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White House Press Briefing; Paul Manafort Files Lawsuit; Trump vs. Bannon. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired January 3, 2018 - 15:00   ET

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


[15:00:01]

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: What's the response to the president to all of this?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brooke, I think this book "Fire and Fury" has lit Trump world on fire.

That is essentially what we are seeing today. This war of words between the president and his chief strategist Steve Bannon is nothing short of stunning and perhaps the only thing that is capable of overshadowing what was a pretty startling tweet from the president just 24 hours ago, less than 24 hours, talking about the size of his nuclear button.

But just in the last couple of hours, the president has put out a statement with respect to what Steve Bannon had to say in that book, "Fire and Fury," and so has the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, the president saying in a very unbelievable statement, saying that the president -- or -- excuse me -- that is former chief strategist Steve Bannon lost his mind after he was fired here at the White House, and went on to say that he had basically very little to do with the inner workings over here, that he was essentially spending most of his time here at the White House talking to reporters while he was referring to the media as opposition party.

That is a pretty extensive smackdown coming from the president of the United States. Now, keep in mind, in that statement from the president, there isn't a whole lot said with respect to the accuracy, the veracity of what Steve Bannon is saying.

And that is mainly what Steve Bannon told Michael Wolff in the book was essentially his own opinion, that he believes that that meeting in June of 2016 at Trump Tower was not only ill-advised, it was -- quote -- "treasonous," according to Steve Bannon, the meeting that was held by Donald Trump Jr., the president's son, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

Now, following that statement from the president, the White House thought it would be a good idea to go out and put out another statement from the press secretary, Sarah Sanders, that also excoriated that book, saying it was filled with false and inaccurate information.

And then the first lady's office, which rarely does this, the first lady's office also put out a statement, Brooke, going after the book, saying that it belongs in the bargain book section of the bookstore.

Of course, all of this is probably going to help. That book "Fire and Fury" is probably not going to be in the bargain book section for a while because all of this publicity today has obviously generated a lot of sales for this book, which is expected to come out in short order.

But this briefing was delayed by about 15 minutes. We should hear from Sarah Sanders in person shortly. And we are expecting to hear more of the same from what we heard from this White House earlier today with respect to Michael Wolff's book.

It's a stunning day here at the White House. And as we were saying earlier on your program, Brooke, we are only three days into this new year -- back to you.

BALDWIN: Like I said, welcome to 2018. And here we go. This is just the beginning.

Jim Acosta, we will look for you and we will take that briefing in full momentarily. Thank you so much, my friend.

We are going to analyze all of what Jim just discussed and more here.

But, first, we do have breaking news in the Russia investigation. The president's former campaign chairman who has been indicted is now questioning Robert Mueller's authority as special counsel.

So to Evan Perez we go, who is about to break some news.

Evan, what do you have?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Brooke.

This lawsuit was filed by Paul Manafort against Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, as well as Robert Mueller, the special counsel in the Justice Department. The essence of the lawsuit is that Robert Mueller and his appointment essentially exceeds what the authority is under the law that governs special counsel, and that even if the appointment of Mueller was lawful, that Mueller has exceeded his authority in bringing these charges against Paul Manafort and Rick Gates.

If you remember, those charges were filed a few weeks ago. The focus of the lawsuit seems to be on the part of Rod Rosenstein's order back in May which appointed Robert Mueller. And the order says that in addition to investigating the alleged meddling by the Russians in the 2016 election, it also says that the Mueller may investigate any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.

According to the lawsuit filed by Manafort just a short while ago, it says essentially that Rosenstein's order gives Mueller -- quote -- "carte blanche to investigate and pursue criminal charges in connection with anything he comes across while investigating, no matter how remote from the specific matter identified as the subject of the appointment order." The basic part of this here, Brooke, is that this is part of a, as you have seen in the last few weeks, in the last few months, really, supporters of the president are challenging the authority of Mueller to go after things they say has nothing to do with Russia.

Manafort, as you remember, is charged with conduct that he allegedly did when he was representing the Ukrainian government way back 10 years ago, as far back as 10 years ago. And so that's what Manafort is challenging here in this lawsuit against Robert Mueller and the Justice Department.

[15:05:05]

He says that this has nothing to do with Russia meddling, that in the end, these charges have nothing to do with what Mueller was allegedly appointed to do.

BALDWIN: Got it. Evan Perez, thank you so much.

I have my panel I'm bringing in here.

And, Jeffrey, good to see all of you.

(CROSSTALK)

BALDWIN: But, Jeffrey Toobin, just first to you. You were talking to me before when we were reading a little bit about the news before he was about to break it, you were saying you had worked a case like this before. Tell us about that.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Right.

There is a history of targets of special counsel prosecutors filing lawsuits to say that the special prosecutor doesn't have jurisdiction over the case. Way back in 1987, Oliver North filed a lawsuit saying that Lawrence Walsh, who was the independent counsel investigating Iran-Contra, didn't have the jurisdiction and didn't have the right to bring a case.

I was working for Walsh at the time. And we fought that suit in court. And eventually we won. But the issue of the jurisdiction of special prosecutors is one that the courts have never fully resolved.

This is not a frivolous lawsuit. I think it's unlikely to succeed, but it is a lawsuit that shows that every possible attack, publicity, legally, in terms of political support, everything is going to be thrown at Mueller.

(CROSSTALK)

TOOBIN: And this is a legal attack. It's a fully appropriate thing foreman Manafort's lawyers to do. There is nothing kind of harassment. This is a very legitimate lawsuit. Ultimately, I think it will not succeed because the Justice Department can appoint special prosecutors. Historically, they have done that very often. I am unaware of any

case where they said they can't do it. But this is certainly an appropriate thing for Manafort's lawyers to do. And in a politicized judiciary, as we often have, predictions are very difficult, especially about the future.

BALDWIN: Yes. We are no good at that.

Sam Vinograd, you were nodding. What do you think?

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I'm just thinking that Vladimir Putin is having another very good day.

Leaving aside the legal aspects of this, we know that Vladimir Putin and the Russians like to see us focus inward, like to see various parts of the government going against each other. And as it works its way through the courts, Vladimir Putin is still launching an ongoing information warfare campaign that seeks to diminish confidence in our democracy, in our free and fair -- our free and transparent legal system is the core pillar of that democracy.

So every time I see this kind of back and forth, every time I see President Trump point a finger at Bob Mueller or another congressional hearing where we're talking more about the credibility of the FBI or the Department of Justice, I just think that Vladimir Putin is smiling.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: But Trump really isn't pointing the finger at Bob Mueller at this point. Maybe there's something he will do.

BALDWIN: He has in the past, yes.

HENDERSON: But at this point he's saying he thinks he can get a fair hearing from Bob Mueller. You do have other Republicans in the House particularly who are calling into question Mueller's authority and whatever he's going to come up with.

But we will see if that lasts, if Trump at some point starts to turn on Mueller if he gets frustrated with we have seen from his lawyers, oh, this is an investigation that's going to wrap up soon. Right? That was supposed to be around Thanksgiving. Then it was Christmas, I imagine.

(CROSSTALK)

HENDERSON: And now we are into the new year and the investigation is still ongoing.

BALDWIN: Well, who has lost his mind, according to the president, is his former chief strategist, Steve Bannon. We will get into some of the nuggets of these quotes from both that "Guardian" piece and the "New York" magazine piece.

But what do you make of the president? I mean, no love lost. And just even the fact that Bannon is saying what he is and president is saying he lost it?

HENDERSON: Yes. An amazing article. I have got it printed out here.

It's about 18 pages. It's based on this book that is coming out.

BALDWIN: Stunning.

HENDERSON: It's stunning, the revelations here.

And what's also stunning is the access, right, that this author Michael Wolff got to the White House, 200 interviews. He talked to the president. He basically was camped out in the West Wing seeing and hearing all sorts of things.

So when they push back and say, well, this is fiction, he's made it up, this is going to be on the bargain basement stand at Barnes & Noble, like, well, they participated in this and gave them all of this access.

TOOBIN: You know, as amazing as the Steve Bannon stuff is in Michael Wolff's book, Katie Walsh, who was the deputy chief of staff, very much an establishment figure, not a larger-than-life figure like Steve Bannon, this very serious person, is so scathing about the president.

(CROSSTALK)

TOOBIN: We will see whether these people go back on their quotes or they say they were misquoted.

But the way they portray the president of the United States, incompetent, incurious, nearly illiterate, someone who doesn't read anything.

BALDWIN: Didn't want to go past the Fourth Amendment when -- Sam.

(CROSSTALK)

[15:10:01]

HENDERSON: Right, goes to bed at 6:30 with a cheeseburger, has odd kind of ideas.

(CROSSTALK)

BALDWIN: The toothbrush.

HENDERSON: Toothbrush.

(CROSSTALK)

HENDERSON: And he strips his own bed. It's very --

TOOBIN: Yes, yes.

BALDWIN: Yes.

TOOBIN: You know what?

I -- as a book author I am so jealous of Michael Wolff. God.

But you know what? Hats off to him. You know what? He got the access and he wrote the book. As long as it stands up to the criticism, now, we will see if it can be factually refuted, but if it can't be, wow, it's pretty amazing.

BALDWIN: What about the words Steve Bannon uses in the "Guardian" piece, right, where he says treasons?

He's referring to this Trump Tower meeting. This was June of 2016. We know -- speaking of Manafort -- Manafort, Jared Kushner, Russian attorney were all sitting around this room, apparently because they wanted dirt on Hillary Clinton.

And this is pre-Steve Bannon, right? He joined in August. So he's calling it treasonous and unpatriotic and saying you should have immediately called the FBI. Right?

TOOBIN: Well, they should have.

(CROSSTALK)

BALDWIN: That's what so much of America had been thinking, but to have somebody so close to Trump world to be saying that carries right, I think?

(CROSSTALK)

TOOBIN: Right.

And the word treason has a specific legal definition. And I don't think there is any definition of treason that I'm aware of as a crime that you could ascribe to Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr. and the people going to this meeting.

However, un-American, unpatriotic, disloyal, not in the traditions of American politics, that's what I think Steve Bannon is saying. And I think that's where you are so right, that the idea that people involved in an American presidential campaign would greedily reach out to the Russian government for dirt on their opponent, as Donald Trump Jr. and company did, does feel treasonous in a sort of colloquial sense.

But the fact that Bannon would say it was amazing.

BALDWIN: But I thought this was all a Democratic hoax, according to the president, right?

Doesn't what, of all people, Steve Bannon is saying totally undermine that, that we have heard from the White House?

VINOGRAD: Well, the meeting itself, which is very irresponsible, right? The Russians have a history over several decades of trying to target U.S. government officials, and trying to get access to presidential campaign and into the halls of the White House.

So whether this meeting was treasonous or not, it shows that Jared Kushner and whoever else was present were very easy intelligence targets. They were easily manipulated. They fell into this trap.

And they should have gotten a counterintelligence briefing at some point that they actually paid attention to.

TOOBIN: Or have a lawyer present.

VINOGRAD: Something, anything.

TOOBIN: Or something. Just instead of like -- the only thing we know about it Donald Trump's famous e-mail back saying, "Love it."

(CROSSTALK)

HENDERSON: And the question, I mean, obviously, the Russian investigation will continue, Bob Mueller.

What is Bannon's endgame, right? What does he want out of this? Is it just chaos? Is it to be on the cover of "Newsweek" magazine again? I guess he's on this past week.

TOOBIN: Not "Newsweek." You are dating yourself.

"New York."

BALDWIN: "New York" magazine.

(CROSSTALK)

HENDERSON: Yes. And he wants a war, obviously, with the establishment, to primary all sorts of people.

What's interesting in Trump's statement where he basically dumps and breaks up with Steve Bannon is at the end he talks about essentially siding with Republicans in Congress. And they are the ones who can carry his agenda and believe his agenda.

They are not the ones who just want to destroy everything, as Steve Bannon does.

BALDWIN: Will donors like the Mercers pull away from him?

HENDERSON: Right. That's the big question. That's the big question. Is he in the wilderness at this point?

TOOBIN: And also just what about the Breitbart constituency?

The reason Breitbart exists now, as far as I can tell, is to support Donald Trump. Look what the head of Breitbart is saying about Donald Trump. How do those two things match up? It's above my pay grade. I have no idea.

BALDWIN: I think above all of ours. But you know these questions are going to be asked of Sarah Sanders. That briefing is supposed to start momentarily.

We're going to sneak a quick break in. Please hang out, every single of one of you. I appreciate you. Quick break.

We're back at the White House momentarily.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:17:27]

BALDWIN: We are back here with the breaking news on CNN.

We are waiting for the White House briefing to begin temporarily.

In the meantime, I have three outstanding people sitting next to me who can analyze the news of the day, which is really these explosive quotes from Steve Bannon and others within Trump world, thanks to this journalist Michael Wolff, whose book is out next week, "Fire and Fury," and this is damming stuff for the president.

And we have now heard from the White House essentially the president calling Steve Bannon -- saying he has lost his mind.

So, continuing on that, I have got a quote on -- obviously, there is no love lost between Steve Bannon and the Trump family.

So here's a quote. Michael Wolff writes about this deal that was struck between Jared and Ivanka in taking these roles in the West Wing.

"Balancing risk against reward, both Jared and Ivanka decided to accept roles in the West Wing, over the advice of almost everyone they knew. It was a joint decision by the couple and in some sense a joint job. Between themselves, 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.

"Bannon, who had coined the term Jarvanka, was now in ever greater use. And the White House was horrified when the couple's deal was reported to him."

This is what Steve Bannon said.

"'They didn't say that,' he said. 'Stop. Oh, come on. They didn't actually say that. Please don't tell that. Oh, my God."

Nia-Malika Henderson, what is the deal between both camps? And also, by the way, Ivanka Trump thinking that --

HENDERSON: That she could be the first woman president.

BALDWIN: Right.

HENDERSON: Which, in some ways, is not really surprising.

You sort of imagined -- I remember sitting there watching the RNC when he was nominated. All the children coming out. Her speech. The idea that maybe Donald Trump Jr. would run for office in New York.

(CROSSTALK)

HENDERSON: So it's not surprising that she may have thought that. And she may still think that.

TOOBIN: Why -- is this a crazier idea than President Trump running for president in the first place? In many respects, she seems like a better candidate than he was. And she never sexually assaulted anybody, as far as I'm aware.

[15:20:05]

(CROSSTALK)

BALDWIN: Allegedly.

TOOBIN: No, he admitted it. Anyway, we will revisit that whole subject.

HENDERSON: Another time.

(CROSSTALK)

TOOBIN: But I find that completely plausible.

(CROSSTALK)

HENDERSON: And likely.

TOOBIN: But it does underline why presidents don't employ their relatives in the White House.

You know, nepotism is a problem even for qualified members of the family. And this incredibly poisonous relationship between Bannon and the Trump relatives is obviously a lot of what's driving this bitterness here.

(CROSSTALK)

HENDERSON: In this, Ann Coulter apparently had to take Donald Trump aside and say, probably not a good idea for you to employ your relatives. Don't make Jared Kushner the chief of staff, when apparently it's something he wanted to do.

TOOBIN: And when Ann Coulter is the voice of reason, wow, wow. That's all I can say. She's right, too.

(CROSSTALK) VINOGRAD: Aside from the fact that these are members of his family, I think as we are finding out presidents need to employ people that have actual skill sets that are relevant to their portfolios.

TOOBIN: You think?

VINOGRAD: You think? Yes. From a national security perspective, we have seen Jared Kushner -- it gives me no great pleasure to say this -- but engage in almost every national security issue possible, with abysmal results.

Take Middle East peace. There was a decision on Jerusalem that was rolled out that has translated into the fact that the United States is no longer a part of a Middle East dialogue.

We need to have a president that employees people, whether relatives or not, that have some background in the issues that they're working on. Experience matters.

HENDERSON: One of the things that comes across in this article, too, is the small world Donald Trump occupies. Right?

The's this image of him sitting in his room basically making calls to people, right, sometimes complaining about people in his inner circle, whether it's Jared Kushner or Kellyanne Conway, being obsessed with Rupert Murdoch's approval, basically saying that Rupert Murdoch keeps calling him, but the real story seems to be he keeps calling Rupert Murdoch.

So, yes, it gave me sort of "Citizen Kane," kind of "Home Alone," Roger Dangerfield kind of feeling from this whole thing.

TOOBIN: If I can offer one piece of literary criticism, Michael Wolff previously wrote a biography of Rupert Murdoch. And Rupert Murdoch seems to be the source for a lot of what is in here, including these conversations late at night.

(CROSSTALK)

TOOBIN: So I think a lot of this book depends on the credibility of Rupert Murdoch. And people can make up their own minds about that.

Murdoch has had a very complicated up-and-down relationship with Trump over the years. I think he had a lot of contempt for him as a publicity hound, real estate developer. But as he became the winner of the nomination and then the presidency, Murdoch changed his tune somewhat.

But he is all over this excerpt and I think someone who Wolff relies on very heavily.

BALDWIN: Again, the push back from the White House, as we wait for this briefing here coming up, the pushback from the White House is basically the president in a statement today saying that, essentially, ever since Steve Bannon left the White House, he has lost his mind.

Back in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Light crowd. As we speak, OMB Director Mick Mulvaney and White House Director of Legislative Affairs Marc Short are on Capitol Hill, participating in ongoing budget negotiations with Congressional leaders.

The president urges Democrats to adhere to the so-called Schumer Rule, and not hold the government hostage in an attempt to advance a radical political agenda. We must fully fund our military, and ensure our brave men and women in uniform have the resources they need. They're always there for our country, and we must not let partisan bickering get in the way of the government taking care of them. The president wants a clean funding bill that fulfills our obligations, takes care of our military, and keeps our people safe.

And with that, I'll take your questions. Cecelia (ph)?

QUESTION: Thank you, Sarah. The president says that when Steve Bannon was fired, he not only lost his job; he lost his mind. Does he feel betrayed by Steve Bannon? Does he regret hiring him?

SANDERS: I think the president's statement is extremely clear on what his position on Mr. Bannon is. It was pretty lengthy and pretty detailed, and there's not really much to clarify, or to add.

QUESTION: But is there regret then? I mean, he said a lot of (inaudible), and they did have a -- a long and close working relationship. So is there a sense of betrayal?

SANDERS: Once again, I think the president's statement fully addresses what his position, and what his relationship with Mr. Bannon is. April (ph)?

QUESTION: Sarah, when is the last time the president talked to Steve Bannon? And this is a serious question: Is the president now blocking Steve Bannon from calling his cell phone?

SANDERS: I'm not aware that he was calling his cell phone, but I believe the last conversation took place at the first part of December.

QUESTION: And what does this do to the base, that these two power houses are fighting, in the Republican party? What does this do to the -- the president's base?

SANDERS: I don't think it does anything to the president's base. The -- the -- the base, and the people that supported this president, supported the president, and supported his agenda. Those things haven't changed. The president's still exactly who he was yesterday -- as he was two years ago, when he started out on the campaign trail. His agenda hasn't changed, and he's continuing to fight for and push for that agenda. And I think the base is extremely excited and happy with the job that this president has done in his first year in office. Look at all he's accomplished. I think they're pretty happy with where he is. Peter (ph)?

QUESTION: Steve Bannon has a distinct following -- the alt white -- and some people who may not necessarily be for the other -- people who are xenophobic. What happens there?

SANDERS: I think that's a question you're going to have to ask Steve Bannon. The president's base is very solid. It hasn't changed, because the president hasn't changed, and his agenda hasn't changed, and we're continuing to accomplish a lot of the things that were on the president's agenda, as we did last year, and we're going to do a lot more this year, as we move into the beginning of 2018. Peter (ph)?

QUESTION: A couple questions. I'll try to make these simple. First, did the president's son --

SANDERS: You don't think I can handle the hard ones?

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: Did the president's son, Donald Trump, Jr., commit treason?

SANDERS: I think that is a ridiculous accusation, and one that I'm pretty sure we've addressed many times from here before. And if that's in reference to comments made by Mr. Bannon, I'd refer you back to the ones that he made previously on "60 Minutes," where he called the collusion with Russia about this president a total farce. So I think I would look back at that. If anybody's been inconsistent, it's been him. Certainly hasn't been the president, or this administration.

QUESTION: So to follow up on that, did the president (inaudible) of Donald Trump, Jr.'s guests at that June 2016 Trump Tower meeting on that day?

SANDERS: As the president has stated many times, no, and he wasn't part of or aware of that. John Decker (ph)?

QUESTION: If I could ask you, after the tweet about -- about nuclear threats, the nuclear button tweet, should Americans be concerned about the president's mental fitness; that he appears to be speaking so lightly about threats regarding the nuclear button?

SANDERS: I think the president and the people of this country should be concerned about the mental fitness of the leader of North Korea. He's made repeated threats, he's tested missiles, time and time again, for years, and this is a president who's not going to cower down and is not going to be weak, and is going to make sure that he does what he's promised to do; and that's stand up and protect the American people.

(CROSSTALK)

Sorry, Peter (ph), I'm going to keep moving.

John (ph)?

QUESTION: But isn't it possible that he could misinterpret that? You said he's unpredictable, so couldn't he misinterpret a tweet like that if he's so unpredictable?

SANDERS: I don't -- I don't think it's -- I didn't say that. I think it's extremely clear what the president's position is. And our position on North Korea hasn't changed since the beginning. This is a president who is committed to protecting Americans and protecting the people of this country. And he's not going to back down from that.

John (ph)?

QUESTION: Thanks a lot, Sarah. It's a very harsh statement that the president put out today and it's not the first time that Steve Bannon has been Topic A, here at the White House Briefing. The last time, as you made reference to, was after his interview on 60 Minutes.

And during that White House press briefing on September the 11th, when a series of questions were asked of you at the time, you were pretty much hands off, in terms of going after Steve Bannon. The president didn't really respond in any particular way to the 60 Minutes interview.

What's changed? What's changed between then and now after the interview that he apparently did with Michael Wolff for his book?

SANDERS: Look, once again, I think the president and his feelings toward Mr. Bannon are very clear in his statement and there's really not much else to add beyond that. I don't think there's much grey area in what his feelings are.

Francesca (ph)?

QUESTION: Thank you, Sarah.

But to pick up on that, this is a pretty dramatic falling out between the president and someone who worked on his campaign and also worked in this White House very close to him every day. And so, I think everyone is wondering what -- what led to this quite dramatic falling out and was it the loss of Roy Moore in that Senate race that was mentioned in the statement? You mentioned that they had last talked in early December.

Is this a direct response to Steve Bannon calling the president's son unpatriotic and saying that he committed treason?

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

Ashley (ph)?

QUESTION: Sarah, you mentioned the statement the president put out, it was very harsh and it basically says the entire book is fiction. That said, a note explaining how the book came to be said that the authors conducted interviews for 18 months, including many with the president, spoke to over 200 people, many of the president's top aides and people that -- SANDERS: He never actually sat down with the president, just to be very clear.

QUESTION: (Inaudible). Did they ever speak up (ph) --

SANDERS: Since (ph) the president? There was one brief conversation that had nothing to do, originally, with the book.