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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

White House Lashes Out at Mueller Report; Attorney General Bill Barr Under Fire. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired May 2, 2019 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:00]

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: But a new letter from Emmet Flood, reporting on that as well is just ahead.

"THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER" starts right now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: The speaker of the House just accused the nation's top cop of committing a crime.

THE LEAD starts right now.

An empty chair, zero answers, and a bucket of fried chicken? Attorney General Barr a no-show at his House hearing today. All of the details of a truly Kentucky fried day on Capitol Hill that was even absurd by today's standards.

Head to head. Brand-new polls show how President Trump might fair against the top 2020 Democrats, how many have a bona fide chance to beat him, if you believe the polls.

Plus, measles at the movies and measles at sea, hundreds more people possibly exposed to a disease that had once been eliminated in the U.S.. Thanks, anti-vaxxers.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin today with the politics lead.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi accused Attorney General Bill Barr today of breaking the law.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): He lied to Congress. He lied to Congress. If anybody else did that, it would be considered a crime. Nobody is above the law.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Now, the attorney general disputes that, and the Department of Justice said this afternoon that the attack was baseless.

Barr also added fuel to the fire today when he refused to testify before the House Judiciary Committee, objecting to the format which allowed committee lawyers to ask questions, as well as lawmakers.

Partisan theatrics and fireworks then dominated Capitol Hill, as the committee's Democratic chairman, Jerry Nadler, opened the hearing with a prop, an empty chair for the nation's top law enforcement officer.

Nadler is threatening to hold Barr in contempt of Congress.

CNN's Sara Murray begins our coverage.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the highest-ranking Democrat, calling the nation's top law enforcement officer a liar.

PELOSI: The attorney general of the United States of America was not telling the truth to the Congress of the United States. That is a crime.

MURRAY: House Democrats now threatening to hold William Barr in contempt, ramping up pressure on the attorney general after he refused to appear before the House Judiciary Committee today.

As Barr headed to work, Democrats seized on the empty witness chair, creating their own made-for-TV spectacle. Congressman Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat, munched on a bucket of fried chicken during the hearing and flaunted a ceramic chicken to drive his point home.

REP. STEVE COHEN (D-TN): Chicken Barr should have shown up today and answered questions.

MURRAY: Barr skipping the hearing after Democrats demanded he face questions from staff lawyers in a 30-minute block, on top of the five- minute rounds of questions from lawmakers.

REP. DOUG COLLINS (R-GA): He took our ability to hear from Bill Barr today.

MURRAY: As Republicans slammed the performance of their Democratic colleagues.

COLLINS: Instead, we go back to a circus political stunt to say we want it to look like an impeachment hearing because they won't bring impeachment proceedings. That is the reason.

MURRAY: House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler threatened contempt proceedings over not giving the committee an unredacted version of Mueller's report by yesterday's subpoena deadline.

REP. JERROLD NADLER (D-NY): We will have no choice but to move quickly to hold the attorney general in contempt if he stalls or fails to negotiate in good faith.

MURRAY: But it's clear he plans try to drag this out, vowing first to fight for an unredacted version of the Mueller report, and then try to negotiate with the Justice Department before holding Barr in contempt. As for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, she is all in, accusing Barr of

lying after he claimed in previous testimony to be unaware of whether the special counsel's team was frustrated with his four-page summary of their findings.

PELOSI: He lied to Congress. If anybody else did that, it would be considered a crime. Nobody is above the law, not the president of the United States, and not the attorney general.

MURRAY: A Justice Department spokeswoman fired back, saying: "The baseless attack on the attorney general is reckless, irresponsible and false."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, of course, the big question is if or when we are going to hear from Bob Mueller. He has been largely silent, aside from this letter.

Democrats say they are working on scheduling it. Republicans, surprisingly, a number of them say they don't really need to hear from Bob Mueller anyway -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, let's discuss this all.

And let's go back, because I reached out to Speaker Pelosi's office. I said, what is the lie that you are referring to? And they pointed me to this exchange between Democratic Congressman Charlie Crist and Attorney General Barr after Mueller had sent a letter, but before today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. CHARLIE CRIST (D-FL): Reports have emerged recently, General, that members of the special counsel's team are frustrated at some level with the limited information included in your March 24 letter, that it does not adequately or accurately, necessarily, portray the report's findings.

Do you know what they're referencing with that?

[16:05:00]

WILLIAM BARR, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: No, I don't.

I suspect that they probably wanted more put out. But, in my view, I was not interested in putting out summaries or trying to summarize.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: OK. So, just as a fact-check, he said "No, I don't know." That is not true. "I suspect" -- and he did more than suspect. He knew firsthand.

So I understand why she is saying that this is not as forthcoming as possible. What is she going to do about it? MURRAY: I mean, that is the great question. They say that are going

to move forward, that they may decide to hold him in contempt.

But the reality is, I don't think that there is a lot they can do. He has sort of cast his dice in this. He has decided to go out there. And if he didn't lie, he certainly wasn't forthcoming. He certainly wasn't entirely truthful. But I also think he knows that there is really not a whole lot that they can do to him.

TAPPER: And what do you think Democrats running for president should do? Forget Congress for a second, just the ones running for president.

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes.

TAPPER: Because two of them, Swalwell and Castro, have called for his impeachment, Barr's impeachment.

FINNEY: Right.

TAPPER: And I think pretty much everyone else has called for Barr to resign, which, spoiler alert, he is not going to do.

(LAUGHTER)

FINNEY: Right. How about that?

TAPPER: What do you think they should say?

FINNEY: So, I think we can be -- I think, if I were running, right, you know this is going to continue to play out for the next several months.

And what they should continue to say is to talk about the corruption of this administration. I mean, people understand -- they don't understand all the details of who did what to whom and the Russians, but -- right -- and the obstruction, maybe, maybe not.

They understand lying. Right? Keep it very simple and straightforward. On its face, what Barr said doesn't pass the smell test. I mean, if your child -- if your children came in and said that to you, you wouldn't believe that, right?

If you -- I mean, we know there was not just a letter, there was a phone conversation. And you could tell from the way Barr was trying to answer these questions, he was sort of thinking through in his mind, how do I answer this without opening new avenues or getting into more trouble?

So I would say, keep it simple. Talk about lying. Talk about corruption. Talk about the need to -- and that while they are doing that, while they're protecting the president, they are not getting the job done to you, because, again, I think you always want to bring it back to why it should matter in your daily life.

But lying, people understand, plain and simple. TAPPER: And then there is the argument of what happened today.

And I want you to take a listen, Jackie, to the ranking member, Congressman Collins, the top Republican on Judiciary, when asked why it was so important for the committee to have staff lawyers for 30 minutes, as opposed to just members of Congress, questioning, which is a question I still haven't heard satisfactorily answered.

Here he is making the same point.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COLLINS: Why does the chairman think so little of his lawyers on his committee that he wouldn't take 30 minutes for himself or for others to actually ask questions? He has got some great attorneys? To me, it is a slap in the face at his own people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Why did Nadler insist on having lawyers, as opposed to members of Congress, get to ask -- I don't remember any time in the Obama administration where lawyers asked questions of people testifying.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.

And Nadler said something -- it had something to do with the five- minute rule, that members can only speak for five minutes, and that Trump appointees have a way of filibustering.

It really isn't clear, though, why this was the deal-breaker, why this was allowed to be the deal-breaker. We could guess that maybe the Democrats are playing games here. But Nadler during his initial speech was saying -- was trying to make this not about politics, as they do, talking about how this is a constitutional issue.

This is a battle of the branches. But why it was allowed to go this far, it really is. It's an unanswered question.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: I don't understand.

But Congressman Nadler says -- Chairman Nadler says, we're allowed to decide the format, and this is the format we wanted.

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I guess, but you are elected. Ask the questions. You got elected. Ask the questions.

You have the ability to ask questions. You have the power to investigate. You have the power to impeach. And at some point, it feels like put up or shut up time. Like, you -- I just think that you have the entire report. You have a summary, the top lines of which were not inaccurate, as illustrated by the fact that Mueller told Barr that the top lines were not inaccurate.

TAPPER: According to Barr.

HAM: He wanted more nuance. He wanted more nuance.

There is a lot of nuance in the 448 pages. If you want to impeach Barr or Trump, do so. And in the meantime, it does feel like people are upset that they didn't get the conclusion they wanted and they are unwilling to do the impeachment part because they know it will be a bad political decision, even though their base wants it.

FINNEY: Well, but I don't agree with that.

I think the idea here is to like lay out the case, right, make -- if you are going to go for impeachment, I think Democrats have decided the only way to do that is, you have got to lay out the public evidence for the American people to bring people along to get them there, to increase the public pressure.

They may end up getting there, they may not. But, that being said, I mean, think about -- we are having this conversation over, well, members of Congress get to talk for this many minutes, and -- but Barr didn't want to talk to the lawyers.

What I think most people would hear at home is, well, why wouldn't he just go answer the questions? That doesn't make sense.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: I'm going to come to you on this, because you talk about Democrats need to make out the case.

Here is Congressman Steve Cohen with a ceramic chicken and a tub of Kentucky Fried Chicken, trying to make the case.

(CROSSTALK)

[16:10:07]

TAPPER: Have listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COHEN: Chicken Barr should have shown up today and answered questions.

An attorney general who is picked for his legal acumen and his abilities would not be fearful of any other attorneys questioning him for 30 minutes. This man was picked to be Roy Cohn and to be Donald Trump's fixer. It's a sad day in America.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: And there's also a tub of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

(CROSSTALK)

MURRAY: Yes, you know, in case you missed that, he was actually eating it.

And you say -- like, people will ask, why didn't he just show up and answer the questions? And that may be true. But people also might ask, OK, then why didn't you guys just say, you know what, we're going to do this the same way we always do it?

KUCINICH: Right.

MURRAY: He's going to come here. We're going to answer the questions. And we're not going to air a bunch of footage of a ceramic chicken and people eating fried chicken.

I mean, if you really want to lay out the public evidence, then you might have to acquiesce.

KUCINICH: Yes.

MURRAY: I'm sorry, your party is not the one in the White House. You guys are not in charge of these officials. And so if you really want the information, then bring these public officials forward and get the information.

I certainly think journalists would rather watch another round of questions to Bill Barr than the fried chicken...

(CROSSTALK)

HAM: To be fair to Cohen, if I were a lawmaker, I would show up at every single event with a bucket of Bojangles'.

MURRAY: With chicken.

TAPPER: Just because you're hungry, though, not to make a point.

(CROSSTALK)

HAM: I'm not sure it would be effective, but I would do it.

TAPPER: But that's just out -- like I'm saying, it's because you like the chicken. You enjoy fired chicken.

HAM: Yes, I would make a lot of friends.

MURRAY: He did share it.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick -- he shared?

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: Very nice. It tastes better if you share, a friend of mine always says.

Tell us how you really feel. New today, a White House lawyer ripping Robert Mueller in a letter to the A.G. So what happened to the president feeling exonerated by the report?

Then, he was one of President Trump's top picks for the Federal Reserve Board. He's no longer in the running.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:15:17] TAPPER: The politics lead: The White House is accusing Robert Mueller of playing politics with his report, the same report the president used to claim he has been exonerated. In a five-page letter, White House lawyer Emmet Flood slammed, the report arguing that Mueller should have reached the decision on obstruction of justice, either indict the president or don't, he said.

But as CNN's Pamela Brown now reports, the White House regards the Mueller report as a roadmap for Democrats to pursue impeachment, a nakedly political document.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The White House special counsel in charge of dealing with the special counsel's investigation slamming Robert Mueller's handling of the Russia probe. In a letter obtained by CNN to Attorney General Barr, Emmet attacks the presentation of its findings and accuses Mueller's team of being political, saying, quote: the special counsel and his staff failed in their duty to act as prosecutors and only as prosecutors. Adding, Mueller and his team made, quote, "political statements" by releasing an overly detailed report rather than a simple declaration of indictment or no indictment.

Dated April 19th, the day after the Justice Department publicly released the redacted Mueller report, Flood complains that Mueller intentionally and unapologetically refused to reach a definitive conclusion on obstruction of justice and Flood says that the special counsel had no right to say the lack of findings does not exonerate the president, referencing this quote from the Mueller report which says: While this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.

Flood writes, quote: Prosecutors simply are not in the business of establishing innocence, a criticism echoed by Attorney General Barr during a contentious hearing on Capitol Hill.

WILLIAM BARR, ATTORNEY GENERAL: We're not in the business of exoneration. We're not in the business of moving they didn't violate the law.

BROWN: But in the report, Mueller's team explained that one factor of not making a decision was a Justice Department memo saying that sitting president cannot be indicted.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: People say, how do you get through that whole stuff? How do you go through those witch hunts and everything else? And you know what, we just do it, right? And we think about God.

BROWN: President Trump offering his opinion on Barr's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday, and defending his attorney general's decision not to appear before the House committee today.

TRUMP: They want to treat him differently than they have anybody else, but he did a fantastic job I'm told. I got to see some of it. He did a fantastic job.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: And that letter from Emmet Flood also lays the ground work for upcoming battles with House Democrats. It makes clear that just because the president didn't assert executive privilege in the Mueller report doesn't mean that he has waved it overall. Of course, this is talking about these congressional investigations with House Democrats. And the letter seeks to make a distinction between cooperating in a criminal probe and a cooperating in a probe on Capitol Hill led by House Democrats -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Pamela Brown at the White House -- thank you. I want to bring in CNN justice reporter, Laura Jarrett, along with Elie Honig, former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York here with me in studio.

Laura, let me start with you.

White House lawyer Emmet Flood writes in his letter, quote: What prosecutors are supposed to do is complete an investigation and then either ask the grand jury to return indictment or decline to charge the case.

But maybe it wasn't that simple for Mueller I suppose. He was operating under guidelines that he could not indict a sitting president.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Jake, he clearly felt constrained not only by the long standing DOJ guidance on not indicting President Trump, but also by principles of fairness as he explains in the report.

I think for Flood, and other people obviously in the White House, and even for Attorney General Bill Barr, the issue is you then don't put out a whole bunch of derogatory information if you are trying to be fair if you are not going to prosecute the case. For them this is a binary choice for prosecutors. It's thumbs up or thumbs down. And that's why Barr run with the baton on this issue. Obviously, he's come under fire for that.

But it's really sort of a stunning lack of communication in my view, the fact that they are blaming Mueller for not reaching a decision, but obviously they knew about that weeks ago and they never pressed him to make that decision.

TAPPER: And, Elie, what do you make of that argument, like or not, Barr was just picking up where Mueller left off. Mueller declined to bring criminal charges even though he might have been ambivalent about it, and the attorney general just made the decision, OK, then I'm not going to bring charges?

ELIE HONIG, FORMER ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY, SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK, CNN ANALYST: I think it depends who you ask. I think if you ask Bill Barr, and he was asked yesterday, he said, Bob Mueller didn't do his job. He didn't finish the job. He didn't give me a thumbs up or thumbs down. I'm the attorney general. I voted thumbs down.

One of the things that I would have asked Barr, well, if you really wanted a thumbs up or thumbs down, you could have done what every prosecutorial supervisor, including at times myself, does, you send it back and you say, hey, I need a thumbs up or thumbs down from you.

[16:20:07] He did not that perhaps for a reason we don't know. But I think if you ask others, they will say, Mueller did the right thing here because of the DOJ policy that you cannot indict. He was in no position to say I recommend an indictment, but I will not indict.

And I think the theory there is what Mueller was doing was teeing this up for Congress, and you can see that is the overriding concern of this letter. They did not want Mueller to -- Emmet Flood did not want Mueller to say anything because his worry and he says this is Congress should not be able to pick up the ball from Mueller and run with it.

TAPPER: And, Laura, Flood argues in his letter that Mueller went beyond his initial mission by investigating obstruction. He writes, quote, the special counsel instead produced a prosecutorial curiosity, part truth commission report and part law school exam paper.

Now, we know Mueller laid out at least 10 examples of potential obstruction of justice. If it's not up to Mueller to investigate that, who would have been more acceptable to the White House theoretically?

JARRETT: Well, I think again, the idea goes to if you're going to do the investigation, you have to reach a decision. I think we heard that from the attorney general yesterday which was essentially the point of if you were -- if you didn't think you could get there, you should have raised your hand at some point and said, I don't think that I can. I don't think that I have the power to under OLC guidance.

Obviously. Mueller's position on that is we had to do something because we had to preserve the record. We wanted to make sure that we had contemporaneous notes. Witnesses were fresh. And so, that his position on it.

And, of course, in the mandate that Mueller received back in 2017 from the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, obstruction of justice is included in the purview of what he was supposed to do. This was part of his job.

TAPPER: It's really fascinating, Elie, because to be frank, I mean, the White House has been all over the map about the Mueller report. First, they seized it and said no collusion, no obstruction, we're exonerated. It's done. And now they are attacking the Mueller report and interestingly this

letter is dated April 19th, the day after the release of the Mueller report, but we're only seeing it now almost two weeks later.

What do you make of that?

HONIG: So, a couple of things. First of all, if I was advising the White House, I'd say pick a lane and act like you won. If you are going to their victory, declare victory.

And this letter seems to go the other way and air all these grievances with Mueller. But I think the real intended audience is Congress. If you read the letter, over and over the theme is you are getting nothing from us. Mueller should not have given you anything, Congress. And there is nothing that you can do. And, by the way, we're going to fight you tooth and nail because later on in the letter, basically the second half of the letter is talking about how we the White House are going to be invoking executive privilege aggressively.

They don't say this, but I think that they are worried about there is people like Don McGahn going in front of Congress, talking about potentially problematic conversations that were had in the inner sanctum of the White House.

TAPPER: All right. Elie, Laura, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

First, she said they weren't smart enough to even look at the president's taxes. Now, the White House press secretary is lobbying more insults at members of the House.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:27:39] TAPPER: The politics lead, the White House today attacking House Democrats for their handling or mishandling of the Attorney General Barr's House testimony that never happened.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders zeroing in House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think that what we are seeing from Chairman Nadler is that he is incapable of holding power. If he and his committee are capable of actually asking the attorney general questions themselves and need to staff that out, it seems like a pretty pathetic moment for the chairman of that committee.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: All right. And let's chew over this.

It does seem like it's getting a little hot from the White House podium. I mean, I get partisan attacks and it's certainly all over Democrats and Republicans. But there was a time when the White House press secretary was restrained.

KUCINICH: I can't even remember that time at this point, Jake. But, no, you definitely never saw the press secretary get as viscerally attacking sitting lawmakers. Usually, the language, the language was there but it wasn't as harsh. So, yes, it kind of goes -- that's this administration, right? It is bare knuckles, it has been, and it comes from the top.

And we should mention that, you know, the Trump/Jerry Nadler beef --

TAPPER: Oh, yes.

KUCINICH: -- goes back decades because Jerry Nadler blocked a project that Donald Trump wanted in New York.

MURRAY: It's like, of course, it does. It's like the most Trumpian thing.

KUCINICH: And that also I think is a piece of this, the disdain Trump feels for Jerry Nadler is special, is old.

TAPPER: And the White House says, Mary Katharine, that they are just punching back. But I mean, this is Sarah Sanders using similar kind of insults to describe House Democrats trying to get the president's tax returns.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANDERS: I don't think that Congress, particularly not this group of congressmen and women, are smart enough to look through the thousands of pages that I would assume that President Trump's taxes will be.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: So they are pathetic and stupid.

HAM: Look, the White House didn't listen to me on messaging.

(CROSSTALK)

HAM: I mean, many, many times I -- yes, if I were them, I would just stick with the top lines of the Mueller report, Barr has been transparent and given you most of the Mueller report, it's hardly redacted even though there was a giant freak-out for a week about it, not being heavily redacted. Furthermore, the idea that this three week period, they set some sort of narrative that was false is in the true because polling doesn't she any of that and it is all at your disposal, please impeach at will.

TAPPER: Right. That's your advice.

HAM: Just say that over and over again, instead of insulting people because all of that is true.

[16:30:00]