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NYT: Trump Asked Acting A.G. Whitaker to Put U.S. Attorney in Charge of Cohen Investigation Despite Recusal; Worker Details Alleged Ballot Fraud as North Carolina Congressional Race Hangs in Balance. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired February 19, 2019 - 13:30   ET


[13:30:00] MARK MAZZETTI, WASHINGTON INVESTIGATIONS EDITOR, NEW YORK TIMES (via telephone): Whitaker said he had not been pressured. And as we say in the story, House investigators are now examining Whitaker's comments and investigating whether he might have committed perjury.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: They're looking into whether he just committed perjury.

So looking, big picture here, big picture, what would this do to Robert Mueller's Russia investigation? How does this affect this?

MAZZETTI: This particular incident wouldn't necessarily affect the Mueller investigation, because this other district is doing its own examination independent of Mueller. What we tried to do in the story, though, was to document this really unprecedented campaign by the president and his allies to thwart these different investigations. Sometimes it's so public that we sometimes forget how extraordinary it is. But when you look at it and look at the vigor with which the president has tried to, you know, in a way derail these investigations, you can see that this campaign has been going on in secret for quite some time. This is one of the things, of course, Mueller is looking at about whether there's actual obstruction of justice. That's what we kind of set out to do with this long piece.

KEILAR: We really appreciate you sharing it with us. Mark Mazzetti, bombshell report. Also want to draw attention to your colleagues that did this with you, Maggie Haberman, Nicholas Fandos and Michael Schmidt.

Bringing my panel back in to talk about this.

David Gregory, this is a long report so we certainly appreciate Mark giving us the cliff notes on it.

What do you think about this? How significant is this, especially when -- it was interesting to hear Mark say sometimes things don't register just because of how outside the norm some of the details of what's gone on is.

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: What we've known for a long time since the president has been in office is he wanted an attorney general who would be loyal, in his words. He fired Jeff Sessions and was upset with Sessions for recusing himself because he wanted the Mueller investigation put away, done away with. He said he fired Jim Comey, for example, for exactly that reason. Mark Whitaker is a guy who said nice things about Trump. He publicly criticized the Mueller investigation. Now you have the real meat on this. The president acting on this loyalty expectation and saying, look, move the pieces around the investigative board here. Get me somebody who can make this go away or who can control this. The fact that Whitaker, based on this reporting, initially said, no, I can't do that, shows how far this president wants to push. The Justice Department, which is his Justice Department, must maintain independence at all times, and that's the wall the president is trying to breach.

KEILAR: April, at the beginning of this story, what you have to remember about Matt Whitaker is he is someone who, privately, this report notes, had told associates that part of the role at the Justice Department was to jump on a grenade for the president.


KEILAR: Right? So jump on a grenade, those are in quotes, that's something he said to others. Even with that in mind, when the president, according to this report, asks Whitaker to do this, he says essentially, no, this can't be done. He knows this can't be done. And it would have been silly -- Jack Quinn, you can speak to that in a moment -- to do this. And the president sours on Mark Whitaker, in part, because of this. What do you think?

APRIL RYAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: There's a lot here. First of all, this is beyond loyalty. When people talk about constitutional crisis, if this is indeed true, there's a constitutional crisis. There's an issue where there's not a separation of the Department of Justice and the White House. You are not -- in the White House you are not supposed to reach into the Department of Justice and influence any kind of investigation or situation. And, you know, for Mark Whitaker to say, I would fall on a grenade, it's almost similar that some people have said in the past, I'll fall on a sword for the president. It's almost the same thing. But he did not do the bidding when he investigated the depths of this. That's why there's a breach. At the time this allegedly happened, there was no learning curve here. The president knew what he was doing.


KEILAR: This is late last year.

RYAN: Late last year, which --


KEILAR: This was a few months ago. A few months ago. Not only late last year, a few months ago.

RYAN: No learning curve just late last year.

KEILAR: Jack Quinn, I also want to point out this is really the bombshell, but this is a wide-ranging, expansive story by "The Times" talking about a concerted effort beyond this bombshell. This is sort of a campaign, if you will, by the White House, by President Trump, by his allies. There's no learning curve, Jack Quinn, at this point in time, so how would this work with, say, an obstruction piece of the Mueller investigation when it goes to the president -- the president clearly would know that this is wrong. It goes to intent.

[13:35:10] JACK QUINN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: This will feed into impeachment articles involving obstruction, involving abuse of his office. I can't think of anything more abusive of the power of the presidency than trying to rig an investigation in which he has a clear personal interest.

RYAN: That's right.

QUINN: This is an impeachable offense.

KEILAR: This is an impeachable offense.

QUINN: In my opinion, it is. I'm predict -- I'm quite confident I will not be wrong -- that this will appear in an article of impeachment one day down the road.

KEILAR: Phil Mudd, what do you think?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I'm going to break here and say it's a good news day for America. If you look at every step of the way where we've had the American people question the integrity of the man in the Oval Office, question the Congress, and you look at every step from people Americans don't like, Jeff Sessions, Rod Rosenstein. You look at people who might question Robert Mueller, that's very few. Then you look at people who are openly partisan, Matt Whitaker. In every step there's an element that includes judges, prosecutors, who in the wake of American distrust, the American government said, we will do what we are paid to do and we will be immune to political pressure. It's a rare day I may walk home and say we're actually OK.


KEILAR: And, Jack, we're going to get in a quick break.

But before we do, Jack Quinn, you said this is an impeachable offense. Is there something about this that to you makes this a watershed detail?

QUINN: Well, I haven't even had a chance to read the article. But just being told that the president was trying to put in charge of the investigation in the southern district of New York -- by the way, a U.S. attorney's office with a longstanding reputation for both integrity and independence -- that he was trying to put in there one of his own political appointees. For what purpose? Again, to rig the investigation, to make it OK for the president, to protect him. That is an abuse of our system of justice.

(CROSSTALK) RYAN: And the middle man right here is saying the president himself versus someone else being told by the president. There's a direct correlation here.

KEILAR: We're going to get in a quick break.

Bombshell report coming from the "New York Times." The president tried to put in place, through his newly installed attorney general, and was rebuffed, someone who might have been more friendly to him in the investigation to those hush money payments that he paid porn star, Stormy Daniels, and former Playboy playmate, Karen McDougall. We'll have more in just a moment.


[13:42:29] KEILAR: We have more now on our breaking news. The "New York Times" is reporting that the president spoke with his acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker -- so this was just a few months ago, late last year, shortly after Whitaker took over for Jeff Sessions -- about the idea he wanted the U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York to unrecuse himself from the Michael Cohen investigation as the investigation was getting wider and as the president was implicated in it.

I want to read one more quote, one quote from this article. It says, quote, "An examination by the 'New York Times' reveals the extent of an even more sustained, more secretive assault by Mr. Trump on the machinery of federal law enforcement. Interviews with dozens of current and former government officials and others close to Mr. Trump as well as a review of confidential White House documents reveal numerous unreported episodes in a two-year drama."

Joining us now, former Republican Congressman Ryan Costello.

We want to get your take on this. We just heard from Mr. Quinn, who was a White House counsel in the Clinton years.

There you are. Hello.


You moved.

He said this is an impeachable offense. I wonder, what do you think?

RYAN COSTELLO, (R), FORMER CONGRESSMAN: I think it's too early -- we have to sift through this and figure out -- you know, reports are just reports. It's very difficult for me to imagine that any attempt to unrecuse oneself from an investigation really was met with any degree of seriousness. Again, breaking news, so it's very difficult --


KEILAR: Well, it wasn't. Whitaker actually, who is clearly an ally of President Trump's, rebuffs this effort. And he essentially says that this cannot be done because there seems to be an understanding of what that would mean. So it isn't met with seriousness from his acting attorney general. But with the president's desire to do this, what do you think?

COSTELLO: It would be better if he didn't have that desire if, in fact, he had that desire.

To Jack's point earlier, the president of the United States, as any, frankly, official needs to recognize, is that when there's an ongoing investigation, be it federal, state, local, the last thing you do in an executive or legislative position is try and dictate who should or should not be investigating. That does get into abuse of power, tight implications.

[13:45:07] KEILAR: Yes, as reported.

COSTELLO: As reported, right?

KEILAR: Yes, that's right, as reported.

And to be clear, this is a very long report. It's a comprehensive report as you just heard us there explaining what the times details this report is based on. This isn't just one bombshell. This is them detailing a campaign, really, of what mainly shows, in your case, Jack Quinn, a case for obstruction? How important was it that this bombshell was recent?

QUINN: There's an old adage in the law that says no man may be the judge of his own case. OK? Well, a parallel and kissing cousin corollary to that is you can't have your best friend or somebody who you pay to serve as your own judge. You can't rig the process. And that's what's abusive about this. I mean, the president here, if this is accurate, the president is trying to stack the deck, fix the cards, you know? He's trying to make sure that this investigation is not honest, conducted with integrity, based on the facts, but rather based on political loyalty. That is an abuse of process.

RYAN: But why should we be surprised that he's tried to rig this? I mean, he's playing this out in the court of public opinion. He's gone after people publicly on social media, on Twitter. He's talked about the Russia investigation, how it was a witch hunt how many times? He's trying to change the minds of people publicly. And then behind the scenes, we've heard the things he's already done. This is not really -- it's not surprising. And the problem is that now we are hearing these things. Republicans who support this president quietly will say he's a flawed person, but, you know, he's doing what we want to do. When do you say when? And if this is indeed true and they get this, what happens? Are the Republicans in the Senate going to impeach him? Will they impeach him if this is bought -- if the House starts, will this happen?

COSTELLO: I think the one thing to add here, the facts are the facts. The reality is no one was reinserted, right? So it --


RYAN: But he attempted to. COSTELLO: That's what the report is. But assuming all of this is

true, right, and it's an assumption, he said something -- he said to do something that wasn't allowed to be done but it never got done. So how far do you really go with that?

KEILAR: Jack, answer that question. At least in this one instance, just looking at this instance in an isolated fashion, trying to obstruct versus succeeding at obstructing, where is the law on that?


RYAN: So an attempt.

QUINN: We're talking about really two separate things. One is, in doing this, did he break the law? Did he violent the U.S. code in some form or fashion? I'm not going to sit here and, again, on the basis of an article that I haven't even read yet, say that I could come to that legal conclusion. But when Richard Nixon was -- when articles of impeachment were drafted in connection with Nixon's activities, the abuse of process articles of impeachment were not so much about his violating the U.S. code, they were about his manipulation of the officers of the government. For example, trying to get the Central Intelligence Agency to shut down an investigation being conducted by the FBI. That sort of thing, I believe, is what the founders had in mind when they considered that a president should be subject to impeachment in circumstances where it could be proven that he or she abused the power of their office for personal benefit. That's what impeachment is about.

KEILAR: And real quick, we're going to get a break in here, but when you advise a client who is implicated in anything as a lawyer, is one of the first things you do -- it's sort of a hands off, right? Step back. Don't meddle.

QUINN: Especially when my client was -- and I've been in this situation -- when my client was the president of the United States. I mean, we would never have thought about interfering in the conduct of investigations in any part of the Department of Justice. I wrote a memo to everybody on the White House staff saying, we do not do that. You do not get involved in investigations, you do not get involved in transactions such as mergers. We don't do that, except under very strictly supervised procedures and standards.

And, in my time as counsel to the president of the United States, I think I can count on one hand since the president of the United States had a conversation with the attorney general without people present.

[13:50:29] KEILAR: I'm going have you guys stand by for me, if you will.

We are getting in a quick break. Bombshell report coming in from the "New York Times." We'll be back if just a moment.


[13:55:02] KEILAR: In North Carolina, election officials are trying to get to the bottom of an alleged voter fraud scheme that entailed the illegal collection and possible disposal of absentee ballots. Today is day two of the hearing, calling into question the victory of Republican Mark Harris in North Carolina's 9th congressional district. The results are on hold as the state elections board investigates.

We have Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party.

Dallas, thanks for being with us.


KEILAR: So this was a race decided by 905 votes. You are saying, when you look at the number of fraudulent ballots, it still wouldn't deliver the election for the Democrat Dan McCready. So the Republican, Mark Harris, his lead should stand. I wonder since it's clear how many votes were submitted by the folks involved in this voter fraud conspiracy, which the board is now saying this is what happened, how you can be so sure that your math is correct when it's based on unclear numbers?

WOODHOUSE: Well, a couple of things here. You, in your lead-in, talked about destroyed ballots. There has been a day-and-a-half of testimony. Not one piece of evidence or testimony that showed any ballots were discarded. I, from my count, eliminated 20 or 40 votes improperly collected unsealed. That puts the lead somewhere in the 880 range, maybe the 870 range. I think it's important to note what we have determined so far in the hearing is there have been no evidence of votes being destroyed. There has also been no evidence that the early voting totals were leaked out in a way that effected the race.


KEILAR: I hear what you're saying about the early voting. I want to talk specifically about when it comes to McCready, Dallas, the guys behind this. You say there's no evidence ballots were destroyed, yet that's sort of like proving a negative.

WOODHOUSE: Well, no, ma'am, you know the people who said they would have cast a ballot. They have conducted hundreds of interviews down there. They have investigated that. The board has not found that. That have been investigated. So far we see no evidence of it.


WOODHOUSE: You can't assume things where there's no evidence, ma'am.

KEILAR: I want to -- I want to talk about the evidence. Because we talked to you about what the evidence would bring when you talked to Drew Griffin. Let's listen to this back in December.


WOODHOUSE: Clearly, if what you reported is verified by the state Board of Elections, there has to be another election and if the allegations presented by the Board of Elections arise to the level of determining the outcome of this race or a substantial likelihood, there has to be a new election.


KEILAR: So why the change in your tune?

WOODHOUSE: Well, two things. Number one -- and I contacted that CNN reporter weeks later and told them I think they needed to work to retract that story. His actual allegation in that story was over a thousand ballots --


KEILAR: You, hey --


KEILAR: You -- hey -- let's talk about what you said.


WOODHOUSE: I'm answering the question. Hold on.

KEILAR: You said if there was fraud.

WOODHOUSE: Ma'am, I was referring to his story, and his story, the quote was, if your story is correct. His story turned out not to be correct. I don't think he misreported anything. He talked about an allegation. The allegation was that thousands of ballots were destroyed --


WOODHOUSE: That didn't happen, no, ma'am.

KEILAR: No, Dallas, you just said he didn't misreport anything. I feel like you are splitting hairs here.


WOODHOUSE: Ma'am, I'm not when it's unclear how many ballots how can it be unfair?

KEILAR: I don't believe it is.


He said a thousand ballots were destroyed. That story has not turned out to be true.

KEILAR: There were many ballots destroyed --


WOODHOUSE: -- a thousand ballots.

KEILAR: It is unclear. It is unclear how many ballots --


KEILAR: -- were turned in.

You cited evidence of destroyed ballots.

KEILAR: I said it is unclear.

WOODHOUSE: It has not come out in this hearing.

KEILAR: Dallas, Dallas, listen to me, just listen to me. It's unclear how many ballots were turned in. It is also unclear if ballots were destroyed. So how can you be so sure of your math that you would stake your reputation on relying on information from people involved in a voter fraud conspiracy?

WOODHOUSE: Well, ma'am, I have stated all along that people who broke the law should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Number two, we are going by what the evidence has been presented. There has been no evidence presented of destroyed ballots. And the Board of Elections has not stated they found any.


WOODHOUSE; I don't know what you are going by.

KEILAR: The Board of Elections states --


WOODHOUSE; I'm going by the evidence.

KEILAR: The Board of Elections stated that there was fraud and that it was very clear and that it was intentional. And you're talking about a Republican candidate who hired this consulting firm and actually he with his personal involvement -