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Trump Wanted Justice Department to Investigate Hillary Clinton; Trump Hands Over Written Answers to Mueller Team; Top Republicans Slam Trump for Statement Backing Saudi Arabia; Trump Defies Calls to Punish Saudi Arabia Over Khashoggi's Murder; Dow to Open Higher After Erasing 2018 Gains. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired November 21, 2018 - 09:00   ET

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


[09:00:12] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: A good Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving to you. I'm Jim Sciutto in Washington.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow in New York. We're glad you're with us this morning. Also this morning a vivid reminder that some campaign promises are best kept unkept. For much of 2016 Donald Trump vowed to prosecute Hillary Clinton if the election went his way. Now CNN and "The New York Times" this morning are reporting that President Trump tried to do just that. By way of reference, the White House counsel under President Nixon said, and I quote, this is from John Dean, "This is what an autocrat does," saying it was too far even, Jim, for President Nixon.

SCIUTTO: Also this morning the special counsel now has the president's written answers to some two dozen questions on Russian collusion, the allegation of such. And on this Thanksgiving eve the president tells us one thing he is thankful for. Less than a day after shrugging off a CIA report, a high confidence one, implicating the Saudi crown prince in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the president writes, "Thank you" to Saudi Arabia for lower oil prices.

P.S., that's actually wrong. The U.S. produces more oil than Saudi Arabia or any other country. Lots of other factors in the fall of that oil price. But let's start on what we're digging into here, and that is CNN's Laura Jarrett at the Justice Department. So the president pressuring the Justice Department which is meant to be by law independent of the president to prosecute his political enemies. What do we know?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Jim and Poppy, good morning. For months we've seen the president on Twitter publically calling on the Justice Department to investigate Clinton and Comey. But we're now learning that behind the scenes in private he was actually serious, and that he actually had conversations with his then White House counsel Don McGahn about ordering the Justice Department to do just that.

Now our reporting is that McGahn actually rebuffed the president. But the "New York Times" takes it a step further and says that he actually -- McGahn, I should say, has a memo drafted up explaining the downsides to this potentially investigating and that it would result in possible impeachment.

Now according to our own reporting, the president had conversations with the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, as well as now the Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker who was then Jeff Sessions' chief of staff, inquiring into existing investigations into the Clinton Foundation as we've previously reported.

There is actually a top prosecutor out in Utah who's been deputized to look into investigations surrounding the Clinton investigation, surrounding the Clinton's ties to a Russian nuclear energy corporation. This is known as the Uranium One scandal which has thus far been completely disproven. But all of these types of conversations raising just a myriad of issues about whether proper boundaries have been observed between the White House and the Justice Department -- Poppy.

HARLOW: Yes. I want to point everyone to read fact checks on Uranium One and who approved that deal and all of the different voices in that and the facts, not the rhetoric around it.

Laura, before you go, Matt Whitaker, the deputy -- the acting, rather, attorney general's finances, finances, disclosure forms that are required by the government finally released. And as I understand it, after five different revisions, what do we now know?

JARRETT: Yes. The revisions are quite noteworthy since they all take place after he became the acting attorney general on November 7th. So he turned in the initial disclosure form as he's required to do under the regulations last year when he came in on Sessions' chief of staff in October 2016. But then only edits them after he takes on this new job, something that ethics watchdog officials have been raising questions about.

But he also has a vast majority of his income, nearly a million dollars according to our review here, coming from something called the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust where he served as the executive director.

The issue there, Poppy, is of course is we don't know where any of this money is coming from. All of the donations are anonymous.

HARLOW: Yes. That presents some issues.

Laura Jarrett, thanks for all the important reporting this morning. Jim.

SCIUTTO: Yes. To say the least.

HARLOW: Yes.

SCIUTTO: President Trump has turned in his written answers, the take- home test, you might call it, to questions from the Special Counsel Robert Mueller. All of those questions related to the investigation of possible collusion between Trump associates and Russians, other obstruction of justice questions left for a later time.

Joining us now CNN's Kaitlan Collins in West Palm Beach, Florida.

So, Kaitlan, now the president's answers will in fact be checked against the answers of the many cooperating witnesses in this investigation close to the president. Is the White House concerned that the president might be contradicted by other witnesses in this investigation?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, right now the stance of his legal team is, hey, we cooperated. The president has submitted these written answers after months of negotiations.

[09:05:03] And now it's time for the special counsel to wrap up their probe. Whether or not that actually happens is another question, though, Jim.

You compared it to a take-home test and Rudy Giuliani did similar this morning speaking with Axios saying that essentially what this request, these written questions from the special counsel looks like, part of a law school exam. He said there were long questions, multiple questions that followed up underneath some certain questions, and that is what the president has answered. But we know that these questions only pertain to Russian interference in the election.

And what about Russian -- any Russian -- contact with Russians from the president's associates and not anything about the president's time as president. No questions of obstruction of justice or any of that matter. So that's the question here is what happens going forward now that they've submitted these questions. And in the president legal team's eyes, and the president's eyes, it's time for this investigation to come to an end.

But what we know from the special counsel's side is that Robert Mueller hasn't ruled out the idea of a sit-down interview with President Trump now that he's received these written questions from the president's legal team. And he could still want to do that going forward.

Rudy Giuliani, the president's lawyer, said he doesn't believe that the president could be compelled to give any testimony on what has happened since he became president because that would be covered by executive privilege in his mind. But that's still an open question and that could still be setting us up for a legal showdown over a subpoena for President Trump.

HARLOW: All right. Kaitlan Collins, have a great Thanksgiving. Thank you for the reporting. Enjoy the sunshine down there as it gets pretty cold up here.

Let's talk about all of this with CNN's senior political analyst David Gergen, who's advised four presidents, and CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor Paul Callan.

So, gentlemen, to you. I mean, David, first, listen to this from John Dean, of course former White House counsel under President Nixon, turned Watergate whistleblower, who said last night on this network that trying to use the Department of Justice to persecute political enemies is something that even President Nixon would not have done.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN DEAN, WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL TO PRESIDENT NIXON: If I had to channel a little Richard Nixon, I think he'd tell this president he's going too far. This is the sort of stuff of a banana republic. This is what an autocrat does. This is a level that Richard Nixon never went to.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: You also, David Gergen, worked in the Nixon White House. Is he right?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, he's right that President Nixon, we had no record of him ever ordering the Justice Department or even thinking about having the Justice Department prosecute a particular individual, especially a political rival. He didn't try to put in jail the people who ran against him when he ran, you know, in '68 and '72.

He did abuse the intelligence agency. He tried to abuse the FBI and CIA. So I don't think Richard Nixon's record in some ways comparable. And I think John is right. You know, if you don't get specific. But critical to both of these is they emphasized how important it is to preserve our democratic system with all of the checks and balances, where it not for the checks and balances, our president, today's president, would be a long way down the road toward authoritarian regime when it came to law enforcement.

SCIUTTO: But, Paul Callan, I don't think we can sugarcoat the steps that we were now aware of that this president attempted to take here. He attempted to get his Justice Department to prosecute enemies. We know he communicated with Whitaker in advance of his appointment about his positions on this investigation and other issues. And of course we know that he fired an attorney general in Jeff Sessions who he felt was not -- did not have his back on the investigation, replaced him with someone who he does believe has his back there.

From a legal perspective, is that dangerous legal territory, any of those steps there? I mean, because it's happening in front of our eyes, it's not happening in secret. We know this to have taken place.

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think, Jim, it's extraordinarily dangerous and the reason it is is because it demonstrates a contempt for the rule of law in the United States. I mean, as the presidency has evolved, one of the things that's always been a check on the president has been the law, the Supreme Court, the Justice Department and other things. And the president here seems to be focused on finding ways to go around the law, finding ways to obstruct the Mueller investigation, whether in a legal way or an illegal way.

And I think that's unusual. And, you know, John Dean's observations about Nixon, I don't know that I would necessarily agree with them, that Nixon was better than Trump on this, but the thing that White House lawyers were worried about with the president trying to issue directions about the investigations going on is that you have a situation where it could be an abuse of power, and it could lead to an impeachment article relating to that.

Nixon faced an abuse of power, potential, you know, charge as have other presidents who have faced impeachment. So that's the danger here in what the president is doing.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

[09:10:11] HARLOW: So, David Gergen, to you, I mean, we know from this new CNN reporting that the president pressured not only the Justice Department broadly on, you know, where this investigation on Hillary Clinton, but specifically from our reporting. That included pressuring and asking these questions of Matt Whitaker, now the acting attorney general.

GERGEN: Yes.

HARLOW: Matt Whitaker also, David Gergen, wrote an op-ed in "USA Today" a year ago titled, "I Would Indict Hillary Clinton." OK? The title, "I Would Indict Hillary Clinton." And he is certainly, you know, welcome to have his own opinion. But now that we know the facts behind all of this, what's the significance when you tie it altogether?

GERGEN: I am so glad you brought that up because it raises so many questions that Matthew Whitaker was in the room in the Oval Office when the president was ranting about this, and we don't know how much emotionality was attached to, you know, get these people, I want an investigation. But clearly he understands exactly what the marching orders are from the president's own mind and what they ought to be.

And he is in a position right now and less curbed, he's in a position potentially to order up a second special counsel to investigate and prosecute potentially Hillary Clinton and James Comey. And I think that makes it highly questionable. Pointing back to checks and balances, this again illustrates how important it is that the House of Representatives is now in the hands of the out-party because they can now question what the heck -- was happening in the Oval Office and who is this Mr. Whitaker anyway, and look at this story about strange financing that he's gone through.

He had over a million dollars over three years from a nonprofit that had no employees and seemed to be a mailbox. You know, what the heck was going on here? That is -- it's good for the democracy no matter what side you're on that there is now going to be a check, an investigatory check which can hold some of this in balance.

SCIUTTO: So, Paul Callan, before we go the president's take-home test is in. His answers to Paul -- to Robert Mueller's questions here. We know that Robert Mueller has a number of cooperating witnesses who had direct contact with this president and witnessed his behavior, discussions, et cetera. Among them his White House counsel who sat down with the special counsel for hours and hours and clearly had differences with the president on things, including his efforts to prosecute his political enemies there, as well as Rick Gates and others.

How concerned should the president be that Robert Mueller will find contradictions, find holes in the president's territory based on the sworn testimony of these other cooperating witnesses?

CALLAN: Well, I don't think the president has anything to worry about in terms of these written questions that were submitted, this so- called take-home exams as his lawyers like to call it. You know, when I was a college professor and I gave take-home exams, you could look at the book when you went home, but you weren't supposed to ask your friends and lawyers to help you on the test.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

CALLAN: So -- and that's essentially how this take-home exam was conducted. So you can be sure that it's been totally sanitized and there is going to be nothing even remotely incriminatory when the lawyers get done with sanitizing.

Now will the president be in contradiction to things that his own attorneys have said under oath? If the president ever got under oath himself, I would say yes, there is really a strong chance of that. A lot of what the president seems to have done seems to have been against the advice of his attorneys.

I mean, one of the things, you know, just circling back to where we started on this, the president getting involved and saying Hillary Clinton should be prosecuted or this investigation should be terminated, historically most presidents set policy directions for the Justice Department. They might -- Obama, for instance, said, let's have an increased focus on civil rights cases, but he wasn't saying I want you to go out and prosecute this person.

SCIUTTO: Right.

CALLAN: That's where the president confronts problems.

SCIUTTO: Put them in jail.

CALLAN: Yes.

SCIUTTO: David Gergen, Paul Callan, thanks very much.

HARLOW: Thanks, guys.

GERGEN: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Fierce backlash from the president's own party after he defends the Saudis and seemingly ignores not only the CIA's assessment but a long-term defense of human rights. Will Congress take action after the brutal murder and dismemberment of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi?

HARLOW: Also the problems pile up, but Mark Zuckerberg is not backing down. The Facebook CEO defiant amid reports the social network tried to conceal some early signs of Russian election meddling. Laurie Segall's exclusive interview with Zuckerberg is ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:15:00] JIM SCIUTTO, CO-HOST, NEWSROOM: There is fierce backlash this morning from top Republicans after the president sided with the Saudis, not the CIA over the brutal murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The president has refused to accept the intelligence agency's high confidence findings that the Crown Prince ordered the killing.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's about America first. They're paying us $400 billion-plus to purchase and invest in our country. That's probably the biggest amount ever paid to the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Don't you believe this CIA?

TRUMP: They didn't make a determination. And it's just like I said, I think it was very -- maybe he did, maybe he didn't. They did not make that assessment.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: We're going to fact-check the president there shortly. But first, we want to make this point. The president said he will not abandon Saudi Arabia in order to hold the Saudis to account for the brutal, premeditated murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

But the president is creating a false and misleading choice here. Holding Saudi leaders to account for Khashoggi does not require abandoning Saudi Arabia.

[09:20:00] In fact, throughout U.S. history, U.S. presidents of both parties have held allies to account for actions the U.S. disagrees with or condemns while maintaining relationships with those allies.

The U.S. criticized and sometimes penalized Israel for settlement- building in the West Bank while maintaining a robust military and diplomatic alliance. The U.S. excoriated France for not joining the Iraq invasion while maintaining the alliance, America's oldest.

The U.S. condemned Egypt's bloody crackdown on protesters in the Arab Spring, again, while maintaining that alliance. More recently, Donald Trump himself has repeatedly criticized NATO allies for not paying enough for Europe's defense while so far at least, maintaining the NATO alliance.

The choice here is not between the U.S.-Saudi relationship and standing up for human rights, in fact, you could say the alliance would be stronger and the U.S. would be stronger if the president held firm on American values over Saudi values. Let's discuss now with Jason Rezaian; he's Cnn global affairs analyst and an opinion writer for the "Washington Post" where of course Jamal Khashoggi also worked. And David Sanger; Cnn political and national security analyst. A

bunch of things to run through here, David. But first, let's fact- check the president on this idea that the Cnn -- that the CIA rather has not made a definitive assessment here. The fact is this was a high confidence assessment from the CIA on the Crown Prince's involvement here, which is as definitive as intelligence reports get, is it not?

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL & NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Oh, I think what the president wants here, Jim, is a sort of in-the-room hearing him issue the order. That happens on, you know what? TV rarely happens in the world of intelligence. They've got to assemble the best case they've got and then assign a confidence level to it.

But the concept that a hit team of 15 Saudis, including Saudi military officials, could be sent over and that they were doing this freelancing in an authoritarian state. I mean, you didn't need the CIA to tell you that. Let's go back to your earlier point about the false choice the president is setting up.

You mentioned Egypt. Egypt is an interesting case because President Obama helped push out the leader at the time, President Hosni Mubarak while holding on to the relationship with the U.S. and Egypt. You saw during the Reagan administration, a very close ally, Marcos(ph) of the Philippines also pushed out while maintaining a close alliance with the Philippines.

What made the president's statement yesterday so remarkable and give him credit for the fact that he was telling us exactly what he was thinking is that he was basically saying if you buy enough from the United States, we will --

SCIUTTO: Yes --

SANGER: Never look inside the box of what you do in your country.

SCIUTTO: Yes, we're going to fact-check the president on the amount that the president claims the Saudis are buying in a moment. But Jason, first, I want to go to you, you're a journalist who paid a heavy price, thankfully not your life, but you spent months in an Iranian prison because they perceived you as an enemy of the state in effect here.

Do the president's words, defending the Saudis here, not standing up for U.S. values, is it your view that dictators in the region will see that as open season on their critics, even outside their borders?

JASON REZAIAN, OPINION WRITER, WASHINGTON POST: Yes, certainly, Jim. I think that's the message that this sends. It emboldens terrible behavior, and at a moment when the entire American establishment on the right and the left is for the first time really pushing back on our -- undying loyalty to Saudi Arabia. The president really has an opportunity to stand firm on American values here.

One of them being the free press and human rights, and he's not doing it. SCIUTTO: Yes --

REZAIAN: I think -- I'm just shocked, flabbergasted and, you know, blinded with anger over this stance.

SCIUTTO: Well, it's understandable and you hear that from Republicans as well. David, back to you, the president claimed -- and I want to -- we did the math here, the actual math on what the Saudis have signed to for the U.S. The president claimed $450 billion in arms deals with the Saudis.

In fact, the memorandum of intent, which is not a deal, it's an intent over ten years, not confirmed yet, it's for about a quarter of that and then only about a tenth of that or a little more have been signed so far, 14 billion. So not $450 billion, $14 billion so far. Why is the president here fudging those numbers so obviously?

SANGER: Well, the $450 billion he said was total investment, which would be different than arms purchases. And we'd have to go back and sort of add up the refineries, the other investments, but I doubt they're going to come any place close to that number. You're absolutely right on the arms numbers. We only have $14.5 billion in actual arms.

[09:25:00] The signature of intent to buy is a little bit like when Donald Trump was in the real estate business, and you would sign an intent to develop something. It actually --

SCIUTTO: Yes --

SANGER: Commit to nothing. Now, the Saudis don't have a whole lot of choice about where they can go buy their arms. They're flying American aircrafts. The American aircrafts are fitted only to work with American bombs, American missiles.

So this idea that the president kicks around that if we don't give them everything they want, they'll pick up and go to the Russians and buy their arms there --

SCIUTTO: Yes --

SANGER: Maybe, but they're going to have to buy an awful lot of new infrastructure first to deliver it.

SCIUTTO: Yes --

SANGER: It doesn't seem very credible to anybody who knows a little bit about how these systems work.

SCIUTTO: So --

SANGER: The president has also got other investments he's looking for, including a Saudi effort to buy nuclear power.

SCIUTTO: Yes, Jason Rezaian, the president tweeting this morning and giving the Saudis credit for something else that when you check the facts is not credible, saying that oil prices are in effect a gift from Saudi Arabia, dropping from 82 to 54 when in fact a lot of this is based on global economic fears, slowing growth, et cetera. From your perspective, how is the president's obsequiousness in effect to the Saudi leaders viewed in the region?

REZAIAN: Well, I think it's a green light to the Saudis and their allies, also a single to Iran and their allies that, you know, we're never going to come to a position where we want to see a balance of power in the region. We just want to see your destruction.

And, you know, there's been people in this administration that have made that clear over the last couple of years, but I think this is the clearest sign yet.

SCIUTTO: Jason Rezaian and David Sanger, thanks very much.

SANGER: Thanks, Jim.

POPPY HARLOW, CO-HOST, NEWSROOM: I'm so glad that Jim laid out that historical context that is so important, remembering when America has held its own allies to account and maintained their relationship. All right, ahead for us, a Cnn exclusive, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg defends the social network after a report they did not act quickly enough to counter Russian election meddling.

And we are moments away from the opening bell on Wall Street. Take a look at futures here on this Wednesday before Thanksgiving, pointing higher, maybe we're going to make up some of those losses we've been seeing. Still a lot of pressure on tech stocks, we'll keep an eye on it when the market opens in just a few minutes, stay with us.

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