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Mueller on Obstruction Charge; White House Reacts to Mueller's Statement; Congress Reacts to Mueller's Statement; Harris Reacts to Mueller's Statement. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired May 29, 2019 - 12:00   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:00:14] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're following breaking news.

We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. You're watching CNN live special coverage, truly a remarkable statement in the last hour from the Russia special counsel, Robert Mueller.

After two years of public silence on his part, Mueller giving a ten minute summary of his investigation that injects new drama into the big debate over impeachment. Mueller restated his core findings from his report. One, the Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election here in the United States was clear and systematic. Two, there was not enough evidence to charge a broader conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russian meddlers. And. three, if the special counsel could have said no obstruction as the president claims he did, he would have said so. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT MUELLER, SPECIAL COUNSEL: If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so. We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime. The introduction to the volume two of our report explains that decision.

It explains that under long standing department policy, a president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office. That is unconstitutional. Even if the charge is kept under seal and hidden from public view, that, too, is proprohibited

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The president says nothing changes from the Mueller report, but the Russian special counsel there not on the same page clearly as the attorney general, William Barr, who said that Justice Department guidelines did not -- repeat, did not weigh on Mueller's decision not to indict.

Mueller also indicated how his team thought about that decision. And his words are already stirring new and very significant pressure among Democrats in the House of Representatives to formally launch an impeachment process against the president of the United States.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MUELLER: The Constitution requires a process, other than the criminal justice system, to formally accuse a sitting president of wrong doing. And beyond department policy, we were guided by principles of fairness. It would be unfair to potentially -- it would be unfair to potentially accuse somebody of a crime when there can be no court resolution of the actual charge.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Certainly, a lot to consider and to discuss.

Let's start with our justice correspondent, Laura Jarrett. She's over at the Justice Department. She was in the room when Robert Mueller made that ten minute statement.

The special counsel, Laura, making it very clear that his hands, he believes, were essentially tied.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Essentially tied, Wolf, because of that long standing Justice Department guidance on not indicting a sitting president. And I think that there had been somewhat of a confusion about how much that really weighed on the special counsel's team, especially after that press conference from the attorney general, Bill Barr. We all remember last month essentially announcing the end of the investigation where he talked about the discussions of Mueller around that issue in particular. And he said that Mueller had told him that it wasn't the case, that he was saying but for the department's guidance he would have indicted the president, he would have found a crime. Instead, he didn't reach that decision at all.

But Mueller explained the reason he didn't reach that decision at all today was because of that very guidance, saying that in his view it would have been unconstitutional to try to indict a sitting president and principles of fairness marshaled in favor of simply not even reaching that decision. But because of the desire to preserve evidence and memories and the idea of talking to potential co-conspirators, he thought it was important to carry through, obviously, with the investigation just as he explained in the report.

Another key takeaway or headline of the day, Wolf, was the fact that Mueller makes it clear, he is not interested in testifying before members of Congress. Obviously pressure has been mounting to hear from him, pressure especially among Democrats now today after hearing from him. The ball is essentially in their court about what they're going to do with this. But he made it pretty clear today, Wolf, I hope and expect this will be the only time that I speak about this matter, essentially saying, case closed. If you want to hear from me, you have my testimony essentially in the report.

But he goes on to say that if Congress forces his hand and he is forced to come essentially, that he will hew (ph) to the four corners of that report, sort of managing expectations that he will not go beyond that report as much as everyone has invested in his findings.

[12:05:02] Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: Laura, I want you to stand by.

We're getting more reaction coming in from the White House.

Let's go to our White House correspondent Abby Phillip.

Abby, what are you getting over there?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf, the reactions are coming in pretty fast and furious. And just minutes ago, Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, expanded on what President Trump tweeted earlier, just shortly after Mueller finished his statement. The president says nothing changes from the Mueller report and Sarah Sanders says in this statement that his office is closed, the case is closed. Mueller explicitly said that he has nothing to add beyond the report and therefore does not plan to testify before Congress.

The report was clear, there was no collusion, no conspiracy and the Department of Justice confirmed there was no obstruction. Special Counsel Mueller also stated that Attorney General Bill Barr acted in good faith in his handling of the report. After two years, the special counsel is moving on with his life and everyone else should do the same.

That's Sarah Sanders doing two things at the same time, both defending Bill Barr's handling of the report, the summary report, that four-page letter that came out just before -- weeks before the full report was released with redactions. And then she's also saying that at the end of the day what Mueller was trying to say was that this is all that there is to say about this matter.

And a senior White House official that I spoke to earlier today basically described Mueller's statement today as a nothing burger, saying that the White House does not believe that he moved the ball forward on any of the issues that were discussed in the Mueller report, even on this matter of whether or not congressional leaders need to take up impeachment. This official said the White House views Mueller's statement as basically hewing (ph) to what he said in the report, not adding anything further.

And sources are telling, you know, our Dana Bash and Gloria Borger that the president is eager to have this fight with Democrats. He is not afraid of impeachment. And, in fact, he might view this as something that is politically helpful to him going into 2020.

So, you know, this is a White House who has been talking about impeachment as a real possibility, believing that Democrats want to go there. I don't think that they view what Mueller said as making it more likely or less likely or even changing the facts that might change the minds of the American public. But if they do have to face impeachment, you know, our sources are making it clear, President Trump is willing to go there. He thinks that this could be helpful to him as he's going into his reelection fight, Wolf.

BLITZER: Abby, I know you're working your sources over there at the White House. We'll get back to you.

I want to go up to Capitol Hill right now, reaction pouring in from lawmakers. Phil Mattingly is up on Capitol Hill are for us.

What are you hearing, Phil.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, for Democrats who have been pressing Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, to move forward on an impeachment inquiry, this certainly reiterates their call. We've seen some statements from them as well.

But it's important to note here, for House Democrats, there are really two people who matter when it comes to what their next steps will be in any investigation or any potential impeachment. It's the speaker of the House and it's House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler. Jerry Nadler has put out an initial statement and in that statement he says, given that Special Counsel Mueller was unable to pursue criminal charges against the president, it falls to Congress to respond to the crimes, lies and other wrongdoing of President Trump and we will do so. No one, not even the president of the United States, is above the law.

Now, Wolf, he does not weigh in specifically on impeachment. He has been in line with Speaker Pelosi in terms of letting the investigations play out up to this point. But it's worth noting, multiple members of his committee, senior members of his committee, have been pushing him in that direction. We expect to hear from him a little bit later today. Perhaps he will expand on that. The big question remains also what Speaker Pelosi will do.

Another key element here was Robert Mueller, the special counsel, repeatedly saying that he hoped he would not have to testify in front of Congress, saying the report spoke for itself. I've been talking to Democratic officials, some of whom were in negotiations with the special council's team about potential public testimony. They have made clear to me that at least at this point they still want to press forward for some type of public statement, public testimony from the special counsel.

Obviously, nothing is solidified yet. Jerry Nadler did not weigh in on that. But the point that was made to me was, they believe the statement from Robert Mueller today, even though they didn't find it diverged in any way from what was in the report, was powerful because people could see it. That is one of the primary reasons they wanted the special counsel to come up and testify. How that all ends up, though, especially given what the special counsel said about his personal views on testifying, is still to be determined.

In terms of impeachment itself, one other thing to key on, Justin Amash, a Republican who's been very vocal on Twitter about his views of the special counsel's report and his views on impeachment, he tweeted out, quote, the ball is in our court, Congress. Keep an eye on that and keep an eye on how that works with the rest of the Democratic caucus.

Again, if you go back to early last week, Wolf, the numbers in the Democratic that were pushing forward to have some type of impeachment inquiry action were growing. They were not substantial, they were not a majority, but they were growing. It started to ebb a little bit towards the end of the week. I think the expectation right now, at least according to people I'm talking to at this early stage, expect that growth to continue. What leadership decides, what Jerry Nadler decides, still up in the air, Wolf.

[12:10:00] BLITZER: Yes, it's a very important point. I suspect the pressure will mount on the speaker and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Thanks Phil. I want to get back to you.

I want to bring in CNN legal analyst, former federal prosecutor Elie Honig, who's joining us right now.

Elie, I guess the key sentence that he made, and I'll read it once again, set -- this is Mueller, set forth in our report after that investigation, if we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said that. We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime.

That's a powerful statement from Robert Mueller.

ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It is, Wolf. And I think that Mueller's main objective today is to push Congress and to light a fire and to sort of tell them, you have a job to do here. Early on in his statement today, Mueller went out of his way to talk about how serious of an offense obstruction of justice is. And I think any prosecutor -- I certainly would echo that. He said it strikes at the core of the government's ability to find facts and to hold people accountable.

Then he made clear, contrary to really what Bill Barr has been saying, that the DOJ policy that you just mentioned was really the primary factor preventing Mueller from bringing an indictment.

And then finally he talked about how there are other processes outside of the criminal justice process, again meaning Congress, that are in place in order to get accountability from a sitting president. You throw in the other little things like, hey, we got this evidence together so we could preserve it. And I think Mueller was trying to send a clear message to Congress, your turn now.

BLITZER: Stand by.

I want to bring in CNN legal analyst Anne Milgram. She's been accessing what we just heard from the special counsel.

What was your bottom line analysis on this point about the president did or did not commit a crime?

ANNE MILGRAM, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think one of the important things to remember is that most of the American public hasn't read the report. And so to have Robert Mueller basically stand in front of the television cameras and said, look, if we could have made a call to say that the president didn't commit a crime, we would have, but we couldn't do so. And that is incredibly powerful for the American public to see. We have seen it in the report, but it's an entirely different thing I think for Mueller to say it publicly.

And the other point, Wolf, is, I don't think it's an accident that Bob Mueller started on the question of Russian interference and said as clearly as possible that the Russians had launched a concerted attack on the American election and essentially warned us to be on alert that that could happen again very soon. And so I think it was a powerful statement by Mueller. It was short. It was classic Mueller and to the point but really critical I think for the American public to see him.

BLITZER: All right, stand by.

You know, Dana, the pressure clearly is going to mount on the Democrats in the House to do something as a result of what we just heard from Mueller.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: And that was his intention, absolutely his intention. And you heard Phil ticking off some of the things in the short term what we have heard from the people whose opinions matter most, including and especially the House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler. Didn't use the "i" word, but leaned really far into the idea that Congress is not going to have much of a choice.

On the campaign trail, we're already seeing more Democrats whose voices are loud and, again, can contribute to the pressure on the House speaker, take steps further than they have before. Cory Booker, for example, had not said that he is for impeachment. After watching Robert Mueller, he says he is for impeachment.

And one thing I want to tell you about the other side of this equation, which, of course, is the Trump political equation. I was communicating with a source familiar with the president's thinking on this who said explicitly that, you know, basically bring it on, that they would be happy to have impeachment proceedings because they think that this will embolden their base and help them on the campaign trail in 2020.

BLITZER: It's a difficult decision these Democrats now have to make because even -- they have the majority in the House of Representatives. Presumably they could go ahead and have the impeachment process begin in the House. And they have the majority if they want to impeach the president they can, but they don't have the majority in the U.S. Senate. You need two-thirds majority to convict, to remove a president from office. Sixty-seven senators. They clearly don't have that. That's probably one of the major reasons that Nancy Pelosi, the speaker, has been reluctant to move forward.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right. And I think one of the things more clearly that she has said, actually, that sort of describes what her thinking is, is her view that you've got to bring the public along. You can't just do this. You need to have the public with you before you do something like this. And I think their whole plan, the plan for the Democrats all along has been to start with Robert Mueller, get him up there and have him say, again, with his unimpeachable, right, reputation to say clearly what exactly was going on between the lines of this report.

So that's what the Democrats want and Robert Mueller, in his own words says, I would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress. He's trying to say, look, I'm just going to stick to these words.

But here's the thing. Even today you saw words that were slightly different. And I think those words provided some clarity for those of us who were trying to understand what he meant in that report, right? And I think that that's the reason why it's important to get that testimony. I know he doesn't want to do it publically perhaps because of the political spectacle of it. But I think it is important for members of Congress to hear from him. So there's some way for them -- for perhaps to be private testimony and then, of course, you know, that would be released in transcript form. I think it is incumbent upon members of Congress to hear that.

[12:15:26] BLITZER: Although he made it clear, he doesn't even want to do that.

PEREZ: He doesn't want to do that.

BLITZER: He was hoping this 10 minute statement he made today --

PEREZ: And I think Democrats --

BLITZER: Were the final statement that he --

PEREZ: Right.

BLITZER: That he would have to make.

PEREZ: And I think he understands that it's more useful to the Democrats for there to be public testimony because every television screen will be tuned to what Robert Mueller has to say.

BLITZER: All right.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think that's also one of the reasons you're seeing in the public statements, there are some things that will break the fact check machine, but most of the public statements from the president's tweet, from Sarah Sanders are much more measured. Jay Sekulow, one of the president's attorneys, saying the attorney general -- not -- he's not putting it on Mueller -- he says the attorney general decided there was no obstruction. Much more measured, if you will, because they understand, today is not a good day for them, whatever they want to say. Robert Mueller saying what he said today was quite damning to the president. But they're hoping it's one day and they're hoping they can just get past it.

To the Pelosi question, Wolf, look, she -- we covered the White House during the last impeachment. She lived through that. There was a back lash against the Republicans in the end for impeaching a Democratic president. She knows how unpredictable these things are. She also knows, in her calculation, 2016 was all about Trump and the Democrats lost. 2018 was about issues, health care, the economy and the under current was how the president conducts his business, the temperament, the tweets and all that and the Democrats won big. She thinks that's a much better terrain for Democrats to be on.

And, to Dana's point, the speaker worries, like the Trump people say, the president's only path to victory they believe is a repeat of 2016. Gin up your base, depress Democratic turnout in key places and they -- they think, on this day, Speaker Pelosi thinks that's the risk of impeachment. Will that change? Will she have a choice? That's a different question.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: And we shouldn't act like Democrats are just sitting on their hands and they're waiting to flip the impeachment switch and in the meantime they're not doing anything to investigate the president, his actions, this White House. They're already doing that. I mean they've already subpoenaed a number of people that they want to come and testify before their committee.

Don McGahn said no. Now they're going after Hope Hicks. Now they're going after Ann Donaldson. They're already also trying to get the president's financial records. A number of committees have gone before the judge and made the case for why they should be able to have access to those records.

So, you know, it's certainly one thing to say we're launching a formal impeachment inquiry and we're going to move forward on that. I think that does open them up to political backlash.

But to Evan's point about Nancy Pelosi wanting to bring the public along, they're taking these steps and trying to say, let's get a little bit more evidence. Let's try to get some more witnesses out there to speak publically about the conduct they say, about what they witnessed, how they saw the president conduct his business. And then maybe you'll start to see the ground shift a little bit further. I think Mueller maybe was the first step in that today. Whether anyone will follow suit --

BLITZER: I think she also would like to see more Republicans in addition to, you know, one, Justin Amash, is the only Republican in the House of Representatives who says go ahead and begin the impeachment process.

SHAN WU, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Right. And to move that ball forward, I mean I think one thing Mueller said today invites them to keep trying to get those underlying documents, what he referred to as their work product. He says, hey, we're not involved in that fight. Other people are negotiating that, meaning, go ahead, negotiate, try and get that. Some of those materials could be very helpful towards moving that ball forward.

BLITZER: You know, Michael Zeldin, if the Democrats in the Judiciary Committee, or other committees for that matter, but let's say the Judiciary Committee what Robert Mueller to come and appear, maybe make an opening statement in public but then go behind closed doors and answer questions, can they force him to do so? How would they do that? MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: They can issue a subpoena to him. He is going to soon no longer be a DOJ employee. He is subject to mandatory process by these committees and he can be required to testify.

What he has said is, if you do that, essentially I'm going to read you my report. And that's not so bad because most people, including Lindsey Graham, by his own admission, haven't finished reading this report. So it's important, as in the Watergate investigation, for these witnesses to come forward publically so we can hear and make evaluations about what they have to say.

Mueller casts himself sort of like Leon Jaworski in the Watergate days, which is, Jaworski didn't testify. He gave his little road map and he left it to Congress. Ken Starr, on the other hand, testified full throttle for 14 hours. Sam Dash, his ethics adviser, quit over that testimony. Mueller doesn't want to go that way. So he once says, here's my report. It speaks for itself. If you want me there, I'll say it again, but let's get the other witnesses there so America can hear and make informed decisions, because right now they're not making that.

MURRAY: It was important in the Watergate era to public opinion, to members of Congress --

ZELDIN: Yes.

MURRAY: To see -- to see John Dean, to see people go before Congress and offer their own accounts and speak in public, to speak before a camera. That had a huge impact on public opinion and, you know, maybe things have changed since then, but --

[12:20:06] KING: But you had senior members of the incumbent president's party saying it was important. That's what you do not have now. And that is the significance of today. There's more pressure from the 2020 candidates, as this was discussed. There's more pressure -- Chairman Nadler saying we have to air this out. And to Sara's point and Dana's point, Speaker Pelosi wants to do it slowly and methodically, get the subpoenas, get the documents, get the witnesses, it takes weeks, takes months, take it into 2020 from an investigative standpoint.

But if no Republican but Justin Amash breaks from the president --

BLITZER: Yes.

KING: He can try to contain this. And so all the statements you've seen so far are that you haven't seen a statement from a leading Republican saying, wow, what Bob Mueller said today was terrible, we need to do more. You see mostly, with the exception of Justin Amash, stick your head in the ground, try and move on.

BLITZER: And Watergate, when you had Barry Goldwater and Howard Baker --

KING: Right. BLITZER: And William Cohn, all Republicans, basically saying to the president, it's over. In the end he was forced to resign.

BASH: Right, which was in the end. And that's the important point that everybody is making here is -- is, you know, baby steps, especially in a Twitter universe where, you know, things are supposed to happen very fast, it didn't happen fast during Watergate. And that is why --

PEREZ: (INAUDIBLE).

BASH: It took a lot of time.

PEREZ: (INAUDIBLE).

BASH: And Maybe Robert Mueller doesn't want to be that guy to be the one to testify to help the Democrats bring the public along. But given the situation that there is nobody inside the president's orbit, maybe Don McGahn, but obviously he's being kept from testifying, he's the only show in town. And he's got the credibility and the two years of investigation.

BLITZER: You know, Gloria, the pressure clearly will mount on Mueller to make an appearance. The Democrats want him to show up.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Right. Well, they do. And it was -- as we pointed out earlier, this -- there is no mention of it in Chairman Nadler's statement.

But I just heard from a senior Democratic strategist, who appeared pretty outraged that Mueller is just saying, well, I hope this is going to be my last appearance. And let me just quote to you from what this strategist wrote to me. He said that he should be subpoenaed the day he leaves the Department of Justice. He has no basis on which to resist a subpoena to testify.

There are dozens of legitimate questions that arise from the report. And then he goes on to list them. And these are the questions we all know, which is, why didn't you interview the president? Why did you decide not to do that? What do you think of these campaign law violations? What do you think of the legal ruling that kept you from indicting the president? And on and on and on. And he believes, this strategist believes, that it's the Democrats' responsibility, in fact, to not let Mueller go and just say, oh, OK, you've spoken your piece and you said you're not going to go beyond the report. And I -- this strategist clearly indicates that there's going to be a big discussion among Democrats about next steps and how they respond to Mueller, which is probably why Nadler didn't mention it in his first statement.

BLITZER: A very important point indeed.

Everybody stand by. There's a lot more we're following. Our special live coverage will continue right after a quick break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:27:43] BLITZER: Welcome back to our special live coverage. A very important day here in Washington, D.C.

Let's get some reaction from some of the Democratic presidential candidates.

CNN's Kyung Lah just spoke with Senator Kamala Harris, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

What did she say, Kyung.

KYUNG LAH, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, she's in the middle of her town hall right now in Anderson, South Carolina. We're in the northern part of the state.

But just before this began, she pulled a couple of reporters aside. It was a news conference. Just very, very brief because she wanted to talk about Bob Mueller. And what she essentially said is that Bob Mueller may have been having a press conference, but the way she read it, as a member of the Judiciary Committee, is that he was sending a message to Congress, that Congress has a constitutional duty to move forward with impeachment proceedings.

I want to play, Wolf, just a little bit of the Q&A she had with us just a few minutes ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LAH: Was a message that Mr. Mueller was sending to you, a sitting member of Congress, and do you have a reaction to the president's tweets saying that this case is closed and nothing has changed?

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, I -- I don't -- I try not to respond to those tweets.

But I will say that I think what is clear is that -- I think it's a fair inference from what we heard in that press conference that Bob Mueller was essentially referring impeachment to the United States Congress.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LAH: And she followed that up with a tweet shortly after talking to us, saying that it was a constitutional duty. She also, in that brief gaggle with reporters, did say that she felt that the U.S. Attorney Barr did mislead the public. And as she speaks now, Wolf, I do want to separate what's happening with these impeachment -- these calls for impeachment proceedings to what we're hearing on the campaign trail. You're not really hearing her talk about Mueller with this crowd. She's talking about more of the kitchen table issues, more about the economy, more about what she wants to do if she were to be elected president. But certainly hanging over all of this is everything that's happening in Washington, Wolf.

BLITZER: Dramatic developments unfolding as we speak.

Kyung, thanks very much.

I want to bring in CNN's Jeff Zeleny. He's also getting reaction from some of the other Democratic presidential candidates.

Jeff, what are you hearing?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we are indeed. And as Kyung was just saying there, Senator Harris, of course, sits on that Judiciary Committee. Some other senators and others who are running for president don't have as much jurisdiction, but everyone is indeed weighing in.

[12:30:09]