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Andrew McCabe Says It's Possible Trump is a "Russian Asset"; Trump Pressured Acting Attorney General to Interfere in the Michael Cohen Probe. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired February 20, 2019 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:31] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Very good Wednesday morning to you, I'm Jim Sciutto here in New York.

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

So former FBI director Andrew McCabe piles on. Listen to this.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: 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.


HARLOW: That's a bombshell. McCabe raising serious concerns about how the Russia investigation got started at the same time serious questions today about whether the president tried to obstruct justice.

SCIUTTO: And this gets to an essential focus of the broader Russia investigation. The "New York Times" is reporting that President Trump asked then acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker if a U.S. attorney who had supported Trump in the past could take over the federal investigation into the president's former attorney and fixer Michael Cohen. The "Times" says that Whitaker said no to this request and that the attorney that the president wanted had already recused himself.

It true, however, the request would fit into a broader pattern of activity by this president, and that is seeking to place loyalists in positions of influence over the probe and remove others that he did not see as allies.

The story unfolding as we speak. A lot of details coming out this morning.


SCIUTTO: Let's start with CNN's Kara Scannell on the latest from McCabe. Kara, give us the highlights here for folks at home.

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jim. I mean, what an interview last night where McCabe continued on, you know, this tour of revelations about the inner workings of the FBI and the quote that you referenced before where he's, you know, saying that he thinks it's still possible that the president could be a Russian asset is really eye-opening.

You know, he also talked about the, quote, "head-spinning time" right after FBI director James Comey where he and was fired, where he and Rod Rosenstein were grappling to figure out, was the president obstructing justice? Was he trying to cover up what could have been an improper relationship with Russia?

Now let's take a listen to what McCabe had to say about his views of whether and how President Trump is undermining law enforcement.


MCCABE: This president is undermining the role of law enforcement, undermining the role of our intelligence infrastructure, and negatively impacting the men and women of the FBI and across the intelligence agencies' ability to protect this country on a daily basis.


SCANNELL: So there's a really kind of new revelations, new details, more information about just how the FBI was grappling with this and really kind of shocking about how they were viewing, you know, the president. It was also interesting, McCabe was asked if he thought that any of the president's family members were under investigation and he said he couldn't answer that because it might go -- relate to ongoing investigations -- Jim, Poppy.

HARLOW: All right. Kara, thank you very much.

Now to that stunning "New York Times" reporting that the president asked former acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker to have the U.S. attorney who has supported the president, donated to the president, worked on his transition, oversee the Cohen probe.

Laura Jarrett is in Washington with more.

I think a lot of people who didn't know the name Geoffrey Berman, now they do, and the president is calling all of this fake news but what can you tell us?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Poppy, the "Times" report really tries to follow on the story that Pamela Brown and I reported back in December about just how frustrated the president has been over the Michael Cohen investigations. He thinks the prosecutors in Manhattan are running amok, essentially going rogue and looking to Whitaker to do something about it. Now the "Times" takes it a step further last night reporting that he

actually called Whitaker asking him to put U.S. Attorney Berman, who he interviewed personally, back on the case despite the fact Berman had recused himself. He was someone who worked on the Trump transition, had donated to the campaign and it's not clear that Whitaker really did anything to address his concerns but the fact that he asked at all, again, is part and parcel of this whole idea of the president wanting to put in who he wants in at the Justice Department instead of following typical protocols.

The report also sort of gathered a lot of the threads that we've seen over the last two years, evidence on all of the ways that the president has tried to discredit the special counsel's investigation, trying to fire Robert Mueller, trying to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and when that didn't work he turned to Congress using a strategy to try to undermine the probe, investigate the investigators, so to speak, floating pardons -- at least his lawyer was floating pardons -- for Manafort and the former National Security adviser Michael Flynn.

All towards trying to make sure he was protected in the Russia investigation -- Poppy.

HARLOW: And on top of it, Laura, .I think everyone wants to know a little bit more about who the president is nominating for deputy Transportation secretary, Jeffrey Rosen, to be nominated as deputy AG.

[09:05:11] Can you tell us a little bit about him given the heightened interest in the position right now?

JARRETT: Sure. So the deputy attorney general position is really supposed to be the overall manager of the department, the day-to-day. He oversees all of the U.S. attorney's officers and interesting, Rosen is a pick here that has raised some eyebrows because he has no prior experience in the Justice Department. He's a longtime partner at Kirkland and Ellis with Bill Barr who is now the attorney general. He's been the deputy Transportation secretary so he's been Senate confirmed before.

But he's facing an uphill battle here given all the turmoil at the Justice Department over the past several years under Trump.

HARLOW: OK. Laura, thank you for the reporting. Stay with us.

JARRETT: Thanks.

SCIUTTO: Let's now get the president's reaction to all this. Joe Johns at the White House.

And Joe, of course, the president when presented with inconvenient information or information he doesn't like he will shout fake news. How is the president responding to this story?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: As you might expect, Jim, the president is issuing a blanket response, blanket denial, also, as you said, getting in some of his favorite digs at the news media at the same time.

Just a few minutes ago the president tweeting, the "New York Times" reporting is false. They are a true enemy of the people." And yesterday in the Oval Office the president, asked about some of this reporting, got in another one of his digs at the news media at the same issuing yet another denial. Listen.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Did you ask acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker to change the leadership of the investigation into your former personal attorney Michael Cohen?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No. Not at all. I don't know who gave you that. Just more fake news. A lot of -- there's a lot of fake -- there's a lot of fake news out there.


JOHNS: More generally, the White House Communications Office has been taking the tactic of attacking Andrew McCabe's veracity, his credibility. Of course he has certain issues with the Office of the Inspector General that led to his undoing there at the FBI so more generally the White House going after Andrew McCabe as untruthful.

Jim, back to you.

SCIUTTO: Joe Johns at the White House. Thanks very much.

To speak about this more, Laura Jarrett, back with us, as well as Jim Schultz. He's former White House lawyer under President Trump.

Thanks to both of you.

And Jim, I'd like to start with you. The fact is, this is part of a pattern here, is it not, with this president. The president was not happy with James Comey who's handling the Russia investigation, fired him. It's our reporting that he has not been happy with Chris Wray's leadership at the FBI, in part because he feels that he hasn't backed him up enough.

Of course he publicly attacked Jeff Sessions, his attorney general for two years, for his handling of the Russia probe. Put in Matt Whitaker and apparently he's disappointed with Matt Whitaker because Whitaker didn't follow through on his various request to put guardrails around this probe.

Is that ethical behavior in your view as a lawyer?

JAMES SCHULTZ, FORMER TRUMP WHITE HOUSE LAWYER: So let's talk about the Whitaker issue. So first of all, you know, Geoff Berman did the right thing in recusing himself from that matter. You've listed off the litany of connections that he had. Just the appearance of the conflict of interest there, he did the right thing. For whatever reason he decided to do it he did the right thing.

SCIUTTO: But the president didn't think it was the right thing. I mean --

SCHULTZ: So -- so let's back up a second. So even if Matt Whitaker asked Geoff Berman to get involved in that probe, Geoff Berman wasn't getting involved in that probe. And there's just -- he had recused himself. It's the -- he had obligations as a lawyer and he also had obligations to the Justice Department as a presidentially appointed Senate confirmed United States attorney.

Backing up, the president -- to answer your question about the president, we don't know whether the president made that inquiry or not. That's -- we don't -- he's denied it. Whitaker hasn't confirmed it. I don't believe that even if the president asked Whitaker to do it, Whitaker was not going to ask Berman to do because if the president made that inquiry, he probably told the president he was recused then he couldn't move forward on the case.

So, you know, even if the president did make that request, Whitaker did the right thing. Berman would have done the right thing if asked, and he wasn't even asked.

SCIUTTO: But I'm asking you, is it ethical as a lawyer for a president to make repeated requests along these lines? Set aside that Whitaker charged -- I mean, we know because the public has -- the president has very publicly attacked others for not hemming in this investigation and then he sent some of them packing.

SCHULTZ: So Jeff Sessions, for instance, who I believe did a very nice job as U.S. attorney in carrying out the missions of the Justice Department, right, he -- the president has the right to put whoever he wants in as attorney general. It's a political appointment with advice and consent of the Senate. We just went through that process. Bill Barr was nominated by the president, just because he's nominated doesn't mean Bill Barr is going to follow every order that the president gives.

That's not the job of attorney general but the fact of the matter is the president has the right to make those selections. Elections have consequences. The president selected in those positions who he wanted. Same thing with U.S. attorneys, with advice and consent of the Senate.

[09:10:03] These folks go through tremendous background checks, both at the Senate level and the FBI level, before they end up in these positions for a reason.

JARRETT: One point of fact here, guys. Berman was not confirmed by the Senate. So he was actually installed as U.S. attorney by the former Attorney General Jeff Sessions under a little known federal statute and then he was actually -- the reason he's there is he was actually put in place by the court, so the district court actually put him in after there was an interim appointment.

So I just want to raise that because it's part of the story here. This person was not confirmed by the Senate. This is Rudy Giuliani's former law partner.

HARLOW: It's a really important point, Laura.

SCHULTZ: OK, he's Rudy Giuliani's former law partner.

HARLOW: Hey, Jim, let me jump --

SCHULTZ: OK, my mistake --

HARLOW: Jim, let me jump --


SCHULTZ: Yes, sure, go ahead.

HARLOW: OK. So I just wonder, Jim, if it's concerning to you that Whitaker said to colleagues at the Department of Justice, according to the "New York Times," that his job was to, quote, "jump on a grenade" for the president?

SCHULTZ: Look, his job is to run the Justice Department and he did so. Right?

HARLOW: Yes, but -- sorry, Jim, if you could just --

SCHULTZ: He wasn't jumping on any grenades for the president.

HARLOW: If you could just answer the question.

SCHULTZ: Whether his job as attorney general is to jump on a grenade for the president? No, that's not Matt Whitaker's main job.

HARLOW: Whether it concerns you -- whether it concerns you that he told that his colleagues at the Department of Justice, according to the "New York Times" reporting.

SCHULTZ: Well, first off, we don't know that that was said, first of all, and if it was said that's not his job and that's not the role of the attorney general, period.

SCIUTTO: Laura Jarrett, I mean, another one of the headlines here is McCabe saying that he thinks it's possible that the president -- it's still an open question that the president is a Russian asset which was quite a phrase to come out of the mouth of a former acting director of the FBI.

I'm curious, you cover the FBI, you cover the Department of Justice. Is that a view that was shared -- I won't say widely but beyond McCabe? I mean, is that a small minority view of a danger with this president? Or is that concern shared well beyond him?

JARRETT: Well, it was certainly shared at least with the small group of folks that McCabe describes in his inner sanctum, who were making the decision about whether to open these investigations on President Trump in the first place back in 2017. So McCabe outlines how he had a whole recommendation from folks who had looked at the cases, people who were working on the Russia investigation, and they came to him and they recommended this. So there were at least more than one including the former general

counsel of the FBI, James Baker, who has described how he thought there was a perfect possibility that the president was completely innocent but they thought it was the FBI's obligation, duty really, they thought, to get to the bottom of what happened in case the president was, in fact, working on behalf of the Russian government.

HARLOW: And Laura, just quickly before we go, since you're so tapped into the DOJ right now, is there concern that McCabe is all over the airwaves talking about an ongoing investigation?

JARRETT: So I think there is certainly a sentiment from certain DOJ officials who feel as though the fact that the man who ran the FBI, who opened these investigations is now talking about opening these investigations, talking about the factual predicate for them while the investigation is still going on, while Mueller is still completing his work. And so I think that's the issue that's been raised especially when it comes to his discussions about briefing the Gang of Eight, those top intel officials on Capitol Hill.

HARLOW: Right. Yes.

JARRETT: About all of these sensitive materials. I think that's been an issue that people have raised. On the other hand, I think there are career professionals at DOJ who have been battered for the past two years and feel like McCabe is sticking up for their voice.

HARLOW: Thank you both, Laura Jarrett, Jim Schultz. Nice to have you.

JARRETT: Thanks.

HARLOW: We are following all the developments this morning on these two major stories. Will the president see any political fallout and how will Republicans respond?

SCIUTTO: Also, Southwest Airlines is cancelling hundreds more flights today. The airline going so far as to declare an operational emergency due to maintenance issues. What's going on?

And Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening to target the U.S. if the U.S. deploys missile in Europe. More on these stunning comments from the Russian president.


[09:15:00] JIM SCIUTTO, CO-HOST, NEWSROOM: This morning, new questions and hard ones into whether President Trump obstructed justice by allegedly attempting to influence an investigation into his former fixer and attorney Michael Cohen. This wouldn't be the first time.

POPPY HARLOW, CO-HOST, NEWSROOM: No, and "New York Times" reports the president questioned then acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker on whether a loyalist who had contributed to his campaign served on his transition. That being U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Berman could be put in charge of that probe.

Let's discuss, Josh Dawsey is with us, reporter for the "Washington Post" and John Avlon will be joining us as well in this conversation. Can I just -- you know, one thing Josh that really was striking to me near the top of this 4,000-plus word piece is that it says this. Mr. Trump's public war on the inquiry has gone on long enough that it is no longer shocking.


HARLOW: Right? It's like --

DAWSEY: Right --

HARLOW: They're noting that the American public may just sort of shrug their shoulders --

DAWSEY: Right --

HARLOW: And say, oh, you know, here's another one. I mean, what's your read on the significance of what the "Times" is reporting here, compared to everything else we've seen.

DAWSEY: Well, they corrected him, and said he's attacked the probe more than a thousand times. Now, some of the sharpest repudiations have been via Twitter, via public comments, not through private channels. I think the American public is pretty inured to the fact that the president think this investigation is a hoax and is doing whatever he can to stop it from getting close to him.

The question, obviously, is whether that's illegal or whether there's any criminal liability there in any of his actions. Some of the calls that the "Times" reported here, some of the things my colleagues have reported at the "Post" certainly raised questions about why he was behaving the way he did.

[09:20:00] A number of the president's associates around him are kind of concerned about why he behaves that way, too. They're saying what do you have to hide? You know, you say there's nothing here. Why do you keep doing these same things repeatedly over and over? And I think we still just don't know the answers yet. But his actions time and time again have been to stymie --


DAWSEY: To fight back, to push against the probe.

SCIUTTO: Yes, it's part of a pattern. And thank you, Josh, for coming in. I know D.C. shutdown with that snow we see behind you. You come in, it's raining or sleeping or snow, John Avlon, he also comes in --

HARLOW: We're glad you're here too.

JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I am delighted to be here. SCIUTTO: I wonder, John, if an under-discussed story here is that

even President Trump's quote-unquote "loyalist" appointees to these positions after he forces out the ones who he thinks are not on his side. Comey, you know, Sessions who was his guy and then for two years, he attacks him in public --

AVLON: Yes --

SCIUTTO: Puts in Whitaker. That even these guys and women say no to the president.

AVLON: I think that is an important aspect to the story. It's the silver-lining that the American system is resilient that, in fact, it's not structured so that one person no matter how powerful, even the presidents of the United States can't really pervert the system of justice in a fundamental way.

There are larger structures at work, and I think that's what's important to remember is this fact pattern that's building up and just this stuff we know about. Is bad for Donald Trump in a way that trying to simply distract people with a blizzard of lies are outrageous, it doesn't actually -- it doesn't actually stop that process of justice for going forward. We'll see where it ends, but no amount of spin and distraction can do that.


HARLOW: Blizzard of lies, that's a new one, John Avlon --

SCIUTTO: Oh, there you go, I'm feeling the current weather --

HARLOW: There you go --

AVLON: Exactly --


HARLOW: The attack on Andrew McCabe for, I know, lying under oath three times according to the IG's report and so therefore the administration and others, saying you can't trust him now. Is that a problem for the administration to make this argument, given the president's issue with the truth?

AVLON: Well, I think this administration's strategy has never been encumbered by the president's problems, right? They're just going to run right through them. They see an opening here, they're planning to play judo move with the cycle in effect, they're amplifying his book of course, this is what happens when the president attacks books that are critical of him.

But they're trying to seize upon it to amplify their deep state narrative. You see it, you know, statements -- you know, this was a deep state attempted coup against the presidency. I think that dramatically overstates the facts, that's it, any conversation about the 25th Amendment out of the gate is troubling.

There deserve to be --


AVLON: More transparency about it --

SCIUTTO: And that gets to a question --

AVLON: Yes --

SCIUTTO: Of capacity right, as opposed to bad behavior. That's what the 25th Amendment is for --

AVLON: Correct. The 25th Amendment specifically is about incapacitation of the president, not about someone who you're concerned about their character or you know, potentially other things that would be concerning in a president.

But the legal process is moving forward, the president's team is going to do all they can to distract and deflect and amplify their narratives because perhaps the long game hope we've -- the long game hope as we've seen is that if it comes to impeachment, that's actually a political process, not a legal process, and that's what they think appealing to the base may be able to keep them in place.

SCIUTTO: All right, Josh, before we go, just on the question of wall funding. This administration already moving forward with re- allocating some funds via elect executive action as you wait. Court decisions which might impose an injunction here. What is the White House's next step if that happens?

DAWSEY: Well, the White House's next step -- any sort of injuncture of a court will be to tarnish the court, to go after the court almost like they've gone after Andrew McCabe. I think you kind of saw the president's argument come out Friday in the Rose Garden, he was already saying a suit is coming, I know that it's going to come, these courts are unfair.

The White House is really moving forward on this until they're stopped, and I think once they're stopped, you're going to see the president's messaging change to, listen, I did everything I could to build --

SCIUTTO: Right --

DAWSEY: This wall, the courts are stopping me, I'm fighting for you, these unfair judges that I didn't appoint, I think that's what you're going to see more and more if he is stopped in any way.

HARLOW: Although --

SCIUTTO: And the wall is getting built even if --

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: It's not actually getting built.

HARLOW: Although it's interesting that he likes that this is going through the Ninth Circuit now. It's like I think will be --

AVLON: Well --

HARLOW: Victorious.

SCIUTTO: Well, he loved to target --

DAWSEY: Yes --

SCIUTTO: The Ninth Circuit. Take it --

HARLOW: Yes, Josh?

DAWSEY: He knows that they are a court that, you know, is run by liberal for the most part, liberal judges, and he knows that a lot of his supporters -- because he's talked about them so much and because "Fox News" talked about them so much believe they're biased.

And for him, they're a good fall.

SCIUTTO: Yes, that's right, Josh Dawsey, John Avlon, thanks very much --

HARLOW: Thanks both of you --

SCIUTTO: Both of you. Russian president seems to issue a new threat against the U.S. and against the U.S. Homeland. Pretty shocking words. We're going to have that next.


HARLOW: All right, this is really significant. Russian President Vladimir Putin is threatening to target the U.S. and specific key areas of the U.S. if the U.S. deploys missiles to Europe. Listen to this.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT, RUSSIA (through translator): Russia will be forced to create and develop weapons which can be used, not only towards those territories from which direct threats may be directed at us. But also towards those territories where centers of decision- making and rocket systems that are threatening to us.


SCIUTTO: Decision making, read that, as Washington reads that as military command centers. It's quite a threat from the Russian president, this coming after the U.S. pulled out of the Nuclear Arms Treaty with Russia earlier this month because it's the U.S. position that Russia has been violating it for a number of years.

Let's go to CNN senior international correspondent Frederik Pleitgen, he's following the latest from Moscow. Good morning, Fred, I mean, these speeches to the Russian parliament by this Russian president, often forums for quite explosive confrontational words and we saw that today.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I think you're absolutely right. If we look at last year's speech for instance, he introduced some new Russian weapons at that point, that he said the Russian federation would be developing.