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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER
No CIA Briefing to Senate on Journalist's Murder; President Trump Not Ruling Out Pardon For Paul Manafort. Aired 4-4:30p ET
Aired November 28, 2018 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Paul Manafort, I hope you're watching.
THE LEAD starts right now.
Breaking news. In a brand-new interview this afternoon with Mueller, in the midst of pressuring Paul Manafort to cooperate further and to tell the truth, President Trump announces to the world that a Manafort pardon is not off the table.
Plus: a CNN exclusive in the Russia probe. We now know how President Trump answered some key questions from the special counsel. What was asked, what he said. Were there any red flags? We will tell you coming up.
Plus, an empty chair and a CIA director apparently silenced by the Trump administration. Republican and Democratic senators slamming the White House for holding back the person who heard the torture and murder of a "Washington Post" journalist on tape.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.
We begin with breaking news in our politics lead. As former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort appears to be in the midst of getting squeezed by special counsel Robert Mueller, pressured to cooperate further, pressured to tell the truth, President Trump this afternoon sent a brazen message to Manafort, loud and clear, telling "The New York Post" a pardon remains a possibility.
President Trump saying of the pardon -- quote -- "It was never discussed, but I wouldn't take it off the table. Why would I take it off the table?"
CNN's Kaitlan Collins is at the White House with this breaking news.
And, Kaitlan, this seems a huge signal from the president. And some people, Democrats especially, are likely going to see this as potentially an obstruction of justice.
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: They certainly are. And it's also a change in tone for President Trump, who for the last several months has downplayed his relationship with Paul Manafort, saying that he only worked for him for a short period of time.
Now, just yesterday, the press secretary, Sarah Sanders, said that she was not aware of any conversations of any pardons happening in the West Wing related to the Russia investigation. But now the president is telling "The New York Post" that a pardon is not off the table for Paul Manafort.
Now, you can't ignore this comment is coming just days after the special counsel said that Paul Manafort had breached his plea agreement with them by lying to them repeatedly, and flashback, over the summer, the president said he believed cooperating with the government ought to be illegal.
So clearly he is viewing Paul Manafort in much more favorable terms. Now, where this gets interesting is "The New York Times" reported just back in August that the president's legal team was worried that if he started discussing possible pardons for people, that it could amount to claims of obstruction of justice on his part.
So that is something to watch for here. The president will not rule out a pardon for Paul Manafort, especially since Congressman Jerry Nadler, the likely incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told Erin Burnett last night during an interview that if the president did dangle a pardon for Paul Manafort, which you could say he's doing with this "New York Post" interview, that in his eyes it would amount to a claim of obstruction of justice -- Jake.
TAPPER: All right, Kaitlan Collins at the White House with this breaking news.
Let me discuss with our legal experts.
Jeffrey Toobin, I will start with you.
What do you make of President Trump seemingly dangling a pardon for Manafort? Is there anything legally dubious about it? Is it obstruction of justice?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: You have to remember that we are now in the realm of possible impeachable offenses. And that is much more a political question than a legal question.
Is this something that would motivate now a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives to impeach the president? My belief is that the answer is no, that Nancy Pelosi, Jerry Nadler, they have told me and others they don't want to deal with impeachment, because they know there will not be 67 votes in the Senate to remove the president, so they're just not going to go on that fool's errand.
However, that shouldn't distract us from the fact that this is egregiously inappropriate behavior on the part of the president. It is all but an encouragement to tell -- to Paul Manafort to stop cooperating, to don't get involved with Mueller, to take your punishment, I will take care of you later.
It's egregiously wrong, but is it something that will lead to impeachment? I don't think so.
TAPPER: Laura, Manafort was cooperating with the special counsel up until the moment that they decided that he was lying to them. So what happens now?
LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, now he does not get the benefit of the bargain that he struck.
Remember, Mueller and his team had the upper hand. When you have a plea agreement, and that includes dismissing charges that were lingering from a hung jury, and it includes you having to be able to plead guilty to an existing case that was supposed to happen in the District of Columbia, and they are supposed to say to the government and to the judge in this case, listen, I would like you to be lenient.
Don't throw the whole book at this person. Maybe a chapter or two, but not the whole book. You don't have that benefit, because you have no longer scratched the government's back, and they're not beholden to you any longer.
Also, the judge would look at this case and say, wait, you were first on release during your trial in Virginia. And what happened there? You committed a crime, essentially trying to tamper and influence with the witness. You were put into jail and holding for the duration of your trial. You didn't learn your lesson then about not committing crimes when you were already charged with a crime?
And you're doing it again, in the sense of lying to federal officials and federal investigators.
Now, could he talk to Trump? Sure. But I want to correct -- not correct one thing that Jeffrey said, but to address it. And that is, I think it's true that we are in the land of impeachment. But it all depends if, perhaps, it's only the president of the United States who is dangling the pardons.
You don't have the same conundrum if that was, say, Giuliani or one of his attorneys who were the ones to dangle that carrot. The issue of a sitting president is no longer the issue.
I want to know, who, if anyone, has dangled the carrot for pardons, because that could be somebody obstructing justice as well.
TAPPER: And on that topic, Jeffrey, the president's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, told CNN that he and Manafort's legal team have been sharing information about Manafort's conversations with Mueller, even after this cooperation agreement, now that it's over. What might that mean in this context?
TOOBIN: Well, the mere fact of those conversations, I don't think that is inappropriate on Giuliani's part. He is out there trying to get information about Mueller, who is investigating the president.
So, you know, he is allowed to talk to other defense lawyers. They often share information.
What's bizarre is that Manafort's lawyers would agree to this, because it is something that the Mueller office would look poorly on. And that would mean he's not going to get any sort of benefit out of cooperation, all of which leads to the fact that Manafort is just going to get hammered at sentencing.
TAPPER: All right, Laura...
TOOBIN: And that means he needs a pardon worse than ever.
TAPPER: Jeffrey and Laura, stand by, because I have more questions for you coming up.
But I want to bring in our political panel right now.
David Urban, as an attorney and Trump supporter, let me ask you...
DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I was a bond lawyer, not a criminal defense...
TAPPER: You're the only J.D. at the table. Do you see this as anything other than a potential signal to Manafort?
URBAN: No, look, I see a lot of things. The president was -- the question was -- I wasn't there for the interview. I don't know the context that it was posed in.
But obviously a reporter asked the question, would you take it off the table? The president says, no, I wouldn't take anything off the table. Why would he take anything off the table? He's not saying -- he's not dangling anything. He was posed the question, he answered the question.
I don't think there was much more than that. I don't think there was -- look, he didn't -- the president didn't tell the reporter from "The Post," please ask this question so that I can answer it.
TAPPER: But in previous times that he's been asked that question, he hasn't gone that far, we should point out. He'd said I don't want to talk about that right now. He says I'm not going to answer that question. This time, he did. It's still on the table.
SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It's still on the table.
And to Jeffrey Toobin's point, when did it get on the table? Who put it on the table? But, furthermore, the president just had an interview with "The Washington Post" in the Oval Office that we saw from Josh Dawsey just this week. And he actually declined to not even to talk about Paul Manafort and the pardon. He went off the record to talk to Josh Dawsey. The fact the president would then go on the record with "The New York Post" to say it's not off the table, I'm confused here about the White House's communication strategy, if there is one.
AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I have got to say, I think all the pardon intrigue is far less interesting than finding out what Paul Manafort was lying about.
TAPPER: Yes, I agree with that.
CARPENTER: And the prosecutors said before he is sentenced with a much more aggressive sentence now, they will lay out a detailed memo showing the nature of his crimes and lies, even after striking the plea agreement.
You couple that with the fact that they were in communications with Trump's lawyers, that gets very interesting. What was he lying about, potentially, while in conversations with those lawyers? Was he instructed to lie to Robert Mueller perhaps?
And we're going to find out very soon. I'm just saying, there's a lot possibilities.
URBAN: I find it hard to believe that Rudy Giuliani would instruct Paul Manafort to lie and then Paul Manafort would then lie.
CARPENTER: The question is, what were they talking about and what did Paul Manafort lie after he had that agreement?
URBAN: Jeffrey Toobin is a real lawyer. You heard him say, look, there's lots of joint defense agreements out there all of the time. It happens every day. I wouldn't impugn a bad motive.
CARPENTER: But usually not after you have a cooperating agreement with the prosecution.
TAPPER: I want to go to question number five full screen.
One of the president's tweets today, if we can, Kirsten, reads in part: "At least three major players are intimating that the angry Mueller gang of Dems" -- that's not a gang of Dems, but whatever. "the angry Mueller gang of Dems is viciously telling witnesses to lie about facts and they will get relief. This is our Joseph McCarthy era."
Now, presumably, the three major players he's referring to are Paul Manafort, who has been convicted of fraud, so convicted of lying, and then Jerome Corsi and Roger Stone, who are serial liars, I think it's fair to say, especially Jerome Corsi, who has made a career of it. [16:10:10]
And he's going by their words and saying that Mueller is pushing them to lie. The president is.
KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: But that doesn't even make sense. What does that even mean? Mueller is asking in an investigation for people to lie to him? How would that even happen?
URBAN: If you're not going to testify as to this, then we're going to prosecute you.
POWERS: But that's not Mueller telling -- that's not Mueller telling people to lie. And he has no interest in having people lie. He has interest in getting people to item tell the truth so that he can actually find out what happened.
But the president has been making this argument for a long time. Remember a few months ago he talked about flipping? This is when prosecutors get people to lie, and he started talking about how flippers are awful, not the dolphin, but actual flippers.
He just told "The New York Post" of those three individuals -- quote -- "If you told the truth, you go to jail. You know this flipping stuff is terrible. You flip and you lie and you get -- the prosecutors will tell you 99 percent of the time they can get people to flip. It's rare that they can't."
TAPPER: So he's now making an argument against prosecutions.
POWERS: If you haven't done anything wrong and you tell the truth, nothing will happen to you.
SANDERS: Nothing will happen to you. But if you're lying...
URBAN: I'm not so sure.
SANDERS: I just think all of this is even more important. This whole conversation, which is -- this whole conversation lends to why what the Senate was trying to do today was very important.
You had Senator Flake... (CROSSTALK)
TAPPER: The Mueller protection bill.
SANDERS: The Mueller protection bill.
You had Senator Flake, Senator Booker and Senator Coons on the floor trying to push and force a vote.
And yet again you have Senator Mitch McConnell shutting it down. There is a lot afoot and a lot happening and a lot going on. And the president is going on the record saying that the special counsel is pressuring people to lie, this is just crazy.
URBAN: Symone, yesterday -- you just referenced the interview in "The Washington Post," and to talk about that interview with "The Washington Post." What did the president say when asked by Josh Dawsey and Phil Rucker if he was going to fire Mueller?
URBAN: He said no. He said no. He said, I'm not going to fire him.
SANDERS: The president is disparaging -- I just would like to note the president is disparaging the special counsel and law enforcement officials through his Twitter account, on the record...
SANDERS: All across the world. I don't believe what he says.
CARPENTER: We shouldn't act like the special prosecutor is not squeezing people for answers. There is a tremendous amount of pressure. I wouldn't want to be grilled by the FBI about what I had for lunch.
CARPENTER: They're trying to drill on the questions about the Trump Tower meeting.
POWERS: But, Amanda, you're squeezing somebody to tell you something true.
TAPPER: I think you agree.
URBAN: And I agree. Look, right, you tell the truth with your lawyer sitting next to you so when they come back to you two months later and ask for that same version of truth, it better match.
TAPPER: But, David, do you think that Mueller -- you think Robert Mueller is pressuring people to lie?
URBAN: No, no, I don't.
TAPPER: You don't think that.
URBAN: Here's what I think. I think it is very difficult. You get in these situations. Like, I don't know what happened with Papadopoulos.
URBAN: Half these prosecutions are for guys for telling different versions. They tell them a version on day one and a version on day two, he's going to jail for six days or whatever it is.
TAPPER: Two weeks.
URBAN: Two weeks. It must not be, you know, the end of the republic there. I don't know what it was, but it happens frequently.
You talk to criminal defense lawyers. Ask Jeffrey Toobin, ask anybody who has been a criminal defense lawyer here. That's a big deal. Right? What you say on your 302 better match up...
CARPENTER: But I do think there's a funny development that there are so many joint defense agreements. Rudy Giuliani said that there are 32 of these floating out there. That's a lot of people that are trying to get their stories straight. And I think it becomes really curious when the person you have a joint defense agreement with can possibly give you a pardon.
TAPPER: So I just want to take one second, because the president is clearly on a spree, both in interviews and also on Twitter, about Russia.
I want one second here to acknowledge the insanity of a tweet that the president retweeted and shared with his almost 60 million followers. This is a meme that depicts presidents behind bars, Presidents Clinton and Obama, two former attorneys general, the former FBI director, the former national intelligence director, the special counsel, Robert Mueller, and even President Trump's own deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, all of them behind bars.
And the question is, "When will they be tried for treason?" And the president retweeted it. That's an official White House statement.
This isn't some crazy thing from your uncle at Thanksgiving. This is from the president of the United States.
SANDERS: The president is a conspiracy theorist. I think we have known that for a very long time and he reinforces on the regular in his Twitter account.
This is why I fully believe it is very important for people that are just -- you know, people that just love America to stand up and be willing to call this president on the carpet when he is wrong. And he is wrong about -- and he is wrong at what he's doing in disparaging the special counsel, threatening this investigation, and he's wrong with those daggone tweets. I just can't.
TAPPER: What did you make of that when you saw that this morning?
CARPENTER: It's just like the same story again. I think the actual court case and what's happening with Mueller is far more interesting than this.
This is an old show. Trump keeps doing it. He doesn't have any more tricks. He's been doing this junk since 2015.
TAPPER: The retweets and the weird memes?
CARPENTER: Yes, and it's just like, I'm over it. I'm not fascinated anymore. I can't be outraged about it, because there's more interesting things going on.
URBAN: Again, and you heard Laura and Jeffrey at the top of the -- at the top of the show talk about how this has -- this has left the realm of criminal and really is in the realm of political.
So that's what these tweets are about. This is a political operation at this point, to continue to push hearts and minds, so there will not be a -- you know, impeachment and resolution in the House. Won't be a trial in the Senate. This is a political operation.
CARPENTER: But that's (INAUDIBLE), he's not making an argument. It's a stupid joke.
TAPPER: All right. Everyone, stick around. We now know President Trump's answers to two of Robert Mueller's questions. And then the one person who is missing from today's private Senate
briefing on Jamal Khashoggi's murder that has some lawmakers making all kinds of threats. Republicans, too.
Stay with us.
TAPPER: As President Trump dangles the possibility of a pardon for former campaign chair Paul Manafort to the "New York Post," CNN is learning what the president said in his written answers in the Russia investigation. It's part of what Robert Mueller, the special counsel, has been waiting for after 18 months of the special counsel's work, after 35 people and entities have been charged, four people pleading guilty, people with connections to the Trump campaign.
[16:20:11] Two sources familiar with the president's written answers tell CNN that the president answered questions related to that infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting between his son, Donald Trump Jr., campaign officials Manafort and Kushner and a Russian lawyer who promised the dirt on Hillary Clinton. We're also told the president responded to a question about WikiLeaks and the release of Hillary Clinton email stolen from Russia.
I want to bring in chief political correspondent Dana Bash. She's breaking the story.
And, Dana, let's start with the Trump Tower meeting. Former White House strategist, Steve Bannon, is quoted in the book "Fire and Fury" saying, quote, the chance that Don Jr. did not walk these Jumos up to his father's office on the 26th floor is zero.
So presumably the president was asked, did you know about the Trump Tower meeting?
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. He was.
And first, some context. This reporting really is the first insight, Jake, that we have into how the president responded to any of Robert Mueller's written questions which until now has been a big unknown. What we're told about that question, the president said that he didn't know about the 2016 Trump Tower meeting. He was not told about it.
Of course, the meeting he referred to with his son, his campaign officials, senior ones at least, and a Russian lawyer who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton. What we are told that the president said in these written answers, Jake, match what he said in public. The difference, of course, is a big one, that what he said in his answers to Robert Mueller, if proven false, could be a criminal offense.
TAPPER: Of course. And let's talk about WikiLeaks. The president's long-time associate, Roger Stone, wrote in "The Daily Caller" website last year that he talked to the Trump campaign about these e-mail dumps by WikiLeaks. Did the president acknowledge or admit or say that he had heard about this WikiLeaks from Stone? BASH: No. We are told that what the president said to Robert Mueller
dovetails with what Roger Stone has said publicly. That the two did not talk about WikiLeaks, like the Trump Tower meeting. What the president knew about WikiLeaks, of course, is key to Mueller's underlying mission, that what he's trying to find out whether there's collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.
One thing I also want to say to you is that these answers that we have that the president gave, they were described to us by sources. They weren't quoted.
And the last thing that Laura can certainly shine a light on is that the president also made clear in these answers that he was answering to the best of his recollection. No flat noes or yeses.
TAPPER: All right. Dana Bash, great reporting. Thanks so much.
Let me bring back Jeffrey Toobin and Laura Coates.
And, Laura, let me start with the obvious. The president says a lot of things that aren't true. He spreads falsehoods, he lies, he fibs. He -- you know, every manner of falsehood that is out there, he does it. Does it matter if he is not honest with the special counsel?
COATES: Yes. He can lie all he would like to people he knows as friends, to the media, even the American public. But if that portion of the American public includes the federal investigators or the special counsel to whom he owes a duty of credibility and to tell the truth, then you have a much bigger issue here.
And remember, the fact that he had that kind of lawyerly statement, the lawyerly caveat and to the best of a recollection is one that is many dependant, many a person answering questions to say, well, I can't really commit perjury that has nefarious intent if I'm only remembering. And you could probably refresh recollection and let me know.
But remember, Papadopoulos was somebody who recently was sentenced to prison for two weeks. The idea of even Paul Manafort. You have to actually convince the prosecution you really don't recall. That can't be a feigned amnesia. That also seems like a lie as well.
And so, you've got a whole lot going on here. But ultimately, yes, if you lie to special counsel or if you are feigning amnesia, it is akin to committing perjury and it's getting you in to greater legal jeopardy than you would have had by telling falsehoods to the media.
TAPPER: Jeffrey, what's your take on to the best of my recollection umbrella? How much protection is that?
TOOBIN: It's a lot, especially in this context, because remember, this is a take-home open book exam. These answers were scrutinized by his lawyers before they were turned back to the Mueller team. So, you can be sure that they presented these answers in a light that is the most generous, broad answer so that it's very difficult to pin down to be false. And the best of your recollection is a serious defense, as Laura said.
And in fairness, you know, Donald Trump has a lot on his mind. He's the president of the United States. A lot of facts come to him every day. These are events that are two years old.
All of those arguments, you know, could be made that his recollection is, you know -- is imperfect. So I think the -- this shows the great advantage of doing written answers as opposed to oral answers, because the lawyers could really protect him, and it looks like they did.
[16:25:09] TAPPER: And, Laura, on that subject, listen to Congressman Adam Schiff, Democrat from California, likely the next chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, talking about the president's written answers.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA), RANKING MEMBER, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: I do think, though, that written responses are hardly adequate. There really needs to be a live interview of the president, because you need to be able to ask follow-up questions real-time.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: Now, he's a former prosecutor. So he knows what he's talking about.
But do you think there's any chance of that happening?
COATES: Well, according to the president, at one point, yes, he was eager. But for his lawyers to actually converse with Robert Mueller. Now you see that written take-home exam is much more enticing to him.
But if you are Mueller, if you are anybody with a pulse, you would like to have a in-person, mano-a-mano conversation. Why? Because you can detect credibility, you can ask follow-up questions, you can look at things that are otherwise sterile and actually bring them to life. And unless you have that, you were left at the mercy of lawyers.
And why would Mueller trade the leverage he has for taking a second fiddle and just getting the leftovers? He has to have a meaningful conversation. But he only has to have that conversation if he has no other way to corroborate or lock it in.
Remember, in a way, all of the American people had a conversation with Donald Trump when you watched the Lester Holt interview. You had an in-person discussion when you heard about the motivation for firing James Comey. You had an in-person discussion when you read his Twitter characters.
And so, in many ways, the president has created his own ad hoc sort of interviews and maybe even eliminated the great need for Mueller to do that.
TAPPER: Do you think there's any chance that Rudy Guiliani and the president's legal team would let him -- would ask him, would want him to do an interview?
TAPPER: None at all?
BASH: An oral interview?
BASH: No, no. I mean, I lost track of counting the number of people -- I'm sure you have as well -- who said they would lie down in front of the White House and say, you know, no. Basically over my dead body would I allow the president to do this, people who like the president.
And remember, it's not that Mueller was really excited to do this take-home test, as Jeffrey talked about. This is after months and month and months of negotiations.
TAPPER: And, Jeffrey, I want to ask you, right before the president submitted his answers, Mueller asked the Trump legal team for call records and visitor logs related to roger stone and Trump Tower. That request this late in the investigation surprised the Trump legal team, we're told.
Do you think Mueller knows a lot more than what the president and his legal team know about what he knows, if you follow what I'm saying?
TOOBIN: I mean, it is certainly very important to know what Roger Stone's relationship contexts were with candidate Trump, because Stone -- has said various things but is clearly someone who knew in advance of what was going on with WikiLeaks. And so, his contacts with the president are extremely important.
Just the other point about the oral interview that we need -- you know, we need to keep in mind is that the possibility remains that Robert Mueller could issue a grand jury subpoena to the president, if he gets permission from Matthew Whitaker, which is, you know, a question in and of itself. But that option is still on the table.
It would mean a big legal fight. It's not -- it's not clear that Mueller would win that fight. But he could try. And he hasn't tried yet, as far as we know.
TAPPER: All right. Thanks one and all.
He tried and failed to pass a bill to protect Robert Mueller today. Why are none of his fellow Republicans joining him?
Senator Jeff Flake will join me live, next. Stay with us.