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Blumenthal Threatens to Hold Up U.S. Attorney Confirmations; Interview with Alberto Gonzales; George W. Bush Speaks Out on Divisive Politics; Obama Takes Jab at Trump; "PARTS UNKNOWN" in Pittsburgh. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired October 20, 2017 - 11:30   ET



[11:30:10] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: On Capitol Hill, at least one Democratic Senator is now threatening to hold up the confirmations of U.S. attorney nominees. This, after reports of President Trump took the rare step of personally interviewing two candidates for posts as U.S. attorney. And it's not just who they are or their posts,10 but also what jurisdiction they could be covering, they could be nominated to cover.

Let me bring in CNN crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz.

Shimon, lay this out. This is pretty fascinating.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME & JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It's actually pretty rare for a sitting U.S. president to do this. And we're told these are two lawyers with connections to people very close to the president. This is Marc Kasowitz, his personal attorney. They have connections, one of them has a connection to him. And the other attorney who has interviewed with the president has a connection to Rudy Giuliani the former New York mayor and close adviser to the president. We're told that two attorneys now, who are in private practice, are Jeff Berman, who works with the Giuliani law firm, and Ed McNally, who is a partner at the Marc Kasowitz firm. They met with the president for this position. It's pretty rare and rarely done. And so it has created -- it has raised some concern among people on the Hill that the president would meet with potential U.S. attorney candidates so early in the process. And so one Senator in particular as you know, Senator Blumenthal, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, called it alarming, specially these are the two top law enforcement positions in a city that has a lot of connections to the president.

BOLDUAN: A city with probably the most connections to the president to say the least.

PROKUPECZ: That's right.

BOLDUAN: Let's see where this goes.

Shimon, thank you for laying it out. Appreciate it.

Let's discuss this right now with Alberto Gonzales, former attorney general under President George W. Bush. He is now dean of Belmont University's College of Law and the author of a new book, "True Faith and Allegiance, A Story of Service and Sacrifice, And War and Peace."

Mr. Attorney General, great to see you. Thank you for coming in.


BOLDUAN: So Shimon laid it out, but the president meeting with two U.S. attorney candidates, not just any two, but two that could cover Manhattan and Brooklyn, does that raise alarms in your mind?

GONZALES: Well, it's unusual. It would have been unusual in the Bush administration. I never brought in a U.S. attorney candidate. I didn't bring in a judicial candidate to meet with the president, quite frankly, other than, of course, the Supreme Court candidate.

Now, as to whether or not it's appropriate or inappropriate with respect to U.S. attorney candidates, as a general matter, the president is head of the executive branch. These are appointees within the executive branch. On its face, there would be nothing inappropriate about it, but it has raised questions because it is unusual. I'm somewhat relieved by the fact that I understand the White House counsel was present in the meetings, which is important for the White House counsel to make sure the president understands what is appropriate and what is not appropriate in these discussions.

I might also add that, you know, I know Ed McNally, one of the people mentioned in the story. Ed used to work for me when I worked in the White House. And I have total confidence in Ed's integrity. The question here is whether or not, by these meetings, has the president created a situation where the impartiality of these two men is somehow in doubt to the extent that there is an investigation that must be undertaken and a prosecution that must be undertaken in New York City.

BOLDUAN: What do you think?

GONZALES: Again, I would -- I would --


BOLDUAN: Even if with the best intentions, do you think that these candidates are now tainted?

GONZALES: I think that it certainly -- the test at the Department of Justice is whether or not, under the circumstances, a reasonable person with knowledge of the facts would have questions about the impartiality. I think one could argue that, yes, I have questions about the impartiality of a possible investigation involving the president or the president's family. And so I think that's the danger of these kinds of meetings. But as to whether or not there is, in fact, impartiality, that's -- or not, that's a question that will have to be examined.

BOLDUAN: Right. You don't recall President Bush having a personal interview like this. If he wanted to, what would you have advised?

GONZALES: I would want to be in the meeting and I'm sure I would have been in the meeting. And I would caution him that he should not have any kind of discussion whatsoever about a potential prosecution or investigation. I think it may be appropriate to say, with respect to policy, for example, if you were interviewing a U.S. attorney for an Arizona position, you would say border enforcement is important for me and, therefore, that should be a priority for you. That would be perfectly appropriate. To single out a potential person or set of facts, that may be subject to investigation by that U.S. attorney, I think raises some alarm bells.

BOLDUAN: The fact that you said right off the top that wouldn't have happened with George W. Bush, there's clearly a reason why.

[11:35:10] GONZALES: Well, listen, you never want to put the president in a situation where questions, those kinds of questions that we're talking about now, are being raised. More importantly, you don't want to put the potential U.S. attorney in the position where he might have to recuse himself from an investigation that may be important for that district.

BOLDUAN: Can I ask you -- we're running out of time -- your former boss, a man we were talking about, George W. Bush, made a rare and forceful speech yesterday here in New York City, speaking out against the divisive state of politics today. Here's just a bit of what he said.


GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We've seen nationalism distorted into nativism, bigotry seems embolden, our politics seem more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and out-right fabrication. We've seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty.


BOLDUAN: He didn't mention President Trump by name, of course, but didn't seem to leave much doubt who he was talking about. What did you think of his remarks?

GONZALES: I was proud of those remarks, frankly. It's very consistent with the person, the man, that I worked with for so many years down in Texas. And then, of course, in the White House and so I think his fundamentally reflects his vision of America. He's proud of America, and we all understand that we're undergoing challenges today but nonetheless still remain the greatest country in the face of the earth. And the president was trying to remind everyone of that fact and remind everyone of what makes us unique and special in the world.

BOLDUAN: Alberto Gonzales, always great to have you. Thank you so much.

GONZALES: Thanks for having me, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Coming up for us, not just President Bush and former President Obama. It's not just President Bush that we're talking about that is speaking out against the divisive nature of politics and having a not-so-subtle message to President Trump. Former President Obama also issuing a not-so-subtle jab at the current occupant of the Oval Office. We'll discuss what this means. We'll be right back.


[11:41:17] BOLDUAN: It's something you rarely see, sort of like an eclipse, but I guess the political kind. All five living former presidents will take part in a benefit concert for hurricane victims this weekend taking place at Texas A&M University. Former Presidents Obama, Clinton, Carter and both Bushes will be there, but the current president he will not. And even if he were, after yesterday, it could get a little awkward, especially after these hits from two of the former presidents just yesterday.


BUSH: Our young people need positive role models. Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children. The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If you have to win a campaign by dividing people, you're not going to be able to govern them.


OBAMA: You won't be able to unite them later, if that's how you start.


BOLDUAN: Joining me right now, CNN political commentator and former special assistant to Bush 43, Scott Jennings, and former Obama speechwriter, David Litt.

Great to see you, guys.

Oh, David, let me give you more of an intro, because you're that good. Wrote a book about his experience in the White House, and now head writer and producer at Funny or Die.

Not that we've done that, let's get to the fun.

Scott, first to you.

What did you make of Bush's speech? Did it surprise you?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I wasn't surprised. I mean, this is the same decent public service-oriented George W. Bush that we knew while he was president and while he was running for president. And I think it was very consistent with the world view that he always portrayed.

I do find it interesting today, we have a lot of Democrats and people on the left side of the spectrum praising George W. Bush today. I don't remember it quite so kumbaya, especially in the second term of the Bush administration.

BOLDUAN: To say the least.

JENNINGS: But I'm glad to see folks are coming around.


BOLDUAN: David, with President Obama, far less of a surprise, obviously, the tone he took last night. But did he hit the right tone? Didn't he hit the similar theme throughout the election and that failed?

DAVID LITT, HEAD WRITER, FUNNY & DIE & FORMER OBAMA SPEECHWRITER: Well, I think that President Obama is a reminder, and President Bush is speaking as well was a reminder of a different time in politics. I mean, nobody called anyone a moron, no one used a demeaning nickname. But they were both very clear in saying that this is not just a matter of Republican or Democrat. What Donald Trump -- and not just Trump, but Trumpism, stands for is a real threat to the country and we need to take it seriously. So I think that it's similar to things that President Obama was saying on the campaign. But it's also been shaped by events since then. I mean it's not -- a lot of the things on the campaign that he warned about, were we to elect Donald Trump, have happened. Hopefully, voters will remember that as well, and I think they will.

BOLDUAN: Does this speak of things to come, Scott? Do you think we will hear more from President Bush about this?

JENNINGS: No, I don't think President Bush is one to go out and give speech after speech after interview after tweet. He doesn't tweet, for instance, and so I think he made --


BOLDUAN: I kind of wish he did. I would like to read them.

JENNINGS: -- talking about them -- oh, I mean, it would be fascinating. But I think he just -- I think he said what he had to say, and I also think he speaks through the Bush Center, his presidential center, I think is sort of a monument to a lot of the values he talked about in his remarks yesterday and people can go visit that. But, no, I suspect you're going to hear more from Obama, President Obama, politically than you are from President Bush, who has largely stayed out of politics since he left office.

BOLDUAN: Probably a smart guess.

David, if you are going to go there, do you wish that both of these men would just call the president out by name? Like if you're going to walk up to the line, why not call him out by name?

[11:45:07] LITT: Well, I think that this is the beginning of structuring an argument. In my book, I talk about what speech writers call a permission structure, letting voters decide to make a specific choice, and this is an argument not just to Democrats but to Republicans as well, to say, you may not agree with most Democratic policies, but this is about something that's bigger than party. It's notable that President Obama made these comments in Virginia, where Ed Gillespie is running a very divisive campaign that is now based on not-so-subtle racial attacks and racial ads. And not long ago, Republicans nominated Roy Moore in Alabama. What we're seeing is Donald Trump infecting his entire political party. The Trumpism is becoming or threatens to become a philosophy that dominates one-half of our political discourse. And that's the bigger threat. It's not just calling out Trump. It's the ideas and the mode of rhetoric that he represents.

BOLDUAN: I want to make a quick turn.

I know, Scott, you disagree with the assessment of Ed Gillespie. But we will leave it there for one second because I want to talk about something else that was -- another speech last night.

You've written, David, many a joke-speeches, as well for President Trump. Those had White House Correspondents Dinner speeches, I was in the crowd and saw so many of. Try these lines on for size. Paul Ryan at a charity dinner. Listen.


REP. PAUL RYAN, (R-WI) SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I want to promise you, though, because I've heard a few stories about how the dinner went last year.


So I want to put your minds at ease. You can relax about my remarks. I know last year that Donald Trump offended some people. I know his comments, according to critics, went too far. Some said it was unbecoming of a public figure. And they said that his comments were offensive. Well, thank God, he's learned his lesson.

Every morning, I wake up in my office and I scroll Twitter to see which tweets I will have to pretend that I did not see later on.



BOLDUAN: I mean, that's what it's about, a little truth, a little fiction, home run, David?

LITT: Well, I would say that's a lot of truth. And it's a little bit strange because it is Paul Ryan joking about the fact that he's ignoring all of the things that both President Obama and President Bush were talking about. And so he's basically saying, you know, hey, I'm part of the problem, isn't that funny. I suppose some people find that funny. I think it hits a little too close to home for me, personally. Better than last year when Donald Trump did get booed.

BOLDUAN: Scott, your quick assessment of Ryan? JENNINGS: I thought Speaker Ryan was funny. And I think that venue

calls for a funny speech and he hit the mark last night. So good job, Speaker Ryan.

BOLDUAN: May none of us be the subject of one of those speeches. Let's say that.


Scott, David, great to see you. Thank you so much.

LITT: Thanks, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Coming up for us, we will hear from -- we could very well hear from Defense Secretary James Mattis live from the Pentagon. Will he comment -- will we hear from him again on the deadly ambush of U.S. soldiers in Niger? We will be listening in to see. We'll bring you his comments live.

But first, let's meet this week's "CNN Hero." She made it her life's mission to boost literacy for children living below the poverty line in California. Watch this.


UNIDENTIFIED CNN HERO: For a child, the library can be a magical place.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: I'm officially the most awesome girl in the world.

UNIDENTIFIED CNN HERO: It can transform you academically, but it can also nurture you emotionally.


What people don't realize is that school libraries are sometimes not funded at all. We provide libraries for underserved communities and schools.


UNIDENTIFIED CNN HERO: Our whole goal is to spread literacy and the benefits of literacy.


BOLDUAN: To learn more about Rebecca and other "CNN Heroes," go to CNN

We'll be right back.


[11:51:29] BOLDUAN: Coming up this weekend, the next "PARTS UNKNOWN." Anthony Bourdain has been all over the world. This week, he takes you to Pittsburgh. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANTHONY BOURDAIN, CNN HOST, PARTS UNKNOWN (voice-over): Pittsburgh is a city of neighborhoods, each with its own rights and rituals. A patchwork of cultures that took shape over a century ago. Back then, the city was a beacon of hope and possibility for people from all over the world, offering the promise of work, prosperity and new life.

Pittsburgh could have been another company town gone to beautiful ruin, but something happened. The city started to pop up on lists of the most-livable-places in America.


BOLDUAN: And earlier, I talked to Bourdain about this week's episode.


BOLDUAN: Great to see you.

BOURDAIN: Great to see you.

BOLDUAN: So this one is about Pittsburgh, a city that I love. And I saw from the episode, you fell in love with it, too.

BOURDAIN: Me, too.

BOLDUAN: You say in the episode, it's a city in transition. What does the food of Pittsburgh tell you where it's headed?

BOURDAIN: Well, often, the sort of the agents of change or at least the first sign that a city is fundamentally changing is the arrival of hot restaurants with a national profile, hipster chefs, farm-to-table, and that's very true with Pittsburgh. About 10, 15 years ago, the cuisine, the restaurant scene started to change, and along with that, the city started to come back in a way that you could see as either positive or negative depending on your point of view.

BOLDUAN: And that's an interesting part about this episode is the food and -- the food kind of led it, right? These people are coming in --

BOURDAIN: It's a cultural change. It sends a message, along with the hipster barista, that there's a clientele for that. Along come the artists, entrepreneurs, the techies, and large service industry.

BOLDUAN: People are split on that. I thought it was fascinating.

BOURDAIN: Pittsburgh, rightly, is very proud of its working-class roots. It was the central of industrial America in many ways. It was Steel City. And as manufacturing in the steel industry vaporized over time, they hit some really, really tough times. But they're still very proud of that ethic, that self-image as, you know, hardworking people who came from all over the world to, you know, work really hard and live the American dream. But that Pittsburgh, to a great extent, doesn't exist anymore, and it's becoming like so many other cities in transition. You know, the new industries are, you know, tech, intellectual property and the service industry.

BOLDUAN: So what does professional wrestling have to do with it? I love this part of the episode.


BOURDAIN: Well, I thought it was interesting. In western Pennsylvania, in particular, there's a very strong sort of a local/regional, you know, this ain't the WWE.

BOLDUAN: That's right.

BOURDAIN: This is very enthusiastic practitioners and very enthusiastic crowds. And, you know, it's a glimpse of -- you know, I'm sentimental about the old Pittsburgh and working-class America, and those kinds of aspirations, that kind of entertainment. You know, we did Demolition Derby as well.

BOLDUAN: That's right.

BOURDAIN: I'm a -- you know, a dollar and a dream. I'm sentimental about that.

BOLDUAN: So you say it, Pittsburgh is like so many cities. The boom in the industry, the bust in the city that's left behind when the industry fails and the people left behind. But you ask in the episode, and it stuck with me, you ask what went right here in Pittsburgh. Did you find an answer?

[11:55:11] BOURDAIN: Well, I think it still held on to its look, its dreams. There are still people there who pride themselves on their roots, on who toughed it out, who could have and probably should have left, as so many young people did during the really hard times, but were determined to stay there and either wait it out or build something new.

BOLDUAN: Another fantastic look at an amazing American city.

Great to see you. Thanks for bringing it to us.

BOURDAIN: Thank you.


BOLDUAN: That is this weekend.

But still ahead for us, soon, Defense Secretary James Mattis is welcoming his French counterpart to the Pentagon. With so many questions still out there about the deadly attack in Niger, could the secretary offer an update as he gets ready to head to Capitol Hill for a briefing today? Standby for that.