Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Ordered Lawyer to Stop Sessions from Russia Recusal; Book: Bannon Sensed Impeachment Coming; Justice Department Investigating Clinton Foundation; Trump Slams New Book as "Phony, Full of Lies". Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired January 5, 2018 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] DANA BASH, CNN HOST: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm Dana Bash. John King is off.

Robert Mueller's investigation started as an effort to determine if team Trump colluded with Russians in 2016. But did the president's actions in 2017 turn the focus to possible obstruction of justice?

Plus, the FBI is investigating the Clinton Foundation to see if donors were promised special access to Hillary Clinton while she was at the State Department.

And President Trump isn't the only Republican lashing out at the attorney general.


REP. DANA ROHRABACHER, (R), CALIFORNIA: Let me put it this way, the American people now are getting a taste of what people in Washington have known over this last year, and that is Jeff Sessions betrays the people who have had faith in him.


BASH: New questions about a building case in the Russia investigation, it seems, for potential obstruction of justice. Listen to this from the "New York Times": "President Trump gave firm instructions in March to the White House top lawyer, Don McGahn, and stopped the Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself in the Justice Department's investigation into whether Mr. Trump's associates had helped the Russian campaign to disrupt the 2016 election."

Walter Shaub is the former head of the Office of Government Ethics. He resigned from the Trump administration in July of last year. And he tells CNN, in hindsight, a few weird conversations suddenly make sense.


WALTER SHAUB, FORMER DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF GOVERNMENT ETHICS: I felt the DOJ officials seemed uncharacteristically rattled when I was talking to them and I couldn't figure out why. I thought maybe Jeff Sessions has a hot temper that I don't know about. It turns out, Don McGahn, who was known have a hot temper, was leaning on them to recuse, and that, to me, fills in the missing piece of the puzzle as to why they seemed a little rattled when I was talking to them.


BASH: Here to share their reporting and insight, CNN's Abby Phillip, Michael Zeldin, who is a former special assistant to Robert Mueller at the Justice Department, CNN's Lauren Fox, and Olivier Knox, from "Yahoo News."

Hi, everybody. Happy Friday. Nice to see you all.


BASH: Let's dive right into the theme of this "New York Times" story, which, I should say, has some more meat on the bones. But it's a notion that we and others have been reporting that, potentially, let's zero in on it, it's not necessarily the crime, but the cover up that could get the president in trouble.

Michael, what did you make of it?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It's a matter of context. If in the most benign sense, the president of the United States is asking the White House counsel, Don McGahn, to speak to Jeff Sessions to see whether or not there is any legal way by which Sessions doesn't have to recuse himself, that's perfectly appropriate. Not normal, but the White House talks to the DOJ about ongoing matters, but not obstruction of justice.


BASH: You think it's not obstruction of justice --

ZELDIN: To go ask.

BASH: to say, does my attorney general really have to recuse himself?

ZELDIN: That's right. I'm looking at

BASH: That's legit?

ZELDIN: That's right. I'm looking at the 2018 CFR and it says, "should or could," and you are saying it's saying "must." Can we talk about this? I don't think there is anything wrong about that. If he says, look, I don't care what they said, you tell that attorney general he cannot recuse himself from this thing, I need him to protect me, like Bobby Kennedy protected his brother, that's much more obstructionist. You have to understand the context and the intent of the conversation, and we can't get that from the "New York Times" report.

BASH: It is no secret that President Trump was livid that Jeff Sessions recused himself, and still is, and cannot let it go, mostly, because of the events that unfolded as a result of him recusing himself and the deputy appointed Robert Mueller. ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: At the time, it's clear

that Jeff Sessions really went around the White House on this, which amplified the president's anger about it. One of the interesting bits was about the lead up to Comey and the idea that, according to the "New York Times," there was a mention of Russia in the original letter that the president would have Sunday about the firing of James Comey. The White House denies that. To deny it is really important for them to prevent the narrative from sinking in that the Comey firing and the anger towards Sessions was about the president wanting to be protected, and feeling that his own Justice Department and FBI was coming after him. The White House is trying really hard to push back on this narrative, but virtually all the reporting we have seen leads to the same point, Trump was angry about this Russia investigation and kind of wanted it to be over and wanted his people to stop it.

[12:05:10] BASH: I talked to a source who speaks to the president, who has legal sensibilities, who I remember, real-time, telling the president, non, he doesn't have to recuse himself, sort of feeding the notion that Sessions is making a mistake.

OLIVIER KNOX, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, YAHOO NEWS: Let's go back to a couple of things. One is the firing of Jim Comey, which was probably the worst decision the president has made. The other is that one of the most important sentences in all American politics in 2016 is that one line in the Mueller appointment that said he's empowered to investigate Russia interference and any other matters that arise from that investigation. That's how we get from, what did they do, to, did the Trump campaign work with them, where we get into, did they obstruct the investigation? That's how we get the cascading series of things that Bob Mueller is investigating.

BASH: I want to get to it. But one other nugget in the "New York Times" story is about Reince Priebus taking handwritten notes and handing over those notes to Robert Mueller. I am told that what that reference appears to be is notes about a conversation that Priebus had with the president about conversations that the president had with James Comey where the president said that Comey told him he was not under investigation multiple times. The president reporting this to Priebus and they had a discussion about, well, what do we do with this? Do we get it out in the public? The president did what, you would agree, is appropriate, which is, let's give it to the White House counsel and let's let Don McGahn know about this and let him deal with this.

ZELDIN: That's right. But what is significant about that is that you have another person who is taking contemporaneous notes on their conversations with the president. You have Comey and his contemporaneous notes. We have reporting that says McCabe was briefed by Comey right after he wrote those memos and had those meetings --

BASH: His deputy at the FBI.

ZELDIN: Correct. After he had the Oval Office meeting with the president that so shook him up. Now you have Priebus with handwritten notes that are contemporaneous. You have a lot of corroboration of what Comey has said in two other people, which makes the president much more vulnerable were he could be put under oath and say something otherwise.

LAUREN FOX, CNN POLITICS REPORTER: We also have to remember that this Comey conversation, when the president was asking him, am I under investigation, that was part of the frustration that the president had with Comey. When Comey went before congressional leaders and he was trying to talk about what he knew and didn't know, and he wouldn't answer those questions publicly, that is what when President Trump was stewing over what was happening. He was getting frustrated and it continues to build the narrative that he wants the investigation over yesterday, and that the further this goes on, the more concerned, and the more in trouble it seems to make him because he just can't let it go. He wants that loyalty so much and he wants it to stop being a distraction from the rest of his agenda.

ZELDIN: Can I just say one thing? I agree with that. But the problem this creates is he wants personal exoneration. He wants to be himself cleared of this. In some sense, what happens to those in the orbit, he doesn't know who Paul Manafort is anymore, Papadopoulos. He is prepared to let those guys, but he wants his name cleared. The longer it is before that happens, if it does happen, the more likely we are going to see continued obstructionists or behavior that is contrary to his best legal interest. He's his own worst enemy because of his psychological need for exoneration.

BASH: This came out with the backdrop of this explosive book. One of the things of the many things in this book that Steve Bannon apparently did was talk about impeachment. Here is, according to the book, "Bannon's tone veered from desperation to resignation. If he fires Mueller, it just brings the impeachment quicker. Why not? Let's do it. Let's get it on? Why not? What am I going to do? Am I going to go in and save him? He's Donald Trump."

PHILLIP: The reality is that you talk to people close to Trump who are Trump allies, many of them are most fearful about the impeachment. It's not just whispered around. People are talking about it and they are fearful about it. Some people are encouraging him to 96 Mueller for that very reason. They feel like this is all part of a circle enclosing the president and entrapping him in something that will undermine his entire presidency. Steve Bannon, maybe, if that is accurate, is not alone. It's not being whispered around anymore in Washington. People are talking about it.

[12:10:09] BASH: Impeachment is possible with Republicans in control, but unlikely.


KNOX: People don't realize it's a political decision, and not a legal one. There is a constitutional standard, but it's a political question.

BASH: I want to turn to something that broke a short time ago, and that is word that the Justice Department is now actively investigating the Clinton Foundation. The question is whether donors were promised favors or special access to Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state. This is according to a U.S. official. Our CNN justice correspondent, Jessica Schneider, is watching this.

Jessica, what are investigators actually looking for?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Dana, we learned this investigation is being led by the FBI field office in Little Rock, Arkansas. These agents are investigating the Clinton Family Foundation for corruption. They told CNN authorities are digging into whether the donors may have been improperly promised policy favors or other special access to Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state in exchange for donations to the charity's coffers. So we learned the FBI and federal prosecutors, in addition to that, they are also examining whether or not tax laws were followed at the foundation.

This new development comes on the heels of CNN reporting way back in November of 2016, before the election, the reporting was that FBI agents opened a preliminary inquiry about impropriety in the foundation's dealings with donors. This current probe, at least in part, a continuation of that investigation that did start before the election. At this point now, it's still unclear what new evidence, if there is any, may have ignited this latest federal investigation since that initial inquiry had stalled earlier.

The Clinton camp is pushing back hard against this. Nick Merrill, a spokesman for Hillary Clinton, told CNN, "Let's call this what it is, a sham." We also heard from a spokesman and he said this, he said, "Time after time, the Clinton Foundation has been subjected to politically motivated allegations and, time after time, these allegations have been proven false." He continued on to say, "There are real issues in our society and leading to a tension they work hard to solve every day. We are going to stay focused on what really matters."

Dana, this is the latest inquiry into Bill and Hillary Clinton's foundation that comes at a sensitive time. We have seen the president repeatedly urge the Justice Department in his tweets to investigate his biggest political rival, Hillary Clinton, who he beat in the election. The DOJ has largely stayed silent on the president's request, but the field office in Arkansas opened this probe into possible corruption of the Clinton Foundation -- Dana?

BASH: Jessica, thank you so much for that reporting.

Back around the table, look, there could be new evidence that the FBI is looking into beyond what was in the political zeitgeist during 2016, the Uranium One deal, it's very complicated, I won't get into it. But it fell flat, the whole notion that there was some quid pro quo because of the way the process works.

Having said that, I will talk about the strategy here. The fact we are being told about it and it is being reported that the president can watch on cable TV that the Justice Department and the FBI is looking into Hillary Clinton. Takes the heat off of Jeff Sessions a little bit, who has been getting pounded by his boss to investigate Hillary Clinton. What do you think? KNOX: Possibly. He's been pushing this for as long as he's been

running for president. He's been pushing this idea that the Clinton Foundation had a lot of shady dealings. There was that weird stretch in 2016 where he refused to express confidence in Jeff Sessions and say Jeff Sessions was going to stay on as attorney general. It was a remarkable public rebuke. So, yes, this does have -- I would love to know more than just a U.S. official, I've got to tell you. That would help us know is this the DOJ letting off steam a little bit and letting the boss know they are doing what they keep insisting publicly and privately that they do. I don't know. That's where I would love to know more.

PHILLIP: I think it's also important to put it in the context that it's not just that Trump is saying, oh, I think Hillary is a crook. He's been tweeting, "Why isn't my Justice Department doing this?"


PHILLIP: The message has very direct, public and clear. And this is a campaign promise. This is a president who is focused very intensely right now on his own political fortunes, which are directly related to his ability to fulfill the promises he made on the campaign trail. "Lock her up" was a campaign promise. For him to throw away that idea, I think became untenable. You saw his allies on social media, people like Laura Ingraham, who are saying, what happened to the idea of investigating the Clinton Foundation? We don't know where it's going, but it is critical to the president.

[12:15:26] BASH: This is a political calculation that are, I think, the first thing we need to talk about.

What about the legal implications some.

ZELDIN: The allegation is donors makes donation to the foundation. The foundation communicates with Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. Hillary Clinton, in turn, does something specific in respect of that donation. That's a crime. That is not being to be proved.

BASH: You don't think so?


BASH: How are you so sure?

ZELDIN: I'm not so sure, except to say that, one, surprise the Clintons were that cavalier about things, which they have knowledge and, second, we have seen in recent attempts to prosecute people, Menendez, McDonald, that these are not prosecutable cases. You can't prove quit pro quo in this context. There is not really going to be anything at the end of this thing. But I think from the law standpoint, that is most troublesome for me, and it appears the White House is directing the Justice Department to investigate a specific individual or organization, and that is problematic.


BASH: The president is doing it on Twitter.


ZELDIN: He can say all he wants on Twitter. But if the Justice Department is acting on those Twitter rants, that's problematic. They are not supposed to do that. There are clear boundaries between what the White House and Justice Department should do, and where they should not meet, and we are meeting them, if this is a true story.

BASH: That's why I love having you on to talk about the legal issues and get your insight.

Everybody else stand by.

We want to give a quick programming note. CNN's Pamela Brown is going to break down how this Russia investigation began. "All of the Players," tonight, at 10:00 p.m. eastern, only on CNN.

Up next, the author of an explosive new book about President Trump wants to say thank you, not for White House access, but for President Trump's insults.


MICHAEL WOLFF, AUTHOR: Where do I send the box of chocolates? And my brother ray and I started searching for answers.


[12:21:21] BASH: President Trump is lashing out against the author of a damning new book about his presidency, dismissing it as "phony and full of lies." That's what he said about it. Overnight, the president said he authorized, quote, "zero access" to author, Michael Wolff, and this morning Wolff hit back on an interview on the "Today Show."


WOLFF: I work like every journalist works. I have recordings and I have notes. I am certainly and absolutely in every way comfortable with everything I have reported.


BASH: As for how Wolff got access to the president and his inner circle --


WOLFF: I absolutely spoke to the president. Whether he realized it was an interview or not, I don't know. It certainly was not off the record.

UNIDENTIFIED NBC CO-ANCHOR, THE TODAY SHOW: Did you flatter your way in?

WOLFF: I certainly said whatever was necessary to get the story.


BASH: OK. Matt Viser, of the Boston Globe," joins our conversation now.

I am sitting with four really good reporters.

Certainly, you work to get a story, and you work to get information, but you don't say whatever is necessary. Can I just say that's not normal?



BASH: Fair? I want to do that for the record and move on.

Speaking of not normal, I just want to put this up from Steven Hayes, who is a writer for the "Weekly Standard," a long-time conservative voice. Here's what he says, "So the president wants a book banned. He wants a political opponent in jail and, for good measure, maybe the former FBI director, too. His thinks his former top adviser is insane. This isn't normal. It's not just Trump being Trump. The preferred dodge of elected Republicans, it's a reflection of the president's troubled mind and his erratic irrational judgment."

Now, the "Weekly Standard" has not been rah-rah Donald Trump at all. This is from a thoughtful guy that is clearly concerned for his party and for the country. It speaks to, say what you want, about the sourcing on this book and about the way that Michael Wolff describes things. He is talking about atmospherics that all of us have heard, frankly, off the record in different ways.

VISER: Nothing in here doesn't ring true. A lot of this seems to back up with more detail the reporting that a lot of us have been involved with about the White House chaos. Another thing that Trump seems to do, they are not necessarily arguing on some of the specifics, but Trump is saying I wouldn't know this guy, I didn't authorize this. Which is often his case when he doesn't like something, to downplay the knowledge of that person. When it's very clear that Michael Wolff was in the White House, and we have seen him in the White House, and he was escorted in, so he did have the access. You can quibble with the details if you want.

PHILLIP: One of the points the "Weekly Standard" is making is the reaction to the book seems to bolster the theme of the book in general. The president is someone who is sort of erratic and quick to anger and is reactionary. The idea that Trump would suddenly turn on his chief strategist and pretend to barely know him is a theme that Michael Wolff talks at length about and goes to great lengths to blow up into a bigger narrative about this president.

[12:25:02] BASH: We should play the way the White House is handling this. Sarah Huckabee Sanders was very aggressive at her briefing, and so is her deputy, Hogan Gidley, going out on television. Let's listen.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He repeatedly begged to speak with the president and was denied access. He makes it sound like he was sitting outside the Oval Office every day, which is just not the case.

HOGAN GIDLEY, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: This is full of false information, inaccuracies. And quite frankly, this author is, quite frankly, a crackpot, a fake-news, fantasy fiction writer, and it has been proven time and time again. By his own admission he says he's loose with the facts.


BASH: Hogan has the language of Trump down pat, doesn't he?

KNOX: Also, Hogan was not in the communications shop when they decided to -


KNOX: Totally known quantity, Michael Wolf. He's not known Donald Trump for decades who has produced books like this before. Somehow Trump's inner circle decided it was a great idea. He had access and an appointment badge that got him into the West Wing office area, not just in the press area.

One quick quibble with something you said at the top. This is not consistent with what we heard off the record. This is consistent with two years of reporting on the Trump campaign and the White House.


KNOX: One of the things


KNOX: One of the things that he benefits from is he has it all in one place. I have questions about the anecdotes, and I don't think Donald Trump know who John Boehner was, for example. But he has it all in one place. We had everything from, they don't know how to turn on the lights, and they don't know how to do this, and they don't have staffers, to that amazing Mar-a-Lago thing where they use cell phone flashlights to see documents.


KNOX: This is not an argument against Michael Wolff. I want to point out it's not. It makes me nervous when reporters say we did this off the record and we didn't say that. There is ample reporting in ample news outlets --


KNOX: -- over the last two years about this kind of chaos.


BASH: There is one anecdote to understanding the caution that you put out there. I haven't seen them get much attention, but it speaks to the way that the president approaches the people that work for him. Even those he appoints to the highest courts. Here's what he, apparently, according to the book, said about Judge Gorsuch. "On February 8th during the confirmation process, Gorsuch took public exception to Trump's disparagement of the courts. Trump, in a moment of pique, decided to pull his nomination, and during conversations with after-dinner callers, went back to discussing how he should have given the nod to Rudy," meaning Rudy Giuliani. "He was the only loyal guy."

This is believable.


PHILLIP: About the anger with Gorsuch reported a couple of weeks ago. The idea that Giuliani ended up being the only loyal guy is typical Trump. He always goes back to his old allies and friends.

FOX: We have to remember that when it came to Gorsuch, the Republicans in Congress spent a long period of time trying to hold that seat for someone they felt was qualified for the job. Giuliani wouldn't have fit that bill for many Republicans. I think that that just reveals more tension between the president and the Capitol Hill leadership.

BASH: Good point.

PHILLIP: And the question about whether he could have been confirmed.

BASH: Right. Exactly.

OK, everybody, stand by.

Up next, why a key House Democrat says one of the president's top lawyers should resign or be fired.