Return to Transcripts main page

THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Trump Attacks Kavanaugh's Sexual Assault Accuser; Rod Rosenstein Under Fire; Sources: Deputy AG Rosenstein Discussed 25 Amendment, Suggested Secretly Recording Trump After Comey Firing; Trump Ends Relative Restraint, Repeatedly Attacks Ford. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired September 21, 2018 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:10]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: The deputy attorney general of the United States reportedly brought up wearing a wire in the Oval Office to prove that the president was unfit. This is real life.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news: A shocking report says Rod Rosenstein, the man in charge of the Russia probe, discussed secretly recording President Trump and potentially ousting him via the Constitution, as Washington, D.C., holds on tight for the president's response to this.

Also breaking, just minutes ago, the deadline. Republicans giving Kavanaugh's accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, the rest of this hour to respond to their counteroffer for a hearing on Wednesday, bringing us closer to a hearing that could decide the future of the Supreme Court.

And you can go ahead and reset that clock on the president showing any restraint. Today, he unleashed on Professor Ford and on her parents in a tone-deaf tweet, asking, why didn't she report this to the FBI when she was 15?

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with breaking news.

A stunning report out this afternoon revealing just how concerned at least one top administration official was about the chaos of the Trump presidency and the behavior of President Trump.

"The New York Times" reporting the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, told FBI and Justice Department officials that he was considering secretly recording President Trump to try to document the dysfunction he was witnessing and even discussed trying to garner support from Cabinet officials to potentially invoke the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

This would remove President Trump from office for being unfit to serve. This is according to several people who describe these events to "The New York Times." Rosenstein reportedly made these suggestions in the spring of 2017 days after the president fired FBI Director James Comey.

Now, neither of the proposals by Rosenstein apparently went any further than talk. Rosenstein, who oversees the Russia investigation, is publicly denying this report this afternoon, calling it inaccurate.

Let's get right to CNN's Sara Murray.

Sara, Rosenstein was reportedly so serious about removing President Trump from office, that he even said he thought he could persuade Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Then Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, now the chief of staff, to potentially join him?

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jake.

According to "The New York Times" report, Rod Rosenstein was coming up with potential ways to get Trump out of the White House, but today Rosenstein is hitting back at that same "New York Times" story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY (voice-over): Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein floated the idea of wearing a wire to secretly record President Trump last year, according to "The New York Times."

The second most powerful person at the Justice Department also reportedly discussed with DOJ officials recruiting Cabinet members to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office for being unfit in the days following FBI Director James Comey's firing.

Rosenstein vehemently denying the claims, saying in a statement: 'The 'New York Times' story is inaccurate and factually incorrect. I will not further comment on a story based on anonymous sources who are obviously biased against the department and are advancing their own personal agenda," adding: "Let me be clear about this. Based on my personal dealings with the president, there is no basis to invoke the 25th Amendment."

One source who was in the room for the discussion tells CNN Rosenstein was being sarcastic when he discussed the wire comment. But others told "The New York Times" that Rosenstein was serious, and even raised the idea of others wearing a wire.

"The Times"' report relies on memos written by former FBI Director Andrew McCabe. McCabe, whose memos have been handed over to special counsel's Robert Mueller's team, was fired earlier this year, following an onslaught of Twitter attacks from the president.

A justice official tells CNN they're skeptical of McCabe's description of events, suggesting McCabe has credibility issues and wanted to do what he could to lay the ground work for the appointment of a special counsel after Comey was fired.

But another source close to the situation believes McCabe had no incentive to lie while taking those contemporaneous notes. Today, through his attorney, McCabe denied any knowledge of how "The Times" got its hands on the details of his memos, saying: "When he was interviewed by the special counsel more than a year ago, he gave all of his memos, classified and unclassified, to the special counsel's office. A set of those memos remained at the FBI at the time of his departure in late January 2018. He has no knowledge of how any member of the media obtained those memos."

Rosenstein took charge of the Russia investigation after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself. Just yesterday, he went to the White House to discuss declassifying certain documents and texts related to the Russia probe.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now President Trump is backing away today from that call to declassify documents, text messages, the application for the FISA warrant for Carter Page.

[16:05:03]

Instead, he put out a tweet today in which he said he would leave it up to Department of Justice's inspector general to move forward with this. That will be a relief probably to some Trump critics, who viewed this as another effort by the president to meddle in the Russia investigation, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Sara Murray, thanks so much.

Let's talk about it with our experts.

Bill, start with you.

Rod Rosenstein thinking that potentially -- he denies the story, but that the president was unfit, and they should talk about the 25th Amendment, maybe even wearing a wire?

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": What deputy attorney general hasn't thought about wearing a wire into the Oval Office and invoking the 25th Amendment? It happens in every administration.

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: Let the record reflect, Bill is being sarcastic.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Just for aliens in 100 years who read the transcript.

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: Yes.

KRISTOL: Where does one begin? I don't know. Maybe he saw things that were legitimately extremely worrisome. I'm sure he did see some such things. He also may have been extremely

rattled that week when he -- when Comey was fired. And I would say this. Honestly, since then, whatever the truth or half-truth of some of those reports are, whether he was being sarcastic or gallows humor- like in some of those comments, he's been, I think, looking from the outside, a very responsible deputy attorney general.

And he and Sessions have preserved the Mueller investigation and the rule of law at the Department of Justice. We saw that just now also in that they're not going ahead with declassifying things recklessly and irresponsibly, even though the president said they should.

So whatever the truth of the particular account, I think we should keep that in mind as well.

TAPPER: And, Kristen, this isn't the first time we have heard the 25th Amendment being discussed. It was mentioned in that "New York Times" op-ed by the anonymous senior administration official, saying that people -- there had been whispers about it early in the administration.

Whether or not you believe her, and I understand a lot of people don't, Omarosa Manigault-Newman says that people on the White House staff used to do #TFA, the 25th Amendment, whenever President Trump did anything crazy.

This isn't the first time our viewers have heard the term 25th Amendment. They know what it means.

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: It does seem, though, to me to be a little irresponsible for someone who is the deputy attorney general, who may be in a position where you have got to be investigating the president's actions, to be saying something like this, which is why I'm skeptical of the account.

By all accounts, Rod Rosenstein has been a professional, responsible person in the very difficult role that he's been in. I think the real question now is, in his statement to the media, Rod Rosenstein sort of affirms, I don't think we should be using the 25th Amendment to remove the president. Will the president hear that message?

Think about the competing voices we have got in this discussion. On the one hand, you have voices from the Department of Justice, which the president has had no problem criticizing. On the other hand is "The New York Times," Andrew McCabe, notes from Lisa Page, I believe, are involved.

It's like a laundry list of people...

TAPPER: Murderers row, yes.

SOLTIS ANDERSON: ... Trump has tweeted against.

And so who will the president agree with and who has got the right story on this issue?

TAPPER: And here's another group of people.

Laura Ingraham, the conservative pundit on FOX News, and who President Trump I think respects a lot, tweeted in response -- quote -- "Rod Rosenstein must be fired today."

So there are a lot of people on -- a lot of Trumpy folks who don't like Rosenstein because they think that he's let the Russia probe run wild, et cetera, who are looking at this as an excuse for the president to fire him.

ROBBY MOOK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes.

And that's what to me is really scary about this, is that it could be used for that. The president now in his imaginary world has all the evidence he would need. I think he thought he had that long ago. But this is another proof point.

And I also am concerned that the reporting, we just don't know, how accurate is it really? It makes sense to me that maybe he could have made a crack about this. But the idea that he would have really proposed that, it just -- I don't even know how you do that. You go to a judge and get a warrant?

How do you -- so the worst possible scenario in my mind is that it's an exaggerated report, either because somebody gave an exaggerated information or, you know, misrepresented something, or for some other reason, and then that becomes the premise for the president to fire him.

TAPPER: Well, these "New York Times" reporters are excellent reporters, Goldman and Schmidt. And the other thing is, you know, McCabe, who wrote this in a memo, is denying that he wrote it in a memo. He's just saying he didn't give it to them.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, exactly. They're getting this from somewhere.

What I would say about the drumbeat of the president's -- the folks on the outside that the president listens to, they have also said that about Sessions. So I wonder. I'm not making any predictions.

TAPPER: Said what about Sessions?

KUCINICH: They have called for Sessions to be fired.

TAPPER: To be fired, yes.

KUCINICH: Yes, exactly.

So I wonder if this is something -- and I'm not going to make any predictions, because lord knows it could have been tweeted right now while I'm talking.

TAPPER: No, they will let me know.

KUCINICH: Oh, good. Thank goodness. But I wonder if this just increases the likelihood that a lot changes

after the midterm elections.

TAPPER: Yes.

KRISTOL: Or even after Kavanaugh either gets confirmed or doesn't get confirmed, because I do think one piece of leverage more responsible people in the White House have had against the president acting against Sessions, Rosenstein, et cetera, is, hey, you have got to keep things calm because you care about the Supreme Court and Brett Kavanaugh has a pretty good chance of getting confirmed.

[16:10:05]

KRISTOL: Once Kavanaugh is resolved, McGahn leaves, then all bets are off, I think.

TAPPER: One other person that is another group reacting to this, Donald Trump Jr., perhaps his number one surrogate on the campaign trail: "Shocked, absolutely shocked."

Now, who is he attacking, "The New York Times"? No. Rosenstein. "Oh, who are we kidding at this point? No one is shocked that these guys would do anything in their power to undermine @realDonaldTrump. Followed by the quote: "We likely have a winner in the search for anonymous."

Donald Trump Jr. tweeting that.

SOLTIS ANDERSON: Sure. That doesn't surprise me at all, in fact. Like I mentioned, we're going to have the sort of strange bedfellows effect here, right, where suddenly anonymous sources in "The New York Times" are the greatest ever, because they're confirming a narrative that some people already had and wanted to see further.

I think it doesn't surprise me at all the folks that have been vocally critical of Rod Rosenstein are jumping on this story that proof he is exactly the monster they said he was. Count me as still pretty skeptical.

MOOK: And, again, the irony on this to me is, let's say this actually did happen. And, again, it seems a little bizarre.

It's the president's behavior.

TAPPER: Nothing bizarre has happened.

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

MOOK: But what's been extraordinarily and consistently bizarre is the president's own behavior. That's what's at the core of this, right, is doubting whether this man can actually do his job. You have got an investigation going on into whether there was collusion with Russia, whether his entire business is based on fraud, money laundering, so on and so forth.

So, I mean, it's just one of these remarkable things nowadays, that we're sorting through all these details. But when you pull back, what's really at question here is the president's own fitness for office. That is a legitimate question.

TAPPER: Woodward in his book does not have the 25th Amendment section, but he does have Chief of Staff John Kelly calling it crazy town. And in this account in "The New York Times," Rosenstein is talking about potentially getting Kelly, who at the time was at the Department of Homeland Security, to join him, along with Sessions, in possibly talking about the 25th Amendment to remove the president from office.

KUCINICH: And that's one of the interesting things about this piece, is it does continue a thread, maybe not the 25th Amendment piece, but it does continue a thread.

The Woodward book basically was about a bunch of people who are senior officials trying to undermine the president. And that's the narrative throughout the book. And we just see that through that op-ed, and now through this story, that this is a continuing narrative that isn't going away any time soon.

And maybe some of the events aren't exactly how they're presented. But it sure seems like a lot of this stuff happened.

TAPPER: Do you think there's a legitimate 25th Amendment case against President Trump? To play devil's advocate here, the economy is chugging along fine. You agree with a lot of things the president is doing in terms of taxes, in terms of Brett Kavanaugh, at least until a week ago, in terms of foreign policy.

Do you think there is actually -- even -- obviously, his behavior is erratic and unusual. Do you think from is a case to be made that he's unfit?

KRISTOL: He could be unfit in a general sense, but I don't think there's a 25th Amendment case.

But there are people -- the reason the anonymous op-ed has some resonance is, it's by someone who claims to be an insider who claims other insiders have seen issues that would raise 25th Amendment concerns which presumably those of us who only see him on TV and on Twitter wouldn't see.

But, no, I don't think at this point there's any reason to think there is a legitimate 25th Amendment case. But I do think the degree to which you say the president -- that the Woodward book shows people undermining him, but another way of saying it is that it shows senior officials constraining him, Cabinet officials, White House officials.

(CROSSTALK)

KUCINICH: Sorry, I didn't mean to take the line of the Trump administration. (CROSSTALK)

KRISTOL: Typical Trump spokeswoman here on my left.

(LAUGHTER)

KRISTOL: But for me, the big story again is the degree to which those constraints are gradually being -- going away, being undercut. The guardrails being chipped away at.

And McGahn is leaving. Kelly could well leave after the election. Mattis could leave. He wants desperately to fire Sessions. Maybe he will add Rosenstein. Maybe it will be right after Election Day. It could be...

TAPPER: Oof, picture of the Red Wedding right there.

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around. We have got a more to talk about.

Was Rod Rosenstein being serious when he talked about wearing a wire while talking to President Trump? We are going to talk to one of the reporters who broke this bombshell "New York Times" report.

Plus, the restraints are off. After making it four days, congratulations, without going after the woman accusing Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, President Trump is on the attack against her, even ridiculing her parents.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:18:29] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And we're back with breaking news. CNN has learned the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein suggested to Justice Department and FBI officials he secretly record President Trump at the White House. He suggested recruiting cabinet officials to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove President Trump from office.

This is according to sources authored by former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe documented these discussions and it was first reported by the "New York Times."

Joining me on the phone is Adam Goldman, one of the two reporters who broke the story, along with Michael Schmidt.

Adam, congratulations on the scoop. You report that when Rosenstein talks about wearing a wire, one person describes him saying it sarcastically, but others thought he meant it. Is it clear to you, ultimately, how he meant it when he made the remarks about the -- when he talked about wearing a wire?

ADAM GOLDMAN, REPORTER, NEW YORK TIMES (via telephone): Yes, you know, my understanding of what happened is that this wasn't a flippant remark. And he was, in fact, very serious. And the circumstances in which it was described to me are different now than what's being put out I guess by the government.

But, you know, it's important that your listeners understand something, that as I was pursuing this story for a very long time, people were reluctant to talk about it, because of the gravity of the story. But there was concern that if it got out, that, you know, Rosenstein had wanted to actually, you know, wear a wire, and suggested Andy McCabe, the acting director at the time, wear a wire, that Rob might get fired.

[16:20:01] People were sincerely concerned about this, not because he made a flip remark, because of the seriousness surrounding the remark.

TAPPER: Yes. And, Adam, I have to say, Senator Schumer, the Democratic leader of the Senate, is out there saying this can't be used as pretext to fire Rod Rosenstein. You have supporters of the presidents like Laura Ingraham at Fox News, saying Rod Rosenstein must be fired. This has entered the political sphere.

I know that isn't why you wrote it. You wrote it because it's a big scoop, it's interesting, and it's factual. But when you write a story like this, I mean, that's got to weigh on you to a degree that, you know, how is this going to impact history?

GOLDMAN: You know, agreed. In this moment, we realize when we write these stories they can become politically toxic, but, you know, I felt my job as a reporter and the way I've always conducted myself is I just follow the facts. And when I reach a certain comfort level, I publish the story. You know, I think my main concern in this story was just trying to be fair to all of the parties involved.

TAPPER: Yes, absolutely. There have been other mentions of the 25th Amendment, of course, being talked about in the administration. The anonymous op-ed author for your newspaper's editorial pages, Omarosa Manigault Newman talked about how White House staffers used to have a hashtag when they found the president doing something wanting, #tfa, 25th amendment, #tfa.

Do you have a sense whether this was really being seriously considered among administration officials? This is something they actually are going to do? They're going to go to other members of the cabinet and try to get the number that they -- the requisite number to actually invoke the amendment?

GOLDMAN: Well, as I wrote in my story, I think there was concern that how would you do a straw poll? Because if it got back to Trump and he found out, he would fire everybody.

But, you know, I wasn't able to level the -- measure the seriousness of what Mr. McCabe was told by Rod. But, you know, what was interesting when I learned about that, it was post -- it was -- only learned about it after the op-ed. And which -- which raised this idea, at least in my mind, that, you know, more people talking about the 25th out there than we really know.

TAPPER: Interesting. Adam Goldman with the "New York Times," congratulations again on the scoop, thanks for joining us. As President Trump changes his tone and questions how serious the

attack could have been against her, Judge Brett Kavanaugh's accuser, Professor Christine Blasey Ford, is slowing coming to terms with senators. The possible new date for this momentous hearing, coming up next.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:27:27] TAPPER: Breaking news in our politics lead. We now have a 5:00 deadline for Professor Christine Blasey Ford. She is the woman accusing Judge Kavanaugh of sexual assault. Five o'clock, she needs to respond to Republicans' latest offer for a hearing. That's just in 33 minutes.

The conditions coming from Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the hearing would be Wednesday. Blasey Ford would testify first, before Kavanaugh. And an outside counsel would be used to ask the questions.

This new deadline comes hours after President Trump unleashed an attack against Professor Ford and her credibility after five days of following the advice of his aides and saying Professor Ford should be heard. The president is now questioning whether her allegations are true.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is live in Springfield, Missouri, where President Trump is holding a rally this evening.

Kaitlan, you reported yesterday the president's aides were stunned at his relative restraint. What's the reaction today to him attacking a woman who claims she was sexual assaulted?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, they didn't think it was long, because it's pretty uncharacteristic of the president to be so measured in his responses, as he had been for several days. But then today, we saw what the president has been saying privately. He said it publicly today, which is that he questions the allegations that Christine Blasey Ford has leveled against his Supreme Court nominee and he made clear today whether she testifies or not, he thinks Brett Kavanaugh should become Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Brett Kavanaugh --

COLLINS (voice-over): President Trump unleashing today, breaking after days of restraint and lashing out at the woman who has accused his Supreme Court nominee of sexual assault. Trump tweeting that at the alleged attack was as bad as she says it was, Christine Blasey Ford would have filed charges. The president demanding to know the date, time and place.

Ford has accused Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers, allegations he has vigorously denied. White House officials were caught off guard by the president's initially measured response until he cast doubt on Ford's allegation today, asking, why didn't someone call the FBI 36 years ago?

In an interview with "The Washington Post" earlier this week, Ford recalled thinking, I'm not ever telling anyone this.

Moments before Trump attacked Ford, Kellyanne Conway told reporters --

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: There's no reason to attack.

COLLINS: But earlier she said --

CONWAY: I hope this woman is not being used by the Democrats.

COLLINS: The president criticizing Democrats who have called for an FBI investigation into Ford's allegation. Saying they don't want to know the answers, because facts don't matter to them. Trump's remarks coming as Ford's attorneys continue negotiating with the Senate Judiciary Committee over her possible testimony, including her request from Ford that she never be in the room as Kavanaugh.