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CNN NEWSROOM

Manafort's Legal Team to Respond to Scathing Mueller Memo; Michael Cohen to Testify on Capitol Hill this Week as Lawmakers Prepare to Grill Him on Hush Payments and Trump; The 91st Academy Awards Receives Praises for its Diversity of Award Winners; President Trump Slams Spike Lee After Critical Oscars Speech; Trump Heads Overseas as High Stakes Week Kicks Off in D.C.; U.S. May Drop Demand for North Korea Nuke Inventory; 58 Former Security Officials Rebuke Trump's Emergency Declaration. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired February 25, 2019 - 09:00   ET

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


[09:00:27] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good Monday morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Jim Sciutto. It's a big week. No question.

HARLOW: A big week.

SCIUTTO: President Trump facing a week that could be defining for his presidency with deep challenges both here at home and abroad. Soon he will set out for Vietnam for his second face-to-face meeting in less than a year with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. The goal is pushing Kim closer to what the president claimed had already been accomplished after their first summit last June. That is an end to the North Korean nuclear threat against the U.S.

However, since then, there has been no verifiable progress in meeting that goal. And now CNN has learned that the Trump administration is weighing watering down its own demands from Kim.

HARLOW: That is really significant. Meantime, back in Washington, his national emergency declaration aimed at funding a border wall is under fire from literally dozens of former top national security officials and by dozens I mean these eight that you see on your screen all big names there. Plus 50 more.

Both Republicans and Democrats taking aim saying, quote, "There is no factual basis to President Trump's emergency declaration. So tomorrow, the House will vote on a measure to repeal it. The same day that Michael Cohen starts a three-day marathon of testimony before three separate congressional committees. And on Wednesday, that testimony will be before your eyes. It will be in public. You will see it all starting Wednesday morning right here on CNN.

So let's go to the White House this morning where Joe Johns is. And we understand the president is speaking to reporters not far from you so we'll hear that in just a moment. A lot to get off his chest before he takes off for this really critical summit. JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Poppy.

The president tweeting on a variety of issues this morning. Everything from border security to Spike Lee's speech at the Oscars. But the topic of the moment, of course, is the president's meeting this morning with members of the National Governors Association followed by his impending departure for the summit in Vietnam. The second summit with North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un.

The president appears to be advancing and retreating in his rhetoric about the summit suggesting last night at the governors ball that he'd be happy with a stop to missile and nuclear testing in the Korean peninsula but then again this morning tweeting and going back to the original stated goal of denuclearization on the peninsula, though that certainly is not defined very well.

Here's the tweet. "Meeting for breakfast with our nation's governors then off to Vietnam for a very important summit with Kim Jong-un with complete denuclearization. North Korea will rapidly become an economic powerhouse. Without it, just more of the same. Chairman Kim will make a wise decision."

All of this is just a reminder that the president tweeted back in June that essentially there was no more nuclear threat from North Korea, which, obviously, is not true. The intelligence community has said as much. So another example of the president suggesting aspirations, goals in other words are the same as completed goals. And it just hasn't happened yet.

Back to you.

SCIUTTO: Joe Johns, we'll be following it. And again we're awaiting those words from the president as he prepares to depart.

As President Trump prepares to board that flight for Asia, my colleagues and I are learning that his own advisers are worried that he will give up too much to Kim with nothing or not enough in return.

We've learned from multiple administration officials that the U.S. is weighing watering down its own demands from the North including no longer insisting that Pyongyang hand over an inventory of its nuclear and missile stockpiles before any U.S. concessions.

CNN's Barbara Starr joins us now from the Pentagon.

And, Barbara, it's an interesting dynamic because some of these concerns coming within his own administration. I wonder if there are similar concerns from inside the Pentagon.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think it's very clear that there are from the Pentagon, from the intelligence community, perhaps the only one not so concerned is the president and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, at least not publicly, voicing a lot of concern about it. They may well be behind the scenes.

Look, here's the problem when it comes to North Korea. It's always the same issue. They are secretive. They engage in deception. Even if they handed over a first initial list of what they have in a nuclear program, what their sights are, what weapons, what technology they have the U.S. intelligence community is not about to believe the first, second or third list that they hand over. That's what this is all about.

[09:05:01] When it all began, President Trump vowed for complete, irreversible denuclearization with no concessions until North Korea completed that effort. Now there seems to be a lot of wiggle room all over the place, and it is causing some concern because what does the U.S. give up next? One of the things on the table right now, there are a number of U.S.-South Korean military exercises scheduled to begin. Will the U.S. pull back from those?

HARLOW: So, Barbara, we heard the president say it last night, quote, "As long as there's no testing, we're happy." This just a few weeks after his own CIA director Gina Haspel said that the North Korean regime is, quote, "committed to developing a long-range nuclear missile." And then you had Secretary of State Pompeo who is on his way there right now say this on "STATE OF THE UNION" with Jake just yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: We started when the Obama administration had a policy which was essentially test, pray and cower. Right? Let them test missiles, let them test nuclear weapons, pray they stop and cower when the North Koreans made a threat.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: OK. Just fact check that for us. Other than having summits, second one about to begin, is the U.S. policy and practice toward North Korea really that different right now than it was under the previous administration?

STARR: Well, you know, where you stand is where you sit. I'm sure the Trump administration absolutely believes that they have been much tougher on North Korea with sanctions. But it comes back to what happens at this summit in Vietnam. Does the president make additional concessions to North Korea on sanctions relief, on any of the economic items that Kim so desperately wants without any move even towards irreversible denuclearization.

None of that has happened yet. North Koreans, by all measures, have not made or completed any steps towards denuclearization. They've worked at a couple of sites, but all of this is easily changed. And you know no testing. Maybe the concept needs to be understood that the North Koreans don't have to test right now. They have programs in place. They have missiles in place. They can threaten on a short and medium-term range in Asia. They've got plenty of capability without any further steps -- Poppy, Jim.

HARLOW: Barbara Starr, thank you very much for being there. A very important week.

SCIUTTO: It is. HARLOW: And you very busy.

SCIUTTO: Well, no question. Look forward to going.

HARLOW: Yes.

SCIUTTO: It's interesting. Last time in the talks, the surprise concession was ending North -- U.S./South Korea military exercises. Concern, does the president offer taking U.S. troops or some troops off the peninsula which is something he has raised before?

HARLOW: Right. Right.

OK. So this morning the president is also digging in on his national emergency declaration to get that money for a border wall telling Republican lawmakers not to be weak on border security. That's one of his tweets this morning.

This is just a day of course before the House votes on whether to block that emergency declaration.

SCIUTTO: Meanwhile, 58 former National Security officials, both Republicans and Democrats, we should note, are releasing a joint statement this morning slamming that declaration.

Joining us now, Alex Marquardt, CNN senior national correspondent, with more.

Alex, it's quite a list here. It is a bipartisan list. And their words are pretty damning.

ALEXANDER MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It is a resounding joint bipartisan rebuke of the president and his declaration of a national emergency there on the southern border.

Let's just take a quick look at some of these names. 58 of the most prominent names in the national security space. You have Democrats like Madeleine Albright, some of the foremost officials in intelligence, John Brennan, James Clapper. And then a handful of Republicans as well. Thomas Pickering who served at the U.N. under George H.W. Bush. Chuck Hagel, who is secretary of Defense under President Obama, and Eliot Cohen who served at the State Department under George W. Bush.

So it is very much bipartisan. And in this 11-page statement, these 58 officials could not be clearer. Let me read just part of this statement. They write, "Under no plausible assessment of the evidence is there a national emergency today that entitles the president to tap into funds appropriated for other purposes to build a wall at the southern border."

Now this letter is designed to support other efforts to block the president's declaration of national emergency. Sixteen states that have filed lawsuits. The ACLU is suing.

But, Poppy and Jim, as you mentioned, the biggest one is the House taking up this resolution in a vote tomorrow that would be designed to block the president's declaration of a national emergency. Of course, the Democrats do control the House.

The big question, and this is coming from White House officials themselves, is not whether that resolution passes. It's by what margin. The president has said that he would veto it, but it would be a very strong message sent by Democrats. Nancy Pelosi, of course, the speaker of the House, has called the president's actions lawless. She said that it does violence to our Constitution. And the underlying fear here by these 58 officials is that in declaring this national emergency, that when, in fact, in their view, there is an actual national emergency, that it would take away from the measures and the actions that go into effect when a national emergency is declared -- Jim, Poppy.

[09:10:08] HARLOW: All right. Alex Marquardt, great reporting, thanks so much.

With us now is former public policy director for Mitt Romney, Lanhee Chen.

Good morning to you, Lanhee. So what makes this different from so many other things that Republicans, many Republican lawmakers and the Senate may not like and say they don't like is they actually have to vote on this. McConnell is going to have to bring this to the floor. And they are actually going to have to vote on it. And I'm interested in, you know, their concerns ranging from the door this opens for Democrats. Future administrations to declare national emergencies on things like guns or climate change. And also just not believing that the facts under lie a national emergency here. What kind of predicament does this put Republican senators in?

LANHEE CHEN, FORMER MITT ROMNEY PUBLIC POLICY DIRECTOR: This is a worst case scenario, Poppy, for Mitch McConnell and for the Republicans in the Senate to actually have to be on record, I think, voting on the president's emergency declaration.

Look. There are a series of different reasons why Republicans might take issue with this. You've noted some have constitutional concerns. There are policy currents. There are also electoral concerns. You've got a few Republicans like Cory Gardner of Colorado, Tom Tillis of North Carolina, who are going to be in very competitive re-election campaigns in 2020 in states that are trending purple.

And for them to be on record having to potentially vote with the president this to emergency declaration puts them in a very difficult position electorally. This is on no one's wish list of votes on the Republican side in the Senate.

SCIUTTO: You know, we've been here before on issues. Makes me think of the Deripaska sanctions, right?

HARLOW: Right.

SCIUTTO: You know, no one really wanted those lifted. They didn't want to vote with the president on weakening measures against a Russian official, you know, accused of meddling in the election. And yet what happened, a majority of Republicans voted against that, 57, but not enough. They didn't get the 60 votes they needed. Of course here if the president really is serious about vetoing, you need to get to 67 Republican senators.

I mean, do you see that possibility happening, given all the political concerns that you laid out?

CHEN: Yes, Jim, they're not going to get to 67. It's possible that they'll get to the 60 necessary to send it to the -- not to the 60 but they'll actually have votes to come together just to send it to the president for his veto as you say. But this is a much more public and much larger issue than the Russia sanctions vote was. This is something that has been closely covered that you've got all of America watching. And I think implicates these constitutional questions, these legal questions much more directly than any other tough vote that Republicans in the Senate have had to take. So this is a different situation.

HARLOW: Do you think, Lonnie, it matters to those Republican senators in terms of how it looks, how the optics look that the argument that the administration has made for this national emergency, many of those so-called facts are not supported by actual facts, whether it comes to where most of the drugs come across, you know, into this country or volume of illegal border crossings?

SCIUTTO: Or that terrorists are coming across the border.

HARLOW: Right.

SCIUTTO: Right? I mean, a lot of specious claims.

HARLOW: Right. Exactly.

CHEN: Yes.

HARLOW: I mean, so if they vote yes, are they then sort of de facto saying we agree with those statements from this administration?

CHEN: Well, I think they certainly are in agreement. The challenge is if they vote against the president, they raise the possibility that they're going to get attacked by the president, by other Republicans as being weak on border security. You already saw that in the president's tweet this morning.

It puts these Republicans in a difficult position because on the one hand, they all got to Congress saying they're for border security and now potentially they're being put in a situation where if they vote against the president they're going to be called weak on border security.

The bigger challenge here, though, is if you look at the president's emergency declaration, it relies on this underlying law that says the military, the use of the military is required. That's a very, very high bar. It's going to be very difficult I think for many of these Republicans to be on board with that. SCIUTTO: Well, let's see. You know, is it principle or politics?

HARLOW: There you go.

SCIUTTO: This could be yet another test. Put your money down now where you think it will end up.

Lanhee Chen, always good to have you on.

CHEN: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Is the president's former fixer and lawyer about to unleash a slew of new problems, new accusations for this president? Michael Cohen set to blitz the Hill and testify in three hearings this week while the president is more than 8,000 miles away.

Plus, diversity wins. History made on Hollywood's biggest night. We'll have all the latest.

HARLOW: And one hour from now, R. Kelly will appear in court on sex abuse charges. The singer faces allegations that he sexually abused a woman and three girls. The three underage minors over a 12-year period.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:15:00] POPPY HARLOW, CO-HOST, NEWSROOM: All right, time is running out for Paul Manafort's legal team to respond to special counsel Robert Mueller's really --

JIM SCIUTTO, CO-HOST, NEWSROOM: Yes --

HARLOW: Stinging sentencing memo. This came on Friday in case you missed it. Mueller revealing more details about how and when the president's former campaign chairman quote, "brazenly broke the law".

SCIUTTO: Yes, the list of people they say the prosecutors that he lied to, tax preparers, bookkeepers, banks, the Treasury Department --

HARLOW: Wow --

SCIUTTO: The National Security division of the DOJ, the FBI, the special counsel's office, the grand jury, his own legal counsel, members of Congress and the executive branch of the U.S. government.

HARLOW: Just to name a few.

SCIUTTO: Is the list of people prosecutors say he lied to. Kara Scannell is in Washington with more. So, Kara, Manafort's team has until the end of the day to respond. Are they expected to challenge these allegations from the special counsel's office?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: Well, Jim, they're going to file their response today which is really their opportunity to put their best foot forward on Manafort. I mean, Manafort pleaded guilty to two counts and he also was convicted at trial of eight others. So those facts are not really in dispute. What his lawyers will do today is try to make him seem more humane. Though will have letters from family and friends talking about Manafort's charitable work, so also, probably putting emphasis on his health which has been declining since he's been in jail since he was found to be in witness-tampering.

[09:20:00] So you know, they'll try to put their best spin on this, but Mueller's memo was really blistering as you said. You know, they've outlined the bold number of criminal acts that Manafort took. They said that he would, over a decade, repeatedly and brazenly broke the law and that his criminal activity continued while he was Donald Trump's campaign chairman.

And even after he pleaded guilty, they wrote that "Manafort's conduct after he pleaded guilty is pertinent to sentencing. It reflects a hardened adherence to committing crimes and lack of remorse." And that's really the key of what Mueller is getting at here.

They don't ask for a specific sentence, but they say that the sentence should fit the gravity of the crimes that Manafort committed. They want to send a message not only to him, but to anyone else who might think of committing these types of crimes in the future. Jim, Poppy?

SCIUTTO: Yes, the crimes continuing after he'd already pled guilty to other crimes. It's incredible. Kara Scannell, thanks very much. At the same time, the president's former fixer about to kick off his big week. Michael Cohen set to testify three times this week, and on Wednesday, it will all be public.

HARLOW: Phil Mattingly is on Capitol Hill with all the details. So this kicks off tomorrow behind closed doors, and then the big event, I suppose, before the Oversight Committee on Wednesday. What are you hearing in terms of expectations from Democrats? I know, Republicans obviously attacking his credibility.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, the long- awaited week of Michael Cohen is finally --

HARLOW: Yes --

MATTINGLY: Here, and you're really going to see two different types of hearings. First, the Senate and House Intelligence Committees on Tuesday and Thursday will hold closed door kind of deposition-like meetings with Michael Cohen where they are expected to discuss the Russia investigation.

They are expected to discuss allegations that Michael Cohen lied to those committees in the past during their investigations. So those will be closed doors, and probably won't hear much about what's going on behind the scenes there, but we will hear plenty and see plenty of what happens on Wednesday.

That is when Michael Cohen will appear publicly in front of the House Oversight Committee. Now, the House Oversight Committee in consultation with the Intelligence Committees and the Justice Department has decided to not talk about or not go into the Russia investigations, specific details of ongoing investigations.

But the Chairman Elijah Cummings, a Democrat from Maryland did lay out in a two-page memo ten different points that they plan to go into, including compliance with federal tax and campaign finance laws, including whether or not the president is considered truthful in his statements.

The expectation I'm hearing from Democrats right now is not there's going to be some big, explosive reveal, but there's no question that whatever comes out of that hearing will likely be negative headlines for the president which to some degree is probably, partially the goal of Democrats going into this very public forum.

Now, you mentioned Republicans, they have made very clear already, they're laying the groundwork, painting Michael Cohen as a liar, painting Michael Cohen as somebody who's had problems with the truth in the past, going back to his charges that he will soon be going to jail for.

You'll hear a lot of that during the hearing, it will be a very partisan back and forth. I think the big question, particularly, in the public forum is what if anything, will Michael Cohen say that's new or that will move the ball forward on any of the stories or any of the investigations that are ongoing at this point. That remains an open question Democrats acknowledge.

They're not totally sure there's going to be a whole large amount of new information there, there's no question there will be damaging information, guys.

HARLOW: Phil Mattingly, it will keep you busy for sure, thank you very much for being with us. A big night -- I watched about 45 minutes, how about you?

SCIUTTO: I was on a train --

HARLOW: All right, there you go --

SCIUTTO: So I didn't watch it.

HARLOW: But if you watched or if you didn't stay tuned, a big win for diversity at the Oscars, something though that one winner, Director Spike Lee said, has the president firing back this morning.

[09:25:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HARLOW: Hollywood's biggest night was a big night for diversity. Remember, people were saying Oscar's so --

SCIUTTO: Yes --

HARLOW: White? Not anymore. Regina King took home the Oscar for best supporting actress, what a speech by the way from her for her role in "If Beale Street Could Talk", and Mahershala Ali won best supporting actor for "Green Book". SCIUTTO: Mexican Director Alfonso Cuaron took home three Oscars for

his film "Roma" and Spike Lee won his first competitive Oscar for his film "BlacKkKlansman". Lee using the acceptance speech to send a bigger political message.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SPIKE LEE, FILM DIRECTOR: The 2020 presidential election is around the corner. Let's all mobilize. Let's all be on the right side of history. Make the moral choice between love versus hate. Let's do the right thing!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: Do the right thing.

HARLOW: There you go.

SCIUTTO: Joining us now, CNN media -- chief media correspondent Brian Stelter and CNN correspondent Stephanie Elam, she was out there. Stephanie, you were there, you were watching this as it happened. Let's talk about that speech, and that was quite a moment there, tying that event of course to the politics of the day.

STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and you know what, though, when you take a look at the Oscars, we've seen much more political shows than this one was. There are a few times that you've seen things pop up. Spike Lee is always political, even his movie "BlacKkKlansman" is political.

It ends with images from Charlottesville, from what happened there and how that young woman was killed during those protests there. So it's not shocking that he would take this moment to be political. Well, it was noticed by the president of the United States who then tweeted, and I will read to you the tweet, it said "be nice if Spike Lee could read his notes or better yet not have to use notes at all when doing his racist hit on your president who has done more for African- Americans."

He lists a couple of reasons why he sees it this way, and then says "than almost any other --

SCIUTTO: Yes --

ELAM: President." So that's coming out from the president after his speech. It's worth noting, too, that when you look at the overall show, for the most part, it was about the art. There was no host, so there was no political little routines that happened at all.

SCIUTTO: Yes --

ELAM: So I think you only heard a couple of references here, but it's also worth noting that Spike Lee did mention "do the right thing", which was very meaningful because that's the last time that we'd seen him up for --

SCIUTTO: Yes --

ELAM: An Oscar. And he did not win, he lost to "Driving Miss Daisy".

SCIUTTO: And not to be -- the president called Spike Lee a racist for making a comment about elections coming up. I mean, that's -- I know we hear this kind of thing every day, but that's still remarkable.

END