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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER
Attorney General Jeff Sessions Fired. Aired 3:30-4p ET
Aired November 7, 2018 - 15:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[15:30:00] MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: For weeks before Republicans had been raising serious concerns about the prospect of removing Jeff Sessions, but as it appeared to be more and more inevitable that this was going to happen, some came around to the idea that this was going to happen post-election. Now, Mitch McConnell privately met with Jeff Sessions last week. We tried to ask Sessions as he leaving if he discussed the possibility of resigning with Mitch McConnell. He did not comment at that time. Now today I got a chance to ask McConnell directly if he were comfortable with the prospect of Jeff Sessions stepping aside.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RAJU: Would you be comfortable with Sessions being replaced?
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MAJORITY LEADER: It's not up to me to tell the President who to put in his cabinet. They serve at his pleasure. And if he makes changes, we'll be dealing with whoever is sent up.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
RAJU: So not raising any concerns from the Senate Majority Leader about the prospects of making this replacement. Ultimately this is going to be the Senate's call in moving forward -- a Republican- controlled Senate. They are probably going to move forward with whoever the President puts forward even as the Democrats in the house try to push forward their own investigations into exactly what happened here. And one other point I asked Chuck Schumer if he knew Matt Whitaker at all. He said he did not know him. So, Democrats themselves were caught a little surprised about this news, even if it seemed inevitable just a few days ago, guys.
TAPPER: All right, Manu Raju and Sunlen Serfaty on Capitol Hill, thanks so much. We'll come back to you in a bit.
I was talking earlier about Watergate and the Saturday night massacre, President Nixon ordering his Justice Department, his Attorney General, deputy attorney general to fire the investigator, special prosecutor, Archibald Cox and all the firings that were taking place. Let's bring in someone who knows a little more about Watergate than I do, John Dean, the former White House counsel for President Nixon. John, what's your reaction to this move, President Trump asking Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his resignation today?
JOHN DEAN, FORMER NIXON WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL (via phone): Well, unlike the Saturday night massacre where Nixon relieved special prosecutor Cox, that was sort of a culmination of disregard for the President's direction as to not go after his tapes. Here I think this seems to be planned like a murder. I say that given the fact that the President was asked a question in the press conference this morning, he brushed it off, said we'll deal with it later. And he's clearly been thinking about it and later meant he's not necessarily going to fire Mueller, he's going to undercut him by the people around him.
TAPPER: Do you see this as part of an attempt to undermine the Mueller investigation? Obviously, Matthew Whitaker, who is now the acting attorney general, has been very up front and honest about his belief that Attorney General Sessions -- now former Attorney General Sessions -- could be replaced, should be replaced by somebody who could then use the budgetary process or other ways to restrict the Mueller investigation.
DEAN: It is almost impossible not to interpret this any other way than the fact to undercut Mueller. But I also think Mueller has been well aware of that and probably has planned for that contingency.
TAPPER: How would he plan for such a contingency like that?
DEAN: He could have sealed indictments. Grand juries are strange animals. They're neither fish nor fowl. In the sense they don't belong to the executive branch, they don't belong to the judicial branch. They might have a very sharp foreman of the grand jury. He could go ahead and release the indictment or indictments if he thought necessary.
TAPPER: Explain what that means to our viewers when you say that Mueller could have sealed indictments. What does that mean?
DEAN: Well, it means they're already in the works. The grand jury has issued indictments, they just have not made them known public.
TAPPER: Would the people who were indicted know about it?
DEAN: No, they would not.
TAPPER: And so, you think that it's possible -- and you're just hypothesizing here -- that Mueller in preparation for any sort firing or undercutting so that he can't do his job would have these sealed indictments as already handed down by a grand jury. And then if he were fired or actions to that effect, what would happen to those sealed indictments?
DEAN: Theoretically, I think the foreman of the grand jury can take them in to the judge or they may be in the file with the judge already, and this would be the basis to unseal them. And these would be the kinds of indictments that would be very high profile. It could be one of the President's children. It could be somebody else that is very high in the pecking order.
TAPPER: How much confidence do you have in our judicial system to survive whatever is about to happen here, assuming more is about to happen? [15:35:00] DEAN: Well, I have a lot. The system is not just five
judges that are conservatives on the Supreme Court, it is an entire branch of the government. And even for those five justices, if they do lean towards the President to do precedent breaking action that makes this look like a banana republic, you could start losing one or more of those five. I think we saw that on health care with John Roberts. It's his court, he's the Chief Justice. So, I have an underlying faith in the system.
TAPPER: All right, John Dean, thank you so much for your experience and calling in.
I want to read a tweet from Senator Lindsey Graham who we've been talking about for the last hour or so.
Quote, I look forward to working with President Trump to find a confirmable, worthy successor so that we can start a new chapter at the Department of Justice and deal with both the opportunities and challenges our nation faces. As to me, I will be part of a larger Republican majority in the United States Senate working with the President and my Republican and Democratic colleagues to make America safer and more prosperous.
Dana Bash, Graham once said there will be holy hell to pay if Jeff Sessions was fired. That does not sound like holy hell.
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: No, because last month or maybe two months ago he said something quite different from holy hell. He said basically it's time for Jeff Sessions to go. I'm paraphrasing it but that's the gist of what he said. And the argument that he made is that it's obvious that the relationship between the President and Jeff Sessions has frayed beyond repair. And so, yes, it is an example of the evolution of Lindsey Graham when it comes to holding the President accountable on a whole bunch of issues.
I will say that Graham as senior member of the judiciary committee and somebody who actually did want immigration reform holds Jeff Sessions accountable for that falling apart and also accountable for the child separation policy that went on the border. Also wants to get justice reform done. Doesn't think Jeff Sessions can do things. So, there are things separate from --
TAPPER: Policy Issues.
BASH: -- real policy issues separate from the 800-pound gorilla that's in the corner.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Still McConnell the leader punt, quarter number two, punt. Grassley, the chairman, punt, Graham may be the next chairman, punt.
TAPPER: He made it clear in that statement he has no intention of being the next Attorney General.
JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The four Republican leaders who know the question on the table and refuse to answer it.
SCIUTTO: The nuance question is, A, is their nuances are just going to be a hammer here? If the nuance piece is, they want to force an end so they find a way to get this new interim attorney general, and their acting attorney general, who effectively chokes off the investigation. Forces it to conclusion because of the fear that the President and others have that it could go in different directions. And again, as John Dean was saying, how Mueller prepares for that, there's the possibility of indictments, sealed or otherwise. There's also what is most likely out of all of this is a political process and a report that presumably he would still have a way to get into the public domain or into Congress's hands or not.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN LEAD POLITICAL ANCHOR: There's an intriguing development, Laura, I want your thoughts on this. Because normally when a secretary or an attorney general or cabinet member resigns, the number two person in the department becomes the acting. There's a deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. He was humiliated just now when the President said somebody else is going to be the acting attorney general. That's a real snub of the number two at the Department of Justice.
LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It was. I'm sure that it was predictable in his mind. Because remember this is somebody who the President of the United States has been critical of in the past. And they have now kind of a newfound romance following the "New York Times" article about a statement about wearing a wire. And they had a coming to Jesus moment of some sorts. But there was still the animosity between, at least maybe one-sided from the President, to anyone overseeing the Mueller probe. So, I can't imagine that he did not anticipate there being some snub, particularly in light of how James Comey was treated. Wasn't in the same state when he was fired unceremoniously and couldn't take the main plane back.
Having said that, I do think that there is preparedness from both Robert Mueller and his team, as well as Rod Rosenstein, who have seen the writing on the wall for quite some time. I think John Dean makes a particularly astute point about the notion that preparedness can come in the form of indictments. The grand jury has been empaneled for quite some time. There has been a process that's been followed from the overarching whale of the Internet trolls -- what they were doing -- two Russian nationals. And it's been narrowing into people who are closer and closer as American citizens.
And so, I would be astonished if Mueller's team did not anticipate this.
[15:40:00] Did not use the grand jury and all the evidence that may have been given to them and try to have indictments. Remember, the very last indictment we saw from Mueller's team talked about an American -- they didn't name those people. Roger Stone has come out to say, I think I'm the person you're talking about. But didn't name people who were in the indictment who may have been of assistance to people in the collusion investigation. They knew the names of people then. Those people could be the people who are the subject of a sealed indictment that can come forward. But either way I think there is a lot at stake here and Robert Mueller
would surely be aware of that. And again, I'll go back what Rod Rosenstein had to say about this very point. When he made the point of what you will see going forward will give the American people clarity and confidence that what we have in investigated and developed is actually not a witch hunt. And he hasn't left yet but, again, paperwork has a funny way of being retained. That's the beauty of paperwork.
DAVID CHALIAN, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I don't want to be naive.
SCIUTTO: That's my job. I'm the one that's naive.
CHALIAN: I don't understand why it matters whether it comes with a hammer or if it's a slow burn process here. There is a clear effort on behalf of the President with his action today of firing the attorney general to accelerate a bringing to an end this investigation. This is an investigation that is set up to be independent of the President. I understand the chain of command.
BASH: You think he's not going to have control over it.
CHALIAN: I'm just saying the fact that the President is now taking steps to be in control at least in lighting a match and accelerating the end of this, get to the conclusion of this to me is just an encroachment on the whole concept of what the special counsel investigation should be, which is really apart from the President since he is being investigated.
KING: And as we try to answer all these legal questions, I just want to come back to the point that we're trying to answer them in a very different political environment. Remember those midterm elections that seem like six months ago now? They were yesterday. You know how Trump can move the news cycle at his will and sometimes in controversial ways. But now, whatever the answers to these questions are -- and these are all the right questions. What does Matthew Whitaker do? Does Rod Rosenstein survive? Does Mueller face pressure either to shut down? Does he get fired? Do you curtail? Whatever happens, there will now be a Democratic House that can bring everybody in, everybody we just mentioned and people we don't know. That didn't exist yesterday.
Blitzer: Hold on. Evan Perez is getting some new information for us. Evan, what are you learning?
EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I mean I think one of the big questions, I think the panelists there have been making this point a little bit over and over. But I do think we need to pause and think about this. The fact that Matt Whitaker has been chosen by the President to oversee this investigation and given his comments, I mean, we have to really take it seriously that Matt Whitaker was chosen for a reason. I mean, we don't know exactly what he's going to do. But certainly, his public comments about the investigation, about starving it of resources and trying to find a way to end it, I think need to be front and center as we discuss this in the next few days and in the coming weeks. Matt Whitaker is somebody who -- obviously he was the chief of staff
for the attorney general. But just a couple weeks ago when there was a whole drama about Rod Rosenstein and whether he might be fired or whether he might be pushed out, Whitaker was at the center of all of that drama. He spoke to the President, as a matter of fact, before that happened. And so, we don't know all of those conversations, the conversations that have gone on between him and the President.
Certainly, though, I think at the Justice Department there's a little bit of suspicion about exactly what his role has been behind the scenes in engineering these changes and whether or not he has promised anything to the President. These are big questions that are now hanging over him that he's going to have to answer.
And I think, again, the ethics officers of the Justice Department will give some advice as to whether or not the appearance of conflict is enough for him to recuse himself, and then he'll have to decide whether or not that is something he's going to accept, you know, at the peril of the Justice Department. But we have to pause and look at this for what it is, which is the President has chosen deliberately a man who publicly has been out there saying that the investigation needs to be ended and there's a way for it to be starved of its resources and that I think should give everybody pause.
TAPPER: All right, Evan Perez, thanks so much. And Pamela Brown has news about someone who is expected to arrive on the White House ground any moment -- Pamela.
PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right. We're hearing that Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, is headed to the White House right now. We're being told that this was a preplanned meeting. But of course, in the wake of this news that Jeff Sessions has resigned now, Matt Whitaker is at the helm as the acting attorney general. And has taken the reins now essentially of the Russia investigation. It's hard to believe that will not come up in this conversation. Also, Rod Rosenstein, all of this raise's questions about his future at the department.
[15:45:00] He, too, has been bullied by the President. But sources tell me that he wanted to stay in his position overseeing the Russia probe as a way to protect it. Now he no longer has that control now that there is an acting attorney general. And what is clear is that the President did not like the status quo of Rod Rosenstein overseeing that. Because he felt like he didn't have the control. That is why he asked Jeff Sessions repeatedly, according to our reporting, to regain control of the probe. That is why he was so upset that Jeff Sessions recused himself from the probe, because the President didn't think he had control.
Now he has put someone in this role to oversee the probe who has publicly said that Mueller has gone too far with the probe, that Mueller should not be investigating the President as it pertains to his finances. This was an op-ed on CNN.com last August. Matt Whitaker said this. He has come out and said on CNN -- suggested that there could be -- whoever takes over Sessions' role should perhaps limit Mueller's budget. And so, while sources close to the President are telling us, telling
me and my colleague Dana Bash that the plan is not for Matt Whitaker to end or suppress the Russia probe, this is someone who is on the record as saying it should be limited at the very least. And so, this will no doubt have an impact moving forward.
BLITZER: It certainly will. And none of us should be surprised if Rod Rosenstein decides maybe this is a time for him to move on as well, now that he's been embarrassed and humiliated once again by the President. Who named someone else to be the acting attorney general, not the number two at the Department of Justice.
We just received a statement from Democratic Senator, Mark Werner, of Virginia, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Let me read it to our viewers.
"No one is above the law, and any effort to interfere with the Special Counsel's investigation would be a gross abuse of power by the President. While the President may have the authority to replace the Attorney General, this must not be the first step in an attempt to impede, obstruct or end the Mueller investigation. Senators from both parties have repeatedly affirmed their support for Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. Every one of them should speak out now and deliver a clear message to the President that the Special Counsel's investigation must continue without interference."
TAPPER: Well, think about this, OK. President Trump knew that he had asked Sessions for his resignation and was going to replace him with somebody who had publicly made it very clear, he thinks that the Mueller investigation should be undermined one way or another. He knew that before he held this press conference. And what did he do at that press conference? He shamed Republicans who distanced themselves from him before the election and went on to lose their seats. He attacked the press for asking him questions. And then he also said to the Democrats if you choose to conduct oversight and investigate my administration, I am going to have you investigated. That's what President Trump said knowing that all of this was about to roll out. So, think about what he was trying to convey to Democrats, to the press and to Republicans who dare cross him -- Gloria.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, it was a threat. It was a threat and he followed through on it. I think to step back for one minute on this Rosenstein thing. He's on his way to the White House. He was a decision-maker -- I don't want to talk about him in past tense. But he's the decision-maker about whether, for example, subpoena should be allowed for the President to testify before Mueller. And Mueller's team, as Dana and I have reported and Pamela and we've all been reporting this, that they're in the middle of negotiations with the President's attorneys.
And you have to ask the question right now about whether they're at a point where, yes, they have written questions on collusion but on obstruction, Mueller reserved the right to question the President personally. And you have to sort of ask the question about whether -- and we need to report this -- about whether something is going on vis- a-vis the President's testimony that he didn't want to happen. TAPPER: Everyone stick around. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been fired by President Trump. We're going to squeak one quick break. Our special coverage continues in a moment. Stay with us.
[15:50:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
TAPPER: Welcome to "THE LEAD," I'm Jake Tapper. We have major breaking news. President Trump has fired the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions. Sessions has been under withering criticism from President Trump, ever since he recused himself from the Russia investigation in 2017. And Sessions writing today in an undated resignation letter to the President, quote, at your request, I am submitting my resignation.
President Trump tweeting this afternoon, we thank attorney general Jeff Sessions for his service and wish him well. A permanent replacement will be nominated at a later date. The Russia investigation is now expected to be overseen by Sessions' acting replacement. The chief of staff, Matthew Whitacre, not Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general.
Now Whitaker we know little bit about his position on this. In a CNN op-ed in August, he argued that their Russia investigation had gone too far. CNN's Pamela Brown is at the White House. And Pamela, Rod Rosenstein is expected to show up at the White House any moment, if he's not already there.
BROWN: Yes, that's right. This was apparently a preplanned meeting with President Trump today. But, of course, a lot has happened in the wake of the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, giving his resignation letter at the request of the President. So, all of this raises the question, what is next for Rod Rosenstein? And this really is a slap in the face to him. Because he was the number two at the department. Yet the President didn't put him in this acting attorney general position. He put the chief of staff, Matt Whitaker, in the position.
Also, it raises the question of the Russia probe, Jake. Because if the President didn't want to do anything with the Russia probe and keep the status quo, he would have simply just put Rod Rosenstein in that acting position.
[15:55:00] But instead he put someone in that role who has publicly said that the Russia investigation has gone too far. Matt Whitaker is on the record, saying that Mueller has overstepped his bounds in an op-ed on CNN. He was also on Don Lemon's show suggesting that whoever takes the role of Sessions place should limit Mueller's project.
Now those close to the President say there is no plan as of now for Matt Whitaker to interfere, suppress or end the Russia probe. But make no mistake about it, this is certainly a signal that the President is trying to regain control, regain the reins of the Russia probe by putting Matt Whitaker in this position. Because we know that over the course of the last year, he had repeatedly asked Jeff Sessions to regain control. He had openly fumed, bullied Jeff Sessions for recusing himself. He did not like the fact that Rod Rosenstein was the one overseeing it. But he felt like he had his hands tied before the midterm elections.
Now that that has come and gone, the President wasting no time putting Matt Whitaker in this position. Again, a man who has openly said the Mueller probe should be limited. And this is how it all played out this morning, Jake. John Kelly, the President's Chief of Staff, was the one who called Jeff Sessions. Not the President himself, to essentially tell him he's fired and to hand over his resignation letter. This was all before the President's press conference -- Jake.
TAPPER: And Pamela, the President earlier today at the press conference said he didn't want to talk about the possibility of removing Sessions.
BROWN: Yes, that's right. It came up, and he said he would talk about that at a later date. But he didn't want to do anything before the midterms. Here's what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you give us clarity, sir, on your thinking currently, now after the midterms, about your Attorney General and your Deputy Attorney General? Do they have long-term job security?
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I would rather answer that at a little bit different time. We're looking at a lot of different things, including cabinet. I'm very happy with most of my cabinet. We're looking at different people for different positions. You know, it's very common after the midterms. I didn't want to do anything before the midterms.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BROWN: And now we know, Jake, that at that press conference, Jeff Sessions had already given his resignation letter. And if you listened closely to what the President had to say during the press conference, it was clear that he felt like, look, I have control of the Russia probe, and what's going on. I can do whatever I want. But I'm not going to interfere. Well now this is a big step, Jake, for him to basically have someone take the role of acting Attorney General, Matt Whitaker, someone who has publicly said that the Russia probe should be limited and that it's gone too far.
TAPPER: And Pamela, you estimate reporting what's on the table for Whitacre regarding the Russia investigation.
BROWN: Well, that's right. And so, you know that there are these writings from matt Whitaker that I just referred to, what he has said on Don Lemon's show. So, ethics officials at the Justice Department could scrutinize that. But here's the thing. Matt Whitaker is not bound by whatever the ethics officials suggest. Jeff Sessions, of course, as we know, took the advice of the ethics officials, recused himself, much to the dismay of the President. But that's not necessarily the case with Matt Whitaker. He can take over the reins of the Russia probe and basically do whatever he wants at this point.
TAPPER: All right, Pamela Brown at the White House, thank you so much.
This just in. Senator Mark Warner, who's ranking Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, he just reacted to this news.
He said in a statement, quote, no one is above the law, and any effort to interfere with the Special Counsel's investigation would be a gross abuse of power by the President. While the President may have the authority to replace the Attorney General, this must not be the first step in an attempt to impede, obstruct or end the Mueller investigation.
Joining me on the phone right now is Democratic Congressman, Ted Lieu of California. He's on the House Foreign Affairs and Judiciary Committees. First of all, Congressman Liew, your reaction to the news Jeff Sessions has essentially been fired.
REP. TED LIEU (D), CALIFORNIA (via phone): Thank you, Jake, for your question. Look, Attorney General Jeff Sessions' hard line ideology was completely in sync with Donald Trump except on the Russia investigation. So, it seemed like the only reason Donald Trump fired him was to interfere with the Special Counsel's investigation. If that's the case, that could constitute obstruction of justice the same way that firing James Comey was obstruction of justice.
TAPPER: Well, you are part of the new Democratic majority. In January, you will all be sworn in, and Nancy Pelosi presumably will be speaker. What will, I suppose, the House Judiciary Committee, of which you're a member, what will you do about it if that's your view?
LIEU: I believe we need to be sending out, first of all, document preservation letters to the Special Counsel, to make sure that during this transition there's no shredding of documents or any documents are lost. We could also have hearings, we could also conduct our own investigation. We could build upon what the Special Counsel has done and then continue it in the House Judiciary Committee. There are a lot of ways we can hold Donald Trump and his administration accountable.
TAPPER: Can you do that right now, or do you have to wait for the Democrats to take power in January?