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AT THIS HOUR

McCabe: "It's Possible" Trump is a Russian Asset; NYT: Trump Pressed Acting A.G. to Interfere in Russia Investigation, Cohen Probe; Trump Legal Team Reached Out to Manafort, Flynn Attorneys on Possible Pardons; NYT Report Takes Closer Look at Rep. Nunes Link to Trump. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired February 20, 2019 - 11:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[11:00:00] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: From Yosemite National Park, this is a phenomenon called a Fire Fall. When the setting sun hits a waterfall at just the right angle, it creates the illusion of lava off the cliff there. Get there fast. It ends this weekend.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: It looks like a painting of the sun.

It's gorgeous, yes.

Thanks for being with us today. I'm Poppy Harlow.

SCIUTTO: I'm Jim Sciutto.

"AT THIS HOUR" starts right now.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan.

A campaign of fear and intimidation in the West Wing. This morning the president is facing a jaw-dropping new charge. The former acting director of the FBI Andrew McCabe telling CNN he thinks it is possible that the sitting president of the United States could be working for Russia. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR, "ANDERSON COOPER 360": Do you still believe the president could be a Russian asset?

ANDREW MCCABE, FORMER ACTING FBI DIRECTOR: I think it's possible. I think that's why we started our investigation and I'm really anxious to see where Director Mueller concludes that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: Add to that a big report from the "New York Times" outlining how the president has spent the last two years trying to undermine and stop two of the major investigations that have been dogged his presidency, the Russia investigation, and the investigation into his long time personal attorney, Michael Cohen. Which is raising new red flags about possible obstruction of justice after "The Times" reports that the president asked acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, to put someone Trump perceives as an ally back in charge of the Cohen investigation even after he had recused himself.

CNN's Jessica Schneider is in Washington with much more.

Jessica, CNN had previously reported that the president and Whitaker have talked in the past, couple of months, had talked about the Cohen investigation. The "New York Times" is giving much more detail what could have been included in those conversations.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Kate, our team reported that a few months ago, that the president lashed out at the acting attorney general at least twice after Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow deal. Now really this "New York Times" piece is giving us a bit more insight into the back story of President Trump's wrath.

The president apparently asked Whitaker if the U.S. attorney out of New York City who Trump appointed could be installed to oversee this Cohen investigation. This is important for several reasons. First, this was the investigation into that hush money payment that Cohen made to women who allegedly had affairs with Trump. And in that complaint prosecutors implicated the president himself as an unindicted coconspirator for directing these payments. The president had a direct stake, and maybe still does in this probe. Plus, the U.S. attorney who Trump wanted installed was Jeffrey Berman, of the southern district of New York in Manhattan. Of course, Jeff Berman had already recused himself because of his ties to the president including working on Trump's transition as well as his contribution to the president's campaign. Really despite Jeff Berman's clear recusal from this case, "The Times" says the president attempted to interfere by making this request of Whitaker.

When Matthew Whitaker was asked about any conversations he had with the president about the Michael Cohen case when he testified before Congress just a few weeks ago, Whitaker refused to answer directly. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MATT WHITAKER, FORMER ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL: 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCHNEIDER: So just yesterday, after the "New York Times" report, the Justice Department issued a statement reiterating Whitaker's words and saying, "Mr. Whitaker stands by his testimony." Of course, the president has also denied the "New York Times" story, calling it fake news.

But, Kate, that "New York Times" report about these conversations and the president perhaps pressuring Whitaker, still a big story here.

BOLDUAN: And there's also this detail and it almost seemed glossed over in this wide-ranging piece that the "New York Times" did about Trump's legal team reaching out to Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn's attorneys to discuss possible pardons.

SCHNEIDER: The question of these possible presidential pardons, this has really always been lingering behind these indictments and guilty pleas of people like Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort. "The Times" is now reporting that pardons were in fact discussed with their lawyers. It was in the summer of 2017 when one of Trump's lawyers reportedly reached out to the attorneys for Manafort and Flynn to discuss these possible pardons. Think about the timing here. Summer of 2017, this was well before Paul Manafort's trial in Virginia. It was before Michael Flynn really fully cooperated with the special counsel prosecutors. So, Kate, this really does raise some questions about the president perhaps dangling these pardons to influence their decisions about whether to plead guilty or even how much or whether to fully cooperate with the special counsel here -- Kate?

[11:05:07] BOLDUAN: Sure raises a whole host of questions.

Thank you, Jessica. Good to see you.

Joining me for more is Asha Rangappa, a former FBI special agent and CNN legal and national security analyst. Shan Wu is here as well, CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor.

Shan, let's just start right there with what Jessica was talking about. Is there another reason to reach out and discuss a possible pardon from the president's legal team if it is not to influence how someone would cooperate when an investigation is being built?

SHAN WU, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I would say, no, I'm not sure what Mr. Giuliani and others might come up, but I would say no. And more importantly for any seasoned criminal defense attorney, much less someone like Giuliani, it would be obvious that you would not want to talk to any of those people given who you are about the possibility of a pardon precisely to be wary of this kind of a take on it. So all the other talk of obstruction is very complex of course, it gets into the unitary executive ability, can the president really do something wrong if he's in charge of the executive branch. But this type of communication about the pardon with these folks at that time, to me, is the closest to really making a criminal obstruction case. It could be very dependent on the details of that communication. And I think it converts the president's legal team into witnesses.

BOLDUAN: That's a fascinating point that you raise.

I want to get your reaction further on obstruction, Shan.

Asha, I want to get your reaction when you heard Andrew McCabe, the former acting director of the FBI, say that he thinks it is still possible that Donald Trump is a Russian asset.

ASHA RANGAPPA, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY & LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think that he's articulating the basis on which the FBI opened a counter intelligence investigation, that they were very concerned he might be compromised. I do think it's important to clarify the terminology that McCabe used. When we say asset, we are referring in the intelligence world to someone who is being actively directed and controlled by a foreign power, being tasked, perhaps being paid. And I think it's important to understand that someone does not have to be in that kind of fully conscious witting position to still be acting in the interest of a foreign power and to be a threat to national security. So even if Trump is not an asset in the strict sense but is overly influenced or motivated by desire to please Putin for whatever reason over the interests of the United States, that would still be of interest to counter intelligence investigators and a potential threat to national security.

BOLDUAN: And that's a really interesting point. Shan, as we all heard Andrew McCabe say that, it kind of dawns on you that if that was a case, if the president was and possible is still an asset of Russia, isn't that the definition of a national emergency? And I'm trying to not be so cute on this. Isn't that something of a problem that this wasn't brought forward in the past two years if the FBI and the Justice Department thought that the president could be a Russian asset?

WU: I think it absolutely is a moment of crisis. I think the atmosphere that we have heard about in those days particularly after Comey's firing reflects that sense of crisis. I don't think it would have been prudent to be having Mueller or the Justice Department talking about that right now. I think they absolutely had to open the investigation. It placed those folks, the upper echelons in a terribly difficult position. What do you do if the president is the suspect? You can't really go brief the president on it. So they had to move forward with the investigation. Speaking about it now, we don't know what else they have found. Talking about it too much now I think would be very improper on their part. It's an explosive allegation. They had a predicate to investigation. They should keep quiet until they can make some progress on it.

BOLDUAN: This comes down to renewed focus on McCabe again. He was determined to have misled or lied to investigates at the FBI on three different occasions in an internal investigation in his role in speaking with the media about another investigation. Do you think his credibility should be in question here since he is trying to sell a book?

[11:09:59] RANGAPPA: Well, I think we do have to take his credibility into account. I think that, you know, I trust the systems in place internally. If the I.G. report said he lacked candor, that's something to be taken into account. The question is, what is McCabe saying consistent with other behavior we have seen in the public sphere from Trump with regard to his attitude and behavior toward Putin. I have to look at his words in Helsinki where he took the words of Putin over our intelligence assessment, his slow rolling sanctions against Russia, his outrage that we expelled diplomats after the Salisbury poisoning. All of these things are not normal behavior for an American president looking out for U.S. interests and acting on behalf of our allies. In this instance, I would tend to credit McCabe's account of his concerns regarding the president's allegiances and loyalties and behavior.

BOLDUAN: Shan, back to the conversations that the president had with the acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, about trying to get the U.S. attorney in New York back on the Cohen case even though he recused himself. Where is the legal line of obstruction here?

WU: It's such a unique situation. Basically Trump's trying to put his thumb on the scale a little bit. He's thinking that Berman is going to be friendly to him, maybe he'll quash the investigation. That action reflects his fundamental misunderstanding of two things, recusal and human nature. Berman as a public official is saying I'm conflicted, I have to recuse, I can't do an impartial job of prosecuting here . No matter what Trump has Whitaker say, they can't change that. You can't force him to say I'm not unbiassed. Secondly that's a man who's worked his whole life to get to a pinnacle. He's going to be the United States attorney for the southern district of New York. He's not a lifelong lackey to the president. He doesn't have to throw out all his scruples just to satisfy the president. So the idea that something can be changed is silly to begin with. Is it corrupt intent? Probably. Does that rise to corrupt intent, telling a witness to change their story? Probably not. That's the factual gray area. Then there's the big legal gray area of whether or not a sitting president can ever obstruct something going on in his own Justice Department, something that the president will argue is impossible.

BOLDUAN: This would also come down to a question of what the incoming attorney general, Bill Barr, would think of that. A big mystery on his thoughts on that one.

Good to see you guys. Thank you so much. Really appreciate it.

WU: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Coming up for us, there are new revelations about how top lawmakers learned about the FBI investigation into President Trump. What did the Gang of Eight know and did they tell anyone about this classified briefing?

Plus, nearly $6 million in 24 hours. Bernie Sanders starting off strong to say the least. What does it say about the state of the race?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:17:25] BOLDUAN: New details this morning about what happened inside the room when the acting director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, and the deputy attorney general went to Capitol Hill to brief top lawmakers known as the Gang of Eight on two incredibly sensitive things. One that the FBI had launched counter intelligence into President Trump and obstruction investigations into President Trump and also that the deputy attorney general had made the decision to appoint a special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation.

So what happened next? Andrew McCabe says not a single person objected and he says somehow classified information got back to the president about what was discussed there. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANDREW MCCABE, FORMER ACTING FBI DIRECTOR: It was my expectation that it would likely be relayed back to the president, partially because of the presence of Devin Nunes. His interactions at the White House and the impropriety of the information he exchanged at the White House is well known. As we began that briefing, a situation I lay out in the book, I was concerned about being able to keep that information that we were discussing confidential and close hold. And it is my belief that that information got back to the president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: Joining me right now is the former Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania, Charlie Dent. He's now a CNN political commentator.

Congressman, I want to get your reaction to hearing that. McCabe says he thinks Nunes told the White House, told the president about their briefing on this investigation into the president.

CHARLIE DENT, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Kate, it seems to me that nobody has any evidence to back that up. I mean, could that have happened? Absolutely. But we don't know that. I mean, they conducted a briefing. They made the charges, at least the recommendation of a counter intelligence and obstruction investigation of the president. Could it have gotten back to the president? Absolutely. But I don't know that anybody's in a position to make that kind of accusation.

BOLDUAN: And he doesn't offer up any additional information. When asked for further detail about what was said, McCabe does hesitate because he says I can't go into it because it's a classified setting. That is part of it. But it does get to, if this would be true, I do wonder if -- Nunes is still in Congress. He faced the House ethics committee before in his communications with the White House on a separate matter. Would you think he should face them again over this?

[11:19:57] DENT: Look, absent some specific information that he or one other member of Congress would have shared this classified material with the president, that probably is more than just an ethical matter, it would be a criminal matter. Again, we don't have any evidence. This is speculation on the part of Mr. McCabe suggesting that Kevin Nunes might have leaked this to the president. Could it have happened? Absolutely. But absent some kind of credible evidence, I don't think anybody could proceed with that type of investigation.

BOLDUAN: Excellent point.

Also coming out of that exhaustive "New York Times" report, on the lengths that is the president went to influence and stop the Russia investigation is also how other Republican members of Congress coordinated a P.R. push to discredit the Russia investigation, but also beyond that even coordinating with the president on it and using their oversight roles in Congress to do so.

Let me read you one graph from for our viewers: "The president cheered on lawmakers on Twitter, in interviews, and in private urging Mr. Gaetz on Air Force One in December 2017 and in subsequent phone calls to keep up the House Republicans' oversight work. He was hoping for fair treatment from Mr. Mueller. Mr. Trump told Gaetz in one of the calls, just after the congressman appeared on FOX News. But that did not preclude him from encouraging his allies' scrutiny of the investigation."

What do you think of that?

DENT: I have been critical of some of my Republican colleagues' oversight of this administration on Russia. I think every Republican member of Congress ought to be concerned about the president's overly conciliatory rhetoric about Vladimir Putin. When the president of the United States makes critical statements of NATO, talking about withdrawing from it, condemns the European Union on a regular basis, criticizes our allies, it's fair to ask why. Why did Putin and Russia agree to those sentences? That is Russia's foreign policy objective to break up NATO and unravel the European Union. Why would a president of the United States make those claims? If I were on Republican committees, I'd want answer from the president and his administration about where they truly stand on Russia. Why does the president have these kind feelings toward Putin? Why does he seem to have this moral equivalency? He looks at Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin on the same moral plane or Justin Trudeau and Kim Jong-Un. This is what is so baffling to me, not only as a Republican but as an American, that what is this country's policy toward Russia?

BOLDUAN: It becomes more important with each and every day. We have a new report about what Vladimir Putin is saying about the United States coming up later on the show about just that point.

As a former member of Congress, you sat on many a committee hearing, asking many a question of many a person under oath and testifying.

Again, I want to play what the acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, said during his House testimony about communication with the White House and the Russia investigation. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WHITAKER: 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: So with the "New York Times" reporting that the president did ask Whitaker to intervene in the Cohen investigation essentially, is that perjury?

DENT: Well, that's a legal question. I'm probably not the best, person to give that answer. But I will say this. Matt Whitaker did not at the end of the day -- he didn't fire Mueller. He didn't interfere with the investigation. It seems like he left Mueller alone. That was my main concern with Whitaker, that there was that concern that he'd take a whole bunch of bullets for the president or he said something to that effect.

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: He said he was going to take a grenade for him.

DENT: Take a grenade, excuse me, take a grenade. So he's going to take all these hits for the president. But at the end of the day, when it came to the critical question of the Mueller investigation, it does not appear that Mr. Whitaker did anything to interfere or obstruct that investigation. Whether or not his testimony rises to the level of perjury is something I think the House Democrats are going to pursue. They're going to summon him back and they're going to torture him in front of the committee and try to use that "New York Times" story to suggest that he, in fact, misled Congress. I'm not ready to say that's perjury, though.

BOLDUAN: Misleading Congress. We'll see what happens. You and I will watch together.

Congressman, thank you so much. Good to see you.

DENT: Oh, yes. You bet. Thanks, Kate.

[11:24:49] BOLDUAN: Coming up, Bernie Sanders is back and he is raking it in. Just 24 hours after announcing he's running for president again, the Sanders campaign is announcing some big fund- raising numbers. Is that enough to give him front-runner status?

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:29:47] BOLDUAN: He's been in the race for just about one day now. Bernie Sanders already has some bragging rights. The Sanders campaign saying this morning in the 24 hours since he launched his second race for the White House he's taken in $5.9 million. The campaign says that came from 225,000 donors with an average donation of $27. What does this major haul say about the Democratic primary and the --