Return to Transcripts main page


Trump to Deliver "Bipartisan" Address as He Weighs Going Around Congress to Fund Border Wall; Trump Threat to Declare National Emergency to Fund Wall Divides GOP Lawmakers as Lindsey Graham Issues Warning; Stacey Abrams to Give Democratic Response to SOTU Tonight; Top U.S. Commander Says He Was Not Consulted on Trump's Syria Withdrawal Decision. Votel Says Talks with Taliban in "Very Early Stages," Afghan Government Will Have to be Part of Solution; SDNY Issues Subpoenas for Trump Inauguration Committee Investigation. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired February 5, 2019 - 11:00   ET



[11:00:25] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan.

It is one of the biggest speeches of any presidency. It can set the tone. It can set the agenda. It can set the mood for the president for the coming year. And President Trump is hours away from delivering that in his second State of the Union address to the nation. And in his doing so for the first time in front of a divided Congress.

The White House says the speech will call for more unity, more bipartisanship, more compromise. But from his public statements to his Twitter commentary and almost everything in between, that would be a dramatic departure for this president.

So then the big questions tonight include, what will the president say. Can he change anything with this speech about the toxic political climate currently in Washington? And how will the new Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi react to all of it, as she will be sitting over his shoulder the entire time. And right afterward, what will we hear from Stacey Abrams, fresh off her loss in the Georgia governor's race, and still her party's pick to counter President Trump?

CNN's Abby Phillips is live at the White House for us with a preview. She's joining me now.

Abby, what is the White House saying about tonight?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Kate. The White House is saying this morning that President Trump is going to call for lawmakers to bridge old political divides. This is a theme that is not exactly unique to State of the Union addresses, but at a time when the nation is just coming off a 35-day government shutdown, it will be a test of President Trump, whether he can deliver that message for the first time to a divided Congress.

Now, one of the things that the White House says he will be doing is talking about areas in which Democrats can compromise with Republicans perhaps on infrastructure, which the president has had on the agenda for two years now. But he will highlight past efforts by Democrats and Republicans to work together successfully, like on criminal justice reform, which was just passed in the late Congress.

You can see some of these themes being played out in the guests that the first lady has invited to her booth. Some of them include people who have benefitted from criminal justice reforms efforts, including Alice Johnson, whose case was championed by Kim Kardashian. Her case was such a high-profile one and it was one of the ones that helped convince President Trump to back a criminal justice reform effort.

But there are several others that highlight other focuses of the president's speech, including, of course, the wall, the border wall. He will be welcoming as his guests a Border Patrol agent who deals with the human trafficking issues at the border as well as the family of two elderly individuals who were murdered by an illegal immigrant allegedly in Nevada.

The White House is doubling down on many themes that we will hear from the president in his speech. But just as the White House is trying to push this idea of comity, bipartisanship, the president issued a tweet this morning criticizing Chuck Schumer for criticizing him for his State of the Union address. Already the State of the Union Tuesday is off to a contentious start -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Just like Monday, Sunday, Saturday and Friday start off pretty much every week.

Great to see you, Abby. Great to see much. Much more to come on this.

Meanwhile, the president's threat to declare a national emergency to fund the border wall is sparking new divisions among fellow Republicans.

In light of these divisions, Senator Lindsey Graham laid down this warning.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: To every Republican, if you don't stand behind this president, we're not going to stand behind you when it comes to the wall. This is the defining moment of his presidency. It's not just about a wall. It's about him being treated different than every other president.


BOLDUAN: CNN's Manu Raju is on Capitol Hill with much more.

Manu, Graham was pretty clear on his position on this one. But you're talking to Republicans on the Hill. How real are these divisions that you are seeing?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The divisions are very significant, particularly about whether or not the president should declare a national emergency in order to build this border wall. You are hearing a number of Republican after Republican, members of the Republican leadership, like John Thune, others who are influential in the conference, like John Cornyn, very concerned about the precedent this would set for another president to go down this road, a Democratic president to declare a national emergency on something they would be concerned about. Also, there's real concerns about the impact that this could have long term.

Now, this is not just some moderate Republicans who are concerned. Some conservatives as well, everyone from Susan Collins to Ron Johnson, a conservative from Wisconsin, saying there are serious questions about the president considering this option.


[11:05:19] SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, (R), MAINE: I am concerned about it. I think it's a dubious constitutionality. As a member of the Senate, I am concerned when any president, regardless of party, circumvents the appropriations process and repurposes large amounts of money.

SEN. RON JOHNSON, (R), WISCONSIN: This would just be another erosion of congressional authority in this particular area.


RAJU: Now, Kate, the key question I asked those Senators and others is, would you vote to block the president from going forward on the emergency declaration. They would not say that. They said they want to see exactly what the president does, what he is proposing to take money away from in order to pay for the wall. Perhaps if he goes after Army Corps of Engineer projects, for instance, that would generate a tremendous backlash on Capitol Hill, or disaster relief money. Also you're hearing concerns raised about that. Because Congress will have a chance to vote, both the House and the Senate, and where will the Republicans come down ultimately. The president could have a problem with his own party if there's a significant revolt and they vote to block the president from taking this action -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: The future on this is still quite unclear.

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

Joining me right now to discuss, David Gergen, a CNN senior political analyst and former adviser to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton. Marc Short is here, CNN political commentator and former director of legislative affairs for President Trump.

Great to see both of you. Thank you so much for being here.

Marc, first, let's talk about State of the Union and the theme. We have discussed this. If the themes are unity, bipartisanship and the like, that sounds absolutely wonderful. That's wonderful coming from any president. Where in the president's statements, his actions, his Twitter feed commentary do you see a suggestion that he is really committed to that?

MARC SHORT, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Kate, I think the speech will be both. There will be some that's partisan and some that's bipartisan. I think that the president could point to several things that happened the last Congress that got less attention, not just the prison reform bill, also opiate legislation, which was bipartisan, but also right to trial legislation. There's no doubt it has not been featured as the White House should have to talk about the bipartisan accomplishments. But there are some. I think you can point to the next couple of years to say, if you want to get infrastructure done and drug pricing, it will have to be done in a bipartisan manner.

BOLDUAN: Do you think it should start? Getting away from legislative action, he has called Democrats evil and dangerous, that they can't rule. That's like the nicest things that I just came up with off the top of my head that I've seen on his tweeter feed. Does it need to start with an acknowledgment of his role in it?

SHORT: I think it is a hyper-partisan moment, Kate.


SHORT: I think both sides can tone it down a lot.

BOLDUAN: One-hundred percent.

So then is it silly then to think that the theme is unity, David?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It's silly to think it is unless he goes beyond just a paragraph saying, wouldn't it be wonderful if we all held hands. I think Marc has a point. On some things he has done, particularly criminal reform, I think he does have bragging rights on criminal reform as a bipartisan measure. Now we are looking for, OK, what else are you going to put on the table that is a compromise with regard to the wall. That has been the sticking point here. The whole country has been obsessed with this. It deeply hurt him and hurt the Republican Party the way this has been conducted. I think we will be looking to see is there a compromise there or something else. Yes, infrastructure is fine, but the question is, how are we going to pay for it. Where is the money going to come from? That's an expensive proposition. You have to start building a case for that, that is bipartisan in nature. That means you have to start putting things on the table. The question to me is, can you get beyond the rhetoric and put things on the table that are substantive, that advance a bipartisan agenda.

BOLDUAN: One thing to watch tonight is just the simple fact that his now new chief nemesis, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, will be sitting over his shoulder this entire time. She is the hand he will shake just before he begins his speech. This isn't the first time a president has given the address before a divided Congress. But what does that mean? How does this -- why is this setup so important for this moment? GERGEN: Because I think everybody will be watching.

BOLDUAN: You can't not --



GERGEN: But if I'm not mistaken, the last time he saw her or she saw him was when he stalked out of the White House.


GERGEN: Stalked out of that meeting. They haven't spoken since. If you are going to get bipartisan, you have to find ways to communicate. You have them up on the Hill talking to people on a regular basis representing the president trying to draw people together. That makes a big, big difference. We haven't seen a lot of that, especially with regard to the wall negotiations.

[11:10:12] BOLDUAN: If you're still his legislative director, do you believe that anything he -- do you believe there's something he can say tonight that would move the needle, policy or politically, on some of these big issues?

SHORT: I think there is, Kate. I think the reality is there will be a lot more people watching this because of the drama of the moment and the fact that it was delayed for the next week.


SHORT: Yes, it's an important moment. I think perhaps, more importantly, that there's a lot of Democrats who will be running in 2020 in districts that Trump won in 2016. They can say, there are parts of e president that I don't like, I don't condone but I need to show that I can work with them on certain pieces of legislation. I think that there's going to be interest on both sides. And particularly after the last shutdown, I think there's a lot of push to the American people to say, look, enough, enough of this, can't you guys show that you can actually get things done together.

BOLDUAN: And on that -- go ahead, David.

GERGEN: The one thing he cannot do tonight is what he has been teasing, and that is to take firm, tough action on the wall.



BOLDUAN: If the eyes of the nation are on you in this moment, I wonder not just what is included but what is not included. Why not take the moment to declare -- to say -- announce he's going to declare a national emergency to get his wall?

GERGEN: That takes the call for unity and it kicks it down the stadium.


GERGEN: It makes it completely hypocritical. In the same speech, let's have unity, but, by the way, I'm declaring a national emergency. That doesn't fly.

SHORT: I think you would circumvent everything else you were trying to say and speak.


SHORT: The other thing is he is going to give Congress every opportunity to get this done through February 15. I don't have much hope that they are going to. But he can say that on February 15, look, I have given it every opportunity to succeed and it is not, therefore, I'm needing to move forward with executive action on my own.

BOLDUAN: Then after the president speaks, the Democrats will have their response. Stacey Abrams speaking. What do you make of her speech that she will be giving tonight? The fact that she's speaking. She is fresh off her loss in the governor's race in Georgia. But she's still a rising star for Democrats. What does it mean that she is giving the response? If you look in recent history, it comes with really big down side. I don't know how much upside in terms of the response regardless of party.

GERGEN: She is a very good speaker. I think it is a surprise choice. It has more to do with politics or winning a Senate seat. They want Stacey Abrams to run. This is an encouragement for her to run for the Senate in Georgia and try to pick up a seat the next time out. It's a surprise because part of the speech is going to be about national security and foreign policy.


GERGEN: This is not Stacey Abrams's wheelhouse. She's much, much better on the domestic thing. She can speak with great credibility on my serious domestic issues. But I think it is harder for her to make a persuasive case on the international side.

BOLDUAN: How do you -- what would you hear, see or both that you would come away and say this was a good night for the president? And the opposite? What has been a bad night for the president?

SHORT: I think a good night for the president is he will want to also take a moment, because of all of the coverage of sort of the ups and downs in the White House, to pull back and say, what have we accomplished in the last year. I think there's a lot of economic point that we're not talking about that I think, hopefully --


SHORT: I hope he devotes a significant amount of time to talk about what has been accomplished with the tax cut plan and regulatory reform.

As far as a bad night, I think a bad night would come across as so many divisions we have already in Congress. I'm not expecting it. I think it will be a good night for the president.


BOLDUAN: He is constantly a glass-half-full kind of guy. I don't know why. But he is.


BOLDUAN: We'll see if he remains full this evening.

Thanks, guys.


BOLDUAN: Thank you so much.

We have this just in to CNN. The top commander for U.S. forces in the Middle East telling Congress just this morning that he was not consulted before President Trump declared U.S. troops were going to be coming home from Syria.

Here is General Joseph Votel testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Listen to this.


UNIDENTIFIED SENATOR: General, were you aware of the president's intention to order the withdrawal of our troops from Syria before that was publicly announced?

GEN. JOSEPH VOTEL, COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: I was not aware of the specific announcement. Certainly, we were aware that he has expressed a desire and intent in the past to depart Iraq.


UNIDENTIFIED SENATOR: So you weren't consulted before that decision was announced?

VOTEL: We were not -- I was not consulted.


BOLDUAN: That's a big moment.

I want to bring in CNN Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, on this.

Barbara, I know you know this. I'll say this one more time, this is the top U.S. general for Syria. So when you're looking at this and Votel says he was not consulted about the withdrawal, what else is he then saying about the fight in Syria, the strength of ISIS right now? [11:14:57] BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGAON CORRESPONDENT: Let's go back

to this moment: I was not consulted. Not consulted by whom? I don't think you would expect President Trump, who doesn't get down into the weeds of military details, to pick up the phone and call Joe Votel. That is not likely to have happened. But what this is really telling us, he was not consulted by Defense Secretary James Mattis, General Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, because that decision by the president also took them by surprise. It was a shock to the Pentagon. So this sound byte from General Votel tells us an awful lot about how surprised the military has been about this decision.

And now turning their attention forward, they are beginning the process of trying to withdraw troops from Syria in the face of what is a resurgent ISIS.

And here is what General Votel had to say about all of that.


VOTEL: The fight against ISIS and violent extremists is not over and our mission has not changed. The coalition's hard-won battlefield gains can only be secured by maintaining a vigilant offensive against the now largely disbursed and disaggregated ISIS that retains leaders, fighters, facilitators, resources, and a profane ideology that fuels their efforts.


STARR: So ISIS regrouping, going underground, becoming a guerilla movement capable of staging suicide attacks. This big question, how many of them are out there. General Votel, reacting to an estimate that there could be 20,000 to 30,000 ISIS fighters, said he honestly doesn't know. It remains a very big question. How strong is ISIS? How many of them are out there? And what is their capability of regrouping once U.S. troops leave Syria -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Seems like the unknowns are only getting greater and growing when it comes to Syria and ISIS.

But I want to ask you, Barbara, what did Votel say about the possible drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan?

STARR: It's another country the president would like to get on the path towards having U.S. troops move out of. General Votel questioned very closely because these negotiations with the Taliban right now are not including the Afghan government. And that Afghan government needs to be part of it. Votel saying eventually it will be. And also saying that the U.S. is still going to have to provide military and possibly financial support to Afghanistan for many years to come -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: See how that translates when we hear more from the president on that very issue. If we hear more about it tonight, especially.

Great to see you, Barbara. Thank you so much.

STARR: Thanks.

BOLDUAN: Coming up, the new investigation into President Trump's inner circle. Federal prosecutors hitting the Trump Inaugural Committee with a subpoena in a criminal investigation. What are prosecutors looking for? What does this mean for the president?

This also coming up. The Trump Organization fires more undocumented workers at its golf clubs. Why now? We will ask one of the reporters who broke that story.


[11:22:21] BOLDUAN: The special counsel's Russia probe might be winding down, but another investigation is just getting started. Federal prosecutors in New York have subpoenaed President Trump's Inaugural Committee as part of a criminal investigation. Investigators want to know if any money for the celebration came from anyone outside the United States, which is illegal. You'll recall the Trump inaugural fund raised $107 million, which was pretty much twice the previous record set by Obama's 2009 inauguration.

Here is what one of the president's top advisers and former campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, said about this today.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, SENIOR ADVISOR TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: I only know what I read about the subpoena and I'm sure we will comply as we have with any such request here.


BOLDUAN: So you have that.

Let's hear about what this is all about. Kara Scannell joining me now for more details.

Kara, what are you hearing about the case?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: Kate, this is an expansion of the case that we first reported about in December when we knew that the New York prosecutors were looking at the Inaugural Committee. Now with the subpoena sent yesterday to the Trump Inaugural Committee, we are seeing this is very expansive. They are asking them for details about all the donors and benefits that they were promised or they received, including photo ops or private receptions. They want to know if any donors were asked or directed or if there were any discussions within the inauguration campaign itself to have donors directly pay vendors. That would be potentially a violation of skirting the disclosure requirements. They are looking at the question of whether any foreign donors were discussed or whether there were any communications about people positioning themselves in place of someone else, so the notion of a straw donor, which would also be in violation of the law. So they are looking at a range of crimes potentially from mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering, campaign disclosure violations, as well as contributions by foreign donors. Specifically, the subpoena mentions only one person by name, this one

American individual, Imaad Zuberi, who was a U.S. venture capitalist. He is not clear why he is mentioned in the subpoena at all. He did donate $900,000 to the Trump Inauguration Committee through his company. But he has been a big donor before, He's been a donator to the Hillary Clinton campaigns and President Barack Obama's campaigns. His team came out with a strong statement saying they don't know why they are included in the subpoena. Specifically, they say, "Imaad knows nothing about a subpoena other than what has been written. It is well known that after supporting President Obama and Hillary Clinton that Imaad gave generously and directly to the Trump Inaugural, but many others gave considerably more. For what it's worth, Imaad has always gave only his money from his resources. If, in fact, he is named in the subpoena -- never mind somehow named alone -- he is bewildered why."

It's true, Kate. If you look at the records, there are 30 individuals and 20 companies that donated more than Zuberi to the campaign, for the inaugural. It's not quite clear why he is singled out in the subpoena.

[11:25:18] BOLDUAN: Interesting.

Kara, thank you so much for bringing the details

Joining me now to discuss this further is Elie Honig, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York, now a CNN legal analyst.

Elie, going back to your good old days, SDNY, as Kara was laying out how broad this subpoena was, what does that -- how would you describe it? How broad would you describe this and what does it mean?

ELI HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: There are two things about the subpoena that jump out at me. One is the breadth. This is incredibly broad. The way a subpoena works, it is a piece of paper and two-thirds down, the prosecutor has to fill in what crimes you are investigating. One crime, maybe two. It was about a dozen that they are looking at, which tells me this investigation is incredibly broad in scope.

The other thing that is important to note about the subpoena, the southern district is divided into eight or nine different units. There's a Financial Crimes Unit. This comes out of the Public Corruption Unit. While the crimes are financial in nature, the fact that it comes out of Public Corruption tells me they are looking at some sort of official corruption or public officials.

BOLDUAN: It is generally believed, Elie, that the Mueller investigation is winding down. If this investigation with SDNY is just ramping up, does that impact the Mueller probe, the Mueller timeline?

HONIG: In a lot of ways, the southern district poses a more serious threat than the special counsel does, than Mueller does.

BOLDUAN: Why? HONIG: For a couple of reasons. First of all, you can't fire the southern district. You can't defund the southern district. The president could fire the U.S. attorney for the southern district but if that happened, there are 150 rank-and-file U.S. aides who pick up the banner and carry on. Mueller is constrained by his appointment. When he was appointed special counsel, there's one piece of paper says, your mission is to investigate Russian interference with the election and other related matters. The southern district can go anywhere it wants, wherever the evidence goes. Mueller faces time pressure. We have seen Whittaker talking about almost done --


HONIG: Yes. The southern district can take whatever time it needs. The southern district, my former stomping ground, there's a culture of tenacity, that you always shoot for the top, you always go for the most powerful people.

BOLDUAN: What do you make of, as Kara was laying out, that one name was specifically put in this subpoena, Imaad Zuberi, a venture capitalist who donated to the inaugural. Why would one person be named in this?

HONIG: It's curious. His attorney seems to say, he didn't give him the most. The question isn't who gave the most. My best guess would be he was used somehow to funnel money into the inaugural.

BOLDUAN: That is what they are investigating?

HONIG: Perhaps from foreign donors, which is illegal.


HONIG: It's not based on volume. It's not based on amount. It has to be based on the way the donations came through that individual.

BOLDUAN: Rick Gates, he was Trump's deputy campaign manager. He helped run the Inaugural Committee. He has been working with the special counsel almost for a year at this point. Do you think that is an element here?

HONIG: That is huge. Rick Gates is technically cooperating with Mueller. He would absolutely share with Gates, with the southern district. This is exactly what you want and need a cooperating witness to do. You are investigating a complex organization, complex financial transactions. You can sit with Rick Gates, in you are a prosecutor, and say, what does this mean, where did this money come from. That's what the best cooperators do, they take you inside closed, corrupt organization and give you the keys to the castle really.

BOLDUAN: When you look at the reach of these investigations around the president, from his personal business to his charitable organization and now to his Inaugural Committee, that is not even getting into his campaign, it's a pretty amazing addition to it all.

Great to see you, Elie. Thank you.

HONIG: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Let's see what happens.

Coming up for us, the president continues to threaten he is going to declare a national emergency to get the money to build the wall at the border as the deadline for another government shutdown nears. Can Congress strike a deal before time runs out? We will ask a Democratic lawmaker at the center of those negotiations.

We'll be right back.