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Trump Fires Attorney General Jeff Sessions; Trump: No Rush on North Korea Talks High-Level Meeting Postponed. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired November 7, 2018 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And two can play that game.
As newly empowered House Democrats consider new probes of the president, Mr. Trump is warning that he will turn the tables and encourage Senate Republicans to go after Democrats. Will dueling investigations paralyze Washington for the next two years?
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We're following breaking news on the firing of the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and the impact on Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.
President Trump forcing Sessions out just hours after the midterm elections, acting on his seething anger at Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia probe. The new acting attorney general is a vocal critic of Mueller's investigation. He is now expected to oversee the special counsel, bumping Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, another target of Mr. Trump's wrath.
The urgent questions right now, will Mueller also be fired? And how will all this play out the new Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and the strengthened Republican majority in the U.S. Senate?
I get reaction from Congressman Ruben Gallego, along with our correspondents and analysts. They're all standing by.
First, let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta,
Jim, the president skirted a question about Sessions during his hour- and-a-half news conference today, and soon thereafter he announced that Sessions was out.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.
It wasn't long after that news conference that the president announced that Jeff Sessions, his attorney general, longtime attorney general and support from the 2016 campaign, is out, that he effectively fired him and that his resignation was forced. We have the letter from Jeff Sessions, the outgoing attorney general.
We can put that up on screen. It basically says everything that you need to know right here.
"At your request, I am submitting my resignation."
So that's a forced resignation there for Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Now, his replacement right now is the acting attorney general. He was the chief of staff to Jeff Sessions, Matt Whitaker. He is well known and well liked, I should say, inside this White House primarily because, Wolf, Matt Whitaker, while he was a contributor over here at CNN, and while he's been inside the Justice Department, he has been willing to essentially say what the president wants to hear in terms of his feelings on the Russia investigation.
He has said publicly, he said to our colleague Pam Brown that Donald Trump Jr., the president's eldest son, was just fine in terms of taking that meeting with that Russian attorney at that Trump Tower meeting in June of 2016.
He has also said -- he said this to Don Lemon our network -- that one way to go after Robert Mueller would be to starve his office of funds, and that that would be a way of hampering that investigation. So all of this is music to the president's ears.
Keep in mind, Wolf, the president has for a long time wanted to unload Jeff Sessions. We had heard this over the summer, that he was fuming once again about how he wanted to fire Jeff Sessions. And so this is obviously not coming as a huge shock to people here in Washington.
I will say, Wolf, I talked to a source familiar with what had happened to Jeff Sessions, who said just before the midterm elections, there were discussions inside the Senate GOP Caucus about whether or not the president would try to do this somehow before the midterms and the message was being sent from the White House, and there was some communication over this, that the president would, in fact, wait until after the victims.
They didn't expect it to happen so quickly, not right after the midterm vote, perhaps later on at the end of this week. But I think the president saw an opportunity to change the news cycle, change it away from those results from last night in the midterms, where he lost the House, and now he has somebody overseeing the Russia investigation.
Remember, Matt Whitaker, as the acting attorney general can oversee the Russia investigation. Jeff Sessions had recused himself and that's why Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, was there. But that is no longer the case. Somebody who is really a critic of this Russia investigation is now in charge of it -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Jim Acosta at the White House, thanks very much. We will get back to you soon.
I want to get some more in the breaking news right now. Our correspondents and analysts, all experts, are joining us all. Laura Jarrett, you're over at the Justice Department right now. You broke the story for us today.
How did all of this unfold?
LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, despite all of the month of tweets and berating treatment from the president, he didn't actually call Jeff Sessions himself.
Instead, he had his chief of staff, John Kelly, do it this morning before the president's press conference at 11:30. And Kaitlan Collins and I are told that Kelly was firm. Sessions wanted to try to stay on at least through the week. But Kelly was firm and said, today is the day.
And obviously we saw that letter where he says, at your request, making it very clear that although this was a resignation letter, this was coming at the president's request. And, of course, we had all expected this for quite some time.
It was never a question of when. It was -- it was always a question of when, not a question of if.
But the attorney general really had tried to put his head and do his job throughout all of the attacks. He really rarely pushed back, Wolf. We only saw him hit back on two occasions, when he believed his integrity was questioned.
But today was the final nail in the coffin.
In that letter to the president, Jeffrey, he writes, first sentence, "At your request, I am submitting my resignation," which means, in effect, I'm fired.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Oh, yes.
Casey Stengel, the famous baseball manager, once said, we call it discharged because there was no question that I had to go.
He had to go. I, mean the fact that it was today and that the president wanted to heap on the additional humiliation of making him leave today, as opposed to the end of the week -- and it's only Wednesday -- it just shows how angry the president was. And the fact that he installed Mr. Whitaker suggests that this is the first step in trying to limit or eliminate Robert Mueller.
BLITZER: What do you think, Shimon? What does this mean, Whitaker now effectively, assuming he doesn't recuse himself -- I assume he won't recuse himself -- overseeing Mueller and the probe?
SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It's a significant, certain move here by the president. And it's clear why the president did it.
Look, Whitaker has been out there before he worked for the Department of Justice saying how he thought that the Mueller probe was going too far, how he thought basically the president did nothing wrong, how he felt that some of what Mueller was looking at, certainly the obstruction stuff, they didn't think that the president obstructed justice, was critical of James Comey in the handling of the Hillary Clinton investigation.
So you have a guy now who's running this entire investigation that has been openly critical of the way it's been handled. He will have oversight of this investigation.
And one of the things I think that we're all going to be looking for, for those of us who've been covering this now for all these months, is whether or not he tries to speed up this investigation and basically tells the special counsel, OK, enough is enough, let's go, we're done here, and it's time for you to release your findings, release your report.
Whatever you have left, whatever indictments you may have left, let's go, let's move and get this over with.
BLITZER: Yes, he's made it clear, Whitaker, who's now going to be the acting attorney general, that there are ways to limit Mueller's probe, reduce the budget, for example, and starve him.
SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, I think there's there's quite a bit that somebody could do in this position. That's precisely why Trump has placed a loyalist in this role.
The acting attorney general still oversees the Mueller investigation. He is sort of in charge of it. Mueller has an obligation to consult with him on an ongoing basis, consult with him before taking any substantial or significant investigative step, and essentially has to seek approval.
Now, one question is, if Robert Mueller feels as though he's being stifled or otherwise impeded, there's nothing that prevents them from doing something like holding a press conference and telling the public that he feels like he is not being given some of the resources or support to accomplish his job.
BLITZER: Phil, listen to what Matt Whitaker told Don Lemon here on CNN in July of last year.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEW WHITAKER, ACTING U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I think what ultimately the president's going to start doing is putting pressure on Rod Rosenstein, who is in charge of this investigation as acting attorney general, and really try to get Rod to maybe even cut the budget of Bob Mueller and do something a little more stagecrafty than the blunt instrument of firing the attorney general and trying to replace him. I can see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess disappointment, and that attorney general doesn't fire Bob Mueller, but he just reduces the budget so low that his investigation grinds to an absolute -- almost a halt.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: I see a little smile on your face.
PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: That is not going to happen. The game is too late for that.
Watch two directions of paper and people. Let me focus on the paper. Robert Mueller's not stupid. He has paper that authorizes him to conduct the investigation. If anybody in this town, including the Department of Justice, wants to change, including constraining his investigation, anybody in and Mueller's position is going to say, give me a piece of paper.
And that piece of paper is going to become public. The second and more significant piece or pieces of paper, we have had a lot of time with the Mueller investigation, a lot of time in this interim period before the midterms, when the Department of Justice typically doesn't bring politically related investigations to indictments.
Within the next 15, 30, 45 days, is the Mueller team going to bring further indictments and then force the new leadership to say no? That's what I would watch. I would watch the paper.
TOOBIN: Let me disagree with my brother Phil.
I just think -- remember, we just had a midterm election. Donald Trump, whatever you think about the House, he did great in the Senate. All of those senators owe their allegiance to Donald Trump. Even the pretend moderates, the Jeff Flakes, the Bob Corkers, they're all gone, and they have been replaced by people who are completely loyal to Donald Trump.
Donald Trump can do anything he wants through Whitaker. He can fire Mueller. He can limit the budget. He can prohibit some of the investigations.
This -- he has a free hand, and that's what he -- and he has the ability to use it if he wants.
HENNESSEY: So, I do think that's a little bit of an overstatement, in part because the Democrats did seize on the House.
They have made it quite clear that they intend to investigate this thoroughly and vigorously as soon as they have the gavel. And I do think that that's a sign to anybody else, anyone who's in the Justice Department right now who has to actually help facilitate the acting A.G.'s wishes, that no matter -- they better play by the rules, because this is going to be under a microscope. (CROSSTALK)
TOOBIN: Or what? Or what?
I mean, they better play by the rules, or what? I mean, they have no -- I mean, they're not going to impeach the president over this. I mean, they -- they will have hearings and they will -- and they will be very angry and they will -- they will make a fuss.
But remember that it's the Senate that confirms attorney general nominees, and they will confirm anyone, including Mr. Whitaker, if he's nominated, to be the attorney general, or Kris Kobach, who just lost the election for governor of Kansas. He might be the attorney general.
Donald Trump can pick anyone he wants.
BLITZER: Well, let me ask Laura.
Laura, if the Democrats are the majority in the House, and they will be starting in January, they have subpoena power, they can get documents. Presumably, they will have access to whatever Mueller is concluding.
JARRETT: Presumably, that's right.
But I think it could easily be a protracted fight. And the big question now is, what is Robert Mueller thinking about all this? Obviously, he's seen the president's tweets. He has seen him attack Jeff Sessions for weeks and months.
And based off of everybody's reporting, we know it's something he's interested in for purposes of obstruction. So you have to imagine he's paying very close attention to this. And, of course, we will need more reporting on, what has he been doing behind the scenes to prepare for this very day?
We have seen him already started to carve off pieces of the probe to U.S. attorney's offices, partly perhaps to protect the probe in many ways. But it's also just -- I mean, it's such remarkable timing. The president is at such a precarious moment in this time, when he hasn't even submitted his official questions back to Mueller's team on the question of collusion.
We have been waiting to see when he will do that, what he will say, so for him to make this kind of move right now, it's quite telling.
BLITZER: You know Mueller. You worked with him. You know how he operates, how he thinks.
And he's watching this oh so closely.
MUDD: That's right. He's going to be laser-focused. Forget about press conferences. I see a couple scenarios.
Scenario one -- and let me focus on this one. And I'm curious about Jeff's opinion on this. Look, if you're in Mueller's shoes, you're sitting there saying, if I have further indictments to drop, I'm going to drop them. I'm going to force anybody sitting in an acting position as the attorney general to say no.
Documents on the record going in for a new nominee to be -- to be attorney general, documents on the record saying that the acting attorney general declined prosecutions because he told the president he was loyal to him, boy, that scenario -- I agree with Jeff, the senators will confirm somebody.
I think that looks really ugly. And I don't know what the consequences would be.
TOOBIN: Well, I do agree with Phil about this.
Robert Mueller is going to do exactly one thing. He's going to do his job. He is going to do the investigation that he was hired to do. He's going to indict the people that he feels he needs to indict. And if somebody from the Justice Department is going to stop him, he's going to stop him.
But Mueller is going to do his job. And that's all that he can focus on. And everything we know about Mueller is that that's exactly how he's going to proceed here.
PROKUPECZ: People through the Department of Justice, people on the special counsel team, people at the FBI have been prepared for this moment. It's not like the president has hid this from everyone and suddenly this comes as a shock.
There have been preparations made for this to certainly preserve the information and the integrity of this investigation and the evidence in this investigation. And whatever the FBI may decide do down the line, if they feel that, for whatever reason, the current Department of Justice doesn't want to prosecute some of these cases, there are things that are, I think, from everything we know, and some of the reporting that we have done, that there are plans in place, that the FBI has been prepared for this, and Mueller has been prepared for this.
And also Rod Rosenstein has been prepared for this. And so he's been talking to Mueller about this. They know and they were expecting this to happen. As to when or did they expect this to happen today, obviously not.
But there have been plans in place for this moment. And we will see. It could be, as Phil said, that Mueller feels more pressure now, and therefore we could see indictments by the end of the week, we could see a report that has been -- that they have been working on and is probably in some ways almost complete, except for whatever the president's part is, and how he's going to respond to some of the questions.
And that's all that they may be waiting for. But people have been prepared for this moment. And we will see how Mueller responds. BLITZER: Could the House Democrats, once they're in the majority, the Oversight Committee, Judiciary Committee, the Intelligence Committee, call individuals like Rosenstein to come up and testify, appear before the committees, and tell them?
Because the allegation is -- the suspicion is obstruction.
So that is sort of the classic tool of oversight. You bring members of the executive before Congress and you make them tell their story under oath.
One of the most significant things here might be the way that they will wield the subpoena power. As people have mentioned here, there is extensive documentation. And so if Mueller has taken steps to preserve that documentation, do it in a way that is amenable to congressional subpoena.
That means, that a Democrat -- the Democrats in Congress -- in the House are potentially going to be able to access that information. And I think it's fair to assume that it's not going to stay secret for very long.
PROKUPECZ: But Mueller -- people working for the special counsel and people working for the DOJ fully expect there to be oversight hearings once this investigation is complete.
And that's why they're keeping a record.
BLITZER: As there should be.
PROKUPECZ: And Mueller certainly feels that he's going to get called to testify before Congress once he's complete and once he can talk about it.
And that may be the one and only time we will ever hear from Robert Mueller about this investigation, because he's not going to -- he's not the type of guy who would hold a press conference or release information.
MUDD: I think there will be another time we will hear from him.
And this is what I find -- one of the many things I find fascinating about today. The question about indictments is one issue. There's another question about a closing document, whether the special counsel's office offers a narrative of, this is what we found, this is what we chose not to pursue.
And that goes in the past up the line to Rosenstein, when the attorney general was recused. I had thought in the past that would then be declassified. And the Congress gets a piece of paper that says, wow, this is everything the special counsel chose not to prosecute. We're now going to look at that ourselves. Now, with an acting attorney general, I think there's an additional question. Will he allow that closing document, that narrative of the investigation go over to the Congress? That will be interesting.
BLITZER: Tell us more about the relationship that Sessions had with his chief of staff, Matt Whitaker.
JARRETT: Wolf, this is not someone who I would say was a Sessions loyalist.
The attorney general has brought over a fair number of people that he had by his side in the Senate. Matt Whitaker is not one of them. He was a U.S. attorney in Iowa in private practice for some period of time. But this is not someone that the attorney general was close to before he took the job of chief of staff in September of 2016.
And it's pretty extraordinary. I mean, he has now taken his boss' job. As we reported a couple weeks ago, Justice officials were making plans when we all expected the deputy attorney general to be fired. After that explosive reporting about him musing about the 25th Amendment and wearing a wire, we all thought that Rod Rosenstein would be out of the job.
And at least at that time, the expectation was that Whitaker would take his place. We know that Whitaker had talked with the president about it and it was all set to go, except for the fact that Rosenstein did actually not get fired, did not resign and continues here in the Justice Department.
And so clearly Whitaker has been making moves for quite some time behind the scenes, Wolf.
BLITZER: And I want you to show some -- I'm going to show you some video, Jeffrey, at this little farewell that they staged for Sessions today as he was leaving the Department of Justice. There was an awkward handshake he had with Whitaker.
Take a look at -- watch this. I assume you can see this. You see him. He's sort of saying goodbye right there. He's leaving, getting some applause from various Justice Department officials. He looks a little teary.
But you saw -- you saw that handshake. It was a little awkward.
TOOBIN: The whole thing is incredibly awkward. I mean, here's this man. He achieves his life dream of becoming attorney general. He gives up a safe seat in the United States Senate, and all for the privilege of being humiliated day after day after day by his boss, the president of the United States, being told that he's Mr. Magoo, being told that he's incompetent, that he regrets hiring him.
And now he's fired in such a way that he has to leave on Wednesday. He can't stay until Friday. I mean, the whole thing is just an exercise in humiliation.
You don't have to admire Jeff Sessions' politics to feel somewhat sorry for the way he's been treated. It's just -- it awful.
PROKUPECZ: In many ways. the person that's replacing Sessions, this guy Whitaker, obviously, but it's a lot of people at the Department of Justice have felt that he was a plant by the president there.
There's not a lot of trust, from everything that we sense. People in all levels of the Department of Justice right now don't trust this guy. So it's going to be kind of interesting to see how -- if he makes any effort to gain their trust.
It's an important thing, I would think.
HENNESSEY: Yes, look, I mean, we should keep in mind that he's also the acting attorney general in general, right? He's not just overseeing the Mueller investigation.
But we shouldn't kid ourselves here. Matt Whitaker was selected for precisely the views that he has expressed about sort of the Mueller investigation. And all of the available evidence, every last lick of it, suggests that.
And we know that the president selected him individually, because they circumvented the ordinary DOJ line of succession to do so. And so it's pretty clear that was the intention all along.
TOOBIN: And if I can add just one more point ,he has never been confirmed for anything, not as an assistant attorney general, not a solicitor general.
So there is some uncertainty about how long he can serve in this role, because if there is a confirmed person, like Noel Francisco, who is the solicitor general, the law allows them to serve for an extended period of time as the acting attorney general.
Whitaker's never been confirmed for anything, and his status will be open to some question, especially if he stays for a while.
BLITZER: Actually I just want to point out for a while, I think he was a U.S. attorney in Iowa, and that would require Senate confirmation, right, Jeffrey?
TOOBIN: I thought that was under the George W. Bush administration.
BLITZER: So it has to be in the current administration?
TOOBIN: He has to be -- he has to be a confirmed official.
BLITZER: Right. It was an earlier administration where he was confirmed as U.S. attorney.
TOOBIN: I don't think that that would count, no.
BLITZER: Laura, go ahead.
JARRETT: Wolf, just one point on that.
Under the Federal Vacancies and Reform Act, because Whitaker is a certain level at DOJ, and he's been here a certain amount of time, he conserve here, I believe it's roughly around 210 days or.
So he can stay here on a permanent basis as the acting. What he cannot do is become the permanent selection while becoming acting. And we haven't had -- seen any reporting to suggest that the president is considering him to be the permanent selection.
But he can stay here on a temporary basis until the president picks someone else to actually go through that Senate confirmation process.
BLITZER: All right, good point.
Everybody, stand by. There's a lot more we need to assess.
But right now, I want to bring in Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego.
He's a member of the Armed Services Committee.
Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.
What do you think of this move by the president? Do you believe it's the first step in an effort by the president to end the Russia investigation?
REP. RUBEN GALLEGO (D), ARIZONA: One hundred percent.
The president clearly is scared that there will be oversight coming from the Democrats in the House. He believes that -- also, in my opinion, that Mueller's about to release a report or come down with indictments that are going to affect the investigation.
He clearly has set this up in motion even before obviously this firing. And at the end of the day, it really shows that the president is scared and he wants to move fast to try to basically snuff this out.
BLITZER: Do you agree with the Democratic leadership that Whitaker, the acting attorney general right now, needs to recuse himself from involvement in the Russia probe, given all the public statements he's made about Mueller and trying to diminish how significant that whole investigation is?
GALLEGO: One hundred percent. Look, Mueller has run a very professional investigation, an
investigation that's trying to get down to the truth. Whitaker has clearly been put in this position to hobble this investigation, not necessarily fire Mueller, but will try to find a way to hobble the investigation or shut it down in a manner that maybe doesn't get as much ire from the crowd.
But it's really against, I think, our American values that we're not going to allow this investigation to go through. This is all about the rule of law. And the president should respect that, since he just basically ran a whole campaign about not breaking the law.
BLITZER: Now, that you and your fellow Democrats have won the majority in the House -- and you will get that majority starting in January -- what do you plan to do about all of this?
GALLEGO: Well, look, we're supposed -- we're here to do our constitutional duties.
And our constitutional duties are to be a check and balance against the executive. And we need to go back and reinvestigate the investigation that happened, especially on the House Intel Committee, where there really wasn't really more oversight.
It was just a rubber stamp. Truly get to the heart of what occurred during the election and what occurred after the election, and instead of what we saw happen under this last House chairman, House Intel chairman, where it was essentially an excuse to basically paper over what actually happened.
BLITZER: What do you think you will do, you and your fellow Democrats, once you're in the majority in the House, if the president were to fire Robert Mueller?
GALLEGO: Well, I think we have a lot of options in the House.
Number one, we can request a lot of the materials that Robert produced and the investigation produced and for us to actually look at, and obviously disseminate to the public.
Number two, I do believe that we can even create our own process to make sure that we have a protection for this special prosecutor or within the jurisdiction of the House.
I would say, though, there's another option we have. Right now, we have Republicans that are in charge of the House, Republicans in charge of the Senate. And there is a bill actually that has passed Senate Judiciary Committee that would actually protect Robert Mueller from being fired.
And it's a bipartisan bill. So you don't just have to actually make this a Democratic issue. The Republicans can actually stand up for the rule of law and actually show that they do want to have some oversight and some check on the executive and pass that bill.
[18:25:10] And I think it would go a long way to actually making this public feel good about where this country is going, where -- and whether this investigation is doing a legitimate job or not.
BLITZER: Congressman Gallego, thanks so much for joining us.
GALLEGO: Thank you.
BLITZER: Let's bring back the panel.
And, Susan, let me start with you.
Now that Sessions is gone, he's no longer the attorney general of the United States, is it possible that Mueller could call him to appear before a grand jury or to do some Q&A with the Mueller team about the various issues, collusion, obstruction of justice, money laundering, some of the stuff that he's investigating?
So I think it's entirely plausible and possible, in part because we know that Jeff Sessions is a part of multiple lines of inquiry here. First, he was involved in President Trump's campaign. He was part of his foreign policy advisers.
One of the reasons why he was forced to recuse was actually because he had some of these undisclosed reported contacts with the Russians. Second, on sort of the obstruction line of inquiry, one of the issues that Mueller has reportedly been intensely focused on is whether or not President Trump attempted to pressure Jeff Sessions to unrecuse after the fact, whether or not that was done with the intention of obstructing the investigation.
So I think it's a -- it's maybe likely that Mueller is going to seek to, an absolute minimum...
BLITZER: What do you think, Shimon?
PROKUPECZ: I think it's all -- yes, it's likely. It could happen.
But it also could be that Mueller sees the writing on the wall here and he's just -- it's time to wrap this up, unless they feel that Sessions could add something that is very valuable to this investigation, could perhaps, either for the report or to bring charges, yes, it's got to be really, really pertinent and important and it has to change the game to bring him in.
TOOBIN: I would be surprised if Mueller hasn't even -- hasn't already spoken to him.
JARRETT: He has. TOOBIN: I mean, he has spoken to him, right? I mean, we know this. He's at the center of so many parts of this investigation. That's why he had to recuse himself. That's why he made the right decision in recusing himself, notwithstanding all the abuse he's taken from the president for it.
So Jeff Sessions is an absolutely critical witness on the obstruction of justice part of the investigation, the firing of Comey, and also the relationship between the Trump campaign and Russia, the collusion part of the investigation, because he was part of the campaign and he had some of the contacts that Mueller has clearly been investigating.
BLITZER: But, Laura, Sessions, even after recusing himself as the attorney general overseeing the Russia probe, he probably saw and heard and was a witness to other stuff that was going on that potentially Mueller is interested in.
JARRETT: Well, he's certainly a witness to all of the treatment against himself and all of the instances in which he was asked to unrecuse.
I mean, I think it's a fair question to ask, why is the president so fixated on you unrecusing? If this is all for naught and there is nothing to see here, and the president did nothing wrong, why does he want Jeff Sessions to unrecuse so badly? I think that is a fair question for Sessions and, frankly, for the president.
But we know that Sessions went in earlier this year. We reported that. He went in months ago. But a lot has happened since January, as we know. He has been still the subject of blistering attacks and the president's ire has not abated on that front.
And so you could certainly see a situation in which Mueller would want to talk to him again.
MUDD: I'm on team Toobin here. I suspect they spoken already.
Look, forget about all the politics of this. We have a witness. Let me give you two facts. A witness to the relationship between the campaign, including the campaign's relationship with Russian Ambassador Kislyak. The former attorney general knows this.
And also what happened during the Comey takedown? That's an obstruction issue. So I suspect they have interviewed him already and they have what they need.
HENNESSEY: It's one thing to interview someone who is still a sitting attorney general. It's another thing to interview a guy who's just been fired.
He might be willing to open up a little bit now.
BLITZER: That's a good point.
Go ahead, Jeffrey.
TOOBIN: Just in fair -- Laura just said that they had reported that he had been interviewed. So it's not team Toobin. It's the team journalist over there who...
BLITZER: But, Jeffrey, Susan makes an important point.
It's one thing to be interviewed as a sitting attorney general. It's another thing to be interviewed as a fired attorney general, and now a private citizen.
JARRETT: I certainly think that's fair, yes.
TOOBIN: But, I mean, he is even more free to tell Mueller what happened and what he thinks.
And this whole effort to get Sessions out of the investigation, whether through firing him or on recusing -- over the recusal issue, it's all relevant to whether Donald Trump has been obstructing justice from the day he took office on this investigation.
BLITZER: Yes, because, as some people suggest, "I don't recollect" or "I don't remember," all of a sudden, your memory gets a little bit better.
MUDD: I -- I suppose, but hold on a second.
I think, whether you like him or not, the attorney general's honorable. I can't believe he would give fundamentally different answers to questions about obstruction and a relationship with the Russians during the campaign after firing as before.
And remember, if those answers are fundamentally different, someone's going to come back at him, presumably immediately, and say, "Why is your answer today different from your answer when we spoke to you earlier?" I don't think they'll get much more out of him, I'm guessing.
SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: One point that I just want to make is that we don't know what's been going on, really, in the last several weeks. And I think that could be critical to the Mueller investigation.
And also, it's going to be critical to what members of Congress are going to decide to do. And all of this could come out in public, eventually. You know, once --
BLITZER: Phil --
PROKUPECZ: -- in the new year, once these hearings get under way. BLITZER: Do you think Rod Rosenstein will quit, now that he's been
slapped so publicly, humiliated once again?
MUDD: No. Public servants in that position are going to say, "I have a responsibility to the people that's bigger than whether or not I've been humiliated or not." He's got to watch the Mueller thing until the end unless he's forced out or asked to resign. If you're asked to resign, then he's got a choice.
BLITZER: Let me ask you -- let me ask you brother, Jeffrey Toobin. What do you think?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Everything I know about Rod Rosenstein is that he is a career guy, career civil servant. He is going to stick it out. You know, he's been humiliated and embarrassed enough, I think, especially with the installation of Whitaker, who is perceived, I think correctly, as a political choice.
The fact that Rod Rosenstein, even though he is a political appointee, the fact that he is a career Justice Department person, a U.S. attorney under Democrats and Republicans alike. I think he is going to want to be the ballast for the traditional independence of the Justice Department for as long as possible.
BLITZER: Yes. Excellent points all around. Everybody, stick around. There's much more. We have a lot of breaking news. We'll be right back.
BLITZER: We're back with the breaking news. The attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, fired by President Trump, potentially endangering Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. The president keeping the announcement under wraps until after he held a lengthy hour and a half, often rather confrontational, news conference about the results of the midterm election.
Let's go back to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. Jim, the president tried to spin the midterms his way but then upstaged himself by firing Sessions.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. The firing of Jeff Sessions certainly changed the news cycle, which may be what the president was looking for after losing the House to the Democrats last night in the midterms and, as you said, a news conference that went right off the rails.
ACOSTA (voice-over): It was expected to be a victory lap for President Trump that instead descended into chaos. While the president played coy and didn't tip his hand on his decision to fire Jeff Sessions --
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're looking for different people for different positions. You know, it's very common after the midterms.
ACOSTA: -- he was sounding off on nearly every other direction. Asked about Democrats riding the midterms into power in the House of Representatives, Mr. Trump bristled at the notion he will be under a slew of investigations, warning he'll retaliate.
TRUMP: They can play that game, but we can play it better, because we have a thing called the United States Senate. And a lot of very questionable things were done, between leaks of classified information and many other elements that should not have taken place. And all you're going to do is end up in back and forth.
ACOSTA: The president tried to side step what could be the biggest worry for the White House: that Democrats will demand to see his tax returns.
TRUMP: I'm on a very continuous order, because there are so many companies, and it is a very big company, far bigger than you would even understand. But it's a great company. But it's big and it's complex; and it's probably feet high. It's a very complex instrument. And I think that people wouldn't understand it.
ACOSTA: Mr. Trump was clearly taking the election returns personally, slapping at Republicans who decided to steer clear of the president and lost.
TRUMP: Mia Love gave me no love, and she lost. Too bad. Sorry about that, Mia. And Barbara Comstock was another one. I mean, I think she could have won the race, but she didn't want to have any embrace.
ACOSTA: Then Mr. Trump started taking swipes at journalists over questions about his false claim during the campaign that a migrant invasion was on the way on the border.
(on camera): They're hundreds of miles away, though. They're hundreds and hundreds of miles away.
TRUMP: You know what?
ACOSTA: That's not an invasion.
TRUMP: Honestly, I think you should run the country. You run CNN. And if you did it well, your ratings would be much better.
ACOSTA: One other question -- If I may ask one other question. Are you worried --
TRUMP: That's enough, that's enough, that's enough.
ACOSTA: Mr. President.
TRUMP: That's enough.
ACOSTA: I was going to ask one other question --
TRUMP: That's enough. ACOSTA: Pardon me, ma'am -- Mr. President --
TRUMP: That's enough.
ACOSTA (voice-over): Despite the pipe bomb sent to CNN and other Democratic politicians, the president returned to his favorite insults for the media.
TRUMP: OK. Just sit down, please.
Well, when you report fake news -- no. When you report fake news, which CNN does a lot, you are the enemy of the people.
ACOSTA: He also lashed out at reporters who simply asked why he considers himself a nationalist.
TRUMP: Why do I have among the highest poll numbers with African- Americans? I mean, why do I have my highest poll numbers? That's such a racist question. Honestly? I mean, I know you have it written down and you're going to tell me. Let me tell you, it's a racist question.
ACOSTA: And whether Mr. Trump is, in fact, a racist.
TRUMP: And I don't use racist remarks. And I know what? If I did, you people -- you would have known about it. I've been hearing there are tapes; for years and years, there are tapes. No. 1, I never worried about it, because I never did; I never used racist remarks. I have never used racist remarks.
[18:40:14] ACOSTA: Now, after unloading Jeff Sessions, the president may be tempted to fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller. But a top Republican congressional aide told CNN that would be a bad idea up on Capitol Hill. In the words of this aide, the president would be playing with fire if the president tried to do that.
And that is a sentiment that was echoed earlier today by an incoming senator from Utah named Mitt Romney, the party's -- the Republican Party's 2012 nominee for the White House. Mitt Romney said that the Robert Mueller investigation, Wolf, should remain unimpeded -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Senator-elect Romney.
ACOSTA: That's right.
BLITZER: All right. Jim Acosta, thank you very much.
Let's bring in our CNN political director, David Chalian.
David, Republicans, they lose the majority of the House. The president declares victory, then fires the attorney general. What do you make of all of this?
DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes. I thought the president was going in to try to put his spin on an election night. And yes, he lost the House. We knew he wasn't going to focus on that. But he did pad his Senate majority. He did hang on to some governorships in key states, Ohio and Florida. There were things for him to tout.
And yet, he -- he has this press conference where he relishes the fight with the press. He jumps right to threatening Democrats: "Don't dare you investigate me or I'm going to use Senate Republicans to go right back at you." And immediately after, he fires Sessions, because he didn't want today to be about the fact that the Democrats won the House of Representatives in a pretty sweeping result.
BLITZER: What's your bottom line on how the elections unfolded yesterday?
CHALIAN: Well, as I'm saying, you and I were talking, Wolf. This election took place in two universes. It took place, the battle for the House, across the suburbs and moderate Republican turf; and for the Senate, it took place in Trump country. He got his folks out to save the Senate.
But let me tell you, there are clear warning signs for Donald Trump now going forward in how he lost the House. He lost it in the suburbs. OK?
Just four years ago, Republicans won the suburbs by 12 points. They split it evenly with Democrats. He lost with independents.
We say all the time he's a base president. Donald Trump won independent voters two years ago by four points. He lost them by 12 points last night.
And women. This is incredible to me. By 19 points, female voters yesterday chose to go with the Democrat over the Republican. Hillary Clinton, the first potential female president, won women voters by 14 points. Democrats did even better among women.
He is bleeding support from his own coalition, pieces of his own coalition of how he won in 2016. If he's going to get re-elected, he has some work to do.
BLITZER: Now that the Democrats are going to be the majority in the House of Representatives starting in January, what are the opportunities for them and what are the risks?
CHALIAN: Yes. Well, the opportunity is to really conduct the oversight role, as Nancy Pelosi said she would today, in a rigorous fashion and that she would do it the right way.
The risk is doing overreach. The risk is jumping to impeachment, something the American people clearly don't want. The risk is to focus on petty political fights and not delivering for back home, now that they do have the majority in Congress.
I think Nancy Pelosi is keenly aware of that, but there is real opportunity here for Democrats to actually hold the Trump administration accountable in the way that the Republicans did not over the last two years.
BLITZER: To do some real oversight.
CHALIAN: To do some real oversight.
BLITZER: Unlike what was going on with the Republicans.
CHALIAN: That's right.
BLITZER: All right. David, thank you very much.
There's more breaking news we're following. What does the firing of the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, mean for Robert Mueller's Russia investigation?
Plus, we're going to have more on the new acting attorney general. He's been very outspoken on the Mueller probe.
[18:48:51] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Breaking news tonight, the Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired by President Trump after months of browbeating over Sessions' decision to recuse himself in the Russia investigation. And the president slighted the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, at the same time. Currently, Rosenstein is overseeing the Mueller probe. But instead, the president named Sessions' chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, to become the acting attorney general of the United States.
Let's get some more with our correspondents, commentators, and our analysts.
And, Gloria, everybody anticipated that Sessions would be gone at some point but it moved so --
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Today?
BLITZER: Only hours after the midterm election.
BORGER: Right, only hours. The president, you know, gave this press conference, which he was very coy about Sessions' future, even though he knew, of course, that he wanted him to leave, and then told him to leave. And so, I think we could be surprised by the president's timing, but we knew it was going to happen.
The question is, does this unravel the Mueller investigation, and how quickly does Whitaker come in as acting A.G. and start cutting the budget for it or start disproving requests, for example, that he may have -- Mueller may have for subpoenas?
[18:50:04] We just don't know.
BLITZER: There's a lot of potential there and Sessions' undated resignation letter, he wrote the first words, Kaitlan, he wrote, at your request, I am submitting my resignation. This is a letter to the president of the United States. It doesn't tell us much art the timing, though, because there's no date on that letter.
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Jeff Sessions could have written this letter a year and a half ago. He's probably just had it tucked away, waiting for this day to come, because that was essentially what everyone knew was coming. This firing was coming.
But the timing of it is a good point. A lot of White House officials think this was bad timing. They knew the president wanted to fire Jeff Sessions. He wanted him gone. That's not a surprise.
But in their opinion, they had a pretty good night last night with the midterm elections because even though pundits would not say that, they think it could have been a lot worse than what it was, so they're questioning the timing of this because here we are, right back again, talking about the Mueller investigation, and whether it's going to be protected.
But it's interesting that you brought up the president's answer at the press conference about when Jeff Sessions is going to leave, because our reporting shows that by that point, President Trump had already had the chief of staff, John Kelly, call Jeff Sessions and request his resignation before that.
Now, Laura Jarrett and I are told by sources that Jeff Sessions asked John Kelly, can I stay on until the end of the week, have a few days to say his good-byes, get his affairs in order and John Kelly said no. He was very firm that today had to be the day that he left.
So then President Trump went to this press conference, ducked the question. So not only did he not fire Jeff Sessions personally. He had John Kelly call and do it. He ducked a question about when he was leaving and then, of course, just a brief time after that press conference ended, we found out that he had resigned.
BLITZER: Yes, he wants to fire people but he doesn't like to do it personally.
DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Except on TV.
BLITZER: Here's a statement from Matt Whitaker, who's now the acting attorney general of the United States: It is a true honor that the president has confidence in my ability to lead the Department of Justice as acting attorney general. I am committed to leading a fair department with the highest ethical standards that upholds the rule of law and seeks justice for all Americans. I will work with our colleagues in federal, state, local and tribal leadership, including our partners in law enforcement and our U.S. attorneys to ensure the safety of all Americans and security of the nation.
Attorney General Sessions has been a dedicated public servant for over 40 years. It has been a privilege to work under his leadership. He is a man of integrity who has served this nation well.
Very nice statement. DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes.
BLITZER: That he released.
BLITZER: But we know in public articles that he's written, interviews that he's granted, including right here on CNN, he's made it clear he's no fan of the Mueller probe.
SWERDLICK: Sure, Wolf. Matt Whitaker is a nice enough guy. I've met him and talked to him right here at the CNN bureau but this is kind of Soviet if you think about it. He was almost brought in, it seems to me, as a political minder, a political commissar.
Right, you put him in, chief of staff of the guy who's recused himself, who has Kaitlan just said, everybody knows his days are numbered and then the day after the election, Attorney General Sessions is cut loose and his chief of staff, former U.S. attorney, is put in his place. I don't know what else you expect him to say in that statement but it really just -- there's a mismatch between what happened and what he said.
BLITZER: David, I want to play a clip. This is Whitaker. He was on CNN on June 22nd of last year. He had this exchange with Don Lemon about the whole Mueller obstruction probe.
Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DON LEMON, CNN HOST: Matt, what do you think of that? Why isn't this obstruction?
MATTHEW WHITAKER, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, FOUNDATION FOR ACCOUNTABILITY AND CIVIC TRUST: Well, first of all, several of the acts are constitutionally permitted. You know, his conversation with Jim Comey about the Mike Flynn investigation together with firing of Director Comey, those are both well within his power as executive.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Given all the public statements that he's made critical of the whole Mueller probe, saying maybe they should starve the budget, end it once and for all, should he recuse himself? He's the acting attorney general now, and he's overseeing this whole Mueller probe.
AXELROD: Well, certainly, people will make that point, and there are people within the Justice Department who may render a judgment on that, but I guarantee you that he wasn't put in this job to recuse himself. That's what got sessions in trouble in the first place. In fact, I would consider that appearance on Don Lemon as Matt Whitaker's audition tape for this job, and you know, the president tends to hire off of who he sees on TV. I think he wanted a guy who was going to go in there and limit and stymie this investigation and my guess is that is exactly what he's going to do. BLITZER: You know, Gloria, he -- Nancy Pelosi, the presumably, the
next speaker of the house tweeted: It is impossible to read Attorney General Jeff Sessions' firing as anything other than another blatant attempt by President Trump to undermine and end special counsel Mueller's investigation.
BORGER: Yes. Look, I think what we're seeing here is this unraveling of trying to unravel the Mueller investigation, and the president may well succeed. I have a hard time believing that the same ethics officers who told Jeff Sessions that he needed to recuse himself wouldn't say to Whitaker, wait a minute, you've commented publicly on this investigation.
[18:55:03] You have defended Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with the Russians in Trump Tower. You have said that Hillary Clinton ought to be investigated. What -- there's a conflict here, and you should not be allowed to oversee this investigation and make decisions about whether Mueller ought to be able to subpoena the president or anybody else. So I wonder when that process is going to take place.
BLITZER: He said something that was pretty outrageous today, the president. He said that if the Democrats, the new majority in the House, they investigate him, he's going to launch a huge investigation of all of them, including from the Senate and the -- presumably the FBI and all other Departments of Justice.
COLLINS: And he seemed to be singling out Dianne Feinstein, specifically, talking about leaks, because he is under the impression that her office is the one that leaked the accusation about Brett Kavanaugh, even though she has denied that. But that was the president threatening to use his Republican-controlled Senate to respond to the House when they go after him.
It's going to be a really ugly next two years. That's pretty much what all the White House officials are thinking, especially with Democrats taking over. And you saw the president come out today, pretty muted as he began that press conference, but then after he was sparring with the press, you saw this change. He seemed to feel energized from that.
COLLINS: But I do think that President Trump prides himself on not being a figure of Washington, but I think because of that, he is not prepared for what the House Democrats are going to have the subpoena power to do.
BLITZER: Everybody, stand by.
There's more news we're following, including some breaking news on North Korea right now. In his news conference today, President Trump said he's very happy with how things are going with North Korea, even though a high level meeting with one of Kim Jong-un's top officials has just been delayed.
I want to bring in Brian Todd, who's reporting on all of this. What are you learning, Brian?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, we are learning that despite the vague explanations from administration officials regarding why this meeting was postponed, that there's real frustration on both sides with the demands they're both making of each other.
TODD (voice-over): It was supposed to be a crucial meeting between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and one of Kim Jong-un's most trusted aides, Kim Yong-chol, to lay the groundwork for another summit between Kim and President Trump.
But very abruptly, as midterm election results were coming in, the State Department announced that meeting, scheduled for tomorrow in New York, was postponed with no explanation.
MAX BOOT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: They're trying to bury the news as much as they can, and announcing it on election eve when people are focused elsewhere is one way to distract attention from their failure to achieve a genuine breakthrough.
TODD: The president played down the drama today but didn't offer much of an explanation himself.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Going to change it because of trips that are being made. We're going to make it on another day but we're very happy how it's going with North Korea. We think it's going fine. We're in no rush.
TODD: The State Department now calls it simply a scheduling issue but two diplomatic sources tell CNN tonight this postponement was clearly a signal that North Korea has not been willing to cooperate with the Trump team's expectations in getting Kim to dismantle his nuclear weapons arsenal.
LISA COLLINS, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC & INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: I think the expectations that the U.S. has are that the North Koreans will open up the country to international inspectors on the ground.
TODD: Sources tell CNN the North Koreans are looking for the U.S. to offer something themselves, like an easing of sanctions against the regime, before moving this process forward.
The Trump administration is not budging, saying no sanctions relief until Kim offers solid proof that he's dismantling his nuclear arsenal.
(on camera): Is there any path forward here?
COLLINS: Well, I mean, I think the momentum for these negotiations has been slowing for several months. What we see ahead is real grind between the United States and North Korea.
TODD (voice-over): Could Kim's point man with Pompeo have something to do with this diplomatic impasse?
Kim Yong-chol is known as a henchman for the dictator, a former spy who masterminded high profile attacks on South Korea, who had a big hand in North Korea's hack of Sony Pictures and is so arrogant and ruthless as a negotiator that according to North Korea Leadership Watch, he once told South Korean diplomats, quote, do you have another briefcase with you? Maybe you have another briefcase of proposals.
BOOT: But remember, this is truly one-man rule in North Korea. Kim Jong-un calls the shots. You can't possibly imagine that Kim Yong- chol or any other subordinate is going to cancel a meeting with Mike Pompeo without the say-so of the supreme leader.
TODD: President Trump says there will still likely be a second summit with Kim early next year. Analysts say that probably will happen because Trump and Kim both love the optics of it, but experts are warning if there's another summit and real progress isn't made toward a legitimate nuclear deal, well, next year could be the year we see both sides going back to the insults, the threats, and the talk of possible military action that we saw before -- Wolf.
BLITZER: We'll watch every step of the way. Brian Todd, thank you very much for that report. Lots at stake right now, clearly, with North Korea, other international hot spots as well.
Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.