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Mueller: Obstruction by Trump Failed Because Others Refused to "Carry Out Orders"; Mueller: Trump's Public Acts Can Be Considered Obstruction; Mueller on Obstruction: "Unable to Conclude No Criminal Conduct Occurred"; Mueller Considered Whether Trump Tower Meeting Violated Campaign Finance Laws. Aired 12:30-1p ET
Aired April 18, 2019 - 12:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[12:31:51] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good afternoon. Welcome to our viewers in the U.S. and around the world to CNN's special live coverage of the public release of the Mueller report. I'm Anderson Cooper in Washington.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: I'm Jake Tapper. Strictly speaking, it is the public release of most of the Mueller report, a partially redacted version that still lays out in rich and long-awaited and sometimes profane detail the special counsel's findings.
COOPER: To with no evidence the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with election interference by Russians, but multiple occasions where President Trump intervened or tried to intervene in the subsequent investigation. Those attempts failed, the special counsel writes, largely because the president's aides refused to carry out his orders.
He further reveals that when he, Robert Mueller, was appointed in May of 2017, the president declared this is terrible. This is the end of my presidency and went on to say I'm f'd. Curse word.
TAPPER: He didn't use the word "f".
COOPER: He did not use the word "f" but I'm going to.
We begin with CNN's Senior Justice Correspondent Laura Jarrett. Explain what you've been looking at now. Just let sort of talk big picture here of the half hour.
LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Anderson, the big takeaway here is that the Mueller team really lays out in painstaking detail all of the different troubling events that they were weighing, that they were balancing, all the difficult facts and law that they were trying to wrestle with and trying to figure out whether the president obstructed justice. As we know, they ultimately determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment on that fact, but they nevertheless layout really a litany of different instances that they thought could potentially constitute obstructive conduct. But one of the issues that they noted is that the people the president was trying to pressure pushed back, and here's how they described it, quote, 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. What are they talking about? They're talking about the fact that his former White House counsel Don McGahn refused to put pressure on the deputy attorney general to fire Robert Mueller. They're talking about the fact that the former Attorney General Jeff Sessions refused to un-recuse from overseeing the investigation, among a number of other issues.
And on this McGahn issue, in particular, the language that McGahn uses on this is just stunning. And so I want to read it to you in full here. They say, "On June 14, 2017, the media reported that the special counsel's office was investigating whether the president had obstructed justice. Press reports called this a major turning point in the investigation, and while Comey had told the president he was not under investigation, following Comey's firing, the former FBI director, the president was now under investigation. The president reacted to this news with a series of tweets criticizing the Department of Justice and the special counsel's investigation. On June 17th, the president called McGahn at home and directed him to call the acting attorney general, meaning Rod Rosenstein, and say that the special counsel had conflicts of interest and must be removed. McGahn did not carry out that direction, however, deciding that he would resign rather than trigger what he regarded as a potential Saturday Night Massacre."
[12:35:02] And it goes on from there, just a litany of different episodes. It's chock full of all of these instances in which the president was putting pressure on his aides, advisers, and officials to do things and they resisted those efforts.
They also talk about the campaign's response to reports about Russian support for Trump, Trump talking about WikiLeaks and his support for WikiLeaks. They also talk of course about the infamous firing of the FBI Director James Comey, and they talked about the fact that they didn't sit down with the president for an interview. They thought that they could subpoena him, they thought they had the authority to but they decided not to. Because ultimately they thought it would delay things and they had everything they needed right here in plain view.
And just one last point. On the issue that has come up frequently especially from the Attorney General Bill Barr about the fact that the president's behavior here has been in plain sight. The Mueller's team is not persuaded that that doesn't mean he couldn't still constitute obstruction of justice. They say the fact that he has such mass communications available to him, the fact that he is the president, he wields such power over all of his subordinates is meaningful. And just because much of this took place in the public view doesn't mean necessarily as a legal matter that it could be -- that it couldn't be obstruction of justice for the special counsel's team.
Anderson, back to you. COOPER: It's also interesting, Laura, I mean, just the reasoning that the Mueller team went into this with the acceptance of the Legal Counsel's Office at the Department of Justice, their idea that a sitting president could not be prosecuted for a crime and that it would be unfair to, therefore, on Mueller team's part to basically recommend an indictment when that wouldn't actually be carried out.
JARRETT: Yes, it's interesting. You can see they realized that they have a burden here, and they're saying where a federal prosecutor's accusation of a crime, even in an internal report could carry consequences that extend beyond the realm of criminal justice. And so they don't want to say he's committed a crime in a report if they're not going to actually take him to trial. They're not going to actually have him sit and face those charges because he's a sitting president.
COOPER: Yes, yes. They say fairness concerns counsel against potentially reaching that judgment when no charges can be brought. Although they figured on to say the evidence we obtained about the president's actions and intents present difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred.
TAPPER: No, they basically kick it to Congress.
COOPER: Right, exactly.
TAPPER: Quote, the conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the president's corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law. They don't reach a conclusion. They say, basically the ball is in your court, Congress.
COOPER: They also reiterate that here, in this section they say, and apart from OLC's constitutional view we recognize that a federal criminal accusation against a sitting president would place burdens on the president's capacity to govern and potentially preempt constitutional processes for addressing presidential misconduct. Constitutional process is being impeachment.
TAPPER: And it's interesting, Laura because this -- part of this -- half a sentence of this was cited by Barr in his letter three weeks ago basically is absolving the president because Barr said that he concluded that there is no obstruction of justice for a number of reasons he goes into. But actually in the context what Mueller is doing is not exonerating the president as he clearly states, but basically saying now this goes to the U.S. House of Representatives.
JARRETT: Yes. He's certainly not exonerating him by any means at all. He makes it pretty clear. If we had confidence that we could exonerate him we would, but we can't. We can't get there, and he makes it really clear that there's nothing that stops Congress right now, even though Bill Barr, the attorney general has said the president didn't obstruct justice in his view.
It's pretty clear there is nothing that stops Congress right now. They don't need a referral from Robert Mueller to pick up the baton right now and do something about it if they so chose. Robert Mueller is pretty clear that there is obviously separation of powers implicated in something like that but there's nothing that stops Congress from proceeding with their own obstruction inquiry.
TAPPER: I guess my point is that Mueller says, I'm not convicting the president, I'm not saying he did it but I'm not saying he didn't do it. But he also says, the reason I'm not saying he didn't is because even if I did there's nothing we could do.
COOPER: And if he said that I did -- if he said he did it, and there's nothing we can do, it unfairly tarnishes him without being able to defend himself.
TAPPER: So --
TAPPER: -- I guess I'm just saying like the context of what Mueller says seems to be rather different from how it was presented to the public three weeks ago by the attorney general who seemed to say Mueller couldn't reach a conclusion, and I'm now going to make my conclusion that obstruction didn't happen which ties it up in a nice little package.
[12:40:00] But actually, what Mueller does is much more complicated, much less tidy, and doesn't tie anything up. It basically says, Nancy Pelosi, over to you.
JARRETT: This is why we needed to see the full report ourselves and read it word for word.
COOPER: The other thing that -- I mean, just as I've been reading this while listening to all of you this morning, just the lies, and we all know about the lies this White House has told, but it just confirmed and confirmed page after page where you have, you know, the White House -- you think back to, you know, the reporting that the president told, you know --
TAPPER: Don McGahn to fire Mueller.
COOPER: Right. The White House says, no --
TAPPER: Fake news.
COOPER: -- that absolutely didn't -- right, fake news. It's here. Sarah Sanders --
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I found it. I found it.
COOPER: Read the -- COLLINS: Page 288. Anderson and I were talking about this before we
came on set and it's talking about what happened after the White House fired Comey, how they were saying that it was because Rosenstein made the decision, it wasn't Trump's decision, it was all him. And that was something clearly behind the scenes he was having a problem with. That's when Sarah Sanders came out and gave a press briefing, and during that press briefing she said that she had heard from countless FBI agents who had lost confidence --
COOPER: Sort of right it in question like, oh really, countless FBI agents are calling her up.
COLLINS: Exactly. Which FBI agents have you heard from?
Well, in the Mueller report they point out that during his dinner with Comey on January 27th the president told Comey, and I'm quoting, that people of the FBI really like him. That's what he said. The Mueller report says, no evidence suggests that the president heard otherwise before deciding to fire Comey. And then it says that Sarah Sanders acknowledged to investigators that her comments that countless people lost confidence in James Comey at the FBI were not founded on anything.
TAPPER: Oh, so she just made it up.
COLLINS: It shows you --
TAPPER: This is in the Mueller report that Sarah Sanders made it up.
COLLINS: It's telling you exactly what the White House has been doing, that things that they were saying were not always truthful, and that what she was saying a comment from the White House briefing room, from that podium was not based on anything.
TAPPER: Not even one guy.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Can I --
COLLINS: That's what the report says.
TOOBIN: -- make a suggestion?
TAPPER: Not even half a guy.
TOOBIN: -- that the phrase not founded on anything be repeated and remembered. I love the notion --
COOPER: It's like alternative facts.
TOOBIN: -- that the press secretary of the president of the United States made to the United States of America that was not founded on anything.
TAPPER: Well, (INAUDIBLE).
COOPER: (INAUDIBLE) Robert Mueller -- TAPPER: Well, it actually probably was founded on something. It was
founded on her desire to keep her job and please the president.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, yes.
PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I remember -- when that happened, I covered the FBI before doing the White House and FBI agents were confused by what she said that first of all, they're not supposed to be talking to the White House like that, and also, for the most part, a lot of the FBI agents actually revered James Comey.
TAPPER: They loved him.
BROWN: They did.
TAPPER: Comey is my homey was --
BROWN: Comey was my homey. Exactly. So this is fascinating that they got, according to this report, that there was nothing behind that.
What I also find interesting is just the motive. As you'll recall in that four-page letter from Barr they talked about one of Barr's factors was that that there wasn't an underlying crime of the conspiracy. But in this report, Robert Mueller and his team lay out potential motives of why the president would want to alter the course of the investigation and potentially obstruct justice. Among other things, he expressed concern, according to the report, that these reports might lead the public to question the legitimacy of his election. And then shortly after he found out from his attorney general at the time, Jeff Sessions, about the appointment of Robert Mueller, this is a quote, this was his response when he found out about it. He said, oh my God, this is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I'm f'd in place of the "f" word there.
TAPPER: Yes, and just to elaborate a little bit. I did this in the last hour, too, but on volume two page 76 it goes into a little bit more detail as to why the president thought that his presidency was f'd even if there was no evidence of conspiracy with Russia which bottom line, again, this report makes very clear no prosecutorial, no criminal evidence of conspiracy with Russia by the Trump team. It's because, quote, 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. That's why he thought he was f'd according to Robert Mueller.
TOOBIN: What makes that statement so significant in addition to the fact that it's colorful and we'll all remember it, this is (INAUDIBLE), is that it gives a motive to all of his subsequent dealings with the investigation. If you think that the investigation means that it's the -- this is the end of your presidency, it means that you have a motive to try to end or interfere with this investigation. COOPER: Well, it specifically points out that there was a change in his conduct and his statements and his whole attitude toward the investigation after learning that he actually was -- that they were investigating him and his campaign, that it wasn't just Flynn -- he thought after Flynn that the whole Russia thing as he said would go away.
[12:45:01] TOOBIN: And that's why, you know, it's very important that we parse each of these 10 incidents carefully and the evidence, but it is also worth remembering that there are 10 of them. And they all point in the same direction, and they all show the same -- they all have the same general objective. And, you know, when you're a prosecutor, the fact that someone does something repeatedly is of great significance. That it eliminates the possibility that it was a mistake or an accident or a joke and that's the evidence here.
COOPER: So Jeff, I mean, I remember, I think it was you at some point, months or a year or two ago who knows how long it's been, that basically, you were saying how Congress is not the place for investigations really. They're not really equipped for it. Nobody has the kind of resources that Robert Mueller has, and all of that. Are you surprised that baked into all of this was Robert Mueller's just early acceptance of there can be no -- there will be -- therefore, this is basically -- I want to get stuff while the memories are fresh, and now handed it over to Congress.
TOOBIN: Well, I mean, Robert Mueller is a rule follower, and Robert Mueller was also unlike Kenneth Starr who was an independent counsel, Robert Mueller was an employee of the United States Department of Justice bound by its policies. And he went into this job knowing that there is a policy that says you cannot indict the president. And I think that had to color everything that followed, including his ultimate decision not to resolve the question of whether he believes there was obstruction of justice because he couldn't prosecute the president anyway.
COOPER: And he thought if he did have a -- an opinion and stated it and said that, you know, I --we believe there is obstruction but he can't be prosecuted, he felt that would unfairly tarnish the president without the president being able to defend himself in a court of law.
TOOBIN: Which is an important point, so different from how Barr portrayed the decision.
TOOBIN: You know, Barr portrayed the decision both in his news conference several weeks ago and just this morning, it's like, well, it was just too difficult for -- it was just like the question was too close for Bob Mueller to determine. No, that's not what happened here. What happened here is that Mueller said, look, I can't prosecute him anyway and I am not going to prejudice him by concluding that he committed a crime so I'm going to leave it to others to decide. That's very different.
TAPPER: While also saying I would exonerate him if I could. COOPER: Right.
TOOBIN: Even more important.
TAPPER: Yes, it's even more important. That's right.
TAPPER: Because he did exonerate him on the conspiracy and collusion issue.
TOOBIN: Yes, absolutely.
LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: True. Even more striking is the idea here that the way that it was premised, the way that it was prefaced by William Barr has always been that it was -- there as a close call to be made here and that there was -- actually Rod Rosenstein and himself who had a difference of opinion on the legal basis for why Mueller chose to have this dynamic. How could that be?
It sounds as though there was a very clear policy in place under the mandate of the special counsel, it wasn't an option for him to back the system. There was a protocol in place even up to Congress to figure out whether he could actually say he was no longer going to follow that rule. It wasn't an option so you have this whole -- the premise that Barr has laid out about there being, well, obviously there was a quick way to absolve it.
This to me sounds like Barr, from the moment we saw that 19-page memorandum, he was going have a self-fulfilling prophecy in the narrative how he cracked it going forward and the resolution that whether or not there had been enough information about obstruction of Justice. That's extraordinarily dangerous given the fact he's had, what, one, two, three bites at the apple to try to craft the narrative in this way. And the American people are still trying to comb through the 400 pages that President Trump's personal attorneys were able to see in advance to prepare a rebuttal about these very things.
That's what so astonishing about the idea of obstruction. And again, remember, in his actual speech today from the podium, he was dismissive of the notion of it. He said, well, you know, in spite of this area of whether it's obstructive here, besides this little meager concept of whether the head of the executive branch has violated the law or endeavor to do so. Remember, he was frustrated by the cloud over his presidency. That's what the (INAUDIBLE) want you to hang your hat on to try to inoculate the president of the United States.
SHAN WU, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: And I think it's important to realize that what he's trying to do, Barr, is to make it sound like there is almost like a scientific rule. Was it criminal or not? And it's not.
All of this report very much reminds us of prosecutorial discretion. It's the policy at the Justice Department about how you approach indicting a sitting president. It's not something enshrined in the constitution or some scientific formula. And so the spin here is to make it sound like it simply didn't rise to the scientific level that you can do it.
[12:50:02] But it's really an exercise of discretion and maybe a very valid one. Reasonable, Mueller is a very honorable man. Other prosecutors, other justice departments could have disagreed.
TAPPER: And I think it's fair to say that it's impossible to read this report and think if this was Donald Trump CEO charged with all these things in terms of obstruction of justice, that the action would have been the same.
TAPPER: I mean, he details action after action after action that they clearly seem to think is potentially if not definitively obstruction of justice with the underlying argument but we can't prosecute him because he's president of the United States.
COATES: By the way, Jake, one thing that's important that I'm still looking for in this report is not only -- (INAUDIBLE) be kind of know why they didn't -- why Mueller chose not to reach the ultimate conclusion of obstruction. He also had within his purview the opportunity to inquire about that policy about whether a sitting president should in fact never be indicted. He had the ability to actually endeavor to question it and say should we re-examine this policy, it's not actually written in stone.
I don't know that he actually endeavor to do so, so I have questions still about why, although you had the option to exercise that and you had 10 different categories of potential obstruction, why you would not ask the question of, could we revisit this little point about indicting a sitting president.
WU: I think that really goes to Mueller's personality. I mean, he's by the book, he is not looking --
TAPPER: Yes, he was institutional (INAUDIBLE).
WU: And he actually references some of the reasons for that policy. It would interfere with the president's ability to govern, it would raise constitutional issues. So again, I think it's a reasonable decision they made, but people have to realize it's not the only decision that could have been made.
TAPPER: And although as you point out, Jeffrey, he is definitive, Robert Mueller, when it comes to the fact that he says there is no criminal evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump team and the Russians on -- the whole reason this investigation started.
COOPER: Right. Which we should point out is obviously a great -- I mean, it's great news that the president of the United States did not conspire with Russians nor any evidence of people in his campaign did as well. I mean, that's certainly a good thing moving forward.
JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: But yet it details how many contacts there were with the Russians and how much information-sharing there was with the Russians. It just says there wasn't a conspiracy. TAPPER: Yes.
KING: And I just wanted -- just one quick point if I can quickly, just on the -- I don't know what to call it, a bizarre new world we live in as you have the conversation about the attorney general of the United States. The Trump campaign statement put out in the name of the campaign chairman Brad Parscale, starts by saying President Trump has been fully and completely exonerated yet again.
That's just not true.
TAPPER: Not true, yes.
KING: That's just not true. But it goes on to cite the sitting attorney general of the United States in a statement issued by a presidential campaign. The norm, again, in politics is the attorney general of the United States does not get involved in a president's re-election campaign because that is the one job in the United States government that is supposed to be removed, even in the cabinet, even though he's a political appointee, that is supposed to be removed. But the statement goes on to say that the attorney general made clear, a, not only does the Mueller report cleared the president, but then quotes him before Congress saying spying did occur.
The statement says, now it's -- the tables have turned and it's time to investigate the liars who investigated the sham investigation into the president motivated by political retribution and based on no evidence whatsoever. So the current attorney general of the United States is being used in a campaign statement that essentially says grab the pitchforks. Let's have a fight.
TAPPER: But let's also look at the conspiracy part because there's an entire volume of why they looked into the conspiracy, even if they ultimately concluded, and you said -- you're right, Anderson, it's good news. The president and his team did not conspire with the Russians, but there is page after page, hundreds of pages of evidence as to why they were looking into this. Not because they were spied on by, you know, Barack Obama, but because there was a reason for a counterintelligence investigation.
And in fact, we're just learning that Robert Mueller considered different possible conspiracy-related crimes as he investigated whether or not conspiracy happened which it did not.
Let's go to Senior Justice Correspondent Evan Perez now. And Evan, tell us about what Mueller was considering when it came to this question of conspiracy.
EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jake. You know, they looked at various types of laws, different -- various laws that they could apply to some of the behavior that they were investigating. And according to the special counsel they looked into campaign finance laws as part of this investigation of whether or not they could charge anyone with violating campaign finance laws because of what -- the activities they had with the Russians. I'll read you a part of where the report talks about. It says, quote, among other things, the evidence was not sufficient to charge any campaign officials as an unregistered agent of the Russian government or other Russian principles. And this goes through the conduct of not only George Papadopoulos and Carter Page, but also to Donald Trump Jr., the president's son. According to the special counsel's report, they looked into whether or not they could charge Donald Trump Jr. with campaign finance violations.
[12:55:04] And they ultimately decided that they could not prove that he had willfully violated the law. And we have a portion of this -- of the report that says, quote, the office ultimately concluded that even if the principal legal questions were resolve favorably to the government, a prosecution would encounter difficulties proving that campaign officials or individuals connected to the campaign willfully violated the law.
Again, this has to do with Donald Trump Jr. and other officials who were involved with that now infamous June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower where they were promised dirt on the Hillary Clinton campaign. The Trump -- the Mueller investigators looked into whether or not this could constitute campaign finance violation, they ultimately decided that they could not bring such charges.
And then -- but, you know, the report, certainly volume one that deals with collusion describes all of the different ways that the Trump campaign, again, tacitly was seeming to encourage the Russians in what they were doing. And it talks a little bit about the fact that the Trump campaign was expected to benefit from the Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election. I'll read you a part of this.
Again, it says, quote, although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived that it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome and that the campaign expected it -- expected that it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in the election interference activities. Again, they looked into all types of things including whether or not the dissemination and spreading of some of the stolen information that the Russians had stolen from the Clinton campaign, people associated with the Clinton campaign, whether that would constitute a violation of the -- of stolen property laws, and they decided in the end, Jake and guys that that this was not enough to be able to bring charges.
Again, it shows you how much effort they went into to try to look into. There's a lot of this-- this part of the report, the volume one, still has a lot of pages that look like this. There's a lot of information here that is redacted because of a harm to an ongoing matter it says. This is -- this tells us that there's an investigation that is still ongoing or there's a case that's still ongoing that means that they cannot tell us exactly what's on these pages.
TAPPER: But, Evan, just to be precise, it wouldn't be a case related to conspiracy with Russia or else the Special Counsel Mueller would still be prosecuting the case, right? I mean, it would have to be related to something else?
PEREZ: Right, right.
TOOBIN: Can I ask a question --
PEREZ: I think --
TOOBIN: Can I ask a question about that?
TAPPER: Yes, Jeff --
TOOBIN: Evan. One of the things that I've been wondering about in the redactions is, are they -- do they include redactions to the two cases against the Russian interests which are very unlikely to be -- ever be prosecuted? Are those -- do you think those are included in the ongoing matters?
PEREZ: Well, there are some pages where they're talking about the activities of some of those Russians, people associated with the IRA campaign, people associated with the GRU hacking campaign that suddenly become redacted. And so we don't know what's behind those sections. We can only guess as a couple of times where certainly I've looked at it and thought, I think I know what they're talking about but it's really -- it's hard to tell. So, they may have still information related to people that maybe they are hoping to try to apprehend, perhaps people that are still under investigation related to this.
Obviously, you know that Roger Stone who is facing a trial later this year, he was named in one of the indictments involving the Russians. So it's quite possible that there is information related to the Roger Stone case that has not yet public that is still being redacted obviously for the purposes of this report. Again, there's a lot we don't know about exactly the reason for that. And as for the other question with regard to whether or not Special Counsel Mueller -- you know, the idea of being that, you know, obviously, if he believes that there was some collusion here that they could bring charges on, he would still be in business.
They have referred 14 matters to other districts to investigate, we don't know what exactly those are. But I think you're right. Certainly, I think the conclusions that they are making here suggests that there is no such other case that directly goes to this that is still alive.
COOPER: Evan Perez. Evan, thanks very much. Appreciate that.
Carrie, you know, you've been very cautious leading up to this to not pre-judge the attorney general. I'm wondering based on what you saw today, and now as you look back on how he has portrayed this, has your opinion solidified one way or another
CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, so, I have a different view as to the substance of that and as to process.