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Recovery Efforts Continue in California; President Trump Comments on Mueller Probe; Source: Trump Legal Team Balks at Mueller Questions Relating to Post 2016 Election. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired November 16, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: The same president who recently tweeted that the porn star with whom he allegedly had an affair has a -- quote -- "horseface" today expressed concern about decorum at the White House.

THE LEAD starts right now.

President Trump today saying he has personally answered some written questions from special counsel Robert Mueller, as he insults the probe and as anxiety over the Russia probe continues to unravel him and many of those around him.

It's being called one of the largest body recovery missions in the United States since 9/11. The scope of the misery almost unimaginable, as wildfires tear across California and crews search for the hundreds now missing.

Plus, ultra modern weapon, ominous news out of North Korea, as the U.S. drops a key demand from Kim Jong-un. Why? Is that upcoming summit anything but a photo-op at this point?

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with our politics lead.

President Trump is under pressure both from the pending Democratic- controlled House and from potential moves by special counsel Robert Mueller. So, as the president does, when feeling the heat from situations that are often largely of his own doing, he's now seeking to blame others in his orbit, as top officials at the White House and the Trump administration prepare for a purge, asserting this afternoon the president is happy with -- quote -- "almost all" of his Cabinet officials.

The president has in recent days been talking to aides and advisers about possibly getting rid of Chief of Staff John Kelly and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. But would that solve anything?

As one senior administration official put it to me -- quote -- "In this administration, there are arsonists and there are firefighters. The president is looking to get rid of the firefighters. The more he does, the faster his administration is going to burn down." But it's not just shuffling staff. Even the president's policies are problematic, according to some of those who work for him. This same senior administration official told me about the almost 6,000 troops sent to the U.S.-Mexico border before the midterm election -- quote -- "It's a paper tiger, a total joke of limited operational utility and a waste of our troops' time. Defense Secretary Mattis knows it. Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen knows it. Chief of Staff Kelly knows it. But that battle was lost with the president. He was hell- bent on troops" -- unquote.

Now, one of the president's more prominent conservative critics is a man named George Conway. He's the husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway. And speaking about his own decision not to join the Trump administration, he was once under consideration to be solicitor general, Conway has had harsh things to say about the president's inability to exercise the basic duties of the office, in his view.

And Conway told Yahoo News this:


GEORGE CONWAY, HUSBAND OF KELLYANNE CONWAY: I'm watching this thing, and, you know, and it's like the administration is like a (EXPLETIVE DELETED) show in a dumpster fire.


TAPPER: And just to underline this point, Conway, the husband of a top Trump aide, this week formed an organization of former top Republican Justice Department and national security lawyers to try to protect the rule of law and constitutional principles that they see President Trump as continually undermining.

CNN White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins is here with me.

And, Kaitlan, President Trump again today railing against the Mueller probe, and saying that the former FBI director is trying to set perjury traps for him.


He said he found these questions easy to answer, but he questioned why Robert Mueller needs to know this information in the first place, and implied that he's trying to set him up for perjury by asking him some of these questions.

But, Jake, make no mistake, the fact that the president has completed the answers to these written questions and is prepared to submit them, he says, does seem to take us one step closer in what has been nearly a year of negotiations between the special counsel and President Trump.


COLLINS (voice-over): After 24 hours of Twitter silence about the Russia investigation, President Trump addressing it out loud today from the Oval Office.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There should have never been any Mueller investigation.

COLLINS: Announcing he's finished the written answers to questions from special counsel Robert Mueller and even penned them himself.

TRUMP: I write the answers. My lawyers don't write answers. I write answers.

COLLINS: Trump met with his legal team nearly every day this week and despite his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, raising concerns about some of the questions...

TRUMP: No collusion.

COLLINS: ... Trump said he hasn't submitted them yet, but doesn't have any problems.

TRUMP: But they're not very difficult questions.

COLLINS: The president insisting he's not bothered by the Russia investigation, despite writing in all caps the day before that it is a witch-hunt like no other in American history and has gone absolutely nuts.

TRUMP: I like to take everything personally, because you do better that way.

COLLINS: Trump suggesting investigators from the special counsel's office were setting him up to perjure himself.


TRUMP: Gee, was the weather sunny or was it rainy? He said it may have been a good day. It was rainy. Therefore, he told a lie. He perjured himself.

COLLINS: The back and forth with the special counsel coming as the president is weighing shaking up his own staff. Today, when Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen standing over his shoulder, he said he's not done making changes yet.

TRUMP: I'm extremely happy. I'm very happy with almost all of my Cabinet. And, you know, changes are made because they're always made, especially after midterms.

COLLINS: Sources say Trump has decided to remove Nielsen from her post, but he hasn't picked a replacement yet and there are questions in Washington about who wants to work in a White House engulfed in chaos.

In a rare interview today, Kellyanne Conway's husband explained why he turned down a top job at the Justice Department.

G. CONWAY: I realized, this guy is going to be at war with the Justice Department.

COLLINS: George Conway referring to the administration as:

G. CONWAY: A shit show in a dumpster fire.


COLLINS: Now, there are all these questions about who is going to work in this White House, but it's stunning that someone who already works in this White House, a senior administration official, is describing the president as firing all the firefighters and giving you this -- quote -- "The more he does, the faster his administration is going to burn down."

TAPPER: All right, Kaitlan Collins.

And Kaitlan joins our team of experts.

This just in, President Trump is planning to meet with Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi next week at Mar-a-Lago, according to a source. Bondi, the outgoing attorney general of Florida, is under consideration for a few Cabinet posts, including U.S. attorney general and secretary of Department of Homeland Security.

Seung Min, your reaction. That seems like probably a pretty good fit?

SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, there are a lot of names in the mix.

But I will say, we talk so much about staff departures, particularly the Cabinet. And we can't forget the headache that this causes for the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, meaning Senate Republicans, who have to confirm these posts, a lot of these really contentious, controversial fights, because you're talking about Homeland Security.

There are all these debates that erupt about immigration. Attorney general, all the litany issues that go on in the Justice Department. And you're already having Senate Republicans when it comes to that attorney general post, anyone from Lamar Alexander, who can speak candidly and sometimes goes away from the party line, and to John Cornyn, who is a close Trump ally, is in party leadership, saying we can't imagine a new attorney general getting confirmed who doesn't commit publicly to not interfering with the Mueller probe.

So whenever these confirmation fights are going on, it's going to be complicated for Senate Republicans. Fortunately, for them, they should have a little bit bigger of a majority next year, pending the results in Florida.

TAPPER: Although you hear that from Cornyn that whoever the attorney general is going to have to publicly say, I'm not going to interfere in the probe, but that's probably, whether it's secret or not, what the president wants the new attorney general to do, interfere in the Russia probe, you know, rein it in, if not end it.

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": Seung Min is so concerned about those poor Senate Republicans.


TAPPER: She's a compassionate person.

KRISTOL: She is. I'm not.

For me, that would be crocodile tears. Maybe they could actually protect Mueller. Maybe they could actually hold the existing Cabinet secretaries to account. We have an acting attorney general of the United States who is manifestly, I would say, unqualified for the job, who certainly raises a million questions, including the fact that he was appointed not having been Senate-confirmed.

They were in session until today. They come back into session after Thanksgiving. There is a thing called the Senate Judiciary Committee. They have hearings. They could call him before them and get him to assure them that he won't interfere. He's acting attorney general. There won't be anyone confirmed until after, do you think, not -- I don't think in the lame-duck.

So, I think it will be after January. But, of course, God forbid they actually call up the acting attorney general and make sure that we will have the rule of law in the country for the next two months.

TAPPER: Let me ask you a question.

So this senior administration official compare -- and maybe it's an unfortunate comparison, just given what's going on in California right now. But he said the administration is made up firefighters and arsonists, and the president, in seeking to get rid of Nielsen, in seeking to get rid of Kelly, potentially in seeking to get rid of Sessions, is getting rid of all of the firefighters, is getting rid of all of the people who stop the chaos, as opposed to the arsonists who will remain.

Again, it's an unfortunate metaphor, given what's going on in California. But do you agree with that basic idea?

JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: If he is, he hasn't yet gotten rid of enough people, because it does seem like there are people in the administration who are, according to reports, trying to slow him down.

Maybe he is going to give it to some of them. But remember this, this is a president who sent troops to the border in the middle of a political campaign what seems like for purely political benefit. And General Mattis, who was supposed to be one of the baby-sitters, did not stop him from doing that.

So what we have seen is a president jump over a line of demarcation that we thought maybe he won't go that far. He's gone that far. Now he's fired the attorney general, which we were told by Lindsey Graham there would be hell to pay if he did that. And there is none.

I just don't know if there really are any guardrails on this president when it comes to Republicans. The only chance we may have is that the 20 or 21 Republicans who are up for election in 2020, after seeing what happened in the midterms, say, hmm, maybe my own self-interest doesn't lie in supporting this president.


TAPPER: And the same sitting administration official gave me that other quote, saying that sending troops to the border was a paper tiger and a total joke. Mattis knows it, Nielsen knows it, Kelly knows it, but the president was hell-bent on doing it. That's a pretty damning thing to say.


I would love to know if this person thinks they're a firefighter or an arsonist. I'm going to assume they think they're in the firefighter camp.

TAPPER: I assure you, the person thinks that he or she is a firefighter.


KRISTOL: That was a heck of quote.


COLLINS: That is something that really bothers the president, is that there are people giving quotes like this in the White House who think they are there to save the country from the president.

That also stems back to when that person who works in this administration wrote that op-ed for "The New York Times."

TAPPER: Anonymous, yes.

COLLINS: Anonymously, and it still has not come forward who it is that wrote that. That's what bothers President Trump is that there -- he thinks there are people trying who are actively work against him.

And he's gone back in recent days to talking the way he did in the beginning of the administration when there were so many leaks coming out, and it was such a period of chaos, and not that it has really eased up since then, but it was really so stunning in those first few weeks of the White House.

President Trump seems to have returned to that, to where he's retreating back, he's not talking to as many people, he seems more isolated. People who work with him every day are saying that.

TAPPER: And then, Seung Min, today, Kellyanne Conway was asked if the president was frustrated by all the speculation surrounding the staff shifts that could be coming.

Frustrated -- you know, all this talk, by the way, is because he's running around asking people what they think. But take a listen to Kellyanne Conway.


QUESTION: The president was frustrated by these questions about House...

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: He's not frustrated about anything. He's frustrated about Congress failing to act on immigration. If he's frustrated about anything, it's that this town just doesn't keep pace with his rate of change.


TAPPER: "If he's frustrated with anything, it's that this town doesn't keep pace with his rate of change."

KIM: He's also frustrated with the people surrounding him. Let's be clear.

And I think particularly when Kellyanne Conway mentioned the issue of immigration, he's not satisfied with the way things haven't changed at the border much to his liking, that's his way of venting his frustrations at the DHS secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, who "The Washington Post" reported earlier this week is essentially on her way out.

She does want to make it -- to try to make it to her one-year anniversary on December 6, but in the coming days, in the coming weeks, President Trump has made it clear she is going to be exiting. But for her, the difficulty for her is that under a law, there is not -- she can go as far as she can, but there is not a lot she can do that would make President Trump happy in terms of sealing the border and closing off the border.

But the president hasn't seen that, and he's vented the frustration. It was remarkable at the Oval Office this morning how -- earlier this morning how he said I'm happy with almost all of my Cabinet. And she was standing right behind him.


COLLINS: And the idea that Kellyanne is saying this town can't keep up with the rate of change in the White House, that's actually a problem for the White House, because they can't people to hire.

One big reason Nielsen is still there and John Kelly is that the president doesn't have candidates who he immediately wants to replace them with. That's why we saw Reince Priebus leave so quickly, because President Trump had John Kelly in mind. So when he can picture someone to take a job, he usually gets rid of them pretty quickly.

That's why we saw Jeff Sessions remain in his post for so long, along with the pressure to not fire him.


TAPPER: Go ahead.

SIMMONS: It strikes me that President Trump approached being a president like a big city mayor. It just seems he expects everyone to sort of do what he says when he feels like it.

If you're the mayor of New York, you go to the city council, they pretty much pass whatever bill you want. You call the police chief. You call the Justice Department. They do and investigate whatever it is you want and they stop doing what you want.

That's just not the way things are done at the federal government level and he has yet seemed to transition his way to that reality.

KRISTOL: I'm going to give you a tip. He's not going to.


KRISTOL: He wants them done that way. It's not that he doesn't yet understand that that is the way it happens in Washington.

But I thought the quote you reported from your source is very revealing by focusing on the troops to the border, because I think you're right. General Mattis has been able to check Trump on a lot of things. Some of them have been reported. Some, I have heard about as well.

On this one, he managed to check the way in which they were deployed and their orders of engagement, their rules of engagement and so forth. So he did have some effect. But he felt and General Kelly felt they couldn't really stop it from happening.

It's a pretty disgraceful thing.

TAPPER: He's the commander in chief.

KRISTOL: Honestly, in the middle of an election campaign, sending troops down there to sit around...


TAPPER: But, at the end of the day, he's the commander in chief.

Stick around. We have a lot more to talk about.

With President Trump telling the world he's written answers to questions from Mueller's team, we have new details about the questions the special counsel is actually asking.

And then does Nancy Pelosi really have the votes to be the next speaker of the House? We're going to talk to one incoming congresswoman who says she is not going to vote for Pelosi. Stay with us.


[16:18:53] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And we're back with breaking news. Today, President Trump revealed he has finished writing his answers to questions from special counsel, Robert Mueller's team. But before he did, President Trump may have resisted some of Mueller's questions, at least for now.

Let's bring in CNN's Pamela Brown.

And, Pamela, what questions did the president have problems with?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Really, Jake, we have learned the president and his legal team have balked, taking issue with some of the questions from Robert Mueller and his team, which cover the transition period of time after the 2016 election. They believe it could be off limits under executive privilege, as they pertain to the presidency. This is according to a source I spoke with familiar with these negotiations.

Now, the source would not explicitly say whether the president answered the questions, other than to say there have been responses to all of the questions that were asked. So take that for what you will. But Trump's lawyers saying the president would only answer questions related to collusion, about the events that took place before the 2016 election. Now, as you'll recall in an interview with "The Washington Post" Thursday, the president's attorney, Rudy Giuliani, alluded to the sticking point with the questions, saying that there are some that create more issues for us legally than others.

[16:20:04] And as it turns out, this is what he's talking. A list of the questions provided to Trump's legal team in the spring by the special counsel included inquiries about efforts during the transition to establish a back channel line of communications to Russia and the 2017 meeting in the Seychelles involving Trump ally Erik Prince, a businessman and founder of the private security company formerly known as Blackwater.

Now, the president and his lawyers, as we know, are finalizing the answers to the special counsel's questions and could return the responses as early as next week. I asked one of my sources to respond to what the president said today, that he has written all of the answers to these questions, and this source would only say he has been heavily involved in the process -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Pamela Brown, thanks so much.

My legal team is here with me.

What's your response Pamela's reporting, the president reluctant to answer some of these questions having to do with what happened during the transition?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, of course, he is. He doesn't want to jeopardize or expose -- more jeopardy. But, of course, the directive and the mandate that Mueller has is to focus on things happening prior to the inauguration, the actual campaign. Whether there was collusion between Russia and a member of his campaign. So, it makes sense to narrow his inquiry to that. Also, the issues happening after inauguration, issues about obstruction of justice, for example. Mueller has what he needs if he to were bring a charge of obstruction. He already has the president's tweets, his statements to Lester Holt. He's got a different information about that. What more could he ask about that particular aspect?

And finally, I don't know if you're buying it, Kim, the idea that he has written all the answers himself. Sure, you have, Mr. President. But they're going to be vetted by your attorneys before Mueller sees them and it will probably only barely resemble what you have said.

TAPPER: And that's for any client, though. I mean, that seems like smart, legal advice. No lawyer is going to let a client write down answers and hand them in exactly, right? I mean, that would be --

KIM WEHLE, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: No. It will be heavily edited or drafted by the attorney. And as you suggested, it makes a lot less helpful.

I think the other thing that is going on here has to do with really his view of the Constitution. We've heard a lot about executive privilege, but I think really what he's talking about here is his role as commander-in-chief ahead of the executive branch, the idea being I cannot obstruct justice -- in theory, I cannot obstruct justice because I'm in charge of the Justice Department. And that's a very kind of -- sort of off the radar I think constitutional point of view. But if it gets to the Supreme Court, that would be a big deal for constitutional law scholar.

TAPPER: Nixon said in that famous David Frost interview, if the president does it, it's not illegal, right? I mean --

WEHLE: Same thing.

TAPPER: That same idea.


TAPPER: President Trump also dropping possible hints into the inner working of Robert Mueller, special counsel. Take a listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Imagine it's ending now. From what I hear, it's ending. And I'm sure it will be just fine. And you know why it's going to be just fine? Because there was no collusion.


TAPPER: The president also tweeted something suggesting he knows something about what's going on in Mueller's circle. He tweeted yesterday, quote: They are screaming and shouting at people, horribly threatening them to come up with the answers they want. You can always -- I mean, it's always a possibility that President

Trump is just making things up. He does that. Is it also possible maybe he has sources? Some conservatives are speculating maybe it's the acting attorney who is a clear Trump loyalist.

COATES: I actually think that's a possibility. Remember, the question you ask of a journalist would be, what's your source of information? Why all of a sudden after you've been radio silent on a number of issues through Twitter and not condemning Mueller or the probe for some time, maybe the midterm was a distraction for you. But all of a sudden, within a week's time of having Matthew Whitaker in place, some have said he may be a plant to report back, and the actual statute that Mueller operates under does allow for somebody who oversees the investigation to be briefed in and hear about the information.

Now, we have the president alluding to what he now knows. Is he speculating? Is he relaying? That's the real question.

TAPPER: Rudy Giuliani is among the lawyers the president has been meeting with to review questions. And according to "The Washington Post", Giuliani said this about the questions. Quote: There are some that create more issues for us legally than others. Giuliani also said some questions were unnecessary, some were possible traps and, quote, we might consider some as irrelevant.

What do you think?

WEHLE: So I think this might get to the question of obstruction of justice, that they're refusing to answer those questions and the next step will be whether there's going to actually be a subpoena from the special counsel to put him in the grand jury or to interview him.

TAPPER: To put President Trump in the interview --

WEHLE: Yes, if he's not going to actually response. And, in that instance, I think -- I think it's a fair assumption that Mr. Whitaker not only has access to the information, is giving to the president, but is kind of in a position to be the puppet master, which is the whole reason post-Watergate, we had a separate statute. Here we are, the regulation, which is why the Congress is talking, members of Congress are talking about passing statute, so that the president doesn't have this level of control over an investigation into himself.

And, of course, this kind of level of control passed to the next president, whether they're Republicans or Democrats, is something I think all Americans have to worry about. Do we really want an accountable presidency?

TAPPER: All right.

COATES: And by the way, me thinks doth lady protest too much. If you're talking about all these issues, you're telling everyone what you want to be the case, that you really wanted an actual investigation to play out as-is and you were professing your innocence, then perhaps you should let it play out as-is and let the powers that be in control.

[16:25:05] TAPPER: Laura Coates, Kim Wehle, thank you so much. Really appreciate it.

The president now reportedly questioning the loyalty of the one member of his administration who everyone says is loyal.

Stay with us.


TAPPER: The blue wave in the House of Representatives swept over even more territory today with another congressional district falling into Democratic control. Democrats now officially picked up a net gain of at least 34 seats and in the six races that remain uncalled, all were held by Republicans before Election Day. Democrats currently are ahead in five.