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Barr Says, Trump's Tweets Make It Impossible For Me To Do My Job; Democratic Frontrunners Look Ahead To Super Tuesday States; Bolton Defends John Kelly After Trump Criticism. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired February 14, 2020 - 10:00   ET




JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Good Friday morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto in Washington. Poppy Harlow has the day off.

This morning, Attorney General Bill Barr finally saying that the president's tweets, at least some of them, have gone too far.


WILLIAM BARR, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I have a problem with some of the tweets.

To have public statements and tweets made about the department, about our 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: Barr's rare public criticism of the president seemed surprising to many, but perhaps not to the White House. The New York Times is reporting that Barr may have run his message by the administration in advance. As for the president's response to Barr's suggestion, for him to send fewer tweets, lay off the Justice Department. A tweet, of course, about the Justice Department, president saying that as president, he could intervene in a criminal case if he wanted to, but hasn't so far.

CNN Crime and Justice Reporter Shimon Prokupecz joins me now live. Barr was facing some kind of a mutiny internally as a result of this interference. Is that what he's responding to here? And in your reporting, is it sincere? Is he truly publicly disagreeing with the president?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: That's a great question, Jim, right, because that's the big thing here. Is he actually disagreeing with the president or was this part of some plan together with the White House to make it seem at least that he's disagreeing with the president. Because as you just read, it didn't take long for the president to respond, wanting to have the last word, and, again, putting himself first, saying he has the right to do essentially what he wants to do. If he wants to interfere in a criminal investigation, he can.

Most important, with the attorney general speaking out last night, the most important thing in all of this was he needed to speak to the troops. There is a real concern inside the Department of Justice that they're losing their integrity, that the attorney general has been compromised and is making decisions based on political reasons, and so this is probably why he spoke out last night.

And along those lines, here is more about what he said last night.


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 the 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 so while the attorney general there says no one has influenced him, we know that the president continues to publicly tweet, he tweeted about the Roger Stone sentence. What happens next with the president continuing to tweet, most folks certainly inside the Justice Department don't expect anything to change and we'll see what happens. We'll see how the attorney general proceeds to try and support the troops, try and build up the integrity within the Department of Justice. Jim?

SCIUTTO: Shimon Prokupecz, thank you very much.

Barr made certain to tell ABC in that interview that he would never, as Shimon said, investigate the president's political opponents, but that has not stopped him from taking an interest in what have been politically sensitive investigations, which is what is now leading to turmoil inside the Justice Department.

Joining me now is CNN National Security Commentator Mike Rogers, who's former House Intelligence Chairman. Mike, good to have you on this morning.


SCIUTTO: Watching this and Barr's reaction there, really a rare case of public disagreement, perhaps some telegraphing of that disagreement to the White House in advance. But is it your sense Trump went too far on the Roger Stone thing, even for A.G. Barr?

ROGERS: I think so, absolutely. And I do get a sense where Barr was at on this, so I'm going to take his side on this. I think he did look at the sentence and said, that just seems a bit much.


SCIUTTO: Which is not, but there are some prosecutors who thought that that would be --

ROGERS: Completely. And remember, as an FBI agent, you're so immersed in these cases, you want to see everybody get 110 years, that's why you have a little separation. You need somebody to temper that. You're talking about somebody's life, justice needs to be balanced, and so you don't want that emotion guiding your sentence guidelines.

And sometimes in two of these folks have spent the last three and a half years on this case, I can see where they're saying I'm throwing everything I can and the kitchen sink and maybe something else if I can find it. So somebody needed to temper it. I thought, as an FBI guy, that that sentence was a bit much on the recommendation.

So here's Barr saying I'm going to do something about it and then the -- and President Trump tweets and makes his life so complicated on something that should have been attorney general first, judge second. Remember, the judge gets a call on that.

SCIUTTO: Of course. Fact is, though, as you know, this is not isolated, right, because you have questions of influence on Michael Flynn's case now, of course, who has been a champion of the president's, the motivations behind the Durham probe, which is looking at the origins of the Russia investigation. I mean, even the DOJ reopening the Clinton emails investigation again, which went nowhere again, at least in terms of criminal charges here. I mean, this is a broader issue, is it not, with the president interfering or giving the impression of interfering with the Justice Department.

ROGERS: It certainly doesn't look good. And I think president needs to stay away from it. The president has authorities, he's right in some sense, he has some authority to intervene in criminal cases, but he also has a responsibility. And that's the piece that seems to be missing in this. And he will make it difficult for attorneys across the country to present their cases to judges when it bumps into something that may or may not be controversial. That's what you don't want to do as president. You need that system to operate and you need that sense of independence.

Does it mean the prosecutors get it right every time? Absolutely not. And that's why you need these checks in the system. And I think that's why Barr was upset. He was trying to provide what is constitutionally provided oversight of these prosecutors and the president came in and upended the tables and made his decision really difficult.

SCIUTTO: But you look at the president's tweet this morning, he's doubling down and saying, I can, I have a right to intervene in whatever Justice Department criminal case I want to.

ROGERS: Right to me is the wrong word. He has some authorities to do that but he also has responsibilities. And, listen, I just don't think this president is going to -- I think he has benefitted by the tweet. He will live and die by the tweet. And cases like this, it just muddies up people's ability to say, are you going for fair and balanced and are going to take care of the country's interest first. And I think that hurts him along the way.

My dad used to say when he reached a certain age that after the certain age I can say anything I want. The president may have tipped that scale, right? He's just decided, I can say anything I want, I'm just not sure that's the right attitude for the president of the United States. And my whole thing, even on the sentencing, bad enough, singling out a judge in a case, way out of bounds. And --

SCIUTTO: It goes back to the campaign, right? He singled out a judge of Latino origin to say he couldn't be -- he couldn't be unbiased in it because of his origin on a case that involved immigration, of all issues.

ROGERS: The president needs to stay away from this. There are a lot going on in the world. One argument is he probably ought to focus on that.


ROGERS: Put the Twitter machine down.

SCIUTTO: We saw the pictures from what's happening in Syria right now. Mike Rogers, always good to have you on. Thanks very much.

With us now, John Harwood, CNN White House Correspondent, Jeff Mason, White House Correspondent for Reuters.

You guys, you cover the politics on this. And, John, if I could start with you, given you're at the White House, the president seemed to hear Barr's comments, but then tweet that fine for you to say that, but I'm going to go my own way.

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Jim, the White House reaction on this was a tell. You had Stephanie Grisham put out a state last night saying the president was not bothered by Bill Barr's comments.

The president has made clear through his conduct throughout his presidency that he is bothered by criticism approximately 100 percent of the time. So if he -- if the White House is putting out a statement like that, that is a sign that they're not really bothered.

Now, when the president tweeted this morning, that's his maximum flexibility position. I didn't do this wrongdoing I'm accused of, but I could have if I wanted to. Remember, we learned from the Mueller report that this is a president who, according to the testimony, his White House counsel, directed him -- the White House counsel said Trump directed him to fire Mueller. The president denied that. Then the president also directed Don McGahn to make a false memorandum saying that he didn't do that.

So everything the president says deserves to be taken with a grain of salt, a mountain of salt, given the record that he's put before us.


SCIUTTO: Jeff Mason, go back to that question, post-impeachment acquittal, which is, you know, a grand total of ten days ago. And, of course, you had a number of Republican lawmakers who voted to acquit him saying, listen, president learned a lesson here. He's going to be chastened by this.

You look at the events of the last week, what do you say the evidence points in the opposite direction?

JEFF MASON, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, REUTERS: Well, I certainly don't think there is any evidence that he's been chastened, not at all. And I don't think he felt chastened during the process itself. And that was in evidence by the fact that Republicans continue to support him.

And I think, you know, comparing these two things here now, I mean, John is certainly right, the president has shown throughout his term in office that he gets upset about criticism, whether it's from somebody who is close to him, like Attorney General Barr, or whether it is somebody from the outside or somebody in the press.

And that's not going to change here anymore than it changed during the impeachment process. You saw him start lashing out again at Mitt Romney in the last few days because of his vote. That is all of the same piece in terms of somebody who, as president of the United States, very much feels that he can do what he wants, and does not want to broker any criticism.

SCIUTTO: I mean, including, John Harwood, lie. And we had an example of that just in the Last 24 hour, a stunning reversal by the president on what he did, did he direct Rudy Giuliani to go to Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. Listen to what he said yesterday versus what he said a couple of months ago.


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

DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT: No, I didn't direct him.

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

TRUMP: Not at all.


SCIUTTO: John Harwood, does anybody in the White House acknowledge that that is a clear cut contradiction?

HARWOOD: No. But that doesn't mean that everyone else cannot recognize that it is a clear cut contradiction. Look, this is stunning as you said in introducing the sound bites in the context of history to have a president so directly contradicted by his own words.

It is not stunning if you look at the record of President Trump saying things that are not true over and over and over again. Everybody knows that Rudy Giuliani was acting on behalf of the president. It is not credible at all to think that the president didn't know what Rudy Giuliani was doing.

And it took here a friendly interviewer, Geraldo Rivera, who has known the president for a long time, likes the president, they have a good relationship, to sort of casually let out what he at a time when he was under fire said he didn't do.

SCIUTTO: Yes. I mean, the trouble here, Jeff Mason, is not just for the president, who has contradicted himself before, it's for Republicans, a key element of their defense of the president during impeachment and the Senate trial was that there was insufficient evidence that the president directed Rudy Giuliani on this errand in Ukraine. Now, you have the president, ten days after you have Republican lawmakers saying confidently confirming, it seems, that's exactly what he did.

MASON: Well, I think what it has done here is really what lots of people expected. There is going to be more evidence coming out after the process is over, there is going to be a book from John Bolton, we all know, coming out in March, which will, you know, bring up all of these issues again.

The impeachment process itself is over. The president was acquitted. He obviously feels good about that. He is still upset it happened at all. But the things that happened that led to that impeachment haven't gone away. And more and more details are going to continue coming out, despite the fact that that process is over.

SCIUTTO: John Harwood, Jeff Mason, thanks to both of you.

Still to come this hour, Pete Buttigieg picks up some California love in the way of an endorsement from the state's lieutenant governor. We're going to speak with her next.

Plus, traditionally, military officers do not take political positions. But John Kelly, now retired, of course, becomes the latest in a string of retired military leaders speaking out against the president's actions. What's going on here, how unusual and what does it mean?



SCIUTTO: It is just eight days until the next stop in the Democratic race, the Nevada caucuses, and several 2020 Democrats heading west now. Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, they're both in Nevada. Bernie Sanders hits up North Carolina today then heads to Texas. And Pete Buttigieg will be in Super Tuesday's grand prize of them all, California.

Buttigieg's visit is on the heels of picking up a key endorsement from California's lieutenant governor, Melanie Kounalakis, and she joins me now. Lieutenant Governor, good to have you on the program this morning.

LT. GOV. ELENI KOUNALAKIS (D-CA): Thanks so much. It's great to be here.

SCIUTTO: So you initially endorsed a fellow Californian, Senator Kamala Harris, but you said -- well, of course, she is out of the race now -- but when you said when Buttigieg won the Iowa caucuses, that that made you confident he can win California. Why is that?

KOUNALAKIS: Well, that's right. And I've been watching him for a long time. He's obviously incredibly impressive. He is so smart, mayor of a small town, a veteran, very capable person.


But when he was out in the field in Iowa and New Hampshire, states where it's really very one-on-one, people get to see the candidate and interact with them in a very personal way, and he convinced voters in those states that he was the right choice, to me, that was really the ultimate test. Because I ran in this state a year-and-a-half ago, and I went to all 58 counties of the state, talked to people directly, if you can convince voters on the ground that you're the one, chances are you're going to be able to take it all the way. And so that put me over the top.

SCIUTTO: Well, as you know, of course, New Hampshire, Iowa, not representative of the broader electorate, much whiter, not as diverse, California is diverse. What gives you confidence that Pete Buttigieg can win a diverse State like California, can win a state like South Carolina that has a much larger and more reflective African-American population?

KOUNALAKIS: Well, I think like many Democrats, I've watched the fact that our field has winnowed down and we don't have a person of color now who is in our top tier. But I do think that what we're looking for is someone who has empathy, someone who can bring people together, someone who is running a positive campaign and someone who has proven in being able to deal with the challenges that everyday Californians face. And that's what Mayor Pete did as mayor of a small town. And I think he's going to be able to connect with voters in that way.

SCIUTTO: The mayor -- the former mayor's sexuality has been brought up by -- even by some Democrats, concerned about whether that would be an issue for some voters. What's your answer to that?

KOUNALAKIS: We are California. We are the state that pioneered love is love. So as far as most of us out here are concerned, Pete Buttigieg is the anti-Trump, he's totally opposite what we have in the White House right now, he brings a positive message and a positive spirit and I think the kind of energy and people along with him who are very much about a positive vision for the country.

And it is a vision for a future where, you know, our sexual orientation, our ethnicity, these things are secondary to who we are and the kinds of policies that we believe that are best for our people.

SCIUTTO: Joe Biden, of course, former vice president, he has taken particular aim at Pete Buttigieg's experience, even some commercials that have been pointed to say the least about Biden's accomplishments versus Pete Buttigieg as the mayor of a small town. How do you respond to that criticism?

KOUNALAKIS: You know, he's old enough. He's certainly old enough under the Constitution to be president. And, frankly, I think the energy that he has, his age is a real benefit. He's going into a marathon with this campaign, and he has already been in it now for a year, running an incredible campaign, where he went from being virtually unknown to being one of the top tier candidates. So I think his youth and his energy and his perspective coming out of a digital generation is something that's going to be beneficial.

And as I said before, I think his service as a veteran is something that is going to bring an additional kind of experience and expertise that will be very important going forward.

SCIUTTO: Eleni Kounalakis, Lieutenant Governor of California, thanks so much for joining us this morning.

KOUNALAKIS: Thank you very much for having me.

SCIUTTO: And next week, join CNN for a series of town halls with the top 2020 Democratic candidates, including Pete Buttigieg, live from Las Vegas, Tuesday and Thursday night, 8:00 Eastern Time, only here on CNN.

More former military leaders are breaking their political silence, speaking out very publicly, against President Trump. What has changed and what's the impact?



SCIUTTO: Welcome back.

Former National Security Adviser John Bolton is defending former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, calling him, quote, an honorable man, this comes after Trump belittled Kelly who, of course, he appointed as chief of staff, for remarks backing a key impeachment witness, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman. Kelly's comments, just one of the latest in a string of rebukes against the president from former senior military commanders, traditionally, military officers do not take political positions even in retirement.

In a recent op-ed, CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen writes, we have come to an extraordinary moment in the U.S. when some of the most senior military leaders in the country are publicly taking President Donald Trump to task.

Joining me now, CNN Presidential Historian Douglas Brinkley, good morning and good to have you here. And I think folks at home might forget, because it has been a string of senior military commanders or retired military commanders who have publicly criticized this president in stark terms. John Kelly talked about an illegal order, the president giving an illegal order in that Ukraine call. General Stanley McChrystal commanded forces in some of the most dangerous missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, called Trump immoral and dishonest. Bill McRaven, architect of the Bin Laden raid, Trump humiliated us on the world stage, divided us as a nation. Of course, Jim Mattis, retired defense secretary, in protest to the president's withdrawal from Syria.

Tell us how unusual, unprecedented, has this ever happened before, military commanders taking a president to task?