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Trump's Leading Chief of Staff Candidate Turns Down Job; Prosecutors Implicate Trump in Two Federal Crimes in 2016 Campaign; California Recovering and Reflecting After Deadly Wildfires; Aired 10- 10:30a ET

Aired December 10, 2018 - 10:00   ET


[10:00:18] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Jim Sciutto in New York. Poppy is off today.

This morning, the West Wing under pressure as we learn more about Robert Mueller's -- what Robert Mueller's team knows and frankly it's clear that he knows a lot. Mueller's latest court filings now revealing to us the following. New lies, new contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians, and for the first time since taking office, the president is now directly tied to an alleged federal crime.

And also, this morning, another White House shakeup is in the works. Chief of Staff John Kelly will soon be out. The big question right now is who is in? Can they find a candidate? The frontrunner for the gig giving it a hard pass this weekend.

We begin with Abby Phillip at the White House.

So a lot of names, Abby, circulated, but it doesn't appear that a lot of those people are actually interested in this job.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. We're hearing more from people who are taking their names off the list than people who are raising their hand to join this administration going into its third year.

President Trump got a bit of a surprise this weekend when his top contender took his name out of consideration, saying that he didn't want to take the job for a two-year commitment, which the president wanted. Now he is back to the drawing board. And we're hearing the names of three people who are being bandied about here in the West Wing.

One of them is Republican congressman from North Carolina, Mark Meadows, an ally of the president, Freedom Caucus chair, and someone who has a lot of ties and experience on Capitol Hill. But there's also Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, who has been in this administration since the beginning, but a source close to him says he's happy where he is.

There's also Mick Mulvaney, who the president has moved around in this administration many times, asking him to take on new roles. But this time, the White House chief of staff role is one that even Mick Mulvaney, according to a source close to him, is not willing to take.

One of the problems here, Jim, is that going into this third year, this could be one of the toughest years for the Trump administration. Not only is he preparing for his re-election campaign, but the Mueller probe is heating up. There is the specter of criminal investigation on multiple fronts. And clearly, there are a lot of people here in Washington who don't see the chief of staff role as the plum job that it once was.

Sources in the White House tell us that President Trump really didn't give a plan B much thought, thinking Ayers would take the role. Now he's going through this process of re-evaluating it. He has sent out a tweet this weekend indicating that interviews are going to be under way this week.

But, you know, our sources tell us this is very fluid and that frankly, President Trump really needs to go through this process of going through these names, evaluating the candidates, and determining who is actually willing to take this job in the Trump White House at such a perilous time -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Yes. To do interviews, you need candidates.

Abby Phillip, at the White House, thanks very much.

Now to Mueller and his latest court filings regarding both Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort Cohen. CNN's crime and justice reporter Shimon Prokupecz joins us now with the breakdown.

And, Shimon, you have revelations here on the Cohen side, I think really remarkable, Cohen implicating the president in a federal campaign finance crime, but also revelations on the Mueller side, maybe a little murkier. Just -- if you can highlight a couple big points, tell us what we learned.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Look, I think one thing we did learn from all this on Friday is that the president, Donald Trump, is really the central figure in all of these investigations. The ones here, over at the SDNY in New York and then really the Mueller investigation. And what we learned in the Cohen filings most significantly, as you said, is that investigators from the Department of Justice, from the U.S. attorney's office here in New York are essentially implicating the president in crimes.

And that they say that he directed -- he was part of and he directed Michael Cohen to make those hush payments, of course, to women who have alleged sexual affairs with him. We also learned from the Mueller filing that Russians had reached out to Michael Cohen in 2015, suggesting political synergy, and then we also learned obviously more information about some of the other contacts that Michael Cohen had had with Russians, including about what he lied all in an effort really also to protect the president.

It was about the Moscow project, when he lied to members of Congress about that deal. And then also, the other thing that we learned, a lot of information that came from the Manafort filings. And that all started because Manafort, of course, lied to the special counsel during proffer sessions, during meetings with him about his cooperation.

[10:05:01] And we learned one of the most significant things in that is that he had contact with people in the White House. This is what the special counsel's office says. Recent contacts with people in the White House. They're not specifying who, but they did say it was a senior administration official.

We also learned that Manafort lied about contacts with an intelligence operative, really setting the stage for Manafort to really face a lot of time in jail. We have also learned that Manafort people, his attorney and the U.S. attorney's office in D.C., they plan to be in court on Wednesday to discuss scheduling on whether or not -- how they're going to litigate his lies and when he's going to be in court again to face a possible sentence -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: And listen, we said it before. Those lies consistently about contacts with Russia by multiple people involved. Contacts both during the campaign and during the transition. Why all the lies?

Shimon Prokupecz, thanks very much.

Let's discuss now with CNN legal analyst Elie Honig and Shan Wu. Both two guys to have. Elie was with the Southern District, now very much involved in this case. Shan Wu represented Rick Gates in the broader Manafort, rather Mueller investigation.

Elie, if I could start with you. You made what is a good point here because you'll often hear from the president and others, well, listen, all these months of investigation, there's no smoking gun, you know, that wraps the whole case up.

You're an experienced prosecutor. Is there normally a smoking gun like that?

ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Almost never, Jim. What the president is trying to do here and quite transparently is raise the bar. And I think he wants to make it so that if there's no smoking gun, nothing bad can happen to me. That is not the way real life prosecutions work. It's not the way real life common sense works.

When we make cases, when prosecutors make cases, it's based on all of the evidence taken together, piece by piece. And that's what Mueller is doing here. And I don't think the timing of the tweet is coincidental. It never is with this president. Right?


HONIG: He tweets this just as the broader picture of his financial dealings with Russia, his indebtedness to Russia and his motive to deal with Russia is coming into sharper focus.

SCIUTTO: Well, remember all the way back to Friday morning where the president had that series of tweets attacking the investigation, and lo and behold, that afternoon. You know, often the tweets are connected to what is coming or what has just come.

Shan Wu, in terms of the president's reaction to all this, beyond this long-term campaign to undermine the credibility of the Mueller investigation, which is having some effect with his supporters, is a sort of general winging it mentality, and "The Washington Post" said this about the president's team. You'd expect a war room to be assembled here.

They said the following. "Rather than building a war room to manage the intersecting crises as past administrations have done, the Trump White House is understaffed, stuck in a bunker mentality and largely resigned to a plan to wing it."

Will that be enough to defend this president?

SHAN WU, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: No, it won't. And to Elie's point, I mean, he's trying misdirection, and that is the only plan they ever seemed to have had is misdirection and denial. On the smoking gun point, as Shimon was reporting, my view on it actually is that at least as to the campaign finance, that is a smoking gun. I mean, the Southern District is accusing the president by agreeing with Cohen. The court's accepting that guilty plea that the president did engage in that. And this White House is completely unprepared.

It has demonstrated time and time again they don't have the discipline. Maybe it's all coming from the top. The president doesn't listen, but they have no structure, they have no discipline. They couldn't possibly run a war room. I mean, their entire operation is just constantly at war. They're under siege 24/7. There's no displace whatsoever.

I mean, if you look at the number of people who have been interviewed by the special counsel's office, that tells you something. It tells you they have no control over who becomes a witness. The president creates new witnesses against himself every single day. They have no idea who's going to be a witness.

SCIUTTO: Elie, let's get at this crime that Shan referenced there, which is that by paying off these women who alleged affairs with the president, Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, during a campaign, you are in effect -- you're violating campaign finance laws because you're using money and clearly, and this is a point I don't think we've emphasized enough, hiding those because disclosure is a big portion and there's a deliberate effort Michael Cohen says to hide these payments.

In layman's terms, explain why that's a crime.

HONIG: Right. There's two pieces of it that are a crime. One, the donations are over the legal limit. $150,000 and $130,000, way over the legal limit.

SCIUTTO: The limit is $2,700.

HONIG: Right. For an individual. And two, they're not disclosed. You have to disclose every contribution you get. So it's sort of cheating in the campaign. And one important point, I've heard other people, commentators say, well, is it going to be enough to impeach? It's not really -- it's not really big enough. But the thing to remember is this is not some crime the president committed in his separate private life. Because if the proof is there and if he committed this crime, it went to the very process that resulted in him taking the White House.


HONIG: And the Southern District takes pains to stress that in their sentencing memo. They say he corrupted the electoral process.

[10:10:02] SCIUTTO: Yes. It was an interesting sentencing memo because it wasn't all legalese. I mean, it was an impassioned argument that the Southern District of New York made. Keep in mind, run by a Trump appointee. Remind people that. The president will try to dismiss them as Democrats, et cetera. It's run by a Trump appointee.

You will hear this argument, Shan Wu that well, campaign finance, President Obama, his campaign was alleged to have done something similar. They got away with a fine. That in reality, a prosecutor would never really pursue something like this. Even if technically it's against the letter of the law. Respond to that argument.

WU: That's simply untrue. Prosecutors pursue campaign finance crimes all the time. Sometimes it's a lower amount, relatively minor infraction, taken care of by a fine. In a more serious case, you look at the John Edwards trial. I mean, it went to trial charged as a felony. And this is a very serious matter. I mean, this was a big cover-up. It happened in a way which clearly was meant to influence the election. So were he not a sitting president, I mean, I'm quite confident they would pursue this.

And there's enough legally here as we've heard from other commentators, I mean, they could certainly impeach on this. It's really a political question for the House to decide if it's worth, you know, shooting that amount of ammunition at this or not. And I think they'll probably have to wait and see what else is coming forward. And there's so much else as you mentioned that Cohen has given him. I mean, the whole issue with the Moscow project sounds like a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violation to me.


WU: It sounds like a bribe.

SCIUTTO: That's been referenced before as a possible line.

Elie, final question to you. Just because you have the Southern District stuff, Michael Cohen, campaign finance, and you have the other. And again, it's Mueller so it's more of a black box. But what is clear, Russians reached out multiple times to the Trump campaign, going back to 2015. Never once was that outreach rebuffed by Trump, and never was it reported to the FBI.

Do folks have a legal obligation to report that kind of offer from a foreign adversary or is it just an ethical obligation?

HONIG: It's an ethical and prudential obligation. But the question I have is, not only were there so many contacts with people close to Trump, they all lied about it to Congress.


HONIG: To the FBI, to the public over and over, and that's so telling. People don't lie just for fun or for no reason. People lie because they're hiding something, they're protecting something.

SCIUTTO: And keep in mind, Michael Flynn lied about contacts during the transition, right? Not just during the campaign, during the transition, after the president was already elected, and of course Jeff Sessions had to later amend his testimony, as others did.

Shan Wu, Elie Honig, I know we're going to keep up this conversation because these developments are going to keep coming.

Still to come in this hour, John Kelly's days are now numbered. We know that, and so are apparently the list of candidates to replace him. The question now is who if anyone wants this job?

Plus, a shrug shoulders strategy from the White House as the president plays down his legal troubles, anxiety is reportedly building inside the GOP. I'll speak with the former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci.

And in other news, crews are starting to clear out the debris and rubble from California's deadliest fire. This as stories of sacrifice and survival are now emerging. We're going to be live there with more.


[10:17:31] SCIUTTO: This just in to CNN. Another potential contender for White House chief of staff rushing to take his name off the list. This time, North Carolina Republican Congressman Mark Meadows says, quote, "absolutely not" to the position. This just days after the president said that Chief of Staff John Kelly is on his way out, and a man widely expected to replace Kelly, Vice President Mike Pence's chief of staff, Nick Ayers, he turned it down as well.

Joining me now to discuss, CNN political analyst and Washington bureau chief for the "Daily Beast," Jackie Kucinich, and CNN senior political analyst John Avlon.

So, John and Jackie, I'll get your thoughts on this, too. Doesn't seem like anybody wants this job.

JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I know. You're getting that impression, huh? Look, normally, this is the reputation maker. Getting chief of staff. This seems to be seen as a reputation breaker. People are worried they're going to come out of this diminished, their reputation destroyed, possibly tied up in legal challenges. And you just keep seeing signs of this. It's stunning that he seems to have a hard time filling a job that normally people are breaking down the doors to get.


AVLON: But it's a sign of the state of Trumplandia.

SCIUTTO: Jackie, I mean, part of this seems to be it's a difficult job because this president runs, as Ryan Costello said to me just a few minutes ago, a unique White House, but how much are legal concerns part of this as well? Because you'd have to be aware you'd be stepping into a job, an administration that is facing investigations.


SCIUTTO: And bringing some of the president's aides into the spotlight in those investigations as well.

KUCINICH: Right. It's not just the job which, you know, make no mistake, is currently one of the worst jobs in Washington to have. It's when this person would be a part of this job. You think the Mueller report is going to drop, should this person stay on for the next two years. You're also going to be facing an adversarial Congress, much more so than the last two chiefs of staff had.

So this person is going to have -- will have to come in and likely have to have their own counsel on retainer. So there's that, you know, financial aspect to this as well. So for sure, and also, you are going to be a -- you know, unpopular person from the get-go because one of the parts of this job, pretty much for every president is you're a gate keeper. But with this president, that person, the people that they're keeping out, you know, are none too happy and will likely be stabbing you from the outside, from the very beginning.

And you're going to be the enforcer. This president, despite his previous reality TV show, doesn't like to fire people. So whoever is the next chief of staff is the one who is going to have to be making those calls and telling someone to watch their Twitter feed.


[10:20:05] KUCINICH: So there's a lot that is not to like about this position.

SCIUTTO: So, John Avlon, I remember we had this discussion after the president lost a series of communications directors. The question, does the president actually need a communications director because he's his own director of communications. I mean, he does have one now, but you know what I'm saying, and same on chief of staff. He's making his personnel decisions. You know, he'll often deliver these pronouncements via tweet, et cetera. I mean, can you make that argument?

AVLON: I think he's his own chief of staff.


AVLON: But, look, I think perhaps not an accident. One of President Trump's favorite songs he closed rallies with, Rolling Stone's "You Can't Always Get What You Want." Next line to that, but sometimes you get what you need. He may not want a chief of staff, but he needs a chief of staff. More than most presidents.

This is a relatively new position as for the presidency. It didn't get officially named and considered normal until Harry Truman, but we have never seen a president with this kind of turnover. He'll have three in the first two years of his administration.

The president is so impulsive, he is so undisciplined, that he desperately needs somebody who can try to keep the administration in line. The problem is, the president's instincts are going to mean he's at loggerheads with that guy from jump. And you need a really specific set of qualifications that are tough to come by because individual number one lives in a Trump centric universe.

SCIUTTO: Jackie, I want to ask you this question because of course this decision comes up as you have significant developments in the two big investigations now facing this president, the Mueller special counsel investigation and the ongoing investigation via the Southern District of New York. Here, Cohen, Manafort, et cetera.

Is there a sense -- you cover this administration, you cover Washington. Do you get a sense from the people close to the president that they sense a tightening of the noose as it were, the walls coming in, that there's something significant here? Because we've had moments like this before. President has kind of plowed on, he keeps the support of his base. Is there something different in the way they are seeing these developments now?

KUCINICH: I mean, I think to work in this White House is to be nervous, right, because there always seems to be something hanging over their heads. But I don't think we should -- I mean, aside from the president, we've seen the president behave like this before. When he's agitated about this, he tweets about it incessantly. But then he -- you know, something else happens and he plows ahead. And I think until something happens that changes the course of that, it will be a lot of rinse repeating and hand-wringing behind the scenes.

SCIUTTO: Imagine that. Hand-wringing.

Jackie Kucinich, John Avlon, sounds like just a normal course of events now. Thanks to both of you.

According to "The Washington Post," Trump administration allies say that the White House is now reacting to the Russia investigation with a, quote, "bunker mentality." Next, what to expect from the president from former White House staffer, chief of communications Anthony Scaramucci.


[10:27:44] SCIUTTO: The Trump administration is refusing to endorse an international report on the dangers of climate change. Joining the likes of Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. The administration's decision comes just weeks after critics say the White House tried to bury an alarming climate change report by releasing it on Black Friday.

CNN's Bill Weir joins me now from Paradise, California, a town nearly destroyed by wildfires last month.

And, Bill, a lot of the coverage of this fire noted that climate change, it appears, based on the science, had an effect here. Pushing back when the rains come, lengthening the dry season. As you're standing there on the ground there, seeing the effects of this, tell us what you see. Tell us what you learned from it.

BILL WEIR, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, you can read, yes, the National Climate Assessment, you know, even says that since the mid-'80s, half of the western wildfires that have burned are the result of manmade global warming. Hotter atmosphere means more intense droughts, more violent rainstorms. More -- less frequent and dependable snow packs. And then what you have is after this unbelievable devastating fire, the Camp Fire, looks like this, where structures didn't just get singed. They burned down literally to the dirt.

So now as people begin sifting through the ashes, they believe that this one disaster will generate eight million tons of debris, four times more than last year's record fires there. You've got first responders and scientists saying it's time to connect the dots between the predictions that are coming true and the devastation we're seeing here. And getting ready for a hotter, more flammable future.


WEIR (voice-over): A month ago, it was Paradise. But after the deadliest American wildfire in 100 years, it is now mostly ash and rubble and melted metal. With 85 souls lost and thousands homeless.

This Camp Fire is the costliest in California history. But if not for the pure heroics of helpers both in and out of uniform, the death toll could have been so much worse. Like Butte County Sheriff's Deputy Palmer Lee, who activated his body camera.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's not good.

WEIR: Not sure he'd even survive.