Return to Transcripts main page


AG Bill Barr Says Trump's Tweets Make It Impossible for Him to Do His Job; Democratic Front-Runners Look Ahead to Super Tuesday States; Report: Bloomberg Spends $129 Million on Ads in Super Tuesday States; Bill Barr: Trump's Tweets "Make it Impossible for Me to Do My Job". Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired February 14, 2020 - 09:00   ET





WILLIAM BARR, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I have problem with some of the tweets. T have public statements and tweets made about the department, about people in the department, our men and women here, about cases pending in the department and about judges before whom we have cases make it impossible for me to do my job.


SCIUTTO: Facing days of accusations that the Justice Department under Barr caved to political pressure, the attorney general told ABC he supported the prosecution of Trump's longtime ally Roger Stone and was happy he was convicted but he was not happy with the sentencing recommendations and says he had plans to shorten them even before the president's tweets calling them, quote, "horrible."

Barr's public disapproval of the president seemed stunning to some, but perhaps not to the White House. "The New York Times" is reporting this morning that his message may have been run by the administration before he delivered it and this morning the president responding for the first time, if you guessed it, in a tweet saying, as president, he could intervene in a criminal case if he wanted to but hasn't and this is key, so far.

CNN crime and justice reporter Shimon Prokupecz joins me live now.

So, Shimon, you've covered the Justice Department for some time. Tell me the view inside the Justice Department of this, and do they find this criticism from Barr sincere, heartfelt?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: I think there's a real credibility issue inside the Department of Justice with the attorney general right now. I think any good lawyer, any good person who works for a prosecutor works on investigations should be skeptical of this. Look at what the president just tweeted this morning. This doesn't change anything.

So there is a lot of concern. Continued concern within the Department of Justice whether or not their integrity has been compromised. And you know, the attorney general last night, when he was talking to ABC News, raised that issue about integrity and how hard it is for me to do my job.

Well, look what happens this morning. What is the attorney general going to do now with the president? And looking at some of the other information, you know, this is him -- the attorney general, I think, felt and we can take a listen at some of what he said here, really felt that he needed to address I think his staff and his troops. And that's really what, I think, the interview was about last night.

SCIUTTO: Let's have a listen.


BARR: Once the tweet occurred, the question is, well, now what do I do? And do you go forward with what you think is the right decision or do you pull back because of the tweet? And that just sort of illustrates how disruptive these tweets can be.

PIERRE THOMAS, ABC NEWS CHIEF JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Did you talk to the president at all about your decision regarding the recommendations?

BARR: The recommendations on this case? Never.

THOMAS: Anybody from the White House call you to try to influence you?

BARR: No. Nope.


PROKUPECZ: And that may be the case. Right? We don't really know because no one ever talks about the conversations between the president and the attorney general. We can never get any kind of insight know what this conversation is about. But I think the biggest thing in all of this, there's a real problem right now within the Department of Justice.

SCIUTTO: A mutiny, right?

PROKUPECZ: Yes. I mean, you have four prosecutors who left the case. One resigned, just outright resigned from the Department of Justice. There is concern that this could happen in other cases. There are still investigations, there's the Michael Flynn case that's still -- the sentencing on that case. So it could be that we see other Justice officials resign. People are not happy inside the Department of Justice.

SCIUTTO: Yes. It may very well the attorney general sees that he has a real problem with his own staff, his own team that he has to address.

PROKUPECZ: That's right. SCIUTTO: Shimon Prokupecz, we know you're going to stay on top of the


Joining us now from the White House for reaction there, CNN White House correspondent John Harwood.

John, you see the "New York Times" reporting this morning that the attorney general telegraphed this comment to the White House in advance. Is your sense that there was coordination here, or perhaps that he delivered a warning so that the president wasn't caught off guard?

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, I think Shimon was right on two points. One, we don't know, can't know exactly what happened between the White House and the Justice Department. But second, we have every reason, this administration has given us every reason to be skeptical about the idea that this was some sort of spontaneous, independent step-up by Bill Barr.

When you look at how he handled the Mueller report, when you look at how he has sort of set and investigate the investigators process in motion, it is not credible the idea that Bill Barr himself decided to rebuke the president and stand up for the independence of the Justice Department. That doesn't seem to pass the test.

I think what really happened is, you know, we've all made the analogy with respect to the rule of law about the frog in the warm water and the water gets turned up and all of a sudden, before you know it, the frog is dead.


Well, in this case, I think liberated by acquittal, the president has abruptly turned the water up so hot that the frog jumped out of the water. And that created a problem for Barr, a problem for the administration. I think he was trying to cauterize that problem with his remarks yesterday.

SCIUTTO: Good job extending the metaphor there, John Harwood, at the White House. Thanks very much. But a fitting one now.

With me now Jim Baker, former general counsel for the FBI and Joseph Moreno, former Justice Department and national security prosecutor.

I want to just, if I can, because this stuff comes at you so quickly. The president making a claim there in a tweet, perhaps we can put it up on the screen again, saying that he has the power to intervene in any case he wants to. The legal right to do so.

Jim Baker, you've been a lawyer in the government. Is there any basis to that?

JIM BAKER, FORMER FBI GENERAL COUNSEL: Well, he -- I disagree with the phraseology of the legal right. The president has power and he has duties and responsibilities. As such, the president doesn't have rights. I think that's the wrong way to think about it. The president does have the power under the Constitution to direct

criminal cases. This is true. He could do that. But that's not how it works in the United States because, why? We don't want our political system -- I'm sorry, our judicial system, our prosecutorial system infected with politics. That's not what we're about in the United States. That's what happens in other countries. And I think this is one of the things that even the president's supporters need to understand.

That the judicial system in the United States and the way that the prosecutions work at the federal level is a jewel. It's really what makes the United States different. It's what -- it is what it makes the United States great and so the protecting that, protecting the integrity of that, keeping politics out of it, is essential for the United States to function the way we do. To make sure people have confidence in what comes out of the results of -- that come out of courts.

SCIUTTO: Makes it great until it doesn't.

BAKER: Until it doesn't. Yes. It's a very fragile thing in the long run, I'm afraid.

SCIUTTO: Joseph Moreno, you have some experience with Bill Barr through the years. Of course you served in the Justice Department. You saw those comments yesterday. From your point of view, especially given we now know according to the "New York Times" that he gave the White House something of a heads-up here. Did that strike you as sincere criticism from the attorney general?

JOSEPH MORENO, FORMER JUSTICE DEPARTMENT PROSECUTOR: I mean I think he had to make it, and I think it was an important point because just a few days ago, people, including myself, were saying there's a real question here about the independence of the Justice Department and whether it succumbed to political pressure. I think he stopped the bleeding. I think he has some credibility problems of his own. And so we can take this with a grain of salt. And whether it was choreographed at the White House, perhaps that even degrades the value of his statement even further.

But no, I think it was important for him to say it. And he said the two key things were, you know, one, the president has never asked me to intervene in a case. And, two, I think he did imply that, yes, you know, he -- the president probably could do that. We know Bill Barr is a big fan of executive power. But at the same time, I think it was an important statement. Take it with a grain of salt whether you're on the outside, whether you're on the inside. Did it really regain the confidence of the public and of the line prosecutors in the DOJ? Unknown.

SCIUTTO: Well, because, Jim Baker, part of the issue here is this is not just about the Stone sentencing. And there are folks who think that the sentence itself might be at the out range or even going too far because you have had the president attempt to intervene in via public comments and elsewhere and Barr seeming to line up behind him on a whole host of cases because you got Flynn's team trying to reverse his conviction there.

You've got Durham, the attorney looking into the operations of the intelligence agencies in the run-up to the Russian interference investigation here. I mean, you have to look at the pattern, do you not? And this is a broad pattern.

BAKER: Yes, I think -- so it's the pattern. It's how people interpret the pattern and what the president did this week was just to go way too far. He just went way too far. And so if the attorney general --

SCIUTTO: Is this the first time he's gone way too far?


SCIUTTO: I mean, he's attacked the Justice Department, the FBI and individual lawyers and judges, you know, a dozen times.

BAKER: Yes, but I mean, he --

SCIUTTO: And more.

BAKER: To me, he seemed to go too far with, you know, obviously, I have a significant interest in this having been at the FBI. But when he fired Jim Comey, right? Because he -- because Comey wouldn't do what he wanted to do with respect to the Russia investigation.

SCIUTTO: Right. Yes.

BAKER: That to me seemed to have gone too far. But here we are, at least in a situation where I think maybe it's the case that over time people have just maybe had enough. And so this was just -- you know, this was just as people said a bridge too far. And if, in fact, Bill Barr's statements get the president to stop doing this kind of thing, even if it was precooked with the White House, OK. Well, that's at least a good thing.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Well, his tweet this morning might raise some doubts about that. I want to ask about another issue, Joseph Moreno, because we had a remarkable turnaround, contradiction frankly, from the president on what he did with Rudy Giuliani because now in the last 24 hours, he has copped to sending Rudy Giuliani on a political errand in effect to Ukraine, having denied that just a few weeks ago.

Let's play his two comments, and then I want to get your reaction.


BILL O'REILLY, JOURNALIST: Rudy Giuliani, but he's -- but he's your personal lawyer. Giuliani's your personal lawyer, so you didn't direct him to go to Ukraine and do anything or put any heat on anyone?



GERALDO RIVERA, JOURNALIST: Was it strange to send Rudy Giuliani to Ukraine, your personal lawyer? Are you sorry you did that?

TRUMP: Not at all.


SCIUTTO: It's not the first time the president has directly contradicted himself. It recalls to me, you know, the whole Stormy Daniels thing. No, I did not make that payment. It turns out of course he did, I mean, the issue with this, we're used to seeing the president lie, right? And reverse himself. This was a key plank of the GOP defense of him during the impeachment trial, which is to say there's no evidence that the president directed his attorney general to do this. The president seems to be admitting that.

MORENO: I mean, the president should stay so far away from Ukraine and Rudy Giuliani at this point. It's amazing. I mean, he dodged such a bullet in this impeachment acquittal. And yet the fact that he kind of continues to encourage this activity and the fact that the Justice Department is seemingly taking information from Rudy Giuliani about Ukraine, it seems so misguided, so unfortunate. I really wish the president would stop that.

Look, I'm a former New Yorker, I'm a Republican. I had a lot of esteem for Mayor Giuliani but those last few years, he seems like he is part of the problem. He has been guiding the president down such a path, he really should back off.

SCIUTTO: As a fellow New Yorker, you're never a former New Yorker, right?

MORENO: There you go, I like that.

SCIUTTO: I mean, it stays in your blood forever.

Joseph, Jim Baker, thanks very much to both of you.

Still to come this hour, 2020 Democratic frontrunners looking ahead to Super Tuesday states. Who is out front and who is playing catch-up now?

Also billionaire versus billionaire. Michael Bloomberg is apparently getting under the president's skin. How is he managing to do that? We're going to speak to a top Bloomberg adviser ahead.

Plus, the director for the Centers for Disease Control says the deadly coronavirus will likely be with us well into next year. What to expect as a result, specifically here in the U.S., coming up.



SCIUTTO: As most 2020 Democrats zero in on Nevada and South Carolina, some are starting to look ahead already to Super Tuesday. Senator Bernie Sanders is hosting three rallies in North Carolina, another in Texas -- big Super Tuesday states. Fellow frontrunner Pete Buttigieg is headed to California. Another big delegate haul there.

Mayor Bloomberg got a big head-start in those Super Tuesday states, that's been his focus according to a campaign media analysis group. He has spent nearly$129 million so far on ads in those states. That is roughly four times more than the rest of the Democratic field combined. Look at the zeros on the right-hand side of the screen. Joining me now, Alex Burns; national political correspondent for "The New York Times", and Jamie Lovegrove; political reporter for "The Post and Courier" in South Carolina. Thanks to both of you.

Alex, if I could just -- on Mike Bloomberg's strategy here, in effect, waiting until Super Tuesday, at least, as to where he's going after delegates. I mean, certainly flooding markets all over the country with television ads. Does the math add up there? Can you wait until then and be a credible candidate for the nominees as you get to the convention?

ALEX BURNS, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, we don't really know, Jim. He's trying to do something that no candidate has ever done before, and he's obviously doing it with a scale of spending and financial resources that no candidate in history has had. So, what we do know right now is that when Mike Bloomberg got into the race, his advisors had sort of sketched out the theoretical scenario that would let this strategy work in their minds.

And that was that, Joe Biden didn't come out of the early states strong, and that nobody else came out of the early states as an overwhelming favorite with the kind of momentum that would let them dominate Super Tuesday. We're only halfway through the early states, but right now, that scenario does seem to be panning out. So that's not to say that the Bloomberg strategy is going to work.

What it is to say is that right now, they are getting the conditions that they thought it would need in order for them to have a --


BURNS: Chance of working.

SCIUTTO: Yes, it's a good point. I mean, the first point -- the first bet, right, he's been right on the first bet there. Jamie, you're in South Carolina, tell me how South Carolinians feel about Bloomberg's decision to focus elsewhere, in effect to skip?

JAMIE LOVEGROVE, POLITICAL REPORTER, THE POST & COURIER: Well, you know, it's interesting because he has of course been spending vast amounts of his personal fortune on advertising, including just across the border in North Carolina, just across the border in Georgia. So a lot of those hats have been overflowing into South Carolina. A lot of folks who live around the border of South Carolina still see them -- and there have been plenty of voters that I've actually talked to at other candidates events around South Carolina who say, you know, I'm giving Mike Bloomberg a look.

And I had to inform them that he's actually not on the South Carolina ballot. So, you know, he is making in-roads even in a state where he's not competing. And he does have a valuable supporter in South Carolina, the Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin who is a prominent figure here, an African-American mayor, a national co-chair on Bloomberg's campaign who has been doing several interviews in the last few days, you know, defending Bloomberg's response to this issue over stop-and- frisk and talking about how he will approach criminal justice moving forward.

SCIUTTO: OK, so let's talk about a couple of other candidates where South Carolina is key. Jamie, just first to you on Joe Biden. I mean, he has long described South Carolina as his firewall in part due to his strong African-American support there, but that has been falling. Recent Quinnipiac poll shows support among black voters dropped more than 20 points there since the start of the year. Does he have a shot to turn things around in South Carolina?

LOVEGROVE: You know, it's certainly a must-win state. And frankly, his campaign has been saying that South Carolina is a must-win state even before Iowa and New Hampshire. Cedric Richmond was here, the congressman from Louisiana, co-chair on his campaign, saying that this was a must-win state. The question at this point is, is winning even enough?


Do you have to win by double digits to really send a resounding message to the rest of the country that he still has significant support among African-American voters? This is the first state with a really significant African-American population, about two-thirds of the Democratic electorate in South Carolina is African-American. And he has said -- you know, Joe Biden has said after I win New Hampshire, that they are not, you know, reflective of the Democratic --

SCIUTTO: Right --

LOVEGROVE: Party. The base of the Democratic Party being African- American voters. So, yes, I would say he's still the favorite at this point, but several candidates, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, are nipping at his heels, and it's only going to get more competitive over the next couple of weeks --



SCIUTTO: Listen, Alex, it's true. New Hampshire and Iowa are not representative of the country, particularly the Democratic electorate. They're very white. But another candidate who would have a big test then in South Carolina is Pete Buttigieg, who despite his strong finishes in the first two states has not proven his ability to build support among African-Americans. What are the signs? Is he able to change that in that first state, that first state that will test that support?

BURNS: Right, and we will get something of a test in Nevada, even before South Carolina, where the African-American population is not a majority of the Democratic primary electorate the way it is in South Carolina. But it's a substantial population there as well. And it's a state with demographics that look a lot like the country as a whole. So Biden may want to sort of wait until the very end of the month for a state where African-American voters typically decide the primary, to say, this is when the rest of the country gets to weigh in.

But he actually can't really wait that long, because Nevada is coming up sooner. And the same is true for all the candidates who did well in the two early states that are overwhelmingly white. Someone like Mayor Buttigieg is going to have to show, and he's likely to be able to do it in Nevada than in South Carolina, that he can appeal to people who aren't white folks in northeastern suburbs or in the rural Midwest.


BURNS: That's obviously not the make-up of the national Democratic Party's base.

SCIUTTO: And that figure in the top right-hand corner of the screen there as we show this, 1,991 delegates get the nomination. We're very early in this race. Just very quickly, Jamie, before I go, if you had to put 5 bucks down, who is going to win South Carolina?

LOVEGROVE: I am not in the prediction game after 2016. But certainly, I'll say Biden is still the favorite. Several other folks are competing hard. You know, one thing I would watch over the next few weeks is whether or not Jim Clyburn decides to get involved. If he makes an endorsement, he's known to be close to Biden. His grandson is working on Pete Buttigieg's campaign.

If he decides to come off the sidelines after the Democratic debate in Charleston on the Tuesday of primary week, that could have a real big impact on this race right there at the end.

SCIUTTO: We will watch that, Alex Burns, Jamie Lovegrove, thanks to both of you. And next week, join CNN for a series of town halls with the top 2020 Democratic candidates live from Las Vegas, Tuesday and Thursday night, 8:00 Eastern Time only on CNN.

At least, one GOP lawmaker is backing the Attorney General's rebuke of President Trump's tweets. Will we see any other Republicans do the same in public? It's a big question.



SCIUTTO: Attorney General Bill Barr is telling the president to lay off Twitter, at least some of his tweets, saying some of them are making it, quote, "impossible for him to do his job". Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell is backing the Attorney General up, saying Trump should listen to that advice. Rare thing to be heard from the Senate here -- from the Senate Majority leader. But this morning, the president is tweeting again.

Let's discuss with CNN's political analyst, Jackie Kucinich, CNN's political commentator Doug Heye, good morning. So, Doug, I mean, you could say the president got something of a slap on his wrist there, but the president this morning seeming to reaffirm his power, tweeting that he can intervene in any case that he wants to. You know, I feel like we've asked this question a billion times. Will the president be chastened by this? Your answer?

DOUG HEYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, no, of course. And you know, if there's one constant that we've seen over the past few years, it's that Republicans have wanted Donald Trump to tweet less. We're not used to it coming necessarily --


HEYE: From the Attorney General. But we also know that he doesn't do it. And coming out of impeachment, he didn't get a slap on the wrist, he essentially got a pat on the back. And so, he's unencumbered, liberated and what we see now, we're going to see more of as we really move into 2020.

SCIUTTO: I mean, I think, Jackie, it's not just the tweets to the public comments, right? It's the applying of pressure with effect, right? I mean, the impression being, well, here's Roger Stone, my ally, I don't like his sentence, do something about it. Of course, Barr denies that this direction came from the president that he was already uncomfortable with the sentence.

But it's not limited to that. I mean, it's the Michael Flynn case, it's who the president has tried to intervene in for some time. I mean, this is a pattern here.

JACKIE KUCINICH, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, THE DAILY BEAST: No, it's true. And that's because he hasn't gotten any push-back. And while this seemed to be, yet, that interview yesterday with Barr, it seemed to be more of a face-saving measure than an actual rebuke of the president. Now, it's obviously notable that he did go public, and that he felt like he needed to.

However, this came on the heels of all of these stories that, you know, prosecutors are leaving.


KUCINICH: People inside the DOJ don't feel like -- don't want to be associated with politically-charged cases because they don't think he has their back. His actions speak louder than his words in --


KUCINICH: This case. And, you know, the fact that the president is back tweeting again tells you all you need to know, and you have the chorus of Republicans backing up Barr, but in a way that -- which again makes me think that, you know, the president -- this was sanctioned behavior by Barr.

SCIUTTO: Or at least a warning flag went up prior. In another incident yesterday, Doug Heye, that shows how much power the president thinks he has, and this is interactions with the New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, they have a dispute going on there about access.