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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER
Trump Fires Attorney General Jeff Sessions; Interview With California Congressman Ted Lieu. Aired 4-4:30p ET
Aired November 7, 2018 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Can you do that right now, or do you have to wait for the Democrats to take power in January?
REP. TED LIEU (D), CALIFORNIA: If Republicans put country over party, we could do it next week. If they don't, we are going to have to wait until January.
TAPPER: OK. So it will happen in January.
The chief of staff to Jeff Sessions, Matt Whitaker, will be the new acting attorney general. Whitaker told CNN last year that he could envision a scenario where the new attorney general would reduce Mueller's budget so low, make it so small, that the Mueller investigation would grind to a halt, essentially.
Do you fear that Whitaker, as acting attorney general, will have that happen?
LIEU: He is exactly the wrong person to oversee the Mueller probe.
The whole reason there was a special counsel investigation is because there was a conflict of interests for the president to oversee the investigation through the White House. To have Whitaker there is exactly the same problem.
And I also note that , under the Vacancies Act, it's unclear if Whitaker could even be in that position. He is not Senate-confirmed. And then there is an issue about what position he has. Would it qualify to be under the Vacancies Act?
So, I that is still somewhat of an open question.
TAPPER: Do you expect Mueller to act quickly with any possible announcements, now that the midterms are over and the attorney general has been fired?
LIEU: I believe Robert Mueller is a very smart man, and that he has contingencies in place.
We're also going to be sending letters to both the attorney general's office, as well as special counsel, to say if there has been any change in the scope of the investigation, they need to inform members of the Congress and specifically the Judiciary Committee.
TAPPER: Do you think that Mueller's job is in jeopardy until Democrats take over the House of Representatives, presumably in January?
LIEU: I do not believe Robert Mueller's job is in jeopardy right now.
I think the president does see that as a red line. I do believe putting Matt Whitaker in is probably a red line as well. But we will see what Whitaker has to say.
And in terms of firing Robert Mueller, under Department of Justice regulations, he could still only be fired for good cause. He can't just be fired just because Whitaker doesn't like him or what he's doing.
TAPPER: You think that President Trump is not willing to cross the line to fire Robert Mueller or have Robert Mueller fired? Did I get that right?
LIEU: I do believe that.
And, also, if the president believes that the only way to clear his name is for the Mueller investigation to clear his name, then he would not fire him, because, otherwise, there's no way Donald Trump gets his name cleared.
TAPPER: Do you actually believe that? Or are you just trying to convey that to President Trump, trying to convince him psychologically, some sort of Vulcan mind-meld here, that, don't do this, President Trump, because you want to clear your name?
TAPPER: Do you actually think that he has this red line?
LIEU: I do, because I think he would have actually, in fact, executed a firing of Robert Mueller. I think he does think in his mind that the majority of the American people would rise up against him and that the Judiciary Committee and now the Democratic control of the House would be a check and balance on his ability to do that.
TAPPER: All right, Congressman Ted Lieu, thank you so much. And, presumably, congratulations on your reelection. I'm assuming, if you're talking to me, you won reelection last night.
LIEU: Yes, thank you, Jake.
The resignation of Jeff Sessions as attorney general has frankly been a long time coming.
And as CNN's Laura Jarrett reports, the frustration and tension between Sessions and President Trump goes both ways.
LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): At President Trump's request, Jeff Sessions is out as attorney general, submitting his resignation letter to the president -- quote -- "I have been honored to serve as attorney general and have worked to implement the law enforcement agenda based on the rule of law," wrote Sessions.
Trump has made no secret of his disdain for his attorney general.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm disappointed in the attorney general for numerous reasons. But we have an attorney general. I'm disappointed in the attorney general for many reasons. And you understand that.
JARRETT: The long-expected departure of one of President Trump's earliest supporters, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, coming after months of blistering attacks.
TRUMP: I said, on the Department of Justice, I would stay uninvolved. Now, I may get involved at some point, if it gets worse.
JARRETT: At one low point, Trump even going so far as to declare -- quote -- "I don't have an attorney general."
JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: It's good to be with you.
JARRETT: All because Sessions stepped aside from overseeing the Russia investigation, something that overshadowed nearly all of his 20 months at the Justice Department.
TRUMP: He took the job, and then he said, I'm going to recuse myself. And I said, what kind of a man is this?
JARRETT: And despite all the tweets and withering critiques from his boss...
TRUMP: I put an attorney general that never took control of the Justice Department, Jeff Sessions. Never took control of the Justice Department. And it's a sort of an incredible thing.
JARRETT: ... Sessions rarely pushed back.
SESSIONS: The president speaks his mind. He says what's on his mind at the time, and he's been frustrated about my recusal and other matters. But we have been so pleased and honored to be given the responsibility to execute his agenda at the Department of Justice.
Part of that is just this kind of case. And so I am pleased and honored to have that responsibility, and will do so as long as it's appropriate for me to do so.
JARRETT: Picking his moments carefully, and vowing in August that the Justice Department will not be improperly influenced by political considerations. Publicly, he advanced the president's most controversial immigration
policies. Privately, a source close to Sessions tells CNN he too has been frustrated that Mueller's investigation is not yet completed. And the attorney general hopes he will be remembered for never undermining the integrity of the department.
With Sessions now gone, his chief of staff, Matt Whitaker, will take over the department in the interim. Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney from Iowa and former CNN contributor, has served as Sessions' right- hand man since September 2017.
But with Sessions now gone, the question is, who will replace him? Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has reportedly been asked about the job and has repeatedly said he is not interested.
Others said to be in the running include former federal prosecutor and current Republican Congressman John Ratcliffe, Boeing general counsel Michael Luttig, and others potentially in the mix are federal appeals court Judge Edith Jones, who sits on the Fifth Circuit, and Janice Rogers Brown, who used to sit on the D.C. Circuit, though a source tells CNN she is likely not interested.
Laura Jarrett, CNN, Washington.
TAPPER: And our thanks to Laura Jarrett for that piece.
This just in: Current Democratic Minority Leader, incoming likely House Speaker Nancy Pelosi just tweeted -- quote -- "It is impossible to read Attorney General Sessions' firing as anything other than another blatant attempt by President Trump to undermine and end special counsel Mueller's investigation."
Pelosi also weighing in on the appointment of the acting attorney general, adding -- quote -- "Given his record of threats to undermine and weaken the Russia investigation, Matthew Whitaker should recuse himself from any involvement in Mueller's investigation. Congress must take immediate action to protect the rule of law and integrity of the investigation" -- unquote.
And our panel is here with us to discuss this.
And, David Urban, let me start with you. As somebody who is closely allied with the White House, are you surprised by this? Do you think it's wise?
DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Slow news at a day.
URBAN: No news out there, so we need to make some news.
Yes, it's completely surprising, just for that fact, right? The president had a news conference today, where he's out there touting, look, we did great things. We moved the needle. Look at our great agenda. And then you come to this and step all over the message and you're on to another story and another kind of crisis here, so to speak.
And do I -- did I see it coming? Everybody kind of saw it coming. We all knew that the attorney general was kind of living on borrowed time. But today, the timing is pretty bad I think in terms of timing.
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think timing is the question inside the White House too. But also Matt Whitaker being named is also a question.
I asked several White House officials, why not name the deputy attorney general as the acting attorney general? That's typically the process for something like this. And a lot of them didn't know or couldn't say. They know that President Trump likes Matt Whitaker.
He has -- clearly we reported a few weeks ago on that plan to when the deputy attorney general thought he was going to resign, be fired, whatever term you want to use, Matt Whitaker was going to take over for that spot.
But I don't think a lot of people inside the West Wing saw Matt Whitaker taking over as the acting attorney general.
TAPPER: And let me -- but, Bakari, do you see this as Nancy Pelosi does, this is all just about ending the Mueller investigation?
BAKARI SELLERS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: This is about ending the Mueller investigation. And I think there's a lot of angst in the White House.
And there are three quick points. To David's point, if everyone else saw this coming, we know Robert Mueller saw this coming. And so I do think that there is a high probability of some high-profile targets -- we hear these stories about Donald Jr. all the time -- having sealed indictments out there just waiting.
And I think that Mueller has done a great job of protecting his investigation. But I disagree with Nancy Pelosi, because if she thinks that Whitaker is going to recuse himself, I think those chances are between statistically zero and zero, right?
That's not happening. And so the last thing that I would challenge, while we still have this Senate and House, I do think that -- I know there is a bill in the House and a bill on the floor of the Senate to protect Mueller. I think the American people probably will have some say in that and try to get them to do that when they come back November 13 or whenever that is.
URBAN: Listen, I think Mueller is not going anywhere. I think that's a bridge too far. I think this the president even recognizes that. Right?
I do think you would see a hue and cry from the Republican side of the aisle in Mueller were to be dismissed. I think it's going to be wrapped up sometime soon. I think there is a great deal of frustration that is lingering on, lingering on. [16:10:03]
I think now the election is over, you're going to see some resolution on that pretty quickly.
JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think I would say, to Bakari's point, I think the Democrats are probably calling for the wrong thing right now.
There is legislation that worked its way through the Senate Judiciary Committee and was approved by the Republican Senate Judiciary Committee that McConnell just did not bring to the floor that would protect Mueller. The House can certainly do the same thing.
If they're putting the right pressure points right now, they would be pushing to protect Mueller. I don't think we should sit here and take Trump or even Trump supporters at their word that Trump is not going to go there and fire Mueller.
He put Matt Whitaker in place because Matt Whitaker is more sympathetic to his views on Mueller than Rosenstein. And that's an important piece of this.
TAPPER: Do you agree, Mary Katharine, that it's a bridge too far for President Trump?
MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think it's likely that it is, but things can change every 15 minutes, as we've seen.
Look, the improbably successful campaign to make Jeff Sessions sympathetic to basically everyone continues apace. That is something I have always been surprised about here.
And I'm going to make a political point, just because we have got the moral and legal points covered as well. But today was actually a decent day for Republicans. Like, last night was decent. The Senate news was decent. They could talk about it and...
TAPPER: Republicans won Senate seats during the midterm election.
HAM: And this is indicative of what the next two years will look like just on a bare political level of trying to control messaging for them.
Serenity now. He cannot give us even one day of post-election for people to pick their narratives and talk about them. This is where we go. It's going to happen for two years.
TAPPER: Laura, we were talking about this in the previous hour, which is President Trump went out there this morning at the press conference and told Republicans, if you defy me, I will shame you, as he did with the Republicans who distance themselves, attacked the media, and told Democrats, if you investigate me, I will investigate you. And he did that knowing that this had happened.
LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Of course. And I suspect that even Jeff Sessions can't write this resignation letter in the amount of time it took from the press conference to the amount of time he was told to resign.
You think about this issue, and the wrong word is being circulated. Fired is not the only issue for Robert Mueller. He could remain in place and have his legs cut out from underneath him if you have somebody who is overseeing his probe who is curtailing his efforts at subpoena power, who is curtailing his efforts in the budgetary concerns, or maybe trying to guide or stymie the investigation other ways.
But there actually exists legislation that would help him. One thing that Representative Lieu was talking about was the notion of there is a for-cause clause in his actual protective language which says that Mueller can only be fired for cause or dereliction of duty.
So far, you have heard from Rod Rosenstein about less than a month ago telling everyone there is no reason to think there is any dereliction of duty or any reason to undermine it as a witch-hunt.
So, you do have the for-cause lingering. And unless something changed from the midterm elections last night until right now, Mueller should theoretically be safe under existing legislation.
COLLINS: I don't think it's that far gone, though, to picture the president firing the special counsel, because, A, he's tried to do it before, which we know.
It's not like it's some area that he hasn't come close to. He's tried to it before. And, B, what was one of the things he was tweeting about this morning when he was talking about the rash of election results from last night?
He was citing a poll saying that he believed Americans did not find the Mueller investigation to be worthy of continuing going on. So the president can use that mentality or he clearly has that mentality. He thinks that his supporters -- and he's been surrounded by them for two weeks now saying witch-hunt and having the crowd cheer -- agree with him that this is a waste of time and that he should end it.
That is how the president reasons things, not by being worried about what people on Capitol Hill...
TAPPER: All right, everyone, stick around. We got to take a quick break.
Another man fired by President Trump just tweeted -- quote -- "It's danger time."
And I will talk to him next. Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
[16:17:24] TAPPER: And we're back with the major breaking news. President Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions, going from Trump loyalist to embattled attorney general after Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation. Now, the ex attorney general in his place, at least temporarily, is Matthew Whitaker.
Let's go to CNN's Evan Perez and Shimon Prokupecz for more on that.
Evan, what can you tell us about the now acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker?
EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, you know, he's been a skeptic of the investigation. He has written an op-ed for CNN.com in which he talked about his thoughts that Mueller had gone too far in the investigation, and needed to be hemmed in. And here, he was discussing on don lemon's show just last year a way that a future acting attorney general could come in and limit what Mueller was doing.
Take a listen to what he had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEW WHITAKER, INCOMING ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL: You can see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess appointment, and that attorney general doesn't fire Bob Mueller. But he just reduces the budget so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
PEREZ: And, Jake, obviously now this is a big thing for Matt Whitaker to deal with. Certainly the Justice Department's ethics officials will have a say as to whether or not they believe this constitutes an appearance of conflict and whether it means that Matthew Whitaker needs to recuse himself from this investigation.
Obviously, this is something that is simply an advice they would get from people at the Justice Department. He doesn't necessarily have to follow it -- Jake.
TAPPER: And, Shimon, we saw Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and incoming likely Speaker Nancy Pelosi call on Matt Whitaker to recuse himself from overseeing the investigation. I don't imagine that's going to happen. But is there any indication that it's even being considered?
SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: No, there isn't. And really, you know, his opinions of where this investigation was certainly when he was on CNN and when he wrote the op-ed, he was in a very different place when he gave that opinion. We don't think that he's been briefed on any aspects of this investigation. It will be now his job to get briefed by Robert Mueller and his team, certainly, special counsel team, on where things stand. And the other thing, Jake, that's important to keep in mind, right,
Rod Rosenstein was overseeing the investigation, would give Robert Mueller certainly permission, Mueller would have to go to him and say hey, I want to subpoena this one, do this at the grand jury. And then the big question is, remember, whether or not, if the president has refused to answer questions by this special counsel team, would Robert Mueller and his team subpoena the president?
That now ultimately lies with Whitaker. He would have to ultimately tell the special counsel, OK, go ahead, since the president is refusing to answer your questions, you can go ahead and subpoena him.
[16:20:01] That's obviously unlikely to happen now.
And that is where I think issues can come up in this investigation. Because this is the guy now that could tell Robert Mueller, you know, you need to speed this up. You can't do this, you can't do that. Let's go, let's go. We're done here. That could happen in this case.
And, you know, one other point I want to make, Jake, we know certainly Evan and I and from people we've talked to that there were contingency plans in place for something like this. The Justice Department has been prepared for something like this and most importantly, the FBI. Where all of this evidence lives, intelligence lives, where all of the witnesses live. All of that information you can be rest assured and I think the public needs to know this, that that is going to be preserved by people at the FBI.
TAPPER: Evan, your sources signal a possible end to the Mueller investigation after the midterms. What could an end in the investigation under Whitaker mean?
PEREZ: Right. I think a lot of people are focusing on whether Matt Whitaker might try to end the investigation. All indications, Jake, are that the probe is coming to a close, probably perhaps as soon as the end of the year or early next year.
But what happens to Robert Mueller's report is now in the hands of Matt Whitaker, whether any of it becomes public. Whether it even -- the report goes to Congress. All of that now lies in the hands of Matt Whitaker.
And so, that's I think an even bigger and perhaps even more important question, because, you know, probably the investigation is almost complete anyway. So the question now is, what happens to Robert Mueller's report?
TAPPER: All right. Thank you so much, Shimon and Evan.
Joining me now is Preet Bharara. He's a former U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, also dismissed by President Trump.
Preet, many speculated Attorney General Sessions would be out after the election. What does this mean for you -- what does this mean in your view for the Mueller investigation? PREET BHARARA, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY, WAS FIRED BY PRESIDENT TRUMP: I
think it's a time of great concern. We've been treated to over time taunts by the president with respect to his attorney general, taunts by the president with respect to the deputy attorney general, both of whom were hand-picked by President Trump, because he's angry about the Russia investigation.
And so for a long time, I think people have had confidence on both sides of the aisle that Rod Rosenstein was acting in a professional way with respect to the Mueller investigation. He, in fact, himself is the person who appointed Robert Mueller, and has said repeatedly in public statements and in congressional testimony that the special counsel's investigation is not a witch hunt. He hasn't seen anything inappropriate go on. That it should be supported, not interfered with.
And so, I think people felt comfortable that that investigation would see its way to a proper conclusion in an orderly fashion, so long as Rod Rosenstein was in charge of that investigation.
So now you have a new person coming in, as has been pointed out by the reporters on just before me. You have someone who looks like he's prejudged the Mueller investigation, has talked about a reduction in the budget for the Mueller investigation, has talked about a narrowing of the scope of the Mueller investigation. All of which are things that are on the record that he said when he was on CNN and elsewhere. And so you have a concern that there might be an undo restricting of that investigation, and that it's not going to be allowed to complete its course.
The other thing you have to be concerned about, given what President Trump has said over and over again about Jeff Sessions. The one thing about Jeff Sessions we know for a fact did ethically was consult with people in the Justice Department and recuse himself. And that's the one thing that president Trump has hated about Jeff Sessions' conduct.
So, you've got to believe that the president got a different kind of understanding in a conversation with Mr. Whitaker. Now, it may be the Justice Department has cleared it and the ethics people think it's okay for him not to recuse himself. But given the statements he's made and the prejudgment that it sounds like he's engaged in, I think you have cause for great concern that he is not going to view that investigation in the way he might otherwise.
And making those statements, by the way, before knowing anything at all about what the special counsel was considering.
TAPPER: Let's talk about Matt Whitaker for a second. He's going to serve as the acting attorney general. He will now be overseeing the Russia investigation, not Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein. And he does seem, as you note, to align with the president's view of the Mueller investigation.
He wrote in a CNN op-ed last week, quote: It does not take a lawyer or even a former federal prosecutor like myself to conclude that investigating Donald Trump's finances or his family's finances falls completely outside of the realm of his 2016 campaign and allegations that the campaign coordinated with the Russian government or anyone else. That goes beyond the scope of the appointment of the special counsel.
So that's just one example of many of the things that Matt Whitaker has said publicly about limiting the Mueller probe one way or the other. You mentioned already that he had talked, hypothesized about how a recess appointment, an acting attorney general could starve the Mueller investigation in terms of budgetary support.
Does that, however, constitute a conflict of interest and a need to recuse? Is he not allowed to have opinions and then come in and serve as attorney general?
BHARARA: Yes, look, I don't know all the facts. I don't know all of the things he said. I don't know exactly what the internal folks at the DOJ would say about it.
[16:25:02] I do think it raises a concern.
Look, I had issues from time to time as U.S. attorney where it seemed like the best thing to do was to recuse myself. And there were times where the internal ethics folks said specifically, you don't have to recuse yourself. And then sometimes given the nature of the issue, and given what people might think about it, sometimes even if your ethics people tell you and any lawyer worth his salt would say the same thing, it's still better to step away from the case or step away from the investigation so that people have full confidence.
And given the stakes involved here, and how much people are watching, and how long it's been going on, the things he said are going to cause people to have a question about what he does if he decides to restrict the investigation.
By the way, the other thing that seems odd and wrong about this statement you read from that op-ed by Mr. Matt Whitaker is, he doesn't know the basis on which the Mueller investigation may have been looking at the finances of the president, right? The appointment letter by Rod Rosenstein makes very clear that the scope of the investigation was supposed to be relating to the campaign and possible collusion. But then also says, and also any matters that arise from this investigation.
So, for example, if there were things that happened in the course of the Mueller investigation that brought to light other kinds of crimes that were taking place and came to their information, and came to their knowledge and attention directly because of the investigation, that's covered in the scope of what Rosenstein said.
So he was speaking a little bit out of school when he said those things.
TAPPER: Preet, if Matt Whitaker comes in and decides to limit the Mueller investigation one way or the other, would we ever know?
BHARARA: I think in modern America, and given the subpoena power that has just been handed to the House Democrats, I think we will know. We may not know in real-time, but we will know eventually, yes.
TAPPER: The president did make the argument today that if he wanted Mueller fired, he would have fired him already.
BHARARA: Yes, but, look, the president is a little more shrewd than people give him credit for. He does some things out in the open to make it seem like he's got nothing to hide. But they also made the evidence of criminal conduct or abuse of power and the House may consider that at some point.
So, you know, just because the president has not fired someone yet doesn't mean he won't do it in the future. And doesn't mean he doesn't want to minimize the damage to him and the political backlash to him. Look, he was very smart in some ways, depending on your perspective, on how he dealt with Jeff Sessions. He could have said, look, you know, if I want to fire Jeff Sessions, I could have done it.
But he waited. He waited, what, he waited until hours after the midterm elections so he wouldn't screw up his political chances in various races around the country. So I imagine some similar kind of, you know -- strategizing is going on in his head with respect to Mueller, as well.
It is very clear that he wants Mueller to close up shop and stop. And from his perspective, the question is always, what's the best way to do it with the least amount of fallout?
TAPPER: All right. Preet Bharara, a man who knows about being fired by President Trump, thanks so much. I appreciate it.
BHARARA: Thanks, Jake.
TAPPER: A Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee just weighed in on whether the new acting attorney general needs to recuse himself. What did he or she say? That's next.