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DOJ Drops Criminal Probe Of Former FBI Deputy Director; CNN Reports, Trump Had Idea Of Barr's Comments Before Interview; Democratic Frontrunners Look Ahead To Super Tuesday States. Aired 1- 1:30p ET

Aired February 14, 2020 - 13:00   ET



BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN RIGHT NOW: I am Brianna Keilar live from CNN's Washington headquarters.

Underway right now, hours after the attorney general seemed to publicly criticize President Trump's tweets about the Justice Department, new details emerging that the president had an idea of what Barr would say, and the president still tweeting, by the way.

President Trump closing ranks in the aftermath of his impeachment trial, surrounding himself with loyalists, as former staffers criticize his behavior.

And it's an all out sprint in the Democratic presidential primary as candidates fan out ahead of spate of crucial contests. They are now turning firing on Michael Bloomberg as he fends off more questions over his stop-and-frisk.

But we start with breaking news. Department of Justice is dropping an investigation into a frequent target of President Trump's former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who I am currently going to be joined by. And just give us the sense of the reaction of hearing this news.

ANDREW MCCABE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Honestly, Brianna, I don't know if I can give you a sense of it. It is -- to have this horrific black cloud that's been hanging over me and my family for almost the last two years, to have that finally lifted is just an unbelievable -- it's a relief i'm not sure I can really explain to you adequately. It's just a very emotional moment for my whole family.

KEILAR: Tell me what it's been like then. I know it may be difficult to even absorb this news which is so fresh. But what has it been like all this time, having that, as you describe it, a black cloud hanging over you?

MCCABE: You know, it was traumatic to leave the FBI, certainly in the way that I did. And that's been tough to live with. And this -- the added insult and suspicion that comes with being under criminal investigation just made the entire experience a million times worse. And I have to say that as glad as I am that the Justice Department and the D.C. U.S. Attorney's Office finally decided to do the right thing today, it is an absolute disgrace that they took two years and put my family through this experience for two years before they finally drew the obvious conclusion and one they could have drawn a long, long time ago.

KEILAR: So this was -- look, many observers looked at this investigation and they believed it to not have merit. To your point that it doesn't have merit, obviously, you are not a completely objective party in that, right? So I just want to put that out there that there are a lot of observers, independent observers who looked at this and said this doesn't make sense, as you have said.

Knowing that, how do you describe what happened? Did you feel like this was, especially during a week, where we've seen a lot of retribution? Does this fit into that category for you?

MCCABE: Well, I mean, it certainly -- look like all Americans, I've been greatly concerned by what I've seen take place in the White House and in the Department of Justice, quite frankly, in the last week and certainly the president's kind of revenge tirade following his acquittal in the impeachment proceeding has only kind of amplified my concerns about what would happen in my own case.

I have said from the very first day, from the very first day that we were notified by the Department of Justice that that news of what should have been a confidential investigation was leaked to the public, that if they followed the law and they followed the facts that I would have nothing to worry about.

But as the president's interest in pursuing his perceived political enemies continued over the last two years, we were getting more and more concerned about where this would end up. Because, quite frankly, we are seeing things happen every day in this country that many of us never ever thought we'd see here.

The pursuit of political enemies and the use of the criminal justice system and criminal investigations to exact some sort of political revenge on those enemies is something that should not be happening in the United States of America.

KEILAR: You are familiar with all kinds of investigations that the Justice Department and FBI does. How often do you have one that is this protracted and it just ends in a big nothing burger?

MCCABE: It's exceedingly rare.


I'm not aware of a similar situation in my 21 years in the FBI. This was a very simple situation. It was a very simple set of facts, uncontested facts. The I.G. makes criminal referrals to the Department of Justice based on their investigations many times a year. And in almost in all of those cases, those referrals are declined, oftentimes before the ink is even dry on the I.G.'s report. And for some reason, this one dragged on, despite the simplicity, the small number of witnesses involved dragged on for almost two years against the backdrop of how we have seen politicization of investigations. I just think that's incredibly concerning, and it should be concerning to all Americans.

KEILAR: Do you believe this was done on the president's order?

MCCABE: Well, I don't know. I don't know the answer to that. It's certainly the timing this week coming on the tails of all the controversy over the Roger Stone sentencing is curious. Again, it's a decision that I and my attorneys feel confident that they could have come to a long, long time ago. But nevertheless, they did the right thing today by acknowledging that there was no place to take this and that no criminal charges should ever be brought on it.

KEILAR: Where you go from here? I mean, this was hanging over your head as you left your position as deputy director of the FBI facing a lot of criticism from the president. What are your next steps?

MCCABE: Well, I'm not sure I know just right away. I really am looking forward to celebrating with my family and friends. It's been so unbelievably tense and just such an incredible pressure on all of us and we're all very, very happy. And I'm just -- I'm just so glad my kids don't have to live with this anymore.

And then beyond that, you know, I am enjoying finally having the opportunity to speak publicly about things that I believe deeply in, about concerns that we all have about our country and the way things are going. And I look forward to continuing doing that work and trying to add to the conversation in the most productive ways that I can.

KEILAR: Andrew McCabe, former Deputy Director of the FBI, thank you so much for joining us.

MCCABE: Thanks, Brianna. I appreciate it.

KEILAR: And this decision on the McCabe investigation comes less than 24 hours after Attorney General William Barr seemed to signal his independence from President Trump.

In an interview, Barr said that President Trump's tweets on the Justice Department are troubling for him. He said they make his job impossible but Barr's take on tweets weren't unknown to the president. Barr had actually raised the issue with the president before the interview took place, sort of tipped him off, so the White House wouldn't have been caught by surprise by comments like these.


WILLIAM BARR, ATTORNEY GENERAL: The fact that the tweets are out there and correspond to things we're doing at the department sort of give grist to the mill and that's why I think it's time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal case.

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 and to assure the courts and the prosecutors and the department that we're doing our work with integrity.


KEILAR: I want to bring in Evan Perez. He's our CNN Senior Justice Correspondent. And, Evan, this interview, he complains about the tweets making it impossible to do his job. He also said, quote, I don't look at tweets. He also said, quote, I don't pay attention to tweets, and, quote, it doesn't affect my decision.

Just talk to us about your impression of this interview when you also add it to the McCabe investigation being dropped, which the president is not going to be happy about, even as the president is happy that the Justice Department intervened in a very questionable way to lower the sentencing recommendation for the president's former confidant, Roger Stone.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. There's a lot going on in what Bill Barr was trying to accomplish yesterday. He was trying to telegraph a message to the troops inside the department. He knew that people were getting very, very upset and certainly questioning the leadership of the department because of the recent events in the Roger Stone case, Brianna.

But, you know, just to be clear about one thing, and that is Bill Barr was also saying in that interview that he was standing by the way he handled the Roger Stone matter, that he overturned the recommendation from career prosecutors who were following the rules, the rules under the Trump administration, right, which is they are supposed to be tough on crime, they're supposed to -- the guidelines of the department says that they are to supposed to follow the rules on sentencing.


So seven to nine years is exactly what the Trump administration says is the policy. And so these guys, these prosecutors, ended up getting in trouble with Bill Barr for following the very rules that the department and President Trump say they want to be tough on crime.

The interesting thing is, on Tuesday, the very day that all this went down, Bill Barr gave a very tough on crime speech to a group of sheriffs who were in town and spoke all of the things about how we have to be very, very tough on people who are committing crimes, and then, you know, obviously, just a few hours later says that they want to go lenient on Roger Stone.

So that's one of the things that I think has been tough for people inside the department to sort of understand where are we on this policy. Are we going to be tough or are we just going tough on people not associated with the president? That's been the biggest problem for the attorney general. And I think that's one of the things he was trying to accomplish in those comments to ABC yesterday.

KEILAR: What did you make of this news about Andrew McCabe and this protracted investigation into him? It's not going to go anywhere.

PEREZ: Right. And, look, I think that's one of the things that Bill Barr was, I think, behind-the-scenes was frustrated with the previous U.S. Attorney there, Jessie Liu. She was sitting on things, not making hard designates, at least that's the view that the attorney general had. And so Tim Shea, the new U.S. Attorney there, apparently made this decision. You can bet though that Bill Barr signed off on it and top officials at the department knew exactly where this was going to go.

But it was clear, as Andy McCabe has said, I think that this was a very difficult case from the beginning and everyone knew that. They just were leaving it hanging for a long time without making that tough decision.

KEILAR: All right. Evan, thank you so much. We really appreciate your reporting.

Here with me now is Katrina Mulligan from the Center for American Progress and J.W. Verret, former Trump transition advisers senior Republican Counsel in the House.

All right, let's start first with this breaking news. So there's the letter here, this came from -- this was sent to defense counsel for Andrew McCabe, which by the way -- I mean, let's just think about how much it costs, right, to have a defense team, right? So we're talking about things that he has endured.

Just to put into perspective, even if an investigation on you goes nowhere there's still a tremendous cost monetarily, not just when it comes to sort stress and having this cloud over you.

We write to inform you that after careful consideration, the government has decided not to pursue criminal charges against your client, Andrew G. McCabe, arising from the referral by the Office of the Inspector General to our office. In regards to April 13th, 2018, a report entitled a report of investigation of certain allegations relating to former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.

What do you guys think of this?

KATRINA MULLIGAN, MANAGING DIRECTOR, NATIONAL SECURITY, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: Well, I mean, I think it's the outcome that we all expected. And the fact that it's the outcome that we all expected raises a lot of questions about why it took two years to get to this point.

KEILAR: And to that point, I mean, do you see this just being weaponized, being able to investigate someone, being able to reward someone? When you just think of the week we've had here, even with Bill Barr sort of having this, I guess, streak of independence that he did appear to tip off the White House on, is this just weaponizing things to hurt the president's perceived enemies?

J.W. VERRET, FORMER TRUMP TRANSITION ADVISER: I will defend the professional decisions of Comey and his team because I don't think they weren't always the best. But there's no question, this timing is suspicious, that it comes right after the finalization of impeachment.

And the fact that this was a helping talk being point, a useful talking point to Trump that, no, no, no, it was a witch-hunt, this fed into his witch-hunt. I have no question that the timing of this final release of news and that it waited so long was it was a helping talking point of the president.

KEILAR: You were a former transition adviser. How do you think the president is going to respond to this news?

VERRET: I think this issue is done.

KEILAR: You do? You think it's done?

VERRET: It's done at the DOJ. But, yes, he's going to tweet.

KEILAR: What about the president?

VERRET: Right. It's just -- it's worrisome to me that people at the DOJ know that to please the president, they need to take decisions. And we see even in the absence of explicit coordination, we see people taking decisions intended to please the president. And that's what's worrisome to me, particularly with the Stone matter.

KEILAR: All right. So let's talk about Bill Barr, because this was sort of the odd thing that happened yesterday where he seemed to be telling the president, your tweets are not helpful. They actually make his job impossible, he said.


What did you make -- what did you make out about this? Did you think that he was being genuine especially considering the reporting that he may have tipped off the White House, Katrina?

MULLIGAN: I mean, to me, he seems like someone who is attempting to manage a crisis inside the department. I mean, you had multiple career prosecutors removed from the case. You had one person who reportedly removed themselves from the department entirely. I think there's a real crisis of confidence in leadership at DOJ right now.

And I think that for Barr to continue to have legitimacy externally, he has to have some legitimacy internally. And I think right now, his remarks suggest that he thinks he may be losing that.

KEILAR: And what would that mean? I mean, what would that mean if he's unable to maintain that internal legitimacy even as he appears to be doing a lot of things for the president's agenda? And how difficult a situation is that for him, J.W., when he's stuck between a rock and a Trump?

VERRET: It means the department's credibility with the judiciary falls. And judges who have to, you know, make a credibility judgment about arguments that prosecutors and civil attorneys across the country are making, it's going to change their calculus across all sorts of cases, including emergency funding cases and all of these things.

KEILAR: Let's listen to the attorney general. This is what he said about the president's right to call for investigations.


BARR: Terrorism or fraud by a bank or something like that, where he's concerned about something, he can certainly say, you know, I think someone should look into that. That's perfectly appropriate. If he were to say, you know, go investigate somebody because -- and you sense it's because they're a political opponent, then the attorney general shouldn't carry that out, wouldn't carry that out.


KEILAR: This comes as the president -- he was basically saying he didn't send Rudy Giuliani to do his bidding with Ukraine but he admitted that he did in an interview with Geraldo Rivera. So teeping that in mind, because that's going on right now what did you think, Katrina, about Bill Barr saying that knowing the president has already tweeted he's not happy about that last part?

MULLIGAN: I mean, it reminded me of his confirmation hearing where he was asked or actually I think it was Judiciary Committee hearing where he was asked specifically about whether the president had encouraged him or pressured him to take action in criminal investigations. And he really struggled to answer that question from Kamala Harris about it.

And, to me, it comes across as a bit disingenuous. He can either claim that he is not being motivated by those things or responding to those things. And as you mentioned earlier, he says, I don't tread the tweets. But at the same time, he is saying that he feels under pressure from them. So one of those two things can't both be true.

I think he is under a lot of pressure from the president and I think he is trying to walk as close to that line as he can without creating too much blowback from inside the department.

KEILAR: What do you think?

VERRET: I think the interaction between the president and the DOJ has always been a weak part of our constitutional structure. It has been handled over centuries by just professionalism and by walls of separation that are eroding, norms.

Most other countries don't have this design. They have an elected A.G. or one chosen by the Supreme Court or, in some other way, independent. But we don't have that. I think Barr has been willing to break down all of these norms and the Stone matter crystallizes that problem.

KEILAR: Thank you, guys, so much, Katrina, J.W. I appreciate the conversation.

And the Nevada caucuses are just one week away and concerns over new technology used to report the results have both caucus workers and candidates worried they might see an Iowa caucus repeat. Plus, the revolving door at the White House, familiar faces are making a comeback as the president surrounds himself with loyalists.



KEILAR: Buckle up because the 2020 Democratic race is shifting into high gear from California to the Carolinas, candidates are fanned out across the country. And the next race is only about a week away now. Nevada's caucuses will be held on February 22nd.

And after that disaster in Iowa, the Nevada State Democratic Party scrapped its plans to use apps in its contest. But according to caucus workers and some of the presidential campaigns, how results will be reported isn't entirely clear at this point.

We have National Political Reporter for Yahoo News, Brittany Shepherd, here with us.

And I mean, speaking of Nevada, we need like pins on the map to say where all these candidates are, right? Okay, you've got Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, they are in Nevada today, Bernie Sanders is in North Carolina and Texas, Pete Buttigieg California, Elizabeth Warren South Carolina. Just tell us about this diverging strategy here.

BRITTANY SHEPHERD, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, YAHOO NEWS: Well, right now, a lot of early primary structure is about math, because right now, all the candidates need delegates. So each one is trying to figure out what's their best bet.

So for the folks going to Nevada, they think, okay, they can talk to the first Asian communities voting, the first Latino community voting and kind of banking that they can get those union and left (ph) delegates to hop on that. Then for the folks going to Super Tuesday, like Bernie, he's kind of betting on that he doesn't really need the rest of those early contests to bank out for him because if he's ten points up on Super Tuesday, that's like 100 delegates.

Iowa, North Carolina and South Carolina and New Hampshire can be cute. These are like 40 or 50 delegates.

KEILAR: You say cute?

SHEPHERD: It could be cute. You know, like those are just a handful of delegates. What is really powerful for some of these candidates is Super Tuesday.


And I think that's why you're seeing everyone kind of scrambling everywhere.

KEILAR: Okay. So, South Carolina, primary is a week after Nevada. This is a very different race. It's such a different challenge than, say, Iowa or New Hampshire. And there's a state lawmaker who said it's going to be a leap. Someone we talked said it's going to be a leap for the black community to be comfortable with candidates like Buttigieg and Klobuchar, who are just now introducing themselves. What do you think about that?

SHEPHERD: I mean, I think it will be difficult. I don't know if I'd definitely agree that it's the first time they're introducing themselves. They've been running a presidential campaign for the last year. But when I talk to people on the ground in South Carolina, they still think its Joe Biden's race to lose.

And they don't really take well to be tokenized or being spoken to in a pandering way. So if those candidates can't actually say, this is my plan for black America, this is my plan for southern black America, I can't see them getting much more than a couple of votes.

KEILAR: So they still think it's his race to lose in South Carolina or overall, would you say?

SHEPHERD: I would say in South Carolina. I'm not so confident about overall.

KEILAR: Okay. So because, overall, he's having a hard time, which even he concedes, right? He says, he concedes he lost the first two primaries but he's always said that South Carolina is his firewall. I've heard some people, they don't really like it being called a firewall. But I wonder what happens if he doesn't do so hot in South Carolina?

SHEPHERD: Well, the question for some people in South Carolina is like what's the margin that he wins. If it's 1 percent or 2 percent, then he has to completely re-craft his

pitch to the American public, which has been, since day one, I am the only candidate who can do infrastructure to beat Donald Trump. I am running as de facto nominee. And not winning South Carolina completely scrambles that argument. And so he has to really recalculate everything he has to pitch going forward and also contend with someone like Mike Bloomberg, who is like waiting just a couple of days later to say, well, so much of what you're thinking, I think I'm the only one who can beat Donald Trump.

KEILAR: Let's talk about Mike Bloomberg, because he kind of seems to be getting into the president's head a little bit. They almost seem to speak -- I don't know they have a language they can speak to each other, it seems, more so than we've seen with other candidates. What do you make of this?

SHEPHERD: Well, it's New York sand box fighting, right? And Mike Bloomberg's campaign has told me and many other reporters that they are the only ones with the capacity to kind of get on Donald Trump as level while still being richer, smarter, in their opinion, and better staffed.

So, yes, Mike Bloomberg can tweet at Donald Trump saying that people in New York who we both know think you're an idiot and his staff can say Donald Trump is fat. And I don't know how that plays with all of the voters, but there're definitely some voters who say, oh, well, I like that he can kind of punch where Donald Trump is punching and it could work to his campaign calculus.

KEILAR: Which would be low, punching low. All right, Brittany, thank you so much, Brittany Shepherd.

And in the wake of more and more former aides speaking out against him in the past week, President Trump is now surrounding himself with loyalists including some familiar faces.

Plus, as the president retaliates in the wake of his impeachment, details on how he may be trying to stop aides from hearing his calls with foreign leaders.