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Trump Knew Flynn Misled FBI; Trump's Comey Conversation; Obstruction of Justice Charge; Flynn Was Misleading; Timeline Of Justice Probe. Aired 1-1:30p ET
Aired December 4, 2017 - 13:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Washington. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.
The president of the United States cannot obstruct justice so says President Trump's lawyer and a new legal defense that's raising lots of eyebrows right now.
Plus, on the attack, as the pressure builds in the investigation, the president lashes out at both the FBI and the Department of Justice, America's top law enforcement agencies.
And is the U.S. moving closer to a preemptive strike against North Korea. A senator's very chilling call for American families to leave South Korea.
But let's start with the breaking news right now. This hour, CNN has learned that President Trump's attorney told him in January that Michael Flynn, who was, at the time, the president's national security adviser, misled the FBI.
You're looking at live pictures of the president. He's just landed in Salt Lake City. He'll be delivering a speech there. He just got off Air Force One.
This latest revelation ties into the tweet over the weekend by the president on the president's account. This is what he tweeted. "I had to fire General Flynn, because he lied to the vice president and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions, during the transition, were lawful. There was nothing to hide." Close quote.
The president's attorney, John Dowd, says he wrote that tweet for the president.
And in an interview with Axios-Dowd (ph), he says he believes the president is safe from any obstruction of justice charge over the firing of the former FBI director, James Comey.
The president cannot obstruct justice because he is the chief law enforcement officer, Dowd says, and has every right to express his view of any case.
This morning, before leaving for Washington for Salt Lake City, the president spoke about Michael Flynn.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I feel badly for General Flynn. I feel very badly. He's led a very strong life and I feel badly, John.
I will say this. Hillary Clinton lied many times to the FBI and nothing happened to her. Flynn lied and they destroyed his life. I think it's a shame. Hillary Clinton, on the Fourth of July weekend, went to the FBI, not under oath. It was the most incredible thing anyone has ever seen.
She lied many times. Nothing happened to her. Flynn lied and it's, like, they ruined his life. It's very unfair.
(END VIDEO CLIP
BLITZER: Once again, the president now, he's greeting some folks over in Salt Lake City. He just arrived there on Air Force One. We're going to have live coverage of his events later in the day.
We'll be hearing from him, we are told, later this hour as well. In the meantime, let's go to our own Kara Scannell. She broke the news. He's here with -- she's is here with us right now.
Kara, what more can you, first of all, tell us about what the president knew, what he was told by his private attorney, by his White House counsel and he actually knew all these details about Michael Flynn?
KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: So, what we learned from our sources and our reporting is that White House counsel, Don McGahn, had told the president, after he had a meeting in late January with the acting attorney general, Sally Yates, that the White House counsel, Don McGann, believes that Flynn had lied to Mike Pence, the Vice President, when he told him that he didn't have conversations with the Russian ambassador. And that he had misled the FBI during that interview.
Now, Sally Yates did not characterize Flynn's testimony with the FBI, but that was McGann's impression.
We also know that it was a week later that McGann and the special -- and the White House counsel's office had received the testimony from Flynn's conversation with the Russian ambassador and that led them to believe that he had misled the FBI and Pence and suggested that he be fired.
BLITZER: So, basically, the whole notion, Kara, right now, is that when the president actually spoke with the then FBI director, James Comey, he knew precisely, or at least almost precisely, what Flynn had told the FBI. Clearly, since then, Flynn has pled guilty to lying to the FBI.
SCANNELL: Right. What we know is that McGann, though, did not have the conversation or the details of the specifics of what Flynn told the FBI. So, our understanding is that he did not tell the president that a crime had been committed. He couldn't determine a crime had been committed.
But as far as the timeline goes, the president did know that at least his lawyer, the White House counsel, believed that Flynn was not honest with the FBI which was days before the he -- the president later fired FBI Director James Comey.
BLITZER: Serious developments indeed. Kara Scannell reporting for us. Kara, thanks very much.
All of the developments in the Russia investigation can be rather difficult to follow. But let's walk through what we know right now. Our Justice Correspondent Jessica Schneider is going to break it all down for us.
[13:05:06] Jessica, walk us through about this timeline about what everyone knew, when they knew it, because these revelations are significant.
JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: They are, Wolf. And amid the revelations that Michael Flynn spoke with the Russian ambassador about a U.N. security council vote and sanctions during the transition. The key questions here are now who knew what about his lies to the FBI and when did they know?
So, let's just start four days after the inauguration. It was on January 24th that then national security advisor, Michael Flynn, he was interviewed by the FBI at the White House. Flynn, of course, has pleaded guilty to lying to FBI investigators during that interview about the subject of his conversations with the Russian ambassador.
It was two days later, January 26th, acting attorney general, Sally Yates, she met with White House counsel, Don McGahn, and she warned him that Flynn was lying about his calls with Kislyak and that since these lies were being relayed to the American public, it could create a situation where Flynn could potentially be blackmailed by the Russians.
Now, Yates never did say that Flynn was under investigation. Now, after that, January 30th, that's when Sally Yates was actually fired.
But soon after or around that time, that's when Don McGann soon told the president that based on his conversation with Yates, he believed that Flynn had not told the truth in his interview with the FBI or in speaking with the vice president.
However, the source does tell CNN that McGahn did not tell the president that Flynn had violated the law in his FBI interview or is under criminal investigation.
So, all of this, though, it leads to questions about obstruction of justice. What the president knew when he decided to fire FBI Director James Comey. Michael Flynn, of course, he resigned February 13th with the reasoning
that he misled the president. One day after that, February 14th, that's when President Trump met privately with the FBI director, James Comey, in the Oval Office.
Comey later testified that's when the president asked him to drop the FBI investigation of Flynn. And, of course, we know that the investigation, it wasn't dropped. Instead, Comey was fired in May. And the president, shortly after, pointed directly to the Russia investigation when asked why he terminated Comey. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And, in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story. It's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SCHNEIDER: So, that was in May. But, of course, this entire timeline of events, it could bring into better focus the likely obstruction of justice probe that Mueller's team is now digging into.
Meanwhile, of course, Wolf, the president's lawyers today are putting out their latest argument that there's no way the president can even obstruct justice -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, that's the latest from the president's private attorney. Jessica Schneider, thanks for that report.
Democrats on the Senate Committee, investigating Russia's meddling into the 2016 presidential election, aren't taking President Trump's tweet lightly. Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. DIANE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA, RANKING MEMBER, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: The Judiciary Committee has an investigation going as well. And it involves obstruction of justice. And I think what we're beginning to see is the putting together of a case of obstruction of justice.
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: There is a credible case of obstruction of justice against Donald Trump. And to say that he is somehow above the law and cannot commit obstruction of justice simply because he is president of the United States is absolutely absurd.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZXER: Let's take a closer look at the case. Joining us now, CNN Legal Analyst, former Watergate special prosecutor, Richard Ben- Veniste. Richard, thanks so much for coming in.
So, big picture right now. Where is this Mueller investigation, as far as you can -- you can tell?
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think Bob Mueller is proceeding deliberately, thoroughly and without any political bias whatsoever. He's looking at the witnesses and he's making decisions about granting reduced sentences, reduced charges for cooperators. And that's what prosecutors do.
And now, he's made a decision, with respect to General Flynn, that's very important. Giving the proximity of General Flynn to President Trump during the transition and during the time that he was national security adviser.
BLITZER: Is it your sense, Richard, that Mueller is looking primarily at obstruction of justice charges?
BEN-VENISTE: I don't think there's a primarily here. This is a target-rich environment. They are active investigations about money laundering, Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violations, Farrah (ph) violations with lobbying with Turkey and Russia.
[13:10:02] So, there's a whole variety in addition to obstruction of justice that Mr. Mueller and his staff are looking into.
BLITZER: Do -- you just heard all the latest news that we're getting and the news is coming in rather quickly. From your point of view, as a former Watergate prosecutor, does these -- the latest news show obstruction of justice on the part of the president?
BEN-VENISTE: It has always been problematical to look at how the president defended Flynn after he knew that he was lying. He was lying to the vice president. He was lying to the chief of staff, Priebus. And he lied to the FBI. And now, we're getting more details about who told him and when.
And so, the question remains, why was Trump so interested in protecting Flynn, so interested that he said to Comey, can you go easy on Flynn? So interested that he made all these public pronouncements about Flynn, very favorably to him.
And now that Flynn has pleaded guilty, it appears that the White House is ready to throw him under the bus.
BLITZER: Well, when the president's private attorney, John Dowd -- I don't know if you know him.
BEN-VENISTE: I do.
BLITZER: You do know him?
BLITZER: OK, well, then you'll give me your assessment of him. When he says the president is safe from any obstruction of justice charge, because the president, in Dowd's words, cannot obstruction justice because he is the chief law enforcement officer and has every right to express his view on any -- of any case. You're smiling. BEN-VENISTE: He can express his view, but he can't obstruct justice
and get away with it. That's all dependent on intent. And if there's criminal intent, then obstruction of justice can, in fact, be lodged. No man is above the law. We learned that in Watergate.
Indeed, one of the central charges in Watergate was the obstruction of justice through promises of clemency, through a variety of misuse of federal agencies, such as the CIA and FBI and the IRS. The list goes on and on.
And the obstruction of justice that was central to our case involved President Nixon as a named unindicted co-conspirator who the Grand Jury determined was involved in the conspiracy.
BLITZER: Because in the Articles of Impeachment that were filed against Richard Nixon, and you know this well, one of the first articles was obstruction of justice. That he was obstructing justice. Now, he resigned before there was any impeachment, Richard Nixon. Go ahead.
BEN-VENISTE: But obstruction of justice was a central element, both of our case, of course, against the key aides to President Nixon. And because there was a sitting impeachment inquiry, we deferred to that inquiry and provided our evidence to the Impeachment Committee via the chief judge of the district court.
And, remember, Richard Nixon was named as an unindicted co-conspirator because of his involvement in the obstruction of justice conspiracy.
BLITZER: So, when John Dowd, the president's private attorney -- and I want you to tell us what you know about him. When he said the president can't be charged with obstruction of justice because he's the top law enforcement official in the United States. So, go ahead and tell us about John Dowd, first of all.
BEN-VENISTE: Well, John is an experienced criminal defense lawyer. He's a tough guy, a former Marine. He knows what he's doing. But I think he acknowledges that he made a mistake with respect to this Twitter.
BLITZER: Do you believe it was he who actually wrote that tweet?
BEN-VENISTE: Well, he says he did.
BLITZER: Do you believe that?
BEN-VENISTE: I take him at his word, yes.
BLITZER: Do you think he will be called in now to actually testify and explain how that unfolded?
BEN-VENISTE: I think that's what happens when you conflate being a defense lawyer and being a P.R. flack. They're two distinct roles. And I think Mr. Sekulow got in trouble earlier for doing the same.
BLITZER: Mr. Sekulow, one of the president's private attorneys as well.
BLITZER: But will he have to remove himself from this case if he's called to testify as a witness in this specific allegation of obstruction of justice?
BEN-VENISTE: I don't think so. I think the underlying facts are what they are.
Look, the president either knew or had to know that Flynn was lying. He knew he was lying and had been interviewed by the FBI.
[13:15:04] Whether or not he knew that lying to the FBI was a felony, who knows what, you know, he had the president has demonstrated a fair degree of ignorance when it comes to how government works, what the law is and so forth.
BLITZER: And if John Dowd did write that tweet for the president, it goes against what almost all criminal defense attorneys recommend to their clients, don't comment. There's a criminal investigation underway. Stay out of it. Keep your mouth shut. Don't tweet in this particular case. I assume that's what most criminal defense attorneys would tell their clients.
BEN-VENISTE: There's a big fish on my wall in the rec room. And if he kept his mouth shut, he wouldn't be there.
BLITZER: That's an interesting point.
All right, Richard Ben-Veniste, as usual, thanks very much for joining us.
BEN-VENISTE: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Backlash erupts after President Trump rips the FBI and the Justice Department. So why hasn't the current FBI chief responded and defended his agency?
Plus, the president fully endorses the accused child molester Roy Moore for the United States Senate. You're going to hear his reasons and how Moore is now responding.
And, is the U.S. moving closer to military action against North Korea. There's a new warning from a U.S. senator suggesting that American families should leave South Korea.
[13:20:43] BLITZER: There are four major Russia interference investigations going on simultaneously. Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller's. Then there's also one by the House Intelligence Committee, two in the United States Senate, the Intelligence Committee and the Judiciary Committee.
Meanwhile, we're also seeing a strategy emerge from the Trump universe on calling the Mueller investigation into question.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHRIS RUDDY, FRIEND OF PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You have two indictments. You have another two plea agreements. None directly related to collusion. And the president says, look, I wasn't involved. There was no collusion. And people are saying, even if there was, it's not a crime. You know, at the end of the day, my view is that Robert Mueller poses an existential threat to the Trump presidency. He's gotten four major -- two convictions, two plea agreements, lightning speed.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right, let's bring in our panel. Our CNN legal analysts Laura Coates and Joan Biskupic, and our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger.
So, Gloria, the breaking news right now that the president's counsel told him that Michael Flynn had misled the FBI this -- the day or two following his testimony before the FBI.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, you know, this raises -- it's important and it raises an awful lot of questions about what the president knew when he asked Comey to stay back and then asked him to kind of, you know, ease up on General Flynn. Did he know what was going on? It also raises questions about why it took so long for the White House to fire Flynn a few weeks. I mean what was going on at that point if you -- if you have an indication that Flynn, for example, wouldn't be able to get or keep his security clearance.
BLITZER: As the national security --
BORGER: As the national security adviser. So that raises an awful lot of -- an awful lot of questions about what the president knew and questions about what was going on inside the White House at the top levels at that time.
BLITZER: Because they knew what was going on, but it really wasn't until after "The Washington Post" reported all that information publicly that he was fired.
BORGER: That day. That's right. Exactly. So they -- the story was, well, we fired him when we discovered that Mike Pence had been -- had been lied to by Flynn. And now, as we sort of peel the layers of the onion here, we're trying to figure out how much more they did know.
BLITZER: Is that obstruction of justice, Laura?
LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, the idea is whether or not he did anything to influence or impede or stop the investigation. And we clearly know what he did. On February 14th, that surprising Valentine's Day tradition, he said to Jim Comey, the former director of the FBI at that point in time, can you let this one go? Can you lay off this? And if he did know prior to that, that Michael Flynn was involved in somehow trying to undermine investigations by lying, it's a problem.
But it's not really (ph) the focus, Wolf, to figure out whether or not he knew Flynn was lying or not, and whether he made wrong statements. If he knew there was an investigation going on period and tried to stop the investigation, that is obstructive conduct. That is what's going on.
But, remember, the end game for an investigator is not going to be obstruction. That would be like kind of giving somebody a speeding ticket as they're going from the scene of a crime. Why were you running? What should I not be looking at? That's really their end game here.
BLITZER: Because they knew that Flynn lied to the vice president, Mike Pence.
BLITZER: But the reporting we're getting is that the president was told that Flynn misled the FBI. The word lied was not included. Is there a difference between misleading the FBI and lying to the FBI under oath?
COATES: Only in a semantics-based universe, Wolf. The idea here is whether or not they made factually misleading or untruthful statements to the FBI. Whether you call it misleading or a lie or a mea culpa, Robert Mueller's team is going to have the same focus. What are you telling us that is not actually accurate and why?
BLITZER: How do you see it, Joan?
JOAN BISKUPIC, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, first of all, it matters given what we've already heard from President Trump's personal lawyer today, that he can't be indicted for obstruction of justice. But the truth is, he probably -- he could be. We don't know with certainty because of what the Constitution has been silent on this.
And there are two avenues that Laura is suggesting. It could either go criminally, if Special Counsel Bob Mueller wants to pursue that, or, more relevantly, to past presidential allegations of wrong-doing, go through impeachment. And there is a charge of obstruction of justice that has been brought to the House of Representatives before in impeachment proceedings, both for President Clinton and for President Richard Nixon.
[13:25:15] The issue, though, Wolf, of course, is that it takes a majority of the House to actually impeach and then two-thirds of the Senate to convict. So even though that is the more logical place to actually go after a president, if indeed Bob Mueller will be going after a president, and this is all speculative right now, but for a jury or for a judge, it would be theoretically easier because it wouldn't be in the political context.
BORGER: And the thing to keep in mind here is that Don McGhan, who is the White House counsel, is such an important witness now in this whole proceeding. And so is -- and the president's personal attorney, John Dowd, with his alleged involvement in the president's tweet, is also now somebody that they may have to talk to. And I think that, you know, it is not as if Sally Yates went down there, who was the acting attorney general at the time. It wasn't like Sally Yates went down there and said he's lying. This is something -- and we've been told this specifically -- she did not characterize what -- how she interpreted what Flynn was doing. But McGhan drew his own conclusions, as he should have, and they were probably right, which was that he had been lying to the FBI because, of course, the FBI had those intercepts.
BLITZER: So if McGhan and Dowd are called to answer questions from the -- from Robert Mueller's team --
BLITZER: Do they have to -- Laura, do they have to remove themselves as the counsel at the White House and the private attorney for the president?
COATES: Well, it would be inappropriate, perhaps. They'd have a kind of a conflict of interest going on there.
But, remember, this would be another instance of a self-inflicted wound in this administration. All -- a lot of what's happened so far in the investigation, including the Mueller probe, et cetera, are all based on self-inflicted wounds. And so if you're to have the attorneys, who are now stepping into this in the proverbial sense and weighing in, in a way that now jeopardizes their client's ability to now be truthful or even expose him to additional liability, I think they would appropriately step down on an ethical basis to say, I have misadvised and now you are in greater jeopardy. But it wouldn't necessarily be required for them to do so.
BORGER: Well, McGhan separates himself because he's the -- he's not the president's lawyer. He is the people's lawyer.
BLITZER: He's the White House Counsel.
BORGER: He is the White House counsel. So he has insulated himself from the rest of this investigation.
BISKUPIC: And what we know from the way Bob Mueller has been proceeding in the prior four charges that have come forward, he's using these kinds of statements after the fact against these individuals. So he's been able to build a case, not so -- you know, from the original offense, as it were, but also from what people are saying about it. And all these statements that are coming out add fuel to that file, Wolf.
BLITZER: Laura, Joan, Gloria, everybody, stand by. There's more coming up. As the pressure builds on the president in the investigation, he lashes out at the FBI and the Justice Department. I'll speak live with a former FBI agent who is getting ready to respond.
And he's accused of molesting a teenage girl and harassing other young women, but he just got the full endorsement of the president of the United States. Why Republicans may now be getting on board with Roy Moore.