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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Did Trump Obstruct Justice?; Interview With Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI); Trump Says Mueller Should Not Testify. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired May 6, 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]

NISCHELLE TURNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It took two years to make six episodes, and this is what we got?

(LAUGHTER)

TURNER: Sometimes, stuff happens.

And Starbucks responded and said, "We're just surprised she didn't order a Dragon Drink."

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

BALDWIN: Stuff happens.

TURNER: Yes.

BALDWIN: You are right.

Nischelle, thank you.

I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thanks for being with me.

"THE LEAD" starts now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: If President Trump thinks Mueller cleared him, why doesn't he want the special counsel to talk?

THE LEAD starts right now.

President Trump reversing course, now saying the special counsel should not testify before the American people about what Mueller and his team uncovered. This comes despite the president's previous false claim that Mueller completely exonerated him and the president's previous position that he would leave it all up to the attorney general, Bill Barr, to decide.

On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee will vote on whether to hold Barr in contempt for not handing over the full unredacted Mueller report and the underlying evidence. And this all comes as President Trump is warning two years of his

presidency have been stolen, feeding into a pattern of tweets and behavior that critics call irrational, and the speaker of the House expressing concerns that the president may not ultimately be ready to give up power peacefully, unless he is defeated overwhelming in 2020.

You might remember Nancy Pelosi is not the first person to voice such concerns.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER ATTORNEY/FIXER FOR DONALD TRUMP: Given my experience working for Mr. Trump, I fear that, if he loses the election in 2020, that there will never be a peaceful transition of power.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Michael Cohen, incidentally, reported to federal prison today for the crimes he pleaded guilty to, including some he claims he had been instructed to do at the order of Individual 1, also known as President Trump.

CNN's Pamela Brown kicks off our coverage today from this very busy day at the White House.

Pamela Brown joining us.

Pamela, what is going on? How is the president handling all these questions about whether or not -- he's going to do when it comes to the end of his term, whether it comes in '21 or '25

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, there have been a lot of questions facing the president after a weekend tweetstorm, and that was one of the things that came up, this interview that Nancy Pelosi did signaling that the president wouldn't easily give up power if he loses in the 2020 election.

Something else that the president has been asked about is, of course, Robert Mueller, and the fact that he appears to be changing course now, Jake, now saying that Robert Mueller should not testify publicly.

This seems to be a reversal of course, because, previously, he said he would leave it up to the attorney general.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (voice-over): A power struggle under way over special counsel Robert Mueller, and whether he will be allowed to testify before Congress.

A key member of the House Judiciary Committee says the committee wants Mueller to appear before it in nine days, May 15, but nothing has been agreed to yet.

(AUDIO GAP) BROWN: ... "testify. No redo for the Dems."

A change from just three days ago, when he said the decision wasn't his to make.

QUESTION: Mr. President, should Mueller testify? Would you like to see him testify?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't know. That's up to our attorney general, who I think has done a fantastic job.

BROWN: Attorney General William Barr already addressed it.

WILLIAM BARR, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I have already said publicly, I have no objection to him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And Don McGahn?

BROWN: President Trump's post-Mueller report ire possibly prompting him to retweet evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr., who said -- quote -- "Trump should have two years added to his first term because of the cloud cast by the Russia investigation," calling it "payback for time stolen by this corrupt, failed coup."

The notion of a presidential power grab addressed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, telling "The New York Times" she's worried Trump may not willingly step down if he loses his 2020 reelection bid -- quote -- "He would poison the public mind. He would challenge each of the races. He would say, you can't seat these people. We have to inoculate against that. We have to be prepared for that," laying out a strategy she believes can win Democrats back the White House and the Senate, taking impeachment off the table and -- quote -- "own the center left, own the mainstream."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

[16:05:02]

BROWN: And Senator Lindsey Graham, an ally of President Trump, told CNN today he's open to public testimony from Robert Mueller, but specifically on the phone call with Attorney General Barr

Graham said he hasn't heard back from Mueller after sending him a letter last week, but is open to testimony any way Mueller wants to provide it, but, again, just on that phone call -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Pamela Brown, thank you so much.

Joining me now is Democratic Congressman David Cicilline of Rhode Island. He's on both the House Judiciary Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

Help us clear up the confusion. There was some confusion over the weekend about when exactly Robert Mueller will testify before the House Judiciary Committee. You said the committee proposed May 15 and -- quote -- "hope the special counsel will agree to it" -- unquote.

Has he agreed to it? And do you know what might be a holdup?

REP. DAVID CICILLINE (D-RI): No, he has not agreed to it.

I know there are ongoing discussions. The chairman has proposed the 15th, and set aside that day. And we hope the special counsel will agree to appear on that day and testify before the American people.

TAPPER: Is it just an issue of scheduling or does the special counsel, Mueller, have any issues about testifying publicly?

CICILLINE: I just don't think an agreement has been reached. Mr. Mueller has not agreed to come on that date.

It's unclear whether he intends to come. Again, there are discussions ongoing. The chairman has invited him on the 15th, set aside that day, and I know they're in conversations. But we hope very much that Mr. Mueller will agree to come, agree to testify and come on the 15th, so he can speak directly to members of the committee and to the American people.

TAPPER: President Trump now says that he does not think special counsel Mueller should testify. Would that stop your committee from being able to bring him in? Mueller is still, as of right now, a Justice Department employee.

CICILLINE: Yes, it's not clear to me.

Originally, you may recall, the president said, that's up to the attorney general. And then, when the attorney general said publicly that he had no objection to the special counsel appearing, the president suddenly changed his mind and tweeted that he doesn't think Mr. Mueller should appear.

Fortunately, it's not up to the president. The committee has the ability to bring witnesses before the committee that are necessary to do our work.

But I think something more pernicious is going on here. The president wants a fight about this stuff, because, frankly, he wants to distract from the work that the Democrats have gotten in the first 100 days. We ran on an agenda for the people, to drive down health care costs, raise family incomes, take on the corruption in Washington.

We have passed legislation, the most dramatic ethics reform since Watergate. We have passed out of committee, we will bring to the floor legislation to reduce the cost of precipitation drugs. Infrastructure bills are in the making.

We have reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act and equal pay for equal work, so we have done all this work, all of which the president has...

TAPPER: Have you passed anything that's made its way through the Senate? Have you passed anything that's made its way through the Senate?

(CROSSTALK)

CICILLINE: Well, that's -- no, I mean, that's the -- I mean, there's a number of things.

But there are a number of major proposals that Mitch McConnell has said will die in the graveyard of the Senate or he's the Grim Reaper, whatever he's said.

These are the priorities of the American people. We ran on this agenda to improve people's lives. And the president ought to be focusing his attention on making those things become a reality, talking to the Republican leaders in the Senate.

And I think what the president is trying to do is to distract away from the attention of the work that Democrats have been doing to address the economic anxieties of the American people and to deliver on lower health care costs, bigger paychecks, and honesty in government.

So he wants to distract with a big fight about whether the special counsel should come or not. We're going to do our oversight work, but, at the same time, we're delivering on the promises we made to the American people.

TAPPER: It just seems, in Congress, because you're making the argument that you're trying to hold a hearing with Robert Mueller, talking about the Mueller report, and that the president is the one trying to distract from other issues that don't have to do with Mueller.

Your committee is the one talking about bringing Robert Mueller before the American people. That's not what President Trump's talking about.

CICILLINE: No.

Well, but my point is, he wants a fight about this stuff. Look, we have oversight responsibilities. We intend to do it. Our oversight is directly dependent on our ability to compel witnesses to come before the committee and testify under oath and to produce documents that are necessary to conduct our oversight.

If it's the executive branch has the ability to stop that, it will have effectively extinguished congressional oversight. So we have to do both things.

But the president ought not be stonewalling our oversight responsibilities and ought not stand in the way of Mr. Mueller coming before the committee, because the American people have a right to know the facts. They have a right to hear directly from the special counsel.

No one is above the law. And we will we -- are required to follow facts wherever they lead us. And I think this stonewalling effort is really a part of the president to both prevent us from getting to the truth, but also to distract from the work that's being done by the Democrats on behalf of the American people.

TAPPER: Well, Congressman, the attorney general testified before the Senate last week, but he did not testify before the House.

And the reason was that he did not want to be questioned by committee lawyers. I do not remember any time during the Obama administration when any Cabinet secretary or head of a department was ever quizzed or asked questions of by committee lawyers.

[16:10:07]

I only remember members of the House or the Senate asking questions. Can you explain why that was an important hill to die on, so important that it actually meant that Barr did not go before your committee?

CICILLINE: Well, I think, first, at the outset, Jake, it's really important to understand the House rules permit this.

The committee voted for it. And Congress has a responsibility to set the rules for the collection of evidence. Witnesses don't get to dictate to Congress how we're going to do that work.

The reason we thought this was important, it was done with Caspar Weinberger and Ed Meese, so it's happened before. The reason we thought it was useful is because this is a witness that evades answering questions. You need additional time to follow up.

And rather than doing this five minutes back and forth, we thought, in addition to that, we ought to have staff attorneys, half-an-hour from the Republicans, half-an-hour for the Democrats, to drill down a little more deeply, be sure that we get the evidence and the information we need to make informed judgments about our work.

The real question is, what is the attorney general afraid of? Why is he unwilling to be questioned by a staff lawyer? And it sort of raises questions, not about why do we want to collect evidence this way, but why is he afraid to come in and answer questions?

I'm sure it's because he mischaracterized the findings in the report. I'm sure it's because he had a press conference at 9:30 to try to spin the report before it was released.

TAPPER: Mm-hmm.

CICILLINE: He also said he didn't know what Mr. Mueller thought about his conclusions, when we now know Mr. Mueller wrote to him in a very strong letter and had a phone call with him expressing concern about the way he characterized it.

So I understand why he may not be comfortable coming forward to the committee. He has a lot of tough questions to answer.

TAPPER: Right.

CICILLINE: But the committee gets to make those judgments, not the witness. TAPPER: It just seems like those are points that you would be fully

capable of doing without a committee lawyer.

But, Congressman David Cicilline of Rhode Island, Democrat, thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it.

Hundreds of former federal prosecutors are publicly saying President Trump should have been charged with obstruction of justice, but there is a big if to their claims.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:15:58] TAPPER: Our politics lead now: A stinging rebuke. More than 300 former federal prosecutors from both Democratic and Republican administrations, in fact, from every administration dating all the way back to the Eisenhower administration, coming together to state that in their view, President Trump obstructed justice.

In a letter released just hours ago, they write, quote: Each of us believes that the conduct of President Trump described in special counsel Robert Mueller's report would, in the case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting president, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice, unquote.

Let's discuss.

Margaret Hoover, let me start with you. Do you consider this to be significant?

MARGARET HOOVER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It is significant. One has to think through --

TAPPER: Margaret Hoover?

HOOVER: Yep! Got me, Jake?

TAPPER: Keep going, I'm sorry.

HOOVER: Absolutely.

TAPPER: I'm having audio problems, go ahead.

HOOVER: Yes, it's significant. Anytime you've got federal investigators saying this is obstruction of justice, that is absolutely worth considering. These people are not -- these are trained investigators, they're federal law enforcement officials. It is important, it is significant.

However, you have to also think, why, right? Of course we want -- nobody is above the law, not even the president. There's this question, though, about what is the appropriate and the proper way to ensure that that is the case? And do you fall in the camp that one ought to prosecute a sitting president or do you believe that the president should serve his term and then be held to justice?

There are widely varying theories on this, but of course he should not be above the law.

TAPPER: Kaitlan, Attorney General Barr said at his hearing last week that he has no problem if Mueller testifies. And the president seemed to go along with that in the Oval Office on Friday. He said, it's up to Barr. But then on Sunday, the president said he does not think Mueller should be allowed to testify.

Do we know why the change of heart?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the president did not like watching Bill Barr go and testify. He didn't like the way he's told people that Democrats treated the attorney general. And essentially, he sees this as a way to poke them in the eye as Congressman Cicilline is just laying out, is making repeated questions to the administration either for people to come testify or what not.

But I think going back to this letter has a big effect on what Bill Barr said, because I don't think this letter is going to change Bill Barr's mind. And that's really who was the ultimate decision maker in this, and whether or not the president had obstructed justice. He said, he did not think so, even though there were multiple instances in this report that Robert Mueller said could possibly amount to obstruction of justice. Bill Barr was not only just arguing the big aspects of this, he even was arguing the small aspects, like whether or not the president had actually tried to fire Don McGahn, which in his eyes he was seeing it as the president simply saying he had conflicts of interest.

So, it does make an interesting argument here that all of these people, even people who were appointed by Republican presidents, do agree with this, that Bill Barr, he's not likely to change his mind.

TAPPER: Bakari --

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Go ahead, John.

JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think that's not the purpose of this letter. It's not to change Bill Barr's mind. That train has sailed.

I think the underlying issue is that this shows that there's a bipartisan consensus that Bill Barr's assessment is outside of norms. And that OLC opinion, the reason it's so key is that Barr kept insisting that it had nothing to do with Mueller's decision to punt the question of obstruction. It had everything to do with the decision to punt the question of obstruction. So, it helps illustrate that we're outside of normal Democratic norms with this A.G. and this report and this president.

TAPPER: Bakari, Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, they've scheduled this vote Wednesday to hold Attorney General Barr in contempt of Congress for not turning over the full unredacted version of the Mueller report to Congress.

Are you concerned at all that the House Judiciary Committee has become just very partisan, very quickly, the way they're handling all of this?

BAKARI SELLERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I'm not concerned that they've become too partisan too quickly, because a large swath of the American public do not believe that Bill Barr or the president of the United States, to Margaret's point, is above the law.

[16:20:07] So that's first.

I do think, though, that we have to be certain, as Democrats, we take this task extremely seriously. I think it's fair to chastise Representative Cohen for taking a bucket of fried chicken to a committee hearing, I mean, that was patently absurd.

But we should be doing is moving forward with contempt charges on this point. And I firmly believe Bill Barr lied. I think I don't think that's a question. I don't want to go down this path of engaging in, quote-unquote, falsehoods or misrepresenting facts. Here in South Carolina, we simply say the man lied.

And because he lied to the United States Congress, I believe that's a 1001 violation. And I think that we should move forward with other proceedings to get to the root and the bottom of this.

TAPPER: Kaitlan, as anybody who covers the White House or follows the White House knows, sometimes the president just says things, he doesn't necessarily mean them to be an order or an instruction. Do you think that the White House will actually draw a line in the sand when it comes to preventing Mueller from testifying? Is that something that the president will fight in court if need be?

COLLINS: Well, what you're seeing in court right now is Bill Barr in the hot seat, because he's going to have to be the one that makes the decision here, and whether or not he takes the president's tweet as a directive or if he has a conversation with the president about this is where we go from here, because, of course, the president has said he will defer to Bill Barr. Right now, Bill Barr is still leading the Justice Department and Robert Mueller is still an employee of the Justice Department. So that also throws a wrench in things, because typically the Justice Department would field these requests from Congress for someone who works in the Justice Department to go and testify.

Now, the question here is when does Robert Mueller leave his position, because when they ended his investigation in a statement, the special counsel's office said that he would wrap up his work in a matter of days, but Jake, as you know, he's still been driving into work every day. So, once he leaves and he's a private citizen, things will be much different.

TAPPER: All right. Everyone, stick around. We've got a lot more to talk about. Just hold that thought.

The United States making military moves very close to Iran. That's not the only international crisis President Trump is facing right now.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:26:43] TAPPER: The world lead now. President Trump giving global markets the jitters with a tweet that could signal he's reigniting a trade war with China. As a delegation from Beijing is headed to Washington, D.C., the president vowed to raise tariffs, tweeting, quote, the 10 percent will go up to 25 percent on Friday.

And as CNN's Alex Marquardt now reports, the showdown with China comes at the same time as other international confrontations involving the U.S.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALEXANDER MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A series of global crises leading to military moves, and tensions among President Trump's team on how to deal with them.

First, Iran. The U.S. is now sending the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group and bombers to the Middle East, because of specific and credible intelligence about Iranian forces and proxies targeting U.S. troops in Syria, Iraq, and at sea, U.S. officials tell CNN.

White House national security adviser John Bolton announcing the move in a statement on Sunday, saying: The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack. Officials tell CNN the Pentagon wanted the announcement to come from the White House to carry more weight as a warning.

MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: We have continued to see activity that leads us to believe that there's escalation that may be taking place, so we're taking all the appropriate actions, both from a security perspective as well as our ability to make sure that the president has a wide range of options in the event that something should actually take place.

MARQUARDT: Another flash point, North Korea, conducting its first missile test since 2017. These satellite images obtained by CNN showing the trail of smoke from what experts say is a short-range ballistic missile. The tests are the boldest provocation by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un after the failed summit with President Trump in February.

POMPEO: We still believe that there's an opportunity to get a negotiated outcome, where we get fully verified denuclearization.

MARQUARDT: Then there's Venezuela. The administration dealing with the fallout from the failed uprising by opposition leader Juan Guaido, leaving the Maduro regime in power for now.

Behind the scene, the president pushing back on his advisers, including Bolton for publicly teasing U.S. military intervention. Today, Secretary Pompeo meeting with his Russian counterpart after blaming Russia for convincing Maduro to stay in Venezuela.

MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: In many cases, we're fanning the flames in conflict areas, where we, in fact, should be enlisting perhaps the help of our allies and contributing to reducing the tension as opposed to exposing it. It seems like there's a lot of bluster first. It's almost a ready, shoot, aim, approach.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MARQUARDT: And, Jake, that strike group heading towards Iran will be sent to one of the most sensitive spots on earth, the Strait of Hormuz.

Now, U.N. officials told CNN that the threat they saw from Iran demanded this kind of large and vocal response. One official telling us, this had to be taken seriously -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Alex Marquardt, thanks so much.

I want to bring in Phil Mudd right now, former CIA counterterrorism official.

Phil, there's new activity in Iran, North Korea, leadership struggle in Venezuela, not to mention Israel and Gaza. All of them fragile hot spots. Which, if any, do you see as the most pressing situation?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: North Korea. I mean, if you look at all the variety of threats that you just outlined, it's like a spaghetti of national security.

[16:30:00]