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CIA Director Defends Meeting with Russian Spy Chief; Will FBI Director Quit Over Republican Memo Release?. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired February 1, 2018 - 15:00   ET

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


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BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Sources tell us that top White House aides are worried that the FBI director, Christopher Wray, could quit if a highly controversial Republican memo is, in fact, released.

This memo alleges that the FBI abused its surveillance warrant powers to monitor a Trump campaign member. And it's possible the president could release this memo as early as tomorrow.

Let's go to our CNN chief political correspondent, Dana Bash, CNN White House reporter Kaitlan Collins, and CNN senior congressional correspondent Manu Raju with some breaking news on the content of this memo.

But, first just, Dana, beginning with you, what have you been learning about Chris Wray and a possible resignation?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brooke, this is a story that I did with Jeff Zeleny and Evan Perez, and what we have been told is that at the White House, there is concern, deep concern, that Christopher Wray will quit, will resign in and around the release of this memo.

We have been reporting for several days now that the FBI, the Justice Department as a whole, but the FBI in particular has been arguing nonstop to the White House, to the Hill that this is a terrible idea to release this Russia memo.

The White House, of course, and Republicans on Capitol Hill argue back that they believe that that argument is because the FBI is concerned that it looks bad.

Regardless, this is -- this is something that we are hearing, which is noteworthy for many reasons, not the least of which is that Christopher Wray, we have to remember, was President Trump's pick for the FBI after he fired James Comey.

BALDWIN: Right.

BASH: Now, I should also tell you, Brooke, that I am told by a source familiar with this that Chris Wray has not directly said, you know, by the way, I might quit, because that's not his style. That's not something that he would do. It's just not how he operates. Regardless, because of the very intense back and forth on this in

private which spilled into the public with the FBI statement yesterday, they are concerned at the White House.

BALDWIN: Concerned at the White House. Interesting that we just heard from Speaker Ryan over at the Republican retreat in West Virginia, where, you know, he continues to say that this memo does not undermine the Russia investigation and that it doesn't undermine the DAG, the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein.

Here he was a moment ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Remember, FISA is a unique situation which involves Americans' civil liberties. And if American civil liberties were abused, then that needs to come to light so that doesn't happen again.

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.

What it is, is the Congress' legitimate function of oversight to make sure that the FISA process is being used correctly and that if it wasn't being used correctly that needs to come to light and people need to be held accountable.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: OK. But even more significantly, Dana, he goes on to say this doesn't -- the releasing of the memo doesn't implicate the Mueller investigation, it doesn't implicate the DAG.

It doesn't implicate the Mueller investigation? We're hearing now from sources that President Trump is hoping that this will discredit the Mueller investigation.

BASH: That's exactly right.

Look, this is an argument that Paul Ryan has been making since the day of the State of the Union. He's done so in public. We're told by sources he is saying this in private to his members, please don't talk about this memo as if it is a way to discredit the Mueller investigation.

The person who clearly has not gotten that message is the president of the United States, because our reporting this morning is just as you said, Brooke, that the president is making calls, the president, who, by the way, did read the memo, we're told, yesterday. He is making calls to friends, to allies, saying, hey, I think this really could discredit and undermine the Russia investigation, which is just jaw- dropping in and of itself, never mind the fact that it flies in the face of what the House speaker is repeatedly saying. BALDWIN: And the notion, Kaitlan, let me roll over to you, that it's

a White House there flying in the face of what the FBI is asking, the White House saying what, that this thing could be released as early as tomorrow?

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

We actually just heard, Brooke, from a White House official. The president just arrived on the South Lawn on Marine One. But when they were on Air Force One on the way back from that Republican retreat in West Virginia, a White House official told reporters on Air Force One this statement about sending the memo back to Congress probably tomorrow, saying that the White House has OKed it, and this person went on to say, "I think you all know that the process is a House process," meaning this is something that will technically be released by the Hill, not from the White House.

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And they went on to say: "They sent over the memo. We have had it over the last couple days to look at it to make sure it doesn't give away too much in terms of classification." And they went on to say, "Right now, I think that we will tell Congress probably tomorrow that the president is OK with it, and I doubt there will be any redactions."

This person ended by saying, "Then it is in Congress' hands after that," Brooke.

But we know this has very much been in the White House's hands as well, as the president has advocated for this release of this memo long before he even read the memo, saying after the State of the Union Tuesday night he 100 percent wants it released and not to worry.

And as we reported today, we learned why the president was so eager to release this memo, and that's because he believes this is going to help discredit the Russia investigation by exposing bias among those at the top ranks to say they have been prejudiced against him all along in these investigations.

And I should add that the White House says this is not to undermine the Mueller investigation, but it's only about transparency here, Brooke.

BALDWIN: OK. So that's the White House perspective.

Manu, let's go down the road to you on Capitol Hill, because if Kaitlan is saying if the White House decides to release this thing tomorrow, it goes to Congress, then what?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, then it's going to be released.

And there's a furious debate right now, fight between the Democrats and Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee about exactly the memo that is being looked at. It's particularly the changes that occurred in this memo.

Now, I'm just learning from a Democratic official on that House Intelligence Committee that they have identified five material changes that were made that they say that the members of the committee were not aware of when they voted on Monday to release this memo and give the president time to decide whether or not to object or allow for its release.

They said they were not aware of these material changes, including one modification that they say was intended to water down the overall findings that the Republicans had in this memo.

Now, the Republicans are not too concerned. Actually, Devin Nunes has said, his spokesman said last night that there were actually only two changes that occurred, and they said those were from the FBI and as a result of the FBI and Democratic request to make changes.

And just moments ago, Paul Ryan said that these changes were made before Monday's vote and that they were just simply scrubbing to change some things, so he really downplayed the changes that were made. Nevertheless, there's an agreement on this, Brooke. There were changes made to this memo.

Democrats say they were not aware of this. All the members of the House when they reviewed this memo, they did not see those final changes and that the memo that may eventually be released to the public did not follow the common practices of Congress and procedures, in which they would have to know exactly what they're voting on before sending it to the president.

But, nevertheless, Republicans are not -- say these are just small, minor technical changes. They're not concerned. They're not planning on having a revote in the committee, which means that if the president does, in fact, agree to release it tomorrow, then the House Intelligence Committee probably's going to end up releasing it, Brooke.

BALDWIN: OK. OK. Manu, thank you.

Dana Bash, come back. I want you part of this conversation. I also have with me contributor Norm Eisen, who's a former White House chief ethics lawyer under President Obama.

So, Mr. Ambassador, first to you, let's bring this all back to Christopher Wray, who was, let's all remember, in the wake of a Comey firing, this was who the president chose to lead the FBI.

Christopher Wray goes down to the White House on Monday night and says essentially please don't release this memo, the next day publicly puts out this directive, the statement, grave concerns over accuracy if you release this memo.

The president obviously, as we just heard in the reporting, wants to release the memo. It sounds like it's happening tomorrow. If you were Christopher Wray and that happens, how do you not resign?

NORMAN EISEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Brooke, thanks for having me back.

And I think Chris Wray, who's a good man -- I endorsed him when his nomination was announced -- ought to resign, rather than be part of this shameful episode.

This is not isolated. There has been a series of seven big lies, smears against the Russia investigation. This bogus Nunes memo is only the latest. Trump's own FBI director, Brooke, saying that there are omissions in the memo that make it misleading.

Well, of course, when you're using intelligence -- I was an ambassador -- and the last thing you're supposed to do with intelligence is use it as a political football, expose it. When you're doing that in a misleading way, Chris Wray has no choice. He's got to walk away from it.

History will celebrate him if he does. It's like the McCarthy era all over again. He can't continue to be a part of it if they put this memo out.

BALDWIN: So if they put this memo out tomorrow -- and going with the ambassador's reasoning that he should resign for various reasons, Dana Bash, we could be talking about an administration -- I know you know where I'm going -- an administration within one year we have seen the departure of two FBI directors.

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Are you serious?

BASH: Exactly. That's a very big if right now.

And from our reporting, we understand that part of the reason why there's concern obviously is because they have heard Christopher Wray talk about the fact that he's very upset about the notion of releasing this.

But we also know there's some to-ing and fro-ing going on behind the scenes of how to keep him, I wouldn't say happy, because I don't think that that is possible, but at least happy enough so that he doesn't walk out the door.

We will see if that's even possible. The challenge, though, is that what they're talking about inside the White House -- it's all led by the White House counsel is redactions. And we have reported here on CNN that there have been a series of redactions.

The issue is from the FBI perspective not what you take out, but what's already not in there, because they feel that Republicans in the House cherry-picked the real story about what went on with -- and this is all, of course, leading back to the approval of the FISA warrant during -- at the beginning of the Russia investigation, before there was a Mueller probe. It was just the FBI doing it.

So that's why there's a big question. I will tell you, though, back to your original point, Brooke, that I was told by a source who's familiar with these discussions that it's really unclear if the president has absorbed the idea that there would be such an unbelievably negative impact of him losing not just one, but two FBI directors in one year.

BALDWIN: I mean, I don't have words yet for that.

Mr. Ambassador, back over to you. We listened to the House speaker answering a couple questions about this memo. He's in support of releasing it. He says that the memo is Congress' function of oversight with regard to the FISA process and his insistence that by releasing this memo it does not interfere with the Mueller investigation. What do you think?

EISEN: Well, Brooke, I think he went to Wonderland, instead of to West Virginia, because, like Alice, he seems to believe, like that book, that just by saying it...

(CROSSTALK)

BALDWIN: He's gone down the rabbit hole?

EISEN: It looks that way to me, very -- it looked like a very luxurious rabbit hole, Brooke.

But, look, the reality is, and the speaker knows this, if you have concerns about the process, those are legitimate. As Americans, we do care about this. You don't release a misleading memo that's been condemned by Trump's own DOJ and FBI. You go through the process.

There's a Department of Justice inspector general. He's fully cleared. He can review the question. There's the FISA court itself. Go directly to the FISA court and file a complaint. Why aren't they doing that?

This is like these other smears. It's a pattern, Brooke. Remember the transition e-mails? That was also a big kerfuffle for a weekend, but they didn't go to court when the Trump team had concerns about them, because they knew they would lose.

And that's what's going on here. The president for once actually spoke the truth. He wants to use this memo as a bludgeon against the Russia investigation, and there's reporting he wants to go after Rod Rosenstein.

(CROSSTALK)

BALDWIN: I was about to say that, yes. I think we're missing, big picturing this, you know, by releasing the memo it puts Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, he's in the crosshairs

And I think we all need to have the perspective that Mueller, ultimately, he will have his findings, right, and he will then give those findings to Rod Rosenstein. And it is up to Rod Rosenstein to determine, quite a weight on his shoulders, what to do, to make them public, give it to Congress with the findings on this massive investigation. And if we know that this is a way, Dana, for the president to get away with not firing Mueller, which would look really bad, what is this really about? You following me?

BASH: Totally. Absolutely.

BALDWIN: Totally.

BASH: I think that's an open question, you know. There's some people who we have talked to who have suggested that as part of this whole criticism of the way that the FISA warrant process worked way back at the beginning of the Russia probe that Rosenstein in his previous capacity was involved.

We don't know exactly how. We don't know what it will say. We don't know if it names him by name or just by implication, but there is no question. We have reported here at CNN that the president, you know, even in the recent weeks, has been going off about wanting to get rid of Rod Rosenstein because he's so frustrated by the fact that he, of course, was the one who appointed Robert Mueller.

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So, we will see. There are all kinds of scenarios that sort of fall out from this memo coming out specifically about what it means for Rosenstein.

The question is, how bad is it and is it bad enough that Rosenstein, either Rosenstein doesn't feel he can stay in his job or, more importantly, people in Congress and the president himself feel that they have enough ammunition to get rid of him?

BALDWIN: Well, it sounds like, by this time tomorrow, we may know.

Dana Bash and Ambassador Eisen, thank you two very, very much for that conversation here.

Coming up next, we're going to talk with a former special prosecutor in the Watergate investigation. His reaction to the breaking news. And should the White House be concerned over the possibility of losing another FBI director?

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BALDWIN: We are back with the breaking news. I'm Brooke Baldwin. Here we go.

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The fact that the top White House aides are worried that FBI Director Christopher Wray could quit if a Republican memo comes out. It alleges FBI misconduct.

And the development is more evidence of this deepening divide not just in Washington, not just between parties, but also between the president and much of his party and the intelligence community, the DOJ.

Let's talk this over with CNN legal analyst Richard Ben-Veniste, former Watergate special prosecutor.

Nice to have you on, sir. Welcome.

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Hi. Thank you.

BALDWIN: So, you say, all of what we've been talking about, it's a prelude to derail the investigation. Tell me why.

BEN-VENISTE: Well, they have been at it for quite some time in various ways to not only disparage Mueller, but the FBI, the Department of Justice, and everybody else who is critical of or potentially critical of the president.

This has happened since the jump. And now we're at a point where the impartiality, the bipartisan history of the House Intelligence Committee which has gone for quite some time without this kind of rancor is the collateral damage of the effort by the Republicans to protect Trump against what? Against the conclusion of the investigation.

So if it results in winding up the president to the point of trying to fire Rosenstein and trying to get rid of Mueller, that's one thing. It's also, in the short-term, I think, going to be a pretext to try to have the president walk back on the promise to provide an interview and testify under oath before Mr. Mueller and perhaps the grand jury.

That's just not going to happen, in my view.

BALDWIN: What about the notion that we're hearing from sources that the president thinks this memo by releasing it will discredit the investigation? Is that in and of itself obstruction?

BEN-VENISTE: We haven't seen the -- we haven't seen the memo.

What we have heard from the intelligence community is that it contains sources and methods, sensitive information that was presented to the FISA court to get a FISA warrant. That has implications for our national security. To casually release that information without going through the proper steps is, quite frankly, bizarre and reckless.

So, instead of going to the FISA court, which is not a potted plant, to use an old description.

BALDWIN: What do you mean by that?

BEN-VENISTE: The court is perfectly capable of issuing directives if they have -- if that court has not received accurate information, number one.

So that can be brought to the attention of the FISA court. Secondly, secondly, there's an inspector general who investigates such things. But even if the majority wants to issue a statement criticizing the process, they have to do so without implicating national security, sensitive information.

They can do that until the cows come home. And the minority can criticize what the majority says. But don't involve our national security assets in doing it. That's reckless.

BALDWIN: By making it so public, so incredibly public.

Again, we're hearing that the memo could be released as early as tomorrow.

But, Richard, let me turn the page. I wanted to ask you about another story out today.

BEN-VENISTE: Sure.

BALDWIN: This was broken by "The New York Times" in the paper this morning. They're reporting that the White House communications director, Hope Hicks, told the president that e-mails that had been written by the president's son Don Jr. about the Trump Tower meeting will -- quote, unquote -- "never get out."

And, of course, she was wrong. And that phrase, you know, could be an admission that the Trump team actually knew what they were doing in trying to get dirt on Hillary Clinton, knowing that that would be wrong and that Hicks would be guilty of obstruction.

We should be clear that Hicks' attorney has strongly pushed back on the story, entirely denied this accusation, but what's your take, Richard?

BEN-VENISTE: Well, if we step back for a moment, the surrounding circumstances are that the explanation that was given in this bogus release was directed toward the meeting in Trump Tower with the highest-level campaign officials...

BALDWIN: Correct.

BEN-VENISTE: ... the head of the campaign, Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, because the Russians pulled their coat and said, I have -- they have got information, the Russians want to assist Trump, and they have got information negative on Hillary Clinton.

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So, if the explanation, totally bogus, that this was a meeting about Russian adoption procedures...

(CROSSTALK)

BALDWIN: Which is what they originally said.

BEN-VENISTE: It's what they originally said.

So that's evidence in two respects, one, of the underlying collusion allegations concerning members of the Trump campaign with Russian officials. And, secondly, it is evidence of an intent to cover up, to obscure the facts.

Now, is it in and of itself a crime? I'm not so sure about that, but if true it certainly is of a piece with efforts to mislead and obfuscate the true facts.

And those would be very important in terms of the overarching question of whether this -- there wasn't a conspiracy to obstruct justice, and this was just one symptom of it.

BALDWIN: OK. OK.

BEN-VENISTE: I like how "The New York Times" described it as a circular firing squad, because there were memos already in existence that -- e-mails that were producible that nobody could destroy at that point, had been subpoenaed by Congress, and weren't going to be destroyed.

And you have somebody like Mark Corallo, a longtime, tough, savvy Republican operative, who is a spokesperson for the defense team, walking out the door, not wanting to be associated with this.

BALDWIN: That's right. He up and quit. He up and quit at the time, which perhaps, if it comes down to the he said/she said, maybe that gives him a little bit more credibility.

BEN-VENISTE: It's pretty telling. And he also contemporaneously made statements about what was going on. So, those are also important things to consider when you think about credibility.

BALDWIN: OK.

We will follow it. I know you will.

Richard Ben-Veniste, thank you so much on both of those stories.

BEN-VENISTE: Thank you.

BALDWIN: We want to move on.

We also have some breaking news out of the CIA today, Director Mike Pompeo defending a meeting he took with the Russian spy chief who was behind the 2016 election meddling -- how he's responding to stinging criticism from Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer.

Also, moments ago, Mitt Romney just gave a hint about his political future.

Stand by for that.

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