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Source: Trump tried to Fire Mueller last June; Sources: Trump Growing Frustrated with his Chief of Staff; Trump Proposes Path to Citizenship for 1.8 million. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired January 26, 2018 - 10:00   ET

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


[10:00:10] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: 10:00 a.m. Eastern, top of the hour, I'm Poppy Harlow in New York.

President Trump is making his way now back to Washington, following a big speech this morning on the world stage in Davos, Switzerland. This morning though before he could deliver that sales pitch for America First, the president was hit with news reports that he tried to fire Special Counsel Bob Mueller, of course, the man leading the Russia probe, and tried to do it barely a month after he fired FBI director James Comey. You will recall, the White House, his president himself have long denied even contemplating firing Mueller. This morning, here is what the president said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Did you seek to fire Mueller?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Fake news, folks. Fake news.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What is your message?

TRUMP: "New York Times," fake stories.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: Our Jim Acosta is in Davos, where the president is. Look, Jim, more than one of his cabinet members tried as hard as they could to keep this Mueller issue at bay. Did they succeed?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: You know, Poppy, you've been here before, you know how it is, the mixing and mingling that goes on with these cabinet secretaries and titans of industry and so on. It is sort of what makes Davos fun and interesting to cover. We have cabinet secretaries walking by us all the time here throughout this morning before the president's speech and they simply did not want to talk about this Robert Mueller story "The New York Times," that the president wanted to fire Mueller last year and essentially almost lost his White House Counsel Don McGahn as a result of that, threatening to resign over that potential action.

We went up to various cabinet secretaries here, the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and the cabinet secretary over at Commerce, Wilbur Ross, just to ask them what their take on all of this was, whether or not it was casting a cloud over what was happening here in Davos, and here is a bit of what they had to say to us.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILBUR ROSS, SECRETARY OF COMMERCE: It's doing wonderfully and the speech will be enormous.

ACOSTA: And how do you think the Mueller news is going to affect this trip, sir?

ROSS: Oh, you'll see. Nothing is going to change. The president is in very good spirits.

ACOSTA: Are you concerned about how this Mueller investigation is affecting the conference? Is it putting a cloud over things here, would you say?

REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: No.

ACOSTA: Are you concerned that the president tried to fire Robert Mueller?

TILLERSON: I know nothing about that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: So it's a little bit of a game of catch me if you can here in Davos, Poppy, as those cabinet secretaries tried to avoid our questions. We did talk to one senior administration official off camera, who insisted over and over again that they're not caught up in this Mueller news over here, that they were focused on the matter at hand, and that was to try to get this economic message across to those gathered here that in their view, America is open for business. That the president -- and I think this was interesting to note, that the president's tough talk out on the campaign trail has been tailored somewhat for this audience here and that the president is saying to the rest of the world that their companies are welcome to come to the United States.

You heard some of the president's remarks there during that speech there. He was selling that point to those gathered here. But make no mistake, they were certainly aware that the press was hot on this story, and you saw the president there saying that all of this was fake news and even took a jab at the press during his remarks. It's hard to think that that had nothing to do with this story out there today that is obviously following him back to Washington, on his way back as we speak. Poppy?

HARLOW: It certainly is. Jim Acosta, thank you for asking the important questions even if you got a lack of straight answers. We appreciate it.

Let's go straight to our Manu Raju. Manu, you have more information on what the president presented to White House Counsel, to Don McGahn to say, hey, these are the reasons why I think Mueller has to go. What are they?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, apparent conflicts in the mind of the president. This is according "The New York Times." They said that there were three main areas in which the president believed that there was a conflict between Bob Mueller and having to investigate the Trump campaign Russia meddling. One over a dispute from when Bob Mueller was the FBI director, dispute over fees at the Trump National Golf Club, and out of Sterling, Virginia, another the fact that Bob Mueller worked at the law firm that had actually represented his son-in-law Jared Kushner and, third, the president had interviewed Bob Mueller to be FBI director after James Comey was fired from that position. Incidentally, he was interviewed for that job the day before Mueller was appointed special counsel by the deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein.

Now, these suggestions were rejected by Don McGahn, the White House counsel who did not want to go over -- go through the order to fire Bob Mueller, threatened to resign if the president did move in this direction. And that's one reason apparently why the president backed off. And I can tell you, Poppy, on Capitol Hill if those were his stated reasons.

[10:05:02] If he carried through with them, most Republicans would have pushed back pretty furiously against it, including Senator Lindsey Graham, who at that time told me that it would be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency if he continued down that path. So clearly this is not enough to sell Don McGahn on it. It wouldn't have been enough to sell many Republicans in his own party.

HARLOW: I mean that is a fascinating and important point. This is sort of the red line that almost all of the Republicans have drawn and said that is where you can't go, Mr. President. We do have response from the White House on this. Ty Cobb, one of the president's lawyers, it is not a denial.

RAJU: Yes, that's right. Ty Cobb is not denying that this happened. In fact, they're saying that they want to work with the special counsel. And the president, even though he said today this is all fake news, that is not what the White House's message was last night.

Also, Poppy, one of the president's other attorneys, his personal attorney, John Dowd, told our Gloria Borger yesterday that he would not - he's not made a final decision about whether or not he would sit down with Robert Mueller as part of this investigation. In fact, Dowd telling Gloria that it is ultimately Dowd's decision on whether or not he will -- the president will sit down with Bob Mueller. This, despite the president, himself, saying before he left to Davos that he would be willing to sit down with Bob Mueller, do it under oath, under the advice of his attorneys, but clearly, some of his attorneys may not be there yet. They're saying those negotiations are still ongoing. Poppy?

HARLOW: Can't imagine what are those questions would be, did you try to fire me? We'll see. Manu Raju, thank you.

Let's break it down a bit further. Here now our CNN legal and national security analyst Asha Rangappa. There is so much to get through here legally. But let me use your expertise for this first. And that is, how does or does this now change Mueller's investigation on the obstruction of justice front?

ASHA RANGAPPA, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Look Poppy, I don't think it changes it as much as potentially strengthens it. Again, Mueller's main challenge here is to prove in his obstruction case that the president fired Comey with corrupt intent. Absent the president, you know, confessing to this, he has to kind of create that through circumstantial evidence and a pattern of behavior can go towards that. And this adds to the pattern of behavior. We know that he asked Comey for loyalty, asked him to layoff of Flynn, asked McGahn to get Sessions to not recuse, put pressure on the CIA and NSA. So this is just one more thing and quite a strong thing that adds to that pattern of behavior.

HARLOW: But can you speak to intent versus actually carrying something out? Because there is a lot of talk this morning about whether Don McGahn, the White House counsel, saved this presidency, saved President Trump by saying no, and refusing to fire. Does it matter if the action was taken or just the intent to do it and the request to do it?

RANGAPPA: Right. So when you have a crime, you have to have what's called an actus reus, a bad act, and then you have to have what's called mens rea, which is the bad motive. Here, the act that Mueller is probably looking at is the firing of James Comey. You might see some analysts saying that, you know, even wanting to fire Mueller or he fired Mueller would be itself an act of obstruction, maybe, but I think what it does is it bolsters a case of what was going through his mind when he fired James Comey because even after Comey he wanted this investigation to go away, even if he didn't ultimately fire Mueller.

HARLOW: Right, which is one of the reasons he was so furious with the Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation which led to Rod Rosenstein hiring Mueller to do this. Look, we know the position of the White House from what another White House attorney John Dowd told Axios a few months ago, which is that the president cannot obstruct justice because he is the president and Dowd argues that, you know, a protection from Article II the Constitution. The Constitution doesn't lay this out. I mean this would have to go through the courts all the way up potentially to the Supreme Court, right, whether the president can obstruct justice.

RANGAPPA: Right, Poppy. This is actually kind of a tricky area because what is happening is the quote/unquote "bad act" actually overlaps with something that he otherwise has authority to do, OK? He can hire and fire his executive officers. This is why motive matters. When the president -- if the president abuses his power by doing things that he could do for things -- for reasons that are unethical, self-serving, nepotistic, they can become criminal. You know the president has vast power. The president could launch a nuclear war. It doesn't mean that it's ethical, wise or just if he does it without any provocation for example. So, we are in a tricky area and that's why the motive matters so much in this particular case.

[10:10:06] HARLOW: Asha Rangappa, appreciate the legal expertise. We certainly needed it this morning. Thanks again. Have a good weekend.

So this morning, also, new reports of frustration, anger and annoyance in the West Wing. Sources tell CNN, President Trump is growing more and more aggravated with his chief of staff John Kelly because he thinks he's being undermined.

Our Kaitlan Collins broke the news. She joins us now. If you ask them, everything is Kumbaya, everything is fine. That is not what you're reporting.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Even the president has publicly insisted that everything is fine. But let me give you a brief rundown of what happened Wednesday night before the president left for Switzerland. John Kelly was holding an immigration briefing with reporters in his office. The president comes down the hallway, opens the entire thing, starts taking questions and really steals the show from John Kelly. And then after that briefing he did what one source described as putting John Kelly in a box, because he feels like Kelly is undermining him more and more every day.

And that is significant because it shows the tensions between these two men and how they're starting to flare up between this very freewheeling president, this very structured chief of staff and we're really seeing the tension between the two of them come to the head and one source said the president dropping in on that briefing was a warning shot to Kelly to show him that Trump is still the boss here, he's still the one in charge, because he cannot stand when staffers get credit for his accomplishments or seem like they're managing him. And that is the narrative that Kelly is managing Trump here.

HARLOW: He also -- one of the things that stood out to me so much from your reporting is this feeling that your sources say the president has that Kelly is only there to protect the country from the president. I mean if that's what the president believes, how is this a sustainable relationship.

COLLINS: Exactly. It is not sustainable. It is a very stunning thing for a chief of staff to feel that sentiment toward the president. But people in the White House also feel that Kelly is very dismissive of Trump when Trump is out of ear shot and when he's around lawmakers on Capitol Hill, or other cabinet secretaries and what not. But this could -- there is also a movie we have seen before where the president and his chief of staff, he doesn't liking to be managed, it is a terrible position to be in, no one can do it successfully with the president and have it come away what they don't look like what they're managing him here.

HARLOW: So your take away, Kelly is there to stay or his days are numbered?

COLLINS: So I don't think this means that Kelly is on the chopping block. That he's going to be replaced next week or anything. Because we have seen as a pattern in the past, when the president gets frustrated with someone, he keeps them around and later on will push them out after several months of publicly going after them or as you saw Kelly on Fox News said that the president has evolved on his views on immigration. And then president quickly got on Twitter and said no, that hasn't happened. So I think we'll likely see more and more of these tensions become public.

HARLOW: Kaitlan Collins, important reporting. Thank you very, very much.

So the president touts the U.S. economy, the Trump economy, and Davos, Switzerland on the world stage this morning. He said if his competitor in the election would have won, Democrats, the stock market would be down 50 percent. We're going to fact check that.

Also, Dreamers, and a path to citizenship, the White House has now laid out its hopes for immigration reform and it gives a path to citizenship for 1.8 million Dreamers. Can Congress get behind it?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[10:17:19] HARLOW: This morning, the president is not directly answering the question, he's just saying fake news to multiple reports including our reporting that he tried to fire Special Counsel Bob Mueller last June. That's what sources tell us. The White House attorney, though, when asked about that, did not dismiss it, did not deny it. And we know Don McGahn didn't carry through with the president's request to fire Mueller.

Let's talk about the implications here, what happens next. Our senior political analyst, Mark Preston is with us, CNN political commentators Mary Katharine Ham and Alice Stewart, nice to have you all here.

Mark Preston, this is not just our reporting. This is "The New York Times" first broke the story. This is multiple outlets, the president asked about it this morning in Davos. He doesn't say no, I never did this, he just again brushes it off as fake news, which we can translate too often news he just doesn't like.

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, no doubt. And I think as we try to put this in perspective for everybody out there and some folks might not have heard about this. They could have gone to bed a little bit early last night and they just heard about it now.

Couple of things that are important, one, four sources told "The New York Times" who broke this story about this incident. And then of course as you mentioned, CNN, "Washington Post," many other outlets have since confirmed it. So there is there, there. There's no question about that.

And I do think that it is important that you can't keep on explaining away bad news by calling it fake news. And he's been doing that to great success, certainly with his base. But I do think his base needs to wake up a little bit. And I'm not saying he's guilty of anything. But I do think that you need to follow the evidence and the base needs to take off the blinders and just find out what is really going on right now.

HARLOW: Alice, what do you make of the responses we have heard from the White House so far because Ty Cobb, White House attorney, asked about it last night, didn't deny it. He told our Gloria Borger, look, out of respect for the investigation, I'm not - you know we're not weighing in on this. Jim Acosta went to Rex Tillerson there in Davos and Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, said I know nothing about it. What are you hearing about inside the White House on it this morning?

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: There is a great likelihood and from all understanding is that there are some folks within the White House upper levels of the administration were never told directly about this interaction between the president and his legal advisers. So when they were asked by the media, about this, whether or not the president did ask for Mueller to be fired, they said no, because they were not aware of that. And that's very high likelihood. That happens a lot when I worked in the administrations there are certain things that don't get passed on, simply because a conversation was made, a request by the president or the governor or whoever was made to legal advisers. The request was denied. And it never went outside the room. So it is very highly likely that those that have been asked about this were not made aware of it and didn't know. That's why there have been a lot of denials.

[10:20:04] But I do think while this very problematic and I think it raises the question of whether the president made this decision based on the political fallout or his respect for the rule of law. I think this is a lot of talk and now very well sourced story about potential political fallout that never happens. So I think we need to keep that in mind. I think I understand where there are the legal questions, but in the end of the day, this didn't happen with regard to Mueller being let go.

HARLOW: But Mary Katharine, I mean, intent is important as well. Not just legally but just politically. How do you see it? Saying look it didn't happen, how do you see it this morning?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: In the end, we are talking about a thing that did not happen. Had it happened, it would have been a very bad thing, but I don't want to go too far down the road of prosecuting crimes of the president. Look, this is well sourced. He basically wants to fire everyone at some point. Some of those implications are more problematic than others. This would be one of the more problematic instances. But in this case, he talked to McGahn, McGahn said this is a bad idea and then he backed off. So --

HARLOW: Wait. Wait. But Mary Katharine, the reporting is not just that McGahn said this was a bad idea. He backed off that McGahn had to threaten to resign and quit over it.

HAM: Yes, because it is Trump. This is who he is. I mean I'm just like -- I'm sort of tired of acting surprised by any of this. This is part of it. But, look, there are bad implications here, but they're implications because the actual action did not happen.

HARLOW: Let's listen - Mark, hold that thought. I just want people to hear from the president himself when he was directly asked two months after this exchange with Don McGahn asking McGahn to fire Mueller. Two months later a journalist asked the president, you know, might you fire Mueller? Here is what the president said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Mr. President, you thought about or considered leading to the dismissal of special counsel. Is there anything that Bob Mueller could do that would send you in that direction?

TRUMP: I haven't given it any thought. I've been reading about it from you people. You say I'm going to dismiss him. No, I'm not dismissing anybody.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: Mark.

PRESTON: A couple of things. One is of course, it didn't happen, and Robert Mueller is still leading the investigation. But I do think it is important as intent -- is very much front and center here and there is a pattern. We saw him fire the FBI director because he didn't, you know, like the fact of how he was pursuing the investigation. He wanted Jeff Sessions fired because, eventually did not accept his resignation when Jeff Sessions offered it, because he didn't like the fact that Jeff Sessions recused himself from the investigation.

What is important here, I think, is that President Trump wants loyalty to himself and not necessarily to the country. And when we take a step back, and look at how this is affecting everything, we are going to roll into right now two weeks of another government shutdown and effort to try to fix the immigration system. At the same time you're going to have the extremely dark cloud hovering over President Trump and it is all because of himself. It is his own fault.

(CROSSTALK)

HARLOW: And -- not heading toward another government shutdown. Alice?

STEWART: Poppy, just one quick thing on that, you know another self- inflicted wound I believe by the president. I'm not saying - may not be consequences for the results of this report that came out. This gives Robert Mueller more ammunition to build the case for a potential obstruction of justice. So I'm not saying that nothing will come of this. I'm just saying the good thing is that he didn't do it. But I'm not saying that the president not going to face fallout from it.

HAM: I also - I also agree with Mark that what he's looking for is personal loyalty. That is a pattern that we see. But it does seem a bit of a catch-22 for the president that it counts against him when he doesn't fire someone and it counts against him when he does fire someone.

HARLOW: What do you mean, Mary Katharine?

HAM: Like, because, Sessions was not dismissed. And Mueller was not dismissed. On the other hand, Comey was. That is reflected -- that reflects by the president, but also when people are not fired, that reflects badly on the president. -- He can have the thought he wants the loyalty and make the right decision in the end. -- But it is a material -

(CROSSTALK)

HARLOW: Sure but a material difference between not firing someone and never saying you even want them fired, there is a big difference between that, right, Mary Katharine, and then going to the man who could fire Mueller and saying do this.

HAM: Yes, except that he didn't, OK? But -

HARLOW: I hear what you're saying. He didn't follow through on the firing, but he went to McGahn and asked for it. Let me just ask you this Mary Katharine --

HAM: Comey and Mueller are not materially the same thing because one of them is gone and one of them is not.

HARLOW: I hear you. So what about Republicans, Mary Katharine, in terms of responding? You know what Lindsey Graham said a few months ago, like this would be the red line. This would be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency. How should Republicans, how do you expect more Republicans, you know they'll be asked about this, one canceled on our show this morning, but that would be my first question to him. How should they be responding to this reporting?

HAM: I mean they're likely breathing a sigh of relief that he did not follow through on it. And I think they could answer the question by saying I'm glad he did not follow through on this. That would be my answer.

[10:25:03] HARLOW: Let me ask you, Mark Preston, briefly about Kaitlan Collins fascinating reporting that John Kelly, chief of staff and the president are growing further and further apart and some stunning parts of it that the president walking into John Kelly's meeting this week with those reporters on immigration and sort of taking over was a warning shot to Kelly. And that the president believes, according to her reporting. That Kelly is in this position to try to protect the country from him.

PRESTON: Well, very much so. And I know people within the administration who hold those views as well. That's why they haven't left. Because they feel like it is their duty to try to keep the ship from sinking, so to speak. But again, it goes back to the idea of loyalty, personal loyalty. If you do not do what President Trump thinks -- he thinks is the right thing to do, then you're on the other side of him.

Now, there has been a lot of criticism of John Kelly for how he's been handling his office, but you got to give him credit for at least reining in President Trump as best he can. And you only have to go back to the immigration negotiations that we saw rather than the government shutdown negotiations with the immigration added to it over this past weekend. We didn't hear very much from Trump at all and you probably have to put that at the doorstep of John Kelly which, again, we saw the government open very quickly. HARLOW: All right -- I'm so sorry we have to leave it there, time. Alice should be first next time. We appreciate it. Mark Preston, Alice Stewart, Mary Katharine Ham.

So the president has put forth the White House, their hopes for an immigration deal and laid them out point by point. 1.8 million people, on a path to citizenship in this country, says the White House, if you give us $25 billion for the border wall and more. Can a president get his base on board with this next?

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