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White House Invites Moderate House Democrats to Meet with Trump; GOP's Steve King Faces Backlash from Party Over Racist Remarks; Attorney General Nominee William Barr Grilled at Senate Hearing; Government Shutdown Enters Day 25 with No End in Sight; Bipartisan Group of Senators Hold Talks to Resolve Government Shutdown; Steve King Stripped of Committee Assignments After Racist Remarks; Stocks to Rise at Open, Investors to Watch Key Brexit Vote. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired January 15, 2019 - 09:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[09:00:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

POPPY HARLOW, CNN HOST: All right, top of the hour. Good morning everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: And I'm Jim Sciutto. We are in Washington this morning for the first cabinet-level confirmation hearing of this brand new Congress, and what a place to start.

HARLOW: Yes.

SCIUTTO: Keep in mind this essential fact, President Trump fired his previous attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for failing to rein in the Mueller probe. And is now likely replacing him with someone who called a central part of that investigation, quote, fatally misconceived.

The nominee is William Barr, up for what would be his second stint as Attorney General. He spent two years as A.G. under the first President Bush. But this time, if confirmed, he will take the helm of a Justice Department that is investigating the man who nominated him. Barr will oversee the Special Counsel whose probe into potential obstruction of justice. He has attacked, as recently as last summer.

HARLOW: Yes. Just about six months ago. In his opening statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning, you'll hear that at the bottom of this hour. Barr will pledge, and I quote, Bob Mueller will be allowed to complete his work. Second, I also believe it is very important that the public and Congress be informed of the results of the Special Counsel's work.

Now, you can bet he will be hammered on his word choice there. What does he mean? Is the public actually going to see the entire report, or just be told what's in it? And you can expect Democrats to press really hard on that.

We are surrounded by A-list colleagues. What else this morning as we count down to the opening gavel? Let's begin with Laura Jarrett on his background. So look, this is an Attorney General who has a lot of experience, obviously under Bush 41 who has a - a particular world view, and a particularly important legal view as it pertains to this president.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. I think the big takeaway is that Bill Barr doesn't just see himself as serving at the pleasure of the President. He seems himself as the President's lawyer.

And he has such an expansive view of executive power that the way it intersects with the Russian investigation, given that President's campaign is under investigation still, given that the President is under investigation for obstruction of justice is the real thing I think Democrats are going to hone in on today.

And yesterday he released a portion of what he plans to say and try to get out ahead of all of this. And I wanted to zero in just on one part where he talks about how important it is for the public to be informed of the results of the investigation.

It doesn't say he's going to make the whole report open to the public. But he also says I can assure you where are judgments are to be made by me. And that's important. And it's, sort of, a subtle distinction. But what he's saying there is what if the President has a judgment? So I think Democrats are going to be pressing there. Where are the limits? And what happens when someone else wants to substitute their judgment?

SCIUTTO: Yes. It's interesting because this issue of executive power came up in his last confirmation hearings ...

HARLOW: That's true.

SCIUTTO: ... some 30 - nearly 30 years ago. And again, he was asked at the time about this very expansive view. As you know, those - those pictures we showed just a moment ago are live pictures of that nominee - the nominee, William Barr, arriving there. I want to bring in CNN Senior Congressional Correspondent Manu Raju. He is on Capital Hill.

Manu, the - the key here is, really, Republicans on - in the larger Senate here. And is there any wobbling of support among Republicans? Because fact is, the President has a majority in the Senate. Do you see that from your perch?

MANU RAJU, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Not at this point. But that's what Democrats hope today's hearing may lead to. They believe if - if - if William Barr does not give any, sort of, ironclad commitments for the Mueller probe. Maybe there are questions about its independence from the President.

And if he does not agree to, potentially, even recues himself in certain situation, Democrats hope that perhaps they can convince some Republicans to defect and vote against William Barr's nomination.

Of course, there's no evidence that this is going to happen yet. But that's why a huge focus, among the Democrats that are on this committee today, will be focusing on the Mueller investigation. Will he allow the President, for instance, to be subpoenaed, if necessary, by the Mueller investigation?

Would he step aside if the ethics attorneys say that he should in fact do so? What about these conversations that he had with the President and the President's legal team whose - whose memo - Barr distributed his memo criticizing the obstruction element of the Mueller probe?

What conversations did he have with the President's legal team? And the run-up to all of this, if Democrats believe that he's invasive, if some Republicans believe that he's evasive on this, perhaps that could effect his votes in the larger Senate.

So a lot - his - his - the - his prospects hinge on his performance today. And also, it'll be interesting to watch, on this committee, some potential 2020 contenders, themselves having their turn in the spotlight, of course Kamala Harris, Corey Booker, Amy Klobuchar.

Three Democrats, as well as the new Chairman - the Republican Chairman of this committee, we'll watch his performance here today, Lindsey Graham, whose first time behind - holding the gavel on this very committee, and two female Republicans senators joining this panel too; Joni Ernst, as well as Marsha Blackburn.

So a lot of new dynamics to this committee, but all eyes will be on how he answers those questions about the Mueller investigation, its independence, and whether he can sure (ph) up Republican support in particular in this hearing, Jim and Poppy.

[09:05:00]

SCIUTTO: All four of those voices were very strong once during the Kavanaugh hearings. You could expect similar today. Manu Raju, thanks very much. Forgive us, there's a lot of news everyday. Do not miss the significance of this story.

This morning the New York Times reporting that President Trump has considered pulling the U.S. out of the NATO alliance, you really cannot underestimate the importance, not just of this prospect, but even the discussion of this prospect, in light of the threat that Russia currently ...

HARLOW: Exactly.

SCIUTTO: ... poses to Europe and the United States. And it's a remarkable story.

HARLOW: And in light of what Russia did to this - our election. The U.S. withdrawal, if that were to actually happen, just sit with that for a moment, it would weaken a key alliance. And it is just a huge gift to Vladimir Putin. CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr joins us now.

And - and when you talk about a gift to Vladimir Putin, you know, Retired Admiral James Stavridis, the former Supreme Commander of NATO quoted in the New York Times this morning saying, even discussing this, Barbara, even discussing leaving NATO, let alone actually doing it, just talking about it is the gift of the century, in his words, for Vladimir Putin.

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning Poppy and Jim. And I think that is probably something that an awful of military commanders and top Pentagon officials are concerned about at this point.

Look, Vladimir Putin, the Intelligence Community will tell you, is not giving up on his own agenda on the national security stage. He would like nothing better than to drive a wedge between the U.S. and NATO, see NATO break apart in some fashion.

And he, you know, is not going to pull back on that. President Trump may be playing right into that Putin agenda. The President has talked repeatedly. We all know about his concerns about NATO, that he doesn't they're paying their fair share, in his view, questioning NATO.

But this time it comes against the backdrop of that Russian agenda, Putin not pulling back. The President, again publically, apparently talking about the potential for leaving NATO.

And so, where does that leave the alliance? What it would mean if it were to come to pass, if Congress could not stop it or did not want to stop it, it means that you break apart the fundamental security structure that has existed since the end of World War II. That the U.S. no longer has that pledge under NATO to come to the defense of Europe and Canada, the NATO partners, if they are attacked.

It has been since World War II. An attack on one is an attack on all. We saw that after 9/11. So right now, a lot of concern because when the President raises something, it may go away for a while, but he always brings it back. And there is concern this is another idea he'll bring back.

HARLOW: Yes. All right, Barbara Starr, important reporting, huge story this morning, not to be missed. Thanks.

SCIUTTO: Well, the issue today, of course, the Barr hearings. Let's discuss this now with our all-star panel here. Jeffrey Toobin, if - if I could begin with you, so - so in advance to this hearing, Bill Barr has said one, he wants, at least, the results of the investigation made public.

Whether that's the full report, we don't know. And that - that Mueller should be allowed to finish his - his work. Reconcile that with his prior very public statements criticizing essential parts of this probe.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, what you will certainly hear a lot from Mr. Barr today is that his memo - his 19 page memo was about one narrow issue. It was about whether the President can be investigated and prosecuted for - for obstruction of justice for firing James Comey.

SCIUTTO: But that's not an error (ph). I mean, that's quite a significant ...

TOOBIN: Well ...

SCIUTTO: ... part of this investigation.

TOOBIN: ... it is - it is a significant part of the investigation. But it is - it is not the Russia part of the investigation. And - and the interesting line he will attempt to draw is well, I thought that I, as a private citizen - but that doesn't mean I'm going to interfere with the investigation. He's going to do what he's going to do.

Whether he can manage to maintain those - both positions, I thought it as a private citizen, but I'm not going to interfere. That's going to be one of the challenges he faces.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

HARLOW: So the natural follow-up to that for these lawmakers would be, OK, the words you used in this memo - that you just wanted to write, by the way, no one compelled you to write this at the Department of Justice six months ago or so, are asinine, fatally misconceived, a side show, grossly irresponsible. If you felt that about obstruction then, are you saying you don't feel it now, right? Isn't he going to have to answer that? You - you may say you won't interfere, but do you still feel that way?

TOOBIN: It's - that's why you do what you do. You ask good questions.

HARLOW: I'm just saying that I can imagine they would say that.

TOOBIN: You know, look, I think it's important to remember there are 53 Republicans in the Senate.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

TOOBIN: He's going to get confirmed.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

HARLOW: Yes.

TOOBIN: But how much he has to dance during this hearing will be very interesting.

HARLOW: There you go.

TOOBIN: Fortunately the senators are not as good questioners as Poppy Harlow. So ...

HARLOW: Yes, OK.

TOOBIN: ... you know, it is.

HARLOW: Hey mom, I hope you're watching.

(LAUGHTER)

SCIUTTO: Laura Jarrett and Pam Brown (ph), both of your thoughts on this. How much leeway does the Attorney General have to set, kind of, guardrails for the Special Counsel's investigation short of firing Robert Mueller, which he says he's not going to.

[09:10:00]

Where can he make judgments to rain it in?

JARRETT: On a subpoena. That's a big one.

SCIUTTO: Subpoena to the president.

JARRET: Yes. And we have no indication that they want to go there, rather I should point that out. But on a subpoena, on the per strings (ph), I mean the whole point of setting up this particular regulation was in response to independent counsel stature.

And the idea was to put in guardrails so that the Special Counsel was answerable to the attorney general. So, he wasn't just sort of a rogue mission out on his own. And so, I think in this case, in particular not jut as some of the more everyday aspects of it, but really when it comes to what happens with the report. That is the soul digression--

SCIUTTO: Yes.

JARRET: -- if confirmed in Bill Barr's hands. He can make sure no one sees it ever.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

JARRET: He can make sure certain persons are adapted. He can get an executive summary. All of that is completely going to be up to him. And that's why it's really so critical I think to test where those boundaries are.

SCIUTTO: You can see one of those Washington documents with a lot of black lines through it, right? As--

HARLOW: Yes, totally.

SCIUTTO: -- we've seen before. Pam Brown--

HARLOW: Totally.

SCIUTTO: -- similar thoughts?

PAMELA BROWN, SENIOR W.H. CORRESPONDENT: Yes -- no, absolutely. I mean that's going to be the big question, a couple of things as you point out, the subpoena. What is he going to do?

Our latest reporting is that just in recent weeks, Robert Mueller went in Trump's legal team, asked to talk with the president in person to ask follow-up questions in addition to those written questions. And the Trump legal team rebuffed him.

So the question is what would Bill Barr do if Robert Mueller wants to subpoena the president for an interview? You can expect that to be raised today. Also, the report of course as you pointed out, the big question is what is he going to do? The way he put it in his opening statement was very lawyerly (ph).

He said I will make sure the results are transparent. So, does that just mean that the president isn't going to be charged? That's what's going -- is that the only thing that's going to be out there?

And if you look at the regulations, correct me if I'm wrong, but there's nothing specific in there that the report has to be handed over to congress or to the public. And he made in his opening statement that he is going to follow the law. And so, I think you're really going to see democrats in particular pick that apart.

HARLOW: So Mark Preston to you, in this letter, he wrote a letter to Dianne Feinstein, the ranking democrat on the committee and also the new chairman republican Senator Lindsey Graham.

And we saw that letter yesterday. And in it, he discusses how when he wrote this memo back in June, he sent it to the White House and had discussions about it with the president's own lawyers back then. And then subsequently has discussed it with the president when he was tapped for this. That's a big deal, is it not?

MARK PRESTON, SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, because back to the tap dancing that Jeffrey O. was talking about, he's going to go in and we should point out, he's been through these hearings before. He's an old Washington hand.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

PRESTON: He knows how to answer questions and how not to answer questions. But to your point Poppy, and this is for -- this is a line out of the CNN.com story talking about the hearing today, that I do think that democrats if they are successful in anything and beaming him up, it would be on this alone.

President Trump's interactions with ex FBI Director James Comey would not constitute obstruction of justice because the president has quote unquote, plenary power, plenary power over law enforcement and quote unquote, complete authority to stop or start a law enforcement proceeding.

That's amazing. I mean, that just goes back to basically saying the president has become a king and has absolute authority--

HARLOW: That's a quote of Barr's.

PRESTON: Yes. And that's from his memo. So, if you go back and when you talk about he president's backers, they always talk about the constitution and say we're constitutionalists. Fairly certain that the founding fathers didn't want the president of the United States to have absolute power, which is basically what Barr was saying. TOOBIN: And if I could just emphasize the point you're making here. Let's say if you believe the president can open or close any criminal investigation, fire the FBI director for any reason, does that mean if someone walks in to the Oval Office and says here's a suitcase full of cash.

Fire the FBI director, and you can keep the cash. Is that constitutional?

SCIUTTO: No.

TOOBIN: I don't think that's what -- but if you believe literally what Barr is saying there, he seems to be saying that--

SCIUTTO: But you didn't -- well, it's a larger question because Watergate essentially settled that question, did it not--

HARLOW: Yes. And he brings up Nixon in this memo--

SCIUTTO: The president was not above the law.

HARLOW: Right.

BROWN: And I think just in talking to friends of Bill Barr, what I'm hearing from them and what you're likely going to hear from him today is that he will make clear that while he think the president has wide latitude, he doesn't believe the president is above the law.

And he does think that a president can obstruct justice just not in this particular example of firing the FBI director--

HARLOW: Right, right. All right, stay with us.

SCIUTTO: Listen, there's a lot to discuss there. And we're going to be--

HARLOW: We're going to be right here. Don't go anywhere. Stay with us, we're on top of a lot of this morning. Of course, the high stakes hearing that is about to begin so stay with us for that.

SCIUTTO: Plus, remember this other story in Washington, shutdown day 25, and a new tactic from the White House, sources telling CNN that the administration is inviting moderate democrats to a meeting. Can he sway them? Will they even show up? Republicans Steve King facing backlash from his own party after what is just his latest racist comments.

[09:15:00]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HARLOW: All right, you're looking at live pictures there on Capitol Hill. You see some members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, there's Senator John Kennedy right there as they get ready for the significant hearing to begin in about ten minutes. The confirmation hearing of the president's pick for Attorney General -- SCIUTTO: Yes --

HARLOW: William Barr.

SCIUTTO: That was specifically a young member of the Senate Judiciary Committee there, look about 9 or 10 --

(CROSSTALK)

I'm assuming that's a relative of the senator, there are changes we're not aware of.

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: Another story today we are of course following closely, day 25 of the partial government shutdown. The President Trump hoping to break his stalemate with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi by appealing to moderate House Democrats.

CNN's Phil Mattingly joining us now live from Capitol Hill. Phil, President Trump hoping to peel off some support, but is he finding any interest?

[09:20:00] PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, first off, Jim, does that young member, the nine or ten-year-old have any ideas to end the shutdown? Because I think there's about 535 members of Congress who would be interested in any idea to end the shutdown.

Look, what you're hearing from the White House right now is they kind of deployed the strategy you've actually seen from administrations in the past. Which is you go after vulnerable members, particularly those who won in districts that President Trump won in 2016.

That perhaps might be frustrated, that perhaps might be worried about their political future and therefore might be on the table to pull to your side. And that's what the White House is going to do.

They sent out invitations last night to a group of House Democrats, mainly folks from the Blue Dog Caucus, the problem solvers caucus, kind of this moderate core group of Democrats to come over and have a discussion about border security.

Here's the issue right now with that strategy at least as far as I'm told. And I've been talking to Democratic aides the last couple of -- the last 24 hours or so. Seems like look, have you seen any movement, do you feel like there's an opening here for the White House?

And the unified answer is no. In fact, leaders say, go ahead, have that meeting. Because their view is that at this moment, there has been no daylight. There's no daylight between Democrats in the Senate, there's no daylight between Democrats in the House.

You've seen leadership stick together in both chambers as well. And so they feel confident by where they're standing basically because the threshold has been this. Democrats say we're happy to have a discussion about border security, have to re-open the government first.

It's the government's closure that most, particularly freshmen Democrats who came here to get things done are most frustrated about, not necessarily the wall or border security. This is all happening as Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans, rank and file guys, are at least trying to meet to try and shake something loose.

I'm told a meeting that took place last night behind closed doors, more than a dozen senators, Lindsey Graham happened in Joe Manchin's basement hide-away, trying to figure out some pathway forward. I'm told that was not a very good meeting.

It was serious senators trying to figure out proposals, but as long as kind of the dynamics remained the same, leadership dug in, Democrats unable to figure out what the president would agree to, and the government remaining closed. Rank and file efforts to the best of their ability even if they have them. So far, guys, are not bearing fruit and are unlikely to, I'm told, at any point in the near future.

HARLOW: Gosh, you know, I was just thinking about walking through the TSA line coming here into D.C. So thankful for them, they're going to work, they're doing their job, they're not getting paid, so that --

SCIUTTO: Yes --

HARLOW: We can go where we need to go while Washington just --

SCIUTTO: No --

HARLOW: Can't figure it out.

SCIUTTO: Members of the Coast Guard too now.

HARLOW: Unreal. Phil, thanks very much. A rare bipartisan moment in Washington as Congressman Steve King of Iowa rebuked publicly and removed from his assigned committees. The House could also vote as early as today on a disapproval resolution against him.

SCIUTTO: The condemnation comes after king made overtly racist remarks which he now says were misunderstood. Joining us now, CNN politics congressional reporter Lauren Fox. Lauren, amazingly, still no apology from King for this, trying to find a way to defend himself even as the Republican Party comes down hard on him.

LAUREN FOX, CNN POLITICS CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: That's right, we're outside of Steve King's office this morning, Jim, and no sign of the congressman at this point. But we should say Republicans widely disapprove of these comments.

We have statements coming from majority leader Mitch McConnell over in the Senate. The other side of the Capitol saying there is no place in the Republican Party for Steve King's comments. And he's not the only one.

Mitt Romney saying that the congressman should step aside and Chris Stewart; a congressman from Utah saying last night that at this point without any of those committee assignments, the bread and butter of a Republican member of Congress, how you prove to constituents back home that you're getting work done.

Without those committee assignments, Chris Stewart had this to say about what Steve King's next steps should be.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. CHRIS STEWART (R), UTAH: I wish he'd resign, frankly. Like I said, he can't do the work, he's lost the trust and faith of his comrades. For the good of the party, for the good of the American people, I think it's time for us to make a change.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FOX: And Steve King today still defiant, putting out a statement last night, saying that he thinks the decision not to seat him on any of his committees was a political one. We're going to be standing outside his office, hoping that the congressman comes by so we can get more of a reaction from him today.

SCIUTTO: Yes, pretty remarkable to see members of his party asking for him to resign.

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: And you've seen it from more than one.

TOOBIN: Can I just say one thing about Steve King? Let's remember that Steve King was chairman --

SCIUTTO: Yes --

TOOBIN: Of the subcommittee on the constitution --

SCIUTTO: Yes --

TOOBIN: Just a few weeks ago.

SCIUTTO: Yes --

TOOBIN: So the idea that the Republicans have suddenly discovered that he holds these horrible views --

SCIUTTO: Yes --

TOOBIN: You know --

SCIUTTO: No, it's a fair point --

(CROSSTALK)

TOOBIN: Correct, I mean --

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: And he's made comments in this category before, we should note. Thanks very much to Lauren Fox --

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: On the Hill, moments from now, high stakes showdown on Capitol Hill. Senate Judiciary Committee preparing to grill Bill Barr, President Trump's nominee for Attorney General, we're going to bring you the hearings live as they begin in just moments.

HARLOW: Yes, just minutes away. We're also minutes away from the opening bell on Wall Street. Stocks set to rise, the Dow up just slightly this morning, of course all eyes -- a lot of eyes are on the U.K., today is a decision day, a crucial vote on Brexit this afternoon.

That will rattle markets depending on which way it goes. We're on that, stay with us.

[09:25:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCIUTTO: Welcome back, these are live pictures, that is Orin Hatch entering the room, recently retired. This is the first confirmation hearing, he has not been involved in some time. There is William Barr, the president's nominee for Attorney General ready to face hard questions from Democrats certainly, some supportive statements I imagine from Republicans here.

And look at this list of folks who will be involved. Three, count them, three likely presidential candidates in 2020. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar as well as a new chairman of the Senate Judiciary --

HARLOW: Right --

SCIUTTO: Committee --

HARLOW: Lindsey Graham --

SCIUTTO: Lindsey Graham, know -- not someone who is known to stay quiet in events like this.