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Trump Wanted Justice Department to Investigate Hillary Clinton; Responses to Robert Mueller Questions Submitted by Trump's Lawyers; Trump Sides with Saudis Over Murder of Journalist; Weighing the Hypocrisy of Ivanka Trump's Personal E-mail Use. Aired 6-6:30a ET
Aired November 21, 2018 - 06:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are watching the president undermine the principles of our democracy.
[05:59:05] DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If I win I am going to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation.
JOHN DEAN, WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL TO FORMER PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: I think Richard Nixon would tell this president he's going too far.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president essentially put a price tag on a man's life.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's one of the most amoral statements any president has ever uttered.
TRUMP: It's America first to me. It's all about America first.
ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Alisyn Camerota and John Berman.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. This is NEW DAY. It's Wednesday, November 21. It's 6 a.m. here in New York.
Listen to this: "Nixon would tell the president he's going too far." That is a jaw-dropping statement and what Richard Nixon's White House counsel, John Dean, told me overnight about the stunning revelations that President Trump wanted to order the Justice Department to go after his political rivals. "This is the sort of stuff of a banana republic," Dean told me. "This is what an autocrat does."
A source tells CNN the president wanted to have Hillary Clinton prosecuted and repeatedly pressed then White House counsel Don McGahn to lean on the Justice Department to do so.
The source says on multiple occasions, the president raised investigating Clinton with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Matt Whitaker, now acting attorney general, but then Jeff Sessions's chief of staff. Recently, the president claimed he never knew Matt Whitaker. But these conversations prove that to be a lie.
"The Times" reports the president also wanted to prosecute former FBI director James Comey, but McGahn pushed back, saying he had no authority to order a prosecution and even, quote, "have White House lawyers write a memo for Mr. Trump, warning that, if he asked law enforcement to investigate his rivals, he could face a possible of consequences, including possible impeachment."
ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: And the other top story, President Trump siding with Saudi Arabia over the U.S. intel's assessment that the crown prince did order the murder of "Washington Post" journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The president making it clear he will not punish Saudi Arabia for killing and dismembering Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two months ago.
The president thinks the crown prince's culpability may never be known. In his words, he says maybe he did, maybe he didn't. Critics are blasting the president for putting economic interests above morals. Even some Republicans are slamming the president's inaction on this.
Senator Bob Corker, who heads the Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted, quote, "I never thought I'd see a day a White House would moonlight as a public relations firm for the crown prince of Saudi Arabia."
All right. Joining us now, we have CNN White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins; and the host of CNN's "SMERCONISH," Michael Smerconish; and former federal prosecutor, Laura Coates.
Guys, there's so much to get to. It's supposed to be the day before a holiday.
BERMAN: It's not anymore?
CAMEROTA: Sometimes the news cycle used to slow down, but not now.
Laura, before we get to the morality of all of this, let's start with prosecuting and going after your political adversaries. So legally, can a president of the United States go after and prosecute -- order an investigation and prosecution of political rivals?
LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, not in democracy. That's the expectation, isn't it, Alisyn? And the thing is, the president is the head of the executive branch of government, so everyone thinks, because the Department of Justice falls under his purview, that he necessarily would have complete autonomy on deciding what they prosecute, who they prosecute and to what extent.
But in reality, the executive branch and his role as the president is to ensure that the laws are faithfully executed, not necessarily to actually determine whether or not and to what extent and who is prosecuted. So the president over a course of this last two years, and every
president prior to that, back to the Watergate administration -- the Nixon administration, have known that there are certain parameters they must abide by. They cannot simply order it and it shall be done. They can have their appointees do something. They can ask their appointees to investigate issues.
But likely -- but largely speaking, the notion of the president in a democracy being able to go after political rivals for no other reason but to grind an axe, is unheard of and should remain so.
BERMAN: Let's remember. This is what Donald Trump told us he would do. On a debate stage with tens of millions of people watching, he said he wanted to do this. Let's review.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation because there has never been so many lies, so much deception. There has never been anything like it, and we're going to have a special prosecutor.
HILLARY CLINTON (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: It's just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in large of the law in our country.
TRUMP: Because you'd be in jail.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BERMAN: OK. That was during the campaign, Michael Smerconish. He was asking his White House counsel to go to the Justice Department to prosecute Hillary Clinton until spring of 2018. He'd been president for 14 to 16 months, plenty of time to know that that is way out of bounds, which is why John Dean told me overnight. And these are stunning words. He said that Nixon would tell President Trump he's going too far.
MICHAEL SMERCONISH, HOST, "SMERCONISH": When you look at the timeline, I think what's most stunning is that, for a full year, because according to The Times this was a request that he made of Don McGahn this past spring. Mueller was appointed in the spring of 2017. So for a full year, the president knew that he was the focus of at least a portion of the Mueller probe relative to possible obstruction of justice, and that didn't deter him. That possibility that Mueller would look and find evidence for the president having improperly fired Comey did not, in and of itself, dissuade him from wanting to use the Justice Department to investigate two political rivals.
[06:05:00] I have to say this. I agree with everything that Laura Coates articulated as to the impropriety, but I don't know that I'd go so far -- and she didn't -- but I don't know that I'd go so far as to speak of the illegality. Because that "Times" piece makes clear that Don McGahn said to Donald Trump, said to the president, "You do have the authority to request a probe," but he cautioned him against it and said it could lead to impropriety -- or could lead to impeachment. BERMAN: The key words were "said he wanted to order." He did not
order; he said he wanted to order. So the order itself never happened, so there was no illegality there. But I suppose it could get to the issue of criminal intent. Sorry.
CAMEROTA: Here -- here's the little passage that Michael was referring to. "Mr. McGahn had White House lawyers write a memo for Mr. Trump warning that, if he asked law enforcement to investigate his rivals, he could face a range of consequences, including possible impeachment."
And so Kaitlan, that just brings us to what we often debate here on the program, which is that people around the president often seem to have to keep him from himself, to keep him from his impulses.
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Alisyn.
CAMEROTA: Being the guardrails.
COLLINS: And that's something that frustrates President Trump so -- right, that frustrates President Trump so much, is this idea that there are people in this administration who are working to reign him in or restrain him.
But clearly, we are seeing that with Don McGahn here with this, and this is the second time we've seen it. The first being when "The New York Times" reported that President Trump tried to fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller. And now again, we are seeing with this.
And this is how the president views not only the White House counsel, but also the attorney general and the Justice Department overall, as someone who should be working for him and, in a sense, not instilling his agenda but -- not only protecting him from the Russia investigation, as we saw with that frustration with Jeff Sessions but also in the other way, going after his political adversaries that he feels have done something wrong, even though it's unclear what it is he wants James Comey and Hillary Clinton to be investigated for or what they would even look at.
And we've seen that before. Aides say the president comes to them often with this idea, something he wants to carry out or do, whether it's about immigration, the Justice Department, what have you, and they, in turn, have to explain to the president, as Don McGahn did with this memo that he outlined, telling the president why either he can't do this legally or why politically, it would be a disaster for him to do something like that.
Now the question, John and Alisyn, is whether the president even read that memo that Don McGahn had outlined for him, explaining why he couldn't do this, because we know, from what sources are telling us, president Trump continues to talk about this. He continues to be frustrated with the FBI director and, of course, until recently, continued to be frustrated with the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for not doing what he believed they should do with regards to James Comey and Hillary Clinton. And that's crucial, because James Comey is a witness against the
president in Robert Mueller's investigation, an investigation that includes whether or not the president sought to impede this investigation.
BERMAN: And among other things we know the president has been asking Matt Whitaker, his new acting attorney general, about what the Justice Department was doing with Hillary Clinton for the past year, which among other things proves the president was flat-out lying when he said he didn't know Matt Whitaker.
CAMEROTA: And by the way, it also sounds like, from all of the new reporting, that Matt Whitaker played along. He'd been briefed that the president had this bee in his bonnet, and so when he would go into the Oval Office, he played along of, "Yes, sure, I suppose" that he would look into it, but then, you know, didn't. Apparently.
BERMAN: So -- so to the issue of what the legality here might be, Laura, we also know that Don McGahn has testified behind closed doors or answered questions from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team for at least 30 hours, maybe well more than that. So if the issue is intent, what would the president want to do, not just here but when he fired James Comey? Not just here, but when he got involved in the Michael Flynn investigation, perhaps? Intent is so important and this could shine a light on that.
COATES: Absolutely. I mean, 30 hours is no small amount of time. And although we're referring to James Comey as a political adversary, he was the former head of the FBI who was a part of an investigation into collusion aspects and would know a lot -- a great deal about the Hillary Clinton e-mail controversy, as we know from his press conference.
The fact that Don McGahn essentially blind-sided the president with the news that he actually spoke to the Mueller team for over 30 hours, not only was he the head of his campaign finance issues, he was somebody with the FEC who knew about issues about campaign contributions. He would know about the president's thoughts about why he wanted to fire James Comey. He would know about why he wanted to prosecute or pursue somebody like Hillary Clinton.
You know, all of these things goes to not just the president's own words about what he said but corroboration. Corroboration for the president's tweets, his interview with Lester Holt and everything he has said since then that contradicts his original statements about why he was involved in trying to fire these people.
[06:10:14] And although the president does have the prerogative to let members of his cabinet go and exercise that prerogative, it can't be for a nefarious or criminal intent. And for 30 hours, Don McGahn spoke with Mueller's team. For 30 hours, he held the attention of seasoned prosecutors about everything he knew. Well, we should expect that this is also part of it, as well.
CAMEROTA: So Michael, I mean, while all of this fuming from the president comes to light about how he wants to prosecute his rivals, the Mueller investigation continues apace. We know from the president himself. Here's what he said about the written answers that have taken about a year to negotiate -- or, I guess, who knows, but many, many months they've been negotiating whether or not he would answer these written questions. So here is what he said about that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: The written answers to the witch hunt that's been going on forever -- no collusion, no nothing -- they've been finished; finished them yesterday. The lawyers have them. I assume they'll turn them in today or soon.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CAMEROTA: So what does that tell you, if anything, about where Mueller is and when we might have some answers?
SMERCONISH: So for ten years I tried cases -- I litigated civil actions. I would always rather, Alisyn, have a witness face-to-face and be able to ask follow-up questions in a deposition format, take their oral testimony, than receive answers to interrogatories which don't allow for follow-up, can be lawyered up. You often don't get what you're looking for in terms of written responses.
So I think in this instance, Mueller was probably denied the opportunity to get what he wanted, at least for now, in being able to face-to-face question the president of the United States. I can't imagine that there will be much value in the written answers other than Mueller being able to say, "Well, I gave him the opportunity to respond and here's what I received."
But it would have been better for the prosecutor to have Trump, the president, on record in oral responses.
CAMEROTA: OK. Michael, Kaitlan, Laura, thank you very much for all of the expertise.
Meanwhile, President Trump apparently turning a blind eye, siding with Saudi Arabia over his own CIA's assessment of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. So what will Congress do now?
[06:16:17] CAMEROTA: President Trump gave a stunning defense of Saudi Arabia despite the CIA's assessment that the crown prince there ordered the murder of "Washington Post" journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why are you siding with the Saudis over your own intelligence?
TRUMP: Because it's America first to me. It's all about America first. Saudi Arabia, if we broke with them, I think your oil prices would go through the roof. I've kept them down. They've helped me keep them down. (END VIDEO CLIP)
CAMEROTA: Top Republicans are slamming the president's inaction and vowing to do something.
Joining us now, we have Michael Smerconish; David Sanger, national security correspondent for "The New York Times"; and former CIA counterterrorism official, Phil Mudd.
Gentlemen, let me just read a piece of this statement that the president put out yesterday, because David Sanger, you say you've never seen anything like it in all of your years of covering the White House, White Houses in Washington and politics.
BERMAN: Are you going to read it with the exclamation points?
CAMEROTA: I'm going to note the exclamation points, because it had eight of them.
Here's just a portion of what the president said: "It could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event. Maybe he did, maybe he didn't!" exclamation point. "That being said, we may never know all the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia."
There's so much more in the statement. What was it that stunned you, David?
DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, what stunned me were two things, Alisyn.
First, this statement, 633 words, is the map of Donald Trump's mind about the way the world operates. It's a world in which not only is it America first, but it's mercantilism first; it's whatever it is that we can sell.
The second is that human rights are pretty much something that you just talk about on the side, but when it comes to the end, you don't actually do very much.
The third is that it's a completely black and white choice, that it's either support the crown prince or abandon Saudi Arabia, which are not his choices out here. So that was pretty remarkable.
I think the final thing to note about this statement -- and clearly it was written by the president himself, because most White House statements don't come out with that many exclamation points -- but the most important thing about this -- this statement is that the president made clear here that he really is fundamentally uninterested in the facts, that if the CIA came out and said they believe with whatever confidence --
BERMAN: A high level of confidence.
SANGER: High level. Whether it was high or medium, they haven't yet told us exactly where it was calibrated. But wherever it was, he basically wanted to wipe that away by saying, "Maybe he did it, maybe he didn't do it. We'll never know what happens behind closed doors, so forget about it. We're just going to go back to business as usual."
And it's interesting that even some of his Republican colleagues cannot swallow that.
BERMAN: Michael Smerconish, Dan Balz, who I think is the least hyperbolic journalist on earth, wrote yesterday, "This is a shocking statement from the president that gives comfort and encouragement to dictators and cedes the moral authority of the United States."
To me, I don't understand why human rights are incompatible with "America first." To me, human rights are part of America.
SMERCONISH: Right. In his calculous, America first is all financially based, and values are secondary, if at all considered. I've said to you previously, John, my issue with the way in which the president has handled Saudi Arabia thus far is that I don't understand why he's put his thumb on the scale in this battle between Sunni and Shia that dates to the year 632.
It seems like Iran was on ice at least for a ten-year period, when he came into office. He was completely disregarding of that agreement and is being driven now by his antipathy toward Iran and his stated purpose of wanting to protect Saudi Arabian investment in American firms. And values, American values and human rights be damned.
[06:20:11] CAMEROTA: Phil, the problem with that, with the money- first approach, is that the president seems to have his numbers wrong. So the president keeps saying that "This is worth it, because we're getting $110 billion from Saudi Arabia." Fact checkers at CNN and the A.P. say, no, that's actually not the right number.
The letters of offer and acceptance from Saudi Arabia that have signed for weapons purchases are $14 billion. So a tenth of what the president has said. So that's the price tag, we now know. That's the price tag for our principles: 14 billion. OK. I mean, that will provide, I guess, thousands of American jobs, but just so we're all clear on the math, that's what the calculation has been.
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I suppose so. But I think the story is what we've just talking about, what David was talking about, what Michael was talking about.
It's not about the money. I'm not surprised that America has to make decisions about values versus money. We could do that in this case by sanctioning the Saudis more heavily than we have, by limiting some of the weapons sales. But by maintaining the relationship we're making a false choice.
The story here is about a president for 22 months who said American values mean dealing with dictators in the Philippines or leadership in the Philippines that routinely murders people outside the courts. It means accepting people in places like Egypt and Turkey that imprison their opponents, that imprison journalists. That means saying, "I like Vladimir Putin," when he sides with a dictator in Syria who uses chemical weapons against his own people.
Let me be clear, Alisyn. "America first" for every American who wants to wake up on the day before Thanksgiving and give thanks for justice, for freedom, for a country under George Bush that said "America first" means aiding people in Africa, with tens and hundreds of millions of dollars to fight AIDS. "America first" means forget about freedom, forget about justice. If there's a dictator we like who wants to imprison people and journalists, that's OK. It's not about the money; it's about what it shows about who America is. Look in the mirror. That's who we are.
BERMAN: And that's the issue, David Sanger. What message does it send? If you are a dictator in country A, B or C, what's to keep you from killing a reporter you don't like? What's to keep you from killing a political opponent? You know, if you're willing to make a deal and buy a few weapons from the United States, you could get maybe, you know, get a two for one?
SANGER: I think this is what the president is missing from the American foreign policy is the reason you establish relationships is not only that alliances are important and we need to be able to distinguish between our allies and our enemies and understand how we maintain those, but that the message the United States sends by doing what it did yesterday, by the president saying what he said yesterday is you are basically given a free ball inside the borders of your country -- or in this case they were in an embassy outside their country, right? -- but the United States will never look inside the box of how you govern your country.
And that gets to the moral issues that you were hearing before from Phil. This is simply not the way the United States has gone forward. It has balanced at various moments, national interests and human rights. President Obama did that. We saw President Bush do that. The United States has not had completely clean hands here, but there's always been a balance. And if you're honest with yourself, you get out and explain the balance.
CAMEROTA: One last thing before we move on, and this is from Max Boot on Twitter, that I think also frames it interestingly. He says, "All you need to know about Donald Trump is that he's tougher on Admiral Bill McRaven than he is on the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, or Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong-un."
OK, on that note, let's move on to e-mails. And you might think I'm talking about Hillary Clinton's. No, I'm talking about Ivanka Trump's.
So Michael Smerconish, what are we to do with this knowledge now that Ivanka used her personal e-mail to conduct government business throughout 2017 after all of the hue and cry, much of which scuttled Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in 2016, and Donald Trump, as you know, claimed he was going to prosecute her for things, and now to find out that his daughter also used personal e-mail? SMERCONISH: So I listened to the way in which the president tried to
distinguish the Hillary episode from the Ivanka episode. There's some truth to what he said in terms of the private server, et cetera, et cetera.
But my reaction was one of what you just said: how in the world could she come into the White House, in recognition of everything that led up to her father's election, and make a conscious decision that this is the way that she was going -- you would think that the one thing you would do when you walked in the door at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is get some advice and make sure you don't run afoul of the way in which you should be handling your e-mail, and yet she did it. I'm stunned by it.
[06:25:19] BERMAN: Phil, before we let this subject go, the president said, "Oh, it's different than Hillary Clinton. Ivanka didn't delete anything. It's all in the government's hands."
As an investigator, would you just take their word for it at this point, or do you think there are more questions to be asked here?
MUDD: What, it's the day before Thanksgiving, and you think I'm going to give somebody a pass? Forget about all the nonsense from the president. Let me give you two basic issues that I would look at inside government and the way that I would be judged.
No. 1, are you conducting government business on a private server or using a private e-mail account? That's a yes or a no. Don't give me this, "I've got a server in the basement or not." Did you do business without using government systems.
BERMAN: This is yes. The answer is yes.
MUDD: The answer appears to be yes.
And No. 2 the question is, is the information classified? Can you explain to me why the heck we would take the word of her lawyer, who I presume doesn't even have a security clearance, who looked into the e- mails and said, "I'll give you what I think is significant, and I've determined the other stuff isn't classified"? Why the heck do we listen to a defense attorney paid by Ivanka Trump to determine whether or not American materials that might be classified are on that -- on those e-mails? Why do we listen to him? I can't figure that out.
BERMAN: Happy Thanksgiving, Phil Mudd.
MUDD: No, I don't trust anybody, John, I'm sorry.
BERMAN: Happy Thanksgiving to you, pass the mashed potatoes.
CAMEROTA: That is Mr. Mudd being happy.
BERMAN: I know, I know. I haven't seen him happier.
CAMEROTA: That's him joyous.
Wow. Phil, thank you.
BERMAN: All right. Bundle up. This Thanksgiving, it could be the coldest in a century for millions in the Northeast. Your holiday travel forecast is next.