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Government Shutdown Continues; Attorney General Nominee Questioned Before Senate; British Lawmakers Reject Brexit Deal. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired January 15, 2019 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump's pick for attorney general is friends with Robert Mueller and says he will not be bullied.

THE LEAD starts right now.

He's the man who could be Robert Mueller's new boss and today the future of the Russia probe dominating, as President Trump's pick for attorney general faces questions from the Senate. Is the president getting the attorney general he thinks he picked?

Talks to end the government shutdown moving about as quickly as airport security lines right now, talks today over before they started, as more Americans begin to really feel the financial pain.

Plus, it was a rout, a thrashing. Theresa May's Brexit deals crushed in the U.K., a defeat that now could bring the U.K. government to its knees, along with a tsunami of financial headaches across the pond to you.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with the politics lead. And we will continue to monitor the hearing for President Trump's pick for attorney general, the man who, if confirmed, will oversee the special counsel investigation.

William Barr facing the first day of confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee today, today, despite a 2018 memo Barr wrote in which he called the obstruction of justice aspect of the Mueller investigation "fatally misconceived."

Barr told the committee he will not interfere with the Mueller investigation, pledging to not carry out any order to fire Mueller without cause and stating he intends to release as much of the special counsel findings to the public as possible under DOJ guidelines.

Barr also asserted he's made no promises to President Trump about his oversight of Mueller and his team, nor has the president asked for any. And not only did Barr say he doesn't believe Mueller's investigation is a witch-hunt. He told the committee that Mueller is a good friend and has been for a long time.

CNN's Jessica Schneider starts off our coverage with more from today's hearing.


JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump's pick for attorney general asserting his independence on his first day of confirmation hearings.

WILLIAM BARR, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL NOMINEE: I am not going to do anything that I think is wrong. And I will not be bullied into doing anything I think is wrong by anybody, whether it be editorial boards or Congress or the president. I'm going to do what I think is right.

SCHNEIDER: But Democrats pressed William Barr and demanded assurances when it comes to the Mueller probe.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: Will you commit to providing Mr. Mueller with the resources, funds and time needed to complete his investigation?

BARR: Yes.

FEINSTEIN: Will you commit to ensuring that special counsel Mueller is not terminated without good cause, consistent with department regulations?

BARR: Absolutely.

SCHNEIDER: Barr stressed his 30-year friendship with Robert Mueller and how he disclosed the close bond to the president.

BARR: He said, "Oh, you know Bob Mueller? How well do you know Bob Mueller?"

And I told him how well I knew Bob Mueller and how the Barrs and Muellers were good friends and would be good friends when this is all over and so forth.

SCHNEIDER: Barr also committed to releasing what he says he can of Mueller's results.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: When his report comes to you, will you share it with us as much as possible?

BARR: Consistent with the regulations and the law, yes.

SCHNEIDER: But Barr later clarified. Mueller's actual report wouldn't be released. Instead, the attorney general's office would release their own summary.

The nominee left a lingering question, though, when he blasted fired FBI Director James Comey's decision to announce no charges against Hillary Clinton.

BARR: If you're not going to indict someone, then you don't stand up there and unload negative information about the person. That's not the way the Department of Justice does business. SCHNEIDER: Would Barr release addressing all of Mueller's findings even if it included no wrongdoing?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: Do you see a case where the president could claim executive privilege and say that parts of the report cannot be released?

BARR: Someone might raise a claim of executive privilege.

SCHNEIDER: While leaving room for the president to redact, Barr categorically rejected the president's power to edit any report.

BARR: That will not happen.

SCHNEIDER: And Barr cast doubt that he would ever fire Mueller, even for good cause.

BARR: It would have to be pretty grave and the public interest would essentially have to compel it, because I believe right now the overarching public interest is to allow him to finish.

SCHNEIDER: Barr batted away questions and concerns about the 19-page unsolicited memo he sent to the president's lawyers, saying his point was not that the president could never obstruct justice and that he didn't do it to curry favor with the president.

BARR: If I wanted the job and was going after the job, there are many more direct ways of me bringing myself to the president's attention than writing an 18-page legal memorandum.



SCHNEIDER: And just in the last few minutes, Barr was further pressed by Senator Dianne Feinstein to release Mueller's full report, rather than just a pre-written -- or rewritten summary, Jake.

Barr responded that while Mueller's report to the attorney general is confidential, he will still work to get as much of it as he can directly to the Congress and to the public -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Jessica Schneider, thanks so much.

We should note -- and let's talk about this with my experts here.

Barr broke with President Trump on many philosophical issues at times. He said "I don't believe Mr. Mueller would be involved in a witch- hunt." He also said that he thinks that former Attorney General Jeff Sessions did the right thing in recusing himself.

And, Ayesha, that seems fairly significant because those are two things that President Trump really strongly disagrees with.

AYESHA RASCOE, NPR: Yes, those are two things that he really disagrees with.

But we have seen time and time again that President Trump isn't really ideological or really philosophical. He's really practical and he seems to have put Barr in place because he thinks that Barr -- or he thinks that Barr will support him and his very wide view of his powers as president.

And I think that memo that he wrote, maybe that wasn't the most direct way to get the president's attention. But if you write an 18-page memo, arguing that this idea that Trump could have obstructed justice, and that that shouldn't be the case, and they shouldn't be looking into that, that's going to get President Trump's attention and he had to like that.

TAPPER: Is that more important, do you think, David?

The idea that he actually is skeptical of the obstruction of justice avenue for the special counsel, is that more important than the things that I mentioned, the idea that he...


TAPPER: Go ahead.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think he basically moved over much closer to the mainstream views of many Republicans and Democrats

He was a polished pro. He said he wanted openness and transparency on the report. He is going to listen to the ethics officers. You can go through the list of things, the tests of his independence, and he's basically taking a side of independence. The president doesn't run things, I'm not going to be bullied.

However, he carefully left loopholes there on issue after issue where he's going to retain the ultimate power if he thinks there's something wrong or -- and that's what people are worried about. Is he going to see things that mainstream people would not see? Is he going to find there are reasons to support the president?

And we don't know that. I think we're very dependent upon him as an honorable man and whether he continues to be an honorable man. He has that reputation.


TAPPER: And, David, he really did cast himself as an independent individual, talking about how he's kind of in the twilight of his career, he's 68 years old. Take a listen.


BARR: You know, I'm in a position in life where I can do the right thing and not really care about the consequences, in the sense that I don't -- I can truly be independent. I am not going to do anything that I think is wrong and I will not be

bullied into doing anything I think is wrong by anybody, whether it be editorial boards, or Congress or the president. I'm going to do what I think is right.


TAPPER: You agree?


Let's not lose the sight of the fact that this is a guy who was confirmed by unanimous consent three previous times. Didn't even have a vote. He was just confirmed, up, down. We think the guy's a good guy. Yea, nays, through.

TAPPER: And 1991 is a long time ago.


URBAN: Listen, you wrote a book about it. This town's been partisan for a very time. And there was partisanship, rank partnership in 1991, '92, '93.

And he was able to transcend that. I think he did an incredible job at today's hearing. I think he did leave certain windows open and doors open on certain matters. He's not going to give up independence. He said I will listen to the ethics professionals, but at the end of the day, I'm the attorney general and I make those calls myself.

And so he does have to leave certain things open, because he's a very wise man.

What do you think?


KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: I'm going to be the skunk at the picnic. Yes, that's kind of what I do.


POWERS: No, I think what he wrote in that memo actually is very important. And I don't think just because he acts slightly differently or says, oh, this was just me opining kind of off the cuff, that we should discount what he said.

And I think that it's also "The Washington Post" reported he's somebody who considered firing the special counsel Lawrence Walsh. So this is something that he certainly has thought about before when he felt like the investigation was getting too out of control.

So I think that he's a Washington insider. He knows how to speak the language. He certainly, compared to other people that Trump would choose, is probably preferable, but why did Trump choose him? So I don't think -- everything he's saying is the type of things that

normally would make Donald Trump says upset. And so that makes me a little suspicious, because it doesn't really make sense that he's chosen somebody who believes all these things and is going to be so -- let the department be so independent.


GERGEN: In some ways, Jake, I think what he -- the approach he took today would have been very acceptable and people would have -- on both sides would have said, yes, we're going to vote for him 20 years ago, and because the environment was different.

No matter what the Trump administration does, in this area, suspicions are so high that people are going to be automatically on their guard. Nobody is going to tell you -- I think Kirsten Powers is absolutely right.

Why should we -- we shouldn't just take this and assume, oh, there it is. That's going to be locked in stone. It's not.


POWERS: Well, even the idea that he says, I'm older and I'm independent, I'm basically old and rich, and so I'm independent, I mean, that was Rex Tillerson.

That doesn't necessarily -- you don't necessarily stand up to the present on everything. And I also just want to say that I think young people can be very good at challenging...

TAPPER: So I do want to bring in former federal prosecutor Laura Coates.

Laura, I want you to take a listen to Democrat Richard Blumenthal, who took issue with some Barr's answers, saying what we're talking about at this table, that he was leaving open loopholes. Take a listen.


SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: I'm really at a loss to know why he doesn't say, I will respect the judgment of the special counsel and approve whatever subpoenas, indictments, scope of investigation, resources that are necessary.

And in leaving open this loophole, I think he creates a lot of doubts and reservations.

QUESTION: What is the loophole that you're -- that you're seeing here in this testimony?

BLUMENTHAL: What I'm seeing is the possibility that he could invoke unknown rules and regulations that would permit him to say no to a subpoena, no to an indictment, no to resources, no to an additional area of investigation.


TAPPER: And, Laura, for example, Barr said today he would allow the president to be subpoenaed -- quote -- "if the facts supported it."

I guess that's -- Senator Blumenthal would consider that a loophole. What do you think?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, in many ways, as you described, with the idea of the if and buying the flow chart of what he may or may not do, in many ways he was hedging, and you would expect the chief lawyer of the land to be the consummate hedger.

He was trying to show that in many ways he was not going to be able to predict every course of action. Now, it's ironic because without having all the facts in front of him, he wrote an 18-page memorandum where he presumed many facts, to his own detriment.

But I think what you're seeing here is also perhaps the reluctance of him, having gone through and lived through, as many of us have, the era of Kenneth Starr, about the reluctance of people to accept somebody who's overseeing a special counsel type investigation and giving all the authority to that person and allowing that person to just run amuck or run afoul or just run without any checks and balances.

I think he was trying to establish that. Having said that, I think in many ways Gergen and Kirsten, everyone's right about this issue, that this type of hedging really is not productive to understanding what he will actually do when you have really contentious points in front of him, namely, the Russia collusion probe.

And in particular, when he has already weighed in on this particular factor, it is not particularly comforting to know that he is not going to give a finite answer about what he's going to hand over and why, given the fact he's already talked about this off the cuff in that lengthy document.

But I will just say this one more thing, Jake. And that's this. While everyone's focused on the Mueller probe, and that's extraordinarily important when it comes to Barr and his oversight, he's also particularly aligned with Donald Trump on his immigration policy.

Remember, when he was with George H.W. Bush, he had the whole Kennebunkport order and the directive about Haitians coming over and the no asylum plan and the idea about having steel barriers.

I think Trump was looking at that issue as equally as he was about his version and viewpoint of Mueller.

TAPPER: All right, Laura, thanks so much.

We have some breaking news just in right now. President Trump's pick for attorney general is facing that Senate panel today. But we've just learned that the acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, will appear before the House Judiciary Committee next month. Whitaker's testimony will give Democrats the opportunity to question

him on his views relating to the Russia investigation. Whitaker has been under fire, of course, for his public comments criticizing the special counsel investigation.

Last week, the new chairman of the committee, Democrat Jerry Nadler of New York, threatened to issue a subpoena if Whitaker did not agree to appear voluntarily. He has now agreed to appear voluntarily.

Also breaking today, the House overwhelmingly passing a resolution condemning Republican Steve King's racist comments. Even King himself voted in favor of it. Are his days in the House numbered?

Then it's one of the worst political defeats in British history and the shockwaves could spread worldwide.

Plus, we have been following the confirmation hearings for President Trump's A.G. pick. They just broke again. We will bring it back to you when they come back.

Stay with us.


[16:18:56] TAPPER: Breaking news, just moments ago, embattled Republican Congressman Steve King voting for a resolution condemning white supremacy and white nationalism, a resolution introduced explicitly to deal with the racist comment that he made.


REP. STEVE KING (R), IOWA: I've carefully studied every word in this resolution, and even though I'd add some more that are stronger language, I agree with the language in it. So, I want to ask my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, let's vote for this resolution, I'm putting up a yes on the board here because what you stay here is right and it's true and it's just.


TAPPER: The resolution passed the House 424-1. The sole person to vote against it said it doesn't go far enough against King.

Let's get right to CNN's Sunlen Serfaty on Capitol Hill.

Sunlen, who voted against it?

SERFATY: It was Democratic congressman Bobby Rush, Jake, and as you said, he just did not think that this resolution of disapproval went far enough for what Steve King did, and he wants a full-on censure resolution, something very rare up here on Capitol Hill, very embarrassing for a Congress person and something that really serves as an all-out, a censure of them, it's directed specifically at this person.

[16:20:05] And Bobby Rush as well as another Democrat, they have proposals for an official censure resolution that would be directed specifically naming Steve King not just calling out language over white supremacy writ large. So, definitely more cutting to the congressman. Now, it's unclear at this point whether Democratic leadership will embrace this move. They have been very non-committal.

Steny Hoyer today, the House majority leader, he was very non- committal today. When he was asked by reporters, he says a resolution a central resolution could open Pandora's box where you have people calling out each other and potentially moving to censure them on the floor of the House.

So, unclear what moves that they will make on this, but very clear up here on Capitol Hill that pressure certainly is mounting on Steve King, a lot of members up here very dissatisfied and want more than you know a hand lashing so to speak. They want him to actually be punished and we saw him last night stripped of three committee assignments up here on Capitol Hill.

TAPPER: And, Sunlen, Congressman King has been stripped of his committee assignments as you know, but thus far, he's not stepping aside, even though Liz Cheney, Mitch McConnell, people have said maybe you should pursue another line of work.

SERFATY: That's right. Those were notable comments from coming from many top Republicans here on Capitol Hill, but Steve King for the moment has been defiant. After he lost his committee assignments last night, he said he thinks this is just politics at play and he continues to say that he his comments were taken out of context.

Now, today on Capitol Hill, he has not said one word to reporters so far. Many of my colleagues have asked him, do you plan on resigning faced with all this pressure? And he's been stone-faced and has been silent -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Sunlen, thanks so much.

I think probably everybody at the table agrees that Congressman King's remarks are racist and he's been saying racist things for more than a decade and there's really no question about it. But it is intriguing that Democrats didn't want to do a censure resolution because they were worried about a, quote, Pandora's box, in Steny Hoyer's word.

What are they -- what are they concerned about, Ayesha?

RASCOE: I don't know exactly what the concern is or whether there concern that somehow they could get caught up in this, or that they would by putting Steve King out there it makes it looks like the Democrats are out to get him and instead of having the Republicans deal with their Republican. That could be part of what's driving this.

But the point is I think that by Steve King voting for this resolution shows how kind of powerless it is and how kind of meaningless it is because he's saying, well, his argument is he is against white supremacy despite all of the things that he has said, and if he is not named, he voted for it. TAPPER: Well, he's named but it doesn't condemn him specifically. They just get that "New York Times" quote at the top and then it's just a whole thing condemned white supremacy, yes.

RASCOE: Exactly, so then he signs on to it and says well, yes, I agree with this you're not condemning me. I mean, I think that kind of -- that may help make the argument for the people who say that a censure is needed in this case, to actually condemn what he said. But, of course, the issue is why now? I mean, why do this now when he's been making these comments over and over again?

And Republicans removing the committee chairmen or the not the chairman's, removing his committee assignments --

TAPPER: Removing his committee assignments, yes.

RASCOE: They're doing this now when it really cost him nothing. They lost the House, you know? So, at this point they're not in power and then they take this action.

TAPPER: So why now? Why --

URBAN: I mean, look, I think he clearly crossed the line that, you know, was too far for everybody right here. And look the people who truly suffer his constituents, right? I mean, he is going to be powerless, he's going to be wholly ineffective as a member of Congress now with this hanging over his head.

So, the question is, you know, people who are suffering here the people back in Iowa who are, who, you know, put him in office and thinking he was a different person perhaps than he is, or even if that's not the case, he just has no power now. He's got no ability to really work with anybody on any side of the aisle. He's kind of an island out by himself, and I think, you know, either -- they're -- the way rehabilitated himself maybe just simply to walk away from his job there and seek employment elsewhere. It has been suggested by several political leaders in town here.

TAPPER: Kirsten, I've seen Republicans say, OK, we've condemned Steve King. Now, where are the Democrats condemning the people in their caucus that have said things that are anti-Semitic or had relations -- have friendships with Louis Farrakhan who's a notorious anti-Semite. Do you think that's what Democrats are trying to avoid attention on some of the people in their own caucus that are controversial?

POWERS: Maybe, but I think if people are saying anti-Semitic things, that they should be condemned. So I'm not quite sure why you wouldn't want to do that.

I want to say that I think the people that suffer because of Steve King aren't really his constituents. I think it's all the black and brown people that he demonizes and has talked about like their animals. So, you know, this is -- this has been -- you say he crossed a line, but he's crossed so many lines.

I still dying to know the answer of why this is the thing because he has said so many things that are so horrific for as long as I've known him.

TAPPER: I do want to turn to 2020 and get your perspective on something, what New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is going to announce tonight, according to CNN sources, that she is a forming an exploratory committee to run for president.

[16:25:04] She's going to do this on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert", and she's going to run we're told according to sources close to her a campaign on gender issues. But this is -- this is interesting because Brian Stelter wrote a piece about the Colbert primary and how many Democratic senators running for president are thinking about Stephen Colbert in his show as a real powerhouse.

GERGEN: Well, exactly, but why do you? In the midst of all this news, you knew Barr was going to be testifying, why would you throw your hat in the ring and get almost no publicity as a result? I mean, it seems to me odd, and especially you're going to go up against Jimmy Fallon tonight, you know, he's going to have on, remember, "Hamilton". Yes, they've got the whole "Hamilton" show coming up.


TAPPER: A Jimmy Fallon fan, I had no idea.

Well, you don't get to pick when you go on Stephen Colbert show. I mean -- and this is the night that they offered her.

GERGEN: Well, but you have you have a variety of dates. I mean, it just sees me she is on the East Coast, she's well-respected in New York. She would be -- you know, if she were -- yes, if you're running for only in New York, she would do very, very well. How she will play in a place like Iowa and given the traffic that's going to be out in California early on, I just don't see where it's going to come from.

She needs some -- how to strike a spark, and I just simply I frankly in the midst of like the heavy, heavy news day, I don't know why you declare.

TAPPER: What do you think about Gillibrand?

RASCOE: I think this is going to be a very crowded field and part of what she is going to have to try to find a way to stand out and I find a way to make her message be a message that's going to kind of spark Democrats and spark those young people and get people really motivated to come out against here -- to come out to and support her, and that's going to be big for pretty much every person coming out right now. It's going to have to show like where do they stand and what is -- what is going to make them that person that people should get behind? This is going to be a very crowded field.

TAPPER: Meanwhile, we have the government is still shut down. So, coming up next, an honest attempt to negotiate or simply a partisan photo-op? What happened at lunch at the White House today because of the shutdown? Stay with us.