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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Did 'National Enquirer' Try to Blackmail Jeff Bezos?; Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker Grilled Before Congress. Aired 4- 4:30p ET

Aired February 8, 2019 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:00]

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you so much for being with me here on CNN.

Let's go to Washington. "THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER" starts right now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Acting Attorney General Whitaker testifies before the nation and an audience of one.

THE LEAD starts right now.

The first major showdown between the Trump administration and newly empowered Democrats, the president's acting attorney general denying that his thumb is on the scale of the Mueller probe in a heating hearing on the Hill.

A tale of blackmail, extortion and dirty pictures involving the richest man on the planet and the tabloid that does Donald Trump's dirty work. Today, a new federal probe and how Saudi Arabia might be tied up in all of this.

Plus, between a wall and a hard place. Pressure now building for President Trump to take whatever deal Congress gives him to avoid another government shutdown, with Republican allies wanting no part of any shutdown.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with the politics lead and the first major Democratic- controlled oversight hearing of the Trump administration, the first one to feature a top Trump official being grilled by the opposition party.

Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker testifying before the House Judiciary Committee today. It was fiery from the start, Whitaker refusing to answer questions about his conversations with President Trump.

In one rather striking exchange with the new Democratic chairman of the committee, Jerry Nadler of New York, Whitaker did something that none of us can recall ever having seen on Capitol Hill before.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MATTHEW WHITAKER, ACTING U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up. And so...

(LAUGHTER)

WHITAKER: I'm -- we -- we -- we -- I am -- I'm here voluntarily.

I -- we have agreed to five-minute rounds.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Witnesses do not generally tell committee chairmen presiding over a hearing that their time is up.

For their part, Republicans, now in the minority, tried to adjourn the hearing before it even began.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. DOUG COLLINS (R), GEORGIA: We're going to have plenty of theatrics. Bring your popcorn. I'm thinking about maybe we just set up a popcorn machine in the back, because that's what this is becoming.

It's becoming a show.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: The acting attorney general did say he has not discussed the special counsel investigation of the president and his team with the president or made any promises or commitments to the White House about any investigations.

But, as CNN's Jessica Schneider reports for us now, Whitaker notably refused to say whether or not he believed the Mueller probe was a witch-hunt.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The acting attorney general's first foray into a congressional committee room igniting tensions.

COLLINS: This hearing is pointless.

SCHNEIDER: And highlighting the divisions on Capitol Hill.

REP. JERROLD NADLER (D), NEW YORK: It's our understanding that at least one briefing occurred in December, before your decision not to recuse yourself on December 19 and Christmas Day. Is that correct?

Whitaker What's the basis for that question, sir?

NADLER: Yes or no.

WHITAKER: Mr. Chairman, I -- again, what is the basis for your question? You're saying that it is your understanding.

(CROSSTALK)

NADLER: I mean, I'm asking the questions. I only have five minutes. So please answer yes or no.

WHITAKER: No, Mr. Chairman, I'm going to -- you are asking me a question. It is your understanding. Can you tell me where you get the basis...

(CROSSTALK)

NADLER: No, I'm not going to tell you that. I don't have time to get into that.

SCHNEIDER: And after a few more minutes of questioning, Whitaker tried to cut the chairman off.

WHITAKER: I see that your five minutes is up. And so...

[15:25:00]

(LAUGHTER)

WHITAKER: I'm -- we -- we -- we -- I am -- I'm here voluntarily.

I -- we have agreed to five-minute rounds. And...

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think that's a fine place to end the five-minute rule.

NADLER: The committee will end -- will come to a -- and I will point out that we didn't enforce the five-minute rule on Attorney -- acting Attorney General Whitaker.

SCHNEIDER: Whitaker denied any conversations with the president or other White House officials about the special counsel's investigation, which Whitaker oversees, either before or after he took over the top spot at DOJ.

WHITAKER: At no time has the White House asked, nor have I provided any promises or commitments concerning the special counsel's investigation or any other investigation.

I'm sorry.

NADLER: It's a yes-or-no question. Have you communicated anything you learned in that briefing about the investigation to President Trump, yes or no?

WHITAKER: Mr. Chairman, as I said earlier today in my opening remarks, I do not intend today to talk about my private conversations with the president of the United States.

But to answer your question, I have not talked to the president of the United States about the special counsel's investigation.

SCHNEIDER: Whitaker has come under fire for denouncing the Mueller investigation as a commentator before he joined the Justice Department, which Republicans quickly pointed out was not the reason for the hearing.

REP. DEBBIE LESKO (R), ARIZONA: It's nothing but character assassination, harassment of our witness.

SCHNEIDER: Whitaker, who said he has been fully briefed on the Mueller investigation, declined to specifically condemned the label witch-hunt used by the president to describe the Russia probe.

WHITAKER: I have not interfered with the special counsel's investigation.

[16:05:02]

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you overseeing a witch-hunt? You would stop a witch-hunt, wouldn't you?

WHITAKER: Congressman, it would be inappropriate for me to talk about an ongoing investigation.

SCHNEIDER: And Whitaker giving no specific indication how much longer it will last.

WHITAKER: We haven't received the report. Bob Mueller is going to finish his investigation when he wants to finish his investigation.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: And committee Chairman Jerry Nadler says this isn't the end of the inquiry. Nadler says he's expecting written answers from Whitaker on a number of subjects, including specifics about conversations Whitaker had with the president or White House officials after being briefed on the special counsel's investigation, since Nadler now says he doesn't believe Whitaker's insistence that these conversations never happened.

And, Jake, Nadler, once again, he is threatening a subpoena if it's necessary to get all these answers.

TAPPER: All right, Jessica Schneider, thank you so much.

My experts are here.

Carrie, let me start with you. You're the former prosecutor at the table and the one with a law degree.

Did you hear the acting attorney general say anything that you found or could be construed as inappropriate? Was there anything he said that gave you pause in terms of his impartiality and the Mueller probe?

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I thought the issue was his credibility.

So he has been operating under a sort of skeptical lens of credibility, because he is the acting and because he was never Senate- confirmed. And so that has put a cloud over his entire tenure as acting attorney general.

His performance today underscored that or highlighted it or just made it more apparent in terms of, he was an inexperienced witness. He was combative with the members. He was disrespectful. And he was somewhat evasive.

Now, on the most important question I think of the day as to whether or not he was actively undermining the special counsel's investigation, he answered that he wasn't, that he wasn't doing anything. And so that was an important fact that he said today.

But his entire -- sort of other sorts of answers were evasive or seemed like he was trying to not be 100 percent clear. And so it just speaks to his overall credibility. And I think he came away not helping himself in that regard.

TAPPER: And there was one moment early on that got really contentious. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NADLER: Now, in your capacity as acting attorney general, have you ever been asked to approve any requests or action to be taken by the special counsel?

WHITAKER: Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up. And so...

[15:25:00]

(LAUGHTER)

WHITAKER: I'm -- we -- we -- we -- I am -- I'm here voluntarily.

I -- we have agreed to five-minute rounds.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: I'm the oldest one at the table. And I will say, I have never seen anything like that.

SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I mean, that just doesn't happen. It's the congressional committee that runs the hearing. It's the congressional -- it's the chairman who determines whether you have run out of time or not.

And it does underscore the combative nature that the acting attorney general did really want to take in this hearing today. But as we have seen so often, when top Trump administration officials go in a public venue or go before Congress, a lot of times they're talking to an audience of one. And that's the president himself. And I think that there were moments where -- we didn't get a lot of

new answers from him today. But one example where he may perhaps could have been speaking to the president was when he declined to say anything about whether the Mueller investigation was a witch-hunt or not.

Remember that's a contrast from actually what Bill Barr said at his confirmation hearing. He put faith in Mueller and said someone like Mueller, someone with his credibility, would not run a witch-hunt. And I thought that was a really interesting contrast between the two.

TAPPER: Symone, what did you think?

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, I remember sitting here yesterday and talked about the indignation with which acting Attorney General Whitaker has engaged with the most senior members of Congress.

And that is why they were essentially threatening him with a subpoena, because you have to come talk to us. And today he underscored why that threat of a subpoena, in my opinion, is necessary for him to capitulate to Congress' demands.

He got into many back and forths with various members of Congress, when he could have just answered the question. And all I could think about was, what if this was Sally Yates or James Comey for that regard?

I remember when James Comey came to Congress. He was nobody's favorite, OK, the Democrats or the Republicans. But James Comey knew that he could not sit there with this righteous indignation, for fear of what people would say about him, but, frankly, how he would be perceived from these members.

I don't think Matthew Whitaker cared about that. And I think that's hurtful to him himself, but it also undermines his credibility. What do you have to hide, acting Attorney General Whitaker? Why can't you just answer the question?

TAPPER: What did you think?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I would just say that Comey always has a righteous air about him.

(CROSSTALK)

HAM: Even if it's slightly more polite.

But, look, maybe the plan was to make Barr look really good by contrast, because, look, this guy's -- Barr is on deck. This guy is going to gone soon.

I think you saw the classic contrast between somebody who is closer in temperament and manner to Trump and somebody he likes and put in that position for a reason, because he is more punchy, he is combative.

[16:10:02]

And then you have got this very -- like I said, his strength, Barr, is that he is a conventional political figure, competent and sort of bland. I think that's what's working for him. And perhaps Barr's performance today makes it look a little better.

TAPPER: Although we should point out that Mr. Whitaker was not the only one that had done a few pushups before the hearing and his blood was going.

There were Democrats.

(CROSSTALK)

SANDERS: Oh, yes, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal from Washington state got very riled up and passionate talking about the kids at the border.

I also think Jim Jordan, he was like, tell me about this redacted memo! And I'm like, look, let us see the memo.

TAPPER: Here's one of the members of the House Democratic leadership, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries of New York. Take a listen to him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. HAKEEM JEFFRIES (D), NEW YORK: Who are you? Where did you come from? And how the heck did you become the head of the Department of Justice?

So, hopefully, you can help me work through this confusion.

WHITAKER: All right, well, I mean, Congressman, not...

JEFFRIES: Mr. Whitaker, that was a statement, not a question. I assume you know the difference.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: There was a lot of that too.

KIM: House members and, to be fair, senators as well, they eat their Wheaties. They prepare for these moments with any major congressional hearing.

And I think Republicans on Capitol Hill are banking on the prospect that perhaps Democrats would get a little too eager and perhaps overreach on these oversight requests. Now, Democrats say what they have asked for from the administration is more than fair.

But I think you saw a preview with that, with the subpoena fight yesterday on Capitol Hill over Whitaker's testimony. I mean, Republicans were furious. They're saying, this just shows how Democrats want to make oversight into political theater.

And that's why you have seen so much carefulness from Nancy Pelosi and Democrats on down on how they approach oversight, particularly on sensitive issues like the president's tax returns.

CORDERO: Really raises the question, though, of, what is the Senate waiting for to confirm the nominee for attorney general? I mean, he is a conservative traditional Republican.

He has the appropriate credentials. He's been the attorney general before, not that all the members of Congress are going to agree with him about certain things. And he didn't give everybody the answers that they wanted when it came to the disposition of the report that the special counsel will write.

But he is someone who is qualified to be the attorney general. And I think, based on his confirmation hearing, the public and Congress were able to see that he has the experience and the temperament and respects the office of the attorney general.

I just thought this performance today was degrading for the Department of Justice, to see that this is their attorney general.

TAPPER: Barr has been reported out of committee, out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and now they're waiting for the vote on the floor.

Everyone, stick around.

Ivanka Trump has a lot on her plate as adviser to the president, to say nothing of the other role he has with the president, the daughter. But there's one thing she has zero concern about. What is it?

Then: connecting the dots between Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' e-mails with "The National Enquirer" to potentially President Trump, and now possibly a close U.S. ally?

Stay with us.

[16:15:00]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you concerned about anyone in your life -

IVANKA TRUMP: No.

UNIDENTIFED FEMALE: - that you love being involved?

TRUMP: There's nothing there. Yet, it's created weeks and weeks and months and - of headlines. So no, I have zero concern.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: That was first daughter and presidential advisor, Ivanka Trump, saying that she's not concerned that anyone in her family could be in any legal jeopardy as a result of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. Let's discuss.

Do you buy it, that she's not concerned at all? CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: This looks PR. I mean, I don't know what legal basis she would say - I don't know how much Ivanka Trump herself has been subject to questioning or interviews or testimony.

It seems like others in the Trump family and Trump campaign have had to testify before Congress. We know that the Congress alone has referred different individuals to the Special Counsel's Office for potential lying to Congress, so - and obstruction.

So there is legal jeopardy for individuals who are in the family who were involved in the campaign. Does it make sense from a PR perspective for her to say she's not concerned at all? Perhaps.

But from a legal perspective, it's hard to say - with all of the ongoing investigations of matters related to the campaign and the family's close involvement in the campaign that there's not any exposure. Not to mention, the foundation of which she was a board member that's the subject of New York state scrutiny.

TAPPER: Right. Well, that's a - that's a different matter. I think they were just asking about Mueller, not the 30,000 other investigations going on into the other entities. So I'm going to take a listen to Ivanka Trump talking about the plans for a Trump Tower Moscow project.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: We were an operating business. We looked at deals from across the world.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did it ever cross your mind where you thought, "If my dad wins this election, this might look bad," doing business with Moscow?

TRUMP: It's not like it's a strange thing as a hospitality company, or a development country, to have a hotel or a property in Russia. We're not talking about Iran; it was Russia.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITCAL ANALYST: It's very interesting, because we know how the - the plans for a Trump Tower in Moscow has been a major part of these investigations into the Trump entities. That's the basis of how Michael Cohen pleading guilty to lying to Congress.

So I do think - I mean, her explanation that this is part of many conversations that we - I believe in the interview, she said there were 30, 40 million - you know, 30, 40, or so, conversations going on and kind of downplaying in that way.

But there's no doubt that the discussions around this particular project, and when it stopped, how far did it go into the campaign really has been a central legal question that we are still kind of waiting for the final answer to.

[16:20:00]

TAPPER: Yes, because Mary Katharine, one of the issues here is whether or not the trump campaign was influenced, not necessarily by conspiracy or collusion, but just his platform and everything he said and did was just to find favor with Putin, because if he lost, he was going to try to develop this huge - huge project.

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right. My thought from the beginning is that, when you get down to the bottom of whatever Mueller gets down to the bottom of, it's likely a business deal that is at the root of it, not some global conspiracy that the Trump campaign was very cleverly wielding.

TAPPER: Greed, not treason.

HAM: Right. So -

TAPPER: The bumper sticker.

HAM: - that's been my thought. Now, your mileage may vary about how much you believe the Trump Organization or Ivanka about, you know, we had a lot of things going on - these were very basic talks - it wasn't a big deal.

It looks she sent some e-mails about it, pertaining to an architect for this - this plan. And the bottom line is, pre-election and post- election, there's not a line in the Trump family between business and the jobs that they are doing now.

They've never formed one between family and business or between this new endeavor in business; and that is an ethical problem - just bottom line. And so, it's going to get them into issues like this.

TAPPER: And what'd you make of the differentiation that Ivanka Trump made there, between doing business in Russia, which makes sense, in her view, as opposed to Iran?

SYMONE SANDERS, SENIOR POLITCIAL ADVISER: You know, I often wonder what Ivanka Trump does - and it seems as though her job title is senior advisor to the president.

If she had a political bone in her body, she would know that perhaps this Russia thing is not something we should be engaged in, given the narrative that is around our campaign at the time, or given the narrative that is out there about Putin.

But because Ivanka Trump does not have a political bone in her body, I don't doubt her business chops. I'm sure she's very smart, but she is not political. And so, she is operating in a capacity that she's out of her depth in, in my opinion. And so, she just underscored that I think she's out of her depth in this interview.

TAPPER: And Seung Min, she also talked about the issue of leaks coming from inside the west wing to the newspapers and TV.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A lot of them are staying in the White House with a mission - to tear you down.

TRUMP: Yes - no, I can't explain that. I agree with you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why - why is it still a problem after two years?

TRUMP: Well, I, on a personal level, have been the subject of many leaks that I know not to be true. So I tend not to pay too much attention to leaks and anonymous sourcing.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you have any idea of who - who the leakers - leaker or leakers -

TRUMP: Some of them, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why are they still there?

TRUMP: Some of them are not here.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Quickly, if you would. I mean, again, the intrigue in the instability and the chaos at the White House continues. And she's continuing to verify that it's there.

KIM: And I would point out - I mean, there are a lot of books that have come out about the administration that has kind of confirmed, in retrospect, a lot of the chaotic reporting within the White House in the real time (ph). But the leaks thing is - will continue to be a fascinating storyline.

I mean, looking at the leak of the president's private schedules last week - and a leak that was meant to directly hurt the principal, not necessarily undermine other staffers, but the president himself. And that'll be continuing for sometime after.

TAPPER: All right, everyone stick around. The blog post that's now leading to a federal investigation, the world's richest man saying he was blackmailed - or there an attempt to blackmail him by the National Enquirer - and now, a possible connection to a close U.S. ally. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:25:00]

TAPPER: Now, we're back with our national lead. In a tale of alleged extortion and blackmail of risque photos of the richest man in the world, federal prosecutors are now investigating claims by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos that executives who run the National Enquirer tabloid tried to extort him.

This week, Enquirer executives threatened to publish nude and suggestive photos sent between Bezos and his extramarital girlfriend, unless Bezos stops suggesting publically that he had become a target of the tabloid because he owns The Washington Post, whose coverage President Trump does not particularly care for. As CNN's Alex Marquardt now reports for us, Bezos then took the unusual step of making the whole thing public.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The National Enquirer's parent company hitting back today at stinging allegations and revelations by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, saying, in a statement, it believes "fervently" that it "acted lawfully," that it was "in good faith negotiations," to resolve all matters with Bezos.

American Media Inc., or AMI, also promising to launch an internal investigation into Bezos' long list of claims against him, including what he called "extortion and blackmail," when AMI threatened to leak risque photos of him.

Sources telling CNN, federal prosecutors are also looking into his accusations. In his blog post, Bezos alleges that AMI had a "cozy relationship," not just with the Trump White House, but with Saudi Arabia. Also alleged in publish reports last year, AMI put out a 97- page glossy magazine, heralding the kingdom's new crown prince and his vision, ahead of his trip to the U.S.

The Saudi Embassy in Washington claimed they had no involvement or knowledge of the AMI publication with Prince Mohammad Bin Salman on the cover - a man the CIA has concluded ordered the violent murder of Jamal Khashgoggi of The Washington Post, which Bezos owns.

[16:30:00]

The Saudis have called the finding false. But the Associated Press reported that, according to sources, embassy officials got an electronic copy of the pro-kingdom magazine about three weeks before it came out.