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AT THIS HOUR

Justice Department to Mueller: "Stay Within Boundaries of Report"; Speaker Pelosi's Unusual Letter to Colleagues on Mueller Testimony; Graham: Republicans Want "Deep Dive" Into Start of Russia Probe; Biden Unveils Criminal Justice Reform Plan Ahead of Debate; Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) Discusses Tomorrow's Mueller Testimony, Democrats' Mock Hearings, Goal to Convince Americans to Support Impeachment. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired July 23, 2019 - 11:00   ET

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


[11:00:00] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: "AT THIS HOUR" starts right now.

DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everybody. I'm Dana Bash, in for Kate Bolduan.

This time tomorrow the world will be watching a watershed moment for the Trump presidency, for the Democrats who want to impeach him, and for Republicans who want to put the Russia investigation behind them once and for all.

Robert Mueller testifies before two House committees tomorrow about his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and presidential obstruction of his probe.

Mueller, already a reluctant witness, got a letter from the Justice Department warning him to, quote, "remain within the boundaries of his report," and to not talk publicly about anyone he investigated but did not charge.

The chair of the House Judiciary Committee told CNN that letter was inappropriate.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JERRY NADLER (D-NY): I think it's incredibly arrogant of the department to try to instruct him as to what to say. It's part of the ongoing cover-up by the administration to keep information away from the American people. But I think that it's not going to have a real impact.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: CNN's Manu Raju has the latest as always from Capitol Hill. But I want to start with justice correspondent, Jessica Schneider.

Jess, what is the DOJ saying this morning, particularly about the need that they felt to send this letter to Mueller?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: They're letting the letter stand as it is, Dana. They laid it out in this stern page-and- a-half letter to Robert Mueller really explaining what he can and cannot testify about tomorrow. And it does come after Robert Mueller himself asked the DOJ for guidance on his upcoming testimony.

So in this letter, the Justice Department warning Mueller that any of his testimony must be stay, as they put it, within the boundaries of his report. And those are really parameters that Mueller is planning to stay within anyway, as he said.

But they're also reminding him that he cannot testify about any redacted material from the report, nor can he talk about the conduct of any uncharged third parties.

And that is a crucial directive, because that could really thwart Democrats' plan to repeatedly question Mueller on the issue of, if Donald Trump wasn't president, would he have been charged with obstruction of justice. And under the guidelines, really, Mueller will have to stay away from those comments or any comments about the president.

And, of course, as you saw, these restrictions aren't sitting well with Democrats.

But, Dana, there's at least one thing that will stay under wraps and won't be shared beforehand with the attorney general, and that's Mueller's opening statement. A spokesman for Mueller is telling me that the DOJ will not see the former special counsel's opening remarks prior to its delivery.

And really, it's something that Mueller has been working diligently on. I'm told that he's been prepping with members of his team. It's a small group from the special counsel's office that he worked closely with for two years. They've been meeting in an office at Mueller's former law firm right near here in Washington, D.C.

And when I asked Mueller's spokesperson about his demeanor, his tone, what he's thinking about going into tomorrow's testimony, since obviously he's a reluctant witness, really the spokesperson said he's not going to comment on any of the content here.

But we can expect, as always, that Robert Mueller will show up diligently prepared -- Dana?

BASH: Jess, that's such great detail. We can picture him huddled with a few people going over every syllable of the testimony that he plans to give.

SCHNEIDER: Right.

BASH: Manu, let's turn to you.

You have been digging in and talking to your sources running around the capitol all morning. What are you hearing about the strategy, particularly this unusual letter that came from the House speaker to her colleagues about the hearing?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPNDENT: She laid out the Democratic message and how they want to frame exactly what this hearing is about and what they want to do in the weeks ahead, particularly as the House goes into an August recess period where the fallout will be of -- of the Mueller hearing will be fresh in voters' minds.

They want to talk about what they view as the most egregious parts of the Mueller report, especially about what they want to do in the weeks ahead, including legislation dealing with trying to combat foreign influence in the election, trying to combat how campaigns may accept, discuss possible offers of foreign gifts and the like.

But nowhere in this document, Dana, is the word "impeachment" where they talk about opening up an impeachment proceeding. But undoubtedly, pressure is going to grow from the left to open up a formal impeachment inquiry after Bob Mueller testifies tomorrow. Of course, Pelosi has been opposed to that.

At the same time, Republicans are planning their own plan tomorrow. They're trying to plan to poke holes in the special counsel's team and raise concerns about his credibility. And at the moment, the Republicans want to move on after Mueller is done testifying, focusing on the origins of the investigation.

[11:05:02] The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning made it very clear he wants to do a, quote, "deep dive" into what happened in the start of this Russia probe.

And I asked him about bringing in Bob Mueller, if it would reshape the dynamic in his view in any way, and he said no. He made it clear that Mueller will not be coming before his committee.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): It won't reshape my dynamic. I've heard all I need to hear from Mueller. I've read his report. I accept the findings. I don't think it's going to change public opinion.

Having been involved in the Clinton impeachment, if the public is not with you, you'll pay a price. And I don't think there's anything Mueller can say that's going to change anybody's mind.

RAJU: Why don't you want to bring him before your committee to ask him questions?

GRAHAM: I've heard everything I need to hear.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: But on the House side, the preparations are intensifying, Dana. This afternoon, the House Judiciary Committee will have a mock hearing to talk and go over their strategy for the hearing tomorrow. There's already three other -- the House Democrats on the Intelligence Committee. House Republicans on the Judiciary Committee have had their own mock hearings.

So that's something, as you know, Dana, very unusual. But just underscores the stakes ahead of tomorrow's hearing -- Dana?

BASH: And I heard Jerry Nadler tell Alisyn Camerota this morning that he wasn't sure anybody would be playing Bob Mueller. I think you should probably show how great your Bob Mueller imitation is and get right into those mock hearings.

(LAUGHTER)

Manu, thank you.

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: Thank you.

RAJU: Thanks, Dana.

BASH: Jessica, thank you, also.

Joining me here in the studio, former FBI general counsel and now CNN legal analyst, Jim Baker, and CNN political analyst and "New York Times" congressional correspondent, Julie Hirschfeld Davis.

Nice to see both of you.

So I'm guessing when you were in at the FBI, as general counsel, this kind of letter that was sent -- I know it was sent from justice, not from the FBI -- but this type of letter that was sent, sort of a cease and desist letter to Robert Mueller

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: That warning shot.

JIM BAKER, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes.

BASH: Take us behind the scenes on the crafting on that kind of letter and how, frankly, political it is?

BAKER: So I was a bit disappointed to see the letter when I read it yesterday, was it, I guess. It was sent by the senior career official who is the one responsible for making ethics determinations. And so I was a bit disappointed.

Clearly, they want to make a record about what Mueller can and should testify about and what he can't talk about, at least in their minds.

But the problem is that Bob Mueller is now a former Justice Department official and the letter is really not binding on him. And he can ignore it. I mean, they can threaten to go to his bar association, a D.C. bar or something like that and try to impact his license.

But I think they are trying to shape the narrative and set up an argument for -- if he goes beyond the report, set up an argument perhaps for Republicans to say, well, Director Mueller, you're not following the law, this is improper, it's inappropriate. Even though, in reality, they can't do anything to enforce it. JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think part of the

issue here is Bob Mueller is already coming in a pretty reluctant witness. He already said he doesn't want to go beyond the four corners of his report.

Democrats are very well aware that he's kind of wanting to pull back on what he's going to say and if it goes anywhere beyond what he's already written about.

So this letter for somebody like Mueller, who is a very much a by-the- books kind of a guy, even if it doesn't have the force of law, even it's very political, it's very likely that he's going to sort of do this anyway and sort of adhere to these kinds of -- you might even say artificial standards. Some people I think see it that way. Because he does not want to be the story here. He does not want to go beyond certain aspects of the report.

And that is going to make this hearing very challenging for Democrats because they want to break new ground or they want to dramatize what it is that Mueller has found, and those kinds of terms are going to make it difficult.

BASH: Yes, I totally agree with both of you, especially your point that the Justice Department was trying to give Republicans a crutch to lean on when they think that he's going beyond that.

But Neal Katyal, who is a prominent D.C. attorney, an avowed anti- Trumper, wrote an op-ed today. And look at what he said. He said that everybody is missing the point in talking about him not going beyond the four corners. He said these are the three questions that should be asked. "First, did your report find there was no collusion? Second, did your report find there was no obstruction? Third, did your report give the president complete and total exoneration?"

BAKER: So the problem with those is you're going to get very limited narrow answers from Special Counsel Mueller, former Director Mueller.

To me, I mean, the point of this hearing is to educate the American people, most of whom have not read this report, what's in it, what's in it from one of the key authors, the person who supervised the writing of it. Have him read the report. Like put into life the words, the key words that were in the report.

BASH: As simple as that?

[11:10:03] BAKER: Just as simple of that. The goal of this is to educate the American people so that the Democrats can do whatever they think is appropriate politically, impeachment or dealing with the 2020 election or whatever it is that they access.

But, to me, the key thing is for the American people to understand what happened and why it's bad. And having Director Mueller there, just read the report. The report is so damming. It's so damming with respect to the president's conduct and those around him that I think you just have him read it. BASH: Maybe that's an answer to your analysis. I know you said,

Julie, that it might be hard for Democrats to extract a compelling narrative out of a guy who does not want to be compelling. Maybe the report itself is compelling enough for the Democrats.

HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: Maybe it is. And we saw what a splash it made when he went before the cameras and just said what the report said, which was, if we could have said that we were confident that the president had not obstructed justice, we would have said that. And there's a clear implication there.

The question is whether that is going to be enough. People already know that. He's already said that publicly. And Democrats are going to have to be able to weave that into some sort of larger point that will not only move this debate forward but also vindicate their strategy, which, so far, has not been to open an impeachment inquiry.

They're going to have to decide what the bar is for them now to take that next step, if they're going to take it, or to not take it, and have a defensible reason why, after you've heard what's in the report, after people learn what they so far haven't paid attention to, why it's not appropriate to go forward with an impeachment inquiry.

BASH: Julie Davis, Jim Baker, fascinating conversation. It will be riveting. And we will find it compelling no matter what it is that they do.

Thanks so much.

Don't forget to watch special live coverage of the Mueller hearings right here on CNN, starting tomorrow morning at 8:00 a.m.

And we'll have much more on the Mueller hearings in just a moment. I'll talk to one of the Democrats preparing to question the former special counsel. Stay with us.

Plus, Joe Biden rolls out a new plan for criminal justice reform. We'll tell you what's in it and what his rivals are already saying about it. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:17:04] BASH: New this morning, in the race to 2020, Joe Biden unveiling a wide-ranging plan to reform the nation's criminal justice system if he wins the presidency. The Democratic frontrunner comes out with this plan just days before he's due to face off with Democratic presidential rivals on the CNN debate stage.

Joining me now to talk about this, CNN political reporter, Arlette Saenz, and Wesley Lowery, a CNN contributor and reporter for the "Washington Post."

Arlette, you know all things Joe Biden. What is in the plan?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: This is a pretty comprehensive criminal justice plan from the former vice president. And Joe Biden has talked about a lot of these proposals while he's been out on the trail but now he's putting some meat on the bones with this policy.

So just to go through a few items in the plan, it provides a $20 billion competitive state grant program to try to encourage states to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes.

It also has an earned credit program. It wants the states to implement what would incentivize inmates for completing educational and rehab programs. The focus there is to move incarceration to prevention.

The plan also calls for ways to address systemic police misconduct by going back to an Obama-era practice of using pattern or practice investigations when it comes to police investigations.

You also have this commitment or setting a goal that 100 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals would have access to housing once they have left prison.

It also calls for decriminalized marijuana use. That's something Biden has talked about in the past.

What's also notable here it that it includes elements that are different from what the previous bills that he supported when he was a Senator, which he's also talked about on the campaign trail.

So it's calling for the end of mandatory minimums. It's also retroactively eliminating the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

And one other item that's interesting is that he now opposes the death penalty. And while he was a Senator, he was a long-time supporter of that.

It's a lot of things that Biden has been talking about. But it does come as he's about to get on that debate stage between Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.

BASH: In the context of this is that you mentioned previous bills. I mean, the big flashing red-light bill is his support for and his involvement in the 1994 crime bill, which put into place a lot of these things that he's trying to dismantle.

As you react to this, I want you to see and our viewers to see how Cory Booker is reacting, not by name, but it's obvious who he's talking about. "It's not enough to tell us what you're going to do for our communities. Show us what you've done for the last 40 years. You created this system. We'll dismantle it."

WESLEY LOWERY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Certainly. You have to note that this is -- even if you're looking at one political cycle ago or even two, these are significant reforms and proposals. Some of these things, like guaranteeing the housing for any outcoming inmate, are the types of things that people think are important in terms of reform and setting up a more-clear system.

Now, that said, many of these steps in Biden's plan would undo things that Joe Biden did. Joe Biden wants to get rid of Joe Biden's mandatory minimums. Joe Biden wants to get rid of Joe Biden's crack and powder cocaine distinction.

[11:20:13] He speaks -- he says -- on a background call last night, one of his advisers was saying that he wants to get back to the police investigations that were spearheaded by powers given by legislation that Joe Biden pushed. Well, that legislation was the crime bill.

BASH: Right.

LOWERY: And so Joe Biden does have a real difficult here.

I also note that I do think it's going to be interesting in terms of how this plays out. Joe Biden's record versus what he's talking about now. There's going to be fascinating points. Also, the fight around the criminalization versus the legalization of cannabis and marijuana.

Joe Biden is far more progressive than Democrats would have been just a cycle or two ago.

BASH: Yes.

LOWERY: But probably won't even be close to the most progressive person on the stage.

BASH: Yes. That's so true.

This is such important policy and substance. Let's talk about what's driving this substance and the shifts for Joe Biden over the years, and that's the politics and his desire to keep support of African- American voters in particular.

Let's look at some of the polls. He's doing really well. Nationally, the last ABC News/"Washington Post" poll, Joe Biden at 41. Bernie Sanders is the closest to him at 23.

And then if you look specifically at the first state where African- American voters are going to have a major impact, and that is South Carolina, a poll earlier in July has Joe Biden doing well there at -- very well there at 35, overall, 41 among African-Americans.

So he's got the support. He just wants to keep it because he knows that his opponents are attacking him on it.

SAENZ: That's right. So a plan like this will certainly help him try to make his argument.

Tomorrow, he's going to be speaking at the NAACP forum. On Thursday, he's going to be down at the Urban League speaking in Indianapolis.

But just a few weeks ago, he was in Sumter, South Carolina, one of the states that has a large African-American makeup of the Democratic primary. And it was there that he said, I take responsibility for what went right with the crime bill, I also took responsibility for what went wrong.

So going forward, Biden is still going to have to defend himself as he tries to hold on to the African-American support.

BASH: OK.

(CROSSTALK)

LOWERY: I was going to really quickly note this is both offensive and defensive. Right? It's an attempt -- when you are the frontrunner with African-American voters, there's nowhere to go but down.

BASH: Yes.

LOWERY: What we know about African-American voters, conventional wisdom, but it's true, they are pragmatists. So Joe Biden is leading the race with them currently. But if someone else wins Iowa, whether that be Elizabeth Warren or Pete Buttigieg or Kamala Harris, or someone else wins New Hampshire, suddenly, those numbers could be soft in South Carolina.

So that's one of the reasons he's so aggressively trying to make that hard support, because, again, right now, he's seen as the most viable candidate. But if that starts to change, he could lose some of that.

BASH: Wes, Arlette, thank you so much. Very well said both of you. Great reporting.

And don't miss two big nights of Democratic debates starting a week from today live from Detroit, only on CNN.

And coming up, less than 24 hours until Robert Mueller testifies on Capitol Hill. Democrats are participating and practicing their questions today, even doing a mock hearing. We're going to talk to one of those Democrats who will question Mueller, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:27:58] BASH: House Democrats are holding a mock hearing this afternoon to prepare for former Special Counsel Robert Mueller's appearance before Congress tomorrow.

Now, the House Judiciary chairman made clear on CNN this morning that one of his goals for the testimony is to help bring the American public along to support impeachment proceedings against President Trump.

Joining us now is a Democratic member of that Judiciary Committee, Karen Bass, of California, who is the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Thank you so much for joining me, Congresswoman.

REP. KAREN BASS (D-CA): Thank you.

BASH: First, I mentioned that, generally, what the goal of the chairman is. What is your goal for your questioning of Robert Mueller? BASS: My goal is for the American people to hear the truth. You

know, the report has been out, but given that it is so long and given the way that Barr completely misrepresented what is in the report, we're concerned that the American people really don't know what was in the Mueller report. And so part of the questioning and the testimony tomorrow, hopefully, will bring to light what is in the report.

BASH: So if he doesn't go beyond the four corners of the report and put a little bit more meat on the bone on issues like, why didn't he feel that he could exonerate the president on obstruction, you think that's OK even just saying the basics that are in the report are enough?

BASS: Well, I do. I mean, I certainly hope he provides a little more context to the report. But we're not expecting him to come in and go well beyond the report and say, you know, I wish I could go back and actually issue an indictment.

BASH: Of course not.

BASS: We're not expecting anything dramatic like that.

But you know what? It is dramatic enough. We are focusing on the second volume of the report, which goes over 10 very specific examples of how the president attempted to obstruct justice and then cover it. And we feel just illustrating that alone will be a -- will make a significant difference to the American people.

BASH: Is that the entirety of your focus, the second volume?

BASS: Yes.

BASH: Our are you also asking about collusion?

[11:30:01] BASS: No, no, no. Our focus is the second volume. And the Intel Committee, the Intelligence Committee will focus on Volume I.

BASH: Of course. Of course.