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Discussion of Matthew Whitaker's Testimony Before House Judiciary Committee; Jeff Bezos Accuses National Enquirer of Attempted Extortion and Blackmail; Congressional Conference Committee Expects to Reach a Deal by Monday. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired February 8, 2019 - 10:30   ET


LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: So Congress only has so many plays -- so many options here. And so it appears that Jerry Nadler's calculation was, "Let's at least get him in the hot seat today. Get him on the record with some of these things. And even try to see how far we can take it."

Because as we've already seen, now, he's opened the door to some of the things and some of the conversations that he said he didn't want to -- that he didn't want to have, coming into this hearing. He said he didn't want to discuss his conversations with the president, but yet he says he didn't discuss the special counsel's probe with the president --


JARRETT: -- so my guess is if they keep pressing him, he's going to keep talking.

HARLOW: You wonder if he's getting some counsel to do otherwise --


HARLOW: -- in this recess.

Nia, what are your thoughts?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Yeah, I mean, that's the big thing. Is someone at this moment, right now, saying that he might want to take a different course? Because that was the big surprise. I was with Jeffrey Toobin, going into this thing, essentially thinking we would hear him stonewall --

HARLOW: Right.

HENDERSON: -- for hours on end, to this very big partisan committee. But they have gotten him to answer some questions.

And that had been a real frustration for a lot of these committees, that people would come before them and claim executive privilege. Even I -- I think at some point, behind closed doors, Donald Trump Jr., apparently, claimed executive privilege over conversations that he had had with the president, who wasn't even president at the time. So you know, it'll be interesting to see if, going forward, there will

be a different tactic with Matt Whitaker because I think if you're a Democrat at this point, you're pretty --


HENDERSON: -- pleased with what you've gotten him to go on the record and say.

HARLOW: We have to get a break in. Twenty seconds are left.

Jeffrey Toobin, to you. Because he has now not exerted executive privilege on some of these answers, can he? Like, does -- do you know what I'm asking?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: If it were a courtroom, he couldn't. But, you know, there -- witnesses have a lot of power in these circumstances. There are only five-minute increments --

HARLOW: Right.

TOOBIN: -- they can just -- they can run out the clock. If you're confronted with a contradiction, you can say it's not a contradiction.

So, you know, it is interesting that he has said he has not interfered in the investigation. He has said he did not discuss the Mueller investigation with the president.

If they get anything more out of them -- out of him -- perhaps they will -- but the fact that he said that doesn't necessarily, in the -- in a --

HARLOW: No (ph).

TOOBIN: -- practical sense, bind him for future questions.

HARLOW: Right, it's not a courtroom. All right. But there is a gavel. They (ph) do (ph) gavel in, that's about the only --

TOOBIN: Yes, there is a gavel.

HARLOW: -- similarity.


HARLOW: Thank you very much. Everyone, stay with us. We're going to get a quick break and then we'll be back. Stay with us.


[10:36:36] HARLOW: All right, welcome back to our special live coverage of this House Judiciary Committee hearing of the acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, a man who has a very important job right now, overseeing the Mueller probe. But who will be out of that job in a matter of days, if the attorney general nominee, William Barr, is confirmed. Look, this has been going on for about half an hour, a little more.

And there have been a number of stunning eye-opening moments, but here's one that struck us.


REP. JERROLD NADLER (D-NY), CHAIRMAN, HOUSE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Have you ever been asked to approve any request or action to be taken by the special counsel?

MATTHEW WHITAKER, ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES: Mr. Chairman, I see your five minutes is up. And so --


WHITAKER: I'm -- we -- we -- I am here voluntarily. I -- we have agreed to five-minute rounds and --

NADLER: I will point out that we didn't enforce the five-minute rule on -- on Attorney -- Acting Attorney General Whitaker. We will --

REP. DOUG COLLINS (R-GA), RANKING MEMBER, HOUSE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: I understand, Mr. Chairman. I was just saying, that might be a good breaking point at that (ph) for you.

NADLER: No. The attorney general was in the middle of saying something. Answer the question, please.


HARLOW: All right. Let's go to Manu Raju.

I don't know that I've ever before, Manu, seen a witness tell the chairman of a -- of a congressional committee that his time is up.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. It doesn't happen, Poppy. I mean, that -- the chairman, the members, they have their own rules. They have their own prerogatives to go as long as they want.

And particularly a chairman of a committee, they -- they are the ones who are in charge of everything that's happening in the hearing room. They're the ones policing the members to stick to their time limits, but they routinely will go over the time limits. And a witness typically is -- has to be deferential to that witness.

So that was a remarkable interaction that prompted Democrats in the room to literally drop their jaws and gasp in shock, to see Whitaker say that.

And that came, of course, at the end of a very contentious line of questioning, where Jerry Nadler, the chairman, was pushing him on a range of topics about his conversations with the president, which he would not discuss; about what he discussed with the president about the Mueller investigation -- he did say that he did not give any assurances to the White House about the Mueller investigation. He said he did not talk to the president about the Mueller

investigation. He said he got briefed on the special counsel investigation once. But then when Nadler asked him, "How many times have you been briefed?" He said he would not discuss that because of an ongoing investigation.

So he also said that he did not believe he talked to third parties about the Mueller investigation, third parties who could presumably have told the White House about what was going on. Those lines of questioning are bound to continue through the course of the day, as Democrats will return here after the votes to ask more questions.

And one note, Poppy. This may not be the last time that Matt Whitaker comes before this committee. Even though next week, he will have a new boss or there'll be a new attorney general, Bill Barr, after he gets confirmed to the Senate, this committee plans to bring him back for a closed-door deposition, transcribed interview. Ask him questions about the topics that he refuses to answer to today. That's what Nadler said.

So Whitaker may not want to answer questions now, but he may have to do it at a later date, especially if he's -- even if he's a private citizen when Bill Barr takes the job. So we'll see how the rest of the day goes. But so far, rather tense in that hearing room -- Poppy.

[10:40:01] HARLOW: And just to that point, I was wondering the same thing, Manu, when they said that. Could he be a private citizen, then? Maybe. Will he stay in the Department of Justice? Maybe, we'll see.

What -- to what end, though, Manu, if they do that, if they depose him behind closed doors, is that for a specific investigation, or --

RAJU: Yes, I think that they'll want to know more about the circumstances around the firing of Jeff Sessions. These -- you (ph) you (ph), they specifically will want to know about interactions with the president. They don't believe that these claims of executive privilege could necessarily be cited, even after or (ph) in a closed- door transcribed interview. That's going to be a legal fight between the Justice Department and this committee.

But the -- Nadler and the Democrats are insistent that they're going to get answers to these questions. So he may not want to answer them today, but he's still going to be pressed. If not publicly, privately -- Poppy.

HARLOW: OK. All right. Manu, thanks very much.

Let me bring back in our experts and reporters.

Evan Perez, to you. If you could just remind our viewers about the whole recusal back-and-forth, here. Because he's speaking about the Mueller probe that he oversees now, but there was advice from the ethic officials, there at DOJ, to him that he ignored, as to whether or not the optics were not good here, for him to oversee the Mueller probe and whether he should recuse himself or not. EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right, exactly. And

you played, earlier, the -- some of his previous comments about the Mueller investigation, which is why people -- you know, certainly a lot of people were critical of the idea that he would play any role in this, that he would not recuse.

And so, look, under the Justice Department rules, you know, you -- there is the appearance of conflict, and then there is direct conflict. There is an actual conflict.

And in the case of Attorney General Sessions, he played a role in the campaign. So he had an actual conflict. And this is why he recused himself. The president never forgave him, never understood why that was. But it was clear that Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself.

Now, Matt Whitaker, he had no knowledge about the investigation, and so that's one of the things he's pointed out, is that he had no knowledge. He was essentially like a pundit on television, talking about Mueller because he didn't know anything about it. And so those points of view were simply not relevant, he says.

And so when the ethics officials looked at this, they said, "Look, we know that it is just an appearance of conflict, but out of an abundance of caution, you should recuse yourself." Matt Whitaker, though, under the Justice Department rules, it's up to him to decide to take that advice.

HARLOW: Right.

PEREZ: And so he decided not to take that advice, so this is why --

HARLOW: Right.

PEREZ: -- he is now in this position. He is the boss. He is the person --


PEREZ: -- who is overseeing this investigation, and now he has to answer for -- you know, this all depends on how much he -- you can take. And he's decided that he can take the heat --


PEREZ: -- of overseeing this investigation.

HARLOW: Right. And I believe he says others, you know, advised him not to --

PEREZ: Right.

HARLOW: -- not to recuse --

PEREZ: People --

HARLOW: -- himself. PEREZ: -- yes, exactly. He -- it's his personal staff that advised

him --

HARLOW: Right.

PEREZ: -- to do that. But, you know, he --

HARLOW: Right.

PEREZ: -- it's really upon him.

HARLOW: Yes, yes. OK. Evan, important context here. Thank you very much.

Everyone, stay with us. We are waiting for Matthew Whitaker, the acting attorney general, to come back and face more of these questions in just a moment. We're live from Capitol Hill. Stay with us.


[10:46:31] HARLOW: All right, welcome back. We are still, of course, watching the hearing of the acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, on Capitol Hill right now. They're in a short recess so that members of Congress can vote. They'll be back. We'll take you back there.

But in the meantime, an explosive story this morning about Amazon founder, billionaire, the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos. Accusations against him. He is now accusing the "National Enquirer" -- the tabloid -- and their parent company, AMI, of attempted extortion and blackmail.

Here's what happened. Bezos shared a number of details of several e- mails from the publisher in this tell-all blog post this morning. He's claiming that the tabloid threatened to release explicit and intimate photos of him and a woman he was having an affair with.

And in return, AMI apparently wanted Bezos to end his investigation into the "Enquirer," and to make a number of statements or else it would release these photos. Let's bring back in Jeffrey Toobin, who is literally wearing every legal hat possible --

TOOBIN: That's right.

HARLOW: -- this morning.

This is remarkable, reading that entire Bezos post. And he chose, at the -- his own expense of even more embarrassment and public shame, to expose what he says is blackmail and extortion.

If it's true, if AMI really did say, "If you don't do X, Y and Z we're going to publish these, you know, embarrassing photos of you," et cetera, is that illegal?

TOOBIN: That's a very hard question. And I have to say, I don't know the answer to that. It certainly has the -- the feel of blackmail --

HARLOW: Right.

TOOBIN: -- and extortion. But in a journalistic context, I'm not sure prosecutors would -- would proceed with a case like this. They'd certainly want to know more facts about what went on. They'd want to certainly hear AMI's side of the story as well.

But let's be clear. It's totally shabby and disgraceful journalistic practice to say, "We want you to write what we tell you to write, or we're going to release these embarrassing photos." I mean, that is not the way responsible, decent journalists behave.

But is it a crime? I'm less sure about that.

HARLOW: Why is -- I mean, extortion is a crime, right?

TOOBIN: Extortion is a crime. But, I mean, what I assume AMI -- AMI would say --

HARLOW: Would say?

TOOBIN: -- is, "We were concerned that the 'Washington Post,' which Bezos owned, was going to print false information about us. We were exercising our rights as journalists to try to persuade them to write correct information about us."

Now, I'm not saying that's true --

HARLOW: Yes, yes.

TOOBIN: -- but I'm just saying, that's the argument. And it is true that this is different from a traditional extortion case. I mean, a traditional extortion case is, "Give me a million dollars or I'll kill you." This is a different scenario.

Now, I'm not saying it is or isn't a crime, I'm just saying I would certainly want to learn more facts --

HARLOW: Understood.

TOOBIN: -- before I as a prosecutor would want to bring this case.

HARLOW: One of the interesting things that AMI was demanding of Bezos in -- in these chains of e-mails that he published in his blog post, is for him to make a statement to the public, that none of the "Enquirer" -- you know, breaking this news about him having this affair, et cetera -- was politically motivated.

Which is really interesting to me, given the fact that David Pecker -- a former very close friend of the president, who would do these catch- and-kill stories to help the president. Now, maybe he flipped on the president -- runs AMI.

[10:50:06] TOOBIN: Well, it's -- you know, journalists, there are lots of magazines. You know, Fox News supports the Republicans. There's no -- there's nothing illegal about that. And there certainly was nothing legal -- illegal about the "National Enquirer" editorially supporting Donald Trump as -- as it did.

HARLOW: Right.

TOOBIN: What was different is that Pecker spent money, spent -- you know, campaign -- what is arguably --

HARLOW: Right.

TOOBIN: -- an illegal campaign contribution, $150,000, to Karen McDougal, to buy -- to buy her silence.

HARLOW: Right.

TOOBIN: So there's history here. Now, whether the effort to embarrass Jeff Bezos -- a known adversary of the White House -- was politically motivated -- it certainly seems like it could be -- but I don't know what the underlying facts of that particular story are.

So the idea that the -- the "Enquirer" was insisting that they say it wasn't political --

HARLOW: Right.

TOOBIN: -- how do they -- I mean, we'll see what the "Washington Post" learned. Apparently the --

HARLOW: Right.

TOOBIN: -- "Washington Post" believed, based on information from Gavin de Becker, the security consultant, that it was politically motivated.

And certainly, the way to get at the truth is not through blackmail and extortion, at least in a colloquial -- if not legal -- sense of, you know, "Run this or we'll embarrass you with these photographs."

HARLOW: Shan Wu is also with us.

Do you -- do you have a read, Shan, on whether you think, if all of these allegations against AMI that Jeff Bezos has written prove to be true, if they broke the law?

SHAN WU, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think so. I think I take a bit more aggressive posture than Jeffrey is.

I mean, certainly, the classic notion is, "Do something -- we'll do something unless you pay us money." But, here, the benefit of the blackmail would be the tremendous media power, and that's a thing of great value. And that's the benefit they're trying to get through threatening this.

I think Jeff makes a very good argument for their defense counsel, potentially that they were just trying to make sure that there wasn't any inaccurate information published. But usually, you don't try to make sure of that by threatening to release dirty pictures. You would be like, "These are the facts. You got them wrong." Not,

you know, "Here is the secret pictures and texts we have of you and your mistress."

So that really, I think, undercuts the notion that they could argue they're actually engaged in journalism here as opposed to what I would consider to be blackmail and extortion.

HARLOW: OK. So, Jeffrey Toobin, another really fascinating part of this -- and raises so many questions for me -- is a bit of what Jeff Bezos wrote in this blog post about Saudi Arabia.

So let me just read part of this. So he writes, Pecker and AMI have been, quote, "investigated for various actions they've taken on behalf of the Saudi government." And he later writes, quote, "For reasons still to be better understood, the Saudi angle seems to hit a particularly sensitive nerve."

Now, we know that the Saudi government has paid AMI to publish a big glossy, you know, magazine promoting the crown prince and promoting the kingdom. That in and of itself is not illegal. But Bezos seems to think there is something more here.

TOOBIN: Well, this -- the Saudi thing is fascinating. And in an overlay here. I mean, remember, the "Washington Post" has been aggressively investigating the murder of their contributor Jamal Khashoggi, which -- who was a deep adversary of the Saudi regime.

I mean, the "Washington Post" has taken on a mission --

HARLOW: Right.

TOOBIN: -- of investigating this. Jeff Bezos owns the "Washington Post." The Saudi government is very much aligned with Donald Trump and the Trump administration. David Pecker, at least at one point, aligned with Donald Trump, has apparently been trying to do business with the Saudis.

So the Trump-Saudi-Pecker side of one transaction --

HARLOW: Right.

TOOBIN: -- "Washington Post" on the other --


TOOBIN: -- is another overlay to this story.

HARLOW: And I should remind people that we did just get a statement this morning from AMI that says, "OK, you know, we're going to look into this. This is troubling if it's true, but our board's going to investigate it." And, of course, Pecker is on the board, so.

TOOBIN: And they're -- they did not say anything about an independent investigation.

HARLOW: Right. They're -- yes, that is far from an independent investigation.

TOOBIN: Correct.

HARLOW: Jeffrey Toobin, thank you very much.

Stay with us. Don't go anywhere because, look at the bottom of your screen, we're waiting for this hearing with Matthew Whitaker to begin again.

Also, we're on top of another big story because, remember, we're one week away from a potential government shutdown again. This morning, lawmakers are trading proposals with their goal of delivering legislation to the House early next week. The push for the final agreement by tonight no longer seems likely.

In the meantime, a White House official does tell CNN, quote, "We're in a good place," admitting the president might accept less than the original $5.7 billion for a wall.

[10:55:02] Our congressional correspondent Phil Mattingly is on the Hill.

I mean, if that's true, that's quite a bend and quite a give from the White House to the administration. And the question then becomes, you know, where can the Democrats meet them?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Look, Poppy, I think it's also a recognition of reality. This was kind of always where the deal was going to be, if there was going to be a deal. The president was going to have to accept less than $5.7 billion. Democrats were going to have to accept more than zero dollars, which was their initial proposal on the wall or barrier.

And I think what you're seeing right now is a narrowing-down of the issues. You talked about the proposals that are being traded back and forth.

The benefit of the break in the Matthew Whitaker hearing is (ph) I was -- members are voting right now. I was just able to talk to a couple of members on the conference committee, who made clear, the optimism is real.

They believe they will be able to reach a deal, likely by the end of this weekend, which will allow them to release the text of a proposal by Monday. House could vote by Wednesday, the Senate would follow soon thereafter.

Now, that doesn't mean they're done yet. It's important to note that the key issues, whether they type of structure that a barrier would be, how much that top-line money for a barrier would be, are still outstanding. The type of personnel and the funding for that, still outstanding. And whether or not detention beds -- which is a major issue for Democrats, that they're opposed to, a major issue for Republicans, they need in the deal. Those are the issues that are still being traded back and forth. But just to underscore, members on the committee right now feel like

they're on the verge of a deal. Will they actually reach it? They think so. When? Probably in the next couple of days. Will the president sign it? Seems more likely than it has been in the past. But that's always the wild card, Poppy, as you know better than anybody at this point.

HARLOW: You know better than anybody at this point. What's your over-under? Yes? Deal, no deal, shutdown? What do you think?

MATTINGLY: I haven't seen -- I haven't seen a mood like this on members on this issue in a very long time. They clearly --

HARLOW: All right.

MATTINGLY: -- feel like they're going to reach a deal --


MATTINGLY: -- they just need to get it across the finish line.

HARLOW: Good to hear. Phil, thanks for the reporting. Appreciate it.

Thank you for being with me today. Of course, we're continuing to watch. As soon as this hearing with Matt Whitaker begins, we'll bring it to you. I will hand it over to my colleague Kate Bolduan, "AT THIS HOUR," right after a quick break.