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White House Chief of Staff Search Continues; Legal Problems Closing in on Trump?. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired December 10, 2018 - 16:30   ET



KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: What is complicating this search is that it essentially got started 24 hours ago, because President Trump did not think Nick Ayers was going to decline this job, and there was no backup.

Now old names are being floated. And, essentially, it is a free-for- all in Washington for who is going to be the next chief of staff.


COLLINS (voice-over): President Trump scrambling tonight, as the hasty search for his next chief of staff continues, with no clear replacement in sight.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: John Kelly will be leaving at the end of the year.

COLLINS: Who will replace John Kelly is now an open question after the top contender, Vice President Mike Pence's chief of staff, Nick Ayers, turned the president down because they couldn't agree on timing. Trump wanted a two-year commitment, but Ayers only wanted to run the West Wing on a temporary basis.

TRUMP: It might be on an interim basis. I will be announcing that over the next day or two.

COLLINS: Trump writing on Twitter that he's in the process of interviewing some really great people and will make a decision soon, but denying he was close to making a deal with Ayers, even though sources say they had already drafted a statement announcing his hiring before the negotiations fell apart.

Despite having no obvious candidate in mind, Trump already has a to-do list for his next chief of staff, including shifting the West Wing's priorities away from legislation and policy to politics, according to sources who added that the president wanted Ayers to conduct a full review of West Wing operations, including staffing, because he's growing increasingly anxious about his political future, telling aides he needs all the help he can get before January, when newly empowered House Democrats take over.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Are you at all concerned about what happens next with a White House without John Kelly?

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: Well, it depends who they put in as a replacement.

COLLINS: The job hunt now under way, and familiar names are resurfacing, including Congressman Mark Meadows, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

But not all of those being floated sound like they're up to the daunting task.

QUESTION: Is that a job you want?

ROBERT LIGHTHIZER, U.S. TRADE REPRESENTATIVE: The president has given me what is a very difficult job. I'm very, very happy doing it.

COLLINS: As Trump searches for his third chief of staff in under two years, his critics are reminding him of this tweet from 2012, when he criticized President Barack Obama for having three chiefs of staff in less than three years.


COLLINS: Now, Jake, John Kelly attended a holiday party here at the White House last night. He is at work today, but there are only three weeks left for President Trump to find a replacement for him, and White House aides are very aware that time is ticking -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Kaitlan Collins, thanks so much.

Now, since the Kelly news dropped, we now have sources saying that former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is in the running to replace Kelly. Republican Congressman Mark Meadows said publicly that serving as chief of staff would be an incredible honor, but a source told CNN that he is telling associates he's -- quote -- "absolutely not interested."

Steve Mnuchin says he can best serve in his current role as treasury secretary, according to a source. This is not the first time Mick Mulvaney's name has come up. A source told CNN the White House budget director is not interested, happy where he is.

It seems that you can't sell a list of insiders on this job.

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, this is a job, to state the obvious, that typically people really want this job. It is a resume-maker, of course.

And this is now a time where leaving the White House on a high-profile position as a Cabinet member, as a senior White House official, is actually diminishing of your role, diminishing of your effectiveness.

I was talking to a former colleague earlier today about this, who actually made an interesting point, which is it's actually tough for Trump, because people thought that Nick Ayers was going to be the guy for months since we have been talking about Kelly's departure.

TAPPER: The vice president's chief of staff.

PSAKI: Yes, Nick Ayers, exactly, the vice president's chief of staff. That was assumed, and then all of a sudden dropped. And you never want -- as chaotic as this White House is, this is such an important role, that you're projecting chaos, and maybe it wasn't even intentionally that way.

So we don't know the back story. Maybe David does.


TAPPER: Well, David, I want to hear the back story.

But I know you don't think that the names we put up of Meadows and Mulvaney and Mnuchin are likely. But I want to ask about these wild card names.


TAPPER: MSNBC reports that acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker is in the running, along with New York Yankees president Randy Levine.

And FOX News' Brian Kilmeade suggested former Trump campaign -- deputy campaign manager David Bossie should take the spot.

Are those possible actual contenders?

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, I think they're all actually contenders.

I think you have to question. Mick Mulvaney was a contender for a really long time and query whether he took his name out because he thought, as Jen points out, that Nick Ayers had his name locked up and just wanted to take his name out of the running.

I think the quite opposite. I don't think the president is scrambling. I think the president does have some pretty solid choices. I do think Matt Whitaker is a candidate. I think that Dave Bossie is a candidate. I think Chris Christie is a candidate.

I think there are some really good folks out there. The president has to pick. It is a job that requires -- you have to have chemistry with the president. And that's something that you actually -- you know, as Jen knows, right, President Obama had five different chiefs of staff, and one of the big jobs is you have to have policy chops and you have to have Hill smarts and political smarts.


And then you have to get along with your boss.

PSAKI: But I think, David, this is unique in that any chief of staff who is being considered or potential chief of staff is looking at the scenario. And there's the internal challenge of Donald Trump giving everyone a honeymoon, where he likes them for about two months, and then cuts them off at the knees, as he's done for the last two.

And then externally you have this closing circle around the Russia investigation around Trump's orbit. So you're walking into this scenario that could be completely chaotic.



AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I do think David Bossie would be a good pick. He's very well-known among the conservative movement. He fought the Supreme Court case Citizens United.

URBAN: Worked on the Hill for a long time.

CARPENTER: Won there. So, he's well-liked.


CARPENTER: But I have got to say, just seeing Chris Christie's name in contention, I don't think they will actually go with it.

It's got to be total vindication for Chris Christie, because, as you remember, he headed up the transition team. He has said many times in public forums, if Trump had taken his advice, especially about Michael Flynn, he could have prevented many of the problems in that White House.

And he, it's been widely reported, butted heads with Jared Kushner about many of the hirings.


TAPPER: He put Jared Kushner's dad in jail.

CARPENTER: Right. They have a long, deep history. But I do think Chris Christie would be happy to see his name in the headlines today.


TAPPER: The Jared Kushner/Ivanka Trump thing is interesting, because, ultimately, it seems as though, whether it's Priebus or John Kelly, as well not to mention plenty of others who have left the White House, if you are not on Jared and Ivanka's good side, then you are on the outside.

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: It's so true. They are winning the game, right, of who is controlling the White House, and it certainly seems to be Jared and Ivanka.


URBAN: Here's a news flash. The president is not going to fire his daughter.

TAPPER: Right.


JEAN-PIERRE: I actually think this is the easiest guessing game in town. Who is going to be the president's new chief of staff? It's going to be Donald Trump.

Yes, the person, whoever he picks, they're going to get a nice corner office, they're going to get the title, but he is his own chief of staff. He makes those decisions. All we have to do is ask John Kelly and Reince Priebus. It is going to be Donald Trump who wants to have that role and no one is going to be able to manage him.


URBAN: He's a communicator in chief, just like he's communications director.


TAPPER: But people talked to you about that job before, David, and you have not taken it. It's a...


URBAN: Nobody has talked to me seriously about it.


CARPENTER: He likes talking with me here more.


URBAN: I would rather be in a fight with Jen every day.

TAPPER: It is a challenging job.

And, ultimately, you have to be able to protect the president from his own worst impulses. You had a statement from Speaker Paul Ryan saying that John Kelly did do that, which makes -- and brought a sense of order to the White House, which does make one wonder, what would the last year-and-a-half have looked like without John Kelly?

PSAKI: It certainly does. I don't think we should give John Kelly too much credit, because he did go kind of with Donald Trump in some of the worst instinct moments we have seen over the last year-and-a- half of his tenure.

But it is a role that is both serving the president and serving the staff. And what is difficult about this scenario right now is, as you said, he is his own chief of staff, he's his own chief communicator. It is hard to manage him, and it's hard to manage the staff if you can't manage the president. CARPENTER: But the reason they wanted to go with Nick Ayers is that

they wanted somebody with political skill. Now that he's taken himself out of the running, I think that puts David Bossie ahead, because David Bossie is a hard-nosed partisan that is not afraid of fighting.

And I think in this environment, with impeachment on the table, that's going to be very appealing.


TAPPER: I just want to show this one thing, because it is, as we say, there's a tweet for it.

As a civilian in 2012, Trump knocked Obama on this issue. He tweeted: "Three chief of staffs" -- that should be chiefs of staff. But OK, moving on.

"Three chief of staffs in less than three years of being president, part of the reason why President Barack Obama can't manage to pass his agenda."

Obviously, we're now heading into the third year of the Trump presidency, and we're about to have a third chief of staff, two years. So, he actually beat Obama's record there.


URBAN: Obama had five.


TAPPER: After eight years, though.

JEAN-PIERRE: But after eight years, exactly.

Look, Donald Trump, everything that he tweets is not true. And, you know, there is always a tweet for everything. It's kind of ridiculous.

PSAKI: And it's just worth mentioning that Rahm Emanuel left to run for mayor of Chicago. Jack Lew left to become secretary of treasury.

It's not like they were just pushed out and they were a disaster when they were leaving. So it's a little bit different. We had one chief of staff for the last four years. But it's a hard job. It's arguably a much harder now than it has probably ever been.

TAPPER: I'm hearing from the two Republicans at the table, though, you guys sound very bullish on Dave Bossie, I have to say.

URBAN: Listen, I like Dave Bossie. I like Matt Whitaker. There are a lot of folks.

Chris Christie. As everyone says, everyone is projecting, there is this chaos, the president has no one to choose from. He has some really talented folks to choose from.

TAPPER: Can any of them tell President Trump, you really shouldn't do that, that's going to be bad for you, put down the phone, stop tweeting?


URBAN: Absolutely.


TAPPER: Which? Who?

URBAN: All three of those folks, Chris Christie, Whitaker, Bossie.


JEAN-PIERRE: You can't manage the guy.


TAPPER: That's what I'm talking about.



URBAN: They all three have the chops. They're serious folks. The president listens to them. They have gravitas.

But the president is going to make -- the president makes the decision ultimately. President Obama made the decisions based on what his staff -- Clinton, Bush. They all -- he's the decider-in-chief.


CARPENTER: I just hope whoever he chooses is independently wealthy to afford the legal bills that almost certainly will ensue.

TAPPER: All right, we're going to take a very quick break.

When we come back, she cozied up to the NRA and dated a Republican political operative. Now the accused Russian spy could be released from that Virginia jail. We will explain why.

Stay with us.


TAPPER: We're back with our politics lead.

And the former director of the FBI suggesting that President Trump's tweets might constitute a crime, James Comey telling a crowd at New York City's 92nd Street Y last night that the President's repeated attacks on potential witnesses in the Russian investigation could potentially amount to witness tampering. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES COMEY, FORMER DIRECTOR, FBI: If I were passing your case in the Southern District of New York and a prominent person started attacking my witnesses, I'd want to know what's going on there and is that crossed the line from free speech which we have to keep protected into something else.


TAPPER: Let's talk about it all with our panel. Amanda, what do you think, free speech or something else?

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Here's what I'm confused about. I don't know why he is so openly talking about obstruction cases because he's -- he said as much, a witness in an obstruction case. It's one thing to write the book, go in the book tour, but he's just out there mixing it up yeah I think too much.


CARPENTER: He was on the Hill earlier this week being grilled by Republicans so I wonder if he scheduled --

TAPPER: Well, he subpoenaed on that. He had to.

CARPENTER: Well, I know, but I wonder if he scheduled that appearance to try to back -- cleanup if he thought he did, I just -- I don't understand why he's talking so much.

PIERRE: Yes, I totally agree.

TAPPER: I think he's scheduled before that.

PIERRE: I think Jim Comey being political is just really bizarre right now. He's probably going to be a key witness in this investigation.

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Wait a minute. Hold on a second. That would be a political bizarre now? He's been political --

TAPPER: He's calling for the Democrats to won. He wants Democrats to win.

PIERRE: I agree. I agree. I want Democrats to in too. I think he needs to stay behind the scenes. He does not need to be in front of a camera right now.

URBAN: Listen. Jim Comey has managed to alienate the entire political spectrum, all right. So the Democrats, these Democrats --

CARPENTER: The thing is he's right about saying it would be better for Trump to be removed politically.

URBAN: Absolutely. CARPENTER: He has a point. I'm just not sure why he's openly making it.

TAPPER: So here's President Trump's reaction to Comey's Friday testimony on Capitol Hill. "Leaking James Comey must have set a record for who lied the most to Congress in one day. His Friday testimony was so untruthful. This whole deal is a rigged fraud headed up by dishonest people who would do anything so that I could not become president. They are now exposed."

Of course, that that would be a criminal offense lying to Congress. I think, actually, Comey's -- the bigger issue I heard from Republicans on Capitol Hill was that he said I do not recall or I don't remember dozens and dozens of times.

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: And he also had a lawyer from the government saying he couldn't answer certain things.

TAPPER: An FBI lawyer, yes.

PSAKI: Which was frustrating to Republicans there. I mean, that tweet was like a word salad of Trump's favorite words. I don't even know what it meant. But what's interesting about what Comey has alluded to, though I agree, I think we could all agree he needs to stop being out there, is whether or not tweets and Trump's and Twitter threats are constitute obstruction of justice. Now, I'm not a lawyer but that's an interesting question.

And what's also interesting about it is even though he's been threatening potential witnesses, it's not working. They're not listening to him. So he's maybe getting himself into legal trouble, I don't know, and he's not effectively preventing people from testifying.

CARPENTER: I'm not a subject of Trump's tweets, I just think it's worth noting that Trump uses his Twitter account to go after Cohen, to praise Manafort. You know who he's always silent on, Mike Flynn. He doesn't say a word about Michael Flynn.

TAPPER: I think there have been a couple tweets but generally praising Michael Flynn.

PIERRE: Praising anything. Look what they're doing to this guy and stuff like that.

CARPENTER: No, he hasn't. I mean, Michael Flynn has cooperated, singing like a canary to prosecutors and Trump doesn't have a word to say about it.

PIERRE: That's true.

CARPENTER: That's striking to me.

PSAKI: That's true. Trump is sending messages through Twitter.

TAPPER: Their official statements. I mean, the White House has said that his tweets are official Presidential Statements.

PIERRE: Right. They have said that from the beginning. That's right.

PSAKI: And there's no precedent for it. That's what's interesting.

URBAN: It is unprecedented.

TAPPER: So there's another important Russia development. Accused Russian spy Maria Butina, rhymes with Putin-ah may have reached a plea deal with the Justice Department. She's accused of infiltrating Republican organizations and the NRA during the 2016 election to advocate for Russian interest. We should know she was charged by federal prosecutors in D.C. not by the Special Counsel. But it sure looks like this is more evidence. It doesn't necessarily mean President Trump knew anything or whatever but a lot of evidence that the Russians were involved in the 2016 election. Obviously, the NRA is a powerhouse.

CARPENTER: Yes. And what's striking about Maria Butina is that she is the first one to get Trump to go on record in a public forum about sanctions. She showed up at a conference in Las Vegas for gun rights and asked him in an open forum where do you stand in this issue and then he said I don't think they're helpful so she clearly was effective. But the larger world of how the Russians infiltrated these conservative organizations has not been told yet. And the NRA curiously, they had a pretty big loss this year. They've been laying off a lot of people in their media arm. I want to hear more about that story.

TAPPER: It's interesting Congressman Ted Lieu who's on this House Judiciary Committee tweeted this. Dear NRA, now I know why you refused to answer the letter I wrote with other members of Congress in March about Russian efforts to influence you. Will the Maria Butina plea expose what you are hiding in your clenched fists. Oh, and I have three words for you, January is coming. Obviously, a reference to Democrats taking over the House. But look, I mean it's not that unusual for people to ignore letters from the minority in the House, but they're -- the NRA is going to have to answer some questions come January.

PIERRE: Yes. They've been operating in secret for a very long time. And you know, I want to hear more, absolutely, but I feel like good, good for them. It's almost like I want to say to them thoughts and prayers.

[16:50:03] TAPPER: Good for House --

PIERRE: No, not to the NRA. I'm like thoughts and prayers to you. Yes. I think that it's about time. Yes.

CARPENTER: I never felt good for the NRA in my life.

PIERRE: Exactly.

PSAKI: But you know, look. I think this is interesting because they've been so secretive and they have been allowed to operate and fund -- they basically gave Donald Trump millions and millions of dollars, tens of millions. They're going to have to come and answer questions when the House is -- when the Democrats took control of the House.

CARPENTER: Well, they have the right to -- they didn't violate any laws by operating in secret, by having donors that aren't disclosed to the public, but it is market that they had a dramatic change in this election and how they started messaging and not focusing so much on gun safety and just defeating Democrats.

URBAN: But again, I just -- Martina Butina had very little to do with that.

TAPPER: OK. Everyone, thank you so much. Trump and Putin versus Earth. The frightening report that they chose to dismiss coming up next.


[16:55:00] TAPPER: In our "WORLD LEAD," Saudi Arabia and Russia are not two countries that any self-respecting western nation typically wants to find itself categorized with, but President Trump is siding with them again, this time joining with those regimes to refused to welcome a global climate change report. The three nations along with Kuwait rejecting to accept the conclusion of the landmark U.N. climate change report which one said we all will see the devastating effects of climate change by 2030.

At last governments around the world take immediate action. This all playing out on an international stage in Poland at a U.N. climate change conference. Conference to which the Trump administration decided to not send any senior officials. The U.S.'s stance is not a complete surprise since the President told reporters last month that he didn't believe the national report from his own administration which also warned about the dire consequences if the U.S. continues to ignore climate change.

Today the American Meteorological Society released a new report revealing extreme weather events such as well last year's hurricane Harvey and wildfires were either directly linked to or directly caused by climate change. And speaking of Saudi Arabia, in the wake of the murder of Washington post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi regime, the president's son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner is coming under even more intense scrutiny for his close for close ties to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.

The news is especially concerning to the White House after the New York Times reported that Kushner advised the Crown Prince on how to weather the storm in the aftermath of Khashoggi's murder, who, according to the CIA, the Crown Prince ordered the journalist's murder.

CNN's Tom Foreman joins me. Now, Tom, Kushner bought the Crown Prince's pitch that he was a reformer and could help President Trump accomplish a lot in the Middle East. And now Kushner is giving advice on how he can deal with the blowback for murdering a journalist?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and frankly a lot of political analysts are just amazed at the fact he seems to be stepping closer to a political problem, not further away.


FOREMAN: In the weeks after the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi agents, presidential son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, had repeated conversations with Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman, or MBS, about how to weather the storm of international outrage. This according to the New York Times's Saudi source. Furthermore, the Times said, the alleged talks happened one-on-one, contrary to the normal protocol of including a National Security Council staffer. It was already known that Kushner with National Security Adviser John Bolton, had talked to the Crown Prince once.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What kind of advice did you give MBS in this whole situation?

JARED KUSHNER, SENIOR ADVISOR, WHITE HOUSE: Just to be transparent, to be fully transparent. The world is watching. This is a very, very serious accusation and a very serious situation.

FOREMAN: Kushner's relations with the Crown Prince have been a cornerstone of the administration's ties to Saudi Arabia with international affairs analysts suggesting the two young men were cultivating each other as critical allies in a volatile region.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't really gave the order but he certainly knew about it.

FOREMAN: But a gathering storm of lawmakers is now demanding accountability from MBS and perhaps Kushner, too.

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), MARYLAND: The fact that he thought he could get away with it is in part due to the fact that he was getting a green light from Washington for reckless actions.

FOREMAN: And more details are emerging about the gruesome death and dismemberment. The latest, CNN has heard from a source who has claimed to have read the transcript of an audio recording from the Saudi consulate in Turkey where it happened. He describes the journalist being confronted by someone who says, you are coming back.

Khashoggi replies, you can't do that. People are waiting outside. Then the source says, amid scuffling, Khashoggi says repeatedly, I can't breathe. He screams, he gasps, the noises of a saw and cutting are heard. Then a phone call. A voice saying, the thing is done. It's done.


FOREMAN: Initially claiming no involvement, the Saudis later admitted a team of rogue operatives had murdered Khashoggi inside the consulate. The CIA assessed in November that the Crown Prince had personally ordered the killing of the journalist. The Saudi government has denied Bin Salman's involvement, but Jake, for this White House and for Jared Kushner, time is not making this better, it's only making it worse.

TAPPER: Although the President does seem to have made the calculation, Tom, that ultimately the public won't care all that much, and they will ultimately see it the way he sees it, which is the alliance with Saudi Arabia is more important. That might be a cynical view, but --

FOREMAN: That right. That's certainly possible with the public but it may not fly as well with the Congress, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Tom Foreman, thank you so much. I appreciate it. You can follow me on Facebook and Twitter @JAKETAPPER. You can tweet the show @THELEADCNN.