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Deputy AG Rosenstein Met with WH Chief of Staff; Trump to Meet with Rosenstein Thursday. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired September 24, 2018 - 12:30   ET



[12:30:49] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. A dramatic and somewhat confusing breaking news day here in Washington. The Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein still at the White House after a high stakes meeting with the chief of staff John Kelly. That's according to a source familiar with Rosenstein's thinking before the last 72 hours with all this talk of him being fired or maybe resigning, he had expected to stay in his role until after the midterm elections. For Rosenstein, that was considered key to give the special counsel Robert Mueller time to complete his investigation. So what could this mean for the future of the Mueller investigation?

Joining our conversation to share their insights, CNN's Legal Analysts Michael Zeldin and Paul Callan.

Michael, let me start with you. You have experience with special counsel investigations, you have experience with Robert Mueller. If he is sitting at his desk right now trying to track what's happening, what is he thinking about? What is his checklist of things to do in case the deputy attorney general, the guy I report to is fired or resigns?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: So if Rosenstein were to be fired or resign and Noel Francisco, the solicitor general were to take over, Mueller assuming Francisco has had nothing to do with this has to put together essentially a briefing book to let Noel Francisco know what has transpired legally in the last 14 plus months to get him up to speed because we're at a critical stage of the investigation which is why I think Rosenstein does not want to leave now.

We are at the point where we're deciding whether the president will testify or not testify. Whether or not there is viable obstruction of justice theory with this old mosaic of little parts that we've been talking about. Whether or not the Justice Department will issue a subpoena if Mueller asked for one.

So, we're at a critical stage of the investigation and Mueller has to think, oh God, now I have to let somebody new into the House and advise them of everything that we've been doing to get them up to speed which will set me back, you know, weeks if not months as they, you know, familiarize themselves with the case. Which is why I think the -- Rod Rosenstein proponents and friends of the president were saying, this is an inopportune time to do anything with respect to Rosenstein.

KING: So at a minimum, if you have that briefing, the studying and even if there's nothing nefarious, Noel Francisco is just doing his job, you delay this for weeks and months more carries it into a new year with the possibility of the Democrats taking at least in the House, perhaps in the Senate.

Paul Callan, what happens to Robert Mueller if he comes in, there's something that's already in the stream or something he wants to do and Noel Francisco says, you know what, I disagree with Rod Rosenstein, I don't like that, I think that's upon beyond your purview.

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, Rodriguez would in essence become Mueller's boss. And Mueller has an obligation to report back to the new acting attorney general and it could really be a big problem. And I think, you know, what's complicating this, you know, above all, I think is this New York Times report which we started out with earlier in the week that Rod Rosenstein had suggested invoking the 25th Amendment to get Trump out of office and to put somebody else in the presidency. Now that is an act of such disloyalty if it happened that Trump undoubtedly has been ruminating about getting rid of Rosenstein because of that. And this would be a good excuse but also a pretext to get rid of Rosenstein and not be accused of obstruction of justice because Rosenstein was disloyal and put Rodriguez in place who's, you know, a fresh face and maybe more loyal to Trump in Trump's view.

So we have all of this atmosphere floating around this very, very difficult and complex situation.

KING: And let's expand the conversation a bit. We're focused on Robert Mueller, but Michael, if the deputy attorney general is gone, what happens to the investigations that Mueller has handed off, sometimes at the advice, maybe even at the direction of the deputy attorney general to the southern district of New York. Michael Cohen is not Robert Mueller even though he's been talking to Mueller's prosecution team, his investigation was done for the southern district of New York. The Trump Organization chief financial officer has made an agreement with the southern district of New York.

To those prosecutors, who at the Justice Department do they call when they want to go into an additional lane? When they want maybe subpoena somebody or take an investigation down.

[12:35:03] It involves the president, involves his business. A controversial track.

ZELDIN: Right. So those investigations in the U.S. attorney's offices in the southern district of New York and in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere would to me proceed as a business as usual. They would still have a reporting line back into the Justice Department. If they were reporting to Rosenstein, they would report to Noel Francisco, the solicitor general. If they were reporting to the AG because he wasn't recuse on overseeing those aspects of the investigation, they would continue to report through him. So I think those stay intact. But I wanted to mention one thing, John if I have a moment here. Paul said if you brought a new person in and that person disagreed with something that Mueller wanted to do and said to him, no, it was something that Rosenstein might have said yes to. What that does under the special counsel regulations is, it triggers a reporting obligation from the Justice Department to the ranking member and the chair of both the House and Senate judiciary committees. So under the regulations, while the special counsel has no obligation to report to Congress only a confidential report to the deputy attorney general, if the overseer of Mueller says no to Mueller, that triggers a report to Congress.

So, if they do that, if they think they're bringing in a loyalist who's now going to say no to Mueller, what they're going to buy themselves is a report to Congress outlining what the differences between the Justice Department and Mueller is and that's going to make this much more political and therefore more dangerous.

CALLAN: And John, can I just add on that going down that road also. The other interesting thing here is that Rosenstein of course wrote the memo about Comey, saying that Comey had problems in the way he ran the FBI which Trump subsequently used to justify the firing of Comey not withstanding the fact that later on, on an interview with Lester Holt, he suggested that he was going to fire Comey anyway.

Trump may be fearful of making an enemy of Rosenstein if Rosenstein has to testify about the details of that memo and whether it was his impression that Comey was fired based on the memo. So, we get that factor as well. Does Trump want to make an enemy of Rosenstein by firing him and undermining possibly his favorable testimony with Mueller if he were going that way?

Such a complicated situation, the president and the country is looking at this today.

KING: Complicated is a significant understatement. Appreciate that, Paul and Michael.

We're going to take a quick break. Again, when we come back, the developing breaking news. The deputy attorney general summoned to the White House for meeting with the chief of staff amid reports he could be resign, he could be fired.

When we come back, Rod Rosenstein's state of mind.


[12:42:25] KING: Welcome back.

The Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's future in limbo this hour. According to CNN sources, leaving his post in September was never the plan. Let's get to our Justice Correspondent Evan Perez with more reporting on Rosenstein's state of mind.

Evan? EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, look, I think Rod Rosenstein knew that this day was coming. He just didn't think it was going to come certainly today. Even as of this weekend, he believed according to people whoa re close to his thinking that, you know, his apologies for what those reports on Friday from about a year ago, comments that he had made in meetings a year ago, he thought that was sufficient and certainly though he expected that he would be gone certainly after the midterms which was when we expected there might be a House cleaning at the Justice Department.

But you can get a little bit of a sense of his state of mind in some of his recent speeches. One, 11 days ago at the Justice Department where he talked about the clause, the oath of office that people take when they take office and he said people overlook -- part of his speech says, people overlook the final clause of what they say in their oath of office which is to well and faithfully discharge the duties of office. And he say, essentially that you have to stand for something.

Then he quoted -- he says a country song by Aaron Tippin, he said, you got to stand for something or you'll fall for anything. That sort of reflects a little bit of the state of mind where -- for a man who expects that he'll be gone he -- will be gone probably in the next couple of months, watching the -- you know, with the overseeing the Mueller investigation. He certainly expected that his time was very limited and he's -- I think thinking a little bit about his legacy once he is gone from office, John.

KING: And even if he is gone, we will try to answer that question as we throughout this confusing day and obviously the investigation is continuing. Rod Rosenstein, if he leaves, that will still be heard from.

Evan Perez, appreciate the reporting there.

Coming up, the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation battle takes another twist. A second woman now alleges sexual misconduct.

Protesters outside Senator Susan Collins's office today, demanding she vote no.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Collins needs to make a decision now and not when everybody -- all the other Republicans back down. She needs to make a decision now when it matters.


[12:38:56] KING: Back to our breaking news. A new White House statement on the fate of the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to went to the White House to meet with the chief of staff.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is traveling with the president at the United Nations up in New York. Jeff, bring us the latest. JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John, we have a new statement from White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders shedding a bit more of light on what has been a confusing morning back at the White House. She is saying this, she said that the president had a conversation with the deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein about recent news stories, she called it an extended conversation to discuss the recent news stories. She goes on to say this, because the president is at the United Nations General Assembly and has a full schedule with the leaders around the world, they will meet on Thursday when the president returns to Washington.

So Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary there saying that the president is going to meet with the deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein when he returns to Washington on Thursday. So that would seem to put a hold on all of this discussion we've been having.

Of course the question here is timing. And if a resignation was offered, what is the timing involved in this for when he might leave that position?

[12:50:03] But the White House putting the brakes on any suggestion that there is something imminent happening with the deputy attorney general and saying the president will discuss it with him face-to-face on Thursday when he returns to Washington.


KING: Jeff Zeleny with the breaking news, appreciate it.

Let's bring the conversation back into the room. Lost on nobody here. If you're not following this closely at home, Thursday is when Christine Blasey Ford is supposed to testify publicly to the Senate Judiciary Committer about her allegations that back in high school she was sexually assaulted by Brett Kavanaugh, the president's Supreme Court nominee. So Thursday shapes up as a giant day in town.

So, we talked about this since the top of the program. The deputy attorney general goes to the White House, he's with the chief of staff. He gets on the phone with the president, now they will meet on Thursday. Which means he has not resigned and the president had an opportunity right there to say you gotta go. That didn't happen.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: (INAUDIBLE) pretty good so far. I mean, apparently they had this conversation, we do know that he offered to resign to John Kelly last week. Whatever transpire in the days since then and what happened during that phone call while President Trump is in New York and John Kelly and Rod Rosenstein were back at the White House is what we are trying to figure out now. What this conversation was.

We know the president is pretty directly confrontational with people so that's the question. Maybe he said something like that during that phone call. But it is interesting and it does seem that he will stay on a the deputy attorney general until Thursday happens, depending on what that conversation (INAUDIBLE). JACKIE KUCINICH, WASHINGTON BUREAY CHIEF, THE DAILY BEAST: Color me skeptical about the timing of this because the White House -- it was a very big risk for Senate Republicans to have Christine Blasey Ford testify in front of that hearing. She is scheduled to do it and now this happens.

And Brett Kavanaugh is also testifying to attempt to clear his name. So the fact that -- I mean, we talk a lot about distractions with this White House -- again, this seems like a pretty darn, crazy coincidence.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And, you know, it seems that he is giving the president a choice to fire him. I mean, we'll see exactly what transpired in that meeting. But, you know, based on what Kaitlan is reporting and others that he did offer to resign, perhaps he said, president (INAUDIBLE) to make the decision to fire me. And that has much a different ramification with the future of the Russia investigation, for how people will react to what happen here. And, you know, we'll see if the president ultimately decides to pull that trigger.

JULIE PACE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, ASSOCIATED PRESS: These set-ups are really extraordinary couple of days in Washington. And I don't think that even -- you know, if Jackie's instincts are right on this, I mean, there is a decent chance they are here. I don't think that it helps the White House because you now have two highly anticipated Thursday deadlines. Neither of which look good.

The Supreme Court nominee who is embattled at best right now and a deputy attorney general who is on the ropes and the president is just prolonging both of those stories by pushing the Rosenstein decision apparently off for a couple of days instead of just getting ahead of it. But as Kaitlan said, this is a president that for all of his (INAUDIBLE) does not like in-person confrontation. So it is interesting to me that he didn't just, whatever the decision is going to be have John Kelly take care of it today and say he actually is going to meet with Rosenstein on Thursday.

KING: And it makes for a fascinating moment. You make a key point if they think that they can fire him or get a resignation during, you know, Dr. Ford, Professor Ford is up on Capitol Hill, you'll still see on the bottom of your screen, it will still happen. You may not get the dept until the next day.

But the president of the United States is going to be sitting presumably face-to-face with his deputy attorney general, a man who -- Rosenstein just walked by I'm told outside the White House there. If you see the picture there, (INAUDIBLE) we have pointed it in the driveway.

He's going to be sitting face-to-face with the deputy attorney general who knows most if not everything that Robert Mueller is working on, making a decision about whether or not to let him go. So, do you make the decision I'm better off keeping him in the government?

There you go, Rod Rosenstein walking to the vehicle. Or, if he becomes a public citizen, obviously he has confidentiality requirements, but what are the risk there?

COLLINS: Yes, that's the question. And it's interesting because we know President Trump is skeptical of that reporting that Rosenstein debated wearing a memo -- wearing a wire, excuse me, while he met with him and trying to convince people to invoke the 25th Amendment to force Trump out of office.

So it's interesting to see the president is going to sit down with someone who, you know, for all the president who pays close attention to denials for stories like this, he still generally believes the basis of them, especially like when Rex Tillerson called him a moron and Tillerson denied it but Trump was pretty he'd call him a moron.

That's what is going to be interesting when the president does sit down with him. Does he believe him in his denials and they hadn't put out that second denial? Or does he really believe that Rod Rosenstein is someone who was working against him? Or does he weigh the fact that things between them have change in recent months and improved and they started getting along a little bit more and does he keep him around for that?

So that'll be the question going forward. It is impossible to predict what will happen.

RAJU: And the lobbying campaign is going to be intense behind the scenes as some people who've been pushing him to fire him or make that case very clearly.

[12:55:05] Others will say, take your foot off the pedal Mr. President and let him stay on. So we'll see who he ultimately listens to.

KING: And he's got a quick time to do this with the elections approaching. The question is you do it before the elections or wait until after the elections? It's a tough one for the president to deal with.

Thanks for joining us on the INSIDE POLITICS today through all the breaking news. We continue our coverage and find out what happens with the deputy attorney general. Wolf picks up our coverage after a quick break. Have a great day.