Return to Transcripts main page
Analysis of the Just Released Mueller Report; Mueller on Obstruction Charge; Mueller on Trump Campaign and Russia. Aired 12- 12:30p ET
Aired April 18, 2019 - 12:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[12:00:00] LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Situation here. And department guidance on the fact that a sitting president cannot be indicted. And the special counsel's team explains that they are going to abide by that guidance and they say here, if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment.
And from that point on, they lay out a litany, chapter and verse, very detailed granular episodes of essentially times where the president was putting on pressure on mostly now former officials in his administration to do things that they either refused to do or felt uncomfortable with. In the case of the former White House counsel, Don McGahn, also former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a litany of episodes here of the president putting pressure on these officials and them pressing back.
On the question of why Mueller walked through all of this evidence if he was going to make an ultimate decision to punt here and not reach an ultimate conclusion on whether the president obstructed justice, the Mueller team explains that quite clearly. And they say the reason they did it is because a thorough factual investigation was needed in order to preserve the evidence when memories were fresh and documentary materials were available.
And so what they're trying to do here is really preserve a record and build out as much as they can because later on in the report they explained Congress can take up the mantel on this if they so choose. There's nothing that prevents Congress from looking at the situation and deciding for itself as a co-equal branch of the government that the president has in fact obstructed justice. Mueller teams explains that quite clearly here, but that they thought fairness concerns counseled against potentially reaching that judgment when no charges could rather be brought because it is a sitting president.
One other line I just want to highlight for you here, Jake and Wolf. It's interesting given all the pressure that we've been talking about and all the different episodes with McGahn and Sessions and Lewandowski, they lay out here that the president's efforts to influence investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that's largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests. And they go on to say, consistent with that pattern, the evidence we obtained would not support potential obstruction charges against the president's aides and associates beyond those already filed. So even though he was putting pressure on them, they say here, we don't see any basis for charges against the people that he was sort of trying to use as a conduit. As McGahn said, he felt he had to resign as opposed to having another Saturday night massacre on his hands.
So that gives you sort of a little bit of a flavor of all the details that we're learning here on the obstruction of justice section, Wolf and Jake.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, very --
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: That's -- that's -- it's fascinating, because what you're saying there, Laura, is that Mueller -- the reason why more White House aides or administration officials have not been themselves indicted or charged with obstruction of justice is because they ignored President Trump's orders.
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes.
TAPPER: President Trump would tell the White House Counsel Don McGahn fire Robert Mueller. Don McGahn said to himself, no. And, therefore, Don McGahn is a free man. And the same thing with Corey Lewandowski or any number of other individuals named in the Mueller report is that the way to -- that they -- that all of these administration officials preserved their freedom and are not in jail right now, or at least charged and in a court right now, is because they refused to carry out the orders that President Trump demanded of them.
BLITZER: And the specific details in here are very, very powerful.
Evan, you've been going through the document as well, the 400-page Mueller report with the redactions. Give us your big picture on some of the big -- you know, the big look at Mueller deciding whether or not to go ahead and charge campaign officials.
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf, the report, as volume one of the report describes the Russian campaign, and the efforts by people associated with the Trump campaign to essentially encourage some of that activity. None of that according to Special Counsel Robert Mueller crossed into the line where they can bring a charge or a crime against anybody associated with the campaign.
On page 174 in volume one, it talks about -- that the office determined that the contacts between campaign officials and Russia- linked individuals either did not involve the commission of a federal crime, or in the case of campaign finance offenses, that our evidence was not sufficient to obtain and sustain a criminal conviction. And it -- it's clear, according to one of the footnotes in this section of the report, Wolf, it describes that the -- the special counsel investigators looked into whether or not they could charge people with disseminating some of the stolen documents that the Russians -- the Russian intelligence services had stolen from the Clinton campaign. People working for the Clinton campaign. They looked into whether or not this could constitute trafficking in or receipt of a stolen -- of stolen property under the National Stolen Property Act, and they determined that they could not.
[12:05:24] And, finally, it also describes that, you know, that these contacts did not in themselves amount to an agreement. Now that's a key word because the statute here of whether or not anybody was conspiring with the Russians would be that according to the Mueller investigators and the Justice Department it has -- that there had to be an agreement between someone associated with the campaign and the Russians to collude essentially, and they say that they did not establish that there was anything here that amounted to such an agreement.
Now, we're also getting a little bit of new information about the extent of this investigation. We know, for instance, that there was an August 2016 -- 2017 memo that described the initial stages of this investigation looking into Carter Page, who was a foreign policy adviser to the campaign, Paul Manafort who became chairman of the campaign, and George Papadopoulos, another foreign policy aide. He's the one whose activities initiated the FBI's investigation in July of 2016.
So it describes that they went into everything here, Wolf. New information here, though, in this section. They say that they looked into allegations that George Papadopoulos, again, a foreign policy aid for the campaign, committed a crime or crimes by acting as an unregistered agent of the Israeli government. Now, that's the first time we've ever heard that the special counsel was looking into activities of people connected with the campaign that went beyond the Russians. They were looking into whether or not George Papadopoulos was essentially acting as an agent of the Israeli government, and according to the documents that we've seen publically now, obviously George Papadopoulos has now -- he's now pleaded guilty. He's gone to jail for a few days. We know -- we don't know anything about that. So it's clear that they did not get to a decision to be able to charge him.
But it really does show the extent of this investigation, that the -- this document again describes also four sets of allegations against Michael Flynn involving -- Michael Flynn and his activity as the national security adviser for the president. This is a vast investigation, obviously, that went on for two years, Wolf, and it's clear that they looked at everything.
TAPPER: All right, Evan Perez, thank you so much.
Let's go back to the panel here and talking about specifically the reason why the obstruction of justice attempts by President Trump failed, if one agrees that it was obstruction of justice, because it's very clear that the individuals surrounding President Trump protected him.
BORGER: Saved him. TAPPER: Whether they were doing so to protect him or to protect the
country or protect some sort of principle, they did so. And this is just quoting from the report.
The president's efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests. Comey did not end the investigation of Flynn, which ultimately resulted in Flynn's prosecution and conviction for lying to the FBI. McGahn, the White House counsel at the time, did not tell acting attorney general that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, must be removed, but was instead prepared to resign over the president's order. Lewandowski, the president's former campaign manager and his aide, and Rick Dearborn, did not deliver the president's message to Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, that he should continue -- that he should confine the Russian investigation to future election meddling only. And McGahn refused to receive from his recollections about events surrounding the president's direction to have the special counsel removed despite the president's multiple demands that he do so. In other words lie to the public and to the press about his demand to -- that McGahn fire Mueller.
Consistent with that pattern, the evidence we obtained would not support potential obstruction charges against the president's aides and associates beyond those already filed (ph).
BASH: But it details and extent to which those people and others in the White House worked so hard to manage the president, to not carry out his orders, but also knowing his personality, his demands, for example, to get out there and deny "The New York Times" report that he had said to McGahn, please fire Robert Mueller. McGahn refused to do it, saying it wasn't true. It actually denials in here that Reince Priebus, then the chief of staff, goes out onto -- onto television, onto "Meet the Press" and says that he didn't recall hearing anything like that. He was so careful to say that, but the way the president heard it was, great job, Reince Priebus, you know, you got out there and you defended me.
[12:10:04] So they had to do this incredibly intricate, again, dance, not just to stop obstruction, but to try to stop the president from talking about it more and more.
TAPPER: Is this obstruction? Was this obstruction of justice?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: You know, the report has an interesting legal section, you know, on the law of obstruction of justice. And it makes very clear that it is a crime to endeavor, that's the word in the statute, to endeavor to obstruct justice. It is not required that the obstruction effort be successful. I mean, when you think about it. Every obstruction of justice prosecution is unsuccessful is based -- you know, every obstruction of justice prosecution is based on an attempt that doesn't succeed or the people wouldn't have been caught.
Richard Nixon didn't succeed in obstruction of justice because he was forced to resign. The fact that these public servants, Don McGahn, James Comey and others protected the president doesn't protect him from committing a crime. I look at this evidence, and it sure looks like obstruction of justice to me.
Another larger point --
BLITZER: Let me just interrupt for a moment because it certainly, at a minimum, looks like conspiracy to obstruct justice.
And one of the things they say in the introduction is, they're not dealing with issues of intent very extensively. They say that if we were recommending an actual prosecution, we would talk about intent. So, you know -- though you can hardly say this is a small report, it doesn't really address the issue in any great detail of whether there was corrupt, improper criminal intent by the president in these areas.
TAPPER: But, Carrie -- Carrie, let me ask you a question because, again, I'm just a humble caveman. I'm not a lawyer. I don't know all of this. But if Mueller is saying we're not going to charge any of the president's aides and advisers with obstruction of justice because they didn't care out the president's orders, how does that not suggest in its own assertion that the president was trying to obstruct justices?
CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Look, I mean, I -- you know, we're sitting here, we're reading the headlines and I'm going to go through in detail and read all of the factual body of information that is around these ten categories of areas where they investigated obstruction.
But it certainly sounds like there were a lot of events. There was what was happening in public and there was happening -- what was behind the scenes, and the individuals that he tried to effectuate his direction to shut down or derail or obstruct these investigations knew it was wrong. Don McGahn would have known that this potentially was obstruction, just like Mmark Corallo (ph) knew when they were trying to redraft the -- the former spokesperson and PR adviser -- when they were trying to redraft the messaging of what happened in the 2016 meeting.
TAPPER: Trump Tower meeting.
CORDERO: He knew that it was wrong. And so there were people around. Don McGahn would have known that direct an attorney general to do something, in this case to shut down an investigation, was wrong and potentially could -- not even just -- I don't know that he was necessarily protecting the president, he was protecting himself from potential criminal exposure.
LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes.
TAPPER: Laura, you're a former prosecutor. Would you have charged any of the president's aides or the president with obstruction based on what you've seen in this report?
COATES: I would not have charged the aides because it's clear there were adults in the room who were not engaged if the conspiracy, where there's not a meeting of the minds, there was no agreement they were going to conspire to do something to actually break the law, and you didn't carry out the actual order. I would actually be -- you know, a little perturbed that a public servant would not have come forward to try to illuminate this issue to other members who could do something about it, but I would not be able to prosecute those aides because they didn't follow anything else. There was no conspiracy on their part.
Having said that, the idea of the OLC opinion and DOJ guidelines --
TAPPER: The Office of Legal Counsel.
COATES: Excuse me, Office of Legal Counsel, for which Barr also wrote an opinion once about that, and (INAUDIBLE) controversial. But the notion that he -- that I would not be able to prosecute a sitting president would weigh largely on my mind.
But I think you're absolutely right, Jake, in the underlying question here, which is, if I am Mueller and I'm offering an explanation for why I decided not to prosecute the aides, it means that there was an underlying crime that I was trying to explain why I did not prosecuted them for it. They've offered that same explanation about the president of the United States because you have that guidance that says you cannot indict. And, again, I have to emphasize a sitting president, on these issue.
So you've got all of these different issues and categories at play here. It wasn't successful, that's true. There is no longer ignorance of the law by any stretch of the imagination. There was an attempt, even in spite of as Barr characterized it the media frenzy of trying to try to indict the president in the court of public opinion, all the people that he reached out to, to try to enfold and envelope into his overall attempt to obstruct justice and interfere, what you're not seeing as part of this, which is what Barr made a motion of in his 19- page memo, was somehow that the reason they did not try to convict or try to prosecute on obstruction, because there was no underlying crime of collusion. Notice that that was completely compartmentalized in the discussion with good reason.
[12:15:28] TAPPER: Except there's one part of volume two here that I want to read, which basically -- and we've been asking all this time, if there was no conspiracy, if there was no collusion, why the attempt to obstruct justice and why the lies? On page 76 of volume two, Mueller offers a theory. The president, quote -- the president wanted to protect himself from an investigation into his campaign. The president had a motive to put the FBI's Russia investigation behind him. The evidence does not establish a determination if Comey was designed to cover up a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia. The evidence uncovered in the investigation did not establish the president, or those close to him, were involved in the charge of Russian computer hacking or active measure conspiracies or that the president otherwise had an unlawful relationship with any Russian official.
OK, now, keep listening.
But 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 concerns.
There's the reason. There's the reason why the attempted obstruction of justice, even if there was no conspiracy.
TAPPER: Because he was worried that the FBI was going to find other crimes related to not just his personal life or his business, but also the campaign.
BASH: Well, and --
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: And to that point -- Evan made a good point before. The special counsel took the communication, collusion, whatever you want to call it, between the Trump campaign and Russia seriously enough to explore multiple possible paths to criminal wrongdoing, including trafficking in stolen property. Why would you investigate trafficking in stolen property unless you had evidence that the Trump campaign was discussing, communicating, getting forewarning, perhaps even disseminating stolen information, right? Because, remember, Barr set the bar, as it were, for this as being involved in the theft of the documents. He did not eliminate the possibility that they were involved in the dissemination. They were -- they were exploring prosecution for trafficking in stolen property, which seemed to me, you wouldn't explore that path unless you had evidence of back and forth here, which gets to your point as to what was the motivation for trying to squelch the investigation.
TOOBIN: Also --
BLITZER: Now that we -- and now that we know all these facts, Jeffrey, and you can answer this, and then I'm going to have some others answer it as well, now that we know all of these facts that are actually in the 400-page Mueller report, doesn't that undermine the very glowing assessment we heard earlier today from the attorney general of the United States?
TOOBIN: Totally. Totally. I mean it's -- it's just -- I mean, you know, it's -- yesterday we were trying to figure out what the president meant when he said there are going to be hard things in the report, which I didn't understand what that meant. Now I understand.
TOOBIN: I mean --
CORDERO: Strong things.
TOOBIN: Was it -- it was strong things. Hard things. Strong things. It was strong things. It's very strong. And -- and it's -- it's very damaging.
Now, do I think it's going to make any difference politically? I defer to my colleagues here. I've seen the polls on this president. They haven't moved in two and a half years. I don't think they'll move now. But if you were just looking objectively at, you know, how bad it is, it's pretty -- pretty bad.
BASH: It's got a -- a conundrum that Gloria talked about before is going to be so real, it already is real for House Democrats. Conundrum being, do they have even more pressure than they had before, intense pressure, because of how bad, as you described it, Jeffrey, is in here, that the actions that the president took while in office that could lead to that -- that bar of -- of impeachment, or do they say -- do the Democrats say to their base and to the American people, you know what, we have an election coming up. It's not going to be us who decides. It's going to be the American people at the voting booth. That is going to be and that already is the discussion I have no doubt going on within the Democratic leadership right now.
BORGER: And the portrait, as we read through this, that is emerging of this president, is of somebody who needed to be managed and who needed to be saved from himself. And in reading through this, it wasn't only Don McGahn who thought, OK, I have to quit. It was Reince Priebus who didn't want to get involved in the firing of then Attorney General Jeff Sessions. So time and time again you have people saying to themselves, OK, if I have to do this, I have to leave, and then they managed the president.
[12:20:00] JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And you have another example of Hope Hicks, the whole Trump Tower meeting, the phone call on Air Force One, coming back and saying, Mr. President, people know about this, it's time to tell the truth. Then he says no, cut off the statement.
And, again, so you have a whole lot of people trying to keep the president from going off the rails.
To the political question Dana just raised. Look, the Democrats have to have tough conversations because Speaker Pelosi has -- herself has said it's not worth going forward with impeachment unless you have a bipartisan agreement to move (INAUDIBLE). If you look so far, and we'll see if by the end of the day or by the end of the week, anyways, people actually read this as opposed to just put out their quick statements that they put out, so far what you're seeing from most Republicans is, this is great, the president's innocent, totally exonerated, it's time to move on.
Well, if the Republicans actually read this, you know, that's up for the political community to decide, is there a threshold for impeachment. But so the -- those Republicans are saying, it's OK that the president's son, a key player in his campaign, was direct messaging WikiLeaks about dumping information. It's OK that the president's campaign chairman was continuing, not just once, on several occasions shared internal campaign polling right after the Republican Convention, going into a general election, with the Russians. It's OK that the president told his White House counsel to fire the special counsel. It's OK that they repeatedly lie about things in public and a lot of them lied to federal investigators. So that -- is that what the Republican Party wants -- is that what the Republican Party wants its legacy to be out of this document?
It's not -- there's a bigger conversation and we all need to read it and read it twice about how to go forward with it, but a lot of these initial statements are ridiculous.
BLITZER: So, John, what does that say about what we heard early -- a couple hours ago -- from the attorney general of the United States?
KING: Well, not to dumb it down too much, but the attorney general was essentially saying, everything's awesome. The president was a victim.
KING: Thank you, Bob Mueller, case closed.
If you read this -- and, again, it's hard. It's hard. And to be fair to the president, to the sense that, you know, he -- if -- you get -- if you're the new president, you've never been in politics before, all of a sudden there's a special counsel investigation, so the president should be allowed a temper tantrum or two about, oh, my God, this is going to undermine my whole presidency. Now, that doesn't mean you can say, let's break rules, break norms, let's fire people when your attorneys tell you, sir, no, you can't do that.
So, again, some of this can be, if you're a human being, you think, OK, the guy has a temper, he's never done this before. But ten times? Then you're asking people questions (ph).
BORGER: Well, I mean --
TOOBIN: And it's not just that -- you know, I -- I was saying earlier that, you know, it's just endeavoring to obstruct justice is the crime. He didn't just endeavor. He fired James Comey. I mean he actually fired James Comey and --
TAPPER: And he tried to fire -- and he tried to fire a bunch of other people, including Robert Mueller.
BORGER: Including Mueller.
TOOBIN: Right. And -- and -- and, you know, he was saved by Don McGahn from firing -- from firing Mueller.
But, you know, the idea that there was sort of no harm, no foul here. And just to raise -- just another point that the idea that -- well, you know, why -- why should he -- you know, he should have been so upset because there was no collusion and it was unfair to have an investigation for something there was no underlying crime for. Well, how about Bill Clinton? You know, Bill Clinton lied about his
affair with Monica Lewinsky. His affair with Monica Lewinsky was not a crime. But a lot of people had no problem with the investigation of Bill Clinton for the very serious matter of lying and obstruction of justice when it wasn't an underlying event that was a crime either.
TAPPER: John, I want to ask you a question about the fact that -- obviously Attorney General Barr, as political operatives do, put a spin on this that was favorable to the president. And the truth is, if you believe that the Mueller report's main goal was to investigate whether anybody on team Trump conspired with the Russians, it, in fact it's very clear that they say that there was no evidence of criminal conspiracy, period, full stop.
TAPPER: But that said, when Barr goes into the president's head, as he did in that press conference earlier today, and said, you know, he didn't say it in -- quite this way, but, basically, put yourself in the president's shoes. He's a new president. The media's out to get him. The deep state's out to get him. Democrats are out to get him, et cetera, no wonder he acted the way he did. You combine that with this thing again that I'm returning to, which is, Mueller asserting the evidence indicates that a thorough FBI investigation would uncover facts about the Trump campaign and the president personally that the president could have understood to be crimes.
TAPPER: That seems very damning to me.
KING: Yes. And we don't know exactly what it is. We do know from the Michael Cohen case it's the campaign finance violations alleged by the Trump Justice Department -- let's -- in this political environment, let's remember, the Trump Justice Department names the president of the United States as individual one in the Michael Cohen documents and says he committed a crime. It doesn't say he might have committed a crime. It says he committed a crime, a campaign finance violation. The -- the Trump Justice -- what else? What else?
And now the question is, again, the attorney general so accepting the president's language, not just today when he said -- he used the term "spying" in his congressional testimony. Again, every challenge to the Mueller investigation in court was upheld by judges appointed by Democratic and Republican presidents. I think one of them even by a judge appointed by President Trump.
[12:25:09] So, let's see. There's an inspector general investigation going on to the beginning of all of this. If there's misconduct, it should be called out in public. But the use of -- this attorney general's use of terms that are the president's terms, use of the president's language, whether it's "spying," whether it's "victim" -- the victim-like language does raise questions.
Now, he is the attorney general. We know the Southern District of New York continues. We know other investigations continue. And from this it said 14. There might be a few that we don't know about.
KING: Guess what, when somebody has a recommendation in those cases, who does it go to? The attorney general of the United States.
BORGER: And when you --
TAPPER: I want to -- I want to go to Pamela Brown right now. She has some new information on the president's public acts of potential obstruction of justice.
PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: : It's fascinating reading through this. You get a severance of how closely Robert Mueller's team was paying attention to what the president was saying publically and over Twitter and so forth. And they lay out why the president's public statements constitute -- could constitute obstructive acts because of his power. And here's what it says in the report. While it may be more difficult to establish that public facing (ph) acts were motivated by a corrupt intense, the president's power to influence actions, persons and the events is enhanced by his unique ability to attract attention through use of mass communications and no principle of law excludes public acts from the scope of obstruction statutes. If the likely effect of the act is to intimidate witnesses or alter their testimony, the justice system's integrity is equally threatened.
And in this report, Robert Mueller's team lays out several examples of when they believe the president was trying to pressure or intimidate witnesses not to cooperate with their investigation. Most notably, on Michael Cohen, as well as Paul Manafort. As you'll recall, the president publically had called him a, quote, brave man. That's one of the things that he had said. And went on to make other claims about how flipping is a bad thing, on Paul Manafort. On Michael Cohen, the president's former attorney, the report notes how the president's tone against Michael Cohen changed publically from initially praising him when Michael Cohen had lied to Congress about Trump Tower Moscow, to then switching and castigating him.
Ad Robert Mueller says in this report that if you look at the totality of events, this behavior of behavior, it paints a picture and it shows these public statements show what the president's motive is if you look at it as a whole.
BLITZER: I want everybody to stand by because we have a lot more of our special coverage of the Mueller report coming up.
Let take a quick break.
We'll resume our special coverage right after this.