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Trump Makes Major Announcements on Cabinet; Tillerson: Trump Told Me to Do Things that Would Violate the Law; Mueller Will Reveal More on Cohen & Manafort in Sentencing Documents; Mueller to New Details Emerge on DOJ & FBI Officials Trying to Rein in Trump after Firing Comey. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired December 7, 2018 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:00] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Interesting. Congrats on their success.


HARLOW: Thank you all for being with us on a very busy Friday morning. I'm Poppy Harlow, in New York. Have a great weekend.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Just a little bit of news today.

HARLOW: A little bit.

SCIUTTO: I'm Jim Sciutto, in Washington.

"AT THIS HOUR," the news continues, starts right now.

ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Ana Cabrera, in for Kate Bolduan on this Friday.

An eventful day so far in Washington. And it's only 11:00 a.m. on a day where we could learn crucial new details about the Russia investigation.

President Trump is making major announcements about his cabinet. This morning, we learned that William Barr is his nominee for attorney general after the tortured tenure of Jeff Sessions. Barr previously served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush.

President Trump also making it official, State Department spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, is his choice to replace Nikki Haley as U.N. ambassador. Unlike Barr, Nauert really has little experience in the field for which she has been nominated.

But the shake-up might not end there. Two sources tell CNN that chief of staff, John Kelly, is about to resign.

CNN's Abby Phillip is live at the White House with the latest.

Abby, where do we begin?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: There's so much going on this morning. So much happening before even 10:00 a.m. This morning. And the president trying to set the tone for the rest of the day. That's also going to be dominated by the developments in the Mueller investigation by announcing two major posts that have been open, waiting for nominees. The first being the attorney general. After he fired Jeff Sessions, that post has been held by matt Whitaker, who is the acting attorney general, but the president is now naming William Barr, who is someone who was the former attorney general for president George H.W. Bush. He has a lot of experience in Washington. A lot of experience at the Justice Department. And is someone who is viewed as something of a conventional pick. He has the experience. People here in Washington know him. But there are also some questions that are going to be raised about his past writings and his comments about, for example, the firing of James Comey, or also investigations into Hillary Clinton, for example. So there's not going to be -- it's not going to be without controversy.

But then the president also added that he has named Heather Nauert, who is the current State Department spokeswoman, as the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, a post filled by Nikki Haley, who is staying until the end of this year. Now, Nauert has been at State for a year now. She has risen steadily in that post. She's a former journalist for FOX News. And there are questions now about whether she has the qualifications for that post. The national security and foreign policy experience for that. So I think we're going to see in both of these nominations a lot of questions as they proceed towards Senate confirmation.

But one outstanding issue is on the future of chief of staff, John Kelly. We have heard from two sources inside the White House that Kelly is expected to resign in the coming days. The president has started the process of looking and planning for his replacement. The problem, there has not been a decision, a firm decision made on who might replace him. A top candidate for that position would be Nick Ayers. He's been floated around as a possible replacement for a long time now, but of course, that is also, like most things in this White House, not without controversy. A lot of senior White House aides are not exactly looking forward to the prospect of Ayers taking over here.

As we watch for these things to unfold, clearly, President Trump is trying to get out the gate here with these announcements as quickly as possible, anticipating also that there will be some perhaps unfavorable news coming out from the Mueller investigation in these court filings later today -- Ana?

CABRERA: Oh, yes. There's that. Which we're going to get to this hour as well.

Abby Phillip, I want you to stick around with me for a moment.

And I want to bring in CNN's political director, David Chalian.

First, David, let's talk about Trump's attorney general nominee, William Barr. What message does this send on the Russia investigation?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: You know, I think it sends perhaps a bit of a surprising message from the president. As Abby was reporting, in Washington, you know, William Barr is sort of an old establishment hand. This is not somebody who sort of stamped with Trumpism. No doubt, Democrats will seize upon things he has said in recent months about his take on the overall Mueller investigation and sort of demanding his neutrality and that, in some way, I'm certain will be the focus of all Democrats as this confirmation process goes forward, but this is a surprising pick for President Trump in the sense that this is somebody who served as attorney general under George H.W. Bush. Somebody who is sort of a down-the-middle kind of fealty to the law kind of guy. This is a very different profile than the current acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, for example.

[11:05:05] CABRERA: However, he has said some things that probably are music to the ears of this president. Things like defending his firing of James Comey. Saying it's OK for the president to ask for investigations specifically. On the other hand, he has also defended Mueller in saying he's probably not going to take his investigation down some path that would become a witch hunt.

Senator Lindsey Graham, David, has said Barr would be easy to confirm. Do you think that's the case?

CHALIAN: Well, remember, the Senate is going to be coming back with an even bigger majority than it has. It takes 50 Republican votes, if you want to use Mike Pence's vote there, if there were somehow a tie, but it takes 50 Republicans to get this confirmed. In that sense, they're going to have 53 Republicans. And, yes, it seems to me that something new would have to enter the information stream for some Republicans to bail on this. And by the way, Pat Leahy, a senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, former chairman of that committee, has said very favorable things about William Barr. I think you're going to see a slew of Democrats be interested in confirming Barr to this position as well.

I don't think any confirmation process in the current Washington climate you can say is like slam dunk and easy. But we recently saw Gina Haspel, who had lots of controversy around her nomination, the numbers and the math are around the president to get the team that he wants.

CABRERA: Let me bring back Abby Phillip.

On Heather Nauert, nominated to the U.N., as you point out, she doesn't have a lot of foreign policy or diplomatic experience. Do you expect pushback on her nomination?

PHILLIP: Undoubtedly, there will be pushback. There will be a lot of questions about what exactly the president wants that role to be now. It was something under Nikki Haley. Will it be something different under Heather Nauert if she's in that position. I think that U.N. ambassador position is a storied one. President George H.W. Bush held that job at one point. There have been several other prominent people in the national security sphere who have held that job. And so I think you're going to get a lot of questions about what are the qualifications that are here for this person to take on that role?

But at the same time, what you'll hear from the administration is that not only is she well respected in the administration and on the global stage, as she's been serving in a senior position at the State Department, but in her travels with Secretary Pompeo, she's been at the table for a lot of these major conversations and has gained that experience over the last year. So whether that will be enough is anyone's guess.

But I think as David pointed out, the president is going into the next Congress with a better majority in the Senate than he has right now. And so for a lot of these people, even the one whose are more controversial, he might have an easier time with them than he might otherwise have had if the Senate were as closely divided as it is right now.

CABRERA: And now we have this. We have former secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, telling a fundraiser, M.D. Anderson -- let me read it for you -- "So often the president would say, here's what I want to do, and here's how I want to do it. And I would have to say to him, Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you cannot do that, that way. It violates the law."

David, what's your reaction to this?

CHALIAN: I think this is an astounding revelation. To have your former secretary of state, no matter how sour the relationship got, no matter how quickly the relationship soured, this is the former secretary of state, who is now revealing that he would have to take the president's idea to accomplish something and explain to him that what he wants to do, the way he wants to do it, would be against the law. That is not a headline that any president would want to have out there. So while I know we were talking about the president perhaps trying to distract from negative Mueller news coming his way later today, perhaps, getting these nominations out there, trying to program or do some counterprogramming, I should say, this breaks through in a pretty significant way to hear from Rex Tillerson in his first interview since he served as secretary of state and in that first interview, he reveals the president asked him to do things that would violate the law.

CABRERA: He's not pulling any punches.

David Chalian, Abby Phillip, thank you both.

Coming up, sometime today, Robert Mueller will reveal new details in two major cases. What we could learn from new filings in connection to Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort. That's ahead.

[11:09:44] Plus, CNN's exclusive new details on the scramble to rein in President Trump after he fired FBI Director James Comey.

Stay with us.


CABRERA: Key developments are unfolding in the Russia investigation. By days end, we may know much more about what two former Trump insiders have told investigators. Sentencing documents will detail the level of cooperation from Michael

Cohen, President Trump's longtime fixer and personal attorney. What he has been telling them about the president's business interests in Russia?

Special Counsel Robert Mueller will also make the case that Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman, lied to investigators and breached his plea deal.

Let's begin with Manafort, and CNN's Jessica Schneider outside the district court in Washington for us.

Jessica, what are we expecting to learn today?

[11:15:08] JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ana, another day of watching and waiting here in Washington. We're expecting at any minute, really, that filing from the special counsel could come down. Now, prosecutors have to tell the judge why they believe that Paul Manafort lied during their plea talks and what exactly he lied about. Because, remember, it was at the beginning of last week when prosecutors dropped that bombshell, saying they were calling off the cooperation deal with Paul Manafort because they say he lied about various different subjects at several different meetings.

Really, the past two weeks, we have been left to wonder, what exactly did Paul Manafort lie about. The key question here, we wonder if it will be answered today in the filings, is did Paul Manafort lie at all about the Trump campaign. About then-Candidate Donald Trump? Did he lie about possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians or did Paul Manafort lie about some of his business interests in Ukraine? Remember, that's what the federal trial in Virginia was about where he was convicted on eight counts.

Of course, if Paul Manafort lied about the Trump campaign or any possible collusion with Russia, that could be a big bombshell here. That could further rock Washington that has already been on edge throughout all of these filings over the last week.

Remember, Paul Manafort has been considered a key witness for the special counsel until those talks broke down. Because Paul Manafort was in that 2016 Trump Tower meeting where Don Jr arranged it to get dirt on Hillary Clinton from a Russian lawyer. We know that dirt never actually transpired, but Paul Manafort was thought to be key to the special counsel when he finally pleaded guilty here in Washington, D.C. But of course, over the past two weeks, the talks broke down. The special counsel called the cooperation off. And now we're waiting for that filing.

The special counsel's office has told us that they do expect to make at least part of this filing public. We're uncertain exactly how much we'll learn, but we will see some revelations. Ana, unclear what kind of revelations we'll see, but it could have a big impact on the Russia probe moving forward -- Ana?

CABRERA: Who knows how much will be redacted after what happened with the Michael Flynn filing earlier this week. Jessica Schneider, we all await this anxiously.

I want to also talk about Michael Cohen now.

CNN national political correspondent, M.J. Lee, is here to break that story down for us.

M.J., what are you looking for in today's court filings dealing with Cohen?

M.J. LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ana, Michael Cohen is fighting for one thing. That is leniency. When he's sentenced next week, he wants to make sure he gets as little jail time as possible. And his lawyers, in fact, are arguing for no jail time for Michael Cohen. What we're going to learn today from Special Counsel Robert Mueller is the extent to which Michael Cohen has cooperated. That has been a big part of the argument his lawyers have made, because he has cooperated so much with various investigators, including, again, with Mueller's office, he should get leniency next week. We might know how extensively he has been cooperated, on what issues he may have been helpful to this point. And of course, the biggest question Michael Cohen wants the answer to, is what Robert Mueller will recommend in terms of how much jail time he should actually get.

Now, two things we are watching really closely, and you take a look at that timeline as a reminder, back this summer, Michael Cohen pleaded guilty on eight counts, including two counts of campaign finance violations. As part of that, he alleged -- and this was a bombshell allegation -- it was at President Trump's direction he coordinated hush payments to two women who alleged to have affairs with the president.

And the second thing we're watching, of course, too, is last week we learned that Michael Cohen also pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about a Moscow deal that the Trump Organization was looking into. He said he was not really forthright when he initially spoke to Congress about the conversations, how long they took place for, and also to what extent he actually kept Trump and members of his family up to date on these conversations.

And just to keep in mind, in the big picture, too, for Michael Cohen, his lawyers have made it very clear the reason they are pushing for this sentencing to go on and happen next week is because he is very, very eager to move on with his life. So again, we should get a little more new insight from Robert Mueller today about the various ways in which Michael Cohen has been cooperating. So we'll be on the lookout for that -- Ana?

CABRERA: And he has spoken for 70 hours with federal investigators. We could learn a lot more today.

M.J. Lee, thank you.

Our thanks again to Jessica Schneider.

We know you ladies are staying on top of it because these court documents could drop at any moment.

[11:19:46] Coming up, the scramble at the Justice Department to investigate President Trump in the days just after he fired FBI Director James Comey. CNN exclusive details next.


[11:24:38] CABRERA: Welcome back. While we wait for those new details in the Russia investigation today, fired FBI Director James Comey is meeting behind closed doors with two House committees to talk about how the investigation began.

And we're also learning just how tense things were at the Justice Department right after President Trump fired Comey and before Robert Mueller was named special counsel. CNN has learned Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and top FBI officials thought President Trump needed to be reined in. Sources say then-Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe took the extraordinary step of opening an obstruction of justice investigation.

Joining us now to discuss, Elie Honing, a CNN legal analyst and former state and federal prosecutor, and Michael Isikoff, the chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo! News.

Let me start with you, Elie.

This new reporting that there was an obstruction of justice investigation opened before the special counsel investigation, what does it mean and does it impact the probe?

ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It may. This is what the FBI does. The FBI holds the rule of law sacrosanct. I think when they were in the weird in-between phase when Comey had been fired and there was no special counsel, I imagine lifers were thinking, what do we do? We can't just wait for the president to order us to do something. That's now how the FBI works. If the FBI sees an injustice or something that needs to be corrected, they have every right to start an investigation. It does tell you about the level of confidence the FBI had in the White House, however.

CABRERA: Michael, I don't know if this is what's ruffling the president's feathers or the fact we're awaiting all these documents scheduled to drop any moment, but the president has been on a tweet storm today. He fired off about five tweets in just about an hour's time this morning attacking the Mueller investigation. Do you think he feels the walls closing in on him?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, CHIEF INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT, YAHOO! NEWS: The most remarkable thing about that tweet storm this morning is the attack on Rod Rosenstein and talking about how he's conflicted in this. I mean, Rod Rosenstein is still the sitting deputy attorney general at the Justice Department. And you know, what his exact status is right now is very up in the air. But to have the president so directly going after him -- you know, remember, like six weeks or so ago, we all expected Rod Rosenstein to be fired. And then apparently they made up and the president decided not to do that. And yet, here he is now lashing out at the number two guy at the Justice Department.

I think that makes this all the more critical that for Bill Barr's nomination, you know, for him to get confirmed relatively quickly, because I think it's a foregone conclusion he will be confirmed absent something we don't know about. He's a respected former lawman. Long ties in the Justice Department, conservative Republican, but worked with Bob Mueller very closely when he was at the attorney general's -- when he was attorney general. And I think there's probably a crying need right now to have a serious guy going to the Justice Department and oversee what's going on.

CABRERA: I want to pull up that tweet you referenced about his attack on the deputy A.G. specifically.

Let me read it for you, Elie. It says, "Will the scathing document written about lying James Comey by the man in charge of the case, Rod Rosenstein, who also signed the FISA warrant, be a big part of the report?" Referencing the special counsel report. "Isn't Rod, therefore, totally conflicted?"

Elie, what's your answer?

HONIG: The tweet storm itself was completely unhinged. You would hope the commander-in-chief of the military would have a little better poker face and be able to hide it a little better when he's feeling stressed. That said, I agree with Michael it's inappropriate for the president to lash out at his own nominated deputy attorney general. But the issue about Rod Rosenstein potentially having a conflict is a legitimate one was Rosenstein himself could be a key witness on the obstruction of justice issue here. When Comey was fired, the president, based that on a memo that Rod Rosenstein wrote saying, we, the Department of Justice, I recommend he be removed because he mishandled the Hillary Clinton e-mail situation. Trump himself, however, shortly thereafter, told Lester Holt, I got rid of Comey because of the Russia thing. Those are two very different accounts of what happened. One could be obstruction, Russia. The other, firing Comey because of the Hillary e-mails is not.

CABRERA: Rod Rosenstein's apparent involvement in the discussions prior to the special counsel investigation being opened saying we may need to rein in the president according to the reporting.

HONIG: If there was a trial for obstruction, Rod Rosenstein would be a pivotal witness. I do think there's potentially a conflict there. It should have been resolved long ago. I think the horse is too far out of the barn now, probably.

CABRERA: I want to get to what we're expecting and awaiting today, Michael, this development with Cohen, with Manafort, Comey obviously. What is the most significant of all to you? What will you be watching for?

ISIKOFF: Well, look, I think we can assume that there will probably be significant redactions as there were in the Flynn memo, but there was also some important language that was in the Flynn memo about the substantial assistance that he has given the government in, by the way, a criminal investigation that is not being done by Robert Mueller, and being done by others at the Justice Department.