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Mueller Couldn't Reach Conclusion on Obstruction of Justice; GOP Promises Probe; Avenatti Charged with Extortion; Deputy White House Press Secretary Steven Groves Talks about the Mueller Report. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired March 25, 2019 - 13:00   ET



[13:00:16] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Brianna Keilar, live from CNN's Washington headquarters.

Underway right now, the Mueller report is over and the questions are just beginning as the report does not conclude the president committed a crime but specifically does not exonerate him.

No finding of collusion, but on obstruction of justice, Bob Mueller leaves it to the attorney general to decide and Bill Barr says the president's actions don't constitute a crime.

Plus, the politics. The president scores a big win and Democrats, who had hung so much on this report wonder, where do we go from here?

We begin with breaking news. President Trump speaking out about the Mueller report. In the Oval Office just moments ago he was asked if the entire Mueller report should be made public and here's what he said about that and more.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Up to the attorney general. Wouldn't bother me at all.

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.

Those people will certainly be looked at. I have 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. I will tell you, I love this country. I love this country as much as I can love anything, my family, my country, my God. But what they did was a false narrative. It was -- it was a terrible thing.


KEILAR: Robert Mueller found no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, but he did not reach a conclusion on the issue of obstruction of justice. That is according to a summary by Attorney General Bob Barr.

While the president is claiming total exoneration, Democrats are demanding access to the Mueller report, which remains secret.

Justice reporter Laura Jarrett is joining us now.

And, Laura, you have some new details about the timeline here of Mueller's obstruction decision, or really lack of a decision in the end. Tell us what you've learned.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: That's right, Brianna. We're learning about roughly three weeks ago the special counsel's team came over here to the Justice Department for a meeting with top Justice Department officials to brief them on the status of the investigation. And at that meeting with Attorney General Bill Barr and the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who's been overseeing the investigation essentially since its inception, the special council's team conveyed that they would not -- would not be reaching a conclusion on whether the president obstructed justice.

Now, that was one of the key parts of this investigation, along with the collusion question. And yesterday when we learned from Attorney General Bill Barr's four page memo that essentially Mueller had punted on that question, many of us raised the question of whether the justice officials had felt blindsided, even though, obviously, they had been kept in the loop on the status of the investigation all along, the question was whether that was a surprise. And I was told by a source familiar with this meeting that actually it was unexpected when the special counsel's team delivered that news just three weeks ago.

But what it also means is that the Justice Department has known for at least three weeks that this is where we were headed. And so when Bill Barr put together his memo over the weekend, I think some had wondered whether 48 hours was enough time to put all of that together and all of that analysis on obstruction. And we've now learned he's learned about it for quite a while, Brianna.

KEILAR: All right, Laura Jarrett at the Justice Department, thank you.

And Republican lawmakers are claiming this as a victory for the president. Democrats are doubling down on calls for the attorney general to release the Mueller report.

Let's check in now with our congressional correspondent, Sunlen Serfaty, on Capitol Hill.

Tell us about the reaction that you're hearing there today now that Congress is back.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Brianna, so much of the reaction really centers on the next phase of this battle, the battle for information and what will potentially be released to Congress. Of course, many Democrats calling for the full Mueller report to be released. But we did just hear from Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from

South Carolina, who was one of President Trump's closest confidants up here on Capitol Hill, and someone who spent the weekend with him down in Florida, in fact, golfed with him over the weekend. And Lindsey Graham, this morning, saying that he is going to hop on a call with the attorney general. It's our understanding that call was to happen in the last hour. And he's going to call on him to come up here to Capitol Hill to testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Interestingly, Graham, too, says that he believes much of the report should be released as much as possible. He also said he wants a new special counsel to look into the 2016 campaign, including looking into Hillary Clinton's campaign.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: What's next I hope will be that he will come to the committee, release as much as possible of the Mueller report.

When it comes to the FISA warrant, the Clinton campaign, the counterintelligence investigation has pretty much been swept under the rug except by a few Republicans in the House. Those days are over. Going forward, hopefully in a bipartisan fashion, we will begin to unpack the other side of the story.


[13:05:16] SERFATY: And certainly we have seen many Republicans up here on Capitol Hill echo a lot of what's coming out of the White House. They feel that this was vindication and that essentially it is time to move on from all this. Here's what a few Republicans had to say. Kevin McCarthy saying there was no collusion. Again, Lindsey Graham calling this a good day for the rule of law. And Mitch McConnell saying the conclusions confirm the president's accounts.

On the other side, of course, you have Democrats insisting and -- for more information. They want the full Mueller report to be released, as well as the underlying evidence. Speaker Pelosi and Chuck Schumer saying it raises just as many questions as it does answers. And, Brianna, there certainly will be a big push to get not only the attorney general but Robert Mueller up here on Capitol Hill to testify.

KEILAR: There -- yes, that is becoming very clear.

Sunlen Serfaty on the Hill, thank you.

And we have some more breaking news. This is involving lawyer Michael Avenatti, who represented Stormy Daniels against the president.

I want to go now to Kara Scannell.

Kara, what do we know?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: That's right, Brianna. So we just learned that the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan has charged lawyer Michael Avenatti with multiple counts, including extortion, for allegedly trying to extort Nike, the athletic apparel maker, of multi-million dollars, including as much as $22.5 million. Avenatti threatened to holding a press conference, according to these charges, on the eve of Nike's quarterly earnings and right before the NCAA basketball tournament. This occurred apparently last week according to these charges. They said Avenatti was trying to extort Nike. There was a meeting last week, multi-million-dollars.

We have not heard from Avenatti yet in response to these charges. Avenatti, of course, is a key player in the Michael Cohen investigation alleging these hush money payments representing Stormy Daniels. The U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan had investigated Michael Cohen's payments. And now it appears that Michael Avenatti is wrapped up in separate allegations of extortion of Nike, threatening them that he would go public with damaging information just before their earnings call and before the start of the tournament if he was not paid multi-millions-dollars, as much as $25 million, Brianna.

KEILAR: And we don't know what the information was, that's clear, right, Kara? We don't know what information he was going to put out there?

SCANNELL: We're still reading through the complaint that was filed.


SCANNELL: And so we're gleaning more information from that. But he apparently was in talks with someone who had had a relationship with Nike, who wanted to put forth some negative information about the sneaker company.

KEILAR: OK, dig into that. We'll get back to you as you do. Kara Scannell, in the newsroom, thank you.

I want to talk about this development now. We have Eric Columbus, a former Justice Department official under President Obama. He's here, along with our CNN legal analysts Ross Garber and Carrie Cordero.

All right, you're here to talk about the Mueller report or the Bob Barr letter, we should say, summarizing it. But, first, let's talk about this Michael Avenatti development. What do you make -- do you make anything of this as we are still learning what exactly information he was putting out there, anyone? Ross looks eager.

ROSS GARBER, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, look, I mean, we're still learning a lot.


GARBER: But, obviously, it is a big problem for Michael Avenatti. I'm sure the U.S. attorney's office was looking at this for a long time. You know, he was very good on TV. It's one thing to be good on TV, it's another thing, you know, to be a good lawyer. You know, he's entitled to a presumption of innocence, but this is a troubling development.

KEILAR: That they would charge him tells you something.

GARBER: Yes, sure.

KEILAR: That they would go after him for this (ph).


KEILAR: All right, let's talk about our new reporting on the Mueller report, which has been sent to the attorney general. The attorney general summarized it in four pages. To be clear, we have not seen the report. But there's some key parts in there, including that Robert Mueller did not reach a conclusion on obstruction of justice, whether the president committed obstruction of justice, and he left that to the attorney general.

He actually informed Barr and the deputy AG, Rod Rosenstein, three weeks ago he wouldn't reach a conclusion on this. Does that surprise you, Carrie?

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, actually, I said on our air last night that I wasn't buying into the idea that Attorney General Barr made the decision that obstruction charges were not warranted or supported by the evidence in 48 hours. That just didn't ring true to me. So I'm glad that our reporting has been able to confirm that, in fact, this was something that he had substantial lead time on and probably was developing what his determinations were going to be and his final recommendations and his final decisions well before the actual formal delivery of the final report on Friday evening.

KEILAR: This is not traditional to go ahead and not say. He puts the facts out there and allows Barr to decide.

[13:10:06] GARBER: Yes. Well, I mean, there's not a lot about this whole process that's traditional. There hasn't been a lot of use for these, you know, sort of special counsel regulations in the past. So this is sort of a run-through to see kind of how they work.

I'll admit, I was actually surprised that Special Counsel Mueller didn't make the call himself. You know, that's generally why you have a special counsel, to take it out of kind of, you know, direct DOJ decision making. You know, on the other hand, I guess in this case I could see it. These are complicated legal issues, very complicated, and legal issues that might apply differently to the president. And, remember, these are legal issues that the attorney general himself, Bill Barr, before he was the attorney general, did a lot of thinking about and actually wrote a memo to the deputy attorney general, you know, when -- you know, before the attorney general was the attorney general, he wrote a memo, about 19 single-spaced pages, outlining his thoughts on the obstruction of justice issues.

KEILAR: Yes, and maybe his decision, in the end, wasn't surprising considering that.

GARBER: Yes. KEILAR: But, were you, Eric, surprised that Robert Mueller punted on this, that he did not take that traditional step of determining himself, whether obstruction of justice had been committed?

ERIC COLUMBUS, FORMER JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL UNDER OBAMA: I think there's a logic to what Bob Mueller did in that situation because the president cannot -- a sitting president cannot be indicted under DOJ policy and interpretation of the Constitution. Bob Mueller obviously knew that and was subject to that. And I believe he wanted to focus on the facts. So he laid out the facts, pro and con, and he realizes that the president -- like any president -- is subject to the voters and possibly to removal by the impeachment process. And by putting the facts in the report and letting those facts hopefully come out, he's focusing on what matters far more than the legal determination of whether the law was violated.

KEILAR: Do you agree with that?

GARBER: Well, here's the issue I think with that is, I'm not sure Special Counsel Mueller expects his analysis to actually come out. It's not typical for prosecutorial decisions to come out, and there's no guarantee. And, in fact, I think that much of Mueller's work won't come out here.

KEILAR: Really?

GARBER: Yes, I think Eric's right, that on some level it probably made sense for him to lay out all the facts, let the AG make the call because it was such an important decision.

KEILAR: Meaning because -- you don't think we're going to see -- do you think we're going to see the full report? Do you think Congress will see the full Mueller report?

CORDERO: I think eventually we'll see a substantial part of it. I think there will be portions of it that are going to be -- the attorney general will adhere to the grand jury secrecy requirements that certain parts of it won't be able to be public. But I think it will be as a result of a process. So I think the first part will probably be that at the attorney general and even perhaps the special counsel, Mueller, will be called to testify in front of Congress, and I think that a substantial part of the report will come out. I think there will be parts that relate to declarations, the things that the special counsel recommended not to prosecute that might be redacted, and I think some of the (INAUDIBLE) information out, but I think it will be hard for most of the report to come out.

KEILAR: There's also a lot of information that wouldn't have made it into the report, too, though.

GARBER: That may -- yes, that's probably true. So I think what Congress and the public is going to look for are the -- is the report and then the information underlying the report. I actually -- I think I disagree with Carrie a little bit. I think we're not going to learn very much from what we get from the Department of Justice. I think what's going to happen is they're going to scrub this material for grand jury secrecy information, for negative information about uncharged people, for classified information. And I also think -- I think there's going to be a big issue with executive privilege. Off -- yes.

KEILAR: What does that leave us, I would say.

GARBER: That's exactly right.

KEILAR: But what is -- but where does that leave us, Eric, in terms of transparency and people who have been watching this unfold for the better part of two years wanting answers to their questions?

COLUMBUS: I think that there is -- I think that Bill Barr will lean in favor of transparency to the extent he feels he can consistent with the law. And I think we saw that -- I'm speculating, but I -- I don't think he would have written that memo yesterday if it was -- intended to say, hey, just take my word for it, the president did not violate the law. I think the fact that he came to that conclusion, leaned so forward on that, indicates that there's -- the facts are going to come out to enable us to evaluate it, otherwise it would just look rather silly if he was out on a limb like that.

CORDERO: Now, let me add one other layer on top of it. Even if a substantial part or some part of the special counsel's report is provided to Congress and is publicly released in some part, I actually don't think that whatever the special counsel wrote will answer all of the questions, won't answer all the questions about why members of the Trump campaign and administration lied about various meetings with Russian government surrogates. It won't answer the bigger narrative -- and I wrote a piece back in the end of 2017 arguing this, that it won't answer the bigger narrative. It's not a Ken Starr like report that's going to describe everything that happened because, at the end, it's a prosecutive and a declination memo. It's about the criminal charge -- the report that the special counsel wrote, I think, is going to be about what prosecution decisions were made.

[13:15:18] GARBER: I agree.

KEILAR: And is that where Congress comes in then?

CORDERO: That's where Congress comes in. Congress still has a job to do.

KEILAR: All right, thank you, guys, so much for your expertise.

Next I'm going to speak live with the White House about whether the president still believes this report should be released. He just weighed in on that.

Plus, more on our breaking news. Lawyer Michael Avenatti charged with extortion. We're learning some new charges in a separate case.

And as Parkland mourns the loss of two students who killed themselves within a week, there's more tragic news. A father of a child killed at Sandy Hook also dies of an apparent suicide.


[13:20:16] KEILAR: It is a good day for the White House with the conclusion from the special counsel that the president of the United States and his associates did not collude with Russia on interference with the 2016 presidential election. But the four-page summary from Attorney General William Barr leaves a lot of unanswered questions.

And Steve Groves is joining us now, hopefully to answer some of those. He's the deputy White House press secretary. He was previously a deputy to former White House Special Counsel Ty Cobb before moving into the press office in January.

So, thank you so much for being with us. We really appreciate it.


KEILAR: So we've seen this summary, this four-page summary, from the attorney general, of -- it's a summary of the Mueller report, which did not establish collusion. The description as well of Barr and Rod Rosenstein's conclusion that the evidence in the Mueller report is not sufficient to establish that the president committed obstruction as well. The process right now of determining what can go to Congress, because there are certain considerations about what would be secret before a grand jury, is happening as we speak.

I wonder, though, what does the White House want to see? Is there a concern that if this does not become public, the president has said he doesn't have a problem with that, is there a concern that Americans won't be able to put stock in the Mueller report if they don't see it?

GROVES: Well, as the attorney general has made clear, he's going to make as much of this report possible as can be allowed under the law. In his letter he talks about grand jury information. We also know there's got to be classified information in there as well. So, as I understand it, they're working on that right now.

KEILAR: What about executive privilege stuff? Is the White House going to make a case for what should not be made available to Congress or to the public?

GROVES: I mean we would cross that bridge when we came to it. That would only be necessary if Attorney General Barr's summary had to include information that could possibly deal with executive privilege. If that were to happen, then we expect the attorney general would reach out to the White House and say, hey, in my summary, I want to include executive privilege information. Can we have that type of discussion?

KEILAR: So then you would expect the -- that seems very likely. So you would expect the attorney general to reach out to the White House before this -- at least what he can conclude of the Mueller report going to Congress?

GROVES: I think the attorney general can write his summary by excising out, you know, grand jury material, classified material, law enforcement sensitive material without any input from the White House at all. He's an expert in what those things are. If he has to, and I'm not convinced that he has to, write a summary that would include presidential conversations, presidential deliberations, but if he is wanting to write his report and his summary with that information, he would probably come and check with us first to make sure that the president didn't want to assert executive privilege.

KEILAR: The president's written answers to the special counsel's questions?

GROVES: Those may or may not be included in the report. Understand that those were directed toward the collusion side of the investigation where even Special Counsel Mueller said that there was zero evidence of any type of conspiracy on behalf of the president or any of his campaign. So that will be up to the --

KEILAR: I don't -- zero evidence isn't a quote, right, just to be clear? That's not a quote.

GROVES: It's not a quote from the letter.

KEILAR: I just want -- I just want to be clear because it talks about not -- that's not a quote from the letter -- that's not a quote from Robert Mueller.

GROVES: Robert Mueller --

KEILAR: If we're going to say what Robert Mueller is saying, we cannot say that, zero evidence.

GROVES: Well, I -- I had the letter before, and I can quote from it. But he made it clear that they did not find evidence of any type of conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

KEILAR: All right, I just want to be clear --


KEILAR: On sort of what's on -- on sort of what's in here. But it doesn't -- it does not say -- it doesn't say zero evidence.



GROVES: It's a definitive statement about a lack of any evidence about conspiracy.

KEILAR: Yes. I just want to be clear about legal -- legal findings and what raises to the level of a charge, right? Just to be clear.


KEILAR: So why not include that for the sake of transparency, the president's written answers?

GROVES: I don't know. That really is a question for Attorney General Barr. I don't know if he -- if his summary requires --

KEILAR: But if Jay Sekulow says he doesn't -- he doesn't want it, right, he doesn't wants that, he wants that to remain private, why?

GROVES: You'd have to ask Jay Sekulow that. I'm more concerned about what the attorney general needs to do to make his summary available, publicly available. He'll make that decision over at the Department of Justice.

KEILAR: So before Congress gets -- what would the process be then if the -- you -- so you believe the process to be that the attorney general would flag potential executive privilege information and then the White House would be able to see the summary report before it would go to Congress? Is that what you would expect?

[13:25:12] GROVES: It's possible that if there were executive privilege issues that Attorney General Barr would only raise those issues and those issues alone with the White House. He doesn't necessarily need to provide his full summary to the White House in order --

KEILAR: Parts -- parts of the summary, though? I guess what I'm asking is, would you see parts of the report before it would go to Congress in order to deal with the executive privilege issues?

GROVES: I think -- if -- yes, if and only if General Barr wanted to have executive privilege material in his summary would he come to the White House, and if he needed a determination on those and if the president needed to assert, then those would be the only portions that the White House might see.

But I'm really speculating. This is a process that's going to be driven by Attorney General Barr over at the Department of Justice.

KEILAR: OK. And just to be -- just to go back to what you were saying, the quote is from the report, the evidence does not establish that the president was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference. Just important that we're very clear about what we're talking about.


KEILAR: So just last week the president said Robert Mueller should not have been able to write a report. He's called the investigation a witch hunt on Twitter more than 170 times. He's welcoming the result of what came from the Barr letter, of course. He said that it's a sham. Now it's a total exoneration, as he says. So, which is it? Is it a sham or is it a report that should be taken seriously?

GROVES: Well, I don't think there's any inconsistency about being critical of an investigation that you didn't think ever should be launched, and then when that investigation is completed to look at the results and say, of course I'm exonerated. I've been saying that I haven't done anything wrong for two years. So I don't see any inconsistency with him being critical of the fact that the investigation was opened into him and his campaign, and then when the investigation is over, and we know the attorneys that ran the investigation saying, look, they found what I've been telling you all along, that I didn't do it.

KEILAR: How do you -- how do you hang your hat on something that you alleged 170 times was completely illegitimate? This isn't just criticism. This is questioning the entire legitimacy of this investigation.

GROVES: I don't know that the president can be said to be hanging his hat on anything. He's been delivered results of a report of a two-year investigation into his campaign and into his administration and saying, God, can you believe it, after all of this time and money and the Democrats who ran this investigation against me, they still couldn't find anything. That's not inconsistent with being critical of the fact that it was --

KEILAR: Well, anything -- anything about him, to be clear --


KEILAR: Because this actual investigation was about Russian meddling in the election.


KEILAR: So now having dispensed with those concerns, is he now concerned about Russian meddling in the election process, which continues, as we know, from his intel chiefs in -- to such a degree that he is now going to resource pushing back against Russia doing that?

GROVES: Well, I think since he's taken office, election interference and election security has been one of his priorities. He's issued an executive order. They're working with the Department of Homeland Security on elections. The midterm elections came and went without, I believe, significant interference and the interference that we believe did happen and was reported and made public. So I think all of the eyes of the administration and the White House are on election security.

KEILAR: Why have his intel chiefs testified before Congress something different?

GROVES: What did the intel chiefs testify to?

KEILAR: That this really hasn't -- essentially what they said was that this is something that continues to go on and doesn't have the focus that it needs. They seem more -- clearly more concerned about it than the president.

GROVES: Well, I mean, that's your characterization. I think that the president's concerned with it.

KEILAR: I think it's a -- it's a -- is the president --

GROVES: It's your characterization. Let's be fair about this. KEILAR: Then let's just talk about what the president thinks.


KEILAR: Is the president upset with the Russians over the findings? Because while he may be tweeting about how he is exonerated, in his words, by this report, the Russians clearly are not. I mean when you look at -- when you look at the charges, 34 people, three companies, a lot of Russians in that mix. Is he angry with -- with --

GROVES: Almost all Russians, by the way.

KEILAR: That's right -- with what the Russians did here?

GROVES: Well, sure, why wouldn't he be. But the important thing was, he was angry about the fact that there were ties and allegations that had been going on in very irresponsible ways by politicians and members of the media that somehow he or his campaign had something to do with that. He has a right to be upset about that. Those were completely spurious allegations. They've been blown out of the water by this investigation. It's good that Robert Mueller indicted those Russians, but quite clear that he and no one on his campaign colluded, conspired or coordinated with those Russians.

KEILAR: When you -- when you talk about approaching this issue of Russian meddling, though, is it fair to say that you -- so you're saying that the president has accurately made -- that he has appropriately made -