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Brett Kavanaugh and His Accuser to Testify Before Senate Monday; White House Plan to Defend Brett Kavanaugh; Ex-Kavanaugh Clerk Speaks Out; Trump Orders Russia Docs and FBI Texts Declassified; Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired September 18, 2018 - 10:00   ET


[10:00:00] ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's compromising critical strategic interests. And that's at the core of all of this.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: It is at the core of all of this, and Arwa, you have lived this. You have reported on this with refugees for years and years. I appreciate you being here and putting it in context for all of us because it's a dramatic decline in the number that the U.S. is willing to take. Thank you for that reporting.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: And good morning. I'm Jim Sciutto.

HARLOW: And I'm Poppy Harlow in New York. We're so glad you're with us. It is the top of the hour and the drama, the stakes, the potential for political disaster all high. We are just days away from Judge Brett Kavanaugh and Professor Christine Ford due to both appear under oath before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

This morning it's not exactly clear how far senators or the FBI will go in terms of investigating these claims fully, the claims that she has made that Kavanaugh, she says, sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers back in the 1980s.

SCIUTTO: Among the questions, we don't know for instance whether any other witnesses will testify there on Monday nor whether the FBI will look at these allegations at all, as Democrats are now demanding.

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty, she is on Capitol Hill this morning.

So, Sunlen, do Republicans see an upside to keeping this as a -- just a he said-she said, just having the accuser and the accused speaking in this session on Monday?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think it was really crystal clear to Republican leaders last night, Jim, that they needed to do something. And this was their something. They needed to do something to satisfy the concerns not only of nearly every Democrat up here on Capitol Hill but most importantly members of their own party who had been very vocal in recent days, especially since these allegations came out, that there needed to be a more deliberative process here, calling for open hearings, calling for Kavanaugh and the accuser to come up here on Capitol Hill. It is no small thing that you have people like Senator Jeff Flake on

the Judiciary Committee, a Republican on that committee, saying that he, put simply, is not going to vote for Kavanaugh without that more deliberative process. Here's what he said on Capitol Hill last night.


SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: I would have voted no this week, absent her being able to tell her story. So I'm glad she's going to be able to, and I may conclude afterwards that, you know, he should go on and fill that seat. I may not.


SERFATY: Meantime, we are still continuing to hear from Democrats, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Senator Dianne Feinstein. She still is not satisfied, even with this hearing. She said, of course, we want to have these public hearings. That's scheduled for Monday, but she wants the FBI to investigate first. And she came out with a statement last night saying in part, quote, "I'm disappointed the FBI and White House are failing to take even the most basic steps to investigate this matter. We must not repeat the mistakes of the past and rush the process before we're able to gather more information and the FBI's able to reopen and complete the background investigation."

And that, of course, allusion to rushing the investigation, harkening back to Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas in the 1990s. Now we will hear from Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell today midday after he huddles in that regular weekly policy luncheon.

Yesterday, Jim and Poppy, he said it was a good decision that the committee made this decision to have Monday's hearing. He said we will move forward.

SCIUTTO: Sunlen Serfaty on the Hill, thanks very much.

Leading up to Monday's hearing, the White House will mount a public relations campaign to bolster Judge Kavanaugh's image. Sources telling CNN that the Trump team's plan is to rely heavily on women who know him to vouch for his character.

HARLOW: Let's go to Abby Phillip at the White House.

And Abby, I mean, you know, it was so notable the measured tone and the deliberate word choice that the president made yesterday when talking about Kavanaugh and these allegations. Not attacking the character at all or insulting or even questioning the claims of his accuser. The strategy you're hearing will be what going forward?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's absolutely right, Poppy. Some people even wondered how long something like that could last, but it is part of a strategy that the White House is at least at the moment trying to execute which is that they want Kavanaugh to defend himself, but they want to avoid being perceived as attacking the alleged victim, attacking his accuser in this case. In order to do that, they're relying heavily on women. Women who say

they knew Kavanaugh at that time in his life, who maybe went to school in the same area that both of the parties here involved went to school in suburban Maryland. There was a list that was circulated late last week of 65 women who vouched for Kavanaugh's character. And White House aides tell us that they believe many of those women are willing to stand up and reiterate those claims, you know, this week, even after more information has come to light.

They've even considered organizing some kind of news conference involving some of these women, talking about the Kavanaugh that they knew and talking about what they believe -- what they believe he was capable of at that time in his life.

[10:05:06] Now, all of this, of course, goes back -- going back to the president, relies on President Trump not weighing in in a way that the White House or Republican allies believe is damaging to this effort. The president has been measured, both on Twitter and in person. He does have a press conference scheduled for later this afternoon. So we'll have another opportunity to see how he chooses to weigh in on this.

Meantime, Brett Kavanaugh preparing for potential testimony and one of the key points there, helping him understand how to defend himself without attacking Dr. Ford -- Jim and Poppy.

SCIUTTO: Abby Phillip at the White House, thanks very much.

Joining us now is Sarah Pitlyk, she clerked for Judge Brett Kavanaugh in 2010 to 2011.

Thanks so much for joining us this morning, Sarah. We appreciate having you on.

SARAH PITLYK, CLERKED FOR JUDGE BRETT KAVANAUGH IN 2010-2011: It's my pleasure to be here.

SCIUTTO: So you wrote, and this was, I should note, before we knew the accuser's name, before she came out publicly, and you said that in your FOX News op-ed, I'm quoting here, that this is direct character assassination. And also, I'm quoting, a last-ditch effort to block his path to the Supreme Court. Now that she is no longer anonymous, as she was then, do you still feel the same way?

PITLYK: Well, yes, in a word. We still feel that this allegation is totally inconsistent with the judge that I have known for 10 years, that the world has come to know over the last several months through what has been an extraordinarily thorough vetting process. And so yes, it is hard to take it seriously in light of all of the evidence of Judge Kavanaugh's excellent character and integrity, and also in light of the transparently politically motivated manner in which it's come to light.

HARLOW: So, Sarah, let me ask you about that. When you say these claims that Miss Ford has made are, quote, "hard to take seriously," couldn't it be the case that two things can be true at the same time? That this judge can be, as you wrote in this opinion piece, in your words, quote -- wrote about his humility, his generosity, his kindness. You said this is simply not the man we know, what he's being accused of.

Could both things not be true at the same time? That that was your experience with him as you clerked for him, and that this may have been Miss Ford's experience with him?

PITLYK: I have no experience with Miss Ford. I don't know anything about her and I don't claim to know anything about her. All I can speak to is the judge himself and what I and really the whole world at this point know about his character, which is overwhelmingly women have come out of the woodwork through this entire process to testify to the respect with which he treats them, with his championing of us in the workplace, and every other context.

All I can speak to is the judge. And when I was speaking about the political motivations, I wasn't speaking about his accuser. I was speaking about the process by which this has come forward.

HARLOW: Well, but speaking about the process. I mean, her attorney made clear, the accuser's attorney on CNN yesterday, that they specifically asked Senator Feinstein's office not to release this. To keep this entirely confidential. At the wishes of the alleged victim. But you still believe it is politically motivated. What evidence tells you that?

PITLYK: I'm not a political insider, so I don't pretend to know all of the factors that have been involved here, but as someone observing from the outside, it's just very hard to understand why people have known about this for months supposedly, why it's evidently an accusation that's more than three decades old, and why it would only come to light in the very last seconds of a process that has gone on for months. It sort of defies credibility to believe that it's just a coincidence.

SCIUTTO: We should be clear here, though, that the timeline from the accuser's perspective, right?


SCIUTTO: Is that she raised this in July 2018 before he was -- when he was on a short list, before he was the president's nominee here. And she raised it with a tip line to "The Washington Post." She then went to her congresswoman who then passed it on to the senator, et cetera. And she has told friends that part of her difficulty in raising this in years prior was the trauma associated with it, although it did, as we have noted before, come up in a couple's therapy session in 2012.

That is not an unusual pattern with women who have experienced -- and again, I'm making clear here, this is an alleged assault. We're not saying it occurred, but it is a pattern with women who have experienced this kind of behavior to wait because of the shame and the outrage that they might face when they come forward.

How is it fair to say that that in your view is politically motivated?

[10:10:05] PITLYK: Again, I don't have anything to say about Miss Ford or what she has done or why she has done it. What I wrote on Friday and what I still believe is that the process, once she came forward, seems to have been -- it's just very difficult to understand why this is all coming out in an extremely contentious 11th hour situation that is going to cause a tremendous amount of delay, to say nothing of the embarrassment and public spectacle for not just the judge and his family but also the accuser.

It seems like if what we were going after here was the truth or justice, this might have played out in a very different way. That was not quite as damaging for all involved.

HARLOW: And just to be clear before I get to my final question on this, have you spoken to Judge Kavanaugh or anyone close to him in his immediate circle in the last few days about this?

PITLYK: I have not. No.

HARLOW: OK, so on that point of, you know, getting to justice, right? For all parties here. There is a push now to fully investigate this. You heard Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, saying wait, don't rush this. Take lessons from '91. Fully investigate this. Right? Have all voices heard equally here.

Do you believe that the FBI and members of Congress should fully investigate this, no matter how long it takes? Maybe wait, not have the hearing on Monday, wait for all of the facts from an investigation to come forward? Would that be the, you know, best path towards justice for all?

PITLYK: I defer entirely to the Senate Judiciary Committee on the best way to investigate and consider these claims as Judge Kavanaugh has as well. They're the experts on this process, not I.

SCIUTTO: Sarah Pitlyk, thank you for taking the hard questions.

HARLOW: Thanks for being here, Sarah.

PITLYK: Thank you. Thanks.

SCIUTTO: Coming up next, President Trump orders the declassification of sensitive documents related to the Russia investigation and campaign aide Carter Page. An investigation, I should note, that the president is involved in. The president calls it transparency. But is this another move to discredit the entire Russia probe?

HARLOW: Also, a new report the president isn't giving his own legal team some details on key events. That's what "The New York Times" is reporting this morning. But with legal trouble potentially mounting, is this beneficial to the president? We're going to dive into that ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [10:16:51] HARLOW: In an unprecedented move, President Trump has ordered the Justice Department to declassify sensitive documents, classified, to declassify them, and also text messages. All of these related to the Russia probe.

SCIUTTO: This includes portions of the FISA application on his former policy aide, Carter Page, as well as text messages from former intelligence officials including former FBI director James Comey, who was, of course, fired by President Trump, and former agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page.

Joining us now, CNN crime and justice reporter Shimon Prokupecz.

Shimon, it's not the first time the president has declassified here, notable because a number of these folks are potential witnesses against the president in the Russia investigation.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, that's exactly right, Jim. And notable that this investigation is still ongoing, that information will be put out there, will be released before this investigation has essentially concluded. We know that Robert Mueller, the special counsel, is still very much active, presenting evidence to the grand jury.

And what the president here has essentially done is order the FBI, has ordered the Department of Justice really unprecedented to release these documents and also as you said, the text messages. Now what he wants out there is relating to Carter Page. It's the FISA application. And many believe this is being done to try and discredit the entire investigation. It's being done to discredit the FISA application, to discredit the dossier.

Really all in an effort to help himself. That is the president here wants to help himself. And the other thing here, which has never been done before, Jim and Poppy, is that he's ordering text messages, unredacted text messages to be released of the former FBI director, James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, and Lisa Page. Some of this has already been out there, but you know, a lot of it has been redacted.

He's now ordered folks at the Department of Justice to unredact those and put everything out there. And the folks there say that they're working on that, and we're going to see that. We'll see if anyone takes any kind of action to try and prevent this. Certainly, the FBI and the Department of Justice was hesitant in releasing some of this. But we'll see what happens. This could take several days, maybe perhaps even weeks before it's finally released.

SCIUTTO: All the text messages of the former senior most law enforcement official in the country, James Comey, as well as others.

Shimon Prokupecz, thanks very much.

To discuss this and other things, we now have AB Stoddard, she's associate editor and columnist for RealClearPolitics and Susan Page, she's Washington bureau chief for "USA Today," as well as former FBI assistant director Tom Fuentes.

Tom, quickly to you. This is an ongoing investigation, one. And it's one that the president has a direct personal interest in. As a longtime law enforcement official yourself here, is that undue interference in this investigation on the work of U.S. law enforcement?

TOM FUENTES, CNN SENIOR LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, normally, Jim, I would question, you know, very severely about the release of any classified information relating to a case. But in this case, these FISA applications for up to almost two years ago, and I think that normally you would say no, no, no, under no circumstances release sources and methods. But the problem here for me, at least, is that the Department of Justice has on its own lost a great deal of credibility.

[10:20:07] You are not supposed to classify material merely because it will be embarrassing for the government. You have to show that it is a national security risk. And what happened is by all of these lawsuits and subpoenas over documents over the last year or so, where DOJ said oh, no, no, no, we can't release that. They wouldn't give it to Congress and they didn't want the oversight, then later when more and more material was released based on lawsuits by Judicial Watch and documents for release, then later we saw, wait a minute, there was nothing about sources and methods, there was nothing that would compromise national security, especially in the Strzok-Page 50,000 e- mails that have gone back and forth.

And we've only seen a small portion of those numbers, but when they were redacted, we saw no, it was merely embarrassing that this could be going on within the FBI or within the Department of Justice, and that's not reason enough to withhold documents. And I think that that's where because of losing that credibility, it really hurt the Department of Justice.


FUENTES: When I ran the bureau's organized crime program, I oversaw hundreds of affidavits, and we were very strict because we didn't want to abuse the authorities that we had to approve wiretaps because we might have it then questioned on all wiretaps.

HARLOW: So -- go ahead.

SCIUTTO: I was to say, have you seen evidence of abuse of the FISA system? Because you're saying that, you know, lack of embarrassment or desire not to be embarrassed is not a justification for not releasing this but there's really no precedent, is there, for releasing FISA warrants, et cetera, or do you think that should be changed?

FUENTES: Well, maybe. I think it needs to be, you know, really investigated. And I think in this case, what the president ought to do is bring the director of the FBI, Rosenstein, head of the CIA, head of NSA, bring them to the White House and go document by document, line by line, and say OK, what is it in this sentence that's going to compromise our national security? And have at least a more detailed review of what should be released and not released.

And then, you know, we'd have a better idea of why information is being withheld. I think right now there's little credibility for DOJ because of what was held back and then later when it was released, it did not violate national security.

HARLOW: AB, let me get you in here on this because there's also, you know, a lot of talk about how this could potentially backfire politically for the president. Right? The declassification, that as Jim notes is unprecedented on a number of fronts here. Could it backfire if the declassified documents, the FISA warrant for Carter Page, all those text messages from the parties that we named, confirm that, for example, the FBI had more than just the dossier to justify the surveillance of Carter Page or that Bruce Ohr was working appropriately in reporting leads on the Russia probe? Is there a risk here politically for him?

AB STODDARD, ASSOCIATE EDITOR AND COLUMNIST, REALCLEARPOLITICS: Yes, there's a couple things. One, the substance of the text messages and when they come out, what they will reveal. And as you point out, potentially does it not show that there was a deep state, tainted probe into the Trump campaign, but they were in fact, you know, following the correct protocols.

The second thing is the timing. I think that the Trump administration shrewdly chose to make this announcement in the middle of the Brett Kavanaugh controversy so that voters might not notice. Republicans will never come out and say this is an abuse of power. The Democrats will complain, but we're going to see when this actually takes place and what kind of attention is shown on it.

At that point, do the voters pay attention and does it become part of the calculus of what we see now in polling which is 50 percent of Americans want Democrats to come in to the majority as a check on an overreaching President Trump. So it is potentially an abuse of power. We'll see what the response is when, like I said, when the actual data dump happens. If it happened today, right, we're in the middle of this Brett Kavanaugh thing and the White House would be happy to have it consumed by that.

SCIUTTO: So, Susan Page, forgive me for being skeptical here, though, but let's -- this is a president who is involved in this investigation. He's releasing information that he imagines will be helpful to him. I mean, if transparency were the actual motivation, wouldn't the president be releasing communications regarding contacts during the transition between Trump officials and Russian officials? Wouldn't he be releasing private text messages about the Trump Tower meeting in 2016?

I mean, I'm sorry to be skeptical here that this is sort of a transparency play. Is it not part of a broader attack on the Russia investigation with the president's interests at heart?

[10:25:01] SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, USA TODAY: Yes, let's be clear. The president is not doing this because he's concerned about the classification procedures at U.S. intelligence agencies. He's doing this as part of his concerted and continuous attack on the validity and the credibility and the authority of the Russia investigation.

This is something that has been a consistent theme. We see it on Twitter increasingly every day about the witch hunt and about the 17 angry Democrats. Now the problem the president has is that the attacks he's made on the special counsel's investigation have convinced his core supporters that it's illegitimate and they don't need to pay attention to the conclusions.

But it hasn't persuaded other Americans, and in fact, in the polling that we see now, Robert Mueller's credibility and approval rating and favorable ratings are now considerably higher than President Trump's. Mueller's credibility is rising as he continues on what has been a pretty meticulous and airtight and leak-free investigation.

SCIUTTO: Yes. AB Stoddard, Susan Page, Tom Fuentes, thanks very much as always.

Coming up next on CNN, a CNN exclusive. Shrapnel found in Yemen ties U.S. bombs to many of the civilian deaths there.