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Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees

FBI Conspiracy Theory Knocked Down, President Trump's Allies Persist; President Trump Supports Path to Citizenship For 1.8 Million Immigrants; NY Times: Trump Order Mueller Fired Last June. Aired on 8-8:30p ET

Aired January 25, 2018 - 20:00   ET


[20:00:10] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Good evening. Thanks for joining us.

We have breaking news tonight on a new White House proposal on a path to citizenship for 1.8 million undocumented immigrants in exchange for billions of dollars for the wall and other reforms. We'll get to all of that.

But we begin tonight keeping them honest, with the unraveling of a conspiracy theory -- a conspiracy theory not created and promoted by some fringe radio huckster or cable news caterwauler. No, this one was created and promoted by elected officials on Capitol, Republicans all and part of it was promoted by the president of the United States himself.

There were two aspects to this collapse conspiracy theory, one revolved around a phrase in a single text message that some Republican lawmakers claimed was evidence of a dangerous secret society in the FBI. The other revolved around missing text messages that somehow showed that high-level officials in the FBI were trying to undermine President Trump.

Today, both parts of this conspiracy theory crumbled spectacularly as they often do in the bright light of facts.

Let's take a look at what happened because it tells a story of lawmakers attempting to undermine the premier law enforcement agency in our country, the FBI. The secret society text message was part of an exchange between two FBI officials, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page They were, as you may remember, romantically involved, and they sent a bunch of text during and after the election that included their personal feelings about multiple political figures including Donald Trump.

Strzok was taken off special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation after it was discovered that he had texted some anti- Trump sentiments to Page.

This past weekend, the FBI released a bunch of the text messages to Congress, one in particular caught the eye of multiple Republican congressman who hot-footed it over to Fox News and quoted from the text. The quote read: Perhaps this is the first meeting of the secret society. Now, no one knew the context of that message, a rational person's

first thought might be that this was some kind of an inside joke between two people who are personally involved with one another. But that was not the take of the Republican lawmakers who allegedly believed or wanted to make it seem like they believed that people are forming a secret society in the FBI to undermine the president United States would actually text about it and call it a secret society and not even bother to come up with some sort of cool code word.

The loudest voice singing the secret society sonata was Senator Ron Johnson, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Let me repeat that. He is the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Here he is on Fox News Tuesday night.


SEN. RON JOHNSON (R-WI), CHAIRMAN, HOMELAND SECURITY & GOVERNMENTAL AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: What this is all about is further evidence of corruption, more than bias, but corruption at the highest levels of the FBI. And that secret society, we have -- we have an informant that's talking about a group they were holding secret meetings off- site. There's so much smoke here. There's so much suspicion.

BRET BAIER, FOX NEWS HOST: Let's stop there. A secret society -- the secret meetings off site of the Justice Department?

JOHNSON: Correct.

BAIER : And you have an informant saying that?


BAIER: It has anything more about that?

JOHNSON: No, we have to dig into it.


COOPER: Oh, yes, let's -- do that. Let's dig into it. We said it on this program before, extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof. A secret society in the FBI holding secret off-site meetings is pretty extraordinary claim. An informant who corroborates secret meetings being held off-site, that's also an extraordinary claim.

But the senator offered no proof he didn't show the actual text message and he said nothing more about who the alleged informant might be or what they had claimed. In other words, no proof was offered, extraordinary or even ordinary proof.

CNN's Manu Raju caught up with Senator Johnson just yesterday, asked him what he had to say to people who thought that he prominent United States senator was engaging in conspiracy theories by talking about secret societies.


JOHNSON: That's not my word. That's Lisa Page and Peter Strzok. All I'm saying is I've heard -- I've heard -- you see the text.


COOPER: See the text, he said. Except at that point we couldn't see the text. Johnson released some of the text but conveniently not that one. So, that was yesterday and what a difference a day makes because now we can see the text not because Senator Johnson released it but because news organizations, including ours, got them from other sources.

Here's what it says: The day after the election, Page texted Strzok, quote, are you even going to give out your calendars, seems kind of depressing. Maybe it should just be the first meeting of the secret society.

It doesn't exactly read as a serious text, especially when you consider that the calendar she was talking about, according to sources familiar with the exchange, refer to Vladimir Putin themed calendars that were bought as a gag gift. So, today, Manu Raju caught up with Senator Johnson yet again.


MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Senator, this text message seems to be a comment about secret society was in jest. Do you agree that it appears to be it was in jest?

JOHNS: It's a real possibility.


COOPER: Real possibility. As you saw, he's very eager to get into that office like he was late for his first secret society meeting.

Did you notice something else was missing from the senator's latest comments? He didn't mention anything about his alleged informant who confirmed the secret off-site meetings of FBI officials. The informant he talked about on Fox News on Tuesday.

[20:05:04] We aren't the only ones who noticed the disappearance of this alleged informant. Johnson's fellow senator, Claire McCaskill, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which Johnson chairs today -- chairs, today asked him for evidence to support his claims.

Quote, she said: If the committee has any evidence that the FBI is as you have stated biased and corrupt at the highest levels, I assume that evidence is strong in both quality and quantity and extends far beyond a casual mention in a text message between two agents who are involved in personal crosstalk.

Well, late today, Senator Johnson wouldn't comment any further and said, quote: We will see what the next text say. Yes, the next text, let's get to that. The missing text, that was

part -- that was the second part of this conspiracy theory that was being floated by the president and his allies, the five months of text that were missing, not just between Strzok and Page, mind you, but from about one in 10 FBI phones according to the Department of Justice, due to a misconfiguration glitch.

Now, a number of Republicans on Capitol Hill claimed a cover-up, how convenient, they said, missing text messages, they said. Well, it turns out they're not missing anymore. The Justice Department's inspector general has let lawmakers know they actually successfully used forensic tools to recover all those messages, so much for the conspiracy belief that this was a cover-up. It appears it was a widespread malfunction.

But lawmakers were very quick to jump all over it, despite an absence of any evidence. The irony is these are some of the same Republican lawmakers who've been critical of Democrats for creating conspiracy theories about collusion and not waiting for actual investigations to conclude. This has all become a familiar playbook, someone is a little bit of information or misinformation or information the public hasn't seen and it gets churned into talking points until explodes into a conspiracy theory.

And when one gets debunked by facts, there are plenty more ready to pop up in its place.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes was one of the people very concerned about those missing texts. He also had his staff put together a four-page memo allegedly documenting abuse of the surveillance process under President Obama, a memo that alludes to classified information and has only been seen by members of Congress.

Now, some of those members have been all over Fox News saying this is worse than Watergate. But again, this is information the public hasn't seen been characterized as apocalyptic without evidence and no rebuttal from the Justice Department because they haven't seen it either.

Now, why would the Justice Department not have seen this memo when apparently it alleges some misdeeds or overreach within the Department of Justice? You'd think they'd be the ones who should see it. They've asked but they were told they couldn't it. Why? Not totally clear.

Given the track record though some of these members of Congress, perhaps they would do well to be as transparent as possible, if not with the American people, at least with the organization's they're accusing of some very serious misdeeds.

Joining me now is former FBI senior intelligence adviser, Philip Mudd, and journalist and author, Carl Bernstein.

Carl, what do you make of this idea that that they were taking this idea of a secret society seriously? CARL BERNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Pretty much what you said, but more important, this is a really dangerous moment in our history, when one of the two major political parties is committing itself to the suppression of the rule of law and legitimate investigation, particularly into the president of the United States.

COOPER: That's what they're trying to suppress.

BERNSTEIN: If we cannot have the principle that the president of the United States can be investigated like every other citizen as happened in Watergate and that precedent was established and confirmed by the Supreme Court, if we can't have that kind of unfettered investigation such as Mueller is trying to do, we are as good as a banana republic. And the Republican Party is aiding and abetting the suppression of the rule of law.

And why Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan can't get up and say to their members, look, let Mueller's investigation go forward, quick this grandstanding, let's find out what happened. If there are problems with the investigators, there's plenty of congressional oversight to look at that after the fact, but what we are doing now is also about the future of the Republican Party, because the Republican Party is now tethering itself to Donald Trump, his personality, his stability, the question of his fitness of office, they're throwing in all their cards on this.

But it's going to be defined in the future by how it reacts to the question of the rule of law. That's what's at stake here.

COOPER: Phil, I mean when the president and his allies repeatedly raised questions about any sort of concrete proof about malfeasance at the highest levels of the FBI, I mean, A, what kind of a message does it send to the men and women of the bureau, but also just the long- term impact on the FBI itself.

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Well, let me answer that seriously and then let me give you an anecdote. If you look at the long-term impact on the bureau, if President Bush had come out and said the CIA is not effectively delivering the war against al-Qaeda, people at CIA would have said, wow, the president just hammered us, what happened?

If President Obama had said, the FBI -- when I was there, President Obama was the president -- the FBI is not effectively countering domestic extremists representatives of al Qaeda in America, you would have said, wow, what are we doing wrong?

[20:10:04] When you hammer a thumb a thousand times, the workforce starts to say, this is what President Trump does, he didn't do it once, he didn't do it 10 times, he did a hundred -- he didn't do it a hundred times, every day he's out there going after the federal workforce, I think you step back and say, look, that's what happens inside the beltway, that's what the president says, pay no attention.

I will say -- I hate to add some humor to AC360, but I was part of a secret society. I sat on what's called Mahogany Row, that's about, I don't know, eight, 10, 12 offices down the hallway from the FBI director in that case, it was FBI Director Mueller, that's the executive suite of the FBI, we occasionally, in my suite, a couple of us would send out an email. That email would come out saying we have a staff meeting today at six o'clock.

You know what a staff meeting was, Anderson? That meant because we're an FBI computers were going out for drinks. I guess that would be a secret society because we used a cover turn people across America every day go out for drinks, they talk bad about the boss because they're pissed off in the office. That's not a secret society, that's 50 percent of America who's complaining that they don't like the boss.

This is a nonsense story. It's a mountain out of a molehill and it's a story about the same thing that's happened since the beginning of man people complaining about the boss.

COOPER: It's interesting to me, though, that, Carl, that a senator, in a position that Senator Johnson is in would so quickly go on television, you know, waving flags about this email -- this text which he wasn't revealing, it has only been revealed because reporters did jobs and got sources.

BERNSTEIN: There's been an awful lot of this, from Nunes, from other Republicans. The playbook right now is to go out in front of the cameras with whatever the latest thing down in the reads is that you might grasp to somehow undermine the investigation and smear it and go out there with it. He looks buffoonish in what we see --

COOPER: Because it is the same thing that Republicans were critical of some Democratic lawmakers for jumping on television with every little piece that came out of any testimony and saying, look, they're jumping to conclusions, let the investigation finish.

BERNSTEIN: Well, that's right. But the question is, why not -- why are they so afraid and unwilling to allow the facts to be established by a duly constituted investigation supervised by a Republican Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, by a Republican special counsel, all the cards are held by Republicans here to speak of and the investigation needs to go forward in the interest of the national security of the United States.

And these Republicans are undermining the national security of the United States when they attack our institutions in this unjustified way. Look, the FBI has a terrible history under J. Edgar Hoover. It's righted itself. It's become a respected institution as it should be. We depend on it. It's got some bad actors like any other institution. We got plenty of time to deal with that if it happened here.

We are in the midst of learning what our president, his family, his campaign aides, his closest business associates might have done. We are right at the cusp of finding out. That's what we're watching here is their concern that we're at the cusp of finding out, and they don't want us to find out.

COOPER: Phil, Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley tonight releasing more text between Lisa Page and Peter Strzok. Grassley says evidence of them, quote, pulling punches and Clinton investigation.

One exchange reads and I'll read it, quote: Page said, one more thing, she might be our next president, talking about Clinton, the last thing you need us going in there loaded for bear. You think she's going to remember or care that it was more DOJ than FBI. Strzok says, agreed.

I'm wondering what you make of that because that's been the whole argument by Republicans that the FBI was soft on Clinton and it's going full-tilt against President Trump.

MUDD: Soft on Clinton? Did you see what former FBI Director James Comey said about Clinton after he closed the investigation? Completely -- in my judgment -- completely inappropriate. He as a hardliner I thought in the Clinton investigation. He reopened it as you recall right before the voting last fall -- the voting for a Clinton and Trump, he came out and said before that that we got to reopen the Clinton investigation, he's a softy on Clinton?

He closes the investigation, he takes a shot at her, saying that her use of that email server was completely inappropriate. If you're going to close the case, you can't comment on the personal activities of the person that you just investigated and determined didn't commit a crime. My point is, if you're going to say that the FBI was soft on Clinton, how do you also square the circle to say she comes out and says the FBI was the reason I lost against Trump?

This is like a cartoon show. I don't get it, Anderson.

COOPER: Phil Mudd, Carl Bernstein, thanks very much.

Ahead, breaking news on the president's new immigration plan, including what one White House official called a, quote, dramatic concession. Details on that ahead.

And the very latest on porn story Stormy Daniels.

[20:15:01] We'll hear from Stormy Daniels herself, as well as one of her friends who says she was invited to, quote, come party with then- citizen Donald Trump and Daniels.


COOPER: Look, breaking news tonight, there are a lot of details now about President Trump's new immigration proposal. It's set for public release on Monday. But on Capitol Hill tonight, both Republicans and Democrats are getting a pretty good advance look at what he has in mind.

Sunlen Serfaty joins us now with that.

So, what exactly do we know is in the White House proposal?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, many lawmakers, Anderson, tonight are briefed by White House officials on the framework of this proposal. First and foremost, it outlines a pathway to citizenship for so-called Dreamers. That would apply to about 1.8 million people. White House officials are calling this tonight a dramatic concession on their part.

It calls for $25 billion for border security. That's $20 billion for the wall and the rest will go towards things like securing ports of entry. It calls for family -- cuts the family reunification, what some conservatives call chain migration, cutting family-based green cards except for spouses and minor children and ends the visa lottery.

You know, for weeks now, lawmakers up here on Capitol Hill have been calling on the White House to get specific, to lay out exactly what President Trump would sign into law. So, clearly, they are laying this out as a starting point, way out saying that they want lawmakers now to go back and digest this and then, of course, come up with actual legislative text.

[20:20:00] COOPER: I'm wondering what the reactions been on Capitol Hill from both sides of the aisle so part of this?

SERFATY: Yes, both sides really finding something to dislike in this plan. You have, of course, many Democrats first and foremost very happy with the potential for a pathway to citizenship, but to what extent, saying that they're giving away essentially too much, that it's coming in exchange for all essentially all those other things that I just outlined there, very incensed about.

We just heard from Senator Dick Durbin who, of course, has been one of the chief negotiators of this up here on Capitol Hill. He says Dreamers should not be held hostage by President Trump's -- by President Trump's desire -- he uses the word "crusade" to tear families apart.

And some colorful language tonight coming from Congressman Luis Gutierrez, really mincing no words. He says, quote, $25 billion as ransom for Dreamers, with cuts to legal immigration and increases to deportations doesn't pass the laugh test. It would be far cheaper to erect a 50-foot concrete statue of a middle finger and point it towards Latin America because both a wall and the statue would be equally offensive and equally ineffective, and both would express Trump's deeply held suspicion of Latinos.

Keep in mind, though, some Republicans not too happy about parts of this plan, too, saying that essentially, they think the president is giving away too much many conservatives of course viewing a pathway to citizenship as being tantamount to amnesty.

COOPER: Yes, battle ahead, no doubt.

Sunlen Serfaty, thanks very much.

Twenty-four hours ago, a long time ago in the new normal, the Trump presidency, the president said he was more than happy to talk with the team from special counsel Robert Mueller's office.


REPORTER: Are you going to talk to Mueller? DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm looking forward to

it, actually.

REPORTER: You want to.


TRUMP: Just so you understand, there's been no collusion whatsoever. There's no obstruction whatsoever. And I'm looking forward --

REPORTER: You have a date set, Mr. President?

TRUMP: I don't know. No. I guess you're talking about two, three weeks. I would love to do it.

REPORTER: In person?

TRUMP: I have to say, subject to my lawyers and all that, but I would love to do it.


COOPER: Well, tonight comes word from President Trump's outside attorney in Washington, not so fast.

CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger joins us now with the details on that.

So, President Trump says he would love to do it. What's his attorney now saying?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, John Dowd is saying, I spoke with him tonight. He said that he is going to be the one to decide if the president is going to sit down for an interview to the special counsel and moreover, he said, I haven't made any decision yet.

So, there's a lot of cleanup going on here, Anderson. I mean, the president did caveat his statement a little last night, saying, you know, subject to his attorneys. And so his attorney today said, not so fast.

COOPER: Right, Gloria, there's actually more breaking news happening right now. I believe we have Maggie Haberman on the phone. Do we have Maggie?


COOPER: Maggie Haberman for "The New York Times" is on the phone. Maggie, what's this breaking story that's just breaking now?

HABERMAN: Sure, my colleague Mike Schmidt and I -- and thanks for having me -- just reported that the president last June ordered the White House counsel Don McGahn to fire the special counsel Robert Mueller. McGahn protested and threatened to quit if he was ordered to go through with this. The president ultimately back down. This is the first time that we know of, Anderson, of the president

actually engaging in this and doing what has been seen as an option he was keeping open, and he was very consciously keeping it open last July in an interview at "The Times" in the Oval Office. He has since said, no, I'm not thinking of firing Robert Mueller. Obviously, it would have created a massive earthquake had he done so.

COOPER: So, I mean, let's just repeat this because this is this is really huge.

In June, this was June of this past year, of 2017.

HABERMAN: Yes, that is correct.

COOPER: And he actually went through and asked Don McGahn, the White House counsel, to do that.

HABERMAN: Yes, yes. He ordered him to do it or he ordered the fire -- he ordered the firing of him and McGahn said, if this happens, I will quit and that is that is how it ultimately went away. McGahn is not the first person who said to quit to impact the president's behavior. John Kelly did a few times early on his tenure as chief of staff.

COOPER: I'm just trying to remember -- I mean, it's hard to remember back in June because even though it's just you know six months ago or so it feels like a lot ages ago what else was happening around that time that would have led the president had in that moment to try to fire Mueller.

HABERMAN: It's a great question. It was -- it was a couple months after obviously he had fired Comey and it was during a period of time where he was talking both about Mueller and increasingly taking aim at Jeff Sessions. He was very frustrated, he was very angry that this was taking place.

There were new reports about Mueller's activity and what he was looking into and that was a moment in time when Mueller was under the president's watch, when the president's former lawyer from New York, Marc Kasowitz, who had been his personal wear for a very long time, was leading the defense team for the president, he had a much more adversarial approach than the current lawyers do who are representing the president.

[20:25:04] And I think that may have affected it.

COOPER: Was this I believe -- it was your reporting about, you know, not only was he publicly going after Sessions, that Sessions at one point according -- I think it was your reporting -- had offered to resign, is that not -- is that correct?

HABERMAN: That is -- that is absolutely correct.

COOPER: Was that around this time?

HABERMAN: It was -- I got to start to your point that we can't remember, I actually think that was --

COOPER: That was earlier I think.

HABERMAN: Earlier I believe, I think that might have been May or June. There was a -- there was a period of time and it was over several weeks where it happened where the president was berating Sessions over the refusal from the Russia probe and Sessions at one point offered his resignation, you know, the president wouldn't accept it, but then sessions still handed in a letter, the president said he wouldn't accept the resignation but it took a while until he gave a letter back. And this played out over a long period of time, longer than this issue with Mueller did.

COOPER: Maggie, if you can't just stay with us. I want to bring back, Carl Bernstein, Gloria Borger and Kaitlan Collins.

Carl, I mean -- pretty stunning.

BERNSTEIN: It's stunning. It's a huge story and I'm going to assume that Maggie is as good a reporter as she's always is, and that the fact that the White House counsel threatened to resign over this. But what it shows once again is that the president at all costs does not want this investigation to go forward, that he is in some way terrified of where this is going.

He does not want to allow the facts to emerge. He does not want the rule of law to prevail, and it's time it would seem to me as we were saying in the earlier segment, that Republicans start demanding that their party say, let us get to the end of this investigation.

This story should be the turning point for the Republicans to say, we need a conclusion to this investigation without further interference obstruction undermining and demeaning by President Trump and the White House.

COOPER: Kaitlan, I mean, it's hard to overstate. You had Don McGahn not, you know, drawn a line here what the ramifications of firing Mueller would have been.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Exactly, because look at the relationship. Not only is Don McGahn been around since back during the campaign, he was also around for all of the scrutiny that is surrounding the president, everything Mueller is looking at, including the firing of the FBI Director James Comey, Don McGahn has played a key role in all of that, advising the president, been a huge part of this investigation the special counsels investigation.

So, if he had turned around and fired the special counsel, the ramifications for that would have been -- you -- just -- I can't even overstate how crazy that would have been.

COOPER: We also have Gloria Borger and Dana Bash. I want to go to them in a second.

But, Maggie -- just -- is it -- had Don McGahn, has he -- do we know -- has he spoken to Robert Mueller? Has he been interviewed by Robert Mueller? Do we know?

HABERMAN: I'm not sure whether he is among the people who had gone in or not. Most people who currently are in the White House before left the White House I've already been in for at least one round.

COOPER: This would have been something -- I wonder if this would have been something that Robert Mueller himself was aware of previously or at that time.

HABERMAN: I don't know the answer to that, so I don't want to speculate. But if he -- if McGahn has been in already and this didn't come up, I feel confident saying that he will likely get called back for another interview, and this will get raised.

COOPER: Gloria Borger, what do you make of the story?

BORGER: I think Don McGahn has already testified, and I agree with Maggie that if it wasn't raised, he'll be -- he'll be asked about it. I -- you know, Don McGahn is a witness here in a lot of ways. Don't forget, Sally Yates went to Don McGahn about General Flynn and that was 18 days before Flynn was eventually fired.

COOPER: Right. She was the point -- he was the point person. She was --

BORGER: He was the point person. And, you know, we've been told throughout this year that Don McGahn and the president have had a very uneasy relationship and there were times that the president wanted to get rid of Don McGahn.

And so, I think if the president listened to him, it's because it's clear that he was also and, Maggie, this is your great story that he -- he was hearing also the cries from people outside from Congress and elsewhere saying that this would effectively create a constitutional crisis. And I think McGahn was probably of that -- of that school and not surprisingly threatened to quit, according to this great story.

COOPER: And, Dana Bash, I mean, if memory serves me and again I don't want to conflate events, but there were plenty of people or have been plenty of people on Capitol Hill warning about the impact of firing or at least months ago, warning about the impact of firing Robert Mueller.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely impacted. There has been bipartisan legislation proposed, Republicans and Democrats, with the explicit intention of saying, Mr. President, you cannot or should not fire Robert Mueller.

The one thing that I want to add here just by way of context, Anderson, is in all these months and year plus of talking to people in and around the president, people who are still in the White House, people who are not in the White House anymore, in the campaign.

One of the themes that I hear over and over is the desire by the President to fire X, Y or Z person depending on the hour, depending on the minute, depending on the story he's watching on cable TV. Obviously, the Special Counsel in charge of investigating Russia collusion and now potentially obstruction of justice is a whole different league. But it is in keeping with kind of how he operates. That he gets frustrated. He gets angry. He gets annoyed, and he threatens to fire somebody, and it has been, I'm told, there have been several instances where his senior staff have -- they've had this sort of stand in front of the train and say no, Mr. President, you can't do that. That did not happen with James Comey. it did happen, according to Maggie's reporting with Robert Mueller. And I just think that that is very telling. But it is important to --


BASH: -- piece of evidence --


BASH: -- to talk about in terms of thousand preside how this President operates.

COOPER: Maggie, just for, you know, as more people join, I just want you to -- if you could just kind of repeat the main parts of this story. And I just want to point out, this is a story which has -- just break, the "New York Times" just breaking this Michael Schmidtt and Maggie Haberman reporting on this. So Maggie just explain again the broad strokes on this.

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Sure, and forgive me, because I'm losing my voice a little bit. But Michael Schmidt and I reported based on accounts from --f or people are familiar with what took place, that the President had ordered the firing of Robert Mueller, the Special Counsel back in June of 2017, Don McGahn, the White House counsel threatened to resign if this went ahead and ultimately that made the President back off.

This is the first time that we are aware of it, of the President actually ordering such a thing as opposed to keeping the option open or just sort of musing about it. And it is significant, it's also worth noting that we asked the White House for comment on this, and what we got in response from Ty Cobb was -- that, you know, out of respect for the process and Special Counsel's office that they wouldn't comment.

COOPER: I want to go to our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin who's on the phone as well. Jeff, how big a deal is this?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it's a very big deal politically. I mean, you know, it's yet another remarkable scoop by Maggie and Mike Schmidt. But I think -- I don't think it can be used as evidence against Trump for obstruction of justice, because there was no ultimate obstruction of justice. He didn't actually fire, he didn't actually fire Mueller. If I could just dab as the legal matter, the three purported justifications in Maggie's story that Trump supposedly cited as conflicts of interest on the part of Mueller that he quit a golf club, that -- you know, a Trump golf club, that his firm used to represent Jared Kushner and that he had been interviewed for the FBI job. I think those are preposterous arguments. But that is not a legitimate grounds for any claim of conflict of interest.

So, you know, I think Don McGahn saved the President from at least a major, major political crisis and, you know, firing Robert Mueller, I think he's the only thing in this whole situation that might motivate some Republicans to abandon the President. You know, and I think Don McGahn saved the President from that fate.

COOPER: Maggie, I want to ask you a question. You may not know the answer to it. You said this was based on four people you talked to with information. A decision like this or a desire like this by the President just in terms of the inner workings of the White House, how widespread would that knowledge be? I mean would the President's, you know, would the chief of staff know about it? Would -- or is this something that the President would just go to Don McGahn with? And, again, you may not know the details. Maggie, are you still there?

HABERMAN: I'm sorry, I couldn't hear you.

COOPER: I'm sorry. Yes, I'm just saying how -- you may not know the answer to this, but how widespread would this information have been within the President's inner circle, is this something that -- and just in terms of how the White House works. Is this something the President would have, you know, spit balled with the chief of staff and then gone to Don McGahn? Or is this something the president would just gone directly to Don McGahn about?

HABERMAN: I don't want to speculate exactly how broad the circle is it, would have known about this for --


HABERMAN: -- to present. But, you know, it is a White House where certainly, until, you know, I would say April or May, and that pretty what I speculate. There was a very small group of people who were involved in almost every decision. That changed somewhat after there was a falling out between Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon.

[20:35:06] COOPER: OK. We'll continue to follow that. I mean Carl, again, to the notion that the President of the United States, that this, I mean who else is there left, would there be left for him to fire, and if he wants to try to stop this investigation. At the time he had already fired Comey.

CARL BERNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: He is determined to make this investigation go away. He has made it clear to those around him, and in fact, I'll ask Maggie this as well, and then I've been hearing in the last three weeks that he has become even more (INAUDIBLE) about the need for this investigation to go away and to the point where people are talking in the White House about it being an unstable place and at the level of instability is caused by his rants and rages, particularly about this damn spot that won't go out.

That he seems consumed by where this investigation is going. If it involves his daughter. His son-in-law. His son. Himself. And he feels, apparently, that he's being closed in on. And it's affecting the whole temper of the White House and the question of whether the White House itself is a place of stability.

COOPER: It was interesting though Kaitlan. Yesterday in that 15- minute off-camera discussion the President had answering questions to reporters, he described all the actions which others might describe as attempts at obstruction, he described it as fighting back.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Exactly. He's that's how he saw it, not as tampering or obstruction of justice but he also is fighting back. But it's interesting to look at what the President has said privately about Robert Mueller according to Maggie's reporting and what he said publicly, because he said publicly many times that he was not going to fire him, he had no plans to fire him. His spokesman have also echoed that. And just last night during that briefing reporters, he said he was looking forward to sitting down with him. He was happy to testify under oath to wrap all of this up, so it's very interesting to say that publicly he's saying of course he's cooperating, his happy to seat down, but in private he's threatening to fire him.

And just something to know, I believe the reporting is that -- it was this June, in the summer when he asked him to fire him, and we reported that Don McGahn was interviewed by the Special Counsel around the end of November, early December, just to put that in perspective for everyone.

COOPER: We're going to take a quick break. Everyone is going to stick around. Again, the breaking news tonight from the "New York Times" last June, the President ordered the firing the Special Counsel Robert Mueller but backed down after the White House counsel threatened to quit. We'll be right back with more.


[20:40:59] COOPER: Breaking news tonight, President Trump reportedly wanted to fire Robert Mueller and actually ordered that to happen last June. This is new reporting -- new reporting tonight, just breaking in the last 30 or so minutes from Maggie Haberman and Michael Schmidt, the "New York Times". I think four people acknowledge of the matter. The reporting is the President ordered the firing of Special Counsel Robert Mueller but backed down once the White House counsel threatened to quit. Back with Maggie Haberman who has break story, Carl Bernstein, Kaitlan Collins, Gloria Borger and Dana Bash. Also joining the conversation is Michael Zeldin, Mueller's former special assistant at the Department of Justice.

Gloria, I understand you just got something from Ty Cobb? The president --

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. And Ty Cobb basically said to us what he said to Maggie and the "Times", that he's not commenting on this out of respect for the Special Counsel. One point I'd want to make here is that Ty Cobb and the new lawyers, John Dowd, et cetera, were not on board at the time that this occurred. This was the other team, this was Marc Kasowitz, et cetera, the President's New York lawyers, and they are in the Donald Trump School of being belligerent. And I think that this was Trump being Trump. And that when Dowd came on and Jay Sekulow came on and Ty Cobb came on, they implored the President and said back off the attacking of Mueller.

We are going to cooperate with Muller. You have nothing to hide. We are going to, you know, basically show that we are going to be completely transparent and cooperate and you saw the President kind of back down a little. He hasn't been tweeting about Mueller since, since last July. And so it's been a real change of strategy, and they've managed --


BORGER: -- you know, they've managed to calm the President down to a degree. And back last June, as Maggie's story shows, the President was really in a swivet about Mueller.

COOPER: Maggie Haberman, in your piece in the "Times", which is online now, reporting Michael Schmidt, do you go through sort of the three things that the President used or seem to justify wanted to fire Robert Mueller, believing that he couldn't be, that he wouldn't be fair or impartial. One of them included old golf fees at one of his resorts?

HABERMAN: Right, which I -- for those of us who have covered the President for a very long time, which a number of people on this panel have, or interviewed him many times, I don't think that comes as any surprise that that's something he would have been talking about. Other issues that they talked about is that he had been, Mueller had been at the law firm for one of the lawyers for Jared Kushner in his pre-Special Counsel days, and the last one was that Mueller had been a candidate interviewing to come back as an interim FBI director to replace Comey.

The last two were discussed on background by advisers to the President who were in the White House at the time. And this was, this was, this was something that they were clearly hearing from him, and they were expressing, as to why Mueller was problematic. But it was clearly not in the context of oh, well, you know, the President also wanted him to be fired.

COOPER: And just, the golf fees, which is the one that was not discussed back then, it was that Mueller had, there was a dispute over golf fees at some Trump resort and Mueller had canceled his membership or his firm?

HABERMAN: Or something, I'm not entirely clear on what exactly ended up happening.


HABERMAN: In terms of the golf fees. I'm not sure that to me, it didn't matter that much, it just simply was -- it was just very much the type of thing I could see occurring.

COOPER: Michael Zeldin, we haven't heard from you, how big of an impact would this have had had the President been able to follow his instincts and do what he wanted which according to the "New York Times" and Maggie and Michael Schmidt is was fire Mueller in June?

[20:44:59] MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, a couple of thing. First, from a political standpoint is other have said, I think it would have been his own Saturday night massacre, and Carl can tell us how that worked out for the last firing of Special Counsel. From a legal standpoint, I think it would have added a great deal of emphasis on the effort to charge the President with obstruction of justice and/or file an article of impeachment, you know, a recommendation for the article of impeachment with the House, because this would be obstructionist behavior. He has no legal basis to fire Mueller. There are specific regulations that govern Mueller's conduct. The made up good cause kind of interest that Maggie reports on would not have cut it and again was protected of the President. Rosenstein would have quit. I think Rachelle Brand would have, because this is not allowed under this regulation.

And so I think, had the President not been sort of well-served by McGahn, he would be facing either respective indictment for obstruction of justice. So I mean President can be indicted or a referral for article of impeachment. I think this would have been a camel-breaking straw for even those Republicans who are pretty much lined up in his favor at the moment.

COOPER: I just want to play, now that we have this new report from the "New York Times," the President's friend, Chris Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax talking last June to PBS, the same month the "New York Times" now reporting the President ordered Mueller to be fired. Let's play this.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You suggested, I think I heard you suggesting that there's a question about the purpose of his investigation. I want to ask you about that, because there are some Republicans out there saying that Robert Mueller shouldn't be doing this job? Is President Trump prepared to let the Special Counsel pursue his investigation?

CHRIS RUDDY, CEO, NEWSMAX: Well, I think he's considering perhaps terminating the Special Counsel. I think he's weighing that option. I think it's pretty clear by what one of his lawyers said on television recently. I personally think it would be a very significant mistake, even though I don't --


COOPER: Interesting now to hear. Maggie, it's interesting to hear Chris Ruddy who, you know, clearly talks with the President with some regularity saying that.

HABERMAN: Yes, I mean its really striking and honestly Anderson, I was thinking about this, when there was some of the conversation before. You know, there is less of a concern that I have heard and colleagues earlier, less of a concern that I have heard him in the White House, about the idea that the President will fire Mueller, although obviously, I think that lives on as a concern even if it's an unspoken one, that there's been an effort by Ty Cobb and Gloria talks about this earlier, to sort of simmer down the attention on Mueller with the President and be less aggressive and just, you know, say we have nothing to hide, be transparent.

But part of that strategy has been Ty Cobb telling the President, this is going to be over very soon, which he really doesn't know, but they don't really have a lot of great options on dealing with the President. What I do hear concern about among his advisers within the White House, and they are pretty blunt about this. They're very worried about when he goes before Mueller, because while he didn't seem to understand this yesterday when I asked him about being under oath, if you lie to the FBI, lying to federal investigation, is a felony. They -- the people in the White House are concerned about what he will say in that interview.

COOPER: What's also interesting Maggie, I mean to that point, the fact that in a 15-minute conversation which you were in with reporters yesterday, which was not on camera, the President's attorneys immediately had to walk back some of the things he had said in that sort of free-wheeling discussion. So the concern that supporters of the President might have about what he would say in front of Robert Mueller, it's pretty understandable why they would be concerned if in an 15-minute chat, the President's lawyers have to immediately come out afterward and sort of walk back, well, you know, it's really going to be up to us, it's not going to be, you know, what the President just said.

HABERMAN: Sure, one of the things that we have seen with this President over three years now is the number of times he will say something and his aides will say, that's just how he talks, that's just how he talks, that's just how he talks. And a Special Counsel is not going to care if that is just how he talks. If, you know, oh yes he said, he was going to fire, he really mean X, Y, Z, that's for instance.

That's not going to cut it in an investigation, and so I think to your point, yes, you have the President, you know, he is prone to saying things that then have to be cleaned up about any number of issues. And yesterday was a, a very specific and potentially flawed example.

COOPER: Dana Bash, Michael Zeldin was talking about, this could be the President's Saturday night massacre, referring to President Nixon and that, you know, there would have been perhaps even move to for impeachment.

[20:50:04] What do you think the impact on Capitol Hill would have been? Had the President got his way and fire Robert Mueller in June?

BASH: Oh it would have been -- it would have been a political and legal and constitution explosion. But there's no question about it. The Comey firing was almost the last straw. This would have been the last straw even for Republicans who have been biting their tongues much to the chagrin of the President's opponents. Absolutely.

But I think that the context that Gloria mentioned before is so important. The fact is, it was right around this time that Marc Kasowitz, the President's lawyer who was dealing with all of this from his business days helped find Ty Cobb and John Dowd and the people who were helping to run this now and the fact of the matter is this is why those two individuals and Don McGahn as well for the past six, seven months since that period, their number one goal in addition to defending the President with regard to Mueller is managing the President. It is why they have repeatedly said, oh no Mr. President, it's going to be over Thanksgiving, Christmas, by the end of year and said so publicly and privately because they want to keep him calm.

COOPER: Right.

BASH: And that is, this is exhibit a --


BASH: -- of why that happened.

BASH: It's just the Carl's point, we end -- I want to hear more from our panel. We have to take a quick break. Much more ahead on this fascinating breaking news. The President ordered Mueller to be fired last June according to "New York Times". Back downed after the White House Counsel threatened to quit. Details ahead.


[20:50:19] COOPER: The breaking news from the "New York Times", President Trump ordered for Special Counsel Robert Mueller to be fired. That the White House Counsel Don McGahn threatened to quit if he did, so he backed down. This is reporting tonight from Maggie Haberman and Michael Schmidt of the "New York Times", citing four people with knowledge of the matter. Let's listen to what White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said just two days ago when asked about Mueller.


SARAH SANDERS, PRESS SECRETARY, WHITE HOUSE: We're going to be fully cooperative with the Special Counsel. And we're not going to continue to do that throughout the process. But we're also not going to comment on who may or may not or could be interviewed at any point.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But it is Sarah, which on as the President had said, and other members of administration have said. Why doesn't the President just get rid of Bob Mueller, just fire him. And (INAUDIBLE) it's wasting taxpayer's money. In that regard, why doesn't he end the investigation because it's wasting the taxpayer's money?

SANDERS: Look, we want to see this come to a complete and full conclusion. I think we all know what everybody in this room would do if the President did that. I don't think that's helpful to the process.


COOPER: Back now with Carl Bernstein, Kaitlan Collins, Gloria Borger, Dana Bash and Michael Zeldin. Kaitlan, it is interesting, I'm just looking over the President's tweets from June at this time that according to "New York Times" he wanted to fire and try to fire Robert Mueller. And it is, it's a lot of tweets. June 15th. Phony collusion with the Russia's story, talking about witch hunts, June 16th saying there's no collusion. Nobody has been able to show any proofs ad. Again, June 16th, phony witch hunt. And then June 16th, I'm being investigated for firing the FBI director by the man who told me to fire the FBI director. Witch hunt.

COLLINS: Yes, so we see the President's frustrations with this kicking up around that. because every now that it goes (INAUDIBLE) won't say anything, lately he's said, oh I'm willing to cooperate. I'm not considering firing him. President tends, so we see back then when he was asking him to fire him, what happened.

And something else I'd like to point out is the "New York Times" is reporting that the President asked Don McGahn to fire Bob Mueller and he declined. With the "New York Times" has also reported in the past that the President asked Don McGahn to lobby Jeff Sessions to not recuse himself from the Russia investigation. And as we're all well aware those efforts failed because Jeff Sessions in the end did recuse himself. The President fired the FBI director Robert Mueller was appointed.

So now, we see why the President has been so frustrated with not only this investigation but also his attorney general who he has pressured --


COLLINS: -- very publicly to step down and said he would not have picked him if he knew he would recuse himself.

COOPER: And Carl, the central role that Don McGahn has played throughout this?

BERNSTEIN: McGahn restraining the President of the United States but what an ordinary discussion we're having here. We are talking about the senior leadership of a presidency which is spending its time trying to restrain the basic instincts of the President of the United States day after day after day and those basics instincts they are trying to restrain involve breaking the law. And that's what this investigation, that's what the last year has been about.

Gloria talked earlier about Trump being Trump in this instance. Well part of what the whole Mueller investigation is about is Trump being Trump. The way he conducts his business, the way that conducted his campaign, the way he has responded to these investigations. We've never had anything quite like this where the White House staff, those who are in daily contact with the President of the United States, see their primary function is trying to keep the President of the United States from doing terrible things.

COOPER: And Gloria Borger, I mean again Dana made this point earlier, the impact on Capitol Hill had this happen would have been quick and severe.

BORGER: Right. So the President is hearing that Don McGahn would quit but is also, this was a topic of -- of public topic of conversation at the time. As, you know, Anderson, in our crack research team here came -- just came up with a bunch of statements the President made last the summer of 2017, August 10th. The President was actually asked and when he was in Bedminster, would you consider firing Bob Mueller? have you considered it?

And in August he said, and I quote, "I haven't given it any thought. I mean I've been reading about it from you people. You say, oh I'm going to dismiss him. No, I'm not dismissing anybody". But I haven't given it any thought. And now we learn from Maggie's story that indeed he had.

COOPER: Yes. Perhaps no surprise with that. Gloria Borger, I want to thank all our panelists, Kaitlan Collins, Carl Bernstein, as well. Michael Zeldin and Maggie Haberman.

That's it for us. Obviously this is major story tonight. It is time to hand it over to Chris Cuomo for "Cuomo Prime Time". Chris?