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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Biden Unveils Criminal Justice Reform Plan; Mueller Set to Testify. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired July 23, 2019 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:18]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: If you didn't read the book, you're about to get the movie, or the TV show, really.

THE LEAD starts right now.

We are just hours away from a showdown that Democrats hope will change the course of the Trump presidency. Former special counsel Robert Mueller is set to testify on the Hill tomorrow morning. This hour, some new reporting on Trump's mind-set and the Democrats' plan to persuade the public that the president committed crimes.

Remember the Tea Party? Well, apparently, neither does he. The Trump White House striking a deal for a budget that blows the doors off spending limits, as some conservatives in Congress look the other way.

Plus, he has a blooper reel worthy of that "Benny Hill" theme song, and been called Britain's Donald Trump. What now for the so-called special relationship, when Boris Johnson becomes the U.K. prime minister?

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with the politics lead. Special counsel Robert Mueller finally answering questions before Congress tomorrow. House Democrats, 88 of whom officially supported an impeach inquiry, hope that tomorrow's all-day testimony will persuade millions more Americans that President Trump committed crimes and is unfit for office.

They know most Americans did not read the 448-page Mueller report and they hope to bring it to life with damning sound bites from the former FBI director.

Now, House Republicans, they hope this will be the final act for the special counsel's Russia investigation. They hope to convince you of one conclusion, case closed.

The upcoming appearance is clearly on President Trump's mind. He brought it up today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: How about this whole witch-hunt that is going on. Should I talk about it for a second?

(CHEERING)

TRUMP: The Russian witch-hunt. They got nothing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Sources tell CNN that President Trump has expressed irritation over Mueller's testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, which will focus on the obstruction of justice charges against the president, and the House Intelligence Committee, which will concentrate on attempted 2016 Russian election interference.

The president has been spending the last several days discussing Mueller's upcoming testimony with aides and allies and complaining that Democrats will not let the investigation go, CNN has learned.

Meantime, Democrats and Republicans on the Hill have been intensely preparing for the big day.

But, as CNN's Manu Raju now reports for us, both the Department of Justice and Mueller himself are hoping to keep members of Congress focused only on what is in the Mueller report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Late drama on the eve of the most anticipated congressional hearing in decades, after former special counsel Robert Mueller made a last- minute request to allow his former deputy to be sworn in to answer questions.

The GOP raising alarms, with the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Doug Collins, saying doing so would undercut the committee's integrity. While Democrats agreed to allow the deputy, Aaron Zebley, to sit next to Mueller, the committee source told CNN the special counsel is expected to be the only one sworn in as a witness.

The feud underscores the stakes ahead of Wednesday's testimony about Mueller's probe into Russian interference and the president's conduct. Many Democrats argue the hearing will change public perception about President Trump's alleged criminal conduct.

(on camera): Do you think that it could change the dial on impeachment?

REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO (D-TX): I think it certainly could.

RAJU (voice-over): After Mueller requested guide sans ahead of the testimony, the Judiciary Committee responded by warning Mueller not to go beyond the boundaries of the report or talk about individuals who are not charged, which could include the president's son, Donald Trump Jr.

REP. JERROLD NADLER (D-NY): I think it is incredibly arrogant of the department to try to instruct him as to what to say as part of the ongoing cover-up by the administration to keep information away from the American people.

RAJU: Privately, both sides holding mock hearings to prepare. Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee focusing on five episodes of potential obstruction of justice, including Trump's alleged efforts to fire the special counsel, limit the investigation and urge witnesses not to cooperate with federal prosecutors.

Then the focus will shift to the House Intelligence Committee, where Democrats plan to ask Mueller about Trump's advanced knowledge in 2016 of the WikiLeaks e-mail dump and campaign contacts with the Russians.

Republicans want to train their focus on the origins of the probe and alleged bias on Mueller's team, while drilling home the point that no one on the Trump campaign was charged with conspiring with the Russians in 2016, as top Republicans in the Senate are dismissing the hearing.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): And I don't think anything Mueller can say that is going to change anybody's mind.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): I don't intend to be watching it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

[16:05:00]

RAJU: Now, as he walked into a mock hearing just moments ago, the Judiciary Committee chairman of the House, Jerry Nadler, just told me that the hearing will go on tomorrow.

Now, he would not comment about this issue involving the deputies. He would not comment about that. But the hearing will go on tomorrow. And, Jake, this will almost certainly be the only time we will see the special counsel.

The Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, Richard Burr, I asked him, will he bring in the special counsel? He said, "If I wanted Mueller, I would have had him by now." I said, well, why not bring him in?

He said, "He did the report" -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Manu Raju on Capitol Hill, thanks so much.

Our team of Russia investigation experts joins me now.

And, Evan, let me start with you.

Mueller made this last-minute request to have his deputy, a guy named Aaron Zebley, sworn in for the hearing, though not as a witness. Right? So what do you make of this all?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: I think it is not unusual for a witness to have -- in this case, Zebley was his former chief of staff when Mueller was running the FBI. And so you normally -- it is not abnormal to have someone sitting

behind you when you don't have the answer to something to sort of get help with the answer.

I think it potentially helps Mueller answer the questions more fully. It probably makes the hearing better. But I think I could see why Republicans are sort of raising some ruckus about it, because they think it's changing the entire context of what is going to happen tomorrow.

I actually think it is going to make a better hearing, because we're more likely to hear full answers.

TAPPER: And you know Robert Mueller.

Democrats, House Democrats in the Judiciary Committee, certainly hope that this is going to help change the tide in support for impeachment of President Trump, because of the obstruction charges, potential obstruction charges.

House Intelligence Committee, they want to educate the public. They want people to understand all the times the Russians reached out and all the times that they were greeted with willingness and then lies by the Trump team. How do you think Mueller is going to comport himself?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I think you can look at two categories here.

One is the factual category. That's why somebody I know, Aaron Zebley, would be there. Zebley is not only someone who will know a lot of facts, 2.5 years of an investigation, including stuff like phone, e-mail, financial data, not bad to have somebody else there trying to recall all that information.

And from when I was in the bureau, Zebley is cool and he's a made man. In other words, he's trusted.

In terms of understanding what's happening in the investigation, facts, you will get those. If the investigation starts to go political with questions like, don't you have a bunch of angry Democrats working for you, that's what I want to watch, because the director I worked for doesn't do integrity questions.

If they try to come after him, particularly Republicans, on the issue of the integrity of the investigation, watch the show. I'm going to get the popcorn. The director -- I keep calling the director -- the special counsel -- he's always the director. The special counsel will go after him.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: And Neal Katyal, the acting solicitor general under Obama, a suggested the three main questions that he thinks should be posed to Mueller -- quote -- "First, did your report find there was no collusion? Second, did your report fine there was no obstruction? Third, did your report give the president complete and total exoneration?"

Those are the things that President Trump has claimed, obviously, though they don't exactly match up with the facts. How do you think he's going to answer?

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, I don't think that Bob Mueller is going to go far beyond what we have seen in the report.

And I think that the report itself answers a lot of those questions for us. I mean, it wasn't that they found no obstruction. It's that he said he couldn't clear the president fully of any wrongdoing. And he didn't feel like he was able to bring charges against him anyway.

It's not that they found no collusion whatsoever. It's that they didn't find enough that it would rise to the level of a criminal prosecution.

And so I think a lot of sort of those questions, debunking the way the president frames that, it's already out there, it's already in the report. It may be different to hear it from Bob Mueller's mouth, but I think, between what he has said publicly so briefly, and then what we saw from the Justice Department in terms of their letter, made it very clear that in terms of the substance, we should expect him to reiterate what is out there.

TAPPER: And the president, the White House, they have been all over the map about the Mueller report. They have claimed it exonerated the president. They claim that it's a hit piece, a witch-hunt.

How are they going to -- what's their response going to be tomorrow? I guess we have no idea.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Sources I have spoken with in the White House are basically looking at this as, look, it's not going to be a great day for us. We're going to pay attention. We're going to see what headlines come out of it.

There will probably be some unseemly headlines for the president. But the view is that they're going to quickly move on. Certainly, there is a sense of irritation, as our reporting indicates, among the president. I mean, he has indicated that publicly, calling it a witch-hunt still.

And behind the scenes as well, I talked to a source recently who did indicate that, yes, they're going to be paying close attention to it, briefing the president on what's going on, because, as he said has publicly, he doesn't -- he isn't expected to watch all of it from beginning to end.

And I think they're just prepared for another day of bad headlines, but that they're -- they believe that they're going to be able to move on from this.

TAPPER: How will Robert Mueller, in your view, your best guess, since you know him, if somebody says, does your report claim that there was no obstruction, no collusion, a complete and utter exoneration of the president, as President Trump said, is that true, special counsel Mueller?

[16:10:07]

MUDD: Let me play Robert Mueller.

Let me answer that question. On page 18 of the report, you will see a reference to obstruction. On page 72, you will see a reference to Russian interference. I draw your attention to those pages.

The facts that we presented there and the judgments we presented there are the same judgments I'd like to present to you today. Next question.

(CROSSTALK)

PEREZ: Look, I do think, though, that even if Mueller says a lot of the stuff that's in the report, just having him say it is important.

Look, I -- when he made his nine-minute statement the other day, now several weeks ago, right, I thought it was clarifying, because a lot of us read the report. And we were struggling with whether or not to interpret this as a referral to Congress, right, on the impeachment issue, right, on the obstruction question?

And I think the president's lawyers, everyone else -- I certainly did after watching Mueller speak -- him using just slightly different language, I think, was clarifying to us.

And that's what we all interpreted it to be that it is sort of a referral.

And I think it's in Congress' hands now to handle whether or not they want to do that. And I think that's what you're going to see tomorrow, is you're going to see some clarifying language.

TAPPER: All right, what questions do lawmakers need to ask Robert Mueller tomorrow? We're going to talk to a former federal prosecutor who worked closely with him.

Then, Joe Biden just spoke, as he tries to stop a political fight before it erupts on the stage in next week's debate.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:15:26] TAPPER: We are just hours away until one of the most anticipated testimonies ever on Capitol Hill. Special counsel Robert Mueller will be questioned by the House Judiciary Committee and House Intelligence Committee. The Justice Department guidance that Mueller requested reiterated that he is bound by the confines of what is in his 448-page report.

So, what might be the keys to questioning Mueller? Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of

New York, has worked closely with Mueller in the past and has some insights for us.

Preet, thanks so much for joining us.

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Sure.

TAPPER: What are the top questions you want answered and how would you advise lawmakers to ask them so that Mueller will actually answer them?

BHARARA: Well, there are a couple of unknowns. One is not fully unknown but partially unknown is how forthcoming is Bob Mueller going to be.

I also worked in the Senate Judiciary Committee and saw Bob Mueller testify live on a number of occasions and he's very forthright. He's not invasive. He doesn't filibuster unlike some of other witnesses you might see that come before Congress, but he's indicated clearly, as clear as you can, that he has no interest in being there. He doesn't want to become, you know, either a pawn or a pinata, and he doesn't want to really answer questions that drive a wedge between him and the department or to go beyond the report.

So my advice in that circumstance, even more so than usual, is that lawmakers should ask crisp, clear questions that don't characterize things in a way that causes Bob Mueller not to want to answer them. So, for example, if lawmakers ask things like, did Attorney General Bill Barr lie when he did his summary of the report? Did he mislead?

You know, characterizations like that, we might agree with them and maybe they are true, but Bob Mueller is going to stay very far away from that. Simple open-ended questions also are going to be a problem.

I agree with what Neal Katyal, former acting solicitor general, said about some version of clear questions to go at this distortion that's been promoted by his president and allies that the report exonerates him, that the report said no collusion, the report said no obstruction, you should get at those things and you have Bob Mueller talking about it in a clear and concise way that people will be able to see. So, those are among the things that I would recommend.

TAPPER: So, but you point out he's almost a reluctant witness. The Justice Department letter saying he's limited by four corners of the report. Mueller requested that guidance from DOJ. He specifically requested that he be subpoenaed to testify tomorrow.

Do you think that that is to give him cover? I mean, why do that?

BHARARA: I think partially, I think not only is he almost a reluctant witness, I would delete the word almost. He is a reluctant witness. He did the press conference a few weeks ago with the clear intention to have that substitute before any future appearance before Congress. He doesn't want to testify. He does not want to be involved in the circus. He's been in Congress before, you know, 80-some-odd times. Nothing before he's experienced is anything like what he's going to get now in terms of pure partisanship, in terms of people wanting to make the case they want to make.

It's unclear that he's going to say anything at all. I think you're largely going to hear answers to questions with him making a reference to the report. Look at the report. I refer you to the report. Look at the report.

One thing I would like to see him answer and this idea of what is beyond the scope of the report and what is not, it seems in some context silly to me, obviously, Republicans are going to ask him strong and tough questions about the integrity of the investigation, the scandal with Peter Strzok, he should answer those and he should explain why he acted how he acted. None of that is within the four corners of the report. But even the people saying you should stick to the report want answers to those questions.

So, I think what will be very important is not just the things he said affirmatively in the report and how he came about those conclusions, but also defending the integrity of the men and women in the special counsel team who have pretty much so far been undefended by their boss.

TAPPER: One of the most significant decisions Mueller made was to not subpoena President Trump. He said in the report that the president's written answers were, quote, inadequate and, of course, we know that the questions and answers in the written submitted questions didn't deal at all with anything after inauguration. In other words, didn't deal with anything having to do with potential obstruction of justice.

Do you expect Mueller will describe why he decided not to subpoena the president?

BHARARA: I mean, he addressed that in the report. Not in great length but at some length. He talked about how it would be time- consuming and take a court battle, probably multiple court battles and if the president chose as we expected him to try to resist coming to testify.

I don't fault Mueller on this as much as some other people. He clearly, to my mind, made a decision that he wanted to be done by a certain time.

[16:20:03] A lot of pressure for him to be done and you don't want to plead into the election year of 2020.

They had to make the determination if they sought to compel the president to testify, that that court battle could have raged on so long that everything else would be held up once you go down that road. Everything else is held up until the resolution of that question. That could have potentially put us into the summer or fall of 2020, meanwhile no report, no conclusion on Russian interference or anything else, and I think they made a decision that even at the end of the period of time, the president could still take the Fifth I suppose that all things considered they chose the lesser evil of the two options in their minds and they decided to cut their losses and issue the report now and not seek that testimony.

TAPPER: All right. Preet Bharara, thank you so much. I appreciate your time, sir.

BHARARA: Sure.

TAPPER: I'm old enough to remember when Republicans were busy railing against government spending. My, how the times have changed.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[16:25:35] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Now we owe $15 trillion, going to $22 trillion. And they didn't cut enough. So this doesn't solve the problem. And that's the big thing. It doesn't solve the problem.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: The money lead. That was then private citizen Trump in 2011 sounding the alarm, harping on a budget deal made under President Obama, but now, President Trump is on the track to do the same thing, ignoring all that past talk about fiscal responsibility and the need to cut spending and focus on reducing the deficit. Now, he's applauding a new deal by congressional leadership to let debt levels keep soaring well beyond the $22 trillion.

And as CNN's Abby Phillip now reports for us, President Trump is not the only one who seems to be shrugging off the old days of the Tea Party.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): I'm confident we will.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Congressional leaders projecting confidence that a two-year budget deal will have enough votes to pass, but some lawmakers are holding their breath that Trump will stay behind it.

SEN. JOHN THUNE (R-SD): We hold our breath until something is signed into law.

PHILLIP: Trump tweeting Monday night that the bipartisan plan had no poison pills and was a real compromise in order to give another big victory to our great military and vets.

But there was no mention of it in his rambling speech today at a conservative team conference. The president's social media endorsement aimed at easing concerns on Capitol Hill that he might back away from the deal at the last minute.

LARRY KUDLOW, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL ECONOMIC COUNCIL: I think it is a deal that will get through. It isn't everything we hoped for but it got through the debt ceiling.

PHILLIP: The deal pushes off another fight over the budget and debt until after the 2020 election and authorizes $1.37 trillion in spending each year for the next two years.

Republicans touting the $45 billion increase in military spending.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): From the military point of view, it is much needed. It is the best I think we could do.

PHILLIP: And Democrats satisfied with the $56 billion in nondefense spending increases, but nothing in the deal addresses the federal deficit which is nearing $1 trillion.

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R-LA): Cutting spending around here is like going to heaven. Everybody wants to go to heaven. But nobody is quite ready to take the trip.

PHILLIP: Some conservatives not happy with the increased spending and ballooning deficit are already rejecting the compromise.

REPORTER: Do you like it? Are you going to vote for it?

SEN. TIM SCOTT (R-SC): Not likely.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PHILLIP: So the president's aides are trying to tamp down a conservative rebellion over this bill by emphasizing that even though there is no money set aside specifically for the wall, there are also no restrictions on money in this bill being repurposed for the purpose of rebuilding the wall and building new wall at the border -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Abby Phillip at the White House, thanks so much.

There are some Republicans sounding the alarm about this budget deal but others sound like this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GRAHAM: From the military point of view, it is much needed. It is the best I think we could do. Democrats exist. They run the House.

THUNE: It wouldn't be the one I would have written but you have to when a place like this, we have a divided government trying to get the best possible deal you can.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: So, CNN's Chris Cillizza wrote today, quote: The Tea Party was born February 19th, 2009 and it died July 22nd, 2019.

Mary Katharine, do you agree?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think that is a delayed obituary. Look, I think it is clear that we've established there is no real match for me here on the parties in fiscal conservatives as a fiscal conservative gal, you have to settle for like you used to have a party that was a boyfriend who sort of pretended to like the thing you were into every now and then and then another one is, no, I'm honestly, we're not into any of your ideas.

So, now, we've dispensed with the pretending on the Republican side essentially. And the irony is that one of the reasons that you got Donald Trump this unorthodox character in American politics is because people were so fed up with neither Democrats nor Republicans doing what they said, but they ended up voting in a guy who definitely was not going to do any of the reining in of spending, none of the entitlement reform, because he straight up said, it was an abdication of the responsibility and will remain so.

TAPPER: It's amazing though. If you have said to me three years ago, hey, Larry Kudlow is going to be the chief economic adviser, Mick Mulvaney, one of the leaders of the Tea Party, is going to be the president's chief of staff and they're going to cut these budget deals that are the basically could be cut under a Democratic president with the Democratic House and Senate.

AYESHA RASCOE, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, NPR: Well, Trump has never said that this was something that -- he said that he cared about this in past, but it was never really.

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