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Dems Request Documents; Catastrophic Tornadoes in Alabama; Hickenlooper Enters 2020 Race. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired March 4, 2019 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:11] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

Urgent search and recovery operations in Alabama today after a series of vicious tornadoes that have left at least 23 people dead. The president promises quick federal assistance.

Plus, House Democrats flex their new power. Document requests, get this, 81 groups and individuals involved in the Trump campaign, the Trump administration, the Trump Organization, including the president's former attorney general and his children.

And the 2020 Democratic field grows again. Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper is more moderate than many of his rivals, but says, take a look progressives and you'll find plenty to like.


JOHN HICKENLOOPER (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We brought environmentalist and oil and gas companies to the table to create the toughest methane emissions laws in the country. Then we beat the NRA by enacting universal background checks and banning high-capacity magazines.


KING: Back to 2020 in a moment. But we begin with the big net cast today by House Democrats and a very big question, can they manage their sweeping, new power.

The House Judiciary Committee this morning issuing 81 document requests. Recipients include people from the White House, Justice Department, and the president's businesses. The letters are the committee's opening salvo in the coming investigative wars. Also among the recipients, the president's 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale, the president's son, Donald Trump Junior, and the Trump Organization's financial gatekeeper, Allen Weisselberg. The objective, to gather evidence and to investigate the president's alleged attempts to obstruct justice. What the committee calls public corruption and what the committee calls abuses of power. The White House this morning says, yes, it's received the committee's letter and says it will now process it through the White House Councils Office. The House Judiciary Committee says -- the chairman says his work --

committee will work carefully, and that includes trying to slow the impeachment talk coming from some on the Democratic left.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, HOST, ABC'S "THIS WEEK": Do you think the president obstructed justice?



NADLER: It's very clear that the president obstructed justice. It's very clear.

STEPHANOPOULOS: If that's the case, then is the decision not to pursue impeachment right now simply political if you believe he obstructed justice?

NADLER: No. We have to -- we have to -- we have to do the investigations and get all this. We do not now have the evidence all sorted out and everything to do an impeachment.


KING: CNN's Manu Raju live on Capitol Hill.

Manu, help us understand the scope of this. The Democrats want documents from so many people. What's the goal?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's breathtaking in scope. Virtually everybody connected to the president in some aspect. People in his business world, like Allen Weisselberg, long-time chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, Rhona Graff, who was a long-time gatekeeper of the president from the Trump Organization, his sons, Eric Trump, Donald Trump Junior, his son-in- law and Senior White House Adviser Jared Kushner, people who used to work at the White House, like Hope Hicks, the former communications director, among many, many others. They're trying to look into all aspects, controversies that have not been fully investigated by Congress, but they may very well have been investigated by other entities, namely the special counsel, Robert Mueller, as well as the Southern District of New York, the attorneys there who have been -- of course been -- who have forced -- led to the guilty plea of Michael Cohen, who implicated the president in two crimes involving the alleged hush money payments of women who are about to come forward with their stories, those alleged affairs involving the president.

They want to look into that aspect as well, including a letter they sent to David Pecker, who's the chairman of the parent company for "The National Enquirer," to learn about the extent of their efforts to cover up some of those stories in the run-up to the 2016 campaign. They want to keep this going for weeks and months. Expect potentially public hearings. I talked to a committee aide this morning, John, who said that we're

talking about weeks, not months, in terms of having hearings potentially in public. They want to be as, quote, transparent as possible, they're saying. And they have also had discussions with the Southern District of New York and with Mueller's team about the scope of this document requests and they've have been essentially green lighted to move forward.

So essentially, John, this is going to continue for some time in the very, very aggressive investigation involving this very one committee. Of course, there's several others doing different aspects, but this is going to touch on almost every aspect and controversy that has emerged over the last two years, John.

KING: And we know from those last two years what the president thinks when you start asking about his businesses and the like, including his children.

Manu Raju, appreciate the live reporting off The Hill.

Will me in studio to share their reporting and their insight, Eliana Johnson with "Politico," Jackie Kucinich with "The Daily Beast," Toluse Olorunnipa with "The Washington Post," and Julie Hirschfeld Davis with "The New York Times."

I just want to ask the control room to put the list up here. Again, just to put it up on the screen as we -- these are some of the people who received a document request. Just some of the people. Donald Trump Junior, Allen Weisselberg, Brad Parscale, Don McGahn, Jared Kushner, Jay Sekulow, Jeff Sessions, Julian Assange, Rhona Graff, Tom Barrack. This is anybody who's had anything to do with the president about just about anything. So the Democrats have this power. They say the Republicans ignored aggressive oversight for two -- the first two years of the Trump administration and they're going to do it.

[12:05:21] This also tells you, it's March 2019. Some document fights. Weeks and months of hearings. This is going to carry on throughout the year.

ELIANA JOHNSON, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "POLITICO": I think that's absolutely true. This is an extremely ambitious list of witnesses and it shows that the Democrats are not confining themselves to the things that have occurred the past two years in the White House. They're going after the president's decades long career in business. And that's where he's far more venerable because the White House Councils Office cannot asset executive privilege over any of that. The president -- Democrats are very free to go after that and the president has far lower protections in terms of what his lawyers can do to block Democrats from digging into that.

I think the question is, will Democrats be able to focus their inquiries on, you know, a few discreet things that will pack a sort of public punch and really break through to the public. Republicans aggressively invested (ph) in the Obama investigation. But if you ask people, you know, what were the things that they were able to really land, there weren't many. That either could be because Republicans weren't (INAUDIBLE) or because there wasn't must corruption. But I think Republicans didn't do a particularly good job. So now the onus is on the Democrats.

KING: The question is, can they meet the challenge. Can they -- can they maintain their credibility as oversight agents, or does this become perceived -- Republicans will say it out of the box, the president will say it out of the box, but in the wide swath of Americans who aren't caught up in the instant polarization, can they maintain their credibility as in search of facts or in search of a scalp, would be the question?

JACKIE KUCINICH, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "THE DAILY BEAST": I think it -- that depends on how they go about it. And right now there's a -- there's a line that particularly leaders are trying to walk. Not going full impeachment and just saying that they're -- they're working on their oversight duties.

Now, should -- and that actually is going to extend into the 2020 race. How that is messaged, how senators are playing into this, and how, if they can have a cohesive message going into and out of these investigations because, you're right, this could -- the president is going to use the threat of impeachment on the campaign trail whether or not it comes -- it comes true. So how they talk about this and how they go about it is really going to be a big test for Democrats across the board.

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": And we've seen previous administrations that have gone through this type of investigation. They've set up, you know, war rooms. They've had communications, aides and really strategized how to -- how to take this on. We don't really see that out of this White House, but you do have President Trump, who has been sort of masterful in using the bully pulpit to change the national conversation, and you can expect him to really be out there trying to say that, you know, all these Democrats are really trying to do is do presidential harassment, and Democrats have to figure out how to play in this new media world that President Trump has been playing in for the last two years.

And I'm not sure they're there yet, but I think they're going to have to learn very quickly because President Trump does not play by the rules of the old days, he plays by very new rules and he's not sort of stricken by the rules of political decorum. And I think, from the CPAC speech that he gave over the weekend, you can expect him to really pull out all the stops in fighting back against the Democratic investigations.

KING: You raise a great, interesting point, especially if connected to your point about the Trump Organization cannot be shielded. Some -- and the Trump campaign cannot be shielded from executive privilege. So the -- and the document request, the initial response, Sarah Sanders releasing a statement saying the White House is going to look at this. It was a very calm, short statement saying we're going to take a look at this. The counsel's office will look at it. We'll decide how to proceed.

But we do know when Don McGahn, the former White House counsel, was on this list, they want documents from him. The new White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, in part was brought in because thy anticipated this.


KING: They expected to have two years of combat with the new Democratic majority. The question is, how much will he say, here you go, and how much will he say, no way?

DAVIS: Well, and they're casting such a wide net. I think you mentioned 81 different agencies or individuals. And, again, not just confined to President Trump as president, or his campaign, transition, but also to his, you know, decades in the private sector. The fact that Rhona Graff, the person who literally fields all his telephone calls at the Trump Organization is on this list really tells you how deeply they want to delve.

Now, the White House, I think, anticipating this, is -- it's kind of interesting that they're not saying right off the bat, well, this is ridiculous. This is -- you know they're -- it's a fishing expedition, but they're actually saying we're going to take it seriously, we're going to see what we, you know, should do with this.

I have to -- I think you have to imagine they're going to provide some of the material that they're asking for, particularly some of the officials, like the former White House counsel. They may feel like they have to provide some of that. But I would anticipate that they're going to push back on a lot of it, and particularly where the president's family is concerned, where his business is concerned, I think there's going to be a lot of effort on the part of the president himself, and an effort by Cipollone to try to facilitate limiting that as much as possible. And I think that's going to be where you see some of the biggest fights here.

[12:10:05] KING: And Michael Cohen gave them plenty of leads. The question is, to the point that's been made is, how do they want to focus here? Do they want to just go at the security clearance issue or do they want to go at what Chairman Nadler says he just sees as abuse of power and corruption sort of rite large and the other things that trickle beneath that? How do they go at it?

And as they do, one of the questions is, you have a new Democratic majority. Most of the leadership says, go slow, wait for Muller, wait for the Southern District of New York, let's have months of our own hearings and then see where that gets us. But you do have this bubbling anti-Trump impeachment animus bubbling up.

Just listen, this is Ted Deutch, one of those says, let's try to go slow, but just listen to this conversation with my colleague John Berman this morning.


JOHN BERMAN, ANCHOR, CNN'S "NEW DAY": To what end? You will try to find this out to do what?

REP. TED DEUTCH (D), FLORIDA: Well, to enforce the rule of law, to make sure that no one is above the law. Look, I -- let me just --

BERMAN: What is the only way to enforce the rule of law --

DEUTCH: Right, so let me --

BERMAN: And to make sure that no one is above the rule of law when you're talking about the president of the United States?

DEUTCH: Well -- well, we -- it's the president of the United States and everyone around him, and -- and I'll anticipate your question I guess you're hinting at, which is the question of impeachment.


KING: It is the question in the venue of, if these committees come up with what at least the Democrats believe is evidence of wrongdoing, that is their -- their only -- their only avenue as members of Congress. I suppose they could say, you know, ah, so maybe the Southern District of New York should look at this or look at that, but those investigations are separate. That's the -- that's the genie that Democrats might have to keep in the bottle here if they do develop facts.

JOHNSON: Yes, and that's what I do think will be -- Democrats are already contending with it from the left flank of their party, who think we've seen more than enough evidence that this president has committed impeachable offenses. But as they -- as they barrel forward, given that the president's business practices are probably the most likely -- they're most likely to get information on those things, you know, I think they're -- they're -- they could confront a scenario in which they ask the question, OK, do we -- is it an impeachable -- or should we impeach a president for acts he committed before he was sworn into office? I think the closest parallel is probably Whitewater, where there was an investigation of acts that the Clintons -- you know, misuse of finances the Clintons committed before they ever got to office. That obviously led to Monica Lewinsky and it went off in a different direction. But that does seem like the closest parallel here.

KUCINICH: But they also -- they're running out of runway on this question of impeachment too because the 2020 election isn't that far away. These things take time. There are legal charges. There are all sorts of hurdles. And -- and to put the country through this right before a presidential election or going into a presidential election. Clinton's impeachment was in the second term, remember.

KING: Right.

KUCINICH: When the voters didn't have a chance to decide on him again. So that also is a question that Democrats are facing going into this. Not that that would stop anything, but it is -- but it is a consideration.

DAVIS: Well, and there's an open question whether they'd even be there by the time of the campaign.


DAVIS: I mean this is a lot of documents, a lot of interviews, a lot of potential subpoenas that they might have to try to enforce.

You know, you hear Jerry Nadler talk about building a record, right? They may not have anywhere near the amount of items in that record that they need to make a decision about whether they're going to pursue impeachment or not by the time the 2020 election is here.

KING: Well, they've launched the request. Now we shall see, a, the response, and then, b, how they manage them.

Up next for us here, nearly two dozen people confirmed dead, many more possibly missing or unaccounted for in Alabama after a line of tornadoes devastates the southeast.


[12:17:45] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SHERIFF JAY JONES, LEE COUNTY, ALABAMA: I love this county and it's extremely upsetting to me to see these people hurting like this. I would describe the damage that we have seen in the area as catastrophic. There are simply in some locations the complete residences are gone. The debris field stretches for hundreds and hundreds of yards. We're finding materials that -- from one location up to half a mile away from the original point of where they were located.


KING: It's a devastating scene, a devastating day in Lee County, Alabama, today, as Sheriff Jay Jones, that you just heard there, directs the search for as many as 20 people still unaccounted for after yesterday's deadly tornadoes. At least 23 people were killed, the youngest just six years old.

And the path of destruction stretches nearly half a mile wide and several miles long. President Trump tweeting earlier today he has directed FEMA to, quote, to give the state a-plus treatment to those hurt by the storm.

CNN's Kaylee Hartung is on the ground in Lee County.

The images are horrible. Kaylee, tell us what you're seeing and hearing.

KAYLEE HARTUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They are, John. And there's a lot going on around me right now. We just heard a helicopter buzz overhead. And we presume that to be authorities trying to get a real bird's-eye look at the destruction, to better understand just how big this half-mile wild, several mile long stretch is where they need to perform search and recovery operations.

Just ahead of me, we've got four Alabama power trucks working to resume power in this area as everyone we've seen nearby has lost it. Power lines laying on the ground just to my left. And behind me we see a family returning to the site of their completely destroyed home for the first time, sifting through the rubble, trying to see if there is anything for them to find.

And on top of all of this activity, as I mentioned, search and recovery. That being authorities' priority. You gave the numbers, at least 23 dead, and it could be as many as 20 people still unaccounted for. Both the sheriff and the coroner here telling me they expect the death toll to go up. There were areas in this county that they couldn't even reach yesterday as they tried to make their way through this high volume of debris.

[12:20:09] But, John, that process began at 8:00 a.m. local today and will continue for as long as it takes.

KING: Kaylee Hartung on the ground in Lee County.

Kaylee, appreciate the live reporting. Those pictures are horrible.

CNN's Jennifer Gray also joins us from the CNN Weather Center.

Jennifer, help us understand how big of an area here this storm impacted.

JENNIFER GRAY, AMS METEOROLOGIST: John, these were pretty widespread and then that one that impacted Lee County definitely had a long track, 65 miles long. Now, the National Weather Service is out there as we speak to determine if this was all one tornado, exactly how strong it was, and they will start to research all of these areas and determine how strong these tornadoes were and exactly what the details were on them. We should have those results anywhere -- anytime today or tomorrow.

Between 2:30 and 4:00 Eastern Time is when this occurred. And the preliminary reports of that one that impacted Lee County is possibly EF-3. Could be even stronger. These are just the preliminary reports. That means winds were 136 to 165 miles per hour. And as we go through the day, this is the past radar from yesterday. These hot pink boxes, those are the tornado warnings. And they just lit up as we went through the afternoon and these showers continued. Look at this, this is 3:40. And you can see all the tornado warnings that we had throughout the afternoon.

So it was a devastating day. It did happen in the middle of the afternoon, so at least a lot of people weren't sleeping, and so they were able to get some warning. Some people didn't get quite as much warning as others depending on where you were within that track. But we did have 36 reported tornadoes yesterday. It's not unheard of this time of year. We're just starting to get into the season. But you can see, only about 15 from Mississippi to Georgia is typical during the month of March. So we saw 36. So it's already above what we normally see, John.

KING: That's remarkable.

Jennifer Gray, appreciate the context there from the Weather Center. I should note, President Trump, just moments ago, at an event at the

White House, said he sends his love and his prayers to the people in Alabama.

We'll continue to watch that story and the recovery effort.

Up next for us here, yet another Democrat decides to run for president in 2020. He's a governor. But, first, Senator Bernie Sanders asked this morning how he feels about being another white presidential candidate.


QUESTION: So, Bernie, 44 out of 45 presidents in this country have been white men. Do you think we need another one?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, I think you need this one.



[12:27:19] KING: The 2020 Democratic field adding one more today. After teasing a 2020 run for months, the moderate former governor of Colorado made it official. In jumping into the race, John Hickenlooper explains why he should replace the current resident of the White House.


JOHN HICKENLOOPER (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm John Hickenlooper. I'm running for president because we're facing a crisis that threatens everything we stands for. As a skinny kid with Coke bottle glasses and a funny last name, I've stood up to my fair share of bullies. Standing tall when it matters is one of the things that really drives me.


KING: Throughout the launch video, Hickenlooper highlighted his extensive resume in government, both as mayor and then governor. While governor he oversaw the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, and he also managed to pass a big gun control legislation, no small feat in an once reliably red state. And, of course, he made sure to highlight his up-start brewing company in Denver. I give him an a-plus for that. We need a president who understands beer.

If this -- where does he fit? Where does he fit? It used to be -- it used to be that being a governor was a good place to start in a race for president. We have a field now that's got a lot of senators, a lot of Washington influence. Where does he fit? And he's trying to make the case, they're going to try to say he's a moderate. They're going to try to say he's not in touch with the energy we saw in the Democratic Party in 2018. He says, no, look at my record, I'm OK.

DAVIS: It's not really clear where he fits. And if you look at that video and listen to what he has said since -- since this morning, it's not clear that he has one answer to that, right? I mean on -- for -- on one hand he's showing images of President Trump in his video and saying, you know, he'll stand up to the bully, which is a very sort of aggressive way of branding himself as the person who's going to really take it to the president. On the other hand, he's trying to bill himself as a pragmatist who can work on both sides of the aisle.

Now, you could make a nuanced argument that those two things are not diametrically opposed. But I think that that's a little bit more difficult than some of the other candidates we see out there who are, you know, they're either, you know, courting the progressive left or they are, you know, actively going after the president, or they're saying, listen, I'm not interested in fighting, I'm not interested in, you know, standing up to the bully or even making the bully a part of this conversation. I want to tell you what my ideas are to move the country forward. And those are two, you know, pretty different things.

KUCINICH: It seems like policy wise he is taking -- he is going in kind of the Klobuchar way. He hasn't embraced Medicare for all. He hasn't embraced the green new deal. He's talking about working with Republicans and he did when he was governor on things like the budget. His -- but he's going to get himself -- he -- you also have to attract the progressive left. And this is someone who was an advocate for the fracking industry when he was governor. He's a former geologist who used to work for fossil fuel companies. So there are going to be some hiccups in his record.

He did oversee legalization of marijuana, but initially he was against legalizing it for recreational use. Now, he came around to it.

KING: Right.