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Democratic Investigations; Supreme Court Chief Justice Rebukes Trump; Trump Appears to Let Saudis Slide on Murder of Journalist as CNN/NYT Learn Trump Wanted Prosecution of Clinton, Comey. Aired 4- 4:30p ET

Aired November 21, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: So, are you ready to argue politics with the aunt who still butt-dials you?

THE LEAD starts right now.

And breaking just moments ago, President Trump responds after a Thanksgiving eve brawl breaks out between him and the chief justice of the United States -- the rare, rare comments from Chief Justice Roberts to Trump's response in just moments.

New questions today about where President Trump chooses to wield his power after he gives the Saudi prince a pass, but it's revealed that he tried to prosecute his 2016 political opponent.

Plus, all up in his business. Today, brand-new CNN reporting on why people in Trump Tower are quaking in their loafers now that Democrats have a House majority and, crucially, subpoena power.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

SCIUTTO: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto, in again today for Jake.

And we begin with the breaking news in our politics lead.

Just moments ago, on the eve of Thanksgiving, President Trump firing back at Chief Justice Roberts. It comes after Roberts offered a very rare rebuke of the president after President Trump criticized a judge who ruled against him.

Justice Roberts saying -- quote -- "We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for."

Well, just moments ago, President Trump responded to that on Twitter saying, in part -- and we're quoting here -- "Sorry, Chief Justice John Roberts, but you do indeed have Obama judges, and they have a very much different point of view than the people who are charged with the safety of our country." Quite a comment there from the president.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is in West Palm Beach, near where the president is spending the holiday.

Kaitlan, it appears this is just the first tweet of an attack on Chief Justice Roberts, as it ended in those dot, dot, dots that normally portend another comment to come.


That dot, dot, dot usually has a lot of people on edge, waiting to see what it is President Trump is going to say next. And it could come any minute now. And, John, the timing of this is really -- Jim, the timing of this is really striking, because President Trump is sending this tweet about John Roberts just shortly after John Roberts issued that really rare rebuke of what President Trump said yesterday as he was departing the White House to come to West Palm Beach, Florida, for the Thanksgiving holiday, when he said he wanted to file a complaint after the Ninth Circuit Court ruled against his administration's asylum changes.

And now he's going after the chief justice of the Supreme Court. I'm not sure too many people had the president vs. the chief justice as something that was going to happen over the Thanksgiving holiday, but that's what we're seeing play out right now on the president's own Twitter feed.

Now, Jim, this seems to be a recurring pattern from the president with anyone who stands up to him or offers any criticism of anything he said, and clearly John Roberts was offended by the president's remarks to reporters yesterday, which caused him to issue a very rare statement that we do not often see from him.

Now, it's unclear what the president is going to say next. But it does seem to be John Roberts suggesting that the president has a simple misunderstanding of what it is that the judiciary is supposed to do -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: We should remind folks that John Roberts is a Republican appointee, appointed by George Bush. Kaitlan Collins in Florida, thanks very much.

Let's go to CNN legal analyst and Supreme Court biography Joan Biskupic.

So, Joan, you know this well. You're writing a book on John Roberts as we speak.

First question, has a Supreme Court justice ever done this before, responded directly to a presidential criticism, and, if not, why did John Roberts choose to do this now?

JOAN BISKUPIC, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: No. This is really different, Jim. It's not a general statement talking about the judiciary and its independence. It's responding directly to Donald Trump, parroting back some of the

language that Donald Trump even used yesterday to criticize a judge based in San Francisco. And I am sure that John Roberts, who has been quiet during many of Donald Trump's other criticisms of the judiciary, weighed what would happen and wondered if he would be provoking the president.

And, sure enough, as Kaitlan suggested, just three hours after Chief Justice John Roberts' remarks were made public, Donald Trump comes back and comes back with a warning there might be more.

I have a feeling, though, Jim, that as unprecedented as John Roberts' response was this time, he probably will not heighten this thing. He had something important to say. He wanted to defend the judiciary and the Supreme Court, too, and this is probably it from his side right now.

SCIUTTO: Yes, I don't imagine that he wants to get into an escalating tweet battle with the president on this.

Joan Biskupic, thanks very much.


Let's go to our panel now.

Doug Heye, if I could begin with you.

So, here's a president who yesterday refused to criticize a Saudi crown prince for a brutal murder, but today is laying into a Supreme Court justice, the chief Supreme Court justice appointed by a Republican. Why?

DOUG HEYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: To ensure that that's not what we talk about.

There's been a lot of bad news for the White House. The uproar over his decision on Saudi Arabia. The issue of Ivanka and the e-mails. But instead this is classic Trump tactics right here. He basically tries to pull a "Star Wars" and say to us, these are not the droids you're looking for or the e-mails or the decision and make sure we talk about something else.

This is strategic and tactical.

SCIUTTO: But there are consequences for the status of U.S. institutions here.

HEYE: Sure.


HEYE: No, I wouldn't argue that it's positive.

And one of the things that Justice Roberts was, we should -- and which is true, is, we should be grateful for an independent judiciary. That is certainly the case. But this is very, very tactical and very strategic by the White House.

SCIUTTO: Clearly, Chief Justice Roberts here is conscious of the reputation of the Supreme Court in a highly politicized environment post-Kavanaugh and years leading up to this.

He's trying to defend the honor and the reputation of the court, is he not, in the American public's eye.

NINA TURNER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, he is, Jim, and as well he should.

The chief justice did and said what was necessary to say. President Trump can't help himself. So we will go after the chief justice or anybody else that he has to if he feels as though his power, his own power, is being threatened.

But what he forgets, and maybe he needs another civic lesson, the same lessons that elementary school children receive, about the separations of power. And that really was what chief justice was laying out in his remarks, that there is a separation of power, and don't -- I mean, the president is acting very much like a tyrant, Jim.

But this is not the first time. It certainly will not be the last time.

SCIUTTO: Fair enough.

Got a big panel here. I would love to hear your reactions to this as well, because it is truly extraordinary, one, historically, because we haven't seen a chief justice go head-to-head in this public forum before, but also for the effect on the respect for this institution.

Ana, please, tell me what you're thinking as you're listening to this.

ANA NAVARRO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You know, as I listen to this, and as I put it in context of everything that's going on, with Saudi Arabia, with the prosecution of Comey and Clinton, with Donald Trump dancing on the graves of Republicans who lost because they dared confront him or rebuke him at one point or another, he seems not to understand the basic makeup of America, of this constitutional democracy that is made great because of checks and balances, because there are three separate, independent chambers of government that are supposed to check and balance each other.

He thinks this is a dictatorship. He thinks he is an autocrat. And if you are not loyal to him, then you are not performing your job adequately. It also reminds me of when he tried to question a judge's ability to do his job impartially, the Judge Curiel in the case that ruled against Trump, by calling him a Mexican.

Look, he will criticize and attack and undermine anything that does not go along with what his agenda is, with what is best for Donald Trump, with what he wants, that does not kiss his ring, among other body parts, whether it means attacking Republicans in Congress, whether it means attacking political opponents, whether it means attacking the judiciary. And this is where Republicans have got to step up and defend the basic

tenets of democracy in America.

SCIUTTO: And I'm glad you brought up the Judge Curiel comment, because that -- it seems like ancient history, a couple of years ago, but, again, saying that this judge could not be fair in a case related to immigration issues because he had a Mexican background.

Even the speaker of the House at the time, Paul Ryan, said that was the definition of racism.

I just want to play for our viewers exactly what President Trump said yesterday that led to this public altercation, you might call it, with the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Have a listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The Ninth circuit, we're going to have to look at that, because every case, no matter where it is, they file it practically, I mean, practically, for all intents and purposes, they file it in what's called the Ninth Circuit.

This was an Obama judge. And I'll tell you what. It's not going to happen like this anymore.


SCIUTTO: Bakari, what do you hear when you hear comments like that from the president?

BAKARI SELLERS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I think the bold headline is someone who is consistently destroying norms and the fundamental tenets, as Ana said, of our democracy.

In the past 24 hours, we had an individual who doesn't understand the independence of the Department of Justice and thinks that he can personally prosecute individuals that he wants to, including his political enemies.


And now, I mean, we're talking about the fact that he fact that he wants to influence the judiciary in a way that has never been done before and should not be done. So I think that there's a lot to be said there about just the fundamental ignorance that Donald Trump has of the systems of government.

That's first. But number two, to Doug's point, I do think that there is something to this, in the attempts for Donald Trump to deflect and distract.

And what I mean by that is, we're not talking about the fact that yesterday the stock market lost 550 points-plus. We're not talking about Saudi Arabia. We're not talking about these other issues that would be the lead issue of the day, but for the ignorance of these norms of the president of the United States. And to Ana's point again, when is Lindsey Graham, when is Ben Sasse,

when are these individuals who claim to put patriotism over all else going to really stand up for what it means to be American? And a fundamental tenet of that is an independent judiciary.

We don't have Obama judges. We don't have Bush judges. We don't have Clinton judges. We have judges who go up there and attempt to do the best they can possibly do within the bounds of the law. And the fact that the president of the United States doesn't understand that is just more troubling than you can imagine.


NAVARRO: And, listen, this is very consistent with what we saw earlier in the week.

Remember, just a few days ago, he was criticizing General McRaven for basically the same thing, saying he was a Clinton guy or he was an Obama guy, because this military hero who was willing to do what Donald Trump was not willing to do, risk his life in service and defense of this country and our democracy, because that military hero dared speak up and be critical of Donald Trump.

He tries to undermine him by dividing it, by -- you know, he again and again, what Donald Trump does is fabricate and create culture wars that don't exist. He tries to pit one group of Americans against another. He tries to divide according to gender or race or ethnicity or political persuasion.

He does not understand at all the role of a U.S. president as a uniter, not even on a holiday like Thanksgiving, which should unite all Americans.

SCIUTTO: It's a good point.


NAVARRO: He's just a disgrace.

SCIUTTO: I'm glad you brought up Admiral McRaven there, because, again, here you have the president, Doug Heye, if I could ask for your reaction here, coloring another revered American institution, the U.S. military, and a revered American military commander, who was the architect of the bin Laden raid, as somehow a Clintonite because he disagreed with the president on something, in this case, with the president calling the press the enemy of the people.

Now you have him calling any judge who rules against him, in effect, the other side. The trouble is that this undermines confidence in key institutions, right, that Americans -- whose decisions Americans have to and want to respect.

HEYE: Sure. Sure.

And keep in mind, we had the Supreme Court go through a severe hit in institutional reputation during the Kavanaugh hearings. Trump is taking advantage of that. As Bakari mentioned earlier, he was elected to bust norms. That's what he's doing, good or bad.

SCIUTTO: Well...

TURNER: To the bad most of the time.

SCIUTTO: Norms, but was he really elected to bust these norms? To take down institutions because he perceives them to be against him and people don't side with him?

TURNER: He shouldn't. But Ana mentioned divide and conquer. That is the tool that the president is using and he uses it very effectively, but to the detriment, ultimate detriment of our country.

HEYE: And his base hasn't gone anywhere.

SCIUTTO: Well, we will see. Not exactly a sweeping win in the midterms.



SCIUTTO: We're going to have to leave it there.

We do have time. We're going to come back to this in a moment, because there's lots of news to cover here.

Chief Justice John Roberts not the only person President Trump tweeting about today.

Then: Nancy Pelosi's great week just got even better -- the behind- the-scenes maneuvers that she made to change some Democrats' minds.


[16:17:58] SCIUTTO: President Trump's attack on the chief justice just moments ago, adding to these past 24 hours, encapsulating President Trump's view of the world. The president looking to go after those he sees as disloyal to him personally while letting the Saudi regime slide because some of perceived loyalty there. President Trump justifying his defense of Saudi Arabia after the murder of a U.S.-based journalist.

CNN is learning that President Trump has no problem punishing his own personal enemies. A source telling CNN that President Trump wanted now ex-White House counsel Don McGahn to ask the Justice Department to prosecute Hillary Clinton on multiple occasions. McGahn, according to the source, refused. "The New York Times" first broke the story of President Trump's request to prosecute not only Clinton but also former FBI Director James Comey.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins has more.


COLLINS (voice-over): Nearly 1,000 miles from Washington, President Trump's troubles have followed him here to southern Florida. As he hit the links with famed golfer Jack Nicklaus today, Trump faced growing criticism back home from Republicans and Democrats alike after he pledged his loyalty to Saudi Arabia, despite the grisly killing of a journalist.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: It's not too much to ask an ally not to butcher a guy in a consulate.

COLLINS: That criticism coming from one of the president's closest allies on Capitol Hill. Trump responding to the backlash by thanking the Saudis, tweeting: Oil prices getting lower, like a big tax cut for America. Thank you to Saudi Arabia. The president making clear, he is standing by his extraordinary statement, and ignoring his intelligence agencies once again.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think the statement was pretty obvious, what I said.

COLLINS: But it's not just the president's treatment of U.S. allies that's coming under scrutiny. His conduct toward his political enemies is too. After reports revealed he wanted the Justice Department to prosecute James Comey and Hillary Clinton, following through on what he promised on the debate stage in 2016.

[16:20:04] TRUMP: If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation.

HILLARY CLINTON (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.

TRUMP: Because you'd be in jail.

COLLINS: "The New York Times" reports that Trump's calls caused former White House counsel Don McGahn to outline for Trump how he could be accused of abusing his power and even potentially face impeachment.

GOV. JOHN KASICH (R), OHIO: I called my legal counsel and I said, how can a president tell the attorney general who to indict? I mean, it just doesn't work that way.

COLLINS: The president's orders raising questions about whether he's tougher on his political opponents than he is on an ally accused of murder.

KASICH: It's just another head-shaking, head-scratching move that we see, and then, of course, coupled today with his statement about the murder of Khashoggi is absolutely stunning.


COLLINS: Now, Jim, people close to president Trump say he often asks, why isn't the Justice Department going after James Comey or Hillary Clinton? But right now, it seems that Republicans back in Washington are asking him the same thing about the Saudis -- Jim. SCIUTTO: Kaitlan Collins, we often wonder when the president tweets

that stuff, is he just tweeting? Well, it seems he was making a formal request to do that.

Back with the panel now.

Ana Navarro, if I could start with you, let's look at the list of the people that the president we've learned or has publicly attacked in the past 48 hours -- Hillary Clinton, James Comey, Bill McRaven, former head of Special Operations Forces, Congressman Adam Schiff. All those people, among them Republicans, the Supreme Court justice, but not Saudi Arabia. He gives Saudi Arabia a pass.

Explain. Explain that.

NAVARRO: Well, I can't explain it, because I think we are in one of the most shameful moments in American history. And I hope more and more Republicans somehow are able to get the spines that they have donated to science back and act up and stand up and speak up against these abuses of power by this president.

Look, I live in Miami. This is a community that is full of political exiles. People who have fled dictatorships and human rights abuses in places like Cuba and Nicaragua and Venezuela. And what we are seeing from Donald Trump is the type of things that these strong men in those countries do -- go after their opponents, try to fabricate prosecutions, try to penalize and punish and make their opponents hurt.

I'm not saying he kills them. I'm not saying he beats them up. But certainly prosecution is a weapon that he would use to, you know, extract pain from people that oppose him.

It is so -- it is so damn un-American. It just almost leaves me speechless that this could happen in America. And I remember. You know, I remember when there was this issue during the Obama administration of where the IRS was going after some organizations that were conservative and right wing. And I remember the people in my party, the Congress people in my party, the leaders of my party, setting their hair on fire, speaking up and demanding answers. They must do the same thing right now, because if not, they are -- they will and are the biggest hypocrites we have seen in American history.

SCIUTTO: But, Bakari, Ana makes a point about -- here's Florida, a state that has experience with actual dictators and yet the Democrats just lost two important statewide races in Florida. And I know that's not -- certainly not the only issue Donald Trump, but clearly his name was looming over many voters' choices this election.

Have the Democrats gotten the right alternative message, winning message, particularly as you look forward to 2020?

SELLERS: Well, I think there are two questions. One is a political question and one is a moral question. I mean, the moral question is, the simple fact that Donald Trump has been tougher on Jim Acosta and Abby Phillip than he has on a dictator, ruthless heir to a dictatorship who has murdered an American journalist.

Think about that. He has been tougher on Jim Acosta and Abby Phillip than the heir to the throne in Saudi Arabia. That's first. So, that's a moral question, I think that's a bipartisan, moral question that Ana asked, which we all need to ask ourselves, is, you know, when are Republicans especially going to stand up and say enough is enough?

And I think that we're actually giving the president of the United States slightly too much credit here. I don't think he's manipulating norms. I think he's flatly ignorant of them.

I don't think he understands processes. I don't think he knows any better. I think he's 70 years old-plus, so we're not going to be able to teach it to him. I think he fundamentally doesn't know.

Do Democrats have a message for that? I think Democrats do have a message. What we're coming off of is Democrats picking up 39, 40 seats in the United States House. We had a map that was not conducive in the United States Senate, and we had emotional ties to candidates such as Beto, Andrew and Stacy, which lost.

[16:25:03] But now, Democrats have to actually lead. And we cannot get in front of our skis, and we have to make sure that we show that we can lead and implement policy in the United States House of Representatives. That is the question that is yet to be answered.

But I think this country has to answer, and I think Nina will agree with me. We have to answer a moral question first that's looming over this nation, black, white, Democrat and Republican.

SCIUTTO: Nina, Doug and I were talking about this before we came on the air. You know, how many Americans are driven by these kinds of moral questions, right? U.S. moral leadership, standing up for human rights, et cetera.

In fact, there's -- probably many are not. You know, it's hard to quantify.

But have Democrats convinced Americans these are key issues, that these are issues they need to change for the sake of the country? Not just for the sake of feeling good --


SCIUTTO: -- but for the sake of the country's well-being?

TURNER: Certainly a good point, Jim. And I definitely do agree with Bakari. The Democrats -- my grandmother used to say, you've got to pay the cost to be the boss. Sometimes you get what you ask for.


TURNER: We've got a great grandma.

SCIUTTO: I'll take -- TURNER: Right. But, you know, sometimes you've got to be careful

what you ask for. Democrats do have the power in the House and so they have to make a decision, whether they're going to implement, investigate or impeach or a little of all of the above.

But to continue to win over the hearts and the minds of the American people, they are going to want to see people who are going to lead and not just simply play in the political sand box, but definitely do what is in the best interest of the people. That remains to be seen. Democrats won the election --

NAVARRO: Listen --

TURNER: -- but whether or not we are going to lead in the way that makes the requisite change for this country --

SCIUTTO: We're running out of time. Doug, isn't there a test for Republicans as well? What they -- you know, how will their words and actions today be measured years -- months or years down the line?

HEYE: Sure. But the reality is, most of the Republicans who lost are those Republicans who are most likely to stand up to Trump. Some of them, Lindsey Graham being a good example, has been very critical of Trump on this, where he typically isn't critical of Trump. But the other thing is politics comes at you fast and Democrats are going to investigate on this and a whole host of issues, as they campaign on issues not about Saudi Arabia, but on health care that really benefits them.

SCIUTTO: All right. Stay with us. More to talk about. What President Trump's lawyer tells CNN could be put back on the table when it comes to Robert Mueller and the president's written answers -- the take-home test, we call it -- to Mueller's questions.