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House Ethics Panel Issues Judgment Against Two Congressmen Over Sexual Harassment Allegations; White House Ordered to Reinstate Press Pass; Democratic Leadership Intrigue; President Trump Comments on Mueller Probe. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired November 16, 2018 - 15:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[15:00:01]

JEFFREY LEWIS, DIRECTOR, EAST ASIA NON-PROLIFERATION PROGRAM, MONTEREY INSTITUTE OF INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: That, if they don't get what they want, which is eventually relief from sanctions, this process may not be sustainable.

ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: Jeffrey Lewis, great to have you with us. Thank you so much.

LEWIS: It's a pleasure.

CABRERA: Top of the hour. I'm Ana Cabrera, in for Brooke Baldwin on this Friday.

We begin with the president's rare revelation this afternoon about the Russia investigation. A short time ago, President Trump explained how he is cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller, personally writing the responses to Mueller's questions.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My lawyers aren't working on it. I'm working on that. I write the answers. My lawyers don't write answers. I write answers.

I was asked a series of questions. I have answered them very easily. Very easily. I'm sure they're tricked up, because they like to catch people, gee, was the weather sunny or was it rainy? He said it may have been a good day. It was rainy. Therefore, he told a lie. He perjured himself. OK?

So you have to always be careful when you answer questions with people that probably have bad intentions. It didn't take very long to do them and they were my answers. I don't need lawyers to do that. Now, you need lawyers for submittal. You need lawyers to go over some of the answers, but they're not very difficult questions.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: And before that disclosure, President Trump spoke of just how happy he is at the White House after a reporter said he appeared -- quote -- "agitated," as indicated by his stream of tweets he sent just yesterday, slamming the Mueller probe.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: No, I'm not agitated. It's a hoax. They should have never been any Mueller investigation because there was never anything done wrong. There was no collusion. There never has been. You would have known about it a long time ago if there was.

There was nothing -- they should have never had it. They have wasted millions and millions of dollars. There should have never been a so- called investigation, which, in theory, it's not an investigation of me, but it's -- as far as I'm concerned, I like to take everything personally, because you do better that way.

The witch-hunt, as I call it, should never have taken place. It continues to go on. I imagine it's ending now. From what I hear, it's ending, and I'm sure it will be just fine.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: Let's go to the White House and CNN's Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, the president says he hears that the probe is -- quote -- "ending now." Do we know where he's getting that from?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ana, good afternoon.

I mean, clearly, the president believes this is nearing an end. He's hearing that from his lawyers who are working with the special counsel's team on all of this. I mean, one central question hanging over this entire investigation, I mean, for indeed months, is, is the president, was the president going to sit down face-to-face with Bob Mueller?

When he decided against that, he decided to answer some written questions here. So, now the president confirmed for the first time that he is done answering those, but he says they have not been submitted. So, he obviously has reason to believe that this investigation, at least the first phase of it, is nearing an end, but look at just what he is he's been saying and tweeting, more importantly, all week long.

It's clear that he knows more than we do at this point, that he has a sense of, if not where this is going, when this report is going to be issued. So the president was not clear on his timing there, but he said he believes it's coming to an end. So he certainly hears more from his lawyers than we hear publicly, because the special counsel is the only one in Washington who has not said a thing about this entire investigation.

But just judging by the president's actions and words and mood this week, it seems to be nearing a finish. Now, the question is when that will be and what that will be, more importantly. Will there be any collusion found, never mind the obstruction of justice? But the president there putting a voice to some of the things he has been thinking about behind the scenes and tweeting about yesterday -- Ana.

CABRERA: And, again, emphasis on the answers being to, the earlier point, the questions of collusion, not about obstruction of justice.

ZELENY: Only collusion.

CABRERA: So, who knows where that part of the investigation is right now.

ZELENY: Indeed.

CABRERA: We don't have any clues, necessarily.

Jeff Zeleny, at the White House for us, thank you for that update.

ZELENY: Sure.

CABRERA: Let's discuss this further.

And joining me now, CNN political analyst Carl Bernstein, the Pulitzer Prize-winning veteran journalist who helped break the Watergate story.

It's always an honor and a pleasure to have your insight with us.

CARL BERNSTEIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Good to be with you.

CABRERA: Carl, what's your reaction to President Trump's assessment of Mueller's questions, calling them very easy to answer and emphasizing that he answered them, not his lawyers?

BERNSTEIN: Well, they go from him to his lawyers, so what will be submitted to the special counsel will be submitted and vetted by his lawyers.

So I wouldn't put too much stake in what President Trump is saying there. He's spinning something a certain way.

I think that what is particularly interesting -- and we should not get out in front of our skis right now and speculate about where this probe is beyond what we know. He may well be getting information from the new acting attorney general, Mr. Whitaker.

He wanted Whitaker in this position because Trump has been driven crazy by the fact that he does not know what's going on in Mueller's investigation.

[15:05:07]

He now has in Whitaker eyes and ears, a spy, as it were, who can look into the investigation and, presumably -- I don't know this is a fact, but it's been suggested to me by people in the White House -- that Mr. Whitaker has a way of getting back to the White House or to Mr. Trump or the lawyers and say, here is where the investigation stands from what I am able to see with this new pair of eyes and no one in your orbit, Mr. President, has had a good look before.

So that may be part of the equation.

CABRERA: Do you think that's where his tweets came from yesterday, then?

BERNSTEIN: I can't speculate.

CABRERA: Yes.

BERNSTEIN: I think we need to back off the speculation. I think what's important about his tweets are to follow them from Election Day to the present.

What we see in those tweets is a rage-a-holic president who is becoming unhinged day by day, who is lashing out at anything and everything near and around him, to an extent that even in this presidency we have not seen it at this level and with this kind of sustained, over-the-top tenor that we have seen in the last week.

And there must be some reasons for it. Now, he says here he's happy being president. I have no doubt that that's the truth. He is happy and he's settled into the job in I think a way that he finds somewhat comfortable.

But part of that comfort is to appeal only to his base, not to the country as a whole, not to be the president of all the United States, to lash out, and to govern by fear, by intimidation, by dog whistling, racist pronouncements, et cetera, et cetera. And that's where we are.

But what we have seen is a sustained rage, such as we have never seen, and perhaps it's ending today. He seems to be in a better mood perhaps today. But, you know, we are not doctors taking his temperature every day.

CABRERA: Well, we all can listen to what he says and take what we can from that.

BERNSTEIN: Right.

CABRERA: And so when we talk about Mueller, he talks about Mueller, talking about the questions, they are easy to answer.

BERNSTEIN: Yes.

CABRERA: But he also said, even if there's some trickery, implying there is some, I guess, nefarious, you know, intent in some fashion -- and we also heard from Rudy Giuliani, according to "The Washington Post," telling them -- quote -- that "some of the questions create more issues for us legally than others." He called some questions unnecessary, irrelevant and possible traps.

BERNSTEIN: Well, I think that's right.

And also in the Daily Caller interview, we see how upset Trump is at what he is being asked about, because it goes to questions of collusion or conspiracy to undermine, with others, our electoral process.

But what we see repeatedly is the president of the United States saying there's no collusion, when, in fact, we have no basis of knowing whether or not there is no collusion found by Mueller, nor do we think that he has any basis of knowing what Mueller has in this regard.

What we can see in the last few days, though, is, he seems to be unraveling, and that unraveling is taking place against huge spills of information in the -- quote -- "collusion" area, so that something perhaps has been introduced into what he is seeing and hearing up until today that has exercised him on this question.

He is determined to convince his base and the rest of the Congress of the United States that there is no collusion, even if there is collusion. So we have to wait and see what's going to happen here.

CABRERA: He is a master of marketing, of branding, of putting out a message that seems to stick. And he also, we know, values loyalty.

And so he gets rid of Jeff Sessions because he didn't recuse himself -- because he recused himself, rather, and didn't tell him he was going to be recusing himself. He appoints Whitaker, who some have described as a loyalist. And now there's new "New York Times" reporting that Trump has been asking people about whether the vice president, Mike Pence, is loyal to him, to which the White House says, the president absolutely supports Pence and thinks he is doing an incredible job.

And this comes as senior administration officials tell our Jake Tapper that -- quote -- "In this administration, there are arsonists and there are firefighters. The president is looking to get rid of the firefighters. The more he does, the faster his administration is going to burn down."

How do you think Mike Pence fits into that? Is he an arsonist or is he a firefighter?

BERNSTEIN: I think when people like Jake Tapper and Maggie Haberman are hearing what they are hearing, that there's usually -- back to the arson equation, there's usually fire where there's smoke, that there indeed is talk about Pence initiated by the president.

[15:10:05]

I think that's very clear. And nothing is a sure thing in this White House. What is less sure than anything are what the president's words mean.

They mean very little in terms of truthfulness. They mean very little in terms of everything, except perhaps looking at him in a kind of barometer fashion.

CABRERA: Taking his temperature.

BERNSTEIN: His tone and his words, et cetera, et cetera, despite what I said.

But we don't know, and I don't think Trump knows, you know, is Pence going to be on the ticket? I think it probably depends on the situation going into the election. We are a long way from 2020 and that election.

And Mr. Trump is a long way from knowing what his standing is going to be among the people of the United States of America, because, right now, as we saw in these elections, his standing with the people of the country has suffered in the past few weeks. He is aware of it. And that's one of the things that figures in this lashing out.

He also has lashed out at the press yet again, and we have the very important decision in the CNN case, which this network rightly filed to ensure that the First Amendment obtains in the way that the press has access to the president.

CABRERA: Yes.

BERNSTEIN: There's a decision today upholding the first step of that.

CABRERA: That's right.

BERNSTEIN: And -- but he's infuriated above that as well. So we are back to the rage-a-holic president.

CABRERA: Carl Bernstein, good to have you with us. We always appreciate your experience, expertise. Thank you.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you.

CABRERA: Kellyanne Conway's husband calls the Trump administration a dumpster fire. That is a quote. Hear his no-holed-barred interview next.

And happening now, the House Ethics Committee issuing a judgment against two members of Congress involved in sexual harassment-related complaints. Details on that next.

And we have this just in, Nancy Pelosi coming face-to-face with critics within her own party. One of them is a congresswoman who may challenge Pelosi for the speakership role. Hear what happened next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:16:28]

CABRERA: We're watching developments on Capitol Hill at this hour, where House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi just met with prominent Democratic critics today, including a congresswoman who is considering challenging Pelosi for speaker of the House.

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty is on Capitol Hill.

And, Sunlen, I understand you had a chance to speak with Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, who met with Pelosi, also may challenge her for her leadership. What are you hearing?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right.

It certainly was such an intriguing meeting earlier today, Ana. And I spoke with the congresswoman shortly after meeting with Pelosi privately. She said that she went into Pelosi's office today and made it very clear that she is considering potentially challenging her in the run to be the next speaker of the House, that she has not made up her decision yesterday.

And she said that conversation with Pelosi was essentially Pelosi saying to her, what do I have to do to get you to a yes? Now, Marcia Fudge left that meeting saying that she is not discouraged from running for speaker, but she is not encouraged either.

Here is what she said earlier today:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. MARCIA FUDGE (D), OHIO: The meeting went very well. We had a very open and frank discussion. So, I feel good about the meeting.

Certainly, I talked about the growing support that I have and why I'm considering a bid to run for speaker. You know, she was -- to her credit, she wanted to know what my concerns were. We discussed them, and we had a very open and frank conversation.

Now, obviously, I discussed the issues that I have, but certainly said that I wanted to think about it some more and talk about it some more.

QUESTION: Is there anything that you need specifically from her to -- did you walk in with any...

(CROSSTALK)

FUDGE: Well, we talked about some succession planning. We talked about some other things.

I think that the biggest issue that we discussed was the feeling in the caucus of people who are feeling left out and left behind. And so that was my biggest thing. I'm an advocate for the members this caucus, as well as I'm an advocate for the American people.

So I just want to be sure that we are moving the caucus in a direction that the American people want to see it go and that members of our caucus will feel good about.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SERFATY: And one thing very notable from what she said there, a small part where she said that she specifically wanted Pelosi to put in front her succession plan.

That's important, because a lot of Democrats here now coming around to supporting Nancy Pelosi, they want a new generation of leaders or they want some promises from Pelosi on how long she potentially would stay in speaker.

And so Marcia Fudge saying today -- she was asked, would it be enough if Pelosi said, this next, last session of Congress would be her last? And she said, yes, absolutely, that would be enough to get her support.

And whether or not she runs so key to potentially Nancy Pelosi's future as the next speaker up here, because, as of now, she is -- does not have anyone running against her. But, meanwhile, she has a lot of pressure from a lot of people up here on Capitol Hill to potentially, you know, have someone else in the bid, in the mix.

We know that group of small group, but important group of about 18 House Democrats who are saying, we want someone else -- Ana.

CABRERA: I do remember Nancy Pelosi prior to the election saying the idea of her being a transitional speaker was something she would be willing to consider, floating that out there, without providing details.

Sunlen Serfaty, thanks for staying on top of it for us.

And now we have this just into CNN, the House Ethics Committee issuing judgment against two members of Congress involving sexual harassment- related complaints. One of them is a Republican, the other a Democrat.

[15:20:00]

And I want to bring in M.J. Lee, CNN's national political correspondent, to tell us more.

Fill us in, M.J.

M.J. LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: So, two members of Congress have been reprimanded by the House Ethics Committee in two separate reports.

The first report involves Congressman Mark Meadows, he is a Republican from North Carolina, for failing to take prompt and decisive action to deal with alleged sexual harassment in his office.

Now, all of this has to do with his former chief of staff. His name is Kenny West. And the report says that his behavior was -- quote -- "inappropriate in every sense of the word."

Now, making matters worse, according to this report from the House Ethics Committee, is the fact that Congressman Meadows did not terminate West -- this is the former chief of staff -- but rather demoted him to the title of senior adviser, and then continued to pay him, even though the report says there was little evidence that he was actually performing official duties.

Now, Congressman Meadows is being required to pay back the $40,000 that he actually continued paying this former chief of staff to the Treasury Department. And I just want to read a key portion of this report regarding

Congressman Meadows. Here it is: "There is no place in any congressional office for looking up skirts or down skirts, staring at a woman's chest, unwanted touching or making sexual comments, even if subtle or in jest."

And then it goes on to say: "Just as between members and their staff, a power imbalance exists between senior staff and junior staff in congressional offices."

This, I thought, was such a good reminder that sexual harassment on Capitol Hill does not just involve members. Sometimes, it can be between staff. And obviously, Ana, this is politically significant because Congressman Meadows is not some junior member in the House. He obviously has a lot of clout.

He is the chair of the House Freedom Caucus and he is also a key ally to President Trump.

Moving on to the second report that came out from the House Ethics Committee, this involves Democrat Ruben Kihuen. He's a congressman from Nevada. He actually has already announced that he is not seeking reelection, so he will not be coming back.

But, nevertheless, this is an important report involving his own actions, that he was himself accused of sexual harassment. And the report says that Kihuen made persistent and unwanted advances towards women that he worked with. And, again, in this report, too, it says that there is an inherent power imbalance when members romantically pursue individuals who have to work with them.

I just want to read a key portion of the statement that we just got from Congressman Kihuen as well. It says: "After much reflection and introspection, I recognize that, regardless of the fact that I never intended to make anyone feel uncomfortable or disrespected, what matters is how my actions were perceived by the women who came forward. I extend my sincere apologies to each of these women."

Obviously, Ana, we know, and we have discussed this a lot on our air, there's a lot more work to be done when it comes to sexual harassment on Capitol Hill and how that is reported and treated, but, obviously, these two reports are very significant, in that they address the actions or the lack of actions taken by these two members of Congress.

CABRERA: And it goes to show that this issue sees no political sides.

SERFATY: Exactly.

CABRERA: It's bipartisan in terms of the issue affecting all parties, all people.

In all fairness, I want to read a statement we just got from Congressman Meadows, as you were walking us through the allegations, again, pertaining to a staff member of his.

And he says: "Three years ago, I asked the Committee on Ethics to review the matter surrounding the alleged conduct of my former chief of staff, Mr. West, and I am thankful their review has now concluded. I appreciate the committee's acknowledgment of the immediate, appropriate and good faith steps I did take after learning of my staff's concerns, including immediately separate the chief from the accuser, so they never had to interact with him personally during the independent investigation."

He goes on to say: "Making sure my team feels safe and secure in our office is the highest priority for me, and I'm truly sorry for any stress this situation caused them. I thank the Ethics Committee for their work in resolving this. And my office will remain committed to serving Western North Carolinians every day to the best of our ability."

So, that's that.

Thank you, M.J., for your reporting.

So, the husband of one of the president's top advisers says the administration is -- quote -- "a dumpster fire." Hear his wild interview next.

Plus: A Trump-appointed judge rules in favor of CNN, ordering the White House to reinstate Jim Acosta's press pass. Hear what happens next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:29:23]

CABRERA: The White House says it will temporarily reinstate CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta's press today.

Today, a federal judge sided with CNN, saying the White House was wrong in revoking it.

Now, this ruling is an initial victory for CNN in its lawsuit against President Trump and several top aides. And while the judge did not rule on the underlying case, he said he believes CNN and Acosta are likely to prevail.

With us now to discuss, CNN chief media correspondent and host of "RELIABLE SOURCES" on Sundays at 11:00 on CNN, Brian Stelter.

Thanks.

So, this is round one.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Yes, round one, but we don't know how many more rounds there will be.

This actually could conclude pretty quickly, if the White House recognizes today's loss, accepts it, and decides to settle.