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AT THIS HOUR

Pompeo Meets with North Korea's Top Nuke Negotiator; White House Fires Back After Pelosi's Office Says Trump Endangered CODEL, Troops in Afghanistan; Former Watergate Prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste Discusses Parallels Between "BuzzFeed" Report on Trump and Watergate; Nancy Pelosi Speaks on Capitol Hill on Cancelled CODEL, White House "Leak". Aired 11:30a-12p ET

Aired January 18, 2019 - 11:30   ET

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


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[11:30:55] ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meeting with North Korea's vice chairman, Kim Yong Chol, who is the lead negotiator in nuclear talks with the United States. Just a few minutes ago, the two posing for the cameras before heading into that meeting. They are working on a plan for a second summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-Un.

Today's meeting comes on the heels of a Pentagon report that says Pyongyang is still an extraordinary threat.

CNN senior diplomatic correspondent, Michelle Kosinski, is live now at the State Department.

Michelle, what do we expect to happen in this meeting?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: They are talking. That's about the best we can expect. If this is a successful meeting, they will have some advancement towards a second Trump/Kim Jong-Un summit which we expect to be, if all goes well, maybe next month sometime. We know that the State Department has been scouting out locations. So at the very least, the dialogue has been moving hopefully in that direction. So if they come out of this meeting and they have set a date, that would be a success. That is about the best we can hope for here.

The glaring thing that is lacking, of course, is that we don't expect any advancements in terms of what North Korea is going to do, some big gesture towards actual de-nuclearization. If you remember, before the last Trump/Kim summit, the State Department was outright demanding that before that summit could happen, North Korea needed to do something. It needed to start living up to the commitments it made, back then, that it wouldn't lead to denuclearize. They wanted to see some big gesture on the part of North Korea. Then they slowly backed away from that. And they ended up having the summit anyway. Notice this time, the U.S. isn't making demands. They are not saying, first, you need to give us an inventory of all of your nuclear sites and all of your nuclear weapons. They are not even asking for that. They just want to have a second summit in the hopes that progress can be made there. So we'll see what comes out of this. We expect the North Korea negotiator, Kim Yong Chol, to also meet with

the president today. Don't know what kind of pictures we will get from that. He is also supposed to deliver another letter to the president from Kim Jong-Un. Remember, last time he was here, he delivered that huge letter that there were pictures of that President Trump got. He also recently had a letter delivered to Kim Jong-Un. The dialogue is there. And at the very least, that is a good sign -- Erica?

HILL: We'll watch for further developments, as you point out.

Michelle, thank you.

Coming up, "King Kong versus Godzilla" -- that's how one Trump adviser is describing the battle between President Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Where do, where can shut down negotiations go from here?

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[11:38:24] HILL: New this morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office accusing President Trump of causing grave threats to her congressional delegation and to the American troops they have planned to visit in Afghanistan. That letter comes out, and it didn't take the White House long to fire back.

We have complete coverage. CNN congressional correspondent, Phil Mattingly, is monitoring the developments from Capitol Hill. CNN's Sarah Westwood is at the White House.

Sarah, you are just getting this reaction from the White House so let's start with you.

SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Erica. The White House is responding this morning to the speaker's accusations that the White House endangered the Democratic lawmakers that were planning to travel commercial to Afghanistan by leaking details of the trip. A White House official saying, "When the speaker of the House and about 20 others from Capitol Hill decide to book their own commercial flights to Afghanistan, the world is going to find out. The idea we would leak anything that would put the safety and security of any American at risk is a flat-out lie."

That statement is misleading, because the president already publicized the details of a congressional delegation trip to a war zone that was being kept secret precisely because the publication of the trip could have posed a security risk to the participants.

Meanwhile, the acting budget director is announcing that no congressional delegations of any kind can take place during the shutdown. They can't use government planes if they're planning to take a trip. That is, if lawmakers are planning to. That announcement comes after the first lady used a government plane to travel down to Mar-a-Lago.

And we should note that the president cancelled Pelosi's visit to Afghanistan to visit troops citing the shutdown as a reason when the president himself travelled to Iraq use a government plane during the shutdown to visit troops. So, a lot of contradictions coming from the White House on this today -- Erica?

[11:40:11] HILL: A number of contradictions.

Phil, I'm sure we would like to say that it is also mindboggling the back and forth we are seeing. In 2019, we know it is not. Walk us through, Phil, what we are hearing. What Speaker Pelosi's office is putting out is a fascinating tick-tock that we didn't have a day ago.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, mindboggling is one word, remarkably unproductive, maybe two others, given what this is all about more broadly. The government shutdown continues to this day.

To walk you through what happened, we saw the president's letter yesterday that came out where he essentially postponed all congressional delegation, or CODEL, trips for the duration of the shutdown. What Speaker Pelosi's office has put out is that tick-tock. Once they received that notification that they would not be able to use military air, they started scrambling. We saw the pictures. Buses were outside. The delegation was ready to leave. Speaker Pelosi was about to leave when all of this came out. And what the speaker's spokesperson said is they started to look into commercial flights to see if there was a way to get there through that avenue. Late into the night, they were informed by State Department security that, because of the public release of the trip, particularly given it was a visit to Afghanistan, it had become too dangerous for the delegation but also for the troops and officials on the ground that they would be visiting and, therefore, they needed to take precaution on that.

What we heard also is in the statement is that they believe the administration leaked the commercial options that they were looking into. The administration, as Sarah laid out, is pushing back saying it is a lie. What the spokesman for Speaker Pelosi saying, essentially, they heard from news organizations that seem to have an idea of the commercial flights that they were looking into, that they believe had been leaked from administration officials. So what this all is right now, there's the tick-tock of what the speaker's office says. But more broadly, this is a back and forth that doesn't look like it will end anytime soon, with a lot of serious allegations flying back and forth. And even more broadly that that, the government still shutdown at this point. And there's no talks today at all -- Erica?

HILL: And 800,000 federal workers, can't forget about that, becoming pawns in the political back and forth.

Phil, Sarah, appreciate it. Thank you.

Coming up, we have more on this explosive new report from "BuzzFeed News" that the president directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress. Up next, we will speak with a former Watergate special prosecutor about what is at stake. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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[11:46:52] SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R-SC), CHAIRMAN, SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: So if there was some reason to believe that the president tried to coach somebody not to testify or testify falsely, that could be obstruction of justice?

WILLIAM BARR, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S NOMINEE FOR ATTORNEY GENERAL: Yes, under an obstruction statute. Yes.

GRAHAM: So if there's some evidence that the president tried to conceal evidence, that would be obstruction of justice potentially, right?

BARR: Right.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: Obstruction of justice and lying, both highlighted in the bombshell "BuzzFeed" report that claims President Trump personally instructed his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress about the Trump Tower project in Moscow. If the allegations are true, it is tough to miss the parallels here with Watergate.

Joining me now, former Watergate special prosecutor, Richard Ben- Veniste.

Always good to have you with us.

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE, CNN LEGAL ANALYST & FORMER WATERGATE SPECIAL INVESTIGATOR: Thank you.

HILL: As you look at this, does anything that you are seeing here, if true, rise to the level of a high crime and misdemeanor?

BEN-VENISTE: "If true" is the big condition. But Mr. Cohen has already said previously that he was ordered to commit perjury. The "BuzzFeed" information adds that there's potentially corroborator information by way of e-mails or text messages or the like that would support Mr. Cohen's statement.

In addition to that, you have the logic. Why would Mr. Cohen lie to Congress about Mr. Trump's involvement in a deal with Russia to build his hotel there in Moscow? What motivation would he have? Similarly, what motivation would Cohen have to lie about his involvement in hush- money payments made to two individuals, at least, who claim to have had sexual relations with Mr. Trump? So in a jury situation, you would always ask about the motivation to determine who is lying and whether to credit the testimony of a government witness such as Cohen.

HILL: You mentioned the logic and the evidence, which can be two very different things. When you look at the evidence, as you point out, "BuzzFeed" saying there's documentation, there are documents and text messages. Would you need to see in terms of evidence, would you need to see, for example, an e-mail from Donald Trump himself to Michael Cohen? Would it need to be that clear in terms of evidence for you?

BEN-VENISTE: That is so unlikely that you would have that. But this whole two-year period has raised anyone's credulity at this point for what might be and what might not be. No one is speculating about that. But the circumstantial evidence is substantial at this point. I think it is inevitable now that Congress will have to open an impeachment inquiry. Then you would have a much clearer analogy to Watergate with an investigation ongoing into impeachment.

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BEN-VENISTE: And that provides a big catcher's-mitt target for Bob Mueller who has a number of different --

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[11:50:26] HILL: We are -- I'm sorry to cut you off, sir. Sir, we'll have to leave it there. Speaker Pelosi just taking to the mic on Capitol Hill so we do need to go live to her.

Richard Ben-Veniste, always appreciate your insight.

Let's listen in now to Speaker Pelosi.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE QUESTION)

REP. NANCY PELOSI, (D-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: It transpired since 2:00 yesterday. Our members who were on the bus, I was ready to join them for a 2:15 wheels up from here to Andrews Air Force Base to visit our troops, pay our respects, to thank them for their service, their sacrifice and their dedication, to get a measure of the leadership of Afghanistan, a strength of their military, the morale of their people. It's about governance, it's about security, it's about the civilian affairs in the country, as we make our oversight decisions about our policy, the engagement that we have in Afghanistan. The members were on the bus already. I was about to join them and the president then canceled the trip. It was kind of a funny letter saying seven days -- somebody didn't tell him it was a quick weekend trip, but nonetheless, that served his purpose.

Not only that, but we had the prerogative to travel commercial and we made plans to do that until the administration leaked we were traveling commercially and that endangers us. We weren't going to go because we had a report from Afghanistan that the president outing our trip had made the scene on the ground much more dangerous because it's just a signal to the bad actors that we're coming. You never, never give advance notice of going into a battle area. You just never do. Perhaps the president's inexperienced didn't have him understand that protocol. The people around him, though, should have known that. That's very dangerous.

And then -- so we're saying, well, it's not only been our safety, that's one thing, but the more important thing is the people who we would be meeting with, our civilians there. Our own troops, first and foremost, again, they take so many risks for us. We didn't want to heighten the risk for them. So then we can go commercially, so we say, let's review this in light

of the State's report, "The president's statement has heightened the danger on the ground." As we're making that decision, all of us together, then the State Department doubles down and says, we don't think you should come because the president's statement has made it dangerous. The fact that they would leak that we were flying commercial is a danger not only to us but to other people flying commercially.

(CROSSTALK)

PELOSI: It's very irresponsible on the part of the president.

We'll go again. We'll go another time. This would have been my ninth trip. One of my colleagues, it was his 15th. So we've been many times to see what the needs are of our men and women in uniform, honor those needs, and thank those troops.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: How do you know the leak came from the White House? The White House has denied the leak came from them.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you view --

PELOSI: I rest my case.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you view this as retaliation for your letter about the State of the Union?

PELOSI: I would hope not. I don't think the president would be that petty, do you?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You're essentially accusing the president of the United States of endangering the lives of members of Congress --

(CROSSTALK)

PELOSI: That's what the State Department reported to us.

(CROSSTALK)

PELOSI: That's what the State Department reported to us. This is a fact, this isn't even an opinion. Anytime anyone, it's a bright light in the presence of a high-level or any level of congressional delegation in a region, you heighten the danger. And this was a high power. We had the leadership of the Intelligence Committee, the Armed Services Committee, the Veteran Affairs Committee, the Foreign Relations Committee, Government Reform Committee, Subcommittee on Terrorism. And we're very proud of the trip, 20 years in the military. I'm just saying what the State Department is saying.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you all very much.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Has this week put us further apart in terms of trying to settle the shutdown?

PELOSI I certainly hope not. Open up government. There's a solution.

(CROSSTALK)

[11:55:12] UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you, all.

HILL: Speaker Pelosi weighing in there just moments ago, saying, number one, she hopes this wasn't retaliation from the White House. She was talking specifically about the plans for the congressional delegation that were canceled. She said once they decided to fly commercial, they got a note from the State Department because the president -- according to the State Department, the president's statement had heightened security concerns on the ground. That's why they canceled. Speaker Pelosi claiming the White House leaked that commercial travel information. When she was press on where she got that, why she was so sure it was the White House leaked it, Speaker Pelosi did not answer the question. She said she hoped this certainly was not retaliation on the part of the administration.

Much more on this breaking news on the other side of our break.

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