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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Mueller Found No Evidence of Collusion, Couldn't Make Obstruction Decision; Trump Takes Victory Lap: I'm Having a Good Day. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired April 18, 2019 - 16:30   ET

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


JOHN DEAN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: And I've got to tell you, I read all of those. And in 400 words, Mr. -- this report from the special counsel is more damning than all those reports about a president. This is really a devastating report.

[16:30:02] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And yet, it concludes that there's insufficient evidence to say that the president and his team conspired with Russia which was the most important part of the investigation, one might argue.

DEAN: Exactly. You know, and I think we've also lost some of the context of what's going on here. This was a campaign that Trump has all but admitted was not a serious presidential campaign. It was a branding undertaking. And they wanted all the help they could get from wherever they could get, and it's clear they got a lot from the Russians, an unusual amount.

Does it rise to the level of a criminal conspiracy? Apparently not, at least with the evidence that's available. Not everybody was willing to talk about everything that was available. A lot of messages were encrypted. They couldn't get to them.

And as far as the obstruction goes, this is clear obstruction, Jake. The obstruction statute is an endeavor statute, as well as actual overt action. But just -- if you endeavor to obstruct and there is much evidence here of endeavor, you violated the obstruction statue.

TAPPER: And yet, Mueller kicked that question to Congress.

I want to ask your opinion on something as a special White House counsel. Mueller concludes the efforts were not as successful as they might have been because so many of his staffers refused to carry out his orders, such as Don McGahn, former White House counsel for Trump, who refused to fire Bob Mueller, and refused to lie about the president's request that he fire Bob Mueller.

As a former White House counsel, what was your reaction to that part of the report?

DEAN: Well, I think that, obviously, Mr. McGahn did the right thing in not following his orders, as did others. They know he thinks at the extremes. He's incautious. He doesn't give a hoot about the law, and they were smart enough not to cross the line. That doesn't eliminate his mental attitude and the endeavor part of

obstruction. Just because it's not successful doesn't mean that you didn't try to obstruct and didn't endeavor to obstruct. So I think Congress has to look at this because a president's mental attitude is just as important as his actions.

TAPPER: And to follow up that point, Mueller's report says on June 19th, 2017 in the oval office, the president told his former campaign manager Cory Lewandowski to give Jeff Sessions a dictated message. He wanted Sessions to say the investigation was very unfair and to focus on future election meddling, not past. Lewandowski ultimately declined to deliver the message. He asked someone else to do it, senior White House official Rick Dearborn. Mueller's report says Dearborn was, quote, uncomfortable with the task and did not follow through.

It certainly paints an interesting picture of a number of White House aides refusing to carry out the president's actions when they think that they are coming too close or crossing the line into illegal.

DEAN: That wasn't uncommon with Nixon either. There were times when his top aides Haldeman and Ehrlichman we know from today of having the availability of all his taped conversations, they didn't carry out everything he requested and often restrained Nixon. That didn't, however, absolve him of the problems he was confronted with.

TAPPER: Lastly, sir, what did you make of Bill Barr, the attorney general, who has been really criticized today for giving representations of what's in the Mueller report that don't go into depth and aren't as nuanced as what's actually in the report?

DEAN: Very disappointing with the attorney general. One of the post- Watergate norms was that attorney generals did not serve as the president's personal counsel. The Office of Legal Counsel is not his private law firm. It operates for the office of the president. And Mr. Barr today violated all the norms that have been established post- Watergate and took us back into Nixonian-type operations.

TAPPER: All right. John Dean, thank you for your time.

I want to bring in another interview right now. Preet Bharara who served as attorney of the Southern District of New York, until President Trump. So, ignominiously showed him the door.

Preet, one of your main takeaways here has to do with the discrepancies between what Attorney General Bill Barr said was in the Mueller report and what we now read is in the Mueller report. What do you take issue with?

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, look, the way that Bill Barr, the attorney general, framed the issue, you know, I think left a misimpression that the basis on which Bob Mueller decided not to bring an obstruction case or declared there was a crime of obstruction was based on the evidence. And that's not what it looks like when you read the report at all. I think I was actually surprised how explicit Bob Mueller was, because none of that was in the four-page summary Bill Barr submitted to the public --

TAPPER: Barr made it sound like Mueller was ambivalent and couldn't make a decision.

[16:35:00] BHARARA: So, I actually have been speculating for some weeks that it actually was a case that it was such a close factual and legal question and that's why Bob Mueller decided to leave it alone. He makes it abundantly clear in the prefix to the section on obstruction volume 2, that because it's the case that they accept the conclusion of the Office of Legal Counsel, that a sitting president cannot be prosecuted, that it would be unfair in various ways because there would be no forum in which to defend himself, that they were not going to make a traditional prosecutorial decision. But they made it also very clear that one of the reasons they want to lay out all the evidence was so that you would have it, and it would be preserved for later.

And there's also, you know, a specific reference in the preamble to that section of the report that says, the OLC opinion says you can't prosecute a sitting president but you can investigate a sitting president, and you can prosecute a sitting president after he's not in office anymore. Those were very telling signs about what Bob Mueller's intent was in laying out all that evidence.

And it wasn't to me, not as close a question as I expected to see it. There's about 130, 140 pages of laying out a lot of facts. Some of which they decide are in favor of the president, most of which are not in favor of the president. And then I expected to see a lot more robust sort of acceptance of potential defenses on the part of the president's lawyers.

Bob Mueller's team dismisses out of hand various constitutional legal and statutory defenses that the lawyers brought to Bob Mueller attention. That strikes me as not as close a question as we might have thought.

TAPPER: And also, I mean, they clear or say there's insufficient evidence to prosecute the president or anyone on his team on the conspiracy charge. They make -- Mueller makes it clear that they would have cleared the president on obstruction if they thought they could have, and they did not think they could have.

BHARARA: Yes, that's why I think that's very important. In some ways, the fact the president got some, I guess, mixed good news on the conspiracy part, on the first section makes the second section that much more devastating because Bob Mueller and his team could have said the same thing on part two they said on part one. They made it a point to say, as we've been discussing for days now, one thing we did note that was true in the report, it does not exonerate him.

And the reason he's not exonerated is because there's this OLC opinion in place, which is why Bill Barr jumped in and explicitly said in his letter, his summary that -- the only thing we saw for almost four weeks, that they made the determination that the president was not guilty of a crime, and they were not paying attention to whether or not the OLC opinion mattered or not. He was filling in a gap that the Mueller team created.

TAPPER: If you had been the special counsel, would you have brought charges against the president for obstruction of justice?

BHARARA: Well, I would have felt also constrained by the Office of Legal Counsel's legal interpretation.

TAPPER: You felt that as well?

BHARARA: Yes, I don't know then how I would to laid it out and how I would have described that this is up to Congress, but I do agree with Bob Mueller's team's decision to abide by the policy, the conclusion, the legal interpretation of the Office of Legal Counsel which left them, you know, a couple limited possibilities.

Don't lay it out. Lay it out and explicitly say it's going to Congress or do what I think he did which is lay it out and implicitly leave it to Congress.

TAPPER: All right. Preet Bharara, thank you so much.

We're going to have much more on our breaking news, including President Trump's surprising move just a few minutes ago.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:42:59] TAPPER: Moments ago, President Trump leaving the White House on his way to Mar-a-Lago, notably not stopping to talk to reporters or answer any questions. What's going on? Cats and dogs living together.

But earlier today, President Trump did take something of a victory lap.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Hey, I'm having a good day, too. It was called no collusion, no obstruction.

There never was, by the way, and there never will be. And we do have to get to the bottom of these things, I will say.

This should never happen to another president again. This hoax. This should never happen to another president again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: The president's legal team says that the president has been vindicated by this report.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is live at the White House.

Kaitlan, I've read a lot of this report. Vindication is not the word that comes to mind. KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: No, it's certainly

not. What White House officials were worried about when this report came out was that it was not going to paint a flattering picture of their work environment. Jake, it certainly doesn't do that.

And one of the things you are picking up on when you read this report is all of the statements that the White House, including the president and his officials made that were not true. One of the ones that was the major ones was what Sarah Sanders said after they fired James Comey, which was that from the briefing room podium that she had heard from countless FBI agents who lost confidence in Comey.

Now, in this report, it reveals what she said was not founded on anything she acknowledged to investigators. There were other lies about Flynn communicating with Russians during the election, including in the Mueller report. Flynn's deputy lying to "The Washington Post", telling them what they reported about him discussing sanctions with the Russian ambassador the day after they had been imposed was not true and the Mueller report says that she knowingly relayed false information to "The Washington Post."

And, Jake, there are a series of others. And basically, the theme you picked up on is that a news story was reported. The White House deemed it as false and then now in this report, in excruciating detail, they are revealing how what the media reported was actually true.

TAPPER: And, Kaitlan, the report also describes that while the special counsel did not establish the president or anyone close to him helped in the Russian conspiracy, quote, the president had a motive to put the FBI's Russia investigation behind him.

1645 [16:45:00] The evidence does indicate that a thorough FBI investigation would uncover facts about the campaign and the President personally, that the president could have understood to be crimes or that would give rise to personal and political concern."

So the idea of why is the President trying to stop this investigation with -- when the fact that there's no conspiracy, we have an answer now at least according to Robert Mueller.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Why he was trying to stop the investigation and all the attempts he made to stop the investigation that at the time the White House said was not true including attempting to fire the Special Counsel which Don McGahn then the White House Counsel refused to do.

That's the other thing that sticks out is the series of aides and officials who worked for the President and even outside people like Corey Lewandowski who refused to simply do things that the President asked them to do or directed them to do and waited until essentially he forgot about it.

And Jake we should note, that's a thing that is still present in the west wing of people either slow-walking the President's orders are simply ignoring them and hoping he forgets that he gave them.

TAPPER: All right Kaitlan Collins at the White House. So let's talk about this with our -- with our legal heads over here. Carrie, this does seem significant that the special counsel is giving an alternate theory as to why the president was trying to squash this investigation even though he -- there was no evidence of conspiracy with Russia. There's a whole bunch of other stuff he didn't want the FBI poking around.

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: There was and there was a lot of Investigations that were spurred from this big investigation. I mean we were talking earlier that there are 12 other investigations and there is a whole lot of redacted information in this Special Counsel Report and the marker that is coded from the Justice Department is that its ongoing investigations.

So clearly there was a lot of activity that even if -- we know some of the -- much of the special counsels investigation resulted in criminal charges, and in addition there is a lot of other activity that is if they haven't been charged yet is worthy of significant federal investigation and a lot of those are ongoing.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: But the -- you know we're going to talk about these other investigations. Have about this investigation? I mean, that was -- what is disclosed in this case. Donald Trump's famous speech where he says Russia, find Hillary Clinton's e-mails. And you know what Russia did, they went and found Hillary Clinton's e- mails. I mean that day, that day their trolls went out, the hackers went out and they found Hillary Clinton's e-mails which by the way may have tipped the outcome of the election.

I mean the idea that this was going on is the stuff of thriller fiction. And you know the obstruction thing -- I mean, the -- I don't know what the word is that the opposite of enablers, like protectors.

TAPPER: The guardrails.

TOOBIN: Rob Porter -- Rob Porter, the staff secretary who he had to fire because --

TAPPER: The alleged wife beater.

TOOBIN: The alleged wife beater. He's told to go see Rachel Brand, talk to Rachel Brand. She was third in the Justice Department and find out if she's on the team because he's thinking of firing Rosenstein. And Porter recognizing how incredibly inappropriate this is doesn't do it.

But it's just like McGahn, K.T. McFarland the former Deputy National Security Adviser, Corey Lewandowski who was not exactly known as a squish. He doesn't follow the President's orders. I mean it's amazing that these people stepped in.

TAPPER: And Elie let me ask you a question because he just -- Jeffry just talked about when the president was a candidate said, Russia if you're listening you know get those 30,000 e-mails of Hillary Clinton deleted. He says in his answers to the special counsel he was just joking and said anybody would know.

But the Special Counsel's report says behind the scenes, he was pushing his staff, go get those thirty thousand e-mails. Michael Flynn who later became the National Security Advisor is charged with doing that. Now they never ultimately get them. Is that criminal at all?

ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: There's an argument it would be a bit of a stretch on conspiracy law that an agreement between two or more people could be a crime and there's some detailed analysis in this document which I think is fairly well-founded that they didn't quite get there.

But let's keep in mind. The bottom line conclusion is there is not enough to charge a criminal conspiracy with Russia but that is not the same thing as a clean bill of health and there's two important pillars that were found here.

Number one, Russia tried -- did hack into the election with the intent to help Trump win. That's a specific clear finding that Robert Mueller makes. And the second thing is that the Trump campaign expect -- "expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and release from the Russian efforts," from the Russian crime.

So maybe they didn't ever get quite together enough for an agreement but the intent was there, the purpose was there, and the crime was there across the ocean of Russia.

TAPPER: Now, David, you worked on the Trump campaign in 2016 and you've been saying for years now that A, the campaign wasn't organized enough to collude with itself much less with Russia, and that B, that there was no attempt to do any of this stuff. But you must have read things in here that surprised you. You didn't know that a candidate Trump was asking Michael Flynn tracked down the 30,000 e-mails Hillary Clinton deleted.

[16:50:14] DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No. I was surprised. As I told you earlier, I saw in there a poster that was generated by one of the Russian entities involved here advertising for a rally for coal miners and saying you know, come to this plaza in Philadelphia. Obviously not the coal mining Mecca of America show you how adept the Russians were here.

But yes, look, it's -- I'm still plowing through it. It's a very thick document. There's some things that you know, that are surprising obviously. I didn't know that. As you know, as Elie said, some of it is -- you know, not all of it rises -- none of it rises to a crime obviously.

Some of it is you know, things that if you were a more experienced, some of the folks like Mr. Papadopoulos and others of their contact, if you're more experienced campaigning and you've been around for a while you may know that's not kosher. You might want to contact somebody about that. Versus people who are so far on the outside, they're trying to prove their worth and get getting more involved in the campaign so they feel like they may have to prove themselves and kind of go out.

TAPPER: Everyone stick around. We have much more to talk about. We have more on the breaking news. The former independent counsel who investigated President Clinton will join us next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:55:00] TAPPER: We're back with breaking news. The release of the redacted Mueller report headline one -- insufficient evidence that anyone on team Trump conspired with the Russians. Headline two, the Special Counsel trying to explain why his team was unable to clear President Trump on the matter of obstruction of justice and saying Congress can still investigate and take action against the President as the Constitution allows Congress to do.

Let's bring in Robert Ray, former Independent Counsel for the Whitewater investigation and former Federal Prosecutor. Mr. Ray, thanks for joining us. As a former independent counsel --

ROBERT RAY, FORMER INDEPENDENT COUNSEL: Thank you.

TAPPER: As a former independent counsel, what's your main takeaway from the Mueller report?

RAY: It was a bit of deja vu going through this today. And after listening to the Attorney General's press conference, it's a reminder -- I think we had a preview of this already, but I just would like to emphasize how very difficult it is to investigate a president. And also, as confirmed now by Bob Mueller's conclusions and findings that the difficulty of applying obstruction of justice statutes in evaluating presidential conduct.

So that was my takeaway. You know, I don't think, really, honestly, now that we have the benefit of almost the full Mueller report that the contention that the Attorney General somehow has engaged in an effort to whitewash this or mischaracterize the tenor of Bob Mueller's findings, frankly, I find that ridiculous. And it's said by a lot of people that ought to no better.

But having been through this drill and evaluating presidential conduct, again, it is a reminder about how difficult -- how very difficult that is to do.

TAPPER: So you disagree with anyone saying that the Attorney General misled -- willingly or not so --

RAY: I think that -- Jake, I mean, honestly, I think that's ridiculous and I know that's a very popular notion in the moment to try to make that the issue. I mean, I even heard somebody -- it was recently as last night trying to argue that the real collusion here is between the Attorney General and the president of the United States. You know, hogwash, that's ridiculous.

TAPPER: In the report, Mueller wrote, "the President's efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded President Trump declined to carry out orders or exceed to his requests." But ultimately Mueller did not make a ruling on whether or not the president obstructed justice, though he certainly seemed to lay out a case if Congress wants to take it up.

RAY: Look, I understand that armchair prosecutors can try to make that into, oh, you know what, that's the sufficient threshold showing of an attempt to obstruct justice, even if the President's people didn't carry out his wishes. I guess my take on it, Jake, to be honest, is that I find that actually to be rather heartening that, you know, the President listens. That when the President is off the reservation, he surrounds himself with people who are smart enough and wise enough to say, hey, hold on a second until this blows over.

Frankly, I mean, that -- it's an example of the fact that the system works. I think most Americans should be heartened by that result rather than attempting to criticize it and certainly to draw the conclusion that that's an attempt to obstruct justice I think, frankly, it's farfetched.

TAPPER: You like the guardrails, the people around the president that did not carry out the orders --

RAY: We depend on it.

TAPPER: Yes.

RAY: We depend on it. I mean, look, being president is a big job, and we depend on the fact the president surrounds himself with people to make a careful evaluation of any proposed presidential action and to think about what you're doing and also to do things, frankly, up to and including, if necessary, the threat to -- look, I'm not going to carry out this conduct and you know, if I'm forced to do so or compelled to do so, I'm going to resign rather than carry out the president's wishes. That's what you expect to have happened.

TAPPER: Very quickly, sir, if you can. The report also details how the special counsel's team decided not to subpoena the President even though they found his written answers inadequate. Is that the decision you would that made as well?

RAY: The President has a Fifth Amendment right not to testify or incriminate himself. Whether they found is inadequate or not is frankly beside the point. You know, that's a situation in which the President in this instance listened to his lawyers and got good legal advice about how to handle this.