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Trump Suddenly Fires Attorney General Following Combative News Conference. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired November 7, 2018 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[17:00:04] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Has been re-elected, yes.
HIRONO: I'm glad for that.
TAPPER: All right. Senator Mazie Hirono, thank you so much.
Our coverage on CNN continues right now. Thanks for watching.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. We're following breaking news. President Trump suddenly fires the attorney general, Jeff Sessions for the unpardonable sin of recusing himself from the Russia investigation.
He'll be replaced for now by his chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, who's been critical of Robert Mueller's Russia investigation and may now actually go ahead and supervise it.
The surprise announcement came after the president claimed victory in a midterm election which saw Democrats seize control of the House of Representatives while Republicans tightened their hold on the Senate.
The president's tone was combative, suggesting concern over his brand- new vulnerability to Democratic-led investigations. Democrats are now vowing to protect the special counsel's probe.
I'll speak with Congressman Joaquin Castro of the Intelligence Committee. And our correspondents and specialists, they are standing by with full coverage.
First, let's go straight to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.
Jim, first of all, what is the very, very latest?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we have a new acting attorney general. His name is Matt Whitaker. He has been a CNN legal contributor in the past but has also been the chief of staff to the outgoing attorney general, Jeff Sessions.
Wolf, we have a letter of resignation we could put up on screen from the attorney general. Obviously, this was a forced letter of resignation, or a firing from the president. And as you can see at the top of that letter, it says, "At your request, I am submitting my resignation." It doesn't get more, I guess, obvious than that that this was a forced resignation on the part of the attorney general, Jeff Sessions.
It was also something that was widely expected to happen after this midterm election that we had last night, Wolf. We were hearing from our sources inside and outside the White House for months that the president has been stewing over Jeff Sessions and how he recused himself on the Russia investigation last year. That has been a source of frustration for this president for some time now.
But now Matt Whitaker will be the acting attorney general until a permanent attorney general can be chosen, Wolf.
And one thing we should point out about Matt Whitaker. He was the chief of staff to Jeff Sessions. He also on occasion made some comments. Essentially sounded like he was parroting talking points over here at the White House, arguing that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, shouldn't look into the president's finances.
And at one point, saying that Donald Trump Jr. was just fine in terms of taking that meeting with that Russian attorney at Trump Tower in June of 2016. At one point, Matt Whitaker telling my colleague, Pamela Brown, that anybody would have taken that meeting. That is almost word for word from what we've heard from the president when he's talked about his own son having that meeting with that Russian attorney at Trump Tower in 2016.
One other thing we should point out, Wolf. The letter of resignation from Jeff Sessions. Again, a forced letter of resignation from Jeff Sessions. Put that back up on screen, if we can. It does not have a date on it. And there have been questions raised throughout the day, well, is the fact that there was no date on it, does that mean that Jeff Sessions had this letter sort of ready to go and was going to fire it off whenever President Trump wanted it?
I'm told by a senior administration official just in the last few minutes that, no, that is not the case. That essentially, they just did not put a letter -- a date on that letter earlier this morning when it was sent over to the White House.
The chief of staff, John Kelly, was apparently pressing the attorney general on behalf of the president, as well, that this resignation was wanted over here at the White House.
And so obviously, the president now is getting what he wants. He's getting rid of Jeff Sessions, who had recused himself on the Russia investigation. Keep in mind, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, he was overseeing the Russia investigation, because Jeff Sessions had recused himself. Now that is no longer needed, Matt Whitaker is free to oversee this investigation in terms of how the Justice Department and the White House, how they both view it at this point.
And so that is a favorable development, obviously, for the president, to have somebody like Matt Whitaker, who has, as I said, has been parroting what the White House has said about this investigation with the president has said about this investigation, is now in charge of the investigation and overseeing the investigation -- Wolf.
BLITZER: What are you learning about how it was actually done, how the president fired Sessions? And in Sessions letter begins with these words, "At your request, I am submitting my resignation," meaning he was fired. ACOSTA: Exactly. Well, from what we understand, this pressure has
been going on for some time now. Obviously, the president has been talking about this. He's confided to aides. He's confided to outside advisers and friends for months, almost a year now, more than a year now, probably, that he has wanted to see his attorney general go.
[17:05:09] From what we understand, this has been building for some time. And there are -- there are some up on Capitol Hill who were expecting this to happen. I talked to a source -- GOP source, leadership source earlier today, Wolf, who said that -- that it was widely expected among the Republican leadership up on Capitol Hill that the president would do this.
And so with the president doing this today, forcing Jeff Sessions to resign, while it did change the narrative, did change the news cycle from a president who was claiming that everything had gone just fine last night, now we're all talking about Jeff Sessions being out the door instead of what happened last night in the midterms across the country, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Jim Acosta at the White House for us, thanks very much.
Let's get some insight from our political and legal experts. And Evan Perez, you covered this for us. What does the firing of Jeff Sessions mean as far as the Russia probe is concerned?
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: I think there are some real questions, Wolf, as to what happens to the investigation.
Obviously, Matt Whitaker has made clear his points of view, that Mueller has gone beyond his charge, gone outside the lines of what he was supposed to be doing. We know he's written these comments. He's made these comments in an op-ed here at CNN and also in comments here on the air at CNN. And so it does raise the question of whether or not Matt Whitaker should be the person who's in charge of this investigation.
This is something, obviously, that the Justice Department's ethics officials are going to have to review and see whether or not the appearance of conflict is enough for Matt Whitaker to recuse himself. Obviously, this is something that it is clear, that the president deliberately chose somebody who he already knows has some strong opinions about the Mueller investigation.
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Exactly. He's made his feelings pretty clear. And it's hard to think that the president and Matt Whitaker had never discussed this before. Because Matt Whitaker has seen by a lot of people inside the West Wing as this liaison between the Justice Department and the White House. He was the one who, when President Trump sometimes went for weeks or
days without speaking to the attorney general, one-on-one -- we know they rarely ever met one-on-one -- Matt Whitaker was the one who really kind of guided the conversations between the White House and the Justice Department.
So it's not by accident that he picked Matt Whitaker to take over this position.
And Matt Whitaker is described by people who know him as this bull in a china shop, this gregarious personality. He's someone who is going to make his feelings about something that, if he doesn't think the Russia investigation is credible and noteworthy, he's going to let the president know that. And I'm sure that played into a lot of the reason the president picked him to take over this job. Instead of picking the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, as would be the norm here.
And my colleague, Laura Jarrett, and I are being told, in addition to this, a little more detail about what happened with the resignation of Jeff Sessions today.
John Kelly called Jeff Sessions before that press conference that the president had today, asked him for his resignation, and we're told by sources that Jeff Sessions asked if he could stay until the end of the week. John Kelly was very firm to him, according to Laura Jarrett, and I are told, that he could not stay until the end of the week. That it had to be today.
Which raises the question: if he did that before the press conference, why during that press conference did President Trump duck that question about how long Jeff Sessions was going to be here?
BLITZER: Yes. And it's a real rebuke for the deputy attorney general. If the attorney general resigns or is fired, the deputy attorney general would move up and become the acting attorney general, pending confirmation of whoever the president might nominate to become the permanent attorney general, assuming that person would be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
The question now is, will Rod Rosenstein quit himself? Will he resign, because he, in effect, was publicly slapped by the president of the United States.
LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Slapped and then backhanded, as well, along with Jeff Sessions, who is told by your account, "You have to leave today. Don't even wait until Friday." And by the way, it's Wednesday, for everyone to remember that.
The idea here is that power, even temporary power, can be extraordinarily impactful. This person, Matthew Whitaker, has already been told by the president of the United States through the tweet that he is a temporary holder of this position. A more permanent person will be named at a later date. We know that through the Vacancies Reform Act, through the recess appointment, it was going to be temporary. He's not a Senate confirmed person at this point. But what can he do in the interim is going to be extremely important.
Will he undermine the investigation, the subpoena power? Will he, if he's already received a copy of the report, will he not allow it to go to the public? Will he try to cut the budget, as he said, in one CNN account? Will he try to do a number of things to really hamstring the investigation? And that's all important.
But it also may be reversible. Remember, a lot of this is being preserved by the FBI. All the documentation, the support, the logic, the follow-through of Robert Mueller is in the hands, eventually, of a Democratic-led House, who can actually look at the information come January, regardless.
So although it's very impactful now and, certainly, one that was meant to denigrate not only Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein and to subordinate them immediately, it can be reversed. The question is, what will he do in the interim?
BLITZER: Josh Campbell, how do you see it?
[17:10:02] JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Yes, so I think two things.
First of all, if you think about all the issues that the Justice Department deals with, all the cases under their purview, all the crimes, there is singularly one investigation that the president cares about. And that is the investigation into his campaign.
When you look at these past statements that Whitaker has made on record, criticizing, you know, Mueller and talking about this red line, that's obviously something that would resonate with the president, who simply wants this investigation to go away.
Now, up to this point, the conventional wisdom has been that Rosenstein was the barrier. He was the one who protected Mueller so long as he was there. With the responsibility now shifting over to Whitaker as far as the purview of the investigation, we no longer have that barrier. So, again, it seems to be leading in that same direction.
The second thing I'll say to Laura's point there, as well, as far as the preservation of documents, one thing that we have to keep in mind, and this shows the importance of elections and this continued collision of politics and law enforcement, is that the -- the importance of that Democrat win last night in the House of Representatives. Because every single FBI agent, analyst, prosecutor, working on Bob Mueller's team right now is a potential witness.
And if they try to make this investigation go away, "they" being the president and Mr. Whitaker, all of those people could be subpoenaed to then come back and explain, "OK, they've shut this investigation down. You tell us what you actually found."
So I think that they're on dangerous ground if they think that getting rid of Mueller is going to make this whole thing go away.
BLITZER: What do you know, Evan, about the relationship between Jeff Sessions and Matt Whitaker?
PEREZ: Well, I think it's been tense, Wolf. Certainly recently, because it's emerged that Matt Whitaker has gone around talking about his relationship, his conversations with the president.
If you remember just a couple weeks ago, there was a drama with Rod Rosenstein, whether or not he was going to be fired. And during that morning, we know that the president had spoken to Matt Whitaker.
So Matt Whitaker has made it very clear inside the department that he has some kind of a special relationship, or he believes he has a special relationship with the White House, which makes people at the Justice Department very nervous. And so there's been a lot of tension between Whitaker and the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and with the deputy attorney general.
I think that's the thing to watch today, and in the coming days, how that relationship really kind of manifests itself.
BLITZER: But he was the attorney general's chief of staff.
BLITZER: You're chief of staff, you have to have a good relationship with your chief of staff.
PEREZ: Exactly. I mean, normally, a chief of staff is -- you know, has the back of his -- of his boss. In this case, it appeared to be some kind of Shakespearean drama going on behind the scenes, where the knives were out, and no one knew who was going to get stabbed next. And so that --
BLITZER: They sort of forced him on Jeff Sessions, right?
PEREZ: Yes, they did. This was something -- he didn't really have a relationship beforehand. And so this is one of those things where there was a lot of suspicion about Whitaker and whether or not he was there as some kind of spy for the White House.
BLITZER: Whitaker has total disdain for the Mueller probe, Laura. I want you to hear what he said. Listen to this tape.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEW WHITAKER, ACTING U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I think what, ultimately, the president is going to start doing is putting pressure on Rod Rosenstein, who is in charge of this investigation, his acting attorney general, and really try to get Rod to -- to maybe even cut the budget of Bob Mueller and do something a little more stagecrafty than the blunt instrument of firing the attorney general and trying to replace him.
I could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess appointment, and that attorney general doesn't fire Bob Mueller, but he just reduces the budget so low that his investigation grinds to -- almost a halt. (END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: And that was in July of last year with Don Lemon. You were on that panel with him. Basically said, you know what? You can't just get rid of the Mueller probe, the Russia probe, but you could starve it to death.
COATES: It's hard to now delineate whether he was opining or actually relaying the president of the United States' own concerns at this point in time.
Yes, he could actually do these things to try to hamstring the investigation. He could try to limit the budget. He could say, as he has in the past, in addition to that actual clip, about this being a lynch mob and not cooperating with Mueller's team. And also about not trying -- this being something that's beyond the pale and passing a red line, but looking into finances.
Now the interesting thing about what he said then until now is the same. At this point in time, he's no more well-briefed or well-versed in the Mueller probe than perhaps anyone at this table. And the reason for that is because as chief of staff of Jeff Sessions, who has been recused, he also should not have been privy to the information. So he'll have to be essentially briefed in at this point in time. And he may have some revelations about his own words. They may come back to haunt him. There actually may be some credence.
And by all accounts, including Rod Rosenstein, just three weeks ago, that the American people should have confidence in what the investigation holds and is forthcoming, and it's no witch hunt.
COLLINS: And that raises the biggest question in America now, which is did President Trump ask Matt Whitaker whether or not he would recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation before he tapped him to become the acting attorney general? That's going to be a big question that we're likely going to find out soon.
But also, White House officials are questioning the logic of the timing here. I know that a lot of critics and pundits do not believe yesterday was a good day for the White House with the midterms, but in the White House, they thought it was kind of a good day, because they were bracing themselves for it to be really ugly for them; and it kind of walked away with what they were expecting. A loss in the House and maybe picking up a few seats in the Senate.
[17:15:16] So right now the conversation for the last two weeks had been about the midterms, not about the Mueller probe. Less than 24 hours before even the polls closed, it is right back on being about Robert Mueller, the White House and the president's focus on this, which we should have seen coming since he was tweeting about it this morning.
BLITZER: And I suspect, Josh, the president would not have named Whitaker the acting attorney general if Whitaker had said, "Yes, I'm going to have to recuse myself from overseeing the Russia probe." CAMPBELL: That's right. We know his disdain that he's expressed to
Jeff Sessions, for example, whenever he recused. Actually, did the admirable thing and said, "Look, I'm unconflicted here."
I think one thing that's important to point out here, Wolf, is that I don't want us to walk away today thinking that Jeff Sessions is somehow a victim. Now, obviously, he's taken a lot of barbs from the president. He's been this punching bag that we've seen.
But one thing that's interesting is that he knows what the views of his chief of staff would have been, since he was on record. He worked with him. He knew that. What Jeff Sessions could have done, if he assumed or if he determined in his own estimation that he was being shown the door and this other person was being brought in for the purpose of influencing the investigation, that's not cause to resign. That's cause to wait and get fired and to go out very loudly.
We saw from that letter he was very adoring of the president. Again, I don't want folks to think that he's the victim. Because if he saw malfeasance here or he saw the president trying to clear out obstacles in order to go after Bob Mueller, he should have spoken up. And he didn't do that.
BLITZER: But given all the public statements that Whitaker has made, Evan, including articles that he posted on CNN.com, interviews with Don Lemon, other interviews, really going after Mueller and the probe -- in one of the articles on CNN, CNN.com, he actually wrote this sentence, and I'll read it to our viewers. "It is time for Rosenstein, who is the acting attorney general for the purposes of this Russia investigation, to order Mueller to limit the scope of his investigation to the four corners of the order appointing him special counsel."
The ethics office over at the Department of Justice, they have pretty strict rules. Can they force him, given all the public statements going after the Mueller probe, can they force him to say, "You know what? You've got a problem. You can't oversee this. You have to recuse yourself"?
PEREZ: Well, I think, first of all, I think they have to look whether or not it's an actual conflict or it's just an appearance of conflict. At this point, Wolf, based on the writings, based on his appearances on television, CNN, it appears to be more of an appearance of conflict.
And so if the ethics office comes back and says, "We think you should recuse because of the appearance of conflict," then he can choose to ignore it. He can say, "I'm not going to -- I think you're wrong. And I'm just going to stay in charge of this."
And so then, of course, it becomes an issue for people outside. And whether or not they want to pressure him to do it otherwise.
But really, it's going to be up to him whether or not he wants to listen to the ethics office. In the case of Jeff Sessions, he was part of the campaign. There was
an obvious conflict there. And Sessions has said it millions of times. He said, "I had no choice." The president didn't really seem to buy that. But Sessions really had no choice.
BLITZER: Why didn't the president at least have the courtesy of calling up Sessions and saying, "You know what? It's time to move on. Thank you for your support. I know you were the first Republican senator to endorse me during the campaign. We went to Alabama together. We did a lot of rallies. You were very supportive. We disagreed on the recusal issue. But thank you for your service to the country. Thank you for what you've done as attorney general of the United States"?
Instead he sends his White House chief of staff, John Kelly, over there and says you have to resign and do it today. He said, "Can I spend a few extra days, at least saying goodbye to staffers over here at the department?"
"No, you must resign today."
COLLINS: And the staffers found out from our coverage that he had been fired or asked to resign.
That adds to the saga of President Trump doesn't like to fire people. He doesn't like one-on-one conflict. That is something we have known and we've seen with everyone else he's fired.
But not only did Jeff Sessions go out on a limb and was the first senator to endorse President Trump, something that at that time right now it seems really easy to say, "Oh, well, he was the first one to endorse me." President Trump brushes off that endorsement.
At that time, Donald Trump was pretty toxic in the Republican Party. And not a lot of people were going out on a limb for him. Jeff Sessions not only did that, he gave up a very safe Senate seat in Alabama.
And now the president has not only done this and dragged him through the mud and fired him, essentially, he has also tainted his name. A lot of people in Alabama look back and criticize Jeff Sessions, people who used to be loyal to Jeff Sessions. Now criticize him, because they believe he made the wrong decision to recuse himself.
But going back to that point about, if Matt Whitaker is advised to recuse himself from this, Jeff Sessions had been advised to recuse himself. He didn't physically have to. But he -- it would have looked really bad if he had not recused himself.
PEREZ: He was part of the campaign. Right.
COLLINS: And that was his argument. President Trump didn't see it that way.
So even if Matt Whitaker is strongly advised, "You need to recuse yourself because of the comments you've made about the Mueller investigation," it raises the question of if he feels he has the backing of President Trump and doesn't have to, will he do that?
[17:20:11] COATES: And his temporary status really is a disincentive for even the ethical officers of DOJ to say that he would be required to -- if it was not the appearance.
Jeff Sessions was slated to be the attorney general for, presumably, a four-year term if not for consecutive terms, if the president got re- elected. You're talking about somebody in Matt Whitaker who is not confirmed by the Senate. Therefore, he could not serve more than 210 days, if at all, under the Vacancies Reform Act. Somebody who if he was appointed under the recess appointment, could only serve until January. It may be a cost-benefit analysis, unlike what happened with Jeff Sessions, to say, you can choose to stay on, because your power is going to be temporary.
BLITZER: It's a serious business. Did the White House plan this forced resignation today? Was this timing in the works for a while? Or did the president wake up this morning, see something on television and say, "You know what? I want this guy gone today"?
COLLINS: The timing specifically of today was not in the works for a while. Everyone knew Jeff Sessions' time was coming to an end.
PEREZ: He was on borrowed time. And look --
COLLINS: That was the safest bet.
PEREZ: Jeff Sessions in the last week or two, some of his behavior, he's been visiting field offices, the FBI. He went to the FBI just this week. And some of the outward behavior of the -- of Jeff Sessions was of somebody who was saying goodbye to the department. So I think internally, he knew that this was very much a high -- high possibility.
BLITZER: Now that they've lost the House of Representatives, the Republicans, are other things lined up, what the president might be planning on doing?
COLLINS: About firing more people? Yes. That was essentially a big staff shakeup has been in the works for weeks now. And essentially what everyone's deadline has been is "I'm going to hang on until the midterms. And then I'll leave after that."
And that advice actually worked for President Trump. He was convinced, did not fire Jeff Sessions before this.
But it's also interesting to see the time line of how this has evolved. Because when President Trump first started attacking Jeff Sessions, he didn't even know how to respond. He was shocked to his advisers. He said he was just going to keep his head down and do his work.
And then as those criticisms and those attacks, very public attacks, continued to build, Jeff Sessions actually dug his heels in and said he was going to make Trump fire him, because this is his dream job. He was going to stay there. And if President Trump wanted him gone, he was going to have to fire him.
But we reported in recent weeks that he was essentially resigned to the fact that he was going to be fired. He was mentally preparing for it. That is that behavior that he's been doing the past two weeks also contributes to that. So he was ready for this to come.
BLITZER: Very quickly, Josh. Go ahead.
CAMPBELL: Yes. I was just going to add that, as we talk about personnel changes, I don't think we could lose -- we should lose sight of the fact that the attorney general is different. This isn't the secretary of commerce or the secretary of agriculture. This is someone who can personally impact the life and possibly the future of the president and those in his orbit. He is singularly focused on this investigation.
So, yes, shakeups, I think, are unusual after a midterm. But we can't lose sight of the fact that the person that sits in that seat at main justice as the attorney general, the top cop, has significant influence on the president.
BLITZER: All right, guys. Everybody stand by. I want to bring in Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas. He's a member of the Intelligence and Foreign Affairs Committee. He's a congressman.
Thanks so much for joining us. Do you believe that this is the first step toward ending the Mueller Russia investigation?
REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO (D), TEXAS: Yes. I very well believe that it could be.
You know, the president had signaled for a long time that he didn't want Jeff Sessions to be the attorney general any longer. And he finally, after the midterm elections, actually took the step of firing him.
And so we need to find out more about the reason that he was fired. But we also need to make sure that the Mueller investigation is protected, that it's adequately funded, unlike the position that Matthew Whitaker seemed to take; that Bob Mueller can continue to do his work.
BLITZER: Should the acting attorney general, this guy, Matthew Whitaker, who has now been named by the president, acting attorney general, do you believe he should recuse himself from the Mueller probe, given all the public statements he's made and going against that entire Russia investigation?
CASTRO: Yes. He absolutely should recuse himself. And I hope that the ethics office will make that clear to him. And that he acts with integrity. He's made some very damaging statements about the investigation, about its usefulness, about funding it, about Bob Mueller himself.
So, yes, the right thing to do would be for him to recuse himself and allow the investigation to continue. BLITZER: Your party takes control of the House of Representatives in
two months in January. If the president takes steps to end the Mueller probe, should that lead to impeachment proceedings?
CASTRO: Well, you know, I have said for quite a while that I believe I've seen evidence of obstruction of justice. And if it becomes clear that this is another move to shut down the Mueller investigation, then that is something that we'll have to seriously consider.
I think many folks in Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, have been waiting for Bob Mueller to produce his report and perhaps the actionable items in that. But if the president is not even going to let Bob Mueller get to that point, then, yes, that becomes a problem. That combined with the fact with how he fired Comey, what he's done on McCabe, Rod Rosenstein and others, there is a pretty strong case for obstruction of justice here.
[17:25:21] BLITZER: The Senate majority [SIC] leader, Chuck Schumer, said this could lead to a constitutional crisis. How do you see it?
CASTRO: I mean, you know, Wolf, nobody -- nobody gets elected to Congress and goes to Congress, I think, in order to be involved in a mess like this, right? Nobody wants that. So I hope the answer is that it doesn't happen.
But at the same time, the legislative branch does have to hold the president accountable. And we can't just allow somebody -- we can't just allow the president to put a yes-man in there who's going to shut down the Mueller investigation on his behalf.
BLITZER: Is there anything Congress could do at this point, Congressman, to protect Mueller and his investigation?
CASTRO: Well, first of all, adequate funding for the work that Bob Mueller is doing. There should also be legislation. There was a bipartisan bill that was moving to the Senate, I believe, that the White House basically squelched.
But there should be legislation at this point, the parties coming together -- the Senate that's controlled by Republicans, the Democratic House -- to protect Bob Mueller and make sure that this investigation can continue through.
BLITZER: Do you think you'll get some Republican support for that effort?
CASTRO: You know, the evidence from the past doesn't suggest that that's a great prospect.
But I think it's important to realize that what happened yesterday is that the American people voted for divided government. They voted for a Republican-controlled Senate and a Democratic-controlled House. And it means that they want both parties to work together for the best of the country. Not the best of the president or even the best of the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. But for the best of the country. BLITZER: Even if Whitaker doesn't end the Mueller probe -- and he's
going to be overseeing it, presumably now -- he could severely limit the scope or bury any report that Mueller might release.
Are you prepared to respond to that possibility? In January the Democrats will be the majority in the House of Representatives, and they will have, as we've been pointing out, subpoena power.
CASTRO: Yes. Absolutely. We need to make sure that that doesn't happen.
Look, you know, when you're in the majority, I think part of -- and when you're in divided government, part of the trick is that you have to make sure that the politics of things doesn't overtake the substance of things. We shouldn't be fighting with the White House just to fight with the White House or just to fight with the president.
But at the same time, the American people deserve answers on these very important and consequential questions about who interfered with our democracy in 2016 and whether the president or his people had any role in that.
So, yes. If he oversteps his bounds, we have to make sure that we push back.
BLITZER: The bombshell announcement today that Sessions has been effectively fired, just the day after the Democrats won back the majority in the House of Representatives, what do you make of the timing of all of this?
CASTRO: I think that he's been waiting to do it for a long time. And I think, you know, they were probably concerned that it would have an effect on Republicans' viability in different House and Senate races. So they waited until the next day.
But there's no question, the president has wanted Jeff Sessions gone for a long time. And I've told you before that, honestly, if you're Jeff Sessions, I don't understand, after being beaten up by this president so much, somebody that, as you all just mentioned, he supported from the beginning. I mean, he was the first guy to go out there and support Donald Trump. He went out on a limb at that time. I don't know why he would have stayed around this long.
BLITZER: You think the Democrats, now that they're going to be in the majority in the House of Representatives, and they'll have oversight, they'll have subpoena capabilities, that -- are you afraid you might -- not you personally, but the Democrats, might overstep?
CASTRO: You've got to be careful about that. Like I said, I think our posture needs to be that, if we're going to have clashes with the White House, and I'm sure that we will, that those clashes will not be about personality. That they're going to be about issues and substance.
And the American people, I believe, will understand that. They understand, if you have a disagreement about health care or education or infrastructure, something else,
I think when people turn off on politics, and when they tend to dislike both political parties, it's they perceive that people are fighting just to fight. So yes, we've got to be careful about that.
BLITZER: Congressman Castro, thanks so much for joining us.
CASTRO: Thank you.
BLITZER: All right. Let's bring in our legal analyst, Preet Bharara. He's a former U.S. top attorney, who was actually fired by the Trump administration.
Preet, thanks so much for joining us. I'm anxious to get your thoughts on all the drama that's unfolding at the Department of Justice right now.
How precarious is this moment that we're in right now? Not just for the Robert Mueller Russia investigation, but for American institutions of justice?
PREET BHARARA, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think very precarious. I think you can't sound too many alarm bells about what's been going on. I think we've been seeing this in slow motion for a period of time. You have a president that has made very clear he doesn't want the Russian investigation to proceed, even though his hand-picked FBI director, his hand-picked FBI director, his hand-picked deputy attorney general have all said it's not a witch hunt, that there are real things to be looking at here. Real people have been indicted, real people have been convicted. Real people have decided to plead guilty and are cooperating with the government.
[17:30:20] And the moment of precariousness is, I think, especially significant now, because we're in a lame duck phase. And so, to the extent that there could be a check on the president, because the House of Representatives changed to the other party, that doesn't take effect until next January.
So you have an acting attorney general who has already indicated that he has some problems, without knowing all of the facts, in prejudging what the Mueller investigation is about, what it should be about, and how much it should be funded. You have an opportunity to do something very damaging to that investigation, as I mentioned.
But then to your larger point, the crisis a little bit is what does Congress do when you're in a lame duck period?
And so, you know, I think that it may be the case that things are done that shouldn't be. That the investigation is constricted in some way, that it doesn't become public immediately. And it's some months before -- at least one house of Congress can exercise its oversight responsibility and make sure that those things are not happening.
I think also with respect to the possibility of protecting the special counsel, and there are some bills that have been floating around and this task force that I'm on has also proposed such a thing. You know, given that you're dealing with a current Congress, which is, you know, fairly supine and fairly in the pocket of President Trump, both the House and the Senate, I don't see the ability to make that progress over the next three months.
So it's a precarious time generally speaking, and at this moment, because you were in a transitional phase.
BLITZER: Is there any historical precedent for what's going on right now from your vantage point?
BHARARA: The obvious precedent that people talk about is Watergate. This is different and, in many ways, you know, more worrisome, because the president seems to be acting out in public in some of the ways that Nixon did in private. And although there's one argument that that makes it less worrisome, I think it's more so.
I think this president acts often out of anger, not just strategy. And I think part of what happened today is a response to the election from yesterday. I don't think those two things are unconnected to each other. You know, whether it's to change the subject or to get back at people he perceives as his adversaries and his enemies, even if they're people that he picked to hold positions himself like Jeff Sessions, I think you have a very dangerous situation, for which there is no precedent in this particular way. No.
BLITZER: Some legal experts, Preet, have suggested that Robert Mueller could have sealed indictments waiting -- waiting to go, under the assumption that he was worried about his own future if he was going to go, if Rosenstein was going to go. Do you think he -- he has been preparing for that possibility?
BHARARA: I have two answers to that question. With respect to whether or not he's been preparing? I think yes. And I think one of the ways he probably prepared was to make sure they were doing the work as fast as they could.
Another thing that I think may have been related to a worry about an eventual shutdown is parceling out some aspects of things that they found, including the Cohen case, which went to my former offices, the Southern District of New York.
With respect to whether or not they have indictments under seal because they were worried about being shut down, I don't think those are directly related. I think the Mueller team, some of them I know personally, but haven't spoken to, would decide to bring a sealed indictment, because it was the right time and they had the facts and they had the law on their side.
And part of the reason it might be sealed is they didn't want to do anything publicly in the run-up to the election, so they wouldn't get criticized for doing something that might affect the election.
So I think all those things are possible. I think there could be sealed indictments. I think they could be on the verge of getting indictments against other people. And it may be the case, as some of the reporting earlier on this network has suggested that the Mueller investigation is coming to a natural close anyway over the coming weeks and months.
BLITZER: Whitaker, the now new acting attorney general, in the past has openly mused about starving the Mueller probe, starving it of funding. How would that work?
BHARARA: That's a good question. The way he talked about it in the op-ed that he wrote was through the power of the attorney general generally, who has the ability to send certain resources to certain parts of the department and not to other parts of the department, just like, you know, the United States attorney has the ability to decide if they're going to staff --
BLITZER: Hold on one second. Hold on, Preet. We're looking at live pictures now from Department of Justice.
There is the now soon to be former attorney general, he's leaving. He's leaving Department of Justice. Saying goodbye to some of his associates there.
Laura Jarrett, our Justice Department reporter, is watching all of this unfold.
Laura, this is a moment that Jeff Sessions probably anticipated, but not necessarily today.
LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (via phone): It's a pretty incredible scene out here in the Justice Department courtyard, Wolf. I would say, really, dozens of officials, both career --
[17:35:08] BLITZER: By the way, Laura, I'm going to interrupt for a second. That was Whitaker saying goodbye. Whitaker, his chief of staff, now going to be the acting attorney general.
You see the round of applause that Jeff Sessions is getting from officials over there at the Department of Justice. Last time he's there getting into his vehicle, saying goodbye. And then moving on. A brief little farewell for the attorney general of the United States.
All right. Laura, go ahead. Tell us what else you know.
JARRETT: He is joined here, we can also see the solicitor general, Noel Francisco, as well as his former chief of staff, Joey Hunt; of course, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general.
And it's really quite a scene here, Wolf. Officials -- I would say there are at least 100 people here.
And when attorney generals depart, it is difficult for the officials to get what's called a clap out. Usually it would happen inside, outside the office. But, of course, this is an extraordinary circumstance, and the situation is anything but typical in this instance.
But clearly, everyone wanting to see him off in style, wanting to say their good-byes and show really a level of somebody. That is unusual here, you know, in a place that is filled with lawyers and not typically a scene where you see clapping like this.
BLITZER: Yes. All right. Let me get back to Preet. Laura, stand by. Preet, what do you think of that little farewell for the attorney general?
BHARARA: You know, a little bit of deja vu all over again. I was fired at a certain point a couple of years ago and had the experience of walking out of my building, 1 St. Andrews Plaza in front of all the people who I had served with and who I respect so much and whose mission is incredibly important to the country.
And I've been critical of Jeff Sessions, as a lot of people have been with respect to some of his policies and how he's undone some, I think, civil rights initiatives in the department. But I never have doubted that Jeff Sessions loves the department, loves the lawyers who work there, and was very honored to be in that position and humbled by being in that position.
So, you know, after several weeks of -- and months, in fact, of being humiliated by the president who appointed him, being taunted by the president who appointed him, I think it's fitting that he got a graceful exit such as it was.
BLITZER: Yes. It was graceful. Evan, you've got some more information, too.
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That was a staged event, obviously. Obviously, there was an attempt by people around the attorney general, the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein; Noel Francisco, the solicitor general, other people, trying to give the attorney general a graceful farewell. But it was a staged event to sort of show, like, some kind of show of force to sort of show solidarity with him.
But let me tell you. I mean, there was a lot of weirdness to those pictures. This is -- and by the way, this is the way you traditionally say goodbye to attorneys general. I was there when Eric Holder walked out of the building. There were tears. People were clapping, just exactly like this.
Obviously, the circumstances today are so, so different. Because, you know, Eric Holder wasn't fired, as this attorney general was today.
BLITZER: Preet, I'm anxious to get your thoughts on the treatment of Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general. How much of a slap in the face is it for the deputy attorney general, the No. 2 person at the Department of Justice, to be bypassed by the president and the president naming -- naming Sessions's chief of staff to now become the acting attorney general instead of Rosenstein?
BHARARA: I don't know if it's any more of a slap in the face than, you know, the embarrassing things that the president has been saying about him from time to time.
We had that moment a few weeks ago when it appeared that he had been summoned to the White House and he was going to be fired, and that didn't happen. And there were these periodic statements that they were going to get together and discuss Rod Rosenstein's fate -- Rod Rosenstein's fate. You know, keeping him dangling to make sure that he knew his place.
So I guess it's a bit of an insult. But I don't think that Rod Rosenstein didn't expect this kind of thing to happen or that this was a possibility. I do think, more importantly, more important than Rod Rosenstein's pride, is whether or not we're now seeing the undoing of the special counsel's work.
BLITZER: Well, now that he's not going to have anything to do with the special counsel's Russia probe, Rosenstein, Whitaker is now going to oversee it, presumably, unless for some reason he decides to recuse himself, which is probably doubtful, I suspect, at this point. Wouldn't Rosenstein just take the hint and resign?
BHARARA: You know, I'm only laughing because I'm tired. Everyone has been up all night. But also, there's not a lot of people taking the hint these days.
Jeff Sessions, that was a nice walkout. But you would have thought he would have taken the hint months ago and Rod Rosenstein would have taken the hint months ago and other people that work in the White House might have taken the hint months ago. So maybe Rod Rosenstein will say maybe he will go.
It would still be my hope that, even though there's a new acting attorney general who will be the most senior person overseeing the Mueller investigation, that that does not necessarily mean that Rod Rosenstein gets cast to the side.
He's still a person who has deep knowledge of what's going on there. He's the one who appointed Bob Mueller in the first place. And I'm
not aware of any regulation that requires Rod Rosenstein not to be involved. And I think it would be silly, and it would also be a bad look optically if the new acting attorney general decided to freeze out Rod Rosenstein because he can still offer advice and guidance and counsel. And he should.
[17:40:20] BLITZER: He's a former U.S. Attorney in Baltimore, Rod Rosenstein.
You know, Kaitlan, I'm anxious -- what did you think of that little goodbye that the attorney general -- now the former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had? It was all staged, as Evan correctly points out. They wanted to show that.
But some are already suggesting maybe, you know, it was a little bit of a slap at the president for firing him.
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, of course. And we've seen Jeff Sessions take those actions over the past year when President Trump has criticized him.
He went to dinner that one time really publicly with Rod Rosenstein at a very popular Washington restaurant, and a photo of them dining with the solicitor general quickly surfaced; and that was actually a photo that incensed President Trump after it surfaced online.
So that's what likely this was. Look at me, I'm walking out. And you can see the faces on those Justice Department employees as Jeff Sessions is leaving. They're not pleased. They're clapping; they're thanking him. But no one looks pleased to be there, to be watching Jeff Sessions marched out like this.
And a lot of people in the White House also feel similar to that. They do not think Jeff Sessions deserves the treatment that he's gotten from President Trump. They think it's unfair.
But a lot of people don't stick up for Jeff Sessions, because they see it as just this futile attempt to do anything like that. And we've seen Jeff Sessions lose his defenders inside the West Wing. He used to have Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon, who all stood up for him when President Trump first started criticizing him, telling the president to lay off of it. And also, he would have a weekly lunch with the White House counsel, Don McGahn, who is now gone, as well.
So there aren't a lot of people in the West Wing, except for Steven Miller, who did work for Jeff Sessions and is largely a big reason why he works for Donald Trump now, is still in the West Wing, still obviously very close to President Trump. So you wonder what those people are saying.
BLITZER: He worked for him when he was a senator, Jeff Sessions, and Steven Miller was a speech writer at the time. He was working for him when he was a Republican senator from Alabama.
And you know, Laura, it's interesting, because not only are people -- a lot of people in the White House sad, because they liked Sessions, but a lot of Republican senators worked closely with Jeff Sessions. He was a Republican senator from Alabama for a long time. They all had a very good relationship.
And many of them are privately saying, why did the president of the United States treat this guy as badly as he did? Especially since Sessions was the first Republican senator to endorse him when he was a campaign -- when he was a candidate for the Republican nomination.
LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It's virtually unheard of to have a former U.S. senator and a -- up until today, a U.S. attorney general being a whipping boy of the president of the United States. That's what he's been treated as.
And I was a former career prosecutor for DOJ. As you enter the building and as you leave, as attorney general, you have people lining the hallways in support. I've been under both Bush and Obama.
And to see somebody like Jeff Sessions, the attorney general of the United States, have an unceremonious departure is just confounding to most people.
I don't agree with his policies and the rollback of many of the civil rights agenda and the LGBTQ issues and consent decrees. However, you should give respect to the attorney general. And what you saw there was the people who were actually in the line of
succession, including Rod Rosenstein and the solicitor general there, and, of course, his now successor who is not in the line, standing there. And I think that you had Jeff Sessions trying to be as gracious as he could to shake his hand. I suspect he was not pleased.
BLITZER: And he never really had a good relationship with him to begin with. Preet, let me thank you very much. Preet Bharara, always important for you be here. You have a final thought before I let you go?
BHARARA: I'm worried about who the next attorney general might be. Remember, this person is only in an acting capacity. And I think it's a precarious time, as you use that word, I think, appropriately. It's a fraught time. And it's a contentious time. And that person is very, very important.
There's a lot of time left in the Trump administration not just with respect to the Mueller probe, but all sorts of issues of law and order and fairness and justice going on in the country. And so I hope he chooses wisely and I hope he chooses someone who can get consensus support.
BLITZER: Yes, it's a tenuous moment, indeed.
All right. Guys, thanks very much. There's a lot going on. Let's take a quick break. We'll resume our special coverage right after this.
[17:45:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. We're following the breaking news, including President Trump abruptly firing the Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions, earlier today. Let's bring in our political experts and get some analysis of what's going on right now.
And, Dana, we watched this all very closely. A lot of people were bracing for, at some point, Sessions to leave. But it was a surprise it happened so quickly, only hours after the midterm election.
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That was the only thing that was surprising about it, is when it happened, the fact that the President stood up in the East Room of the White House with, you know, the entire White House press corps for an hour and a half and didn't mention it.
BLITZER: And he was asked about it, too.
BASH: He was asked about it. Clearly, it was in the works. And the fact that the people who -- some people who are in the White House, people who are in his legal team and, maybe more importantly, the people in the Senate who have to carry the ball for the next person didn't know.
And, you know, for any other cabinet official, that would be, like, OK, whatever. This is the Trump world. But the Attorney General -- this Attorney General, with this Mueller investigation going on, is hardly just any other cabinet official. It has so many implications.
[17:50:06] And, you know, so far, aside from this -- a new statement we've seen from Senator-elect Mitt Romney -- that's still kind of a weird thing to say --
CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS EDITOR-AT-LARGE: Yes.
BASH: That's the first time I said that.
CILLIZZA: He's been everywhere, man.
BASH: -- it's, you know, kind of been crickets about the implications for the Mueller probe.
CILLIZZA: The thing that I wonder about is with the timing. We clearly knew that Donald Trump -- the second that Jeff Sessions recused himself last year, Donald Trump was frustrated and probably wanted him gone a year ago and basically said, I'll get rid of him after the midterms.
The one thing I wonder about is, does Donald Trump look and see a plus three in the Senate and think, well, that gives us -- it does give more cushion. Now --
BASH: He is right. He is, it does. It's a lot of cushion.
CILLIZZA: It can. You now could lose, theoretically, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins and still get an Attorney General confirmed because Dana is right. That -- you pick a cabinet member, other than state, that's going to be the biggest fight --
S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I mean, maybe --
CILLIZZA: -- where Democrats will try to stand firm on whoever he picks.
CUPP: Maybe he can get someone confirmed. The question is, will any Republicans in leadership come out and say, this is not OK? I think Jake Tapper made the point earlier that this precedent will survive this president.
Can Republicans see beyond their own noses that this could come back to haunt them at some point, that the President of the United States, the day after a midterm election, fires his own A.G. who just happens to be in charge of an investigation implicating him and his family and his closest friends and allies?
That should not be OK. And I'd love to hear some Republicans --
MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.
CUPP: -- just one say so. CILLIZZA: And puts in charge, by the way, a guy who --
CILLIZZA: -- passes over Rod Rosenstein --
CILLIZZA: -- and puts in charge a guy who we know --
CILLIZZA: -- is much more Trumpian on the probe.
PRESTON: Right. One thing that we should note, the President has every right to pick his cabinet.
PRESTON: The Senate has every right to confirm the cabinet. I mean, you know, that's just basically how it works.
However, the tone of his news conference today and then an hour later finding out that Jeff Sessions was getting fired, you're going to put two and two together. He came out very combative, very tired.
PRESTON: He didn't look like -- look, I haven't slept. I slept 45 minutes last night.
CILLIZZA: I think you still look better.
PRESTON: I look pretty darn good right now.
BASH: Where's the dicey (ph) question?
PRESTON: No but, seriously, he looked really tired, drawn out, and he was girding for a fight no matter what. And not only did he fight with Acosta --
PRESTON: -- he fought with just about every reporter in that room.
CUPP: Well, he's not surrounded by friendlies anymore.
PRESTON: That's scary.
BLITZER: April, you were there at that news conference today. You tried to get a question to the President. He didn't want to talk to you. APRIL RYAN, WASHINGTON D.C. BUREAU CHIEF, AMERICAN URBAN RADIO
NETWORKS: No, he didn't. But, you know, speaking of that press conference -- and you guys are right, the fact that he was asked that question and he did not answer it and he went around it, knowing what was happening an hour later.
But, yes, I -- in the middle of the President finishing an answer to a reporter and then calling on another reporter, I found a space to ask the President a question about the issue of voter suppression and he responded. And I took that as he was calling on me, so I stood up.
And he told me to sit down on multiple occasions. And then he said something about the CNN poll numbers, it's about voter suppression. And I came back with the issues of voter suppression in Florida, voter suppression in Georgia, voter suppression in North Dakota, and he told me to sit down yet again.
And then he continued to say I was hostile, I was rude, but I was just doing what a reporter does, asking questions of a president of the United States.
CILLIZZA: Look at that. I went through the transcript of that press conference. It took several hours. I just finished it.
Yes, on several occasions -- and Dana mentioned this. On several occasions, he is asked about the Mueller probe and sort of Sessions, more broad -- and he says --
RYAN: He was.
CILLIZZA: And he says, look, I could fire everyone, which it's -- he sort of could but it wouldn't go away. I mean, if you read that in the light of what an hour later -- two hours, whatever the time frame.
In light of what then happened, when John Kelly was firing him -- he was then, you know, officially fired via tweet -- it is ominous in connection with passing over Rosenstein.
The fact that he has called it a witch-hunt 150 plus times since he's been president of the United States and putting in a guy who we know, from what he has written and what he has said on this Web site and on this air, is someone who shares a view that Mueller has already gone too far as of 2017, you add all that up, it doesn't take a mathematician to see sort of where this appears to be heading.
Now, I don't know if Donald Trump is willing to go all the way and try to either curtail, remove, cut budget of Mueller.
BASH: But that's where Congress comes in.
BASH: That's what this is about.
CILLIZZA: That's right.
BLITZER: A while ago, you made the point, a lot of these Republicans are reluctant to criticize the President at all, even on a sensitive issue like this.
CUPP: Because they've been castrated. They've been castrated by a president --
CILLIZZA: Oh, I see.
CUPP: -- who has emasculated his own party. This is a guy who was gloating hours after a midterm about the losses in his own party.
[17:55:04] CILLIZZA: Yes, yes.
CUPP: Because since the day he ran, he didn't care at all about the health of the Republican Party. It was about him.
And so the Republican members that serve alongside him have decided that he is the party, and they've completely lost any of their soul, their principle, their strength -- not all of them. The ones that have said something in some cases have been, in his words, retired.
BLITZER: Everybody, standby. There's a lot more news that's coming in right now. We're following all the breaking news. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.
BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Firing Sessions. The ax falls on the Attorney General. As the President ousts one of the top targets of his anger over the Russia probe, tonight, Democrats are calling the move a blatant attempt to interfere with Robert Mueller's investigation.
Special Counsel squeeze. With Sessions out, there are urgent concerns that Mueller may be fired next. A day after the midterms, is a constitutional crisis about to unfold?
Defiant and defensive. The President tries to spin the election results as a victory, despite Republicans losing the majority of the House. We're breaking down his rambling news conference, his bluster, his threats, and his 2020 strategy.
[18:00:03] And two can play that game. As newly empowered House Democrats consider new probes of the President.