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Trump Intensifies Attacks on Chief Justice John Roberts; U.S. Agency Opens File on Matt Whitaker's Potential Hatch Act Violation; Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Kicks Off in New York City; Saudi Foreign Minister Uses Trump Statement to Back Crown Prince "Innocence" in Khashoggi Murder; Nearly One Million Under Flash Flood Watch in California. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired November 22, 2018 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:00] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Well, I should have brought my kids today, then.

A very good morning to you, and a happy, warm, food-filled Thanksgiving to you. I'm Jim Sciutto in Washington. Poppy has the day off.

President Trump is serving up another helping platter of contempt this morning for the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. He is calling that collection of federal courts based in San Francisco, quote, "a complete and total disaster, out of control with a horrible reputation," he claims. Going further, "Bedlam, chaos, injury and death will follow if the Ninth Circuit keeps ruling against the administration on border issues."

And so continues the smackdown on the man overseeing the entire federal judiciary, the chief justice of the United States of America who yesterday responded to the president for attacking the judge who blocked his executive order on asylum. He said the following, "We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges," John Roberts wrote. "Just dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them."

Well, today the administration reportedly has a new plan for migrants seeking asylum at the southwest border. It is called "Remain in Mexico." And that just about says it all.

Meanwhile a new controversy erupts around the acting attorney general over campaign contributions he received this year for a Senate run in 2014.

Who says there is no news on a holiday? We're going to dig into all of it this hour beginning with the president's feud with the courts.

Kaitlan Collins is in West Palm Beach with that. If we thought this was a one-day battle, the president took any doubt about that away this morning keeping it up.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, he did. If you thought this was going to be a one-day battle, you do not know President Trump. Even though John Roberts didn't respond to the president's latest remarks last night when he blasted him on twitter saying, "Sorry, Chief Justice John Roberts." President Trump responded again this morning calling out John Roberts once again and going after the Ninth Circuit Court after he initially criticized that decision when he was leaving the White House to come down here because of a decision they made about his asylum changes that he wants to make.

Now President Trump seems glad to be continuing this. It was his first message or his message before -- right before he sent out a Happy Thanksgiving message this morning to all of his followers on Twitter. But it is something we are seeing the president continue. And that's because people close to the president say that when someone is criticizing him or his administration, he is not going to back down. Instead he is going to double down and continue pushing back.

Now that's not what sources close to John Roberts are saying. That they don't expect him to continue this argument with the president after he offered that very rare rebuke of him in the first place. But we'll see where this goes from here. But it is the president fighting with the chief justice of the Supreme Court on Twitter.

SCIUTTO: So, Kaitlan, there is now a Hatch Act probe of the Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker. Just briefly explain what's involved here.

COLLINS: That's right. So Matt Whitaker is this guy who was the chief of staff for Jeff Sessions, now the acting attorney general at the Justice Department. And he is now having an investigation looked into him because a watchdog group filed some complaints with the Office of the Special Counsel that is separate from the special counsel that is Robert Mueller that is investigating Russian interference in the election.

But they had filed this complaint against him alleging that they believe he could have violated the Hatch Act. The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from accepting political contributions. And they say that they believe Matt Whitaker may have done that because of some donations made to a committee for when he ran for Senate in 2014. He lost. Did not win that. But those were contributions that were made when he was the chief of staff for the attorney general.

And they are causing some scrutiny for that, and they are looking into that and whether that goes forward just shows this renewed scrutiny on Matt Whitaker now that he is leading the Justice Department -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: And of course raises questions about how well if at all he was vetted before the president made this choice.

Kaitlan Collins, thanks very much.

With me now, CNN Political Commentators, Joe Lockhart and Alice Stewart, and CNN Legal Analyst, Michael Zeldin.

Thanks to all of you for coming in on this Thanksgiving holiday. We're going to draw on your wisdom and then let you go home to your families. Alice, if I could start with you. This trend of attacking

institutions by this president certainly not new but expanding. I mean, in the last week, Adam Schiff, Democrat, Bill McRaven, Admiral Bill McRaven, no party, American war hero, John Roberts, Republican appointee and chief justice of the Supreme Court. And of course you add to that the president's past attacks on the Department of Justice, the FBI.

Who is pushing back against this president as he seeks to attack these institutions, in effect saying that if you are not on my side, somehow you are not doing your job?

[09:05:07] ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, you may want to add the media on that list as well, Jim.


STEWART: But, look, clearly no one is pushing back. And I would imagine if they did it would go without any type of response from the president. He is going to attack those who attack him, who are critical of him and who don't support his policy. That's the way he was during the campaign. That's the why he was during transition and certainly leading this administration.

But my concern with this is those people that you mentioned and others that he does attack, certainly Democrat opponents, whereas he embraces in my view and stands behind brutal dictators, such as the Saudi crown prince, Vladimir Putin, that's where the concern is. It raises questions as to who he feels is someone that is worthy of his scorn and criticism and who he feels is someone that needs to be protected. That's where there is great concern.

SCIUTTO: Joe, I wonder if we as a country sometimes are the frog in the boiling pot of water, right? The temperature is rising but because every day there is something, you're like, well, does this one really matter, does that one really matter. But taken together, I think it's always important to connect the dots for people that the president has raised real questions that is undermining some Americans' confidence it appears in all these institutions.

JOE LOCKHART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No. I think we get caught up in sort of the personality and examining why Trump is doing this. And there's some really dangerous stuff that's going on here. I mean, if you look back, you know, just to the middle of the last century, you had dictators moving forward, and you had people appeasing those dictators, you know, Hitler and Mussolini.

The president is acting in many ways like an authoritarian, which is if he doesn't negotiate with people, he demeans them and tries to delegitimize them. And I think it's very scary. And you know, right now, the Republican leadership is appeasing the president. There is no other word for it. And it's dangerous when, you know, this isn't just about Trump. We may come out of this Trump era hopefully in just another two years with a country that no longer believes in the media, no longer believes in the judiciary, no longer believes in the Justice Department and law enforcement. No longer believes in the intelligence community.

That is ripe for authoritarianism. And it is very dangerous and we really do I think have to step back from the daily tweeting and what Trump is feeling and what his strategy is. He said it at the convention. We live in a dark world and only I can solve this. That doesn't sound like a democratic president.

SCIUTTO: Michael Zeldin, I want to ask you this, with John Roberts. So you have the chief justice. He's a Republican appointee. Conservative by any measure. But also someone who is very conscious of the court's reputation and its standing in American society. That appears to be his motivation behind this very rare statement he issued yesterday contradicting the president here.

He's not someone to hold grudges, but I wonder if the president's attack on him could backfire, that in these many consequential decisions coming before the court, many of which might be a five-four kind of decision, that this justice is one who might be motivated to make a stand for the court's perception of not being partisan that sets you up for losing from the Trump administration's perspective some of these cases.

Do you see where I'm going with that?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes. Although not certain with John Roberts. I think fundamentally he is a constitutional conservative, and I think that he will rule on cases before him based on the law in front of him, not the politics of the situation in which he finds himself, which is really in some sense untenable for him. But, you know, it could be in very close case that he finds a way like with the upholding of the Obamacare decision to look for a legal way to uphold it for a political end.

I don't expect that. But to the point that you are raising, Jim, it is possible that he's so disgusted with what's going on here that he looks for alternatives.

SCIUTTO: Alice, let's talk about the latest challenge to Matthew Whitaker here. And this one here, Hatch Act, for folks at home who aren't following kind of obscure campaign law but a real issue here. Did he unduly take campaign contributions when he held another role in government. Are you concerned that all these questions circling around Matt Whitaker undermine his future as the acting attorney general?

STEWART: I think he and everyone realized that once his name was announced in his position, he was going to face tremendous scrutiny. It's a big position. It's a critical time in our nation. But as for this current probe with regard to the Hatch Act, as someone who's been on many campaigns, it is not unusual to work years later to try and retire a campaign debt, which is what's going on here.

[09:10:03] He had about $50,000 in outstanding debt and much of which he donated himself and someone stepped up and made a contribution to help retire that debt. The question will remain and his treasurer says we didn't ask for it. But the fact that he accepted it may run into some gray area. I would like to think that we'll be able to investigate this. If there is anything that's untoward, I would assume the right thing to do would be to pay the money back.


STEWART: But it's a valid concern given the important position he's in now. But I'm sure if they find something that needs to be corrected, Matt will do so.

SCIUTTO: Joe, do you think that these are correctable issues with the acting attorney general, or are they ones that the Democrats are really not going to let go of?

LOCKHART: Yes. I think it represents a pattern. You know, I think it's not a stretch to say that he's not fit to be the acting attorney general, much less the attorney general. If you look at his past, there's fraud in his business past. There is a number of questions about the conversations that went on with the president before he was elevated with what he was doing there over the objections of Attorney General Sessions.

So I don't expect that this particular Hatch Act violation is what will bring him down. I think it's the overall. And remember, taking a step back, this is all about the president trying to impede the Mueller investigation. By putting someone clearly not qualified, someone who will follow his marching orders and someone who likely when Bob Mueller says I need to talk to the president, I want a subpoena, is likely to tell the president and the president will have veto power over that.


LOCKHART: And that violates every tenant of what the special counsel's office is supposed to be about.

SCIUTTO: So, Michael Zeldin, what's holding the president back from this? I mean, we talked a long time about, you know, a Saturday night massacre in slow motion that the president has installed as attorney general and as the overseer of the Mueller investigation in which the president is involved, a friendly actor here. What stands in the way of that remaining the reality?

ZELDIN: A Democratic House that may file Articles of Impeachment for abuse of power. I think this --

SCIUTTO: Against the president?

ZELDIN: Yes, sure. Because if what they have done here is a slow motion Saturday night massacre, that is, they have put in a person who will now try to decapitate the work of the special counsel so that he cannot proceed to a conclusion, that has to be reported to the House Judiciary and Senate Judiciary and Senate Intelligence, House Intelligence Committees for inquiry. And if they find that in the course of that inquiry that this was done for the purpose of interfering with his investigation, that's an abuse of office, that inquiry. And so I think that's what should be holding him back. That's what

McGahn told him when he said he wanted to bring charges against Comey and Hillary Clinton just the other week we learned that. And McGahn said you can do that constitutionally, but you run the risk of abusing your office and Articles of Impeachment could be filed.


ZELDIN: So I think that's the biggest governor on his behavior.

SCIUTTO: It's a high bar. The most important thing I think that happened this morning -- was that you, Joe? I heard a dog in the background.

LOCKHART: That was my dog.

SCIUTTO: Did he want to pipe in to the discussion?


SCIUTTO: He wanted to pipe in? Did he have any wisdom that you can translate for us in the panel to -- on this Thanksgiving Day.


LOCKHART: I think he agrees with everything I say.

SCIUTTO: OK. Fair enough.

STEWART: I think he's waiting for --

SCIUTTO: That's a smart dog.

STEWART: He's waiting for some leftovers.

Jim, if I can real quickly say --

SCIUTTO: Please. Please. Yes, before you go.

STEWART: Not only -- not only is the president getting legal counsel and legal advice to make sure and not obstruct the Mueller investigation, when you travel around in the midterm elections, a lot of his base, a lot of Republican voters say they want to make sure that nothing is done to stop Mueller and what he is doing in his investigation. And the president knows that. He understands there will be some pushback from his base if he were to do anything. So I don't expect anything on his part related to Saturday night massacre because he understands there will be some consequences.

SCIUTTO: All right. Alice, Michael, Joe, Joe's dog, very Happy Thanksgiving to all of you.

STEWART: Thanks, Jim.

ZELDIN: You, too. Jim.

SCIUTTO: Thanks for coming in.

LOCKHART: Happy Thanksgiving.

SCIUTTO: Well, the 92nd Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is winding through the streets of New York City right now. It's bitter cold, but that didn't keep millions of people from lining the parade route to get a front row seat to all of those balloons, marching bands. This is how I spent my childhood, freezing my tail off out there. It was always worth it.

CNN's Miguel Marquez is there. What's the best balloon this year, Miguel?

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the one that's right behind us is Chase from Paw Patrol. Joe's dog has nothing on this one. They are keeping them very low to the ground because there are some winds, but they are flying. So far so good. And they'll watch the wind as they progress down the city here. But people from all over the place, people from -- I've got folks from Finland who are over here. People from Las Vegas. How are you -- what are you guys thankful for today?

What are you thankful for?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, my son, my family, being able to come here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's a very great opportunity.

MARQUEZ: And you're from Virginia, what are you thankful for?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes sir, I'm thankful to the troops overseas and back at home with their families.

MARQUEZ: And it is incredible, they weren't sure -- oh, here comes the clowns, we're always worried about clowns. Hello clowns, how are you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're great. Happy Thanksgiving.

MARQUEZ: Happy Thanksgiving. There are over 1,000 clowns that are here today, just huge audiences, everybody excited for this?


And so far so good. They're going to watch wind conditions, it is very cold out here, but some three million people coming out, the cold not stopping anyone. Jim?

SCIUTTO: Well, Miguel, I'm thankful for having you out there, it brings back memories from being a kid. I see the Pillsbury Doughboy maybe on the way there. Anyway --

MARQUEZ: Pillsbury Doughboy, I feel like a kid being out here. It's great.

SCIUTTO: Keep on top of it for us, Miguel Marquez, thanks very much. We have more news coming up this hour, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister is using President Trump's statement to downplay the CIA's report on journalist Jamal Khashoggi's murder.

We will have the latest, plus, the death toll now, 83 dead in California's campfire. Just look at those scenes there, almost one million people are under a flash flood watch in the region because up to six inches of rain are expected today. We're on top of that story.

Also, controversy over cranberries, turkey and political talk, don't always mix. We're going to tell you how to handle it.


SCIUTTO: Saudi Arabia is using President Trump's own words to cast doubt on the CIA's high confidence assessment that the Saudi Crown Prince ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The country's Foreign Minister arguing that U.S. Intel is unreliable, pointing to these remarks by the U.S. president.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The CIA has looked at it, they've studied it a lot, they have nothing definitive, and the fact is maybe he did, maybe he didn't.


SCIUTTO: So whose side is the president taking here, Saudi Arabia's or the U.S.'? Let's discuss with Samantha Vinograd. She's CNN national security analyst. So Samantha, quite a moment here, and I imagine predictable. The president undermines U.S. Intelligence agencies by questioning their high confidence assessment, which is as high confidence or as definitive as Intelligence assessments get.

And the Saudis parrot that back. How much of a problem is that for the U.S.?

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, it's a problem, Jim, because Intelligence on to itself doesn't make policy. Intelligence is geared towards its number one customer, and that is typically the president of the United States.

So the president chooses not to integrate it into a policy process, the buck really stops with him. And the issue, Jim, is we might see a very public divide over the coming weeks between the United States and several other allies. There's a coalition of countries that is coming together to varying degrees to hold Saudi Arabia accountable and Mohammed Bin Salman for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

We had Denmark announce that they're cutting off arms sales, Germany made a similar announcement, Macron is looking at sanctions as well. So it may very quickly turn into a case of warring assessments of what did or did not happen.

SCIUTTO: Yes -- VINOGRAD: We'll have the president of the United States on one side,

siding with Saudi Arabia, and then our other allies, the ones that don't murder American residents and journalists on the other.

SCIUTTO: Well, I mean, the thing is the facts are on one side here, right? I mean, because the evidence, the U.S. Intelligence agencies that you and I know are conservative in making assessments. But they were high confidence here, which leads you to believe that they had the goods --


SCIUTTO: To place blame on the Saudi Crown Prince.

VINOGRAD: Yes, and let me just be very clear, I worked with the Intelligence community for many years, various parts of the Intelligence community. There are no maybes in intelligence assessments, particularly high confidence ones.

What a high confidence assessment means is that various parts of the Intelligence community, various government agencies agree with that assessment based upon the kinds of intelligence that they're integrating into that assessment.

Perhaps, a phone call that's indisputable for example, and other bits of Intel that comes in. It really means that there is very little doubt about the final conclusion in that report. So this being a high confidence assessment typically would encourage the president of the United States in the first instance to take it seriously.

And in the second, to use it to inform policy decisions and really to prioritize which equities he is paying attention to. So the president tweeted earlier this morning about oil and jobs being paramount. Well, typically, you'd have the president really place the physical security of American residents like --


VINOGRAD: Jamal Khashoggi above oil and jobs.

SCIUTTO: Yes, well, another high confidence assessment that President Trump undermine and questions, Russian interference in the U.S. election and he did it repeatedly despite the facts --

VINOGRAD: Yes, included to parrot that around as we know --

SCIUTTO: He does. Well, Fred Ryan; the publisher of "The Washington Post" of course, the publication that Jamal Khashoggi wrote for, he responded again to the president very strongly worded column. And I want to read some of that.

He said, "Trump's response does not advance the United States interests. It betrays them, it places the dollar values of commercial deals above the long-cherished American values of respecting liberty and human rights, and it places personal relationships above the United States' strategic relationships." [09:25:00] I mean, the thing about this, it's not just about warm and

fuzzy values here, is it? It's because U.S. Administration, both Republicans and Democrats have determined through decades that defending U.S. values serves U.S. national security interests.

VINOGRAD: It does, and Donald Trump is not the first president to care about oil and jobs by the way. I worked for President Obama and actually traveled to Saudi Arabia to talk about their oil production. But this isn't just about warm and fuzzy values. This is actually about physical security.


VINOGRAD: We know that an American resident was murdered. That is a gross human rights abuse, it's illegal and it is morally abhorrent. But the problem now is the president of the United States is signaling that if you pump more oil or if you waive a memorandum of intent about arms deals in front of him, he will let a murder go.

From an intelligence perspective, I would guess the Intel community is telling the president, if he'll listen, this is just going to encourage more murders, to conduct more crimes just as long as they promise to sign a weapons deal with --


VINOGRAD: The United States. This could really impact the physical security of Americans and others around the globe going forward.

SCIUTTO: Yes, will the president listen based on past experience? Unlikely.

VINOGRAD: Unlikely, Jim --

SCIUTTO: Samantha Vinograd, thanks very much.

VINOGRAD: Thanks Jim.

SCIUTTO: Well, record-breaking cold in the northeast today, and now the president says where is the global warming? We're going to fact- check that claim.