Return to Transcripts main page
THE SITUATION ROOM
NYT: Trump Wanted to Order Justice Department to Prosecute Comey and Clinton; Putin Ally Seeks High Post at Global Police Agency Interpol. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired November 20, 2018 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[17:00:09] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT/ANCHOR: Yes, they've been sitting on those numbers for some time. Barbara Starr, thanks very much. Our coverage on CNN continues right now.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. "Maybe he did." President Trump stands by the Saudi crown prince, insisting the CIA has not definitely concluded that he personally directed the murder of a U.S.-based journalist. The president says maybe he did, and maybe he didn't, making it clear, there will be no punishment for Saudi Arabia.
Returning his responses. The president finishes answering questions from the special counsel, Robert Mueller, about possible collusion, and his lawyers have now submitted the written responses. So what's Robert Mueller's next move?
E-mail excuses. The president concedes that his daughter and senior adviser, Ivanka Trump, used private e-mail for government business. Is that any different than what Hillary Clinton did?
And Putin's Interpol pick. A close ally and top aide of Vladimir Putin is in line for the top job at the global police organization Interpol. Why are Putin's critics very worried?
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: Breaking news. President Trump sides with Saudi Arabia, shrugging off an intelligence assessment that the Saudi crown prince personally ordered the murder of a U.S.-based journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, saying, "Maybe he did, and maybe he didn't." The president lets the crown prince off the hook and signaling that the United States will not punish Saudi Arabia, while stressing that the kingdom has pledged to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in the U.S.
I'll speak with Congressman Adam Smith. He's the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. And our correspondents and specialists are standing by with full coverage.
Let's begin with our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. Jim, the president is now making it abundantly clear that he's backing the Saudis.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. First, some breaking news, and that is the president's legal team has sent out a statement, saying that they have submitted the president's written responses in the Russia investigation to the special counsel's office.
But as you said, Wolf, there is arguably a bigger story today. And that is that President Trump is sending a strong signal today that he stands with Saudi Arabia, despite the kingdom's apparent role in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The president seems to be dismissing a CIA assessment that the Saudi crown prince ordered Khashoggi's murder. And when I asked the president whether he is allowing the Saudis to get away with murder earlier this afternoon, he said his decision is based on his policy of "America first."
ACOSTA (voice-over): Just moments before a ceremonial pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkey at the White House --
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will be issuing both Peas and Carrots a presidential pardon.
ACOSTA: -- President Trump delivered a chilling message on the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In a statement that begins with "America first," the president seemed to dismiss a CIA assessment that found Saudi Arabia's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, ordered Khashoggi's killing, saying, "It could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event. Maybe he did and maybe he didn't."
Leaving for Thanksgiving, the president defended his decision to side with the Saudis.
(on camera): Are you letting the Saudis get away with murder?
ACOSTA: Murdering a journalist?
TRUMP: No, no. This is about America first. They're paying us $400 billion-plus to purchase and invest in our country. That's probably the biggest amount ever paid to the United States.
ACOSTA: Don't you believe the CIA?
TRUMP: They didn't make a determination. And it's just like I said. I think it was -- maybe he did, maybe he didn't. They did not make that assessment. The CIA has looked at it; they've studied it a lot. They have nothing definitive.
ACOSTA (voice-over): In a statement, the president also appeared to buy into a Saudi smear of Khashoggi, adding, "Representatives of Saudi Arabia say that Jamal Khashoggi was an enemy of the state, and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood."
Khashoggi's family has blasted those claims as ridiculous. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo backed up the president's statement.
MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: This is a long, historic commitment, and one that is absolutely vital to America's national security. It's a mean, nasty world out there.
ACOSTA: But not all Republicans are on board.
REP. FRANCIS ROONEY (R-FL), FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: I'm concerned about our standing in the world and what it says about the United States.
ACOSTA: The president's willingness to believe Saudi denials is consistent with his posture toward other undemocratic countries like Russia and its meddling in the 2016 election.
TRUMP: Maybe it was. I mean, it could be Russia but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?
ACOSTA: The president's explosive statement comes less than a day after his own daughter, Ivanka Trump, came under scrutiny for her use of private e-mails to do government business.
MARC SHORT, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It's hypocritical, and certainly, it looks bad. And I'm sure that the media will have a field day with it today.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Lock her up! Lock her up!
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Lock her up! Lock her up!
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Lock her up! Lock her up!
TRUMP: Tell you what. For what she's done, they should lock her up.
ACOSTA: Hypocritical, because it's a reminder that her father savaged Hillary Clinton for her private e-mail use.
TRUMP: If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation. Because there has never been so many lies, so much deception.
ACOSTA: A source close to Ivanka brushed off the story in a statement saying, "This is a 14-month-old story. There was nothing there then, and there is nothing there now."
The president insists his daughter did nothing wrong.
TRUMP: They weren't deleted like Hillary Clinton, who deleted 33 -- she wasn't hiring -- she wasn't doing anything to hide her e-mails. There was no deletion; there was no nothing. What it is, is a false story.
ACOSTA: Now as for Ivanka Trump's e-mail use, a source close to the White House and the Trump family says the president's daughter obviously knows better, as she watched the 2016 campaign like the rest of us. As this source put it, Ivanka, quote, "deserves to get hit over the issue."
And as for Khashoggi, the president keeps defending the decision that he made with claims that the Saudis are spending a fortune on U.S. weapons, but only a fraction, Wolf, of those financial gains have actually materialized at this point.
The president said today, he's not willing to destroy the U.S. economy over Khashoggi, but, Wolf, a lot of lawmakers in his own party would argue that he can do plenty of about Khashoggi without wrecking the economy. We should also point out on the economy, the president did weigh in on the stock market dropping some 500 -- more than 500 points today. The president made it clear to reporters he is not overly concerned about this downturn in the stock market, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Jim Acosta, our chief White House correspondent, reporting tonight from the White House North Lawn. Thank you very much.
Now to two stories that breaking right now. The president's lawyers say the president has now turned over his written answers to questions from the special counsel, Robert Mueller.
And moments ago, "The New York Times" is reporting that President Trump wanted to order the U.S. Justice Department to prosecute Hillary Clinton and former FBI director, James Comey.
Let's bring in CNN's Laura Jarrett. She's over at the Justice Department. CNN's Kara Scannell is here with me.
And Laura, let me just read the first couple sentences of this "New York Times" article, which is explosive. The headline, "Trump Wanted to Order Justice Department to Prosecute Comey and Clinton." "President Trump told the White House counsel in the spring of this year that he wanted to order the Justice Department to prosecute two of his political adversaries, his 2016 challenger, Hillary Clinton and the former FBI director, James Comey, according to two people familiar with the conversation."
The article continues. "The lawyer" -- that would be the White House lawyer, Don McGahn -- "rebuffed the president, saying he had no authority to order a prosecution. Mr. McGahn said that, while he could request an investigation, that, too, could prompt accusations of abuse of power. To underscore his point, Mr. McGahn had White House lawyers write a memo for Mr. Trump, warning that if he asked law enforcement to investigate his rivals, he could face a range of consequences, including possible impeachment."
Laura, this is an explosive article we're getting. And clearly, they didn't go ahead, and the Justice Department didn't begin to prosecute Hillary Clinton or James Comey. But this is pretty explosive right here.
LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It's remarkable reporting, Wolf. And it's interesting that McGahn obviously saw the writing on the wall, saw how this could turn bad and fast, even resulting in possible impeachment. And so he had the lawyers in the White House counsel's office, according to this reporting, draft up a memo, trying to outline for the president all of the different down sides of this.
According to the reporting from Maggie Haberman and Michael Schmidt, it's not clear that the president actually read that memo, but clearly, McGahn tried to warn him of this.
And it's also not clear whether, in fact, this ever was conveyed to the Justice Department through other channels. We know that John Huber, a prosecutor out in Utah, has been looking at Hillary Clinton for some time. We know the inspector general over here at the Justice Department has also been looking at James Comey. And so we don't know whether he went around McGahn and found some other way to get this dirty work done.
But it's, again, one of the most striking examples of how the president has tried to encroach, slowly but surely, on these traditional norms between the Justice Department and the White House.
And I should also point out, Wolf, of course we know that Don McGahn has spent quite a bit of time with the special counsel's office through their investigation into obstruction of justice. And so you can imagine, this has come up. You can imagine that memo has been turned over.
And just finally, Wolf, the other tidbit in here is his disappointment, apparently, with the FBI director, Christopher Wray. The reporting here is that he feels like Wray has been weak, because he has declined to go after his political rivals, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Stand by. You mentioned Maggie Haberman. She's joining us on the phone right now. She's one of our CNN political contributors, the coauthor of this explosive new article in "The New York Times."
So step back and give us the big picture, Maggie, on your excellent reporting. What have we learned?
[17:10:08] MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST (via phone): Thanks for having me and thank you for reading the reporting.
Look, what we have learned is that the president engaged privately in, frankly, what he has talked about publicly on and off for quite some time, but that he tried to use the levers of power to do so, which was prosecute his political enemies.
He made clear to the White House Counsel's Office that he wanted the Justice Department to go after James Comey, the FBI director who he fired, and Hillary Clinton, his rival in the 2016 campaign, who he claimed just a week after the election, you know, he didn't want to do any more damage to. But he has changed his tune, and he himself has found himself under investigation.
He made clear at the White House counsel's office he wanted this done. And Don McGahn, then the White House counsel, made clear there were a range of negative outcomes that could face him if he went ahead with that, including but not necessarily limited to, impeachment.
It is extraordinary to have a president who so openly talks about using the levers of power this way. I think not since Nixon have we heard of something like this. And the degree to which Don McGahn documented what was taking place is in the form of a memo explaining to the president what was going on and what could and couldn't be done. But it clearly laid out, I think, in case, you know, the president went further and went around Don McGahn, that he had tried to stop this.
BLITZER: You say that the president wanted to prosecute James Comey and Hillary Clinton. But for what charges? What specific charges did he want the Justice Department to go after two of these rivals?
HABERMAN: It's never entirely been clear. I think in the case of Comey, it was for leaking. I think in the case of Comey, it was possibly how certain pieces of information were handled.
In the case of Hillary Clinton, it was related to Uranium One, more specifically donations to the Clinton family foundation by those associated with the company, Uranium One, which was a Russian (UNINTELLIGIBLE) agency. As evidence of sort of self-dealing and corruption while she was at the State Department. There has never been any evidence that donations to her family's foundation had any role in U.S. approval of that deal.
But that and then I think a relook at the e-mail issue with her private e-mail server are what he had in mind with her.
BLITZER: The other really explosive note in your article, and once again, really terrific reporting, is that the president is now deeply disappointed in the FBI director, Christopher Wray, whom he nominated, whom he appointed to be the FBI director.
HABERMAN: He has complained about Chris Wray on and off for quite some time, almost since he was nominated. First he wasn't moving fast enough to rid the FBI top ranks of, you know, Trump detractors.
Then it was related to Hillary Clinton and Comey. You know, he has had all sorts of complaints about officials at the Justice Department. Chris Wray had very -- a very narrow honeymoon, frankly, before he started incurring Trump's frustration. But, yes, one of his frustrations is that he didn't think things were being done to go after his rivals.
BLITZER: So where does it stand now, that relationship between the president and the FBI director?
HABERMAN: Look, as far as we know, you know, it remains unchanged. I don't think that it is anything like the level of toxicity with what we saw with Jeff Sessions. But remember, that was a very specific thing related to Jeff Sessions' recusal from the Russia probe, which literally everybody recognized had to happen, except the president. This is -- this is a different issue. There's nothing that is ever going to top that.
But look, people come in and out of Donald Trump's favor all of the time. But you come in and out of favor, because you're not using the Justice Department as a way to settle personal political scores.
BLITZER: We remember -- at least some of us -- that Richard Nixon, then president tried to use his presidential power to influence law enforcement, the Justice Department, to go after individuals, political rivals. But this is pretty extraordinary, if this president, President Trump, were to try to do something similar, right?
HABERMAN: Yes. I mean, this is -- this is -- as far as we know, nothing happened beyond this discussion. But, you know, there's a statement in our story from a lawyer for Don McGahn saying that, to his knowledge, the president never ordered anyone to do this. I think that is a very specifically worded statement to make clear that "We don't know whether the president tried to go around the White House counsel and tell anyone else to do anything." You know, our reporting does not show that he did. But I don't think people are willing to rule it out.
BLITZER: And it's unclear whether McGahn's suggestion to the president, that if he were to order such an investigation, such a prosecution by the Justice Department, that could lead potentially to impeachment. It's unclear whether that did have a negative effect on the president, forcing him to step back, right?
[17:15:05] HABERMAN: Oh, I think it did. I think it did. I think repeatedly, anything that has come toward the third rail of impeachment appears to get through the president as a problem. You know, again, whether he tried to do something on his own, he thought he could put in place, I don't know. But I do think that, at least for a time and possibly permanently, it got him to back off.
BLITZER: In your article, Maggie, you say a White House spokesman declined to comment. A spokeswoman for the FBI declined to comment on the president's criticism of Director Wray.
But there is a statement here from the lawyer for Don McGahn, who was the White House counsel. Let me read it: "Mr. McGahn will not comment on his legal advice to the president. Like any client, that the president is entitled to confidentiality. Mr. McGahn would point out, though, the president never, to his knowledge, ordered that anyone prosecute Hillary Clinton or James Comey."
That's the statement. That's a very carefully written statement from Don McGahn. I wonder if you'd like to elaborate on it.
HABERMAN: Well, I think it -- I think it speaks for itself. But again, as I said before, I think that the words "to my knowledge," I think, speak to nobody wanting to say as an absolute certainty that the president didn't try to find other avenues to influence the Justice Department.
BLITZER; We also know that Don McGahn, as the White House counsel, spent hours, I think some 20 hours, talking to the special counsel, Robert Mueller, and his team. Is there any indication that this specific issue came up, that the president wanted to have the Justice Department prosecute Hillary Clinton and James Comey?
HABERMAN: That I don't know the answer to. I do know he spent more than 30 hours with them, and we also know that Mueller has called a number of witnesses back if this did not get asked about. I imagine McGahn could be called back in the future and asked about it.
BLITZER: Do we know if McGahn actually wrote that memo he said he was going to write to the president explaining the negative consequences of potentially launching this kind of Justice Department prosecution?
HABERMAN: A memo was written about the parameters of his office by White House counsel officials. I'm not sure about how detailed it was about the possible ramifications of it.
BLITZER: And do you know if Mueller has that memo?
HABERMAN: I do not know the answer to that. But I think if he doesn't have it already, he will after this story.
BLITZER: Yes, I'm sure he will. This is -- once again, explosive information. And just to be precise, want to be precise. There's no indication that any such prosecution -- no such investigation was ever launched.
HABERMAN: Correct. Correct. We have -- our reporting did not show that anything like that happened. Again, I want to refer back to Don McGahn's very carefully worded statement. To his knowledge, nothing was done. To our knowledge, nothing was done either.
BLITZER: And the relationship that Don McGahn had with the president when he left the White House was what?
HABERMAN: Not positive. I mean, I think that the -- it was neutral, I would say, at best.
You know, the president remains very angry at Don McGahn for -- essentially blames him for the Mueller probe. That he thinks was his fault, that Sessions recused, and it was his fault that, you know, after they fired Comey that they ended up with Mueller.
He likes a lot of other things that Don McGahn did, including efforts to -- toward deregulation. And I think there were other areas where he thought McGahn was really helpful, such as nominating Supreme Court justices. Judge Kavanaugh was a close friend of McGahn's. McGahn helped shepherd that through.
I don't think they're going to break apart. But it has been a very, very, very rocky relationship over a long period of time. McGahn was a tremendous target of the president's. BLITZER: And we know what has happened over the past couple of weeks.
There's a new acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker. Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, was fired. How does that potentially fit into this narrative?
HABERMAN: Well, I think that -- look, I don't want to speculate about what could happen in terms of whether the president would go after somebody. I think it's a little unlikely that he would do that now with the Democratic Congress taking over with its own subpoena power.
I think that the belief among a lot of Trump loyalists is that Matt Whitaker is going to be potentially more helpful to the president is related to the special counsel's investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials and any improprieties related to that.
BLITZER: I asked the question, as you know, Maggie, because in the past as a private citizen, Matthew Whitaker, the now acting attorney general of the United States, had made a case that Hillary Clinton could be prosecuted.
HABERMAN: He did. I think, again, I think it would be really hard for them to go ahead with that right now. But, yes, he most certainly did make that case when he was a private citizen. And when -- you know, around the time the president was tossing this kind of thing around. Remember, the president said in a radio interview a year ago that he was not being allowed to do some of the things he wanted to do. This appeared to be one of them.
[17:20:00] BLITZER: Yes. Well, you did excellent, excellent reporting, Maggie. Thank you for the good work, as usual.
HABERMAN: Thank you, sir.
BLITZER: All right. You know, let me bring back Laura Jarrett, our Justice Department lawyer. She's over at the Justice Department right now. Any more -- in the article, there was no comment from the Justice Department, no comment from the FBI. Anything coming in?
JARRETT: No reaction yet, Wolf. But I have to say, I mean, some of the details in this are quite remarkable, including just, again, to underscore this piece on Director Wray. It appears his only gripe with the FBI director is the fact that he hasn't been aggressive enough in going after Clinton for this Uranium One deal that we've heard so much about.
Again, that is the issue that John Huber, a federal prosecutor, the top prosecutor out in Utah, has been looking into for some time. And we all kind of wondered kind of how all of that would hash out eventually. Even at the time, some suggested that the fact that Jeff Sessions had appointed him in the first place might have been viewed as political, given that there hadn't been any real allegation of impropriety, other than on fringe sites and by the president himself.
So we're going to have to do more reporting, obviously, on all of this, including what role, if any, Matt Whitaker, the new acting attorney general, had in any of this and whether he was privy to any of these discussions, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, that's a very, very serious potential that we lead to investigate.
Let me just read a couple more sentences from this article. Kara Scannell is with us. I want, Kara, you to weigh in on this. "Ultimately, the lawyers warned Mr. Trump could be voted out of office if voters believed he had abused his power," abused presidential power.
And then the article says this. "For decades, White House aides have routinely sought to shield presidents from decisions related to criminal cases or even from talking about them publicly. Presidential meddling could undermine the legitimacy of prosecutions by attaching political overtones to investigations in which career law enforcement officials follow the evidence and the law."
So potentially, this is explosive. If, in fact, the president would have ordered the Justice Department to launch this kind of prosecution, that could be seen as an abuse of presidential power.
KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. I mean, and it's sort of the red line, the third rail, this political interference in DOJ investigations. And so if there is evidence that the president did insert himself in this, that -- that's a big problem. The Department of Justice is supposed to be independent. It's not supposed to be an arm of the president to investigate his enemies or foes.
So that is a -- that is a real key issue here that more reporting assets get to the bottom of. Is that, you know, was there any interference? Did this message ever make it to DOJ and did they act on it?
BLITZER: I want to bring in our chief legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, who's now gone through this article. Jeffrey, give us your thoughts, because as I've been saying, it's all very potentially explosive.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: I'm sorry, Wolf. You're breaking up. I didn't -- I didn't get that. I apologize. I --
BLITZER: Can you hear me?
TOOBIN: You better go to someone else. I can't hear you.
BLITZER: ok. We'll fix your earpiece over there. We'll get back to you.
Let me bring in Laura. It's also explosive if the president would have gone forward with this order to launch of prosecution of Hillary Clinton and James Comey.
JARRETT: That's right. And you know, it's interesting. In the article, he appears to be saying to McGahn, "Don't I have the authority to do this?" He's fixated at least on the idea that, in theory, as the head of the executive branch, of course, he can make this type of order.
But the question is should he, and is that a good idea? Is that the kind of thing that we want and the kind of norms that we want to be establishing between the White House and the Justice Department?
And, of course, you know, it still has shades of what we've seen from him, as Maggie said. His public behavior, calling on Twitter all the time for Jeff Sessions to investigate Comey and Clinton repeatedly. And even then bemoaning the fact that the Justice Department has actually gone after Republicans.
We remember that tweet right before the midterms when the president lambasted the fact that the Justice Department had opened investigations into Duncan Hunter and Chris Collins, because they're Republicans. And so there's the idea that the Justice Department is just a puppet for his whims, instead of actually trying to carry through on legitimate, well-founded investigations, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, this is very, very significant. Kara, as we've been pointing out, there is a new acting attorney general of the United States right now who as a private citizen made abundantly clear he thought Hillary Clinton should be prosecuted.
SCANNELL: That's right. I mean, he has been, Matt Whitaker has been very outspoken of his views of the Clintons, you know, perhaps even going further publicly than what Trump is even saying here. I mean, he's been looking for an investigation.
So this could be something that would be welcome to him. But it would still cross that line of interference that, you know, is the whole integrity of the Justice Department and of line prosecutors is that you don't cross. You don't do these political-motivated investigations. That's something that, at least a lot of the line assistants and the career professionals view as sacred to them.
[17:25:07] BLITZER: The -- the charge that James Comey leaked classified information, what's that based on?
SCANNELL: I mean, I think what they're focusing on here is that he was leaking information related to the investigation of Clinton, and some of the foundation investigation had come out. Remember, they were two sort of competing investigations. And that, you know, was that something that was coming out to help balance, perhaps, the other investigation that was out there?
But this is, you know -- this remains to be seen what exactly he is focusing on in -- you know, with that specific allegation of a leak by Comey.
BLITZER: Kara, the other breaking news you're working on is that the White House, the president's lawyers, personal lawyers, Jay Sekulow and Rudy Giuliani, have now both confirmed that the written responses to Mueller's written questions have now been sent from the White House to Mueller's office.
SCANNELL: That's right. So both attorneys are saying that the written answers that Trump himself said that he wrote have been submitted to the special counsel's office. We have a statement from Rudy Giuliani, one of the attorneys, in which he says, "It has been our position from the outset that much of what has been asked raised serious constitutional issues and was beyond the scope of legitimate inquiry. This remains our position today. The president has nonetheless provided unprecedented cooperation. The special counsel has been provided with more than 30 witnesses, 1.4 million pages of material, and now the president's written responses to questions. It is time to bring this inquiry to a conclusion."
So the president has responded, but these questions are focused on collusion and whether anyone from the Trump campaign had any interactions with Russia. It does not cover the potential topics of obstruction of justice or what happened during the transition.
So it remains to be seen if this is going to satisfy the special counsel's inquiry. I mean, this was part of a negotiated deal, but there's still a lot remains to be seen here, whether this is the final note in this investigation as it relates to the president.
BLITZER: I want to bring in Congressman Adam Smith of Washington state. He's the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, likely to become the next chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Congressman, you've been hearing all the breaking news. Let me first get your reaction to this bombshell report in "The New York Times" that President Trump actually attempted to order the Justice Department to prosecute Hillary Clinton and the fired FBI director, James Comey. What's your reaction?
REP. ADAM SMITH (D), WASHINGTON: Well, it's not even remotely surprising. I mean, President Trump has made these types of charges before. I mean, he -- gosh, he admitted on NBC News he fired, you know, Director Comey because of the Russia investigation.
He has been quoted as asking for loyalty out of people from the Justice Department. As your guest pointed out, traditionally, presidents separate themselves from the Justice Department and let the Justice Department do their jobs. But over and over and over again, over the course of the last two years, President Trump has made it clear that he views it as his Justice Department and will use it in any way he can to protect himself and punish his enemies. So there's nothing terribly surprising about this, unfortunately. It's -- fits with the pattern of the way he's talked about the FBI and the Justice Department during his time as president.
BLITZER: Yes, and expressing his disappointment in the FBI director, Christopher Wray, this he isn't tough enough.
I want you to elaborate, Congressman. What does it tell you about the president's views on the Justice Department, the FBI, and his own presidential powers?
SMITH: Again, it tells us what we've already known. How many times has he tweeted over the course of the last two years as he's complained about the Mueller investigation, you know, "How come they're not investigating Hillary Clinton? How come they're not investigating the Democrats?" So, you know, he's been very public about his desire to have them investigate his political enemies.
You know, if you just think about it logically, it's hard to imagine that in private he wasn't trying to do that. I mean, remember James Comey's accounting of, you know, his meeting with the president, where the president kept asking him for loyalty, kept wanting, basically, to get an assurance from James Comey that he would look after Donald Trump, as opposed to the law.
So it is deeply disturbing -- Don't get me wrong -- that a president views the Justice Department and the rule of law in this way. But it is a consistent pattern with President Trump, as he's tried to undermine the investigation.
And keep in mind, I mean, the Russia investigation, when it first started, as an investigation into what the Russians were up to. They didn't necessarily have to be connected to Trump or his campaign. But Trump was trying to stop it from the very start.
So yes, this is deeply troubling. We are a nation of laws, not of people. President Trump does not understand that. He sees the entire government apparatus as his, basically. He got elected to president, so now it should do his bidding. And it's disturbing. And I'm only, you know, happy that we've had people at the FBI, at the Justice Department, who are willing -- been willing to stand up to the president and not let him do that, to maintain the integrity of the rule of law in this country.
BLITZER: Well, what do you think of the acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, right now?
SMITH: Well, I don't think there's cause for optimism in terms of how he's going to approach this, given his track record and his connections to President Trump. And the very obvious reason why he picked Trump -- sorry, why Trump picked him for the position. We'll have to wait and see what happens.
But the No. 1, most important thing is to protect Mueller's investigation. And as you mentioned during your reporting, and I thought it was a very good point -- I forget, sorry, which person it was who said this -- that whenever Trump is told that his actions may lead to impeachment, he pulls back. So -- and he's been told that about any effort to fire Mueller. But you can definitely see the appointment of Whitaker as a step towards getting to the point where he could do that.
So, you know, the media -- everybody has to really stand up for the rule of law here and protect the Mueller investigation: maintain its independence and allow it to do its job. Because if President Trump could get away with it, he would end it tomorrow. I have no doubt about that. We have to make sure that he thinks the price of doing that is too high. That the price would be his presidency and the price would be impeachment. Whitaker is a step towards Trump trying to move in that direction, but
it is not a step that gets him there. So we need to stand up and make sure that it doesn't.
BLITZER: You're expected to become the next chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Let me get your thoughts on the murder of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. The president seems to be arguing now, in this lengthy statement that he released earlier today, that Saudi Arabia is way too important an ally of the United States to hold it accountable for the murder of this journalist.
Is that just the price of doing business with the Saudis?
SMITH: This is incredibly disturbing, as well. I mean, it's hard to say what's more disturbing: the president wanting to use the Justice Department to go after his political enemies or for him to basically -- he just said it. He said, "Maybe he did it, maybe he didn't." And the way he said that was, basically, at the end of the day, President Trump doesn't care, which means the United States doesn't care.
And this is part, again, of a pattern of dictatorship and autocratic approach to government. We have seen the media targeted in many countries throughout the world, with new constitutions placing restrictions on free speech and the freedom of the media.
And I think the most disturbing thing about this is that the Saudis thought they could get away with it. You know, ten years ago, if they had been thinking about this, that the international price that would have been paid, the way the U.S. would have reacted, they never would have considered doing it.
But it appears that the Saudis knew President Trump fairly well. And they figured that they could get away with doing this. And if -- if it's open season on your political critics, and the United States does nothing about it, that is just appalling. It creates a situation where we creep towards a complete shutdown of freedom, of political freedom, the ability to express yourself.
And the president is just wrong, like crazy wrong to say our relationship with Saudi Arabia is -- somehow our economy hinges on it. It does not. The weapons sales he keeps pointing to are but a mere -- pittance of our committee. So it's really just a cover of the fact that the president really doesn't mind if autocratic dictators take out members of the media.
So, again, this is not the direction that U.S. values and U.S. policy should be going. And it is deeply, deeply disturbing.
BLITZER: Congressman Adam Smith, thanks so much for joining us.
SMITH: Thanks, Wolf. I appreciate the chance.
BLITZER: All right. There's lots of breaking news we're following. We're going to take a quick break. We'll resume our special coverage right after this.
[17:38:27] BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories right now. Only moments ago, "The New York Times" reported that earlier this year, President Trump wanted to order the U.S. Justice Department to prosecute Hillary Clinton and former FBI director James Comey but was warned by his White House counsel that, if he were to make such an order, it could lead to his impeachment.
Also breaking, the president's attorneys announcing that Mr. Trump has finally turned over his written answers to written questions from his special counsel, Robert Mueller.
We have lots to discuss with our political, legal and national security experts. And Jeffrey Toobin, I want your response, first of all, on this "New York Times" article. Headline, Trump wanted to order Justice Department to prosecute Comey and Clinton.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, this is what happens in authoritarian countries. The president orders -- the president, the leader orders the investigation and prosecution of his political enemies.
Fortunately, there are people in the White House here who understood the traditions and the rules of the American legal system and said, "You can't do that," and it didn't happen. But this is simply the logical extension of what the president has tweeted about, what he said in speeches, what he has -- you know, been quite clear in saying, that he wanted Comey and Clinton prosecuted.
But now we see that he made an even greater effort to make it happen. Fortunately, the internal checks and balances within the White House seem to have stopped this idea.
[17:40:01] BLITZER: And what does it say to you, Jeffrey, that in the article, the president is reported as having felt that the FBI director, Christopher Wray, whom he appointed, who he nominated to be the head of the FBI, that he was critical of him for failing to more aggressively investigate Mrs. Clinton, calling him weak?
TOOBIN: Well, this is his view of any government official, whether it's in the FBI or the Justice Department, who doesn't do his personal bidding. He has absolutely no understanding that the FBI, the Justice Department, the entire U.S. government, works for the taxpayers, works for defending the Constitution. He thinks they are all his personal servants.
And when they don't do something he wants done, even if there is no legal basis for it, even if it's a violation of all of our traditions in the legal community, he gets angry. Now, he hasn't fired the current director of the FBI, not yet. But it's indicative of his displeasure.
BLITZER: Talk about, David Chalian, the political ramifications of this article in "The New York Times," especially as the Democrats are getting ready to take over the majority in the House of Representatives. DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, right. So that's a
whole new context for any of these developments, because there's now going to be an additional layer of scrutiny applied.
But, Wolf, as Jeffrey noted, there are two things going on here. There's the banana republic piece of this that Donald Trump previewed for us in the second presidential debate with Hillary Clinton when he said, if he won the election, he was going to have a special prosecutor investigate Hillary Clinton, to which she replied, "Thank God somebody with Donald Trump's temperament is not in charge of the laws in this country."
So this was fully litigated before the American public in the 2016 presidential debate. It's why we're not surprised at these developments any more. But it doesn't make them any less shocking when we actually see a development like this.
The other piece is this notion -- Jeffrey called it a tradition, which it is, but this notion of an independent justice arm, that that is separate and apart from the president's wishes. I don't think it was an overstatement by Don McGahn or some scare tactic to apply to the president when his lawyers put together that memo and suggested impeachment may be a reality and that was written under the context of a Republican House and Senate. Because this would be so beyond the norm of a U.S. president to use his power to actually investigate and potentially jail his political opponents.
BLITZER: I can only imagine, Laura Jarrett -- and you're there at the Justice Department -- how career Justice Department officials, prosecutors, U.S. attorneys, others, are reading this article, and they're scratching their heads and wondering, what is going on?
LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, of course. It runs completely counter to the oath that they swear to take to uphold the Constitution, to follow through on valid investigations. I mean, they sign documents, and they attest to the fact that they are not supposed to take political considerations into prosecutions. They get a memo on election sensitivities all of the time, reminding of the very facts that Donald Trump wants them to ignore, apparently.
What's ironic about this, Wolf, is that in certain ways, the investigations that he wants and that he's calling for, at least according to this article of Comey and for Clinton, are already going on. But just perhaps not in the ways that he wants.
You know, the inspector general, as we've reported here, is looking at how Comey handled his memos. We reported that months ago, and as far as we know, that's still going on. We know that the inspector general issued a scathing report about Comey, but clearly that didn't rise to the level of what he wanted here. He clearly wants something far more robust, more public. But yet, no one has provided any explanation of what Comey did wrong, what laws he broke, why this would, you know, ever be justified in any real sense.
BLITZER: You know, Shawn Turner, it takes place also as there's now, over the past couple of weeks, a new acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, who as a private citizen in recent months, used to frequently say, "Yes, there's a good case to go ahead and prosecute Hillary Clinton, and there's also a good case to curb the entire Mueller Russia probe."
SHAWN TURNER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and I think under the best circumstances, Wolf, what those previous statements tell us is that perhaps Whitaker might not be the most fair and impartial person when it comes to making decisions about what to investigate and when to investigate it.
But I'm more concerned about the worst-case scenario. I think the worst-case scenario here is that the president whose Whitaker, because there was a clear understanding of what Whitaker might do, and Whitaker understands what that -- what that understanding was, and he may actually make the decision to either interfere with the Mueller investigation and he may actually make a decision to launch investigations against Hillary Clinton. I think that's the worst-case scenario here, but either way, the previous statements certainly give us some concern about him serving as an attorney general and his impartiality in that position.
BLITZER: And, Jamie, we're also learning that the White House now has formally delivered to Robert Mueller and his team the written responses to the written questions that they submitted involving what's called collusion during the campaign with the Russians.
JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: And they're already spinning it. Rudy Giuliani put out a statement saying that this was, quote, unprecedented cooperation.
Look, this is what the President's lawyers wanted. They did not want him to sit down with Robert Mueller. Remember the famous line that was reported from his private attorney, that they said to the President, you will end up in an orange jumpsuit if you sit down in front of Mueller.
So the written questions' control is what they wanted. The question now is, I'm guessing that Robert Mueller would still like to sit down with the President and how that works out from here.
BLITZER: The President says that's probably not going to happen.
BLITZER: And his lawyers, I'm sure, unanimously, are telling him, don't even think about it.
GANGEL: Therefore, spin, spin, spin. We've already done everything unprecedented.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: But --
BLITZER: Yes, go ahead, Jeffrey.
TOOBIN: But, I mean, what remains unknown is whether Robert Mueller will allow that decision to stand. TURNER: Right.
TOOBIN: Robert Mueller has the option of issuing a grand jury subpoena, both for testimony about what he's already filed written answers to, the collusion pre-election issues, and the obstruction of justice.
That would be a legal fight, and Mueller has to decide, A, whether he wants to have a legal fight, and, B, whether he thinks he could win one. That question is now squarely before Mueller, and I suppose, before too long, we'll find out what the answer to it is.
GANGEL: And then isn't the question, will Matt Whitaker allow such a subpoena if, as you say, Shawn, you know, this was -- the President didn't pick him by accident. So, you know, after Mueller decides, does he want to do that, will Whitaker allow it?
BLITZER: Yes. And the President did say, although a lot of people are skeptical, that he didn't know about Whitaker's personal views when he asked him to move up to replace -- you know, Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General, was supposed to get that job. He didn't know about his personal political views.
DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: I don't watch a lot of CNN, but I watch a pretty good amount of CNN. And I think there is nobody in this town that consumes cable news quite to the level as the President of the United States does. I think he was keenly aware of what Matt Whitaker's positions were.
BLITZER: You know, Jeffrey, I'm curious when Don McGahn, now former White House Counsel, warned the President in a memo, don't go ahead and tell the Justice Department to launch a prosecution of Hillary Clinton and James Comey because that could create all sorts of consequences, including possible impeachment raising questions of presidential abuse of power. Elaborate on that.
TOOBIN: Well, this is so similar to what Richard Nixon was investigated and ultimately, Articles of Impeachment were voted in the House Judiciary Committee.
You know, Richard Nixon used the IRS to investigate his enemies. Richard Nixon used the Federal Trade Commission -- I forgot, maybe it was federal -- whichever regulates television to investigate "The Washington Post" because "The Washington Post" also owned television stations.
I mean, the abuse of governmental authority to investigate and harass political enemies was at the core of the general scandals known as Watergate. What Don McGahn and his colleagues knew is this is worse.
Nixon didn't try to actually prosecute George McGovern or his political enemies. He didn't use the most powerful force that the Justice Department has, which is criminal investigation and prosecution. If this had gone forward, this would have been worse than what Nixon
did during Watergate, but it's in the same category of abuse of governmental power.
BLITZER: You know, and you would think, you know, Shawn, that President Trump would be told repeatedly by his legal team, you know what, there are certain things you can't do. And Don McGahn told him that, but the President seems to think that whatever he wants done and he orders it, it's got to be done.
TURNER: Yes. And as several people have said, the President looks at the Justice Department as his own personal tool to go after his rivals.
Look, you know, David, you pointed out, this is the kind of thing that you see in third-world countries. This is the kind of thing you see dictators do.
I think that the President, you know -- if this article is correct and the President suggested that the Justice Department should go after Hillary Clinton, then I think that sets a terrible precedent for what presidents do. But I think that that's not unusual because we've seen a lot of that out of this president, unfortunately.
BLITZER: I suspect that Democrats, when they're in the majority in the House, they'll have a lot of material to use moving forward.
CHALIAN: I think they might ask Don McGahn to come up and testify now himself.
[17:50:00] BLITZER: Yes, I suspect he will be testifying in open session at some point too.
Everybody, standby. There is more on the breaking news we're following right now.
There are, right now, some very disturbing questions emerging about the man who appears to be in line for a top job at the world's largest international police organization. We're talking about Interpol. He's a close ally of Russia's Vladimir Putin.
Let's bring in CNN's Brian Todd.
Brian, Putin's critics are so worried right now about where all of this could lead.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They are worried, Wolf. Putin's opponents say if this man, a Russian general, is elected to that position, he'll be able to manipulate Interpol's equivalent of arrest warrant and will be able to pass along information to Putin about where his enemies are and possibly how to get to them.
TODD (voice-over): Tonight, Vladimir Putin could be on the verge of having the international influence he wants to go after his enemies and critics wherever they may be.
One of the Russian president's top aides, Major General Alexander Prokopchuk, from Russia's Interior Ministry is expected, within hours, to be elected president of Interpol, the world famous global crime- fighting agency.
WILLIAM BROWDER, CO-FOUNDER AND CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER, HERMITAGE CAPITAL MANAGEMENT: They're going to put somebody from a criminal state in charge of the most important international law enforcement organization in the world. That's just a shocking travesty.
TODD (voice-over): Bill Browder is one of Putin's most bitter enemies. Browder led the passage of the Magnitsky Act, an American law which sanctions powerful Russians close to Putin and prevents them from getting to the money they've stashed outside Russia.
The Kremlin has charged Browder with various crimes. At the Helsinki summit, Putin proposed that Russian officials should be able to interrogate Browder in exchange for allowing Russians to be questioned by Robert Mueller's prosecutors.
VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION (through translator): We can bring up Mr. Browder in this particular case. Business associates of Mr. Browder have earned over 1.5 billion in Russia. They never paid any taxes, neither in Russia nor in the United States, and yet the money escaped the country.
TODD (voice-over): An accusation Browder denies. Tonight, a group of U.S. senators is opposing the choice of Prokopchuk, saying the move is akin to putting a fox in charge of a hen house.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the Trump administration is supporting another Interpol official for the job, which Putin critics applaud.
Those familiar with Interpol say if Prokopchuk is elected president, he won't be in charge of the organization day-to-day. A former Interpol board member tells CNN Prokopchuk would influence budgets and moderate board meetings but would not approve so-called red notices, similar to arrest warrants.
Browder disputes that and says Prokopchuk has had a hand in bogus red notices issued for him.
BROWDER: He's been in charge of the Russian National Central Bureau of Interpol since 2011, and that has been the entity that the Russians have used to go after me illegitimately seven times.
TODD (voice-over): Vladimir Kara-Murza, an anti-Putin activist who has campaigned for more open elections in Russia says he's been poisoned and sent into a coma twice. His concern if Alexander Prokopchuk becomes Interpol's president?
VLADIMIR KARA-MURZA, VICE CHAIRMAN, OPEN RUSSIA: The Kremlin is going to gain access to very sensitive databases of national police services of dozens of countries. TODD (voice-over): Information, he believes, Putin would use to
pursue his enemies. Sources familiar with Interpol tell CNN the organization is set up so that Prokopchuk wouldn't be able to hand over that information to Putin, but critics like Kara-Murza aren't buying it.
KARA-MURZA: If General Prokopchuk assumes that post, he will find multiple ways of getting access to the information that his Kremlin handlers will need.
TODD: Russian officials, tonight, are pushing back on the opposition to Alexander Prokopchuk.
Vladimir Putin's spokesman, using an interesting word, is saying those in the United States who oppose Prokopchuk are, quote, meddling in Interpol's election. The spokesman is saying Prokopchuk has the full backing of the Kremlin, Wolf.
BLITZER: Brian, quick question, Bill Browder, that opponent of Putin's who you've interviewed on many occasions, is he going to have to take added steps to protect himself if this Russian general gets the position at Interpol?
TODD: He may, Wolf. Bill Browder says he has already taken several steps to protect himself like only traveling to what he calls rule-of- law countries, nations which don't have dictators who might hand him over to Vladimir Putin.
But once, even that didn't work. This year, when he was in Spain, Browder says the Russians used Interpol to get him arrested. Luckily, he was able to get himself cleared and released. But that's what sparks the fear tonight if this man gets elected president of Interpol.
BLITZER: Well, maybe he should stay here in the United States and not travel so much overseas. That might be one solution.
Brian Todd reporting for us. Thank you very much.
Coming up, there's more breaking news. A truly bombshell report that President Trump wanted the U.S. Justice Department to prosecute Hillary Clinton and former FBI Director James Comey.
"The New York Times" is reporting that the White House Counsel warned the President, if he were to do so, that could lead to impeachment.
[17:54:58] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Abuse of power? A shocking new report that President Trump wanted to order the Justice Department to prosecute former FBI Director James Comey and Hillary Clinton. That as the President's lawyers give Robert Mueller Mr. Trump's written answers to questions. We may never know. President Trump sides with the Saudi Crown Prince
over U.S. intelligence in the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, citing U.S. financial interests. Why is he letting the Prince get away with murder?
[18:00:08] You've got irony.