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Cohen Testimony Postponed; Trump to Sign Border Deal; Interview with Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ). Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired February 13, 2019 - 09:30   ET


[09:30:00] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: In the interest of the investigation. Now it's health reasons. I mean is there concern here that he's trying to doge the testimony all together?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: Well, I mean, that's the question. You can see the frustration in Senator Burr there in that soundbite you just played because it's -- you know, it's the third delay that Cohen has had. The first time was actually because he said, you know, he felt threatened by statements that President Trump had made, then the investigation, as you mentioned, and then this delay on the eve of his testimony, which was supposed to take place yesterday.

Now, Cohen's attorney Lanny Davis has said that Cohen is committed to testify voluntarily before all three committees, that would be two private sessions and one session by the public, end of the month but, you know, there's two weeks left by the end of the month and then Cohen reports to prison on March 6th. So the clock is ticking if Cohen is going to testify according to his new self-imposed deadline and if there are any other, you know, issues or excuses that he has for why he doesn't want to come in, Jim.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Yes, I mean, Kara, March 6th is fast approaching. Talk to us about how big a deal this is in terms of how much Congress needs this testimony because this, you know, further planned testimony from Michael Cohen is one of the things that Senator Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat, you know, said that he -- that they need and that's why he defers with Burr on where they stand on this investigation and the findings.

SCANNELL: That's right, Poppy. I mean Michael Cohen, remember, he lied when he went in and testified before the Senate Intel Committee in the fall of 2017. So now that committee especially wants him to come back and answer these questions truthfully.

There's also been, in that long period of time, a lot of other interviews that they've conducted. So they likely have a lot of follow-up questions that they want to put to him, especially as more comes to light, including what he lied about where he said, you know, the conversations between Russians about Trump Tower had ended, you know, at -- right before the caucuses kicked off in January of 2016 when, in fact, he said that these continued much longer. So they have a lot of follow-up questions that they want to do with him, Poppy.

SCIUTTO: He's a central witness, no question. Kara Scannell, thanks very much.


SCIUTTO: We're just days away from another potential shutdown. Is the president really set to sign a deal that he says he's not happy about to avoid that shutdown? We'll have more, next.


[09:36:30] SCIUTTO: Welcome back.

Sources are telling CNN this morning that the president intends to accept the bipartisan deal on the table to keep the government open. This despite the fact that it does not include the money that he has demanded for a wall along the border.

Joining me now is White House director of strategic communications, Mercedes Schlapp.

Thanks very much, Mercedes, for taking the time this morning.


SCIUTTO: So you heard CNN's reporting but Sarah Sanders, just a short time ago, told reporters the president has not yet decided. What's the answer? Will the president sign this agreement?

SCHLAPP: Well, look, the president's reviewing the final details. As we know, you've got to look at the fine print in these details that are coming through. Congress themselves have to finish up the conference report. So we're, right now, at a point that we're going to be reviewing the details and seeing what -- if the president will move forward and sign it.

You know, obviously, the president's not happy with the funding levels right now and, you know, he would look at alternative funding to ensure that we're able to secure the resources that we need to fulfill his promise to the American people of securing the border.

SCIUTTO: Right. Is he not happy enough to shut the government down again?

SCHLAPP: Look, the president is not interested in shutting the government down. At this point what we do know is that we went from Speaker Pelosi saying that she wouldn't even give a dollar for the wall to right now there being about $1.4 billion in this negotiated package. We got to look to see what that includes. Will it include restrictions? Non-restrictions. Will they allow border patrol agents and officers to decide where they should build based on their analysis? And so there's a lot of these open-ended questions that we need answers to and, again, we'll be reviewing those details.

SCIUTTO: You're right that Nancy Pelosi had said not a dollar and this does includes just under $1.4 billion. But as you know, the proposal, it was on the table prior to the shutdown in December included $1.6 billion, actually more money. It begs the question, why did the president shut the government down then to then consider a proposal that includes less money than was presented two months ago?

SCHLAPP: Look, the president wanted to give Congress one more shot. As we know, the Democrats in January didn't necessarily want to focus on this topic of border security. But the president has spent several months talking about this issue, talking about how the border is a humanitarian and a security crisis, where we've dealt with incoming criminals, drug cartels, gang members who have crossed the border. And the key is, is that our border patrol agents are asking for help. They need operational support on the southern border. And it's why the president has worked closely to ensure that we can get the resources that we need.

We know how Congress is and how it functions. You know, we've had the Democrats at one point -- House Democrats pushing forward an extreme proposal on, for example, reducing the number of ICE detention beds which negatively impacts law enforcement.

So, again, part of it is this negotiation process. We're going to see what they come up with. If they falls short, which it looks like they might be, then the president will look into alternative administrative funds to get the resources needed to build these physical barriers, as well as ensure that, for example, that our ICE agents also have what they need and local law enforcement have what they need.

SCIUTTO: Let's talk about some of these alternative sources. Disaster relief funds intended for California and Puerto Rico, northern California the fires, Puerto Rico, of course, the devastating storm, thousands killed. Department of Defense funds for military construction.

[09:40:04] If the president takes money from these pots, as it were, will he explain to the American people why residents in California, Puerto Rico, don't need that disaster relief, why -- why the Defense Department doesn't need the money for construction?

SCHLAPP: Well, you're -- I think -- Jim -- Jim, I think you're jumping the gun. I think that, you know, the president has made it clear that it's not coming from disaster relief funds. He's looking at different pots of administrative funds that could be used for the purposes of securing the border. I'm not going to get into the details of where the money's going to come from. It's all, obviously, something that our lawyers are looking into. And so at this point the goal is, is to get to that number, which is the physical barrier number, which our border patrol agents have said is the money they need to be able to gain operational control of our southern border.

Also, we want to make sure that we're able to prioritize based on what our agents are telling us at the border are the porous, vulnerable areas that we need to make sure, have those physical barriers, that as we know, and as many Democrats have said, actually work.

SCIUTTO: Just -- and just to be clear, though, you're saying the president has not decided yet to sign this agreement? That it's still possible that he will go back to Congress and say, not good enough?

SCHLAPP: Well, I think he's reviewing the details. I mean, at this point, this is a matter of looking at the fine print. This is a matter of looking to see what other, if any, restrictions they are putting into this package. And so we want to make sure that we're well informed and ready to make this decision. The president's not interested in shutting down the government, but he is interested in ensuring that our border gets secure, that making sure our communities are safe.

I mean I've spoken to sheriffs, local law enforcement that talk about the public safety threat, what we need to do to insure that we reduce human traffickers from coming into this country, where we don't allow smugglers and coyotes to abuse our immigration laws.

SCIUTTO: I get it.

SCHLAPP: And this is a priority for this administration.

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you this on another topic. Last Friday the administration blew by a congressionally imposed deadline -- imposed by bipartisan votes in Congress -- to report back on who this administration holds responsible for the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi. I spoke to Republican Senator James Langford on this broadcast yesterday. He said the administration is not meeting its legal obligations under the Magnitsky Act. Why not?

SCHLAPP: You know, this Khashoggi incident was incredibly tragic. The president took action, put sanctions on a number of Saudi individuals who were responsible for this horrific incident. And here we are, we're waiting for the thorough and complete review to come out. I'd have to refer you to the State Department in terms of timing.

SCIUTTO: Yes, but the president -- the Congress required the White House to report back. Gave them 120 days. That's as required by law. And the White House did not report back. I mean that's a legal requirement. What is the Trump administration waiting for?

SCHLAPP: Well, I -- you know, we -- we are waiting for the complete review. Obviously this is a thorough process that is -- needs to take place and we're working through it. And, again, I'd have to refer you to the State Department for specific details.

SCIUTTO: Final question, just before I let you go.

Both the president and the vice president, in the last 24 hours, are calling for the Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar to resign for comments that many saw as anti-Semitic. I wonder, will the president similarly call for the resignation of Congressman Steve King, who, as you know, defended in public comments white nationalism? Will he call for his resignation?

SCHLAPP: Yes, I have to say that Congresswoman Omar's comments are horrific. I mean the mere fact that we know that anti-Semitism has no place in Congress, the mere fact that she's attacked the Jewish people, that she's attacked the state of Israel, that then she goes and has a continual pattern of this is very disturbing. And it is why he called for -- not only her resignation, but for resigning from the Foreign Affairs Committee.

You know, the president was critical of Steve King. He applauded Congress when they took action to strip him from his committee position. And in essence we don't have -- there's no room for anti- Semitism. There is no room for white nationalism remarks coming from any of these members of Congress.

SCIUTTO: Fair enough. But then why not hold Steve King to the same standard? I mean he's repeated -- repeated Nazi comments, retweeted them. He's talked about white nationalism.

SCHLAPP: Look, we were very tough on Steve King. That the mere -- but when you look at Congresswoman Omar and her comments, I mean they're appalling and she should resign from the Foreign Affairs Committee, which actually is one that deals directly with issues regarding Israel. And, obviously, we know where her bias lies.

SCIUTTO: Mercedes Schlapp, thanks very much for taking the question this morning.

SCHLAPP: Thank you so much, Jim.

HARLOW: Jim, that was a fascinating interview. I mean your push, push to get those answers there. I mean especially on Khashoggi, right, and the legal deadline there that the White House just blew by, Jim.

[09:45:02] SCIUTTO: Yes, it doesn't seem that the White -- I mean they have an answer, but the answer is not satisfying even Republicans -- Republican members of both the House and the Senate there. It's something -- and it's possible that they will face bipartisan legislation. You've got an interview coming up with one of the senators pushing that.

HARLOW: Yes. That's exactly right. So we will speak with the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Menendez, next. We'll have him respond to what you just heard from Mercedes Schlapp.

We're back in a moment.


HARLOW: Growing bipartisan calls for the Trump administration to issue a report to Congress about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The administration blew by, completely ignored a congressional deadline required by law last week to do just that. Now two senators are leading the charge to hold the administration's feet to the fire. Those are their words.

[09:50:15] I'm joined now by one of those lawmakers, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey.

Good morning to you and thank you for being here on such an important issue.

Look, my colleague Jim Sciutto just pressed Mercedes Schlapp, White House strategic communications director, on this, why they ignored this law. Here's what she said.


SCIUTTO: Yes, but the president -- the Congress required the White House to report back. Gave them 120 days. That's as required by law. And the White House did not report back. I mean that's a legal requirement. What is the Trump administration waiting for?

MERCEDES SCHLAPP, WHITE HOUSE DIRECTOR OF STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS: Well, I -- you know, we -- we are waiting for the complete review. Obviously this is a thorough process that is -- needs to take place and we're working through it. And, again, I'd have to refer you to the State Department for specific details.


HARLOW: Senator Menendez, what is your response to that?

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ (D), RANKING MEMBER, FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: Well, my response to that, that's just absolutely foolish. The law is clear and direct and the president violated the law by not giving Congress an answer to the substantive question, which is, does the crown prince of Saudi Arabia ultimately hold responsibility for the death of Jamal Khashoggi.

The former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, and I invoked the provision of the law that allows the chairman and the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee to make that demand upon the administration. And we did and the president violated the law by not answering. And so we're going to both look at how we hold the administration's feet to the fire on the question, the Magnitsky question, on those potential determinations and sanctions and then on legislation that we have bipartisan support introducing.

HARLOW: So let's talk about that legislation that you are proposing with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. Expected to be introduced this week. What would it in effect do? I mean how much can you push the administration here?

MENENDEZ: Well, the Syria Accountability in Yemen Act would limit arms sales to Saudi Arabia. It would sanction those who are helping the Houthis and the humanitarian disaster that is Yemen. It would also sanction those who are stopping humanitarian aid from going into Yemen. And it would directly sanction those individuals who have been responsible for the death of Jamal Khashoggi. So it's a -- those are some of the things that it does.

So it is a direct action with bipartisan support. Not only Senator Graham, Senator Young, Senator Collins have joined us in that legislation. So it's a very strong, bipartisan piece of legislation that I'm looking forward to getting a vote on. HARLOW: Let's talk about another piece of legislation that you are

proposing on a very different but critically important issue. One day before the one-year mark of the massacre in Parkland where 17 high school students were murdered, you, together with Florida Congressman Ted Deutsche, have introduced the Keep America Safe Act. Roughly outline what it would do, but also let us know this morning, because at last check you didn't have any Republican support of it. Is that still the case?

MENENDEZ: Well, the Keep America Safe Act is basically very common sense gun safety legislation. It says that we eliminate high capacity magazines, magazines that hold 30, 60, 90 rounds, to one that is only ten rounds. You don't need, 30, 60, 90 rounds to go hunting. You don't need that even to protect yourself. High capacity magazines are about high capacity killing. And we've seen those in the tragedies in Parkland and throughout the country. And time can save lives. When someone has a much more limited magazine and they have to reload, that's an opportunity to attack the person who's doing the shooting. So the reality is, this can save real lives.

We haven't yet obtained a Republican sponsor. We have a very wide number of sponsors, both in the House and the Senate. We certainly are making overtures to Republicans. And we hope they will join us. Because this is about the most common sense of the gun safety measures that we can take.

HARLOW: Are you confident that you will get Republican support? I understand nothing official yet, but the conversations you and your team are having. What are you learning from them?

MENENDEZ: I'm hopeful. Look, the reality is, I think that our colleagues on the Republican side of the aisle cannot be beholden to the National Rifle Association. At the end of the day, need to be beholden to the American people, who, time after time, in poll after poll, overwhelmingly supportive of reasonable gun safety measures. And even mainstream NRA members who I've talked to on some of these things, they actually are supportive of this type of legislation. It's the NRA leadership that is not because they are strictly shilling for the gun lobby.

[09:55:25] So, at the end of the day, I hope they will. A we will have an opportunity to put this to the test. A new Democratic majority in the House creates opportunities to actually pass reasonable gun safety legislation. I think the House is working this week on a universal background check. I'm looking forward to Congressman Deutsche, who is the person who represents Parkland and had to go through that terrible tragedy with the families in Parkland and is putting action behind this, get it passed through the House, create an opportunity here in the Senate to create pressure, and we will find an opportunity in a procedural way to have a vote and let the American people know who stands for reasonable gun safety measures and who does not.

HARLOW: Senator Bob Menendez, I appreciate you joining us on both of these issues. Thank you.

MENENDEZ: Thank you. SCIUTTO: CNN is learning that President Trump intends to sign the border security deal and avoid a second government shutdown. So what will he do to find money to build his wall?