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Trump: "America First Does Not Mean America Alone"; Trump Dismisses Report He Wanted To Mueller Fired. Aired 11-11:30a ET
Aired January 26, 2018 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, there. I'm Brianna Keilar in for Kate Bolduan. Right now, President Trump is aboard Air Force One, wrapping up in international trip and saddled with new baggage from the Russia investigation.
The latest bombshell, President Trump ordered the firing of special Counsel Robert Mueller last June. According to one person familiar with the matter, the president backed off when White House lawyer, Don McGahn, the chief counsel, refused, and threatened to resign instead of carryout his wishes.
The president denies the reports, but the explosive claims raised new questions of possible obstruction of justice. A short time ago, the president sidestepped this latest cloud over his presidency and turned instead to salesman in chief, addressing the world's power brokers at the economic forum in Switzerland.
The president made no apologies for his America first policies that have wrinkled allies and enemies alike.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I believe in America. As president of the United States, I will always put America first, just like the leaders of other countries should put their country first also. But America first does not mean America alone.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KEILAR: Let's go live to Jeff Zeleny, in Davos. Jeff, update us on what was a really significant speech.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It was, Brianna, good morning. President Trump is flying back to Washington as you said. He did deliver a speech here this morning in Davos that was certainly one of the more interesting.
Largely because he was walking into a den of global elitists, if you will, he's often railed against and he was retreated with respect, much more conciliatory nation than confrontation. It's certainly a moment where the president was indeed trying to sell America.
He sounded almost like a Chamber of Commerce president, if you will, you know, talking about the plans of America, the economy of America, not talking as much about what America can do for the globe, but more what people can do for themselves.
He was trying to urge business leaders to come invest in the U.S. So, certainly a proforma speech he's given other places, but not the harsh rhetoric that we have heard from him on the campaign trail where he railed against globalization and capitalism and he certainly, you know, was -- seemed to be a welcome member of this new club here.
But, Brianna, no question about it, so much hanging over him here, particularly the developments in the Russia investigation. The president was asked about his reports that he wanted to fire Bob Mueller last June. This is what he had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Fake news, folks. Fake news. Typical "New York Times" fake stories.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZELENY: So, the president blasting that story in "The New York Times," CNN and elsewhere that he wanted to fire the Special Counsel Bob Mueller last June as fake news. But the reality is this Russia investigation has escalated. It is closing in on him and some of his advisers.
The question here now as he flies back to Washington, will he testify, if he does testify what will the ground rules surrounding that be here? That is certainly a central focus here as it appears to be more of an obstruction of justice case than a collusion case -- Brianna.
KEILAR: All right. Jeff Zeleny for us in Davos, Switzerland. Thank you, sir. A source told CNN that White House Counsel Don McGahn refused to order the Justice Department to fire Mueller because he disagrees with President Trump's reasoning. So why did the president want the special counsel fired?
For that, let's go to CNN's Manu Raju live on Capitol Hill. Manu, what are you hearing about the president's rational for firing Mueller?
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, there were several reasons apparently that he had concerns with Mueller, possible conflicts of interest, that were actually laid out in this "New York Times" report. One of which was the fact that Robert Mueller, as FBI director, years ago, had a dispute over fees that Donald Trump's golf course in Strolling, Virginia. And that was one area of contradict of interest.
Another one that Robert Mueller has previous law firm that he worked at was the same firm that represented the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner. And also, the president apparently had concerns about the fact that Mueller was interviewed for the FBI post, immediately after James Comey was fired for the FBI job. He did not get that FBI position, but the day after Mueller was interviewed by the president, Mueller became named special counsel by Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general. These are reasons that the president apparently took do Don McGahn, the White House counsel as part of an effort to initiate the firing of Robert Mueller.
[11:05:00] That is something that Don McGahn did not agree to, from what we are told from our sources that in fact that McGahn said no and threatened to resign if the president moved forward and that's one big reason why the president eventually backed off.
But I can tell you, Brianna, that rationale that the president apparently laid out would not have gone over very well with members of his own party, many of whom said he should not go that far.
Including last July, Lindsey Graham who told me at the beginning if he took steps to fire Bob Mueller, it would be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency. That rhetoric would escalate if he did take this action here -- Brianna.
KEILAR: What about efforts on the Hill, Manu to protect Mueller from being fired? Where do those stand?
RAJU: Well, competing bills that have been introduced by two different sets of senators. Chris Coons of Delaware, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Republican and Democrat, as well as Cory Booker, New Jersey Democrat, Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, they have competing approaches that they introduced last summer.
But they have not been able to reconcile their approaches before going forward. One proposal would essentially ensure that the special counsel would have an opportunity to appeal his firing if it did happen before judicial review.
Another one would say that the attorney general would have to go to a three-panel judge before the firing would actually happen. The members have tried to reconcile those differences, Brianna. They have not been able to do that, and they also have not -- they don't have the support to move to the Senate yet. We'll see if which changes in light of these new reports -- Brianna.
KEILAR: All right. Manu Raju live for us from the Hill, thank you.
A lot to discuss here. Joining me now we have reporter and editor-at- large for CNN Politics, Chris Cilizza, and Jen Psaki, former White House coms director for President Obama, and Jason Miller, former senior communications adviser for the Trump campaign.
Jason, you obviously know Donald Trump very well. He had already fired Comey in May. Not only did that not go well just in the court of public opinion, but it ended up bringing us to the -- to Mueller, to the special counsel.
And so, it was a bit of out of the frying pan and into the fire. Why would he want to fire Mueller in June, especially considering it wouldn't have ended the investigation? JASON MILLER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think there are a couple of things with the story that I would take issue with. I don't think that we necessarily know that he wanted to fire Mueller. Clearly, he is saying that that's not the case. He's taken issue with the reporting. But, again, here is --
KEILAR: So, you're saying the report may not be accurate. Even though the (inaudible) sources stunned by --
MILLER: Hold on.
KEILAR: CNN has confirmed it. Fox News has confirmed it.
MILLER: People said they were briefed on this supposed conversation. Does not say there were four people in the room.
KEILAR: That's who you're going with supposed conversations.
MILLER: Yes, because the president is saying that this did not happen, and you look back, we had this Michael Wolff book pop. And so, this is something that supposedly happened seven months ago, had this gossip book that came out with hundreds of pages of things that were somewhat true, maybe not true.
And you are going to tell me that this detail didn't even make it into that book, that this is something that no one ever heard about and just now, while the president is in Davos, giving this momentous speech, this is when it pops? I don't know. It seems really suspect to me.
Again, the whole thing, we're treating it like the president actually went and fired Mueller. He didn't fire him. Even if he did, we have seen legal experts from Robert Ray to Alan Dershowitz to others who say he can fire anyone he wants anytime he wants.
KEILAR: OK, well, I'm surprised you take issue with the story. Even Anthony Scaramucci does not take issue with the veracity of the story. The problem in this story for the White House is it makes liars of the president and a number of his top aides. Take a listen.
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY (via telephone): While the president has a right to, he has no intention to do so.
KELLYANN CONWAY, ADVISER TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: The president has not even discussed that. The president is not discussing firing Bob Mueller.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But will he commit to not fire him?
CONWAY: He's not even discussing not firing -- he's not discussed firing Bob Mueller.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: I haven't given it any thought. I've been reading about it from you people, saying I'm going to dismiss him. I'm not dismissing anybody.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you considering firing Robert Mueller?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: No, not at all.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Is there any chance at all that the president will try to fire Robert Mueller?
JAY SEKULOW, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S ATTORNEY: No, I saw a couple of people talking about that this morning, and the answer to that is no.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you considering firing Robert Mueller?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: No, I'm not. No.
KEILAR: So, Chris, is this -- is it willful deception by White House aides, and President Trump and the answers may be different for different players here. Is it willful ignorance or a case of top aides just not knowing what was happening?
CHRIS CILIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER AND EDITOR-AT-LARGE: Right. I think it is different for different players because Donald Trump either knew or didn't know if he told Don McGahn, the White House counsel to fire Bob Mueller, right. But for everybody else, Kellyanne Conway, John Dowd, Ty Cobb, I think the best-case scenario for them is that they just didn't know.
[11:10:00] That they Whatever concentric circle that that information lived in, they weren't a part of that. The worst-case scenario there is they did know and willfully misrepresented it. So, I'm going to go on the they just didn't know. I do think that that explanation does not work for the president of the United States.
But I would remind you, Brianna, I probably don't have to, this is a president, who according to the "Washington Post" said 2,000 plus things that were either totally false or partially or mostly false in the first year of his presidency.
So, this idea that, well, maybe Donald Trump didn't say something that was entirely accurate, I mean, I don't know that we should be terribly surprised if that winds up being the case.
KEILAR: Jen, you were White House communications director under President Obama. I wonder what you would have done if you had told reporters, if you had told the American people something and I -- this happened in prior administrations, and then found out what you said was totally false. How would you handle that, just as an individual, in that situation?
JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, look, there are times that are certainly not as significant as this where you don't share as much information as you should have known or where you get things slightly off. My approach was always to let people know as soon as possible that the information you shared was unintentionally inaccurate.
This is an entirely different category. If I were in this White House, first, I would be completely outraged with Don McGahn. I know he's being canonized now. But in my experience, the White House counsel is somebody who is central to deciding what is said publicly about any legal issue.
We didn't have an issue where President Obama was being investigated so certainly wasn't comparable in that sense. But anything like the travel ban, anything like if someone was going to be fired, even campaign events, this is language that is always edited, reviewed by the White House counsel and they have really failed the staff in this case.
KEILAR: What do you think, Jason?
MILLER: I think Don McGahn is one of the best in the business. I think it is also very plausible that there is a civil conversation at this early stage when the counsel is together about are there conflicts of interest, for example, on the director's side.
KEILAR: Why would you have that conversation unless you were thinking about firing Mueller?
MILLER: No, I think any lawyer who worth their salt would go to raise the different things that are going on as you're analyzing what is going into this. But again, I think with this is supposed to be about, at least I thought, was about some investigation into supposed collusion between the campaign and foreign entity. So far at this point, they are practically two years into or at least a year and a half, two years into this investigation and there is still nothing.
MILLER: Well, it seems like it could be taking a turn towards obstruction. But again, for what? I mean, that's the whole thing. There hasn't been --
KEILAR: Getting in way of the investigation.
MILLER: But he hasn't done anything to get in the way. He didn't go and fire Mueller. It's perfectly within his presidential power to fire Comey.
CILIZZA: I mean, Jason is right. Donald Trump can fire Comey. He can fire Bob Mueller. I mean, it is not illegal for him to do either of those things. I think -- I think the Comey firing politically speaking was a gigantic mistake because I think it opened up the conversation about obstruction of justice.
I think the consideration of the Mueller firing a month later is more fuel to that. But he has the right to do these things, the question for me is why do we keep on a lot of different fronts as it relates to the Russia story, getting versions of events later on that either directly or in part or mostly contradict things that we have already known. Again, I try to always say, just because there is a lot of smoke does not mean there is a fire, right. The Mike Flynn plea deal, the George Papadopoulos plea deal, the charges against Manafort and Gates. Those things, you would not want those things to be in your White House, Democrat, Republican, whatever.
They do not add up to the fact that, yes, there was willful collusion by the president or his senior aides in this. I do think the fact that the story keeps getting fuller in a way that in this -- I think this is another big piece of that.
That fire Comey in May, ordering the firing of Mueller but not go through with it the next month, that makes you wonder, it is more smoke. But Jason is not wrong when he says there isn't fire because there isn't yet.
KEILAR: I want to give you the final word here, Jen.
PSAKI: Well, look, I think for any investigation that is ongoing, no one has been given a clean bill of health here. We are not going to know until Mueller is done with his investigation. This talking point that nobody has been found guilty of collusion, the process is still ongoing.
And ultimately, the context here is hugely important. It is the whole point. If you covered up, if you obstructed justice of the investigation into whether a foreign power intervenes in our election, that is a crime. How it is handled is a separate question for later on.
[11:15:12] KEILAR: All right. Thank you so much, Jason, Jen and Chris. Really appreciate it. That is the political side. How does this change any legal exposure that President Trump is facing? That could be really different. We're going to examine if this bolsters a case for obstruction of justice.
Plus, the White House framework for immigration reform is meeting resistance from both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill. Can they reach a compromise on DACA and border security, the wall, before the next government funding deadline?
KEILAR: President Trump is denying reports that he called for Special Counsel Robert Mueller to be fired last June. Reports confirmed by multiple news outlets initiated by the "New York Times" with several sources.
But he backed off according to the reports after White House Counsel Don McGahn threatened to resign over it. This is the latest bombshell in an arsenal of bombshells that could influence Mueller's investigation.
[11:20:09] So, here is a few examples, a few other examples of what the president has done or tried to do over the last ten months. He urged his intel chiefs to publicly push back against the FBI's Russia collusion probe.
He ordered McGahn to stop Attorney General Jeff Sessions From recusing himself in the investigation. You'll recall he fired the FBI Director James Comey after asking him for loyalty. He tried to fire Mueller, we have now learned, and he urged Sessions to get the Deputy FBI Director Andrew Mccabe fired.
Joining me now, we have Robert Mueller's former special assistant at the Justice Department Michael Zeldin and we have retired FBI Supervisory Special Agent James Galliano. Michael, when you add President Trump trying to fire Mueller to everything else that we already know, what does this do if Mueller's team is pursuing an obstruction of justice case?
MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: So, it gives you a bit of a window into the president's thinking. Because in order to prove obstruction of justice, you have to prove the president did what he did with the intent to obstruct.
And it is hard to define the intent of a person unless you can read into their soul somehow. This is a sense allowance for Mueller to get a sense of what it was the president is thinking.
It is important, though, to note if we look at that timeline, those things that he did pushing out against the investigation, having his chiefs push against the media, occurred before this June meeting.
So, one thing we have to look at is after he was warned by McGahn, you can't do this, did he still do obstructionist behavior? That may factor into Mueller's thinking about how to proceed in this case?
KEILAR: James, what do you think? Especially with knowing that legally intent is important, but it is something that can be really difficult to prove.
JAMES GAGLIANO, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Sure, provable intent is central to this. We're dealing with an unconventional politician. Donald Trump was the first president ever to be elected that wasn't a politician, a former cabinet member or retired general. And I understand that ignorance of the law is no excuse.
But in this instance, I heard many legal scholars make pressing cases that the things that Donald Trump has done, the things that he said, his interactions with the fired former FBI Director James Comey are indicia of absolute obstruction. But you got to look at it from this perspective too, Brianna.
He's also been given an unbeatable hand in the sense that there have been some missteps at the Department of Justice. There have been missteps in the previous administration, and missteps in the FBI itself, which pains me to say.
But when you look at some of the texts that have been released between Strzok and Page, some of the decisions that were made in the verbiage used, he has been given essentially an unbeatable hand, meaning he can say I'm pushing back on what is clearly a witch-hunt. So, I hate to say this is a jump ball, could I see obstruction of justice charges being brought, certainly, but a sitting president cannot be indicted, so it would turn to a political process and basically turn to impeachment, but I could also see him getting by and not being touched in this thing.
KEILAR: You're shaking your head, sir.
ZELDIN: Well, you know, it is -- there are a lot of unanswered questions, a lot of unanswerable questions, can a sitting president be indicted, can the president be charged with obstruction for doing something he has the constitutional right to do.
If, however, when he interviews with Mueller, he is not fully honest, then all of these other things, these mosaic pieces that we're talking about will be added to the false statement, and in that case, you have a clear violation of law, and you have probably an abuse of his office.
So, for the president, that which is going to be in my estimation dispositive of his liberty in some sense is how does he perform when Mueller asks him questions under oath.
KEILAR: James, I wonder what you think about the president ultimately deciding not to -- deciding ultimately not to fire Mueller. What does that tell you about Don McGahn, about White House counsel, what does that tell you about him that you may not have already known?
GAGLIANO: Well, Brianna, I think every president is entitled to privacy, is entitled to being allowed to have a privileged conversation with his attorney. I'm sure there are things discussed with presidential counsel that shouldn't be heard on the outside. They're going to be talking about the best way to proceed --
KEILAR: What does it tell you about McGahn he would resign if the president went down this path?
GAGLIANO: Well, Brianna, I can only use this for my own experience. I certainly butted heads with a number of attorneys from the Department of Justice over case matters. Granted, the difference was I wasn't being investigated. This was investigations of other people.
[11:25:12] But there can be differences of opinions. Sometimes attorneys feel if I give you the best legal advice, and you discount it and ignore it, I can't continue to represent you and I think that's what happened here.
ZELDIN: Except in this case, what we understand from the reporting is the president told McGahn, you go tell Rosenstein to fire Mueller on conflict of interest charges that really were bogus.
KEILAR: Trumped up, yes.
ZELDIN: And McGahn said that would not be lawful. It would violate the regulations under which Mueller was appointed. If you do that, not only will I resign, but I expect that Rosenstein will resign, and that Rachel Brand behind him will resign, and you will have a Saturday night massacre on your hand. Make a choice. And the president made the right choice, and we'll see what happens there after.
KEILAR: Michael Zeldin, James Galliano, thank you so much to both of you.
Still ahead, could the new White House immigration proposal be dead on arrival in Congress? We're going to examine how what the president wants would dramatically shift U.S. immigration policy.