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Trump Administration Briefs Senate on Saudis; Trump Touched on U.S./Saudi Relation is "Post" Interview; Trump Says May Not Meet Putin at G-20 over Ukraine; Trump Attacks Federal Reserve, Jerome Powell; Pompeo: Same People Criticizing Trump on Saudis Happy with Obama Dealing with Iran; Congressional Democrats Voting for Next House Speaker. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired November 28, 2018 - 11:00   ET



[11:00:09] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. Thank you for joining me.

Right now, all eyes are on Capitol Hill as a high-stakes meeting is getting underway at this very minute. The entire Senate is heading behind closed doors for a classified briefing by the Trump administration on key national security issues. What role did the Saudi crown prince play in the murder of "Washington Post" columnist, Jamal Khashoggi. Also, what does it all mean for the relationship with the Saudi government, including U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen?

Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be briefing the Senators and answering their questions. Not present is CIA Director Gina Haspel, whose agency is tasked with investigating what happened to Khashoggi. She is one of the few people in the administration who has listened to the recording of Khashoggi's murder.

Before heading in today, Secretary Mike Pompeo took to the pages of the "Wall Street Journal" to defend the Saudi relationship, writing this, in part: "Degrading U.S./Saudi ties would be a grave mistake for the national security of the U.S. and its allies."

But just wait until you hear what he has to say to critics of the administration's response. It's a doozie.

CNN's Phil Mattingly is on Capitol Hill and joining me. He's outside the classified briefing as Senators are heading in.

Phil, what are you hearing from Senators as they are heading into the briefing right now?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Kate, the common sentiment is they want answers. That is not a partisan sentiment held just by Democrats who oppose the president and his foreign policy. That's Republicans, as well, including some of the president's top allies. People like Lindsey Graham on foreign policy, people like Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. And they are concerned going into the classified briefing as you noted without anybody from the Intelligence Community here to discuss what happened to Jamal Khashoggi, what the administration has discovered, is they're not going to get those answers. That is frustration heading into the hearing.

You also have the "Wall Street Journal" opinion piece Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. You mentioned it already. I'm told by several Republican officials, including one who said, quote, "It landed like a lead balloon on Capitol Hill today." It's not so much that they disagree with the administration's policy on Saudi Arabia, at least on the Republican side of things. They understand the merits of the alliance and why the administration has the position it does. It is that the administration has been so aggressive pushing back against Capitol Hill requests, including from Republicans.

What are the ramifications of that? They're twofold. The immediate is this, the war in Yemen, something Saudi Arabia is deeply involved in with U.S. support. There could be a vote as soon as this afternoon on a resolution to cut off U.S. aid to Saudi Arabia in those efforts. This is a resolution, Kate, that failed this year and the United States Senate, 44-55. I'm told by several Republicans who voted against that resolution the first time around that they are very clearly planning to vote for it this time around, unless they hear something that changes their mind in the briefing.

Also at stake, Congress and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle trying to consider if there will be repercussions to Saudi Arabia, whether sanctions or direct sanctions, all of those things are up in the air.

I can tell you in talking to Senators, not just Democrats, Republicans as well, going into this briefing, they don't have high hopes for what they are going to hear or get. If that ends up being the case, there will likely be fallout as soon as today with that vote on the Yemen resolution.

BOLDUAN: That could be a very important vote. This meeting crucial to what happens next with fallout that goes far beyond Washington.

Thank you so much, Phil.

We will be coming back to Phil when Senators come out of the briefing.

The U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia was one of the many topics that the president touched on in a new wide-ranging interview with the "Washington Post."

CNN political analyst, Josh Dawsey, conducted that interview with his colleague, Phil Rucker. Josh is a White House reporter for the "Post," and is joining me now.

Great to see you, Josh.

JOSH HAWLEY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Thanks for having me. BOLDUAN: You asked the president about Khashoggi and the role of the

Saudi prince. He told you that -- one of the things he said is that he knew the crown prince well but he told you this. I do want to read it for our viewers: "Maybe he did in terms of order the killing. Maybe he did, maybe he didn't but he denies it and people around him deny it. And the CIA did not say affirmatively he did it either, by the way. I'm not saying that they are saying he didn't do it but they didn't say it affirmatively."

And after that, he immediately brings up defense contracts with the Saudis and the price of oil. He said he hasn't reached a conclusion but it clearly sounds like he has reached a conclusion.

HAWLEY: I asked the president explicitly if he would want the Senate, his allies like Lindsey Graham, to impose further sanctions on Saudi Arabia and he was noncommittal. He said, oh, I will look at whatever they bring me but he quickly launched into a defense of the crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia, the strategic relationship he sees on defense sales and curbing Iran. It was clear in his answer that he is not chomping at the bit for bigger sanctions on Saudi Arabia. He thinks those can deleterious to U.S. interests. On Capitol Hill you have more of an appetite for punishing them further, but the president's defense yesterday made it pretty clear to us that he is not one who is leading that charge.

[11:05:22] BOLDUAN: Definitely seems clear from his comments to you. That's for sure.

He also said he would be open to meeting with the prince this week, which I found fascinating in light of everything that is going on. Someone that he said he might not be meeting with could be Vladimir Putin. You asked him about the clash between Russia and Ukraine right now, Russia seizing Ukrainian ships and sailors. He said, because of that aggression, if you will, he might cancel the Putin meeting. Did that seem like a real possibility that he's considering or is this just one of those, maybe I will, maybe I won't, that Trump sometimes throws out?

HAWLEY: It's very hard to say. The president suggests that he had not gotten extensive intelligence on what Russia did and will evaluate having a meeting after getting a more extensive briefing. We know he was frustrated by the aggression over there in Ukraine and did not like that. The president, whether or not he'll do anything about it or not remains unclear. He has wanted to meet with Vladimir Putin on a number of occasions. Those around him are a little more skeptical of Putin than he is. But the president has shown a willingness to do that repeatedly. It's hard to know if he'll cancel it or not.

BOLDUAN: It's always hard to know, right?

HAWLEY: Right.

BOLDUAN: On a different topic, because it was really pretty shocking, he went on an exhaustive attack of the Federal Reserve and the Fed Chairman Jerome Powell. He said he is not even a little bit happy with Powell as chairman and blamed the Fed for the G.M. closure announcement. I want to read what seems like the quote of the year, "I'm doing deals. I'm not being accommodated by the Fed. I'm not happy with the Fed. They are making a mistake. I have a gut and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else's brain can ever tell me."

That one quote seems to perfectly incapsulate the philosophy of the president.

HAWLEY: That's how the president sees it. The president is instinctual. The president wakes up in the morning and often will change his mind on an issue or have a conversation with someone and veer far from what he was saying earlier. He's an instinctual guy. He sees it as a reason he has been successful over the 71 years and why he is president now. I don't think he is going to change his tactics anytime soon at least according to my reporting. That is how he sees it.

His attacks on the Fed, though, were pretty startling because he appointed Jerome Powell as Fed chair after interviewing others. He wanted him in the job. Since, he has been pretty aggrieved by Powell.

The president showed some concern yesterday about economic terms. Obviously, the stock market is something he watches several times a day. It's been declining with the G.M. jobs, even though high in other places. He seems active about that. He would cast a lot of blame on Powell for interest rates. What will be interesting is the president has made economic success and he did it with low unemployment, higher GDP, central to his electoral message, and it will be interesting to see how he does.

BOLDUAN: Along with not trusting the intelligence, not necessarily trusting the CIA, not trusting the Justice Department, not trusting climate science coming out of his own administration, now you can add doesn't trust the Fed, even though he put the Fed chairman in place. Add it together, that's where we are right now.

Josh, thanks for much. Great job.

HAWLEY: Thanks, Kate. Thanks for having me.

BOLDUAN: Of course.

Joining me now to discuss the state of play on Capitol Hill and where the conversation goes forward, the former Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, CNN national security commentator, Mike Rogers, is here, and Tony Blinken, a CNN global affairs analyst and former deputy secretary of state under President Obama.

Thank you both so much for being here.

As we watch this classified briefing getting underway on the Hill, Congressman Rogers, I do remember me waiting for you outside of a classified briefing. You have been in many classified briefings with players like this. What should the Senators be able to get out of this today? MIKE ROGERS, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Hopefully, they will get

out what the administration agenda and policy is towards both Yemen and Saudi Arabia on a strategic level as well as the components of the Khashoggi murder. Really two different things. They will have to find a way to deal with the murder -- they, being the U.S. government, the administration and Congress. And then they will have to make a case to the Senators about why they need to either continue this strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia and why that is important. They better go into detail or they are going to lose Senators and find themselves doing some things that probably wouldn't be helpful for the long-term relationship with Saudi Arabia. You can do both, by the way.

BOLDUAN: You can thread this needle is what you are saying.

ROGERS: Absolutely.

BOLDUAN: It doesn't seem that folks are optimistic that that will be possible.

[11:10:00] ROGERS: I absolutely think you can thread the needle. If you look at the murder itself, it wasn't done by the traditional intelligence units of Saudi Arabia. It was kind of this dirty dozen selection of people. I don't think you take 12 people to do a murder. I think you take 12 people to do a rendition. Something changed, something happened. I will guess that the crown prince knew about it. Getting the facts will be really important before people make an emotional vote on the Senate floor, I think, to make sure you are doing the appropriate level of punishment for this crime. And it was a crime. Separate from that, you have the strategic concerns, including Yemen, which is pretty high. You can do both but you have to be rational and take as much emotion out of it as you can. There are U.S. interests on both ends of the equation.

BOLDUAN: Tony, you've briefed lawmakers in these classified settings before. There's a question about Yemen and the strategic relationship. There's a key question going in, and it is about the prince's role in ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. If that is the key question, do you see any good reason why the CIA director, who heard the tape, wouldn't be at the briefing?

TONY BLINKEN, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: I don't, Kate. I did take part in a lot of classified briefings, including with Mike, and --


ROGERS: He was very good, by the way.


BLINKEN: I always enjoyed working with him, too.

But I am hard pressed to think of a time I went up to the Hill and didn't have the intelligence agencies with me. In fact, they would usually kick off the briefings and make sure the Senate and House knew exactly what we knew, what the fact base was for the policy decisions we are making. This is pretty unusual.

But there's a larger tapestry here. Mike is right, there's a strategic element here that's critical. What is so puzzling about this and the administration's approach is this. Basically, giving a blank check to Saudi Arabia for a series of reckless actions has undercut the administration's policy of trying to isolate Iran. The war in Yemen, which is long past its sell by date, is giving Iran a foothold in a place it didn't have. Blockading Qatar has moved Qatar closer to Iran. Kidnapping Lebanese prime minister has reinforced Hezbollah in Lebanon. And then a series of actions at home, locking up human rights activists, picking a fight with Canada, the shaking down of the royals and the horrific murder of Khashoggi, has alienated country after country that the administration would want working with us to do what it wants to do, which is isolate Iran. This has been totally counterproductive to the administration's own objectives.

BOLDUAN: But still officials tell CNN that this is a policy discussion and thus the CIA director would not be in attendance of that. I don't think that makes a lot of Senators happy.

I do want to get both of your reactions to the "Wall Street Journal" opinion piece. Extraordinary the case that Mike Pompeo is making in the "Wall Street Journal." Saying that the same folks who are criticizing the president over the response to Saudi Arabia after the murder of Khashoggi are the same people who are happy that Obama was making a deal with Iran.

Let me read you, and just stay with me because this is an important part. "Is it any coincidence that the people using the Khashoggi murder as a cudgel against Trump's Saudi Arabia policy are the same people who supported Barack Obama's with Iran, a regime that has killed thousands worldwide, including hundreds of Americans and brutalizes its own people. Where was the echo chamber? Where were these avatars of human rights when Mr. Obama gave them pallets of cash to carry out their work as the world's largest state sponsor of terrorism?"

Tony, first to you. He is talking about you here.

BLINKEN: He is also talking about everyone from Lindsey Graham to a whole bunch of other Republicans I can name who had been harshly critical of the administration's blank check to the Saudis and its refusal apparently to seek any accountability from Mohammad bin Salman for his apparent involvement in the murder. Trying apparently to cover it up. This is not a Democrat or Republican thing. This is abhorrence across the board. I suspect Secretary Pompeo and Secretary Mattis are going to hear that today in this briefing. The irony here is that this blank check to Saudi Arabia and endorsing, if not encouraging reckless behavior actually undercuts the administration's efforts to isolate Iran. Unfortunately, even worse, Kate, is that the president is making clear that the foreign policy is for sale is a bad deal for America and for our security.

BOLDUAN: I cannot let this go. I cannot let this go, Congressman. Tony mentioned Lindsey Graham, accusing every Saudi critic essentially of hypocrisy here. Lindsey Graham, for one. Has he met Marco Rubio or Joni Ernst or Mike Lee or Ben Sasse, all of these are Republicans very much against the Iran deal and are also criticizing what is going on with Saudi Arabia. It is almost a willful blindness to the reality of the response.

[11:15:11] ROGERS: I know Mike Pompeo. Tony and I disagreed on the Iran deal. We did it civilly when we were having those discussions. He laid out his case and I laid out my case. We came to different conclusions. There are a lot of folks who had a policy question about the Iran deal at the time. But when you look at what is happening today, people should be concerned about what is happening in Yemen. They should be concerned about what the crown prince is doing. It is almost youthful exuberance with power that he is bumping into things he doesn't need to bump into. I argue, and that's what Tony's point was, that is where the United States should step in and say, we all need to have a conversation here about what your activities are beyond Saudi Arabia so that we can continue to build this relationship. We have always had tension with Saudi Arabia. By finger wagging to the people that you need to support your policy, I just never find that is a good idea ever. I'm a little bit surprised at the tone and tenor of the op-ed by Mike Pompeo. I know him and worked with him. This one surprised me a little bit. We have some really complicated issues that we will have to get through both in the Senate and the House. By honking off maybe 51 percent of people you have to work with, it doesn't seem like a winning strategy to me.

BOLDUAN: Honking off --


ROGERS: That's a high-brow diplomatic term, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Yes, I was going to say, that's the official policy position of the show at this moment.

Thanks, guys. I really appreciate it.

We will watch this classified briefing continue to play out on the Hill. We'll bring updates as we get them.

Coming up next for us, does Nancy Pelosi have the votes? Democrats in Congress are meeting now to nominate their choice for the next speaker of the House.

We'll be right back.


[11:21:09] BOLDUAN: The battle to win the majority in the House is now over, but another battle has been brewing, the battle for House speaker. Nancy Pelosi has said she is confident she has the votes. She has faced a small but vocal opposition from within her party. A crucial first step to the final decision is taking place behind closed doors right now.

CNN's Manu Raju is on Capitol Hill following this for us.

Manu, the final vote is in January on the floor. She first has to get the endorsement of the caucus. What's going on behind closed doors?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Right now, there are votes happening on lower level leadership position for the caucus chair between Hakeem Jeffries, Barbara Lee, two members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Afterwards, there will be consideration of the speaker. There will be people nominating her for the speaker's race. She is not running against anyone. So the question is, what the final vote count is and how many people vote against her. This is a secret ballot election. We won't know exactly who voted for them unless they announce themselves. The question is, which of the people who vote against her in the caucus will vote for her in the public vote in January?

A number of Pelosi allies are making it very clear they want this group of 18 or so detractors to come along and support Nancy Pelosi because, if she were to lose 18 or so more votes on the floor, she could have a hard time getting the necessary votes on the floor to become speaker.

Speaking to a number of Pelosi allies, they make it clear after today it's time to unite.


REP. CHERI BUSTOS, (D), ILLINOIS: Well, it doesn't seem like there's an alternative as part of the strategies. It seems like there's not an end game as part of the strategy.

RAJU: You want them to drop their efforts after this week if there's a nominee to stop this effort to try to prevent her from becoming speaker? Do you want to stop them?

REP. TED LIEU, (D), CALIFORNIA: It is up to them. My preference is I think they should.


REP. JOHN GARAMENDI, (D), CALIFORNIA: End of discussion.


RAJU: Now, there are some members who signed a letter that say they are committed to voting for new leadership. But one of the members who is no longer endorsing the effort, Brian Higgins, just told reporters that some of the members are trying to get out of the promise not to vote for Nancy Pelosi. He said say use leverage to get more commitments from Nancy Pelosi. We'll see if she decides to do that in swaying some detractors to vote yes -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: All right, Manu. We'll stay close to you. I appreciate it. Thanks so much.

Joining me right now is CNN politics reporter and editor-at-large, Chris Cillizza.

As Manu points out, she is still running unopposed. If she walks out of the room with the endorsement of the caucus, do you have doubt that she will be speaker? What's your take on this?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER & CNN EDITOR-AT-LARGE: Nope. I don't have doubt that she will be speaker, Kate. I would have said that a week ago. I wrote about it a week ago. So people can check --

BOLDUAN: I think I remember seeing that.

CILLIZZA: You can check me on it.

No, the reality of the situation is this. This vote -- it's not meaningless. There's meaning there. They are going to be, my guess, more people who vote against Nancy Pelosi today on the Democratic side than do on January 3 in the speaker's race. Why? Because lots of freshman Democrats did run on the pledge that they wouldn't support her. She's not a popular figure nationally. She allows them to vote against her in this caucus, knowing there's no one else running against her. Let's say 24 people vote for -- sometimes people vote for John Lewis, the civil rights icon. Vote for whoever you like. When the speaker's race comes in January, vote for me, which you can say I voted against her. When it was down to a Republican choice and a Democratic choice, I chose the Democratic choice. I think that is what is shaping up here. You just don't beat something with nothing. Nancy Pelosi, politically and legislatively, within that House caucus, is a lot more than something. She is hugely, hugely influential in fundraising, policy, politics. There's no one who is her match in that caucus. This last couple of weeks I think has made that clear.

[11:25:10] BOLDUAN: If you are someone in a swing district, you ran on a platform saying you are not going to support Nancy Pelosi for House speaker. You vote no and that allows you to go home and say I voted no but then I voted yes when it came to the final vote on the House floor.


BOLDUAN: Is that going to fly? Is that really keeping their word?

CILLIZZA: The answer to your second question is easy. No, not really. It is a political hedge. The answer to your first question is I think it only matters if you are looking at a wave the other direction in 2020 in the House, which I don't know that you lose because you vote for John Boehner at the time or Paul Ryan or Nancy Pelosi for speaker. You probably lose in the House if your swing district is being shaped by national wins and is leaning against you. I don't think Carlos Curbelo lost in Florida because he voted for Paul Ryan or John Boehner for speaker.

BOLDUAN: Right. If that is what folks remember what you voted for two years from now you have other problems.

CILLIZZA: Correct. It is usually indicative of a much larger political party problem, not a you problem, typically.

BOLDUAN: We'll I don't have a you problem.

CILLIZZA: Never. BOLDUAN: It's great to see you. Thanks, Chris.

CILLIZZA: Thanks, Kate.

BOLDUAN: A telling 24 hours in the special counsel's Russia investigation. We are getting new details about who Robert Mueller is going after and why he took Paul Manafort back to court.

We'll be right back.