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Deputy AG: No Reason To Fire Special Counsel Mueller; Sessions To Testify On Russia Probe And Comey Firing; North Korea Releases Jailed American Student. Aired 11-11:30a ET
Aired June 13, 2017 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ROD ROSENSTEIN, DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: I understand there are serious allegations that have been raised, and I think that it's up to Director Mueller to determine in the first instance whether any of these issues were within the scope of the investigation. That's why I haven't commented on it. I just appointed him several weeks ago.
I haven't talked to him about the substance of the investigation since then, but I recognize the importance of these questions, and I think that Director Mueller ought to review that and make a determination of whether or not he believes it is within the scope of his investigation.
SENATOR CHRISTOPHER COONS (D), DELAWARE: I appreciate that answer. It is distinct from an answer I got from you previously in another setting, so I want to make sure I understand you.
ROSENSTEIN: Well --
COONS: Well, and I'll proceed carefully. Let's see if we can get to an answer that's appropriate in a public setting. Is it not your argument that the attorney general made a recommendation to hire or fire the FBI director because that's outside his recusal? The scope of his recusal doesn't affect his ability to manage the department.
ROSENSTEIN: I do have a personal opinion about that, Senator. I just don't think it's appropriate for me to be expressing my personal opinion about that. I hope I haven't said anything inconsistent with what I've said elsewhere, and please let me know if I have, but yeah, I do not want to comment on the recusal.
I think the attorney general made the decision to recuse. I wasn't there at the time, as you know, and there were processes, decisions that had already been made before I arrived about what matters would be appropriate for the attorney general to handle.
When I stepped in, I continued consistent with what had been done by these career professionals in the department, and I believe that I have faithfully within the department honored that recusal with regard to matters pending the Department of Justice, but I just want to comment on what may have been on anybody else's mind or offer any opinion about that because it's not for me to make those decisions. COONS: Well, it is exactly, I think, why Senator Schatz asked a whole series of questions about the scope of recusal, because I am a lawyer. Senator Schatz may not be. He asked better questions than I did, but I also am having real difficulty understanding the scope of the recusal, its contours in definition.
And I have an unresolved question about whether or not that's why the attorney general failed to appear before us today, is to avoid having to answer direct questions about the scope of his recusal.
I do appreciate and respect your appointment of a highly talented special counsel, and there have been questions from both sides that imply strong support for his independence and his conduct, and I appreciate the care with which you are answering my questions.
But I'm simply going to conclude by saying I have unanswered questions that perhaps can only be answered by the attorney general himself, and it is my hope that we will have him appear before both the Judiciary Committee and the Appropriations Committee charged with overseeing the funding for the department he is currently directing. Thank you.
SENATOR THAD COCHRAN (R), CHAIRMAN, APPROPRIATIONS COMMITTEE: Senator Graham?
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Thank you, Mr. Rosenstein. Why isn't Jeff Sessions here today?
ROSENSTEIN: Senator, my understanding is consistent with what was in the attorney general's letter. I don't know of any other reasons beyond what he set forth publicly.
GRAHAM: OK. This 13 June, do you know of any reason for cause to fire Mr. Mueller, as of this date?
ROSENSTEIN: No, I do not, Senator.
GRAHAM: And that would be your decision, if that ever happened, right?
ROSENSTEIN: That's correct.
GRAHAM: And you're going to make it, nobody else?
ROSENSTEIN: As long as I'm in this position, Senator, it will be my responsibility to make that decision.
GRAHAM: Well, I'm glad you're in this position. Is giving political donations a reason to disqualify somebody for serving in the Special Counsel's Office?
ROSENSTEIN: No, Senator, it is not a disqualification. It is not.
GRAHAM: As a matter of fact, many states, the judges and prosecutors are actually elected. Donations are a part of that system, is that correct?
ROSENSTEIN: Yes, that's true.
GRAHAM: Would it be a disqualification for somebody in the Special Counsel's Office who had represented Ms. Clinton in the past to serve?
ROSENSTEIN: You know, Senator, it would depend on the facts and circumstances. As a general matter, I think the answer's no.
GRAHAM: Isn't that much closer to a conflict of interest?
ROSENSTEIN: I don't want to answer a hypothetical, Senator. Everybody needs to make a determination based on the facts and circumstances of the individual case.
GRAHAM: How would you get it before the special counsel? What process could a member of the Senate use to inform the special counsel that you'd have a concern about hiring somebody that represented Clinton?
ROSENSTEIN: We have a process within the Department of Justice, Senator, so I would encourage you if you have those concerns to raise them with Director Mueller or to raise them with me, and I'll make sure --
GRAHAM: Should I do it to you or him?
ROSENSTEIN: Well, you could do it to both.
GRAHAM: OK. That's fair enough.
ROSENSTEIN: And we have career --
GRAHAM: And I don't know if I'll do that, but I've read some things that were -- I don't think donations are disqualifying at all, but if you represented the Clinton Foundation or Clinton herself, that would be a bit disturbing to me, but I'll take care of that.
[11:05:01]As to Russia, do you have any doubt that the 17 intelligence agencies report that was submitted last year, or early this year that Russia interfered in our election is accurate?
ROSENSTEIN: Senator, this is an issue that's discussed at my confirmation hearing and several of you attended that. At that point, I had access only to the public --
ROSENSTEIN: -- information from which classified information --
GRAHAM: So, what can you tell us now?
ROSENSTEIN: I now have access to classified information, and I think that assessment made by the intelligence community is justified based upon the investigation and the evidence they had.
GRAHAM: Thank you very much. What role did you play in crafting this budget? Where did this budget come from for the Department of Justice?
ROSENSTEIN: I appreciate that question, Senator. The budget actually is a product primarily of career professionals in the department.
KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Hello, everyone. I am Kate Bolduan. You have been listening to some fascinating testimony from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein testifying before a Senate committee, a job until a couple of days ago he didn't actually know he was going to have. That was supposed to be Attorney General Jeff Sessions there.
Rod Rosenstein, though, step sitting in and facing some very tough questions. He's also saying very clearly that Rosenstein says he sees no good reason to fire the special counsel in the Russia investigation, Robert Mueller, a move that the president is said to be considering at this moment.
All of this a prelude, if you can believe it, to the second blockbuster hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee that is in less than a week. That is coming in just a few hours from now.
That is when Rosenstein's boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, he will be facing what is sure to be a grilling about the Russia investigation and his role in the firing of FBI Director James Comey.
A lot to get to, what we knew, what we've known already, and what we just learned from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Joining me now for the political and the legal analysis of this, CNN politics reporter and editor-at-large, Chris Cilizza.
Peter Zeidenberg is here, a former federal prosecutor who worked in the George W. Bush White House, served as assistant special counsel in the CIA leak investigation under Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.
And Diane Marie Amann is here as well, associate dean for International Programs and Strategic Initiative at the University of Georgia School of Law. All, thank you so much for being here and listening in with me on this fascinating testimony from Rod Rosenstein.
Peter, first to you. What we heard from Mr. Rosenstein there, saying that he saw no good reason to fire Robert Mueller. And under questioning, if he was told to, directed to fire Robert Mueller, he said that he would not do that. He would not take -- I'm not going to follow any orders unless I believe they are lawful and appropriate orders. So, is this case closed, story over on this?
PETER ZEIDENBERG, FORMER ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: Well, it is as far as Mr. Rosenstein's concerned, but it's certainly -- if the president were determined to fire Mueller, he would find, presumably, someone to do it. So, you'd have something like the Saturday night massacre, where he would be directing Rosenstein to fire Mr. Mueller.
And if Rod Rosenstein refused, he would have to fire Rod Rosenstein, and then he would have to find his successor, someone in the Department of Justice who's been confirmed, and ask him or direct him or her to do it. So, it would be a blood bath.
BOLDUAN: I mean, and if it went down the route ala Watergate and how that played out, Diane, what would the fallout be? What would happen to the investigation?
DIANE MARIE AMANN, ASSOCIATE DEAN, UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA SCHOOL OF LAW: Well, if we look at history, we know that the firing of special prosecutors by President Nixon was essentially the watershed moment that led eventually to his resignation. It really becomes as much as anything a political question of what the reaction would be, particularly from the members of Congress who have the power to impeach to this kind of behavior.
BOLDUAN: Can we just take one moment? Chris, as we're kind of -- we're three steps in, because that's where the news is -- let's take two steps back, if we could, Chris. Here is what we knew as of this morning.
We basically knew that the president -- no one knows where the president's thinking is in terms of keeping or firing Robert Mueller. Chris Ruddy, a good friend of his, he said this morning that the president is considering firing Robert Mueller.
A source close to President Trump, though, says that it is unlikely that he will fire Bob Mueller, but leaving the door open that no one knows exactly where the president's thinking may be. How did we get here?
CHRIS CILIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER AND EDITOR-AT-LARGE: That's a really good question, Kate, because I think your first point is the first thing anyone should ever say when it relates to will Donald Trump do something or not do something, which is no one knows what Donald Trump is thinking. Sometimes not even Donald Trump in that he can say one thing on a Tuesday and say the opposite thing on a Wednesday and see no real issue there.
[11:10:12]We got here because we live now in an extremely hyper- partisan times. Donald Trump did not create those times. He has made them worse and everything is seen through a political lens. So, now we have Trump allies.
And Chris Ruddy is one of those folks, but I wouldn't put him in this category. I'd put Newt Gingrich, former House speaker in this category. We have Trump allies and Trump himself running down Bob Mueller, saying the special counsel is a witch hunt.
That's Donald Trump. Newt Gingrich raising questions about the people that Bob Mueller has appointed to help him in the special counsel investigation --
BOLDUAN: Chris, we actually have one of those sound bites from this morning, just for our viewers. Let me play this for you. This is Newt Gingrich on "Good Morning America," speaking to George Stephanopoulos and his take on what he sees wrong with Bob Mueller and the people he's surrounding himself with. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NEWT GINGRICH, FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER: These are bad people.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bad people?
GINGRICH: Bad people. I mean, these are guys who are going to be after Trump --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Back when Ken Starr was special counsel, he had himself had actually given a lot of political contributions to Republicans, yet you and others supported that effort.
GINGRICH: That's right, and I think we're in a different world.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BOLDUAN: And he went on from there. We are in a different world and these are different, intense times. Stephanopoulos rightly noting a bit of the hypocrisy that Newt Gingrich was presenting, but what is Gingrich getting at?
CILIZZA: They're trying to undermine Bob Mueller. I don't think that that's necessarily, Kate, about firing Bob Mueller.
CILIZZA: Donald Trump has done a lot of things I could have never predicted. To me, firing Bob Mueller is so obviously political suicide, he won't -- even Donald Trump would not take that gamble. But what I do think Newt Gingrich and others are getting at here is an attempt to say, no matter what Bob Mueller finds out -- well, I mean, of course, he found that out!
Look, he put a couple lawyers who loved Hillary Clinton on his staff. Well, of course, they arrived at "x" conclusion. I actually think it's more about a long-term campaign to undermine the conclusions that Mueller's special counsel investigation finds, assuming those are not terribly favorable for Donald Trump.
Then it's about running him out of town because Newt Gingrich is a smart political strategist. He is not dumb. He did not engineer the takeover of the House in 1994 by being dumb. What he knows is that getting rid of Bob Mueller today wreaks, as you other guests have said, wreaks of Watergate!
I mean, you don't even have to stretch to make that comparison. But a longer-term effort to raise questions about whatever Mueller finds out has a potentially a much stronger likelihood of succeeding strategically speaking.
BOLDUAN: Right, but what if Bob Mueller clears him in the end? Then we've called it all into question, but anyway --
CILIZZA: They'll take that risk, I think. BOLDUAN: I guess so. Peter, let me ask you this, you worked for Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. You've been in the middle of a storm something like this before. What is the impact, not with this kind of talk, though -- what is the impact of this kind of talk coming from allies of the president?
Rod Rosenstein being asked, you know, he just hired Bob Mueller, now he's being asked if he's about to fire Bob Mueller before a Senate committee. What's the impact of that on special counsel and everyone working with him?
ZEIDENBERG: Well, first let me say, I didn't work under these circumstances, because the Bush White House had a hands-off approach to Patrick Fitzgerald. They were extremely respectful of the process, and they pledged cooperation with the investigation and they followed through with that pledge.
So, you know, we didn't have to deal with the administration attacking the process or the prosecution. There were allies of the president who would take shots at a time, but that was, you know, that was nothing that really was a concern to us.
As to what Mueller's team is doing, I think they got their heads down and they're blocking this out, and they are going to control what they can control. The stuff that they can't control, they can't.
So, I don't think they're losing sleep over the possibility that they could all be fired or the special counsel could be disbanded, because it's simply out of their control. They're going to focus on their mission and do their jobs and block everything else out.
BOLDUAN: Wild times we live in at the moment. If you all could stand by because if you can believe it there is more that we need to discuss about what could be playing out on Capitol Hill in just a few short hours. Stick with me. Chris, great to see you. Thanks, you guys, so much.
So more breaking news, we are just getting word also about this. North Korea has released an American student, one of the four Americans currently being detained in the reclusive nation, and it comes on the very day that Dennis Rodman arrives in the country. Are these two things related, or is it a coincidence? We'll be right back.
BOLDUAN: All righty, we are just about three hours away now from the most significant, potentially consequential Senate testimony since the last significant, potentially consequential Senate testimony five days ago. Oh, the times we live in right now.
The hot seat still smoldering from James Comey's bombshell testimony last week, about to get fired up once again. In the spotlight today, Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He will be testifying in public before the Senate Intelligence Committee about the Russia investigation and the firing of FBI Director James Comey.
A major question still to be answered -- will Sessions say that he can't answer key questions, asserting executive privilege from the president?
CNN will definitely be bringing you special, live coverage from Washington starting at 2:00 Eastern for that hearing. Let's go to CNN's justice reporter, Laura Jarrett, though, right now, ahead of that hearing, to lay out -- there are a lot of questions, clearly, that he's going to be facing, but what do you think some of the key ones are, Laura?
LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes, absolutely, Kate. Another huge day on Capitol Hill. This time, Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the hot seat, and there are five key questions we think he's likely to face.
First and foremost, why exactly did the president of the United States fire James Comey, and what was Sessions' role in that firing? You will remember, Sessions sent a letter to the president on May 9th, actually recommending Comey's firing based on the fact that he had flouted DOJ protocols.
[11:20:09]But then the president changed the story of it and said that the Russia investigation was on his mind. So, senators are going to want to know exactly how does this wear with Sessions' recusal since he's not supposed to know anything about the Russia investigation.
The next thing is that Comey says that Trump left him -- that Sessions left Trump alone in the room in the oval office, so we have to know, and senators are going to want to know, exactly what was Sessions' thinking about this?
Why did he leave the room when there are strict protocols about what exactly the White House and DOJ can talk about? Sessions, obviously, said that he told Comey there are those lines, but Comey says it a little bit differently and says Sessions just stared at him blankly.
The next thing is, did Sessions ever offer to resign? Last week, CNN and others reported that the relationship had fractured a bit. But I am told that Sessions has no plans to resign. But if he did offer, why? And we're told that the president didn't accept it. So, senators are going to certainly want to probe him on that and get to the bottom of it.
The next is, what exactly is DOJ's position on the support for Special Counsel Bob Mueller? The Trump confidante, Chris Ruddy, is now saying that the president of the United States is considering terminating Mueller.
But the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, is up on the Hill right now saying that there are regulations in place, and that decision isn't up to the president.
And last but not least, how many times exactly did Sessions meet with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak? CNN has reported that congressional investigators are examining whether Sessions had an additional, private meeting with that Russian ambassador back on the campaign trail, but the Justice Department says it never happened, period. So, you can be sure senators are going to want to question him hard about that -- Kate.
BOLDUAN: Absolutely. Laura, thank you. So many questions. Thank you for laying it out for us. Everyone will be watching to see how, and if he does answer those questions. Laura, thank you so much.
So Peter and Diane are back with me. Laura Jarrett laid out the main questions here. Diane, let me ask you this. On the question of executive privilege and will the president tell Sessions to invoke executive privilege.
The White House when asked about this yesterday said it depends on the scope of the question that Sessions is asked. What kind of question, with all the list that we now see, what kind of question do you think would lead Sessions down that path?
AMANN: Well, it's hard to say, but I think, certainly, if a senator were to ask a question that directly impacts on military affairs, diplomatic affairs, national security, we could expect the attorney general to invoke executive privilege. The question then becomes whether the senators want to go forward and try to compel him through litigation to answer, nonetheless.
BOLDUAN: And that, of course, is a bit of a longer, drawn-out process that would be, you know --
AMANN: Absolutely. Absolutely. On the other hand, if the question were, were you in the room on such-and-such a date at this televised event, obviously, there's no cause to claim executive privilege because it's not in any way secret, classified, confidential information.
BOLDUAN: So, Peter, one of the big questions, and there are lots, of course, for Sessions, is his role, any role that he played in Comey's firing. You saw that that was clearly part of the conversation that was going towards Rod Rosenstein just this morning, because that all gets to how recused is he really, in terms of Sessions, with regard to the Russia investigation? What questions do you think they need answers to on this?
ZEIDENBERG: Well, I would be very curious about questions regarding the Rosenstein memo that was at least put forth initially as the reason why Comey was being fired.
ZEIDENBERG: And they had this whole explanation that, you know -- and Rod Rosenstein wrote it. And then we're told a day or two later by the president in his interview with Lester Holt that, you know, I was going to fire him anyway, the memo didn't really affect my decision, it was because of Russia.
So, that raises questions about the whole origins of the memo and why it was written and whose idea it was to do it and whether it was all just a big charade, which it appears it was, and what the attorney general's role was in going along with this, you know, what I would call a charade.
BOLDUAN: I think all of us now can conclude, we need to stand by and see how he answers these questions this afternoon. So many questions coming at him. Thank you, Diane. Peter, thanks so much for sticking around. Really appreciate it.
We're also following more breaking news. We are just getting word that North Korea has released an American student, one of four Americans that has been detained here, and it comes on the very day that Dennis Rodman arrives in the country.
[11:25:03]We are also now hearing that the student is in a coma, according to his family. CNN is in North Korea. We're going to bring you an update live, next.
BOLDUAN: We do have more breaking news right now. North Korea has just released 22-year-old American student, Otto Warmbier. This is after more than a year in prison there in North Korea. He had been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
That is the good news that he was released, but there is also a very sad, tragic update to this. His parents just released this statement to CNN just a short time ago. I want to read it to you.
"Otto has left North Korea. He is on Medivac flight on his way home.