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House Democrats Call on Mnuchin to Explain Russian Sanctions Relief; Pompeo Denies Contradictions on Trump's U.S. Troop Pullout from Syria; Trump Noncommittal on Releasing Mueller Final Report; A.G. Nominee Barr Meets with Democrats Ahead of Confirmation Hearing; White House Prepares for Legal Challenge on Emergency Declaration to Build Wall. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired January 10, 2019 - 11:30   ET


[11:30:00] MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: In that period, the Senate could move and take action to vote to gut this effort to ease the sanctions. If it passes the Senate and the House, then it would land on the president's desk and put him in an awkward spot. Mnuchin, in some ways, wants to head off that action. He'll probably have to talk to Republicans, Senators, too, about exactly what is happening and prevent Senate Republicans who control that chamber from defecting. They have their work cut out for them to convince lawmakers, particularly Democrats skeptical on why they took the action, especially in light of the Russian interference investigation. Of course, it is still taking shape -- Kate?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Especially in light because Republicans in the Senate have gone against what the White House had wished before with regard to sanctions against Russia. This could be a very interesting development on how this goes.

It's great to see you, Manu. Thank you so much.

RAJU: Thanks, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Coming up for us, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo today, denying there are any contradictions in the president's Syria policy, despite the fact that there have been several different stories laid out surrounding the pullout of U.S. troops there, and the fact that the first version of it led to the resignation of the defense secretary. That's next.


[11:35:44] BOLDUAN: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says there's no contradiction, his words, in the U.S. strategy towards Syria, despite the fact that everybody, from Republicans on Capitol Hill to the former defense secretary, very clearly say differently about the surprise announcement that he is pulling the U.S. troops out of Syria. Pompeo says the U.S. is still committed to fighting back ISIS.


MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: There's no contradiction whatsoever. The president has been very clear. And the ambassador and I have been very clear about this, too. The threat from radical Islamic terrorism is real. ISIS continues. We fight them in many regions around the country. Our commitment to continuing to prevent Daesh's growth, ISIS's growth is real. It is important. We will continue at that.


BOLDUAN: CNN international diplomatic editor, Nic Robertson, is joining me with this.

Nic, what do you make of Pompeo's statement that there's no contradiction in strategy here, they've been clear throughout that they've laid out? Is that how it's being seen overseas?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: I think it is being viewed overseas, his trip, as damage control, if the president continues to be ambiguous, at best, and potentially unreliable in the Middle East with partners there. That's the concern in the region. They saw President Obama as being weak, weak not supporting them at the time of the Arab spring, weak because he didn't stand up to his red line on Bashar al Assad in Syria over the use of chemical weapons. Mike Pompeo's message is trying to be clear, despite what President Trump has said, despite the differences that there appear to be with what his national security advisor, Bolton, is saying, that Trump, Bolton and Mike Pompeo are on the same sheet, saying all going to go after ISIS. That is not a message that will wash very easily. The way that they are going to be judged is, are they delivering on that? It has to be the view at the moment that the message is mixed and the results are hard to discern on the ground.

What is very clear to the leaders in the Middle East is that Pompeo is coming over and what he's asking for, give us your support, we give aid to you. They went to Jordan days ago, to where it's clear he's speaking to the foreign minister today. The Egyptians want more support for all sorts of things. The answer is, you want our support, then you start fixing the problems in the region. That is a message we have heard before and as well step up on Iran, we are big on Iran, and we want you to help and support us on that. But on this issue of ISIS and the clarity of the message, no, it continues to be ambiguous at best.

BOLDUAN: Clear as mud. A 30-day timeline, then a four-month pullout, and now, who knows? Maybe undetermined and ambiguous in time of the timeline. That is a real shift and a change from what we heard from the president, Nic.

ROBERTSON: It is. The president was very clear that, we are done, ISIS is beaten, we are getting out, that is the only reason we were there. Months before, we heard, yes, we are there because we are not going to leave and pull troops out of Syria until the Iranian elements that are inside Syria are gone. That's suddenly reverse. But now here we are, beginning of the year, January 2019, talking about Iran again. To the countries in the Middle East, to whom the United States is looking for support, the reality is that while they might be able to get some of the things that they want -- Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in Saudi Arabia didn't want to get pushed into a corner by the United States over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. They have that. In terms of reciprocating and the United States getting what it wants, these leaders in the Middle East, many are going to be there long after the next U.S. president comes into office. They will be judging the U.S. based on that pretty soon.

BOLDUAN: Nic, thank you so much. I really appreciate it. Good to see you.

[11:39:22] Coming up for us, President Trump is being noncommittal about whether he wants the final Mueller report to be made public, not saying if he wants it public, not going there. Really. What do the comments mean? That's next.


BOLDUAN: "We'll have to see," that's the president's response today when asked if he wanted Special Counsel Robert Mueller's final report to be made public. While he remains noncommittal, the "Washington Post" reports a beefed-up White House legal team is gearing up to try to prevent Trump's confidential discussions with top advisers from being disclosed. Yes, executive privilege is what we're getting at.

Joining me right now is Elie Honig, a CNN legal analyst, former federal prosecutor with the southern district of New York.

So first and foremost, with what we heard from the president leaving the White House today, asked very specifically, do you want the report to be made public from Bob Mueller, he said we'll have to see. Not being committal at all. What do you think of that and what would the process be?

ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: That is a hedge. I think it is clear the president is going to fight release of at least some portions of the report. The way he is going to do that is by invoking executive privilege. Executive privilege is a term we all get familiar with because we will hear it a lot in 2019, I think more than any year since 1974, when Richard Nixon was on the ropes and invoked executive privilege unsuccessfully in 1974. I think he will invoke it in a couple different scenarios. One, Rudy Giuliani said we expect to get the report in advance and have a chance to say we object to this portion and this portion and this portion. And two, congressional subpoenas. When we see the House Democrats lobbying the subpoenas, the main weapon that the president and lawyers will have to fight back is executive privilege. Will it succeed? There's not a lot of law in it. The leading case is Richard Nixon from 1974.

[11:45:43] BOLDUAN: Do you see a reason why, playing the scenario out, as the smart attorney you are, if the Mueller team finds nothing, and as the president has said over and over again, he has done nothing, do you see a reason why then the president or his team would want to or should prevent the report from becoming public?

HONIG: No. If the report is clean for them, he would tweet it. He'd say, everyone look at this, I'm clear. It's clear they know or strongly suspect --

BOLDUAN: Or worried. HONIG: Yes -- that there will be problematic things in there that are damaging to them. That is why they are hiring the attorneys, which they're entitled to do, and that's why I think they'll be invoking this executive privilege.

BOLDUAN: Do you think they have a case to invoke executive privilege? We don't know what conversations are detailed in a final report. The White House shouldn't know what is detailed in the final report. What do you mean?

HONIG: Executive privilege is a real thing.


HONIG: It's not something they're fabricating. If you look at the Nixon case, the Supreme Court sort of delivered Richard Nixon the ultimate good news, bad news decision. The good news, executive privilege exists. Certain communications are entitled, certain presidential communications are entitled to be kept secret. Bad news, Richard Nixon, you don't get to use it here. Because what the Supreme Court said, eight to zero, unanimous at the time, one justice abstained, is that executive privilege is meant to protect the secrecy of national security information, military information. It is not intended as a sort of general shield against criminal liability.

BOLDUAN: Especially if we are talking about a crime being committed.

HONIG: And there's an exception.


HONIG: Every privilege has an exception. One of them is what we call the crime fraud exception. If Mueller or a prosecutor can show evidence of a crime, then the privilege is out.

BOLDUAN: Tangled up in all of this right now is the immediate, which is the president's new nominee to be attorney general, Bill Barr, he is on the Hill today meeting with lawmakers ahead of his confirmation hearings, which are next week. You, leading up to the confirmation hearing, you have taken a deep dive into the questions Bill Barr should face.

HONIG: Yes. Bill Barr will be right in the middle of this. The Mueller report has to go through Bill Barr. He will make the initial determination, do I send it to Congress, how much do I send to Congress. There are legitimate questions about William Barr's impartiality. He has a distinguished career. He has a good resume.

BOLDUAN: And he was attorney general to George H.W. Bush.

HONIG: Yes, 27 years ago.

BOLDUAN: As you point out.

HONIG: He has longevity. Give him that. But he went on a tour in 2017 and '18 where he attacked Robert Mueller and his investigation publicly as a private citizen and specifically. Some of the things that Barr said and wrote, I think, are of great concern. Among other things, Barr said Mueller was overzealous, overaggressive. At one point, he said Mueller's obstruction of justice theory was, quote, "asinine." He said that to the Hill in 2017. There are questions that Senators on both sides of the aisle need to ask William Barr about his impartiality.

BOLDUAN: Real quick, on one end, you have Senator Graham who says Barr has assured him he will not get in the way of the Mueller investigation. On the other hand, you have Democrats calling for him to recuse himself from overseeing it all. Where do land on this?


HONIG: So, the fact that he assured Lindsey Graham I'll let him finish the investigation, that helps, but it doesn't answer the questions. There's plenty of damage that somebody can do after the investigation is over. Look at the Mueller report.


HONIG: That will come after the investigation. The recusal question. Matthew Whittaker, who did a similar sort of publicity tour, was told by ethics officials in DOJ, you ought to recuse, and he ignored that. I think that is one of the questions that Senators need to ask William Barr, if you are advised by DOJ ethics professionals, that you have a potential conflict and will you recuse, will you follow that advice?

BOLDUAN: We will see very soon.

Elie, great to see you.

HONIG: Thanks. Appreciate it.

[11:49:32] BOLDUAN: We'll be right back.


BOLDUAN: We have some breaking news coming in from CNN's Kevin Liptak. He has some reporting coming out from the White House of how the White House Counsel's Office is laying the legal ground for what they are doing to prepare for what would be an anticipated legal challenge if and when the president of the United States used an emergency declaration to go around Congress to get the money to fund the border wall.

Let me read you just a little bit of what Kevin put out: "The legal justification would be that would include advising the president's aides on ramping up talk of humanitarian and security crisis, the characterization that administration lawyers could use later in court to defend the national emergency. Trump and others in the White House again using that term more frequently over the past week."

Still with me here, Elie Honig, sticking around.

Also, the lawyers have suggested the more times the term is used, the more citations they'll have in filing a legal defense.

What do you make of this?

HONIG: This is what attorneys call making a record. Normal people call it theater. Everything they're doing and saying, they're anticipating, where is this going to fit into our brief when we defend this declaration of national emergency? The use of those phrases, "humanitarian, crisis, security." These are all things that will make their way into the brief. And even, I think, arguably, the Oval Office address and the meeting with congressional leaders --

[11:55:11] BOLDUAN: Ah.

HONIG: -- can all contribute to the sense of, is it a legitimate national emergency? Now the president has really quite broad authority to declare a national emergency. But it will be challenged in court for sure.

BOLDUAN: We will see. Now we're learning a little more about what could be coming next.

We'll have much more on this breaking news after a quick break.