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Attorney General William Barr Gives Interview Responding to Mueller's Public Statements on the Russia Report; Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) is Interviewed About Trump Impeachment Inquiry and His Presidential Run; Analyst Examine William Barr's Statements on the Mueller Report. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired May 31, 2019 - 08:00   ET


[08:00:00] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: In a new interview the Attorney General the Justice Department sparred with Robert Mueller over the legal analysis in his final report. Listen to this.


WILLIAM BARR, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: We analyzed the law and the facts, and a group of us spent a lot of time doing that, and determined that both as a matter of law many of the instances would not amount to obstruction.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: As a matter of law?

BARR: As a matter of law. We didn't agree with the legal analysis, a lot of the legal analysis, in the report. It did not reflect the views of the department. It was the views of a particular lawyer or lawyers. And so we applied what we thought was the right law.


ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Barr says he felt that Mueller could have reached a conclusion on obstruction even if Justice Department guidelines say that a sitting president cannot be indicted.

As for Mueller's final warning that Russia systematically interfered in the 2016 election, Barr said, quote, "there's an increasingly robust program," end quote, in place to prevent it from happening again in 2020. CNN's Laura Jarrett is live in Washington with more on this very revealing interview. Laura?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Alisyn, the Attorney General once again this morning trying to explain why he felt the need to issue that four-page memo laying out what he believed were the Special Counsel's principle conclusions ahead of actually releasing the report, a move that Barr has taken on a lot of heat for in recent weeks. Take a listen to how he described it.


WILLIAM BARR, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I was just trying to state the bottom line, and the bottom line was that Bob Mueller identified some episodes. He did not reach a conclusion. He provided both sides of the issue, and his conclusion was he wasn't exonerating the president, but he wasn't finding a crime, either.


JARRETT: But of course, Mueller did explain for us earlier this week why he didn't reach that decision, why he decided he couldn't go there, and it was really fundamentally about fairness. For the Special Counsel, he believes if you're not going to actually indict someone, then you cannot unload derogatory information about somebody when they can't essentially challenge it in court. Obviously reasonable minds can disagree. The Attorney General obviously has a very different take on Mueller's sort of dereliction of duty there in his view, but the Special Counsel believed his hands were tied. Alisyn?

CAMEROTA: Very interesting to see all of this and to hear from him finally. Thank you, Laura.

So let's bring in David Axelrod, CNN political commentator, Nia-Malika Henderson, CNN senior political reporter, and John Avlon, CNN senior political analyst. David Axelrod what did you hear in now finally for the first time us hearing from Bill Barr's response to Robert Mueller's first public testimony?

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, I don't think he particularly cleared things up. Basically, what he said was Mueller handed it to us and we decided, when we know earlier this week Mueller explained he thought this was a matter for Congress, that the DOJ rules prohibited them from reaching a conclusion or at least from acting on an indictment. As Laura said, he thought it was unfair to move forward with a conclusion when they couldn't act on it. So there's really a difference between the two of them. This is why people want Mueller to testify, to help clarify his thinking on this. And he has made it clear that he feels he's said the last word on this. I'm not sure Congress is going to sit for that.

BERMAN: And Nia, it seems to me at the end of this week where we heard from Robert Mueller for the first time, William Barr, the Attorney General is operating in a smaller space, a shrinking space. He went from being the one, in his own words, to presenting the principle conclusions of the Mueller Report, that was way back in March, to now basically saying I disagree with the fundamental thinking behind the Mueller Report and its conclusions. It's a very different place, and he's been forced into this corner I think by Mueller's public statements.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: You're exactly right. And I think in some ways he himself, Barr, forced Mueller's hand to really, I think, come out and sort of clarify what those 400 pages meant, what the sort of interpretation was, why Mueller acted the way he acted. It was Bill Barr along with the president along with the president's allies for those two months very much filled that vacuum with their, in some ways spin, in some ways misleading interpretations of what Mueller's words were. So now you have Mueller -- now you have Barr having to come back after

you had Mueller in that very sort of restrained, by the book, law and order statement that he made earlier this week about eight minutes. And so now you have Bill Barr really in the role that Donald Trump wanted him to be in and wanted Sessions to play as well, sort of as a pit bull defending the president there, and saying, well, look, this is basically a legal matter, sort of a legal difference of opinion, and Mueller went one way and Barr is saying that his department, his lawyers, went another way.

[08:05:08] It reminds me of his testimony before the Senate when he talked about the report being his baby, right? And so, he's taken that baby back from Mueller and spinning it in a way that I think will -- the president will certainly like, because that, of course, is his audience. It's the audience of one. In some ways in listening to him I'm reminded of Rudy Giuliani who was sort of the president's public lawyer, but he's much more careful in terms of the way he speaks than Rudy Giuliani was.

CAMEROTA: Good point. John, should I interpret your heavy audible sigh as frustration?

JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, that is a fair interpretation. The body language classes you've been taking --

CAMEROTA: Just the audible.

AVLON: I'm sorry, let's take a step back here for a second. In what world is Bill Barr going to be more deferential -- Mueller should have been more aggressive to the president and he had the right to do, and Mueller is the one going to be exhibiting enormous restraint when it comes to actually indicting a president. This doesn't smell test for 15 different reasons. Mueller had been working with Rosenstein for a long period of time. Rosenstein would have known almost certainly that Mueller was operating under an assumption, a construct, a constraint based on the Office of Legal Counsel opinion that a sitting president couldn't be indicted legally, he said constitutionally, and as a matter of fairness.

Therefore, this would not have been a surprise or frustration to Rosenstein and then Barr when he came in the door. So let's just basically reality check that fact. Yes, Mueller is in the position of being the last boy scout. And he was playing it really by the book. But the idea that Barr was egging him on, saying, no, no, you could indict if you want to, go ahead, do it, just isn't rooted in reality based on public statements and what we've noted.

BERMAN: Let's play a little bit more of the interview. Again, we're hearing some of this from William Barr for the very first time this morning. And this is what he says about the justification for his latest investigation of the investigators.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What evidence, what makes you think I need to take a look at this? WILLIAM BARR, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Like many other people who are

familiar with intelligence activities, I had a lot of questions about what was going on, and I assumed I would get answers when I went in. And I have not gotten answers that are at all satisfactory, and in fact, have probably more questions, and that some of the facts that I've learned don't hang together with the official explanations of what happened.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What do you mean by that?

BARR: That's all I really will say. Things are just not jiving.


BERMAN: This is so interesting to me as a political matter, David Axelrod, because you see this struggle between Robert Mueller making a public statement saying this is what we should be focused on. We should be focused on the fact that Russia attacked our electoral system. And then you see the president now, and to a different extent the attorney general saying I really want to focus on the genesis of the investigation into the Russian attack.

AXELROD: Yes, this is the fundamental point. The one thing everybody seems to agree on about the Mueller report is that Russia attacked us. That was what the intelligence community and law enforcement was investigating. They uncovered what was alleged. So the genesis of this was real. The report confirmed it, and Barr is insinuating somehow that this was untoward. It just doesn't -- Barr is doing what the president wanted him to do. He wanted his Roy Cohn, he wanted the A.G. to be his lawyer, and it really feels like that's what he's doing.

CAMEROTA: John, we just had Jim Baker who was one of the original investigators, and he said that part of the reason that Bill Barr may be feeling so confused is because all of the original investigators are gone. So if there's ever anything that is confusing to him or a discrepancy, he can't go to them directly to ask them. I suppose he could pick up the phone --

AVLON: He could pick up the phone.

CAMEROTA: -- and call them, but maybe he's waiting for the Inspector General report to come out. Either way, there are answers out there. They are happy to answer them.

AVLON: And this is not an ex fire standard, you don't have too deep here. Again, Russians were trying to influence our election on Donald Trump's behalf. Does that rise to the level of concern for our law enforcement during election, yes or no? And then if that question is tough for you, imagine a Democrat candidate was in that position. I think you would hear a very different tone. So while Bill Barr is going to the Dick Cheney school of P.R. with the fireplace and the vest and low, gravelly tone, and he legally lets the Obama lawyers off the hook for, quote-unquote, treason, he's clearly still feeding the president in his audience of one.

CAMEROTA: Stoking the fire behind him.

AVLON: As if you were -- well played.

BERMAN: We have some brand-new sound coming in from the Attorney General where he talks about whether he has any regrets over taking the job. Listen.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So you don't regret taking the job?

WILLIAM BARR, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: No. In many ways I'd rather be back to my old life, but I think that I love the Department of Justice, I love the FBI.

[08:10:05] I think it's important that we not in this period of intense partisan feeling destroy our institutions. I think one of the ironies today is that people are saying that it's President Trump that's shredding our institutions. I really see no evidence of that. From my perspective, the idea of resisting a democratically elected president and basically throwing everything at him, and really changing the norms on the grounds that we have to stop this president, that's where the shredding of our norms and our institutions is occurring.


BERMAN: Well, I do wonder, then, why he launched the investigation, Nia, if he already has reached a verdict on the genesis of the report. He says the shredding of norms apparently was the investigation.

HENDERSON: Right. And he had these other questions about whether or not he thinks it was treason. He didn't flat out say no. He essentially said not in the legal sense of the word. I don't know if there's another sense of the word. Treason, again, I think he is showing that he is President Trump's lawyer.

And this idea that -- of course he doesn't regret taking the job. He basically campaigned for the job. He had this whole memo talking about the investigation and why he thought it shouldn't happen. His idea of executive powers as being very expansive. So, yes, he is in exactly the position he wants to be. He's always going to defend this president, he's always going to point someone else in terms of blaming them. And you saw that there with this idea that somehow the president himself isn't shredding institutions, shredding the norms. And we see the president do that every day, whether it's his activity on Twitter or whether it's the way he characterizes our national intelligence agencies and taking Putin's side over the side of intelligence agencies and that community. So --

AVLON: But Barr has seen no evidence of that.

HENDERSON: No evidence. Again, this goes to his credibility, which I think has been at issue for the last many months.

CAMEROTA: That's a great point. In fact, that is what we should talk about, because many people don't know that they can trust whatever Bill Barr says because of, once you read the Mueller Report, how different his summary was. Also, John, it's interesting that he says that he saw no evidence of obstruction in the instances that Robert Mueller laid out, because many legal analysts, including, we should say, those on FOX TV said that that would have constituted obstruction for any other American were he not a sitting president.

AVLON: Yes, and what he's basically saying is Mueller is a bad lawyer and the consensus of most prosecutors is wrong. And also, he keeps repeating this line that there was countervailing evidence against cases of obstruction on an equal basis throughout the report. That's just not the case. But the fact he's condemning hyper partisanship when he's been acting the way he has on behalf of the president, talks about shoring up these institutions when he has been undermining credibility because he has been acting like the president's lawyer, is truly troubling.

CAMEROTA: All right, on that note, David, John, Nia, thank you very much.

There are literally no words left. The dictionary could not keep up with this year's national spelling bee competitors. For the first time ever eight super spellers were crowned champions, and they broke the dictionary. We will talk to all of them coming up.

BERMAN: So nearly half of the Democrats running for president think Congress should begin impeachment proceedings against President Trump. Our next guest is not among them. We will speak to 2020 candidate Michael Bennet next.



[08:17:50] JAN CRAWFORD, CBS NEWS CORRESPONDENT: So, you don't regret taking the job?

WILLIAM BARR, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: No. In many ways, I'd rather be back to my old life, but I think that I love the Department of Justice, I love the FBI. I think it's important that we not in this period of intense partisan feeling destroy our institutions.

I think one of the ironies today is that people are saying that it's President Trump that's shredding our institutions. I really see no evidence of that. From my perspective, the idea of resisting a democratically elected president and basically throwing everything at him and, you know, really changing the norms on the grounds that we have to stop this president, that's where the shredding of our norms and our institutions is occurring.


BERMAN: That's Attorney General William Barr insisting that the people investigating President Trump are the ones who have broken the norms, not the president himself. Joining me now is presidential candidate, Senator Michael Bennet from

Colorado. He believes the start of the impeachment process now could mean that Democrats would lose in 2020.

We will get to that in a moment, Senator, but I want to ask you about what we just heard from the attorney general, because it's fairly remarkable. He is saying that in the issue of norms, it is those who are questioning what happened, investigating the Russian attack on the United States in the 2016 election, they are the ones that have been breaking the norms. What's your response?

SEN. MICHAEL BENNET (D-CO), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think he's totally wrong about that. I mean, this is a perfect example of why the separation of powers that the founders set up for our country is to important. Congress has a very important job to provide oversight here.

His observation is that the president is not destroying our institutions falls in the face of half of a term of attacking the free press, attacking the independent judiciary, attacking the Department of Justice, attacking our intelligence agency. We never have seen this in a president before.

BERMAN: You said -- you called on the attorney general to step down. Do you stand by that?

BENNET: Yes, I do, because he lied what was in the Mueller report and that's why a lot of the American people still don't know what was in that report.

[08:20:00] BERMAN: I do want to ask you. You worked in the Justice Department for a period of time here.

In terms of the legal analysis of whether the special counsel could say that the president committed a crime, do you think that he had the power to do so? Do you think that Robert Mueller should have weighed this there?

BENNET: I don't know, but I have -- as everybody did before this bizarre moment in our political history -- I have tremendous confidence in Bob Mueller. He's a guy who shoots straight, he has a reputation over decades for having called it the way he saw it, for having applied the law to the facts. I know that is the view of the people, the men and women who work in the Justice Department who are true patriots in this country.

So, I'm willing to rely for the moment on his interpretation of the law. I am not willing to rely on his conclusion that he doesn't want to come testify to Congress. I think it's critical for Bob Mueller to testify to Congress and that his report be unredacted so that the American people can see all of what's in there.

BERMAN: Again, you have said, including with our Dana Bash last night, that you think that the president probably committed impeachable offenses, yet you don't want to start an official impeachment inquiry. Is that for political expedience if you feel that he might have committed impeachable offenses under the Constitution --


BENNET: There's nothing politically expedient about it. We need to protect this republic from high crimes and misdemeanors by the president of the United States.

And just as in Watergate, we have the responsibility to have a process that the American people can follow and -- that can follow and reach a conclusion about what happened. I think it would be foolish for Congress to go down the road of impeachment knowing that the Senate was going to exonerate the president or acquit the president and then have the president run for office saying he had been acquitted.

But I do think we should start the process of getting Mueller up there, having him testify, having other people testify that we think are important to this investigation and let's make a judgment.

One other thing I wanted to say is, I hope people go back and use this as an opportunity to go to YouTube and watch the Watergate investigation because it will break your heart to see Republicans and Democrats together, members of Congress putting party completely aside to follow the facts where they led them, to lead an investigation of the fact. They actually developed a factual record and worked together to get to a point where President Nixon had to resign.

That kind of bipartisanship, that kind of commitment to our institutions is lost in America today. We cannot be lost forever. We've got to turn this country back over to the next generation, just as that Watergate generation turned it over to us.

BERMAN: I'm running out of time and I want to get you on two other issues here. There was an article in the "Washington Post" about bipartisanship today, and you were quoted in a few times. Part of it has to do with Joe Biden, the former vice president talking about whether or not we should be reaching out -- the Democratic Party should be reaching out to Republicans, we being him in this case.

You were asked directly whether Democrats should vote for Joe Biden and your response was, I don't think we need to go backward. We need to go forward.

What do you mean by that? Do you think that supporting Joe Biden is going backwards?

BENNET: Well, I certainly don't mean any disrespect for the vice president, I have tremendous affection for him and I'm grateful for his service, but I do think it's time to go forward. I think it's time to go forward from an era where America invaded Iraq. I think it's time to go forward from lousy bipartisan deals that actually didn't advance the interests of the country.

I think it's time to go forward from a tyranny by the Freedom Caucus and Mitch McConnell in the Congress. I represent a state that's a third Republican, Democratic and independent and I believe it's my responsibility to represent everybody in my state, no matter what party they are in, but the particular kind of tyranny that the Freedom Caucus has resented is one that can't be compromised with.

They have not compromised with anybody for ten years. Mitch McConnell is impervious to give and take unless he's taking everything which he is almost all the time. I'm tired of losing to climate deniers. I'm tired of losing to judges. I think --

BERMAN: Senator, I just want to get you on one last thing. On the spirit of compromise, you've been critical of Senator Ted Cruz in the past. Over the last 24 hours he and Representative Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez have come to an agreement on a lobbying ban. That if you serve in Congress that you cannot ever lobby in the future. This is something you have been a big proponent of in the past.

So, despite your differences with Senator Cruz, is this something you're willing to work with him on?

BENNET: I'm delighted to hear that the two of them want to do t I've had that bill for ten years in the Congress and for years I couldn't get a co-sponsor because it seemed like everybody wanted to be a lobbyist after they left.

[08:25:03] So I am so glad they're coming in, it's a decade later, but glad to have them now. And the reason for the bill is that if you look at members of Congress who retire over half of them become lobbyists in Washington, D.C., it creates a view in the American people that we've gone to Washington to get rich, we're not focused on the American people's business. I actually don't think that's why people go to Washington, but I do think it's important to recognize that worry in the American people and I think it's the least a member of Congress could do which is give up their opportunity to be a lobbyist for the privilege to serve as a member of Congress.

BERMAN: Senator --

BENNET: So, I'm glad to have Ted and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez working on this legislation as well. That's a powerful duo.

BERMAN: Senator Michael Bennet, thank you for being with us. Appreciate it.

BENNET: Thanks for having me.

BERMAN: Alisyn?

CAMEROTA: OK, John, wait until you hear this next story. When Baby Saybie, as she's called, was born, she was the smallest surviving baby in the world. Now, she is home. She was released from the hospital this week.

We will speak to her doctor and the nurse who cared for her, next.