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Negotiators Optimistic About a Deal to Avoid Second Government Shutdown; Conway Describes Alleged October Assault in Restaurant; National Enquirer Publisher AMI Responds to Bezos' Blackmail Allegations; Acting AG Whitaker to Face Lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired February 8, 2019 - 09:00   ET

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


[09:00:00]

HILL: Always a pleasure.

BERMAN: Have a great weekend.

HILL: You too.

BERMAN: "NEWSROOM" begins right now.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Top of the hour, good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow. Good to be back with you. Jim Sciutto has a well-deserved day off. And in just minutes a powerful House committee with Democrats newly in command will face off against a powerful administration official who is on his way out. Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker is set to appear before the House Judiciary Committee in what is sure to be the biggest public showdown so far. And those are the key words there. So far of the new and divided Congress.

Until last night it was not even clear that this would happen. Whitaker refused to show up this morning if committee chairman, Democrat Jerry Nadler, made good on his plan to have a subpoena ready and waiting to compel Whitaker to answer all of the lawmakers' questions. Those questions begin with Whitaker's three-month oversight of the Mueller probe which he'd spent much of the previous year attacking on television, radio and online.

We will bring you today's session live. It begins 9:30 a.m. Eastern. That is the bottom of the hour. Until then we have our correspondents, our experts, our analysts standing by beginning with Manu Raju on Capitol Hill.

Good morning to you, Manu. You know -- and Laura Jarrett, of course, at the Justice Department.

Manu, for a guy who has only had this job since November, and I'm talking about Whitaker, and who will be replaced likely this month, there's sure a lot of drama around this.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, no question about it. I mean, recall this is really the first congressional hearing that has occurred about the circumstances around the firing of Jeff Sessions that occurred immediately after the past November midterm elections. And Democrats have a lot of questions about the circumstances of the hiring of Matt Whitaker, whether the president had discussions with him about whether he would recuse himself or not from overseeing the Mueller investigation, why Whitaker ultimately decided not to recuse himself, whether the president talked to him about things such as the Michael Cohen guilty plea and the fact that federal prosecutors had implicated the president in two crimes. Did the president have any discussions with Matt Whitaker.

Well, the Justice Department is making it pretty clear they're not going to answer a lot of those questions. That's what led to that back and forth that occurred all day yesterday about whether or not Whitaker would even appear here because the Democrats had authorized Jerry Nadler, the chairman of this committee, to issue a subpoena compelling Whitaker to not only appear but to answer those questions.

The Justice Department said that he would not appear unless he got assurances that there would be no subpoena. And after a back and forth Nadler, according to the Justice Department, agreed not to issue a subpoena today for Whitaker as long as he were to come, but that's not to prevent them from issuing a subpoena tomorrow if he doesn't answer those questions.

So expect a lot of questions from Democrats and Republicans. They're going to have five minutes each to ask questions. There are a number of members on this committee so this is going to go on for some time. How much they'll be able to say remains to be seen. But a high profile hearing. The first of major -- of the cabinet officials essentially coming before this Congress about the Mueller investigation. We'll see how much he actually reveals -- Poppy.

HARLOW: OK. Manu, stand by. Thank you for that.

Let's go now to Laura Jarrett, our justice reporter from the Justice Department.

Laura, we just got the opening statement from Matthew Whitaker. And there is a big part highlighted here at the end near the last paragraph where he essentially says, I will continue the longstanding executive branch policy and practice of not disclosing information that may be subject to executive privilege."

So this is exactly what Nadler was worried about, that Whitaker was going to claim potential executive privilege in the future and not answer questions on that front. It sounds like he's going to do that.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: That's right. And this has been the big sticking point for Democrats all along. It's why Jerry Nadler wanted to have that subpoena in his back pocket yesterday. But Whitaker, of course, saying he wouldn't come to the hearing unless Nadler backed down and essentially agreed to not serve him with a subpoena either last night or today. Doesn't mean he won't be served with a subpoena sometime in the future, but at least he agreed it wouldn't happen today. And I just want to read for you in full, this is Whitaker's statement

for the record where he says, "I will continue the longstanding executive branch policy and practice of not disclosing information that may be subject to executive privilege such as the contents of deliberations or conversations with the president."

Of course that's the big thing that Democrats wanted to press him on. What exactly have you discussed about the special counsel's Russia investigation with President Trump. They've also wanted to question him about how exactly he got this job. Remember he was Jeff Sessions' chief of staff, I should say, as Manu mentioned.

And they also want to talk to him about other investigations as we have reported Whitaker has had conversations with the president about prosecutors in Manhattan going after the president's former lawyer. So they want to press him on that and his oversight of the Mueller investigation -- Poppy and Jim.

[09:05:05] HARLOW: OK. Thank you, Laura. Stand by for that.

I'll also let people know, he does address the Mueller probe at the end here and says there has been no change in the overall management of the special counsel investigation.

We are going to get back to this in just a moment as we wait for the hearing. But another unbelievable story that we are watching this morning. Amazon founder and billionaire Jeff Bezos is accusing the "National Enquirer" and its publisher AMI of attempted extortion and blackmail. That's right. He shared all of these details including e- mails from the publisher in a stunning tell-all blog post.

He claims the tabloid threatened to release explicit and intimate photographs of him and a woman that he'd been having an affair with. In return AMI apparently wanted Bezos to end his investigation into the "Enquirer" and make some public statements.

Let's bring in our chief media correspondent Brian Stelter, who's here, Jeffrey Toobin also joins us in a moment on the legal side of this. Reading the Bezos post on Medium this morning was stunning because he told the world all of these embarrassing things.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Yes.

HARLOW: Because he thinks it's worth it to expose what he calls blackmail.

STELTER: Yes. And because he's the richest man in the world perhaps he has the power and the ability to expose this. To make sure it's in the sunlight. This does go back several months as you mentioned, Poppy. This relationship Bezos was having with a woman named Lauren Sanchez. At the same time Bezos was separating from his wife McKenzie.

Remember that morning back in January Bezos all of a sudden announced he was getting divorced.

HARLOW: Right.

STELTER: But then a few hours later, the "Enquirer" published a story about his love life. But it didn't end there. Bezos wanted to know how did the "Enquirer" get my text messages, how did they get my photos with my new girlfriend. Well, his security chief David de Becker concluded this was politically motivated and the "Enquirer" was very angry when de Becker started saying that out loud. When Bezos's camp started accusing the "Enquirer" of political motivations the "Enquirer" was furious so it tried to cut this deal revealed in these e-mails. And here's what Bezos says about this. Here's why he explains he's going public.

He says, "The communications from AMI," that he's printed on Medium.com, "cement AMI's long-earned reputation for weaponizing journalistic privileges. Hiding behind important protections and ignoring the tenets and purpose of true journalism. But Bezos says of course I don't want personal photos published but I also won't participate in their well known practice of blackmail, political favors, political attacks and corruption." Bezos says, "I prefer to stand up, roll this log over and see what crawls out. "

And that's where we are now. He's rolled over the log.

HARLOW: And they haven't said anything. AMI.

STELTER: And American Media and "Enquirer," they have said not a word.

HARLOW: I mean, you read the e-mail, the e-mails right there.

Jeffrey Toobin --

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Wow.

HARLOW: If this is all as Jeff Bezos alleges, is it illegal?

TOOBIN: You know, that is a great question. And I don't know the answer to that. This is a very unusual situation.

HARLOW: Yes.

TOOBIN: In the blog post, he uses the terms blackmail, he uses the term extortion. The usual pattern of extortion is give me a million dollars or I will kill you. Is this extortion? You could see how this would be extortion because he is saying -- Bezos has access to something that is very valuable which is what's printed in the "Washington Post."

HARLOW: Right.

TOOBIN: What AMI is saying in these letters is use that power to exonerate us or we are going to embarrass you in this way. I have never heard of an extortion case like that because it's such a weird set of circumstances, but it doesn't seem out of the question that the New York City District Attorney or the U.S. attorney here in the Southern District would at least look into it. HARLOW: Why do you think, Jeffrey, AMI was so intent on getting Bezos

to publicly state that there were no political motivations here. And as background, David Pecker who runs it.

TOOBIN: Right.

HARLOW: Good friends with the president.

TOOBIN: He was. I mean, I think --

HARLOW: Now he's flipped.

TOOBIN: We don't know exactly. I mean, you know, I wrote a profile on David Pecker in the "New Yorker" two years ago where he talked about how he had paid Karen MacDougal $150,000 to keep her quiet. Essentially as a favor to Donald Trump during the political campaign. Obviously something that, you know, is indicative of their friendship. Because of all the attention that's received, because of the legal problems, he wound up getting immunity from the Southern District to testify, presumably in the grand jury. I think that has put a chill in their relationship.

HARLOW: Sure.

TOOBIN: But he is still -- you know, that the "Enquirer" still has reasons to ingratiate itself with the president.

HARLOW: Yes.

TOOBIN: And that may have been what was behind this.

HARLOW: Complicating this even more but really significant is Saudi Arabia. And --

STELTER: Yes, because the "Enquirer" has been seeking funding from Saudi Arabia. We all know about President Trump's relationship with Saudi Arabia.

[09:10:02] So Bezos is hinting at what it calls a Saudi angle to this story but he's not explaining the entire thing.

HARLOW: Well, AMI did publish a pro-Saudi sort of paid for glossy magazine.

STELTER: Yes. Promoting the Saudi crown prince:. Bezos seems to believe that part of this plot involves supporting Saudi Arabia but he's not going to details. One question I've asked Bezos and Amazon, have you called the FBI? You said you're being extorted. Have you called the FBI? Have you turned over evidence? No comment yet.

HARLOW: OK. Stay on this. I know you will. Thank you very much.

STELTER: Thanks.

HARLOW: Toobin, don't go anywhere. There's a big hearing. Have you heard? TOOBIN: Big hearing.

HARLOW: Just a few minutes.

TOOBIN: Moments to go.

HARLOW: Other stories we're following. Top White House aide Kellyanne Conway says she was recently attacked in a restaurant. You will hear her story first right here.

Plus, the Supreme Court blocking a strict Louisiana abortion law from taking effect for now. Could that change?

And the nation loses a congressional legend. Former Michigan congressman, the longest serving member of Congress ever, John Dingell has passed at the age of 92. He served with 11 presidents and cast more than 28,000 votes earning praise from his colleagues who calls him a tireless advocate and one of the most impactful leaders.

His wife, Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, writes he will be remembered for his decades of public service to the people of Southeast Michigan, his razor sharp wit, and a lifetime of dedication to improving the lives of all who walked on this earth. That wit no doubt will be missed on Twitter where Congressman Dingell even at the age of 92 became known for his snarky viral tweets.

Let me read you his final message. "I want to thank you all for your incredibly kind words and prayers. You're not done with me yet."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: When you announced recently that you were going to retire after this term, that you said serving in this Congress is obnoxious.

JOHN DINGELL, FORMER DEMOCRATIC CONGRESSMAN: I have done many things at different times that were obnoxious. I cleaned bathrooms, and changed diapers, and do all kinds of things like that. But I do them because of the greater good.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:15:00] HARLOW: If you can believe it, we are one week away this morning from another potential shutdown. And lawmakers are trading proposals back and forth. And of course, the goal is deliver legislation to the House early next week, get them to pass it, the Senate, the president to sign it, get a final agreement, but we'll see.

One source tells Cnn this morning, we've still got a lot of work to do. Meanwhile, a White House official tells Cnn, quote, "we are in a good place", and admits that the president might accept less than the original $5.7 billion he wanted for that wall. The president's counselor, senior counselor and adviser Kellyanne Conway also this morning speaking out to our very own Dana Bash about a stunning incident that she says happened in October. She said she was at a restaurant in Maryland with her teenage daughter when a woman grabbed and shook her. That woman denies the assault.

Our Dana Bash sat down with Conway. Dana, when I, you know, first saw your reporting this morning, I was stunned.

DANA BASH, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, so was I, and I sat down with Kellyanne Conway for my series "BADASS WOMEN Of WASHINGTON", and it was during that interview, Poppy, that she spoke for the first time about being at a restaurant with her teenage daughter.

Some of her daughter's friends and their parents in Bethesda, Maryland, which is a suburb, I hear in Washington. It was in October of 2018 right after the Brett Kavanaugh hearings after he was confirmed, and tensions were very high.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO DONALD TRUMP: I was assaulted in a restaurant --

BASH: Assaulted how?

CONWAY: And that person has to go to court soon.

BASH: Assaulted how?

CONWAY: I was standing next to my daughter and many of her friends at dinner. I mean, she was right here next to me, and her friends were, too. And somebody was grabbing me from behind, grabbed my arms and was shaking me to the point where I felt maybe somebody was hugging me.

One of the other parents coming to pick up his or her daughter. And then as I turned around, it just felt weird, it felt like that's a little aggressive. And I turned around and a woman had grabbed my hinge, she was just unhinged.

BASH: Just a stranger.

CONWAY: She was out of control. I don't even know how to explain her to you. She just -- her whole face was terror and anger and just, and she was right here. And my daughter was right there, and she ought to pay for that. She ought to pay for that because she has no right to touch anybody.

She put her hands on me, I said get her hands off me. She put her hands on me, and was shaking me and then was doing it from the front with my daughter right there, who then videotaped her. And let me tell you something, she just would not leave the restaurant.

She kept going on and on, she went outside, she just wouldn't stop. This woman thinks it's OK to touch someone else. It's not OK. It's not OK by her -- and not OK by the law.

BASH: So you called 911, the police came.

CONWAY: I called 911, the police came.

BASH: Did they arrest her?

CONWAY: They -- she left.

BASH: With the police?

CONWAY: No, they hadn't -- no, she had already gone.

BASH: You told the president about it?

CONWAY: I did, but long after. I told other people who were willing to hear --

BASH: What did he say?

CONWAY: What he always says, are you OK? Were you OK, was your daughter OK? Were the other girls OK?

BASH: How was your daughter? That's traumatic. I mean, I would imagine for you, but as a mother probably the first thing you're thinking --

CONWAY: The first thing I cared about was other people's kids there. Which is why I didn't want to talk about it publicly. But I don't want it to become a thing, I just want it to become a teachable moment for everyone.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: And during the interview, I asked Conway about incendiary rhetoric coming from her boss, the president like calling the press the enemy of the people, for example, and whether she views that too as contributing to the toxic atmosphere.

She shot back by sarcastically saying that I violated a challenge that she gave to form a sentence without mentioning Donald Trump. But she argued that flatly, that the only person she believes is responsible for the conduct is the woman who committed the alleged assault, Poppy.

[09:20:00] HARLOW: OK, I can't wait by the way to see the rest of that. I know it's part of your series of "BADASS WOMEN Of WASHINGTON", but I mean, who knew? That is -- that was remarkable to watch. Before you go, Dana, I know that Kellyanne Conway has alleged that her alleged assailant has been charged with second-degree assault and disorderly conduct, right?

BASH: Yes, and she has. This is something that our colleague David Shortell has looked up. There's going to be a court hearing in March in Maryland. And what Shortell has found out looking through the police report and other records relating to this is that she has been charged with second-degree assault and disorderly conduct.

Now, as for this person, her name is Mary Elizabeth Inabinett. Her attorney disputed Conway's account, she gave us the following statement, I want to read it.

"Miss Inabinett saw Kellyanne Conway, a public figure, in a public place and exercised her First Amendment right to express her personal opinions. She did not assault Miss Conway. The facts at trial will show this to be true and show Miss Conway's account to be false." And her attorney also said, Poppy, that she intends to plead not guilty in March.

HARLOW: OK, Dana, thank you very much, we appreciate it. All right, this just in, the parent company of the "National Enquirer" whom Bezos called out for what he calls blackmail this morning. The parent company AMI just issued a response. Let me read it to you in full. Quote, ""American Media" fervently believes that it acted lawfully in reporting the story of Mr. Bezos further at the time of the recent allegations made by Bezos, it was in good faith negotiations to resolve all matters with him.

Nonetheless, in light of the nature of these allegations published by Mr. Bezos, the board has convened and determined that it should probably and thoroughly investigate the claims. Upon completion of that investigation, the board will take whatever action is appropriate. "

Back with me, Brian Stelter, Jeffrey Toobin, OK, the board which David Pecker is on is going to investigate his own behavior.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN CHIEF MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: You've got it. It's a four-man board, Pecker is one of the four board members, the board will now figure out who did what wrong in this case, if anybody. So I guess we have to wait and see if this is a real legitimate investigation or a smokescreen.

HARLOW: You know what you do if you really want to know? You hire outside counsel.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Exactly. And the statement is noticeably silent on that. I mean, there have been recent examples at, for example, "Fox News" where "Fox" like appointed legitimate outsiders --

HARLOW: Yes --

STELTER: Right --

TOOBIN: Of the Paul Weiss law firm to investigate sexual harassment there, and came up with a -- you know, a pretty scathing report that led to people's departures. That is not what is claimed here. This is like me investigating me for legal analyst duties. I mean, it's just -- it's nothing. I mean, as far as --

STELTER: Yes --

TOOBIN: As far as we're aware. And you know, we'll see if they actually decide to do a legitimate investigation.

HARLOW: Right.

STELTER: They seem to know there's a --

HARLOW: All right --

STELTER: Problem here though, they seem to know, this is a problem.

HARLOW: All right, gentlemen, stay with me. We have a lot ahead including this big hearing in just moments. Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker will face off with the now Democrats who control the House Judiciary Committee, the whole committee of course will be there, we'll bring it to you live in just a minute.

[09:25:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HARLOW: All right, welcome back. You're looking at live pictures of Capitol Hill. At any moment, we will see the acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker begin his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee. My team of experts is with me, good morning.

One and all Toobin is on like ten stories this morning, so thanks for sticking around. So this is why Democrats are so up in arms over Matthew Whitaker and the Mueller probe because of comments he made when he was a paid TV contributor including on this network about the Mueller probe.

I'm going to play for everyone, two comments he made in December of 2017. The first one he seems to be trying to limit the scope of the probe, the second one, he seems to be supporting the Mueller probe. Just listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEW WHITAKER, ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL, UNITED STATES: I can see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess appointment, and that Attorney General doesn't fire Bob Mueller, but he just reduces the budget so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.

I don't see any current reason or good reason that Bob Mueller shouldn't stay in that special counsel role.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: OK, so you decide. Democrats are going to press him certainly, and Toobin, let me begin with you. Democrats really want to know and they sent some of these questions in a letter to him in January about Whitaker and his conversations with the president about the Mueller probe, et cetera. Will those conversations be covered by executive privilege?

TOOBIN: Well, you know, the courts have always been reluctant to define the precise contours of executive privilege. You know, the most famous case is the United States versus Nixon case -- HARLOW: Sure --

TOOBIN: Which related to the Watergate tapes which is a different scenario than actually having witnesses testify about conversations with the president. Now many witnesses, our own now colleague John Dean testified at length about his conversations with the president during a congressional hearing in the Watergate era in the 1970s.

The answer is if the White House wanted to allow him to testify, they certainly could. And the real issue here, the real agenda of the Democrats is to try to find out what orders Whitaker had received, what discussions he had had with the president about the Mueller investigation?

And it sounds to me like that is the thing that the White House is going to cite executive privilege for. And it sounds like this hearing could get to loggerheads pretty quickly.

HARLOW: Yes, let's wait until they gavel in here. They're just getting set up. You already see the Chairman Jerry Nadler there, Democrat of New York.