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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Devastating New Book on Trump Administration; Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh Confirmation Hearing Begins; Woodward: Trump's Own Lawyers Told Mueller That Trump Couldn't Testify Because He Was Incapable of Telling the Truth. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired September 4, 2018 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[16:00:03]

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Mr. Nadler from New York: "The president can fire him for cause and ought to. He violated all the guidelines and put his thumb on the scale of an election."

Mr. Cohen from Tennessee, a Democrat, called on Comey to resign his position, effective immediately. "I'm sure, upon reflection of this action, he will submit his letter of resignation for the nation's good."

To my Democratic friends, you were all for getting rid of this guy. Now, all of a sudden, the country's turning upside down because Trump did.

There's a process to find out what happened in the 2016 election. It's called Mr. Mueller. And I will do everything I can to make sure he finishes his job without political interference.

And I'm here to tell anybody in the country who listens that this is so hypocritical of my friends on the other side. When it was their president, Kavanaugh was right. When you're talking about Roe v. Wade, it's OK to promise the nation it will never be overturned.

It's OK to pick a Democratic staff member of this committee, but it's not OK to pick somebody who's been a lifelong Republican. People see through this. You had a chance, and you lost.

If you want to pick judges from your way of thinking, then you better win an election. I voted for two of your choices, Sotomayor and Kagan. I got a lot of crap. I would suggest you think long and hard if you got a political ambition of voting this guy, because it will not play well on your side.

And why did I do it? I thought they were qualified by any reasonable measure, given the history of the Senate. But we have turned the history of the Senate upside down. I found that they were different than I would have picked, Sotomayor and Kagan, but by any reasonable measure, they were qualified.

You have been on the court for 12 years. You have had 307 decisions. You have been approved before. So, I hope people in the country understand this game. It's a game that I am sad to be part of. It's gotten really bad. The antidote to our problems in this country

when it comes to judges and politics is not to deny you a place on the Supreme Court. This is exactly where you need to be. This is exactly the time you need to be there.

And I am telling President Trump, you do some things that drive me crazy, you do some great things. You have never done anything better in my view than to pick Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, because you had an opportunity to put well-qualified conservatives on the court, men steeped in the rule of law, who apply analysis, not politics, to their decision-making, and you knocked it out of the park.

And to my friends on the other side, you can't lose the election and pick judges. If you want to pick judges, you better win.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R), IOWA: Let me tell you what -- let me tell everybody what the rest of the day holds for us.

Judge Kavanaugh, you can take a break now that we had originally scheduled for 15 minutes. And it may take 15 minutes, but we got to put a different table in here for the people that are going to introduce you.

So, if your staff will watch, and we get done in less than 15 minutes, I would like to start just as soon as the table is set.

So, we will take a 15-minute break now. And then we have the introducers, and then we will...

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, as the Senate takes a little break there, welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

You have been watching a contentious and heated Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to confirm President Trump's pick for the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh.

It has been an intense showdown with frequent interruptions from protesters. And that's all before we have even heard from Mr. Kavanaugh himself.

That will happen in just a few minutes, and we will bring that to you live.

But, first, we're going to begin with an absolutely devastating peek behind the curtains of the West Wing and into the presidency of Donald Trump from one of the nation's most legendary journalists, top officials in the Trump White House describing an alarming situation, detailing a president not up to the job intellectually or temperamentally, an administration even more dysfunctional than previously depicted and believed.

It's all laid bare in Bob Woodward's new book, "Fear: Trump in the White House," which will be out one week from today.

CNN has obtained a copy of the book, based on hundreds of hours of taped interviews and dozens of sources from President Trump's inner circle, sources who describe impulsive actions from President Trump on everything from discussing assassinations to his response to the Russia probe.

President Trump's closest aides flat out ignoring his orders, so as not to damage national security, some even going so far as to steal documents from the president's desk in the Oval Office, so he can't see them or sign them, all done to -- quote -- "protect the country."

[16:05:02]

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is at the White House. And he has much more.

Jeff, CNN is learning that President Trump was exacerbated that he was not interviewed for the book, though Bob Woodward sought many times to speak with him.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: He did, indeed, Jake, and, in fact, six times.

Bob Woodward told the president in a phone call just last month that he tried through six top officials here to speak to the president. He also tried relaying a message to Republican senator Lindsey Graham, who apparently told the president that Woodward was working on this book.

Jake, this book paints a portrait of paranoia and anger.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump has been stewing inside the White House, and, today, we learned why.

Bob Woodward's new bombshell book, "Fear: Trump in the White House," offers an unprecedented look at drama and chaos inside the West Wing, where top officials expressed disdain for the president's temperament, character in intellect, and admit hiding things from the president to protect the nation.

CNN obtained a copy of the book, where White House Chief of Staff John Kelly describes Trump as an idiot and unhinged. Defense Secretary James Mattis says Trump has the understanding of a fifth- or sixth- grader.

And Woodward writes that Trump's former personal lawyer John Dowd, who quit earlier this year, describes the president as an "F'ing liar." He told Trump he would wind up in an orange jumpsuit if he sat down with special counsel Robert Mueller.

After a practice session in the residence of the White House back in January, the book says, the president stumbled, contradicted himself and lost his cool.

"This thing's a goddamn hoax," the president erupted at the beginning of a 30 minute-rant. "I don't really want to testify."

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The Russian witch-hunt. We got a whole big combination. Where is the collusion?

ZELENY: After that mock session, Woodward reports, the president's lawyers went to Mueller's office to argue Trump couldn't testify because he's incapable of telling the truth. "He just made something up. That's his nature," Dowd reportedly told Mueller.

"I need the president's testimony," Mueller replied, adding that he was trying to determine whether the president had a corrupt intent in firing FBI Director James Comey.

The Russia investigation provides some of the most vivid moments in the book by Woodward, the legendary "Washington Post" reporter of Watergate fame, that he says is drawn from hundreds of hours of interviews with principals and firsthand observers.

The president was not interviewed, despite what Woodward described as repeated attempts to do so. Today, "The Post" released a recording of a call between Woodward and the president from early last month.

TRUMP: It's really too bad, because nobody called me about it, and I would have loved to have spoken to you. You know I'm very open to you. I think you have always been fair, but we will see what happens.

ZELENY: Then blaming his staff for not approaching him about the book, including top aide Kellyanne Conway.

TRUMP: She has direct access, but she didn't come to me. And you know what? That's OK. I will just end up with another bad book. What can I tell you?

ZELENY: The book opens with a dramatic scene in the Oval Office, where former chief economic adviser Gary Cohn saw a draft letter he considered dangerous to national security on the president's desk. The letter, about withdrawing the U.S. from a trade agreement with South Korea, left Cohn appalled. So he snatched it, the book says.

"I wouldn't let him see it," Cohn told an associate. "Got to protect the country."

The book also offers an even more personal and profane look at the president's anger with his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who the president described as "mentally retarded" and "a dumb Southerner."

The 448-page book shows that the president spares few, including his current lawyer and longtime friend Rudy Giuliani, who he once reportedly described as a baby. "I have never seen a worse defense of me in my life. They took your diaper off right there. You're like a little baby that needed to be changed. When are you going to be a man?" the president once told Giuliani, according to the book.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: So, after several hours of silence here at the White House, Jake, we do now have a blanket statement of denial over all this from the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders.

I will read all that to you in full.

She says this: "This book is nothing more than fabricated stories, many by former disgruntled employees, told to make the president look bad. While it's not always pretty and rare that the press actually covers it, President Trump has broken through the bureaucratic process to deliver unprecedented successes for the American people. Sometimes, it's unconventional, but he always gets results.

"Democrats and their allies in the media understand the president's policies are working. With success like this, no one can beat him in 2020, not even close."

So, Jake, you will notice that that response is not exactly responsive to all of the allegations in the book. We should also point out White House Chief of Staff John Kelly issued his own denial. He said he did not call the president an idiot -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Jeff Zeleny, thanks so much.

There's a lot here. And I don't know where to begin.

But I guess I think what is the most important part of this is senior Cabinet officials and members of the administration suggesting that President Trump is dangerous and not up to the job temperamentally or intellectually.

Gary Cohn, the former National Economic Council director, seeing a draft letter that he considered dangerous to national security in the Oval Office desk, it would have withdrawn the U.S. from a critical deal with South Korea, it would -- it would, in his views, jeopardize a national security program to detect a North Korean missile launch within seven seconds.

[16:10:14]

Woodward reports that Cohn told an associate -- quote -- "I stole it off his desk. I wouldn't let him see it. He's never going to see that document. Got to protect the country."

And, apparently, this is not the only time this has happened. Rob Porter, the former staff secretary, is also described in the book taking things off the president's desk.

And this is just a small part of this.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That or what the defense secretary, James Mattis, said after a meeting, that the president's educational level for certain things was on a fifth- or sixth-grade level, according to what Bob Woodward says in this book.

And you saw that statement from Sarah Sanders saying this is just disgruntled former employees trying to paint an unflattering picture of the president. But I talked to several people over the last few weeks as we were reporting on the unease in the West Wing over the publication of this book. And a lot of the people who did talk to Woodward, which was a lot of

people, still work in this White House right now. So it's not these people that are disgruntled ex-employees, like maybe a Rob Porter or someone who has left the White House. It's people who still work there that have this.

And it's not just these firsthand accounts. Bob Woodward also has memos and e-mail exchanges between White House staffers. So this isn't some sensational author hoping to get the president. This is a veteran reporter who has covered Democratic presidents, Republican presidents.

And now he's laying it all out there, what people think of their boss.

TAPPER: Yes, I mean, this is a guy who has a track record of decades' worth of books.

I want to point out, Kaitlan Collins, you said something that was very interesting, telling and amusing, which was in the book...

COLLINS: Per usual?

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: ... Woodward reports that John Kelly said this of Trump -- quote -- "He's an idiot. It's pointless to try to convince him of anything. He's gone off the rails. We're in crazy town. I don't even know why any of us are here. This is the worst job I have ever had."

And Kelly...

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Other than that, it was favorable.

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: But Kelly's response to all of that is: "I never said he's an idiot."

(LAUGHTER)

JOSH HOLMES, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Very precise in his denial.

TAPPER: Yes.

HOLMES: No, I think this book obviously carries a fair amount of liability here.

The difference in having Bob Woodward report things and having Wolff and others as we have seen over the course of the last...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Michael Wolff, yes. HOLMES: Michael Wolff was -- there's a significant stature gap there, right? I mean, I don't think -- we have all seen Bob Woodward report on the Obama administration, very unflattering tomes, with the Bush administration.

Remember "Bush at War" towards the end of the '06 cycle, when I was working at the RNC. That was a devastating book. And this appears to be along the same lines.

I think maybe some of the political impact of this, however, may be blunted because of all of the other books that have come out over the last year-and-a-half. It seems to me that the American people have processed an awful lot of this before Woodward came on to this.

TAPPER: It's baked in, you think?

HOLMES: I do think a lot of it is baked in, maybe not for the D.C. elites that hold Woodward's work in a higher esteem than some of the other authors.

But I think in terms of how the American people are processing this, largely, I think they probably have.

TAPPER: So, Symone, "The Washington Post" reports in the book Woodward reports of an incident after Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad launched a chemical attack on civilians. Trump reportedly called Mattis, the defense secretary, and said he wanted to assassinate the dictator, saying -- quote -- "Let's F'ing kill him. Let's go in. Let's kill the F'ing lot of them. Mattis told the president he would get right on it. But after hanging up the phone, he told a senior aide, 'We're not going to do any of that,'" ignoring presidential orders.

And this -- this gets into what Anthony Scaramucci said in July 2017. He said there are people in the administration who think it's their job to save the country from President Trump. That's exactly what we're getting here.

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: That's exactly what we're getting.

But also if you remember when folks like Secretary Mattis and General John Kelly were being floated as members of the president's Cabinet, folks wanted them there, many Republican members of Congress, for this very reason, because they believed that Secretary Mattis would save the republic.

Well, blessings to Secretary Mattis. According to this book, he's doing his job. I do think that this has far-reaching political implications.

And, fine, if the president's base isn't swayed by this book, OK, what will they be swayed by at this point? But Congress is a co-equal branch of government. And so there are many questions that come raised into this book. There's an oversight that Congress is not currently exhibiting,

they're not exercising. And is this book another thing on the list that Congress had to take a look at, either before November or after November? The question remains on the table.

TAPPER: So the story in the book, according to CNN, it has to do with Secretary Mattis saying that President Trump has the grasp, understanding a fifth- or sixth-grader.

This has to do when President Trump is questioning, why does the U.S. have to pay for such a large troop presence in South Korea?

Mattis says -- quote -- "We're doing this in order to prevent World War III." He tries to explain it, and then he tells associates afterwards that Trump has the understanding of a -- quote -- "fifth- or sixth-grader."

I don't know -- I don't know if it's going to hurt President Trump with his base, but Secretary Mattis is a very serious guy. It would concern -- it should concern the president if that's what his secretary of defense thinks about him.

TOOBIN: Well, it certainly should, but Donald Trump tends not to blame himself for lack of understanding. He tends to blame other people.

[16:15:05]

I mean, I tend to agree with you that I have been burned so many times thinking or saying oh, this is it, this is when Donald Trump's popularity is going to fall. You know, when he said two years ago that John McCain wasn't a war hero because he got caught, I mean, you know, the Gold Star family -- I mean, we all know the list of really appalling things and nothing seems -- the children taken at the border a few weeks ago, that was a big story, if anyone can even remember that at this point.

I mean, there is some where between 36 and 42 percent of the people who are very close -- very determined to support President Trump at all. That's not a lot of people by historic standards but I don't think Bob Woodward's book is going to change their opinion.

COLLINS: But here's the thing, it may not just be the president's base. Maybe it won't change their mind.

But there are a lot of voters in the middle of the road who voted for president Trump because they thought he was better than the other option. They may not think that after reading what these seasoned military leaders have said about President Trump and his decision- making so that's one aspect that could be as a result of this book.

The other is that the president -- what does he do? How does he go to a meeting and intelligence briefing, or a meeting on Syria with the Defense Secretary James Mattis seeing that he said these things about the president, that James Mattis has not denied we should note since the excerpt of this book came out several hours ago, how does the president work with him? How does he work with John Kelly who said this is crazy town and you can't tell the president everything? How does he work with Jeff Sessions who he called mentally retarded according to what Bob Woodward said in this book?

So, that raises the question what is the makeup of the president's cabinet look in the next few weeks. Does he make changes or do any of them --

(CROSSTALK)

TOOBIN: Well, five minutes after the polls close on election day, Jeff Sessions is out the door. I don't think there's any doubt --

TAPPER: This year, November 2018.

TOOBIN: I mean, he's made that quite clear.

As for the others, Trump does have a pattern of, you know, getting very angry at people and then sort of letting them back into -- back into his circle and that seems possible with Kelly -- I mean, hostile comments by Kelly have been reported before and he's still there.

TAPPER: And he denied them at the time.

TOOBIN: Right.

TAPPER: And the Tillerson anecdote in the book which Bob Woodward fleshes out much more but we've known about that for a long time about Tillerson saying that the president is, in his view, a, quote, moron.

HOLMES: Yes. Well, I mean, I think if history is your guide, the one thing that Woodward's books extricably result in is the presidential circle getting smaller and smaller, right? We saw it in the Bush administration towards the end. We saw it during the Obama administration.

But he has a way of getting inside, talking to people who used to work there, who still work there, they get some of these anecdotes. My guess is if you're answer is who the president trusts that circle becomes tighter and tighter as a result of books.

TOOBIN: Can I also disagree with you on the idea that Bob Woodward's books about George W. Bush or Barack Obama were at all comparable to that? No one in those books was calling the president a clown, a crazy person --

HOLMES: No, there were --

(CROSSTALK)

TOOBIN: That's a very different portrait of presidents than -- than the one of Donald Trump.

HOLMES: I agree with that, although I will say in the context of 2006 when we had a Bush at war book dropped in the last six weeks of the election cycle, there was nothing that you could've come up with whether you called somebody a clown or said they were unfit for office, there was nothing in the context of that election cycle that would have been more damaging to go Republicans than that book. So, I think if you take all of that and put it in a 2018 context, we've got a pretty similar situation --

TAPPER: Yes, Iraq and Katrina were bigger impulses, of course, than the book.

Everyone, stick around. There's a ton to go through in the new Woodward book, including the jaw-dropping way Trump's attorneys reportedly told Bob Mueller that the president should not sit down for an interview with the special counsel. It allegedly involves a re- enactment.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:23:48] TAPPER: Welcome back.

Any moment we're expecting Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump's pick for the Supreme Court to deliver his opening statement in what is already been a contentious Senate Judiciary hearing today. We're going to bring that to you live when he starts speaking.

But, first, let's get to our other top story, one of the most revealing and possibly damaging portions of Bob Woodward's new book about President Trump details a Saturday in January when worried that the president would commit perjury if he talked to Robert Mueller's team, the president's lawyers run him through a mock interview that allegedly goes so poorly that those lawyers, John Dowd and Jay Sekulow, go and re-enact part of it, if not the entire thing, for Robert Mueller and his team, hoping to convince them that President Trump can't come testify because he's incapable of telling the truth.

And "The Washington Post" reports that according to Woodward's books this is how Dowd tried to convince Mueller like this, quote: I'm not going to sit there and let him look like an idiot, and you publish that transcript because everything leaks in Washington, and the guy overseas are going to say, I told you he was an idiot. I told you he was goddamn dumbbell. What are we dealing with this idiot for?

So, this is an interesting legal strategy.

TOOBIN: Well, it is -- it is unusual, but what's not unusual is going to the prosecutor and saying, my guy just can't talk to you.

[16:25:03] He's too nervous. He's too -- I mean -- the -- the act that has been going on for months about whether the president will sit down with Mueller is just that. They are not --

(CROSSTALK)

TOOBIN: -- let him sit down there. There have been these sort of faux negotiations going on for months and I think this book gets to the heart of why the defense attorneys would never agree to this because after all, this is the president who is, according to "The Washington Post," told 4,000 falsehoods since he became president, why would he be any different in front of Mueller and they're not going to expose him to that.

Now, they make expose him to getting a subpoena which would lead to a whole other round of litigation, and we don't know how that will end. But voluntarily, it's not going to happen.

I'm sorry to --

SANDERS: No, you're fine. I'm like who want -- who told this story to Bob Woodward -- like why? Why? Who told -- many of the American people are asking, who told this story?

Secondly, even the president's attorneys thinks he's a liar. They think he's a liar so much so that they will not allow him -- so much so they went to the special counsel and told the special counsel the president is a liar, we just cannot allow him to sit with you.

TAPPER: I should read this. This is number four, guys in the control room, because John Dowd just released a statement denying the claims in Woodward's book. I want to read this.

He says, quote: There was no so-called practice session or re- enactment of a mock interview at the special counsel's office. Further, I did not refer to the president as a liar and I did not say he was likely to end up in an orange jump suit.

But the bottom line is, this is Bob Woodward and this takes -- this carries a lot more weight than even just the average "Washington Post"/"New York Times"/CNN whatever story. People really believe this guy because he works for years and has incredible sources and he digs a lot.

COLLINS: And also, he was seen inside the White House, he was seen at Trump Tower after Trump won the election but before he was inaugurated. He talked to multiple people in the White House.

There's a reason that this book is so well-written. It has these claims that we've heard some bits and pieces of but this is more fleshed out. You're a lot getting more details.

But as far as the special counsel goes, we do know that the president was looking forward to sitting down with Mueller. He actually wanted to do it and then it seemed to get called off after they were pretty close to doing so in January earlier this year. Now, this seems to shed light on why exactly the president hasn't sat down with him. So, I do think it illuminates that a little bit more.

TAPPER: And let's go into it. That John Dowd allegedly tells the president after they have this mock session of testimony and President Trump does his thing and ends up kind of being confused and not saying things that are necessarily true. And Dowd says: There's no way you can get through these. Don't testify. It's either that or an orange jump suit. Now, Dowd as we know denies saying that, but literally the next day,

according to the book, because Trump is insisting that he's going to testify, Dowd resigns.

HOLMES: Yes, well now, we have it on the record statement from John Dowd denying that this, in fact, took place the way -- so I think the water's going to get pretty muddy pretty quickly about what's true and what's not. It's Bob Woodward, carries some credibility with it.

But, look, let's just hypothetically assume all of it is true, I do think at some point, it is pretty normal interaction for an attorney and their client to demonstrate to their client where there is risk and where there is not. So, you know, I'm not surprised if, in fact, this took place that they were demonstrating to the president that just sitting behind a desk and answering questions from a prosecutor gets you into a whole bunch of territory that you can't get into --

SANDERS: Because you can't tell the truth.

(CROSSTALK)

HOLMES: Whatever his style is, we know Donald Trump's style. Decision is not --

TOOBIN: Style?

SANDERS: Lies?

TOOBIN: Is that what you call lying a style?

HOLMES: Well, I'm saying we all know that the way that he operates is full of hyperbole, full of exaggeration and in the context of the court of law, you can't get away with it. So demonstrating --

TAPPER: I think you're agreeing, you're just using different nouns but I think you're agreeing.

TOOBIN: Yes, we are agreeing. But, I mean, you know, to normalize these sorts of interactions and say, well, you know, clients all the time go into the Oval Office and they say you're such a liar you can't testify, that's actually not normal I don't think and I actually think that's quite unusual.

TAPPER: Let me ask you because you cover this had, what about when they were trying to keep Bill Clinton from testifying? And, by the way, he was -- and he did --

TOOBIN: And, by the way, he was impeached for lying in the deposition.

TAPPER: Right. But they must have been making the same type of argument, different kind of liars, different kinds of presidents.

TOOBIN: I think the scale of lying is different, the subject matter is different.

TAPPER: Yes.

TOOBIN: But in similar -- lawyers were in both cases trying to protect their clients from their worst instincts. That's something good lawyers should do. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don't. So far, Trump's lawyers, a changing cast, it used to be John Dowd, now it's Rudy Giuliani, has succeeded in at least keeping him from lying under oath.

TAPPER: And, Symone, one thing that we've heard in these excerpts for the first time, although it's not actually his voice, but Bob Mueller being quoted even if its not Mueller who was interviewed, the Mueller team -- the Mueller in this excerpt says I need the president's testimony, says to Dowd. What was his intent on Comey? I want to see if there was corrupt intent.