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Daniels Lawyer: Trump/Cohen Statements Don't Match; Sessions Won't Say If He Has Recused Himself from Cohen Probe; Trump Won't Be Involved with Justice Department But "May Change My Mind"; House Committee Grills Pruitt Amid 10 I.G. Investigations. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired April 26, 2018 - 11:30   ET


[11:30:00] MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: And Avenatti's point is well taken because what he is going to say is there are contradictory statements from the president of the United States and the only way we can reconcile them is for me to take testimony from him in the form of a deposition. I think it adds fuel to what Avenatti wants, which is testimony from the president under oath. So, yes, it does, Kate, I think help him in that respect.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: I get to say this again, and there is more. If you could all continue to roll with me.

We have new information coming in. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the Hill as well, speaking about, being asked about this morning the Michael Cohen case. We'll have that for you right after the break.


BOLDUAN: All right, we're following more breaking news, from Capitol Hill this time. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a House hearing just now was asked about his refusal to recuse himself from the Michael Cohen investigation. That happened yesterday, what he said. Today, listen to how he says it today.


[11:35:01] REP. NITA LOWEY, (D), NEW YORK: Attorney General Sessions, you recused yourself from the Russia investigation led by Special Counsel Mueller. However, it is my understanding that this week you decided not to recuse yourself from the investigation of President Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. The investigation into Mr. Cohen was opened, in part, on a referral from Mueller's team. In fact, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein approved an FBI raid of Mr. Cohen's home, office and hotel room. We know that President Trump had a strong reaction to the raids, denouncing them, quote, "as an attack on what we all stand for." He took that opportunity to reiterate what a terrible mistake it was for you to recuse yourself from the Russia investigation. I'm a little puzzled. Why have you decided not to recuse yourself from the Cohen investigation when it appears to be so closely linked, if not rooted in the Russian investigation?

JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Presumably, you read that in the media somewhere. Media often --



SESSIONS: -- is often inaccurate. And much of what I see in the print is inaccurate.

Let me just say this quite clearly to you, I will honor the commitment I made to recuse myself from matters that I should recuse myself from. And I intend to do that faithfully. I made that commitment and I have done so. I have not violated any commitment in that regard. I'm not able to comment about any ongoing investigation or investigations certainly that are within the ambit of the special counsel.

LOWEY: Well, I appreciate your response. I'll assume that the news reports are not true, and you have not recused yourself from this investigation, and you have not decided that you will not recuse yourself from the investigation into President Trump's personal lawyer. But I will --


SESSIONS: I'm just not able to discuss any of the details because of the policy of the department, I think, is correct, that when you start talking about matters detailed and you're talking about investigations and policy is not to discuss investigations until it is appropriate.


BOLDUAN: That clear it all up?

Let me bring back the panel now. Walter, Nia, Dan and Michael are back with me.

Walter, let me ask you, because this is a key question. You heard what Jeff Sessions said there. Yesterday, in another hearing, Jeff Sessions was asked, would you recuse if the Cohen investigation overlapped with the -- with the allegations of Russian interference, anything related to the 2016 election involving Michael Cohen, and he said yes. Today, he didn't want to say anything.

WALTER SHAUB, FORMER DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF GOVERNMENT ETHICS: Yes. It is interesting that he now says that he can't comment publicly on recusals because he commented publicly on his recusal from the Mueller investigation.

He is right in one respect, though, that if there is overlap, he has to recuse. The nature of the criminal conflict of interest statute, you have to recuse from the entire particular mat, not from part of it. He doesn't get to pick and choose parts that he thinks don't affect his interests. The question boils down to, is it the same investigation? And so if he does not recuse, it is a statement that the Cohen matter is unrelated to the Mueller investigation. But if it is related, he has to recuse, and a failure to do so would be a violation of a criminal statute. DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Walter is so

understandably looking at the rules and facts and sort of the protocols. Let's talk turkey here. The reason Jeff Sessions did not --



BASH: -- did not --

BOLDUAN: Let's talk turkey. Let's talk.

BASH: There you go -- did not say, yes, he will recuse himself. And the reason he twisted himself into a rhetorical pretzel there is because the president of the United States is still and always will be livid at him for recusing himself from the Mueller probe -- from Russia, which then ended up in a special counsel and the name of Robert Mueller. Not just that, you talked earlier about the things the president said on FOX this morning. One was going after his own Justice Department, that means Jeff Sessions, he's the attorney general, he's the head of it. And saying there are people there that shouldn't be there. I mean, it doesn't take a lot to figure out who he's talking about. And that is Jeff Sessions, who he said over and over again he would love to get rid of because he's so angry at him for the original sin, in his mind, in all of this.

BOLDUAN: This all fits together.

Nia, before I get to you, let's play a little bit of what President Trump said this morning about the Justice Department.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES (voice-over): They have a witch-hunt against the president of the United States going on. I've taken the position, and I don't have to take this position, and maybe I'll change, that I will not be involved with the Justice Department. I will wait until this is over. It is a total -- it is all lies. And it's a horrible thing that is going on, a horrible thing. So I'm very disappointed in my Justice Department. But because of the fact that it is going on -- and I think you'll understand this -- I have decided that I won't be involved. I may change my mind at some point because what is going on is a disgrace. It is an absolute disgrace.


[11:40:38] BOLDUAN: Nia, I might change my mind at some point with regard to getting involved with the Justice Department. What do you think he's threatening here?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICS REPORTER: I mean, I think we know what he's threatening. In some ways what he's been threatening all along, to remove Jeff Sessions. And Dana talks about this, this idea that he remains apoplectic at the fact that Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation. So that's why he's talking about it's a disgrace. We know he's been disparaging about Jeff Sessions both publicly in terms of what he said there in that interview, on Twitter, all sorts of things, privately, apparently, calling him Mr. Magoo also. There he was, again, full of anger at Jeff Sessions. And I imagine -- Dana is right -- there was Jeff Sessions during that testimony essentially saying -- not really wanting to comment on whether or not he's recused himself on that investigation. But you even wonder if that will satisfy the president because he seems so upstanding and wanting to follow regulations there, and that is what has put him in hot water with this president. The president continuing to dangle this idea of removing Jeff Sessions. Essentially, stay tuned. He's been good so far, that not meddling in the Justice Department, Donald Trump said, but that might not continue because of what he says is this continuous witch-hunt at his Justice Department.

BOLDUAN: Guys, stand by.

Michael, hold on, one second.

We're going to get in a quick break. We have a lot more news coming at us at the other side. Stick with us. We'll be right back.


[11:46:32] BOLDUAN: Looking at live pictures from Capitol Hill. Breaking news is embattled EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, he's still sitting in the hot seat right now on Capitol Hill. Members of the House committee grilling him on a long list of allegations that he's facing, from first-class travel to 24-hour security detail to huge raises for close aides. That's just some of it he's facing in all 10 investigations by the EPA inspector general. Pruitt today defending himself against all of it.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is at the White House. Rene Marsh in on Capitol Hill.

Rene, first to you, though.

How is Scott Pruitt defending himself?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION & GOVERNMENT REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: He is. I will say he's coming out swinging here. We're over an hour and a half into this hearing and the chairman of the subcommittee started out saying, look, these allegations, they're disturbing, we won't ignore them. The Democrats opened up saying, we want you to resign. And Pruitt opened up saying he's blaming the media and that these headlines are half-truths, and it is only an effort to undermine the president's agenda.

Keep in mind, this whole hearing is about the EPA's budget and they're discussing this a bit. But a large portion of this is about those ethical questions, those issues, those negative headlines facing Scott Pruitt. Everything from the sweetheart condo deal where he stayed at this condo that belonged to a lobbyist, who also happened to be a friend, also about those pay raises for two EPA employees, which we have reporting that the White House was not on board with giving those employees raises, but Pruitt or the EPA gave them those raises anyway. He was asked about that, again. Remember, in that FOX News interview, he denied knowing anything about those raises.

The issue came up today and it seemed like a slightly different story. He wouldn't go that far saying he didn't know about the raises, he only said today that he didn't know about the amounts. Take a listen.


REP. PAUL TONKO, (D), NEW YORK: Did you, administrator, authorize Mr. Jackson to sign the documents for you?

SCOTT PRUITT, EPA SECRETARY: Congressman, those were delegated to Mr. Jackson and the inspector general did reference that in his management alert.


TONKO: So he -- you did authorize him to sign them?

PRUITT: Those decisions -- that decision was made by --


TONKO: Yes or no?

PRUITT: There are delegations given that authority.

TONKO: So that's a yes?


PRUITT: The inspector general recognized that, Congressman.

TONKO: So you authorized Mr. Jackson to sign those documents for you. In internal e-mails, Sarah Greenwalt, one of the aide who received a substantial raise, stated you were aware of and supported the raises. Was that true?

PRUITT: I think with respect to the raises --


TONKO: Was that true?

PRUITT: Congressman --


TONKO: I have five minutes, so I have to move along. Was that true?

PRUITT: I was not aware of the amount, nor was I --


TONKO: Not the amount. Were you aware of the raises?

PRUITT: I was not aware of the amount, nor was I aware of the bypassing for the PPO process not being respected.


MARSH: OK. But he told FOX News he didn't know about the raises at all. Didn't say that again today.

Interesting to note, Pruitt did not accept the help -- he turned down the help of the White House to prep for this hearing. We're being told that it is because his team believes that there are members within the administration who are trying to essentially undermine him and get rid of him. I can tell you that, at this point, it is do or die, most likely, for Pruitt as far as his performance in this hearing. It could very well determine what happens to him next -- Kate?

[11:50:02] BOLDUAN: All right, Rene, thank you.

That hearing is still going on right now.

Let me get over to Kaitlan Collins over at the White House.

Kaitlan, this is where your expertise is coming in, this is what you're picking up. Why did Pruitt not ask for hearing help or accept any hearing prep from the White House?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: That's because he believes people in this administration are actively trying to push him out of his position at the EPA. And that's why they rejected those offers from the White House to help prepare for this grilling, because they believe that any information during that press session would leak. Now, of course, they were also frustrated after it was reported that the White House was telling lawmakers on Capitol Hill that they didn't have to defend him as adamantly as they had been. Of course, this all comes as Scott Pruitt has lost the confidence of senior staffers here at the White House, including John Kelly, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, also most other senior staffers who do not believe that these probes into his physical activities will exonerate him here -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Kaitlan, thank you so much.

Rene, thank you so much.

Let's discuss this, as Scott Pruitt continues this grilling on Capitol Hill. Back with me, my panel is here.

Walter, as you were watching Scott Pruitt on Capitol Hill in his opening statement and beyond, if his goal today was to set the record straight, as he said, say fiction is fiction, and say a lot of what was being said are half-truths or even worse, and to say that this isn't going to get in the way going forward, mission accomplished, do you think?

SHAUB: I think he's actually come off kind of badly because he really dodged a lot of questions. In that excerpt that you played, you noticed the passage of construction of language, "I was unaware of the bypassing of the PPO process." He's referring to the presidential personnel office that had rejected his request to promote them. That makes no sense if he was aware of the raises. That is the bypassing. In fact, these raises were not really just raises, they were taking somebody off of one appointment authority, basically quitting one job and getting put in a new job, that you could only get put in under special legal authority that required the administrator himself to approve it. Now, it's possible that, as he says, he had delegated some authority to the chief of staff to do whatever the chief of staff wanted, but it's just completely implausible that anybody would think this action would have happened without his knowledge, particularly because he had been campaigning for raises for them at PPO. And I think he moved toward kind of admitting that, but the fact he did it in a squirrely way I think hurts him a little bit. That was true of a few answers. He does, however, have some fans on the committee, not all of them, but a few, who tried to turn this essentially into a pep rally for deregulation. The problem, though, is that sends the message that, if we like you, ethics doesn't matter. That's a problem, because ethics should matter.

BOLDUAN: One example I thought was interesting, I think it was Joe Barton, who asked, is flying first class illegal?


He said, no, it's not illegal. I think that misses the point when you're facing an ethics question.

But, Dana, I regress. Dana, here's the key. As Kaitlan was saying, her sources are saying he's losing the confidence of senior people at the White House, but it doesn't sound like he's lost the confidence of the one person that matters in the White House, the president.

BASH: That's right.

BOLDUAN: So when it's all said and done, is that the only thing that matters for Scott Pruitt?

BASH: It's absolutely the only thing that matters. It seems to me, according our reporting, if it were up to many, and I would go so far as to say most of the senior people around Donald Trump, Scott Pruitt would have been gone long ago. Ten I.G. investigations?


BASH: I mean, 10? It's a big deal when there's one. It's pretty remarkable.

And let's also look at the politics of this. The idea of somebody like this, with all of these allegations, being in the president's cabinet and the president holding on for dear life to him, is not helpful, to say the least, to the Republicans who are on the ballot in November. Especially when they're facing voters, many of whom supported Donald Trump because he promised to drain the swamp. He promised things would be different. He promised he would be a disruptor. And even just one or two of the allegations against Scott Pruitt are classic "Washington is above it all." I'm -- I'm -- I don't follow the rules.

HENDERSON: It is. Right.

BASH: And so it sort of adds to that atmosphere and that kind of sort of "are you kidding me" factor that is really hard to explain to voters.


BASH: And, yes, as Walter was saying, there are a lot of conservatives who want to look the other way because he is delivering on deregulation on EPA issues. But it's a question of how far they're willing to go. A lot of people will do that.

BOLDUAN: Give me your take on it. Where do you think Scott Pruitt stands? He's answering these questions. He's dodging some, he's answering others. What happens now?

[11:55:07] HENDERSON: We'll see. It's all up to the president. We always talk about the audience of one, and that is particularly true here. My take is that he seems like he's doing pretty well. If you've been following this closely and you're Walter Shaub, for instance, you know that your language is kind of squirrely, he's dodging questions, but he seems pretty confident, he seems to know what he's talking about. And I wonder if the president will look at this and particularly look at the Republicans who are coming to his defense and say, look, he's got Republicans who will defend him.

BOLDUAN: Honestly, maybe there's a sense of, we can't lose another cabinet member with what went down with Ronny Jackson.

Guys, thank you so much for sticking with me. I appreciate it. We covered a lot in a short time.

Moments from now, a court hearing is set to get started over the documents seized in the raid of President Trump's personal attorney, Michael Cohen. President Trump's interview, though, this morning is now playing a new and big role in this hearing.

John King picks up after a quick break.