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CNN NEWSROOM

Warren Launches Presidential Big Amid Heritage Controversy; Poll: Candidate Beating Trump Most Important & Most Democrats Say Bring on Biden; Amy Klobuchar, of Minnesota, Expected to Jump in to the 2020 Race Tomorrow; Howard Dean Discusses Democratic 2020 Race; Schultz Has His "Please Clap" Moment During Speech; Feds Investigating Bezos' Claims Against "National Enquirer"; Bezos Cites Saudi Connection in Blackmail Accusations; Ronan Farrow Says He's Faced Blackmail Efforts from Tabloid; Virginia Lt. Governor Fairfax Faces Impeachment Threats, Calls to Resign; Virginia Governor Northam Does Not Call for Fairfax Resignation; Acting A.G. Testified on Capitol Hill in Contentious Hearing; Source: Lawmakers Heading to Funding Deal with Far Less Border Wall Money Than Trump Wants; CNN Reports from Front Line of Battle Against ISIS in Syria. Aired 3-4p ET

Aired February 9, 2019 - 15:00   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:00:00] ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: It is the race for THE White House and the field of Democratic hopefuls is now officially bigger.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(SINGING)

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CABRERA: Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren making it official a short time ago on a sunny but frosty morning in Massachusetts.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN, (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Our fight is for big structural change.

(CHEERING)

WARREN: This is the fight of our lives. And that is why I stand here today to declare that I am a candidate for president of the United States of America.

(CHEERING)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: Senator Warren laying out her goals, her vision, her campaign theme in front of an historic place in Massachusetts, a cotton mill, where women and immigrants led a landmark labor strike more than 100 years ago. Now Warren's presidential run is already facing some controversy over

the claims of Native American heritage that have dogged her. Claims that she has since retracted several times. And a few days ago, another revelation, another apology. She's apologizing for listing her race as American Indian on a legal form in Texas in 1986. Now, no mention of that today. Her message was all about shrinking the gap between middle class Americans and those she calls the wealthy and well-connected.

And she took aim at one particular billionaire by name, the man occupying the White House today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WARREN: The middle-class squeeze is real. And millions of families can barely breathe. It is not right.

The Trump administration is the most corrupt in living memory.

(SHOUTING)

WARREN: But even after Trump is gone, it won't do just to do a better job of running a broken system. We need to take power in Washington away from the wealthy and well-connected, and put it back in the hands of the people where it belongs.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: Warren now joins several other presidential hopefuls making appearances in early voting states this weekend. You see them there, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, among others.

And joining us is a man who knows all about the highs and lows that come with running for president, former presidential candidate and former Vermont governor and former chair of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean.

Good to see you, Governor. Thanks for being with us.

What did you think of Warren's campaign rollout in the wake of this, some call it an apology to where she has been on, over the claims of having Native American heritage in the past?

HOWARD DEAN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE, FORMER VERMONT GOVERNOR & FORMER CHAIR, DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE: I think she has done a good job. I think the Native American stuff has gone away. The Native American community has accepted her apology and that's the end of that. She got off to a great start in Iowa and we'll just have to see. It will be a big field. By the time we get done, 10 or 15 people will be in the field. And I'm guessing four or five will get to California after the first four primaries.

CABRERA: Governor, the president has seized on Warren's heritage controversy, numerous, numerous times. Here he is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have a representative in Congress who they say was here a long time ago. They call her Pocahontas.

Elizabeth Warren, a very boring name. We're going to have to come up with another name. I can't use the word Pocahontas anymore.

Elizabeth Warren was exposed as being a total fraud.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: I know you said she's been able to put this behind her, but the president isn't putting it behind her. And in fact, she continues to get questions at town halls, at these different campaign stops along the way. As we mentioned, just this week she is having to address it, issuing another apology, we learned, this week, about the bar registration card in which she had listed American Indian on it. So it isn't something she can just ignore, is it?

DEAN: Yes, it is. And she should. This campaign is not about Donald Trump's racist insults. This campaign is about whether we can do a better job on the Democratic side. This week, middle-class Americans, and working-class American learned that their tax cut was only for billionaire, that the Republican tamp cut made their taxes go up, and their refunds were getting smaller. Those are the kinds of issues that drive people, not name calling bit president.

CABRERA: She was in New Hampshire this afternoon. This is the home, of course, of the first-in-the nation primary. In the past, candidates like yourself, John Kerry, Bernie Sanders, have benefitted from being from the state next door. Do you think the same could be true for her?

DEAN: I do. I mean, we don't know of course what the margin is going to be but it certainly helps to be from the state next door. And Iowa will be a different kind of test. That may be more helpful to somebody like Amy Klobuchar, who is next door in Minnesota. Look, this is really, really early. And we can have a lot of fun speculating. We actually have no idea how these candidates are going to show up right now. There's going to be a lot of them. Some of them are going to have name recognition. Some of them are going to be very exciting and young. We don't even know who is in this field yet. So there's a long, long, long way to go here.

[15:05:22] CABRERA: We know at least eight people are officially in. There's two others who are saying they're in the exploratory phase or have launched officially an exploratory committee. And then there's a whole slew of others who are exploring a run as we know. But haven't made any official announcement one way or another. Haven't made a decision yet. You have said previously you believe Democrats need a younger candidate to lead the party in 2020. Do you still feel that way?

DEAN: I do. Look, our core base is young people who've supplied all of the energy for the wins in 2018, the 40 seats we picked up and the 350 seats we picked up in state legislatures. People of color and women, that is our core base. We have to have people who can be really exciting to that base in order to win. If those people come out, just as they did in 2018, and in 2017, in Virginia, then we're going to win the presidency and maybe the Senate, too.

CABRERA: Do you believe Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, both in their 70s, both white men, should stay out of the race?

DEAN: No, I don't. I think anybody who wants to run for president, should run for president, as long as they're doing so in the best interest of the country. And I think Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have every right to run.

CABRERA: OK, and look at this new polling that we have, because this also is giving us some insight into where Democratic voters' heads are at. About half of the Democratic-leaning voters, 49 percent, say the ability to beat Trump is the most important trait for a candidate to have. Even more so than experience to be president. But that same poll also shows that a majority of Democrats, 62 percent, want Joe Biden to run in 2020. More people want him to run now than in 2015. What does that tell you about what Democrats want? There has been a lot of talk about the base being further and further left and that is not where Joe Biden is.

DEAN: I think this business about the base being farther and farther left is nonsense. I think the base is getting younger and younger, and wanting younger and younger voters. There certainly have been some very effective young legislators, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who are pushing an envelope very hard and very well. But there's also a whole lot of people who have been elected from the middle of the country who are much more, shall we say, or centrist or moderate or whatever. Look, I think the most important number that -- in that poll, Ana, is the one that said that we want somebody to beat Joe Biden --

CABRERA: You mean, President Trump.

DEAN: I mean, excuse me, to beat President Trump. That's the most important number. And as long as that number stays where it is, or goes higher, we are going to come out with a unified party. And coming out with a unified party is the most important thing we can possibly do. And I think that is where most Democrats are.

CABRERA: New Jersey Senator, presidential candidate, Cory Booker, is in Iowa this weekend. And I want to play you something he told voters there.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CORY BOOKER, (D), NEW JERSEY: I'm one of the few people you will see coming through Iowa that actually had to run something. I was a mayor. I had to run a city.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: It was a little muffled on my end and I'm not sure if you heard him, but he talked about the only one who has run something as being a mayor, his experience in New Jersey. Is than effective line against his competitors?

DEAN: I don't know. We'll finds out. Pete Buttigieg also ran something. He ran South Bend, Indiana. So there's a lot. Look, this is all campaign stuff. And I have confidence in the voters. I'm really not very worried about this primary. I don't think there's a, quote, unquote, "wrong candidate," that if we nominate them, they can't beat Trump. But I have confidence in the voters. And I think we're going to do fine.

CABRERA: And --

(CROSSTALK)

DEAN: And this is the marketplace of ideas. I really think so.

CABRERA: I know you're being careful not to give anybody too much praise or pick your favorite, so to speak, but you did bring up Amy Klobuchar earlier in this conversation. And she is expected to jump in to the 2020 race tomorrow. She's a Senator from Minnesota. And she joins what is shaping up to be the most diverse Democratic field in history. As we put the pictures up again, you can see it already includes several women, two African-Americans, a Latino, and an openly gay candidate, war veteran. When you look at that, do you see Democrats potentially are headed for a contested convention?

DEAN: That's possible, with this many candidates. Let me just say one thing about the diversity. This country is the most diverse country on the face of the earth. Our party looks like America. The GOP does not look like America. They look like America did in the early 1900s. So we ought to be able to win this fight. And we ought to be able to win every fight. And we ought to be able to take back an America that works for all of us, not just a privileged few, as it does today. Tax cuts for billionaires, and as people are discovering, tax increases for everybody else, particularly working-class people. The other party will lie their head off about what they're going to do and do something for their own. We represent the rest of America. And that's the vast majorities of Americans. So I love the fact that our field has women and people of color and young people in it, because it looks just like the country does.

[15:10:23] CABRERA: Well, you know, there are some -- a bigger number of registered voters are identifying now as Independents versus Democrats or Republicans.

DEAN: Right.

CABRERA: A lot of eyes and attention has been given to someone who could launch an Independent run for president, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. He hasn't announced yet but he is already drawing comparisons to Jeb Bush for that moment. And this was his -- during the speech at Purdue University this week.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HOWARD SCHULTZ, FORMER CEO, STARBUCKS: Under President Daniels, the cost of an education here will be less expensive in nominal dollars in 2020, than it was in 2012. Congratulations.

You've got to clap for that.

(PPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: Got to feel for the guy, right? Any advice for Schultz if he does decide to run?

DEAN: Yes, if you want to turn the race over to Donald Trump. The polling already shows that he helps Trump immensely. And I think he is putting Starbucks at risk. I mean, the generation that made him a billionaire is a generation that will be voting overwhelmingly for Democrats, 69 percent in Virginia. 70 percent in the Congressional elections. You know, I have polled this with Bloomberg, who is a much better politician than Schultz. He's not going to win a single state. It is not possible. But he can switch the election over to Trump from a Democrat. And I think that would be extremely bad for the country.

CABRERA: Let me push back on that, though, because our polling shows something a little bit different. In fact, the polling we did just this week, that we, have, you know, been continuing to glean from, it showed that Schultz is actually most appealing to groups that generally have supported Trump. Men, white Americans, those who approve of the job Trump has been doing as president, they're the most likely to say they support Schultz if he runs for 2020.

DEAN: Well, I mean, I'm sorry, I have a different poll that was taken in Iowa about four days ago. So I guess we're just looking at two different polls. I mean, one of the problems here is that Schultz has virtually no name recognition, so it is hard to poll for somebody like that. But we will see as time goes on.

CABRERA: Former Governor Howard Dean, good to have you with us. Thank you.

DEAN: Thank you.

CABRERA: And a programming note. Howard Schultz will be live in Houston, Texas, with CNN's Poppy Harlow for a special presidential town hall event. Tune in for that, this Tuesday night, at 10:00 p.m. Eastern, here on CNN.

It's a tale of alleged blackmail, extortion and dirty pictures. Why federal investigators are now involved in a stunning battle between the richest man on the planet and the tabloid known for doing Donald Trump's dirty work.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:17:01] CABRERA: It is an unbelievable story involving secret texts, explicit photos, the world's richest man and explosive allegations of blackmail. Federal prosecutors are now investigating claims by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos that executives who run the "National Enquirer" threatened to extort him, using compromising photos of his extra marital affair.

CNN's Brian Todd brings us the latest.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Enquiring minds may be in legal trouble. CNN has learned federal prosecutors in New York are reviewing claims the "National Enquirer" attempted to extort and blackmail Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder and CEO of Amazon, and owner of the "Washington Post." Bezos accused "The Enquirer," its parent company, American Media, and its CEO, David Pecker, of trying to blackmail him. Saying the tabloid would not publish salacious and embarrassing pictures of Bezos and this woman, Lauren Sanchez, with whom Bezos had an affair, but only if Bezos would agree to stop investigating the tabloid.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: This story is about people at the pinnacle of very different professions, the richest man in the world, the White House, the most powerful man in the world, and the most vulgar and awful and powerful, in its own way, tabloid in the world.

TODD: The sordid saga began back in January, when the "National Enquirer" published text messages between Bezos and Sanchez. Bezos did not deny having an affair. And shortly before the story broke, announced he was divorcing his wife. At the same time, Bezos hired investigators to find out how "The Enquirer" got the texts. Representatives of Bezos told news organizations he thought the leak of the texts was politically motivated. Revealing that, Bezos said, led to these, letters and e-mails from American Media's lawyers threatening to release the compromising photos if Bezos didn't publicly say that AMI's coverage of the Bezos scandal wasn't politically motivated, and call off his investigators.

Instead, Bezos went public, saying we rather expose the tabloid's tactics. But why?

JIM RUTENBERG, MEDIA COLUMNIST, "NEW YORK TIMES: What we've learned, if anything, about the "National Enquirer" and David Pecker over the last year is that they will attack the enemies of their friends, and that they might expect something in return from that.

TODD: In a lengthy blog post, Bezos suggests just that. Pointing to the AMI Chief David Pecker's relationship with President Trump, as well as stories about Pecker cultivating ties with Saudi Arabia.

RUTENBERG: We know there's a history of David Pecker and AMI looking for opportunities with Saudi Arabia, looking for investment from Saudi Arabia, looking for acquisitions in Saudi Arabia, a way into that market.

TODD: The Saudis have been the focus of "The Post's" unrelenting coverage of the murder of its Columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a hit the CIA believes was ordered by the Saudi crown prince, which the Saudis deny.

Bezos appeared to question why AMI published a 97-page glossy magazine last year praising Saudi Arabia.

[15:20:00] RUTENBERG: What AMI said at the time, what American Media said at the time was, hey, people are fascinated by royals, and this is Saudi royalty, and it is an exciting time in Saudi Arabia.

TODD: Bezos also seems to suggest AMI could have gone after him to please President Trump. The president has long complained "The Post's" coverage is unfair. Trump's ties with David Pecker go back to the 1990s. And Pecker helped Trump cover up an alleged affair with a former Playboy model.

TOOBIN: David Pecker not only has a long friendship with Donald Trump, he has put his money where his mouth is. He paid off Karen McDougal to maintain her silence.

TODD: But since then, David Pecker was granted immunity by prosecutors in New York and agreed to provide them information on those hush money deals. CNN has learned that deal could be in jeopardy. If prosecutors find Pecker or AMI broke the law in their dealings with Bezos, they could lose their immunity in the hush money cases.

(on camera): AMI put out a statement saying it believes it acted lawfully in reporting the Bezos story, but said its board is going to investigate Bezos' claims. AMI rejects any assertion that its reporting was instigated or influenced by any outside forces, political or otherwise.

A spokesman at the White House says he doubts if President Trump is even aware of all of the Bezos reporting.

And asked if his government ever tried to get AMI to put out negative stories about Jeff Bezos, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said, quote, "As far as I know, flat-out no."

Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CABRERA: CNN's chief media correspondent and anchor of "RELIABLE SOURCES," Brian Stelter, is here with us now.

Brian, so on this issue whether the Bezos story and "The Enquirer" could have been payback in some fashion for the "Washington Post" coverage of Saudi Arabia and the Khashoggi killing, what are your sources at "The Post" telling you about this?

BRIAN STELTER, CNN CHIEF MEDIA CORRESPONDENT & CNN HOST, "RELIABLE SOURCES": It is theory but there's just a theory. There's no hard evidence to connect these dots. But it does seem like Bezos believes there's a connection here. He was hinting at that connection by referring to the Saudi angle in his blog post. And I think what he was doing was encouraging not only his reporters at the "Washington Post" but other reporters to try to get to the bottom of it. There was clearly something going on here where the "Washington Post" was working on a story about the "National Enquirer," that's one of the reasons that triggered American Media and "The Enquirer" to try to blackmail Bezos. So his ownership of "The Post" was a factor in this. And I think reporters and columnists at "The Post" are applauding their boss now. They are relieved that Bezos stood up to "The Enquirer" and exposed the extortion attempt.

CABRERA: Even if it meant something embarrassing for him directly.

STELTER: Right.

CABRERA: Let's look at a couple of things we know for sure. Number one, the president loves the "National Enquirer." Here he is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP (voice-over): The "National Enquirer" did a story, they actually have a very good record of being right.

(on camera): I have always said, why didn't the "National Enquirer" get the Pulitzer Prize for Edwards and O.J. Simpson, and all of these things.

(voice-over): I mean, you can't knock the "National Enquirer." It has brought many things to light, not all of them pleasant.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: And number two, the president can't stand Jeff Bezos.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: The "Washington Post" was purchased by the gentleman that runs and has a big stake in Amazon, right? You know his name. Correct. Bezos. You know his name. So now, he uses that as a political weapon.

He uses the "Washington Post" as his power tool.

(voice-over): The "Washington Post," that's basically the lobbyist for Amazon. You know, he uses that. Bezos has bigger problems than anybody right now. But Bezos uses that as his lobbyist, OK, as far as I'm concerned.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: And yet, White House principle deputy press secretary, Hogan Gidley, says he wasn't sure if the president was even aware of this dispute between Bezos and AMI or the "National Enquirer." Likely?

STELTER: Well, we know that Trump is paying attention to the divorce proceedings, because on the day Bezos announced his divorce, Trump said, oh, that's going to be a beauty. Trump is always interested in billionaires getting divorced and all of the financial consequences. So I would suspect Trump is paying attention to this. Bezos is on his informal enemies list. He called him Bozo last month. So Trump is interested in these subjects for sure. CABRERA: And let's talk about the other thing Brian mentioned in his

piece and that is the immunity deal between David Pecker and AMI and the southern district of New York, federal prosecutors. Why risk it?

STELTER: That's where this story is going now. Why risk it? I think for the same people, the same reason people run red lights, you know, they think they can get away with it and they're not going to get hurt. In this case, maybe, maybe American Media thought they would succeed in getting Bezos to back off. And the goal here, according to Bezos, was to get him to come out and say, no, I don't think "The Enquirer" was investigating me for political reasons. American Media wanted Bezos to say that publicly. And in exchange, they were going to make the dirty pictures go away. It was pretty clear quid pro quo as outlined in the e-mails Bezos has published. Maybe it is simple as that. American Media thought they would get away with it, thought they would get Bezos off their proverbial backs. And instead, that didn't work.

I think that is where the story is heading now. The question of the federal prosecutors here in New York, looking at this, reviewing it to try to figure out if American Media has broken the law, and that means that the immunity deal would be off from last year in the Michael Cohen case --

(CROSSTALK)

[15:25:19] CABRERA: The hush money case.

STELTER: That ultimately might be what affects American Media in this case. Bad press is one thing. But having these prosecutors back on you, that is a very big deal.

CABRERA: And now we have Ronan Farrow, another journalist, come can forward, says Bezos is not in it alone. He writes this, "I and at least one other prominent journalist involved in breaking stories about the 'National Enquirer's' arrangement with Trump feel that similar "stop digging or we'll ruin you" blackmail efforts from AMI. I did not engage, as I do not cut deals with subjects of ongoing reporting."

So AMI is doing an internal investigation into how the Bezos story was pursued and how it was reported.

STELTER: Yes.

CABRERA: Are they going to now be forced to look into Ronan Farrow's claims and any others that come forward from here on out?

STELTER: I would hope so. There are numerous allegations of blackmail by "The Enquirer" in the past. This is a very internal investigation. Pecker is on the board that is doing the investigation. So count me as skeptical about that. I think ultimately this will be resolved through the legal route, through whatever the prosecutors find. And now it is on them.

CABRERA: Brian Stelter, thank you. STELTER: Thanks.

CABRERA: Don't forget, Brian's show, tomorrow morning, "RELAIBLE SOURCES," at 11:00 a.m. Eastern, here on CNN.

Coming up, the political chaos in Virginia getting even worse this week, if you can believe it, and into the weekend. The lieutenant governor now being threatened with impeachment if he doesn't resign after a second woman comes forward accusing him of sexual assault.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:31:03] ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: A bombshell week of political scandals, accusations and calls for resignation for the executive branch in the commonwealth of Virginia. And it's not even over yet. A second woman has accused Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax of sexual assault, saying he raped her in college in 2000 at Duke University.

A Virginia Democratic House delegate is now giving Fairfax two choices: resign or risk being impeached.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STATE REP. PATRICK HOPE, (D), VIRGINIA: As the father of three young girls, I can't stand by silently while lieutenant governor is facing multiple credible allegations of sexual assault. I believe these women. He needs to resign immediately.

Should the lieutenant governor fail to do so, on Monday, I intend to introduce articles of impeachment on Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: CNN's Kaylee Hartung joins us from Richmond, Virginia.

Kaylee, what do we know about Fairfax's new accuser?

KAYLEE HARTUNG, CNN: Ana, Meredith Watson was a classmate and friend of Justin Fairfax at Duke University. She says he raped her in 2000 when they were both students there. She calls that rape was pre- meditated and aggressive. Pre-meditated she says because she was sexually assaulted early in a college career by someone else. She said Fairfax was a friend that was aware of that and used that against her as he took advantage of her.

Her attorney says they have e-mail, Facebook messages and corroborating statements from other classmates that show that Watson shared her story immediately following the rape with people close to her. And her attorney also shared with us an e-mail exchange from 2016. At this time, Watson was invited to a Duke alumni fundraiser for Justin Fairfax. This was before he was elected lieutenant governor of Virginia. And in response to that e-mail, she says, "Justin raped me in college, and I don't want to hear anything about him." She said, "Please, please remove me from any future e-mails about him."

Now, Ana, Fairfax is denying these allegations, as he denied those that Dr. Vanessa Tyson brought against him as well. He said these allegations are unsubstantiated and demonstrably false.

CABRERA: Governor Ralph Northam, who himself is facing calls to resign after the racist yearbook photo was discovered, he just spoke with the "Washington Post." What did he have to say about his lieutenant governor?

HARTUNG: Ana, this was the governor's first interview since the racist photo surfaced on February 1. While every Democrat in Virginia's legislature, as well as many prominent Democrats in Washington, D.C., are calling for Fairfax to resign, Northam is not.

Here is what he told the "Washington Post." He said, quote, "It must take tremendous courage for women to step forward and talk about being the victim of sexual assault. These allegations are horrific. They need to be taken very seriously. Lieutenant Governor Fairfax has suggested and called for an investigation. I strongly support that."

That's right. Fairfax is calling for an investigation, saying that an investigation will clear his name. But he says he will not resign.

Northam standing by a similar statement. He has no plans to resign either. Telling the "Washington Post," quote, "And so, it has been a real, I think, awakening for Virginia. It has really raised the level of awareness for racial issues in Virginia. And so we're ready to learn from our mistakes."

As he said, he plans to serve the remainder of his term focusing on equity. And, Ana, he says he wants to take something of a reconciliation tour across the commonwealth to discuss issues of race and equity.

CABRERA: All right, thank you so much, Kaylee Hartung, in Virginia.

This afternoon, the first major showdown between the Trump administration and newly empowered Democrats. Coming up, Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker testifies before the nation, and an audience of one.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JERRY NADLER, (D-NY), CHAIRMAN, HOUSE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Have you ever been asked to approve any request or action to be taken by the special counsel?

[15:35:04] MATTHEW WHITAKER, ACTIGN ATTORNEY GENERAL: Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up. And so --

(CROSSTALK)

WHITAKER: I'm --

(END VIDEO CLIP) (CROSSTALK)

CABRERA: The president's acting attorney general denying his thumb is on a scale of the Mueller probe. Matthew Whitaker testified on Capitol Hill yesterday in the first major Democrat-controlled oversight hearing of the Trump administration. And things quickly got heated as Whitaker refused to answer question after question about his conversations with the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NADLER: Is that correct? Simple enough question. Yes or No?

WHITAKER: Mr. Chairman, I -- again, what is the basis for your question? You are saying --

(CROSSTALK)

NADLER: I'm asking the questions. I only have five minutes. Please answer yes or no.

WHITAKER: No, Mr. Chairman. I'm going to -- you are asking me a question, it is your understanding -- can you tell me where you get the basis.

NADLER: No, I'm not going to tell you that. I don't have time to get into that.

WHITAKER: Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up. And so --

(CROSSTALK)

WHITAKER: I'm -- we, we -- I'm here voluntarily. We have agreed to five-minute rounds.

[15:40:05] REP. DOUG COLLINS, (R-GA), RANKING MEMBER, HOUSE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: If this is the way we're going to go, then we'll have plenty of stunts. We're going to have plenty of theatrics. Bring your popcorn. I'm thinking about maybe we set up a popcorn machine in the back because that is what this is becoming.

WHITAKER: I don't know if your time has been restored or not.

REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE, (D), TEXAS: Mr. Attorney General, we're not joking here. And your humor is not acceptable.

REP. DEBBIE LESKO, (R) ARIZONA: It is nothing but character assassination, harassment of a witness.

REP. LOUIE GOHMERT, (R), TEXAS: I don't know what kind of suicide wish you had, or whatever, but it is good to see you.

REP. HAKEEM JEFFRIES (D), NEW YORK: We are all trying to figure out who are you, where did you come from, and how the heck did you become the head of the Department of Justice. In your final week, keep your hands off the Mueller investigation.

I yield back.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: With me now, former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, Charlie Dent, and congressional reporter from the "Washington Post," Karoun Demirjian.

Thank you for being here this weekend.

And, Congressman, what did you honestly think about the way Whitaker conducted himself in that hearing?

CHARLIE DENT, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, Ana, I think there was a lot of theatrics, a lot of drama, not a lot of substance. Whitaker is a short timer, as we all know. He will be out of this job probably in a week or two. He is going to be gone. He is probably auditioning for something else. To be fair, Mueller has not fired. Whitaker says he did not interfere with the Mueller investigation. I'm assuming he is telling the truth. So I think this is really more just of an opening act. This is just the first round in what will be a very robust Democratic effort on oversight of the Trump administration.

CABRERA: Karoun, the congressman says he is auditioning, an opening act. Was Whitaker basically testifying for an audience of one, the president?

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I mean, potentially. Look, we have seen with past people, either on television or in front of congressional committees, when they talk tough, when they act, when they act like they're not cowed by the people that are questioning them, that the president likes that sort of stance. And one of the little clips that you played right there where Whitaker was questioning whether Nadler's clock run out, that is nothing you do at a congressional hearing. I've never seen that happen before. And I've been covering various parts --

(CROSSTALK)

CABRERA: You heard reaction in the room.

(CROSSTALK)

DEMIRJIAN: It was shocking, and laughter because it was kind of hilarious. Look, it was not really the right way to appeal to the audience of that bench. Definitely not the Democrats on that bench. But it is definitely a tough swagger that seems to work well when you're talking about pleasing the president. And certainly the president is going to catch clips of this if he wasn't watching the hearing himself to see how the person he put in that job on a temporary basis did.

CABRERA: I want to play back a key exchange from that hearing. Let's watch again. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. STEVE COHEN, (D), TENNESSEE: Would you say the special counsel's investigation is a witch hunt? Are you overseeing a witch hunt?

WHITAKER: Congressman, as I have mentioned previously, the special counsel's investigation is an ongoing investigation. And so I think it would be inappropriate for me to --

(CROSSTALK)

COHEN: But you wouldn't oversee a witch hunt, would you? You would stop a witch hunt, wouldn't you?

WHITAKER: Congressman, it would be inappropriate for me to talk about an ongoing investigation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: Congressman, the current A.G. nominee, Bill Barr, was able to say it's not a witch hunt. Deputy A.G. Rod Rosenstein has said it is not a witch count. The FBI Director Christopher Wray said it is not a witch hunt. Shouldn't this have been an easy answer?

DENT: Yes, Ana, I think it should have been an easy answer. Easy to say, no, it is not a witch hunt. But we get back to the original question, which was, is Matt Whitaker auditioning for some other position within the Trump administration. So by refusing to call it a witch hunt, I suspect that might have pleased the president. So I think that was -- I think that was his approach going into this.

CABRERA: Karoun, Manu Raju asked Democrat Steve Cohen if he felt reassured that Whitaker had said he had not talked to Trump about the Mueller probe. Watch this?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORESPONDENT: Doesn't that give you any assurances?

COHEN: No. That makes -- it is hard to believe?

RAJU: He may be misleading this committee?

COHEN: Indeed.

RAJU: So then, that's a crime?

COHEN: Yes, it is. Yes, it is.

RAJU: That is a pretty serious charge to suggest that he is lying to Congress.

COEN: Well, I suspect he has talked to the president. The president doesn't hire people for a position like this without some type of understanding of what their position would be concerning the Mueller report.

RAJU: Should there be a criminal referral after this?

COHEN: I can't say that right now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: I mean that is a pretty serious allegation, Karoun. Where does this go from here?

DEMIRJIAN: Well, the question is, how long do they keep wanting to focus on Whitaker after he's out of his position. Because Barr will be in probably this coming week. And then the question is, do they want to keep scrutinizing Whitaker. Did something happen during this period when he was overseeing the DOJ that they find suspect enough to keep looking at him, or do they decide that this hearing was the partisan show that it was, and they don't want to keep scratching at that point.

[15:45:00] Look, the truth of it is, though, that we have seen various other witnesses in the various investigations that have happened so far of the president, and those were GOP-led in the past two years, have yielded charges, sometimes convictable charges of lying to Congress. It is not the first time that somebody who the panels were interviewing in conjunction with these probes has been proven to not telling the truth when either formally under oath or informally. You're not supposed lie to lawmakers either way when they're interviewing you. So that is a cloud hanging over the proceedings because Democrats have suspicions that want to explore it further. And the people they've found to actually been doing that. And of course, Republicans push back and say, you're not being fair. Anybody who is even affiliated with the president, you're going after heavily and assuming they are lying and assuming they're playing dirty when that is not right or good.

So this is going to be the partisan split and divide, one of many we'll see, I'm sure, continuing for the next two years as they keeping looking into all these individuals that they believe are either connected to the president or helping the president or were in a position to be able to steer things in a way that was advantageous to Trump if they wanted to, which they haven't yet shown happened, in this case, but certainly, you can see the mindsets that are very, very different on either side of the aisle.

CABRERA: And Chairman Nadler already has said he is not done with Whitaker yet, and he said I will come back to you and ask you to follow-up on some of the questions we asked in writing.

I want to turn to the shutdown while I have you both because negotiators are trying to hash out the final details so the House and Senate have time to vote before the deadline, which is next Friday, which could trigger another government shutdown. Sources are telling us the latest proposals peg the top-line funding number for the border barriers, or the wall, the president has been asking for, around $2 billion. That's far below that $5.7 billion request from the president. Congressman, if Trump decides to dig in his heels again, risking

another shutdown, what do you think Republican lawmakers will do?

DENT: Well, let's see what the negotiators come up with. I'm not at all surprised that they're at a $2 billion number on border security. That is, I think, likely to occur. So you get that border security number. So let's assume they get an agreement, and they can pass this agreement. What does the president do? Does he sign it? He -- I think he would be crazy not to sign this thing. Let's assume the president does sign it. He will be unhappy because he's not getting his $5.7 billion but, at the end of the day, he may have to take it. And he may end up declaring the emergency anyway and pocket the gains with the $2 billion and go down the road of an emergency, which I think it would be a terrible mistake, a horrible usurpation of congressional authority, trampling on Congress's Article I authorities. So --

(CROSSTALK)

CABRERA: Do you think the Congress would push back against that?

DENT: I think a number of them would. I do. I think McConnell has already sent that message to the president. It would certainly divide Republicans, because I can't imagine any Republican member on the Appropriations Committee would take this lying down, that a president of the United States, declaring an emergency, could move dollars that have been appropriated, signed into law, that they have directed, and taking that for purposes that really probably don't constitute an emergency. And by the way, Ana, if the president is going to declare an emergency, the remedy, in this case, a wall, would have to, you know, address the underlying emergency, which is poor migrants coming in.

CABRERA: Right.

DENT: But a wall really wouldn't -- a wall really wouldn't stop that. It is not like after a hurricane, where the federal government sends, you know, food assistance and housing assistance, people who have been displaced. The remedy actually addresses the problem.

CABRERA: Former Congressman Charlie Dent, good to see you.

Karoun Demirjian, thanks for being here. I know you've been sick, Karoun, so extra thanks for taking time for us. I hope you continue to feel better.

DENT: Take care, Karoun.

DEMIRJIAN: Thank you.

CABRERA: All right.

Coming up, exclusive reporting from the front lines. The final operation to try to take back territory from ISIS in Syria, that is under way. And CNN's Ben Wedeman is there for us. He will join us live, next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:53:26] CABRERA: What is being called the last push to eliminate ISIS in Syria. The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are trying to push ISIS away from its last sliver of controlled territory there.

CNN has an exclusive look at this operation. You can hear some of what's happening in the background.

Our senior international correspondent, Ben Wedeman, is joining us now from eastern Syria, near the front lines of the ongoing fighting.

Ben, set the scene for us. What are you seeing, what can you tell us?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, this has been going on now for four hours, this fairly constant bombardment of this town behind me. It is the last piece of territory controlled by the Islamic State. And the Syrian Democratic Forces, we are told by people who are monitoring it in a control room. have made good progress inside the town itself. They say they haven't run into much resistance from ISIS. They do believe there are still some civilians inside the tow. Earlier, they told us perhaps as many as 1,500 are still in there. What we see every day, dozens, sometimes hundreds of people either paying, bribing their way out of the town or sneaking their way out of the town. It's not clear how many people there are left.

We are told that they expect more resistance as soon as the sun comes up. Because we know that those ISIS fighters still in the town behind me are some of the most battle hardened and ruthless among them. Even though we have also heard reports that there has been in fighting among the ISIS members, between those who, after weeks and weeks of bombardment, simply want to surrender and those, Ana, who want to fight to the death.

[15:55:23] CABRERA: Ben Wedeman, in Syria, please stay safe. Thank you for bringing us that reporting.

Coming up, the 2020 race heats up as Elizabeth Warren makes it official. But will questions about her heritage continue to haunt her?

Be sure to join CNN's Laurie Segall as she talks exclusively with Facebook insiders. The CNN special report, "FACEBOOK AT 15, IT'S COMPLICATED," airs tomorrow night at 9:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:00:04] CABRERA: You're live in the CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Ana Cabrera, in New York. Thanks so much for being here.

A big announcement today.