Return to Transcripts main page
ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT
Trump Slams Chief Justice After Roberts Rebukes The President; Giuliani: Mueller May Not Be Done Posing Questions To Trump; Interview with Former DNI James Clapper; Feds Open Case On Whitaker Over Potential Hatch Act Violations; Interview with Sen. Jeff Merkley (D), Oregon; Dem Opposition to Pelosi as Speaker Starts to Crack. Aired at 7-8p ET
Aired November 21, 2018 - 19:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Jim Acosta. Thank you very much everyone for watching and to all of our viewers out there, a very Happy Thanksgiving. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.
ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: OUFRONT next, President Trump versus the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Justice John Roberts rebuking the president for criticizing a judge who ruled against him. Tonight, the president, of course, up in the ante
Plus, Trump's lawyer says Bob Mueller may be coming back with more questions for Trump. How worried should the president be? He just submitted his answers yesterday.
And Trump bowing to the Saudis, thanking them for lower oil prices. Wow. The facts don't add up here. Has the crown prince completely played the president? Let's go OUTFRONT.
Good evening. I'm Erin Burnett. OUTFRONT tonight, President Trump Attacking the chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, doubling down on a slam against Justice Roberts this evening, after the chief justice defended the U.S. judiciary to the president in an unprecedented public statement.
Let me show you exactly what happened. It all began when Trump was asked about a federal court ruling which was against his new policy that would bar migrants who come into the United States illegally from seeking asylum. Here's what the president said about the ruling.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, you go to the Ninth Circuit and it's a disgrace, and I'm going to put in a major complaint. This was an Obama judge, and I'll tell you what. It's not going to happen like this anymore.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNETT: OK, that sure sounds like a threat against the judicial branch by the president. Well, the chief justice of the Supreme Court who has never done anything like this so publicly felt it had finally gone too far and issued a statement. So Chief Justice Roberts responds, "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, it was an extraordinary defense of America's third branch of power and it almost immediately met with Trump doubling down on his accusation that some American judges are biased. Quote, by the way, on Twitter, "Sorry, Chief Justice Roberts, but you do indeed have Obama judges," and then he went on to slam the Ninth Circuit, which is a favorite target of the president's. The thing is, even when it comes to Trump himself, of course, you know, this isn't true. I mean, remember this guy?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: I've been treated very unfairly by this judge. Now, this judge is of Mexican heritage. I'm building a wall, OK? I'm building a wall.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNETT: Judge Curiel is who he was referring to there, an Obama appointed judge who subsequent to that slam -- by the way, he was born in Indiana, just to make sure everybody remembers -- subsequent to that slam, ruled in Trump's favor in a wall-related case. An Obama judge who supposedly is of Mexican heritage rules in favor of Trump.
So Obama appointed judges can do that, can rule in favor of this president just as Trump appointed judges like Timothy Kelly can rule against, as Judge Kelly did just days ago in the CNN press pass case. That is because America's judicial system does stand on integrity but to President Trump it seems to be about politics and it's personal. In fact, a judge who disagrees with the president is fair game. Here he is attacking Chief Justice Roberts on the campaign trail.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: Justice Roberts turned out to be a nightmare for conservatives. Justice Roberts turned out to be an absolute disaster. He turned out to be an absolute disaster because he gave us Obamacare.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNETT: Here's another example, Trump slamming another federal judge for halting the president's controversial travel ban. Remember that? Tweeting, the opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned.
By the way, that so-called judge, "Was not an Obama appointee either." So, while the president is playing politics to convince Americans that judges are biased, what it really seems to come down to for him is that judges are like everyone else. You are either with him or you are against him.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: The courts are not helping us, I have to be honest with you. It's ridiculous. Somebody said I should not criticize judges. OK. I'll criticize judges.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNETT: OK. OUTFRONT now let's go to Kaitlan Collins. She's OUTFRONT. She's in West Palm Beach near the president's resort where he's spending the holiday.
Kaitlan, the president picking a fight with a chief justice and when the chief justice, you know, responded, the president upped the ante. Why is the president choosing this fight?
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, President Trump doesn't often hesitate to push back after he's been criticized and White House officials will say this is classic Trump. He's going to fight back whenever he's been criticized, whether it's the pope or the chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, and that's what we're watching play out before us.
Now, you played that clip of President Trump criticizing John Roberts back during the campaign but John Roberts has never criticized President Trump Before and that is why this statement today was so rare for him, rebuking the president for what he said, that he was going to issue a complaint with the Ninth Circuit court, though he didn't say who he was going to issue that complaint with and the White House didn't shed any more light on that, but John Roberts didn't even mention President Trump in his statement by name, but he didn't have to after everyone who watched that interaction yesterday.
[19:05:13] Now, Erin, this fits back into the president's typical pattern of criticizing anyone who criticizes him or disagrees with what he says publicly, even if it is John Roberts, but this came after the president had spent five or six hours or so at his golf course here in Palm Beach, Florida, for the Thanksgiving holiday, and that was his remark just shortly after John Roberts issued that statement.
Now, John Roberts isn't likely to get in a tit for tat with the president and respond back to this. Sources close to him say. But the question of whether or not President Trump continues this fight and thinks that's a wise decision is something we'll likely find out around 5:00 or 6:00 a.m. tomorrow morning if you're looking at your Twitter feed.
BURNETT: All right, Kaitlan, thank you very much. I hope I speak for Americans, as many of them as humanly possible, when I say Justice Roberts, please don't respond.
OUTFRONT now, Joan Biskupic, CNN Supreme Court analyst, David Drucker, senior political correspondent for "The Washington Examiner", and Frank Bruni, "New York Times" columnist.
You're next to me, so let me start with you. The president now engaged in a war of words with the person at the helm of the third branch of power, the Supreme Court chief.
FRANK BRUNI, OP-ED COLUMNIST, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Yes, there's nobody he won't get in a war with, you know. And I just think it's really important here that John Roberts did what he did. You know, the president has colored so far outside the lines, you know, and he violates so many norms and I think all too often, people in Washington have just sort of shrugged their shoulders and pretended like they're not seeing someone behaving as abnormally as they are.
And I think what John Roberts -- what Chief Justice Roberts was doing with the statement today was sort of saying, you know, I have to kind of go a little bit outside what I would normally do because this is such an extraordinary situation, because this is a president who just does extraordinary things such as impugn the judiciary.
You know, it's not unusual for a president to say, I disagree with the court decision. It's quite something else to sort of try to delegitimize the judges in the judiciary.
BURNETT: And say they're politically biased.
BURNETT: And I want to -- yes.
BRUNI: Nothing they can do is right because they're against me.
BURNETT: I want to get to that point because Obama did, at one point, you know, criticize a decision. I want to get to that in a moment. But, David, first, what about what I pointed out there, right? When he's making this about politics, right? Judge Curiel, Obama appoint, he ruled in favor of him on a wall proceeding. His own appointed judge ruled against him on the CNN press pass. I gave those examples simply to point out that politics is not what drives our judiciary.
DAVID DRUCKER, SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, WASHINGTON EXAMINER: Well, look, I wouldn't say that politics doesn't -- isn't a part of judicial philosophy and I think that's why we see different judges appointed by Democratic and Republican presidents.
BURNETT: Fair point.
DRUCKER: What I would say is, this isn't the first president to criticize judicial decisions. I think what makes this different and why Roberts felt compelled to speak out is because the president's criticism of the judiciary and painting it as starkly political has been sustained and aggressive more so than his predecessors.
And you can only imagine, Judge Roberts, whose Obamacare decision was seen by many as a way to keep the court out of a highly political issue, had to know, was a savvy player that if he's going to go after the president on the eve of Thanksgiving with no other news, that the president was not only going to respond but that a lot of people were going to see this. And so he must have felt either compelled or heard a lot of pressure from beneath him as the leader of the judiciary branch to finally say something. BURNETT: Say something.
DRUCKER: And one more thing, Erin. The president had two years, almost, with a Republican House and a Republican Senate and the Republican House is now going away, to change immigration law. And with the Ninth Circuit said is, you can't do what you're trying to do by executive order because it's contravention of the law. He could have changed all sorts of immigration laws over the past year and a half. He didn't do it and that's what's really curious given how strong he is in his conviction about immigration.
BURNETT: Joan, you're just finishing a book here about Chief Justice Roberts, right, your study of him as no one else is. How extraordinary is this statement and what do you make of David's point? He knew that this was a quiet moment and that this would be heard, resoundingly so.
JOAN BISKUPIC, CNN SUPREME COURT ANALYST: I think it's significant for a couple reasons, Erin, especially when you give -- given the nature of what he was responding to of President Trump, the particular insult he had made at this point where he referred to the Obama judge to cast him as defined by the president who appointed him. That's something that Chief Justice Roberts has continually talked against.
And then also think of the timing. I think in part it's been the piling on of episode after episode after episode by President Trump denigrating the judiciary but also consider what we've just been through as a nation, a tumultuous Supreme Court confirmation that the chief justice is very aware of a lot of the politicking that swirled around that. And what he is doing here, I think, is asserting something on behalf of the full judiciary, but also on behalf of the Supreme Court that he leads, because, as you know, right now, the five conservatives are all Republican appointees.
[19:10:04] BURNETT: Yes.
BISKUPIC: The four liberals who are always in dissent, you know, when the conservatives lead are all Democratic appointees. And I think it was in his interest in a broader way to send that message of independence.
BURNETT: You know, Frank, the president continued to tweet tonight, judicial activism by people who know nothing about the security and safety of our citizens is putting our country in great danger. Not good. You know, and again, you know, I do reference what he said there on the campaign trail, right? Somebody said I should not criticize judges, OK, I'll criticize judges. Said with humor but also with scorn.
BRUNI: Don't touch the hot stove, I'm going to touch the hot stove. Yes.
BRUNI: I mean -- and this is what I mean by insulting words by people who know nothing. He's not taking a sort of high minded reasoned disagreement with what the judge decided. He's sort of saying, you know nothing, I know everything.
I want to follow up on Joan said that there's so much context here to what Chief Justice Roberts did. He's doing this in the context of he's as aware as the rest of us are that Donald Trump has waged an attack on all sorts of institutions, federal law enforcement, the media. Also the way he said there aren't Obama judges, there are Clinton judges, there are Bush judges, he's pushing back at the political tribalism of today that Trump exacerbates and you can't help but flash back at the interview Trump did with Chris Wallace where we said -- where he dismissed Admiral McRaven as an Obama backer, a Clinton backer.
BURNETT: Everything is political.
BRUNI: He has this view of the world that I figure out what political tribe you belong to and if it's not mine, you have no validity. I think the chief justice was pushing back very specifically at that.
BURNETT: Which of course is so disingenuous because this is a guy who was a Democrat who was pro-choice and now it's your tribe -- right? I mean voted for Clinton.
BRUNI: Well, look, Donald Trump is a populist. He's a populist. He's not even saying if you're not in my tribe, he's saying, if you're not for me. Right?
BURNETT: Yes. Right. It's a personal thing.
DRUCKER: One of the ways that President Trump rows is because a lot of Americans on the left and the right, and we saw this with Bernie Sanders, had lost a lot of faith in institutions and government, and they didn't believe that it was doing its job, and Trump continues to exploit that. So instead of saying, hey, now that I'm in charge, things are better. He continues to exploit these, and I think that's one of the things that we've seen a lot of people push back on, including Justice Roberts today.
BURNETT: Now, you say presidents have said that -- expressed their disappointment, their frustration with rulings before. That is true. And the Republican senator, Chuck Grassley, obviously very important when it comes to the judiciary, with his committee, tweets out, Chief Justice Roberts rebuked Trump for a comment he made about judge's decision on asylum.
I don't recall the chief attacking Obama when that president rebuked Alito during a State of the Union. Now, we're working on getting that. I'll let you know if we can get it here in time. But we do have it? OK. So he's referencing President Obama's rebuke of a Supreme Court ruling on campaign advertising, and the president did this during the State of the Union in 2010. Let me just show it to you.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We will open the flood gates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections.
Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNETT: All right, so, Justice Alito there, you know, shakes his head, which, you know, saying not true, right? That's the moment that everyone remembers.
Joan, are these situations comparable? Because clearly what Grassley is saying, obviously, the powerful judicial committee senator, is saying that these two things are comparable and it seems that he's taking Trump's side. It seems from this tweet.
BISKUPIC: Let me tell you what happened in that moment in January 2010. And then what Chief Justice Roberts actually said about it because Senator Grassley is not quite right here with his tweet. What happened in that moment was it was right after the Supreme Court had voted five to four to lift campaign finance regulation on corporations and labor unions, and President Obama was complaining about that decision.
He went a little too far in his criticism when he referred to the foreign corporations, which is why Samuel Alito started shaking his head but then what happened a few months later when Chief Justice John Roberts was speaking at the University of Alabama, he actually criticized that whole setting. He said that it felt like a pep rally to have the president make those remarks with all of those justices sitting there.
So he actually did complain about President Obama's statement because he said, you know, here we are sitting there, we can't clap, we can't boo, we can't do anything, and we're, you know, we're essentially just victims of the rhetoric. So, there was a time when Chief Justice Roberts did publicly complain about something that another president had done, but not, Erin, to the magnitude that he's done today against President Trump.
BURNETT: And when you look at that moment, David, OK, you could say President Obama went too far, shouldn't have done that in that setting. President Trump does it, I mean, I could have picked many more sound bytes than I picked in in the introduction, but again and again and again and makes it explicitly about politics and that is unprecedented.
DRUCKER: Well, I think that the level at which he does it is particularly different.
[19:15:03] And I think it's important to understand here, the president is the elected chief executive. It's his prerogative. He doesn't like the law. He can work to change the law. I mean, I feel like this is "Schoolhouse Rock." Judiciary branch interprets the law and even though they at times appear to interpret it from their political perspective, their judicial philosophical perspective, if the president doesn't like the law, he can send up a package of immigration reforms. I mean we said the same thing about Obama. BURNETT: As you pointed out, that has not happened.
DRUCKER: Right. After he used his executive authority to change the DACA law, he could have, in his two years with a Democratic Congress, sent up a package of immigration reforms. He didn't do it. Republicans went to court. They picked a court they liked. So this is something the president could do without going after the courts in the way he has.
BURNETT: All right. Thank you all very much. I appreciate it.
And next, President Trump, after months of negotiations, answering the special counsel questions, right? Submitting them, they say, yesterday. And now, Mueller may be coming back for more already?
Plus the Saudis now using Trump's own words to cast doubt on the CIA, right? They're saying, see, look, President Trump says the CIA is wrong. What a top Saudi official is now saying tonight about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
And with thousands of troops spending Thanksgiving at the southern border, top Democrats are demanding evidence to justify their deployment. Senator Jeff Merkley is leading the charge and he's OUTFRONT.
[19:20:07] BURNETT: Tonight, more Mueller questions for President Trump. Well, President Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, is telling CNN that the special counsel may have more questions, follow-up questions to Trump's written answers. Now, Giuliani saying the team is willing to answer them if they believe they're relevant. It's always in the if.
Giuliani warning Trump will fight questions on potential obstruction of justice. Now, he tells Axios, "I don't think he, Mueller, has any way to compel testimony on obstruction because the argument of executive privilege would be very, very strong."
OUTFRONT now, former assistant U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York, Harry Sandick and former Nixon White House Counsel, John Dean.
So the crucial questions here tonight, let's start with Rudy Giuliani saying, OK, if you come back and the questions are about obstruction of justice, forget about it. Executive privilege is going to protect us. Is he right?
JOHN DEAN, FORMER NIXON WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL: I don't think he necessarily is correct. Executive privilege is a very vague, really it has little legal standing. The Supreme Court did recognize it in U.S. versus Nixon when he was forced to turn over his tapes. If anything, that case would call for the president to respond and answer any subpoena.
BURNETT: So, Harry, there's the issue of executive privilege, and now there's, look, according to what they told us, Trump submitted his written answers yesterday. That's what we have been told. So, what do you make of Giuliani already saying Mueller may have follow-ups? I mean, they're barely there.
HARRY SANDICK, FORMER ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY, SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK: I think he's anticipating, and it makes sense, that, you know, when you answer questions in writing, there are inevitably going to be more ambiguities and more need for follow-up than when you have an interview. And if question in a face-to-face interview is answered in a way that's ambiguous, you can just say, I'm sorry, I don't understand.
BURNETT: And you can just ask. It's like a deposition, right?
BURNETT: OK. So that might happen. I mean, John, you know, Giuliani said, you know, to the point about the questions that he has, Mueller's questions were like a law school exam. He said they were complex and there were a lot of subset questions. I don't know if that's their attempt to try to anticipate a follow-up or what.
But what we do know about, there were questions about what Trump knew about Don Jr.'s meeting with the Russians at Trump Tower, right, that infamous one that they had originally said was about adoption but of course was intended to be anything but. The president's own comments about dirt on Hillary Clinton following the meeting at Trump Tower and his comments asking Russia to find Clinton's missing e-mails, right, that all of these were questions.
If this is exhaustive, does it mean there is no smoking gun, John? And I ask that in the sense of, we already know about all these events so unless there's something that no one's even leaking or discussing all the events on the table are already known.
DEAN: I suspect the special counsel has even more detail than we've seen reported publicly, that he knows much more about the answers to these questions, and that these appear to me to be more of a courtesy to the president to let him answer in his own words what his response to the various questions might be or his take on the various situations.
You know, it's almost like -- he could complete the investigation without it, but it would look like it was unfair if he didn't at least get what the president had on his take on each of these issues. Whether it was like a law school exam or not, I can't answer it. It's been a long time since I've been in law school.
BURNETT: So, Harry, the president does seize every opportunity to unprompted say he didn't collude with Russia, right? This week, he did it two times in just the past week. Here he is.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: The written answers to the witch hunt that's been going on forever, no collusion, no nothing, they've been finished. There was no collusion whatsoever. And the whole thing is a scam.
The whole thing is a hoax. There was no collusion.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNETT: OK. Obviously, he's obsessed with that.
BURNETT: Is Mueller going to definitively answer that crucial question? Because that's the question that, if you can definitively answer, you're going to get a broad swath of the American public behind that conclusion as opposed to obstruction of justice, which could seem much more political.
SANDICK: I think that's right. One of two things is going to happen. He'll either have sufficient evidence that he thinks it's definitive and he'll charge some people with crimes relating to so-called collusion, or he'll conclude that that very high standard that a prosecutor has to have to believe that the person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and in the prosecutor's mind to have really almost no doubt if that standard isn't met, he'll prepare a report and submit it up the chain at the Department of Justice.
BURNETT: And, John, will we ever see that report? We, the people.
DEAN: I don't know. You know, I think, given the fact we have a Republican Senate, it's not going to come out of there. It may come out of a democratically controlled House. That will depend on the timing and the circumstances, but I think eventually we will see what was in that report.
BURNETT: All right. Thank you both.
And next, President Trump today thanking the Saudis. Thank you, Saudi Arabia, he says. There's a big problem, though. The facts do not add up to that thank you.
[19:25:09] And new problems tonight for Trump's acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker. Questions tonight about his finances and questionable contributions.
BURNETT: OUTFRONT tonight, Trump bowing even deeper to the prince, tweeting today, "Oil prices getting lower, great. Like a big tax cut for America and the world. Enjoy. 54 was just 82". He's referring to prices per barrel. "Thank you to Saudi Arabia." But let's go lower.
Thank you to Saudi Arabia. The same Saudi Arabia whose crown prince personally directed the murder of U.S. resident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to the CIA.
Now, the facts on oil. Saudi Arabia did increase its output of oil this summer, and prices are down, down too much for Saudi Arabia, because here's what they've done. On November 11th, this month, the kingdom announced it's going to slash oil production by half a million barrels a day, OK? When you cut production, it means there's less supply, prices go back up. They're slashing production because they want prices to go up, not down. Because higher oil prices are good for Saudi Arabia. Not the lower ones that President Trump says are the reason he's siding with the Saudis.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: We are with Saudi Arabia. We're staying with Saudi Arabia.
REPORTER: Why are you siding with the Saudis over your own intelligence?
TRUMP: Because it's America first to me. It's all about America first.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNETT: Meantime, in Saudi Arabia, the crown prince's team is celebrating a victory over the CIA. Here's the foreign minister in an interview today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ADEL AL JUBEIR, SAUDI FOREIGN MINISTER: What we've heard is the president say that the CIA report is not what the people say it is. And so, we have to go by this.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNETT: We heard the president say the CIA report is not what people say. The big question tonight is still why. Because the president's oil argument, of course, doesn't add up as a reason to side with Saudi Arabia as we just showed. So why is he?
OUTFRONT now, James Clapper, former director of national intelligence and CNN national security analyst.
And, Director Clapper, I appreciate your time.
You know, the president today, the quote, let me say it again. Thank you to Saudi Arabia. Why? Why is he doing this?
JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Well, you know, Erin, I don't know. He's either gullible or disingenuous and in either case, doesn't speak well of him. If anybody ought to be thanking anybody, it ought to be Mohammed bin Salman thanking the president for giving him a pass and clearly the president has demonstrated that he is a show me the money president, and I don't -- you know, this is not about America first. This comes out as Saudi first.
And why this deference to yet another autocrat, I honestly don't know, unless they so successfully appealed to his ego that he can't do otherwise.
BURNETT: So, I want to ask you about that in a moment, because there's a very explicit moment where they did try to do that, to appeal to his ego. But I want to ask you first about Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, the guy who knows Washington well, a guy who lived there a long time, right, former ambassador -- seizing on Trump siding with the CIA.
How significant is Trump doing that, siding with the CIA, when it comes to Saudi? I mean, siding with Saudi against the CIA. I'm sorry. Misspoke.
CLAPPER: Well, Adel al-Jubeir, of course, he's grasping at any straw, and that's been the history of this whole episode with the Saudis, is they progress from one lie to the next. And so, by the president's disregarding the intelligence on this, he has given the Saudis a hook which the foreign minister, who's a very shrewd guy, long time in Washington, seized on right away, and again, it's just regrettable that the intelligence community kind of got thrown under the bus here.
BURNETT: Now, when you -- when you talk about appealing to his ego, Trump specifically mentioned his visit to Saudi Arabia as president, right, when he announced he is standing with the crown prince over the CIA.
Now, when he visited, I want to show our viewers what he saw everywhere, everywhere. And you know, those of us who have driven around Riyadh, you could put this picture up, it's just huge and it's everywhere. Side-by-side, Donald Trump and the king.
Did that work, that manipulation? Was that successful?
CLAPPER: Yes, Erin, and that's exactly what I had in mind when I said the successful Saudi appeal to his ego, and it had to do with that trip. And literally rolling out the red carpet, gold carpet, every other form of carpet and this lavish treatment that he received, which seems to be the secret to success to garnering favor from the president of the United States these days.
BURNETT: So, I want to ask you about the -- this kind of shred that is the foreign minister is clinging on to. That the CIA has concluded that the crown prince directly ordered this horrific assassination, the words used are high confidence. You know, one former member of the CIA said to me, this is not them saying he might have done it or he could have done it. That he did it. And yet, we don't know of any smoking gun.
So, when they say high confidence, what's your understanding, Director Clapper, of how sure they are? Is there a shred of doubt?
CLAPPER: Very little. You know, you're never 100 percent sure. That's not the nature of the intelligence business.
But the agency clearly had multiple sources that gave them confidence in their conclusion. Moreover, anyone who has a fundamental understanding of how things work in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where Mohammed bin Salman is into all things big and small. So, it's completely inconceivable that an operation of this complexity involving killing somebody in another country was not only known to him and he acquiesced but that he directed it.
[19:35:07] And so, the overall -- the evidence for this had to be overwhelming and I believe that's what led to the characterization of the report being high confidence.
BURNETT: It does seem, obviously, like a statement of the of course, as you point out when you consider who was involved and the numbers and the private jets and I mean, all of it, and in a sensuous it did seem almost absurd that we had to go through this exercise but they did and they did come to that conclusion.
What's the harm, Director, that could come to this country or come out of this, of the president of the United States siding with, in this case, a crown prince of Saudi Arabia, obviously, he's done it before with Vladimir Putin over the Russian intelligence? But in this case, what's the harm?
CLAPPER: Well, I think it's terrible, terrible commentary about our moral standing in the world and the way this is going to be looked at and the president's, I think, again, disingenuous if not dishonest, false choice here. If we condemn MBS, if we sanction Saudi, somehow they're going to turn against us. They're not going to do that.
We have far more leverage over them than they do us, and they're going to continue to be an opponent of Iran in any event just because they're kind of -- the Sunni lead and the Iranians are the Shia lead. That's going to go on regardless of what we do. So, all this false rationale just doesn't cut it.
BURNETT: No, it doesn't. It doesn't make any sense when you look at it, even from the numbers perspective and from the oil angle, it makes no sense, as he himself points out, the largest producer of oil now is the United States of America.
CLAPPER: I would like to add, Erin, just one more point, that you know, I've said this before and I'll say it here, that the intelligence community, I believe, will continue to tee up truth to power whether the power listens to the truth or not, and they'll continue to do that.
BURNETT: I hope they do as, of course, the media tries to do as well. No matter what anyone calls it. Thank you so much, Director Clapper. I appreciate your time.
CLAPPER: Thanks, Erin.
BURNETT: And OUTFRONT next, Trump's acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, facing a new probe tonight. This is into his finances. We have new reporting on how he received thousands of dollars in donations right after joining the justice department the significance of that.
And the president authorizing troops on the southern border to use lethal force if necessary. Could that happen? Our guest, Senator Jeff Merkley.
[19:41:14] BURNETT: New tonight, CNN has learned that the office of special counsel has opened a case file on Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker.
Now, let's be clear. This is an independent federal agency, so it's not the Mueller team. I just want to make sure that we're very clear about that. The agency is looking at whether Whitaker may have violated rules on federal employees by accepting political contributions to his own senatorial campaign while he was serving in the Justice Department.
So, he's serving in the Justice Department and accepting money, political contributions.
Laura Jarrett is OUTFRONT.
LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker facing new questions tonight about a mysterious trail of campaign contributions as CNN has now learned that an independent federal agency is looking into whether he may have violated federal law by accepting campaign money while working at the Justice Department.
At the crux of the issue, $8,800 in donations made to his failed 2014 bid for a U.S. Senate seat in Iowa, especially since the donations were only made earlier this year, just months after he became chief of staff to then Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
That's a problem, says Austin Evers, head of American Oversight, a government watchdog group that filed an administrative complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, an agency that says executive branch employees can be fined or re reprimanded for violations.
AUSTIN EVERS, AMERICAN OVERSIGHT EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: So after two years of being completely dormant and only after he joined Jeff Sessions' office as chief of staff, he started receiving a cluster of contributions from former clients of his when he was a lobbyist in Iowa. It appears to violate the black letter law of the Hatch Act, which says public officials are not allowed to receive donations.
JARRETT: When reached by phone on Wednesday, Whitaker's campaign treasurer, Bill Gustoff, couldn't explain why four individuals donated to Whitaker in 2018 but told CNN that the unsolicited funds from backers of Republican candidates went toward roughly $49,000 in outstanding campaign debt. Whitaker had lent his own campaign money in 2013, something the Hatch Act allows, but it wasn't listed on his financial disclosure forms.
EVERS: We're calling for an investigation because there are a lot of unanswered questions. Whitaker's treasurer said that he was paying off debt, but the FEC filings show that the only expenditures he made was for rent. He also said he didn't solicit these donations, so he doesn't appear to know why they were received either.
JARRETT: The financial disclosure forms which were edited at least five times in the last two weeks since Whitaker was appointed acting attorney general show $15,000 in other income, as a legal analyst for CNN, while his critics now raise additional questions about his work for a conservative activist group known as FACT, the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust.
The foundation allows unlimited donations from undisclosed donors and paid Whitaker roughly $1 million as executive director in the years before being tapped as Sessions' chief of staff.
JARRETT: Erin, while we don't know much about these anonymous donations to this group FACT, what we do know is that the group was aggressively pushing for the investigation into Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Family Foundation, something that Whitaker now as head of the Justice Department, would have the power to investigate -- Erin.
BURNETT: All right, thank you very much, Laura. Appreciate that report with all that news.
And next, a Democratic congresswoman calling out Trump for being, quote, Saudi Arabia's expletive. Did she just stoop to Trump's level?
And a dozen freshman Democrats vowing to oppose Nancy Pelosi as House speaker. But now they're falling like flies. What happened?
[19:48:45] BURNETT: Tonight, President Trump says U.S. troops on the southern border can use force against migrants. The president signing a memo saying that troops can use, quote, lethal force to protect border agents from migrants if they engage in violence.
The operative line reads, quote, a show or use of force, including lethal force where necessary. This as a group of Democratic senators sent a letter demanding answers on the president's deployment of nearly 6,000 troops to the border before the midterms.
OUTFRONT now, one of those senators, Jeff Merkley of Oregon.
Senator, great to have you with me. I appreciate your time tonight.
First your reaction to this memo.
SEN. JEFF MERKLEY (D), OREGON: You bet.
BURNETT: The president has signed it. It would allow troops to use lethal force on the border to protect border agents from violence from migrants. Your reaction.
MERKLEY: Well, the president's continued with a political play, really, and it's one he started a week before the election in which he issued the initial order for the troops to go. It's one he said they need to be there by November 5th, the day before the election, of course. If anyone doubts that it was done simply to dramatize his argument over immigration, it wasn't done because security is threatened for the United States of America.
[19:50:00] BURNETT: So, your letter as you point out on the 5,800 troops went to the defense secretary, Jim Mattis. On this issue of lethal force, by the way, this is important. I mean, people watching should understand, right? This is not something the troops can use anywhere, right? This is a really crucial and very carefully wielded weapon, to use that word.
The defense secretary is not on board. He was asked if the troops would be able to protect themselves during a hostile situation with migrants and he said, no, not with a firearm. The direct opposite of what's in the memo.
Do you think he's going to stand up with the president or get in line?
MERKLEY: Yes, no, I think he will stand up to the president. He realizes this is really a misuse of troops for political purposes. I was disappointed that he wasn't stronger on the initial deployment. He went that far, but I don't think he'll go this far.
I completely respect his service and his knowledge and wisdom regarding the fact that you don't politicize the use military forces in the United States of America. And you don't use them for this sort of -- as a prop in political propaganda from the president of the United States.
BURNETT: So, the president, you know, obviously used an expletive this week to describe one of your colleagues in the House, and today your Democratic colleague in the House, Congressman Tulsi Gabbard, spoke out about the president, you know, saying he's putting America first on the Saudi Arabian situation. She tweeted, quote, hey, @RealDonaldTrump being Saudi Arabia's expletive is not America first.
Now I will say this is a word theoretically I could use on CNN. The one the president used is one that I wouldn't, but I personally wouldn't use either one. That's why I said bleep there.
My question is how can Democrats criticize the president about lowering the discourse when they're going to use words like that?
MERKLEY: Well, certainly you have a very large community of Democrats who serve in Congress and were very frustrated. That goes much further than I'm comfortable with. I think the language takes away from the fundamental point which is that in this situation, the president is really almost operating as Saudi Arabia's agent or publicist or advocate rather than America's advocate. That's the point that needs to be made better that we do it without that kind of language.
BURNETT: Quickly before we go, the president just came out with a tweet about the weather and let me just read it to you. He said -- here we go, brutal and extended cold blast could shatter all records in caps. Whatever happened to global warming? He's talking about the Thanksgiving forecast, for cold weather in the Northeast.
What do you say to the president?
MERKLEY: Well, I tell you, I'm standing out here in cold wind right now, but that isn't the point. You're going to have cold patches and warm patches across the globe. We see these warmer temperatures driving everything from the more powerful hurricanes to the forest fires to acidity that's damaging shellfish in the oceans.
We're all being affected by this. It is a threat to our planet. It needs to be taken seriously. It is being taken seriously across the globe but not by our president.
BURNETT: All right. Senator Merkley, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it.
MERKLEY: Thank you, Erin. Take care now.
BURNETT: And next, that group of House Democrats vowing to oppose Nancy Pelosi as speaker, as I said, dropping like flies, a bow, not a vow.
[19:57:25] BURNETT: New tonight: Nancy Pelosi two steps closer to returning as speaker of the House.
Step one, today, Congressman Brian Higgins announcing he's defecting from a group of Democrats who signed a letter vowing to oppose Pelosi for a speaker. Well, not vowing anymore. He's abandoning them.
That decision coming after the second big thing, Ohio Democratic Marcia Fudge who was considering running against Pelosi for speaker backed out and pledged her support for Pelosi.
House Democrats are voting to select the nominee next week. So, the timing matters here.
Manu Raju is OUTFRONT.
Manu, the power of Pelosi at the beginning of the week, she didn't have it and now they're falling like flies.
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No question about it. Remember the beginning of the week, we believed there were going to be 17 Democrats who were going to sign a letter vowing to oppose her on the floor of the House. Well, when that letter emerged, there were just 16 Democrats because Marcia Fudge didn't sign it.
Then she ended up supporting Pelosi after cutting a side deal, getting something that only Pelosi can give her, a position on a key subcommittee.
Now, at the same time, Brian Higgins, he had signed that letter but now he's supporting Nancy Pelosi after getting his own deal. This to push on legislation dealing with infrastructure, dealing with health care, something he believes is important to him.
Now this comes, Erin, as a flurry of phone calls are being made by Pelosi supporters, roughly 45 members who are closed to Pelosi are making calls on her behalf. The full power of the Democratic establishment is weighing in on some key and skeptical members and ultimately many believe that these detractors will cave and ultimately support Nancy Pelosi.
But right now at the moment, we believe that about 18 or so members who have said they will not support Pelosi, that's enough to deny her the speakership if they hold firm. That's a big question, Erin. Will they hold firm?
BURNETT: Yes. Right. If, certainly you see somebody on that list backing down. So, now, anything goes. Some have said, oh, maybe Nancy Pelosi has part of this because of this challenge. This is the last time I'm going to retire from this as part of a way to get votes.
Any chance of that?
RAJU: We don't know that yet. It's possible that could happen. Some of these people in the Pelosi critic camp have demanded that she say when she's going to leave. She has refused to do that.
And Brian Higgins did tell me earlier today that he had this conversation with Pelosi herself and she would not say when she plans to leave. She's pitching herself as a transitional leader, but when Higgins told me that he came away from the conversation believing this is going to be her last Congress, the coming Congress will be the last one. So, after the 2020 elections, he believes she will step aside. But of course, Erin, she didn't say that.
BURNETT: All right. Thank you very much, Manu.
RAJU: Thanks, Erin.
BURNETT: And thanks for joining us. Happy Thanksgiving.
"ANDERSON" starts now.