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Senate Debating Gorsuch Nomination; Syria, China Test Trump on Foreign Policy. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired April 6, 2017 - 10:30   ET

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


[10:30:00]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. The breaking news this morning. Curiouser and curiouser. The embattled chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, he's out. He says he is temporarily stepping aside from his role, leading the investigation of Russian meddling into the election. Why? Nunes is citing a series of ethics complaints filed against him alleging that he violated terms of discussing classified material following his clandestine meeting at the White House just over two weeks ago. House Speaker Paul Ryan also says the chairman just didn't want him to be a distraction.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Meantime, a nuclear showdown about to begin in the Senate. Democrats and Republicans on a collision course over Supreme Court justice nominee Neil Gorsuch.

I want to take you -- live pictures right now. You're looking at the Senate floor where senators have begun debating Gorsuch's nomination. That is expected. That will end in a Democratic filibusters. And that's when Republicans will deploy, we expect, the nuclear option. What does that do? That changes what is needed 60 votes to get this nominee confirmed down to a simple majority of 51 votes.

[10:35:05] It is a really big deal. And it could change the Senate as we know it forever. Let's get straight to our Sunlen Serfaty who has details on a little bit of a busy day. Don't you think?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It certainly is up here today, Poppy, and it is a big deal as you noted. And we saw just a few moments ago Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell take the floor, opening up this very busy day and really defending that he will by the end of the day invoke the nuclear option, talking about past precedent that the Democrats played in 2013 when they invoked the nuclear option on lower court nominee. So certainly defending his move in advance of even doing that.

He also blasted the Democrats here for their filibuster of Neil Gorsuch. He called it a radical move. And noting that this has less to do with Neil Gorsuch the man. He said the opposition is more about the man who nominated him, i.e., President Trump, and the party he represents, than the nominee himself. So certainly Mitch McConnell getting out front of this saying that there -- he believes there's a lot of politics at play here on the part of the Democrats.

Now we will hear from Democratic minority leader Chuck Schumer in just a few minutes. And the first vote will be held at 11:00 a.m. at the top of the hour. That is the vote to break the Democratic filibuster as we've been talking about. Republicans don't have the vote. That is expected to fail. A small victory for the Democrats here. A very temporary victory then they will move on to the nuclear option after a few more procedural steps. Back to you, guys.

BERMAN: All right. Sunlen Serfaty for us on Capitol Hill, the Senate side. Thanks so much, Sunlen.

What a day it is. We want to bring back our panel. Dana Bash is with us. CNN legal analyst Paul Callan also with us. CNN political commentator Matt Lewis, he's a senior columnist of the "Daily Beast." And CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger.

You know, look, we'll talk about Chairman Nunes stepping aside from the Russia investigation in a minute, but what you're looking at live pictures of right now on the Senate side, this has an impact on the Supreme Court for the next maybe 10, 20, 30 years. And it has an impact, the decisions being made in the Senate today, they will have an impact on the Senate, Gloria, forever.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. Yes, forever. Look, the Senate is supposed to be the place that thinks about legislation a little bit differently than the way the House does. Thinks about judges in particular. Let's talk about that. The House is majority, right. You know, you get a majority, things pass. That's it. The Senate is the place that's supposed to work towards bipartisanship. And this is a difficult thing for lots of senators to see go away.

Started with Harry Reid, when Harry Reid said, OK, for judgeships, you know, now you're only going to need a majority because he got sick and tired of Republicans blocking his judges, but he said it didn't -- it didn't go for Supreme Court nominees. We'll leave that aside. That will be different. Lo and behold now, lots of Democrats warned him, well, the tables may turn and they did. Lo and behold now, Republicans control the Senate and they're saying, OK, we're going to do away with the filibuster for -- you know, for Supreme Court judgeships because, look, they can't get their nominee through any other way.

And so the question is, is this a slippery slope? And Dana knows more about this than anyone. And I -- I will ask her this. Is this a slippery slope that then will lead to legislation no longer being approved by 60 votes? And that will be the huge problem. Because for example, something like Medicare which no one would disagree is an important piece of legislation was passed in 1965 in the Senate by a vote of 70-24. And that way, everybody had a buy in on something that was so important. And now this could be the beginning of the unraveling of that.

HARLOW: You know, Dana Bash, to Gloria's great point, you do have some Republicans who hate the idea of this but are still going to let it happen. Going to do it, right. I mean, you've got Senator John McCain who said in response to the person who said this is going to be better for the Senate overall, he didn't mince his words. He said that person is a, quote, "stupid idiot."

BERMAN: Which is redundant, by the way. I want to add. But go ahead.

HARLOW: OK. Of course you would know that, John Berman. He said they're a stupid idiot, but he's still going to support it. I mean, there's no way out of this at this point, right?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and I think, John Berman, redundancy is the least of their problems up here right now. But yes, I mean, there is no way out of it. And I think that that whole quote tells you everything you need to know.

I have talked to so many senators yesterday even this morning on both sides of the aisle who are lamenting this. Oh, my goodness. This is so bad for the Senate. How could this happen?

[10:40:03] And yet they're going to go vote for it on the Republican side at least. And when I say it, I mean the notion of changing the rules and on the Democratic side when I say it, it's filibustering this Supreme Court nomination.

Then you can also go in time where both sides of the aisle have similar culpability on different votes that got them to this point. So in a lot of ways there are a lot of crocodile tears being shed up here. I mean, just to call it what it is because I don't like what's happening. I don't have a vote. Gloria doesn't like what's happening. She doesn't have a vote. There are only 100 people who have a vote. And they are complaining and yet they are voting to change these rules and take the Senate in a direction that is not necessarily the greatest thing for the republic.

BERMAN: It's awful what I'm doing. It's awful what I'm doing but I'm going to go ahead and do it anyway.

Paul Callan, lost in this political debate is the fact you have a young healthy judge, Neil Gorsuch, who will end up on the Supreme Court for, as I said, 10, 20 -- a long time. A very long time. Legally speaking, you know, what is the impact of that?

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it's -- there's a big impact because Supreme Court judges outlast presidents. They outlast congressmen and they outlast senators. They have enormous influence on the United States. And so largely forgotten now as we talk about the filibuster is getting back to Gorsuch's own record. You know, is he really out of the mainstream or is he deeply in the mainstream of American judicial thought. That's where the debate should be. Not so much focusing on filibuster.

HARLOW: Matt Lewis, to you, do you think -- what do you think the likelihood of what Gloria said? That this goes far beyond just getting a Supreme Court justice on the bench. That this goes to changing the rules to only simple majority needed in the Senate to approve legislation.

MATT LEWIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right. Well, first, I would say, if you can't confirm Neil Gorsuch, who can you confirm? This guy is a competent, credible mainstream judge. I'm not worried about this. I'm actually an institutionalist. But I'm not worried about this for a whole bunch of reasons. First, there's nothing in the Constitution about the filibuster. In fact it was inadvertently accidentally set in place by Aaron Burr. And so it's not in the Constitution. It's also arbitrary. Right? So at one point I think it was 66 votes. Then now it's 60. At one point you had to stand up and actually --

HARLOW: Read.

LEWIS: Read. Right. The Mr. Smith goes to Washington thing. So these are Senate rules. They're not written in stone. They've been changed. I think you can certainly make a plausible and credible argument that says a president has a right to get a fair up or down vote, majority vote on a nominee for the Supreme Court, but that's different than legislative issues which would still need the 60 vote threshold.

So I think people are up in arms about this. This -- I do not think that this is that big of a deal. I'm not a stupid idiot. This is not -- you know, this is not a constitutional crisis.

HARLOW: So say you, Matt Lewis. Ask John McCain what he thinks.

BERMAN: Well, let's ask Gloria Borger and see what she thinks about this. Because, Gloria, I don't think you're nearly as sanguine as Matt Lewis is here.

BORGER: Well, no. Look. I think that the Senate has gotten to a point where even it doesn't work anymore. We all -- we all know that. My point is I don't want to see the Senate turn into the House, which we all know really doesn't work. And what this is going to do is it's going to polarize the Senate even more than it already is. And that the court -- this has a really long term implication on the courts which is that people who will be appointed will be more political to the courts because they will only have to be approved by a majority.

So let's not talk about the impact on the -- on the plural Senate for a minute. Let's talk about the impact on the judicial system in this country where you like to think that judges would have to be approved by more of a bipartisan vote so you wouldn't put ideologues on the bench. And now I think you're going to see that happening more and more. So that -- and I'm not a lawyer.

Paul, maybe you can talk to this. But I think, you know, that is another one of the -- of the implications of all of this. If you only need a majority vote. Not only on the Supreme Court, but also beyond which I would add was Harry Reid's doing.

BASH: It was.

BERMAN: We got to take a quick break, guys. Stick around, we're going to be right back. A lot more to talk about. Not just this Senate debate. Using the nuclear option to get Neil Gorsuch on the bench but also the breaking news. House Intelligence chair Devin Nunes stepping aside from the Russian investigation. We'll be right back.

[10:44:39]

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BERMAN: A whole lot of breaking news today. On the left hand side of your screen, you're looking at the House minority leader Chuck Schumer. He is speaking on the floor. This is the beginning of Senate floor debate over Judge Neil Gorsuch to put him on the Supreme Court. The Democrats will filibuster. The Republicans will use the nuclear option. Neil Gorsuch will ultimately get on the Supreme Court.

The right hand side of your screen. House Intelligence chair Devin Nunes who moments ago stepped aside from the investigation into possible ties between Trump associates and Russia. That was a major development this morning. And that's not all that's going on today.

HARLOW: It is quite a day for the president because he is holding this high stakes meeting with China's president today. He is also facing increased pressure to clearly define what U.S. policy in Syria really is after that chemical attack that killed dozens of innocent civilians including children.

The president is saying that his position has changed. But how and what does that mean? Does he want Bashar al-Assad to go? What is he willing to do about it?

[10:50:02] BERMAN: You know, look, it's a question being asked by Democrats, by Republicans and even by Syria's most important state sponsor, Russia. Russia is saying what is the U.S. approach.

Want to discuss now with David Rohde, a CNN global affairs analyst and national security investigations editor for Reuters.

David, thanks for being with us. You're getting some information of reporting that the president is reaching out to people with opinions, lawmakers who have been known to be supportive of military action in Syria.

DAVID ROHDE, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Yes, and I want to be fair here. Just one.

BERMAN: OK.

ROHDE: But he reached out to someone yesterday and said, I am going o take action, military action, in Syria. And he said -- President Trump said he was talking about this with Mattis about what the options were. Who knows if he'll follow through on that. This was one conversation. But that was something the president did yesterday.

BERMAN: Flat out. I am going to take military action. ROHDE: Yes, this is Donald Trump of course and he says he's going to

do something and you don't know what will actually happen, but that's what he said.

HARLOW: Again we don't have that from the White House. That's important to note.

ROHDE: Correct. Yes.

HARLOW: We don't have any comment from the White House.

ROHDE: Yes.

HARLOW: Of course we would welcome one. But let's talk what the consequences here. Militarily what can be done? Right? The red line was crossed for Obama. Didn't take military action. The multiple lines this president says have been crossed for him. What are the obstacles, though? How far can the U.S. go with air strikes? What challenges do they run into especially with Russia?

ROHDE: Yes.

HARLOW: In the air literally.

ROHDE: So it's an immediate question, if you're going to act militarily in Syria, you have to inform the Russians beforehand. That's just a safety thing. The last thing you want to do is have some issues with their forces.

HARLOW: Yes.

ROHDE: But -- so then if you do that, people criticize you for informing the Russians. Politically, though, if Trump wants to show he will use force and show leaders around the world that, you know, he unpredictable it's much safer to do a limited strike in Syria than, let's say, try to attack North Korea. That's a much more dangerous situation in North Korea. You've got U.S. troops exposed around the border in North Korea. So Trump could, you know, drop a few bombs on some runways, and make a statement, but it is a huge step forward, and, of course, it's a huge reversal of what he said during the campaign.

BERMAN: Glad you brought up North Korea because it will be a big part of the meeting today that the president is having with the Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Joining us now is Gary Locke, the former U.S. ambassador to China.

Mr. Ambassador, thanks so much. Curious what your thoughts are on China and the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping. How he's coming into this meeting? How do you think he perceives President Trump?

GARY LOCKE, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO CHINA: Well, I think everyone is trying to figure out President Trump. They view him as somewhat unpredictable. He's made a lot of statements -- negative statements about China during the campaign. He's walked back some of those statements. Hasn't taken action like he promised. And then shortly after he was elected, questioned the "One China" policy and had conversations with the president of Taiwan.

Since then the two have talked over the phone and now they're having this face-to-face meeting. So I think it's a good first step in trying to develop a personal relationship and for each leader to underscore their priorities, their concerns and their challenges. North Korea obviously is a topic of major concern to both countries.

HARLOW: Mr. Ambassador, I mean, this is a president who not only said that he was going to label China a currency manipulator on day one, which he hasn't done, or took a phone call from Taiwanese president and flying the face of the "One China" policy that this country has held for decades. He said, and I quote -- China is, quote, "raping" the U.S. economy.

LOCKE: Well, actually so many millions of jobs in America depend on trade with China. China is America's largest export destination outside of Canada and Mexico. And a lot of the stuff going to Canada and Mexico were actually components that then come back to America as parts of automobiles and things like that.

China is America's number one export destination for all of its agricultural goods and commodities and processing. So millions of jobs in America depend on exports to China and if we ever end up in a trade war, both sides would lose, consumers on both sides of the ocean would lose. And there would be a loss of American jobs as well as loss of Chinese jobs and the cost of goods to American consumers would rise dramatically, cutting into the amount of disposable income that Americans would have.

So there are sticky trade issues between China and the United States. We in America feel that the Chinese have not really afforded a level playing field and access to American companies the same way that Chinese companies has access to markets in America. So the China -- China needs to open its markets more. They need to treat American companies and all foreign companies more fairly. But the last thing we need is a trade war.

BERMAN: Ambassador Gary Locke, David Rohde, great to have you with us. Thanks so much on this busy, busy day.

We are following some major stories on Capitol Hill. Countdown to showdown. Moments from now, Republican senators, they will invoke the nuclear option on the Senate floor. We will be watching it live.

[10:55:04] Also, we're following the fallout after the House Intelligence chair Devin Nunes has stepped aside from the Russia probe. Much more to come. Stay with us.

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ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone, I'm Kate Bolduan. Want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. Right now House minority leader Nancy Pelosi is speaking live. Do we

have that? Let's take you to Capitol Hill and listen in.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), MINORITY LEADER: -- civilized human behavior, and we want to get the briefing so that we can act upon it.

Today here we are 77 days. The Republican House departs for a two- week break now of -- for the passive of holidays.