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Kelly Question by Mueller's Team; Awaiting Mueller's New Revelations; Tillerson Breaks Silence. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired December 7, 2018 - 13:00   ET


[13:00:00] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: It's not falling, everybody falls, it's about how you get up.


KING: Thanks for joining us today on INSIDE POLITICS. I know there's been a lot of breaking news. Appreciate your patience. Hope to see you back here Sunday morning, 8:00 a.m. Eastern.

Don't go anywhere. More news ahead. Brianna Keilar starts right now. Have a great day.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Brianna Keilar, live from CNN's Washington headquarters.

Underway right now, we begin with breaking news in what was already shaping up to be an extraordinary day in the Russia investigation.

CNN has learned that Special Counsel Robert Mueller questioned White House Chief of Staff John Kelly in recent months. Kelly is the highest ranking White House official known to have provided information from Mueller's Russia investigation. And sources say the questions to Kelly focused on potential obstruction of justice.

This comes as sources say Kelly is poised to resign in the coming days. And on top of this, any moment, we are expecting court filings by Mueller which could shed new light on the scope and direction of the probe. What is Paul Manafort accused of lying about in an alleged breach of his plea agreement? What will Michael Cohen's sentencing memo reveal about his cooperation with the Mueller team? And what is former FBI Director James Comey saying to lawmakers in closed door testimony?

Also today, we are following yet another shake-up in the administration. The president has nominated Bush 41's former attorney general to replace Jeff Sessions. He chose State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert to replace Nikki Haley in the U.N. And, as mentioned, John Kelly looks to be on his way out.

First, our CNN exclusive report. We have senior justice correspondent Evan Perez, we have chief political correspondent Dana Bash, who broke the news of the latest twist in this Mueller investigation.

This is a big deal, Evan, that the chief of staff to the president is being interviewed by the special counsel over months.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. In recent months, this had been a bit of a drama behind the scenes at the White House. And unlike, you know, the dozens of people who have gone in for interviews, John Kelly is different simply because -- not only because he's the chief of staff, obviously, but also because he came into the administration in July of 2017.

And one of the thing that the special counsel wanted to ask him essentially was a narrow set of questions, and that is -- has to do with some reporting that was out there that the president had ordered Don McGahn, his White House counsel at the time, to order the firing of Robert Mueller, the special counsel. And the internal behind the scenes of when that story broke. "The New York Times" reported the story and the president blew up at Don McGahn and he wanted Don McGahn to go out and deny the stories. Don McGahn refused.

And so John Kelly was essentially a witness to whatever was happening behind the scenes there, Brianna., And, you know, we know that Don McGahn has already gone in multiple times to provide interviews with the special counsel. So essentially what the special -- what Mueller wanted from Kelly was to corroborate the information that he already had from -- obviously from McGahn and from other places.

KEILAR: Because he has talked to McGahn. We know at length he has talked to McGahn, the former White House counsel.

PEREZ: Right.

KEILAR: The White House counsel's office initially fought the Mueller request here, Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. Well, what we were told is that, you know, when things change, when Emmet Flood came into the Trump legal team inside the White House, he was much more strict, shall we say, about who and who would not talk to the special counsel's team, particularly when it comes to current White House staffers.

And what they -- what they, the Mueller team, had to prove was that John Kelly would be -- is and would be the only person who could answer the questions that they had. And so under those auspices, those guidelines, those parameters, that is when Kelly was allowed to go and talk to the Mueller team.

KEILAR: And who did they have to prove that too? Was that -- was that a situation where the White House understood from the -- from Mueller?

BASH: The context of what they wanted to ask.

PEREZ: Right. They needed to --

KEILAR: That only -- like, for example, what Evan was just talking about, that if Kelly was a witness to a conversation, only Kelly could answer questions about being a witness to that conversation.

KEILAR: So the counsel's office determining yes indeed this is --

BASH: Yes.

PEREZ: Right. The White House counsel's office, which had objected to it, finally they had a negotiated solution whereby you say, OK, I'm going to ask -- these are the limited sets of questions and John Kelly is the only person who can provide that information. It's information that we need for this investigation. It's part of the obstruction of justice investigation. And John Kelly is the only one who can provide this information.

KEILAR: It's a fascinating report.

I want to bring in our legal minds. We have Shan Wu and Laura Coates with us, both of them former federal prosecutors and CNN legal analysts.

Laura, when you hear this reporting, what is your reaction, especially as we know that the narrow set of questions have to do with obstruction of justice?

[13:05:00] LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I mean who else -- who has not spoken to Mueller's team? That's really essential if you --

KEILAR: Roger Stone?

COATES: I mean -- I mean -- well, and why? And who has not spoken to him? People who then become defendants, perhaps? Michael Cohen initially, et cetera. So you have this issue coming up.

And the first thing that strikes me as the most curious here is that there is corroboration for them to want to speak to this person already. Nobody asked the question as a prosecutor, and Mueller's team has proven time and again, they actually have corroboration, they have either hard statements or documents in some form or fashion before they'll actually ask these questions. And so, in many ways, they're lining up against what they already have and there are more than 30 hour conversations with Don McGahn, unbeknownst to the president at the moment in time, to try to line up who is telling the truth and who can either say that it's happened or it did not happen.

So I think, once again, the president may be blindsided at the time that McGahn has spoken about this issue, now John Kelly has spoken about this issue. And it all leads to the president's firing of James Comey, the decisions about that. And it leads, of course, to Michael Flynn, who the president asked, can you see your way to letting this go? It's all very --

KEILAR: He said that to Comey.

COATES: The timing of it, given that Michael Flynn, this week, has been so critical in the news.

KEILAR: And we just want to be clear about this reporting. I find this so interesting about the view that it gives us, Shan, into what the special counsel is looking at. They were specifically curious about this narrow situation where Don McGahn, asked by Trump, to publicly go out and say this "New York Times" report, the details, how the president had ordered McGahn to order the firing of Robert Mueller, right, is that right?


KEILAR: And this is the specific thing that the special counsel is curious about, that John Kelly has to talk about, that Don McGahn has told them about. What does that tell you of not only what they're zeroing in on, but how high this is going?

WU: Well, they're zeroing in on the question of the intent factor for the obstruction. The corrupt intent. So, hypothetically, if the president is ranting and raving that Mueller is really bad at his job, he's incompetent, he's doing a crummy job, you, Don, go tell him, he's fired. That's not going to be obstruction. But if perhaps he's sitting there ranting and raving about how this has got to stop, you know, this is out of control, I want the guy gone, now you're in kind of gray territory.

I think also what really strikes me here is it shows how Mueller is really taking advantage of the disorganization and lack of discipline in the Trump administration.

PEREZ: Right.

WU: When Emmitt Flood has to say, you know, you guys show me that he's the only one that can tell you, honestly, all due respect to Emmitt Flood, I don't think he has any clue as to who really was in the room, who is actually bearing the messages. And they're able to sort of like separate these people and start to go after them because the White House has no discipline of message. Everyone's off saying their own thing, thinking their own thing.

KEILAR: Evan, how --

PEREZ: But we've seen -- we have seen this repeatedly, by the way. I mean you're pointing at exactly the problem is that the president repeatedly has made people around him, people who work for him, witnesses in this investigation. This is something that usually what you'd do --

KEILAR: The president has made them witnesses.

PEREZ: Right, because of the way -- the lack of disciplines in the way he approaches these things. I mean this is not a thing that you should have -- that should have happened.

If you -- certainly if you wanted to have Don McGahn go out and deny a story, you do it just to Don McGahn. If you want to protect yourself.

BASH: The other thing I just want to point out, which may seem blatantly obvious, but important to say out loud, is that, you know, what the White House responded to with the written answers from the president to Mueller was all about pre-inauguration, was during the campaign, was about collusion. John Kelly didn't come on the scene until --


BASH: He was president well into the, you know, the first year of his presidency. And so this is about obstruction. So it's another indicator, a red flashing light, that obstruction is a pretty important part of the investigation if you feel that you need to talk to the president's chief of staff.

KEILAR: It's such great reporting. It so zeros in on that arrow pointing towards obstruction. I am going to have you all stand by for me, if you will.

This is not the only development in the Russia probe. In a pair of court filings, Special Counsel Robert Mueller is expected to unveil new details of his investigation into two key former Trump associates, Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen.

CNN justice correspondent Jessica Schneider is outside of United States District Court in Washington and we have CNN national political correspondent MJ Lee with us from New York.

I want to begin with you, Jess.

What are we expected to learn about the Manafort filings today?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, we could learn how Paul Manafort lied, what exactly he lied about, and most crucially here, we could learn whether or not Paul Manafort lied at all about the Trump campaign, about the president himself, or even about any potential collusion between the Trump campaign or Russia. And, of course, that's if that's what the lies were about, which we may learn and we may not depending on how much is redacted.

If that's what the lies were about, that could, of course, send more shockwaves through Washington and could really rock the special counsel's case. Mueller's team has told us that they expect at least part of this filing to be public. We're not sure which points will be made public and, on the flip side, which points will be redacted. But, remember, it was just about two weeks ago, at the beginning of last week, when the special counsel dropped this bombshell, that they were calling off the cooperation deal with Paul Manafort because they said that he had lied about various different subjects during a number of meetings that Paul Manafort had with the special counsel's office.

[13:10:28] Now, you'll remember that Paul Manfort has been working with the special counsel's office, or at least he had been up until recently, because he pleaded guilty back in September to two counts, one of conspiracy, one of witness tampering. And he had met with the special counsel's team at least nine times. Now, his plea deal really was precipitated after he was found guilty of eight counts in a separate but related case in Virginia on tax and bank crimes. And really Paul Manafort, after that point, was expected to be a key witness for the special counsel because Paul Manafort, of course, was Donald Trump's campaign chairman. He was heavily involved in the campaign until August of 2016. And most crucially, we know that Paul Manafort was in that summer of 2016 Trump Tower meeting that was set up by Donald Trump Junior with the Russian lawyer to allegedly get dirt on Hillary Clinton, though we know that they never got it.

So Paul Manafort, up until recently, was a prime witness, Brianna. But now, of course, the special counsel saying he lie, that he hasn't cooperate and we should be learning more about those lies in this filing depending on how much is actually made public.


KEILAR: And, MJ, Mueller's office is expected to file a memo with sentencing recommendations for Michael Cohen, the president's former lawyer. Tell us more about that.

MJ LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, we should be hearing both from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's office and investigators at SNDY on how much jail time, if any, they think Michael Cohen should get. Remember, that sentencing is set to happen next week.

And keep in mind that for Michael Cohen this has become his new strategy. They are hoping to make the case that because he has cooperated extensively with various investigators, they're actually pushing for no jail time for Michael Cohen. So when this recommendation fillings happen today, we should hopefully get some new insight on the extensiveness of how much Michael Cohen has cooperated, on what topics potentially he has cooperated on, and what helpful information, if any, he has been able to provide to investigators.

Two areas that we're going to be watching particularly closely. Remember, two areas where Michael Cohen has already pleaded guilty. One was back in August when he pleaded guilty, among other things, to campaign finance violations. And in that he actually alleged that it was at President Trump's direction that he arranged, or try to arrange, for hush agreements and hush payments for women who allege to have had affairs with Donald Trump.

And then, of course, last week we learned that Michael Cohen was also pleading guilty to lying to Congress about this Moscow project that he was helping to set up where they were trying to build a building in Moscow and that, of course, did not happen.

And in the big picture, too, Brianna, before I go, I think we're going to get a sense of whether Michael Cohen's legal strategy has panned out because they really pushed for the sentencing to go on and happen next week because he says he is ready to move on with his life.


KEILAR: Yes, he wants no jail time. We'll have to see what happens next week with that.

And just to be clear, we are awaiting these court filings at any moment. So we'll be watching with you, Jessica Schneider, MJ Lee.

On top of all of this, CNN has learned that Chief of Staff John Kelly is expected to resign soon. Hear why he and the president aren't even on speaking terms.

Plus, fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson breaks his silence, claiming the president's ideas would have broken the law repeatedly.

And we're learning what's happening behind closed doors with fired FBI Director James Comey as he returns to Congress for a showdown with Republicans. New word that things are tense.


[13:18:21] KEILAR: More drama in the West Wing. President Trump's chief of staff, John Kelly, is expected to resign in the coming days. This is according to two sources familiar with the situation unfolding inside of the White House. The tumultuous relationship between the president and Kelly has gotten so bad, they have stopped speaking in recent days.

CNN White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins is at the White House.

That's pretty amazing, the idea that a president and his chief of staff are not even talking, Kaitlan.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is pretty amazing. And that just shows just how much that relationship between the two of them has been up and down at several points over the last 17 months has deteriorated.

Now, they've been in the same meeting together, the same room together several times over the last week, but they are not speaking on a one on one basis, which is raising a lot of questions about just how much long John Kelly has left in the West Wing. And it seems that this has been a long time in the making, but it does appear that John Kelly's final days in the White House are upon us right now.

The relationship has deteriorated so poorly, not only are they not speaking, but President Trump is telling people it's not just that. It's that he feels that he needs an aide who is politically savvy to help him navigate the next two years with Democrats taking over the House and he feels that this is the right time.

That is what makes this difficult than all the other times that John Kelly has been not only on the verge of being fired, but also of resigning on his own in times that he has also complained publically about President Trump. And now it seems that because we're at this -- this stage where President Trump wants someone else to help him shape the next two years, it appears that it could be real this time and that John Kelly's days are actually numbered.

[13:20:00] Now, Brianna, we tried to ask President Trump about this when he left the White House for Kansas City earlier today. He didn't answer. He just instead announced that he was nominating the new attorney general and the new U.N. ambassador, but he did not respond to questions about John Kelly as he got on Marine One and headed for Joint Base Andrews.

I should note, John Kelly is not on that trip to Kansas City today and he is not in his office in the West Wing today either.


KEILAR: That is interesting.

All right, Kaitlan Collins at the White House, thank you.

As President Trump prepares to make more changes to his administration, we're hearing some striking insights into the White House from former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Tillerson, you might recall, was fired by tweet almost nine months ago. And while speaking at a charity event, Tillerson said the president struggled to grasp the limitations of his powers.

Let's listen.


REX TILLERSON, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: We did not have a common value system. When the president would say, well, here's what I want to do and here's how I want to do it. And I'd have to say to him, well, Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you can't do it that way. It violates the law. It violates treaty. You know, he got really frustrated. And I think he grew tired of me being the guy every day that told him you can't do that.



Evan Perez, Laura Coates, Shan Wu back with me.

I mean, Evan, what I want to know, and the next question is, what were the thing that the president proposed that Tillerson said you can't do that, they're not legal.

PEREZ: And, by the way, I mean, we know that there are a number of people who have played the role to tell the president, hey, you can't do that, and he lashes out at every one of them. Tillerson, it seems, probably get the rawest of the deals, right? I think, as time went on, the president sort of got accustomed to people trying to reign him in a little bit. Tillerson was the earliest and I think bore the brunt of the president's anger over that. And I -- like you, I'm wondering exactly which -- which of these episodes is he refering to.

KEILAR: He clearly -- he feels clearly like Trump was shooting the messenger, right?

PEREZ: Right.

KEILAR: Which he's sort of known to do.

So, Tillerson also said, Evan, that another challenge with Trump was that they didn't have a common value system. Tillerson doesn't -- don't forget, of course, was the CEO of one of the world's biggest oil companies. Some people thought, well, what they were both CEOs, why would their values systems not link up?

PEREZ: Right. But, remember, he is -- he was the CEO of a multinational company that had to abide by laws, not only in the United States, but also laws of, you know, dozens of countries around the world. He was used to dealing with lawyers who would tell him what you can and what you cannot do.

The president was running a family company. A family enterprise.

KEILAR: No board. No board that he's accountable to.

PEREZ: No board. Nobody else that needed to tell him. No shareholders, right? He can invent how much he's worth and nobody can tell him otherwise. So I think that's the big divide between the two. And it was very clear early on that that was going to be a huge problem in this relationship.

KEILAR: Shan, I also want to get your input on this, Laura.

I wonder if you're even surprised to hear this from Rex Tillerson because just when you think of the -- I mean a non-exhaustive list of the things that President Trump has done that the courts have said, hey, that's not legal. The things that have had to be revised or struck down. The Muslim ban, making it easier to fire federal employees, the crackdown on sanctuary cities, the asylum ban, certain deportations, migrant family detention policies. I mean this isn't -- it's not like we didn't know this happened, right?

WU: Yes, I mean, it's really striking, as Evan said, Tillerson was probably one of the early messengers to get shot. But when you think about it in context, I mean, I don't think of Rex Tillerson as the kind of guy I would go to for my counsel about what's legal and what's not legal for the president of the United States. He's the former COO of a very large multinational corporation. He has that sense of structure, listens to advice. But for him to have reacted to Trump by saying, Mr. President, you can't do that, it's illegal, really does beg the question of what kind of really odd request that Trump was making at that time.

KEILAR: And what do you think?

COATES: Well, you know what happens to yes men? They get prosecuted. And I think that's really the issue that Tillerson said, I'm not going to be a yes man to help you facilitate things that may be unlawful. And you're talking -- you're right, Shan, the idea that even if a layman, somebody who is maybe in the business side and very savvy in industry, for them to recognize and point out this is an illegal action to take really just makes you very, very curious, but it also is part of a pattern here. You've got people like Don McGahn who was --- is an attorney saying, Mr. President, I can't do certain things. You can't do x, y, and z. you've got other people, James Comey, talking about the issue as well. And the list goes on and on of people who have said, listen, what you would like to accomplish and what is actually lawful and ethical are very different worlds. And so you see people, when they're prosecuted or investigated for crimes, it's the people who are the yes men who, in spite of themselves, will do the wrong thing and have zero accountability.

[13:25:02] KEILAR: Presumably, Laura, the things they were discussing had to do with diplomatic step that the president would have wanted to do. I would imagine, right, interactions -- go on.

WU: One of the -- I mean one of the early things the president I know wanted to do was to reopen Guantanamo, put it back in business. Remember one of the things he talked about on the campaign trail. And then once he became president, it became president, it became a lot more complicated. He realized, and certainly because of Tillerson, because of Jeff Sessions and some of these other people, who, by the way, were not necessarily against the idea, is just that there's a way for you to do things legally. And it's a lot more complicated to accomplish some of the things that the president thought you could just do by fiat.

KEILAR: And the idea being too, Laura, that a lot of the thing that the president has wanted to do, there's a lot of work that goes into it and then an announcement comes. It's not an announcement and then, oh my goodness, everyone gets their ducks in a row afterwards. That's not generally how it works.

COATES: Right, you can't catch everyone flatfooted and expect people to be proactive and spring into action. It's very impossible to do.

But I do want to say, there may be a caveat here of the statements. We use the word unlawful. And perhaps he was saying that there was a bureaucratic and legislative approach to taking certain actions and that you cannot just fast track certain processes. And beaurocray is very annoying because all of the things and all the red tape. But it also helps to constrain people and recognize that there are different branches of government. The president has consistently tried to dismiss those separate branches of movement. So it may be that Tillerson was saying, listen, Mr. President, you can't navigate that and still adhere to those principals, as opposed to a more nefarious intent.

WU: And it could also be --

KEILAR: But, Shan, also, if you can speak to this, some moves that you make, and I think of, for instance, the Muslim ban, you're supposed to run the traps through government lawyers who can tell you yes, no, that's OK, can't do this, that's not going to work, we're going to get a legal challenge, OK, this is the narrow way that you can do this.

WU: Yes, and that goes back to Evan's point about the lack of discipline. There's no sense of discipline and process. They exist there so the president can have creative ideas if he wants and then he listens to the right people that give him guidance on that and then after a long vetting, thinking process, they make a proper announcement.

Since he doesn't do that, he's all over the board. Everyone is disagreeing. Each person disagree one by one gets knocked out. I mean, you know, maybe Kelly hasn't been fired because he can't find anybody to fire Kelly. Usually Kelly does the firing. KEILAR: Thank you, guys, so much, Shan, Laura and Evan. I really appreciate you guys sticking with me here.

We have more on our breaking news as we await two big court filings from Robert Mueller. We're learning the special counsel questioned Chief of Staff John Kelly about potential obstruction. I'll speak live with a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Plus, the president choosing former Fox News host and current State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert to replace Nikki Haley at the U.S. Already, though, some senators are calling her unqualified.