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Interview With Rep. Ted Deutch (D) Florida; Mueller Report Released; Mueller Report Does Not Exonerate Trump On Obstruction, Is Unable To Conclude No Criminal Conduct Occurred; White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders Admitted To Mueller Her Public Comments About FBI Weren't True. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired April 18, 2019 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM with all the breaking news unfolding this hour, after the release of the Mueller report.
The special counsel revealing in stunning detail why his investigation does not exonerate President Trump of criminal conduct on the issue of obstruction of justice. The redacted report describes repeated attempts by Mr. Trump to interfere with the Russia probe, efforts that largely failed, only because the president's aides refused to follow his orders.
Mueller advising that Congress still has the ability to find that the president obstructed justice. Although the special counsel did not establish collusion, the report says the Trump campaign expected to benefit from Russia's illegal interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Our correspondents, analysts, our guests are standing by as we cover this major breaking story.
First, let's bring in our Senior White House Correspondent, Pamela Brown.
Pam, a lot to unpack right now in all of this.
Let's go through the major, major details.
PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right.
This is a more than 400-page report, and this -- Mueller's report lays out in excruciating detail how White House officials essentially saved Trump from himself in the obstruction probe, and it at times painted an unflattering picture of the Trump campaign and the conspiracy probe, but stopped short of accusing the president of criminal wrongdoing and determined that, while the Trump campaign expected Russia's help, there was no coordination between the two sides.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BROWN (voice-over): The more-than-400-page Mueller report shows just how much the president feared the special counsel investigation when he first learned about it.
"The president slumped back in his chair and said: 'Oh, my God, this is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I'm (bleep).'"
And, tonight, we're learning why. The special counsel's report saying -- quote -- "A thorough FBI investigation would uncover facts about the campaign and the president personally that the president could have understood to be crimes or that would give rise to personal and political concerns."
The report contains a potentially damning list of ways the president tried to -- quote -- "influence" the investigation, but was unsuccessful. Mueller writing Trump was saved -- quote -- "largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests."
Those requests included asking then FBI Director James Comey to end the investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and ordering White House Counsel Don McGahn to get Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to fire Robert Mueller.
The report says -- quote -- "McGahn did not carry out the direction, however, deciding that he would resign, rather than trigger what he regarded as a potential Saturday Night Massacre."
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have been totally exonerated.
BROWN: The special counsel's conclusion ultimately contradicts the president's claim that he is totally exonerated on the issue of obstruction.
Mueller writing -- quote -- "The president's actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred. If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment."
Mueller telling Congress it can rule on whether the president obstructed justice, concluding -- quote -- "that Congress is the authority to prohibit a president's corrupt use of his authority."
The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee now requesting Mueller testify before Congress.
REP. JERROLD NADLER (D), NEW YORK: Responsibility now falls to Congress to hold the president accountable for his actions.
BROWN: The report did conclude the Trump campaign did not conspire with the Russians to hack the 2016 presidential election. But Mueller says Trump's team knew -- quote -- "It would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts."
Mueller found the president's written answers on collusion between the campaign and Russia -- quote -- "to be inadequate," writing -- quote -- "The president stated on more than 30 occasions that he does not recall or remember or have an independent recollection of information called for by the questions. Other answers were incomplete or imprecise."
But he ultimately decided not to subpoena the president, writing it would result in a substantial delay, and adding -- quote -- "We had sufficient evidence to understand relevant events."
The special counsel also revealed that the president and his then personal attorney Michael Cohen had also heard the rumor that Russians had compromising tapes of Trump. Cohen received a text message from a Russian businessman that said -- quote -- "Stop flow of tapes from Russia, but not sure if there's anything else, just so you know."
That businessman later said he had been told the tapes were fake. In a press conference held before the report was released, Attorney General Barr defended the president's reactions.
WILLIAM BARR, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: There is substantial evidence to show the president was frustrated and angered by his sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks.
BROWN: Echoing President Trump's refrain.
BARR: The special counsel found no collusion. There was no evidence of the Trump campaign collusion. No underlying collusion with Russia.
BROWN: So, with the report's release today, a chapter has ended, a legal chapter has ended on the coordination with Russia and obstruction, but a new chapter has begun, as the public and members of Congress scrutinize the president's conduct to determine whether it's befitting of the office of the presidency.
Democratic Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, as we heard there, Jerry Nadler, saying today he will subpoena for the full unredacted report and is once again calling for Mueller to testify, and said impeachment is one possibility. On the other hand, the president's team says Mueller's report reads like a reluctant declination letter and claim the case is closed -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Pamela, stay with us. Our analysts and our experts are with us as well.
But I want to first to bring in our Senior Justice Correspondent, Evan Perez, and our Justice Reporter, Laura Jarrett. They were among the first journalists to review the redacted Mueller report. Laura, you have been reporting that some congressional leaders will be
allowed to see a less redacted version of the Mueller report. Who specifically does that include?
LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right.
We're learning, according to a new letter from the Justice Department, Wolf, that the attorney general is going to allow, starting on the 22nd, I should say, the Gang of Eight, which is typically the top leaders on the House and Senate Intel Committee, as well as leadership in the House and Senate, to see the redacted report that has fewer redactions.
He's also going to allow Chairman Nadler, as well as Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham and one staff member, so they will all be able to see this report that has fewer redactions, and it will only be redacted for grand jury information. But everything else will be out in the open.
BLITZER: Evan, there seemed to be a really major contradiction between what the attorney general, Bill Barr, said before the report was released and what the Mueller report actually said when it comes to indicting a sitting president of the United States over obstruction charges. Explain that.
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I think the word to use here is misleading.
I think the attorney general was misleading in his letter and in his characterization of what exactly went in to the thinking of the special counsel. If you read this report, it doesn't say what the attorney general said, who he was describing essentially that the idea that you cannot indict a president, that the Office of Legal Counsel guidance at the Justice Department, which says that you cannot indict a sitting president, that that was -- that that was irrelevant to the decision-making here.
If you read this report, it tells us that it was. It was a very big part of their decision-making. And, again, I think this is why members of Congress now have every reason to ask to see everything and to understand a little bit more about why Mueller and his team decided to leave that question open, that they found evidence that the president was trying to obstruct, and they also found evidence to the negative on that.
And then they just left it open. Again, it's just one of those things that we were mystified a little bit by the attorney general's press conference today, because, then, afterwards, once we were able to read the actual words from the report, you can see that there are so many things here that the attorney general and, frankly, the Justice Department in the past was misleading us about exactly what was going on here.
BLITZER: That's an important point.
Laura, the former White House counsel Don McGahn's appearance in the Mueller report is very, very significant, very notable. It says McGahn refused President Trump's orders to tell Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, to fire Robert Mueller.
Tell us about that.
JARRETT: I don't think McGahn's presence, calling it explosive would be hyperbole in this situation, Wolf.
You get so much rich detail in the report about all of these conversations between the president and McGahn, where they were really going at it, because McGahn was trying to constrain him, trying to constrain his worst impulses.
And when the president wanted to try to make a move on the special counsel by having McGahn contact the deputy attorney general to have the special counsel essentially terminated, McGahn thought to himself, I would rather resign than have a Saturday Night Massacre, a reference, of course, to Watergate, on my hands here.
And he talks about how he just -- he felt the need to not be used as a tool by the president in that way. And he almost tried to protect him in certain ways. Now, that's not to say that he didn't certainly put pressure on the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to unrecuse.
McGahn did do that. So, he doesn't come out completely clean here, but on the issue of firing Mueller, he was adamant that that would be a red line.
BLITZER: Laura, stand by. Evan, stand by as well.
I want to bring in our experts and our analysts.
And, Susan Hennessey, you have been watching this about as closely as anyone for the past two years. What's your big takeaway?
SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think there are two major takeaways.
The first is sort of on the Russia collusion element. While this clearly establishes and lays out the reason why there weren't additional prosecute decisions, it also clearly establishes that there was a common purpose, that the Trump campaign was largely aware of Russian efforts to interfere in the U.S. election. They welcomed those efforts.
They believed they were going to benefit from the efforts. They encouraged those efforts. The only thing that was missing in terms of the actual conspiracy was, there was no agreement, there was no meeting of the minds.
And so that removes the legal question as related to conspiracy, but it very much leaves open the question of whether or not that was acceptable conduct by the part of the president. The other major takeaway is on obstruction. Bill Barr's testimony -- if Bill Barr had made his statement sort of
under oath, it might not have qualified as perjury, but that was incredibly misleading to the American public. It's very, very clear that Robert Mueller in no way exonerates Trump on the obstruction question, lays out in granular and in many cases quite damning detail a course of conduct that any reasonable mind could conclude was a violation of the obstruction statute.
BLITZER: And, Gloria, let me read from the Mueller report, volume two, page two, when he specifically says, Mueller, that the president was not cleared on obstruction.
Quote: "If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment. The evidence we obtained about the president's actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred."
That's a very far cry from total exoneration.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.
And if you note, in Barr's first -- in his letter, the four-page letter, he just quoted one part of the next sentence, which was, while the report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.
Well, you need the rest of that paragraph in order to get the full context of what Mueller is saying here. Mueller is saying, look, I can't prosecute him because he's a sitting president. The Office of Legal Counsel has said that. But I am creating a record here.
And he even states later on in the report that, at some point in the future, you know, the president could be prosecuted when he is no longer in office, and that he is establishing a record here.
But as he goes through chapter and verse of the president, who seemed more like a spoiled child than anything else, who may or may not have understood what he was doing, but trying to get his general counsel to fire Mueller, trying to get somebody else to get Sessions, then the attorney general, to curtail the investigation, trying to have intermediaries go to talk to Sessions, it was -- what other reason was he trying to do this, other than to obstruct justice?
I mean, you may decide, OK, he's not guilty of obstruction, but he really believed, I think, that he could obstruct government from functioning. And that is what he tried to do. He tried to obstruct the Justice Department from doing its job.
BLITZER: He lays out, Mueller, in his report, 11, 11 different episodes that Mueller considered investigating possible obstruction of justice.
And there you see them up on the screen, all sorts of elements, including the Trump campaign's response to reports about Russian support for Trump. You can read all those reports.
There's a huge disparity here, David Swerdlick, between what the attorney general, Bill Barr, said and what the actual report says.
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN COMMENTATOR: Right, both in his March 24 letter and this morning, the attorney general emphasized that there was a declination to prosecute and that Mueller did not find sufficient evidence to go forward with a prosecution on obstruction of justice.
But when you take all of those elements -- and let me just take one. Take the firing of Jim Comey, the FBI director. Yes, the president has the right to fire the FBI director. He serves at the pleasure of the president. But if conspiracy is corruptly impeding the administration of justice, does the president have the right to fire that person, if he's already tried to get that person to act improperly in an investigation by asking him not to investigate someone who's properly under investigation?
And does he have the right to then tell the public that he did it for one reason, when, perhaps, we don't know, but perhaps he did it for another reason?
BLITZER: You know, Mark Mazzetti, let me read the president's statement just a few moments ago, a tweet.
"I had the right to end the whole witch-hunt, if I wanted. I could have fired everyone, including Mueller, if I wanted. I chose not to. I had the right to use executive privilege. I didn't."
But the actual Mueller report says this. And I will put it up on the screen.
"The president's efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders or accede to his request."
So, there's another disparity right there, Mark.
MARK MAZZETTI, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: That's right.
That's right, and it's clear that, if they perhaps were a little more -- the president was a little more effective at obstructing, it may have cleared this bar, because the Mueller report makes very clear that his aides, maybe for self-preservation, tried to stop him from carrying out some of these acts.
And stepping back for a second, you know, it seems like there's these sort of two competing legal theories at odds right now. Remember, the William Barr memo that was much discussed in his confirmation hearing was, effectively, the president can do almost anything as the executive. He has broad, sweeping powers as the executive, to hire and fire, et cetera.
Mueller's team is really challenging that and making a point-by-point analysis about why they don't believe that's the case, and these powers aren't so sweeping, and they move -- therefore, his actions move much closer to this obstruction of justice line.
BLITZER: So, Mueller, Jeffrey Toobin, he clearly concludes that Congress -- yes, the Justice Department's guidance says that a sitting president can't be indicted, but that doesn't preclude the U.S. House of Representatives from launching impeachment proceedings.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Not at all.
And Mueller all but invites Congress to do that. He says in a sentence that we have quoted several times today that Congress has the right to investigate violations for obstruction of justice and vindicate the principle that no person is above the law.
That, of course, is a political question more than a legal question, whether Congress chooses to proceed and goes to an impeachment proceeding. And we have discussed that many times about whether the Democrats want to do that.
But the idea that Mueller vindicated Trump and said there's nothing to see here, folks, that's just completely false. And that's why I think so many people were offended by Barr's description of the underlying report.
BORGER: And also by Barr's decision to say there was no obstruction, because, while Mueller was leaving these bread crumbs for Congress, saying, hey, guys, you can do it, you have the authority when you -- to protect the integrity of the administration of justice, you can do that.
And then the attorney general steps in and says, oh, by the way, I'm deciding, there's no obstruction here.
BROWN: And he was asked about that last week during the hearing.
BROWN: And he said, I was following Department of Justice protocol, because, essentially, I'm Mueller's boss.
But he basically didn't -- he didn't note that this is clearly laid out in the report that Mueller seemed to be inviting Congress to take up the obstruction issue, yes.
HENNESSEY: Yes, absolutely.
BLITZER: Well, let me read from the report. This is from the -- and, Susan, let me get your reaction.
This is from the Mueller report. "The conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the president's corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law." HENNESSEY: Yes, this is about as explicit as Robert Mueller could possibly be that what he's doing is writing a road map, precisely what happened in the Watergate investigation.
He is laying out evidence for Congress. He is saying, in my current seat, I am not in a position to even go down the road of deciding whether or not the president might have obstructed justice, because I don't want to be in the position of having accused the president in circumstances in which he's unable to defend himself, which might have consequences for the presidency.
But he's saying, hey, Congress, this is your job. This is the job that the Constitution has committed to you. He's laid out compelling evidence that the president, on 11 different instances, acted corruptly to obstruct justice.
And now the question is whether or not the United States Congress is essentially going to shrug and say, well, you know, we can't remove him from office, and so we're all just going to go home, or whether or not they're going to pick up the ball and actually exercise their constitutional mandate.
BLITZER: But, David, Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, just moments ago said to me that a failed impeachment is not in the national interests.
And the House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, said just a little while ago that impeachment is not worthwhile at this point.
So, it looks like the Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives -- there are individuals who want to go forward with impeachment, but the leadership is not there yet.
SWERDLICK: No, they're not there for a couple reasons.
Work backwards from the fact you will almost certainly not get conviction on impeachment in the Senate, so then the House has to decide, A, do they want to impeach, knowing they can't get a conviction? And then even if they can impeach, as Congressman Schiff was suggesting, is that politically viable for them 18 months before an election?
Just to go back to what Susan was saying a moment ago, I think here you have lawyers involved here. Attorney General Barr is a lawyer. The president has his own legal team.
They're relying on the popular understanding, the layperson's understanding, that, essentially, if there's no crime of conspiracy, then, if the president has the right to hire and fire all these people, up to and including Mueller, then how can there possibly be obstruction of justice, even though we know that obstruction includes attempting to obstruct justice, and even if you can't indict a sitting president.
We have a lot more to discuss.
BLITZER: Very quickly, go ahead, Jeffrey.
TOOBIN: Well, I just don't think we should give the impression that the choice for the House of Representatives is impeachment or silence.
TOOBIN: They can still investigate, and it seems should investigate, a lot of the stuff that is raised in the Mueller report, even if they don't actually move to impeach him.
BLITZER: That's an important point as well.
I want to get reaction from Democratic Congressman Ted Deutch of Florida. He's a member of the Judiciary Committee, as well as the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.
You have gone through the 400-page report. What stands out in your mind? What have you learned?
REP. TED DEUTCH (D), FLORIDA: Well, what the Mueller report lays out -- and let's be clear about something, and your panel was just discussing this -- in the absence of the shameful way the attorney general of the United States played the role of counsel to the president, rather than the chief law enforcement officer of this country, in the absence of the spin that Attorney General Barr has put out there for the past almost month, the takeaway would be this.
Mueller showed us that the president of the United States was terrified when he learned that this investigation had started. He was terrified that it would mean the end of his presidency. He then, on multiple occasions, more than 10 times, tried to interfere with the investigation.
When asked about it, he didn't respond the way he responds on Twitter, with his typical bluster. He told us more than 30 times, he told Mueller more than 30 times that he doesn't recall, he doesn't have direct recollection.
And, finally, the Mueller report makes clear that it is Congress that has the authority to enforce the obstruction laws, and that that is consistent with our constitutional basis, our constitutional system of checks and balances, to show that no one is above the law.
It's clear from this Mueller report that the next step is for Congress to show that the rule of law actually means something in America and that we pick up this investigation and go full speed ahead.
BLITZER: Yes. If you go through the actual written question-and- answer document that they released today, the president answering in writing questions that were submitted in writing from Mueller, almost every answer that the president gives is either, I do not remember, I have no independent recollection, I do not recall.
Almost every answer starts with that legalese, that kind of statement.
Do you believe, Congressman, that the report, the 400-page report, shows evidence of obstruction of justice?
DEUTCH: Of course it does, Wolf, as clear as day.
Remember, we went into this having been told, incorrectly, totally mischaracterizing the report, having been told by the attorney general that the choice of the Mueller team was whether or not to prosecute.
The choice that was given to the Mueller team, because of the rule rules at the Justice Department, was simple, exonerate, find the president not guilty of obstruction, or don't find the president not guilty, because you can't exonerate.
And that was the conclusion that Mueller reached. And if that's the conclusion, and he then goes on to make clear that it is Congress that can apply these obstruction laws , and that there are more than 10 times laid out in great detail that the president attempted to obstruct justice, then it's incumbent upon the House of Representatives and our Judiciary Committee to continue this investigation to ensure, as Mueller asks us to do, to ensure that no one is above the law.
BLITZER: Well, it's one thing to continue the investigation. It's another thing to launch formal impeachment proceedings in the House Judiciary Committee.
BLITZER: And you're a member of the committee. Where do you stand on impeachment?
DEUTCH: Well, it is different.
But the first thing that we need to do is to continue where Mueller left off, to examine all of these areas of obstruction of justice. Then something that's going to happen -- and there hasn't been enough discussion about this.
Something is going to happen as the House goes forward. And that's going to be now, with the full benefit of the entire Mueller report, will the Republican members of our committee, will the Republicans in the House and Senate continue as they have since the president was sworn into office?
Will they continue to serve as the president's chief defender, or will they view their job as defending the Constitution of the United States?
That's going to be on them. And as more of this is uncovered, as we continue this investigation, I just think it's going to be more and more difficult for them to continue to bury their heads in the sand and say, well, OK, 11 cases of obstruction of justice, but the president's attorney general said it's fine, so let's move on.
The rule of law, I know, means something to every member of Congress, and it's time that my Republican colleagues start to show that they care about it as well. Then it will be clear what happens next.
BLITZER: Well, in private conversations with your Republican colleagues, have you heard any indication at all they're ready to even move toward that?
DEUTCH: Well, I haven't had conversations with them today. It's been a lot of time reading this report, as I know a lot of them have.
And I don't think, based on what Barr told us and based on what Barr told them, incorrectly, I don't think that they believed that it was going to be as clear as this report lays out, that there were going to be 11 cases of obstruction of justice, that the Mueller report was going to make clear that Congress can act next.
So it's a lot more difficult for my Republican colleagues. This isn't just a decision made by House leadership or the leadership of the Judiciary Committee. This is going to require the pressure that builds upon so many of my colleagues to finally stand up and defend the rule of law.
That's more important than ever, after we have had a chance to dig into this 400-page report. And that's even without the redacted information that Barr needs to make available to everyone in Congress, not just to a select few.
BLITZER: Congressman Ted Deutch of Florida, thanks so much for joining us.
DEUTCH: Thanks, Wolf. I appreciate it.
BLITZER: All right, let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.
Jim, based on Mueller's report, and it's lengthy, it seems the president dodged a conclusion of obstruction in part because his aides refused to follow his orders.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right.
BLITZER: And that's really a major bombshell that we learned from this report.
ACOSTA: That's right, Wolf.
I asked a longtime Trump adviser about this, somebody who has been with him since the campaign, what is it with that? Why is it that he had aides essentially thwarting his efforts to obstruct this investigation and get rid of the special counsel, Robert Mueller?
And in the words of this adviser, anyone who is in the president's order ignores him from time to time. This is in the words of this adviser, and that sometimes it's just him thinking out loud in terms of some of these outlandish things, like go and fire, go get rid of the special counsel, Robert Mueller.
But, Wolf, he didn't just dodge this obstruction charge. He was dodging questions from reporters as he left the White House earlier this afternoon. We were told by top aides over here at the White House, including Kellyanne Conway, that it was very likely the president -- that the president would be taking questions from reporters when he left from here.
And it is just very curious, Wolf, because if the president is so confident in the findings from the Mueller report, and if he feels like he's in the clear, then why on earth did he avoid taking questions from reporters, especially when we were told that he would do so?
And some of the questions obviously that he does not want to take at this time, apparently, I mean, first and foremost, is that order he gave to Don McGahn, the White House counsel, to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, but I think, also, Wolf, this notion he said at one point, according to the Mueller report, that the appointment of Robert Mueller was the end of his presidency and that he was (bleep).
That runs completely counter to what we were told at briefing after briefing over here at the White House, that the president wasn't worried at all, that he knew he hadn't done anything wrong at all.
And, Wolf, some of this is baked into some of these talking points that we're starting to obtain from the White House that went out to surrogates this afternoon. They had a conference call with some of their surrogates.
And they said during this conference call about this question of firing people underneath the president, including Robert Mueller, the special counsel, and it says, the president did not fire Sessions, did not fire Mueller, did not fire Rosenstein, even though he had the power to do so.
That's something the president just tweeted a short while ago. And so that's -- I think that's an early indication as to what we're going to be hearing from the president, but it's very puzzling, Wolf, as to why the president did not stop and talk to reporters when aides were saying, oh, he feels great about this, he feels relieved, you know, he's not worried at all.
Then why on earth did he not stop and talk to reporters and explain all of this before he left for Easter weekend, Wolf?
BLITZER: I assume he didn't want to take tough questions from your White House colleagues over there.
But we will find out sooner, rather than later.
Jim Acosta, thanks very much.
Let's get back to our analysts and our experts.
Preet Bharara is with us, our senior legal analyst, former federal prosecutor, U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York.
You have gone through, I assume, a big chunk of this, although you have been busy all day. What do you think?
PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: I think it's an extraordinary document.
And the folks who were saying that it paints a picture of -- I don't know what word to use other than crazy times in the White House, where people were asked to lie repeatedly, people have lied about the lies.
And as some people concluded, and as Bob Mueller and his team specifically say, very directly say, some of the obstruction was not able to be carried out because some folks in the White House, who, by the way, in other circumstances, haven't necessarily distinguished themselves honorably. But on many, many occasions, Don McGahn, Corey Lewandowski and others have said we're not going to do that. I think that's a big deal.
BLITZER: If you had been in charge, if you were Robert Mueller, you're the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and you were in charge with doing this, what would you have done if anything differently?
BHARARA: Well, I would have taken the same view that not everyone loves, that Bob Mueller and his team did, and that is that the interpretation by the Office of Legal Counsel, the Department of Justice, is that a sitting president cannot be indicted or prosecuted. And I probably would have done something similar and laid out all the facts.
And the other thing, I think, that is extraordinary about the document, I had always predicted based on Bill Barr's dissemination of his four-page summary, that the question of obstruction would be very, very close. There would be a lot of facts to support obstruction, some facts that did not support obstruction. If you read the second part of the Mueller report, it kind of leans towards a plausible case of obstruction.
And we learn, really, for the first time, because I don't think we were left with the right impression by Bill Barr's Letter, Bob Mueller makes very clear that the reason he's not making a decision, and this must have been said before, but the reason he's not making a decision on obstruction is because of this OLC, Office of Legal Counsel, opinion that says you can't prosecute a sitting president.
What I think is also sort of interesting and notable is that he says, but on the other hand, the legal opinion allows a sitting president to be investigated, so we're going to do that. It also allows a sitting president to be prosecuted after he leaves office and makes the point specifically to say, so we therefore did a thorough investigation to preserve the evidence.
It seems to me we've been talking a lot about whether or not he was punting to Congress. Yes, to some extent, of course, but also preserving the possibility that some other entity, a prosecutor's office, could charge the President after he leaves office.
BORGER: Well -- and I then ask you the question, since the Attorney General said, well, there's no obstruction, I've decided there is no obstruction, how does that affect what Mueller did? Because I don't -- this doesn't sound like he expected the Attorney General to do that.
BHARARA: No. Look, I think to the extent we were wondering, did Bob Mueller intend to let Bill Barr take the ball. And, by the way, I think Bill Barr said this morning at the press conference, I heard through someone else that Bob Mueller thought it was my prerogative. That clearly can't be true because Bob Mueller is within the Justice Department. And he might disagree with his view.
But Bob Mueller said that in his position at the Justice Department, given what the OLC opinion says, he did not think it was appropriate for fairness reasons and other factors to make a determination on obstruction. If he doesn't think it's right for him to make the determination, it can't be the case that he thinks it's right for the Attorney General to make that determination.
For all intents and purposes for this question, they stand in the same position. The only people who stand in a different position are the House of Representatives and a future version of a U.S. Attorney's Office when Donald Trump is out of office.
BLITZER: It's interesting, Jeffrey Toobin, when you hear what Preet is saying, I'm anxious to get your thoughts on this specific issue as well, whether, in fact, Mueller was punting to Congress, saying it's up to you guys now.
TOOBIN: I don't think punting is necessarily the right word. Punting suggests that it was somehow something he couldn't figure out, that the question was just like too hard. I think what Mueller was saying, and I know he was saying this because he said it, is that if he were to recommend a prosecution in a legal context where there could be no prosecution, it would be unfair to the President because there would be no way to respond.
When a prosecutor like Preet indicts someone, implicit in that decision is the opportunity for the defendant to go to court, a jury, a judge, and say, I'm not guilty. If Mueller had said there is a prosecutable case here and he should be indicted but I can't indict him, that would have been a certain level of unfairness because there was no way for the President to respond.
But that is very different from the impression that Barr has now left twice that Mueller somehow like shrugged his shoulders and said I don't know. Maybe he committed obstruction of justice, maybe he didn't. That's not what this report says.
BLITZER: It's certainly not. Susan, what do you think?
HENNESSEY: Yes, no. Look, I think that this goes to -- I think it's relatively clear that Mueller is teeing this up as a question for Congress to answer.
And I do think that it demonstrates why Congress is sort of reducing this down to just a question about whether or not he could be convicted and removed and therefore impeachment isn't necessary is sort of is reductive and would be themselves punting on their constitutional obligation here.
You know, we always want to be careful whenever we're describing sort of criminal sort of like charges or accusations against people, and it's important to be careful here as well. I do think it's fair to say this is a very strong case for obstruction of justice. There is a strong case on the side of the argument that this is obstruction of justice.
And so whenever that kind of case is put on the table, and Congress then says, well, I guess it's close on either side and so we're not going to pursue this further, that says something about the failure of separation of powers in the United States that I do think has long- term implications for the country.
BHARARA: I think it's a pretty strong case, not as close as we were led to believe. I agree with what Jeffrey Toobin said. Also when you read the document, it's not just a factual recitation, there's also legal analysis. And the Mueller Special Counsel team says over and over and over and over again, they're pretty dismissive of some of the arguments that we've heard from Trump lawyers, including Rudy Giuliani.
And someone who is not a Trump lawyer, But Alan Dershowitz who basically says the constitution, in some ways, prevents the prosecution of the President for doing what are facially appropriate things under his constitutional authority. They say no.
And they say in other occasions, the positions taken by Trump lawyers are contrary to the litigating positions the Department of Justice has taken in other cases, which they're on pretty good ground when they're taking the department --
BLITZER: It's interesting, Preet, because in this document, they make it clear there are 14 ongoing investigations being conducted by other U.S. Attorneys, including in the Southern District of New York right now, at least one, probably more than one. And all that information, most of that information, is very, very -- we don't know what's going on, but presumably, these are very significant investigations.
BHARARA: Yes, I would think so. And it also begs the question, why is it that Bob Mueller ended his time when he did? He could have very easily gone on for a long period of time. Some of these things he did not have to spin off. He could have kept them to himself. He clearly thought he wanted to end his investigation in a reasonable period of time, well before the election.
The other piece of evidence we have in favor of that is the answer of the question a lot of people have been asking and we have been speculating about. And that is why didn't they force the President to come talk to them and subpoena them. The answer very forthrightly given, a couple of answers, one is we thought it was going to take a long time.
BLITZER: That's what Mueller says in the report.
BHARARA: It says in the report. But he also says, and I thought this was interesting, people bring obstruction cases without speaking to the target, in part because sometimes the target can assert the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, but also they said, and I thought this is very telling and maybe overlooked, we thought we had enough of a sense of what was going on. That to me doesn't sound like they weren't sure which way the wind should blow but that they thought they had enough.
BLITZER: Let me get Mark Mazzetti to weigh in. Where is this all heading, Mark?
MAZZETTI: Well, it's headed certainly to congress where there is impeachment or not, there seems to be a clear impulse to investigate this further. I think there's a sense among democrats today that there's real momentum to keep this as an issue for some period of time. And that means getting Barr up to the Hill, it means getting Robert Mueller up, it's subpoenaing more documents. So it's very much a political matter.
On the other side, to add on to something that was just said, it was extraordinary to me to see that there were 14 criminal referrals to come out of the Mueller investigation. We knew of some. I think only two have been publicly revealed. So that just shows the intricate nature of this investigation that spun out in so many different directions. Many of them we still don't know about. And that's going to keep everyone busy for a while too.
HENNESSEY: I also think that this focus exclusively on sort of the question of criminality and legality masks the larger question of basic acceptability. Is it acceptable for the President of the United States to falsely accuse the former FBI director of lying under oath, right? One of the things that this report does is it vindicates Jim Comey's entire story sort of top to bottom.
Is it acceptable for the President of the United States to pressure the Attorney General to unrecuse from an investigation, to fire him when he fails to do so, and then to lie, literally, dozens of times, this document documents dozens of lies coming from the White House, from the President himself to the American people. Is that acceptable conduct?
BORGER: And is it acceptable, particularly from a national security standpoint, for members of a campaign, even though they weren't actively or tacitly colluding with Russians to say, hey, come on in, come on in to my office because you know what, it might benefit my campaign. How do you govern that? Shouldn't they have picked up the phone and called their general counsel and say, you know what, we have a problem here. The Russians are trying to infiltrate our campaign.
But is it okay if they didn't direct it? I don't think so.
BLITZER: The President and the First Lady, they have just arrived in West Palm Beach, Florida. They're going to spend this holiday weekend down at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach.
He didn't speak to reporters as he was leaving the South Lawn of the White House for Marine One. I don't know if he's going to speak to reporters now. I suspect he won't. But, David Swerdlick, I think the simple reason is, if he would have spoken just before leaving Washington around 4:00 P.M. Eastern, all of us have gone through the report by then, and he would have been asked some very, very tough questions.
SWERDLICK: Right, tough questions, more questions than he's faced even just yesterday. And I think going back to what we were just talking about a moment ago --
BLITZER: Hold on a second. The President seems to be walking. Maybe he's going over to reporters or maybe he's just going to go shake hands with people who have gathered at the West Palm Beach International Airport. But you see that microphone there. Let's listen in for a moment to see if he says anything.
Clearly, he's just talking to folks who have gathered, presumably supporters of his who have gathered in Florida. Once again, he's going to be spending the weekend at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach. I don't know if he's going to go over and answer reporters' questions. We'll continue to monitor this very closely.
But, David, I interrupted what you were saying.
SWERDLICK: I'm just going to say, look, I'm sure, at some point, the President will speak on this. But right now, what is his incentive to do so? Going back to Susan's point, yes, the things that we learned in this report, there was a lot of unacceptable behavior on the part of the President's team.
But the President and the Attorney General, they have the outcome they want, which is that, legally, they're able to move forward from this point, and that's why I think Congressman Schiff was saying that Congress is going to move slow. They know that opinions are hardened in the public, that the people who support the President see it one way, the people who don't support the President see it another way.
And so what matters, at least in the moment, is not so much whether people judge the acceptability but whether people say, okay, the President is cleared and we can move on.
HENNESSEY: The other big question is where is the classified information? At least volume one of the report describing sort of the potential contacts with Russia, over 100 pages of this document describing various contacts that the Trump campaign and eventually administration officials had with Russian officials, describing how susceptible they were to being influenced, getting documents and passing them on. Presumably, there is a large body of classified information, a large body related to the counterintelligence investigation, and none of that is included in this report.
BLITZER: Gloria, what does this say to you that the President is there, he's schmoozing with his supporters at the airport, signing autographs, signing hats, but he's not walking over to where the press pool is and answering questions?
BORGER: I'm happy. Don't worry. Right? I mean, this is -- you know, this is a President who's -- I mean, the picture is of somebody who is relaxed, he's going to Mar-a-Lago. I don't have anything to worry about. The Attorney General says I'm fine. There's no obstruction, as the President would say.
No collusion. This story is over. And, you know, his Tweet says that. And I could have done anything that I wanted. And I don't know if he's going to end up taking some reporter questions, but I think he wants to be somebody who acts as if he doesn't have a care in the world.
And that, in fact, you know, he feels vindicated by this report, which, as we all know, because we've all read it, is hardly a vindication of the President's behavior.
BLITZER: He did Tweet a little while ago, Preet, I had the right to end the whole witch hunt if I wanted. I could have fired everyone, including Mueller, if I wanted. I chose not to. I had the right to use executive privilege. I didn't. What do you think?
BHARARA: I mean, it's an extreme statement that doesn't comport with what the law is. It depends on what the other facts are. And we saw repeatedly in the Mueller report that he made attempts to fire the Special Counsel. He did had sorts of things to try to make the investigation go away.
He had people want to unrecuse Jeff Sessions. And the fact that he says he has the authority to do something doesn't make it so that that's without criminal exposure. So it's a lot of argument and it's a lot of just statements of things in the same way that he says total exoneration when there are documents that say nothing of the sort.
BLITZER: What do you think of Mueller's decision not to seek a formal interview with the President, simply to rely on this written question and answer?
BHARARA: Yes. So as we've been talking about it a few minutes ago, I think it's not a terrible decision given that he must have felt given the constraints he had on his office, the time constraints and also legal constraints, that you don't want to drag this out for another year or two years. Look, once you go down the path of seeking to compel a President of the United States to come testify in a grand jury, then you have to finish that process. And so even if everything else was done, and the last thing left was an interview of the President, and you had that pending litigation going on in court, probably going all the way up to the Supreme Court, we would not have a Mueller report.
And it probably would have taken this to the election.
HENNESSEY: I do think that reading this document, it makes that decision feel less defensible. Yes, it's reasonable to expect it would take a long period of time, that said, Robert Mueller knew this would be the definitive answer for the American people, this was going to be the record that Congress relied on.
He noted that the president only provided limited questions related to -- he didn't answer questions related to obstruction of justice at all, just to Russian collusion. His memory failed him something like 30 times. And so, I do think it's a little baffling he would feel like he could conclude this investigation without getting the president --
BLITZER: Preet, I know you have to run, but I want to thank you for coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: You're always welcome here.
Jeffrey Toobin is always welcome in THE SITUATION ROOM as well.
Jeffrey, you know, we did hear a question to Bill Barr, the attorney general, today. If he's going to launch a new investigation on why this whole investigation was even started. You know that the president's supporters up on Capitol Hill, Devin Nunes, the ranking member of the intelligence committee, and others are saying there was illegality in this initial what they call witch hunt to begin with, and they want to go after what they describe as the deep state over at the FBI or the Justice Department.
TOOBIN: Well, I mean, this is, you know, the official Fox News fantasy behind the entire investigation. And you know, unspoken is that there already has been an extensive inspector general investigation on this subject. That's what led to the departure of the deputy FBI director. I mean, this has been investigated already and by the appropriate body within the Justice Department.
But Attorney General Barr said in a kind of vague way during his last testimony that he's going to investigate it in some way. And if, as we seem to always say, the president is interested in satisfying his base, and the attorney general over the past several weeks has made very clear he is very much the president's man when it comes to this, I wouldn't be surprised if there was some sort of investigation of the Steele dossier and all of these, the fever swamps of what went on at the beginning of this investigation.
BLITZER: And what the attorney general himself called spying against the Trump campaign. I'm sure that's going to come up as well.
TOOBIN: Right. That's right --
BLITZER: Everybody, stand by. Everybody, stand by.
There's a lot more on the breaking news. There's the president. He's still meeting on the tarmac with his supporters at West Palm Beach International Airport. They're going to spend the weekend at his resort.
[18:52:29] BLITZER: The special counsel's findings expose flat out lies and a lot of misleading information that's been spread by the Trump administration, including the White House press secretary.
Let's go our chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta once again.
Jim, Sarah Sanders admitted to Mueller's team under oath that some of her public comments simply weren't true.
ACOSTA: That's right, Wolf.
One of the startling revelations to come out of the Mueller report came from Sarah Sanders, who as you said told investigators with the Mueller team that she had been misleading the public about the investigation.
ACOSTA (voice-over): It's one of the most damning finding from the Mueller report, an admission from the White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders of passing on false information to reporters about President Trump's rationale for firing FBI Director James Comey. Sanders said it was because rank-and-file FBI agents lost faith in Comey.
TUCKER CARLSON, FOX NEWS HOST: Sum it up for us, why was he fired today?
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Look, I think it's real simple. Director Comey had lost the confidence of the rank- and-file within the FBI.
ACOSTA: Sanders was pressed on her comments in the White House briefing.
REPORTER: So what's your response to these rank-and-file FBI agents who disagree with your contention that they lost faith in Director Comey?
SANDERS: Look, we heard from countless members of the FBI that say very different things. In fact, the president will be meeting with Acting Director McCabe later today to discuss that very thing, the morale at the FBI as well as make of an offer to go directly to the FBI if he feels that's necessary and appropriate. And we'll certainly provide further information on that meeting for you.
ACOSTA: But as it turns out, that wasn't true. Sanders told the special counsel her reference to hearing from countless members of the FBI was a slip of the tongue. She also recalled that her statement in a separate press interview that rank-and-file FBI had lost confidence in Comey was a comment she made in the heat of the moment that was not founded on anything.
Then there was the time Sanders told reporters gnat president didn't dictate a memo explaining Donald Trump Jr.'s 2016 meeting with the Russian attorney at Trump Tower. The White House initially claimed that meeting was about Russian adoption, only to be contradicted when Trump Jr. revealed emails showing it was about dirt on Hillary Clinton.
REPORTER: Can you verify the degree to which the president weighed?
SANDERS: He didn't -- he certainly didn't dictate. But, you know, he -- like I said -- he weighed in and offered suggestion like any father would do.
REPORTER: Do you know what the --
REPORTER: I'll follow up on that. Was he aware at the time that Don Jr. had a meeting based on the pretext that he would be promised information that was negative about Hillary Clinton when he suggested the statement only say that the meeting was primarily about Russian adoption policy?
[18:55:10] SANDERS: Like I said the statement issued was true and there were no inaccuracies in the statement.
ACOSTA: The Mueller report tackles that one too, saying after consulting with the president on the issue, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told the media that the president didn't dictate the statement anyway weighed in offered suggestions like any father would do. The president later told the press that it was irrelevant whether he dictated to the statement and he said, it's a statement to "The New York Times", that's not a tribunal of judges.
As the Mueller report notes, the president's legal team did admit that he dictated the statement. The report says later that day, the president rejected the Trump Jr.'s draft statement that would have acknowledged that the meeting was with an individual who I was told might have information hope helpful to the campaign. The president then dictated a statement to Hope Hicks that said the meeting was about Russian adoptions.
At a briefing last year, Sanders was confronted about her bogus spin.
REPORTER: I was to ask you about the lawyer letter to the special counsel. You said last August the president did not dictate the statement about the Trump tower meeting during the campaign but the lawyers wrote to the special counsel that the president did dictate that statement. What's the reason for that discrepancy?
SANDERS: Like you said, this is from the letter from the outside counsel and I'd direct you to them to answer that question. Deborah?
SANDERS: Once again you're referencing a letter that came directly from outside counsel. I now would refer to you them to answer that question.
ACOSTA: Then there was the comment from Sanders when she said the Mueller investigation wasn't affecting the president's ability to do his job.
SANDERS: I don't think it's attacking at all his ability to get his job down. That wasn't the point he was making. You guys seem completely obsessed with this.
ACOSTA: But contrast that with the president's reaction in the special counsel's report, when Mr. Trump learns of Mueller's appointment. Oh, my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I'm F-ed.
ACOSTA: And one data point that was not in the Mueller point that I'll pass along to you, Wolf, in the last 100 days, there have been two White House briefings. So, not only are we not getting any accurate information from the White House press secretary, you could argue we're not getting any at all -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Good report, Jim Acosta at the White House.
Pamela Brown, you cover the White House as well. What do you think?
BROWN: Well, I think what this report lays out is really a microcosm of what you see at the White House quite often with the president telling his officials to do ethically questionable, legally questionable things. The difference here is, of course, this was happening within the parameters of the FBI investigation, and also the idea of press secretary lying time and time again.
So, I just think this really puts the microscope on the White House, and also raises the question of why the president wanted to obstruct justice as Robert Mueller's sort of laid out in the report the different episodes. And there are two different scenarios painted by Robert Mueller, saying one of the reasons could be that the FBI was going to uncover potential crimes or concerning information that the president could perceive as a crime. And that was why he was acting out.
But then you compare that to the Attorney General Barr who basically tried to paint the president in a sympathetic light today. That he was basically a victim saying that he was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency propelled by his political opponents and fueled by illegal leaks. That line right there sounds like something that maybe the White House
would say, not the attorney general. And it raises question how he could say the president had a sincere belief when never interviewed by the special counsel.
SWERDLICK: That's about as far away from a legal argument as you can get. All presidents are frustrated. All presidents are under pressure. The idea that was a justification for whatever the president may have done even if --
BORGER: I have never seen a president not under pressure.
TOOBIN: I just, you know, in response to Jim's report, on the bright side, fewer briefings mean fewer lies.
BORGER: Well, but you do have the president going out and briefing instead of the White House press secretary.
HENNESSEY: Lies coming from the white house press secretary go to fundamental democratic accountability. We cannot hold --
BORGER: There isn't anyway.
HENNESSEY: We can't hold the White House accountable if we do don't understand what's happening. One of the things this report indicates is the tremendous amount of accurate reporting that the president of the United States not only called fake news, but turned around and attacked members of the media accused them of lying whenever --
BROWN: And making up sources, but you know the difference here these are people named. White House officials named giving testimony under penalty of lying to the FBI.
BORGER: So, he could figure out who is talking to whom.
BLITZER: And, David Swerdlick, what kind of credibility is she going to have briefing reporters given what's in this Mueller report?
SWERDLICK: Much less now. Look, the statement in the report, a slip of the tongue in the heat of the moment based on nothing describes a lot of our lives the past two to three years right in this administration. But on the other hand, at the point when the press secretary goes out there, she is going to face specific questions about this and more skepticism in the minds of those in the --
BORGER: And the question I'm left with after the long day is where are the guard rails? A lot of the people we talked about Don McGahn, Reince Priebus --
BROWN: Dearborn. BORGER: Rick Dearborn, are gone.
TOOBIN: Rob Porter.
BORGER: Who are the guard rails? Because we know the president needs them.
BLITZER: There is going to be a lot of dramatic developments I suspect in the coming days, weeks and months.
Everybody, thanks very much.
Our breaking news coverage continuing with "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" right now.