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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

White House Communications Director Under Fire in Russia Probe; Will FBI Director Quit Over Republican Memo Release?; NYT: Mueller Zeroes in On Trump Tower Story. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired February 1, 2018 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:07]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We're going to begin with some breaking news in the politics lead.

Just a short time ago, the White House told CNN President Trump is OK with releasing that controversial Republican House Intelligence Committee memo, the one that has consumed the attention of the nation's capital.

The president wants to do so without redactions, we're told, which means we could see it as soon as tomorrow.

The memo, as you know, has been assailed by House Democrats as a partisan memo. The FBI director, Christopher Wray, a Republican appointed by President Trump after the president fired the last FBI director, Wray has taken the unusual step of making it known publicly that he, too, does not want this memo released. He calls it misleading.

Today, CNN found out White House officials are now worried that FBI Director Wray could quit if the memo is released against his recommendation.

What we don't know is whether that even matters to President Trump. Sources also telling CNN today the president has told his friends that he sees this memo drafted by Republican Congressman Devin Nunes and his Republican committee staff as a way to undermine and discredit the Russia investigation, giving himself cover and ignoring, as we have noted, the objections of two of the nation's top law enforcement officials, not just FBI Director Christopher Wray, but also Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

Today, a Democratic senator suggested that all of this could be pretext for more than just undermining the Mueller Russian investigation, but also for firing Mueller.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY (D), OREGON: This appears to be a setup to enable the president to fire Mueller and grind everything to a halt.

(END VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: President Trump did not mention the Nunes memo in his 35- minute-long remarks he made in front of Republican lawmakers at their retreat in West Virginia this afternoon.

But, today, the rank and file of the FBI is sending a signal that it supports Wray's decision against releasing the memo, saying -- quote -- "The FBI Agents Association Appreciates FBI director Chris Wray standing shoulder to shoulder with the men and women of the FBI as we work together to protect our country from criminal and national security threats."

Joining me now to discuss all this, CNN's Dana Bash and Kaitlan Collins.

Kaitlan, there were talks that the White House might redact part of the memo, but you're now being told that that option is off the table?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. That's right, Jake.

There were two questions about this memo. We knew for some time that the president wanted this released, but the questions were, has he read the memo, and when are they going to release it regarding those redactions?

We got answers to both of those today because the president has read the memo, he has reviewed it, and then just a short while ago, as they were flying back on Air Force One from West Virginia, a senior administration official told reporters this about the release of the memo, saying: "We have had over the last couple days to look at it, to make sure it does not give away too much in terms of classification. Right now, I think it will be that we tell Congress, probably tomorrow, that the president is OK with it."

Now, here's the key line: "I doubt there will be any redactions." And then the official added, "Then it is in congress' hands right after that."

But right now, the White House is saying they do not believe there will be redactions to this memo, Jake.

TAPPER: And, Dana, what are you hearing about the FBI director, Christopher Wray, who has made it clear publicly, quite unusually, that he does not want this released?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes.

Yes, the way that he made this public is apparently pretty minor compared to what he's been saying in private, repeatedly making clear that he thinks releasing the memo is a terrible idea. And we are told, myself, along with Jeff Zeleny and Evan Perez, that people inside the White House are concerned that he's so upset that he might consider calling it quits, saying, I'm out of here.

Now, I can tell you that I talked to a source who is familiar with the situation, who insists that's not Wray's style, that he would not actually threaten to quit. Having said that, he is clearly not happy, and I will also say that it's not surprising that the White House is saying redactions are not necessary, because my understanding is that the redactions were not really for sources and methods to protect the intelligence, any intelligence that was talked about in these memos, but actually to try to calm the FBI.

The FBI's problem, though, was not and is not what's in the memo, Jake. It's what's not in the memo.

TAPPER: Right.

BASH: Because they feel that a lot of information was cherry-picked to make a point.

TAPPER: Yes. They thinking the memo is misleading.

BASH: Exactly.

TAPPER: Kaitlan, it was your reporting that President Trump is calling around telling friends that he thinks this memo is going to help him with the Russia investigation. How?

COLLINS: Yes, that's right, Jake.

The president has been so eager to get this memo out there, and, today, we are learning just why. And it's because the president believes that once this memo is public, it's going to actually help discredit the Russia investigation. And he's been calling his allies and his friends in recent days telling them as much, that he believes, once this is out there, it's going to expose the bias among the top ranks at the FBI, and it's going to show that the intelligence community has unfairly targeted him.

[16:05:15]

That's the president's perspective on this, and he's felt that for some time, because we knew that before the president even read this memo, he was going around after the State of the Union telling congressmen that he was 100 percent going to release it.

And now we can see a little bit into the president's mind-set of why he thought that, Jake.

TAPPER: And, Dana, you have breaking news for us?

BASH: That's right.

I have just -- we're getting this from our colleague Jim Acosta that a source familiar with the process of reviewing this memo says, at the moment, accommodations have been made in response to concerns by the intelligence community about this.

So, they are potentially making changes because of that. Now, obviously, that's different from redactions. Changing the memo and actually blanking out parts of it are very different things, so we will see what exactly they mean by these changes, Jake. TAPPER: All right. Dana, Kaitlan, thank you so much.

My panel joins me now.

CNN's reporting the president has told associates that releasing the memo would help discredit the Mueller investigation.

Phil Mudd, let me start with you. Your take on all of this?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Didn't Paul Ryan just tell us this was not about Mueller? This was about looking into how the FBI conducts investigations?

Look, this is not about redactions. And this is not about the memo. This is about the president of the United States saying that his nominee and now his FBI director, Christopher Wray, is running an organization that was involved in a conspiracy to undermine the president of the United States.

This is about the executive branch, in this case the White House, talking to the Congress, Devin Nunes, in opposition to the FBI and other elements, Department of Justice, who are involved in the investigation. It's us vs. them, and the president is saying, you're either with me or you're with the FBI.

It's not about the memo. It's not about redactions. It's about saying the FBI is undermining the president of the United States. I think it is that simple.

TAPPER: Mike Rogers, in addition to being the former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, you're a former FBI agent.

I want to read a tweet from one of your former Republican House colleagues, Jeff Duncan. He was the one who said that to the president State of the Union night several years ago -- I'm sorry -- two nights ago, and in which he said, release the memo, and the president said, 100 percent.

Jeff Duncan tweeted -- quote -- "Having read the memo, the FBI is right to have grave concerns, as it will shake the organization down to its core, showing Americans just how the agency was weaponized by the Obama officials/DNC/HRC," meaning Hillary Clinton, "to target political adversaries."

What do you think?

MIKE ROGERS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I mean, the narrative -- there's 18 different narratives coming out of the Republicans right now. And I think all of this concerns me.

The dueling memos between the Democrats and Republicans concern me. But here's the piece on the memo. If the speaker is coming out saying it's not about all of the FBI, it's not about the Mueller investigation, that comment does not say that at all.

It says the whole organization is corrupt. That's why you see something really unprecedented, the FBI Agents Association -- first of all, the director says something directly.

TAPPER: Very unusual.

ROGERS: That's very unprecedented.

And then the FBI Agents Association, these are the working men and women of the FBI. They're the ones making cases, putting handcuffs on people, hauling them off to jail.

They came out and said, hey, we appreciate the FBI director standing up for us. Again, and I just -- I plead with my Republican colleagues, if you believe that they were conspiring to perjure in an affidavit before the FISA court, that's a serious case.

It should either to go to the I.G. or a full investigation of the committee. This piecemealing of release of a memo is not going to give the American people anything but -- you know, it's affirmation news. I'm either going to -- I hate Trump, so I believe everything that is in it -- or don't believe anything that is in it, or I love Trump, and I believe every single word that is in it.

And I think there's probably the truth is somewhere in the middle, and in the meantime, we have absolutely blown up real constructive oversight of the intelligence community, at least happening in the House of Representatives.

TAPPER: Just to point it out, because you won't, when you were chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, you worked very closely with the Democratic ranking member and you issued bipartisan reports. That's not what's going on here.

Neal, what is your response to all of this?

NEAL KATYAL, FORMER ACTING U.S. SOLICITOR GENERAL: Yes, I don't think that this release is going to undermine Mueller at the end of the day for two reasons.

I mean, one is that Mueller -- that this is a pretty ham-handed attempt by Devin Nunes, who is himself suspicious and under some investigation. It's kind of like a report from Hannibal Lecter saying, oh, I'm a vegan or something like that.

It doesn't have much credibility.

(LAUGHTER)

KATYAL: So, that's number one.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Just for the record, you're not calling Devin Nunes a cannibal.

ROGERS: Or a vegan.

TAPPER: Or a vegan, right, either one. (CROSSTALK)

KATYAL: But I am saying he's acted suspiciously.

Then, number two is the law has a long process for dealing with this. Criminal defendant says, hey, someone is biased against me, they're out to get me and so on. And every day in federal court, we deal with that.

TAPPER: You hear it all the time.

[16:10:00]

KATYAL: Yes.

And the Supreme Court says, you have got to prove it up in court under a very high standard.

So, look, if Trump and the White House believe that there is some sort of big conspiracy in the FBI against him, prove it up in court, like everyone else. But that, they're afraid to do.

TAPPER: Phil Mudd, I want to play for you. You referred to it, what House Speaker Paul Ryan said in defending release of the memo, which does contradict the tweet by Jeff Duncan. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: What this is not is an indictment on our institutions of our justice system. This memo is not indictment of the FBI, of the Department of Justice. It does not impugn the Mueller investigation or the deputy attorney general.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: But, Phil, when you listen to Republicans in the House, when you listen to the suggestions made by Devin Nunes, who is the author of the memo, when you listen to comments made by Donald Trump Jr., you get the complete opposite message.

MUDD: I think one of the biggest losers in this entire process is a man I believe -- and I still believe -- is an honorable man.

I think the speaker is honorable. I think he's being led down a path that will prove to be incredibly destructive. You think about the issues at play here.

So, you're saying the intelligence that drove the investigation is bad, but the investigation is great? That Mueller is building an investigation built on faulty intelligence, but you still trust Mueller? How do you do that?

The second thing is even more significant, Jake. This is a complete setup. The setup is simple. It's not about the investigation. It's post-investigation. If Director Mueller and now special counsel Mueller comes out with indictments, the setup is that the president gets to say, well, these indictments don't mean anything, they're based on intelligence that you see in this Nunes memo was intelligence collected by means that do not reflect American values.

This is absolutely about the investigation, and absolutely about special counsel Mueller, and I think the speaker should say that.

TAPPER: Neal, do you think that if the White House releases this memo, against the advice of Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein or the FBI director, Chris Wray, do you think Wray and Rosenstein should resign?

KATYAL: I think that they should very seriously consider it. At least Wray.

The FBI has said, you know, this is essential to the mission, that this is a selective disclosure which materially omits stuff. Absolutely, I think Wray will have no credibility if he stays after the release under those circumstances.

TAPPER: What do you think? You point out not only is Wray's statement against the release unprecedented, but the FBI Agents Association statement today backing Wray is rather unprecedented.

ROGERS: Yes.

I think this new cycle of I'm going to quit every time something bad happens is kind of ridiculous, candidly. He needs to stay. There's going to be an issue next week. There will be an issue a month from now. There will be an issue two months from now. The agents need some consistency.

I think Wray has shown the agents that are working that he has their interests at heart, and if there's problems, he's going to fix them. He needs to stay through this. He needs to say, I absolutely disagreed with it, but I understand my role in the world, I'm going to get up tomorrow and be the best FBI director I can and take care of the agents, the men and women are putting people in jail.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around.

We've got a lot more to talk about, a lot more going on in the Russian investigation, including the spotlight on the White House Communications Director, Hope Hicks. She's been at the president's side almost every day for the past two years, but did she hint in any way that there would not be a release of some key information in this investigation?

Somebody who was part of the Trump team says so. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:17:48] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: We're back, and sticking with breaking news in our politics lead.

The threat of a possible obstruction of justice charge hangs over the White House as the "New York Times" reports a former spokesman for President Trump's legal team, Mark Corallo, will talk to the special counsel, Robert Mueller, about a conference call between the president and closest aides, Hope Hicks, and he will raise concerns, Corallo, that Hope Hicks may have been trying to obstruct the investigation on that call.

Joining me now is CNN's Jim Sciutto.

And, Jim, this all goes back to that Trump Tower meeting with Don Jr. and the Russians, right?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right. This gets to what we know as a line of inquiry for the special counsel, that Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and Russians opening dirt on Hillary Clinton and then following that meeting, an attempt it appears possibly to conceal that meeting and whether that adds up to obstruction of justice.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO (voice-over): Special counsel Robert Mueller is now scrutinizing a meeting between President Trump and his aides on Air Force One last year as part of the probe into whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice in the Russia investigation. Former Trump legal team spokesman Mark Corallo is expected to be asked about it when he's interviewed by Mueller's team in the next two weeks. CNN has previously reported President Trump helped craft a misleading explanation for a 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer offering dirt on Hillary Clinton.

The statement claimed the meeting was primarily about Russia's adoption policy, though e-mails from Trump Jr. contradicted that explanation. "The New York Times" is citing three people with knowledge of Corallo's forthcoming interview, who say that he's planning to tell the special counsel that White House communications director, Hope Hicks, told President Trump that those emails, quote, will never get out. That comment led Corallo to believe that Hicks was considering obstructing justice.

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It's very conceivable that he may have that corroborating information to avoid the he said/she said scenario. And that's Mueller is going to look for.

SCIUTTO: Hick's lawyer denied the account, saying in a statement to CNN, quote, she never said that, and the idea that Hope Hicks ever suggested that emails or other documents would be concealed or destroyed is completely false.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

[16:20:01] SCIUTTO: There is an open legal question about this. If it focused of the Mueller investigation is that misleading statement about what really went on in that Trump Tower meeting, it's not crime to release a misleading statement, that lied to the press, in effect, so what is it about the meeting or efforts to obstruct on concealed that meeting afterwards that Mueller is interested in and that may rise to the legal level of a crime. We don't know the answer to that question. But it appears that he's looking to more here than might be on the surface -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Jim Sciutto, thanks so much.

My panel is back with me.

Let me start with you, Phil Mudd. It's not a crime to lie to the "New York Times" or to the public. So, what might Mueller be looking at here if he's wondering about Mark Corallo, the former spokesman for the president's legal team, saying that Hope Hicks, his communications director, said something about concealing information from the public and the "New York Times," there's no crime there.

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I think there's a couple questions you might ask here. Number one, his pattern of activity. Remember, we had Donald Trump Jr. making different statements about the nature of that meeting. Now, we have Hope Hicks making additional statements.

I'm not interested in whether someone made a mistake on one day, whether they had a bad hair day. I'm interested in a pattern of activity overtime, but says there was a conspiracy to obstruct. So, I think that's one broad issue you're looking at.

The second issue you're looking at is even simpler. That is, I assume now or before that the team has interviewed Hope Hicks. They're going to go in and say not only what did you mean we that statement, but did you participate in conversations over time? This is all about a timeline from the campaign through the firing of Michael Flynn and beyond. Did you participate in conversations over time on e-mail, in person, did you hear conversations that suggested that there was an intent to obstruct an investigation?

It's not one snapshot of one statement or one event. It's a pattern of activity over time. She can talk about that.

TAPPER: And "The New York Times" talked to three sources close to Corallo, and Corallo did not dispute the report when they reached him, saying that he had concerns about whether or not there was obstruction of justice going on there. But, again, a pattern of activity, does that count when you are just talking about lying to the public or "The New York Times"?

NEAL KATYAL: I think it does, Jake. "The New York Times" report says something very important. It says that Hope Hicks allegedly said that these e-mails about the Russia meeting would be destroyed. That is the quintessential obstruction of justice or attempted obstruction of justice. I think it goes to a deeper point, which is all about leadership.

I mean, it doesn't surprise us that Hope Hicks is acting this way and these stories are coming out because after all, presidents always set leadership examples for the staff. And, you know, we saw with President Obama, if you're around President Obama, you know, you tended to be really huge in the line as he did, no drama, and so on. This president, who, obviously, you know, has issues with the rule of law, has set a different example. So, it's not surprising to see things like this happening.

TAPPER: Do you think that the President Trump should testify? And the reason I ask is because there's people around the president, and now maybe members of the legal team who are saying, this does not rise to the threshold because there's nothing specifically alleged that the president has done. There might be people around the president, but not him per se.

MIKE ROGERS, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY COMMENTATOR: Boy, I mean, two different takes on it. If you're advising the president legally, I would say absolutely not. He's likely to go in and say something he probably shouldn't say and get himself in trouble. I think for the good of the American public, he probably should testify. I think the public wants this done, I think they want a full accounting. I think they want transparency.

If I may, just on Hope Hicks thing, it's not just the activity. They'll also look for any real actions that she may have taken on that e-mail issue. So, that would, as an investigator, that would give me the intent, right? If you say nobody's ever going to get these, and then they took steps or she may have taken steps, or that's probably allegations, that they took steps to actually do something with those e-mails, make sure that they didn't come up. That is - that's where I think an investigator would go, and then you lay that over a pattern of activity across the whole campaign.

TAPPER: Phil Mudd, let me ask you, because Mike Rogers referred to the fact the public wants the president to testify and there's actually some brand new polling, a new Monmouth Poll found that 71 percent of Americans say that President Trump should agree to be interviewed by Mueller about the Russia probe. Only 22 percent said he should not.

Do you think it would hurt the president politically if he refuses to sit down with Mueller?

MUDD: I don't think so. I agree. I mean, I feel like Mike Rogers has taken his vitamin pills today. I agree with him on everything he's said, which is possibly a first.

But I think he's at great risk for going into that room. I mean, you have a man whose shown indiscipline in terms of how he uses language. If there's one thing you got to do with the federal investigator, you better be precise with language because they have months of investigation, and they are going to compare everything you say with everything your subordinate said, every email, every text message.

[16:25:01] So, I think there's great risk of him walking into the room. I think there's lesser risk if you're looking at a balanced equation, Jake, lesser risk for him saying, you know, I think this is a witch hunt which he said all along, and I'm not testifying.

What's his base going to say? They're going to say, it's the same thing he's told from day one, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Phil, Congressman Rogers, Neal Katyal, thank you so much, one and all. Our next guest actually seen the Nunes memo, pitting President Trump against his own FBI director. Congressman Joaquin Castro joins me live next.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back.

We're back with some breaking news in our politics lead. A source now telling CNN that, quote, accommodations have been made in concerns in response to concerns expressed by the intelligence community about the release of that Nunes memo. A White House official telling CNN today that the president is OK with releasing the memo over objections raised by his own FBI director, Christopher Wray, and others in the Justice Department.

Joining me now to discuss this is Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas. He serves on the House Intelligence Committee and he has seen the memo in question, the so-called Nunes memo.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us. We appreciate it.