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Barr Questions Why Mueller Didn't Make A Decision On Obstruction; New Evidence Shows Flynn Helped Mueller In Obstruction Probe; Rep. Richard Neal (D) Massachusetts On Trump Tax Stonewalling, Contempt Is Not Necessary; Some In Congress Fuming Over White House's Handling Of Iran; Iranian Foreign Minister Says There Is No Possibility For Negotiations With U.S. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired May 17, 2019 - 10:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: A very good Friday morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto. Poppy has the day off today. As the world waits to hear from Robert Mueller, Attorney General William Barr gets his message out on the Russia investigation. Barr taking digs at how the whole probe began, and he is not pulling any punches when it comes to the Special Counsel's decision not to make a decision on obstruction.


BILL HEMMER, FOX NEWS AMERICA'S NEWSROOM: Were you surprised that he came back with no recommendation on that obstruction charge? Did that surprised you?

WILLIAM BARR, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Yes, that surprised me.

HEMMER: How come?

BARR: The function of a prosecutor is to make a call one way or the other.


SCIUTTO: Well, Barr's shot coming as we are learning that the President's former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn told the Special Counsel that people tied to the President or Congress potentially tried to obstruct justice. And we may soon get a chance to hear those conversations if a judge rules by the end of today or later this week to release tapes that Flynn turned over.

First, let's get to CNN's Laura Jarrett for more on what Barr is saying this morning. So is there any other way to interpret this talk about how well the prosecutor has got to make a decision on obstruction as a shot directly at the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: No. I think that shot is pretty clear. And he took it actually weeks ago during his congressional testimony, making it clear that and you really -- prosecutors are supposed to make a binary choice, thumbs up or thumbs down, and Robert Mueller failed in that regard. But the new news here, Jim, is the sort of questions Barr is raising once again about the genesis of the Russia investigation. He told The Wall Street Journal today that he's actually interested in intelligence collection that happened before the FBI formally opened their counterintelligence probe back in July of 2016.

But yet, then he went on Fox and he's talking about the infamous Steele dossier, the one compiled by that former British intelligence agent raising questions about whether that was used and how odd it was. Take a listen.


BARR: Well, that's one of the questions that we're going to have to look at. It's a very unusual situation to have opposition research like that, especially one that on its face had a number of clear mistakes and a somewhat judicial (ph) analysis, and to use that to conduct counterintelligence against an American political campaign is a strange -- would be a strange development.


JARRETT: Of course, it's important to note that the Steele dossier wasn't the sole basis for the FBI opening its investigation back in 2016, and Carter Page, the person who was actually surveilled, wasn't even on the campaign when the FISA warrant was obtained, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Good points, important ones. There's a lot of blurring of those lines, including by the President.

Let's talk about the investigation. Barr himself raising serious concerns about the start of the probe, also the Inspector General has his own investigation under way. Is there a possibility of criminal referrals here?

JARRETT: Well, that's certainly always a possibility. We have to wait and see what exactly the Inspector General finds here. But it appears Barr is still concerned about something. He won't really explain the basis of his concern, what's animating it, but he says that he's been raising a lot of issues and he's not getting adequate answers.

Take a listen to what else he said on Fox this morning.


BARR: People have to find out what the government was doing during that period. If we're worried about foreign influence for the very same reason, we should be worried about whether government officials abuse their power and put their thumb on the scale. And so I'm not saying that happened, but I'm saying that we have to look at that.


JARRETT: Again, saying he's not sure that any wrongdoing happened, but, of course, the President weighing in this morning, saying, in fact, something wrong did happen. He's saying conclusively spying did occur. He's calling it treason, of course, no basis for that. But, of course, he's latching on to Barr's comments here, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Yes, I mean, judge, jury, and executioner on that. Laura Jarrett, thanks very much.

For more on what we're learning about the possible obstruction into Michael Flynn's cooperation with the Special Counsel, CNN's Senior Justice Correspondent, Evan Perez, joins me now.

So this is quite remarkable here, because fit in a broader pattern of Flynn saying he got a message from the President, hey, it wouldn't be so great if you cooperate, not unlike other messages we have heard from other witnesses or even public comments that the President has made. How significant is this Flynn evidence?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think this Flynn evidence, which was already baked into the Mueller report, obviously, really just kind of shines a light on what exactly was happening, what kind of obstructive behavior was going on behind the scenes that we even didn't know about, right? This, according to the Special Counsel, some of the stuff, they didn't even know about until Michael Flynn came forward and shared it with them, including outreach from people associated with the administration or Congress, according to the Special Counsel in this newly unredacted portions of these documents, Jim. I'll read you just a part of what the Special Counsel says.

The sequence of events could have had the potential to affect Flynn's decision to cooperate, as well as the extent of that cooperation.


Because of privilege issues, however, we could not determine whether the President was personally involved in or knew about the specific message that his counsel delivered to Flynn's counsel. Again, this is referring to these messages that were being sort of backdoor channeled to Flynn's side.

SCIUTTO: So tell us about this voicemail in particular, because it would be quite remarkable to hear that rather than see those written words. Is it possible that that evidence will be made public?

PEREZ: Yes. This judge is telling the Justice Department by the end of the month, he wants to have this voicemail, this transcript of this, of all of this, released as part of the fact that the Mueller investigation is wrapped up. I'll read you just a part of what this voicemail says. This was referred to in the Mueller report just a few weeks ago. It says, quote, it would not surprise me if you have gone on to make a deal with the government. There's information that implicates -- if there's information that implicates the President, then we have got a national security issue.

So you know, we need some kind of heads up. This is an effort by, according to Mueller report, one of Donald Trump's -- one of the president's lawyers reaching out to the Flynn side to sort of say, hey, we understand that you guys are no longer sharing information. This happens right after that. And, you know, we want to know a little more. Obviously, there's a great deal of concern about the implication this has for the President. Jim?

SCIUTTO: Evan Perez, thanks for walking us through it.

Let's discuss now with Elie Honig, former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Congressional Correspondent for The New York Times.

So, Elie, put on your lawyer hat. How is that not obstruction of justice? You have got the President's personal counsel saying, it wouldn't be a good idea for you to cooperate and this would upset the President.

ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It's a great question, Jim. And in the real world of criminal justice, this is obstruction of justice, just come right out and say it, right? What the law requires is that somebody is trying to influence, delay or impede someone's testimony or providing information to the government. It's hard to look at that voicemail and really draw any other conclusion.

What we see there and we see throughout this case is that Trump and the people around him, including the attorneys, are using the carrot and the stick. The sort of threats, sometimes veiled, sometimes less so, but also the rewards. He still has these warm feelings for you, coming from the person who has the pardon power. I think that tells you something. So, yes.

And, look, just for perspective, this is one of three people who the Mueller report says Trump and the people around him tried to dissuade. Manafort is the second. The third one is redacted. We don't know who it is. And all of that is one of the 11 obstructive, potentially obstructive acts that Mueller lays out.

So Mueller really lays out a very broad and compelling case.

SCIUTTO: So is Barr right when he takes another shot at Mueller today, that Mueller whiffed on this and should have made a call?

HONIG: He might be. I agree and I think a lot of people agree that the Special Counsel regulations are pretty sparse in what they say. But one of the things they do say is that the Special Counsel shall make a prosecution or declination decision.

Now, Mueller -- reason Mueller didn't do it, he makes quite clear, is because of this DOJ policy against indicting a sitting president. And he sort twists himself into knots in the report and speaks in riddles, and I would say if he didn't do it but I'm not saying. Maybe in the end analysis, maybe hindsight is 20/20, but maybe Mueller should have just given us a thumbs up and thumbs down, and maybe he will do that when he testifies.

SCIUTTO: So, Julie, I wonder if the White House thinks they're really winning here, right, because you went from this two-year report, the Special Counsel does not make a decision on the obstruction, appears to clear the President on any collusion questions. And now, you have a sitting Attorney General that is turning the tables entirely and putting the focus on how the investigation began, raising the possibility of, well, criminal wrongdoing, the President shouting treason. I mean, that's a remarkable turn of events in a short period of time.

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, right, no question. I think they think that in the short-term that this has been a victory for them, not only did the report not come out and say that the President obstructed justice, not come out and say that he conspired with the Russians. But he does have an Attorney General in place now, unlike before, who is really willing to go at aggressively what were the roots of this investigation and question the whole premise, which is what the President has been doing from the beginning.

I think they're also feeling very good about the fact they're flexing their muscles against Congress in their efforts to get some of these witnesses before congressional committees to put them under oath and actually get some of this narrative themselves, which so far they haven't been able to do.

But I think the bigger question for the White House is, longer term, will this be a win for them? Will they be able to sustain that position with more and more of these details coming out? You know, will there be a point where either Congress becomes a lot more aggressive with enforcing their subpoena power or there's a public outcry to hear more from people like Mueller who can explain that decision not to go ahead and say there should be obstruction charges, people like Flynn, people like Don McGahn, who can really fill in some of the details here.


SCIUTTO: Well, your paper has an astute piece out today that the White House -- that democrats are frustrated, Julie, by the White House here on congressional investigations because their plan had been, okay, keep these witnesses coming before, keep these issues churned up in the Mueller report in the public eye via committee hearings. But if the witnesses aren't turning up, is that another battle that the White House has won here?

DAVIS: Yes. I mean, I think, again, in the short-term, I think that they really have. And the problem for democrats is that what I think that they had hoped they could do would be to sort of lay out a series of hearings that would be like an impeachment proceeding and that it would yield revelations about potential wrongdoing by the President but not actually be an impeachment proceeding, which they think would be politically damaging for them.

What they're finding is that without the actual official process under way of impeaching the President, they actually have a lot less power to sort of force that kind of procedure on Capitol Hill. And the question is will they be able to find a way short of going the route of impeachment to actually get the information that they want and to paint that picture that I think they had hoped they would be able to paint.

SCIUTTO: And when the polls showed not huge appetite among democratic voters for impeachment proceedings.

We have some news in to CNN. This is a comment from the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Congressman Neal. Of course, that's the committee that has the legal power to demand anyone's, including the President's, tax returns. Let's have a listen and I want to get your reaction.


REP. RICHARD NEAL (D-MA): After the election, I indicated that I thought that this would end up in a long court case. I'm not seeing much in the last few weeks that would dissuade me of that position.

REPORTER: Do you view contempt as a potential option?

NEAL: I don't see what good it would do at this particular time. I think that if both sides have made up their minds, better to move it over to the next branch of government, the judiciary.


SCIUTTO: All right. Elie Honig, there, you spent a little time in court. It sounds like democrats are going to end up in court for the President's tax returns.

HONIG: I think that's the way it has to go. And I think Representative Neal is right there. Contempt is really symbolic and I think it's losing all its punch that it seems to be almost a routine that Attorney General get held in contempt. Here, we're talking about the IRS and the Treasury Department. But the law is clear that the IRS shall furnish those tax returns to the Ways and Means Committee. The Ways and Means Committee said, let's see them, and Treasury said no. So take it to court. This is what Congress needs to do. They need to stand up for their constitutional authority, and the way to do that is force these issue, get them into court, get a ruling.

SCIUTTO: Does the law matter? It's a fundamental question. We're facing it every day now, it seems. Elie Honig, Julie Hirschfeld Davis, thanks very much.

Still to come this hour, the President is reportedly telling the Pentagon chief that he does not want to go to war with Iran, but is a misreading of the intelligence why we got into this dangerous standoff in the first place.

And SAT scores measure, of course, math and verbal scores, but now, they'll be taken into account adversity. Ahead, what that means for your child's college admissions.


[10:15:00] SCIUTTO: The U.S. claims it has images of Iranian commercial vessels carrying missiles. CNN has not reviewed the intelligence itself which has led to this assessment. This as the President continues to try to ease tensions with Iran, reportedly informing his acting Defense Secretary, Patrick Shanahan, he does not want to go to war. CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr joins me now with the details.

And it seems, Barbara, that the key question was there here was, okay, there were missiles on these Iranian small boats in the Gulf. The question is the reading of that intelligence, were those in response to the U.S. force buildup or were they an indication that Iran planned to carry out its own offensive attack? So what do we know?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, a number of U.S. officials we have spoken to over the last ten days to two weeks that all of this has been going on say it was actually getting that intelligence, those images that they say they have, of missiles on boats that led to their alarm. Once they saw that, they became very concerned that this put Iranian missiles in position within range of being able to fire upon U.S. bases in the Middle East and put U.S. troops at risk.

We haven't heard much from Iran about this specific event, missiles on boats. But, you know, this is the kind of thing that becomes very worrisome because Iran would then be showing both a capability and a potential intention. A lot of skeptics, Jim. Congress is being briefed more and more over the next several days. They want to see the intelligence firsthand.

And it really gets to this very point. Was this really just routine business by the Iranian militias and forces or was this something out of the ordinary? Did it indicate a potential intent to attack U.S. troops in the region?

SCIUTTO: Well, one of the odd things is it seems the President's in the skeptical camp too, at least about how to react to it. Barbara Starr, always good to have you there at the Pentagon.

Meanwhile, Iran's Foreign Minister on a visit to Japan said there was, quote, no possibility for negotiations with the U.S. CNN's Senior International Correspondent, Fred Pleitgen, is in Tehran.


And the reason this is important, Fred, is because part of this maximum pressure campaign from the U.S. and by the Trump administration is intended to force Iran to renegotiate the existing nuclear deal that the U.S. pulled out of, but it sounds like Iran is calling that bluff and say, no, we're not going to renegotiate.

FRED PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think you have it absolutely right, Jim. I think they're absolutely calling the White House's bluff.

And I think that the folks here in Iran, the leadership here Iran, they really feel as though the Trump administration blinked on all of this, obviously sending an aircraft carrier, sending B-52 Bombers into the region. And now with President Trump is saying he wants to create some sort of -- or insinuate that he wants to create some sort of backchannel. I think the Iranians feel like they have the upper hand at the moment.

It's quite an interesting atmosphere here in Tehran, because we were thinking after this week of tensions with the aircraft carrier being sent over, that you would have really fiery Friday prayers here in Tehran, really fiery Anti-American Friday prayers, but it really didn't happen.

So what we're seeing is the Iranians not trying to inflame the situation, but at the same time, really remaining steadfast. As you've said, they don't want any negotiations, they're saying, until there's some sort of sanctions relief, until European companies and other companies can do business here again without having to face American backlash.

They keep saying they want America to go back into the nuclear agreement. But I don't think that even the leadership in Iran thinks that with the current administration, if that's something that's going to be a possibility.

At the same time, you also do have tough talks coming from Iranian generals. In fact, overnight, there was one general who came out and said, if there is an escalation, if shots are fired, that Iran would deliver a crushing blow, as he said, to American interests in the Middle East. So that bellicose rhetoric is still there.

As far as those missiles are concerned, I haven't heard much in the way of reaction from the Iranians. But one interesting nugget that we did pick up, Iran's Ambassador to the U.N., he came out and he said, look, we're not preparing for any sort of conflict, but we want to be prepared if there is a conflict. So that might have something to do with that as well, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Well, always good to have you on the ground covering this only way CNN can. Fred Pleitgen in Tehran, thanks very much.

Authorities in California say a malfunction caused an F-16 fighter jet to crash into a warehouse. The plane crashed just off the runway at March Air Force Base in Southern California, that's the warehouse there, this on Thursday. The pilot was on a training mission. The pilot ejected moments before impact, granted, he's safe. Five people on the ground were injured. The pilot was taken to the hospital to be checked out but has only minor injuries.

Well, democrats may be looking at a subpoena now for Michael Flynn. Why they may want the former National Security Adviser to testify under oath before Congress.



SCIUTTO: According to newly released documents, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn told Robert Mueller that someone connected to the Trump administration or Congress contacted him, potentially attempting to obstruct the Special Counsel's investigation.

Joining me now to discuss is Congressman Chris Stewart. He's a republican from Utah, also a member of the House Intelligence Committee. Congressman, thanks for taking the time this morning.

REP. CHRIST STEWART (R-UT): Yes, good morning.

SCIUTTO: So, first, I want to get your view on this reporting that Michael Flynn, in the midst of this Special Counsel's investigation, gets a message from the President's personal lawyer, John Dowd, seeming to indicate that the President would not be happy or would be upset if he were to cooperate with the Special Counsel. And I wonder if you view that kind of communication as acceptable.

STEWART: Well, it's interesting because, I mean, this voicemail apparently said, conveyed the affection and the good feelings of the President still towards Mr. Flynn. I'm running out of analogies on this dead horse. This dead horse isn't almost dead. This is all the way dead.

Look, the Special Counsel --

SCIUTTO: So why isn't that a legitimate question if the President -- I know you have declared it dead and the President has declared it dead, but this is new information in addition to other evidence presented by the Special Counsel of possible obstruction of justice, granted he did not make a call as to whether it was (ph). But this new information about the President's personal attorney going to Michael Flynn's attorney as he's about to testify before the Special Counsel, and saying, it may not be a good idea for you to do so. I mean, if you were involved in a legal proceeding, would you want that kind of interference?

STEWART: Well, here's the thing. It's not new information to Mr. Mueller. He had this. And, as you said, he chose -- yes, but Mr. Mueller was the one making the decision on this. And taken in its entirety, he did not choose to indict on anything.

And, you know, there's one thing that I think you and I agree on, and that is in America, there is a presumption of innocence. And you can't turn it on its head and say you have to prove you're innocent. You have that prove someone is guilty, and Mr. Mueller didn't come up with any proof of that. And I know --

SCIUTTO: Well, he didn't make a decision. As you know, Mueller said very explicit terms that he did not exonerate the President. It was bill Barr, the President's appointee as Attorney General, who made the decision. I wonder on that question, do you think Mueller whiffed here, that he should have made a decision?

STEWART: No. You said something that that is exactly what I said. You turned it on its head. You said he didn't exonerate. It wasn't his job to exonerate. You have to bring charges and prove someone is guilty. Someone doesn't have to prove they're innocent. And Mr. Mueller didn't do that. He didn't bring charges. He said there wasn't sufficient evidence to bring charges.


SCIUTTO: Okay. So I'm asking you, are you comfortable with a sitting President of the United States sending a message through his attorney to a witness --