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Trump Tries to Distance Himself from Acting A.G. Matt Whitaker; Trump: "Mr. Kellyanne Conway" Just Trying to Get Publicity; Florida Bracing for Major Recount Battles; Likely Incoming Judiciary Chairman: Whitaker "Not Fit". Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired November 9, 2018 - 11:00   ET



[11:00:16] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan.

President Trump on his way to Paris right now, but sounding off this morning on a number of things before he left, from the recount in Florida, the potential recount in Florida, to former first lady, Michelle Obama.

The real focus right now is on the man that he's put in place to lead the Justice Department. Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker facing a ton of criticism and scrutiny at this moment for his past statements about the Russia investigation, the investigation he is now in charge of overseeing. Listen to this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I didn't know Matt Whitaker. He worked for Attorney General Sessions. He was very, very highly thought of and still is highly thought of. But this only comes up because, anybody that works for me, they do a number on them. But Matt Whitaker is a very smart man. He is a very respected man in the law enforcement community. Very respected. At the top of the line. And actually, the choice was greeted with raves initially. And it still is in some circles.


BOLDUAN: CNN's Abby Phillip is live at the White House for us.

Abby, you were there. You heard the president say he doesn't know Matt Whitaker. Is that true?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, he said it so many times, it really leads you to believe that this is the same sort of thing that he has been doing with a lot of people, that maybe he's trying to distance himself from. It is not true that he doesn't know Matt Whitaker. They had many meetings together here at the White House in the Oval Office. And beyond that, Matt Whitaker was put at the Justice Department in part because he was seen as a Trump loyalist. Some of his comments about the Robert Mueller investigation had caught

the attention of the president and people in the White House. That's really the reason why he was elevated to the position as chief of staff, and now as acting attorney general.

But the president saying that in response to questions about whether or not this appointment is even legal, he didn't answer that really at all. But he said Matt Whitaker is very respected. Even though one of the problems is that the White House is caught unaware, according to our sources, by how many Republicans, not just Democrats, but Republicans are calling into question whether this appointment was constitutional, in part, because Matt Whitaker is not Senate confirmed and is now being placed over the helm of the law enforcement agency of the federal government.

So the president there expressing what I think we have been hearing from our sources, which is a little bit of surprise by the pushback they're receiving about this appointment as of right now.

BOLDUAN: Which is surprising in and of itself.

Abby, you asked the president if he wants Whitaker to rein in Robert Mueller during that gaggle. I want to play for everyone what he said.


PHILLIP: Do you want him to rein in Robert Mueller?

TRUMP: What a stupid question that is. What a stupid question. But I watch you a lot.


TRUMP: You ask a lot of stupid questions.



BOLDUAN: Put aside the fact of just the relationship that he likes to take with reporters, what you asked is the opposite of that. It's a really important question.

PHILLIP: Kate, it's "the" question. I mean, I don't know how else to ask the president as respectfully as I can the question that I think everyone is trying to answer, which is what is the purpose of Matt Whitaker, who is a known and a well-known critic of the Russia investigation, a critic of Robert Mueller, was he being placed there in order to rein in the Mueller investigation? Something he had suggested in the past would be a good strategy for President Trump. So I wanted to know whether President Trump thought that, was something that Whitaker had the power to do or ought to do, whether he thought Whitaker should leave the Russia investigation alone. The president just didn't answer the question. He criticized me.

But I think we still want to know the answer to that, so I really hope that's something that at some point in the near future reporters will have another opportunity to ask him.

BOLDUAN: Pretty strong suspicion it's not going to stop you from asking again.

Great to see you, Abby. Thank you so much.

Joining me now, CNN special correspondent, Jamie Gangel, CNN politics reporter and editor-at-large, Chris Cillizza, and CNN crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz.

Great to have you here.

Jamie, your reaction was the same as what Abby just said. It's a really fair question. It's also in my view, isn't it -- shouldn't it be an easy one for a president to answer?

[11:04:48] JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: It is fair, it is easy, it is the question of the day. Because why he picked Whitaker is important. I think the gentleman doth protest too much. How many times did he say he didn't know Matt Whitaker? That's simply not true, number one. Number two, it's not credible because this -- to Donald Trump, the attorney general is the most important position right now. Because what bothers him more than anything else in the world, except maybe immigration and the wall, not really. It is the Mueller investigation.


GANGEL: And finally, he picked Matt Whitaker. Nobody else did. Donald Trump did, out of no place. Rod Rosenstein was next in line. There were a whole line of people. Matt Whitaker got scooped out and put in this position. Abby's question pushed his button. Because it was the question of the day.

BOLDUAN: And he didn't answer it. That's definitely the posture he took.


BOLDUAN: Chris, from sources inside the White House, to our Kaitlan Collins, they're surprised by the negative reaction to Whitaker. And also are telling her that it wasn't widely known among staff that he commented so many times on the special counsel's investigation. How could they not know? What --

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER & CNN EDITOR-AT-LARGE: Yes. I would advise -- there's a really good Web site, it's called


CILLIZZA: It's popular with the kids. You can look things up on there. Like Matt Whitaker, Mueller. It will produce -- I know this, because I did it when Matt Whitaker was named acting attorney general. It will produce comments he's made to you, Kate. He's written an op- ed for CNN. He talked a fair amount about this. And FYI, he had a Twitter feed, too.

In any other administration, I would say, oh, they're sort of playing opossum here. Of course they knew and they're just saying you guys are exaggerating. We didn't think it was a big deal. But in this administration, I can't really say I'm that surprised.

I don't think this is a strategy. We have seen Donald Trump seek to elevate other people, Ronny Jackson being one, with seemingly very little of the even bare-bones background opposition research that would go into these sorts of high-profile picks. So I'm not surprised they were surprised, which, in and of itself, is somewhat surprising.


BOLDUAN: The wordsmith, Chris Cillizza.


BOLDUAN: Shimon, President Trump, one of the things he also hit on over and over again as he was heading to Marine One was that Matt Whitaker is highly respected. Is highly regarded by law enforcement, highly regarded in the legal community. What are you hearing, though? He's been working at the Justice Department now under Jeff Sessions. What are you hearing about that from people over at justice?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME & JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes, and that's just not true. So the president has to say that because of everything that's going on right now. Look, I think it's fair to say that people at the Department of Justice, people at the senior level of law enforcement don't trust this guy. They never trusted him when he was there. They felt he was a plant. He was there, placed at the Department of Justice by the president, by the White House, to spy.

Look, the president has made it very clear. He does not like the way the Department of Justice has been operating. He doesn't like Rod Rosenstein. He didn't like Jeff Sessions. He needed to put someone in there who he knew and who he trusted. And Whitaker perhaps was that guy.

The other concern really right now at the Department of Justice is, because the president didn't follow this line of succession, and there could be serious legal implications with Whitaker being in that job, and that any decisions he makes or any rulings, so to speak, that he makes could be challenged. Anything he touches could be challenged. So there's concern --


BOLDUAN: There's been an example of that in a different -- the National Labor Relations Board.

PROKUPECZ: That's right.

BOLDUAN: And gets -- we don't want to get too wonky, but there's an example of it being a problem before. PROKUPECZ: Look, it could be a problem. And that is a concern with

people in the Department of Justice. There are career people there, there are senior level people that have been placed there by the White House that are concerned. It's on all levels.

Really, it's going to be interesting to see, down the line, who meets with Whitaker. Does the FBI director meet with him? Do other senior level law enforcement people meet with him? Because the question is, can this man be trusted? And for however long he's going to be there, that's a serious issue.

And certainly, when it comes to the Russia investigation, does Mueller sit down with him and give him a full briefing of that investigation? Because you have to know, and you have to know that these people know, such as Mueller and Wray, that there's a chance he's going to go back to the White House and tell them everything he knows or everything they have told him.

So these are legitimate concerns at the Department of Justice. Someone in that job, the top law enforcement person now in this country, who is so close to the president. Because there are ethical concerns. There are always ethical concerns that really this president doesn't care about and has made it very clear that the separation between the Department of Justice and the White House, it's a very important part of how our country runs and certainly how investigations are done, but this president doesn't care. And it's clear that this choice, obviously, by this choice, he doesn't care.

[11:10:10] BOLDUAN: And, Jamie, to kind of Shimon's point of the problems that this poses, someone else who has said that the problem that it poses is George Conway. I know, it's like "As the World Turns," White House edition. I know. He wrote in an op-ed with Neal Cateal (ph) that Whitaker's appointment is unconstitutional. That's how he put it. The president was asked about it today. Listen to what the president said in reaction.


TRUMP: You mean Mr. Kellyanne Conway? He's just trying to get publicity for himself. Why don't you do this, why don't you ask Kellyanne that question? All right? All right?


TRUMP: She might know him better than me.


BOLDUAN: What do you do with it?

GANGEL: So, you know, Donald Trump doesn't know Matt Whitaker. He doesn't know George Conway. Yesterday, he didn't know Lil Jon from "The Apprentice." He knows who George Conway is. I don't know George Conway, but I find the whole thing fascinating.

BOLDUAN: Right? GANGEL: Because he is Kellyanne Conway's husband. And he has been

out there, time and time again --


BOLDUAN: But this goes beyond the Twitter feed. This goes beyond the Twitter feed. He wrote an opinion piece in the "New York Times."

GANGEL: Calling him out.

BOLDUAN: Cutting, like cutting the knees out from under the president's pick and saying it's unconstitutional.

GANGEL: And it expresses the concern that a lot of people have about why he did that. As Shimon said, people are concerned what kind of information might Whitaker get from Robert Mueller. Is that the reason that Donald Trump put him in the job? Our reporting, the "New York Times" reporting, has been that Whitaker was the eyes and ears of the White House in the Justice Department. So both on a constitutional level and on a practical level, this is a big concern.

BOLDUAN: It seems to be only getting bigger. Because new revelations are coming forward about past statements Whitaker has made about the role of the judicial branch and who should be judges. We'll talk about that a little bit later.

Jamie, great to see you. Thank you so much.

Chris, Shimon, thanks, guys.

Got to get to some breaking news. This just coming in to us, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been discharged from the hospital. That's the latest we're hearing after a fall this week. She fell in her office and she felt some discomfort, she went home, felt discomfort, went to the hospital, and they figured out she had fractured three ribs. A Supreme Court spokesperson telling CNN, quote, "She is doing well and plans to work from home today."

We wish the justice well. Everyone was waiting to hear about that.

Coming up for us, though, President Trump also is now taking on a new target, former first lady, Michelle Obama, after she said she would never be able to forgive him for peddling the Birther conspiracy years ago. Details on that ahead.

Plus, tensions are rising in the land of hanging chads. Florida is now bracing for a pair of recounts.

Jamie Gangel, let's talk about that.

The crucial governor and Senate races at a razor-thin margin right now. Republicans alleging fraud. Where's the evidence of that? That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [11:17:44] BOLDUAN: The Sunshine State once again in the shadow of a familiar cloud, election chaos. And 18 years after Florida's hanging chads threw the presidential election into turmoil, two of the nation's most closely watched midterm races may be headed for recounts. Now, just like then, each party accuses the other of foul play.

In the Senate race, Republican Rick Scott, he is clinging to a shrinking lead that now falls within the margin to trigger the state's automatic recount rules. Without offering evidence, Scott is alleging rampant fraud in two key counties.

This morning, the president now suggests the federal government could step in.


TRUMP: If you look at Broward County, they have had a horrible history. And if you look at the person, in this case, a woman involved, she has had a horrible history. And all of a sudden, they're finding votes out of nowhere. And Rick Scott, who won by -- you know, it was close, but he won by a comfortable margin. He easily won, but every hour it seems to be going down. I think that people have to look at it very, very cautiously.


BOLDUAN: The election to replace Scott in the governor's mansion could also be heading to a recount, with Republican Ron DeSantis clinging to a .4 percent lead. Democrat Andrew Gillum had conceded. He still hasn't rescinded that concession. But he does now say he wants to make sure every vote there's counted.

Joining me now, two people who know a lot about Florida politics, Adam Smith, political editor of the "Tampa Bay Times," and the former Republican Congressman from Florida, David Jolly.

Guys, great to see you. Thank you for being here.

Adam, there's a whole lot of talking points and accusations being thrown around. When the governor says that he's not going to sit idly while, in his words, "unethical liberals try to steal the election," is there any evidence of this?

ADAM SMITH, POLITICAL EDITOR, TAMPA BAY TIMES: No. There's definitely evidence, like the president did say, of sheer incompetence in a couple of these south Florida supervisors of elections. And they have had a history of problems before. But struggle is they're slowly counting up a lot of these ballots and we still haven't been able to get good information on how many ballots we're even talking about. It's very much like 2000 where the Republican side is immediately talking about a stolen election, and the Democrats are just saying count every vote.

[11:20:11] BOLDUAN: The deja vu is insane. Congressman, you heard President Trump, Marco Rubio also saying, Rick

Scott also saying, you have a lot of Republicans going straight to, as Adam said, the fear of fraud, especially in Broward County. What do you think of that? Are you concerned about that?

DAVID JOLLY, (R), FORMER CONGRESSMAN: No. And thank you for the way you framed that question because it is important that we hold to account Donald Trump's words, Rick Scott's words, and Marco Rubio's words. Realize what's going on. They're conflating frustrations of timeliness, even allegations of incompetence, with allegations of fraud. And the latter is a suggestion that some type of criminal activity for which they have absolutely no evidence. The frustration of timeliness does make sense. But understand what is on the line here, Kate. This is not a recount. We will have a recount, a state mandated recount. This is actually the initial count. This is ensuring everybody's vote is counted.

Unfortunately, I think for the eyes of the nation, it fits into this narrative too often where we see Republicans try to suppress the vote, Democrats try to turn it out. We saw in Georgia, Brian Kemp on a hot mic get caught saying, I'm worried if people exercise their right to vote, we may lose. In Arizona, we're seeing the GOP sue to not count mail ballots. And Cindy McCain had to rebuke her own party on that.

What Rick Scott did last night feeds into a narrative that I believe is embraced by many across the country that today's Republican Party is trying to suppress voters and Democrats are asking for every vote to be counted. It's hard to get beyond that narrative right now.

BOLDUAN: This is, I'm sure, one of the reasons adding into why you decided to leave the Republican Party.

What is important here, I think, just for everyone to understand -- you know this better than anybody - this -- if this goes to a recount, this is just mandated, it's mandated by law. This isn't triggered by one person deciding anything. This is just how it works. They're still just getting that final first count before anything happens.

Adam, how do you think this is going to play out in the next 48 hours?

SMITH: Well, it's a little different, because there's going to be an automatic machine recount.


SMITH: Which, knock on wood, these machines aren't so unreliable that's going to change the numbers dramatically. You're talking about in the Gillum/DeSantis race, the governor's race, it's hard to see how they're going to come up with 36,000 votes to make up that difference.

In the Bill Nelson race, it's a difference of about .2 percent. That's not only likely the machine recount that may or may not change much, but then an automatic hand recount because it's a quarter of 1 percent. That's where we're in lord knows what, never-neverland of Florida recounts.

BOLDUAN: I'm going to take that to the bank. That's exactly what courts will be saying, Adam.

Congressman, you mentioned Rick Scott and what he talked about yesterday. He also talked -- when he was making the statement, he was saying it in front of the governor's mansion. This is another tricky spot that we're finding ourselves in. You have the governor of the state, who traditionally, his job on a most basic level is to oversee all affairs of the state. He's the candidate in this election. How should Rick Scott handle this?

JOLLY: It was a very bad look for Rick Scott last night. I think he mishandled it significantly. Look, he is the governor. And also a candidate for Senate. And he had just filed suit against Broward County, and I believe Palm Beach, as the candidate. Then as governor stood in front of the mansion and said he was unleashing the state law enforcement agency, FDLE, to go down to those south Florida counties to investigate.

The reality is, the secretary of state, our elections are supervised in the state of Florida, out elections are supervised by the secretary of state. The right move for Rick Scott would be to recuse himself from oversight, allow the secretary of state at the state level to handle oversight. That is the easiest way to do this. Because where this is going -- and Adam alluded to it -- when we get into a hand recount -- and this is why I think Bill Nelson's camp is feeling a little confidence today -- they get to look at the anomalies. In the counties we're looking at, the U.S. Senate race was under-voted significantly, more than any other county from that of the governor's race. And it is a high-propensity Democratic county. So if we're in that very close margin of error, those anomalies of undervotes now get a human set of eyes to see if it's enough to turn this race to the blue column.

BOLDUAN: Which means it could be quite a while before we have finality here.

I really appreciate it. Thanks so much. We'll be discussing this again.

JOLLY: Good to be with you.

[11:24:43] BOLDUAN: Coming up for us, Democrats on Capitol Hill are quick to attack the president's decision to appoint Mueller critic, Matt Whitaker, as the acting attorney general. But what are Democrats going to do about it? That's next.


BOLDUAN: There's growing backlash in Congress over the president's appointment of Matt Whitaker as acting attorney general.

I spoke with the likely incoming Judiciary chairman in the House, Jerry Nadler, last night. He says Whitaker is not fit.


[11:29:52] REP. JERRY NADLER, (D), NEW YORK: He is not fit because he has expressed very negative opinions of the investigation. He's prejudged.

He's also illegal because he cannot be attorney general until he is confirmed by the Senate. He cannot act as attorney general until he's confirmed by the Senate because -