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Former White House Ethics Chief: White House Lawyer A "Cancer"; CNN: Trump Lawyer Urged Sessions Against Russia Recusal; GOP Senators Slams Sessions, Trump Over Marijuana Memo Reversal; Trump To Host GOP Leaders At Camp David This Weekend. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired January 5, 2018 - 12:30   ET


(COMMERCIAL BREAK) 9 [12:32:45] DANA BASH, CNN HOST: The top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee is calling for the White House Counsel Don McGahn to resign or be fired after reports he tried to persuade Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. According to the New York Times, McGahn was instructed by the President to talk to Sessions, but the Former White House Ethics Chief says the buck stops with McGahn.


WALTER SHAUB, FORMER DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF GOVERNMENT OF ETHICS: My view of Don McGahn is that he's a cancer who has done much to undermine anti-corruption mechanisms in this country. He can try to hide behind the, I was only following orders, but that didn't work at Nuremberg and it's not going to work here. Because as an attorney, the President is not his client, the office of the President is his client and he's ultimately answerable to the American people.


BASH: Any time you refer to cancer and Nazi's in the same interview referring to somebody, that is, you know, I think that's just -- that is harsh as it gets. And to be fair, we had Michael Zeldin at the beginning of the program. He's disagreeing with what you just heard saying that, you know, it is depending on the context and it really depends on the context which we don't know.

It could -- there is a scenario where it's totally OK for McGahn to go to Jeff Sessions and say you really want to recuse yourself, if he didn't met that.

MATT VISER, DEPUTY WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, THE BOSTON GLOBE: The fact that he did it is an indication of why he is where he is. The loyalty that Trump has had with Don McGahn dates back several years now where McGahn played a pretty vital role in getting Trump on the ballot in certain states and fending off challenges at the convention.

He's one of those few people, you have those rotating cast of characters around Trump. But McGahn has been one of those constant ones in part because he's willing to do these types of things that could be ethically dubious of carrying through President Trump's orders.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think the question is what was -- what if anything was the mechanism by which Trump wanted McGahn to compel Sessions to do what he wanted him to do?

BASH: Exactly.

PHILLIP: We don't have any knowledge of that base on the Times report, and as far as the Times went, they indicated that there was a conversation. I don't think there's anything wrong about a conversation happening. Especially since Sessions responded to McGahn by saying I've talked to my attorneys. They've looked into this they think I should recuse myself. And then he went and he did just that.

[12:35:07] VISER: And McGahn could sort of backed away at that point --

PHILLIP: Yes, and he backed away.

BASH: Exactly.

PHILLIP: And he said I understand.

BASH: Yes. Yes. I think there's some personal animist with Mr. Shaub. But I want to remind people that McGahn, because he's the White House Counsel, but even under normal circumstances -- well, forget about normal circumstances.

Let's go back to what Sally Yates who was the Acting Attorney General for a short time said about her conversations with the White House Counsel. Remember, she is the one who went over with her hair on fire to the White House saying I'm really worried about Michael Flynn that he might be compromised by the Russians.


SALLY YATES, FORMER ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL: One of the questions that Mr. McGahn asked me when I went back over the second day was essentially why does it matter to DOJ if one White House official lies to another White House official? And so we explained to him, it was a whole lot more than that. And went back over the same concerns that we had raised with them the prior day that the concern first about the underlying conduct itself that he lied to the Vice President and others, the American public had been misled.


BASH: So she described somebody who was not willing to at least initially grasp the severity of the problem under his roof.

OLIVIER KNOX, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, YAHOO NEWS: It kind of goes back to what setting aside did not see him agree. It kind of goes back to what Trump was saying about the underlying purpose of this and whether Don McGahn is acting as the President's personal lawyer or his official lawyer and there is a distinction there.

BASH: There is.

KNOX: So the question is, you know, we can't forget why did Donald Trump not want Jeff Sessions to recuse himself? It was to add a layer for the political insulation and protection for the President. And so the purpose of this staff really matters.

And that it goes to that same Flynn question which is, well, we've had White House officials lie to each other with some repercussions, or remember the valley claim affair (ph) having the Press Secretary go out and lie to the American public about how things unfolded. But it's the underlying conduct that's more problematic here. What was the purpose of not taking action on what Sally Yates told the White House.

BASH: OK. We have a lot more to discuss, particularly about what's going on in the Justice Department. The Attorney General in particular is facing a backlash over his role in Russia as we've been discussing, but also a new policy he announced on marijuana. And it's coming from inside his own party. Stay with us.


[12:41:14] BASH: Some other things on our political radar today, the U.S. job market is on a red hot streak. New government figures released today show 148,000 jobs were added in December, adding to a total of two million jobs for the year 2017. And December marked 87 straight months of positive job growth in the U.S.

The unemployment rate helped steady at 4.1 percent, a 17-year low. Wages also grew from this time last year 2.5 percent.

And CNN confirms that President Trump had a phone conversation last night with Mitt Romney. The two have had a complicated history and now speculation is swirling about a possible Romney Senate run. Sources told Politico that the phone call was amicable and they talked about retiring Utah Senator Orrin Hatch and the President wished Romney the best of luck. They haven't always been so civil.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Mitt Romney let us down. He should have won that election. He failed. He choked. In the end, no different than a golfer that misses a pot on the 18th roll.

MITT ROMNEY (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University.


BASH: Also not so civil these days, the President's relationship with his Attorney General. According to a New York Times report, Trump was furious that Jeff Sessions recused himself with, of course, CNN is also been reporting for some time. Recuse himself from the Russia election meddling investigation, but the New York Times is saying he's tried to stop it from happening.

Now, when Sessions did step aside in March of last year, the President reportedly blew up saying Sessions wasn't fully protecting him. Here is what the story says, "Mr. Trump then asked, where is my Roy Cohn? He was referring to his former personal lawyer and fixer who had been Senator Joseph McCarthy's top aide during the investigations into communist activity in the 1950s. He died in 1986."

And some Republicans in Congress are also unhappy with the Attorney General for different reasons. Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan who was on the Judiciary Committee wants Sessions to just go.


REP. JIM JORDAN (R), OHIO: I like Jeff Sessions. I just want you to do your job. We expected different -- we expected a different process and treatment and a different Justice Department when you took over. But, unfortunately we are getting the same kind of slow walking on witness access, slow walking on document production. So, that's what we want to see happen.


BASH: And Jeff Sessions is really facing a GOP pile on because Republicans are also angry with him about his new rule affecting states where marijuana is now legal. This message to the Attorney General from Florida's Matt Gaetz. "Dear Jeff Sessions, prosecute Hillary Clinton, not medical marijuana

business and patients."

Back with our panel now and this is some pretty intense stuff. I know Olivier you spoke with Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, where, of course, Marijuana is completely legal. He was incredibly angry on the Senate floor. This is not one of those senators that tends to get worked up. But he sure did on this. Watch this.


SEN. CORY GARDNER (R), COLORADO: We were told that state's right would be protected and not just by the Attorney General, then the nominee to be attorney general. We were told that by then-candidate Donald Trump, I will be putting today a hold on every single nomination from the Department of Justice. Until Attorney General Jeff Sessions lives up to the commitment that he made to me --


[12:45:03] BASH: I'm assuming he said that to you and probably more.

KNOX: That ain't more to me. He remember a phone call from prior to the confirmation vote on Jeff Sessions. He was in a phone booth near the Senate Foreign Relations room.

BASH: A phone booth, how quaint.

KNOX: I know. I know. That's why I remembered the description. He'd held up his vote on Jeff Sessions until Jeff Sessions gave him assurances that the Trump administration would not go after legal pot businesses. And Jeff Sessions, in that phone call, he said it would not be -- according to Cory Gardner, he said it would not be a priority.

Donald doesn't want to do it. Donald Trump himself in a mid-2016 interview, he said it should be up to the states. So, there are all these assurances coming from the Trump team that they wouldn't do what Jeff Sessions just did, which is essentially walk back Obama era rules that lighten the prosecution load on poppies. This is basically saying we're not going enforce federal law that prohibits buying and selling and growing, et cetera.

BASH: And the funny thing is that in states like Colorado, initially both Democrats and Republicans I talk to who represented Colorado were not that psyched about it being legalized.

KNOX: Gardner opposed it.

BASH: But now they see that the money is coming in in a big way. It's become a pretty big part of the economy. Colorado is maybe the extreme example on there but 30 states, 30 states out of 50 have now legalized pot recreationally, you see the map there, or at least for from medicinal reasons.

VISER: And look at -- politically for the Republican Party trying to retain the House and the Senate, this sort of scrambles the politics of that. Because some of the states were -- that most care about this, Colorado, Nevada, California and Florida, all states that are purple and that Republican House members in particular need to protect their district. So it really sort of puts, you know, a policy at the forefront that is kind of dangerous for a lot of these Republicans who are now pushing back aggressively like Cory Gardner and others.

KNOX: And Gardner runs the Republican effort to hold the Senate majority, and in our interview he told me, pun intended, that this lights up new challenges for Republicans trying to retain the majorities in the House and Senate. It's really pretty significant.

BASH: And Lauren, real quick. What are you hearing from your sources on Capitol Hill? What did you hear yesterday when this whole thing came down?

LAUREN FOX, CNN POLITICS REPORTER: Well, it seems like the Republicans are just frustrated because they view this as an electoral problem for them. They viewed this as an issue to retaining both young voters and but also maintaining business interest. I mean, Republicans are pro-business. They are the party of pro business. And if they are starting to crack down on certain businesses that make millions of dollars and revenue for their states, that's a big problem when it comes to donors and when it comes to votes.

BASH: OK. Everybody, hold on. We have to get a quick break in.

And up next, President Trump is heading out of town for the weekend and he's not going to a property that bears his name. Instead he is going with a few friends in high places to a place where decisions are historically made, policy is written, and historic words are spoken.


GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's no question he is what we would call a prime suspect. And if he thinks he can hide and run from United States and our allies, he will be sorely mistaken.



[12:51:57] BASH: President Trump heads to Camp David this afternoon for a weekend retreat with congressional GOP leaders. They are going to discuss everything from tackling infrastructure and the problems in this country trying to get legislation done on that to reforming welfare. But the question hanging over at all is will the President be able to land a bipartisan immigration deal. Can he get Democrats onboard without alienating the GOP base?

At the White House yesterday, the President sounded very hopeful.


TRUMP: Hopefully everything is going to work out very well. We really wanted to work out. I can tell you, the Republicans want to see it work out very well. If we have support from the Democrats, I think DACA is going to be terrific.

We have a great spirit going in the Republican Party. I think it can be bipartisan. I hope it's going to be bipartisan, and we can take care of a lot of problems. Take care of a lot of problems. It would be really nice to do it in a bipartisan way, OK?


BASH: Let's just be clear, it has to happen in a bipartisan way. There's no other option. And it ain't happening if it's not bipartisan.

And let me read something that two Republican Senators, Tom Tillis and Jim Lankford put out yesterday after this meeting, which did not attend. "Over the course," excuse me, maybe they did attend --

FOX: They did attend.

BASH: -- thank you, but they didn't attend the bipartisan meeting afterwards. Thank you. "Over the course of the last several weeks, we have negotiated in good faith with Senate Democrats on a DACA agreement. Unfortunately, our discussions on border security and enforcement with Democrats are much further apart and that is key to getting to a bipartisan deal on DACA. Until that happens, we cannot accomplish the solutions our country needs and many families deserve. More work remains ahead."

Again, they were at the White House with the President and other Republicans but did not come back and meet with the key set of Democrats. What does this tell you about the possibility of a bipartisan deal, which is -- that is going to have to be really bipartisan and conservatives are just going to have to be OK with voting no?

FOX: What I will tell you is that Republicans are waiting for President Donald Trump to say exactly what he wants here. Because when it comes to border security, they feel like the President has -- can cover them in an election. If the President said, you know what, I'm OK with this, then they can give some protections for DREAMers and they won't get hit in the midterms with their base.

Now, I would argue that there are some complications with that, that when President Donald Trump came out of that meeting with Pelosi and Schumer this fall and there had been some reporting that maybe he'd agreed to the DREAM Act, Republicans and Conservatives went crazy. So, you know, it's not tried and true that when the President support something that they won't come out against it later.

BASH: Unfortunately, we have to leave it there. But I will just say also to that point that these are two Republican leaders the President has not had a great history with. They did not want him to be President. They don't want to take the fall with their base for something that they consider amnesty. So, having that conversation, just generally the notion of them hanging out at Camp David this weekend, the President is going to be fascinating to watch.

[12:55:01] Thank you very much for joining us on INSIDE POLITICS. Secretary of state Rex Tillerson talks to CNN Elise Labott and gives his take on attacks against the President's mental fitness. Wolf Blitzer is going to bring you back after a quick break.