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Trump's Mental Fitness?; Tillerson on Trump; Justice Department Targets Clinton Foundation. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired January 5, 2018 - 15:00   ET

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


[15:00:00]

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right.

So, as to that part, Brooke, the Department of Justice has forcefully denied that Jeff Sessions was in any way involved trying to get damaging information on James Comey. So, if that were to be true, as "The New York Times" reports, it is possible that this was just a rogue aide seeking that information.

But the bigger story here is the fact that the White House counsel, Don McGahn, tried to dissuade Jeff Sessions from stepping aside from the Russia probe. And really, Brooke, today, that is drawing the most questions and in some cases even outrage.

And, of course, that is adding another layer to this obstruction of justice probe by Mueller's team. So "The Times" reports it was actually the president who gave those firm orders to Don McGahn to stop the attorney general from recusing himself.

And then, reportedly, Brooke, the president erupted in rage in front of several White House officials when Jeff Sessions did announce that he was stepping aside from the probe in March. So all of this information, it will definitely add to Mueller's probe.

And also, Brooke, we have learned that a handwritten note from Reince Priebus has actually been obtained by Mueller's team -- of course, that was a former chief of staff for the president -- where Reince Priebus apparently documented that the president did say that then FBI Director James Comey told the president that he wasn't under investigation.

So, all of this coming together in Mueller's probe. But, of course, Brooke, it really was the firing of James Comey in May that really started up these questions of obstruction of justice, because at the time the official line from the White House and the Department of Justice was that Comey had been fired because of the handling of the Clinton e-mail case, when, later, of course, the president admitted in a TV interview that he did have Russia on his mind when he fired Comey.

So a lot of these things coming out now only playing more into Mueller's obstruction of justice probe. And now he has more of this info. BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: OK. I still have another question because

you talked about what we have learned about Don McGahn and his role as attorney.

But then there was this other White House attorney who reportedly intentionally kept information from the president. What was that about?

SCHNEIDER: Yes.

And this is really interesting because it's drawing a lot of question and disbelief from legal experts. So here's what happened, according to "The Times." One of Don McGahn's deputies in the White House Counsel's Office, "The Times" said he actually misled the question about what was the president's authority to fire the FBI director.

That deputy was concerned that if Trump terminated Comey that it could really imperil his presidency. And we've seen some implications of how there have been a lot of questions about it.

So, when -- the legal deputy, he ordered a legal memo be drafted. But when it came back to him, the conclusion was that, no, the president can fire the FBI director, just like he has the authority to fire any other employee in the executive branch.

But the lawyer was nervous about this legal conclusion. He did not want to share it with the president. He believed it would just add more fuel to the president's fire to fire Comey. He had earlier told the president, no, you need cause to fire Comey, and didn't actually share this memo supposedly that said, no, the president doesn't need cause.

But in the end, Brooke, of course we know he did fire the FBI director -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: Yes, we do. We know that. You have set up all the reporting. Let's get to the analysis. Jessica Schneider, thank you so much.

I have with me now Shannon Pettypiece, White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, CNN political analyst Mark Preston, and CNN political analyst April Ryan, who is also the White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks.

Great to have all of you on.

And, Mark, just first to you on the bit in "The Times" which I know we have confirmed about Trump pushing this lawyer to try to stop Sessions from recusing himself. And we know that Mueller is aware and this is all very much part of his whole obstruction of justice probe.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: It certainly is.

And the question is we are not quite sure if it is or isn't at this point and certainly need more details. But what it does do, though, is it does give us a little more insight into something, quite frankly, we already knew is that President Trump didn't want Jeff Sessions to recuse himself.

But at what lengths would he go to, to try to prevent the attorney general from doing so? And this is yet another piece of information that clearly special prosecutor Mueller is using to look into possible obstruction of justice, but also for us in the media, and, quite frankly, our viewers, to have greater insight and knowledge about what President Trump was thinking at that time and why he was thinking it.

BALDWIN: But it makes you wonder, like what is going on with the White House lawyers, April, because you have one lobbying Sessions, right, to not recuse himself, another purposely misleading the president on the limits of his authority in order to keep him from firing Comey.

APRIL RYAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: The bottom line is, this president is new at the time, you know. Early on, he was new, but now this president is tried and tested a year in almost.

But at that time, no matter whether he was new or whether he understood the process, this president wanted what he wanted and how he wanted, if what the reports are saying is true.

[15:05:08]

And you have to understand there has been a process that has been set up for administration after administration when it comes to separations between the White House and the Justice Department.

And this president -- as late as Sally Yates, I know that she was trying to keep a separation between this White House and the Justice Department. And the question is, you know, how far and what did the president think he could do if the reports are true?

What did he think he could do without people finding out? This president was a ruthless businessman. But this is a different game. This is the game of politics, where there are rules and policies in place.

And he seemed to, according to reports, skirt around things to get what he wanted, to make sure that this Russia investigation would not go the way others wanted it to go, to find him guilty of something.

BALDWIN: Also, the Sessions aide who reportedly pursued negative information, basically wanted dirt on Comey days before his firing, Shannon, how damning is that? And how is that proven?

SHANNON PETTYPIECE, BLOOMBERG NEWS: Well, we have not been able to confirm that part of the story. We have confirmed some of it.

I mean, to have the attorney general's aide seeking dirt on his own FBI director is just -- I mean, it's not necessarily illegal. I suppose, in a bigger context, maybe there could be an issue there. But it's certainly unprecedented. It's certainly bizarre. And it certainly raises a lot of questions what was going on in the Justice Department, if indeed that was actually what was happening. To April's point about this administration being new in those early

days, I know April and I were both there watching this administration really try and get its legs and its feet under itself and figure out some of the very basic functions of government and the Justice Department's role vs. the executive branch's role.

But in our reporting on this, we talked to one person who said on the McGahn conversation with Sessions, "Yes, yes, it happened, I don't see why it's such a big deal, in the sense that even now, a year in, it was not striking to this individual familiar with this matter that the White House counsel would be lobbying the attorney general not to recuse himself, when he had a conflict that appeared very clear to a lot of people.

BALDWIN: With all this information coming out, both in "The New York Times" in this tell-all book, here's my question, April Ryan. Where is the vice president? Because we don't see his name mentioned much in any of these excerpts that have gotten all the attention.

Where is Mike Pence?

(LAUGHTER)

RYAN: If he's smart, he is staying very low below the radar.

BALDWIN: Hiding under a rock?

(LAUGHTER)

RYAN: I don't know.

Let me say this. There are a couple of people, people have been asking, where are they? We haven't seen Kellyanne. We haven't heard from Kellyanne that much.

There are a lot of names being floated about, but you don't hear Kellyanne Conway, you don't hear Vice President Pence. If you were smart, real, and this is commonsense, but it's also politics, you stay below the radar because you don't want to be brought into this. This is getting bigger by the day.

And typically it would not be, but they are giving this life by fighting with Steve Bannon and calling him names and actually acknowledging some things. Michael Wolff did have access inside the White House.

(CROSSTALK)

BALDWIN: Did you see him all the time coming and going?

RYAN: I never saw -- look, I keep my head down. I go in there. I didn't see him. But, see, he could have come in another entrance.

He could have come in the northwest gate or he could have come in another entrance. And if he did come through the southeast gate, he had an appointment through Steve Bannon or whomever to bring him in. So we could have seen him, but in a room, but we did not see him come in. So this was stealth. This was strategic.

But at the same time, if you are not mentioned, you don't want to be mentioned. And that's the whole point right now. I believe the vice president is being cool and calm and staying under the radar.

BALDWIN: There are several Republican congressmen who are calling on Jeff Sessions to resign, saying that he has just totally lost control of his department. Mark, what are the chances of that?

PRESTON: You know, I'm really surprised by that, Brooke.

And I think it caught a lot of people in Washington by surprise. Jeff Sessions was considered the consummate conservative on Capitol Hill. He had an incredible number of allies. And to see them now come out and, as you said, there seems to be some kind of mounting campaign to try to pressure Jeff Sessions to get out.

Now, what we do know is that Jeff Sessions did offer resignation at one time to President Trump, and then that was not accepted.

BALDWIN: That's right.

PRESTON: I don't think that Jeff Sessions for what he has been through is going to be pressured by House members of Congress telling him that he needs to step down.

[15:10:01]

Now, could the pressure increase if it happened in the Senate and we saw more and more Republican senators come out and do that? Potentially.

But I don't think that Jeff Sessions is going to be listening to House Republicans telling him that he needs to leave.

BALDWIN: Yes. OK.

Let me hit pause on this conversation because I want to bring you back and get a quick break in.

But coming up next, we are also learning here at CNN that the feds are looking into corruption allegations at the Clinton Foundation. What we know about that investigation ahead.

And for the first time today, we are hearing from the author of this book on the life in the Trump White House, who says that 100 percent of the people around Trump, think about that, 100 percent he says, question his fitness to be president.

Back in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BALDWIN: CNN has learned that federal authorities are actively investigating allegations of corruption related to the Clinton Foundation. The feds are looking whether into donors were promised favors of

special access to Hillary Clinton while she served as secretary of state. Investigator will also examine if tax-exempt funds were misused.

A Clinton Foundation dismissed the allegations as -- quote -- "unfounded."

With me now, Ken Cuccinelli, CNN legal commentator and former Virginia attorney general, Dan Pfeiffer, CNN political commentator and former senior adviser to President Obama.

[15:15:07]

Gentlemen, good to have both of you on.

And I'm going to begin, Dan Pfeiffer, with you, because, first of all, it's still unclear what if any new evidence actually ignited this current investigation, after the initial inquiries had stalled just before the 2016 presidential election. How do you see this?

DAN PFEIFFER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think we know what sparked this new bout of activity from the Sessions' Justice Department.

It's that Jeff Sessions' boss, Donald Trump, has been tweeting about Jeff Sessions and his Justice Department not investigating this and a whole host of other things. At the same time, you have, as you mentioned in your previous segment, a bunch of House of Republicans calling on Sessions to resign for not investigating Trump's political rivals like the Clintons.

So, it's clear what the pattern of evidence here, if you will, which is no evidence, just encouragement, inappropriate as such, from President Trump.

BALDWIN: Can I just interject because I had John Dean on, who I find to be a very, very smart man, right? We know his whole backstory with Watergate.

And his whole point me was essentially, Brooke, it would be unprecedented for an investigation to be politically motivated by the DOJ.

PFEIFFER: Correct.

BALDWIN: Ken Cuccinelli, how do you see it?

KEN CUCCINELLI, CNN LEGAL COMMENTATOR: Well, first of all, I think that there are a lot of people who thought this should have been going on a long time ago. But all of this...

BALDWIN: This being the investigation into the Clintons?

CUCCINELLI: Yes. Yes.

BALDWIN: OK.

CUCCINELLI: But all of the items that Dan cites will naturally, in terms of the appearance of the whole thing, raise questions.

And the president led the way on that. And let's just say for the moment this is a perfectly legitimate investigation and it turns up actual violations of the law, just for purposes of discussion.

BALDWIN: Sure.

CUCCINELLI: So, if that happens, and charges are brought, there is a vast swathe of America that will look back on the public statements of the president, and a few others, but mostly the president, calling for this as undermining the credibility of the outcome of that process.

And so if you look ahead, and then look back, this could be problematic for the pursuit of justice, which is the point of the Justice Department, something that, while Dan and I have different perspectives, I think was sadly lacking in the last administration.

And I don't like to see the kind of outside discussion taking place here. One of the things that people ought to know, and I can tell you as former attorney general, when we sit here on CNN, there is an awful lot that the FBI knows that we don't know.

BALDWIN: That we don't know, right.

CUCCINELLI: And we are not likely to know what most of that is unless everything breaks open.

And so we are in a position of having to speculate a good bit. But you can look at some of the outcomes when Secretary Clinton was the secretary of state, and it really raises eyebrows, particularly in light of some of her other behavior, frankly.

BALDWIN: Dan, how would you respond to that?

PFEIFFER: Well, this has been -- look, I think -- I actually agree, which I find shocking, with Ken about the problems of appearance here in how the Trump White House and President Trump has conducted himself as president with regards to the Justice Department.

I would say, as it relates to the Clinton Foundation, that this has been out there for a very long time. It's been something that's been perpetuated by Republicans. It's been part of conspiracy theories. It's been looked at not just by the Justice Department, but also by every media outlet in town.

It was subject of conversation in the 2016 election. And there has never been any fire related to the smoke that people have talked about. And so I think that is an important point.

(CROSSTALK)

BALDWIN: And this has been a drum that then candidate Trump beat for a while. He sort of gave it up for a second when he won. You have the A.G. acknowledge it, which just leads folks in one camp to think, hmm, what's going on?

PFEIFFER: Right. It has been a hobby horse of his for a very long time and is directly related to the Mueller investigation into President Trump.

BALDWIN: Right.

Let me move off of that, gentlemen.

And, Ken, let me put this to you, as we've been discussing this whole "New York Times" bombshell, reporting out that Trump was pushing his White House lawyer to stop Jeff Sessions from recusing himself in this whole DOJ investigation into whether Trump and his associates had helped Russia disrupt the election.

CUCCINELLI: Sure.

BALDWIN: We know that the lawyer was unsuccessful.

But this is all part of Robert Mueller's investigation now. Is this obstruction, Ken?

CUCCINELLI: No, no, no, no. Come on.

I mean, look, Jeff Sessions' recusal, if you look at the regulations related to special counsel, the regulation, was much broader than any circumstance required under the law.

[15:20:05]

And he made a decision to take that course, to get much broader, in terms of his recusal, than the law required under the worst of circumstances.

And I think that was very upsetting to the White House. Here, they appoint an attorney general to make some of these decisions. And, look, I was an attorney general. I had to make decisions with respect to a governor of my own party. And we made those decisions and we proceeded. And those are hard calls to make, but you still have to make them. It's part of the job.

And for him to step out of that, I think, was very upsetting, legitimately so, to the White House. And I think it was very legitimate of McCann to address that with the attorney general. There's no obstruction there. I think they had a known quantity they appointed, the Senate approved, and they wanted to keep it there fully engaged.

BALDWIN: You are the first person I have talked to in the last two hours who has definitely said without a doubt no. It's important to remind everyone watching it's not just obstructing. It could also be intent to obstruct.

But Ken says no. Dan, close this out. How do you see that? PFEIFFER: Well, I think you need to look at this in the context of

all the other things that Trump and his White House have done with regard to the Russia investigation.

After Comey -- after Sessions was recused, he fires Comey. Mueller gets picked up. You have multiple examples of Jared Kushner and others lying about their contacts with the Russians on legally enforceable forms that are equivalent to perjury. You have Donald Trump, with the help of -- Donald Trump Jr. with the help of President Trump, lying repeatedly about the meeting that happened.

When you look at all of those things, there is a lot of very legitimate evidence that Bob Mueller is looking at as to whether the Trump administration, and President Trump in particular, have tried to block the investigation into him, in other words, to obstruct justice.

So there is a lot to look at here. And this is just one piece of it that reinforces the narrative that's been out there for a long time.

BALDWIN: Right. Right. Right. Jury still out.

Ken and Dan, thank you so much. Have wonderful weekends to both of you.

We are going to go back to this whole bombshell book, the author speaking out today for the first time since headlines started to drop, his words this morning questioning the fitness of the president. We are going to get into that.

Also ahead, the U.S. secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, sitting down in this incredible interview with Elise Labott here on CNN talking to her what he thinks of the president's ability to be commander in chief. Stand by for that.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:26:31]

BALDWIN: We are back. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

The explosive tell-all book that President Trump calls phony and full of lies is on sale everywhere, dropping days ahead of schedule, despite the president's efforts to stop it.

The author of "Fire and Fury" making his first appearance on morning today to defend his reporting, an interview which included this stunning claim.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: One of the disturbing observations you make in the book is the president's close advisers, people around him have noticed him repeated stories expression for expression, you say, within a short period of time.

MICHAEL WOLFF, AUTHOR, "FIRE AND FURY: INSIDE THE TRUMP WHITE HOUSE": In a shortening period.

So, they have all tracked this, that it used to be -- I know people would point out that, in the beginning, it was like every 25 or 30 minutes, you would get the same three stories repeated. Now it's the same three stories in every 10 minutes.

QUESTION: And what's the suggestion there? Because that goes beyond saying, OK, the president is not an intellectual. What's -- what's -- what are you arguing there? You say, for example, that he was at Mar- a-Lago and didn't recognize lifelong friends.

WOLFF: I will quote Steve Bannon. He's lost it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: "He's lost it."

My panel is back, Shannon and Mark and April.

Mark, to you first. And, obviously, none of us are shrinks, but all these claims and worries about the president's fitness, what do you make of that?

PRESTON: Well, a couple things.

One is, you are absolutely right. We have got to be very careful about diagnosing somebody, right, who we actually don't have any medical qualifications to do so.

However, however, there is something bigger there, though, that I think that we can diagnose him as having. And that is his narcissism, in that's his belief that everything revolves around him. And I think that has been very troublesome for this White House over the past year, if not the country, for that matter.

The fact is that Donald Trump thinks that every spotlight shines on him, and he's right about that, except for that, when that happens, Brooke, you are put in a position where you have to be the grownup, where you have to show leadership.

And I think, over the past year, Donald Trump has only cared about himself. And that, for me, is very, very worrisome.

BALDWIN: Shannon, what do you think, same question?

PETTYPIECE: I will also defer to not play doctor on TV.

(LAUGHTER)

PETTYPIECE: But this issue around his health is something that his detractors are latching onto and Democrats are latching onto and making an argument about whether he is mentally fit for office.

And I think it's going to be a recurring theme we hear from Democrats, if not even some people in his own party. And these questions around his health are interesting, too, because, of course, he was the one who raised issues of Hillary Clinton's health during the campaign.

BALDWIN: That's right. That's right.

PETTYPIECE: And her cough and her mental state. So it's certainly not a new argument to raise questions about someone's health.

And in a way, you could say Democrats are now taking a page from the Trump playbook and starting to put this emphasis on his health.

BALDWIN: Bringing in this Yale psychiatrist, but, again, this Dr. Kelly had never seen him.

And so, I just think -- I don't know -- on one hand, you can understand why they did it. On another hand, I don't know if it's entirely fair.

And speaking of fairness, April, is it fair to quote Trump aides, some of whom have only known him for just a hot minute, you know, months, years, and making these serious judgments about the president's competency, vs. people who can speak to his character who have known him for a lot longer?