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New Ad Calls on Americans to Vote and Honor McCain Legacy; Former White House Counsel Says Russia Probe is Not a Witch Hunt; Shadow of Journalist's Death Hangs Over Saudi Conference. Aired 3:30- 4p ET

Aired October 23, 2018 - 15:30   ET


[15:30:00] ERICA HILL, CNN HOST: Moments from now at two events that we are watching, the president set to face reporters during a bill signing. Plus, Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, making an appearance from the State Department and all this as we're told the President says he feels betrayed by the Saudis over the murder of a journalist. Standby. Plus, mavericks needed. A new voting campaign aimed at honoring the legacy of John McCain.


[15:35:00] HILL: It's been nearly two months since Senator John McCain passed away from brain cancer. His namesake nonprofit, however, wants his values and his goals to live on in politics. The McCain Institute launching a new push to encourage voting ahead of the midterms. It's called "Mavericks Need." Take a look.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, FORMER REPUBLICAN SENATOR, ARIZONA: We stand for truth against falsehood, freedom against tyranny, right against injustice, hope against despair. I believe we must always stand up for it for if we do not, who will?


HILL: That ad is part of this two-year campaign, which is aimed at boosting civic engagement regardless of party. Joining us now to talk more is, of course, the executive director of the McCain Institute and also former ambassador to NATO. Good to have you with us. We can't help but notice that the President's name is not mentioned anywhere in that ad campaign. But in many ways, the message does feel that it could be directed at him. Is it?

KURT VOLKER, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, THE MCCAIN INSTITUTE AT ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY: Well, it's not meant to target any particular individual, any politician or even any current issue frankly. It's really about trying to inspire in our citizenry the kind of leadership, the kind of courage, the kind of commitment to action that John McCain represented. He was about very big issues. He was always fighting for a cause greater than self-interest. He was always fighting for others. And that's a spirit that I think we need to capture and project forward. And so, we're really trying to reach out to the public broadly, especially young people, and encourage them to become more civically engaged.

A first step is voting. However, they want to vote. And then beyond that we'd like to maintain a connection with people who are committed to doing what they can to solve problems in this country.

HILL: As I understand it, the idea for this came about in the spring before Senator McCain passed, how involved was he in this planning?

VOLKER: Well, we talked a lot about human rights. That was one of the lead in discussions with him. The McCain Institute was set up about six years ago. And we've developed some very solid programs in advancing the next generation of character-driven leadership, in combatting human trafficking and we wanted to launch into an area talking about human rights. As we discussed it more and more and we research this over the summer, we learned that people don't have a clear idea of what human rights are.

In fact, there's a bit of a lack of clarity about civics, about the role of government, about the role of citizens in a democracy. So, we decided to go bigger than just human rights initially and say, you know, we need to be reaching out to our own public and try to encourage them to show leadership and be engaged. From there we hope that they will be embracing and advancing all of those core American values that we all believe in, freedom, democracy, human rights, human dignity, those sorts of things. And so, that's how we came up with this campaign. We started talking about human rights and then made it a broader message.

HILL: And then it evolved. There's the maverick pledge, as we know. And the maverick as we saw in ads defined as, you know, stepping up for others. Defending others as you pointed out. Focusing on the greater good and your contribution to a larger community. The President both last night and today has touted the fact he very proudly considers himself a nationalist, putting this country first above perhaps global interest. Can you be both a maverick and a nationalist?

VOLKER: Well, you know, John McCain's campaign slogan in one of his presidential campaigns was country first. And what that means is that you're a patriot, you believe in this country, you want to do what's right for this country. It's not an exclusive thing. You're not doing it against others but you are standing up for and believing in those values that define what we are as Americans and trying to lead in a way that helps others.

HILL: Kurt Volker, pleasure to have you with us today. Thank you.

VOLKER: Thank you.

HILL: Up next, a CNN exclusive. President Trump's former White House attorney speaking publicly about what he thinks of the Russia investigation.


GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: He calls it a witch hunt. Do you think it's a witch hunt?

TY COBB, FORMER TRUMP WHITE HOUSE LAWYER: I don't think it's a witch hunt.


HILL: In fact, he went further saying he thinks Robert Mueller is a hero. Find out why.


HILL: Former Trump White House lawyer breaking with his boss, his ex- boss at this point. In a rare interview, with CNN's Gloria Borger, Ty Cobb says he doesn't think the ongoing investigation over Russia is a witch hunt, in fact, he's calls special counsel, Robert Mueller, a hero. Take a listen.


COBB: Bob Mueller is an American hero in my view. while he was injured carried one of his fellow soldiers out of harm's way in Vietnam. He was a very serious prosecutor. He and I first met in the mid-80s. We were prosecuting different places. And I've respected him throughout.

[15:45:00] When I interviewed for the position, I had some specific issues that I wanted to discuss in advance. You know, it was important to me in order to accomplish the task that I had, which was, you know, honorably interacting with the special counsel and facilitating either a court battle over, you know, documents or working out a way to cooperate. It was important to me not to have criticism wildly thrown back or documents or working out a way to cooperate. It was important to me not to have criticism wildly thrown back and forth and turn it into a Ken Star-like process, the way that ended up. I think it was largely successful on the front end. It's deteriorated some on the back end. But, you know, the President has a new personal team now and he's in charge of those guys.

BORGER: But he calls it a witch hunt. Do you think it's a witch hunt?

COBB: I don't think it's a witch hunt.


HILL: Joining me now, Berit Berger, former federal prosecutor in the southern and eastern districts of New York. Doesn't think it's a witch hunt. Calls Robert Mueller a hero. Obviously very different than what we heard or are hearing from the President himself. Is this also just a real glimpse into why he left, you think, the legal team?

BERIT BERGER, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR, EASTERN AND SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK: Yes, it could be. I mean, to me you have Cobb here speaking as a lawyer -- and a serious lawyer at that -- as opposed to a politician. I mean, obviously, he knows this is not a witch hunt, right? The special counsel's office has the indictments and guilty pleas and cooperating witnesses to prove at this point that this is not a witch hunt, that this was a serious investigation. So, Cobb obviously knows that. It's a different strategy, obviously, than the President's taking, which is to just repeating the fact that this is a rigged witch hunt over and over again.

HILL: And what's fascinating too, is that's the strategy that seems to have been encouraged in many ways by Rudy Giuliani. Since he came on board and it is more of a PR strategy than a legal strategy. You put this out there. You will repeat something enough times. That's what people focus on. Especially when you're not hearing anything from the Mueller team because they are so tightlipped. Is it working in terms of a PR strategy?

BERGER: I think it might be. I mean, look, the results of this kind of a tactic to just continually stress the power of repetition, keep calling something rigged. The result of this is no matter what happens, regardless of what the special counsel's office comes out with, there's going to be a huge percentage of the population that just thinks it's illegitimate. Why? Because for the last many months, they're been hearing time after time again that this is all rigged and it's just a witch hunt.

So, even though Cobb I think was approaching this this whole time -- and he's a former prosecutor as well. He's approaching this as a serious legal battle that they're going to be fighting in court. I think the other side of the President's legal team has been focusing on this as like a PR stunt that should be fought out not in a courtroom but on Twitter.

HILL: Fascinating to hear from him. Berit, always good to see you, thank you.

At any moment now, the Secretary of State is supposed to speak to the press. We are waiting on that moment. We'll be listening in life for any updates. Could they involve the investigation into murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi? All of this, of course, happening as the crown prince gets a standing ovation at that Saudi conference that a dozen of global leaders boycotted. Details on how the murder of Jamal Khashoggi is actually hanging over that meeting.


HILL: Cia director, Gina Haspel, is on the ground in Turkey, trying to get to the bottom of what happened to "Washington Post" columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Her arrival comes as sources tell CNN President Trump has become increasingly irritated with the situation and feels betrayed, blaming Saudis for making him look bad.

Turkey's President said evidence shows Khashoggi was murdered in a ferocious manner and also rejected the Saudi's explanation that his death was accidental. Here's what Vice President Mike Pence had to say earlier.


MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This brutal murder of a journalist, of an innocent man, of a dissident, will not go without an American response. And I expect without an international response.

We'll also, as we go forward, as we demand that those who are responsible are held accountable for this barbaric act, we will also do so in the light and in the context of America's vital natural interests in the region.


HILL: Now, all of this, of course, playing out as Saudi Arabia's investment conference kicks off. Dozens of business leaders, of course, pulled out of the event, but it's still going on. CNN business editor, John Defterios, is in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia covering that conference and the crown prince actually made a surprise appearance. What was that reception like?

JOHN DEFTERIOS, CNNMONEY EMERGING MARKETS EDITOR: Well, he did get a good reception, Erica. In fact, he was very almost stubborn-willed to go ahead with this investment summit against some advisers who suggested let the investigation finish. Maybe you can do this in 2019. But he wanted to mark their one-year anniversary of this event when they had 4,000 business leaders here last year.

But they lost about 60 speakers, 30 of them A-listers. But he was almost wrapped up in a cocoon of Middle East support today. King Abdullah of Jordan walked in with Mohammad bin Salman late in the afternoon, as a fleeting visit of only 15 minutes. Also, the ruler of Dubai, who's also the prime minister of the UAE, built up the Emirates, he came in with a large entourage of 300 people. But let's be blunt. It wasn't the 2017 event when the crown prince arrived on the scene and he went to Wall Street thereafter and then to Silicon Valley. He has been battered, there's no doubt about it, but he did get the support from the Middle East, also Russia and China here.

[15:55:00] Indicating, look, let's not pass judgment too quickly, even though the criticism in the West, as you suggested, even with Vice President Mike Pence is very high right now.

HILL: And so, this warm reception, not passing judgment too quickly, is it being chatted about, though, amongst attendees?

DEFTERIOS: A hundred percent. In fact, I talked to the CEO of a very large Saudi trading group who said to me, look, it hovers over us, John, like a cloud here. Everybody's talking about it. This launched as President Erdogan of Turkey was making his opening remarks, and everyone was waiting for shocking news, the news continues to come out. They almost think it's a drip, drip, drip style against Saudi Arabia. A strategy against the kingdom here.

But I talked to the CEO of Saudi Aramco, Amin Nasser, and I said, how do you proceed with an event like this, pull in investment? What does it do to Saudi, Inc. with Jamal Khashoggi's case sitting on the sidelines and the horrendous news we've been hearing? Let's take a listen to him.


AMIN NASSER, CEO, SAUDI ARAMCO: Everybody here feel sorry for the death of Jamal Khashoggi. We feel sorry also for his family and what happened. But at the end of the day, you know, we need to move beyond that. It happens. The kingdom recognized what happened and taking the steps to make sure it will be addressed through the legal system that exist within the country in deal with the people that committed this crime.


DEFTERIOS: The CEO of Saudi Aramco, Amin Nasser. Interesting, Erica, at the start of the event, to your point, we had two prominent Saudis, Lubna Olayan, is the CEO of a very large $20 billion industrial group here, signaled out the condolences to the Khashoggi family and said this is not part of our culture, we need to get to the bottom of it. Even the powerful minister of energy on stage, Khalid Al-Falih, said, look, we need to know what has happened going forward and be transparent for the future of Saudi Arabia, particularly we owe it to the younger generation was his message, as well.

HILL: I'm sure you were able to hear, but just before we came to you those strong words from Vice President Pence today. We know Secretary Mnuchin --


HILL: -- pulled out of the conference, but he's still there. He's meeting in Riyadh is part of this six-country trip I believe. So, he'll be meeting with Saudi officials. What do we know about those meetings?

DEFTERIOS: Well, I find it extraordinary, Erica. You know, last Thursday he was waiting for the cue from President Trump whether to go or not to Riyadh. It was very clear in my indications here he wasn't coming to the Future Investment Summit, but did something even more outrageous, you could even suggest. He came in 24 hours earlier, had a one-on-one meeting with Mohammed bin Salman. He took the view that engagement is very important. But as a different narrative than he used on American soil at the White House, saying it wasn't the right time to go.

Clearly, the business interests, the military contracts, the inflated employment numbers related to those contracts, $110 billion. There's another $200 billion on the table, about a quarter have been allocated. That seems to be the predominant theme from the Trump administration here. Counter that against a Patrick Pouyanne of Total, the big energy giant, who is very transparent about the fact he had an $8 billion contract.

The French government was against the idea, condemning Saudi Arabia last week and over the weekend. But he said, look, these are my partners, I've been here for years. I'm going to be going. And he made a public appearance. Unlike Steven Mnuchin. Didn't come to the conference today, but he was prevalent in Riyadh 24 hours ago. We've seen the same case, the number of bankers, as well, Erica, the major CEOs from Wall Street did not come, or the city of London. But they're underlings were here and doing business behind the scenes. Crystal clear.

HILL: Yes, it is. I was going to bring in Michelle Kosinski, who's at the State Department, where we had mentioned, we are waiting for secretary Pompeo to speak. That is supposed to happen at any moment now. These strong words we have heard from Vice President Pence, Michelle, this will not go without an American response. Do we have any more sense of what we may hear from the secretary?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and this is going to state any minute. He's expected to deliver remarks to the press and we don't know exactly what those remarks will be. We also expect this to last around 15 to 20 minutes. So that's not a lot of time for questions, although we do expect him to take them.

So, I expect that these questions are going to be dominated by the Khashoggi issue. I mean, he went to Saudi Arabia, he had these meetings. Secretary of State Pompeo was the one that's really handling this relationship in lieu of Jared Kushner who's been there. And days ago, Kushner said that it's Pompeo that's going to be the one that's going to sort out what information is credible from the Saudis and from the Turks. Big questions are going to be, you know, you sat down with the crown prince and other Saudi officials. What reason do you have to trust anything they say? Do you trust the Saudis to conduct any sort of incredible investigation here, along with Turks? And do you trust what the Turks are saying about this -- Erica?

HILL: It will be interesting to hear those answers. Michelle, John, thank you both. Thanks to all of you for joining us this afternoon. Stay tuned. "THE LEAD" with Jake Tapper starts right now.