Joining me now with the latest developments in the Russia probe are Carol Leonnig of The Washington Post and Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times. Carol, Mark, great to have you on the program.
Carol, when you look at Bannon’s appearance on Capitol Hill, what was the significance, if any, of his appearance before the House Intelligence Committee?
CAROL LEONNIG: I think two things were important about that appearance, and both of them we’ve reported in the Post. The first one is that Bannon, who was really in a fiery kind of breakup with President Trump, appeared to be trying to sing from the same songbook with the president and with the White House. He’d hired the White House counsel’s – I’m sorry, the White House pool lawyer. He was conferring through his lawyer with the White House about what he should and should not answer questions about. So I think it was an effort, at least symbolically, to come in from the cold and to mend fences with the president.
The second part that I thought was significant was the issue of how angry his refusals to answer questions made Republicans and Democrats. And we quoted a lawmaker saying, essentially, Bannon was one of the only figures who could unite Republicans and Democrats on the Hill. The chairman fairly famously authorized a subpoena, which – in the middle of the testimony, which was unheard of, a sign of real frustration.
MR. COSTA: Mark, what’s your read on why special counsel Robert Mueller decided to cut a deal with Bannon this week, and issued a subpoena to testify before a grand jury but then decided to work with Bannon and only have an interview?
MARK MAZZETTI: Yeah, it’s certainly unusual, first of all, to have the subpoena and then to work out a sort of less-formal interview. It’s hard to read exactly what is going on behind the scenes, but it certainly appears that this was an opening move by Mueller; then Bannon’s attorney countered, offering an interview; and that this is preferable for Bannon, that this is something that he’d rather have than to have to appear before a grand jury. There are some critical differences. If you’re appearing before a grand jury, you don’t have your lawyer present. It’s a little bit more confrontational, adversarial. Grand jury testimony can be used later if there is an ultimate jury trial. Having an interview is less formal. You have your attorney present. So this is something that Bannon was able to get from Mueller. And, you know, whether he – you know, it does appear that he would be sort of cooperative as opposed to someone who is, you know, a hostile, hostile individual towards the Mueller probe.
MR. COSTA: Carol, on that point, do you see Bannon as cooperating here by agreeing to an interview, or is that kind of a loaded term in these sort of investigations?
MS. LEONNIG: Yeah, very good point, Bob, about that word. I don’t see it as cooperating, more cooperative. Remember, FBI agents went to visit Mr. Bannon and he shrugged them off in some way, resisted an interview. And that is when he was served with a subpoena. So it seemed important to the special counsel to make clear to the former senior advisor to the president that he would be talking to them one way or another. And perhaps this was the way to get that message across.
It also to me was interesting about the timing, not so much coming after the book but coming before the House Intel hearing. And, you know, obviously Bannon declined to answer a lot of questions. We’ll see what happens. He won’t be able to decline very long in answering questions from the special counsel.
MR. COSTA: Mark – and Carol, I’d like to get your take on this too – but first, Mark: When you think about the White House special – White House counsel’s office communicating with Bannon’s attorney and talking about possible executive privilege, what kind of legal standing does the White House have? Will they be able to prevent many former Trump campaign advisors, whether it’s Bannon or Corey Lewandowski or Hope Hicks, from sharing anecdotes or testimony about the president’s time in office?
MR. MAZZETTI: Well, I mean, clearly it was – it was clear they hadn’t worked out things in advance. I mean, remember that Bannon was kind of the first person – senior person to appear before the committee, where the questioning was really focused on the time in office as opposed to primarily about the campaign. And of course, when you’re talking about the administration, the time of office, that’s where the question of executive privilege comes in. Now, it always has to be pointed out that the witness can’t just assert executive privilege. The White House – the president has to assert executive privilege. So they certainly believe that they have a case to make that these are privileged conversations and therefore not something that Bannon would have to testify to.
MR. COSTA: Carol, when you think about the president here, his lawyer, Ty Cobb, told CBS News this week that, quote, the president would be “very eager” to talk to Bob Mueller’s team, that a conversation could be coming in the – maybe in the coming weeks or months. Yet, at the same time, the White House is trying to prevent this kind of testimony on Capitol Hill. What do you make of Ty Cobb’s comments, and what do they tell us about the White House?
MS. LEONNIG: Well, Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer, specializing in responding to the Russian probe with the media and with Bob Mueller, has said over and over again: We are cooperating here – (laughs) – to quote the movie Fargo. You know, we want to be as transparent, as open as possible. In some ways that’s optics, and in some ways that’s true. I don’t think that the president is going to resist an interview. He may – and his lawyers may actually set some quite strict terms, or try to set some terms about the categories, so he knows what he’s going to be talking about.
And they are seeking, according to our reporting, to try to have some of the question and answers to be in written form in some way. And I’ve been told multiple times that ultimately they’re going to have a hybrid kind of interview. Yes, we’ll sit down with you. Yes, we’ll agree probably to a videotaped conversation. And we hope that some of it can be in writing rather than, you know, extemporaneous debate format.
MR. COSTA: Mark, final thought on –
MR. MAZZETTI: Can I just add just one thing as well?
MR. COSTA: Sure, please.
MR. MAZZETTI: That there may be some, you know, client management going on here with the White House lawyers, right? Ty Cobb has said over and over again, this probe is nearing an end. We’ve heard it. We heard it last year that it was going to end by the end of 2017. You know, there may be a little bit of trying to manage President Trump and kind of keep him in check. This is someone who we know tweets on impulse sometimes. And, you know, Ty Cobb would certainly want to keep his client from doing things that may get him in more trouble with Mueller. So managing it with, you know, this thing is about to end, it may be partly a strategy to deal with Trump’s impulses.
MR. COSTA: And, Carol, real quick, it’s going to be maybe hard on that impulse question because there’s a real clamor on the right. You look at House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes. He’s briefing House Republicans about missteps he thinks were taken by the Justice Department. Democrats say he’s just reading talking points and misleading Republicans. But you have all this anger on the right about Mueller’s credibility, about the Justice Department. And the president sees all of that too.
MS. LEONNIG: Absolutely, Bob. I think the president is just as hot and bothered about this probe as he was, you know, months and months ago, when there was internally a lot of speculation that the president was trying to pressure the attorney general to quit, and believed that this probe was corrupt and unfair and conflicted and that many members of Mueller’s team had a donor relationship with Democrats. And it’s – I don’t think this temper has been cooled by any one thing that anyone says. But I think Mark’s right about Ty Cobb’s strategy, which is let’s just try to get this thing over with and get it done, and keep the train moving forward of cooperation. Behind the scenes, it’s a whole ’nother story.
MR. COSTA: Client management. Thank you very much, Carol Leonnig, Mark Mazzetti, two of the best in the business, sharp reporters, Pulitzer Prize winners. Thanks, again, for joining us.
MS. LEONNIG: Thank you, Bob.
MR. MAZZETTI: Thank you.