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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER
Trump Fires Attorney General Jeff Sessions; Interview with Mazie Hirono (D-HI). Aired 4:30-5p ET
Aired November 7, 2018 - 16:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
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SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I talked to the president this morning. We have got to find somebody who the president trusts that can get confirmed. A lot of good choices. I'm looking forward, not backward. We have got a new chapter at the Department of Justice, and I'm excited about the opportunity.
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JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Gosh, he's a positive person. That's an optimistic Republican Senator Lindsey Graham moments ago reacting to the news that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been fired.
And because Sessions had recused himself from overseeing the Russia investigation, his dismissal means his replacement, Matthew Whitaker, not only becomes the job of attorney general, but also becomes Robert Mueller's boss.
Let me start with you, Bakari, because Lindsey Graham at one point said there could be holy hell to pay if President Trump ever fired Jeff Sessions.
He revised that a little bit a couple months ago as it became clearer that this relationship was not going to last. What do you make of what he just said?
BAKARI SELLERS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I don't know who Lindsey Graham is anymore.
TAPPER: You have known him for a long time.
SELLERS: Yes, I served in the South Carolina General Assembly for eight years and run statewide before in South Carolina, know Lindsey Graham very, very well. You know, he's always been afraid of his shadow somewhat.
And he's always in campaign mode. He's always afraid of that challenge from the right. And people used to look at Lindsey Graham as being the sane senator we have from South Carolina when we had Jim DeMint there, somebody who you could go to, to get things done. But I think he's the prime example of when Donald Trump breaks an
individual. Now Lindsey Graham is very weak-kneed. He's no longer putting the country first. He's putting his party first. And there are a lot of us who have known Lindsey Graham for a long time, even Republican friends you talk to, who say, I have no idea who this man is.
TAPPER: On the other hand, you know Whitaker, you know Matt Whitaker, the acting attorney general. What can you tell us about him? He's got a whole trail of tweets expressing a lot of skepticism about how Bob Mueller has been doing his job.
DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Matt is a conservative guy, believes in God and country kind of guy, right?
The president likes him, has a lot of faith in him. And, look, I think he's very intelligent, obviously, political, ran for Senate in the open seat there which Joni Ernst ended up winning. And so Matt is a very bright guy, was a U.S. attorney for the Southern District in Iowa.
Look, I don't think he's going to go out and do anything rash and get rid of Mueller here. I think he's a really bright guy who will stay the course. But I do believe that he does believe there are certain limits, as he expressed in this article, about what can and can't be investigated in the scope of the special counsel.
TAPPER: Jen, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer released this statement -- quote -- "Given his previous comments advocating defunding and imposing limitations on the Mueller investigation, Mr. Whitaker should recuse himself for its oversight for the duration of his time as acting attorney general."
Do you think there is any chance of that happening, and is this even a battle Democrats should be waging?
JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: He should.
There doesn't seem to be any appetite. You need Republicans as well to partner to push him to do that. And there doesn't seem to be any appetite to do that. You know, I think there's a very interesting timeline right now, because we have about seven weeks, six weeks, until the end of the year.
Matt Whitaker can't serve indefinitely as acting attorney general. He could recess appoint him, but a recess appointment only lasts through that Congress, which there isn't a lot more time for.
I think the timing of this is very calculated by Trump in perhaps a smart, wicked political way, in that he saw he has more space on the Senate, maybe he wants to get his attorney general confirmed. But he would have to probably think about that starting January.
And at that point, Democrats have the House. So Democrats are calling for a lot of things right now. They don't have a lot of power. They will have a lot of power in January that will allow them to do a number of things.
TAPPER: And, Mary Katharine, obviously, Whitaker has been a skeptic of the Mueller investigation.
Before he took on this role as Jeff Sessions' chief of staff and now acting attorney general, he wrote an op-ed for CNN last year on the topic of whether or not Mueller could investigate Trump's finances. He said -- quote -- "It is time for Rosenstein, who is the acting attorney general for the purposes of this investigation, to order Mueller to limit the scope of his investigation to the four corners of the order appointing him special counsel. If he doesn't, then Mueller's investigation will eventually start to look like a political fishing expedition."
Do you have any concerns about whether or not he can supervise the investigation?
MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think in cases like this, it's best practices to, if you have opined on this specific subject, to make sure that people have confidence by not putting yourself in that position.
TAPPER: So you think he should recuse?
HAM: I think that's probably the right thing. I think Jeff Sessions did the right thing, and it has ticked off Trump, as we have seen ever, since then.
But I don't want to dismiss the idea that special prosecutors should have limits on them. That's a long time and fair concern about these types of investigations.
HAM: But he's specifically commented on this. And I will say, it's going to be difficult for both Republicans who went after Peter Strzok to say that having opinions did not allow him to do his job properly and Democrats who said, oh, Strzok is totally fine, he's a great public servant, everybody is going to switch teams once again and say that having a political opinion makes you unqualified now.
TAPPER: What happens if he refuses to recuse himself, which I think we can all bet money is going to happen?
LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: He will continue to serve as acting A.G. He's not required to recuse himself.
The distinction between himself and Jeff Sessions is that Jeff Sessions was a part of the campaign, and in fact a noted surrogate. And the campaign itself was being investigated. That was the bases on which the people who were internally in DOJ said you should recuse yourself.
I will say, however, the idea of him -- it is best practices. That's absolutely the case. But the thing about this particular individual is that he has not only done what people do not want a Justice Department official to do, which is to show that Lady Justice is not blind.
He has preconceived notions on the individual case and I want to hold him to his actual words. He's absolutely right. Rod Rosenstein and Robert Mueller should be held to the four corners of the investigation, which includes whatever follows from the collusion investigation, including finances. That's part of it.
And if he wants to be held to his word, then he should welcome any opportunity to venture past the initial.
URBAN: I was just going to say, remember, we used to have this independent counsel statute that both sides got rid of because it was a big -- it was a license to fish. Very narrow. This is supposed to be much more narrow. We didn't want those things. We shouldn't have it here.
TAPPER: All right, the new acting attorney general has not been shy about his feelings about the Mueller probe. Even tweeting about it. What did he tweet? That's next.
TAPPER: Breaking news. The United States now has a new acting attorney general.
That man, Matthew Whitaker, will oversee the Russia investigation, and he has made his feelings pretty clear about the Mueller probe on Twitter.
In August 2017, Whitaker responded to a "National Review" headlined "Mueller Is Squeezing Manafort" with this comment -- quote -- "One thought, is Mueller trying to catch Manafort in a lying to Congress case to exert pressure, being day after interview with staffers?"
If another comment, Whitaker tweeted in response to this NPR headline, "Those fervently depending on Robert Mueller to shake up the Trump presidency may be in for some disappointment," stating the: "Article is correct. It will be very difficult to ever see evidence discovered by Mueller grand jury investigation."
Whitaker also shared an opinion piece titled -- quote -- "Note to Trump's lawyer, do not cooperate with Mueller lynch mob," Whitaker adding, "Worth a read."
Capitol Hill is beginning to respond to the breaking news of President Trump firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Sunlen Serfaty is on the Hill.
And, Sunlen, what are you hearing? SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly, Jake,
specifically, a lot of concern about acting A.G. Matt Whitaker, a lot of those words that you just read.
The top Senate Democrat, the top House Democrat both tonight calling for Matt Whitaker to recuse himself in the Russia investigation, and certainly across the board a lot of top Democrats expressing a lot of concern about what all of this means for the special counsel, Robert Mueller's investigation.
Here's Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer earlier today.
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SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: Protecting Mueller and his investigation is paramount. It would create a constitutional crisis if this were a prelude to ending or greatly limiting the Mueller investigation.
And I hope President Trump and those he listens to will refrain from that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SERFATY: And we are also hearing from key House Democrats as well.
Jerry Nadler, who stands to potentially take over the House Judiciary Committee, he raised obstruction concerns earlier today and says that he could potentially investigate this decision to hire -- to fire Sessions.
Meantime, seeing similar sentiments coming from Elijah Cummings, the Democrat who likely will take over the House Oversight Committee. So, certainly a lot of top Democrats in their newfound majority in the House emboldened by this news in their reactions tonight -- Jake.
TAPPER: All right, Sunlen Serfaty on the Hill.
I want to bring in Josh Campbell, former special assistant to former FBI Director James Comey.
Josh, the president has been pretty transparent about his frustration with now former Attorney General Sessions. What do you make of this decision? What do you make of the timing?
JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: So I don't think any of us are surprised. In fact, I've been talking to some of former colleagues inside the FBI and one person described it as you know, as the media prepares obituaries for example to have on the shelf, this is what they were expecting with Attorney General Jeff Sessions. They knew that his time is limited based on all the back-and-forth that's been going on with the President.
One person though described this is a very dangerous time potentially because of the person that they're now bringing in, Mr. Whitaker and the fact that he's already been on record criticizing the Mueller investigation. Obviously, there's a conflict of interest there. And one thing that's interesting is that you know, in any case, Jake, it is inappropriate for the White House to be even perceived as influencing an investigation doubly so when that investigation pertains to the President himself. So I don't think we can overstate the gravity of what's going on here.
TAPPER: I want to show some video right now of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein leaving the White House. We just saw him. He was at the White House. We're not exactly sure why he was there. We're told it was for a previously arranged meeting. Although, obviously eyebrows being raised at his presence at the White House right now. Josh, knowing what you know about Bob Mueller, would this change anything from his focus on the Russia investigation.
CAMPBELL: So it's not going to change Bob Mueller's focus though, but he may not be the person making the decisions here. Now, up to this point, the conventional wisdom has been that Bob Mueller was protected so long as Rod Rosenstein was there. That has gone out the window. We can shuffle the deck on that conventional wisdom because now Rosenstein is not that barrier. He's not the person. It appears that Whitaker now will be supervising the investigation. So again, someone who's been on record criticizing, being put in by the President, that can only lead in one direction when you think about why he's actually there and potentially what could happen to Mueller down the road. It's very troubling.
I will say, Jake, that you know, one thing that we know based on the President's history with the Department of Justice is every major personnel changed that he's made at DOJ has involved seemingly some type of ulterior motive. You had Sally Yates who obviously she defied the Muslim -- the immigration ban but she was also trying to sound the alarm on Michael Flynn. You had Preet Bharara who you are talking to earlier who defied the President's attempt to cultivate a potential relationship with him. And obviously my former boss James Comey who you know, the President was demanding loyalty from and he was trying to influence the investigation.
Each of those instances, we've seen some kind of other motive at play here. With Sessions, it appears to be the same case. He recused himself. That was obviously something that angered the President. It may be now that the President is putting someone in place who would be loyal to him based on some of the past statements that Whitaker has been on record saying.
TAPPER: And Josh, how is this going over with rank and file and DOJ, Justice Department and the FBI?
CAMPBELL: Yes. So as I mentioned, I mean, the fact that Sessions left surprised no one. Everyone assumed that that was going to be the case. And the fact of the matter is, on any given day, the Attorney General doesn't directly impact the work of an FBI agent or analyst out in the field. It's not something that they think about. But again, when you have someone who's now being put in place who could potentially influence a very major investigation in a significant way, that is something that is giving people that I've been talking to great pause because they don't know where it's headed. They look at the facts and you know, they can't draw a line through it but it appears as though the president is clearing out obstacles to some you know, possibly getting rid of Bob Mueller or significantly limiting his work.
TAPPER: All right, Josh Campbell, thanks so much. Do Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee need to speak out publicly over Jeff Sessions firing or are they better off staying silent? Say stay with us.
[16:50:00] TAPPER: Welcome back to breaking news coverage of President Trump's firing of his Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The two men have been at odds over Session's decision to listen to the ethics lawyers at the Department of Justice and recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Joining me on the phone is Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii. She serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee and she was re-elected last night with I think just 70, 71 percent of the vote. Senator, congratulations.
SEN. MAZIE HIRONO (D), HAWAII: Thank you very much.
TAPPER: Your reaction -- your reaction to today's developments?
HIRONO: It didn't take long for the President to act immediately to protect himself, because it's always about him, all of the time, every time. So first he fires Jeff Sessions, and then he names Matthew Whitaker as the Acting Attorney General, very, very troubling knowing Mr. Whitaker's views about the investigation. But you know, it raises, of course, a conflict of interest with regard to Whitaker, and it certainly goes to the obstruction of justice by the President. That's why Congress has to pass legislation to protect the Mueller investigation.
TAPPER: So you and your colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee already passed out of the committee legislation to protect Mueller. Senator Mitch McConnell, the Majority Leader, did not bring it up. I think he said he didn't feel there was any need to do so. Do you believe that there will be any appetite by Republicans to do so, and will there be perhaps a push by somebody like you or others to do so before the end of this Congress when you lose even more seats in January?
HIRONO: We passed the Mueller investigation basically to protect any special counsel out of the Judiciary Committee in a bipartisan way. And the only reason that McConnell didn't bring it on the floor was he says, we don't need to do that because nothing is going to happen to Mueller. I don't know what it's going to take. You know, maybe a ton of bricks has to fall on McConnell's head before he realizes or recognizes what is actually going on. So certainly I expect that the Democrats in the senate, as well as the Democrats in the House, will push to protect the Mueller investigation, because that has to go on. And the President's actions are so blatantly political to protect himself that, as I said, it didn't take long for him to do it.
TAPPER: Obviously, your party's -- power as being part of the party, the minority party in the senate are limited, compared to your Democratic colleagues in the House, who are going to soon have the majority. What do you want them to do that you are not able to do?
HIRONO: Certainly, they'll be able to investigate what's going on with the President. And my friend, Jerry Nadler, with whom I served for six years in the U.S. House, I know that he has already said he wants to know what the President's motives are. I think we can pretty much conclude what his motives are and that is to protect himself. So I expect Jerry Nadler to be chairing the Judiciary Committee in the in the House and then to proceed with what he needs to do to get to the bottom of this and to protect the Mueller investigation.
[16:55:22] TAPPER: Do you think that this is where it ends, that the that he appoints Matthew Whitaker as Acting Attorney General and Whitaker maybe you know, tries to keep -- tries to shrink or contract the bounds of the Mueller investigation or do you fear that there -- more is going to happen?
HIRONO: I think as long as the Mueller investigation continues that this is yet more actions by the President that goes to obstruction of justice.
TAPPER: Does President Trump have the right to have his Attorney General who every sees fit as long as that person is ultimately confirmed by the Senate?
HIRONO: I think -- I think motives matter and this is why the obstruction of justice is such a big issue for Mueller. And obstruction of justice is really it's a pattern. It's a cumulative effect of all of the actions that the President takes, the motives behind those actions. And if you were just doing this as one-off then maybe so, but it's not. It's a pattern of obstruction. There's no question that he's been wanting to end the Mueller investigation from the very beginning calling it a witch-hunt. So despite of the fact that say Russians interfered not only with the 2016 elections but that this election 2018 elections, the President is totally motivated by they desire to protect himself. I hope everybody gets that.
TAPPER: So your leader, the Senate Minority Leader Democrat Chuck Schumer says that the interim Attorney General, the acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker should recuse himself from the Russia investigation because he has said things about how he thinks that the Russian investigation could theoretically be starved of funding or it needs to be limited in scope. If -- first of all, why would he need to recuse himself? I understand why you don't trust him to lead the investigation but is there actually like a legal or ethical reason why he would need to do so?
HIRONO: There are some parameters as to when a refusal is required which is what led to Jeff Sessions recusal. So he -- Whitaker made statements such as there would be out of bounds for the -- for the Mueller investigation to go into Trump's family and his own finances and that it was a problem for the Trump people to take the Trump -- the Trump Tower meeting. So these are all matters of interest and --
TAPPER: But surely he's allowed to have an opinion. He's allowed to have an opinion on these matters and does his expression of those opinions mean that he needs to -- I'm just -- I'm an on an attorney, you are so I'm just -- is there some sort of legal reason why somebody who expresses an opinion could therefore not supervise an investigation about you know, the opinion of what you talked about?
HIRONO: When you express an opinion, that's fine. But when you put it in the context that he is actually going to be the person making decisions and overseeing the Mueller investigation, that is an entirely different proposition altogether. So it's a free country. Anybody can express themselves but he's going to be making decisions that will ultimately impact the Mueller investigation and I think that he -- if this isn't a basis for recusal, I don't know what recusal means, frankly.
TAPPER: Senator, I just want to ask you one more question about the results last night. I know that you're upset that many of your friends, Democratic Senators were not re-elected. What do you make of those who say that Democrats overreached when it came to the Kavanaugh hearings and that hurt people such as Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Joe Donnelly in Indiana, and Claire McCaskill in Missouri.
HIRONO: I said that their battles worth fighting and definitely Judge Kavanaugh even before Dr. Ford came over had a record of being against a woman's right to choose reproductive rights, environmental protections, there were any number of reasons to not be for him. And of course, when Dr. Ford came forward and how she was by the Judiciary Committee, that should have been a total red flag. And as I said, it's bad enough that we have one person on the Supreme Court with this kind of cloud, and now we have another.
The Supreme Court should be above reproach. And now I believe that you have two people on the Supreme Court who were not above reproach and that does not do the court any good. So you know, my friends who lost principal positions and I totally respect their courage for it and I wish other people would do the same thing and note that John Tester who the President went after tooth and nail in a very personal way has been reelected and I'm glad for that.
TAPPER: Has been reelected, yes. All right, Senator Mazie Hirono, thank you so much. Our coverage on CNN continues right now. Thanks for watching.