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Trump Expresses Desire to Talk to Special Counsel; President Trump Flip-Flopping on Dreamers?; Did Republicans Push Fake Conspiracy Theory?; Senator Johnson: "Secret Society" Text May Have Been a Joke. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired January 25, 2018 - 16:00   ET


[16:00:09] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Sarcasm has never been lost in translation when used in text messages. Never. It's never happened.

THE LEAD starts right now.

There's been an all-out assault on the prosecutors and investigators conducting the Russian investigation, but as conspiracy theories hit a fever pitch on Capitol Hill, something else is getting in the way. Facts.

Then, what's going to happen when President Trump sits down with special counsel Robert Mueller? We now know the topics that he wants to cover. But why did the president's lawyer just contradict his client, the commander in chief?

And is this the art of the flip-flop? More mixed messages from President Trump on immigration and the wall, as he heads to Switzerland and leaves his chief of staff at home to work with lawmakers on a deal.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We are going to begin with the politics lead and the Department of Justice saying it's recovered more of those previously missing text messages between two FBI officials.

The conversations between FBI lawyer Lisa Page and FBI agent Peter Strzok, which included disparaging comments about then candidate Donald Trump, had raised questions about political bias within the FBI and the special counsel investigation in particular.

Strzok and Page had been part of the special counsel team. Page had already left and Strzok was removed in July, when these messages were discovered. The missing series of exchanges within a key five-month period covering December 2016 to May 2017 had led many to suggest that there could be something nefarious about the gap, a conspiracy to hide them, one that would be against the law.

President Trump himself called those missing message one of the biggest stories in a long time, exclaiming on Twitter, "Wow."

That alleged conspiracy had become a key part of the recent attacks on special counsel Mueller and his team. Another new attack on the FBI involved one text message exchange in particular, one that was not missing, at first, the only -- at first, the public was only told it contained a reference to a secret society.

Republicans sounded the alarm. Just listen to Homeland Security Chairman Senator Ron Johnson describe this message on, perhaps not surprisingly, FOX News on Tuesday night.


SEN. RON JOHNSON (R), WISCONSIN: More than bias, but corruption at the highest levels of the FBI and a secret society. We have an informant that is talking about a group that were holding secret meetings off-site. There is so much smoke here, there's so much suspicion.

QUESTION: Let's stop there. A secret society? Secret meetings off- site of the Justice Department?

JOHNSON: Correct.

QUESTION: And you have an informant said that?



TAPPER: But a funny thing happened on the way to the inquisition. The whole message came out, and it seemed possibly to be just a joke.

FBI lawyer Page writing to Strzok just after the election -- quote -- "Are you even going to give out your calendars? Seems kind of depressing. Maybe it should just be the first meeting of the secret society."

CNN has learned that the calendars Lisa Page references there, they were a gag gift of Vladimir Putin-themed calendars set to be distributed for those working on the early stage of the Russia investigation, sources telling CNN.

Today, Senator Johnson conceded there's a "real possibility" that the secret society comment was just made in jest.

And as for those missing text messages, the Justice Department inspector general said there had been a problem with FBI phones, not just Strzok's and Page's, but the missing texts, nonetheless, have been recovered.

A good lesson for everyone, Democrats, Republicans, the media, when it comes to this investigation, indeed, when it comes to everything, stick to the facts of what we know. Credibility's a valuable and fragile commodity.

My political panel is here with me to discuss all of this.

A lot of the focus in the recent weeks has been on the investigations, these missing messages, a key time period. What do you make of how excitable some of the Republican lawmakers who are providing oversight -- and, look, we need oversight of the FBI, absolutely. What do you make of what has happened this week?

TARA SETMAYER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think that was the consummate oops moment for a lot of these Republicans.

I think it's irresponsible. It seems as though the Republicans have been ratcheting up this idea of undermining the credibility of the Mueller investigation as Mueller has gotten closer and closer to Trump's inner circle with this investigation.

If you can't beat them, then let's try to undermine them, and this week, I think, it was an embarrassment for them, and getting ahead of their skis a little bit on trying to find, aha, see, they are out to get us, it's a big conspiracy.

And unfortunately it's fermented by a lot of the conservative media out there there's a giving a platform to these things from a perspective of really not waiting and seeing and letting the investigation play out the way it's supposed to. They are constantly doing this. I don't think it's doing them any favors.

TAPPER: Joan Walsh, one of the interesting things here is the Strzok- Page texts we know of are bad enough. They really do seek to undermine the appearance of the integrity of the investigation. There's no need to goose anything.


But, I mean, these are -- you know, we know the background of this is these are people in a private relationship. Yes, they expressed some personal feelings that were a little bit undermined their own appearance of integrity.


But the situation here, Jake, with Ron Johnson, Senator Ron Johnson, of the great state of Wisconsin, I'm a Badger personally, so I take it all personally. We're used to this from the House.

We're really not used to this from a sitting senator. I mean, get your staff together, do a little bit of research. Find out more. Don't go out. Don't go out half-cocked, squander your own credibility in a situation that, I'm sorry, is very -- is fraught.

We know there's a lot of tension and polarization.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's a great point. These are elected officials who are putting this out there. And then when he was asked if he's going to apologize, he did not say yes or no that he's putting out there -- A, I don't think people text about being in secret societies on government-issued phones.

But, B, it really goes to show even the DOJ is kind of making light of this, because when their spokesperson was on CNN this morning, she was making jokes about being in a secret society and not telling people about it.

And then when Chris Cuomo was, like, do you know anything about this, she was like, I don't know. It's unclear. There's text messages.

It just goes to show these are elected officials. What they say really does matter. Some people probably do believe there's a secret society inside the FBI.


TAPPER: Let me re-read the text getting message that has been getting so much attention

Lisa Page writing to Strzok the day after the election, I believe: "Are you even going to give out your calendars?" -- referencing the gag gifts, these Putin calendars -- "Seems kind of depressing. Maybe it should just be the first meeting of the secret society."

I really have a tough time how anybody could read that and think that it's -- first of all, it's the first meeting of the secret society, so it wouldn't have actually adjourned yet


SETMAYER: You're so literal.

TAPPER: But, second of all, it would seem to me if there was a secret society, maybe you wouldn't mention it because it was a secret, but third of all, how can anybody read that and not think it's lighthearted?

SETMAYER: Well, I think if you are looking for something, then you're going to find it and interpret it however you like, or possibly the senator had not actually read it and was taking the word of an informant, which would be irresponsible also.

Look, I worked in government for many years. I worked on the Hill. We used to send funny things to each other all the time, crack jokes about stuff in jest, and I think that's what you saw here.

It's part a little bit of that culture. But, again, it's irresponsible at this point given how important this investigation is and given that the integrity of the FBI and the intelligence community is on the line here, and you actually have elected officials questioning it.

And just to put a point on this, the inspector general did an investigation and they uncovered this. This is the way the process is to work, and Strzok was removed from the Mueller team months ago.


SETMAYER: The process is actually working here.

TAPPER: Let's take a quick break from the panel and go right to CNN's Jim Sciutto to get some more facts from the actual investigation. Jim, President Trump had quite a freewheeling session with reporters,

and he repeated again, there's no collusion with the Russians, and he had an interesting defense for why he did not obstruct justice.


You might call it an imaginary defense, certainly not a legal one, the president saying in his words he's just fighting back against allegations that he doesn't believe. Of course, as president, he has levers that you and I do not have.

He can, for instance, fire his FBI director, ask his replacement who he voted for in the election, and these we now know are at least targets, subjects of investigation for the special counsel, as we are learning the special counsel has spoken to far more advisers and staff members of the president than we knew previously.


SCIUTTO:(voice-over): Tonight, the president's lawyers say that 20 White House staffers have now sat for voluntary interviews with special counsel Robert Mueller, including White House counsel Don McGahn, Communications Director Hope Hicks, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, and former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.

The administration says it has turned over more than 20,000 pages of documents. Now Donald Trump says that he's willing, in fact, eager, to be next, telling reporters:

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm looking forward to it, actually.

SCIUTTO: Trump's lawyer, Ty Cobb, however, quickly qualified the president's statement, telling Gloria Borger -- quote -- "While Mr. Trump was speaking hurriedly before departing for Davos, he remains committed to continued complete cooperation with the office of the special counsel."

CNN has learned new details about how Mueller wants to interview the president, that it be a sit-down meeting, rather than written questions, and that the topics would include the president allegedly asking former FBI Director James Comey to drop the investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

Mueller also wants to know about Trump's reaction to Comey's May 2017 testimony on Capitol Hill. Comey's comments reportedly angered Trump.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Do you stand by your testimony that there's an active investigation, counterintelligence investigation, regarding Trump campaign individuals and the Russian government as to whether or not they collaborated?


JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: To see if there was any coordination between the Russian effort and people... GRAHAM: Right. Is that still going on?


SCIUTTO: In addition, investigators want to learn more about the president's outreach to intelligence leaders about the Russia investigation.


The range of topics suggesting an interview with Trump would largely focus on possible obstruction of justice, something the president has repeatedly denied.

TRUMP: Here's the story, just so you understand.

There's been no collusion whatsoever. There's no obstruction whatsoever. And I'm looking forward to it.

SCIUTTO: Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Trump argued that what some see as obstruction is really just Mr. Trump fighting back against false accusations.

TRUMP: There's no collusion. Now they're saying, oh, well, did he fight back?


TRUMP: You fight back. Oh, it's obstruction.


SCIUTTO: The Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley,now wants to release the transcript of a closed-door interview with the president's son, Donald Trump Jr.

He says that once the necessary redactions have been made for any classified information, the public should see it. I should remind folks, Jake, that a focus of that interview was that 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians promising dirt on Hillary Clinton.

TAPPER: Jim Sciutto, thank you so much.

Let's go back to the panel here.

Joan, President Trump casting the charges of obstruction of justice, and, again, nothing has been filed, but there are questions about firing Comey, other things he's done along the way, and he's saying that's just fighting back.

WALSH: He honestly has no idea how our legal system is supposed to work, that Comey does not really work for him, that he's supposed to keep hands off an investigation like that, that he's not supposed to be asking FBI people who -- whether they voted for him or not.

I don't know if ignorance -- ignorance is not a defense, but it really seems as though they can't get it through his head he has to stop interfering with this investigation and stop talking about it and stop defending it as fighting back. He's not denying doing it. He's categorizing it in a different way. That's not the legal definition.

I think every time he opens his mouth about this, he gets himself into trouble.

TAPPER: Kaitlan, it was a week or so ago that Kellyanne Conway told Chris Cuomo nobody at the White House talks about Hillary Clinton, that doesn't happen, even though, obviously, President Trump tweets quite a bit about Hillary Clinton.

He did bring up Hillary Clinton in his conversation with reporters last night about him testifying under oath. Take a listen.


QUESTION: Would you do it under oath, Mr. President?

TRUMP: You mean like Hillary did it under -- who said that?

QUESTION: I said that.

Would you do it under oath?

TRUMP: Oh, you said it. You did say it. You say a lot.

Did Hillary do it under oath?

QUESTION: I have no idea.

TRUMP: I think you have an idea. Don't you have an idea?


TRUMP: Wait a minute. Wait, wait, wait. Do you not have an idea? Do you really not have an idea? I will give you an idea. She didn't do it under oath.

But I would do it under oath. But I would do it.

QUESTION: You would?

TRUMP: And you know she didn't do it under oath. Right?


TAPPER: Just, again, to put a point on it, it doesn't matter if you are under oath or not. You're not allowed to lie to the FBI. Just ask George Papadopoulos or Mike Flynn.

COLLINS: Exactly.

Going back to what Kellyanne said about Hillary Clinton, I think most of that is actually true, that the people I talk to in the White House never bring up Hillary Clinton, but we see that the president has this obsession.

And it really speaks to this larger effort of how he thinks this entire investigation is an attempt to invalidate his win last November -- or in the previous November. It just goes to show how he sees all of this, the lens through what he sees this.

And often an excuse for this is, that's just how he talks, when he says things like, you fight back, potentially obstructing justice, or when he's asking the FBI director who he voted for.


WALSH: No defense. That's just how he talks.


COLLINS: Exactly.

And it is true, it's just how he talks. But it's different when you're the president asking the acting FBI director how you voted when it was an election that you were in, you're the president, you're in the Oval Office, and he's the acting FBI director.

It is true, that is just how he talks. A lot of people in the White House do not talk about Hillary Clinton, but he's the president, he is held to different standards, and he is the one who brings up Hillary Clinton.

TAPPER: In "Fire and Fury," Steve Bannon is quoting saying he had told the president, just keep your mouth shut, leave it up to the lawyers, and this thing will -- take care of yourself. You keep getting yourself in trouble.

He obviously does not take that advice.

SETMAYER: He's incapable of this.

You see time and again he has no impulse control. That's why he has Twitter. And that's why no one can take it from him. It's almost like a pacifier, I think, for the president, unfortunately, and it's gotten him in trouble.

And here's another example. When he sees cameras there, he has to say something, because he constantly feels everything is a personal front. And it's very difficult when you're the president of the United States, and you have a personality like Trump does, where it is narcissism all the time, it's about me, me, me all the time, it's difficult the embrace how big the office is, because the presidency of the United States is bigger than one person.

And I think that Donald Trump has embraced that yet, or I don't think he ever will.

TAPPER: And I know he wants to talk. He wants more media coverage of all the things corporations do in terms of bonuses, in terms of raises for people, in terms of jobs coming back for this country. (CROSSTALK)

SETMAYER: Which is good for them.

TAPPER: And he should be talking -- why he does this is beyond me.

But, everyone, stick around. We have a lot more to talk about, including a deeper dive into how three popular conspiracy theories were just undermined by a technical glitch and a gag gift.

Don't go anywhere. We will be right back.


TAPPER: We have a lot more to talk about, including a deeper dive into how three popular conspiracy theories were just undermined by a technical glitch and a gag gift.

[16:15:05] Don't go anywhere. We'll be right back.


TAPPER: Welcome back.

For days, President Trump has been calling attention to text messages between two FBI officials involved in the Russia investigation, formerly involved in the Russia investigation, and the fact that some of them -- many of them were missing. Here he is last night talking to reporters before departing for Switzerland.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I do worry when I look at all the things you people don't report about with what's happening. If you take a look at, you know, the five month's worth of missing texts. It's a lot of missing texts, and, as I said yesterday, that's prime time.


TAPPER: Well, now, those texts have been recovered, and Republicans on Capitol Hill are backtracking a bit on claims of a conspiracy at the FBI and Justice Department to undermine President Trump.

[16:20:02] CNN's Tom Foreman is here to separate fact from fiction.

And, Tom, this text referencing a secret society, it appears in context, to be a joke.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it kind of looked like a joke from the start, but I don't think these revelations are going to satisfy many of the president's defenders who all along have been insisted the only collusion here is between FBI agents trying to frame the president, claiming that he fixed the election with Russian help.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) FOREMAN (voice-over): Just after Donald Trump won the election, FBI agent Lisa Page sent a text to agent, Peter Strzok, are you even going to give out your calendars? It seems kind of depressing. Maybe it should just be the first meeting of the secret society.

Critics of the Russia probe quickly pounced. They've long insisted the FBI is trying to take down the president. Never mind that sources now tell CNN secret society referred to a gag gift Strzok purchased for his fellow agents. Republicans insisted their investigations too have pointed to a clandestine plot.

SEN. RON JOHNSON (R), WISCONSIN: We have an informant talking about a group that were holding secret meetings off-site.

FOREMAN: That senator now admits it's a real possibility the secret society message was a joke, but others are pointing to the fact Strzok was booted from the Russian investigation when his anti-Trump messages were discovered.

The Democratic response to the Republican uproar?


FOREMAN: Another element that fueled rampant speculation on the right? Months of missing messages between those two agents, from mid- December to mid-May.

REP. MATT GAETZ (R-FL), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Strzok and Page were texting each other more than a high school cheerleading squad, but somehow there's a five-month black hole.

FOREMAN: The Justice Department said it was a technical issue affecting a lot of agents, and the missing messages now have been recovered. But Republicans have seized on texts between the two, including one, they say, discussed ways to fix the damage done by the Hillary Clinton e-mail probe.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think it needs to be investigated, and it is going to be investigated.

FOREMAN: And, lastly, the Republican head of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, is considering releasing a memo alleging federal agents in the Russian probe abused surveillance laws. The Justice Department says classified information may be in the memo, and releasing it before the FBI sees it could be extraordinarily reckless, but giving the stakes, the controversy is likely to continue.

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R-IA), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: The American people deserve the truth.


FOREMAN: This is all in how you look at it. For the president's supporters, it adds up to further evidence of a so-called deep state plot to take down Trump by whatever means necessary. And for his critics, all the backlash is just more distractions aimed at derailing the Russian probe -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Tom Foreman, thank you so much.

CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor Laura Coates join me now, along with former Congressman Mike Rogers, who was once the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, and a Republican congressman from Michigan.

Congressman, let me start with you.

The secret society exploded after Senator Ron Johnson, the Republican chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, was on FOX News talking about the secret society text. Sources now say that was in reference to a gag gift, that the text was a joke.

What do you think? And do you think congressional Republicans perhaps should have waited to learn more before pushing this narrative of a secret society?

MIKE ROGERS, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY COMMENTATOR: Absolutely. But I think the most dangerous place on Capitol Hill now is between any hearing of this and a microphone. I don't care if you're Democrat or Republican. And this shows me how dangerous, hopefully shows them, how dangerous it is.

If there's 50,000 texts going through the forensic capability of retrieving now, you should wait until you say anything about a secret society or anything until you know one text out of, clearly, more than 50,000 does not a conspiracy make.

And this is what worries me is that they are running out there with whatever they see that they like in order to try to impugn in a very big public way, the FBI's investigation. And, listen, if they have a concern about FBI actions of certain members of the FBI, then, by all means, have a review, have an investigation, but before you claim people guilty and have a good hang-in, you ought to go through the process of making sure your facts are accurate.

And that's what concerns me about the whole mess. I mean, any of those committees, they are not really doing investigations anymore. They are doing campaigns. That's not how it works.

TAPPER: Laura, what do you think of this? Especially what do you make of the selective leaks? For instance, we found out about the existence of the words "secret society" before learning the context of it.

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, what you are seeing here is a tarring and feathering in the public square because there are congressmen out there who believe that innuendo has become exceptionally persuasive in the court of public opinion. When you have Robert Mueller and his team who are refusing to leak on their own or give information about out of the state of the investigation or the result of an investigation or the process of information, people are looking for bread crumbs in trying to put it out there themselves. [16:25:08] And so, you have these selective leaks, what they are

trying to do is put in their back pocket some type of information that could attack the credibility of the investigation, even before the results of that investigation are given, and if innuendo is going to be enough to persuade the public, we're in for a really scary ride.

TAPPER: Congressman, let me ask about this issue with House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes who has this memo that the Republicans on his committee put together, he won't let others outside the committee see the memo, including Senate Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Trump Justice Department is saying it will be reckless if Republicans released it.

What do you make of all of this?

ROGERS: Well, I mean, clearly, they should at least allow the agencies to review it, and even as chairman, if he decides he thinks they are wrong in their review, he can release it. But, you know, there's probably thousands of documents that they provided, they, being the FBI, Department of Justice, with classification and may include sources and methods. So, you want to be really careful that you're not releasing something to the public that is going to disclose a source or a method that would certainly be harmful to national security.

I mean, caution here is a better way forward. If they feel that there is some kind of -- that the FBI abused their powers, which I think is a pretty serious allegation, then throwing out a memo to the public is not a way to deal with this. You want to go through a process, within classified space, to get all the facts before you leap here.

And I'm just worried that in this -- in this day-to-day, hand-to-hand combat on political positions, on this investigation, we're going to do some harm, and somebody's going to get hurt in the process. I wish they would all slow down, take a deep breath, say, we're going to do our reviews, our investigations, we're going to do them professionally, and thoroughly. We'll come out at the end of this with a product of which you can be proud -- I don't see any of that happening anywhere on Capitol Hill.

TAPPER: All right. Laura, Congressman, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Much more to discuss on the secret society text message and the effort to undermine the Russian investigation. Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio will join me next. Stay with us.