Return to Transcripts main page


FBI Debated Trump's Connections with Russia; Trump Calls out Comey, Strzok and Page; Barr on Mueller Report. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired January 14, 2019 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:28] PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm Phil Mattingly. John King is off.

President Trump is on his way to New Orleans this hour to speak at a farmer's convention. That's New Orleans as in Louisiana, not Nashville, as in Tennessee, like he tweeted this morning.

But on the White House lawn the president fielded questions not on the plight of farmers but on whether or not he's working for the Russians.

And a college football national champion Clemson Tigers will greet the president when he's back in the White House later tonight. So naturally he previewed the menu.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And I think we're going to serve McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King with some pizza. I really mean it. It will be interesting. And I would think that's their favorite food.


MATTINGLY: Paging Clemson's strength and conditioning coach, Joey Batson, may have some issues with that.

Now, the president's attorney general nominee is laying down a big and important marker, two of them, actually. One, the Russia special counsel should finish his investigation. Number two, that the American public should see Robert Mueller's report. More on that in a few minutes.

But we begin with a straight-up denial from the president that he -- to a now burning question brought on by new reporting. Mr. President, did you do the Kremlin's bidding inside the Oval Office?


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I never worked for Russia. And you know that answer better than anybody. I never worked for Russia. Not only did I never work for Russia, I think it's a disgrace that you even ask that question because it's a whole big fat hoax.


MATTINGLY: That question, surreal as it is, being asked this morning because of a weekend flurry of revelations, the biggest being this, that the FBI decided in May 2017 to investigate the president and whether he was secretly acting at the behest of Russia. Today, new details on how and why the FBI made that extraordinary decision. CNN obtained transcripts of closed door congressional interviews with top FBI officials. The documents reveal a half dozen senior FBI lawyers and agents debated whether to open the investigation into the president. The chief concern raised by the president's dismissal of FBI Director James Comey, that he did it at the direction of the Kremlin. That was one extreme, the FBI's then top lawyer, James Baker, told congressional investigators last year. The other extreme is that the president is completely innocent. We discussed that too. Asked then by lawmakers if the FBI determined the president was working wittingly or unwittingly for Russia, Baker said, I don't know.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is in New Orleans, where the president will speak to a farmer's convention later this hour.

And, Kaitlan, I'm sure you freaked out a little bit when he said he wasn't going to Nashville. Glad everybody's in the right place.

But, first and foremost, these are wild questions to be asking. What's your sense right now of what the White House think about this moment?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, they're furious about it. And you saw that reflected in the statements they issued this weekend after that series of reporting came out. And, clearly, the president is irritated by it, too, because not only did he flatly reject being a Russian agent this morning, he also said that the question was absurd. Of course, the reporter only asked that question because of those series of reports over the weekend, potentially that there was a counterintelligence investigation into why the president was saying things that were beneficial to Russia.

Now, that was also asked because on Saturday night the president did an interview where he was asked outright by the host, have you worked on behalf of Russia, are you an agent of Russia, and he didn't outright reject it. Instead, he called the question insulting and seemed to sidestep the answer. But this morning he used no ambiguous language when he was asked that question and said, no, he is not a Russian agent.

Now, Phil, something else that stood out to me in the president's comments to reporters this morning was, he sought to downplay that report from "The Washington Post" that said he looked to conceal details of his conversation with the Russian President Vladimir Putin, even going as far to tell the interpreter not to brief senior national security officials on what had happened because he feared that those details would leak and would get out. And it came at a time when he had been incredibly frustrated by a series of leaks coming out of his administration. Now, today, he told reporters that he didn't think that was a big of a

deal. He meets with leaders one-on-one all the time, even though typically most of his meetings do include some staffers and they do typically include readouts from those meetings and what is said. But, today, he seemed to think that was normal. And when he was asked if he's going to release those interpreter's notes of his sit down with Putin, he did not answer that question, Phil.

MATTINGLY: No shortage of things for Kaitlan to be keeping an eye on in New Orleans, not Nashville.

Kaitlan, thanks very much. Keep us posted throughout the day.

Here to share their reporting and their insights, Margaret Talev with "Bloomberg," Rachael Bade with "Politico," Seung Min Kim with "The Washington Post," and CNN's Shimon Prokupecz.

And, Shimon, I want to start with you first.

I want to play this from the president because you can kind of guess where the posture is going to be from the president and his allies. This is what he had to say when he was asked about some of the revelations you've been reporting on. Take a listen.

[12:05:09] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: The people that started that investigation are McCabe, who's a proven liar and was fired from the FBI. Are Lisa Page, who was forced to leave the FBI, and her lover, Peter Strzok, who we got their text messages and what they said in those text messages was shocking when you talk about bias. And also Comey. And I guess they started it because I fired Comey, that are known scoundrels. They're in -- I guess you could say they're dirty cops.


MATTINGLY: So, just to break this --


MATTINGLY: We know which side both sides are going to go with this in seizing on this report, but can you explain to me your read of it, you're an expert on these things, what it actually means, what we're looking at right now?

PROKUPECZ: Look, I think when you look at what Baker told members of Congress, Jim Baker, that's the top FBI lawyer at the time, who winds up leaving the FBI and then is called to come into Congress just to talk about what was going on around that time, you get the sense that there was a lot of concern by some of the people, the president there named, Lisa Page, Peter Strzok, who was running the investigation, that something was amiss. Something was going on. Perhaps maybe someone got to the president, whether it was from Russia or whether there was an intermediary somewhere else, that somehow something had happened because they didn't quite understand why all of a sudden, I think, the president went and fired the former FBI director. And so there was a lot of concern.

I mean when Baker testifies before Congress, he uses words like, "following directions." Was the president following the directions of the Russians? Was he doing this at the behest of the Russians? But for whatever reason, there was this concern in the FBI -- there may be other information that came to them, but they didn't have enough at the time to open an investigation. Once he fired the FBI director, once he fired Comey, I think they felt they had enough there to then go ahead and open the investigation.

MATTINGLY: And you mentioned Lisa Page. One of the issues that had been brought up had been a text message that said it had been a topic of discussion for some time. And her explanation in the congressional testimony that we obtained reads as such. The case had been a topic of discussion for some time. The waiting on -- which is a reference to her text message -- was an indecision and a cautiousness on the part of the bureau with respect to what to do and whether there was sufficient predication to open.

I guess, Rachael, to you. One of the -- one of the questions is, you know, this is not a minor thing. This is a major, major decision to make, particularly within -- within the bureau of investigation. And I think there's a lot of questions of what the -- what the rationale was, if you will, and what's your read right now, particularly on Capitol Hill, as kind of how people are seeing this play out over the course of the last 48 hours?

RACHAEL BADE, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, "POLITICO": Well, obviously, the congressional committees, they've been sharing a lot of this information between each other for a while, so they weren't particularly surprised by this report.

I do think that the report in "The Post" about the president keeping a lot of these transcripts, not allowing top White House officials to have readouts of his meetings with Russian officials, that did seem to strike some people as very new and very concerning. And, you know, we've seen a lot of chairmen are interested in this right now. You have Jerry Nadler on the Judiciary Committee, we have Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, who is bringing in Michael Cohen to testify in just a couple of weeks. And we're now seeing a bunch of other people jump in, including Elliott Engle, who is the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. And that story, it sounds like, has -- has moved Engel, who's a Democrat of New York, to actually eliminate a terrorism subcommittee on that committee and create a whole new committee to look at this issue and why the president would not let officials come into the room, why he has been so secretive about his interactions with Russia, and that's going to be another key focus for them going forward.


SEUNG MIN KIM, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": One of the more charitable explanations as to why the president may have tried to obscure these notes and to limit his interpreter from talking is that, if you recall earlier on in the presidency, there were transcripts and notes of these former leaders calls that leaked to the press. "The Washington Post" reported in mid-2017 about these calls with the leaders of Australia and Mexico that weren't so flattering for the president. So that could be one reason for it.

But Rachael's right, you know, there's no doubt that the House Democrats will be looking into this aggressively. You have lawyers talking about what kind of basically legal authority they have to look at these -- or to subpoena these records. I mean senators -- well, Democrats did try to do this last year after the Helsinki summit. There's some question as to whether you can get them or not. Obviously -- I assuming that the administration would probably assert some privilege over these records should they still exhibit in some capacity. But this is going to be a major brewing fight in the coming months for sure.

MARGARET TALEV, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "BLOOMBERG": Well, and I remember being at that meeting in Germany, which was supposed to go much shorter than it ended up going. And with each passing like 15- minute segment, as we were like, what are they doing in there, the kind of mounting angst by the White House staff because, of course, they knew they wouldn't be able to tell us what was happening in there because they didn't know and they weren't going to know.

[12:10:08] And I think part of the concern is -- with this is, sure, any president wants to be able to have some discretion and keep his counsel until the White House can internally message what happened and figure out how much they want to share or not share, but when like nobody knows what actually happened and what was actually promised internally, it's a real problem. And there was a lot of those concerns.

MATTINGLY: So you've followed foreign policy for years now in multiple administrations. You know how these things work, or how they traditionally work. Is it your sense that this was just related to the Russian president, or is this how the president operates in foreign leader meetings all the time?

TALEV: I think that 2017 meeting with Putin in Germany was a special case. I do. I also think that this administration does not read out all of their foreign leader calls. But in the past -- in fairness, in the past, not all presidents have, either. But I think there are a lot of foreign policy calls related to perhaps Syria, some of this more recent decisions in the Mideast that we don't have full visibility on right now.

MATTINGLY: Shimon, I want to close with you with our last 30 seconds. What's your sense -- obviously we get hit with revelations and bombshells.


MATTINGLY: It feels a little bit like a year ago when these were coming out. What happens next? Like, what's the next step here?

PROKUPECZ: Well, I think a lot of this -- obviously we're all waiting for Mueller. I think Barr today, the incoming -- well, perhaps the next attorney general here saying that the report should be public. I think that's probably going -- that's a good first step. Certainly that's what people want to hear. And we're all just waiting on Mueller, really.

And then I also think the committees in some ways are going to be held up a little bit here in terms of what they're trying to do until Mueller is done. We still don't know when that's going to definitively happen and how much of an impact Mueller will have on this entire investigation going forward. We don't know yet. But I think not until -- once Mueller is done, then I think that's when The Hill starts to open up a little bit.

MATTINGLY: Yes, and all of us on The Hill will be plenty busy.

PROKUPECZ: That's right.

MATTINGLY: By the way, Shimon, that was a great tease, because coming up next, the president's choice to be the next attorney general says Robert Mueller should finish his work.


[12:16:21] MATTINGLY: Tomorrow, the president's attorney general nominee comes up to Capitol Hill for a ritual grilling. Today, William Barr is making a pair of big pre-confirmation promises regarding the Russia special counsel. In his prepared testimony, Barr says it's, quote, vitally important Robert Mueller complete his investigation, saying, I believe it is in the best interest of everyone, the president, Congress, and most importantly the American people that this matter be resolved by allowing the special counsel to complete his work, Barr plans to say. The country needs a credible resolution of these issues.

The other important commitment? Barr says the public deserves to know what the special counsel finds.

Now, CNN's Manu Raju is on Capitol Hill.

And, Manu, obviously Democrats have made clear this was going to be a central issue of their questioning tomorrow. Have they reacted in any way so far to what they've seen previewed?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, not from these -- these written remarks, but these are similar types of assurances that Barr was getting behind the scenes to Democratic senators last week when he was making his visits to -- on Capitol Hill. At the time Democrats wanted to hear much more than what he was saying. They were not satisfied at that point. Richard Blumenthal, the Senate Judiciary Committee Democrat, told me that he wants ironclad specific commitments, possibly even recusal from overseeing the Mueller investigation. Obviously did not go that far in these -- these written responses or written testimony to the committee.

But one thing he also tried to address was a June memo that he wrote from last year in which he raised concerns about the legality and the necessity of an investigation into obstruction of justice over the public facts surrounding the firing of James Comey. And he tries to reassure senators in his written testimony. He says this, my memo was narrow in scope explaining my thinking on a specific obstruction of justice theory under a single statute that I thought, based on media reports, the special counsel might be considering. The memo did not address or in any way question the special counsel's core investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, nor did it address other potential obstruction of justice theories or argue, as some have erroneously suggested, that a president can never obstruct justice. I wrote it myself, on my own initiative, without assistance, and based solely on public information.

And, Phil, he also tries to reassure the committee about conversations that he had with the president, saying that he gave no -- got no assurances from the president or gave anything explicitly or implicitly about how he may deal with the Mueller probe going forward. The question ultimately, though, does he win over any Democrats and certainly does he prevent any Republicans from voting no against his nomination? We'll see how he does tomorrow.


MATTINGLY: Yes, must see TV tomorrow. I think that memo is probably going to come up, I'm going to bet, with committee Democrats.

Joining the table now, Elana Schor with "The Associated Press." Also of "Jeopardy" fame. Look that up on YouTube. It is worth your time.

I want to get into one thing specifically and I want to read this off from the testimony because you -- there's two top line points that are very clearly to reach out to Democrats to try and assuage some of the concerns, but he says, on the idea of making the Mueller report public, he says, I also believe it is very important that the public and Congress be informed of the results of the special counsel's work. For that reason, my goal will be to provide as much transparency as I can consistent with the law.

That last part, the consistent with the law part, leaves a little bit of space there, I think, to some degree. Am I misreading that or over reading it?

ELANA SCHOR, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "ASSOCIATED PRESS": I think it absolutely does, and that's because there's no hard and fast law governing how a potential Mueller report would get released. I mean there are regulations out there but he seems to be cracking the door open to not necessarily what we would expect from that, which is just a full-throated, here, the public can see the report.


And I guess the big question -- so Manu hit on this, Seung Min, and you have a pulse on the committee like nobody else. Are Democrats even considering the possibility of voting for the president's nominee to oversee, that would be overseeing, technically, the special counsel investigation?

[12:20:09] KIM: I mean Bill Barr can say whatever he wants, and we know -- we get a sense of his testimony and what he's going to say under questioning by Democrats at his confirmation hearing this week, but Democrats will focus in on the memo, and that is raising major alarms among the -- Democrats in the committee.

And, look, attorney general nominations are usually contentious anyway regardless of the time. It was -- he's -- this is not the kind of nomination that would have gotten broad, bipartisan support anyway. But the Russia element, the fact that he wrote memos, the fact that he had been publicly a bit disparaging of the Mueller investigation will give any Democrat -- almost any Democrat an easy -- any easy way out.

I do want to point out, though, we did learn a little bit of interesting trivia about Bill Barr and Robert Mueller last week, that they actually kind of had these personal relationships that we didn't know previously. Their wives are in bible study together. Mueller attended Bill Barr's daughter's wedding. So I don't think he's going to, you know, tout that too much, but that's just an interesting little fact to remember.

MATTINGLY: Yes, that --

TALEV: There are a couple good reasons for Barr to put this out a little bit early. Sure, one is to try to assure Democrats. Another is to try to take some of the steam out of Democrats' anger before they get into that room or a line of questioning. He can say, well, I've already addressed some of this in my prepared remarks, but I'm happy to, blah, blah, blah, take another stab at it.

But the third, and maybe the most important, is that he can lay a marker with President Trump by doing this because what he's telling the president is, I am happy to be your nominee, but these are my red lines and don't you try to change the terms on me once I'm confirmed.

MATTINGLY: Along those lines, and very similar to those lines, he says at one point in his testimony, President Trump has sought no assurances, promises or commitments from me of any kind --


MATTINGLY: Either expressed or implied, and I've not given him any other than I would run the department with professionalism and integrity.

This, the, will you make a promise, will you make a loyalty oath, had been a theme particularly early on in the administration. Is it your sense right now -- and, again, it's early, we haven't seen the actual testimony yet -- that he will be operating as an independent actor, which is the expectation for an attorney general?

BADE: I mean I think Democrats are going to try to verify that, right? I mean they have concerns that he's going to do exactly what Trump would want him to do even without a request personally to like lay off something or --

MATTINGLY: Is there a way he can prove to them that that's not the case or (INAUDIBLE). BADE: No, of course not. I mean you're never know that. He's just

going to have to be testify what he's going to be doing. And, you know, the interesting thing for me in the House standpoint -- from the House standpoint of this is, I've actually been hearing a lot of Republicans in the House say because Barr's nomination is moving, that Democrats in the House need to let Whitaker go. As you know, Whitaker has caused a whole bunch of controversy in the House and top House Democrats want to also bring him in and question him about, what did you talk to the president about regarding this investigation? Are -- were you -- are you going to try to undercut or bury the Mueller investigation if it does come out on your watch?

They have been stonewalling at the Justice Department because they do not want him to come in. And Republicans on The Hill also don't. So this a whole nother angle, I guess, to watch as Barr's nomination moves forward because Republicans want to move fast on that so that Whitaker doesn't come in and, frankly, some of them worry he might embarrass them.

MATTINGLY: That's a very good point. I don't think you're going to get Democrats to let that one go. But definitely a strategy.

All right, up next, the shutdown has now dragged into, believe this, day 24. The blame game is in full swing.

And a weekend snowstorm made everyone just a little bit more punchy. Just check Senator John Cornyn's tweets. Poll: Snow closed what was left of U.S. government in Washington, 50 percent blame Trump, 20 percent Republicans in Congress, 20 percent Democrats in Congress, the rest unsure. We'll be right back.


[12:28:28] MATTINGLY: It's now day 24 of the partial government shutdown and it's beginning to feel a lot like Groundhog Day. Frankly it has the last 23 days. The dynamics, they have not changed. Neither side has budged. And both are eager to blame the opposite side.

Just see the president's morning cheat -- tweets for proof. Nancy and crying Chuck can end the shutdown in 15 minutes at this point. It has become their and the Democrats' fault. President Trump tells reporters those furloughed and unemployed workers agree with him.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have a very big crisis, a humanitarian crisis, on the border. Everybody knows it. They know it. And many of them are saying we agree with you. Many of them are calling and many of them are breaking.

The Republicans are rock solid. We've got to take care of our border. Many of the people -- they're all going to get their money. Many of the people that aren't being paid right now are in total agreement with us.

(END VIDEO CLIP) MATTINGLY: But even after all the tweets, the Democratic press conferences on Capitol Hill and an extensive White House public relations blitz, a new CNN poll shows that neither the president nor the Democrats have really moved the needle on the need for a border wall. Eighty-one percent of Republicans say they're in favor of a wall. That is exactly the same number as last month before the shutdown began. Among independents and Democrats, a very small number have changed their minds.

OK, so how many ways can you say impasse without profanity? Here's an interesting thing. One of the biggest things -- and I think we've all kind of connoisseurs of fiscal crisis and shutdown crisis. We've all been through a lot of them. And there's always kind of that, all right, all right, what's the way out here? And usually you can kind of map out in your head, like, eventually this, this and this are going to happen and then this is going to happen and we're going to get out of this.