Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Wanted Justice Department to Investigate Hillary Clinton and James Comey; Trump Defends Saudi Arabia Denial; Interview with Rep. Gregory Meeks (D), New York. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired November 21, 2018 - 10:00   ET


[10:00:42] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Top of the hour. Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow in New York.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Jim Sciutto in Washington. A happy nearly Thanksgiving to all of you. President Trump is spending this Thanksgiving eve on the lakes in West Palm Beach but not before thanking Saudi Arabia for lower oil prices. Yes, from Saudi Arabia.

Factually his thanks are misplaced, not factual and politically more fuel for a fiery bipartisan backlash to his refusal to hold the Saudi royals to account, and the crown prince in particular, for the brutal murder and disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi.

HARLOW: It really is just stunning.

Also, this morning, a significant new report on a campaign promise that the president's own people had to stop him from keeping. We'll explain.

CNN and "The New York Times" are reporting that the president tried to order the Justice Department multiple times to investigate and prosecute his opponent in the 2016 election. Hillary Clinton.

That is where we begin. Let's go to the Justice Department. Laura Jarrett is there.

You know, Laura, it's not just stunning, it is just really unprecedented. I mean, you don't do that. You don't tell the Justice Department to go after your political foes.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: That's exactly right, Poppy. It's really a matter of first principles. And this new reporting really shed light on how the president sought to use the Justice Department as a weapon, as a tool against his political adversaries, both Clinton and Comey. And according to our reporting, his then White House Counsel Don McGahn was really the one that stopped him in his own best interest, saying this is not a good idea. According to "The New York Times," McGahn had a memo drafted up explaining the repercussions if the president went through with this move including possible impeachment.

But our reporting takes it a step further. And according to a source familiar telling my colleague, Pamela Brown, the president actually had discussions with the deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein as well as the Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker who was then Jeff Sessions' chief of staff.

And the president would make inquiries about how existing investigations into Clinton were going, trying to keep tabs on the Justice Department. Whitaker would actually show up to these meetings prepared to answer the president, trying to appease him. And as we have reported in the past, the existing investigations that we're talking about here is that there's actually a top federal prosecutor out in Utah who's been essentially deputized to look into the Clinton Foundation and how a Russian nuclear energy corporation sought to try to make donations to the Clinton Foundation or to later secure uranium purchase or uranium mining interests.

And none of this has been proven but it has been spread throughout conservative media. And the president has tweeted about it at lengths. And so there are questions being raised now about the boundaries between the Justice Department and the White House -- Poppy.

HARLOW: Important ones. Laura Jarrett, thank you for the reporting this morning. Jim.

SCIUTTO: Let's discuss now with Renato Mariotti. He's a CNN legal analyst.

Renato, thanks for taking the time this morning. Always good to have a fellow Italian on. A lot of topics to talk about here. So the president's own White House counsel now gone, Don McGahn, had to tell the president that pressuring the Department of Justice to prosecute the president's political opponents could be an impeachable offense. The president's effort, of course, failed here, it was blocked by people who work for him. However, as a lawyer, would the attempt itself be a potential crime here or evidence of obstruction of justice?

RENATO MARIOTTI, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Certainly as to the action that he will be taking against James Comey, you know, remember that Comey is a witness against Trump in the Mueller probe. In fact the Mueller investigation began, Mueller's appointment was precipitated by the fact that Comey, you know, allegedly witnessed the president directing him to let Michael Flynn go. Flynn of course pled guilty later to a crime and is now cooperating with Mueller.

So here you have a witness against the president who is being essentially intimidated. It doesn't appear that James Comey has committed any crimes. There's no evidence to that. So any effort to investigate and prosecute him would have appeared to be witness intimidation.

SCIUTTO: And the issue here, too, is Robert Mueller has cooperating witnesses now.

[10:05:05] Among them, Don McGahn who's testified to Robert Mueller as have others who have a great personal incentive to give the goods, in effect, to reduce their own sentences here or possible legal exposure. We know that obstruction of justice is a line of inquiry for the special counsel. Do you look at this incident as something that beyond being politically troublesome could be legally troublesome in the special counsel's investigation?

MARIOTTI: Well, no question. As you point out Don McGahn has been cooperative with Robert Mueller. You don't spend 30 hours talking to a witness if they're not helpful to you so there's -- I think it's clear that everything McGahn knows Mueller knows. And you're -- I think it is absolutely the case that this is one of the things that Mueller is going to be looking at when he is looking to try to prove whether or not the president had corrupt intent.

And when I say the word corrupt, that's actually in the statute. That's what Robert Mueller would have to prove to show that the president had -- was trying to obstruct justice when, for example, he fired James Comey. And this is something that I would think that Mueller would look at because it goes to show that the president's intent is to try to, you know, go after his enemies and help his friends and use the Justice Department essentially to do that.

SCIUTTO: The other issue facing the acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker beyond hid public expressions of criticism of the special counsel and how that factor into the president's decision to hire him are his financial disclosures, took some redactions, took some time to get this out but now we know based on CNN's reporting and others a conservative group funded by anonymous donors. And that's key, paid him really the bulk of his salary, about a million bucks over the last couple of years. What legal alarm bells does that raise if any?

MARIOTTI: Well, it's -- look, it's certainly a concern about who is influencing the acting attorney general. I will tell you, Jim, I think a bigger problem for him is the donations that arrived after he started working at the Justice Department, allegedly those that, you know, he claims, I guess that those donations were not solicited. If he did solicit them that would be a Hatch Act violation. The penalty for that would -- the presumptive penalty would be removal from his office. And I will tell you, it's just common sense that campaign donations don't usually just fall out of trees.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Wise words. Wiser words haven't been said.

Renato Mariotti, thanks very much for the time this morning.

HARLOW: All right. Important conversation between two Italians.


HARLOW: We are joined now by CNN Political Analyst, Jackie Kucinich and Josh Dawsey.

Guys, good to be with you today. And, I mean, Josh, let me just begin with you. There is just so much that is unprecedented with this president. I just wonder if anything is different this time. Right? Renato just laid out some of the potential legal implications but when you think back to this and let's -- control, play for everyone what the president said in this debate exchange in 2016 with Hillary Clinton, right, about going after her if he were to become president. Listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation.

HILLARY CLINTON, FORMER DEMOCRATIC 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.


HARLOW: So let's give him, Josh, the total benefit of the doubt that maybe he didn't know that you're not supposed to tell your Justice Department who to go after when he was a candidate. When he became president Don McGahn wrote about it. Right? And has the legal team at the White House, right, explained why you can't do this. But he did it anyways. And he directly asked Matt Whittaker, now the acting attorney general, about it. Is this different?

JOSH DAWSEY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Don McGahn repeatedly would chastise the president, and as you said about his interactions with the Justice Department, would say, they need to go through us, they need to go through the proper channels, and the president would not heed to the guidance. And what we saw repeatedly in 2017 going into 2018 was the president wanted his foes prosecuted and charged.

What was different here is that Don McGahn, obviously, according to the "New York Times" reporting, took this so seriously that he brought up a memo telling the president how it can lead to his demise.

HARLOW: Right.

DAWSEY: And that is something that McGahn would frequently do. The president would want to do something that he thought was unconstitutional or broke the law and McGahn would say, hey, hold on, I need to tell you how this is going to get you in trouble. Because he told associates, McGahn did, it was the only way to stop the president from doing things that were deleterious to him.

SCIUTTO: First of all, Josh, I like the Florida look there.


SCIUTTO: The blue jacket. I think it's the holidays. It suits.

Jackie, we saw that Matthew Whittaker -- we've already made public his comments criticizing the special counsel's investigation over past months before the president chose him to now oversee that investigation.

[10:10:09] But we also noted that he wrote a "USA Today" op-ed titled "I Would Indict Hillary Clinton." He went on to say in that article, "When the facts and evidence show a criminal violation has been committed the individuals involved should not dictate whether the case is prosecuted."

Now Whitaker heads the Justice Department. He's the president -- he's President Trump's appointee. Does he have free rein to follow through on that threat?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I mean, listen, there are some serious concerns about his objectivity not only because of that op-ed, not only because of his questions of the Mueller probe, but when he was the head of this conservative group, this dark money group, he would frequently make charges about cover investigations into Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation.

So, yes, there are a lot of questions that need to be asked of this person. And frankly, this is up to Congress to really hold him accountable for these previous statements because right now you're right. He is the head of the Justice Department and he can do this.

HARLOW: Josh Dawsey, to you, switching gears here to something that is so important and that Jim and I want to make sure doesn't get lost in all the other headlines is, you know, the CIA's findings on Khashoggi and the fact that given that the CIA said that Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, you know, ordered the murder of this "Washington Post" journalist, one of your former colleagues.

This morning the president tweeted a thank you to Saudi Arabia for lower oil prices, not even totally based in fact, but that aside, the significance of that and what, you know, lawmakers will do about it?

DAWSEY: Well, the president has clearly discarded the CIA's intelligence. The CIA conclusively determined with high confidence that Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, was responsible for this. The president in his statement yesterday said maybe he did, maybe he didn't.

The president is taking a pretty (INAUDIBLE), a way of looking at Saudi Arabia in the situation here. He has basically said I care more about oil prices, I care about curbing Iran. They killed a journalist. But he introduced kind of an unsubstantiated smear about Jamal Khashoggi yesterday. The president has basically said he's going to side with Saudi Arabia. And if folks in Congress, might be Senator Graham, departing Senator Corker, tried to force his hands over what can be done, but as far as he is concerned he's effectively considered this matter closed even as the CIA and others have urged for, you know, a conclusive evidence that the Saudis were responsible.

SCIUTTO: Yes. I mean, I wonder if his economic team told him that Saudi -- the oil prices are falling in large part because of global economic growth concerns. But anyway --


SCIUTTO: Jackie, on the question of congressional action now, senators, Republican and Democrat, have already under the Magnitsky Act called on the president to make a determination as required under that law as to whether Saudi leaders are responsible for this killing. He has to do that within a certain number of days. KUCINICH: Right.

SCIUTTO: But in terms of bipartisan support for passing legislation to sanction Saudi Arabia if -- and it looks like he won't, if the president does not, is there that bipartisan support?

KUCINICH: There is bipartisan support, but in terms of getting something to the floor, that lies with Mitch McConnell. And, you know, you mentioned Senator Corker, he's not going to be around much longer. His replacement as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee is Jim Risch. He hasn't spoken out recently, within the last couple of days, about the Khashoggi situation.

So we don't know how he is going to lead the panel. He has been more permissible to Trump in the past. He hasn't taken as hard of a line as Bob Corker. So that still is a bit of a wildcard. We just don't know.

SCIUTTO: Yes. I mean, you're right. He's just been very loyal to the president, towed the line. That's quite a change there.

Jackie Kucinich, Josh Dawsey, thanks very much to both of you.

Still to come, bipartisan outrage among some at least after President Trump shrugs off intelligence implicating the Saudi crown prince in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Will, can Congress take action? We're joined by a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

HARLOW: Also, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg making it clear he is not going anywhere. This amid mounting criticism that the social network has not done enough to stop the spread of hate speech and to address Russian election meddling.


[10:18:56] HARLOW: All right. So apparently money talks. President Trump is defending Saudi Arabia and the crown prince despite the CIA's own findings with high confidence that the crown prince directed the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. One of his key reasons according to the president, well, the Saudis invest a lot of money here in the United States. So money trumps all else? That has ignited major blowback from both Democrat and Republican lawmakers.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Saudi Arabia needs us more than we need them. It's not too much to ask an ally not to butcher a guy in a consulate. This is not World War II. So I'm not going to look away at what MBS did. I think he did it.


HARLOW: Add to that, this tweet from the Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, quote, "I never thought I'd see the day that the White House would moonlight as a public relations firm for the crown prince of Saudi Arabia," and from Republican Senator Rand Paul, "I'm pretty sure this statement is Saudi Arabia first, not America first."

With me now, Democratic Congressman Gregory Meeks of New York. He sits on the House Foreign Affairs and Financial Services Committee.

[10:20:03] Good morning.


HARLOW: You said something to my colleague Chris Cuomo recently that struck me. And you echoing the words of doctor -- of the late Dr. King, and you said, "The silence of good people is worse than the actions of bad people."

When you look at the really silence of the president here when it comes to condemning the crown prince despite what the CIA has found, what will you and your fellow members of Congress actually now, now that you know this, you see this, what are you going to do about it?

MEEKS: Well, I would hope that we would -- and this would be in a bipartisan basis as we've seen some of the senators talk -- make a note and say what they would do. I hope that there are sanctions that would come forward from Congress. I think that we would look and should look at some sanctions and work with our international colleagues and allies to say it should be multilateral sanctions going against Saudi Arabia.

HARLOW: So hoping is one thing and acting is another. Right? That's sort of having the intestinal fortitude to do something. Let me just read you part of what Jamal Khashoggi's editor this morning, Karen Attiah, writes in her "Washington Post" column.

"It's time for Congress to act. If we do not, Khashoggi's death will be a blood stain on America's moral conscience that neither time nor Saudi hush money will ever erase."

There is power for Congress here in the congressional notification process when it comes to stopping arms sales, for example. There is this power. Is there the will?

MEEKS: I feel confident come January 3rd when Democrats take over that the House will send the Senate something in --

HARLOW: Will the senators do it? Will Jim Risch, as he's heading Foreign Relations?

MEEKS: I believe that the Democrats -- the question, I can't speak for the Republicans. And it would be time for them to finally stand up to a president who has proven to be morally bankrupt and to say that we are not going to allow the American values to be continued to be degraded by this particular president. So I would hope that --

HARLOW: Do they tell you -- I mean, you talk to them. Do Republicans in Congress tell you they're willing to do it? Publicly their statement certainly seemed like it. MEEKS: Well, and soon it will be time to put up or shut up. In the

past, you know, we're not able to get things through the House. We couldn't get bills on the floor. We will be able to get those bills on the floor come January 3rd. We'll be able to pass them in the House come January 3rd. And then it will be up to Mitch McConnell to see what he will do.

HARLOW: Let me ask you about Nancy Pelosi. You have been a supporter of hers and are going to vote for her for speaker. Her only semi- serious opponent in all of this, Marcia Fudge, has dropped out and endorsed her. There is no other challenger that has stepped up. You've got former President Obama, big donors ramping up their support for her. They've even got some pushback from progressives like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez on those who have presented an argument against her saying what's your argument other than that you want change?

Did the Democratic Party hurt itself, Congressman, with all of this hubbub which seems like for nothing? There is literally no one running against her.

MEEKS: Look, we've got to be together. We are focused together on our for the people agenda. And --

HARLOW: I get it. But was this like -- was this a waste of time and headlines and energy?

MEEKS: Families have disputes at times. And they're minding, you get over them.

HARLOW: All right.

MEEKS: You're still figure out, we're going to focus on what got us elected.

HARLOW: You sit on the Financial Services Committee. And Politico is reporting this week the incoming chairwoman of that committee, Maxine Waters, is facing some resistance within your party against her on her bid to investigate President Trump on some of these financial issues that moderates in your party are saying, you know, don't move too quickly, don't make this all of your focus. We could face political blowback from it. Are you among those cautioning her on that front?

MEEKS: Look, we had a meeting briefly and soon-to-be Chairwoman Waters --


MEEKS: -- was very clear. She is not going to go into the kind of investigations and things of that nature that the Republicans have done. She's not going to fall down that line. She understands, though, that we do have oversight responsibilities that are put in there by the Constitution.

HARLOW: Right.

MEEKS: So we're going to do those duties. That's what we're going to do.

HARLOW: As you know --

MEEKS: But it's not going to be how the Republicans have acted.

HARLOW: Because your fellow Democrat, Representative Jim Himes, who was on our show this week, said American people will (INAUDIBLE) an investigation that seem overtly political. Do you agree with him? Do you caution Democrats --

MEEKS: Yes. And I think Maxine Waters agrees with that.


MEEKS: So I don't think that's going to be a problem at all.


MEEKS: Maxine agrees with that.

HARLOW: Let me ask you finally about just diversity and leadership. The only African-American in House leadership right now is Jim Clyburn. And you have said people make an assumption that you can only have one African-American in leadership and that doesn't make sense. Is Democratic House leadership too old and too white?

MEEKS: I think that what we are now, we are primed for the present and for the future.

HARLOW: But is it -- just to that point, I mean, when you look at it, is it too old and is it too white?

MEEKS: Right now you have Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn. A woman, a white man and an African-American male. And when you look at what's coming behind it whether it is in the chair, the Democratic caucus, whether it was the assistant leader position, whether it was the vice chair, you know, you see some young energetic folks.

[10:25:15] So I like where we are as a Democratic Party. We are ready for now. We look at the issues that we were dealing with and the position that we are in now, it's because of that current leadership. If you look at where we are laying the foundation for the future or watch the elections that take place next week and the other leadership positions and you'll see it will be reflective of us in the conference and be reflective of how we can be successful in the future.

HARLOW: All right. We will watch. Who is making the turkey in your household?

MEEKS: My wife.


HARLOW: Lucky man. All right, Congressman, have a nice Thanksgiving. Thank you.

MEEKS: You too.


SCIUTTO: Coming up, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg defiant in the face of criticism that the social media giant has not done enough to stop the spread of hate speech and fake news. The CNN exclusive interview next.