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Did President Trump Ask Deputy Attorney General for Loyalty?; Sources: Trump Asked Rosenstein If He Was "On My Team". Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired January 31, 2018 - 4:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with a major development in the Russia investigation, one that assuredly will be of great interest to special counsel Robert Mueller as he investigates whether or not the president of the United States, Donald Trump, attempted to obstruct justice in the Russia investigation.

CNN is breaking news about a meeting in December between President Trump and the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, the Justice Department official supervising the Mueller probe.

Sources say that Rosenstein visited the White House seeking President Trump's support in fighting off document requests from Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee in what Democrats say is an attempt to undermine the FBI and, more broadly, the Mueller investigation.

But, according to our sources, President Trump was more concerned with other issues, such as Rod Rosenstein's loyalty.

CNN's Evan Perez and Pamela Brown join me. They're breaking this story.

Pamela, the deputy attorney general went to the White House and then what happened?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: So this was a meeting in December between President Trump and Rod Rosenstein.

Don McGahn, White House counsel, was also there, we're told. And at the time intent of this meeting was Rosenstein asking for the president's help to block document demands from House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes.

But sources familiar with this meeting tell us that the president had other things on his mind ahead of Rosenstein's upcoming testimony before a House committee. You may recall the testimony back last December. The president asked Rosenstein where he thought the investigation of links between Russians and his campaign was headed.

And he went on to ask whether Rosenstein was -- quote -- "on my team."

As a reminder, Rosenstein oversees Mueller's investigation, the Russia investigation.

But this is only the latest episode to come to light portraying a president who often asks questions that sometimes crosses a line that presidents traditionally have tried to avoid when dealing with the Justice Department.

But this exchange could raise further questions about whether Trump was seeking to interfere in the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, who was looking into potential collusion by the Trump campaign and obstruction of justice by the White House, Jake.

TAPPER: It's shocking. So the president, according to your sources, asked Rosenstein where the Russia investigation was heading and asked him if he was on his team, asked him for essentially a loyalty oath.

Evan Perez, the former FBI Director James Comey has testified that the president asked him for his loyalty. Did Rosenstein think this was a similar request?


We're told that Rosenstein appeared surprised by the president's comments and his questions. He didn't provide any details about the direction of the Russia investigation, but he responded awkwardly to the president's team request.

He said: "Of course, we're all on your team, Mr. President."

Now, at that December hearing shortly after this White House meeting that we're talking about, Rosenstein was asked about loyalty pledges. Here's what he had to say.


REP. HAKEEM JEFFRIES (D), NEW YORK: Is it ever appropriate for the president of the United States to demand an Department of Justice official or FBI director or take a loyalty pledge?

ROD ROSENSTEIN, U.S. DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: I don't have any opinion about that, Congressman. Nobody has asked me to take a loyalty pledge, other than oath of office.


PEREZ: So at that hearing, Rosenstein was also telling lawmakers that -- quote -- "As long as you're following your oath of office, you can also be faithful to the administration."

The Justice Department declined to comment on this and the White House hasn't gotten back to us, Jake, on this. We asked them for comment. But, clearly, he was uncomfortable with these types of questions and you can see where he's struggling to tell lawmakers that he can be both loyal obviously to his oath of office while being part of this administration.

TAPPER: I suppose a lawyer could figure out a way to make it technically true that somebody asking if you have loyalty and making a loyalty request are not exactly the same thing.

Pamela, your reporting shows that the president seemed particularly focused on that December hearing. Tell us more about that.

BROWN: That's right.

In fact, the president brought up the upcoming hearing during that White House meeting with Rod Rosenstein. One source told us that the president went so far as to suggest questions, specific questions, to members of Congress that they could then ask Rosenstein during the hearing.

One line of inquiry the president proposed lawmakers asked about was whether Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 election because Mueller was not selected as the FBI director.

Now, CNN has previously reported that President Trump has been venting to his aides about Rosenstein in recent weeks and even raised the possibility of firing him. And sources tell us that President Trump believed Rosenstein was upset that Mueller was not selected as the FBI director and responded to that by making him special counsel.

It does not appear though that the questions the president tried plant with members of Congress were ever asked at that hearing in December, Jake.


TAPPER: OK, now, Evan, I'm no lawyer, but it would seem that since we know that it seems like Mueller is looking into getting evidence and hearing testimony about whether or not the president obstructed justice by firing Comey, by threatening to fire Mueller, by expressing frustrations with Rosenstein, by expressing frustrations with Sessions and on and on, this might be part of that evidence for a possible obstruction of justice charge.

PEREZ: Right. I think it is naturally a question.

I think you're laying out a pattern and I think that's what prosecutors would try to do as they are trying to lay out a case. Look, we know that Rod Rosenstein -- as a matter of fact, in that hearing, talked about he and Mueller are in communication constantly. He oversees Mueller's investigation, obviously.

And so you have to think if he thought this was relevant, and certainly maybe our reporting might make it he said more relevant, that he will have to tell Mueller about this and explain what he thought about it.

I think this becomes part of that pattern that you're talking about. BROWN: And pattern. You look back. In isolation, you may think, oh, he could have been kidding. But then you look back to what James Comey claimed that he asked him for, which was a loyalty pledge.


BROWN: Andrew McCabe who he voted for, right, exactly, which could be seen as, are you on my team kind of thing.

If you look at it as a whole, I'm sure investigators, I imagine investigators will be interested in how that sort of fits into that puzzle.

TAPPER: So, theoretically, a president could say, whatever do you with the Russian investigation, just get to the truth. Find out the truthful, not, are you on my team?

PEREZ: Right.

BROWN: And, traditionally, there's supposed to be a certain protocol between the Justice Department and the White House.

And you're dealing with a situation here where Rod Rosenstein is overseeing the Russia probe and the president and his campaign is part of that probe. Those two are not supposed to be having a conversation about that investigation.

TAPPER: Great reporting. Pamela, Evan, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Last night at the State of the Union, the president called for Washington to -- quote -- "seek out common ground and summon unity."

But about six minutes after President Trump finished that speech, he was caught on a hot mic reassuring a House Republican that he would release a controversial memo written by House Republicans accusing the FBI of surveillance abuses against the Trump team.

This memo drafted by the House Intelligence Committee Republican staff, led by Congressman Devin Nunes, is perhaps the most contentious partisan issue on Capitol Hill right now.

Democrats say the information is cherry-picked, it's misleading. They say it is a memo with one purpose, to smear the FBI and undermine the Mueller investigation. Republicans conversely say that a Trump campaign adviser's civil liberties may have been violated and transparency must rule the day.

Regardless of the president's State of the Union theme of unity, on this issue, he is clearly not seeking common ground. Take a listen.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's release the memo.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Oh, yes. Don't worry, 100 percent. Can you imagine it?


TAPPER: "Let's release the memo," the Republican congressman man.

"Oh, yes. Don't worry, 100 percent," President Trump said.

But today the FBI sent a rare and stark warning to the FBI over this memo saying they have grave concerns over what is in the document and what is not in the document.

Let's bring in CNN's Shimon Prokupecz.

Shimon, this was an uncharacteristically scathing statement from the FBI.


And while privately we have heard these concerns from law enforcement officials, from people at the Department of Justice, it's rare. We did not expect a public statement from the FBI, from the FBI director challenging basically the president's position on this.

And let me read to you one of the lines here in this statement that sums up exactly what the FBI's concern here is. It says: "As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo's accuracy."

And law enforcement officials have said to us is that their concern is that this memo does not accurately portray, it does not give a full picture of what the FBI was doing in terms of the FISA and gathering of other intelligence.

Well, shortly after the FBI put out their statement, Devin Nunes responded. Here's what he said. "Having stonewalled Congress demands for information for nearly a year, it is no surprise to see the FBI and DOJ issue spurious objections to allowing the American people to see information related to surveillance abuses at these agencies. The FBI is intimately familiar with 'material omissions' with respect to their presentations to both Congress and the courts, and they are welcome to make public, to the greatest extent possible, all the information they have on these abuses."

However, the FBI cannot make all this possible, all of this public because these are FISA materials, highly classified intelligence that the FBI has gathered.


And Devin Nunes knows this. So this is an issue for the FBI. This goes to the heart of what their complaints are with this, is that it is not, that these memos do not accurately portray the entire picture.

TAPPER: Shimon Prokupecz, thank you so much.

My panel is here with me to talk about all of this.

Let's talk about the breaking news that Pam and Evan brought us, the allegations, the story that sources are telling CNN. In December, Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Russia investigation, goes to the White House, tries to beat back Devin Nunes' request for information.

But President Trump instead seems more interested on asking him where the Russia investigation is going and asking Rosenstein if he is on his team. Are you on my team?

Paul Begala, I will give you a chance and then David Urban.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: First, one wonders, did Mr. Rosenstein make notes of that conversation, right?

After James Comey was FBI director and the president asked for his loyalty, the beginning days of the Trump presidency, Comey was so disconcerted by that he made notes. I have no idea if Rosenstein did, but that's something I bet you Mr. Mueller is going to want to know right away.

Did Mr. Rosenstein or anyone else who was in that meeting make contemporaneous notes? Second, does this fit a pattern an intent to corruptly obstruct justice? If you have a situation where you ask the FBI director for his loyalty, then fired him, he asks the assistant FBI director, who did you vote for?

TAPPER: Andrew McCabe.

BEGALA: Andrew McCabe. He asked the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, and the National Security Agency ahead, Mike Rogers, would they intervene in this investigation?

He called several members of the House and Senate, asked them to stand down their investigation. You're getting a body of evidence here that the president is obsessed with Russia and trying to stop the investigation.

That's a real problem if the charges is obstruction of justice. The president is giving Mueller a whole lot of proof.

TAPPER: David?

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Nice try, Paul, but I think it is going to fall short at the end of the day.

Today's reporting by CNN here on this, there are three people in the room according to the sources here. Right? You have Don McGahn, the president and the deputy attorney general. Only those three folks know what was said or was not said.

You saw the deputy attorney general testify under oath before the Congress that he was not asked to take a loyalty pledge. You can either have it one way.

(CROSSTALK) TAPPER: Asking if he is on his team is not necessarily a loyalty pledge.

URBAN: You can either have it one way. Either Rod Rosenstein is a straight shooter, which I believe 100 percent. I don't believe he would go to Congress is that try to mislead the Congress. I don't think he would quibble about that.

I think he would come straight up with it. I think under oath he testified and he answered that question.

TAPPER: I don't understand. Are you saying this didn't happen?

URBAN: I'm saying if the deputy attorney general went under oath and testified, I would take his word for it.

TAPPER: But there are a lot of things we keep hearing from this administration that have come out and been reported that are 100 percent accurate and turn out to be 100 percent accurate.

You're saying Rod Rosenstein, because he said I was never asked to take a loyalty oath, and I don't think -- assuming that the story as Pamela and Evan were told happened as it did, I don't think that that's perjury. I think that are you on my team is not a loyalty oath.

URBAN: I think if he did say that, Paul would be on this show saying, that could be perjury. It is pretty close to a lie.

BEGALA: Sadly, I have had a lot of experience looking at what is and is not perjury.

TAPPER: This is an area of expertise for Mr. Begala.

BEGALA: And it is not.

I'm quite sure that the deputy attorney general didn't want to blow up his relationship with the president of the United States. And the question gave him enough wiggle room.

But this is what we need here. This is what's going to happen. It doesn't matter what we need. The three people -- If you're right, and three people were in that room, the president of the United States, his general counsel, his White House counsel, Mr. McGahn, and Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein.

All of them I believe will be sworn under oath, or interviewed, which carries a criminal penalty if they lie, by Mr. Mueller. Now, whether the Congress gets into it, I have no idea. But from a White House perspective, as a former White House aide, the exposure is to Mueller and the risk is obstruction of justice.

And, as I outlined before, this fits into a larger pattern. Sometimes you hear things and you go, oh, gee, that doesn't sound like him. This sounds exactly like this long pattern of Donald Trump obstructing justice. URBAN: Again, Paul, just because there's smoke doesn't mean there's


Just because some of those things may have occurred or may have not occurred doesn't mean there's actual case for obstruction. It is a long leap from those things happening to proving criminal intent and obstruction, and to forward to the House or to whomever at the end of this investigation.

TAPPER: Absolutely.

Do you believe Comey's story that the president asked him for his loyalty? And do you believe "The Washington Post" story that he asked McCabe who he voted for?

URBAN: I wasn't in there. And so I can't -- these are good reporters, right, at "The Post."

TAPPER: But you know the president. And you would agree he does care a lot about loyalty.

[16:15:00] That is an important thing for him.

URBAN: Yes. Like anybody, right? So President Clinton wanted folks on his team, wanted Paul Begala and James Carville, folks that he knew they were loyal to the team.

I'm not saying that the president doesn't value loyalty. I don't think he is reckless enough in those cases to go ahead and pull the deputy attorney general into a room and ask him that after knowing what was taking place.

I think you heard again, I'll say it again. Rod Rosenstein, a very straight guy, testified before Congress that did not occur. I take him at his word.

TAPPER: I don't know that he testified that didn't occur. He said he never was asked a loyalty oath.

URBAN: Right.

TAPPER: You guys are going to be around here, and we'll keep talking about this. We have much more to discuss.

Could releasing this memo, the Nunes memo, be a threat to national security as the FBI claims? The former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, will join me to discuss the breaking news coming up next. Stay with us.


TAPPER: And we're back with breaking news.

[16:20:00] In our politics lead, sources are telling CNN that President Trump asked the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who oversees Robert Mueller's investigation, where the investigation was headed and reportedly asked Rosenstein, quote, are you on my team?

This story was broken by Pamela Brown and Evan Perez in the last block. It's allegedly happened in a December White House meeting, according to sources.

Joining me now is the former director of national intelligence, General James Clapper.

General Clapper, thanks for being here.

Your reaction to this news. The president asking the guy in charge of supervising the Russia investigation, where is it headed and asking, are you on my team?

JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Well, it is very reminiscent, unfortunately of -- maybe not as direct for the loyalty, a pledge of loyalty that he elicited from Jim Comey. And it seems to reflect either a willful disregard or ignorance of the importance of separation of three branches of government which seem to be eroding right now. So, that's on its face is kind of disturbing.

TAPPER: Well, his supporters would say that he has every right to ask Rosenstein, his -- you know, any question because Rosenstein is part of the executive branch, not part of the legislative or judicial. But you still obviously find it inappropriate.

CLAPPER: Well, I think that's true. But I do think that the deputy, with the relationship between White House and the Department of Justice, at least historically or conventionally, and, obviously, this administration is not conventional. There's always been a difference and a sensitivity about keeping that relationship somewhat distant because the importance of the independence of the judiciary system, and the investigatory system, at least the past administration in the White House was very differential. That's not the case here.

TAPPER: So, Rosenstein makes the third top law enforcement official whom President Trump seems to have asked for loyalty one way or the other. He asked FBI Director Comey, as you mentioned, for his loyalty in an Oval Office meeting, according to Comey. President Trump denies it. Later, he asked Comey to drop the probe into national security adviser Michael Flynn whom he had fired.

We've also learned that the president asked the Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe who was shown the door earlier this week who McCabe voted for in the presidential election. So, it does seem to be fitting a pattern.

I'm not a lawyer. Does this look like obstruction of justice to you?

CLAPPER: I'm not a lawyer either. And I can't say legally or technically, whether there meets the threshold for obstruction of justice. But as a layman, it sure does.

TAPPER: Do you think that Rod Rosenstein needs to come forward and explain what happened and tell the whole story? CLAPPER: Well, obviously, that's up to him. I don't -- I frankly

don't know. I wouldn't know what to advise him right now, whether that would make the situation worse, if he could clarify how he interpreted what the president said. He may have interpreted it and that certainly is reflected in his subsequent testimony.

He may have interpreted it quite benignly. I don't think former Director Jim Comey, obviously, he didn't react -- he didn't consider it benign.

TAPPER: So, let's turn to the Nunes memo which is causing a huge --

CLAPPER: If I could, I think the point here, are you a member of the team, is different, a different nuance than a personal -- eliciting a personal pledge of loyalty and I think there's -- there could be -- there's a difference there and that may have caused Rod Rosenstein to react differently than did Jim Comey.

TAPPER: Certainly. But would you also acknowledge I'm sure that as -- it would be more comforting to know that a president said to somebody leading an investigation, well, get to the bottom of it or find the truth, as opposed to, are you on my team?

CLAPPER: Exactly. It would be I think a better course here that if the president said, we need to get to the bottom of this, whatever it is. And then, you know, you'll have my full cooperation. This would be obviously better for everybody and better for the country if that were the posture he were in.

TAPPER: Let's turn to the Nunes memo which could be released at any moment. We've heard President Trump say in a hot mic moment that he's going to have it released. The FBI said today that they have grave concerns about the memo's accuracy. We know that the FBI Director Chris Christopher Wray, a Trump appointee, has pleaded with the White House not to release it.

Do you think if the White House releases it against his wishes, the FBI director, that that could or should even prompt a resignation by Wray?

[16:25:04] CLAPPER: Well, it certainly be a very serious affront, and again, kind of an assault on the principle, of the independence of the FBI. The thing that struck me about this first, good on Director Wray for make go it, good for no other reason than to protect -- try to defend the great men and women of the FBI.

But with all the discussion in the media about potential jeopardy to sources and methods, the statement didn't say anything about that, or it dwelled on was the errors of fact by omission. And I think the fact that the FBI would put out a statement like that with that concern, rather than sources and methods and there may be sources and methods of consideration here. But to me that struck me as quite significant.

TAPPER: The allegation is that, I mean, I haven't seen the memo. But Devin Nunes and the comments seem to be the officials in the FBI who were seeking a Pfizer warrant against Carter Page, a Trump campaign adviser, relied too much on a political document that, the Christopher Steele dossier, which was funded by Democrats, even if you trust work of Christopher Steele, a former British agent, and that it was too much reliant upon that and was not disclose, and that the FISA warrant was obtained in a shady and less honest way than it should have been.

CLAPPER: Well, my experience with FISA, request for FISA authorizations is this is not a casual process. There is great rigor put into this. The basis for the request must be corroborated evidence.

And, by the way, the FISA court is not a pushover. They're not a rubber stamp. They are -- my characterization of their demeanor and the way they comport themselves is one of a respectful skepticism.

So there's a pretty high bar that you have to pass to get a FISA authorization request approved in the first place. As I understand it, this was simply an extension of the original FISA request, meaning that, or implying that, apparently there was information that was considered valuable that was being obtained via the initial FISA request.

FISAs have finite dates. In other words, they have deadlines. They aren't indefinite. So, when the time of -- was up for the initial FISA report, the FISA request, it was time to get an extension.

So, on its face, I don't -- you know, I don't know that the dossier played in this very much at all. It could be considered corroborating. By the way, although we did not include the dossier in our original assessment that we published last January --

TAPPER: Included a summary, an annex.

CLAPPER: But it was separate from it because of --

TAPPER: Right.

CLAPPER: -- we couldn't validate the sources in it.

However, some of what was in dossier was corroborated in our intelligence community assessment which was derived from other sources of information, which we have confidence. So, it shouldn't completely dismiss totally what's in the dossier.

TAPPER: Do you see --

CLAPPER: Steele was regarded as a credible and a former -- a retired professional intelligence officer in the U.K. intelligence service.

TAPPER: How damaging would the release of the Nunes be to the Mueller investigation, to the FBI? And do you agree with Democrats who are saying, this is just an attempt to destroy the FBI, to protect President Trump?

CLAPPER: Well, it certainly has that appearance, you know? It almost seems like now the chairman of the House Subcommittee for Intelligence is acting as an agent on behalf of the White House and putting out a one-party partisan memo and then refusing to allow the Democrats to publish, put out their rebuttal.

So, to me, this is -- has the appearance of purely a political stunt.

TAPPER: General Clapper, always good to see you. Thank you so much for being here. Appreciate it.

CLAPPER: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: Don't go anywhere. We have much more breaking news. In fact, a new breaking story specifically about that controversial FBI agent whom some Republicans keep holding up as an example of anti- Trump bias in the FBI. There's new information about that agent you're going to want to hear.

Stay with us.