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Trump's Twitter War with Top Advisor's Husband Escalates; GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson Berates Trump: "The McCain Family Deserves Better"; House Oversight Chair: White House Hasn't Turned over Any Documents; House Judiciary Chair: White House Missed Deadline to Turn Over Documents; Court Documents: Mueller Team Focused on "Other Work" to Turn Over Manafort Documents; CNN Poll: Biden, Sanders Lead Crowded Democratic Field followed by Harris and O'Rourke. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired March 20, 2019 - 11:00   ET

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


[11:00:12] RYAN NOBLES, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Ryan Nobles, in today for Kate Bolduan.

After this morning, the term "Twitter spat" doesn't cut it anymore. The president's very public feud with his top aide's husband is now looking more like an all-out war.

While a Republican Senator says the president's repeated attacks on the late Senator John McCain crossed the line.

Let's begin with the president's enemy of the moment, George Conway, the husband of White House counselor, Kellyanne Conway. Trump blasting out this tweet this morning: "George Conway, often referred to as Mr. Kellyanne Conway by those who know him, is very jealous of his wife's success and angry that I, with her help, didn't give him the job he so desperately wanted. I barely know him, but just take a look, a stone-cold loser and a husband from hell."

Trump and George Conway have been publicly feuding since Conway questioned Trump's mental fitness.

CNN's Sarah Westwood gets to start and she's at the White House this morning.

Sarah, how is George Conway responding to the president this morning?

SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ryan, this is certainly getting a lot more personal. President Trump potentially elevating George Conway to new levels of recognition by directly engaging with him. George Conway is a prominent D.C. lawyer and a longstanding critic of President Trump. After Trump weighed in this morning for what appears to be the first time weighing in on the Conways' marriage, Mr. Conway responded by writing, "You are nuts." And also claiming that the president is proving his point by taking the time to write such a rebuttal.

Mr. Conway spoke to the "Washington Post," tried to explain the frequency of his barbs against his wife's boss. He said, "The mendacity, the incompetence is just maddening the watch. The tweeting is just the way to get it out of the way so I can get it off my chest and move on with my life that day. Frankly, it's so I don't end up screaming at her about it."

Trump claimed in that tweet that you read that George Conway was bitter about now landing a position in the Trump administration, but the "Washington Post" did publish a letter that suggested that Mr. Conway actually turned down a job in the Justice Department in 2017.

Keep in mind, as you mentioned, this all began when Mr. Conway was claiming on Twitter that President Trump has mental health problems. He even tweeted out images from a diagnostic manual for mental health conditions. We should note that George Conway is not a psychiatrist. This was just speculation on his part.

But at this point, Ryan, it's morphed into a feud that has roped in allies of the White House, allies of Kellyanne Conway. Even President Trump himself now defending the top counselor to the president.

NOBLES: Something that only seems to happen in the Trump administration.

Sarah Westwood, live at the White House this morning. Sarah, thank you.

Kellyanne Conway recently talked about her husband with CNN's Dana Bash. This was before the president and George Conway traded insults this week. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GEORGE CONWAY, ATTORNEY & HUSBAND OF KELLYANNE CONWAY: Now we have a president who's actually criticized his own attorney general.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Watch TV and Twitter lately and one of Trump's most vicious critics is her own husband, George, striking hard and deep with his latest attack on the president's mental state, calling it narcissistic personal ty disorder.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TOP ADVISOR TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: No, I don't share those concerns. And I have four kids and I was getting out of the house this morning before I got here so I could talk to the president about --

BASH: We spoke before the latest drama, but well after her husband started going after her boss, which she says she didn't see coming.

KELLYANNE CONWAY: George was so excited, literally crying with joy in his MAGA hat on election night. So, in that way, he's changed. He's changed his opinion on, I guess, matters of the president, the presidency. But I haven't and Donald Trump hasn't.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You mean Mr. Kellyanne Conway?

BASH (on camera): The day he was out on the South Lawn and he called George "Mr. Kellyanne Conway" struck me. It sounded like he was sending a message.

KELLYANNE CONWAY: I thought it was him being Donald J. Trump. It was clever. It's an unusual situation, especially in politics or Washington, and certainly with Republicans politics, for a husband to get his notoriety and power through his wife. It's usually the other way around.

It's funny because people say, George, you should come to Harvard and speak, you know, side by side. And you should do this and that. I think, OK, but then I'd have to give him my power.

BASH (voice-over): The president's top allies, restrained before, are stepping up their response to George Conway on Twitter and rallying around her personally as a mother of four children.

KELLYANNE CONWAY: These children are now 14, 14, 10 and 9. They're all old enough to read everything and they're all old enough to have embraced D.C. as home, which took a while. Especially for one of my children, it took a long time because --

[11:05:10] BASH (on camera): It's a tough age to move.

KELLYANNE CONWAY: It's a tough age to move, Dana. And let's face it, it's a rare occasion where a family is moving for mom's job.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NOBLES: Again, that interview was prior this week back and forth between the president and Kellyanne Conway's husband. It is part of Dana Bash's "Badass Women in Washington." You can see the entire segment on CNN.com.

And I want to bring in CNN political commentator, Doug Heye. He's a former communications director for the Republican National Committee.

Doug, I want to get this out of the way first. It seems pretty clear that President Trump is attempting to insult George Conway by calling him "Mr. Kellyanne Conway." But if someone were to refer to me as Mr. Carrie Nobles -- Carrie Nobles being my wife's name -- I would consider that to be the highest compliment. How can this continue? How can Kellyanne Conway continue to work for Donald Trump if he's continuing to say these things about her husband and her husband saying these things about him?

DOUG HEYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. I think so much of what we've seen in this White House over the past couple years is really reminiscent of professional wrestling where Donald Trump is sometimes the bad guy, sometimes, considering the audience, the good guy. Whether you cheer him or you boo him, as long as you're watching, they're happy. That also means that a lot of this is prescripted in advance. Not to say it's fake, certainly not fake news, but it's prescripted in advance. And I think that's a lot of what's happening right here. We know that Donald Trump always defines himself as a counter puncher. These aren't necessarily productive counter punches but that's clearly what's happening right now. NOBLES: There are a lot of people who don't like Donald Trump and are

probably cheering George Conway. He's really the one that started all of this, didn't he?

HEYE: Well, sure. Usually, presidents rise above this. I would tell you there's not a lot that George Conway's tweeted that I would necessarily disagree with, although I wouldn't go as far as some of the name calling, because I think we need less of that in Washington and in our media right now. But ultimately, this is up to the White House and how it responds. This is all it always responds. We're in deja vu all over again. But the reality is also a political reality. What I hear so often from Republicans on Capitol Hill is a resigned "here we go again" moment. For this White House, if I were advising them, and blessedly I am not, I would say, Mr. President, you have great economic news almost on a weekly basis. Just yesterday CNN put out a poll that had the economic approval at 71 percent, the highest since it's been since 2001. I would tell the president, focus on your good economic news that plays to your business record all day, every day. Stay out of these fights whether it's with George Conway or John McCain.

NOBLES: Speaking of the president picking fights, you mentioned John McCain. That's obviously a feud that has continued long after the Senator's death.

I want to talk about Republican Senator Johnny Isakson. He was speaking out this morning, telling A.B. Stoddard, quote, "I just want to lay it on the line that the country deserves better, the McCain family deserves better. I don't care if he's president of the United States, owns all the real estate in New York or is building the greatest immigration system in the world, nothing is more important than the integrity of the country and those who fought and risked their lives for all of us."

Johnny Isakson, not a flame thrower. Certainly not someone you would put in the same camp as Jeff Flake or some of these other folks who have been very critical of President Trump on the Republican side. He's also somebody who votes with President Trump most of the time. How big of a deal is this to see someone like Senator Isakson step out and defend John McCain so publicly?

HEYE: It is significant. One of the things also that's significant about this is Senator Isakson is also the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, which says this isn't just an attack on John McCain and his heroism. Obviously, we talk about counter punching. John McCain is not here to punch back. But Senator Isakson also views this as an attack on all veterans who have served, all of our POWs who are still so important to our national identity and who need our help in health care and so forth. So to see these kinds of attacks on one veteran certainly affects all veterans. That's why Senator Isakson spoke out. I would say Mitt Romney has spoken out as well, and I hope more Republicans do.

NOBLES: We'll see if Senator Isakson says more about this, if he'll say more publicly. We'll have to wait and see what comes from that.

Doug Heye, thank you as always. We appreciate it.

HEYE: Thank you, Ryan.

NOBLES: House Democrats wish the president were as generous with his documents as he is with his tweets. Congressman Elijah Cummings says the White House hasn't handed over a single piece of paper or offered a single official to testify as his Oversight Committee looks into a series of investigations into the Trump administration. What Cummings says he has gotten, an unprecedented level of stonewalling, delay and obstruction.

And on top of that, the House Judiciary Committee says the White House has missed a deadline to turn over documents as it looks into whether President Trump abused his powers.

Bottom line, it is looking like a long, subpoena-filled battle lies ahead between the White House and the Congress.

CNN's Sara Murray is in Washington and Manu Raju is on Capitol Hill with more on this story.

Manu, let's begin with you.

What are you hearing from Democrats on the Hill?

[11:10:18] MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Democrats are trying to make the case they believe that the White House is being completely uncooperative in all of their Oversight requests. They say these have been legitimate Oversight requests. The White House has essentially ignored those requests or has stalled, has not provided witnesses. Even former officials, like John Kelly, who Elijah Cummings wants to speak with as part of his investigation into security clearances at the White House and concerns that Kelly reportedly had over Jared Kushner's security clearance, those former officials are being essentially blocked by the White House and not coming forward, according to Democrats, who say this is completely unprecedented. Elijah Cummings, who has been making this case for the last several weeks, took his case to the "Washington Post" and wrote in an op-ed: "The White House is engaged in an unprecedented level of stonewalling, delay and obstruction. The White House has not turned over a single piece of paper to our committee or made a single official available for testimony during the 116th Congress."

One other committee that's doing a significant investigation is the House Judiciary Committee run by Jerry Nadler. He requested documents from a variety of officials and entities, including the White House, asked for responses by this past Monday as part of his investigation into obstruction of justice, potentially, at the White House, abuse of power. The White House missed that deadline. Part of the request for information Jerry Nadler asked to learn more about that hush money scheme that the president apparently was involved in to silence stories about those alleged affairs that he had, those stories that came out in 2016. These are something this committee wants to look into.

Nadler last night, at a town hall in New York, was asked about Michael Cohen, asked about the president. He said the president has committed crimes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JERRY NADLER, (D-NY), CHAIRMAN, HOUSE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: We're not talking about what Michael Cohen said. He was indicted. Michael Cohen was indicted for illegally paying off a woman to not talk about what had happened to her in order -- no, he was indicted for this and he pleaded guilty -- in order to affect the election. That is a crime. He pleaded guilty to that. The indictment said that he did so at the request of individual number one. Individual number one, being the president, that makes him a coconspirator, makes him part of the crime.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: Nadler went onto say the president was not protected by Justice Department guidelines preventing a sitting president from being indicted. He would have been indicted by now. But that is just one aspect of the Judiciary Committee's investigation into the president, the president's conduct. Right now, they say they're not getting any cooperation from the White House to turn over documents -- Ryan?

NOBLES: All right.

Sara, from this special counsel's perspective, they said they're too busy to respond to a request for Manafort documents. What are you hearing about this angle to the story?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Apparently, the Mueller team is very busy. Doing what, we don't know exactly, which is the frustrating part. But they were supposed to respond to this effort to have some documents unsealed in Paul Manafort's case. In a filing, Mueller's team said we are pressed with other work and they're asking the judge for an extension in this deadline. The big question is, what is this other work that they are working so diligently on? Is there another investigative matter at hand that we don't know about? Are they working on finishing up the Mueller report to hand it over to Attorney General Bill Barr in the coming days? We just don't know the answer to that.

One other data point on the timing of this is that we learned that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was slated to leave the Justice Department essentially any day now. Now he's decided he's going to stick around a little bit longer. How long, we're not exactly sure. But he's made it clear he wants to be at the Justice Department when the Mueller report comes out. He sees himself as something of a heat shield, the person who is sort of overseeing this investigation and he wants to be here to take the bullets, take the punches, if there are any when the Mueller report comes out. This has been much anticipated by all of us. We still don't have a good sense of the timing. It could be any hour, any day. Could be.

NOBLES: Manu, Sara, we continue to find bread crumbs but no real tangible information from the special counsel's office.

Sara Murray, Manu Raju, thank you for those reports. Let's talk a little bit about this with Elie Honig, who is a CNN legal

analyst and a former federal prosecutor.

Elie, unpack this for me. Let's first talk about the situation with the Oversight Committee and Chairman Cummings. He's not happy that the White House isn't cooperating with his committee. What options does he have?

[11:14:53] ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: His next option is to issue a subpoena. This is both a legal move and a political statement by the White House to just straight-up stonewall, not even give them any token documents, just say you get nothing, your move. Now all the House members or the House committees, their next move is to issue a subpoena, which now takes it out of the realm of just a request by a letter to, you are now being formally ordered, compelled by the Congress to produce these documents. If the White House resists that or rejects that, then we're going to end up in court. And we're going to have a legal battle over separation of powers.

NOBLES: And what would be fight be, the argument from the White House? Executive privilege, we have the right to protect this information?

HONIG: There's a couple different ways the White House could object to a subpoena. They could argue it's overbroad, they could argue it's outside the scope of the given congressional committee, they could take the Fifth, a dramatic political move, but it's available, and executive privilege, which means certain communications between the president and his top advisors are meant to remain secret. That will take us down the road of the Richard Nixon Supreme Court case of 1974, which did not end well for Nixon.

NOBLES: Let's talk about this kind of cryptic message that the special counsel's office put in a document last night. They're saying they need more time to deal with an extension in the Paul Manafort case. Does this have anything to do with the Mueller report? Does it have everything to do with the Mueller report? What can we glean from this?

HONIG: I'm just say this. It's very rare, not completely unheard of, but very rare for prosecutors to say we just couldn't make it on time, Your Honor. I don't think Mueller's team has ever done that other than this. The way I was trained at the Southern District of New York is you're always ready. Even if a judge gives you a seemingly impossible deadline, you never say you can't do it. You get it done. The fact they've said, sorry, Your Honor, can't quite get there tells me they're really churning hard on something. Whether that's the report, whether that's the next round of indictments, we don't know. But I do think it's significant that it shows they really are in sort of overdrive.

NOBLES: You think it's just as good a chance that it's more indictments than it is that they're finishing up the Mueller report?

HONIG: It could be that. There are several names that have surfaced during the course of this investigation that I think are in potential jeopardy. Jerome Corsi, they gave him a guilty plea document which he then leaked to the media. It's very rare that you would type information, which is like an indictment, give it to somebody, unless you have the goods to indict him. There's been questions about Erik Prince, questions about Donald Trump Jr. It wouldn't surprise me if there are more arrests there for Mueller or if he transitions those cases over to the U.S. attorney's office.

NOBLES: Finally, this last tea leaf that we got from the special counsel's office, assistant attorney general, Rod Rosenstein is going to stay on. We though he'd be gone by now. He calls himself a heat shield for Robert Mueller and this investigation. Does this maybe tell us that the Mueller report isn't as imminent as we might think?

HONIG: Yes, it could mean that he's going to stick around until it comes out. The heat shield. The question is, well, there's going to be heat clearly, but which way? Is it going to be from people who wanted more from the Mueller report or think that the Mueller report goes too far? I do think it's a good thing that Rosenstein stays there. He's been there from day one and he's sort of acted as political insulation for Mueller from Congress and from the White House throughout.

NOBLES: All right. Elie Honig, as always, great to see you.

HONIG: Thanks, Ryan.

NOBLES: Thanks for being here.

Still to come, 2020 candidate, Beto O'Rourke, making his first trip to New Hampshire this morning just as a new CNN poll gives a new look at who's leading the Democratic field.

Plus, were warning signs missed? A new report reveals how an off-duty pilot saved a different flight the day before the doomed Lion Air crash.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:22:35] NOBLES: Beto O'Rourke's huge first-day haul of $6.1 million was fueled by 128,000 what he's calling unique contributors. That's what the Democratic presidential candidate said about his fundraising numbers after a campaign event in New Hampshire this morning. It's his first trip to the critical primary state as a candidate. He's holding multiple events today. In fact, one is about to get underway in Plymouth. A live picture of it there.

O'Rourke is hoping that the mountain of cash can give him a bounce in the polls. A new CNN poll of Democrats and Democrat-leaning voters has him in fourth place right now. Joe Biden, who's not officially in the race, is on top with 28 percent, followed by Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny joins me from Washington.

Jeff, what's Beto O'Rourke saying about these fundraising numbers? JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ryan, he is

talking about these fundraising numbers, of course. That's one of the big headlines of the first week of his candidacy. But he talked about this just a short time ago in New Hampshire. There has been a question sort of hanging over him, where did all this $6.1 million come from. He had this to say about that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BETO O'ROURKE, (D), FORMER CONGRESSMAN & PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: More than 128,000 unique contributions made in the first 24 hours from every state in the country, and $47 was the average contribution. All of it came from people, not a dime from PACs or lobbyists. It helps us on our way to becoming the largest grassroots campaign.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZELENY: He's talking there, breaking down the numbers a little bit.

But, Ryan, let's break them down a little bit more, mainly comparing him with Bernie Sanders who, of course, raised just about $6 million and he, of course, raised an average of $27 on his contributions. You can see the numbers there broken down. What does that actually tell us? It means that Beto O'Rourke is also getting some bigger checks. Some donors are either maxing out to him giving him $2800 and then, of course, getting some smaller contributions. Bernie Sanders has always been fueled by a lot of small contributions.

But we should make the point here that the fundraising that Beto O'Rourke is doing seems to me much more like the Barack Obama fundraising, having that mix of small-dollar excitement, small-dollar contributions, and the larger establishment money, if you will. That is certainly helpful to him. But we will not know the full picture of any of this until April when these full reports are filed -- Ryan?

[11:25:02] NOBLES: Jeff, we're taking the candidate's word for it up until this point?

ZELENY: We are.

NOBLES: And $6.1 million is $6.1 million, no matter where it comes from.

And I want to ask you what you think about these 2020 polls.

ZELENY: Sure.

NOBLES: What in particular stands out to you?

ZELENY: I think that the thing, in particular, is Kamala Harris. She had the biggest bounce. Of course, she has been campaigning all year long. She jumped in just at basically the beginning of January. She had a big rise in there. But looking inside then numbers, one thing I am struck by, there's a big majority, some 56 percent of Democratic voters and Democratic leaning voters, who say their top priority is defeating the president. Of that subset, Bernie Sanders fares the worst among the top contenders because they want someone who can beat him. We are going to talk about this a lot, Ryan, you know, the purity test versus the pragmatic test. A lot of Democrats looking for someone who can beat President Trump. Of course, Senator Sanders says he is one of them -- Ryan?

NOBLES: That's right. The Sanders camp would tell you his purity makes him the most electable. That's ultimately going to for the Democratic voters to decide

ZELENY: Indeed.

NOBLES: Jeff Zeleny, in Washington. Thank you, Jeff.

Joining me now to talk more about this CNN politics reporter and editor-at-large, Chris Cillizza, and CNN political commentator, Angela Rye. She's the former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Angela, I want to start with you.

So much attention has been placed on Beto O'Rourke's fundraising numbers. Bernie Sanders' campaign is going to make this heavy emphasis on the fact they have more unique contributors. Does that really matter at this point? I mean, it really is a lot of money no matter how you slice it.

ANGELA RYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Sure. I think one of the things that Jeff just brought up is that Beto O'Rourke's numbers are more similar to Barack Obama's numbers, and I think that's not by mistake. I think once we start really understanding how the campaigns are unfolding, we're going to see a number of Obama former campaign staffers and consultants supporting his campaign.

I think the other thing that's interesting for us, the field is crowded. There are a number of Democratic contenders. And any little small thing that will differentiate one person from another, I think they're going to tap into. Bernie Sanders, we know the talking points probably won't change that much. That $27 is going to be key to him because he's saying, hey, I'm not just for you little guy, I'm one of you.

NOBLES: Right. Right.

Chris, it seems as though we're losing count of how many days we've been on the Biden watch. The ball moves a little bit closer every day but he's not quite there yet. You say he's making a mistake by holding out for so long. Why is that?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER & CNN EDITOR-AT-LARGE: I do think incrementalism reaches the point of insanity at some point. I think we're getting close to it. It's like everyone knows he's running so it's kind of like, what's the wait for. Here's what I think. I think that Biden, because everyone expects him to be in this race, Biden kind of opens himself up to being picked apart a little bit, criticized. Is he too dependent on big donors? Is he going to have too moderate a message? And he's not in the race so he can't defend himself. That's at least part of it.

The other thing is, in reporting done by Jeff Zeleny and Arlette Saenz, who covers Biden for CNN, there appears to be this kind of inevitability message that the Biden think they're going to launch on, which is, well, he's going to roll out all these major endorsements, he might pick a V.P early, everything aimed at saying this is really about Biden versus Trump. It's not a crowded field of equals. It's Biden and everybody else. I would just say, how did the inevitability argument work out for Hillary Clinton in 2016? Yes, she won the primary but it was a heck of a lot hard against Bernie Sanders than anyone thought it would be.

NOBLES: And Chris talks about inevitability. I imagine the Kamala Harris camp is paying close attention to that, Angela, especially as she continues to quietly sneak up in the polls. What do you think about the movement we're seeing from the Harris campaign?

RYE: I think the best thing that could have happened for Kamala Harris' campaign is for people to underestimate her. Maya Harris, who is her campaign chair, also her sister, a brilliant campaign mind, I think that is the best thing that could have happened. Again, I just want to say this very clearly. The field is already crowded, everyone has not yet announced, ala Biden. And I also think it's important for us to understand, it's 2019 and it's only March. We have a long way to go. There's a number of things that could happen. I was speaking last night at Tennessee State University and a young person asked, who do I expect to win, and I was like, it is way too early to call. We see those screens come up during primary nights and election nights on CNN and it is entirely too early to call. But I think Kamala Harris's folks are banking on people continuing to underestimate how strategic and how brilliant that campaign has been run, thus far, and will continue to be run.

NOBLES: Angela, there's no truth to the fact that I'm so swimming in 2020 that I'm writing 2020 on my checks. That's not happening yet. We're not quite there yet.

Chris, I do want to talk about President Trump's role in all of this.

CILLIZZA: Sure.

[11:30:02] NOBLES: He's talking about the Democratic field right now. He said, quote, "The Democrats are getting very strange," is how he put it.