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House Democrats Target Whitaker's Involvement in "Scam" Company; Conservative Lawyers Form "Checks and Balances" to Stand Up for Rule of Law; First Lady Says White House Aide "No Longer Deserves" to Work in White House; Rick Scott Recuses Himself from Recount Oversight; DOJ Responds to CNN Lawsuit as Other Media Outlets Back Lawsuit, Jim Acosta. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired November 14, 2018 - 13:30   ET



[13:30:12] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Let the investigations begin. Well, maybe here in a couple months, anyway, when House Democrats take power. And they have chosen their first target. It is the Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker. Top House Democrats plan to investigate his involvement in a company accused of bilking millions from consumers. His appointment to replace fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions was criticized by Democrats and some legal experts.

Joining me to discuss that and more we have Francesca Chambers, a senior White House correspondent for "The Daily Mail, and CNN legal analyst, Carrie Cordero, with us.

So this investigation, Francesca, of Whitaker, it's really just the beginning. Democrats have seen to at least be trying to maintain a little discipline here. But what can we expect?

FRANCESCA CHAMBERS, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, THE DAILY MAIL: Oh, absolutely. I think there will be a slew of investigations. Obviously, President Trump tried to warn them not to do that and said we have a beautiful moment of bipartisanship. As soon as he fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions, just hours after that, you could certainly expect that Democrats like Adam Schiff and other people that are becoming into power on these powerful committees will be looking into the president's tax returns and other issues like his appointment of Matt Whitaker.

KEILAR: Carrie, you and a number of conservative lawyers formed a new group, it's called Checks and Balances. It's getting attention, George Conway. the husband of top White House aide, Kellyanne Conway, is a part of this group. Tell us about your mission what you hope to accomplish and who are these e these folks a part of it.

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: So there's a core group of us that launched the group Checks and Balances today. It stands for the rule of law. It is a group of conservative lawyers, many of whom have deep connections to the conservative movement over decades, and these folks are basically saying, you can support certain things, Republicans, conservatives can support certain things the president or the administration has done but there has been too much undermining of the rule of law. This gets to the attacks on the free press, the Justice Department, the general approach of not upholding the Constitution. So this group is saying people, especially on the conservative side, particularly in this moment, need to stand up for the Constitution and stand up for these foundational principles.

KEILAR: One story we're following, Francesca, is Melania Trump flexing her muscle, going public, telling her husband the president, she wanted a national security official fired.

What was your reaction to that?

CHAMBERS: Speaking of battling spouses, right now.

KEILAR: That's right, yes.

CHAMBERS: Yes, this is pretty extraordinary to see a first lady -- it wasn't the first lady to spoke out, it was her spokesperson who spoke out. But to see a first lady's office speak out and call for the firing --

KEILAR: It's presenting the position of Melania Trump, right?

CHAMBERS: Yes, that's right. With that being said, in this White House, we have seen warring factions for nearly two years. And this time, it's the East Wing versus the West Wing. That's a little unusual. But usually in the West Wing, how many times have we seen different areas of the West Wing, different advisers to the president pushing different aspects and then pushing those points into the public to try and persuade the president. So it sounds like the first lady's office just did the same exact thing.

KEILAR: It's unusual.

Carrie, I wonder if you have a reaction to it. Is there an ethical concern?

CORDERO: I look at it as a national security perspective as well, which is, this is an individual as I understand who works with the National Security Council. That's a little different I think for policy folks in Washington --

KEILAR: Really?

CORDERO: -- To think of the first lady, if there's -- we don't know what the reasons are behind this. It's not entirely clear to me.

KEILAR: We do know some. I will say it appears there was some issues about the first lady's Africa trip. There was a feeling that Mira Ricardel retaliated when it came to -- certainly those around her that she retaliated, not giving resources for this trip. There's some bad blood. There's a history.


CORDERO: From the concern of the policy community, the national security community, this might be overstepping into an area that really -- and national security professionals have been stressing this so much -- shouldn't be subject to political influence. The national security piece is sort of a separate piece. And if this person is a national security policy professional, then she should be under the purview of the national security adviser, not the first lady.

KEILAR: Is it different, though, when you're -- first ladies have had their way before. But it's the public nature of it that I think is so much different. Right?

CHAMBERS: The White House is pushing back, might I add, very furiously on this. I had a senior White House official reach out to me just last night to say Mira Ricardel hasn't even met the first lady. So they're not sure how this bad blood generated so aggressively. I had the White House telling me yesterday, as it was reported, she may have been escorted out and fired already, that hasn't happened. She is still working there. So again, there's various aspects and factions trying to use the media to spin their own narrative on this.

[13:35:13] CORDERO: I think a little bitter picture that pervades this administration is the idea professionals, whether it's the Justice Department, the National Security Council and the White House are being dismissed or potentially dismissed on the whim of perhaps the president or the first lady, as opposed to on the grounds of something actually substantive or merit based. And that's a concern for people -- someone like myself who used to work in government in the civil service.

KEILAR: All right. Carrie Cordero, thank you so much.

Francesca Chambers, I really appreciate you being here with us.

CHAMBERS: Thank you.

KEILAR: Right now, in Florida, as the GOP's cries of fraud get louder, a judge is deciding whether thousands of tossed ballots will be in play. I will be speaking with Rick Scott's top campaign adviser next.

Speaking of Rick Scott, it is a picture worth a thousand words as he shows up for the new GOP class photo, even though he is not yet a Senator-elect.


[13:40:43] KEILAR: One Congress, but two very different picture. On the steps of Capitol Hill, a sea of smiles as new House members pose for their class photo. This is the most diverse group of freshmen in history, boasting many firsts, the first Muslim woman, the first Native American woman, and the first African-American women from several states. And then in direct contrast, these are the newly elected Republican Senators, a class photo that took place in the office of the Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

But there was a standout. You are looking at him, in the red tie. That is Rick Scott. He's the governor of Florida, not yet the Senator. While the Florida Senate race has yet to be called, he has declared victory over Democratic incumbent, Bill Nelson, but it hasn't been certified yet.

Meantime, Scott is now officially out of the loop on certifying his own election. The governor has agreed to recuse himself from the election commission that would stamp of approval his Senate election, which is currently in the middle of a recount. I should mention the commission is still staffed by three people who have been handpicked by the governor.

Joining me is Brad Todd, a senior campaign adviser to Rick Scott.

And last night it was -- I wonder if you could walk me through this. Last night, what we heard from your campaign, they said that the call for Scott to recuse himself is, quote, "a made-up talking point" by some P.R. person in D.C. who clearly doesn't understand state law in Florida. Then Rick Scott goes and changes his mind. So why is that?

BRAD TODD, SENIOR CAMPAIGN ADVISOR TO RICK SCOTT: He recused himself in 2014 when his last re-election happened as governor. It's a decision the governor made. It's a pro forma body.

KEILAR: He took several days to do it.

TODD: He doesn't have to.


KEILAR: You guys were resisting it.


TODD: There's nothing in state law that requires him to.

KEILAR: Then why?

TODD: He concluded to do it because he had done it in 2014. It's a decision he made.

KEILAR: Why would he have held out on it before?

TODD: The choice doesn't have to be made yet. He's making this choice early, long before it gets to that Canvassing Board. It's a decision he still had time to make. He's decided to recuse himself, as did in 2014. It's pretty standard.

KEILAR: This photo is fascinating. This is why you're in town. He's up on Capitol Hill, in the Senate majority office. It's stunning, he's not yet the Senator. It hasn't been certified. Why is he doing the victory dance before the dance is over?

TODD: There's no doubt, he is the Senator from Florida. The Florida voters chose him by a margin of 12,549 votes. A third of the counties completed their machine recount. Thus far, with a third of the vote being completed, more than half the counties, actually, the vote has changed the net total 33 votes. KEILAR: You're ahead. You're ahead, but there is a question of whether --

TODD: It's changed 33 votes after 37 counties completed their machine recount. He's down, Bill Nelson is down 12,500. So tomorrow, at 3:00, every county will have completed their machine recount. Bill Nelson will be well behind.

KEILAR: They may not have completed it.

TODD: Thousands of votes.

KEILAR: They may not have completed it.

TODD: Well --

KEILAR: They may go back to the standing results.

TODD: They may go back to the standing results, right, correct. Bill Nelson has a choice to make. Does he want to end his career by dragging Florida through this as a sore loser? He has been in politics since I was 2 years old, 1972. Does he want all of his accomplishments since then wiped out --


KEILAR: What about Rick Scott? What about his political legacy? I understand you and Rick Scott, your campaign has concerns about the process. That is valid. This is a close race. It is not decided yet at this point in time. Why take this nihilistic approach that Rick Scott has taken, your campaign has taken, to throw out allegations of fraud when there's no evidence of it?

TODD: Hold on. First off, the Democratic Party and Bill Nelson are trying to committee fraud in open court. They're trying to throw out Florida's election laws and get counted votes that have already been deleted.

KEILAR: Let's talk about Rick Scott alleging fraud, without evidence. Why take that? When you say he is the Senator, and you -- look, if any candidate, if you want to be any candidate in this race, you want to be Rick Scott. He is in the lead. Why is he undermining the very electoral process that might put him in power?

TODD: Old on a minute. Rick's position is that --


TODD: -- the elector laws should be followed --


KEILAR: No. His position is there's, quote, "rampant fraud."

TODD: Let's go back and look. The elections supervisor in Broward County admitted mixing illegal with legal ballots. KEILAR: Those weren't counted. You know that, Brad.


KEILAR: No, no. You are muddying the water.


[13:45:02] TODD: She also, 30 minutes after the polls closed on Tuesday night, she has to give the total ballots left to count. She gave that total and then she continued to add it to. That's illegal. She has to give the exact total of what's left to count.

Today, in "Politico" --


KEILAR: It may be some incompetence here. Those ballots, to be clear. They weren't added to the vote total. That is a very important fact are you leaving out.

TODD: The question is, today, did all these pieces go together? If you don't abide by anti-fraud laws, we can't tell if there's fraud. Fraud hides in the shadows of non-compliance. In Broward County, there's a lot of noncompliance going on.

"Politico" has a story out today --

KEILAR: OK, in fairness, Rick Scott has been governor for eight years, right?

TODD: He has.

KEILAR: The issues of mostly incompetence with Broward has been known, when it comes to their electoral issues. He had the power to deal with that. And he did not.

TODD: He sent in monitors this year before the election --


KEILAR: Which should have come from the secretary of state's office, which should have given you confidence --

TODD: Florida's --

KEILAR: -- that things were running more smoothly.

TODD: Florida's laws are written in such a way that elections are handled by locally elected supervisors. She is an elected Democrat. She is a Democrat chosen by the people of Broward County. She has been in office four terms. They chose her. Governor Scott believes you honor the will of the voters. The will of the voters was to elect her.

KEILAR: Brad, trying to get to the bottom of this -- it should be done, it's important. When are you alleging rampant fraud, it's not in line with how you are currently characterizing Rick Scott's position.

TODD: Well, you know --


KEILAR: He has questioned the legitimacy of a process. He is questioning faith and trying to break down faith in the electoral process.

TODD: He's not. He's trying to call attention to the fact that there are irregularities in Broward County. Today, we learned, again, in "Politico's" reporting, that it's been turned over to federal prosecutors that the Florida Democratic Party altered documents and told voters they could turn their ballots in as late as Thursday. They could adjust their signatures as late as Thursday after the election. Florida law says it's Monday at 5:00 p.m. the day before the election. Some of those voters were in Broward County. So if Florida Democrats were urging voters to turn their ballots in late, the Broward County supervisors was counting after Tuesday night, and now Democrats have gone to court and asked the deadline of Monday and Tuesday be blown up. These things may add up, Brianna. That's what Governor Scott is trying to shine a light on.

KEILAR: It's important to make sure those are not added to the vote totals. But the tone certainly does matter as well.

Brad Todd, we really appreciate you being here.

TODD: Thank you for having me.

KEILAR: Thank you so much.

The fight to protect the First Amendment. FOX News, the "New York Times," and many others backing CNN and the network's lawsuit against the White House.


[13:52:02] KEILAR: The Justice Department has responded to CNN's lawsuit over pulling the press credentials of chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, saying the White House rejects the idea that it cannot pick and choose which journalists can have access.

This comes as a number of news organizations issued a joint statement, in part, writing, "Our news organizations support the fundamental constitutional right to question this president or any president. We will be filing friend-of-the-court briefs to support CNN's and Jim Acosta's lawsuits based on these principles."

Chief media correspondent, Brian Stelter, joining me now.

Brian, FOX News has repeatedly criticized CNN for its coverage of the president. But it's worth pointing out they're not criticizing the right of CNN for its coverage of the president. They're supporting the access.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN CHIEF MEDIA CORRSEPONDENT & CNN HOST, "RELIABLE SOURCES": It's one of those rare cases where FOX News and CNN and all other networks are in agreement on something. More than a dozen news outlets. Than be a dozen that have come forward today expressing support for CNN's lawsuit. Many are filing what's called a friend of the court brief to support CNN.

The FOX News brief is the strongest of them all. Here is what Wallace wrote a couple hours ago, "FOX News supports CNN in its legal effort to regain its White House reporter's press credentials. We intend to file an amicus brief with the U.S. District court. We do support a free press, access and open exchanges for the American people."

A really strong statement from the FOX News president. I think he deserves a lot of credit for putting that out, especially given that some of his commentators, like Sean Hannity, have been harshly critical of Acosta's style. They think he's a showboat. But that's not what's on trial here. But that's not the issue. It's whether his press pass was taken away unconstitutionally. So we'll have more updates later -- Brianna?

KEILAR: So as we look for those updates later, what is going on? What are we looking toward here?

STELTER: CNN is seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction from the judge today. That would get Acosta's press pass back in his hands right away. CNN wants the judge to declare the Trump administration's action unconstitutional. But the White House is pushing back today in a filing before the court saying that the White House has a lot of room to decide who gets in and who gets out. That is going to be tested by the courts now.

KEILAR: They believe that, as they say, that it's just as they can say who the president calls on in a press briefing or who they grant interviews to, it's the same with access to the White House. Clearly, all of these news organizations disagree with strongly.

[13:55:03] STELTER: That's right.

KEILAR: Brian Stelter, thank you so much, our chief media correspondent.

STELTER: Thanks.

KEILAR: Did the president berate Prime Minister Theresa May in a fiery phone call? We'll speak with one of her former aides.

Plus, harrowing new video from California showing a dramatic escape from the wildfires. We'll take you there.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, my god. Oh, my god.