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Putin's Threat; Interview with Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI); Southwest Airlines Cancels Flights; Smollett Gave Police False Name; Vatican Prepares for Summit. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired February 20, 2019 - 09:30   ET

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


[09:30:00] FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Building on that, if you will, this year. Once again, the Russian president saying that he believed that it was the U.S. that was violating the INF treaty, that wanted to get out of the INF treaty and was trying to make it look like Russia was violating it. He generally ripped into United States policy and said that it was negative towards the Russian federation.

Let's listen in to what Vladimir Putin had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): In recent years, the U.S. has been leading a policy that we can't qualify as friendly. Russia has said to be the biggest threat for the U.S. I'll tell you directly, this is not true. Russia wants to have friendly relations with the U.S. Russia doesn't threaten anyone. And all of our actions are only of retaliatory defensive nature.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PLEITGEN: Then, Jim, he did announce another new Russian weapon that he called Zircon (ph), which he says is a hypersonic missile that he says can evade U.S. anti-missile technology. And the interesting thing about it actually is, Jim, that he says that it can be launched from existing Russian infrastructure. For instance, from Russian warships, but also from Russian submarines as well. So quite a confrontational step, quite a confrontational speech by the Russian president that we heard there today.

And I think it was one of the most glaring instances of the Russian president saying that there is the real threat of a new nuclear arms race and a new confrontation between the U.S. and Russia, guys.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: It's a real concern. I mean this treaty has helped keep the peace in Europe for decades.

PLEITGEN: Yes.

SCIUTTO: You heard the president there, the Russian president, say he wants better relations with the U.S., which is, of course, words we've heard from the U.S. president at times. PLEITGEN: Yes.

SCIUTTO: From your perch in Moscow, is that a prospect that folks still take seriously?

PLEITGEN: Well, I'll tell you what, I think you're absolutely right and I think it's really interesting that he says that Russia wants better relations with the U.S. But I think there was a really important half-sentence that he said after that. He said that Russia will no longer knock on closed doors. So from Moscow's perspective, they believe that they were the ones who were trying to get these better relations into place or at least to try to help them along and they believe that they are the ones who have been rebuffed.

It was really interesting because after Vladimir Putin's speech, I spoke to some very senior Russian lawmakers and they said, look, so far they don't believe that any headway has been made and they believe that the whole discourse that's been going on in Washington has been negative for them as well. The most recent remarks, for instance, by Andrew McCabe was one thing that one Russian senator absolutely ripped into saying he believed that it was ludicrous to think that the U.S. president was an asset of the Russians.

Now, of course, they're saying this despite all the evidence that's been put forward over the past couple of years, over meddling in the U.S. elections and still believe that those better relations are something that should come to pass. But you do see how frustrated many people here in Moscow are that the relations between the U.S. and Russia aren't better than they currently are, guys.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: OK, Fred Pleitgen, important reporting, thank you very much.

Ahead, did the president try to pressure his acting attorney general to interfere in the Cohen investigation? Well, "The New York Times" says yes in their bombshell new report. One lawmaker says, if it's true, that would constitute obstruction of justice. He joins us next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:37:29] HARLOW: All right, welcome back.

This morning, new questions about potential obstruction of justice are being raised. This follows a bombshell "New York Times" report that says that President Trump pressured his acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, to interfere in the investigation into Michael Cohen and the investigation specifically into those hush money payments made to women during the 2016 campaign.

Whitaker testifying before Congress earlier this month about that issue and more. My next guest grilled him on it during that hearing.

Joining me now is Democratic Congressman David Cicilline of Rhode Island. He serves, of course, on the Judiciary Committee.

Good morning and thank you for being here. So, look, you've been answering a lot of questions about this in the

last 24 hours, so let me get you on this. If it's true that the president asked Acting Attorney General Whitaker to step in and have on of his biggest supporters, Geoffrey Berman, take over the Cohen probe, the president says, no. Fake news are his words. He says, I never did that.

On February 8th, you asked Whitaker this. Let's play it for people.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. DAVID CICILLINE (D), RHODE ISLAND: Did they reach out to you in some way to express dissatisfaction?

MATTHEW WHITAKER, FORMER ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL: No.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: That was about the SDNY probe.

Do you believe in that answer that Whitaker perjured himself?

REP. DAVID CICILLINE (D), RHODE ISLAND: Well, I think it's pretty clear that the reporting -- this explosive reporting by "The New York Times" and Mr. Whitaker's testimony can't both be true. So, if the reporting is true, then Mr. Whitaker was not forthright with the committee. We asked him in a number of different ways whether the president or anyone on the president's behalf had expressed dissatisfaction, particularly after the Michael Cohen plea and the identification of the president as individual one. And he emphatically said, no. And he kept referring back to his opening statement and said ultimately that he didn't have any discussions with the president about any of the investigations.

This reporting is explosive in that it reveals that the president reached out to the acting attorney general in the hopes of changing the leadership of the investigation to put somebody more favorable to him in the leadership of the investigation. That is completely inappropriate if he did it with the corrupt intent to shut down the investigation or direct it in a certain way. It's clearly obstruction of justice.

HARLOW: Do -- OK, so you still have an if there, though. You still -- you're not 100 percent sold on this.

Let me ask you this. I know that the chairman of your committee, Congressman Jerry Nadler of New York, sent a letter to Whitaker after that February testimony asking for clarification on a number of issues. I'm assuming this is also included in that among those issues.

[09:40:02] Have you received a response from Whitaker?

CICILLINE: No, but it is absolutely part of the letter is referenced --

HARLOW: OK. CICILLINE: You know, the question that I posed is referenced in the letter. We've asked for clarification, the chairman has. If we don't get clarification from him in writing, the chairman says in that letter that he intends to bring him back before the committee in a sworn deposition so we can get answers.

HARLOW: Right. I know you've even said you would subpoena him if need be, if he doesn't want to come voluntarily.

CICILLINE: Right.

HARLOW: All right, let me ask you about your party, sir.

CICILLINE: Yes.

HARLOW: A new senator jumped into the 2020 race just yesterday. That is Senator Bernie Sanders. Of course he's running as a Democrat, but, you know, he's not a Democrat. He -- you know, he has been an independent. He even switched back to being an independent to run for Senate again last year. He has raised an astounding -- this just crossed -- $5.9 million in the last 24 hours.

Do you think that Bernie Sanders is the best bet for the Democrats to beat President Trump in 2020?

CICILLINE: No. Look, I think it's much too early to know who's going to be the best candidate. We have a number of extraordinarily strong candidate s. I think we'll have more candidates to come. The good news is I think Democrats are very united to be certain that we elect -- select a nominee who is not only able to beat Donald Trump, but has a positive vision for the country that focuses on the economic anxiety of the American people, on driving down the cost of health care and raising family incomes and taking on the corruption in Washington.

So, we're going to have a united party. We're going to have a great nominee. But I think it's much too early to say who that will be.

HARLOW: So let's talk about those views, right, and how you solve the problem here, because you fellow congressman, Maryland Representative John Delaney, said this week, quote, the primary is going to be a choice between socialism and a more just form of capitalism. You know Bernie Sanders, where he stands on that and his views on socialism, et cetera, especially when it comes to paying for health care for all Americans, et cetera. There's a new Gallup poll a few months ago, it shows that more Democrats have a positive view of socialism, congressman, than capitalism. Fifty-seven percent view socialism positively, 47 percent view capitalism positively. Do you believe that the Democratic Party is moving more towards socialism and are you supportive of that?

CICILLINE: No, I don't think the Democratic Party is at all. Look, I think all of the announced Democratic candidates for president are capitalists. And we don't have any socialist candidates running for president in the Democratic Party.

I think, you know, those polling questions are always very curious because if you look at Medicare and Social Security, some people describe those as socialist programs. They're deeply embedded in the American identity. People support them overwhelmingly, Republicans and Democrats and independents.

So I think, look, we are -- Democrats are committed to focusing on the issues that matter to working people in this country that will make health care available to all Americans, that will drive down the cost of prescription drugs, that will deal with this very pernicious income inequality that will get the government working for the people of this country again. Those are core Democratic values.

HARLOW: But I --

CICILLINE: I don't see any movement in the Democratic Party towards socialism at all. I know the president is making that argument. I think it's a silly.

HARLOW: well --

CICILLINE: I think he thinks it's politically advantageous but there is no evidence to support it.

HARLOW: It's -- it's not just -- it's just not -- well, OK, it's not just the president. I mean let me read you from Howard Schultz, who may run as a centrist independent. His spokeswoman just yesterday welcomed Bernie Sanders to the race saying he's already had a profound impact on the Democratic Party that many presidential candidates hold up his self-described socialist views as their standard.

Are you at all concerned?

CICILLINE: Yes, look --

HARLOW: Do you believe that the --

CICILLINE: No, look --

HARLOW: That the party is -- is leaning too far left?

CICILLINE: I -- no, I'm not at all concerned. I think Bernie Sanders has contributed significantly to the debate on the important issues of our day. I think the Democratic nominee will be a Democrat who supports capitalism, who supports progressive policies that will drive down health care costs, that will raise family incomes. So I think he's added to the debate. He's not a member of the Democratic Party, so I wouldn't attribute too much significance to how he self- identifies. And I look at the Democratic candidates. I think our nominee will be someone who takes on the issues that are important to working people in this country.

And I think we're going to have a healthy debate about what's the best way to drive down health care costs. What's the best way to raise family incomes? What's the best way to take on the corruption and self-dealing in Washington and get the government working for the people of this country again? Those are good debates to have. But I think it is a big mistake to allow the president or anyone else to say like this is about socialism. It's just not.

HARLOW: All right, again, it's not just the president saying it, but it's an important conversation have. I'm so glad you're with us this morning.

Congressman Cicilline, thanks.

CICILLINE: My pleasure.

[09:44:53] SCIUTTO: Mechanical issues are plaguing Southwest Airlines, causing a lot of headaches for travelers, forcing the company to pull dozens of planes, cancel hundreds of flights. We'll have more on that coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HARLOW: Southwest Airlines has pulled dozens of planes from service over mechanical issues forcing the airline to cancel hundreds of flights just this past week.

SCIUTTO: CNN business correspondent Alison Kosik, she's been following the story.

Alison, I mean, you take 40 planes out of circulation. These guys run a pretty tight ship. That causes major disruptions.

HARLOW: Yes.

SCIUTTO: Do we know what's going on?

ALISON KOSIK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right. And then take hundreds out and forget it.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

KOSIK: If you're -- especially if you're a passenger trying to catch a flight.

You know, Southwest Airlines is calling this an operational emergency. Mechanical issues with the planes began piling up last week and an unusually high number of planes were taken out of service. In fact, hundreds of flights were cancelled last week because of this.

[09:50:07] Then, yesterday, more than 40 Southwest planes had maintenance issues. That's more than double the average number. All of this, as you can imagine, creating a domino effect, disrupting Southwest flights across the country. The airlines says there's no common theme to the mechanical problems facing the 750 airplanes. A Southwest spokesperson says this is about maintenance items that are being written up and need to be addressed before returning the aircraft to service.

The airline continues to struggle, though, to resolve these problems despite having an all hands on deck order that was implemented last week, which is now extended for all Southwest mechanics. So, Southwest hoping that it will be able to promptly return service to normal with all that extra staff.

Now, CNN did ask Southwest about whether there are union contract issues going on and a spokesperson said Southwest has been in ongoing negotiations with the mechanic's union since 2012. Southwest did, though, release a statement saying -- this is an unusual step for Southwest, publicly apologizing for the disruption, blaming the mess on negotiations with its mechanics union. And the union had its response saying Southwest Airlines is scapegoating its aircraft maintenance technicians, saying safety is and will always be our number one priority. That coming from the union.

So this may be an escalation at this point of maybe a chink -- a problem in their negotiations for contracts. It may or may not be. But guess who's caught in the middle?

HARLOW: The passengers.

KOSIK: Yes.

SCIUTTO: Interesting. A possible tie to union negotiations. That will be interesting. We know you're going to stay on top of it.

KOSIK: Yes.

SCIUTTO: Alison Kosik.

HARLOW: Thank you.

KOSIK: You got it.

SCIUTTO: Other news we're following this morning, just really a disturbing story. CNN has learned that the "Empire" star Jussie Smollett has a history of providing false information to the police. The Los Angeles City attorney's office says that Smollett gave police a false name during a DUI stop. This more than a decade ago. This news coming as questions mount over an alleged hate fueled attack on Smollett in downtown Chicago. Sources familiar with the investigation say that Smollett himself may have orchestrated this attack.

CNN's Ryan Young has been following this story from the beginning. He joins us now.

You know, this question, it's a disturbing one. There's a lot of evidence that's raising this question. What's the latest information you're learning about what police are saying here?

RYAN YOUNG, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, we're at that point now where you almost don't know what to believe because you want to see what he's going to say now that these two other men have come forward. First of all, he pled no contest in that DUI charge of giving the false name. So he received two years' probation for that.

But there's a lot to this Abel and Ola Osundairo, the two body builders who weave together a story who are now telling police all this information about what the actor may have come up with, with them. And, of course, they've given over their cell phones. We know for a fact that detectives are trying to get the cell phone records for Jussie Smollett and some of his financial records to see if some of these stories blend together. And we know maybe at some point Jussie may step forward and give some information that kind of pushes back on all of this.

And then you bring in the fact that a week before the attack there was a letter that arrived to the studios of "Empire." In fact, a hazmat team was called in Chicago to that studio area because they wanted to look at the letter. They found some white powder in it. Turned out that was crushed aspirin. Not sure how that ties together with this case.

You have so many different divergent stories in this now. Police really want to talk to the actor and they want to continue talking to these brothers to see how they can put this story line together. Guys, this story keeps turning every single day, hour by hour.

HARLOW: Yes.

YOUNG: The last thing I'll say, over a thousand police hours put into this investigation so far.

HARLOW: Wow.

All right, Ryan, thank you very, very much.

Ahead for us, a major summit at the Vatican as the Catholic Church comes to terms with decades of sexual abuse, scandals and cover-ups. What can this historic meeting accomplish?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:58:00] SCIUTTO: After many delays, much second guessing, the Catholic Church is taking an historic step, it is hoped, to tackle the issue of sexual abuse by clergy and church officials. Tomorrow nearly 200 church leaders gather at the Vatican for the first ever summit to combat the crisis -- the ongoing crisis in the church.

HARLOW: And, of course, this follows decades of sexual abuse by priests and clergy and the ensuing cover-ups.

Vatican correspondent Delia Gallagher is with us live from Rome this morning.

The question always is, you know, is this too little too late? What are -- what should we expect in terms of what they will lay out and what they will actually do at this summit?

DELIA GALLAGHER, CNN VATICAN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Poppy, the hopes going into this summit is that all of the bishops of the world will leave it understanding exactly what the procedures should be in their own countries in terms of reporting and investigating sex abuse. That sounds rather obvious, but, in fact, it's a challenge in many countries around the world because they are on different pages. Australia, the United States, Canada, Ireland that have been dealing with these cases have already had quite a lot of time to put together a procedure for this. But there are many countries in the world who have not really started to do that and also have different situations. So when you talk about something like mandatory reporting, in a Democratic country, that seems quite easy to do where you have a trusted police force or a government that's not corrupt. That might not be the same situation in an African country or in a South American country, the Vatican says. So that is one aspect.

The other is the question of cover-up, that all bishops are aware of that cover-up is not going to be tolerated, as the Vatican has been saying. Earlier on "NEW DAY," one of the Chilean victims of sex abuse who's been very active, Juan Carlos Cruz, spoke to that point. Let's play a little bit of what he had to say.

[09:59:57] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JUAN CARLOS CRUZ, ORGANIZED SEX ABUSE SURVIVORS VATICAN SUMMIT: The pope can say whatever he says, but if the bishops don't -- don't do what he's saying and don't apply these laws and don't -- are not transparent and don't care for survivors