller was trying to send a signal that if you work with me I will go light on you. But if you don't cooperate like Paul Manafort, then I'm going to charge you with everything under the sun. And I think Bob Mueller is sending very strong signals to the rest of the people who may be caught up in this web of criminal conduct that they need to start working with them.

WHITFIELD: Congressman Ted Lieu, thank you so much.

LIEU: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: We'll have much more right after this.


WHITFIELD: All right, welcome back. Be sure to catch an all new episode of "The Axe Files" tonight. David Axelrod sitting down to talk politics with Tom Hanks.


DAVID AXELROD, CNN HOST: Because the president has targeted news organizations that have printed things that he finds --

TOM HANKS, ACTOR: I believe he called CNN fake news.

AXELROD: He did indeed, and "The Washington Post."

HANKS: And "The Washington Post."

AXELROD: And other news organizations as well. How much does that concern you?

HANKS: Well, as an American, it concerns me, because it's monkeying around with our constitution. It's relatively obvious with what he's trying to go for it. When you tear down these institutions to a level and say you can't believe anything that is in any of them, that raises the stock of those agenda-filled other institutions and what not so that if you can't believe them, well, that means you get to believe some of the other stuff that is in these.

And so what is happening is a dilution of the great -- they're throwing dirt and oil into a bucket of water so it all becomes undrinkable after a while.

I think what the current administration is doing -- I don't know that they're saying we have to shut them down so they don't publish anymore. What is happening is something that is more subtle and more insidious and I think has more fingerprints from other -- other governments in the past who have said, look, we can't shut them down because that will cause outrage, but we can denigrate them. We can call them names. We can tell people that those are not the facts. That's what he is saying.


WHITFIELD: All right, Hanks with Axelrod. Be sure to catch "The Axe Files" tonight at 7:00 p.m. eastern right here on CNN.

Thanks so much for being with us today on an extremely busy Saturday. I'm Fredricka Whitfield. Newsroom continues at the top of the hour, but first here's this week's "Turning Points" with Dr. Sanjay Gupta. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Morgan Bartley is empowered by her workouts. But as a child health problems caused her to go from overweight to obese.

MORGAN BARTLEY: When I was 12 years old I had what's called an ovarian torsion. That's basically when the ovary twists on itself. So my doctor decided to remove it entirely.

GUPTA: At 14, Bartley had an operation to untwist her remaining ovary, which led to menopausal symptoms. She developed depression and a binge eating disorder.

[14:25:06] BARTLEY: I was binge eating multiple times a day. I was 300 pounds at my highest, and I realized that now or never. It's time to take my body back. Take my life back.

GUPTA: Bartley started working out. She had surgery to reduce the size of her stomach, and she documented it all on media.

BARTLEY: Probably the number one thing that has kept me accountable has been sharing my weight loss journey on Instagram. I lost 115 pounds.

GUPTA: With more than 170,000 followers Bartley is inspiring others.

BARTLEY: Once people started following me I really wanted to be that example of changing for your health, not because you hate yourself. I feel confident in knowing that my body is not going to be the thing that stands in the way of me and what I want in life.

GUPTA: Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN, reporting.