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New Twist in Russia Investigation; "Fire and Fury" Hits Bookstores as Instant Best Seller; U.S. Authorities Reactivate The Clinton Foundation Probe; U.S. Secretary of State on Relations with North Korea. Aired 12m-12:30a ET

Aired January 6, 2018 - 00:00   ET

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


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NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): First it was one. Now CNN has learned that several top White House officials tried to persuade attorney general Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.

Also, "Fire and Fury" goes on sale as the White House takes to the airwaves to try and discredit the author.

Plus an exclusive. U.S. secretary of state Rex Tillerson sits down for a rare interview with CNN.

It's all ahead here. We're live in Atlanta. Hello and welcome. I'm Natalie Allen and this is CNN NEWSROOM.

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ALLEN: Our top story, new information that hits at the heart of two crucial questions about the President of the United States.

Did he obstruct justice?

And is he fit to serve?

A senior Trump administration official confirms to CNN that several top White House officials were involved in an effort to persuade attorney general Jeff Sessions to remain in control of the investigation into Russia's election interference.

Among those who participated in calls between the White House and Justice Department, ex-press secretary Sean Spicer and former chief of staff, Reince Priebus. Our Jim Acosta has more on those calls.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I talked to a source familiar with these conversations just a short while ago. That senior administration official told me, quote, "I think it is fair to call it pressure." That is a quote from this official, describing these conversations

that went on between top White House officials and staff members in the attorney general's office, including the attorney general, Jeff Sessions.

And I should also point out, according to the senior administration official, this person described what was going on and the conversations regarding Jeff Sessions' decision to recuse himself -- or not recuse himself -- as being, quote, "chaos."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ALLEN: Priebus is declining to comment on our reporting. Spicer told CNN he called Sessions' office but that it was about a news conference. CNN earlier confirmed that White House counsel Don McGann, seen here on the left, tried to convince Sessions not to recuse himself as well.

Our Jessica Schneider has more details on that part of the story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A source close to attorney general Jeff Sessions tells CNN White House counsel Don McGann personally reached out to Sessions in early 2017 to try to dissuade the attorney general from recusing himself from the Russia probe.

"The New York Times" reports Mueller has learned about that outreach and that it was a direct order from President Trump, who reportedly erupted in front of several White House officials when Sessions announced his recusal in March.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R-ALA.), U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Therefore, I have recused myself.

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Sources put it this way to "The Times": "Mr. Trump said he had expected his top law enforcement official to safeguard him the way he believed Robert F. Kennedy as attorney general had done for his brother, John F. Kennedy, and Eric H. Holder Jr. had for Barack Obama."

Reached for comment, White House lawyer Ty Cobb declined.

Former ethics czar and CNN contributor Walter Shaub says at the time, he recommended recusal and expressed outrage upon learning McGann was personally lobbying Sessions against it.

WALTER SHAUB, CNN CORRESPONDENT: While I was on the phone talking to Department of Justice officials, telling them that Jeff Sessions had no choice but to recuse in order to resolve a criminal conflict of interest, we now learn that Don McGann was pressuring Jeff Sessions on behalf of the president to do just the opposite.

I think that we are in a neighborhood where I hope Mueller is looking at this very seriously for obstruction of justice, because it could be.

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Obstruction is part of Mueller's probe, prompted in part by the president's firing of FBI director James Comey in May. In this letter to the president from deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, the reported reasoning for removal centered on Comey's handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton's e-mails.

But shortly after firing Comey, the president admitted he had Russia on his mind.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story.

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): The president spent the weekend before the firing at his club in Bedminster, New Jersey, where sources say the president drafted a letter he intended to send Comey but never did.

In it, President Trump, according to "The Times," described the Russia investigation as "fabricated and politically motivated." The paper reports Mueller knows about this letter. A source tells CNN the special counsel has also obtained handwritten notes from former chief of staff Reince Priebus. They document the president telling Priebus that Comey had assured the president he was not under investigation.

"The New York Times" also reports that days before James Comey was fired, one of Jeff Sessions' aides asked a congressional staffer whether there was any damaging information on Comey in an effort to undermine the FBI director.

The DOJ has --

[]

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): -- denied this account. The new evidence relating to Mueller's obstruction of justice probe also raises new questions about Jeff Sessions' future as attorney general. He's offered his resignation before but the White House suggests he's still safe.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Right now, he's focused on doing his job. We're focused on doing ours. We don't have any reason to see that there's anything different today than there was yesterday.

We feel like we're in a great place and we're moving forward and the attorney general is going to continue showing up to work this week and next week, just like he has every day since we started, and keep doing good work and moving the president's agenda forward.

SCHNEIDER: The White House has even started calling out the press amid questions about Jeff Sessions' future. Sessions was not invited to Camp David this weekend, despite the fact that eight other cabinet members will be joining the president for meetings on the 2018 legislative agenda. When CNN asked why Sessions wasn't invited, a White House official

issued a stinging reply, saying this, "The press should stop using a long-planned meeting with congressional leaders to take cheap shots at the attorney general."

So now it seems the White House is defending the attorney general, despite the fact that the president has often taken shots at him, even calling him "beleaguered" months ago over Twitter -- Jessica Schneider, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ALLEN: The tell-all book about the Trump White House hit book stores Friday as an instant bestseller. "Fire and Fury" is extremely unflattering to the president, portraying him as selfish and incompetent. Mr. Trump has dismissed it as phony and full of lies.

Moments ago, he tweeted, "Michael Wolff is a total loser who made up stories in order to sell his really boring and untruthful book. He used Sloppy Steve Bannon, who cried when he got fired and begged for his job. Now Sloppy Steve has been dumped like a dog by almost everyone, too bad."

The president, as we just heard in Jessica's report, is at Camp David this weekend with Republican congressional leaders, talking about their agenda for the upcoming year. For more on this, here's CNN's Jim Acosta.

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ACOSTA (voice-over): It was perhaps the only on-message moment of the week for the president, touting his economic record as he was leaving for Camp David.

TRUMP: The tax cuts are really kicking in far beyond what anyone thought. The market is good. The jobs reports were very good and we think they're going to get really good over the next couple of months.

ACOSTA (voice-over): The president, who boasts he always punches back, made it clear there would be no on-camera comments about the book, "Fire and Fury," written by author Michael Wolff and starring his former chief strategist and sudden Trump critic, Steve Bannon.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, have you read the book "Fire and Fury"?

ACOSTA (voice-over): Mr. Trump saved his fury for his Twitter feed, tweeting, "I authorized zero access to White House. Actually turned him down many times for author of phony book. I never spoke to him for book. Full of lies, misrepresentations --

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ACOSTA (voice-over): -- and sources that don't exist.

"Look at this guy's past and watch what happens to him and Sloppy Steve," a new nickname for Bannon.

Appearing on NBC, the book's author did not hold back, hammering the president's mental fitness for the job.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: According to your reporting, everyone around the president, senior advisers, family members, every single one of them questions his intelligence and fitness for office.

MICHAEL WOLFF, AUTHOR, "FIRE AND FURY": Let me put a marker in the sand here: 100 percent of the people around him.

ACOSTA (voice-over): And Wolff thanked the president for driving up interest in his book, which was released early due to the heightened demand.

WOLFF: What I say is, where do I send the box of chocolates?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You think he's helping you sell books?

WOLFF: Absolutely. Not only is he helping me sell books but he's helping me prove the point of the book. I mean, this is extraordinary that a President of the United States would try to stop the publication of a book. This doesn't happen -- has not happened from other presidents, would not even happen from a CEO of a midsized company.

ACOSTA (voice-over): As for the attacks on his book, Wolff was ready for that one.

WOLFF: My credibility is being questioned by a man who has less credibility than perhaps anyone who has ever walked on Earth at this point. I will quote Steve Bannon, "He's lost it."

ACOSTA (voice-over): But the White House and the president's friends have fanned out across the air waves to condemn the book.

SANDERS: Look, we said they spoke once by the phone for a few minutes. But it wasn't about the book. They had a very short conversation. But he never interviewed the president about the book. He repeatedly begged to speak with the president and was denied access.

ACOSTA (voice-over): Slamming Wolff's key takeaway that the president is not mentally fit for office.

CHRIS RUDDY, CEO AND PRESIDENT, NEWSMAX MEDIA: This is just like so absurd. It's so ridiculous. So 100 percent, I'm around the president. I've been around him quite a bit through the past year. I met him 20 years ago. He is not psychologically unfit. He has not "lost it," as he claimed.

ACOSTA (voice-over): Secretary of state Rex Tillerson told CNN's Elise Labott he's never raised the issue of the president's mental state.

REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I've never questioned -- []

TILLERSON: -- his mental fitness. I have no reason to question his mental fitness.

ACOSTA: The president will spend the weekend meeting with Republican congressional leaders and his cabinet up at Camp David, to go over his party's agenda for 2018. One cabinet member who won't be present is attorney general Jeff Sessions, who has frequently been the subject of the president's fury.

But the White House says there is no message being sent to Sessions. An official here says the White House stands firmly behind him -- Jim Acosta, CNN, the White House.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ALLEN: Let's talk more about these revelations. Political analyst Michael Genovese joins us from Los Angeles. He's also the author of a book on President Trump, titled, "How Trump Governs."

Is there much that mirrors your book and this new bestseller there, Michael?

MICHAEL GENOVESE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, mine is not quite as titillating but it's more academic.

ALLEN: OK. Well, we know that the president has certainly gone after Michael Wolff, the author, and now nasty tweets about Steve Bannon, his new nickname, Sloppy Steve.

If this book isn't true, if these are lies, as the president alleges, why is he doing so much to discredit Steve Bannon, who has had a lot to say in this book about Mr. Trump and his family?

GENOVESE: Well, the president is notoriously thin-skinned. He takes criticism to new heights that would be beyond what a normal person would. He's got a very fragile ego and he needs to be puffed up a lot.

So anything that pushes him down, anything that criticizes him, he simply goes over the edge on this. So temperamentally, the president is not well suited to the office because the presidency is a 24/7, as Walter Mondale called it, fire hydrant, where people are always doing their business on it.

Donald Trump can't stand that and it's driving him completely batty.

ALLEN: Right. And to hear Wolff say it, no one's kidding around when they're saying it's driving him batty, that he is looking more and more like someone who is not fit to serve.

How will the president march on through all of this muck?

GENOVESE: Well, you know, there's three parts to that question. The first is experientially is he qualified or fit? And the answer is he didn't serve in the military or serve in politics. But we elected him knowing that.

The second area of questioning his fitness might be temperamentally, where he is thin-skinned and he has a quick temper. That's pretty dangerous but, again, we knew that going in.

The third area, the area I think you're really driving at, is psychologically is he fit to be president?

And in that case, the Wolff book really did hit a nerve, probably several nerves. There are two key points to make about the psychological analysis of a president.

The first is, it is inherently unfair to do diagnosis at a distance. You just can't do it. The Goldwater rule was put into place in the '60s because a number of people did that and it didn't turn out very well.

The second part of that, though and I think the more important part is that the presidency is so important a job, the president has so much power, so much authority, is under so much stress and pressure that, even though you're not really well qualified to do diagnosis at a distance, the point is, it is so important you can't help but do it because you have to take the temperature of the president in every way conceivable, including psychologically.

And the Wolff book really does raise some serious questions.

ALLEN: Let's talk about the revelations we've learned in the past few hours. We now know top administration officials tried to pressure the attorney general not to recuse himself from the Justice Department investigation. Those officials include former chief of staff Priebus and former press secretary Sean Spicer.

What does that spell for this White House?

GENOVESE: It was kind of a fool's errand. It was at the behest, even the insistence of the president. But the Code of Federal Regulations is so specific on this and the attorney general had no choice but to recuse himself. To do otherwise would have led to a firestorm.

The problem is the president sees his administration, the Justice Department, et cetera, as his personal law firm. It is not. It is the nation's. It is the presidency's. It is the country's.

The president has his attorneys. He has his legal representation. The Justice Department is different. And, yes, you would like loyalty. You would expect loyalty from the people you appoint.

But this kind of blind loyalty that the president insists on is completely inappropriate, given the nature of our constitutional system. We don't operate like that. The president, again, in part because of his lack of experience, doesn't quite get that.

He thinks that the people you put into power, you put in to help the president, to help Donald Trump. And when it looks like someone is being disloyal, even when he's doing the right thing, as Sessions did recusing himself, the president gets upset.

ALLEN: Right. It almost seems like the U.S. president continues to be shell-shocked by how this country operates. Michael Genovese, as always we appreciate you coming on.

GENOVESE: Thank you, Natalie.

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ALLEN: The U.S. authorities are once again investigating allegations of corruption related to The Clinton Foundation, which is Bill and Hillary Clinton's charity. The FBI and prosecutors are looking into whether donors to the foundation were promised political favors or special access to Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state.

You may recall an initial inquiry stalled prior to the 2016 election. A representative for the foundation is dismissing the allegations and calls them unfounded.

Coming up, the U.S. secretary of state speaks exclusively with CNN about North and South Korea and what it would take to thaw relations between the notorious enemies.

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ALLEN: Very strong words and harsh accusations were exchanged at an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council Friday. The U.S. requested the session to discuss the recent antigovernment protests in Iran.

And while most nations agreed with the U.S. ambassador's stance on human rights, others, including Iran itself, accused Washington of meddling in Tehran's affairs and having ulterior motives.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: In 2009, the world stood by passively while the hopes of the Iranian people were crushed by their government. In 2018, we will not be silent.

Once again, the people of Iran are rising up. They are asking for something that no government can legitimately deny them, their human rights and fundamental freedoms. They are calling out, think of us.

If the founding principles of this institution mean anything, we will not only hear their cry, we will finally answer it. The Iranian regime is now on notice. The world will be watching what you do.

GHOLAMALI KHOSHMO (PH), IRANIAN AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: It is unfortunate that, despite the resistance on the part of some of its members, this council has allowed itself to be abused by the current U.S. administration and holding a meeting on an issue that falls outside the scope of its mandate, putting on display the failure of the council to fulfill its real responsibility in maintaining international peace and security.

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ALLEN: And expressing its anger, the Russian ambassador questioned whether, according to U.S. logic, the council should have met over the Occupy Wall Street movement years ago in New York.

Well, the U.S. is reaffirming its commitment to defend South Korea against any threat from North Korea. That is the word from U.S. Defense Secretary, James Mattis, who spoke with his South Korean counterpart on Friday, the same day the North agreed to hold official talks with South Korea.

On Tuesday, envoys will meet in this room near the demilitarized zone for their first high-level meeting in more than two years. As that face-to-face meeting between North and South looms, Elise Labott spoke exclusively with the U.S. secretary of state, Rex Tillerson --

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ALLEN: -- and she asked the top U.S. diplomat what would bring the U.S. to the table with North Korea.

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ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: North Korea now, coming to the table.

Is that an opening, maybe for talks with the U.S., or nuclear talks?

TILLERSON: Well, I think it's too early to tell. We need to wait and see what the outcome of their talks are. The president had a -- President Trump had a good call with President Moon yesterday morning, which I participated in.

And their intent is to talk about the Olympics. Obviously a very important upcoming event for South Korea and the potential participation of North Korea in those Olympics, so our understanding is that's the content of the meetings.

So, I think it's a little early to draw any conclusions at this point.

LABOTT: But it could be a positive sign, maybe, that North Korea wants to engage a little bit?

TILLERSON: Well, we'll see. We'll see. Perhaps. I know some are speculating that this may be their first effort to open a channel, but as you know we've had channels open to North Korea for some time, and so they do know how to reach us if and when they're ready to engage with us as well.

LABOTT: Well, maybe you'll be next. TILLERSON: We'll see.

LABOTT: If you can explain a little bit about what the U.S. policy is on North Korea, because I think Americans are a little bit confused.

Do the North Koreans have to give up their nuclear program before committing to talks?

TILLERSON: Our policy is the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization --

LABOTT: Right.

TILLERSON: -- of the Korean Peninsula. That is a policy that is commonly held by everyone in the region as well.

LABOTT: Right.

TILLERSON: The Chinese have that as a stated policy. Russia has it as a stated policy. So, regionally, all of the countries in the neighboring area, as well as the international community, are well aligned on the policy.

How we achieve the ultimate endpoint -- the final fully -- full denuclearization, the verification of that, and the irreversibility of it, clearly that's going to take some time. So how we begin the talks is yet to be determined, but we clearly need a signal from North Korea that they understand these talks must lead to that conclusion.

The pathway of how you get there, that is the nature of a negotiation. There'll be some give and take to achieve those objectives. So that objective has never changed.

LABOTT: Because you said, it's unrealistic for them to kind of sit down and say, we're ready to do it. But it sounds like, you know, they have to show some willingness, but then the mechanics of that are able to be worked out.

TILLERSON: We have to have a shared view that that is the reason we're talking. That's the purpose of these talks, and it is through those talks that North Korea actually can chart the way for themselves of a more secured future, a more prosperous future for their people as well.

So there are very positive outcomes to these talks from North Korea as there will be positive outcomes for the security of the entire region. That is the nature of the negotiations.

LABOTT: Do you think you -- you know, a lot's been made about the president's tweet on the nuclear button, but now North Korea's talking with South Korea.

Do you think that tough rhetoric has worked here?

TILLERSON: I think the rhetoric that North Korea understands is, while it is our objective, and the president's been very clear, to achieve a denuclearization through diplomatic efforts, those diplomatic efforts are backed by a strong military option if necessary.

That is not the first choice and the president's been clear that's not his first choice. But it is important that North Koreans as well as other regional players understand how high the stakes are in an effort to ensure our diplomatic efforts are fully supported.

And I think, to date, the diplomatic efforts have been supported very well in the international community.

If you look at the three U.N. Security Council resolutions on sanctions, the participation in those sanctions and a number of countries going well beyond the Security Council resolutions and imposing unilateral actions on their own, both economic as well as diplomatic.

I think it is a recognition that the president has demonstrated to the world how high the stakes are.

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ALLEN: Secretary of state Rex Tillerson.

Large parts of the U.S. are blanketed in snow resembling an icy tundra and Derek Van Dam is going to tell us next that there is more to come. Stay with us.

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ALLEN: A brutal nor'easter has left much of the U.S. in the grip of absolutely arctic temperatures.

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ALLEN: We're back with our top stories right after this.