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Soon: Key Senate Vote on Trump's A.G. Nominee William Barr; Democrats Launch Sweeping Investigations into Trump's Finances, Taxes, Foreign Ties, Family Separation Policy; Trump Blasts Democrats as They Ramp Up Multiple Investigations; New CNN Poll: 87 Percent Want Public Mueller Report; Congressional Committee Making Progress on Deal to Secure Border; Pelosi Says Another Shutdown "Too Hot to Handle" for GOP. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired February 7, 2019 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:00] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you so much on this story.

Thanks for joining me today to all to you. I'm Jim Sciutto, here in Washington.

"AT THIS HOUR" with my colleague, Kate Baldwin, starts right now.

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Erica Hill, in today for Kate Bolduan.

Right now, a key vote about the take place on a critical nominee for the Trump administration. It could have massive implications for what the American people eventually learn about the Russia investigation. Soon, the Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on President Trump's nominee for attorney general, William Barr. If he is approved, his nomination moves onto the full Senate. Senate Democrats raising serious question about whether Barr, as attorney general, would allow the release of special counsel's final report on the Russia investigation.

This as Robert Mueller's investigation seems to be winding down. Investigations, though, on Capitol Hill heating up. House Democrats, now in the majority, armed with subpoena power, launching new and broad investigations. Under the microscope, the president's financial ties to Russia and other nations, his tax returns, and the Trump administration policy on family separations at the border. That hearing going on right now.

And the president is already on the attack this morning, launching a tweet storm that accuses the Democrats of, quote, "presidential harassment."

CNN's Manu Raju is on Capitol Hill. Laura Jarrett is at the Justice Department.

Manu, I want to begin with you.

Where are we in terms of William Barr?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Right now, the Democrats and Republicans are sparring over this nomination. There's Democratic concerns about a number of judicial nominees that are moving through the process here. Democrats are laying out concerns about Barr because he is not fully committed to releasing this report that Special Counsel Robert Mueller plans to issue at the end of this investigation. He has said that he would do it consistent with regulations. He has not given a full-out guarantee they will be released. He's also been hedged a bit about other aspects of the Mueller investigation, including the extent of his involvement in overseeing it. He's criticized the investigation in the past. Republicans have defended Barr because of his commitment in his testimony to allow the investigation to proceed and they believe that eventually that report will become public, even if there's cautious words coming out of this attorney general pick.

We do expect that vote to happen this afternoon, Erica, and will almost certainly be a straight party line vote. Democrats lining up against him. Republicans lining up to support him. Then it will go to the full Senate in which there are no Republicans defections so far. It means he is almost certainly going to get his job by next week, replacing the Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker in having that role and overseeing the final stages in the Mueller investigation --Erica?

HILL: When it comes to the investigation, the reports, brand new CNN polling out at the time of the hour, Laura, finds that 87 percent say they want to see a public report released. Manu touched on some of what is happening at this point. What does that mean? That's what the public wants. What's the reality?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: I think this is part of the reason the stakes for Barr are so high. And the public is clued in on this now and realizes that the issue isn't whether Mueller would get fired, as there had been so much speculation for months, and the president would make a move on him, but the real action is what happens with this report. Now we know the full power of what happens is in Barr's hands. If he gets confirmed, under the special counsel regulation, Mueller submits a confidential report to the attorney general. Barr is under no obligation, under the regulations, to share that with the public or even share it with Congress. I think that's what has so many members on Capitol Hill bristling, even Republicans. We now see a bipartisan group of Democrats and Republicans. Senator Chuck Grassley feeling strongly about this, saying they should get to see the report, see the underlying findings that predicated what Mueller concludes here. No telling whether that will go anywhere, but there's a movement for transparency. That's why you keep hearing Barr trying to toe the line, saying, I want to do as much as possible under the regulations to be transparent with the public, but not going so far as to commit to provide the full report to anyone.

HILL: Another form of transparency we are hearing and seeing a lot on Capitol Hill, Manu, and that's this push by Democrats for oversight, these investigations. You mentioned the hearing that's going on right now in terms of family separations. It is also a major focus.

RAJU: Yes. And when the president is concerned about investigations, he is also concerned about the oversight hearings that will happen in public about a range of issues the Republicans did not look into when they were in charge, including the controversial family separation policy of migrant children coming across the southern border. Democrats kicking off more efforts looking into that today before the Energy and Commerce Committee.

But Democrats concerned there was one key witness missing, and that's the secretary of Health and Human Services.


[11:05:10] UNIDENTIFIED SENATOR: And I'm sorry that Secretary Azar is passing the buck to you when we asked him to be right here in your seat today.


RAJU: So the overall concern among Democrats is that a number of cabinet nominees resisted coming before their committees on a range of issues. Some cited scheduling conflicts and others tried to come up with alternative dates. We will hear from Secretary Nielson about these issues before the Homeland Security Committee but it's not going happen until March, after she initially declined the request to come this week. This oversight is happening on Capitol Hill. These investigations are happening. Some resistance among the White House and administration. It is bound to play out over the next two years -- Erica?

HILL: We could see some -- there's concern about that for House Judiciary Committee members concerned about Acting Attorney General Whitaker. And they actually have some plans in place to make sure they hear from him.

JARRETT: They sure do. A subpoena in their back pocket. The chairman, Jerry Nadler, the top Democrat, I think, voting very soon on that subpoena, trying to make sure they have it just in case he doesn't answer questions. They have zeroed in on executive privilege. We've seen administration officials before, while not technically invoking executive privilege to avoid questions, but trying to preserve that option. Jeff Sessions was known for that doing this, even attorney generals. We've seen it in the past. It's a way for them to skirt around it. Jerry Nadler having none of that, trying to have the subpoena just in case Whitaker does do that tomorrow at Friday's hearing.

And it's closely watched because Whitaker only recently told the public in a surprise way that the Mueller probe is winding down, close to completion. Democrats are clued in on that, want to question him very hard about his conversations with the White House about Robert Mueller's work. Remains to be seen whether he will answer any of those questions.

I'm told he has been prepping significantly for this hearing. He has been doing mock hearings here at the Justice Department with senior officials. Again, what exactly he is willing to say and whether Democrats are willing to push the point and hold them in contempt if he doesn't answer the questions, all of that we'll have to wait and see tomorrow.

HILL: And, Laura, I'm getting in my ear the House Judiciary Committee did just vote for that subpoena, so they will hold his feet, as you said there. So we'll be watching for all of that.

A lot playing out today. That's a preview of what's to come tomorrow. Ever a dull moment.

Laura Jarrett, Mau Raju, thank you.

Also with me now CNN legal analyst, Renato Mariotti, former federal prosecutor, and CNN political director, David Chalian.

Good to have both of you here.

David, I want to go back to the CNN poll. It is such a high number of folks who want to see this report. Looking at that though, how do you think that's going to play out with lawmakers? How are they going to try to use that?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Erica, it is overwhelming public support to see a full public report. What is amazing, in those numbers, you see that 87 percent there, I want to tell you if you were to break it out by party, it is big majorities of Democrats, Independents and Republicans. The biggest increase we have seen in support for a public report comes from Republicans. We asked this last spring, and 72 percent of Republicans wanted to see a full report. Now that's up to 80 percent. So this is an overwhelming public demand at the moment, which will make it very tricky for Republicans on Capitol Hill to support any attempt by the administration to shield the findings from public view.

HILL: Renato, walk us through what the process is here in terms of what is deemed to be OK for the public to see and what needs to be kept out of public view.

RENATO MARIOTTI, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, there's one category of information that's going to be kept from public view is classified information. Anything that is not ordinarily accessible to the public is not going to be available publicly. It could be available to our public representatives, our elected representatives, you know, in a very limited fashion. Then there's material that's obtained via grand jury subpoena, which is a lot of material Mueller has obtained in this case. That is material that generally cannot be shared publicly without it being a crime. It is actually federal rule of criminal procedure 60 prevents the disclosure. And grand jury testimony as well. What will have to happen is Congress will have to pass a law or the attorney general will have to find a way around that. That -- if the public does want all of that detail under existing law, it will not be able to be shared with the public.

[11:10:02] HILL: As we look at all of this, David, we were talking about how things are ramping up in the last 24 to 36 hours on Capitol Hill the Democrats are launching now. We have family separation going on right now. We know there's expanded -- these expanded investigations going on not to mention ways and means meeting today about the president's taxes. These are things that a lot of progressive voters wanted. It is also a fine political line in some ways for Democrats. What is the political calculus there?

CHALIAN: Let's knowledge what the reality is. Elections have consequences. So this is what the administration is now understanding in real time what it means to be in an environment with the opposition party in control of one chamber with the gavel. The chairmen of each of these committees have the ability to perform oversight, to launch investigations. And this is what the next two years of the Trump administration will be dealing with. There's no doubt about that. There's a fine line. There will be public response if they feel that Democrats are somehow abusing this authority, misusing it, overreaching and playing pure politics. It could come back to haunt them. You rightly noted they are fulfilling what is sort of the demand right now from the base of the Democratic Party to make sure each and every day they are in this majority that they are doing something to hold the Trump administration accountable.

HILL: In terms of what they are doing, I want to play a little bit of what Adam Schiff had to say in talking about the expanded investigations.


REP. ADAM SCHIFF, (D-CA), CHAIRMAN, HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: And some will allow us to investigate any incredible allegation that financial interests or other interests are driving decision making of the president or anyone in the administration.


HILL: Renato, that's pretty broad. What does that really say to you?

MARIOTTI: What it says to me is that Congress is going to be taking a look at something that the American people have been concerned about and have heard a lot about. This disturbing allegation that the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation into the president because it believes that the president is compromised in some way or putting Russia's interest ahead of our own. I think it is an appropriate oversight. Like I was saying a moment ago, a lot of details of these investigations can't be shared publicly. We can't expect that all of the secret sources that the FBI and CIA have developed to get information about that can be revealed. It is up to representatives to conduct an investigation and give the American people some answer to the very bizarre questions and disturbing questions raised by that report.

HILL: Renato, David, always good to have you with us. Thank you.

CHALIAN: Thanks, Erica.

HILL: Just ahead, with the deadline now eight days away, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says there won't be another government shutdown. Why?

Plus, happening today, Democrats ramping up their fight to get the president's tax returns. A powerful House committee may be the key to making it public. A member of that committee is with us. Stay right here.


[11:17:43] HILL: There's encouraging news from Capitol Hill. Negotiations to prevent another government shutdown have not fallen apart. And, yes, that is a win in 2019. CNN learned a bipartisan committee is making progress on a deal to secure the border with both sides agreeing a final deal will need more money for technology, manpower and physical barriers. The wild card here is the White House. Will President Trump be on board with any deal that lands on his desk?

CNN's Lauren Fox is on Capitol Hill.

Lauren, where do things stand at this moment?

LAUREN FOX, CNN: There's still a lot of optimism on Capitol Hill that they will be able to meet a deadline by Monday. I talked with the Senate Appropriations chairman, Richard Shelby. He told me he was going to meet with the big man. I asked if he was going meet with McConnell and he said, no, I am going to meet with the president about what we are trying to think about in terms of spending negotiations. So they are keeping the president in the loop at least about these negotiations that they are passing back and forth between Republicans and Democrats. We know they are making progress.

Of course, sticking points still remain. Not only exactly how much money goes to those barriers on southern border but how many detention beds you put on the southern border. And other issues that could come up, including, do you put money for more agents in the ICE or more on the southern border, where do you put those people. All of that is a point of contention that Republicans and Democrats are working through. There's hope they could get some kind of deal.

HILL: From the Democratic side, there's been a push, and a message trying to be sent out to the president to stay out of things. With this meeting happening, is there a sense that they are getting any information back on whether the president is likely to sign off on some of what they are coming to agreement on?

FOX: We know there has been some concern from Republican members that they never know where the president will be on a piece of legislation. The president has given his blessing that this conference committee can work its will. He has not committed to signing anything. I know a lot of Republican leaders are concerned about the fact that you could get to an end of a conference negotiation and not have the president actually sign the bill.

[11:20:03] Now, Nancy Pelosi told "Politico" that she didn't think the president would shut the government down because it didn't work well for him last time. We know Democrats supported Nancy Pelosi and her decision to stand firm against that border wall. Obviously, there's a lot of concern right now about what the president is going to do if the conference committee gets to a deal -- Erica? HILL: Lauren with the latest for us. Lauren, thank you.

Joining us now is CNN political commentator, former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, Charlie Dent.

Good to have you with us this morning.

As we know, this has been the sticking point here. We are hearing positive things. Every day negotiations don't fall apart is a good day, which is what one lawmaker told our Phil Mattingly. The fact that there's no commitment yet from the president, what does that tell you about where this could eventually end up?

CHARLIE DENT, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Sure, Erica. Here's my sense of this. Having served in the Appropriations Committee, I can tell you this, the appropriators will negotiate what we call a four corners deal. That is Republicans in the House and the Senate and Democrats in the House and the Senate will come to an agreement. The question is, will the president support it? I'll make a prediction. The deal will probably be a good one. I suspect members of the Freedom Caucus, and Ann Coulter, as they get information, they will trash the deal, they will tell the president, and then the president will have reservations about this. Whether or not he signs the bill remains a mystery. You'll recall that the omnibus appropriations bill last year was agreed to, everybody worked on it, the president got what he wanted for defense, and then, in the final hours, the president started trashing the agreement. He ended up signing. But I think we could be moving in that direction again. They are not that far apart. The Democrats want more technology. So do the Republicans. Republicans want barriers. Democrats want fewer detention bed. Those issues, I think, can be resolved.

HILL: It's amazing, too, because the scenario you lay out involving the president is certainly, as you point out, a move we've all seen before. How much do you think what we're seeing play out separately on Capitol Hill, these expanded investigations, which the president is calling "presidential harassment," how much could his frustration over what happens in that area boil over and impact any agreement that this bipartisan group of lawmakers comes to?

DENT: Hey, that's always a risk with this White House. The president is very mercurial. He's very temperamental. He's got a temper obviously. I could see that he could simply transfer that anger over investigations onto the appropriations process. It would be a terrible mistake. The president doesn't have great options here. What is he going do? If this bill is negotiated, is he going to tell the leaders of the Senate not to allow the bill to be brought to the floor? It would set up another shutdown situation, which is completely unacceptable, I would think, to congressional Republicans after the last one. McConnell, you know, it was in the game by the second kick of the mule, or the third or the fourth.

HILL: In terms of making their case to the president, based on your experience and folks you're talking with there in Washington, how much is the human impact of this being brought up with the president? We look so much at these 800,000 federal workers, not to mention all the contract workers who were also impacted by the shutdown, that is at the forefront for a lot of Americans when they look at what's happening there in Washington. A lot of Americans are political pawns in all of this. Does that come into play in the discussions, you think?

DENT: Yes. It does. There are absolute human impacts. If I'm an elected official, there's another impact they should think very hard about, that the American people expect their leaders to lead, they expect them to govern. They see funding the government as a basic fundamental responsibility that must occur. When leaders in both parties fail in that regard, I think the American people judge them harshly for being inept, incompetent, not able to do their jobs. Yes, there's a real human impact on those that are federal employees but there's a bigger political issue here, and it's a failure of leadership. In this case, Republicans, because they are in charge of the presidency and the Senate. They will take a greater share of this blame.

HILL: What do think -- I will hold your feet a little bit more. What is a more likely scenario as of today, the president agreeing to a deal, signing off on it, or declaring a national emergency?

DENT: Look, I hope he agrees to whatever the appropriators come up with. I'm not optimistic. If he declares an emergency -- I can tell you, I did the military construction funding. The president of the U.S. and the Department of Defense to not have authority, the military does not have authority to build additional barriers on the southern border. They can build additional -- they have jurisdiction over 37 miles at the Goldwater Range in southern Arizona. And the Pentagon never asked for additional funds to build a fence there So I think that the president would be usurping congressional authority. I would think members of both parties would find this an absolute outrage in terms of usurpation of the power of the purse authority. It would set a horrible precedent, a horrible precedent, because the next president could then simply come in and declare an emergency if he doesn't get what he wants from Congress in terms of funding. From that standpoint, nothing good will come of this. Politically, taking money from the troops and their families or taking it from other national emergencies, people devastated by hurricanes of fire, and then transferring it to the border wall, I think, it's terrible politics. I think it's horrible.

[11:25:54] HILL: Charlie Dent, always appreciate your time. Thank you.

DENT: Thank you, Erica. Great to be with you.

HILL: Coming up, the new fight to get the president's tax returns. A powerful House committee launching a new effort to make them public. Can they succeed? A member of that committee joins me next.