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White House on Bannon: This is Not Best Way to Curry Favor; Trump vs. Bannon. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired January 3, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. We're going to begin with breaking news in the politics lead. And for the youngsters out there, it's impossible to overstate just how bizarre today's news is. President Trump issued a statement like no presidential statement ever before in American history, lambasting his former campaign and White House senior strategist, Steve Bannon, in no uncertain terms.

This comes after the release of explosive excerpts from a new book claiming to reveal the inner workings of the Trump campaign and White House. What could be the most consequential revelation from these excerpts, Bannon seeming to tell the book's author he thinks that June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort with others who were billed as being from the Russian government, that that meeting was unpatriotic and treasonous.

The president, apparently being told about that excerpt, unloaded today in an official White House statement blasting his former consigliere, saying -- quote -- "Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my presidency. When he was fired, he not only lost his job. He lost his mind."

And then the president got nasty. All these bombshells and Trump world anecdotes are in the upcoming book "Fire and Fury" by Michael Wolff. Wolff conducted more than 200 interviews and this was all made possible, he claims, because he was able to take up -- quote -- "something like a semi-permanent seat on a couch in the West Wing."

That idea was encouraged by President Trump himself, Wolff says. My political panel is here with me to comb through all the details. But let's begin with CNN's Jeff Zeleny at the White House.

And, Jeff, in this statement, the likes of which we have never seen before from a president about an aide, going after Bannon, he says that Bannon was rarely in a one-on-one meeting with President Trump and really didn't have much influence. Is that true?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Jake, that simply does not comport with what we saw here during the first eight months of the Trump administration.

Just to set the scene a little bit here, the West Wing is actually a small place, as you know. Steve Bannon's office was just steps away from the Oval Office. He had walk-in privileges. What that means is that he could walk in whenever the president wanted to see him.

One official I talked to just a few minutes ago said he met privately with the president all the time, more than many of his advisers, which, of course, that is normal because he was the chief strategist.

So the fact that the president today is trying to distance himself from Steve Bannon, obviously in advance of this book, does not comport with what actually happened during the eight months of the presidency.

But in the briefing a short time ago, a contentious briefing, no question, the press secretary, Sarah Sanders, she dismissed this as tabloid trash. She said the president was furious. She also said these allegations are simply ridiculous.


ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump firing back today at his former chief strategist Steve Bannon for calling a 2016 meeting in Trump Tower between campaign officials and a Russian lawyer treasonous and unpatriotic.

In a blistering statement, the president said: "Steve Bannon had nothing to do with me or my presidency. When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind."

The extraordinary war of wards broke out over a new book, "Fire and Fury": Inside the Trump White House," part of which were reported today by "The Guardian" and "New York" magazine. Bannon taking direct aim at Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort, all of whom met with a Russian lawyer offering dirt on Hillary Clinton's campaign.

"The three senior guys in the campaign thought it was a good idea to meet with a foreign government inside Trump Tower in the conference room on the 25th floor with no lawyers," Bannon reportedly says in the book. "Even if you thought this was not treasonous or on patriotic or bad 'expletive,' and I happen to think it's all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately."

Bannon went on to say, "They're going to crack Don Jr. like an egg on national TV."

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders dismissed the book as trashy tabloid fiction and described the president's reaction like this:

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think furious, disgusted would probably certainly fit when you make such outrageous claims and completely false claims against the president, his administration and his family.

ZELENY: The explosive comments from Bannon undermine a White House effort to downplay and discredit the investigation into election meddling and potential Russian collusion with the Trump campaign.

"You realize where this is going. This is all about money laundering," Bannon reportedly says in the book. Their path to 'expletive' Trump goes right through Paul Manafort, Don Jr. and Jared Kushner. It's as plain as the hair on your face."

In unusually personal terms, the president blasted Bannon, his former adviser, saying, "He's only in it for himself.


The book written by journalist Michael Wolff also has strong words for the president's daughter Ivanka Trump and Kushner, her husband.

"Jared and Ivanka decided to accept roles in the West Wing, over the advice of almost everyone they knew. The two had made an earnest deal. If some time in the future the opportunity arose, she would be the one to run for president. The first woman president, Ivanka entertained, would not be Hillary Clinton. It would be Ivanka Trump."


ZELENY: And that right there is summarizing what is bad blood, to put it mildly, between Steve Bannon and Ivanka and Jared Kushner. No question about that. That was obvious here during all of Steve Bannon's time at the White House.

Now, one lingering question here is, did Michael Wolff interview the president directly or not? He says he had inside access, and, in fact, we have seen Michael Wolff here repeatedly over the first year of the presidency.

He is here as often as some White House reporters are. Sarah Sanders in the briefing said today he did not sit down with the president. She said he did have a brief phone call on a different matter. So, Jake, when this book is actually released later this month, we will see other revelations about this, including what the president made have said or the observations Michael Wolff saw. He clearly was a fly on the wall.

TAPPER: All right. Jeff Zeleny at the White House for us, thanks so much.

Let's get to my panel. There is so much to talk about in these excerpts.

But, first of all, Josh Green, as our resident Bannon expert, he is clearly all over these excerpts, on the record saying things that were not particularly flattering about the president's children, about Jared Kushner, about the president himself. Why? What's the motivation?

JOSH GREEN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Wolff had been interviewing Bannon all the way back during the transition. He did an article in "Hollywood Reporter."

And Bannon at his time was at the height of his powers, I think thought he was politically bulletproof. Whether or not Trump wants to admit it now, Bannon was instrumental in helping him win his presidential victory over Hillary Clinton. He was the chief strategist, the most important official in that White House. So I think he thought he was untouchable.

TAPPER: I remember that piece. It was a real beat-sweetener. It was very flattering to Steve Bannon.



GREEN: Here's the other thing.

Trump and Bannon are both -- Wolff is a masterful manipulator of important men with large egos. And I think this book is a product of that. You can see he was able to get these people, not just Bannon, but other Trump officials, on the record, had a front-row seat as the first year of the White House was unfolding and he was obviously writing a lot of this in his notebook.

TAPPER: And also he did a biography of Rupert Murdoch, Michael Wolff, and Murdoch's all over this book too saying disparaging things about the president, talking about the phone call.

What's your take on this?

TANDEN: I think the most important we're getting, there is a lot of interesting back and forth between Steve Bannon and the White House. But the most interesting part of this, I think -- the most consequential part of this is the fact that Steve Bannon, who was a member of the White House, says the actions of the Trump campaign were traitorous, treasonous.

He basically says that the campaign was in bed with a foreign adversary and that they should have called the FBI. He has a window seat into everything. And he himself -- you know, Republicans have gone after everybody on this issue, and now Steve Bannon is the one saying that the Trump campaign acted against the interests of the American people, on behalf of a foreign adversary, calling it treason himself.

TAPPER: It is pretty stark.


I mean, to your earlier question, too, as a former campaign staffer and administration staffer, nothing worries me more than a staffer that thinks they're more than a staffer. I think that's what we have here. Proximity has a way of deluding many people in power, near power into thinking that they wield it.

This is clearly one of those cases. You know, one of the things that I think is interesting, though, to Neera's point, as much as we love to watch the mud-wrestling of an article like this that comes out, there are legal implications to what was reported in this book.

And I think the big worry I would have right now if I were inside the White House is how do I contain some of now what the news that is coming out of this that is going to get the special counsel's attention?

TAPPER: Right, because beyond the back and forth -- you call it mud- wrestling. It reminds me of the last scene of "Reservoir Dogs."

But whatever it is, there is the point that Neera is making, which is, there is a criminal investigation going on.

GREEN: But one reason I think Bannon felt so free to call that meeting treasonous is, he wasn't part of that meeting when that happened.


TAPPER: He joined in August.

GREEN: He joined in mid-August.

I think from his standpoint, he is not complicit in what happened. He -- objectively, he's right. If a meeting like this were to happen, of course, the first thing you should do is call the FBI, and the Trump campaign didn't. I think his criticisms are actually valid.

But he's able to lob them because he knows the special counsel isn't going to be looking at him. He wasn't part of the campaign.

TANDEN: Of course he didn't say anything until now leaving the White House. He's actually speaking.

But, look, I think it's important that everybody in Washington deal with the fact that a conservative or arch-conservative and person behind Breitbart is actually saying this is treasonous.


TAPPER: It's interesting.

Let's fact-check one part of this. President Trump today saying: "Steve was rarely in a one-on-one meeting with me and only pretends to have had influence to fool people with no access and no clue whom he helped write phony books."

I think that might be you.

GREEN: I think it is.

TAPPER: Is that you?

GREEN: And I appreciate the plug.


TAPPER: By the way, what's the name of the book? "Devil's Bargain" by Josh Green. Yes, Josh Green. It's on Amazon. It's an excellent book.


TAPPER: Just for the record, I think that you have a clue and you obviously had access to Steve Bannon. But, boy, that book really bothered the president.

GREEN: You know, it's funny.

This came out at the time, but what I was told what bothered him the most was actually the cover of the book, which shows Steve Bannon and Donald Trump together. And Trump, I'm told by reliable sources, was incensed that the picture wasn't Trump alone.

MADDEN: And the "TIME" magazine cover, right, which said President Bannon. It sounds like that really got to him, too.


TANDEN: There is a whole part of this interview which says how little the president likes to read.

TAPPER: He didn't say he didn't like reading the book. He said he didn't like the cover of the book.

TANDEN: Perhaps he didn't read the book and only looked at the cover and that was it, because you have his own staff attacking his ability to digest information.

MADDEN: I found the most interesting part of the president's statement today the part where he talked about how he has ownership over -- where he staked ownership over his own base and tried to disabuse anybody of the idea that somehow this was all the workings or the engineer behind his popularity amongst that base was due to Steve Bannon.

I think that's the fallout to see in the next few days is, how does Steve Bannon return fire or does he even? I think that the Steve Bannon/Breitbart world will tend to hold their fire on this and actually start to put more pressure on the White House to hold the two biggest positions that they care about, which are coming up in this January legislative session, which is DACA and the wall.

TAPPER: Dreamers and the wall. Right.

MADDEN: If there is any sort of abandonment on that, then you will see that base and Bannon start to...


TAPPER: I want to talk about the legal point you brought up a second ago, because Congressman Ted Lieu tweeted today, "Based on the statements by Steve Bannon, congressional committees now need to subpoena him to testify on the Trump/Russia investigation."

But, Josh, as you point out, he wasn't part of the campaign during that meeting, but there is other stuff in the book suggesting that he suspects that President Trump had been told.

GREEN: Yes, you know, it's not clear from the excerpt if this was Bannon just speculating that Don Jr. ran up and told the president, in which case there may be nothing there for investigators, or if he knows that something happened.

And, of course, once he did join the campaign, Bannon was instrumental in crafting a lot of the statements that were given to the press, many of which were false or misleading by the White House surrounding the Russia investigation.

Bannon certainly knows something. Whether or not he has direct knowledge of that particular meeting, though, I'm not sure.

TANDEN: He was part of the apparatus that defended what happened with Mike Flynn. He also was there when there was the defense of the meeting when it came out in June or July of this year. I think he actually has a lot of information about what happened.

TAPPER: All right. Go ahead.

MADDEN: The CEO of the campaign and chief strategist, it's hard to sort of distance yourself when those are your two titles.


TAPPER: No, he was a huge part of the Trump victory.

Everyone, stick around. We got a lot more to talk about. We're just getting started. We probably wouldn't even be having this conversation if what Trump reportedly really wanted to happen in the 2016 race, according to Michael Wolff, had actually happened, the claim that Trump wanted to lose the election.

That's next.



[16:17:03] REPORTER: Is this a direct response to Steve Bannon calling the president's son unpatriotic and saying that he committed treason?

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think there are a number of factors that played in. I would certainly think going after the president's son in an absolutely outrageous and unprecedented way is probably not the best way to curry favor with anybody.


TAPPER: That's fair to say, not a good way to curry favor with the president, calling his son treasonous and unpatriotic.

We're back with the breaking news. The White House and specifically President Trump slamming the

explosive accounts out in the new book that's in next week called "Fire and Fury", particularly quotes apparently from the president's former chief strategist Steve Bannon who's quoted calling Donald Trump Jr.'s infamous Trump Tower meeting treasonous and unpatriotic. Excerpts of the book were released today. First in "The Guardian" and then more in "New York" magazine, both described chaotic beginnings of the Trump administration and a candidate who did not want to be president.

And back with my panel.

Bannon says he thinks this Russia investigation is ultimately going to be about money laundering. He believes Kushner, Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law, could be convinced to cooperate if Mueller probes the Kushner financial records reportedly saying in this book, quote, it goes through Deutsche Bank and all the Kushner blank. I guess that's -- you didn't know what that was. The Kushner blank is greasy. They're going to go right through that, they're going to roll those two guys up and say play me or trade me.

That's obviously Bannon's fear, that there is all of this financial stuff that has nothing to do with the Russia investigation that they're going to use to get Don Jr. and Kushner to cooperate.

TANDEN: I read it a little bit differently. I thought that what he was referencing and I think the investigation is heading in this way is Russian money laundering through Kushner assets, which is I think the -- I think Deutsche Bank is actually being investigated for not just money laundering in general and its ties to the Kushner family and their businesses but for Russian assets. So I think there is a connection between those things, but I do think it's interesting it's not that Steve Bannon is saying, oh, something could have happened, he's actually pointing out potential illegalities, which I think is another reason investigators and congressional investigators should call him to testify.

TAPPER: Although, we should point out that Bannon has been very clear on the record over and over that he thinks the Russia collusion investigation is a witch-hunt and there is nothing there and it's just concocted by Democrats. So, when he talks about whatever money laundering stuff there might be with the Russians, Bannon's opinion is, that's -- there was no relation, whatever that was, or was not, that there's no relation to the election.

GREEN: That's right. But I think that opinion is based on supposition on Bannon's part. I don't think he had any kind of access to the Kushner family's, you know, banking relationships, but he did say consistently during his time in the White House and afterwards that the fact that Kushner was a senior official in the West Wing, that Trump was meeting with Russian bankers in the Oval Office, was a byproduct of Kushner's business dealings and could be politically and potentially legally problematic for the president.

[16:20:02] MADDEN: I don't even know how to defend or explain some of the charges that are leveled, but what I find interesting is just how -- I mean, we've heard of staff tensions before but we've never seen open warfare like this between, you know, the alleged nationalists and the establishment figures in a White House like this, so open and out in the open. And I think what we're seeing right now, what we're witnessing is just how paralyzing that can be for an administration.

If you look at so many of the missed opportunities of this year, a lot of these tensions that were going on behind closed doors had to be driving it.

TANDEN: I mean, there have been White Houses with tensions. I would just add here, you have an added dimension which is essentially Steve Bannon is providing information that a special prosecutor, who has the ability to prosecute Jared Kushner or even Donald Trump, he has the ability to look into these facts and he's laying it out for a book. It's not just they're disagreeing, he's welding -- wielding the power of a special prosecutor in some of this.

TAPPER: And we should point out, this is not the whole book, this is just a couple excerpts. "The Guardian" got an excerpt, that you see excerpt about the treason and the unpatriotic behavior of Donald Trump Jr., according to Steve Bannon. "New York" magazine published an excerpt that Michael Wolff works there, and now, other publications, other media organizations are getting excerpts.

So, I mean, this is just the tip of the iceberg as far as we know. Now, "The Wall Street Journal" just got a copy and in "The Journal" excerpt, Bannon is quoted as describing Ivanka Trump, the president's beloved daughter and a White House senior adviser as, quote, dumb as a brick. A spokeswoman for Ms. Trump did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

I mean, that's not nice.

TANDEN: No, it's mean. It's very mean. It's a very mean statement. It is, it's just mean.

TAPPER: It's not necessarily even true. But the idea that you would go after the president's kids like this is really staggering.

GREEN: Can't speak to the truthfulness of that statement. Wouldn't presume to.

But there is a Hatfields and McCoys kind of war that's been going on pretty much from the outset of the administration between Bannon and his allies and Ivanka Trump and Jared Trump. And that really I think is what's driving a lot of these comments. If you look at the treason stuff, the meeting, you know, Kushner helped to arrange that, he was in that.

I think part of the reason that Bannon is so eager to share that with a reporter is because it impugns his enemy Jared Kushner and I guess his wife also.

MADDEN: My question for you, Josh, given there is one place you can't go with this president is in any way cross his family or his family members, particularly Ivanka, are anybody now who's allied with Steve Bannon now start running for the hills? Which I cannot be any longer associated with him given that now the president is about to turn his attention to anybody who is part of that?

TANDEN: The only thing I would add. I totally appreciate the president's word about his ability to control the primary voters. I would note the record here, which is he was -- Donald Trump was for Luther Strange, Steve Bannon was for Roy Moore. Roy Moore won that primary. Roy Moore lost the general election but with Donald Trump endorsing him.

Steve Bannon and Donald Trump endorsing him and we have statements in the press that Steve Bannon and Donald Trump spoke about this regularly just a month or two ago.

So, I -- you know, I leave the Republican Party to you all. I certainly don't know. But it's not clear to me just because Donald Trump says Steve Bannon has no voice in the party. Steve Bannon actually has no voice. He still is a large scale force.

TAPPER: Let's talk about election night because there is this very vivid scene in the "New York" magazine excerpt, the book's author Michael Wolff writing, quote, once he lost, because that was the assumption that Trump would lose, Trump would be insanely famous and a martyr to crooked Hillary. His daughter and son-in-law would be international celebrities. Steve Bannon would become the de facto head of the Tea Party movement.

Kellyanne Conway would be a cable news star. Melania Trump who had been assured by her husband that he wouldn't become president could return to inconspicuously lunching. Losing would work out for everybody. Losing was winning.

The White House, of course, calling the book trashy tabloid fiction. And the first lady's communications director denying that she did not think that her husband would win.

Who do you believe, Josh?

GREEN: I certainly believe that most of the people in the Trump campaign thought that Trump was going to lose that election. You know, Wolff says in his excerpts that Kellyanne Conway was going around and telling people and basically auditioning for a job on cable news. I know in my own book I have a scene where Sean Spicer is going around to the heads of the networks saying, listen, he's not going to lose. It's not our fault, the RNC's fault, it's Trump's fault.

Most people I think thought he was going to lose. Wolff's contention that they wanted to lose, I don't know that I'd agree with that. But certainly there wasn't a lot of positivity in the Trump campaign on the morning of the election.

TAPPER: We have so much more to talk about. Stick around. Including what did the president know and not know about the country's government, according to this reporting. Stick around.

We'll be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:28:38] TAPPER: We're back with my panel.

An extraordinary behind the scenes look at the Trump campaign and the Trump White House from the new book by Michael Wolff, "Fire and Fury." And one of the thrusts of the book is how much President Trump did not know about basic governance.

Let me read you an excerpt. Early in the campaign, Trump adviser Sam Nunberg was sent to explain the Constitution to the candidate, quote, I got as far as the Fourth Amendment, Nunberg recalled, before his finger is pulling down on his lip and his eyes are rolling back in his head.

And then, you know, there are other excerpts in which the president, as you mentioned, is described as not being a reader, not even a skimmer. Not even willing to look at a page.

MADDEN: Well, I think all of that comports with what we've heard previously. He's not somebody who ran as a policy expert. He's not somebody who run as really --

TAPPER: That's not what I said, though. You're putting a nice spin on it. He doesn't read. He doesn't read.


TANDEN: Oh, my god. Policy expert.

MADDEN: He's not an intellectually curious person.

TAPPER: Again, you're being nice about it.

MADDEN: But we knew that, right?

TAPPER: I didn't know that he didn't read anything.

MADDEN: You knew that. Come on.

GREEN: There have been newspaper stories saying literally they have to crunch things down to a bullet pointed list in order to keep him focused. I don't think that is --

TANDEN: This is different than a short one-pager is different from like I don't read the briefings that I get every morning --

MADDEN: During the health care debate when Mark Meadows came in and had a problem with the essential benefits portion of the bill --

TAPPER: Right.

MADDEN: -- which is a huge part of health care --

TAPPER: Right.

MADDEN: -- he said don't worry about the small stuff.