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New Book on President Trump; New Trump Poll Numbers; Clinton Won't Commit. Aired 8:30-9a ET

Aired January 21, 2020 - 08:30   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: That he wasn't taking may breaths. All morning, he had been coarse and cavalier, but the next several things he bellowed went beyond that description. They stunned nearly everyone in the room, and some vowed they would never repeat them. Indeed, they have not been reported until now. I wouldn't go to war with you people, you're a bunch of dopes and babies.

What does this moment represent to you in this book?

CAROL LEONNIG, AUTHOR, "A VERY STABLE GENIUS": Well, there are -- John, thank you for reading it. It chills me still when I think about that moment and what sources let us into in that room.

These are people who, in their DNA, don't talk to reporters. But they thought it was really important, in a history book, which is what we are writing, in real time, that it be correct, that the history be correct about what they experienced.

I think that what they say to us about this moment is that it shows Donald Trump's management style, which is basically berate, belittle, dismiss and also it shows his style where he thinks he's the best general, best communicator, best lawyer. He views himself as the guy who -- in the room who's the smartest and he did not like this tutorial.

BERMAN: He thinks he knows more than those people in the room, even though those people in the room had centuries of experience between them. You write about his views of Vladimir Putin. Rex Tillerson, who was secretary of state, had worked with Vladimir Putin for years, decades even, as head of Exxon.

LEONNIG: That's right.

BERMAN: Yet the president, you write, after a two-hour meeting, felt he knew more about Vladimir Putin than Rex Tillerson.

LEONNIG: He literally said to a man whose met with Putin several times, I've got it. I've met him. I know more about this than you now.

We heard from a lot of people who were briefed about the president's meetings after the fact that this was typical for the president to basically say, I don't want to read anything, I don't need you to tell me anything, I've got this.

BERMAN: So that's one element that I think that excerpt I read in the Putin story tells you about is his management style. The unease of the sources in your book is another element of that. And why they were telling you about it is still a third element. Address that. Why are they coming forward? Why now?

LEONNIG: You know, there are a lot of motivations for sources, which is something my co-author, Phil Rucker, and I have to think about very hard. You know, some people want to settle a score. Those are the -- like that's a worrisome group. Some people actually, and most of our sources in this situation, really wanted history to be accurate. They didn't talk to us at the time some of these events were unfolding as reporters for "The Washington Post." We wanted to know all these details and put them in the newspaper. But for history, when all is said and done, these people were willing to talk.

BERMAN: But why didn't they come forward at the time? If they were so alarmed by his behavior then, why not do something to stop it?

LEONNIG: It's a great question. Some people really felt strongly that you don't criticize a sitting president. Others are fearful of the president. Fearful of this Twitter megaphone. Fearful of the retaliation they've seen others suffer at his hands when they bring truth to him or they bring advice to him that he doesn't like.

BERMAN: There are moments in this book where your sources paint the president as nothing short of ignorant, right? I mean the -- there's the Pearl Harbor story. Let me read this. He is going through Hawaii visiting the USS Arizona, which was so badly damaged, sunk at Pearl Harbor, and this is what you write. As a passenger boat ferried the Trumps to the stark white memorial, the president pulled Kelly aside -- this is General Kelly, the chief of staff -- for a quick consult. Hey, John, what's this all about? What's this this a tour of, Trump asked his Chief of Staff Kelly. Kelly was momentarily stunned. Trump had heard the phrase Pearl Harbor and appeared to understand that he was visiting the scene of an historic battle, but he did not seem to know much else. If Trump had learned about a date which will live in infamy in school, it hadn't really pierced his consciousness or stuck with him. He was at times dangerously uninformed said one senior former adviser.

LEONNIG: It's really a theme, John, that comes through in the book time and time again. The president's not really familiar with America's story. And, you know, this comes up in another setting. This stunned, obviously, John Kelly, a general who figures everyone knows the day that will live in infamy, part of, you know, our history.

But this comes up again in the Constitution. There is a film crew filming the president reading the Constitution for an HBO documentary. And all along the walls they're watching him stumble over these words like it's, as he's called it, a foreign language. And one person said to us who was there, you know, Cheney could read it backwards and forwards. Vice President Pence obviously knew it. Ted Cruz had studied it as a high school debater. He could say all the words backwards and forwards. And the person said, you know, if he really wanted this job, I think he should have read the Constitution before he got here.

BERMAN: Carol, stick around. I have much more to ask you because in addition to all of this, this is really the first account of inside the Mueller investigation. There's some remarkable revelations about just who is leaking from inside the White House.


So stick around. I'll ask you about that next.


BERMAN: We're back with Carol Leonnig, the Pulitzer Prize winning national investigative reporter for "The Washington Post" and the co- author of a new book, "A Very Stable Genius."

Carol, in addition to being a profile of how the president works and his view from with -- inside the administration, to me this is the first real account from inside the Mueller probe. And people who thought inside and outside looking in that Mueller might have dropped the ball here. And there was a particular story from when the Justice Department team, Barr's team, met with Robert Mueller just prior to the report coming out and you write, Mueller's hands shook as he held the paper. His voice was shaky, too. This was not the Bob Mueller everyone knew. As Barr would later ask his colleagues, did he seem off to you? Later, close friends would say they notice Mueller had changed dramatically, but a member of Mueller's team would insist he had no medical problems.

LEONNIG: Phil and I, my co-author, we are not medical professionals, but over and over again, John, we heard from people who are very close to Bob Mueller who found him a different person, a changed person after two years of this investigation.


And they don't know what that's about. Some of them do and haven't shared that with us. But they know that something happened. He's a different person. He was stumbling over his words. You saw him in July in his testimony before Congress. There were people that I spoke to who were very, very good family friends of his who said, I couldn't watch the television anymore. I had to turn it off. It wasn't the Bob I knew.

BERMAN: And other critic who say, at the end, he just wasn't up to this modern era of political warfare and may have got gamed out by the presidency.

LEONNIG: Well, many of our sources felt very strongly that Bob Mueller was playing a 1950s Boy Scout game. He was being an honorable icon and standard bearer of the Department of Justice, whereas Bill Barr was playing in Trump's 2000s and he was messaging this very well and he was the first person to get out the message, Donald Trump's been exonerated.

BERMAN: All right, lightening round of some of my favorite facts that were learned in reading this book.

Number one, the president himself, and we knew this, is perhaps sometimes the biggest leaker. But in one case, he called Jonathan Swann from "Axios" to leak that he had a meeting offering Chris Christie the chief of staff job. He admitted to it. Hey, it was me.

LEONNIG: Yes, and Chris Christie's in some shock. Like, wait, you're leaking on yourself? What's going on here? And it, you know, it follows a pattern, though, John.

Remember, when he was the developer sitting on Fifth Avenue, he was constantly calling reporters, telling them, especially the New York trade mags saying, hey, I'm John Barron. Just want you to know, Donald Trump's dating this really good looking model. It's a part of him.

BERMAN: Next time you hear him complaining about leakers, just remember, a lot of the times, or at least in some, he is the leaker himself.

Pat Cipollone, the White House council, who we're all about to get a good look at today for the first time as the president's main defender in the impeachment trial, you write about him. Well respected inside the White House, outside the White House, organized. What will we see from him, do you think, today?

LEONNIG: I think you're going to see an incredibly disciplined, rigorous lawyer who's used to defending corporations and also plaintiffs. And is a very -- we'll see a little rigid, in a way, a very likable guy, but careful. He's not going to make any flourishes or dramatic statements. He's going to stick to his script. He's a -- he's a -- he's almost a little bit the opposite of Donald Trump. All discipline.

BERMAN: Now the big, tough questions, I think is, how do you think this story ends? Your epilogue is Ukraine. He's just making the Ukraine phone call in the epilogue of your book, but given what you wrote about the first three years of the administration, where does it go from here? I'm not just talking about winning and losing in the election, I mean just in general, where is it?

LEONNIG: You know, Phil and I found that the three years of reporting this book and reporting on this presidency really foreshadows this moment. The president is increasingly driving the grownups out of the room. The people who caution him and warn him that this is illegal or improper or against our general protocol of running a White House. And now more and more, who does he have around him? The people who view it as their mission to say yes. And in a way it emboldens and enables Donald Trump's own instincts, which are, I'm the best. I can make the decisions.

I think what you're probably hearing in Davos right now, if you could put a listening booth in there, is him barking instructions to people about how he's going to carry the day. And give him credit, the man connects like nobody's business with a certain group of voters who have felt forgotten and disdained by the political establishment. BERMAN: You wrote the guardrails are gone now. And that is one effect.

A lot of the people who have been complaining or telling these stories are no longer in office.

Do you sense regret from those guardrails? How do those so-called guardrails feel about what they did now?

LEONNIG: Without identifying any sources or trying to steer anybody to anything, I would say the guardrails that Phil and I met with have a great deal of heartburn. They feel, if I can boil it down, that there is danger and risk in the way the president behaves and the way he makes decisions. And while I don't think they ever regret having served in government, they never regret public service, my sense is that they are very worried about a crisis and how this president will handle a real crisis, which we have not faced yet.

BERMAN: What are the chances you think that any of these unnamed sources in your book and the types of people who have been grumbling in the press for the last three years might come forward and out of the woodwork over the next year?

LEONNIG: I'm not going to speculate, but I will tell you that many of our sources said they were uncomfortable openly criticizing a sitting president, that that was part of who they are. When he's not a sitting president, I would think you'll find more of this.

BERMAN: I just want to read the president's response to your book. He writes, quote, another fake book by two third rate "Washington Post" reporters has already proven to be inaccurately reported to their great embarrassment, all for the purpose of demeaning and belittling a president who's getting great things done for our country at a record clip.


Thank you. Two stone cold losers from the Amazon "Washington Post." Almost every story is a made up lie, just like the -- blah, blah, blah. He goes on.

How many Pulitzer Prizes have you won (INAUDIBLE)?


BERMAN: So three Pulitzer Prizes. What's your response to the president's tweets about your book?

LEONNIG: I can't, you know, get inside the president's head. I can only say that Phil and I are serious reporters. We have been for decades collectively. We take our job seriously. All we want to do is bring the facts to the table and let voters and readers and everyone else make up their own minds.

BERMAN: And he doesn't specifically refute anything you wrote in the book.

Carol Leonnig, congratulations on the work. Thanks so much for having this discussion with us this morning. We really appreciate it.

LEONNIG: Thank you, John. It was a lot of fun.

BERMAN: Alisyn.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: They are stone-cold winners of Pulitzer Prizes.

Thank you both very much.

So we have a new CNN national poll gauging how Americans feel about impeachment as the Senate trial begins.

Plus, some eyebrow raising comments by Hillary Clinton about Bernie Sanders. How does she feel about possibly having to support him as the nominee? We'll tell you, next.



CAMEROTA: President Trump's Senate impeachment trial begins today. So it's a good time to see how Americans are feeling about all of this. We have a new CNN national poll that shows 51 percent of Americans support convicting and removing President Trump from office.

Let's get "The Bottom Line" from CNN political director David Chalian.

So, David, you've just looked at these we think very revealing poll numbers. What stands out to you?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, this battle you've been hearing about all day, when John was talking to Senator Schumer earlier over witnesses, I think it's fascinating in this poll, 69 percent of Americans say they want to hear witnesses in the Senate trial. And that includes 48 percent of Republicans, which is just a very critical number when you think about Schumer's effort to try to win over at least four Republicans in some of these battles over witnesses. That 48 percent among Republicans is a big chunk. It's a plurality there for Schumer to make his case to some of those more vulnerable Republicans, like Cory Gardner, Martha McSally, Joni Ernst, Susan Collins, who are up for re-election this year.

You got the sense listening to Senator Schumer that he liked from where he was arguing, making that argument. They feel like that is safe territory. He went back to the phrase cover-up whenever he could because, I think, he sees those polls, David, which show that at least on the issue of witnesses, Americans want to hear more.

CHALIAN: Yes, we also see 53 percent of Americans actually expect a fair trial here. But, guys, I -- as eager as I am, as are you, to observe what is going to happen today and in the days ahead, to watch this unfold and report on it, it's hard not also to approach today with some sadness. It just feels like our leaders are failing to meet the seriousness of the moment here. I mean this is the stuff that our entire democracy is founded on. This is what the founders put in place. The impeachment is the ultimate experiment on checks and balances.

And you have Article One, the legislative, and Article Two, the executive, and Article Three, the judiciary, all coming together. This is the stuff we teach our children about, about how this country is formed and what it stands for. And it just feels that what Mitch McConnell put out last night, it does not live up to the seriousness of that.

CAMEROTA: Well, this isn't going to make you feel any better. This is what Hillary Clinton has been saying about Bernie Sanders. And then my point about not making you feel better is that there's -- there are these -- continue to be squabbles in politics, even among people who are, you know, allegedly, ostensively, on the same side.

She just gave an interview to "The Hollywood Reporter" and she was talking about Bernie Sanders and basically suggesting that no one likes him or not many of his colleagues. He was -- she says, quote, he was in Congress for years. He had one senator support him. Nobody likes him. Nobody wants to work with him. He got nothing done. He was a career politician. It's all just baloney. And I feel so bad that people got sucked into it.

I'm not sure they've made amends after 2016.

CHALIAN: Tell us how you really feel, Secretary Clinton.


CHALIAN: Yes, it's -- I mean that's what she says in the documentary. And then in an interview with "The Hollywood Reporter," she's asked flat out, will you support him if he's the nominee of the party, and she refuses to answer that question. She says, we're still in the midst of a nomination battle. All of his competitors have answered that.

This is going to be an explosive interview. We've seen it time and again since the '16 campaign that Hillary Clinton still is quite angry about Sanders' role in that campaign, which she believes was too late of an endorsement coming on, and his culture of support around him that she thought was harmful to her effort. She's clearly not letting go of that. And this is going to be an issue that we see inside the Democratic Party right now. I mean we've heard this from some voters, some Clinton supporters, who don't want to get on board with Sanders in any way, even if he's the nominee, because they think he was part of the reason Hillary Clinton lost. This is a rift that is clearly not healed.

And if you add that conversation that's been going on for the last week in the campaign about gender politics here between Warren and Sanders and the ramifications of that, this plays right into that as well. I just think these are not sort of one-off comments. These have reverberations in a race where Sanders and Biden seem to be emerging as the real top two contenders here about how Hillary Clinton's thinking on this, I think, gets at where the divides in the party may be. BERMAN: David Chalian, great to have you with us today. We look

forward to you joining us a lot over the next -- well, maybe just week, but maybe longer as this moment in history plays out.

CHALIAN: Yes. Thanks, guys.

CAMEROTA: Time now for "The Good Stuff." A this one's bitter sweet.

A pup in Washington state named Eddie is now an honorary canine officer. Eddie was rescued after being abandoned before Thanksgiving, but vets found no -- found -- they found an inoperable tumor that made him go blind in one eye and told his foster mother he had only six months to a year to live.


So she created a bucket list for Eddie so that he makes the best of the time that he has left.


KRISTI KESLER, EDDIE'S FOSTER MOM: These people have really stepped up and said, we want to make a difference in this dog's life. It's meant the world to know that people do still care.


CAMEROTA: Look at that sweet face.

BERMAN: Oh, yes, that's a very sweet face.

So now that he's crossed canine officer off his list, he still wants to ride in a sidecar and be in a kissing booth.

CAMEROTA: Is this your bucket list or the dog's bucket list?

BERMAN: Yes, I know. I kind of confused my bucket list and his. I always think of a sidecar kissing booth. You can merge the two. You're making out in the side care.


BERMAN: That's what it's for.

CAMEROTA: All right. Well, that's our suggestion to him.

Thank you all for watching.

CNN's special coverage of the president's impeachment trial continues after this very quick break.