Return to Transcripts main page

INSIDE POLITICS

FBI Director Defends Bureau After President's Twitter Jabs; Democrats Sat Trump Jr. Owes Them More Answers; Southern California Under Siege From Wildfires. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired December 7, 2017 - 12:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:32:48] DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR: FBI Director Christopher Wray is on Capitol Hill today defending the bureau from attacks coming from the Oval Office. And also answering questions from Republicans about whether Special Counsel Robert Mueller can do his job. Wray has been testifying before the House Judiciary Committee for two and a half hours at this point.

And CNN's Laura Jarrett is tracking it all for us. Laura, sparks were flying this morning. Bring us up to speed.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes, absolutely, Dana. The president's tweets took center stage right off the top of the hearing this morning with the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, Congressman Jerrold Nadler telling Wray, you should do more than send a private e-mail to your employees. Your job is to stand up to the president of the United States.

Now Wray strongly defended his colleagues while also definitely avoiding mentioning the president's name, saying that while there's no shortage of opinions out there, his agents are big boys and girls working their tails off to keep Americans safe.

But the director is also facing a sharp series of questions right now on political bias at the FBI in light of these news reports the counterintelligence official Peter Strzok exchanged a series of politically-tinged e-mails with a colleague that appeared to criticize the president.

The FBI director said he doesn't want to be the type of person to act first and ask questions later. But he's trying to respect the active investigation underway by the Justice Department's inspector general's office looking into everything surrounding all of the circumstances of obstructs e-mails and more.

But there's also this extraordinary moment where Congressman Gohmert started listing the names of several FBI agents one by one quizzing Wray on whether they are openly aligning themselves against the Trump administration while other members are pressing Wray on Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe and whether it's biased, Dana.

BASH: Laura Jarrett, thank you so much. And again, he is still testifying on Capitol Hill. Back around the table here to share their reporting and insights, we have now Perry Bacon from FiveThirtyEight, Margaret Talev from Bloomberg is still here. Business Insider's Natasha Bertrand and CNN's Phil Mattingly is still here.

Let's start with just the reporting that Laura just gave us about Jerrold Nadler and others saying excuse me, you have to defend your people, that is your job.

[12:35:04] And what they were referring to, we should remind our viewers as if they can forget is what the president of the United States said via Twitter about the FBI. This is few days over the weekend.

"Tainted, no, very dishonest. FBI agent's role in Clinton probe under review. Led Clinton e-mail probe. Fox and Friends", this part is a little fuzzy but, "Clinton money going to wife of another FBI agent in charge."

"After years of Comey, with the phony and dishonest Clinton investigation and more, running the FBI", this is the key here, "its reputation is in tatters, worst in History."

So, you see it here. "But fear not, we will bring it back to greatness." That is what members of Congress are very upset about. And now we have a sound byte I want to play for you all about the way that the FBI director responded to that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRISTOPHER WRAY, FBI DIRECTOR: The FBI that I see is people -- decent people committed to the highest principals of integrity and professionalism and respect. The FBI that I see is respected and appreciated.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: There you see, he is defending the FBI, but, you know, some Democrats were saying no, no, you can't just wait until you come up to Capitol Hill and say this under questioning. You can't just send a private e-mail. You got to stand up for your people when the president goes after them.

PERRY BACON, FIVETHIRTYEIGHT: Hearing this basically Democrats say the other thing the FBI and Republicans say you're not -- the FBI is in tatters or in trouble or not is objective enough. So he was not going to (INAUDIBLE) anybody today. I do think the broader context though is, there's a lot of people in the Republican Party particularly Chuck Grassley and others who seized on these -- these text messages and his messages to say the Mueller investigation is tainted in some way. And that's the thing that Wray is trying to talk about carefully trying to defend the FBI.

The, what the kind of (INAUDIBLE) for the Muller investigation.

BASH: OK, so you bring up the other point, the other key point here which you're right Republicans are seizing on in a big way. And that is that one of the FBI agents working on the Mueller probe had to be removed because of text messages, political text messages that he sent. That is what Republicans from the chairman on down are going after Wray about. Let's listen to that.

Bob (ph), good luck. Do we have it?

OK, we do not have that sound byte so let me just explained to you that he just -- he said that the Clinton administration was not liable for some of the things that maybe they should have been because of the way that the FBI agents thought politically. That they were too partisan and therefore didn't go after -- not the Clinton administration, but Clinton's State Department.

NATASHA BERTRAND, BUSINESS INSIDER: So this is the most convenient line that the Republicans and Donald Trump have right now. It appears though kind of, you know, this all came out of nowhere. There was a lot of reporting a few months earlier with speculation about why he had been kind of placed in the HR Department of the FBI. It was very weird, very rare.

But I think there is something to be said to the fact that the FBI took immediate steps to remove him from Mueller's investigation. They didn't have to. It's not against any rules for an FBI agent to be texting their political views. And that something that actually came up in the hearing today but it is not technically illegal.

But the optics of it are really bad especially with such a politically sensitive investigation as the Russia interference which is really under the microscope right now.

BASH: Yes, the optics are terrible. And if Republicans didn't seize on that today, it would be political malpractice.

MARGARET TALEV, BLOOMBERG: Right. For Chris Wray is struggling with the same thing that the independent judiciary is struggling with. And that the Republican Party in Congress is struggling within it. Journalism as an institution is struggling with it which is when the president lashes at you and try to accuse of you of being

bias, do you engage or do you just sort of try to diminish it and move on with the actual work that you were supposed to be doing.

And he has made the calculation at least today in this hearing that it will be better for him to put his head down, defend when asked in his plain and unpolitical way as possible and keep going which is what his job is to do.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I was struck by exactly that. You would expect the leader of an organization like the FBI in a normal situation like this to come out and make a very strong forceful statement repeatedly.

He is not in that position right now. He's not in that position because of the FBI special agent that was removed (INAUDIBLE) that has given him some pause. I can't tell you how many times he referred to the inspectors general investigation to try and wrangle out of various things.

And I think Margaret nails it. It's his calculation today as opposed to making a big show and stand that I'm here to protect my colleagues and protect my guys. He made his statement and he's moving forward.

It's better in their mind despite the pressure that they're under. Despite the attacks they're under. Despite the attacks that are currently directed at Bob Mueller's investigation.

Let's just get to this hearing. However long it may be and then we move on with our work.

[12:40:00] TALEV: (INAUDIBLE) that the FBI are law enforcement officials like it could be a cultural stage change of all those in the law enforcement community. Became tree-hugging liberals who are actually biased towards the Democrats. There's no --

BASH: That's a good point. The other point that's worth making is that, this is a guy who has just begun a 10-year term. Following a guy who was fired and had a letter of repercussions from (INAUDIBLE) so it is very hard to see him unless he does something really (INAUDIBLE) to be in any political bubble with that he said.

All right, everybody, stand by. We have a lot more to talk about particularly on the Russia probe and what exactly happened behind closed doors for seven hours with the president's eldest son yesterday. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:45:13] BASH: Welcome back to INSIDE POLITICS.

Turning back to Capitol Hill, Democrats say Donald Trump Jr. wasn't as forthcoming as they would have liked. The president's eldest son answered questions from the House Intelligence Committee for hours and hours. Seven hours to be precise.

And what we don't know is -- excuse me, what we do know that we didn't know before this is that Trump Jr. says he consulted White House Communications Director Hope Hicks about how to craft a statement explaining his June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer who he thought had Clinton dirt. What we still do not know is what he told his father, the president about the meeting.

You've been doing a lot of Russia reporting. What is your sense of how this played behind the scenes and more importantly about the implications for the big picture?

BERTRAND: Well, the Democrats were really frustrated by the fact that Donald Trump Jr. just kept saying over and over again, I do not recall, I do not recall. At one point, he actually invoked attorney- client privilege in order to not disclose the content of his conversations with his father throughout the campaign.

And the Democrats were really trying to get to the bottom of well, what did your father know -- what did he know at the time? Did he know that you met with the Russians at Trump Tower on June 9th? Did you discuss that with him? And this year in fact, did you discuss with him the misleading statement that was ultimately issued about your meeting, about that meeting?

So, it was really frustrating for them. And one of the representatives on the committee did tell me that they will be presenting legal arguments to the Republicans for why attorney-client privilege does not hold up in this scenario.

BASH: Well, you mentioned the Democrats were frustrated. Let's hear from one of them, Jackie Speier on the Intelligence Committee was inside those closed doors for many, many hours. Here's how she remembered it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JACKIE SPEIER (D), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: He has a very serious case of amnesia. And he was pretty non-responsive on a lot of issues that frankly you would have a recollection of, considering it was just a year ago that many of these events took place when Donald Trump was the candidate.

He was by his father's side, he was campaigning with his father. And you get the impression in listening to him that he didn't spend much time talking with his father.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTINGLY: Look, nothing is going to -- sorry, Congresswoman Speier is always pretty direct and to point about things. Nothing lights up Democrats on the (INAUDIBLE) Natasha covered them closer than anybody at this point like omissions or I can't recall. I think that's just the case in any investigation. And that's what fires them up when they come out of these meetings, when they come out of these interviews.

You've seen it repeatedly for several individuals. Obviously Don Jr. is held on like a pedestal when it comes to who they wanted to talk to and why they wanted to talk to. Not just because of his profile (INAUDIBLE) but because of the June 9th meeting.

And I think you combine that with the attorney-client privilege that no one can quite figure out how it's actually attorney-client privilege. And I am not lawyer so I'm probably going to describe this in an accurate manner. But the idea was that --

BASH: But we can talk about it anyway.

MATTINGLY: We can talk about it because nobody at this table is a lawyer.

BASH: (INAUDIBLE) it's OK.

MATTINGLY: It's OK. But the idea that you couldn't talk about his father -- his conversations with his father because there was a lawyer in the room at the time. And I think those are the types of things you get through these interviews with Republicans and Democrats. If you answer their questions, if you're straightforward, and you do your best to recall everything and don't repeatedly say, I can't recall or this is attorney-client privilege.

That didn't happen yesterday and I think that's why you're seeing Adam Schiff, the top Democrat. That's why you see Jackie Speier, that's why you've seen several Democrats come out and say, this is a problem and we now have a lot more questions and a lot more issues to dig into than we did before that.

BASH: Now, this probe on the Senate side has been pretty remarkably bipartisan in the approach and the tone that some members on both sides are taking. In the House, not so much. And that was also clear coming out of yesterday's meeting that Don Jr. had the way Republicans saw it was quite different from Democrats.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. CHRIS STEWART (R), UTAH: It wasn't he refuse to answer questions, it was just one question about one meeting. And it's because it was in the presence of their attorneys. And I think that's reasonable.

If there was something dramatic from this hearing, you would already know because it would have been leaked to you. And this is all that came out of hours and hours of hearings.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: Now, the Democrats argue there's nothing to leak because he didn't say anything.

TALEV: Right. But this all goes to the point that we already know which is that, what Robert Mueller and his team are doing is probably much more important than what Congress is doing. It's probably going to have the ability and basically the consistency to get to the bottom of these matters.

I'm intrigued by the Hope Hicks revelations because I'm trying to understand what it really means. If she is on the airplane talking to the president and Don Jr. is talking to her, what difference is that like. Isn't that exactly like talking to the president?

All it does is now make her additionally the focus of something that she was already part of an investigation about.

[12:50:04] It can't be a great feeling for her but what does it mean? What is the -- what's the --

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: Because the question is, did the -- was the president actively involved and how much was -- how actively was he involved in forming a statement that at least at first was not the actual story of what happened in that June 9th meeting. BACON: Most importantly, Hope Hicks is not a random staffer. She is constantly around the president who might (INAUDIBLE). So like the idea that he communicated with her while Donald Trump is standing beside here (INAUDIBLE) something really important.

And that also emphasizes about the overall that happens yesterday. People who have a good story to tell don't say I don't recall and don't make up unusual privileges very often. So it goes to the point that Don Jr. probably doesn't want to tell the committee a lot about what happened because this is probably not a story that's going to exonerate he or the president.

BASH: That's true. I do have to say the fact that a sitting president's son went for the second time to Capitol Hill to answer questions is really extraordinary and we shouldn't forget that. How much those -- first of all, the fact that he agreed to it, and also, how much his children are a big part of this investigation.

All right, everybody stand by because we're going to look at Southern California, next. The wildfires raging there and now major fears that high winds could make things even worse.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BASH: Breaking news in Southern California where wind-driven wildfires have forced more than 100,000 people to flee their homes. The state of emergency has been declared in Ventura County where the largest of the fires burned.

The Thomas Fire is more than twice the size of Washington, D.C. And it is showing little sign of slowing down.

And that's where CNN's Stephanie Elam is. And Stephanie, firefighters are trying very hard to beat back the flames there. What's the status?

STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Dana.

[12:55:01] Well, you take a look at how they've been fighting. This hillside behind me was completely engulfed in flames overnight. When we first got out here, we watched the firefighters fight. And I have to tell you, we were not so sure that they were going to be able to save this little town of La Conchita but they did except for one abandoned building that burned.

So a major fire fight here and you see the firefighters are out here still watching it. And that's just the issue because these winds are still picking up. They're expected to be 50 to 80 miles per hour as the day goes on.

And what happens, they'll catch those embers and they can fly them in other directions and we could get new fires. We were seeing that overnight, watching the firefighters immediately attack those hot spots.

But the problem is these winds are going to continue through Saturday and that's the danger here in California moving ahead, Dana.

BASH: Stephanie Elam, thank you so much for that reporting. And you see Stephanie wearing that mask to protect her and obviously our crew is doing the same. We wish everybody out there well.

Thank you so much for joining us on INSIDE POLITICS. Wolf Blitzer takes over after a quick break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1 p.m. here in Washington, 8 p.m. in Jerusalem, 9 p.m. in Moscow. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much --