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Trump and Pompeo Meet as Khashoggi Crisis Engulfs White House; New Images Show Saudi Officer in Istanbul on Day of Khashoggi Disappearance; Rod Rosenstein Says Mueller Probe Appropriate and Independent. Aired 10-10:30a ET
Aired October 18, 2018 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
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[10:00:00] PAYMON, VOTER FROM NEW YORK: is into the north as well. If everybody votes, we would know that American values are not the way our president sees portraying.
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JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Tell us why you're voting. You can weigh in on the conversation by posting a video, it's easy, to Instagram telling us what's pushing you to the polls. All you've got to do is hashtag it #whyivoteCNN.
Top of the hour now, I'm Jim Sciutto in New York.
POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Poppy Harlow. Right now, President Trump is about to hear what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo heard from the Turkish president and from Saudi royals about the fate of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Pompeo is briefing the president this hour inside the Oval Office just hours after wrapping up that two-day trip that appeared to the world all smiles and handshakes for the cameras. But apparently it was very different when the cameras were not in the room.
SCIUTTO: Sources tell CNN's Jamie Gangel that Pompeo told the crown prince directly to his face that he had better own the Khashoggi outrage or else. For their part, the Turks are still leaking evidence purporting to connect Saudi intelligence and by extension the government and the crown prince to what appears to have been the horrific torture and murder of the Saudi dissident journalist.
We begin this hour with CNN's Kaitlan Collins. She's at the White House.
Kaitlan, yesterday, the president suggested he might take a harder line with the Saudis after hearing what Pompeo has to say today. Will Pompeo lay it out directly to him?
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it all comes down to this. What we have seen is the White House really delay any kind of decision on what to do with the disappearance of this reporter until the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo got back from that trip to Saudi Arabia and to Turkey where he heard Saudi denials and Turkish accusations.
Now it has all come down to this and it's really decision time for this White House after he briefs President Trump because White House officials have repeatedly pointed back, saying we're waiting for him to get back to brief us to then move forward and make a decision. And that's essentially what we're going to come down to here. Now whether or not the president decides to either just try to contain the fallout from this, which is becoming a full-blown diplomatic crisis, or if he's actually going to make a decision to confront Saudi Arabia is still something we're waiting to see.
But if you look at what the president has been saying over the past few days you can kind of guess where this is going. He has repeatedly pointed to the benefits of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, talking about the arms deal, countering Iran's influence in the Middle East, and also pointed out multiple times that Jamal Khashoggi was not an American citizen. He was a resident of the United States.
He lived not far from Washington, in Virginia. But President Trump has repeatedly made clear he is not a U.S. citizen. So that could give us some indication of what it is that we're going to hear from President Trump after he gets formally briefed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. But also, it is decision time here because, of course, we're still waiting to find out what the Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is going to do.
He is scheduled to go to that investment conference in Saudi Arabia, in Riyadh, and he's scheduled to leave for it tomorrow. And so today we're expecting to hear some kind of decision whether or not they've made the decision if he's still going to go, because we know they were still planning on it, but also overall, what is the administration's response going to be to this now that intelligence is increasingly pointing to the fact that not only are the Saudis responsible for this, but that the crown prince and king may have authorized it.
Those are the questions we're waiting to see whether or not President Trump decides to take a hard-line stance on this or not, or continue with this delay method that we've seen, is still to be determined. Hopefully we'll find out soon when we see the president and Mike Pompeo if we do here in the next hour -- Jim and Poppy.
SCIUTTO: Kaitlan Collins at the White House. Thanks very much.
HARLOW: All right. Let's go to Ben Wedeman, he joins us in Istanbul.
Ben, let's talk about what we have seen from the Turks in terms of this investigation. We've got some new photos that have been released. It could be very significant. Where do things stand at this hour?
BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Poppy. Those photos you refer to are four CCTV photos published in a Turkish newspaper this morning Sabah which show one man, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, who is a colonel in Saudi intelligence. Somebody who traveled with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the United States, to the U.K., and is a member of his elite protection force. It shows him going into the Saudi consulate here in Istanbul behind me
at 9:55 a.m. and then leaving the same day on -- this is the 2nd of October, the same day that Jamal Khashoggi went into this consulate and was never seen leaving. And then we see Colonel Mutreb leaving at, according to this CCTV pictures, at 4:53 p.m. That's about three and a half hours after Jamal Khashoggi entered into the consulate.
Now this obviously puts him essentially at the scene of the crime. This is a man very close to the Saudi crown prince.
[10:05:03] And we also in addition to these two CCTV photos, there's a photo of him at Istanbul's Ataturk Airport, about to get on to a plane. A plane that apparently was confiscated by some of those Saudi billionaires who were detained at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh on the 4th of November 2017, and were owned now by a company affiliated with Mohammed bin Salman. So there's lots of links that are coming together, all of them the common factor is a relationship with the Saudi crown prince -- Jim, Poppy.
HARLOW: Ben, important reporting and developments. Thank you for that.
All right. Let's go to Riyadh now, Sam Kiley joins us with more.
SCIUTTO: So, Sam, what are the Saudis saying? Anything new this morning? I mean, they have mounted an aggressive public defense. Any sign of that changing?
SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No. What's been intriguing, really, is the Saudis have rarely put out, it's now several days since any kind of an official have made any kind of statement. They are talking to us privately both here and in Turkey, but in terms of the public statements, the general reaction in the Saudi-controlled press, this is -- remains the story that it is Qatar and Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood that have cooked up this piece of theater to besmirch the reputation of Saudi Arabia, and that the official or semi-official state media here is saying that this is simply not true. That there is any kind of Saudi involvement whatsoever in the disappearance of Mr. Khashoggi.
Now, Jim and Poppy, we know also that behind the scenes they are struggling to come up with a narrative that would accept some of the existing facts as they are now known, but distance the crown prince and the king, the royal court, from any decision-making process or knowledge of what might have happened in that consulate.
We understand that that is a process that is ongoing. It is the process that they're calling the investigation. And also, bear in mind that those 15 people who went to Turkey are now all back here. Some of them fairly well known and prominent. One of whom is a prominent forensic pathologist. His whereabouts, we have reached out, we've got his phone numbers and so on. They've all gone to ground, and indeed most people in this country would not be willing to speculate one way or another about this story at all. Very few were even prepared to talk on the phone -- Poppy, Jim.
SCIUTTO: Can't imagine why that would be, right? In the current environment.
Sam Kiley, thanks very much.
Joining us now is CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen. Immense experience in the region including in Saudi Arabia.
Peter, CNN is reporting as you know is that Mike Pompeo in his private meeting with the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was very direct. Making it clear that the U.S. position is that the Saudis have to own this. That the intelligence points in the direction of their responsibility. Now he's got to sit across from the president, the president who's been at best reluctant to make public comments criticizing the Saudis.
Based on what you know of his relationship with Trump, will he push the president for more definitive, decisive action?
PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Jim, I don't know. But I think what we are seeing is the Saudis -- picking up on some of the things that Sam said, the Saudis are going to come up with a plausibly deniable kind of explanation that excludes the crown prince and the king from the decision-making but does identify a pretty senior Saudi official as being in charge of the operation.
It looks like a senior official in the Intelligence Ministry is a person who either led the operation and-or is going to be fingered for it or both. And the narrative will be that he kind of got ahead of himself, sort of put together his own team. The whole thing went wrong. And that's going to be the story. And I think that's -- I mean, if we look -- if you take, Jim and Poppy, what we've seen over the last two or three days in terms of the reporting both by CNN and others, I think that will be a kind of face-saving maneuver and it kind of accords with what the president has said about a rogue operation, and the fact is the Saudi-American relationship is very important for all the reasons that we all know.
SCIUTTO: But, Peter, based on what we know of how Saudi Arabia operates, it's a top-heavy system.
SCIUTTO: The royal family exerts --
SCIUTTO: You know, massive control. The crown prince is extremely powerful and aggressive. Is that at all credible?
SCIUTTO: To imagine that a deadly operation, assassination, abduction, would happen without his knowledge?
[10:10:01] BERGEN: Remember Henry II said about Thomas Becket, who will rid me of this turbulent priest? This is in 1170. And four knights went out and killed him. So the point is, we'll never be able to prove that Mohammed bin Salman ordered a particular kind of operation. There will be no writing. It's nothing in writing. And at the end of the day, the United States is probably going to look for a way to sort of say, hey, they produced this thing that is sort of plausible narrative, and we're just going to choose to believe it even if it's implausible on its face.
HARLOW: Well, and even if it screams incredulity, just, you know, to think, as Jim rightly points out, that it would not go up that high and that in a system like that the crown prince and the king would not know.
Do you remember the late great Senator John McCain who said our values are our interests, and our interests are our values? So if you ascribe to that, if you do, can Mohammed bin Salman be a reliable ally for the United States?
BERGEN: I think it doesn't really matter because at the end of the day, you know, he cares about Saudi politics, not American politics. And at the end of the day, interests trump values unfortunately in so many of our relations, and I'm not making that as a defense.
BERGEN: I'm just making it as an observation. My guess is, and I don't see -- look, he's a totalitarian ruler. He's gotten rid of not only every dissident and critic but any other potential source of -- there is nobody who's going to come -- there's going to be no kind of military coup led by the National Guard because he fired all those guys and put in his own people. So what is their mechanism of getting rid of him? King Salman, this is his favorite, you know, this guy is his favorite son.
I think he will weather the storm and he will be around, you know, for a long time. You know, and I think the United States, unfortunately, probably, you know, come to that conclusion. They know that he's responsible, but they're not going to put pressure on the royal family to get rid of him because that's not going to happen. It would be counterproductive, I think.
SCIUTTO: Well, it's sort of what Khashoggi himself predicted, right?
SCIUTTO: As we read his editorial earlier, that was in there. That sadly it doesn't look good for those kinds of freedoms in the region.
Peter Bergen, thanks very much for adding your wisdom as always.
BERGEN: Thank you.
HARLOW: Still to come, quote, "appropriate and independent." Those are the words of the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein this morning in the "Wall Street Journal," defending the special counsel's Russia probe. Exactly the opposite of the president who calls it a witch hunt.
SCIUTTO: And from ally to enemy, Michael Cohen meets with prosecutors again investigating President Trump's family business.
[10:17:12] SCIUTTO: Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein strongly coming to the defense of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. He told the "Wall Street Journal" that the probe is both, quote, "appropriate and independent."
President Trump, as I'm sure you know, has called the probe repeatedly a witch hunt, so how will he react to Rosenstein's comments? He obviously has the power to get rid of him if he wanted to.
HARLOW: He hasn't taken to Twitter yet, but it's only 10:17 in the morning.
Rosenstein's alliance with the president has been precarious at best. Last month, "The New York Times" reported that Rosenstein floated the idea of secretly recording the president with a wire and also discussed potentially using the 25th Amendment to remove him from office, which Rosenstein denied.
Let's discuss with Shan Wu, our legal analyst who also I should note formerly represented Rick Gates, now indicted as Trump campaign official.
Nice to have you here. So --
SHAN WU, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Thank you.
HARLOW: You know, Rosenstein doesn't do a lot of interviews. It's notable that he did this with the "Wall Street Journal," it's a largely conservative readership. We'll see how the president responds.
Do you think it makes a dent, though, in the president's narrative that this is a witch hunt, at least among the president's supporters?
WU: Not at all. I don't think it will change the president's narrative at all. I think it is quite fascinating that Rosenstein gave this interview at this time. I think it probably reflects his consciousness that his time could be limited, at the very least, it's always a day-to-day situation. So I think he wanted to get out in front of the midterms and make this statement. It doesn't seem like it's particularly startling that his opinion would be that the investigation is justified and appropriate.
I was struck by the language that it's the right result, which I don't know if he intended that, but it suggests that he kind of knows what the result is at this point. So I thought that was very intriguing.
SCIUTTO: That is interesting. There is talk, and again, like I always say, the Mueller investigation is a black box. We don't -- it does not leak. So we don't know for sure, but there is talk of perhaps a preliminary report after the midterms, though there's also some expectation that other lines of inquiry will continue after that. But if the president were to fire after the midterms Rod Rosenstein, Jeff Sessions, with the intention of influencing the special counsel's investigation, wouldn't it be too late now?
I mean, what would -- if you put a friendly person in there to oversee this investigation now, what influence could they have?
HARLOW: What would they do?
WU: I think the influence they would have is possibly how widely the report would be disseminated and just how much of it would be disseminated because Mueller reports at the moment to the Deputy AG. If there was a new AG, he might report directly to AG, but it's that person who is supervising the investigation for the Justice Department, and they could put out very little in terms of the contents, or they could, you know, pretty much give it en masse to Congress and to the public.
[10:20:04] So I think that's strategically where Trump and his lawyers would want the control who is actually making that decision at that time.
HARLOW: Let me ask you about Don McGahn, White House counsel Don McGahn. He's walked out of the White House. He's done with his job there. He's being replaced by Patrick Cipollone. And we've learned, of course, CNN, and the president have had their differences on a host of issues and significantly pertaining to this. He spoke to Mueller's team for something like 30 hours, right, over the last year or so.
Now that he's no longer representing the interests of the White House, and no longer in the White House, I don't know, anything that you would think in terms of Mueller wanting to talk to him again? Does it open him up to say more now?
WU: It's possible that Mueller could want to talk to him again, although, you know, I was astounded when I heard how much time he spent with them. I suspect they pretty much covered everything from A to Z with him already, and most likely, they're done, unless new leads develop that they have to follow. I do think that the privilege issue in terms of his executive privilege doesn't go directly to the president, would still be there.
WU: I mean, there could be an argument that he waived it, but I think if there was a sensitive issue, I think they would probably try to have him reassert that because originally it just seems odd that he walked into that and they did appear to waive it, but there's always a strong argument that you don't permanently waive a privilege like that.
HARLOW: Got it. Shan Wu, nice to have you. Thanks again.
SCIUTTO: We always wonder if the president sees him as somehow disloyal now because he spoke to the special counsel so --
SCIUTTO: So liberally.
Paul Ryan with a warning to GOP voters with less than three weeks to go before the midterms, beware of a green wave of money backing Democrats. We're going to discuss that next.
[10:26:34] HARLOW: All right. Right now, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled for a meeting at the White House in the Oval Office with the president. So if they're on time, they're in there right now.
SCIUTTO: This following his fact-finding mission in Saudi Arabia and Turkey to learn more about the investigation into the apparent murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Let's discuss with Ron Brownstein, CNN senior political analyst, and Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for "USA Today."
So bring us into that room, if you can, Ron Brownstein. You have Mike Pompeo who we're told, Jamie Gangel reporting, that when he met with the crown prince, he was very direct in private. Forget the smiles in public and private, he said listen, this looks bad. Something happened here. You've got to own it. You have a president who's been, shall we say, reluctant to call out the Saudis in public. How does this end up?
RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, I don't think we know how this ends up. Except that we know that almost every, I think, Western government will -- is moving toward a position. I think the only possible position of viewing this as a premeditated act by Saudi leadership and the question is whether the U.S. is part of that consensus or whether the U.S. is isolated.
I don't think there is any chance that the president's position over the last few days will end up being the dominant response of the world to this premeditated murder. And so, I mean, in some ways that is the question. I mean, the question is less what the U.S. does in some ways than whether the U.S. is isolated or not, and I am struck again as we often talk about the question of how far Congress will go in allowing the president to move down this lane. You saw Bob Corker complaining today that --
HARLOW: Right. The intel.
BROWNSTEIN: They won't share the intelligence.
HARLOW: Right. BROWNSTEIN: You know, the Congress is not a bystander. They have
options here if they believe -- if they believe the executive branch is not responding appropriately.
HARLOW: But, Susan Page, the question becomes, will Congress exercise them? And there is something that happened this week that didn't get a lot of attention but is interesting at a minimum in terms of optics.
On Tuesday, which is the same day that Pompeo was in Saudi meeting with the Saudi king and the crown prince, the Saudi government transferred $100 million to D.C., to Washington, to the government. Now -- to the State Department specifically, which says look, that was for Syria stabilization, that was a long time in the making, et cetera. The timing is just a coincidence. And that may be, but what it does show is the reliance of this country and the -- you know, the connectivity between our country and Saudi Arabia when it comes to financing things that are significant to our interests.
SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, USA TODAY: And of course, that's been part of President Trump's argument here in taking what is at least a go-slow approach in terms of responding to this apparent horrific assassination.
Now, the question is, as Ron says, will the United States be isolated from the world response? It's also, will the White House be isolated from the American response? Because I think it is entirely possible that the Congress will do what it did when it came to Russian sanctions, which is enforce Russian sanctions with a veto-proof majority and basically force President Trump to accept them against his will. You know, that is a track we may well be on with this one because --
HARLOW: Do you really think so? I just ask because the interest here when it comes to U.S. interests in Iran, for example, in Syria, for example, it's very different in terms of the reliance the U.S. has on Saudi Arabia versus the reliance the U.S. does not have on Russia.
PAGE: Well, that's true.