The politics of the Trump-Russia investigation

This is a rush transcript from "Special Report with Bret Baier," November 24, 2017. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


ROBERT BIANCHI, FORMER PROSECUTOR: They have Flynn twisted into a legal pretzel. He is DOA, done. Now they want to move up to a higher target. There are only in my mind three higher targets, the president, his son, or Jared Kushner.

MICHAEL GOTTLIEB, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Flynn has been possibly labeled as a spy, somebody who has misled the White House, somebody who has lied to Pence, somebody who maybe can't be trusted. Maybe he's distancing himself in order to protect Trump.

COREY LEWANDOWSKI, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN MANAGER: People like Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, Mike Flynn, if they have done something wrong, they should be held accountable, but that's where it ends because there is no culpability, liability to the president.


MIKE EMANUEL, FOX NEWS: With that, let's bring in our panel: Matthew Continetti, editor in chief of The Washington Free Beacon; Sarah Westwood, White House for The Washington Examiner; Charles Lane, opinion writer for The Washington Post, and Nicholas Johnston, editor-in-chief of Axios. And as a Greek American I feel obligated to say Axios means you are worthy, which tonight I believe means you are worthy to be on the panel. So welcome to all of you.

New York Times headline today, let's take a look at it: "A split from the Trump indicates that Flynn is moving to collaborate with Mueller." Nick, what do we make of this?

NICHOLAS JOHNSTON, AXIOS: This is classic case building by a federal prosecutor. You start on the outside and work your way in. We've already seen people in the campaign, Manafort, Gates, Papadopolous taken before. Now we move inwards to Flynn who was in the administration, so now the investigation has moved inside the White House.

Another key thing to note that Mike Flynn's son is involved in this and I think that might be a motivating thing that Flynn is thinking about how he can make a deal with Mueller to protect his son.

EMANUEL: Chuck, what's your read on what we are getting out of the Mueller probe? We are getting little bits and pieces, but there's probably plenty we don't know, right?

CHARLES LANE, WASHINGTON POST: It's moving quickly at this point. I have a feeling that if you look sort of below Trump, who is the highest ranking figure in all, I guess you would have to say Mike Flynn because he was going to be national security advisor. He actually had a cup of coffee in that job. And whatever there is going to be to get, most of it might come from the cooperating testimony of somebody with that higher rank.

EMANUEL: A key national security Republican on the Hill has his concerns. Let's take a listen.


REP. ADAM KINZINGER, R-ILL.: I don't know what to make of it. It may be minor. It may be big. It's hard for me to tell by this day by day play. I'm concerned of the leaks coming out of the special counsel. That doesn't mean this information is irrelevant but at the same time I think Americans need to step back and say, and trust that the special counsel is getting the information he needs and that we are going to find out it may just not be as quick as everybody wants.


EMANUEL: Sarah, your thoughts on where we are with the Mueller probe and what Congressman Kinzinger is saying about it?

SARAH WESTWOOD, WASHINGTON EXAMINER: Looking back to the Hillary Clinton email probe, which then director Comey of the FBI started interviewing high ranking people in Hillary Clinton's orbit, that was the end of the email probe. They interviewed Hillary Clinton a few days later. They shut down the investigation. We do know, through leaks or because of the defense attorneys are being notified that some of the high-ranking people in President Trump's orbit are starting to go into interviews. That could very well signal that the investigation is indeed winding down. Also, it could mean that Mueller and his team finds out new information from those interviews and goes down different lines of inquiry. So there's really no way to tell exactly where we are.

EMANUEL: Of course things are so polarized these days that some people say this is the hugest nothing burger out there and other people say it's getting close to the president's inner circle. Matthew, you're read?

MATTHEW CONTINETTI, WASHINGTON FREE BEACON: It is getting close to the president's inner circle. I'm struck by how wide ranging the Mueller probe is. Manafort, Gates indicted for lobbying violations basically. Papadopoulos has the guilty plea for a false statement to the FBI in the course of his interviews. Michael Flynn under investigation for a variety of things, including things he did for Turkey. Remember, the special counsel and the investigations are about Russian collusion with the Trump campaign. We still haven't really seen much evidence of that from the Mueller probe.

EMANUEL: Matthew, I think you might have helped produce the show. We are going to talk Turkey as well. So let's take a look at the president's tweet from earlier today on Turkey saying we will be speaking to President Erdogan of Turkey this morning about bringing peace to the mess that I inherited in the Middle East. I will get it all done. But what a mistake in the lives and dollars, $6 trillion to be there in the first place. That's $6 trillion figure that President Trump references appears to come from a November 8th "Wall Street Journal" story on a new study which calculates the cost for the post 9/11 wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, is about $5.6 trillion. Matthew, is this a sign the president would like to basically get out of the Middle East region?

CONTINETTI: I think we have plenty of signs that's the case, right? Trump Twitter is the authentic president. You get the real insight into what he's thinking. And of course, the problem with extricating ourselves from the Middle East is we are in the process of doing it, especially now that victory over ISIS seems imminent, is that we are no longer in the driver's seat. And right now it is the Saudis and the crown prince there and the Iranians and Vladimir Putin are dictating events in the Middle East. And that leaves America, I think, in an exposed position.

EMANUEL: Sarah, what are you hearing from folks over at the White House about President Trump and the Middle East in the stage?

WESTWOOD: What might explain the timing of President Trump talking to Erdongan, focusing on the Middle East right now during the Thanksgiving holiday is that Vladimir Putin in Russia, the Iranians, and Turkey right now are huddling with the Syrians. They are hammering out a peace deal that doesn't really involve U.S. input and it keeps Bashar al-Assad in power. That's not something the U.S. wants. That could explain why President Trump is focusing on it. Right now, he's reportedly polling support for the Syrian Kurds, that's something Turkey wants. So wading deeper into this conflict to try to prevent Russia from dictating with the terms of peace in Syria now that it looks like the conflict is winding down.

EMANUEL: The commander-in-chief talked about success against ISIS in his teleconference with the troops yesterday. Let's take a listen at that.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: What you are doing with ISIS is, again, being talked about. We are being talked about again as an armed forces, we are really winning. We know how to win. But we have to let you win. We weren't letting you win before. We were letting you play even. We are letting you win.


Chuck, your reaction what we are hearing from the commander-in-chief?

LANE: It seemed like he was reading some talking points there. Of course this is one of his talking points is that I'm going to unleash the military and change all these rules of engagement that allegedly under the Obama administration were restraining the U.S. military's ability to knock out to be ISIS.

But the truth of the matter is that is has been deprived of almost all of its territory now in Iraq and Syria and seems to have been driven at least out of the presence that it had in those areas that made it seem like almost a state within the state.

Having said that, it seems like on the other big issue of whether Bashar al-Assad remains in power in Syria, he's preparing to capitulate on that. He is essentially allowing Russia and Iran to win that war on behalf of their ally in that region. And the withdrawal of support from the Kurds who had helped us liquidate ISIS is really significant in that regard. It does show what a different kind of Republican politics this is from what we had under George W. Bush. And Donald Trump was a dissenter from the Iraq war, and he's following up on that.

EMANUEL: Nick, let me give you a chance for a quick word?

JOHNSTON: I think the point on Assad is dead up. This is big chip from prior administrations, from the Obama administration which famously drew that red line that Assad needs to go. Trump has not been saying that at all. Everybody said Putin is now steering things in Syria. Another key point from the White House statement that they put out on the Erdogan call earlier is because we beat ISIS in Raqqa, the president says, is why that support from the Kurd militias are being pulled back.

EMANUEL: Let's switch gears for a moment and talk about what's going to be going on in this building when lawmakers come back next week. Tax reform, President Trump has a meeting with the big four leaders on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, then he will try to rally Senate Republicans Tuesday at lunch and try to get tax reform across the finish line. Any predictions, panel?

JOHNSTON: Four weeks to go, there's a lot to do. I think tax reform will be the first thing next week. There's a lot of movement, a lot reporting we will start doing on Monday to see if some of these six or seven senators who have been wobbling on tax reform are going to go, fixing the deficit, on Obamacare, and we're going to be looking forward to a government shutdown. Does that get blown up by adding things like children's health care for DREAMers?

EMANUEL: What about the DREAMers? Are the Democrats going to insist on that, Chuck, being in some kind of year end deal?

LANE: Wow, you mean to avoid a government shutdown? That's probably what's they are going to talk about with the president, much more than tax reform, I think. They are going to talk about avoiding that government shutdown. Remember the last time there was a potential government shutdown, here cheerfully said, hey, I cut a deal with Chuck and Nancy. So they are probably thinking, OK, maybe we can get something this time too.

EMANUEL: Sarah, folks at the White House feeling optimistic tax reform will get done in short order?

WESTWOOD: On the surface they're projecting optimism that this will go through. Certainly they are doing everything they can to try to push it through. But at least a half-dozen senators are on the fence about this tax reform plan. And I think the White House is willing to give up just about anything to get tax reform through. They don't care if the individual mandate repeal ends up being in it, they don't care if they tinker with the top rates as long as the corporate tax rate stays where it is and it can benefit the middle class nominally in some way, then they are going to just push as hard as they can to get it through.

It's hard to see President Trump and Mitch McConnell remaining bodies like we saw in the Rose Garden last month. If this didn't go through, it's hard to see President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's relationship ever recovering from that.

EMANUEL: Matthew, do they get it done, because in December there may be some things that Republicans don't like that they have to vote on just to get it across the finish line.

CONTINETTI: Right. I think there's a lot of confidence among Senate Republicans precisely because they want to go home for Christmas with having accomplished one of one of the president's major legislative aims, and that is taxes. On the other hand, there are a lot of equities that need to be balanced with this government funding, not just DACA, not just the children's health insurance program, also defense spending. And Senator John McCain, he is making it a legacy issue to spend as much money on defense as he can.

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