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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Will Public See Mueller Report?; Michael Avenatti Charged. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired March 25, 2019 - 16:30   ET

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


[16:30:13]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Speaker Nancy Pelosi standing by her comments that President Trump may be compromised by Russia, insisting it's the reason why the attorney general needs to hand over all the underlying documents from special counsel Mueller's report.

And, as CNN's Manu Raju now reports, Democrats are not prepared to let Mueller have the last word when it comes to the Trump team's dealings with Russians.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Democrats today are unwilling to accept the finding from special counsel Robert Mueller that his investigation did not establish that anyone associated with Donald Trump's 2016 campaign conspired with Russia to interfere in the election, demanding to see the full Mueller report and vowing to press ahead on their own investigations, including over Trump ties to Russia.

(on camera): A lot of Democrats who believe that Trump was compromised by the Russians. Does this finding put that to rest?

REP. GERRY CONNOLLY (D), VIRGINIA: No. I don't think this finding explains Trump's behavior with respect to Putin and the Russians.

RAJU (voice-over): For the past two years, Democrats have seized on contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russians to suggest a conspiracy to sway the election to Trump.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: You can see evidence in plain sight on the issue of collusion, pretty compelling evidence.

SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: This appears as the closest we have seen yet real live actual collusion.

RAJU: But after Attorney General Bill Barr released a four-page summary Sunday of Mueller's findings, Democrats say there is still much to be learned.

(on camera): Do you believe that there was no conspiracy between Trump and Russians? REP. RO KHANNA (D), CALIFORNIA: I trust Mueller's conclusion. But, as you know, Manu, a prosecutor can have a significant amount of evidence and then say it just doesn't rise to the level of a crime. That doesn't mean there may not have been misconduct or wrongdoing that the American people should know about.

RAJU (voice-over): Democrats are focusing on this line where Barr quotes from Mueller's report and says: "While this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him from obstructing justice."

And they say Barr must testify before Congress and explain why he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein made the decision not to prosecute Trump and whether Barr's previous skepticism about the obstruction probe played any role in his decision.

REP. DAVID CICILLINE (D), RHODE ISLAND: Mr. Barr applied for this job by drafting a memo on his own, a 17, 18-page memo, in which essentially makes the argument that a president of the United States can't be charged with obstruction of justice. And so he is sort of fulfilling that commitment.

RAJU: Today, Republicans defended the decision not to prosecute Trump.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I think what Mr. Barr and Mr. Rosenstein did was very appropriate.

RAJU: Even as the Senate judiciary chairman, who's running for reelection, plans his own inquiry into the FBI's handling of the Russia probe and Clinton e-mail investigation.

GRAHAM: What makes no sense to me is all the abuse by the Department of Justice and the FBI, the unprofessional conduct, the shady behavior.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

RAJU: And, Jake, Lindsey Graham had a conversation with Bill Barr earlier today. And Barr agreed to testify before his committee.

And Lindsey Graham also revealed something new for the first time, telling me that he spoke to Donald Trump about Trump's criticism of John McCain, John McCain's role in passing along that Trump-Russia dossier over the FBI after the 2016 elections.

Graham saying for the first time that McCain told him first about the dossier and Graham urged McCain to go to the FBI. Graham said he told Trump that McCain acted appropriately -- Jake.

TAPPER: Manu, let me ask you. Obviously, we all support releasing the Mueller report to the public to the fullest extent possible.

Is there a risk for Democrats at all here of -- if they seem like they're not accepting the findings of Robert Mueller, of looking like sore losers? RAJU: That is a real concern that Democrats here have on Capitol

Hill.

One reason why Nancy Pelosi has tried to tamp down calls here for impeachment and tried to focus on other issues that they believe would be more -- that could connect with voters. The question is whether or not how they handle some of these investigations in the days and weeks ahead.

Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, still plans to pursue that Russia probe. Will they adjust in any way? But at the moment, Jake, they feel they're own firm ground in demanding the Mueller report fully to be released. How they pursue afterwards still remains a question -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Manu Raju on Capitol Hill, thanks so much.

Let's dive into this.

What do you think, Jackie? What do you think the Democrats' next move should be? Obviously, they want to see the full Mueller report. Everyone wants to see the full Mueller report, with sources and methods redacted, obviously.

What do you think should be the focus for Democrats?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think they're trying to walk a very fine line right now between the constitutional duty to hold the executive branch accountable and to do these investigations, which even before this came out, they said it was the job of Congress to do this, with an eye toward the Mueller report.

[16:35:03]

And the other side is what he was talking about right there, is the Democrats that are worried that this is going to overshadow the other work that they want to do.

And just speaking politically, there are a lot more freshman lawmakers, who are your more right-leaning, middle of the road, than some of the liberals. So they're looking at this and saying, let's keep talking about health care. Let's keep talking about these other actionable items, instead of focusing solely on the Mueller report.

TAPPER: And, Keith, one of the issues going on here is that there aren't a lot of differences, from my understanding, for instance, in the Senate Intelligence Committee when it comes to the facts. How they interpret the facts are very different.

Republicans say there's no direct evidence of conspiracy. Democrats say, no, but there's a lot of circumstantial evidence, and how they interpret it could be -- cause really quite a big rift in the next year.

KEITH BOYKIN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, yes, that's been the subject of confusion and division since the beginning, how you interpret the facts.

We don't know how we would interpret the facts in the Mueller investigation either. But all this comes to remind us exactly why it's important to release the full Mueller report, which is what everybody's been saying over and over again.

So what we're doing basically today, although it's important, is talking about Bob Barr's four-page letter, which is analyzing or summarizing what the Mueller report says. We don't know what the underlying basis for his conclusions are.

Until we do that, until we have that information, we can't really determine whether President Trump was exonerated about even the Russia issue, and we certainly don't have enough information about the issue of obstruction of justice, because clearly the fact that the special counsel declined to prosecute in that case wasn't because there was not enough evidence one of the one way or the other, because he couldn't make up his mind.

And that's -- that's a far different decision from saying that Trump is exonerated, which Trump is trying to pretend...

(CROSSTALK)

JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Or didn't hit a certain threshold.

And I think that may be the difference, if the full information comes out, between what Mueller actually recommends. Democrats need to accept the results of the Mueller report, but with the full context information.

And then there are other areas. We know other investigations that are ongoing. There are hearings later this week about questions of money laundering and Russians and the Trump Organization. Those things should go forward. We should get all the information out there.

But Democrats need to be careful that they don't seem to all of a sudden be rejecting the report, the independent report, who has proven its integrity, simply because it didn't have the conclusions they were hoping for.

BOYKIN: But it hasn't come out yet. There hasn't been the report yet.

AVLON: Well, the summary has come out. But you're right. The devil's in the details.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: The full report needs to come out.

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: The biggest decision that Democrats have to make has nothing to do with the Mueller report.

It's whether they're going to go after Trump's finances. Before this, when the Democrats thought the Mueller report was going to tee them up to go straight into Trump Tower, Adam Schiff was out there saying he wanted to investigate Trump's finances to see if the Russians had financial leverage over him that impacted national security decisions.

Now, knowing that there was no campaign criminal collusion, do they still go forward with that? Or do they leave it to the Southern District, which is already inside Trump Organization, and sit that one out?

KUCINICH: And I think what you're going to have from the Trump campaign now is really going after every single one of these probes and using this report as a bludgeon and trying to discredit them.

And whether or not that works is an open question.

AVLON: But you're already seeing the outlines of what Trump and his campaign's attack is going to be. Obviously, it's always going to be attack, attack.

But, today, you saw the president adopt the mantle that's already been on conservative media, investigate the investigators. And just watch for that, because that's going to be -- he's already talking about treason, investigating opponents.

When he said today, we can't let this happen again, I hoped he was talking about the Russians.

(CROSSTALK)

BOYKIN: But there are still issues that need to be determined.

The finance question hasn't been resolved by this, by the Mueller probe. We still -- we still don't know anything about whether the president -- he hasn't released his tax returns, so we don't know anything about what is going on with his businesses. He didn't divest from his business when he became president.

We also know that his campaign chair has been convicted. We know that his national security adviser has been convicted. We know that his lawyer has been convicted. We know that Trump paid a $25 billion fraud settlement two days before we took office.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Not billion.

(CROSSTALK)

BOYKIN: There's a lot of smoke out there that still needs to be investigated. And that is the responsibility of the Democrats.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: But you said, Amanda, that it was "Lock her up" in 2016. It's going to be "Lock them up" in 2020. There are already calls from people like Lindsey Graham that Bill Barr

needs to appoint somebody to look into the FBI, the Steele dossier, et cetera, et cetera. I mean, that is one of the things that Republicans are already teeing up for.

Turning now to our 2020 lead, Democratic presidential candidates also are navigating an uncertain path forward now that the attorney general has released his summary of the Mueller report.

The majority consensus seems to be, keep up the fight and demand to see every page of the investigation.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny now reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The Mueller report must be made public for a full accounting.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): 2020 Democratic hopefuls are speaking in unison.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I walk the whole damn report, because nobody, especially this president, is above the law.

[16:40:02]

ZELENY: Demanding the full release of special counsel Robert Mueller's report, not just a four-page summary from the attorney general.

SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The Mueller report must be made public, all of it.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

ZELENY: Yet, beyond that, the party's presidential candidates have been saying surprisingly little about the Russia investigation in the wake of President Trump's political victory.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We can never let this happen to another president again.

ZELENY: Democrats scrambling today to assess the shifting landscape, with some campaign officials privately worrying about overreach from their fellow Democrats in Congress.

In the latest CNN poll, the Russia investigation barely even a whisper. Not a single Democratic voter mentioned it when asked an open-ended question to name the most important issue in the 2020 race. It's a challenging balancing act for candidates, who must meet demands of some Democratic activists to hold the president accountable, without having their own campaigns overtaken by Trump.

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: 2020 is going to be very focused on economic issues. So guess what? We can do two things at once.

ZELENY: On the campaign trail, Pete Buttigieg and other Democrats also dismissed talk of impeachment, saying the president should be defeated at the ballot box and candidates should talk about issues.

PETE BUTTIGIEG (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If all we can talk about is him, then voters at home are saying, you're not talking about me. But at the end of the day, it's not about him. It's about us.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: So for all the talk about that Russia investigation, here in Washington, there's been far less of it out there on the campaign trail.

Most Democratic candidates say they're trying to keep a focus on issues like health care and the economy and whether the president has lived up to those promises.

But, Jake, that could become far more complicated if Democrats in the House keep up their investigations and those candidates are asked about them -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Jeff Zeleny, thanks so much.

The shoe is on the other foot. Trump enemy and former Stormy Daniels attorney Michael Avenatti has been charged with extorting Nike. And that's only the beginning of the troubles he's facing.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:45:00] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And we're back with our "NATIONAL LEAD." Michael Avenatti, the attorney best known for representing adult film star and director Stormy Daniels has now been charged with extortion and bank fraud and wire fraud. The charge is coming from two separate U.S. Attorney's investigations in two separate states include allegations that Avenatti tried to extort Nike for more than $20 million.

And we've just learned the office of the Attorney General was coordinating the cases against Avenatti and the Mueller report at the same time. CNN's Kara Scannell joins me live. And Kara, the case against -- or cases against Avenatti unfolded in just days. How did this all happen so fast?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: That's right, Jake. I mean, this all began last week with Michael Avenatti according to the sealed complaint by the U.S. Attorney's Office that was unsealed today. What they alleged is that Michael Avenatti met with attorneys for Nike alleging with them that he was going to extort them in saying if they didn't pay him $20 million, he would go public with damaging information about Nike on the eve of the NCAA basketball tournaments and the eve of Nikes earnings potentially wiping millions of dollars off the company's market cap. So attorneys with Nike were fast-acting and they went to the U.S.

Attorney's office in Manhattan, told them about this scheme. Then it appears based on the complaint that they have recorded video and both audio some of these meetings and conversations that Avenatti continues to have with the Nike attorneys. That culminated in the arrest today.

Avenatti was on his way to have a meeting at the law firm when he was arrested, according to sources, right outside that law firm's building. This was supposed to be the final meeting before Avenatti was threatening to hold a press conference tomorrow announcing these allegations.

Now when the U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan announced the charges, U.S. Attorney Jeff Berman said Avenatti's were nothing but criminal.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEOFFREY BERMAN, U.S. ATTORNEY, SDNY: When lawyers use their law licenses as weapons as a guise to extort payments for themselves, they are no longer acting as attorneys, they are acting as criminals, and they will be held responsible for their conduct. (END VIDEO CLIP)

SCANNELL: Avenatti is expected to be presented in court in Manhattan at some point this afternoon. But it's not the only criminal charges he's faced today. The U.S. Attorney's Office in LA announced a string of criminal charges against Avenatti including that he had embezzled from one of his clients millions of dollars. Jake?

TAPPER: All right, Kara Scannell, thank you so much. Let's talk about this with my legal experts. Your initial reactions Jeffrey Toobin.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, look, Michael Avenatti became very familiar to all of us both as a media figure and it's just someone who was around our studios a lot. And frankly, if you followed his career since the Stormy Daniels story broke, there's been a swirl of controversy. He was arrested briefly for domestic violence, though those cases -- that case was dropped.

He you know, has had these major disputes with an ex-wife. He's got enormous disputes with his former law partners. This part of the charges in California relate to this failed coffee chain in the -- in the northwest. So there's been a swirl of controversy but there has not been anything criminal. It is shocking but not totally surprising giving everything that's been going on.

TAPPER: Well -- so let's put the fraud charges away for a second, the idea that he embezzled money from a client or that he faked a tax returns to get a bank loan. Let's talk just about the "extortion" allegations about Nike. What's the difference, Elie, between somebody saying you need to settle, you need to make my client right or else we're going to take this lawsuit legal, take this lawsuit public and what Avenatti did.

It seems to me like there there's got to be some sort of fine line here because it -- I don't know what the difference is.

ELIE HONIG, FORMER ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY, SDNY: It's a great question and you hit it on exactly what the defense is going to be. And the U.S. Attorney's Office knows that because the second sentence out of Geoffrey Berman's mouth today was this was not your aggressive advocacy. This isn't going to be a difficult case for the U.S. Attorney's Office and I think it's defensible for Michael Avenatti.

It's not your typical extortion mafia guys saying you'll be paying me every week or else I'll burn your place down or break your kneecaps. This -- there's a fine line between hard-knuckled business legal negotiation tactics and what crosses the line. And the law is not super helpful. It's one of these areas the law just says wrongful. What's wrongful is up to a jury.

[16:50:32] TOOBIN: But the accusation here is not that Michael Avenatti was trying to win a lawsuit against Nike either on behalf of shareholders, it was simply paying me $20 million as a lawyer or I will hold this press conference. If that's true, if that allegation is true, that is extortion. And that's not a lawsuit that --

HONIG: Well, he has a little bit of cover on that, that he says my client, this coach has a legitimate contract claim against you Nike, and so you can settle it up for this exorbitant amount and his language is abusive and he's putting this time pressure on him. But look, this is this is a tough one for the Southern District.

TAPPER: And we should also point out just in the interest of full disclosure that Mark Geragos who was a face familiar to CNN viewers has -- is a co-conspirator in this, an alleged co-conspirator according to the Southern District of New York.

TOOBIN: But not charged.

TAPPER: But not charge, which is -- which is curious -- which is why? Why would that happen? Why would somebody be a co-conspirator --

TOOBIN: There are -- we were just talking about that. It's hard to know. It's possible they're trying to get him to cooperate. It's possible he is cooperating. It's possible they're trying to get him to plead or they've already made a deal with him not to prosecute him. It's a peculiar status and --

HONIG: It's also possible the evidence just isn't quite there for the person they identify as CC1 right. If you look at the complaint, Avenatti is the one who's doing most of the talking on tape and saying most of the over-the-top things.

TAPPER: And let me also ask because I suspect we're going to hear Avenatti say that this is the Trump Administration, their named U.S. Attorney's in New York and California going after him for political reasons.

TOOBIN: And Kara pointed out that it was being coordinated at the attorney general's office and he could allege that this is some vast conspiracy. I think that's going to be a tough case to make especially given this California case which seems on a surface a fairly garden-variety fraud, false tax returns, extortion, false statements committed to submitted to a bank to get a loan. If that's true, it doesn't matter who your political allies are.

TAPPER: Either -- right. Either the evidence is there or it isn't. Jeffrey and Elie, thank you so much. We've got some breaking news. Multiple-rocket sirens are going off near the Gaza border. Is war about to break out between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:55:00] TAPPER: Breaking news in our "WORLD LEAD" now. The Israeli military hitting targets in Gaza in response to a Hamas rocket attack that injured seven people inside the home near Tel Aviv. The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on his way back to Israel right now after a meeting at the White House this morning where President Trump formally recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights which Israel seized in 1967.

CNN's Oren Liebermann is close to the Israel-Gaza border. Oren, what's happening on the ground in Gaza right now?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN JERUSALEM CORRESPONDENT: Jake, about three minutes ago we saw two iron dome aerial defense interceptions right above our head here from rockets fired from Gaza. We also heard another one a short distance away. And we also heard two or three launches from Gaza coming from Israel. That indicates that a cease- fire that was supposed to have gotten into effect less than an hour ago isn't holding up.

Hamas inside of Gaza said Egypt had successfully brokered a cease-fire 10:00 local time. At one place the official had warned us or have cautioned us I should say that that ceasefire may not have fully gone into effect yet and that appears very much to be what we are seeing with those additional rocket launches after the cease-fire was supposed to have taken place. That means the Israel almost certainly carried out more strikes inside of Gaza.

Let me take you back, Jake, to when this all started. It was early this morning when a long ranged rocket fired from Gaza landed north of Tel Aviv. The farthest the rocket has landed in Israel, the deepest it has landed in Israel from Gaza since the end of the 2014 war landing on a home there and wounding seven.

Israel's response came quite a few hours later just as sundown was happening here. And Israel carried out a wide -- an attack on a wide range of targets including against the Hamas intelligence headquarters and the office of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel had told his security cabinet ministers that he wanted to hit significant targets and that certainly qualifies. We have seen throughout the evening a number of red alerts indicating a number of air raids or rocket sirens or mortar attacks from Gaza into Israel. Jake, the night is young here. That cease-fire apparently not holding so we'll see how it develops from this point throughout the evening.

TAPPER: And Oren, separately, from this latest round of violence, Netanyahu is facing critical elections next month in Israel. President Trump certainly taking some measures here, the recognition of Golan as well as other things that he has done when it comes to Israel. Is Trump essentially helping Netanyahu get reelected?

LIEBERMANN: It certainly appears to be blatant that the Trump Administration is trying to do everything in his power to make sure Netanyahu is reelected. Those elections is just two weeks from tomorrow. The question, does the Golan recognition get washed out by this escalation today? Does this ruin his chances or affected in any way? We'll see over the next couple of weeks here.

TAPPER: All right, Oren Liebermann, thank you so much. Please stay safe. You can follow me on Facebook and Twitter @JAKETAPPER or you can tweet the show @THELEADCNN. We actually read them. Our coverage on CNN continues right now. Thanks for watching.