Return to Transcripts main page


White House Says No To McGahn Testifying; FBI Director before Congress; Mueller Testimony Divides Republicans. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired May 7, 2019 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:22] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

Where in the world is Mike Pompeo. The secretary of state abruptly cancels big meetings in Germany to tend to what he calls more pressing global business. We are waiting to learn where he headed instead.

Plus, the FBI director versus the attorney general. FBI Chief Christopher Wray says he would not use the term spying and he says he has seen no evidence the FBI acted illegally in its surveillance of the Trump campaign back in 2016.

And, case closed or no? The Republican Senate majority leader says it's time to move past the Mueller investigation. The Democratic speaker of the House says, no way, but also says Democrats need to understand what the president and his allies are up to.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): Don't tell anybody I told you this. Trump, I use his name, OK. Trump is goading us to impeach him. That's what he's doing. Every single day he's just like taunting, taunting, taunting because he knows that it would be very divisive in the country, but he doesn't real care, just wants to solidify his base.

We can't impeach him for political reasons, and we can't not impeach him for political reasons.


KING: There's big, breaking news this hour. The White House putting a muzzle on a key witness in Robert Mueller's investments. The White House chief staff instructing Don McGahn, the former White House counsel, to ignore a congressional subpoena for documents. A source telling CNN, the White House has yet to indicate if it intends to block McGahn from testifying in person, but the letter is a dramatic escalation of the White House war on Democratic oversight.

And it comes the very same day of public disagreement between the nation's two top cops. Big push back from the FBI director this morning on Capitol Hill, aimed at the attorney general and at the White House at large. You'll remember just weeks ago the attorney general, Bill Barr, said he's investigate why the FBI's front office surveilled the Trump campaign back in 2016. His words then, quote, spying did occur. This morning, FBI Director Christopher Wray says that's not what he would call it.


CHRISTOPHER WRAY, FBI DIRECTOR: Well, that's not the term I would use.

Look, there are -- lots of people have different colloquial phrases. I believe that the FBI is engaged in investigative activity. And part of investigative activity includes surveillance activity of different shapes and sizes. And, to me, the key question is making sure that it's done by the book.


KING: With me this day to share their reporting and their insights, Julie Pace with "The Associated Press," Olivier Knox with Sirius XM, Karoun Demirjian with "The Washington Post," and CNN's MJ Lee.

Let's start with the White House counsel and the acting White House chief of staff telling Congress, no way, you don't get Don McGahn.

Not a surprise in some ways. They've said no to every subpoena. In this case, what does it tell us about the -- is it an evolving White House strategy or are they just locked in on "no"?

JULIE PACE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think they're pretty locked in on no. They see this, no matter what the investigation is, or what the request is, whether it's about the president's taxes, whether it's about having White House officials appear before committees, whether it's about turning over documents, they believe that their best strategy is to just say no. And that is both for substantive and political reasons. You know, from the substantive standpoint, there is information that they don't want expanded on, that they don't want to be pushed further into the public sphere.

But also, from a political standpoint, one of the strategies for this White House is to push these investigations deeper into the election. And that might sound a little counterintuitive, but what Trump believes, and what his advisers believe, is that they had success in casting the Mueller investigation as political. And if Democrats are seen -- congressional Democrats are seen holding hearings, trying to investigate the president deep into his re-election campaign, they can have the same level of success in casting those probes as simply an effort to damage him and his re-election campaign.

KING: And keep people in their tribal -- tribes, if you will.

I just want to read from the current White House counsel, Pat Cipollone. This is his letter to the Judiciary Committee.

The White House provided these records to Mr. McGahn in connection with his cooperation with the special counsel's investigation and with clear understanding that the records remain subject to the control of the White House for all purposes. Essentially saying Don McGahn, these are memos you wrote, documents

you collected when you were in the White House, but they belong to the White House. Now that you're back in private practice, sorry, you can't use them in your testimony.

MJ LEE, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, and we are just seeing this really fascinating and vivid sort of history lesson in checks and balances in American government play out in real time, right? The legislative branch, Congress, especially right after Democrats taking over the House, they are trying to do what they always said they would do, and that is to hold the White House and the president accountable.

[12:05:06] And what we have seen, as Julie said, from the White House consistently and coming directly from the president himself is thwarting all of those efforts, right, whether you want to call that stonewalling or being uncooperative, that has been a consistent strategy from the White House. And it all is now pointing to the very real possibility that so many of these threats end up in the courts. And for Democrats, every indication is that they will go there.

However, there's a big downsize to that. The reality is that those things will probably take a really long time. And they want -- Democrats want these investigations and these efforts to proceed. They don't want things to simply just sit in court. But the reality is that things take a long time usually when they end up in the court system.

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It's also going to just be a very interesting legal lesson but to say that you had all these contingencies of the White House executive privilege applying in one situation, but it was always understood that it wouldn't -- it would apply in another situation after he went through the Mueller is to kind of put -- is to potentially bend the way that the law is very hard and fast on this point, which is that once you -- once you dispense with executive privilege, it's very hard to put the Genie back in the bottle.

But this is the argument that's being made. A lot of it's going to come down to, how much does McGahn himself want to try to cross the whole White House on this front. And as we've seen, he hasn't really wanted to step in front of them yet. But, clearly, the Judiciary Committee is going to say that is not a commonly understood position, that things were going into the Mueller interviews and you have to talk to us the way you talked to him.

KING: And to that point about his attitude, remember, the president's I call him TV lawyer, but the president's lead attorney, Rudy Giuliani, has questioned Don McGahn's truthfulness to Mueller, questioned what he said. So they should probably be quiet at team White House if they don't want to goad him out there.

How significant is it -- remember, it was Jeanne Shaheen a couple weeks ago, in questioning of the attorney general, Bill Barr, where he said spying did occur in his view. Today, the same senator asking the FBI director, spying, was this illegal?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. JEANNE SHAHEEN (D-NH): And at this time do you have any evidence that any illegal surveillance into the campaigns or individuals associated with the campaigns by the FBI occurred?

CHRISTOPHER WRAY, FBI DIRECTOR: I don't think I personally have any evidence of that sort.


KING: All right, he's the FBI director who, when he came in, was pressed by a lot of people to make sure that the ship was straight, if you will, because of the questions. If there was -- wouldn't he have that evidence?

OLIVIER KNOX, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, SIRIUS XM: Yes, I don't want to -- I don't want to get too lost in the semantics here, but I personally, I'm not sure what I mean, and the other -- the more important thing, though, was he -- he described how it -- it has to happen by the book. I think that was a more significant statement because people are getting hung up on, well, she said illegal, what about improper, what about immoral, what about this? And he seemed to be saying that what he's seen so far was by the book, which I think is more important than whether you stick a label of surveillance or spying on what the FBI does.

KING: Right. And to the point about the FBI director, Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, answered with a simple "yes" today when asked by Manu Raju, shouldn't the president have brought up meddling in his phone conversation with Vladimir Putin the other day? The president says it didn't coming up except for a joke about the so- called hoax.

Again, the FBI director, appointed by the president, this is not the deep state, this is the Trump administration staying, we need to send more messages.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): When it comes to deterring Russian interference in the American election, is it working or should we do more?

CHRISTOPHER WRAY, FBI DIRECTOR: Well, I tend to be dissatisfied by nature, so I always think we can do more and should do more on pretty much every threat we've described here, but I will say --

GRAHAM: Do you think the Russians have gotten the messages, or there's still more messages to be sent?

WRAY: I think there are still more messages to be sent.


KING: This is one of the, you know, the -- which Lindsey Graham is it on which day in terms of his relationship with the president. I think he's trying to be a friend to the president there, if you will, saying, on this particular point, you need to drop your blinders.

PACE: Well, you talk -- we talk about messages.

KING: Right.

PACE: What kind of message does it send to Vladimir Putin that he has an hour long phone call with the president of the United States and election interference never comes up? That is almost certainly seen by Russia as a sign that this president is going to be open to this kind of interference again in the 2020 election as long as it benefits him.

And the concern from Republicans, like a Lindsey Graham, and others, is that maybe the Russian meddling is benefiting their party right now, but it's not always going to be the case. There will be other actors that are going to try to meddle in these elections. They are going to be on both sides of our political debate. This is not a zero sum game where one party benefits and the other loses. This is real interference in American democracy and it should -- it should be a concern that crosses party lines. We're just not in that situation with this president right now.

LEE: And so often it's so telling what the president doesn't say. You can read a lot into that, as opposed to what he does say. But I think what the -- this president, too, what's been interesting is that he appears to, in his head, often sort of conflate the idea of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, which is sort of a given at this point. Everyone is in agreement that that is a thing that happened. Him even bringing that up in a conversation, he appears to suggest that even bringing it up, even saying it means that somehow there is wrongdoing on his part, or his campaign, or the people around him.

[12:10:17] PACE: Or that he wasn't elected fairly.

KING: Yes.

KNOX: Absolutely.

LEE: Exactly. And that is a spot that he doesn't want to end up in. And so he is so reticent, even when he is speaking with a world leader like this, and is the most appropriate sort of venue and forum to bring this up, he simply refuses to.

KING: So how would you like to be the FBI director today? He goes on record there says, at least on tone, I disagree with the attorney general about the use of the term spying, and at least in his view, Christopher Wray's view, I've seen nothing outside of the book. He used the term correctly.

He just says right there, we need to send more messages. That's to the president of the United States, who does run the government. Maybe you should tell Vladimir Putin it won't be tolerated if you do it again.

So Democrats decide, OK, there's this big conversation now about, can we get Bob Mueller to testify? The president says no. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia says, help us out here.


SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D-WV): If would be helpful if he did appear before us so that we could clear up -- it would be really helpful to me, as someone who voted for Mr. Barr, and leaving a lot of questions unanswered, to hear Mr. Mueller's report and basically from himself.

CHRISTOPHER WRAY, FBI DIRECTOR: You know, that's really a decision between the special counsel, the department and the Congress.


KING: No, thanks, I've given you enough already.

KNOX: Right. If he was born at night, it wasn't last night, right, because you don't want to answer that question.


DEMIRJIAN: At this point, you know, we've got this dispute, though, this -- above his pay grade, honestly, because it's between Barr, who said, I have no objection publically, and the president, who's made, you know, a turnaround by saying, oh, that's OK, to, I have several objections and I want the attorney general to stop it from happening. So if Wray were going to actually kind of refute -- he's not refuting the president at that point. He'd be directly going against his boss, and that's potentially more awkward.

KING: Right. And up next, a very related conversation.

The Senate majority leader. Mitch McConnell, says Democrats are having a public meltdown over the Russia investigation, but some Republicans say, you know what, maybe we should hear from Mr. Mueller.


[12:16:36] KING: The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, urging fellow Republicans to get on the same page today. Leader McConnell says demands for Special Counsel Bob Mueller to testify, in his view, just another way for Democrats to keep up attacking the president.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): But my Democratic colleagues seem to be publically working through the five stages of grief.

They seem to be angrier at Bill Barr for doing his job than they are at Vladimir Putin.

Our colleagues across the aisle want to shoot the messenger and keep the perpetual outrage machine right on going.


KING: A lot of Republicans, most Republicans, actually agree, they think it's time to move on. But not all of them.


SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R-ME): It appears that Mr. Mueller would like to testify. And I think it would give the opportunity for the public to get additional views and clarifications on some parts of his report.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm fine hearing from Bob Mueller.

SEN. MIKE BRAUN (R-IN): If (ph) the president was saying he wants it, you know, I'd be for that. If it doesn't happen, I don't think it's going to change the dynamic.

QUESTION: Do you think the committee should hear from Mueller?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, I agree with the chair.


CNN's Manu Raju live from Capitol Hill.

Manu, you've been talking to Republicans all day. What's driving the division and how big is it?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's significant because the -- most of the Republicans are concerned if Bob Mueller were to come forward, he would only give ammunition to the Democrats push going forward to further investigate the president.

What the Republicans have not really speaking about much on -- up on Capitol Hill are those ten episodes outlined in the investigation about potential obstruction of justice at the White House. The president apparently trying to interfere with the Mueller probe. That is not something that you're hearing Republicans talk about much at all. Instead, you heard Mitch McConnell this morning not talk about the obstruction part but talk about the Russian interference aspect of that report and saying that there's no evidence to establish a conspiracy in an effort to try to undercut the Democratic claims of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

But, at the same time, Republicans are concerned, a lot of them, having a much more hawkish line on Russia than the president of the United States does. I talked to Mitt Romney this morning, John. I asked him about the president not bringing up the fact that Russia interfered in the election with Vladimir Putin. Romney said he did not want to second guess what the president said to Vladimir Putin, but he said that the U.S. needs to push back at every opportunity it gets very hard on Russia. So the Republicans are being very careful on how they deal with Mueller and the report and everything going forward and bringing forward Mueller before the Senate Republican led committees would only infuriate the president and, of course, that's what Republicans are hoping to avoid.


KING: I think that's the bottom line right there, what the Republicans are hoping to avoid is an angry Republican president.

Manu Raju live from The Hill. Appreciate the live reporting.

In those Republican samples there, to me the most telling was the newly elected Indiana senator, Mike Braun, who says, if the president's for it, I'm for it. In other words, it's his call. Otherwise, I'm not running afoul of him.

PACE: Well, and that's where you've seen Republicans, you know, kind of hang for the last two years. They want to be -- they want to be with the president.

I do think, though, you know, there is some -- there are some cracks in this Republican coalition on this question. And you've heard some Democrats say, hey, if the report is all good for Donald Trump, why not have Bob Mueller come up there? Wouldn't that actually bolster his case? Of course, to Manu's point, what Democrats really want to dive into is obstruction --

KING: Right.

[12:20:05] PACE: Because that's just -- it's just messier. It's -- there's not a clean, clear answer, like there actually is on collusion and conspiracy. And I think the question that they want to ask Mueller and try to get him to answer under oath is, you know, if the president were not president, would you have had enough material to indict him on obstruction?

KING: And to that very point, Mitch McConnell goes to the floor and says, case closed. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who happens to be running for president, sees an opening. She's been on the floor much of the morning, much of the past few hours saying, Mitch McConnell says case closed. I think I'll do a little reading.


SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Since the majority leader has pronounced his judgment here on the Senate floor, I'd like to spend some time reminding him of exactly what this report said.

Trump directed McGahn on multiple occasions to fire Mueller or to gin up false conflicts of interest as a pretext of getting rid of the special counsel.


KING: It connects the dots in several ways to what we were talking about in the previous segment in the sense that Don McGahn, the White House is saying, no, he can't testify because they -- Democrats want to ask him, did the president of the United States tell you to get Rod Rosenstein to fire the special counsel? What else did the president do to try to interfere with the special counsel? Republicans don't want any of that. They want to say, let's just move on.

KNOX: Don't forget also that the Mueller report has a lot of information about Russian meddling, right, Russian interference --

KING: Right.

KNOX: So it's not case closed for a number of reasons. One is, we have an election around the corner, right? The president's apparently not bringing up meddling when he talks to Vladimir Putin. There are a number of court cases winding their way through that stem from the Mueller investigation. So it's pretty clearly not case closed. Even if you didn't have all these questions about obstruction, about whether he would have charged the president about whether he actually did object to Bill Barr's characterization of the principle conclusions of the investigation, there's a lot -- there's still a lot of thread to pull on.

KING: A lot of thread to pull on. And on the House side, some Republicans say, let's hear from Bob Mueller. And even they acknowledge, you know, the obstruction part, not good for the president. But some of them think, you know, Bob Mueller, former FBI director, for more than 10 years, let's talk to him about the genesis of all this. Let's see if Bob Mueller's willing to say, like a lot of those House Republicans believe, that there was some FBI misconduct or at least some FBI ethics questions.

Here's Doug Collins, the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee.


REP. DOUG COLLINS (R-GA): I want to the ask Bob Mueller, I want to know not only obstruction issue, but I want to go back even further. Did he actually go through the basis for this investigation? Did he actually dig into the underlying evidence of what we've seen from the cabal of Strzok and Page and Comey and going back into how we got into the Russia investigation at all? We see a little bit of it in the Mueller report, but my question is, did you question how this even started? And, if so, how did you do it?


DEMIRJIAN: These are the competing winds that are both afoot in Congress right now, which is that Democrats want to lean in harder to the substance of what Mueller produced, the underlying evidence behind it, to be able to inform their probes of Trump. Republicans say, OK, well, if you want transparency, we want everything that came out that was even touched by the Mueller probe so we can look at to see both what he looked at and what he didn't look at because they -- the Republicans are urging this probe of the investigators and the agencies that ran these investigations. So you could come to the same place and say put everything on the table and that's not actually going to resolve the dispute that's playing out along partisan lines in Congress.

LEE: And there's not really an ideal outcome for Republicans. I mean they can pick from a range of options and a range of things this could look like if Mueller were to testify. But if he were to, we legitimately don't know what he would say. Yes, we have the 400-page report and we know how he decided to lay out the facts. We know what he saw and what he determined was important in terms of the fact, but we don't know exactly what he would say under the circumstances. The circumstances being, he's not writing a paper, he is being grilled by lawmakers, possibly in public in front of cameras. And also, anything that he gets asked about the obstruction of justice question, that issue is going to be treacherous grounds for the president.

But, on the other hand, I think not testifying, Republicans are keenly aware, yes, that makes it seem as though and sort of feeds the continuing narrative that the White House is simply stonewalling and they don't really want that either.

KING: One would think, in a lower case "d" democracy, if you spent tens of millions of dollars on a two year investigation, that the American people would hear from the person who led the investigation. One would think that. We will see where this goes.

And in this context of Senator McConnell saying, nah, let's just move on, Speaker Pelosi and the Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, just issued this statement about that. In part it says, Senator McConnell's declaration of case closed is a stunning act of political cynicism and a brazen violation of the oath we all take. On every issue that matters in people's live, the administration and a complicit Republican Senate are waging an unprecedented, unwarranted, unconstitutional and not only dangerous campaign of stonewalling. That from the Democratic speaker of the House and the Democratic leader of the Senate.

So, serious, legitimate, constitutional balance of power questions and it looks like they're going to have to get it tested in the courts now, than their point there, which has some of those issues and a whole lot of politics.

[12:25:01] PACE: Look, we're in a moment where I think every day there's going to be some sort of squabble back and forth, but I think it's important to think about this big picture. We really are in an extraordinary moment where we, to MJ's point earlier, we are witnessing the system of checks and balances and the strength of that system in real time. It's going to be a really extraordinary couple of months in Washington.

KING: And we'll see it play out in the courts. It's going to be a long -- a long -- it might go longer than 12 months or so in Washington.

Up next, one 2020 Democratic candidate goes to a different place, promising a litmus test for her judicial nominees.