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Trump Says He Will Leave Mueller Report Decision to Justice Department; Pro-Russian Twitter Account's Disinformation Effort Against the Mueller Probe; Donald Trump: GOP Lawmakers Wasting Their Time on Border Talks; White House Officials: Trump, Aides Continue Prepping National Emergency Order for Border Wall in Case Talks Fail; Mitch McConnell: Democrats' Plan to Make Election Day Holiday, is "Power Grab"; Eleven Dead as Polar Vortex Blankets U.S. with Brutal Freezing Temperatures; Stocks to Open Mixed Amid New Signs of Slowing China Economy. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired January 31, 2019 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:03] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: A very good Thursday morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto in New York.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Poppy Harlow. We're glad you're with us.

After hounding his first attorney general out of a job and calling for the Russia probe -- calling it a witch hunt more times than we can count, President Trump is now alleging not to bury the special counsel's final report and taking credit for not shutting him down.

In a new interview with the conservative Web site, the "Daily Caller," the president says, quote, "I could have gotten involved in this. I could have terminated everything. I could have ended everything. I have chosen to stay out of it. But I had the right if I wanted to, to end everything." He goes on to say, "I could have just said that's enough. Many people thought that's what I should do."

SCIUTTO: Many people of course disagreed as well. As for the fate of Robert Mueller's eventual findings the president tells the "Daily Caller," quote, "They will have to make their decision within the Justice Department," which is likely to be headed soon by the president's new pick for attorney general, William Barr.

The president also has some thoughts on the special counsel's takedown of his long-time ally and confidant Roger Stone. Spoiler, he is not a fan of the FBI's show of force you saw exclusively here on CNN. Remember those pictures.


SCIUTTO: CNN's Joe Johns is at the White House.

So let's first start with the Mueller report. Of course the president fired Jeff Sessions because he wanted someone to more actively, it seems, oversee the special counsel's investigation. Is that his expectation from his nominee Bill Barr? JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's

interesting listening to the president or I should say reading the transcript of the president's remarks to the "Daily Caller," conservative Web site, I think the takeaway from that is, number one, that as far as the release of the Mueller report is concerned and even as to the contents apparently, the president is suggesting he's going to leave that up to the Justice Department.

Of course we are taking a leap of faith here saying that William Barr -- assuming that William Barr is confirmed as the attorney general by the time the report is released and Matt Whitaker, the acting attorney general, has already moved out of the way. So the president indicating he's going to leave it up to the Justice Department to make those determinations.

Now this is Donald Trump, of course. And we all know he's subject to change his mind almost at any time and has changed his mind many times. Still, it does sound like a bit of a departure from at least the tone of the president in referring to Mueller and the report in the past -- Jim and Poppy.

SCIUTTO: No question. No question. As for the arrest of Roger Stone, the president who, of course, in the past has encouraged rough handling even at times of suspects in arrests. In this one, though, he has a different view.

JOHNS: Right. It's really fascinating how something that has been described as routine tactics by the FBI could get the attention of the president of the United States. And he'd be highly critical of those tactics when applied to his long-time ally and friend Roger Stone.

Here's part of what the president said in that interview. "When you have 29 people and you have armored vehicles and you had all the other people and Roger is not a person essentially that you'd have to worry about from that standpoint. Very sad."

So the president speaking very differently about FBI tactics when they are applied to his friends.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Yes. You might call that a selective application of the principle, Joe Johns at the White House.

This comes as the Justice Department says that Russia has been waging a disinformation campaign to discredit the special counsel's investigation of the disinformation campaign in 2016. Imagine that.

HARLOW: Right. Confused yet? Prosecutors alleged a pro-Russian Twitter account published confidential information from a criminal case that Mueller's team brought against a Russian company.

Let's go to our Kara Scannell, she joins us from Washington with more details. This is complex, but it's fascinating and really significant.

KARA SCANNELL, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It is, Poppy. It's a little complicated. It all relates to this case that was brought last year against Concord Management which his owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, who's known as Putin's chef. And they were indicted last year for spreading disinformation around the campaign as part of the interference by Russia.

So now what we learned yesterday in the filing was that -- this is how the prosecutors put it. They said that certain non-sensitive information discovery materials in the defense's possession appeared to have altered and disseminated as part of a disinformation campaign aimed apparently at discrediting ongoing investigations into Russian interference in the U.S. political system.

So what the prosecutors alleged is that someone purporting to be a hacker in Russia posted on Twitter that they had obtained access to files and information from Mueller's team as part of this investigation and that they published it online in an online portal.

Now what we've learned is that there were actually over a thousand files that were confidential that were posted online. Some of them were altered. And the prosecutors described them as non-sensitive information.

[09:05:03] But this information was posted online for users and anyone including the Twitter account reached out to some reporters to try to get people to look at this to try to discredit Mueller's investigation.

Now this comes about because now it's time to turn over the sensitive information to the Russian company that was charged and Mueller's team wants some parameters about that because as they revealed in their filing that it might identify individuals and entities that are still continuing to try to interfere in the U.S. election -- Poppy, Jim.

HARLOW: OK. Thank you for walking us through all of that, Kara. We appreciate it.

With us now, former CIA counterterrorism official and former FBI senior intelligence adviser Phil Mudd and former FBI special agent and CNN legal and national security analyst Asha Rangappa.

Good morning to you both.

SCIUTTO: Good morning.

HARLOW: And so let's start with the Russians altering this nonpublic information, evidence from the Mueller probe, with this effort to discredit the Mueller probe. Of course they want to do that because, you know, Mueller indicted 12 Russian agents in July.

What's the goal, though, beyond that here?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I think the message here is pretty simple. I wouldn't be worried about the corruption of the documents, that is the information being released. I think we should have expected that.

The message I think from the Mueller team is whether it's the media or the American people if you're watching what unrolls both in this case and more broadly and whether the Russians are continuing to try to influence American perspectives on everything from Russia to the Department of Justice and judicial processes in this country, watch out. Watch out. Even when you're dealing with official documents that are passed to a lawyer.

One quick final comment on this. I don't think this was a hack. I suspect what happened is the people in the teams, the Russian legal teams that were representing the individuals charged have contacts with the Russian government. I suspect this is tied to the Russian government.

HARLOW: Right.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Makes perfect sense. And Asha, one reason -- I mean, the real reason special counsel making this clear now is he wants to make sure that the classified information is not shared with the Russian side because that would set up just this bizarre situation where the U.S. Justice Department sharing sensitive classified intelligence with the very folks who interfered in the election including -- I mean, just one of them, Yevgeny Prigozhin who ran this troll farm in St. Petersburg. It was at the center of this. I mean, that would be truly remarkable if that were to be required of the special counsel, wouldn't it?

ASHA RANGAPPA, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It would. And I think this is the dilemma for Mueller in bringing these kinds of charges against Russians is that our criminal justice procedure allows for discovery.


RANGAPPA: And, you know, you don't want your adversary intelligence service to know how you're getting information about them because then they can change tactics or use it against you. I think this highlights that in bringing these indictments against Russians knowing that he's not going to get these defendants into court, he really is using these public charges as a way of informing Americans about what Russia is doing and specifically about their disinformation campaign so that people can be aware and that this helps neutralize the operation because it exposes it to the light of day.

HARLOW: Asha, you know, your attorney hat on here as well. How likely is it that the judge will actually rule in favor of Mueller's team? Meaning, you don't -- this isn't discoverable because of the risks of this getting in the hands of the Kremlin.

RANGAPPA: Right. I -- so what the judge is going to do is balance the national security interest against, you know, the expansive access to the defense. Now he will -- Mueller is going to have to share this to the defense in terms of -- for them to mount an effective defense. The question is, you know, what -- you know, do they have to do it in a room? They can view it in a room. Can they take it out? You know, there could be parameters there.

So those two interests, national security versus the defendant's rights, are going to be balanced. And I think in this case there is a good chance that Mueller is going to get what he wants because in this filing he's basically said, look, our fears are well-founded. Even the non-sensitive information has made its way to Russia. You know, it's almost guaranteed that anything that we give that will expose sources and methods will do the same.


Phil Mudd, in addition to your CIA past, you spent a lot of time in the FBI. The president said he's very disappointed to see how Roger Stone was arrested by the FBI. Of course this is a president who in the past has said, listen, be tough when you're arresting anybody. So, you know, we should note that here. Was there anything unusual, unfair, untoward about the way the FBI went about this arrest of Roger Stone on Friday?

MUDD: Man, I woke up to see this. Give me a break. I care more about whether my coffee is caffeinated or not. The FBI conducts raids every single day. They just happened to conduct an aggressive raid against somebody who's affiliated with the Trump campaign and people get all hot and bothered.

A couple of points, number one, you're not going to give Roger Stone warning of the arrest because one of the things you're concerned about obviously is he's going to destroy evidence.

[09:10:03] Number two, you're going to send a lot of people to the house. Why? You're going to search the house. I want to see documents, I want to see laptops, I want to see cell phones. I suppose you can ask the question of whether they needed to be that heavily armed but look, there is a standard that the FBI goes through for every raid. That standard is the same for every American. I mean, this is about a 24-hour story at best unless the politicians on the Hill pick it up which is what they're doing now.

HARLOW: Oh, they have.

MUDD: Yes.

HARLOW: Senator Lindsey Graham.

MUDD: Give me a break.

HARLOW: Let me read you his response in a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray, quote, "The American people has had enough of the media circus that surrounds the special counsel's investigation. Yet the manner of this arrest appears to only have added to the spectacle."

Asha, is that appropriate, expected oversight from a leader in Congress or is that, you know, attempted political overreach that concerns you?

RANGAPPA: He has oversight power and he can certainly ask the FBI to look into it.


RANGAPPA: But I think Phil is right. Look, we're on TV now talking about whether the FBI acted appropriately as opposed to the substance of the charges for which Roger Stone was arrested. And the substance of those charges is that he lied about his continued outreach to WikiLeaks on the timing of their document dumps when WikiLeaks was acting as an intelligence arm of the Russian government during its election interference efforts.

This starts to get to the heart of collusion. And I think that Senator Graham and the president and the White House don't want us talking about that. They would rather us talk about, you know, did the FBI inconvenience Roger Stone by waking him up too early in the morning.

SCIUTTO: And we should remember that those were FBI agents who were still not getting paid at that point.

HARLOW: Right.

RANGAPPA: Correct.

SCIUTTO: Because of the government shutdown and waking up early and still doing their job, right.


SCIUTTO: Which they always do.

Phil and Asha, always great to have you on.

MUDD: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Quite a combination.

This morning, the president says Republicans are wasting their time on bipartisan talks to avoid another shutdown. The president says he's got it, quote, "covered." What do you think he's talking about there?

HARLOW: Also, temperatures plunging. The death toll is rising from this deep freeze. The latest on the brutal polar vortex blasting the Midwest.

And have you ever heard of deep fakes? If not, listen up. How you could be duped online by these manipulated videos that can actually change what it looks like someone is saying. The audio in the video it is really significant and what does it mean for 2020?


[09:15:00] POPPY HARLOW, CO-HOST, NEWSROOM: A big old bucket of cold water this morning is what it seems like the president is throwing on talks to try to avoid another government shutdown. Here's what he writes. Quote, "Republicans on the Homeland Security Committee are wasting their time because Democrats won't budge on the wall." He goes on to say, "I've got you covered, wall is already being built, I don't expect it will help much."

By the way -- yes, go --

JIM SCIUTTO, CO-HOST, NEWSROOM: Quick fact check there, no new miles of the border wall have been built --

HARLOW: Exactly there, deceiving --

SCIUTTO: We just said some areas have been replaced, repaired, et cetera, but we fact-checked this and that's just not true. Meanwhile --

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: Cnn has learned that President Trump and aides are continuing to make preparation to make a national emergency order if these talks fail, which may explain why he's predicting this morning that they will do just that or perhaps setting up a backup --

HARLOW: Right --

SCIUTTO: Or plan B. Let's discuss with Matt Lewis; senior columnist for "The Daily Beast" and Sabrina Siddiqui; politics reporter for "The Guardian". So Matt, when you read the president's tweets here, it appears he's laying the groundwork for executive action if he does not get -- if he does not get an agreement for more border wall funding. Is that the way you read it and is that the right course?

MATT LEWIS, SENIOR COLUMNIST, THE DAILY BEAST: Well, it's certainly the way that I read it. Look, I think that Nancy Pelosi and Democrats view a wall -- they have said at this point that a wall is immoral and I don't think they want to back down to Donald Trump either on principle.

Donald Trump has made this promise, this pledge to his base that he's going to build the wall, I think that Republican congressman are certainly very hesitant to want another shutdown. And so that leaves us with not a lot of options. Both sides have to save face, neither side wants to blink or back down.

The only out maybe, unless there is some miracle compromise or expert panel bipartisan blue ribbon panel assembled, I think the only out for Donald Trump may be this, you know, emergency order.

HARLOW: Maybe, although we were just talking in the break about get -- you know, that, that would get challenged in court immediately. Sabrina, the president also wrote this morning, quote, "let's just call them walls from now on and stop playing political games." A wall is a wall.

I wonder why he's doing that because for the last, you know, week or so, he's been willing to call them barriers, seemingly giving a little bit of a give to Democrats if he could get some money for some sort of steel slates or a slats or a fence or whatever, that, that was an opening.

So why then double down on the wall language --


HARLOW: Here which is just going to make it harder for him to get Democrats on board?

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, POLITICS REPORTER, THE GUARDIAN: Well, that's exactly the point the president has for weeks been suggesting that you could call it a barrier, being a little bit open to the actual language. And now he's making it very clear that he's not backing down from his demand for funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

And so far as we wonder if this comes down to a game of semantics, and if Democrats were to allocate money towards border security funding more broadly or toward fencing or improving infrastructure at legal points of entry, it seems like the president is staking out his crowd.

So the question now is if there is a compromise between Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, that does not include funding for what is explicitly referred to as a wall which we know is a non-starter of Democrats, is the president going to threaten to veto it and lead the country into yet another shutdown or is he actually going to perhaps sign that legislation knowing, of course, what the ramifications were --

[09:20:00] SCIUTTO: Yes --

SIDDIQUI: For overseeing the longest shutdown in this country's history, and wanting to avoid what would then be the fourth government shutdown under his watch.

SCIUTTO: Now, Lewis, I've got to ask you, emergency declaration. As a conservative, is that a prospect that you welcome as well as a precedent for future presidents to do the same if they can't get money from Congress as the constitution I believe prescribes to declare it an emergency.

I mean, you watched the Intel chiefs on Tuesday, they didn't mention the southern border as an emergency and a whole lists of threats that they were detailing there. So how can the president do this now?

LEWIS: Yes, though, I think it's very concerning and troubling. And I think it's wrong, you know, constitutionally, morally across the board, I think it's wrong. And I also think it sets a dangerous precedent. I mean, if you're a conservative, what happens when a Democrat becomes president?

They can certainly declare a state of emergency to address a school shooting. Maybe who knows where that leads, right? With confiscation or whatever, more gun control. What about the environment?

A lot of people view the environment, climate change as an existential threat. One could imagine the Democrats might now have a precedent to declare a state of emergency. I guess the only thing -- the only hope here is that if Trump does go this route, and I think he probably will.

If he does go this route that the courts would stop it, and you end up -- Donald Trump gets to -- gets to show that he's a fighter, gets to show his base that he was fighting for the wall and he --


LEWIS: Can blame those other people for stopping -- for stopping it. That's probably what he's thinking.

SCIUTTO: Yes, I mean, just to bring up the idea of -- you have a shooting and the numbers, you could make an argument, right, the gun violence is a national emergency. How would a Democratic president --

HARLOW: That way --

SCIUTTO: Use that?

HARLOW: It's a really good point --

SCIUTTO: It's an interesting point.

HARLOW: Let's switch gears and talk about something that's not making as many headlines, but it's really important and interesting. So Sabrina, Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor scoffing at legislation brought by Democrats that would make election day a federal holiday. Listen to this.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER, SENATE: Their bill would make election day a new paid holiday for government workers and create an additional brand new paid leave benefit for up to six days for any federal bureaucrat who decided they'd like to hang out at the polls during any election. A power grab that's smelling more and more like exactly what it is.


HARLOW: All right, to be fair, Sabrina, though, there is a bunch of other stuff that is included in this legislation, it would prohibit purging of voter rolls, require vice presidential and presidential candidates to release their tax returns. But why is Mitch McConnell so opposed to something that would on the surface -- this part of it, you know, make it possible for more Americans to vote?

SIDDIQUI: Well, many people saw this as Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell saying the quiet part out loud. You have several states across the country where there have been Republican-backed efforts to restrict voting rights.

And I think for Democrats, this is one of the issues that they certainly plan to spotlight, particularly as they now have the majority in the house that there should be no partisan disagreement over making it easier for Americans to vote. And the suggestion that if that were the case, that it would be

problematic for Republicans in the eyes of Democrats speaks more to the state of the Republican Party. It's notable that this is also coming at a time when Stacy Abrams is poised to deliver the Democratic response to the State of the Union.

She of course ran unsuccessfully for governor in the state of Georgia where her opponent, now Republican Governor Brian Kemp was still the Secretary of State and his office had overseen the purging of rolls in what many said -- people said suppressed her not among African- Americans.

And so I think for Democrats, this really cuts to the heart of the issue of voting rights.

SCIUTTO: Yes, I mean, there's the North Carolina race right that's being looked at and vacated --

HARLOW: Still --

SCIUTTO: By a judge because of issues on those lines.

HARLOW: Thank you both very much, Matt Lewis, Sabrina Siddiqui, nice to have you. All right, take a look at this. Unbelievable pictures, that is Chicago, folks, the wind-chill is negative 38 there, that is freezing cold, Lake Michigan, the Midwest getting slammed by bone- chilling sub-zero temperatures. The death toll from this is rising.

SCIUTTO: Yes, minus 38, that's like top of Everest --

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: Sort of temperatures. We're just moments away from the opening bell on Wall Street. The three major indices set to open mixed today, one thing investors will be keeping an eye on new signs of a slowing economy in China that they're certainly cheering news about no more interest rates rises yesterday.

Manufacturing down however for a second-straight month, we're going to keep our eyes on it.


SCIUTTO: At least 11 people have died as a result of the polar vortex sweeping across the Midwest. It is just bitterly cold, dangerously cold for more than 200 million people if you can believe it here in the U.S., ice and snow grounding a number of flights for the second day.

HARLOW: That's right. They were saying that even the -- you know, deicers for the planes were freezing. Chicago will not be above zero for days. This morning, the wind-chill there, minus 38. Our brave Ryan Young is live for us outside in Chicago -- again, I am so sorry --

SCIUTTO: Oh, my God -- HARLOW: But it's important reporting. I can't believe what we're

seeing behind you by the way, this looks like --


HARLOW: Out of a movie.

YOUNG: Well, first things first, you never did this on your own, so I got Bill Kirk(ph), producer and Lena Mandez(ph) my photographer with me --