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Senate Judiciary Votes On AG Nominee William Barr; Negotiations Underway, Both Sides Feeling "Very Positive" In Shutdown Talks; Scandals Engulf Virginia's Top Three Democratic Officials; House Dems Holding Hearing On Family Separation Policy; Trump Blasts Dems As They Step Up Investigations Into Him & His Admin. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired February 7, 2019 - 10:00   ET







JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR AND CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Welcome. Good morning. I'm Jim Sciutto in Washington. Where, in the midst of Congressional oversight like he has never seen before, President Trump is likely to get an important win this hour in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Any minute now the Republican-led panel is expected to vote in favor of the nomination of William Barr as Attorney General.

If the full Senate votes him in later as expected, Barr will assume oversight of the Mueller Probe, which the acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker has said, is in its final [enix?]. Whittaker is set to appear tomorrow before the House Judiciary Committee, led now by Democrats. And, just to let him know they're serious, they'll have a subpoena on hand, ready and waiting in case he does not answer some of their questions.

Today, other House committees are shining a light on family separations at the border and laying the legal groundwork for requiring the president to give up his tax returns.

CNN's Manu Raju is on the Hill. Manu, you had a word with the AG nominee just moments ago. How are the votes lining up from where you're sitting?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're expecting a very partisan vote today in this committee. Virtually every Democrat is expected to vote against him. Just moments ago Chris Coons, who is the Delaware Democrat, who had spoken positively about Barr after the hearing, said that he's going to be a no vote.

And, all the other Democrats on the committee expected to vote against him. The Republicans supported him, and since the Republicans, of course, have the majority, there will be the votes today to advance his nomination to the floor.

Now, Bill Barr walked right by me just moments ago, and I asked him about the votes, and whether he had spoken to the president.


RAJU: (INAUDIBLE) votes today?


RAJU: Have you talked to the president at all?


RAJU: So, he shook his head about his conversations with the president. But, the reason why the Democrats have raised concerns is that he has not explicitly said that he would release the Mueller Report when it is done. When it's actually comes to his purview, assuming he gets confirmed as Attorney General. He has also not said whether he would allow any subpoena to come forward to compel the president to testify before Mueller's Investigation.

Among those things, in his previous criticism of the Mueller Investigation, have led Democrats to raise concerns. But, he has alleviated a Republican concerns about all those things by saying that he would allow this investigation to proceed. And, that's one reason why we're not seeing any Republican defections, even among some of those more moderate Republican senators. And, we expect him to get his job as soon as next week. Jim.

SCIUTTO: Manu Raju, we know you're going to be watching it. Thanks very much.

I'm joined now by former Federal Prosecutor and CNN Legal Analyst, Jennifer Rodgers. Jennifer thanks as always. Good to have you on.

When you look at Bar, when you look at that confirmation hearing, it really was a mixed bag because Democrats disappointed that he did not commit to releasing his [mono?] said, the full Mueller Report, when it's completed, and also did not commit to subpoenaing the president's testimony.

He did, however, pledged not to alter the Mueller Report. He said that discouraging, that they're offering pardons to discourage testimony, he views that as illegal. And, he also, you'll remember Jennifer, he had a lot of praiseworthy comments of Robert Mueller, even saying he's a personal friend. I mean, in your view, will an Attorney General Bill Barr be a fair arbiter of the Russia Investigation going forward.

JENNIFER RODGERS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it's really hard to say Jim and the reason is, this memo that he wrote before he was even in the mix for AG, in which he opined that regardless of the facts, the president constitutionally cannot be guilty of obstruction of justice for firing the FBI director. So, the problem there is, you know, he admits he doesn't know all the facts, but even when he does, his view is that legally this can't be a charge.

So, the real question to me is going to be, when you put these kind of two things together, you know, this notion of his views from the memo with the fact that he is not going to release the Mueller Report itself, but is going to, it sounds like, kind of write his own version of it. You know, what is he going to do if Mueller finds a bunch of facts demonstrating-- Facts that would support obstruction of justice, we can assume that the facts will be in there. But, if Barr's legal conclusion is that there is no obstruction even though he's pledged not to alter Mueller's Report, or Mueller's findings, will he put in his report, which could potentially be released, that Mueller thought that there was obstruction of justice here, or will he say legally there is no obstruction?

So, you know that's kind of the question to me. You know altering / removing, or recasting based on his view of the law is something that I think you know the public certainly doesn't want to see here. And, that's what we may get with Barr.

SCIUTTO: In layman's terms, explain how he makes a case that a president, in that way, cannot obstruct justice, because it sounds very similar to what Richard Nixon, one of the articles of impeachment against him in terms of obstruction.


SCIUTTO: What difference does Barr draw in terms of the legal backing for an obstruction case?

RODGERS: Well, there are some legal scholars who believe that the president's constitutional rights or abilities given to him by Article ll, allow him to fire someone like Jim Comey at will. That's absolutely his constitutional right, and as a result of that, that cannot be the basis for obstruction of justice. They distinguish between other actions, like, if the president were to shred important documents knowing that they had been subpoenaed, or you know, walked up to a witness and said, you know, don't testify to that I will pardon you. Barr himself said that that could be obstruction. But, they're saying that doing something that is not itself an inherently wrong act, but is instead an exercise of the president's duties or abilities under Article ll cannot be the basis of obstruction.

SCIUTTO: Goodness, there's a lot of wiggle room in there. Jennifer Rodgers, thanks very much. We're going stay on top of this.

Tomorrow, that is the deadline that bipartisan group of lawmakers are giving themselves to come up with a deal on the border wall. Both sides agree there needs to be funding for technology personnel and yes, even border barriers. But, there is no guarantee that President Trump will say yes to any deal that does not have what he desires, the amount he desires, $5.7 billion dollars for a wall. Still, as one Republican Senator tells CNN, right now, it's the hope and pray strategy, a little bit of a Hail Mary there. CNN's Phil Mattingly is live on Capitol Hill. Phil, I spoke to a Republican member of this group of 17, Congressmen Fleischmann in the last hour. What struck me is, it sounded like he's saying Republicans are willing to go below that $5.7 billion figure, and even use the phrase down payment, which might be the way they're thinking about selling that to their supporters, or even the White House. Are you hearing similar that that $5,7 billion dollar number is not a red line for them?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I think there's a recognition on the Republican side though that's not only not a red line, it's just simply not attainable in these negotiations. And conversely, on the Democratic side, there's a recognition that zero dollars for a border barrier, which was their initial offer in this Conference Committee is not necessarily reality-based. And, even $1.3 billion, which is the current level for fencing and repairs is likely not going to cut it.

And, I think the recognition from both sides that they're going to have to come off their initial levels is why you see a lot of optimism of the cautious variety right now. And, I think when I was also interested in, in your interview with Chuck Fleischmann, who's on the committee is, he noted that there are other areas too.

Look, there has been progress made very clearly, they've been ticking through issues, they've been closing out items, and they are closer now than they have been in a long time. And, when you talk to members on the committee, they make clear they are in a better place than they've been on this particular issue in months if not longer than that. But, when you talk about the boarder barrier issue, the top- line number is still up in the air, the structures themselves are still up in the air, that is a big issue. Chuck Fleischmann pointed out detention beds. This is an issue for Republicans that they say have to be in the Bill, expanded funding for detention beds to hand to house migrants that are detained at the border. That's a big issue for Democrats, that is a serious issue that they do not want to address, or they do not want to move up funding on.

So, there's still a lot of sticking points out there, but given where things have been up to this point, things are certainly in a better place now than they have been really at any point that anybody can remember.

SCIUTTO: So, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is certainly putting out some fighting words today, but it strikes me, too, this would be Nancy Pelosi moving off her pledge of a few weeks ago of not a single dollar for a border wall. So, some give on the Democrat side as well.

MATTINGLY: Yes, there's been give on the barrier side from both rank- and-file Democrats and from the Speaker or so. But, the speaker also still known to throw a little barb in there, here and there. She gave an interview to POLITICO where she was talking about due to the political fallout of the 35 days shutdown, which Republicans were very upside-down, and polling their, "I have a club that I started, it's called the "Too Hot to Handle Club.' And this is a too-hot-to-handle issue." Her point being that Republican leaders aren't willing to wander back into another shutdown scenario.

There's truth to that. When you talk to rank-and-file Republicans they make clear that a shutdown shouldn't be on the table at all. They don't want to go through that process again, and that's why you've seen leaders on both sides basically tell the committee, get your work done, we'll put it on the floor, and then we'll deal with the president after that. I will say though, Republican aides who are working on this issue did not really appreciate the Speaker's comments, saying at this point in time, don't throw up any hurdles, or any barbs given they're making progress. But, we'll see how it goes. She's speaking in about 45 minutes. I'm sure she'll weight it again Jim.

SCIUTTO: I would be surprised. Phil Mattingly, thanks very much.

Joining me now, Democratic Senator, Chris Van Hollen. He is also a member of the Appropriations and Budget Committees. Senator, appreciate you taking the time this morning.


SCIUTTO: So, you heard me speaking with Phil there. You might have heard me speak in the last hour with a Republican member of that committee of 17 there. Sounds like they're coming together, or at least closer on a number, which would mean Democrats giving some money, more than zero. Republicans asking for less money than the president have asked for. Would you vote, yes, for a deal that gives a couple of billion dollars to a border barrier. Is that something you would support.

VAN HOLLEN: Well Jim, as I think it was alluded to in the lead in the current money of $1.3 billion--


VAN HOLLEN: which the president had previously rejected included some additional, new fencing. I would remind people that long before President Trump was sworn in, we have 700 miles of fencing along the border assisting strategic areas, and so that was already part of the agreement. It was President Trump who rejected that. So, look we are going to find the way to provide the most effective border security.

The president's not going to get his big, 2,000-mile wall, or anything close to it, but we are going to work with our Republicans to find a way to improve security at the border. I am confident Jim that if this were left to Democrats or Republicans on Capitol Hill, we could resolve it. The wild card, of course, is the president and it would have been nice at the State of Union Address if he had recognized the pain he caused with the last shutdown.

SCIUTTO: But, let me ask you this, because you know, if Democrats go up from $1.3 billion dollars, who knows what the final figure is, but it's got to be within that range, $1 billion to $5 billion, and Republicans come down, why did the government shutdown for the longest period ever for that? You know, in the final analysis, it'll be a couple of billion dollars, and with both sides, you know, getting a little money for the barrier, and what the Democrats giving up, why was it necessary? Because folks at home, listen they, do blame the president by and large, but if Democrats give ground here, doesn't it show the American public that over this tiny figure, relatively tiny figure, that shutdown was completely unnecessary?

VAN HOLLEN: It was what-- It was totally unnecessary, and it was a shameful shutdown. It caused a lot of damage, 800,000 Federal employees without pay. We, many of us, are still trying to pass legislation to help the service contract up. Employees, a lot of them working paycheck to paycheck, who were out of work and out of paycheck for 35 days. So, we're trying to fix that. Well, you're right. I mean, it shouldn't have shut down the government.

The $1.3 billion that was originally provided already included some fencing money, so there wasn't a dispute over that. So, it was the president, who I think everyone knows, in December all of a sudden changed the goalposts entirely. He said he wanted $5.7 billion. This came out of nowhere, and he said he wanted a downpayment for a $30- billion dollar wall, and that is a waste of money according to all the experts. And so, that's why we ended up here. I mean, it was the president, if you remember, who said he'd be, "Proud to shut down the government if he didn't get his way." That's not my word, that's his.

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you about Bill Barr, because it looks like he's going to get through the Senate Judiciary Committee along party lines. That would seem to indicate he'll get the support in the full Senate. Based on his opinions, not just on releasing the full Mueller Report, and not committing to do it doing so, but his definition of obstruction, a more limited definition of whether the president could be built guilty of obstruction. Do you believe that he poses something of a stealth threat to the Russia probe, not in terms of you know firing Bob Mueller, who he's praised, but in setting restrictions around it that protect the president?

VAN HOLLEN: Yes, I am very worried about that Jim. As you know, Bill Barr wrote that long memo that really essentially adopted the position that President Trump has been taking with respect to the obstruction of justice claims. Essentially saying that the president was above the law when it came to that particular claim and allegation. It looked like a job application to me. Like, here I am, I can solve that problem. And, of course, I'm also troubled by the fact that Bill Barr has really hedged and refused to say he will support the full release of the Mueller Report. And I would add beyond the Mueller Report, also be willing to release the backup information to Congress, because that backup information that includes information about Russian interference in our elections is something that I think is in the public interest and the public has a right to know.

SCIUTTO: Right. Let me ask you about this, I want to ask you about the situation in Virginia with various controversies affecting the top three Democrats there. But, I want to zero in on the lieutenant governor. During the Kavanaugh hearings, you repeatedly called Christine Blasey Ford's allegations about then nominee Kavanaugh. You called them serious, incredible, and you called for his nomination to be withdrawn. As a result tweeting, "It's clear Republicans don't want an impartial FBI investigation." Do you believe that the lieutenant governor, facing a similarly credible and serious charge here, should step down?

VAN HOLLEN: So, two things. Just to be clear on the Kavanaugh nomination, I opposed that nomination before the revelations came out from Christine Ford based on his record. Now, in the case of Virginia, I would apply the same standard that we did with Ms Ford--


VAN HOLLEN: based on his record. Now, in the case of Virginia, I would apply the same standard that we did with Ms Ford, which is that, the woman who's making these allegations needs to be taken very seriously. These charges need to be heard and my view is that we need to get additional facts, just like we did in the case of the Kavanaugh hearing. Where, a hearing was held, and I found in that case, you know, Dr. Ford's testimony very credible. So, I think this requires a very serious review of the allegations that were made, and then make judgments going forward.

SCIUTTO: But the thing is, you called there for his nomination to be withdrawn. I know you opposed in prior for positions, but you were connecting that withdrawal to those allegations. So, you're saying more investigation, but you do not believe the Lieutenant Governor should step down in the intro.

VAN HOLLEN: Well, I think just as in the case of Kavanaugh with respect to the issue of the charges by Dr. Ford. They need to be taken seriously. They need to be heard. They need to collect the evidence, and then we can, you know, people can make a judgement based on that. But, definitely people need to look at these allegations. In the case of Kavanaugh people looked at the allegations. I found Dr. Ford's a testimony very credible, as I indicated. I thought Kavanaugh should not be nominated for other reasons before that, but certainly that was an additional reason that I wouldn't have the nomination.

SCIUTTO: What do you say to critics who say that Democrats took Ford's allegation seriously, called for immediate action, but have not been similarly urgent with these allegations against the lieutenant governor of Virginia?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, I do believe that these allegations need to be looked into on an urgent matter. I think they need to be investigated right away. And so, I don't see a distinction here in the case of Dr. Ford. What Democrats asked for was a hearing, so that people could make an assessment of the credibility of Dr. Ford, and the allegations that she made. I found them very credible. I think a similar process can play out here. I don't mean a Congressional hearing obviously. It's a state issue. But, they need to be taken very seriously.

SCIUTTO: I understand. Senator Van Hollen, appreciate you joining us and taking the hard questions.

VAN HOLLEN: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Still to come this hour. We're keeping a very close eye on a key vote for the president's nominee for attorney general. Could happen any minute. We're going to be on it. Bring you the results right away.

Plus the president is doubling down on his claims of presidential harassment. This, after the House Intelligence Committee Chair announced that the committee is launching broad new investigations into President Trump's finances relating to Russia and elsewhere.




SCIUTTO: In just minutes House Democrats will hold a hearing on the Trump Administration's Family Separation Policy at the border. That's right? When they separated children from their parents as they came in the. Key hearings we are watching on Capitol Hill today. Just one of them, House Democrats are also pushing to obtain the president's tax returns.

Jessica Schneider is covering both of those hearings. Jessica, two big issues here. Family separations certainly one, but the president's tax returns. Tell us what you expect today on both.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: You know, Jim, Democrats seizing on several different fronts here. So, first of all that hearing on family separations, it starts in just a few minutes. The big focus this morning will likely be that recent revelation from the HHS Inspector General that the Trump Administration does not know how many children were separated from their families when they crossed the border late last year. The Administration, of course, initially said it was close to 3,000, but now it's come out that it could have been thousands more. The Administration and the HHS IG saying that there's just no exact count here.

So, Democrats on the committee going to be asking a lot of questions on that, but they'll likely be hindered in really getting exact answers since the Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, he's declined to appear for this hearing. So, Democrats they're going to be asking witnesses from the ACLU, from the IG's Office. But, it's quite possible with a Azar not there, they might not get a lot of answers this time around.

Then, of course, a little bit later this afternoon Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee, they'll be making the first step really toward demanding the president's tax returns. It's a hearing at 2:30. It's set to spotlight tax and ethics experts, who will be explaining how important it is for presidents and presidential candidates to release their returns to really find out if the president could be benefiting from the office.

So, this hearing it really is just laying the groundwork for what we eventually expect will be a demand by the Ways and Means Chairman, Richard Neal, for the president's tax returns from the Treasury Department. Jim that's something that he is entitled to do by statute, but the president's team they have already promised that it would be a court fight if he demands the tax returns. So, today's hearing, it really will be laying the groundwork on what will be a very long fight here for those tax returns.

SCIUTTO: Of course it also raises that basic question, why doesn't he want the tax returns out there in the public eye. Jessica Schneider, thanks very much.

At the same time, President Trump is digging into Democrats as they step up these various investigations into him and his businesses. That includes a sweeping new investigation into his finances and Russia. Karis Kanal has the details. Karis, tell us how broad this investigation is, and what exactly congressional investigators are looking at.

KARIS KANAL, CNN REPORTER: That's right Jim. So, this new investigation by the House Democrats, now that they are in control, the committee, they said that they're going to do a very broad investigation, looking at the scope and scale of Russia's interference in the 2016 campaign and beyond. They're also going to look for any links, or coordination between Trump and his associates with Russians. But, they also said they're going to go beyond Russia and look to see whether any foreign governments--


KANAL: have had leverage over anyone in Trump's orbit via himself, his family members, his business, and other associates and that includes Saudi Arabia. That's a country where there's a lot of geopolitical, you know, policy involved here, and now this committee is saying they're going to look at the financial aspects of this. They've also said they're going to look to see if anyone has tried or attempted to obstruct any of these enquiries including their own.

Now, of course, the president came out yesterday against this. It's sort of a ongoing tit-for-tat with the head of that committee, Adam Schiff, where he said that this was unlimited presidential harassment. He also said in tweets this morning that the Dems are going crazy or nuts rather, and this is a continuation of the witch-hunt now. Now, Adam Schiff has said that he can understand why the idea of meaningful oversight terrifies the president. Several of his closest associates are going to jail, others await trial and criminal investigations continue.

Now Jim, this House Democrats-led investigation is going to continue for several months even as it appears that Robert Mueller's Investigation may be winding up. So we'll be talking about this for many, many more months to come Jim.

SCIUTTO: And that is the key there. If the president the supporters were looking for closure under a Democratically-led House with all these oversight committees under their control, not going to happen. Karis Kanal, thanks very much.

Major test for President Trump's pick for Attorney General William Bar happening. Now. We're going to be on top of the latest.