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Did Trump Try to Intervene in Cohen Investigation?; Bernie Sanders Announces Presidential Bid. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired February 19, 2019 - 16:00   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Let's go to Washington, D.C., now.

"THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER" starts right now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Feels like we know President Trump's least favorite word: recusal.

THE LEAD starts right now.

An explosive report: President Trump reportedly trying to meddle in the Southern District of New York's investigation into his own actions, asking once again if someone can unrecuse themselves and take control.

Plus: former FBI acting Director Andrew McCabe spilling even more tea about the bureau's investigations into the president, including what McCabe told top congressional leaders behind closed doors.

And then there were 12, Bernie Sanders making his second bid for the presidency. But this time, there are a ton more progressives running. Will that affect how many people ultimately feel the Bern?

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with breaking news in our politics lead, "The New York Times" out late today with a stunning report stating that President Trump once again unhappy with the person leading an investigation and wanted the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York to unrecuse himself from the investigation into hush money payments to women that the president allegedly had affairs.

"The Times" reports President Trump asked the acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, whether U.S. attorney Geoffrey Berman, who had previously recused himself from the Stormy Daniels investigation, could unrecuse himself and take charge of the Southern District of New York's investigation.

"The Times" says it's unclear what exactly Whitaker did after that request from the president. But they say there's no evidence that Whitaker took any steps to intervene, though he did apparently tell associates at the Justice Department that the prosecutors in New York required -- quote -- "adult supervision."

Moments ago, President Trump was asked about this story. He denied it.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No, not at all. I don't know who gave you that. That's more fake news.

I have a lot of respect for Mr. Whitaker. I think he's done a great job.


TAPPER: It was less than two weeks ago that Whitaker testified before the House Judiciary Committee, now under Democratic Party control.

Democrats are investigating whether Whitaker may have perjured himself during that hearing. In response to the story, a Justice Department spokesperson said -- quote -- "Whitaker stated that, 'At no time has the White House asked for, nor have I provided any promises or commitments concerning the special counsel's investigation or any other investigation.' Mr. Whitaker stands by his testimony."

It is worth noting, of course, that statement doesn't actually directly address "The New York Times"' report.

This news of Trump's request to Whitaker, reportedly, is just the beginning of this long detailed "Times" investigation, which also lays out how the White House misled the American people about the Michael Flynn firing, how President Trump sought to undermine the various investigations into him, and how the president encouraged Republican lawmakers privately to attack the special counsel investigation.

We have the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara standing by.

But first I want to go to one of the reporters who broke this story, "New York Times" White House correspondent and CNN analyst Maggie Haberman, who joins me now on the phone.

Maggie, thanks for joining us.

Multiple sources told you and your colleagues that President Trump asked Whitaker to have U.S. attorney Geoffrey Berman unrecuse himself, so he could oversee the Southern District of New York's investigation into then candidate Trump's role into silencing women with hush money payments.

This request, this is one in a pattern.


I mean, the president, as you said earlier, unrecused is a word that he tends turn to. It's not even a concept I think that I had heard of before his presidency. But we know that in 2017 the president was very laser-focused on having Jeff Sessions unrecuse -- he asked about it multiple times -- from his recusal from the Russia probe and overseeing it as attorney general.

In this case, the president called Matt Whitaker, who, as we have all recorded multiple times, is an ally of the president, and asked him if it was possible for Geoff Berman, the Southern District of New York U.S. attorney, to unrecuse on the Michael Cohen probe, which he has been recused from.

It does not appear that that was able to go anywhere. We know that certainly there had been some concern by Whitaker and some other officials at DOJ about SDNY and what they were doing with this, that Whitaker had used the term adult supervision with people to describe what SDNY was in need of.

But, to your point, this fits a pattern of the president looking to get somebody who he believes is a loyalist, who he believes will be an ally, whether they will or won't, but who he believes can be more helpful to him overseeing an investigation that touches on him.

TAPPER: And we should point out that U.S. attorney Geoffrey Berman has an excellent reputation. There's no evidence that he would carry out the president's orders had he unrecused himself.

HABERMAN: Correct.

TAPPER: Take a listen to something else you write about in the story.

This is then White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer talking about the firing of Michael Flynn. This is from February 2017.


SEAN SPICER, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president was informed of this. He asked the White House counsel to review the situation.


The first matter was whether there was a legal issue. We had to review that whether there was a legal issue, which the White House counsel concluded there was not.


TAPPER: Maggie, what's the significance of this Sean Spicer press conference?

HABERMAN: So, Jake, there's a few things that are going on here. And we wrote about this in the story, that, as Sean Spicer was about to be prepped for that briefing, there were a bunch of officials in the Oval Office.

And Reince Priebus, who I think had just joined into the room, threw out that Paul Ryan, then the House speaker, had praised the president for demanding Flynn's resignation. And this was sort of the introduction of a new piece of information.

And the president said to Sean Spicer: "That sounds better. Say that."

And Sean Spicer pressed, which one is it? But the president then said: "Say that I asked for his resignation."

Spicer went out. He had been briefed by the way White House Counsel's Office about areas to be careful about. He then did his briefing. The Counsel's Office took issue with some misstatements that they said Spicer had made, most notably just about the extent of what the White House investigation had been into the circumstances surrounding Flynn.

The record was never corrected. The White House press office never did. The White House Counsel's Office never did. But you have Spicer there saying something that is in question as to, A, whether the president had influenced it, whether anyone else had influenced it.

And I think it's important to note that a lot of the circumstances around Mike Flynn and his firing and his dismissal and what went on there in terms of his contacts with Russian officials and what he told DOJ officials is still very murky. And this episode goes to the president being more concerned about how something was playing publicly than what the truth might be.

TAPPER: And we should note you also write about a lawyer for President Trump reaching out to the legal team for his former campaign chief, Paul Manafort, and for Michael Flynn to discuss possible pardons.

It's something the president has ruled out at this point. Both Flynn and Manafort have been chastised by the judges in their cases for lying. They're facing serious jail time.

Your story really lays out a history of, I have to say, unprecedented behavior for a sitting president of the United States.


I mean, certainly, we can't think of any other situation, either with this length of time or durability with these kinds of activities going on. The defense from the president's lawyers is, this is all within his power and said of the executive branch that, when it comes to things like asking about recusals, that he's entitled to ask about what situations are.

Their argument is, is, that doesn't constitute an order, even if that did take place. And that's usually how they catch these things. But certainly we are in uncharted territory.

TAPPER: All right. Maggie Haberman, excellent reporting. Thank you so much.

Joining me now is the man who was the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York right before Geoffrey Berman, Preet Bharara.

Preet, thanks for joining us.


TAPPER: "The New York Times" reporting President Trump asked Whitaker to get your successor, Geoffrey Berman, to unrecuse himself from the Cohen investigation.

He had recused himself for standard conflict of interest reasons. The president had appointed him. So he had his deputy do it. What's your reaction to this story?

BHARARA: Well, on the one hand, I will join the chorus of people who are saying that it's outrageous. As you said at the top of the show, it's part of a pattern. And sometimes your level of sort of outrage over something can be diminished when you see case after case after case of the president trying in some way, whether directly or indirectly, to interfere with an investigation and the lawful ongoing nature of an investigation because it might touch upon him or touch upon an associate of his.

And he did it in the Michael Flynn case with respect to Jim Comey, and we know he tried to engage in some discussion of the Joe Arpaio case, the sheriff out of Arizona. So I'm not surprised, but I still think people can't get used to this kind of thing.

I had been the U.S. attorney for a number of years. And, as some people might recall, the president of the United States, when he was both the president-elect and then also the president, called me a number of times.

And I speculated then and am more convinced now that it wasn't because he wanted to talk about the weather. It wasn't because he was just checking in on me, but that he was trying to cultivate a relationship, because he's the kind of person who doesn't understand that rules have to operate in a particular way and regular order needs to be followed, whether it's recusal or arm's-length distance between a United States attorney or an investigator and the president of the United States.

TAPPER: House Democrats are looking right now into whether or not acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, then acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, perjured himself.

I want you to take a listen to a part of the testimony that the Justice Department, Whitaker's defenders, are pointing to. This is Whitaker not even two weeks ago testifying in front of Congress.


REP. DAVID CICILLINE (D), RHODE ISLAND: Did anyone on the president's behalf either out inside the White House or outside the White House contact you to lash out or express dissatisfaction?


CICILLINE: Yes. Did they reach out to you in some way to express dissatisfaction?




TAPPER: Now, I'm sorry. That's part of the hearing that the House Democrats are pointing to.

Would that be perjury if President Trump was asking Whitaker, can Berman take back -- take the case, can he unrecuse himself, if it's just a matter of subjective interpretation?

BHARARA: Yes, probably not.

The quality of a perjury prosecution often rests on the quality of the questions that have been asked and the follow-up questions that have been asked, and the precision with which you're trying to pin someone down on something.

You saw in that exchange there -- and I have heard you talk about it, Jake, I think on late-night television this week, yourself -- that sometimes you get asked a question, and the person, rather than answering the direct question, quibbles a little bit with the language used.

And so that exchange we just saw turns on whether the characterization of the communication being lashing out or not is a fair interpretation. And Matt Whitaker could simply say, in his defense, well, I didn't consider it to be lashing out. It was a different kind of communication.

And so it's going to be very hard, given the nature of the questioning the nature of the answers that were given, to make out a perjury case. But, look, I think you could ask the question now. You could call Whitaker back. He remains someone in the Justice Department. He hasn't left the building yet.

And follow up and ask better questions the second time around.

TAPPER: Take a listen to what the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Democrat Jerry Nadler of New York, told our Manu Raju right after that hearing a couple weeks ago.


MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: When you look back at it, was he truthful to your committee during his testimony?

REP. JERROLD NADLER (D), NEW YORK: We are reviewing the testimony. I'm not so sure he was truthful in everything he said.

RAJU: Do you think that he misled the committee?

NADLER: He may have. I don't want to say definitely until we finish reviewing it.


TAPPER: That's a pretty bold thing to say, even though they hadn't reviewed it at the time.

BHARARA: Yes, look, I think -- I think you can think of a witness as being not particularly candid, not particularly forthcoming, and maybe cute at times.

And I watched most of the Whitaker hearing, and I thought those characterizations are appropriate with respect to his testimony. That's a far cry, depending on the circumstances, from being able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the elements of perjury charge, which is a different -- that's a whole different ball game.

TAPPER: One legal expert told "The Times" that she believed there is evidence showing that the president had -- quote -- "corrupt intent" to try to derail the Mueller investigation, and that presumably is the legal standard for an obstruction of justice case.

Do you agree with that assessment?

BHARARA: Yes, I think that's -- I think that's the standard.

I don't know all the evidence that they have. Certainly, there's a pattern of behavior over time. But, look, if you isolate any particular incident, even on this one that I have already called an outrage and an attempt at interference, the devil is also in the details.

And even according to Maggie and her colleagues, their excellent reporting, and they're careful reporters, they are -- they are careful to say in the lead of their story not that it was a direction, not that it was an order, not that he asked it to be done, but asked whether it was possible or whether it was OK.

TAPPER: Right.

BHARARA: And that's wiggle room.

And you and I know, if you live in the real world, that a polite question can have the force of an order if it's coming from the president of the United States, but that's where the gray area is. And that's where the fight will be.

TAPPER: All right, Preet Bharara, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

BHARARA: Thanks.

TAPPER: So the president called this "New York Times" report fake news before he even read it. This isn't the first time the president has used that tactic for news that ends up being not fake, but true.

Then, Senator Bernie Sanders is getting a warm welcome to the 2020 race, as President Trump weighs in on Sanders' new presidential run. Stay with us.


[16:17:39] TAPPER: We're back with the breaking news.

President Trump denying that he asked then Acting Attorney General Matt Whittaker if it was possible for the U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, a supporter of the president's, to unrecuse himself from the Southern District of New York investigation into the president's role in 2016 hush money payments to alleged former lovers of the president's.

The president today calling the story fake news. It is, of course, worth noting the president does have something of a history of denying the accuracy of stories that he and his team then eventually do come to admit are true, such as the time on Air Force One, the president said he knew nothing about the payment to Stormy Daniels.

We now, of course, know that to be false, or when he denied that he was having any business dealings with Russia, the president is lawyer then admitted talks about a Trump Tower Moscow continued deep into 2016. So, really, it just does seem that fake news often means news that President Trump doesn't like, even if he subsequently admits that it's not fake anyway.

Let's talk about this all with our experts.

Bill Kristol, how significant do you think the story is -- asking Whitaker if it's possible for Berman to unrecuse himself and take control of that Southern District investigation?

BILL KRISTOL, CONSERVATIVE WRITER: Well, I guess Whitaker testified -- sort of testified that he had never been ordered by Trump I think he said, right?

TAPPER: Right.

KRISTOL: To interfere in the investigation. But this maybe wasn't an order, suggestion, or, yes, kind of idea, you know, kicking around some ideas on the phone.

So, I -- he will be, I assume, called back to Congress or certainly asked by others as to the truth of this. It's a little hard to see how a phone call came these two people -- I mean, unless Whitaker -- there are only two possible sources. Trump really didn't tell people this. Whitaker must have told people I guess.

There's account of the conversation which then "The New York Times" found out about from these other people presumably. So strikes me that there must be some truth to it.

TAPPER: And, of course, we know also from "The Times" report that though there's no evidence that "The Times" found of any attempt to intervene by Whitaker, he did tell associates at the Justice Department that the prosecutors in New York needed, quote, adult supervision.

Rob Khuzami who is the deputy U.S. attorney and seems plenty adult to me, I'm not sure what adult supervision means in that context. What do you -- what do you --

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, in the immediate future, it seems to me that this story and revelations that it's such as they are maybe more perilous to Whitaker and particularly if he remained attorney general will be more problematic for Trump but since he's on his way out, maybe not as big a deal.

[16:20:02] But it all reads very much like sort of par for the course. Trump not at all caring or knowing what the boundaries are for making these calls.

TAPPER: What do you think would happen just hypothetically if this were a story about a Democrat doing this for an investigation into him or herself?

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: We'd be over on the Hill right now watching the takedown of that person.

KRISTOL: What happened is that James Comey in a press conference because the attorney general had recused herself because she and Bill Clinton had met on a plane for half an hour.

FINNEY: To talk about their kids, right.

TAPPER: Fully recused but I take --

FINNEY: Fair --

KRISTOL: Whatever, you know what I mean.

TAPPER: It was a brouhaha.



FINNEY: There's the thing, though. I think if it were a Democrat, we would not have even gotten to this point because as you point out this is a pattern, right? Once again, we have someone who works for the Trump administration lying in front of Congress to protect the president.

TAPPER: Allegedly he lied.

FINNEY: Allegedly.


FINNEY: He would have lied if this conversation was true. We have the president once again circumventing the rule of laws allegedly deciding to do what he wants to do. And again, it's all about Trump, right? Every single action that he takes, it's all about protecting him, it's about perceiving that all of the branches of government are really just supposed to exist to protect him as his lawyer or his Treasury Department or his military to build his wall.

So, I think it's just a pattern, but I think if it was a Democrat, we would not have gotten to this point. They would have been taken down a long time ago.

TAPPER: And we have heard from previous reporting that President Trump has bemoaned the fact that he didn't have an Eric Holder or a Bobby Kennedy to protect him the way that in his mind, Eric Holder protected Obama or Bobby Kennedy protected President Kennedy.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: And, in fact, unprecedented at least in my memory. I haven't found any precedent looking online. This president interviewed the candidates to be the U.S. attorney for the Southern District. Our colleague Preet Bharara was there. He talked to Preet first, deciding for whatever reasons he didn't want to keep Preet, who was a very accomplished prosecutor.

So, I -- there's never been a time where a president interviewed U.S. attorneys, which is several steps below the attorney general, in that exact office. So, Geoffrey Berman who had to recuse himself and did to his great credit following the rule of law.

This is textbook obstruction of justice. It's just -- if true -- if true, it may be -- it may be false. President may be right. He's entitled to the presumption of innocence, but, boy howdy, this looks like obstruction if true.

TAPPER: I want to read this passage which details how initially the president wasn't concerned about the Southern District of New York investigation.

The president told advisors that Mr. Rosenstein, that's the deputy attorney general, assured him at the time that the Cohen investigation had nothing to do with him and the president recounting Mr. Rosenstein told him that the inquiry in New York was about Mr. Cohen's business dealings. It did not involve the president. It was not about Russia.

Since then, Mr. Trump has asked at advisors if Mr. Rosenstein was deliberately misleading him to keep him calm.

Well, that was a decent suspicion.

HAM: Well, yes -- no, I think there's plenty of things and plenty of the investigations that Trump is worried about being embarrassed by. That does not mean also that the furthest sort of biggest collusion theories are real. But I think there are real things that he's concerned about, and he again does not observe rules or limits on what he's allowed to do.

I think it's important that these attempts are largely failed and that Mueller who's the person who I actually do to believe believed to be a fair broker and has the power to figure all this out -- unfortunately, he's the one guy who can't talk openly. But he knows more than all we do.

I do -- I do want to push back on the idea that we wouldn't be here with a Democratic president, because there are only so many options. There's investigation, indictment and impeachment. Investigation is happening, I think would have happened when Democratic president as well. Indictment, unlikely for any president.

And then, impeachment -- politically, you have to make that decision. And it's a really tough decision to make because as we've seen, it doesn't always work out great for the party that impeaches.

FINNEY: I would just say the partisan me is really suggesting that we would -- we wouldn't be here at this moment because we would have already impeached the person. We would not have gotten this far. I mean, how many times --

HAM: Not sure that worked out well.

FINNEY: How many times are we going to give this president the benefit of the doubt when we know how many times or at least have a fair sense of how many times he willfully lies to the American people?

HAM: Because it's actually a process by which --


FINNEY: I understand that.

TAPPER: And we're going through.

FINNEY: But he also had Republicans to protect him for the first two years. I think many of them are now regretting that because, you know, their own -- some of them lost their seats because of this.

BEGALA: Just keep in mind, in this case, in the Southern District, you know, the Michael Cohen case, Mr. Cohen who we know to be a liar but still swore under oath to the judge that Donald Trump told him to break the law, making Donald Trump effectively an unindicted co- conspirator in the case that Trump is now alleged are intervening.

TAPPER: All right. Everyone, stick around.

The confessions keep coming from former FBI Acting Director Andrew McCabe and now, he's admitting he talked to the one person President Trump may fear the most. Who's that?

Stay with us.



[16:29:25] UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Have you been interviewed by Mueller?



TAPPER: Oh. That was former FBI Acting Director Andrew McCabe acknowledging for the first time publicly that he has been interviewed by the team of special counsel Robert Mueller. McCabe opened the counterintelligence and obstruction of justice investigations into President Trump after the president fired then FBI Director James Comey, saying later that the Russia thing was on his mind when he did so.

In McCabe's new book, he spent -- we should note he spent two decades at the FBI. McCabe describes briefing top Republican and Democratic congressional leaders and the heads of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees about the investigations into President Trump, all eight of them, and not one of them objected, he said.

CNN justice correspondent Jessica Schneider has more.