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William Barr, Trump's Pick for A.G., Wrote a Memo Critical of the Mueller Probe; Trump Orders U.S. Withdrawal from Syria; Weinstein Case Moves Forward. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired December 20, 2018 - 09:30   ET


LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Barr was a private citizen at the time, and it raises the question of whether he was acting as some sort of informal adviser on the Russia investigation, of course, weighing in on such a sensitive issue as obstruction that is obviously still under investigation by the special counsel, who, if he's confirmed, Barr will supervise him.

So his opinions on this are obviously, a very serious matter, and Democrats are sure to pounce on this, Jim, as they were already concerned about some of the things that Barr had said publicly about the Mueller investigation, calling it 'asinine' to the Hill in June of 2017.

[09:30:29] And so, of course, this is going to only raise what was already going to be a contentious confirmation battle into something far uglier, Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT/ANCHOR: Does it sway the minds of Republicans in the Senate? Thanks very much. CNN legal commentator, former Trump White House lawyer James Schultz joins us now to discuss. James, thanks for taking the time this morning.


SCIUTTO: So let me ask you this. William Barr wrote a memo that said that Mueller's obstruction probe was asinine. Should Barr's public dismissal of what is an ongoing investigation, which she will oversee, will that disqualify him as A.G.?

SCHULTZ: Well, let's start out by saying that William Barr is one of the most respected legal minds in Washington, D.C., and around the country. He's a former attorney general. He's got tremendous respect on both sides of the aisle and in the legal community.

The fact that he makes -- sends a letter to the Department of Justice criticizing the -- the Mueller investigation, the underpinnings of it and the fact that he shared that with others, is no different than an op-ed or anything else. It's really akin to an op-ed.

And it's -- and Rosenstein has already said that it had no bearing on the case whatsoever. So now we have to talk about the political implications of it. Is this going to be something that's going to cause him trouble during the confirmation hearings? Certainly, people are going to ask that question.

But his legal analysis, quite frankly, is -- is one that's very insightful. At the time, he doesn't -- you know, the time he offered it, he was not -- he did not have all the facts. And I think that's something that Rosenstein was able to point out saying, "Look, based upon -- he did this all based upon facts that are in the public domain." There are certain facts, obviously, that are outside the public domain, that none of us have seen as of yet.

So as attorney general, he's going to go in, as any good lawyer will, ascertain the facts, apply the facts to law and make judgements.

SCIUTTO: let me ask you this. Let's imagine a fictional world where a Democratic administration or Democratic president nominates Eric Holder, Loretta Lynch, to oversee an investigation in which that Democratic president is involved and a Lynch or a Holder or a fictional Democratic A.G. nominee called that investigation asinine. What would your position be then?

SCHULTZ: My position would be exactly the same, right? Is that -- is it presumably the lawyers that would be appointed to be attorney general are well-qualified, smart legal minds that apply the facts and the law and follow the rule of law.

The fact that Barr was out there making opinions on public related facts, applying the law to that, is well within his right as an American citizen. And he can formulate those opinions. That opinion may change once he gets into the position and sees all the facts. But the facts --

SCIUTTO: Isn't it predictable that --

SCHULTZ: He's going to make those judgments accordingly.

SCIUTTO: Could it be conceivable to you that part of the reason the president chose -- chose Barr as his nominee is that he criticized the investigation? After all, the acting A.G. that he chose, Matthew Whitaker, is still serving as acting A.G. He also publicly criticized the investigation before the president chose him.

That's quite a coincidence that the two replacements for Sessions had the president criticized for two years publicly about his handling of the Russia investigation had both, prior to those selections, publicly criticized that investigation. Is that just a coincidence?

SCHULTZ: You will be hard pressed to find a lawyer in Washington, D.C. or anywhere around the country that's not going to -- that's going to say that Bill Barr is not qualified for the position.

SCIUTTO: I didn't ask you whether he was qualified. I asked you whether his position undermining the investigation, criticizing it is reasonably part of the president's justification, rationale?

SCHULTZ: I don't know what the president's rationale was for choosing him, but I'll tell you this. He made a good choice in Bill Barr, because he's a good lawyer. I can't get into the president's mind as to why he made the choice

that he did. But I'll tell you one of the reasons must have been because of the reputation he had in serving prior presidents.

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you this, because Barr also said that Mueller should not be able -- and I'm quoting here -- to demand that the president submit to an interrogation about alleged obstruction.

As you know, the president multiple times in public said that he would be happy to sit down with the special counsel. That has now changed. Of course, his lawyers threw up roadblocks to that. Why would the president say repeatedly he's willing to do it and now say no?

SCHULTZ: Well, he must be getting good advice from his lawyers. I've said on this network numerous times now that no -- no lawyer worth a salt would recommend that the president of the United States sit down at this point in time in this investigation and answer questions. They've got a lot of information. They've interviewed numerous, numerous individuals.

You know, it seems as if they have enough information to make their judgments going forward as to -- as to what the president's conduct was. And they did ask him questions. They were written questions and responded.

[09:35:09] It remains to be seen whether they're going to ask for him to sit down. And if they ask for him to sit down and talk with the special prosecutor, or if they threaten to haul him into a grand jury for testimony, we're going to run into a similar situation as they had in the Clinton years.

And there's -- you know, there's going to be a negotiation back and forth. But it could end up going to court --

SCIUTTO: Clinton did sit down. Bill Clinton did.

SCHULTZ: -- to make up those judgments. Because it's not settled law.

SCIUTTO: He did sit down and answer those questions. Would you have -- would you have similarly defended Clinton?

SCHULTZ: He did sit down and have a lengthy negotiation and after saying no. And after originally saying no, we're not going to --

SCIUTTO: But he did in the end.

SCHULTZ: Then they sat down -- OK. In the end.

SCIUTTO: Should the president in the end say yes, say yes to sit down and answering these questions rather than a take-home test?

SCHULTZ: That's going to be a judgment that's going to be a judgment that the lawyers and president make among themselves. Like I said before, I don't believe there's any obligation for the president to sit down. I don't believe that he can be -- I agree with Bill Barr's analysis,

that he cannot be -- that he cannot be ordered to give that testimony in this context. So and again, unsettled law. You know, the Nixon case did not -- does not settle this. That dealt with papers and not testimony.

SCIUTTO: OK. James Schultz, thanks very much for taking the hard questions.

SCHULTZ: You bet. Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Take a look at the big board just now. The Dow down as it opens after a wild Wednesday. Down about a half a percent there. The Fed decision to hike interest rates for the fourth time coming just yesterday. We are live at the stock exchange. That will be right after this.


[09:40:42] SCIUTTO: Let's get right to Wall Street where stocks have fallen one day after the fed's latest rate hike, which sparked a massive sell-off. See that red down arrow right there. Remember, the stock market's on track already for its worst December since the Great Depression.

Let's bring in CNN's Cristina Alesci. She is live at the New York Stock Exchange this morning. Tell us the mood on the floor there. It's been quite a bad month and not a great reception to this latest rate hike.

CRISTINA ALESCI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Bigger picture here, Jim, this is a fight between Wall Street and the president, arguably, on one side and the Federal Reserve on the other.

The Federal Reserve yesterday clearly indicating that it believes the economy is strong enough to withstand future rate hikes. Wall Street, it wants to keep the cheap money in the system; and so does the president, because that really helps advance his economic agenda and help him -- helps him claim credit for economic growth.

And no one really realized how far apart the two sides were until yesterday. I was on the floor here. It was a dramatic downward turn as soon as the Fed announced its decision to go ahead and raise rates.

Look, the market is still digesting this news, so who knows where we go from here? But one thing is for sure. When the market is confused and uncertain, this particular time, it's just going to be pessimistic. It's just going to assume the worst. There are a couple of warning signs the market and investors I've spoken to are looking at.

And they think that the Federal Reserve is ignoring. One of them is a slowdown in global growth that, with some really disappointing economic data out of China, that is giving investors pause.

Also, some companies are warning about the negative impact of the trade war and tariffs on the bottom line.

This is a lot to invest here, but investors are just not in a good mood, and we could see the market go down from here. I'm not hearing too much positivity from investors at this point.

SCIUTTO: Well, it's accelerated there just while you were talking. We will continue to watch. Thanks very much.

Time is running out to keep the government open. And now the president is attacking only the Democrats after what was a bipartisan spending bill passed in the Senate. What he just threatened to do, we'll talk about that next.


[09:47:18] SCIUTTO: We have breaking news on the Russia investigation. Let's get right to our Laura Jarrett in Washington -- Laura.

JARRETT: Hey there, Jim.

Well, we are now told by a source familiar with the process that the acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, has been in consultation with ethics officials at the Justice Department and has been told he does not -- not -- need to recuse from overseeing the special counsel's Russia investigation.

Now, why does this matter at all? Well, of course, Whitaker has come under fire for some of his past criticisms of Mueller, talking about ways that could possibly under -- curtail the probe.

And while he hasn't spoken out on the investigation since assuming the role as attorney general when Jeff Sessions was fired the day after the midterm elections, senators on Capitol Hill have been eyeing this very closely. They wrote a letter to the Justice Department demanding information about it; and we are told that Whitaker will now respond with this information, explaining that he does not need to recuse and responding to those senators later today, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Important development. Laura Jarrett, thanks very much.

Joining me now is Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland. Senator, thanks for taking the time this morning.

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), MARYLAND: Good to be with you, Jim. Thanks.

SCIUTTO: So if I can, just since we have that new development into CNN, you now have an acting attorney general who publicly criticized the Russia investigation and does not have to recuse, and you have the president's new nominee, Bill Barr, to be the permanent A.G. who has called the Russia probe, quote, in his words, "fatally misconceived." He called the obstruction part of that probe asinine.

In your view, do those two developments threaten the Russia investigation? VAN HOLLEN: This is a very dangerous moment for the integrity of the

Mueller investigation. And, so, it's really important that everybody be on full alert to make sure that, in the coming weeks before we have a chance to have the Senate confirmation hearings for the new nominee, Bill Barr, that Whitaker not take any action to undermine this independent investigation.

And then during those Senate hearings, senators will have an opportunity to question Bill Barr about his previous comments, which look like he was auditioning to be the attorney general in the Trump administration by criticizing the Mueller investigation.

So step one is make sure nothing happens here in the interim before the hearings. And then step two, make sure that those hearings are used to get a commitment from the nominee that he won't undermine these important investigations.

SCIUTTO: Are those views, as expressed by Barr, calling an ongoing investigation in which the president is involved -- now he's the president's choice to oversee that investigation -- are those views disqualifying in your view?

[09:50:02] VAN HOLLEN: Well, I think he now, Barr now has the burden of assuring senators that he will be a -- that he won't weigh in and try to undermine the investigation. I mean, they clearly put everybody on red alert. I think now he's going to have to assure senators, including some Republican senators who have also said that it's important to protect the investigation, that he's not going to undo and blow up the Mueller investigation.

Yes, very troubling comments that he made. And as I said, it's almost like he was saying, "Hey, pick me because I can be the person who does what you want, Mr. President."

SCIUTTO: OK. On to the government shutdown funding. As you know, the continuing resolution approved yesterday, including by your Republican colleagues, does not include money for the president's border wall. I wonder, in your view, have Democrats effectively killed the president's dream of this border wall?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, we've been very clear, Jim, that we strongly support border security. But we also do not want to waste taxpayer money on an ineffective unnecessary wall along the 2000-mile border. So we're not going to support it now, and we're not going to support it next year. And of course, next year, you have a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.

So we will continue to support effective border security. But we're not going to throw away taxpayer money on a wall that Donald Trump himself said that Mexico was going to pay for, and clearly, that's not happening.

SCIUTTO: Sarah Sanders from the White House podium has intimated that the president might find money for the wall elsewhere. As I remember it, the Constitution requires Congress to approve funding like this. Would it be illegal? Would it be unconstitutional for the president to divert money from another area of government to pay for his wall?

VAN HOLLEN: Yes, it would be unconstitutional. The Constitution gives Congress the power of the purse. If the president wants to reprogram money from one area that Congress has specified to another like the wall, they would have to seek congressional approval. And we would block that.

So again, yes to border security. Many, many different elements of border security. But no to wasting taxpayer dollars.

SCIUTTO: Final question on Syria. A whole host of Republicans and Democrats and the president's own advisers and military commanders really gobsmacked by this decision and alarmed by this decision.

What is your view of this? And in particular, does this withdrawal, in your view, make America and Americans less safe?

VAN HOLLEN: Yes. I do believe it makes it less safe. And I would just quote the very words of the president's own envoy to the coalition to defeat ISIS, Special Envoy McGurk, who just days before President Trump made this decision said it would be, quote, "reckless" for the United States to prematurely declare victory against ISIS. ISIS is on the run, but they're not out. In fact, the president had a tweet this morning that totally contradicted his claims that ISIS is out of the game.

And so the United States has to continue to support our Syrian Kurdish allies. The Syrian Kurdish allies have been the main force to defeat ISIS. They've done a good job. But the job's not over.

And by the way, Turkey, who early on in the conflict of Syria, was actually an enabler of ISIS, allowed a lot of ISIS fighters to come into Syria, is now saying that they're going after the Syrian Kurds who are the very people who have been the tip of the spear in going after ISIS.

This is a mistake. It will make us less safe.

SCIUTTO: And they've been abandoned before.

Senator Chris Van Hollen, thanks for very much for joining us.


SCIUTTO: Harvey Weinstein, just moments ago, leaving a court in Manhattan. We'll have an update, an important one, on what happened in the courtroom right after this.


SCIUTTO: We have news in the Weinstein case. Disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein just left a New York City courtroom. Jean Casarez was inside that courtroom. Jean, will these charges go ahead?

JEAN CASAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Benjamin Brafman, the attorney for Harvey Weinstein, just announced that the case is going forward, that none of the charges were dismissed today. The indictment remains intact. We do know the next pretrial hearing is March 7.

Now, the reason I am quoting Benjamin Brafman is that the judge did not in court announce what the decision was. It was amazing. A short time in that courtroom. Because when Harvey Weinstein entered with his complete entourage -- his attorneys, his P.R. staff -- he did not go to the defense table, but he sat in a pew in the courtroom, actually directly in front of me.

And he was there for quite a while and he was mainly silent, spoke to one person, but just sat there, not moving a muscle, really. And then it was announced that they all would move into the well of the courtroom. So both sides sat there.

The judge entered, but he had them all come up to sidebar, but not Harvey Weinstein. Talked to them at length. Calendars got out. And now we have it from the defense attorney, this case will move forward.

And there was so much police in that courtroom, it was like a verdict. I mean, all around the courtroom, you could hardly see to where the judge was standing.

SCIUTTO: Trial moves forward. No charges dismissed. Thanks very much.