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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Is Trump Worried About Paul Manafort?; Trump Attacks Attorney General. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired September 19, 2018 - 16:30   ET

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


[16:30:03]

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: CNN's justice correspondent, Jessica Schneider, is here.

So, Jessica, the attorney general is, of course, the president's handpicked chief law enforcement officer.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He is, Erica.

But despite the fact that the president chose Jeff Sessions, he has criticized his attorney general repeatedly. So the last time President Trump lashed out was the end of August. And after that, prominent Republicans, like senators Lindsey Graham and Chuck Grassley, they indicated that perhaps Sessions would be replaced after the midterms.

Well, that seemed to quiet the president down, that is, until the last 24 hours.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): A new twist to President Trump's attacks on his attorney general.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm disappointed in the attorney general for numerous reasons.

SCHNEIDER: Those comments on the South Lawn come after a scathing interview with "The Hill," where the president berated Sessions repeatedly, saying: "I don't have an attorney general. It's very sad."

Then criticized the way Sessions handled his nomination hearings back in early 2017, telling "The Hill": "He did very poorly. I mean, he was mixed up and confused. He was giving very confusing answers, answers that should have been easily answered."

But the real grudge still seems to be Sessions' recusal from the Russia investigation. "He gets in and probably because of the experience that he had going through the nominating, when somebody asked him the first question about Hillary Clinton or something, he said, I recuse myself, I recuse myself."

The president has repeatedly pressed the Justice Department to investigate Hillary Clinton and her use of a private e-mail server. Sessions stayed silent today about Trump's latest attack at an event in Illinois, but just last month let this statement speak for itself, saying: "The actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations."

The assault on Sessions comes at the same time the White House has demanded more redactions from the FISA warrant on former Trump campaign aid Carter Page and the release of text messages from former officials once involved in the Russia investigation.

TRUMP: What I want is, I want total transparency. This is a witch- hunt.

SCHNEIDER: The broad declassification order is unprecedented. Some of the documents had already been declassified. And while the president can order further releases, former CIA Chief Michael Hayden reacted with alarm.

GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN (RET.), CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It is breathtaking. It is chilling to see such raw politics inserted.

SCHNEIDER: And Hayden said if it comes to the point sources and methods could be compromised, officials like FBI Director Chris Wray and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats should resign.

HAYDEN: It's just wrong, though, that he exercises the authority in this way, that the right thing for them to do to signal the alarm, to send up the flare is to simply say, if you want this done, Mr. President, it's going to have to be done by someone else.

We may be getting close to that point.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: And right now the Justice Department and the FBI are working with the director of national intelligence to prepare those new versions of the requested documents, complete with those additional redactions.

Now after that the president can then order the agencies to make fewer redactions or he can order them released, but, Erica, already, as you can see, this ongoing process has really caused a lot of concerns -- Erica.

HILL: Jessica Schneider with the latest for us, Jessica, thank you.

Joining me now, CNN senior legal analyst Preet Bharara, former U.S. attorney, of course, for the Southern District of New York.

Good to have you here.

What advice would you give Attorney General Jeff Sessions today? It's not the first time the president has attacked him, as we know?

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: It's not.

I think it's maybe the 100th or the 200th.

HILL: I have lost count.

BHARARA: No, but the interesting thing is, the president doesn't just attack him in a substantive way. He mocks him, he humiliates him.

It's become almost a painful thing for people to watch. It must be a painful thing for the 100,000 career lawyers and staff members of the Justice Department to see their boss, the head of the most important law enforcement entity in the world, be mocked and ridiculed like that.

And it seems to be emanating all from a place where Donald Trump is really angry and really upset that one thing Jeff Sessions did correctly and by the book, at a minimum, was take the advice of the career ethics people at the Justice Department, who told him he must recuse himself in the Russia investigation.

And so, on occasion, Jeff Sessions takes stock of the situation and stands up for himself, as seen in the report we saw a minute ago. When Donald Trump complained about the fact that two Republican congressmen had been charged in the lead-up to the midterm elections, Sessions put out a statement asserting himself.

I think he should do that more. I think he should show that the Justice Department is independent, that it won't be bullied, that it's independent. And if the president of the United States doesn't like the job that his attorney general is doing, he should fire the guy.

HILL: Well, as he said, he might. He just might.

But what's fascinating is, as you point out, there's one thing that he has done that the president is not happy with, and that's recusing himself from the Russia investigation.

BHARARA: Yes.

HILL: That said, there's a lot that Jeff Sessions has done that is exactly what the president wants.

[16:35:00]

I mean, he's really pushing for the president's agenda. But the president is focused on this one thing.

BHARARA: Right.

But what's interesting about the interview that the president gave to "The Hill" is that, even though, from his perspective -- I don't agree with all these things that the attorney general is doing and the direction in which the department is going -- but even the things on which he is helping the president with his policy, immigration, separation at the border, all sorts of other things, the president took him to task about those things, too.

And not only that, mocked his appearance during his confirmation hearings. So the thing about Donald Trump is, it doesn't sort of matter, I think, ultimately how much you're doing for him policy-wise, but the thing that occupies his mind more than anything else, as we see from the Twitter storms, as we see from the off-the-cuff statements, as we see from the interviews he gives to random magazines and outlets, is the Russia investigation.

So even if 95 percent of the agenda is being fulfilled in a particular way by his attorney general, the thing that rattles the president and that riles him up is the non-recusal. None of the rest of it really seems to matter.

HILL: The other thing that I want to ask you about is, when we see these attacks from the president, all of this is coming, of course, as we're learning about what's going to be declassified.

We know the president wants these documents declassified, these text messages, and then admits that he hasn't actually read any of it, but believes that it will prove that all of this was started under false pretenses.

What's your take on this? I mean, there's some understandable pushback happening here, just in terms of the requests, because it is unprecedented.

BHARARA: Yes.

So the fact that something is unprecedented doesn't necessarily make it bad. The fact that it's unprecedented, and there's a reason no one has done it before, there's a reason people have not politicized the declassification process in quite this way before -- there's a reason why you don't -- you haven't had presidents or other people with declassification authority deciding selectively to declassify things in an inquiry that's ongoing as we speak, that involved missives, texts, e-mails from people who he considers to be political rivals and adversaries and critics.

There's a reason it's unprecedented, because no one has ever thought to do it before, because it's wrong. It's bad. It's outrageous. So I agree with what General Michael Hayden said earlier, that people should think about what the red line is for themselves and think about resigning in the face of this.

HILL: Well, here's a little bit more of what General Hayden had to say. I want to play this bit for you as well.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HAYDEN: It's a win-win for the president, because if the institutions push back on the grounds that I just suggested, the president has another talking point about the so-called deep state not being willing to either follow his direction or be open with the American people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: So, is the pushback a win for the president?

BHARARA: I mean, it depends on how you define win.

It's a political win. If the only way we measure the conduct of the president and the conduct of our intelligence agencies and the conduct of the FBI, who are charged with keeping us safe, making sure they have proper intelligence, so that our other agencies can keep us safe and make sure Americans don't die, if you're not viewing that as what a win is, then, sure, the president maybe has won, because he has a talking point.

And it seems that all he cares about is a talking point before the election and a talking point specifically that helps him defend himself. And the fact that he hasn't read any material is par for the course, not to use a golf metaphor, which maybe he would appreciate.

(LAUGHTER)

HILL: You slipped that one in right there.

Do you think, as you're watching all of this, is it time for anybody to step down? Is it time for DNI Dan Coats to step down? Is it time for Director Wray to step down? Or does everybody needs to stay in place?

BHARARA: So, I mean, I think it depends on what people think their obligation is.

I think it's an interesting debate, right? Some people are in these high positions, and we see from the Bob Woodward book that some people think it's their duty and they're honor-bound to protect America, not just from outside enemies, but protect America from bad decisions being made by this president, by a volatile president.

HILL: And in their minds for some of them to protect these institutions.

BHARARA: Sure.

But there's also an argument to be made that, in the longer run, the way that you can be a check on a president is, when the president oversteps and does things that are terrible and undermines institutions, and maybe puts us at risk, that you exit noisily, you resign noisily, you say, this is why I'm resigning, and maybe you give some grist to other people to criticize the behavior of the president and have other people be courageous as well.

And maybe you can modify the behavior of the president. So I understand the impulse, at least in the initial term, for people deciding, I'm going to stay so I can protect America from bad things. But, over time, staying arguably also makes you complicit in those activities.

HILL: Interesting take.

Good to talk with you.

BHARARA: Sure. Thanks. HILL: Thanks for coming in today.

President Trump not only attacking Jeff Sessions -- what he's calling the -- quote -- "cancer" in our country. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:44:02]

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Paul Manafort was with me for a short period of time. He did a good job. I was very happy with the job he did.

And if he tells the truth, no problem.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: President Trump seemingly unconcerned his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort is now cooperating with Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

Hours earlier, the president compared the FBI role in that investigation to a -- quote -- "cancer."

Let's discuss.

Kirsten, I want to start with you here.

The president very calm about Paul Manafort this morning, very supportive, which is about 180 degrees from what we saw when we learned of Michael Cohen and his plea deal and his cooperation here.

We don't know what the special counsel has. We don't know what Paul Manafort knows. The president says, if he tells the truth, there's nothing to worry about.

Is there a chance he doesn't know anything that any way is connecting the president to any wrongdoing?

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: Sure. Yes, it's totally possible.

But I think that now we also have news about this -- the deal that he struck is sort of pardon-proof, I would be concerned about that if I was I was Donald Trump. Because I think that my expectations that the president has always been operating under the assumption that he could pardon him and that it was sort of hanging out there and that we've seen him pardon a lot of people without going through a real process. And now, it looks like Manafort has a deal that's not going to make that very easy.

ERICA HILL, CNN HOST: David, when we look at with the president and his reaction, it's also fascinating because as we are just talking about with, this president is very focused on the Russia investigation. We know how he feels about it. He believes it's going on too long. We don't know, again, anything, because Robert Mueller has been mobbed. No matter when he's attacked, not matter when the investigation is attacked. Does it surprise you that this is the president's reaction today?

DAVID URBAN, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN STRATEGIST: Listen, I think that the president knows that Paul Manafort was under investigation and prosecuted foreign fund guilty for, had nothing to do with the campaign.

And I think he's quite comfortable with the fact that if Manafort continues to tell the truth, there'll be absolutely zero impact on the presidency or have -- it has nothing to do with the alleged Russian collusion in the election. Because what Mr. Manafort was charged with was bank fraud, wire fraud, tax fraud, which all predated his involvement in the campaign.

So I think the president is pretty comfortable that if he continues to tell the truth that there'll be -- there'll be nothing here.

HILL: So he's not concerned about anything that he could know that is not related to those charges, but perhaps something else that Robert Mueller is looking into?

URBAN: No. Listen, I think you saw the president make the comments on the lawn before he got in the helicopter. And you see -- he take his own words there. I think that, you know, I've read and seen reporting that maybe Director Mueller is pursuing Mr. Manafort for reasons that had to do with people outside of the United States with the attempts of the Russian government to interfere in the election, who likes to indict some folks higher up in the -- Russian government. He's using Mr. Manafort for that.

HILL: Go ahead.

JEN PSAKI, FORMER OBAMA WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: I was going to say, I'm just not sure that his response tells us anything, because he's been very confident, President Trump has been, and he's had the same demeanor when asked about the investigation all along. That's probably a smart communications tactic, but it doesn't really tell us much.

If you're Mueller, and again, nobody knows what he knows or things you will ask about, as we all agree. But Manafort was there for that meeting with Russian officials. He also has extensive ties to the Kremlin. So there are certainly business ties. So there's certainly enough fodder ask him about.

URBAN: Jen, it wasn't Russian officials, Jen. It's little overstating the meeting. But that's okay.

PSAKI: Well, most campaigns don't have meetings with Russian consiglieres or whatever you want to call them, David. So it's pretty uncommon. I'm sure Mueller will be asking Manafort about that meeting. And there's plenty to talk about.

URBAN: I have a great deal of confidence that Dr. Mueller will get to the truth here.

HILL: There's also the president -- I really want to get your take on this. Because when we're hearing the president called this and I just want to quote this for you. Noting, "I hope to be able to put this up as one of my crowning achievement, that I was able to expose something that is truly a cancer in our country."

That is the president who is talking about how he feels about the attorney general (INAUDIBLE) attorney general, his attack from the Justice Department, his attacks on the FBI.

URBAN: Erica, that's not correct. Buck Sexton who is the reporter from the Hill that did that interview, tweeted out today, the president was referring to corrupt FBI agents, not the FBI, not the Department of Justice. So that is just factually incorrect.

HILL: So the FBI is not a cancer? Because this president --

URBAN: No, it's not. Erica, look at the tweet from Buck Sexton.

HILL: But this is the president. Fine.

URBAN: Erica, the gentleman who had conducted the interview tweeted out today --

HILL: I understand. Fine. You've laid that out there. My point is this is the president who has reputedly railed on the FBI, on the Justice Department, who's going after his attorney general, yet again. And here we are -- we asked the question all the time, what is subdued to the rank and file? What is the suit of people who were doing your jobs?

And you'll hear from former FBI agents. You'll hear from folks who work in the Department of Justice. We put our heads down, we do our job. It doesn't matter who's in the White House. We do our job on a daily basis. Do you even -- we brought up the point that at some point, this can get tough for people.

Sara, how much is that these discussion these days in Washington? In terms of your reporting, is this starting to have an impact on folks in those departments?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think that we've been hearing for months that whenever the president launches a broadside like this, it is difficult for the rank and file.

But I think -- the other thing that's alarming for people who have been watching this sort of saga play out is it's not just the president broadside against the attorney general. It's not just referring and assuming that there are a bunch of corrupt FBI agents running around and the president calling them a cancer.

[16:50:03] But it's also his move to declassify a number of these documents, you know, that the president believes will somehow make the Russia investigation look like it was a hoax and look like it was started on the fair grounds. I mean, this is a president who is very much worried about his own future and his own politics, more so than how he might make their rank and file.

URBAN: There are 30,000 FBI agents who do a great job every day. They're not corrupt. And the president was speaking about a handful of corrupt FBI agents.

HILL: Jen, I'm going to give you the last word. You have a chance --

PSAKI: Look, I think that President Trump has shown he doesn't have respect for institutions for the men and women serving in the FBI, the Justice Department, that's what most of them would say, even people who have traditionally supported Republican candidates.

So whatever he meant by this comment, I think he's done a lot of damage to the moral and that's something that the next president, hopefully in 2020, will have to help rebuild.

HILL: Looking at this next one. There is apparently, on a lighter note, but it still have you scratching your head, a real stickler for grammar. Within the Trump administration, it is not the president.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:55:35] HILL: President Trump says he is the reason for new promises of peace on the Korean Peninsula. The president that was nowhere in sight when North and South Korea announcing new era of peace. The north vowing to shut down a nuclear site, but only with major concessions from the U.S. CNN's Alex Marquardt reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: As far as the president is concerned, everything with North Korea is right on track.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When we're talking, He's very calm. He's calm, I'm calm. So we'll see what happens.

MARQUARDT: What happens remains very much to be seen, three months removed from the historic summit between Trump and North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, talks are at a standstill.

Now, South Korea's president taking the leading role. The Korean leader celebrating. Kim, standing alongside South Korea's Moon Jae-in as they declared peace. "The era of now war," Moon said, "has started."

North Korea agreeing in theory to permanently dismantle their missile facility and its primary nuclear complex, vital to its nuclear weapons program.

JUNG PAK, SENIOR FELLOW, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: I would caution the administration that the statement that Kim has made, so far, has -- leaves a lot of room for North Korean maneuvering and manipulating the situation.

MARQUARDT: Similar promises have been made in the past and experts suspect there are other secret facilities that North Korea could turn to.

And there's a big if. The proposals by North Korea contingent on the U.S. agreeing to what they call corresponding measures by the U.S. What those are is unclear. It could mean asking the U.S. to remove its 28,000 troops from South Korea and lift economic sanctions.

PAK: From North Korea's perspective, they're engaging now to try to get the U.S. and the global community to lift sanctions so that he can fulfill the promise that he made to his people back in 2013, that they can have nuclear weapons and a vibrant economy.

MARQUARDT: North Korea no stranger to elaborately choreographed ceremonies is also gunning for a joint Olympic bid with the South for the 2032 games. It's all a long way from the fire and fury the president threatened.

TRUMP: Like the world has never seen.

MARQUARDT: The mocking of Little Rocket Man, but it's also a long way from a fully denuclearized and peaceful North Korea.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MARQUARDT: And, Erica, the next step that President Trump is set to meet with South Korea's president in New York on Monday. From that, perhaps we'll learn what exactly the North Koreans are asking for. Erica.

HILL: All right. Alex for the latest for us there. Thank you.

And if global conflict wasn't enough for the president's top diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were learning is also focused on grammar. Yes, grammar. In (INAUDIBLE) he takes it very seriously.

CNN's Michelle Kosinski is at the State Department. And this is not a pet peeve that many of us have, the incorrect usage of your or there. This is about commas?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, there is a problem lurking deep within the State Department throughout these walls and it is the improper use of commas, Erica.

Everybody has their grammar pet peeves. Apparently, this is Secretary of State Pompeo's. Because just in the last couple of months, two e- mails have gone out from his top staff throughout the state department trying to get people back on track.

The latest one was just a couple of days ago. And it says, "The secretary has underscored the need for appropriate use of commas in his paper, both their inclusion and admission." And it goes on to list 10 highly detailed examples with explanations. There's one.

We activated the alarm, but the intruder was already inside. That is correct. As I'm sure you were just about to say, Erica, that is because those are independent clauses with separate subjects connected by a conjunction. Next. The wartime rations included cabbage, turnips, and bread. That last comma known as the Oxford comma, hotly contested among grammar types. That gives us thumbs up from the State Department.

But then there's this. He stood up and opened his mouth, but failed to remember his question. That's wrong. No comma needed as he were just about to shout out, Erica, because that is a single subject with a compound predicate.

So depending on people's levels of grammar geeks around here. Some people thought, this is a big relief that someone is addressing this and now there's just laughs and gave us the e-mails.

HILL: And we're maybe happy to have to chuckle today. Michelle, appreciate it. Thank you.

KOSINSKI: Yes.

HILL: our coverage on CNN continues right now.