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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Will Public See Mueller Report?; Michael Avenatti Charged. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 25, 2019 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:03]

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: So, there you go, the latest out of Apple today.

I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you for being with me.

THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER starts right now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Is this President Trump's best 24 hours ever?

THE LEAD starts right now.

President Trump today saying he thinks the special counsel acted honorably after the memo on the Mueller probe cleared him on conspiracy with the Russians. But will we ever see all of Robert Mueller's work?

2020 Democrats thrown into a new world, wanting to find the best path to be President Trump after what appears to be a big win for the president in the Mueller probe -- the new urgency today to beat Mr. Trump at the ballot box.

And breaking this afternoon, the same agents who pinched Michael Cohen arrest an old Trump nemesis in a $20 million extortion scheme. Basta!

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with the politics lead, and a huge moment for President Trump and the nation. The cloud hanging over the Trump presidency for the past two years has now lifted with the release to the attorney general of the Mueller report, concluding, according to the attorney general, no evidence of election conspiracy by the Trump team with Russia.

Today, President Trump even declaring he -- quote -- "wouldn't mind it at all" if the full Mueller report were released, though he said he would still leave that decision to Attorney General Bill Barr.

Barr yesterday released a four-page letter summarizing his view of the special counsel's findings, though there is a new battle on the horizon, with Democrats already demanding answers about how Barr determined the president did not obstruct justice, after Mueller did not draw a conclusion one way or the other. Will that battle end up before the Democratic House? That's just one

of the many questions we have today, even as the American people finally got some concrete answers.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER (voice-over): In the Mueller melee, former FBI Director Comey may have summed it up best: "So many questions."

We all want to know what the conclusions mean in Attorney General Barr's memo about Mueller's report. Let's start with for facts.

First, it turns out this...

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There was no collusion, no collusion, no collusion.

TAPPER: ... was the truth all along. And this is an incredibly important work. And Americans should be relieved that there's no evidence that the president or his team engaged in conspiracy with the Russians.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: That's a great thing for our country. And it's a great thing for this administration.

TAPPER: But -- and this is our second point -- this would also mean that this investigation by Mueller was not, in fact:

TRUMP: A total witch-hunt. I have been saying it for a long time.

TAPPER: No, it wasn't a witch-hunt. It was a professional law enforcement investigation, despite the many smears of Mueller and his team.

Third, despite the White House's assertions otherwise...

HUCKABEE SANDERS: There was no obstruction. So that makes it a complete and total exoneration.

TAPPER: ... Mueller did not call this a complete and total exoneration.

Barr, in fact, quotes Mueller, writing -- quote -- "While this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him when it comes to obstruction of justice."

Barr concluded that the evidence developed is not sufficient to establish that the president committed an obstruction of justice offense, and he will not pursue that charge. But Democrats on the Hill may well do so, as a political matter.

After all -- and this is our fourth point -- the Mueller report proves that Trump was wrong when he said:

TRUMP: It had nothing to do with Russia. And everybody knows it's a hoax. It's one of the greatest hoaxes ever perpetrated on this country.

TAPPER: Mueller reach the same conclusion as American intelligence, that Russia did interfere with the U.S. election, the president's mixed messages about the Kremlin's guilt notwithstanding.

Now let's turn to for questions that remain, such as, if there was no conspiracy, why did the president and so many others around him tell so many lies about their contacts with the Russians? Flynn, Manafort, Papadopoulos all charged with lying. And the president, for his part, led the effort to mislead Americans about the Trump Tower meeting.

Second, there are questions we need to ask Democrat, some members of the media and former intelligence officials who leveled accusations that have not aged well.

JOHN BRENNAN, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: I called his behavior treasonous, which is to betray one's trust and to aid and abet the enemy.

TAPPER: Third, then there's the question of the Mueller report itself. Will the public ever see it?

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: The American people have a right to the truth. The watchword is transparency.

TAPPER: Fourth, what about all those other investigations that Mueller farmed out, dozens of investigations and lawsuits still looming over the Trump family, including probes into hush money payments, the inaugural committee finances, questionable security clearances?

So bookmark that Comey tweet. So many questions remain.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: Let's go now to CNN's Pamela Brown for all the latest on this.

Pamela, we now know that Robert Mueller told the attorney general weeks ago he would not be coming to a definite conclusion on obstruction of justice.

[16:05:05]

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Jake.

It was three weeks ago that the special counsel's team went to brief top DOJ officials, including the attorney general, Bill Barr, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. And it was during that meeting, according to a DOJ official speaking to my colleague Laura Jarrett, that the special counsel said it would not be reaching a conclusion on obstruction.

And we're told that Bill Barr at that time wasn't expecting, that that is not what he expected to hear from the special counsel. He didn't think it would play out this way. But it certainly defies this notion that you're hearing from Democrats like Congressman Schiff that he only had 48 hours to review the material in making the decision in the letter he laid out yesterday where Bill Barr did exonerate the president on obstruction, even though Mueller did not.

And so that is really important here, because he had several weeks to look over the material and to know that Robert Mueller's team was not going to be making a conclusion on the issue of obstruction. Of course, all of this raises the question today of why, Jake.

Was it because Robert Mueller never had a chance to sit down and interview President Trump? We know there was a discussion about a subpoena. Was their internal dispute about it? We don't know the answer to that.

But what we do know is that the attorney general had several weeks to know Robert Mueller was not reaching a conclusion.

TAPPER: All right, Pamela Brown, thank you so much.

I want to bring in our legal and law enforcement experts now.

Jeffrey Toobin, let me start with you.

Are you surprised that Mueller did not make a determination on obstruction of justice, thus kind of just punting it to the attorney general, Bill Barr?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: I sure am.

I -- his job was to determine whether crimes were committed. Now, it may be, when we see the report -- and I think we will see the report -- Mueller will explain why he reached no conclusion.

But it was part of his charge, I think, to determine whether any crimes were committed by the president or anyone else, and his failure to do so is somewhat mystifying. Now, it may be that he thought it was properly before the Congress in an impeachment setting. It may be that because of that 18-page memo that he thought Bill Barr had already made up his mind about the issue.

It -- there are other possible explanations. But until we hear from Mueller or see the report, it remains, at least to me, a genuine mystery.

TAPPER: Are you surprised, Elie, that there are so many people thought they were bread crumbs, little clues that Mueller left along the way? Such as President Trump calls for Russia to hack into Hillary Clinton's e-mails.

Then we find out in the Mueller document that that night the Russians tried to hack into Hillary Clinton's campaign server, that. Then there's the -- Manafort sharing polling data with somebody with ties to Russian military intelligence.

And yet, ultimately, those bread crumbs didn't lead anywhere.

ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, look, I found it a surprising conclusion, given all those pieces of evidence.

I mean, I have charged obstruction of justice cases. It doesn't take much. And trying to shut down an entire investigation by firing people, by trying to pressure the A.G. to unrecuse and take over, the things you mentioned, Jake, I would be very interested to know how they arrived at that conclusion.

And, procedurally, I'm also -- I join Jeffrey. I'm very surprised that Mueller punted on this decision, because the one thing under the regulations that Mueller must do is file his -- quote -- "prosecution or declination decisions," prosecute or decline. And he chose other.

And the other thing is, he declined on collusion, on conspiracy.

TAPPER: Right.

HONIG: He said not enough. He made a thumbs up/thumbs down decision, thumbs down.

And then when you get to part B, obstruction, he takes a pass, which I don't understand. And I think -- I also think he was intending that for Congress. But William Barr, I think, intercepted it.

TAPPER: Phil Mudd, let me bring you in.

Barr says that they would need to prove that President Trump acted with corrupt intent in order to charge obstruction of justice. But it's also true President Trump never sat with Mueller for an interview. Is it possible to determine someone's intent without that interview?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I think it is.

I think what's happening here -- and I would pick up on what everybody said before, but Elie and Jeffrey -- and that is, I don't think that the special counsel was troubled by the facts. I worked for Mueller for four-and-a-half years. I don't think he sat there and said, I can't make a determination about whether this was obstruction or not.

I think this is a procedural question. That is, if I have these facts in front of me about the president of the United States, how do we proceed? That's why I think equally important to transparency on the document is when Mueller goes up before the Congress and people say, look, you're a decorated Marine, and people always know you speak the truth, and you have no fear.

Why did you choose to tread so lightly on this issue of obstruction? I suspect the answer is that the special counsel, as the lawyers here have said, had procedural questions that the Congress had to answer. It cannot be, Jake, it can't be that Mueller looked at the facts and said, I simply can't make a decision. That is not in his DNA. I don't buy that.

TAPPER: And, Jeffrey, I want to read this key line from the actual Mueller report, as quoted in Barr's letter.

[16:10:02]

"The investigation did not establish the members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities."

What -- do you read anything into the fact that it's -- that they say did not establish and as well as with the Russian government? Because there are individuals that have been mentioned as being possibly involved in this, that lawyer Veselnitskaya, obviously Kilimnik, others that are not in the Russian government, per se, that were players.

And then also did not establish is not there is nothing. It's just that they didn't establish it.

TOOBIN: It is possible to parse the language that way. And, obviously, we need to see the full report.

But that statement is categorical enough for me. I mean, I don't think Robert Mueller, who was quite aware of how his language would be perceived, wrote that and there was going to be a comma afterwards, but he conspired with people affiliated with the Russian government.

I think, just to be candid and honest and given the facts available before us, I think what that means is no collusion.

TAPPER: No collusion.

TOOBIN: And that's the only conclusion I can draw from it.

Now, if the report comes out and that is refuted, well, I will be refuted. But that, to me, means no collusion.

TAPPER: Hard to believe that Bill Barr would besmirch his own reputation to risk it.

And also Mueller and Barr are close. Mueller slapped down that BuzzFeed report. It's not like he wouldn't come out and say something, theoretically.

Phil, if there was no conspiracy, why all the lies from the president, from Trump associates about contacts with the Russians? Is that typical of witnesses to lie when there isn't actually a fundamental crime?

MUDD: When I watched cases for four-and-a-half years at the bureau, it's typical for a witness to think, I, in some ways, am more arrogant, am smarter than the FBI and the feds, that there's no way that the feds know what I know.

Even with experienced people, I found that people will sit in front of a federal investigator and say something that's not true, assuming that the feds aren't listening on their phone or watching an e-mail.

I think people who are watching this, saying it can't be that somebody like Roger Stone, or like the National Security Council -- security adviser, General Flynn, would sit in front of a federal investigator and lie brazenly, that happens every single day.

Investigators don't like to bring a lying to federal officials charge, but when they lie, you have got no other option. I think that's one of the most important parts of this case.

Sarah Sanders says it's a great day for America. Every adviser around the president lied when they got in front of a federal investigator. That's a great day for a fourth-grader to learn about civics? Really?

TOOBIN: Jimmy Breslin, the great New York City columnist, once defined a courthouse as a place people go to lie. People lie all the time for all sorts of reasons.

And it doesn't necessarily mean that they were lying to cover up a crime. Sometimes, people lie just because they lie.

TAPPER: All right, Phil, thank you so much.

Elie and Jeff, you're going to come back and talk Avenatti in a couple blocks coming up.

President Trump has called Robert Mueller highly conflicted, disgraced, discredited. Probably not surprisingly, today, he's changing his tune about the special counsel.

Plus, worlds collide. Stormy Daniels' former attorney Michael Avenatti arrested today, charged by the same office that's also investigating the president here in New York.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:17:34] TAPPER: Welcome back.

A stunning admission today from President Trump. He acknowledged for the first time special counsel Robert Mueller acted honorably in conducting his 22-month investigation.

As CNN's Kaitlan Collins reports, this is a far cry from the attacks the president has been leveling against Mueller, calling his probe a witch-hunt, a hoax, or an attempt to take down his presidency.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): One day after declaring victory in the Russia investigation --

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's 100 percent the way it should have been.

COLLINS: -- President Trump went on offense --

TRUMP: There are a lot of people out there that have done some very, very evil things, very bad things, I would say treasonous things against our country. COLLINS: -- blaming his treasonous critics for the probe and signaling he's looking for payback.

TRUMP: I've been looking at them for a long time and I'm saying, why haven't they been looked at? They lied to Congress, many of them, you know who they are. They've done so many evil things.

COLLINS: But the president taking a softer tone on Robert Mueller, conceding the man he once called a disgrace acted honorably Trump.

REPORTER: Mr. President, do you think Robert Mueller acted honorably?

TRUMP: Yes, he did. Yes.

COLLINS: Trump reversing two years of verbal attacks.

TRUMP: The entire thing has been a witch hunt.

Mr. Mueller is highly conflicted. In fact, Comey is like his best friend.

Robert Mueller put 13 of the angriest Democrats in the history of our country on the commission.

COLLINS: Asked if the president owes a special council an apology, the White House punted.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think Democrats and the liberal media owe the president and they owe the American people an apology.

COLLINS: While the Mueller investigation may be over, the fight is far from it. As Democrats demand to see the special counsel's full report, Trump said he's leaving it up to the Justice Department.

TRUMP: It's up to the attorney general, but it wouldn't bother me at all.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Now, Jake, today the president brushed off questions about potential pardons for those ensnared in the Russia probe saying it's not something he's thought about. Later on in the White House, while the president was in the Oval Office welcoming the Washington Capitals, two of his outside attorneys, Jay Sekulow and Rudy Giuliani, were spotted at the back of the room -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Kaitlan Collins at the White House, thanks so much.

Let's chat about this with my experts.

Keith, let's start with perhaps the most outspoken member -- former member of the intelligence community, John Brennan, former CIA director. He called President Trump's claims of no collusion, quote, hogwash, in a "New York Times" op-ed. And then he made this stunning statement on Twitter after Trump's meeting with Putin.

[16:20:01] He wrote, quote, Donald Trump's press conference performance in Helsinki rises to and exceeds the threshold of high crimes and misdemeanors. It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump's comments, embolic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin.

Now, here is Brennan earlier today what he was asked whether he had received bad information about the Mueller investigation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN BRENNAN, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: I don't know if I received bad information, but I think I suspected that there was more than there actually was.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: When President Trump says he's owed an apology, I think John Brennan is probably foremost on his mind. Do you think he has a point?

KEITH BOYKIN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, I mean , Donald Trump has called people to treasonous as he did just today or yesterday in the Oval Office. John Brennan accused President Trump of being treasonous. I don't know whether anybody's owed an apology yet because we still haven't seen what's in the Mueller report.

But one thing is clear is that the Russia did interfere in our elections in 2016. The report -- at least Barr's four-page summary of that report seems to indicate that's the fact. Donald Trump has denied that repeatedly, continues even today to deny the impact of that, that is according to some people potentially treasonous activities. So, whether or not Brennan needs to apologize for statements a whole different issue.

TAPPER: What do you think, Amanda?

AMANDA CARPENTER, FORMER COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR FOR TED CRUZ: At the very least, Brennan needs to apologize to the American people for giving them the idea that treason, big capital letters treason, was committed.

He's not just a regular pundit spouting off. He was a former CIA director. And I don't know about you guys, when a former CIA director speaks, I listen, because I believe they have credibility. And now, he's backtracking say, well, maybe I had bad information, she needs to flesh that out a little more.

I think there's a lot of people who looked at that Helsinki press conference, me included, that had big questions. That something's not right here. But John Brennan should have been more careful.

JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: But let's separate those two things out. I mean, Brennan is the CIA director during the transition. So, presumably, he's got access to pretty good information at time.

TAPPER: Right.

AVLON: And he was crying from the rooftops.

So, yes, it's an apology. He's accepting the Mueller reports' findings. I think that's significant. But when, you know, CIA directors got bad information and brings it into the next administration, that's concerning. So, you owe apology.

The issue of Helsinki is different because one of the many open questions that still need to be answered maybe will when the full report is released which it absolutely should be is why does the president show such odd fealty to president -- to Vladimir Putin, unique among people on the planet. You know there are a number of open questions. WikiLeaks, you know, the Jerome Corsi, Konstantin Kilimnik.

They're the questions that need to be answered, which is why and separate from any accusations of collusion just with the indictments, with the stories. We need that other information out that's presumably in the report.

And speaking of apologies, what does President Trump and his team, what do they owe, not just Robert Mueller but his team of professional prosecutors? Do they -- are they owed an apology?

JACKIE KUCINICH, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, THE DAILY BEAST: I think they're going to be owed revisionist history because I think you already see the president doing it, saying that, you know, that he -- that Mueller acted honorably.

But this isn't unique to Mueller. Think about all the Lindsey Graham, for example, one of his best friends in Congress, he had nasty things to say about him. He used to say nice things about Hillary Clinton. Seems like whenever someone changes their tune or he perceives they've changed their tune on the president, he's fine with them.

CARPENTER: But, Jake, we can't go on playing the apology games, where no one is ever going to win that fight.

BOYKIN: Right.

CARPENTER: There were a lot of questions raised in the bill bar memo that only the full Mueller report can answer. We need to know a lot of Democrats, and me included, I think that there was evidence -- circumstantial evidence of collusion. That didn't bear out.

If you believe Robert Mueller, you have to believe that that not bear out. I would like to see the report no to know why Robert Mueller looked at that and said that didn't rise to a criminal level. I think that would settle a lot of scores.

TAPPER: So, Keith, one thing that's interesting, you see a lot of Trump supporters, Trump advocates saying, "Release everything, release everything."

One person not saying that, Jay Sekulow, the president's personal attorney, when asked whether the president's written answers to Mueller should ever be released. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAY SEKULOW, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S PERSONAL LAWYER: I would fight very aggressively for that information to not be released. I think any lawyer would. You don't waive investigative detail absent either a court order or an agreement between the parties and you'd have to weigh a lot of factors there and how that affects other presidencies.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOYKIN: What is he hiding? Why is he no transparency? When you talk about other presidencies, I remember when Bill Clinton was president, he had to testify in the in the case with Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones.

CARPENTER: He made that decision.

BOYKIN: And he made a decision to testify. That information became public. We saw the videotape of the president testify.

In this case, Donald Trump didn't even allow himself to be to be interviewed by Robert Mueller. All he did was submit written answers through his attorneys and as a result of that, we can't even see what the president of the United States said to answers to questions about Russian collusion? That's an outrage for the president's attorney to make that --

TAPPER: Release at all. I think we all agree. Release it all.

AVLON: Absolutely. And now, Republicans should be doing it because they feel they'll be vindicated. It's in the interest of the American people.

[16:25:00] It's in the interest of transparency and historical record.

Mr. Sekulow may say that and that's his desire. But he's the president United States. The information will come out.

And I think one of the key differences we're confronting also is the difference between what happened to Bill Clinton when there's an independent counsel and a special counsel.

TAPPER: Yes.

AVLON: That I think explains a lot of the decisions that have come.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around. We're going to talk a lot more in the next block. A former aide says President Trump will use Mueller's findings as a political bludgeon in 2020. How some Democratic candidates are planning to fight back and who is planning to lay low?

Stay with us.

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