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CNN NEWSROOM

Trump Administration Rejects Congressional Oversight Requests; Delegation Heads to China Next Week to Continue Trade Negotiations; For the First Time on Record, U.S. Imports No Oil from Venezuela; Growing Health Concerns After Texas Chemical Plant Fire; Deputy U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York to Step Down Next Month. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired March 22, 2019 - 10:30   ET

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


MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: He also was asked about what Elijah Cummings, as Oversight chairman, revealed yesterday, that he said that Kushner's attorney told him in a private meeting. That Kushner has used the messaging application WhatsApp to communicate with foreign leaders, potentially in violation of the Presidential Records Act, potentially not with adequate safeguards.

Now, the president was asked about that report. And he said he didn't know anything about it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I know nothing about it. I've never heard that. I've never heard about it.

(END VIDEO FLIP)

RAJU: It's a tactic the president has done time and again, when controversies emerge. Often he says he does not know about it, he's not aware of it. He said that here even though this has been an issue, certainly in the news, in the last -- almost the last 24 hours.

What Cummings also said was that Trump's daughter Ivanka, similarly, may be in violation of the Presidential Records Act because of her use of personal e-mail and the way she's handled certain e-mails.

Now, Kushner's attorney and Ivanka Trump's attorney is the same person, Abbe Lowell, pushed back, said that Cummings has -- did not characterize their meeting appropriately. He contends that they are in compliance with the law.

But that is just another example of how House Democrats plan to pursue their investigations, going forward. They're asking for information from the White House by early April, on that specific request about personal e-mail use. We'll see if the White House complies. But so far, not much compliance. And, well (ph), Democrats are weighing how to pursue this, going forward -- Poppy.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: Yes, absolutely. And how high this is going to go up in the courts, if they subpoena. Manu, appreciate the reporting. Thank you.

Let's bring in former federal prosecutor and our legal analyst, Shan Wu.

Good morning, Shan.

SHAN WU, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Good morning, Poppy.

HARLOW: So just on the Democrats, there are multiple requests for White House documents here. But just on the request for documents pertaining to the Putin-Trump meetings, for transparency, I mean, whose side is the law on here?

The White House that says, "Look, the president is allowed to have private conversations with foreign leaders," or Congress, which says, "Look, we have oversight responsibility here"?

WU: It's a really fascinating clash of the separation of powers here, and what their duties are. Because certainly, the head of state function for the president is definitely, really, a core function for the president. So they're on strong ground, really, saying that "Hands off, it's diplomat to diplomat, head of state to head of state."

However, what's different here is President Trump disregards all the normal safeguards. He doesn't have, usually, his staff in there with him. He doesn't like briefings. There's this allegation that he removed the interpreter's notes so there's a complete no witness, no safeguards kind of situation when he's talking to somebody like Putin.

So, naturally, the Oversight people are very worried about that. This is a highly unusual situation. It's in the backdrop of a counterintelligence investigation.

So the question arises, you know, "How can we do any oversight?" Without even anyone to ask or any documents.

HARLOW: Right.

WU: So I think they're definitely headed for a clash on that. And I think, at the end of the day, I think that it's possible that the president's side would win on that if it goes to the Supreme Court.

HARLOW: This is now, Shan, the first time that we've seen a White House or an administration refusal to turn over some documents to Congress, right? I mean, if you think about Eric Holder, Fast and Furious, the Obama administration. I mean, ultimately, a lot of documents were turned over.

WU: Right.

HARLOW: But is that instructive at all here?

WU: I think it's very instructive because of what you just said. Ultimately, a lot of documents were turned over. In the context of what the Trump administration is facing, they want

to take such a hard line. "We're going to completely refuse. Let's go to the Supreme Court." They're not realizing -- or maybe they do, and don't care -- when you get the court involved that way, it's no longer the three separate-but-equal branches, coequal branches. You're really having the court decide.

Long term, nobody may like that situation. If the court decides that the president has this kind of tremendous broad power, the Republicans won't like that when the next president is a Democrat.

HARLOW: Democrat.

WU: On the other hand, if they really cut back on their powers, no one's going to like that either. So it's dangerous. They should work it out as they have in the past.

HARLOW: Let's talk about the Mueller report. Washington on edge, waiting, waiting. And actually, we have no idea. It could come in two minutes, two weeks, two months, who knows.

WU: Right.

HARLOW: OK? But what is going to be interesting here is what kind of report Mueller turns over to Barr, who's essentially then going to go through it. And it could be minimalist, explaining the charging decisions here as required by the statutes. Or it could be an expansive history, right?

I mean, there's just a lot of --

WU: Right.

HARLOW: -- things it could be, in terms of the length and the substance.

WU: Yes. I would say, given Mueller's style and personality, it's unlikely to be super-minimalist. I think it'll be very sort of methodical and set forth what they've done, the witnesses, if there's been any interference in the sense of resources not being allotted. So I think it will be expansive.

[10:34:59] I think the big question is, stylistically, are they going to basically say disparaging things about people who aren't indicted? And then, of course, the biggest question is, what version of that is the attorney general going to feel is OK to release.

HARLOW: Let me read you something that the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, wrote in a long letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, last summer, spelling out the mission and obligations of the special counsel in asserting, in part, here's part of it.

Quote, "Punishing wrongdoers through judicial proceedings is only one of the Department's mission. We have a duty to prevent the disclosure of information that would unfairly tarnish people who are not charged with crimes." TEXT: "Punishing wrongdoers through judicial proceedings is only one part of the Department's mission. We have a duty to prevent the disclosure of information that would unfairly tarnish people who are not charged with crimes." Letter to Senate Judiciary Committee, June 27, 2018

HARLOW: Does that bode ill for transparency, that so many folks are clamoring so much about?

WU: Yes. I think it does. And I think that letter is very fascinating because Rosenstein brings up a history of adversarial relationships with Congress, who he does not need to remind about that. And he even slips in there, the point that the congressional investigations tend to be kind of undisciplined. There's no rules of evidence, and very adversarial.

I think he's really drawing a line in the sand, there, saying that the special prosecutor under these regulations is a DOJ prosecutor like any other one. "We're overseeing him and hands off, it's our criminal investigation." So I think it bodes, actually, very poorly for transparency.

HARLOW: OK. Shan Wu, so nice to have you.

WU: Good to see you.

HARLOW: Sure we'll be talking to you a lot in the comings days. Thank you.

WU: OK (ph).

HARLOW: President Trump remaining hopeful that he can make a trade deal with China. This is so important. So the question this morning is, why is the president so optimistic before his team heads to Beijing next week? Ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[10:41:20] HARLOW: All right. As trade talks are set to resume, the president is optimistic that there will be a trade deal with China. Listen to what he said just this morning on "Fox Business."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: You look at what's going on with respect to China, where (ph) a (ph) deal is coming along very well. We'll see what happens. But we're taking in billions and billions of dollars for the first time ever, against China, in the form of tariffs. I'm very happy with that.

But I think the deal will probably happen. I think they need it very badly. Nobody's ever really seen anything quite like what's happening.

(END VIDEO CLIP) HARLOW: By the way, those tariff dollars, they don't, like, just go to the Treasury. But that's just an important point of fact. The comments, just days before a U.S. delegation will travel to Beijing to resume negotiations. My colleague and friend Cristina Alesci joins me now with more.

This is such an important thing. I mean, I remember Jamie Dimon, head of JPMorgan, saying this relationship between the U.S. and China is the most important for the next 100 years.

The president says a deal will probably happen. What are you hearing?

CRISTINA ALESCI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I'm hearing that the president wants to tout a deal. He's definitely playing up the possibility. But his trade advisors and the people on ground handling these negotiations are trying to manage expectations.

And the big question -- what we don't know -- is the actual progress. Everybody's trying to read the tea leaves, everybody's trying to figure out just how far along the U.S. and China have been. I mean, I was on the phone this morning with a source who was trying to tell me that there's progress being made because the document that was -- that they're negotiating over was 150 pages, and now it's 170 pages. So that's progress for you.

Look, the key issue is enforceability. And whether or not the U.S. can hold China accountable to the promises that it's been making.

Remember, China's out there, passing laws, saying that it's going to try and reduce forced technology transfers, try to reduce intellectual property theft. Now, some of that is just because China is, you know, developing its economy and it needs to do those things. Some of that could be pressure from the U.S.

But the U.S. wants to know that it could check up on China and hold it accountable. And that's really the sticking point, Poppy.

HARLOW: We will watch. Again, that trade delegation goes next week, right? To Beijing. So there's a lot on the table here. Thank you, Cristina. I appreciate the reporting.

The United States used to be Venezuela's biggest oil customer. But not anymore. Last week, the U.S. did not import a single barrel of oil from Venezuela. That's for the first time ever on record, that they haven't.

And it's a direct result of the administration's sanctions on Venezuelan oil. And it's a big deal for all of you at home. Why? Let's ask CNN lead business writer Matt Egan.

Good morning. This is a fascinating story you wrote. Why do people at home care?

MATT EGAN, CNN BUSINESS LEAD WRITER: So there's no doubt that the situation in Venezuela is starting to have an impact on energy prices at home. HARLOW: Right.

EGAN: We saw U.S. oil prices hit $60 a barrel this week for the first time since November. Crude is up 40 percent since Christmas Eve. And gasoline prices are starting to creep higher. And Venezuela is one of the major reasons.

Despite all the tensions between the United States and Venezuela, Venezuela has long been a major source of oil for the United States.

HARLOW: Yes.

EGAN: It was the number five importer into the United States just last year.

But a combination of the crisis there, the economic troubles there and now the sanctions that the Trump administration announced in January on PDVSA, we've seen those numbers come down very dramatically.

HARLOW: And that, of course, is the government-run oil entity in Venezuela.

EGAN: Exactly. PDVSA is the state-run --

HARLOW: Right.

EGAN: -- oil company there. Now, the other thing to remember is that, you know, Venezuela has more oil reserves than any other country on the planet.

HARLOW: Wow.

EGAN: And yet they're dealing with a horrible humanitarian --

HARLOW: Yes.

EGAN: -- disaster right now. We're talking about mass blackouts. We have starvation. And there are shortages of medicine.

[10:45:03] And the government relies on oil exports for --

HARLOW: Right.

EGAN: -- 90 percent of its revenue. So this situation is only going to really add to the misery there.

HARLOW: For the -- in the humanitarian crisis.

So I think a lot of people at home would be asking, "Well, why -- you know, why would gas prices and oil prices go up in this country?" Because don't we produce more oil than we ever have as a country before?

EGAN: We do, we do. And thanks to the shale revolution, U.S. oil production has gone up to record highs. We've actually recently surpassed both Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world's leading oil producer.

But the problem is that not every barrel is created equally. U.S. produces very light crude. And the decades-old refinery system in the Gulf Coast actually requires a healthy dose of heavy crude.

HARLOW: So we're producing the wrong kind of oil for what we need?

EGAN: Kind of. Or the refinery system just isn't configured --

HARLOW: It (ph) needs to change?

EGAN: -- it needs to get modernized because it still requires this heavy crude. Normally we would get that from Venezuela. But not anymore. And the other problem is that Canada, they have a lot of heavy crude but they don't have the infrastructure --

HARLOW: Right.

EGAN: -- they've actually run out of pipelines.

HARLOW: From the oil sands?

EGAN: Exactly.

HARLOW: What about Saudi Arabia? Obviously huge humanitarian concerns in Saudi Arabia. U.S. reliance on Saudi oil has gone down. Does this cutting-off, basically, from Venezuela mean we're going to get more Saudi oil?

EGAN: Normally, Saudi Arabia would be the obvious place to turn to --

HARLOW: Yes.

EGAN: -- it's the world's leading oil exporter. But the problem is that Saudi Arabia, OPEC and Russia, they've all agreed to scale back production. And that's because oil prices fell very sharply last year. And so they are actually keeping that promise. They have sharply cut back shipments, specifically to the United States because the U.S. has the most timely and accurate energy data.

And so we've seen U.S. imports from Saudi Arabia decline by about a third. For now, it doesn't seem like Saudi Arabia is willing to fill the void left by Venezuela.

HARLOW: It's fascinating, and something I did not expect that we would see because of these sanctions. Matt, great reporting.

You can read more on "CNN BUSINESS."

Thank you, my friend.

EGAN: Thank you.

HARLOW: Have a good weekend.

All right. A Houston suburb on edge as HAZMAT crews continue to test the air for potentially toxic chemicals. Look at that. Those are some images from earlier this week. You've got schools outside of Houston closed, people being told to stay in their homes. We'll have a live report next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[10:51:40] HARLOW: All right, welcome back. There are growing health concerns and, really, few answers in the Houston suburb of Deer Park, Texas. This is after that huge chemical plant fire that you saw this week was extinguished. Our Ed Lavandera is live this morning from Deer Park with the latest.

It was, you know, so much back and forth, Ed. The fire was still raging, they said the kids could go back to school. Then they couldn't, then there was a shelter-in-place. What do we know this morning?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, there are still a number of school districts around the area that have not opened again today. This is after this blaze -- massive blaze -- that cast a massive, eerie shadow over much of Houston was extinguished early Wednesday morning.

The concern, now, is still the chemicals that are underneath this layer of foam that was used to put out the flame. And some of those chemicals still seeping out.

Yesterday there was raised levels of benzene, which is a chemical that can be very harmful if inhaled. And that shut down -- that instigated a shelter-in-place for several hours. That was lifted in the early afternoon hours. But that kind of really raises the concerns around here, as even though this flame is out there is still a lot of anxiety of exactly what folks around here are breathing.

There was a clinic that opened up -- Harris County medical officials opened up a clinic where people could come by yesterday, and expect it to reopen again today and get themselves checked out for any concerns that they might have. And we ran into several people who say they have been dealing with strange ailments throughout much of the week.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ALBERTO RIOS, WORKS NEAR CHEMICAL PLANT FIRE: When they tell us there's nothing in the air, you know, I mean, which I don't believe -- I felt (ph) how I feel my throat itchy, my face, my lips. They're still, until right now, I still feel them, you know? A little itchy. Like not a burn-burn, but you could feel it, you know?

MARCOS SANCHEZ, WORKS NEAR CHEMICAL PLANT FIRE: My system is like, right here? I felt, like, hot. Like it was burning right here. And then I had diarrhea, like, about a couple of days ago. I spit out blood today, this morning, you know. I (INAUDIBLE) feeling, you know, I never felt like this before.

(END VIDEO CLIP) LAVANDERA: Those two gentlemen live here in the Deer Park, Texas area and also work at another chemical plant nearby. So that's some of the issues that they've been dealing with this week.

Air and water quality testing continues. Not only is the company doing that, but as well as government agencies and environmental groups are all around here, making -- carrying out air and water quality testing. And so far, they still continue to report that, by and large, there are not hazardous levels of issues in this area. And water quality tests that are coming out so far -- Poppy.

HARLOW: Do we know, Ed, how this blaze started? Because it just continued for so long. And it was so hard for them to put out.

LAVANDERA: Right. This started Sunday morning. It wasn't put out until early Wednesday morning. So nearly three days of this blaze raging. There's still no exact cause, but there are a wide number of investigations that have already been launched, to figure out exactly what happened here.

And there are a lot of local government officials who are demanding that, if need be, the company officials here need to be held accountable for what happened. So a lot of questions still surrounding exactly how all of this erupted.

HARLOW: Ed Lavandera, I appreciate you being there. Thanks very much.

[10:54:57] All right. The White House, Washington, just about everyone else, waiting for the Mueller report. Waiting for Robert Mueller to submit it to the Justice Department. And even the president this morning says he doesn't know when it will be released. Stay with us for the very latest.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN, the most trusted name in news.

HARLOW: All right. The deputy Manhattan U.S. attorney who is overseeing the criminal case against Michael Cohen, President Trump's former personal attorney, is set to leave his post next month. This is according to a person familiar with the matter.

We've learned that Robert Khuzami has not given a reason for his departure and has not announced his next steps. He is set to be succeeded in the deputy U.S. attorney role by the office's current counsel. That's Audrey Strauss, that is also according to the source. We'll keep you posted on that.

Thank you so much for joining me today. I'm Poppy Harlow in New York. Jim will be back in the chair. I will be off next week. I'll see you soon. "AT THIS HOUR" starts now.