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CNN NEWSROOM

Trump Seeks to Distance Himself From Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired November 9, 2018 - 10:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[10:00:00] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We continue to look at the laws. We want to make sure -- look, it is a problem. It's a disastrous problem. It makes you sick to look at it. But he was a very, very mentally ill person.

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: Say it?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Firearms, any part of the mental health conversation?

TRUMP: Well, he was a war veteran. He was a Marine, he was in the war. He served time, he saw some pretty bad things. And a lot of people say he has the PTSD. And that's a tough deal. We're spending -- as you know, I have given tremendous funding to the vets for the PTSD and for general health for PTSD.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Mr. President --

TRUMP: It's a big problem. People come back, that's why it's a horrible thing, they come back, they're never the same.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Are you prepared to fly the flag at half mast?

TRUMP: Well, I don't like abusing any privilege, but when I see something that we should do, I always do that, yes. I always do that.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Mr. President --

TRUMP: I believe you should. When somebody -- when it's a worthy situation, I do believe it.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you expect Matt Whitaker to be involved in the Russia probe? Do you want him to --

TRUMP: That's up to him. UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: 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. You ask a lot of stupid questions.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: -- executive order on birthright citizenship this week? Why did that --

TRUMP: Well, because other things have come up. And we will be signing it soon.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Was it a political stunt?

TRUMP: No, no, no. We're always signing it. We're doing it. And it will probably work its way up to the Supreme Court. Birthright citizenship probably works its way up to the Supreme Court. It will be signed. We wanted a perfect document. And because of the election and all of the delays in the election and whatever is going on in Broward County -- remember the word, Broward County.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Is there any evidence of fraud in Broward County?

TRUMP: Wait. Well, you take a look at the past. Take a look at the past. And all of a sudden they're finding votes? You mean after the election they are finding votes? And then you look at her past where she's already been convicted. And now they're finding votes?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Who is her?

TRUMP: And you have this guy Elias who represented Hillary Clinton and a lot of very shady things. I think what you ought to do is get smart. Good luck, folks. I'll see you in Europe.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Well, that was quite a press availability from the president, as you see him leaving there with the First Lady Melania Trump for the trip to Paris to commemorate Armistice Day.

Poppy, you know, a few to tick through here. One, just within hours, a couple of days after Matt Whitaker being appointed the acting attorney general, the president more than half a dozen times there in those comments notes he does not know Matt Whitaker, although he went on to say that he is a very, very highly thought of choice. But he went back again and said, I don't know him.

Was he putting distance between himself and the new sitting attorney general?

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Yes.

SCIUTTO: A lot of headlines there on the president. His comments on the Russia investigation, again, calling it a phony hoax. Interestingly, tying the recounts in Florida and Arizona.

HARLOW: Right.

SCIUTTO: Particularly in Florida, somehow to the Russian dossier. I imagine because of the involvement of a lawyer who often works for the Democratic Party. But a sitting president, Poppy, casting doubt on legally required -- legally required recounts in the state of Florida.

HARLOW: Yes.

SCIUTTO: Part of which arose from all the controversy in 2000 with the presidential race there.

HARLOW: And, Jim, near the end there it really struck me that a female reporter, we're trying to figure out who it is, asked the president a very important and direct question. You know, do you want Whitaker, the acting attorney general now, overseeing the Russia probe to rein in Mueller? Why did she ask it? Well, because Whitaker has talked extensively including on this network about reining it in. What did the president respond? He didn't answer. He insulted that female reporter.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

HARLOW: And he said what a stupid question. We're going to try to get her on the phone on that as well.

SCIUTTO: It's become -- it's become a go-to line for the president with questions that he doesn't like. Right?

HARLOW: Yes.

HARLOW: And he'll even sometimes call them dangerous or violent questions. Really without basis there. Interesting reaction as well he had. He did mention DACA there and saying that he expects that to go to the Supreme Court where he hopes a better result than he has seen so far in the appeals courts. But we have a lot of folks, a lot of smart folks here to help us analyze the multiple headlines in these presidential comments.

Shimon Prokupecz, Abby Phillip, Jamie Gangel, Maeve Reston. We also have April Ryan on the phone.

[10:05:04] And April, if you can hear me.

APRIL RYAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, Jim.

SCIUTTO: I think we want to give you a chance to respond to the president. And I hesitate to repeat this, but the president, and I'm just quoting him directly here, "Talk about somebody who's a loser. She doesn't know what she's doing." What's your reaction?

RYAN: Well, Jim, first of all, thank you for being kind enough to understand that those words are terrible from a sitting United States president versus someone who has been covering presidents before he came and probably after he leaves. I have been there for 21 years, and I have covered three presidents

prior to this. And I have had a great working relationship with all three, from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush to Barack Hussein Obama, and now Donald John Trump. And something is awry. Each president understood that reporters -- those presidents prior to this, understood that reporters were part of the underpinnings of this nation.

The White House correspondents are the first line of questioning American presidents. And yes, sometimes we ask questions that they did not like, and maybe there might have been a bit of retaliation or fight back, but guess what. At the end of the day, it was part of the American process. It was part of what our founding fathers put in place for the accountability of a president of the United States.

And this president seems not to like it, so therefore I'm a loser. And I'm OK with that. You know, the questions that I asked, and let's just go back to the press conference. The one that he had the day after the midterm elections. I as a reporter, a reporter will do, and other reporters in that room did that day, shouted out questions. I had a chance with a pregnant pause in the time the president finished answering a question to the calling on another reporter.

I threw out the question about voter suppression that has been rampant during this midterm election. We heard about it in Florida. We heard about it in Georgia. We heard about it North Dakota. We heard about it in Texas and we heard about it in North Carolina and other places.

The NAACP and even Reverend Jesse Jackson had to step in on Election Day, and today, this president is tweeting about voter fraud when voter suppression is more rampant than we're hearing about voter fraud. So he responded when I asked about voter suppression. And then I took it as he wanted to respond. And then when I stood up, he may not have heard my voice or knew it was me. He heard my -- he heard voice, he heard my words, but he might not have known it was me.

When I stood up in his response, he tells me to sit down in a condescending very ugly manner. So he might be reacting to that, but it was a real issue. And for 21 years, I have been at that White House, and he's talking about I got a pay raise. Well, I'm glad he thinks he knows about my finances, but you know, it's interesting. I am proud to work for CNN.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

RYAN: I was -- I have been working in this business for 21 years.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Yes.

RYAN: They just take note because I'm now at CNN. It was a coincidence that I came to CNN at the time that I did.

SCIUTTO: Well, April, no one should face that kind of language.

HARLOW: Yes.

SCIUTTO: And you're damn good at your job. Let's just say that.

RYAN: Thank you. Thank you, Jim.

SCIUTTO: For folks listening here. I do want to go to our Shimon Prokupecz because you were watching those words closely, I'm sure, Shimon, and within a day or two of appointing a new acting attorney general, the president, and I went back and counted, it was more than half a dozen time, uttered the words I don't know Matt Whitaker, I don't know Matt Whitaker.

Did you see the president there putting some distance between himself and the new acting attorney general?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Absolutely. You know, that was the goal here, right? The fact that he wants to put distance himself because of all the reports and certainly the things that Whitaker has said on our air, the op-ed that he's written, criticizing Mueller, criticizing the investigation. And the idea that, you know, he -- certainly the optics are not good for this White House that Whitaker was put into this position, given the criticism that he's had towards the Mueller probe. Right?

The op-ed, the other things that he has said publicly, so the optics are not good. Publicly, the president may think that it's all good. But behind the scenes, you know, there are people who have raised issues with the appointment of Whitaker as the acting attorney general. But there's also concern over the Department of Justice. The idea that Whitaker is somehow very highly thought of, that he's this very smart man.

Look, you know, our team here has been talking to people at the Department of Justice. And they all have raised issues with this. They don't think he's qualified for this job. They do think that he was placed at the White House to be Sessions' chief of staff, to spy on the Department of Justice. To be the president's spy. That has always been a concern for people at the Department of Justice since he's appointed.

So everything that we hear the president here say about Whitaker it's quite frankly not true. There are concerns about his appointment. There are concerns about his views on the Mueller probe. There are concerns about his qualifications to run this agency.

HARLOW: Yes.

PROKUPECZ: To be the top law enforcement official of this country.

HARLOW: Yes.

[10:10:04] PROKUPECZ: What qualifies him for that? And certainly, you know, the fact that he's loyal to the president, well, in the president's eyes, that may be enough, but there are people who work at the Department of Justice, people who work at the FBI, who he now is in charge of that have raised concerns.

HARLOW: Yes. And you know, Shimon, to your point about those concerns and what it may mean for the Mueller probe. When the very important question, one of if not the most important question that was asked in that entire gaggle by our own Abby Phillip, was might you try to rein in Mueller? The president wouldn't even answer it, he called her stupid.

A president who moments before talked about respect in the White House, called African-American reporters stupid, nasty, and loser, referring to April Ryan and Abby Phillip. We will get to Abby in a moment. Jamie Gangel is also here with me on all of this, just to put a button on this Whitaker stuff. There were so many falsehoods there when it comes to not knowing Whitaker.

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: I think the gentleman doth protest too much. As Jim Sciutto said, how many times did he say that he doesn't know him? But here's the reason it's not credible. There is no more important position in the Cabinet to Donald Trump than attorney general. He didn't pick Matt Whitaker by accident or because he didn't know him. By tradition generally that position would have gone to Rod Rosenstein.

He went around Rod Rosenstein and he picked Matt Whitaker on purpose. And as Shimon mentioned, our reporting has said and also "The New York Times" has reported that Matt Whitaker was the eyes and ears of the White House inside the Justice Department.

HARLOW: Right.

GANGEL: So it just doesn't make sense.

HARLOW: Right. Abby Phillip, you're joining us now as well. And Abby, look, the president responded to your important question saying that it was a stupid question. He actually didn't answer it. And on top of that, Abby, it's important to call out and note that the president also threatened to take away more reporter credentials.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Poppy. You know, in that gaggle, it's usually really loud. A lot of reporters out there screaming questions at the president. But I tried to ask him multiple questions during the gaggle. He ignored most of them. One of the questions I tried to ask was whether he was punishing reporters because he didn't like their questions. He refused to answer that, but later on, I did ask him one of what I think is the most pressing questions that a lot of people have about this Matt Whitaker appointment, which is what's the intention here?

Does the president want his new acting attorney general to rein in Robert Mueller? Does he want him to step in in a way that Jeff Sessions did not, which is why the president was so upset with Jeff Sessions? And he said -- initially, he said, well, that's up to him. And then I asked him, do you want him to rein in Mueller. He called it a stupid question.

But, Poppy, it's really important. It is the most important question here because there are a lot of really clear questions about whether Matt Whitaker ought to be doing that given what he said publicly in the past about Mueller. SCIUTTO: Listen. Absolutely fair question. And a question the

president should expect to answer there.

Maeve Reston, let's do a little fact-checking here because the president made quite a point of saying that the Special Counsel Robert Mueller is not Senate confirmed. We should make clear that is not anywhere in the special counsel law. He does not require Senate confirmation for that position, though he does have Senate backing and they have extended his term. And we should also note as FBI director, Robert Mueller did go through Senate confirmation there. Why was the president doubling, tripling down on that point?

MAEVE RESTON, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, I mean, clearly, he feels like he is under attack with these very hasty moves that he made this week in the Justice Department. Partly because, you know, so many voters around the country are watching this and wondering, you know, whether we are seeing, again, another slow motion Saturday night massacre.

You know, you talk to voters around the country, and they say that the Russia investigation doesn't have a direct impact on their lives, but they don't like it when they see the president making what are blatantly political moves to protect him and to put a shield around the White House. And I have to say that his conduct in that brief gaggle, you know, again calling out a female reporter, is exactly what alienated so many college-educated women in the election results that we saw on Tuesday night.

I mean, this is a -- this is going to be a huge problem for Republicans going forward as he continues this kind of conduct. Over the last year, talking to women voters all around the country, this is exactly the kind of behavior that they hate, that they feel is misogynistic and that they don't want to see from their president. And I think that's an important note going forward as we think about whether or not Republicans can hold on to the White House.

[10:15:01] What is the plan to bring back those college-educated women? And obviously, President Trump is not going to do anything to help them with that thus far.

SCIUTTO: Yes. The plan seems to be to double down on this going to war with the various camps he goes to war with.

Listen, there's a lot more to digest, Shimon, Abby, Jamie, Maeve. Please stick around. We're going to be back after this short break.

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SCIUTTO: Welcome back. Still digesting just numerous headlines, Poppy, from the president.

HARLOW: Yes.

SCIUTTO: Speaking there to reporters for 25 minutes before his departure for France with the first lady.

[10:20:05] We're back with Shimon Prokupecz, Jamie Gangel, Julie Pace, Toluse Olorunnipa.

Tell me if I got your name mispronounced there. But, Julie, I want to go --

HARLOW: You did a good job, Jim. I usually --

SCIUTTO: All right.

HARLOW: I usually don't, so good.

SCIUTTO: With a name like this, I better pronounce other people's names right.

HARLOW: Yes.

SCIUTTO: Julie, let me start with you because the president is really going all out on the legally required recounts in the state of Florida as well as efforts through the courts and elsewhere to recount in Georgia, the ongoing one in Arizona, all following the law. Calling them fraudulent, making a connection based on I don't know what to the Russia dossier. But he also claims that all recounts go in the direction of Democrats, which is factually not true. There have been some recounts that have advantaged Republican candidates in this cycle.

What is happening here with the president? He clearly doesn't like the possibility that he might not -- that Republicans might not get this Senate pickup in Florida. It appears to be part of a broader strategy.

JULIE PACE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. Well, it looks like what he's trying to do is undermine the process so that if these recounts, which as you note, are legally mandated, if they go against the Republicans, if as more votes are counted, the Democrats gain ground and ultimately win in Florida in particular, then he will raise doubts about those victories. He will say that they are fraudulent, that they -- that the Republicans were disadvantaged. But he's wrong because the recount process is mandated by the states.

It is known to anybody who wants to go and look at it. It's laid out very clearly. It's publicly available information. And so the state is simply following, and going to be simply following their law in this case. And so, you know, the president is really providing people misinformation on this front. This is not something that Democrats are leading. Certainly the Democratic candidates who are behind would want a recount to see if they can pull ahead, but this is an open and transparent process here.

SCIUTTO: I mean, it follows, Poppy, his strategy with the Mueller investigation, right? Undermine the investigation.

HARLOW: Right.

SCIUTTO: Confidence, et cetera.

HARLOW: Yes. SCIUTTO: On the possibility that he won't like the outcome.

HARLOW: Right. Right. I mean, call something a scandal, call something a fraud, words now echoed by Rick Scott with no evidence. You plant the seed, right? You do damage by putting something out there with no evidence.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

HARLOW: Jamie Gangel, to you, let's take the broad context of what we just saw this week from the president. That off-the-rails, you know, news conference, and then this. Is this an angry president? Is this a president off his game?

GANGEL: Well, I think that we've heard many times combat is his resting state. He likes this. He picks a fight even when he's winning. This is his go-to position. And I just want to circle back to what happened when Abby Phillip asked him that question about Mueller. I think she asked the best question.

HARLOW: So do I.

GANGEL: Of that gaggle, and she pushed his button because that's exactly what he's most worried about. You talk about Mueller. You talk about how many times did he say Matt Whitaker, I don't know him. It was not an accident that Matt Whitaker was put in that job. It's not an accident that he went off on Abby.

HARLOW: Can I just -- good point. Because can we just tick through what actually the DOJ statute lays out? OK. If it's not the attorney general, then it goes down to the deputy attorney general. If not the deputy attorney general, it goes to the associate attorney general then the solicitor general, then the assistant attorney general.

GANGEL: He was --

HARLOW: That's just how it would normally work. And Whitaker is none of them.

GANGEL: Right. Not -- Whitaker was nowhere in the normal line of succession. The person that Donald Trump was trying to get around is Rod Rosenstein, who is in charge of the Mueller investigation. And Republicans I talked to this week said more than anything they felt, and these were just their opinions, that Trump wanted information. What is going on in the Mueller investigation? What has he not been able to get from Rod Rosenstein?

If you put in Matt Whitaker, someone who has been reported to be a White House loyalist, then maybe you get that information.

HARLOW: Yes. Maybe. Jim.

SCIUTTO: Toluse Olorunnipa, White House reporter for Bloomberg News, joining us now.

Toluse, the president's comments on Whitaker, distancing himself, it seemed, though also endorsing him, saying that he's very, very highly thought of, but saying multiple times I don't know him. There's a "New York Times" story out today of discomfort in the White House with the reaction, negative reaction to Whitaker. In your reporting, is the president -- is the administration's backing for Whitaker faltering now?

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA. WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, BLOOMBERG NEWS: Yes. This is indicative of a very poor vetting process and the haphazard process for choosing the top law enforcement officer in the country.

[10:25:02] The president obviously was thinking of the Mueller probe and thinking about how Jeff Sessions recused himself, and he told reporters multiple times over the past year that Jeff Sessions should have told him that from the outset that he was going to recuse himself. So it's unthinkable to imagine that President Trump did not think about whether or not Whitaker would have to recuse himself and whether or not that discussion ever happened.

Now we're hearing the president back away and say I barely know the guy and sort of extract himself from this actual process, this vetting process of him choosing the next acting attorney general. And it does appear that the president is now realizing the vetting process is taking place after the decision when it's normally supposed to take place before the decision is not shining a positive light on the White House and on this decision to choose someone who has spoken out so vocally against the Mueller probe, who has a number of very controversial comments in his past, things that in a normal vetting process in a normal White House would have come out much earlier in the process and probably would have disqualified this candidate.

And now the president is trying to back away and sort of leaving Whitaker to twist in the wind a little bit and say, you know, I barely know the guy, and so that if he ends up getting cut loose, the president can say this is not my crony, this is not somebody I knew. This is just happening at the Justice Department, but this is the president's choice, and it was clear that it was made without the necessary vetting, and now there's egg on the face of many people in the White House, and everyone is just sort of trying to scramble and distance themselves from the decision.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Well, Poppy, where else have we heard the president notably distance himself? Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, George Papadopoulos.

HARLOW: Yes. Sure.

SCIUTTO: Often that is the prelude to a departure. We don't know that yet, it's early here.

HARLOW: Good point.

SCIUTTO: Certainly something to watch. Thanks to all of you. A lot to digest there.

HARLOW: Thanks, everyone.

SCIUTTO: A lot of smart folks with us, with Poppy and I.

Still to come, three wildfires raging across California, threatening homes, forcing thousands to evacuate. We're going to have a live update from California.

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