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3 Senate Democrats File Lawsuit Against Acting A.G. Whitaker; Trump: I Answered the Questions for Mueller Myself; Trump Ramps Up War of Words with General Behind bin Laden Raid; 80 Dead, 1000 Missing as California Wildfires Continue Burning. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired November 19, 2018 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:00] CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: After one could argue that so much of the country is addicted. So now, what is the path forward here?


Thank you.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Communities across the country, similar experiences.

HARLOW: Thanks for being with us today. We'll see you tomorrow morning. I'm Poppy Harlow.

SCIUTTO: And I'm Jim Sciutto.

"AT THIS HOUR" with Kate Bolduan starts right now.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan.

We're following breaking news this morning. Three Senate Democrats filing a lawsuit today, challenging Matthew Whitaker's appointment as acting attorney general.

I want to get over to CNN justice reporter, Laura Jarrett, for more on this.

Laura, what's going on here? What are you seeing?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Hey there, Kate. The Senate Democrats are launching this latest lawsuit, escalating the legal battle we have seen against Whitaker's appointment over the last several days. Their basic argument is, because he wasn't appointed and confirmed by the Senate, his appointment is actually unconstitutional. We have seen this argument raised in recent days by legal scholars, including Kellyanne Conway's husband, George Conway, but the Senate Democrats are the first lawmakers to take a crack at it.

I want to read to you part of the statement issued from Senator Blumenthal, one of the Senators who is part of this. He put out this statement saying, in part, "Installing Matthew Whitaker so flagrantly defies constitutional law that any viewer of 'Schoolhouse Rock' would recognize it. Americans prize a system of checks and balances, which President Trump's dictatorial appointment betrays."

Now, of course, the Justice Department would strongly disagree with this. Last week, they put out a very robust explanation of why his appointment is valid, is constitutional, and they point to an entirely different statute, the federal Vacancies Act, which allows someone who is above a senior level here at DOJ, who has been here over 90 days, to take on the position in an acting basis. They say because the appointment is temporary, it's just fine.

But there are other legal battles out there. The state of Maryland, the attorney general there, a Democrat, has also filed suit, Kate, so we'll see more of these, I expect to come.

BOLDUAN: All right, Laura, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

JARRETT: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: At the same time, the president has said this numerous times, "I would love to speak with Bob Mueller. I'm looking forward to it. Nobody wants to speak more than me."

Mark this, then, as exhibit number -- I have completely lost count at this point. This is then. That was then, this is now. Listen.



DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think we wasted enough time on this witch hunt. And the answer is probably. We're finished.


BOLDUAN: Yes, now President Trump is suggesting he will not sit down with the special counsel after all. This comes the very same week he says he will submit written answers to the open book take-home test that the special counsel sent his way.

But he won't be taking steps to protect the Russia investigation overall. The president says he's leaving that up to his new acting attorney general, the very same attorney general we were just discussing, who is now being challenged in court, who is also the same attorney general who is very publicly and very often criticized the Mueller probe. Listen to this.


WALLACE: If Whitaker decides in any way to limit or curtail the Mueller investigation, are you OK with that? TRUMP: Look, it's going to be up to him. I think he's very well

aware politically. I think he's astute politically. He's a very smart person. A very respected person. He's going to do what's right.


BOLDUAN: All right. CNN's Kaitlan Collins is at the White House.

The president slamming the likely incoming chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, with an oddly worded tweet, I guess we can say. What's going on?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Oddly worded is a nice way to put it. This is Adam Schiff, of course, someone who has been a longtime critic of President Trump. And speaking as Laura was of those Democrats going after Whitaker, Adam Schiff said he believed Whitaker was installed to run the Justice Department, even temporarily, with the sole purpose of interfering in the Russia investigation. And President Trump shot back at that, misspelling Adam Schiff's last name with two letters they don't believe is a typo, also noting in the tweet that we have that the Special Counsel Robert Mueller was not approved by the Senate. That's because, Kate, that has been a big criticism from people like Adam Schiff, talking about Matt Whitaker because he wasn't confirmed to be the attorney general, even temporarily. Of course, Robert Mueller is the special counsel. He's not a cabinet level official. He doesn't have to be confirmed by the Senate, though he has been in his times at the FBI director. This is the president and Adam Schiff going back and forth as the president has with several other Democrats in recent days who are growing increasingly critical of Matt Whitaker's appointment as the attorney general, even if it's just on an acting basis.

Now, President Trump was asked in that clip, in that interview with Chris Wallace, is he OK if Matt Whitaker tries to limit the scope of the Russia investigation? He essentially said he believes Matt Whitaker's criticisms of the Russia investigation have been founded and he won't overrule him if he does decide to limit it. That's setting us up clearly as you have seen by what Laura announced with the lawsuit, setting it up between the White House and Capitol Hill for this fight over who is going to be running the Justice Department for the next few months.

[11:05:21] BOLDUAN: Absolutely. Great to see you, Kaitlan. Let's see what today brings.

Joining me to discuss this is CNN political analyst, former federal prosecutor, Jennifer Rodgers, and CNN crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz.

Great to see you guys.

Jennifer, I want to start the breaking news on the lawsuit coming from three -- three Democratic Senators. They had talked about doing this. Blumenthal said to me that maybe they would look into challenging this. Now they are. They filed it in district court. What does this mean?

JENNIFER RODGERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it means we're actually going to have litigated the question that has been bouncing around ever since Matt Whitaker's name was put up as the acting A.G. is he properly there. A lot of prominent conservatives have said he's not, including John Yu, a law professor at Berkeley, and in the George W. Bush administration. I think this is an open legal question. The office of legal counsel memo was lengthy but relied on a lot of old precedent. It's a real legal question. We'll have to see it make its way through the courts and see what the answer is.

BOLDUAN: On that, is there a chance, there's no timing on when the president will announce the permanent replacement or if it would be Whitaker or someone else. But do you see -- it's not like this question moves quickly through the courts. Do you see this lingering out there no matter what and the president could announce his permanent replacement, a nominee to be attorney general in the same time?

RODGERS: That could definitely happen, Kate. This isn't the sort of thing where it's an emergency, they need to put an injunction in place. Whitaker is there, sitting in the chair, he'll be doing the job. It will make its way through the courts in the normal course, which as you say isn't all that quick. We may very well have a permanent nominee before this is all sorted out.

BOLDUAN: Shimon, it's hard to take the temperature, of course, of the entire Justice Department, but I mean, the questions around Whitaker and his appointment have been out there since day one. I do wonder now that there's legal action being taken against Whitaker from being challenged from the Senate, what that does to folks within the Justice Department who are just trying to go about their daily lives.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME & JUSTICE REPORTER: I think people, certainly people we have talked to who are working there, some of the senior level positions, they're going about their daily lives. I don't think anyone or very few people, let's say, in the building feel he's qualified for that job. They are not happy about how it all came about. You know, despite all of the things that were going on with Jeff Sessions, I think towards the end, people did start to like him, did feel that he did believe in the department. He was trying to stick up for the department. I don't think that people feel that way there now. Whitaker is just not trusted. All along, when he was put into that position as chief of staff to Jeff Sessions, people felt he was put there to spy on the Department of Justice so that the White House and the president could keep an eye on what's going on there. So, you know, we'll see what happens. Look, I think the career people, as you know, are going to keep doing what they're doing. There's a lot of really great people there. Some very senior level people who have been Senate-confirmed there, are doing what they have to do and sort of trying to protect the justice system. And you know, there's nothing to say that Whitaker isn't, but it is a problem. The optics here are really bad, but as we know, the president just doesn't really care about optics.

BOLDUAN: That's for darn sure. Let's talk about what's intertwined in all of this, which is the

Russia investigation. And the president saying in this interview, Jennifer, he said it on Friday, but it kind of laying out in his interview with Chris Wallace that he's the one, he wrote the answers to the written Q&A. He went over it, he wrote them. He wrote them, they have gone over it, and he says that they're really not tough. These are not tough questions to answer, is how he put it. Do you think -- I don't know, do you think he answered them himself, and how important is it that he's on the record saying that?

RODGERS: The last part is important. I do not think he answered them himself. No one in their right mind would answer questions like that without the advice of their counsel. I don't think there's any way he answered them by himself, but now saying I answered them all by my lonesome, he can be tagged with those. He said those are my personal statement. If this ends up in some false statement litigation, there it is.

BOLDUAN: In court again.

Shimon, the president, as you know, has said for months he would love to sit down with the special counsel. No one would love it more than Donald J. Trump. Now, this new twist where he says it's just probably not going to happen, no in-person interview with the special counsel, it makes me wonder what has changed, if it's just now or if he ever wanted to sit down with Bob Mueller and he was paying lip service before.

[11:09:48] PROKUPECZ: There are people, certainly his lawyers have said he's wanted to sit down. They have advised him he shouldn't sit down with the special counsel. I think there has been a lot of concern with these questions because they don't know exactly what Mueller has. No one who really goes before Mueller, goes before the special counsel, knows everything they have. And most people who have gone before Mueller are surprised at how much he already knows, how much information they have already gathered. There was concern with some of these questions. That's why it did take so long and there was negotiation and there was back and forth between the White House and the special counsel's office in terms of how they're going to answer the questions. The idea these are simple questions and that the president was not concerned about answering them, I don't think that's true at all.

The other thing is, when we all keep asking, why haven't these questions been sent to the special counsel already?


PROKUPECZ: You finished them last week. There's something going on, and there's some strategy behind that. Certainly people are not telling us what that strategy is, but they're saying they're going to probably put the questions in to Mueller before Thanksgiving. But if it's done and it was easy, then why are the questions still sitting at the White House and why aren't they at the special counsel's office?

BOLDUAN: All very important questions, Shimon. Great to see you. Thanks so much.

Great to see you, Jennifer. Really appreciate it.

So there's also this. The president had a lot to say over the weekend, not just about the special counsel, but much more. He also reiterated his bold statement that, quote, "I don't think anybody has been more with the military than I have as a president."

Keep that in mind when you listen to the president's take in the very same interview about one of the most revered members of the military, retired Admiral William McRaven, who over saw the raid of Osama bin Laden and the capture of Saddam Hussein.


WALLACE: McRaven, retired admiral, Navy SEAL, 37 years, former head of U.S. Special Operations.

TRUMP: Hillary Clinton fan.

WALLACE: Special Operations.

TRUMP: Excuse me, Hillary Clinton fan.

WALLACE: Who led the operations, commanded the operations that took down Saddam Hussein and killed Osama bin Laden. Says that your sentiment is the greatest threat to democracy in his lifetime.

TRUMP: He's a Hillary Clinton backer. And an Obama backer. And frankly --


WALLACE: He was a Navy SEAL for 37 years.

TRUMP: -- wouldn't it be nice if we got Osama bin Laden a lot sooner than that?


BOLDUAN: Admiral McRaven responded with this, "I stand by my comment that the president's attack on the media is the greatest threat to our democracy in my lifetime. When you undermine the people's right to a free press and freedom of speech and expression, you threaten the Constitution and all for which it stands."

Joining me now, retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling. He served with McRaven. He also was the former commander general of the Army in Europe.

Great to see you. Thanks for coming in, General.


BOLDUAN: You saw this interview, and it did not sit well with you. Why?

HERTLING: Probably didn't sit well with a lot of people who either are wearing or have worn the uniform. The descriptions the president used were -- you could use all kinds of -- you could describe it in myriad ways, appalling, disgusting, disappointing, unprofessional. You know, the people that command SoCom, the folks that command those four-star headquarters, have served both Republicans and Democrats. They're not interested in politics. They're interested in getting the job done. And the president shifted from the question, which was about freedom of the press, to insulting a retired four-star, who not only, as you said, was instrumental in capturing and killing bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, but I worked with Bill in Iraq, and he was on many missions with his troops. He had quite a few captures and kills that were not publicized in terms of defending the country and fighting our nation's war. So it was just really appalling and disgusting that the president would describe him in that way. He is a true patriot. A hell of a leader. A very calm and quiet guy. But he is devoted to the Constitution, not to any individual in politics.

BOLDUAN: The fact that the president -- it seems that the president's chief criticism is that he thinks McRaven somehow dragged his feet going an Osama bin Laden. I do want to know what that tells you, what that says to you, and also the president put out a new statement this morning that seemed -- I'll read it, "Of course, we should have captured Osama bin Laden long before we did. I pointed him out in my book before the attack on the World Trade Center." He goes on to take a shot at Bill Clinton.

Maybe he's trying to explain this, but does this clear -- I don't know, does it clear it up for you?

HERTLING: It doesn't. There's no explanation for this, Kate. You know, he's now trying to backtrack a little bit. And truthfully, it just shows how uninformed, how ill-informed the president is, and how intelligence drives military operations, and military operations take place after you find the target. This isn't Bill McRaven saying, hey, this is when I'm going to go get Osama bin Laden. That's driven by intelligence. And the hunt for bin Laden was described as a needle and a bunch of needles inside of a bunch of haystacks. It was a very difficult find. And you know, there are even some in the military right now that are pointing out, if he thought it was so easy to capture bin Laden, how come the president and his team haven't yet captured Baghdadi or Zawahiri or some of the other terrorists around the world? This is tough fighting, tough mission, driven, and these guys blend in. For all the people who contributed to the hunt for Osama bin Laden, it's an insult. And I know that there were quite a few people in the Intelligence Community as well as the military that made it their effort for years to put pieces of a puzzle together, to eventually find him.

[11:15:39] But again, we're distracting from the main issue. What the issue was is the president calling journalists fake news. That was the beginning of the question and, suddenly, he diverted to Bill McRaven and now everyone is talking about insults on McRaven as opposed to freedom of the press, while other things are going on with journalists. BOLDUAN: You know we'll continue to talk about freedom of the press.

I can promise you that one, General.


BOLDUAN: But also, he did talk about something else. Chris Wallace pushed him on something else that I think is importance to discuss. He was asked about why he hasn't visited soldiers in a combat zone yet. Here's what he said.


TRUMP: Well, I think you will see that happen. There are things that are being planned. We don't want to talk about it because of obviously because of security reasons and everything else. But there are things that are planned. As you know, I was very much opposed to the war in Iraq. I think it was a tremendous mistake. It should have never happened.

WALLACE: This is about the soldiers.

TRUMP: You're right. I don't think anybody has been more with the military than I have as a president, in terms of funding, in terms of all of the things I've been able to get them, including the vets. I don't think anyone has done more than me.


BOLDUAN: I didn't hear a real answer why he hasn't gone to visit the troops yet. But is it still important that he does, general?

HERTLING: Look, Kate, leaders in any organization build trust with their followers by doing and saying certain things. Subordinates know when their leaders have their best interests at heart, when leaders show up. When they're there, especially under difficult conditions. When you visit the troops. I mean, there are times when leaders who are in charge of large organizations don't want to do things, but they realize if they're going to ask their people to do the tough things, they have to do them, too, or at least be there to show their support them. It is unfortunate, and it's becoming a key talking point within the military that this president, the commander-in-chief -- and that's another title he bears -- has not visited them in key military operations. And he has used the military in many instances, like the troops on the southern border, like some of the decisions he's made with regard to recruiting practices, he has used the military for his own private purposes as opposed to understanding what they are there to do, and that is to serve the country, not to serve an individual. It's easy to use the military for a backdrop when the weather is nice and the sun is shining. It's a whole lot tougher to visit them in the sand and dirt and mud and the cold and the heat. The president hasn't done that yet. And that's unfortunate.

BOLDUAN: Yes, especially any time you approach a holiday, it's important all the time, but when it starts becoming top of mind as we start entering the holiday season.

HERTLING: That's right.

BOLDUAN: Great to see you, General. Thank you so much.

HERTLING: Thanks, Kate. Have a great Thanksgiving.

BOLDUAN: Really appreciate it. You, too. Thank you.

Coming up, it's already the deadliest wildfire in California's histories, and officials say it probably isn't even halfway done burning. Details on that ahead.

Plus, Democrats win over the heart of Ronald Reagan country. Today, the first time in decades, Orange County California, is blue.

Stay with us.


[11:23:08] BOLDUAN: Eighty people are now confirmed dead in the wildfires burning across both ends of California. And almost 1,000 people are still unaccounted for. The vast majority of the deaths happened in the Camp Fire in northern California. And 77 people killed in that fire alone. More than 11,000 homes destroyed. Torching an area the size of Chicago. Fire officials are warning that the blaze isn't even halfway done burning yet.

Kaylee Hartung is in the town of Chico where many of the displaced residents are and are living in limbo.

Kaylee, what are you hearing today?

KAYLEE HARTUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Kate, the Camp Fire is no longer the raging wildfire that was engulfing a football field every three seconds but hot spots are still burning. More than 5,000 personnel working to get those hot spots put out, and also strengthen the control lines. The projection now, that it will be another 11 days before this fire is fully contained.

In the meantime, crews have been working around the clock to clear the evacuation routes so that some people can safely return to their homes or what is left of them. And in those areas where the ground has already been scorched, the ongoing process of the search for and recovery of human remains. That list of people who are unaccounted for stands at 993. Authorities telling us that is a moving target. That number will continue to fluctuate sharply and suddenly when you're dealing with a situation in which 50,000 people were evacuated. More than 11,000 homes destroyed. The number of displaced people makes this process of accounting for everyone incredibly difficult -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Kaylee, thank you so much. I really appreciate it from your perspective.

Let me get more perspective on this now. With me now is the Butte County sheriff, Kory Honea. Butte County is heart of where the Camp Fire has been burning. He joins me on the phone. Sheriff, can you hear me?

KORY HONEA, SHERIFF, BUTTE COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE (via telephone): I can. Thank you, Kate.

[11:25:01] BOLDUAN: Thank you for calling in. I sincerely appreciate it.

The latest we have seen is there's still about 1,000 people missing. Is that the number you're working with?

HONEA: Yes, that's the update from last night. At this point, I think we're better characterizing it as unaccounted for. You note from the night before, we were able to locate almost a little over 200 people just in one day. I believe it was the number. So we're working hard to get them accounted for.

BOLDUAN: And that raises the new big challenge that you're facing. If you have people on the list that are -- the chances are they're alive and well and don't even know they're on the list. With so many people displaced, how do you figure out who is safe and who is still missing?

HONEA: That is the daunting task that we're facing. And we have been trying to get the message out through media, and I appreciate you helping us as well as traditional media and every other source that we can to get people to check those lists. And let us know that they're there. And I think we're making some headway given the fact we were able to account for a good number of people yesterday and start to bring that number of unaccounted individuals down.

BOLDUAN: Thank goodness for that. The death toll is 77 people from the Camp Fire. Do you fear that there could be I mean even 100 more added to that list when you think you have an unaccounted list of 1,000?

HONEA: Certainly, the number of people who perished in the fire weighs heavily upon me. We're working diligently to locate and recover the remains of any individual. I have chosen not to speculate as to how high that number might be. I think that it potentially causes more anxiety for people. What I can tell people is we're working hard to get everything done as quickly as we can.

BOLDUAN: I sincerely appreciate that. It's not over for you. Are there lessons, though, learned that you already see now because it's bound, unfortunately with the way things are, you're bound to face another wildfire in the future.

HONEA: Yes, actually, not only there are things that were done in preparation for wildfire that I think worked well, but there were other things we see that we could improve upon. The fact of the matter is in any situation, especially in disasters and tragedies, you have to go back and look at how you can improve upon the system. There's no perfect way to deal with the situation, and we have a plan. Oftentimes you have to adjust, but there will be lessons learned. BOLDUAN: The president of the United States seems to have been

talking about this this weekend. He visited Paradise this weekend. He was in your county. He talked about the mismanagement of forests that he thinks contributed to this. Is that how you see it at this point, sheriff?

HONEA: So I don't actually have a lot of time to pay attention to that stuff. I'm more focused on helping my community and trying to deal with the task at hand. I think that I'm going to leave that to some discussions later on and how we deal with this and focus on trying to get my community back on the road to recovery.

BOLDUAN: One-hundred percent understand that, Sheriff.

I really appreciate your time. Thank you so much and thanks for the update.

HONEA: Thank you. Take care.

BOLDUAN: Thank you so much.

When you see those pictures, still, your heart just breaks. And what they're still facing today. Such a long road of recovery to come and clean up and pick up the pieces.

Coming up for us, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said Democrats would win the House. She was right. But now, could opposition within her own party keep her from retaking the gavel once again? And who's her opponent? We'll discuss.