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INSIDE POLITICS

Lawyer Told Trump Flynn Misled FBI; Trump Backs Moore; Robocalls For Trump Event. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired December 4, 2017 - 12:00   ET

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


[12:00:23] DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm Dana Bash. John King is off.

We begin with breaking news on what the president knew and when he knew it as his lawyers try to walk a legal tight rope. A source tells CNN the president knew his national security adviser misled FBI investigators and his vice president and still let Michael Flynn stay on the job for weeks before firing him.

Here at the table with me to share their insights and reporting, CNN's Kara Scannell, who is breaking this story for us, former assistant to Robert Mueller, Michael Zeldin, CNN's Sara Murray and CNN's Manu Raju.

First of all, Kara, this is really fascinating reporting and we should give the context that over the weekend the president tweeted that he fired his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, because he had lied to the FBI, which, of course, raised the question we're talking about now, did he know that Flynn was being investigated? What are you hearing?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: So what we understand is that Doug McGhan, who is a White House counsel, had spoken with Sally Yates in January. And after that meeting with Sally Yates, he informed the president that he believed that Michael Flynn had misled the FBI and lied to the vice president, Pence.

What we also understand though is that Sally Yates, who was then the acting attorney general, never characterized the -- Flynn's testimony and McGhan never saw Flynn's testimony. So this was his belief on it. He did not, we're told, tell the president that he believed Flynn was under investigation or that he had committed any crime.

So that's kind of the general essence of what we know. They later received a transcript of the conversation that Flynn had with the Russian ambassador. And this all centers around those sanctions discussions in December. And that after having seen that transcript, they believe that Flynn had definitely misled Pence and should be fired.

BASH: The key here is that you're starting to answer part of the question from over the weekend is, what did the president mean when he tweeted about lying to the FBI. So what you are told is that the president did know, or at least was told by his own counsel, by the White House counsel, that Michael Flynn lied to the FBI. Put this in context on why it's relevant.

SCANNELL: Well, it's important because of the timing of events here. At the time this was early February when the president was informed that his lawyer essentially believed that Flynn had lied. And then it is only after "The Washington Post" story comes out that Flynn is fired.

Now, we don't know exactly what transpired over that period of time, if they learned other information. But then it was on the 14th of February that the president met with James Comey and, according to Comey's testimony, who was the FBI director at the time, had said he wanted him to go easy on Flynn. So this all kind of comes into a factor of what -- what did the president know when he was saying that to Comey? And it will be up to the special counsel's investigation to determine whether that is obstruction of justice.

BASH: And that's the key, obstruction of justice?

SCANNELL: Yes.

BASH: That's what this whole story and all of this new reporting that you're getting is dancing around, which is really, really important because as of last week it seems as though a big piece of Robert Mueller's investigation is about obstruction of justice.

Michael Zeldin, you worked with Robert Mueller. We've been on the other side of this, as a special counsel or a prosecutor. What does this tell you?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: So if it is true that the president knew that Flynn had misled the FBI, and it's a tricky question about what is misleading versus lying to. I think they're both offenses. If it's true that Flynn misled the FBI and the president knew about it before he had the meeting with Comey, and if, in fact, we credit Comey's testimony that the president told him to stand down on the Flynn investigation, that's very problematic. It's potentially obstruction of justice and more easily it's abuse of office. So, either way, whether you believe the president can be charged with obstruction of justice, his lawyer says he can't, most constitutional scholars think he can if it's with corrupt intent. In this case, he's either on the obstruction of justice or abuse of power line if he knew what Kara's reporting and he told Comey what Comey told them he said he did.

BASH: And you just mentioned another bit of news that we're hearing this morning, which is John Dowd, the president's lawyer, not inside the White House but outside, is saying that his belief that the law makes it so that a president cannot be charged with obstruction of justice, which is a legitimate academic debate which has been going on for some time. Alan Dershowitz has argued on CNN and elsewhere that he believes that it's not possible. Others disagree.

[12:05:12] What are you hearing from your White House sources here?

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONNDENT: Well, I mean, certainly wouldn't you rather be in a position where you don't have to try to make that legal argument? I mean this is -- has been sort of the essence of this problem since President Trump came into office. It's not just a question of collusion during the presidential campaign. Everyone who is in the White House insists that there was no collusion with Russia, that is their line, during the presidential campaign.

But the president's actions since takin office have now spurred this sort of secondary question, which, OK, if you didn't commit the crime, is it the cover-up that's going to get you in trouble. And is it all the actions that you've taken since you came into the White House suggesting to senators, suggesting to James Comey that they go easy, that they drop an investigation? Could those be the things that ultimately cause problems for President Trump, even if we get to the end of the special counsel investigation, even if Mueller determines there was no collusion with Russia?

BASH: We have our chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin with us now.

And, Jeff, you have seen Kara's reporting here, this excellent reporting, about the White House chief lawyer, the counsel, telling President Trump that he believed that Michael Flynn, who was then the national security adviser, lied to the FBI. This was before Michael Flynn was fired and before, according to James Comey, the president told James Comey to lay off Michael Flynn. What's your read?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, you know, the -- it's pretty straightforward. I mean I know people get confused. There are a lot of names. There are a lot of dates here. But, you know, here you have a very unusual situation in and of itself of the president telling the FBI director to go easy on an individual. I mean think about that. That -- I can't think of another example of that happening ever.

OK, but it happened on February 14th. The president says to James Comey, go easy on Mike Flynn. Now, the president's argument has been, I think, is that he felt sorry for Mike Flynn. He thought Mike Flynn did it -- you know, had a life of public service, so he was sympathetic to him. That's one view and there's certainly nothing criminal about that.

But if the president knew that Mike Flynn had committed a crime, ha d lied to the FBI, and then told James Comey, lay off, leave him alone, that very clearly, I think, establishes obstruction of justice.

Now, whether a president can be charged, as we know, is a separate topic. But whether the crime was committed, if the president in fact knew that Mike Flynn had committed a crime and then told his subordinate, James Comey, to lay off, that seems like obstruction of justice to me.

BASH: And as you've eluded to, the president's lawyer today is saying, well, no, no, he can't be charged with obstruction of justice because he's the president.

There was another president in modern times who made an argument that he can't be charged with crimes. Let's listen.

TOOBIN: The -- and --

BASH: Hang on, Jeff.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In a sense you're saying is that there are certain situations, and the Houston plan, now that part of it was one of them, where the president can decide that it's in the best interest of the nation or something and do something illegal?

RICHARD NIXON, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: Well, when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TOOBIN: There you go.

BASH: Go ahead, Jeff, real quick, button that up.

TOOBIN: I think, you know, that argument has been historically discredited. I mean the articles of impeachment passed by the House Judiciary Committee specifically cited obstruction of justice. Now, that was impeachment, not a criminal prosecution.

BASH: Exactly.

TOOBIN: And I don't think there's any doubt that impeachment could be based on an obstruction of justice. But the idea that the president is literally above the law, as President Nixon was saying there, I think historically has been largely discredited.

BASH: Manu, I want to get you in here. You spent all your days chasing this story on Capitol Hill.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONNDENT: Yes. I just think it's -- I just think it's remarkable that once again we're talking about the president's tweets getting him into trouble and now potentially into legal trouble. I mean this has been the story of this presidency time and again tweeting about whether he'd been wire tapped by President Obama, which turned out not to be true, tapes in the Oval Office, which they said it didn't happen, turning into weeks and weeks of distraction.

But here is the first time that perhaps he's provided more evidence for Robert Mueller to investigate something that could lead to something very, very serious. A legal problem for the president that could lead to who knows what. It's just remarkable that this -- it just shows the problems that he has with his Twitter finger.

BASH: Not to mention when the president went after James Comey, after he fired Comey. It is, according to Comey's testimony, what made him set off a series of actions that brought Robert Mueller and a special counsel into -- into the job.

[12:10:10]RAJU: Exactly. BASH: You had a thought on that Nixon tape.

ZELDIN: I was going to say, Article Three in the Clinton impeachment was the exact same obstruction of justice.

BASH: Right.

ZELDIN: So Dowd can make an argument, as Jeffrey said, that maybe statutory obstruction of justice can't lay against the president who does what he has a constitutional right to do. We could leave that aside. But there is no question from Clinton and Nixon that obstruction of justice is an abuse of office, impeachable offense.

MURRAY: Yes. I mean I think that -- I don't expect the president will suddenly be silent on Twitter or elsewhere about this. I have to imagine that he will continue to provide fodder to this because he is personally frustrated that this is something he can't get out from under. And the further we get along in this, the harder it is for the White House to make the argument that there's no there there. We are now seeing guilty pleas. We are now seeing indictments. And it's pretty clear that while the president is hopeful that this will all wrap up quickly, that Mueller, obviously, you know, feels like he has lines to continue to chase.

And the president is not good at hiding his frustration, As you pointed out, that could create new legal troubles for him. And it's worth noting that there are already lawsuits that are citing the president's tweets. There are already lawyers who are trying to use the president's tweets as legal evidence on one side or another in court. So these are theories that are already being tested. And certainly I don't expect him to be quiet though as a result.

BASH: And, Jeffrey, information now that we are learning, thanks to Kara's reporting, that I guarantee you the White House, the president himself, did not want out there, but we're learning it as a way to try to explain that tweet over the weekend, saying that he knew that Michael Flynn lied to the FBI.

TOOBIN: You know, the latest explanation from the White House has been that in fact John Dowd, the lawyer, drafted the tweet. You know, John Dowd is 76 years old and I don't think he's so up on this whole Twitter thing. And --

BASH: He made that pretty clear, Jeff.

TOOBIN: Yes. And I think it just shows that, you know, one of the things lawyers always tell clients to do is shut up. You can never get in trouble for something you didn't say. And here, where you have this endless attempt to explain and accuse and examine the underlying conduct, the president keeps digging a hole deeper for himself, this time with the assistance of his lawyers, which is not exactly what lawyers are supposed to do.

BASH: Final word.

ZELDIN: Actually, that's exactly right. And one of the biggest losers in this weekend leading up to Kara's reporting is Dowd because his attempt to disassemble the tweets and say that it was amalgamation of Ty Cobbs' press release that his tweet and so (ph) it makes him look like a liar. And that's not what you want your lawyer to look like when your client has the same problems.

BASH: No. I think the word clumsy comes to mind, and that's probably --

ZELDIN: Right.

BASH: The nice way to describe it.

Thank you all.

Thank you for your excellent reporting, Kara.

And up next, he has danced around it for weeks. Now President Trump is officially backing Alabama Senate Candidate Roy Moore despite explosive allegations of child molestation.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:17:40] BASH: Alabama voters have just over a week left to decide how they'll vote in their state's controversial Senate election. Polls show a very tight race and the embattled Republican candidate, Roy Moore, just got a much needed shot in the arm from President Trump. He fully endorsed Moore, who has, of course, been accused of sexually assaulting a then 14-year-old girl, which Moore denies. On Twitter this morning Trump ignored the allegations and argued the raw politics of it all, saying Moore's Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, would be little more than a Pelosi-Schumer puppet.

Another boost for Moore could come this Friday when the president holds a campaign-style rally just across the Alabama border in Pensacola, Florida.

The change of heart is not just coming from the White House, though. Perhaps even more surprising, top Republicans, some of them who have come out against Moore, now seemed resigned to letting the voters decide and deal with the aftermath later if he's elected.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MAJORITY LEADER: Well, I think we're going to let the people of Alabama decide a week from Tuesday who they want to send to the Senate, and then we'll address the matter appropriately. I've already said in the past that I thought this was a matter that would have to be considered by the committee. Ultimately it will be up to them to make that decision. And they'll make it depending upon whether Judge Moore ends up coming to the Senate.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC'S "THIS WEEK": Do you believe that Jude Moore should be in the Senate? MCCONNELL: I'm going to let the people of Alabama make the call. We're

-- the election, it's been going on a long time. There's been a lot of discussion about it. They're going to make the decision.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: CNN's Manu Raju and Sara Murray are still here. Joining us as well, John McCormack from "The Weekly Standard" and Jackie Kucinich of "The Daily Beast."

Manu, wow, that is a 180 from Mitch McConnell. They'll likely argue that it's not entirely a 180 because he's always, of course, said it's up to the voters of Alabama. But he, for weeks, was going a whole lot further saying that he shouldn't be elect, that he should drop out, that maybe they should write in another candidate, on and on, everything that he could think of to try to get Moore out. Not anymore.

RAJU: Not anymore. You know, largely it's because it's an acknowledgement that Moore is going to be in this race.

BASH: Yes.

RAJU: Next week is the election. He's obviously not getting out of the race. And McConnell's public pressure campaign in a lot of ways initially was to get President Trump to side with him and call on Moore to drop out and hopefully they could concoct some scheme where some other Republican would somehow get in and swoop (INAUDIBLE) and save the seat.

[12:20:14] But this shift in tone is rather striking. I mean given the serious concerns that he and other Republican leaders had initially raised just two weeks ago and to now saying, you know, not even saying whether or not he thinks he should serve in the Senate. This I s the same man that Mitch McConnell said is not fit to be a United States senator. The question for me is that if he does win, what will the Senate actually do? Will the Senate Ethics Committee do an investigation? If -- will they be able to look at his past conduct. That's a big question. And then, will they actually go to expelling him, which would require 67 senators to do a very rare thing. So there are a lot of questions about how firm the leadership line they will really take if he is elected.

BASH: Right, and you mentioned --

JACKIE KUCINICH, "THE DAILY BEAST": I can't imagine that they want to drag this out and have more news cycles dedicated to Roy Moore. I mean he's probably going to generate a lot of his own because it doesn't seem like he's going to have a very positive view towards McConnell should he become a senator. But the amount of political capital they could spend trying to expel him, they are probably going to be doing a cost benefit analysis at that point.

BASH: Yes.

RAJU: Right. BASH: That's exactly right, a cost benefit analysis is the key, what -- whether or not, as people like Lindsey Graham have said, whether or not he's going to destroy the Republican brand.

KUCINICH: Right.

BASH: Just this morning the president did actually call Roy Moore on the phone. That is according to his campaign manager. She said Judge Moore just got off the phone with President Trump. We have his full support. Thank you, Mr. President. Let's MAGA -- make America great again, of course.

John, you have the cover story of "The Weekly Standard" after going down to Alabama and doing a lot of really good reporting down there. What is the single biggest driving factor for these voters? Is it, as I've seen and heard from some, that they just don't -- they can't even fathom a Democrat being elected from Alabama, or is it that the president maybe now supports him or is it we can't let Washington tell us what to do?

JOHN MCCORMACK, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": Well, you're talking about the remaining voters. You know, the remaining likely voters. I think there are a lot of Republican leaning voters who simply are no longer likely voters. They're going to stay home.

Alabama's such a Republican state, as Nate Silver pointed out today, Roy Moore's doing about 25 percentage points worse than a typical Republican. But that's not quote enough to make him lose the election. He's up about 5, 6 points right now.

What you see on the ground in Alabama is, you just hear everyone say that they -- they simply don't believe the allegations. And that's borne out by the polls as well. I think that Donald Trump, his endorsement of Roy Moore, is casting doubt on these allegation, saying that they're 40 years old. That's helped something like 17 percent of Trump voters. So they believe some of the allegations.

In mid-November, after Trump weighed in, that went down to 9 percent. And, again, that's at that margin when you're going to decide this election. Again, in three weeks since -- three or four weeks since these allegations are not the most heinous allegations by Leigh Corfman, who was then 14, alleges that at age 14 she was molested. There's been -- there have been no holes poked in that story. There are contemporaneous accounts. She's been willing to go on TV.

So, again, despite all that very strong evidence, you have a lot of voters who are just kind of taking this bunker mentality saying, oh, we don't really believe the most heinous accusations. Maybe some of the other allegations that aren't quite at that level, that he dated 17 and 18-year-old girls, which is , again, you know, young -- a pale (ph) for many voters, but --

BASH: Yes. But they -- most voters who are going just don't believe it?

MCCORMACK: They either don't believe all of it or they say, well, maybe something -- you know, he dated someone who was a little too young and it didn't -- nothing really bad happened and we disbelieve the most serious allegations.

BASH: Sara, I want to play for you a robo call that Lara Trump, the president's daughter-in-law, did for -- well, in -- it was a little bit -- I wouldn't say too cute by half, but very clever is probably a nicer way to say it, inviting Alabamans to Florida for the president's campaign rally on Friday -- campaign-style rally.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LARA TRUMP, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S DAUGHTER-IN-LAW: I'm incredibly excited to invite you to an event in your area. The special rally event featuring President Donald Trump will take place on Friday, December 8th, at the Pensacola Bay Center.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: OK, so she's clearly not endorsing Roy Moore. She didn't mention Roy Moore. But the fact that she's trying to lure people over the Alabama border to Florida, very different from the kind of quote that we heard from the president's daughter not that long ago where she said, there's a special place in hell for people who prey on children. I've yet to see a valid explanation and I have no reason to doubt the victim's accounts.

Now, to be clear, again, Lara Trump is not saying that she believes Roy Moore. She didn't even mention Roy Moore. But she's clearly trying to galvanize support and attendees for her father-in-law's rally from Alabama.

MURRAY: Well, absolutely. And, look, we know that one of the reasons the president has been hesitant to believe the allegations against Roy Moore is because of his own experience of women coming out and making allegations against then candidate Trump, or even before he was a candidate, about sexual harassment, about sexual assault.

[12:25:09] Now, the president has repeatedly denied those. But that's part of the reason that he's been so willing to stick up for Roy Moore.

By the way, this is also part of the reason that women are so reluctant to come forward. When we talk about, why didn't she say something sooner, why is she just stepping up now? I mean, as you pointed out, one of the women who's making the most serious allegations, people are not poking holes in her story, people are not doubting her account with any kind of sort of facts that rebut that, and yet people don't believe her anyway. People are questioning her motives. They can't possibly believe that maybe this woman finally decided to step out and share her story, I don't know, because this is a man who's on the cusp of becomes a United States senator and she found that prospect to be alarming.

Not everyone in the White House is comfortable with where the president is at on this, but they are aware that he is the president. He has made a decision. So it goes. And we'll see what he says in Pensacola.

RAJU: That's the -- that's the implicit message that the president is sending there --

BASH: Right.

RAJU: That it's OK to go after and attack these accusers in the political arena, even if these -- the allegations are so serious and they're --

MURRAY: Right, that politics matters more. That getting that vote matters more.

RAJU: Right.

BASH: Well, everyone stand by because the president has another target, the FBI. We're going to talk about that after a break.