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Trump Threatens to Shut Border; Did White House Approve 25 Security Clearances Despite Denials?. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired April 1, 2019 - 16:00   ET




JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: The Final Four is set, President Trump now facing a full-court press from House Democrats.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Dems about to unleash a whole new round of legal troubles for the president, trying to find out whether the White House played it fast and loose at all with top security clearances.

Right now, hundreds of officers are rushing south, as President Trump threatens to close the border and cuts off aid to some Central American countries, critics warning that could cause an economic disaster here at home.

Plus, George Clooney and Sir Elton John leading worldwide outrage over one Islamic nation's new medieval anti-gay law that involves death by stoning.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with the politics lead.

President Trump, may I introduce you to Democrats with subpoena power? We could soon see the first subpoenas directed at the Trump White House by House Democrats. This week, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler of New York will authorize one for the full unredacted Mueller report and the underlying evidence.

The committee, we're told, will also vote to authorize subpoenas for five former top White House officials.

But we're not even sure Chairman Nadler will be the first Democrat to officially subpoena the White House, because House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings of Maryland plans to issue a subpoena to interview the White House personnel security director, this after a whistle-blower revealed the Trump administration pushed for security clearances for 25 individuals, including senior aides Ivanka and Jared Kushner, according to a source, aides who were initially denied those security clearances because of issues such as concerns that they have the potential to be subject to foreign influence or because of possible conflicts of interest.

As CNN's Alex Marquardt reports for us now, Democrats are warning of grave security risks.


ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A White House whistle-blower is alleging the Trump administration's handling of security clearances is threatening U.S. national security.

The 18-year career official claiming the Trump administration gave security clearances to dozens of people who shouldn't have had them, including, according to a source, the president's daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, overruling the office that determines whether a person should get access to the country's biggest secrets.

In a letter to the White House counsel, House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings said the whistle-blower named Tricia Newbold, a career official in the White House office that oversees security operations, "believes that Congress must intervene immediately to safeguard our national security."

It's the latest sign that Democrats plan to use their new subpoena power in the House to demand answers from the Trump administration. Chairman Cummings has now suspected the former personnel security director, Carl Kline, who allegedly pushed through the clearances, the whistle-blower says, despite potential conflicts of interest or possible manipulation by foreign powers.

QUESTION: At what point do you say enough's enough?

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: There will come a moment when I will do whatever is necessary to be done to carry out my responsibilities under the Constitution.

MARQUARDT: The president can give out security clearances as he sees fit, but has denied a role in pushing through these clearances.

QUESTION: Did you tell General Kelly or anyone in the White House to overrule security officials?


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No, I don't think I have the authority to do that. I'm not sure I do.

QUESTION: You do haven't authority to do it.

TRUMP: But I wouldn't -- I wouldn't do it.

MARQUARDT: The ranking member on Oversight, Congressman Jim Jordan, called the investigation reckless, that "It's an excuse to go fishing through the personal files of dedicated public servants," this as the House Judiciary Committee, under Congressman Jerry Nadler, announced it plans to subpoena to obtain the full unredacted Mueller report. He also wants to subpoena some of the biggest names who have worked in

the Trump White House, including Steve Bannon, Hope Hicks, and former White House counsel Don McGahn, in relation to their roles in the Mueller probe.


MARQUARDT: And, Jake, I have been speaking with that whistle-blower, Tricia Newbold, for several months now. She was deeply concerned about the way her boss, Carl Kline, was running the office and the security clearance decisions, like the one for Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, which we now know he overruled.

Republicans have also responded to the Democrats' memo, arguing that Newbold had limited knowledge, as they said, about specific applications and pointing out that, on her list of those 25 people, she had very serious concerns for just four or five of them -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Alex Marquardt, thanks so much.

Let's talk about this with my experts.

Kaitlan Collins, White House reporter, does the White House have a strategy to deal with these incoming subpoenas? They have never faced them before.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, so far, they haven't responded to this, but they have known this was coming ever since Democrats won back the White House.

But what's going to be interesting here is, we already know what Pat Cipollone thinks about this, especially with these requests about the security clearances. He has a very strong feeling that the executive branch has full authority to grant whoever or deny whoever a security clearance as they see fit.


And he doesn't think that Democrats or Congress has the authority to step in and do what he says are intrusive measures. So you can imagine this is either going -- he's either going to accommodate these requests or they're going to end up in a court battle.

That is seemingly likely the option. But, for security clearances specifically, there has been a sense of unease in the White House about so much scrutiny on this because there were so many issues with that. That was really a big problem in the White House, especially with the Rob Porter scandal.

So White House officials don't really feel like their slate is clean on this one, so they don't want an extra set of eyes looking at how they have been handling these.

TAPPER: What are Democrats -- what's the point here for Democrats when it comes to -- obviously, we know what they want when it comes to the Mueller report. What's the point when it comes to these security clearances? The president does ultimately have the final say. What are they hoping to achieve?

JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: The president has bad judgment. That's really the question that's on the table.

The president goes to meetings with foreign leaders and kicks out all other staff, takes the notes of interpreters to keep anybody from finding out what's happening. The president gives security clearances to people who people in the intelligence agencies say shouldn't have them.

At some point, we sort of have to ask the question, is this the kind of judgment about our national security that we all want? I have been through this process. It's intrusive. They go through everything. They knock on the doors in your neighborhood, and your friends come and ask your dad if you did something wrong because the FBI was here.

You know, this is a -- this is how this is supposed to work. But, apparently, in the Trump administration, that's not how it works. They give them whoever the president thinks is OK.

TAPPER: Ayesha, in the past, what the White House has been doing is just ignoring letters from House Democrats, just acting as if they didn't even send them.

But they're going to have to respond to a subpoena, and, if not, it will go to court, as Kaitlan points out.

AYESHA RASCOE, NPR WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: They're going to have to come up with responses.

And it looks they probably are saying, look, we're ready for a fight, and if it goes to court, it will drag out for a long time. But the problem with that is that, though, is that things can come out. When you're doing these type of investigations, you have subpoena power.

What is going to come out? And the issue with these clearances in particular, when you talk about Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, is the close relationship to the president. These are family members. And so there's always been that question of having people that close to the president working in the White House. Is he willing to look the other way, even though there are concerns about risk?

TAPPER: And, Scott, just to give the Republican response on this, the Republican ranking member on the Oversight Committee, Congressman Jim Jordan of Ohio, he's pushing back, saying -- quote -- "Chairman Cummings" -- that's the Democratic chairman from Maryland, Elijah Cummings -- "Chairman Cummings' investigation is not about restoring integrity to the security clearance process. It is an excuse to go fishing through the personal files of dedicated public servants."

But there is this whistle-blower, there is this individual saying that something has gone wrong here. Is this not theoretically what the House Oversight Committee is supposed to be looking into?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Sure. If she wants to go talk to the House Oversight Committee, I don't have a problem with that.

I do get very nervous when you have extremely partisan Democrats digging through people's personal records. And they would clearly publicize it. Another issue that I don't know that the House Democrats have considered is, it's longstanding DOJ precedent and policy that the senior-most advisers to a president cannot be suspected and compelled to appear before Congress.

TAPPER: If they work in the White House.

JENNINGS: If they work in the White House. This has been reaffirmed many times, most recently during the Obama administration and by their DOJ.

So, I think they're going to run into some serious roadblocks if they come after Kushner and Ivanka and the others, who exist as the senior- most layer in this White House.

TAPPER: Let's turn to the fact that Jerry Nadler and the Judiciary Committee is trying to subpoena the full Mueller report.

President Trump tweeted today -- quote -- "No matter what information is given to the crazed Democrats from the no-collusion Mueller report, it will never be good enough."

Does he have a point there? I know you disagree with him, but the bottom line is, Democrats are going to be trying to talk about the Mueller report no matter what it says.

SIMMONS: Yes, but the American public wants to see the Mueller report.


SIMMONS: People feel as if they paid for it. They feel as if this is something they want to see. Democrats are acting on behalf of people who elected them, the majority.

And they want to see the report and underlying data. Here's the problem. Bill Barr may not be the most objective source on what's in that report. And so, until people see it, I think you're going to continue to see Democrats raise questions.

TAPPER: We're hearing conflicting -- conflicting things from the White House about whether or not they really want to release the Mueller report. What's really going on?

COLLINS: Well, they say they want it released, but there is a sense of concern, not just in the White House, but in the president's world and his inner circle, some people outside the White House, that what's in the Mueller report could be politically damaging to the president.

Maybe that's why they don't want it all to come out. The president raised some questions about whether he truly wanted it to come out when he tweeted on Friday, we should just take our victory and go, because that letter that Nadler responded to Barr with, Barr said he was -- would release the report with redactions. He would be happy to appear in May.

He wasn't going to meet their April 2 deadline, which is tomorrow. And the White House response to that was essentially, they're not meeting Bill Barr halfway, like he's trying to do this here and they don't feel like he's being met halfway.


But I do want to note about Barr going through that, when he said he would issue some kind of the report with redactions, he did say he was going to go through it with the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

So that does lead you to believe that he wouldn't publish something that is vastly different than what Robert Mueller submitted. But, of course, most people do want to see the full report that they could publish without releasing anything intelligence-related.

TAPPER: And let's be frank. It's several hundred pages, and it's not several hundred pages of things that look great. It might be several hundred pages, and the ultimate conclusion is nothing was illegal or nothing could be proven, but it's several hundred pages of things that they had to investigate because they looked fishy.


I mean, look, when you interview 500 people and you go through all these documents, there could well be embarrassing things in there. I don't dispute that.

But as Barr's letter said, quoting directly from the report, there was no evidence of collusion or coordination with the Russians. That's a good fact for the president. He has said from the beginning that he wants the report to come out. Most Americans want it to come out.

And I think it will come out. This subpoena is completely unnecessary. Today is April the 1st. Barr says he can have it done by April the 15th or sooner. This sort of aggressive confrontationalism here is, I think, going to weaken public trust in this process, because it's going to look hyperpartisan.

TAPPER: Ayesha?

RASCOE: The idea that being very aggressive in investigations really weakens the public trust, I don't know if it weakens the public trust.

You have seen Republicans do the same thing when it came to Benghazi and all these other things. This is what happens in Congress. When you have an opposing party and there is an investigation of the other party, they are going to be aggressive in looking into that, into -- and into the possibility of corruption or whatever comes out.

The problem for the White House is, when you say you have been completely vindicated, you have been completely exonerated, then why not release the whole report? And President Trump is on the record saying, let's release it -- before the summary came out, let's release it, let's let the public decide. So it seems like they're walking it back.


SIMMONS: This is not their first time at the rodeo either. The president is someone who promised to give the American people his tax returns, and we still haven't seen those tax returns.


COLLINS: And what's key about the Mueller report is, in Bill Barr's letter, he said that the president wasn't going to assert executive privilege because he's deferring to Bill Barr on that, as he stated publicly.

But it really doesn't make it clear whether or not Barr is going to decide what's going to be covered by executive privilege. So, he could be the one making those decisions.

TAPPER: All right, everyone, stick around.

What may be the first signs of the president following through on his threat to shut the border down, despite warnings that that could theoretically trigger an economic disaster for the U.S.

Plus, breaking news: another woman now accusing the former Vice President Joe Biden of inappropriate conduct, not sexual harassment, but inappropriate -- details of this latest allegation next.

Stay with us.


[16:16:41] TAPPER: Welcome back.

Our national lead now. Customs and Border Protection speeding up the deployment of 750 officers to the Southern Border, as the humanitarian crisis there worsens from a flood of undocumented migrants, many of them families seeking asylum overburdening a system already stretched thin. This comes as President Trump is renewing his threat to close the U.S./Mexico border this week, unless the Mexican government does more to stop the flow.

Ed Lavandera is at the U.S./Mexico border in El Paso, Texas.

Ed, are officials there preparing for the border to be closed? And how would that even work, exactly?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's what many people around here want to know. It would essentially -- you know, this is the welcome sign that you get once you cross the bridge from Juarez, Mexico, into El Paso. This is the port of entry you see behind me. You take this road and a lot of people walk back this road into Mexico. They drive back and forth.

This is used over and over throughout the day. So the idea of closing all of this down would have a devastating effect. If you look back here on to the main street that takes you into El Paso, hundreds of businesses that depend on that foot traffic coming back and forth, that's just one small piece of the economic puzzle that would be impacted by the closure of the border here, Jake. And that's why the news of this has really sent shock waves up and down the southern border.

TAPPER: Ed, you've been to the border countless times. What are you seeing on the ground there over the last day or so?

LAVANDERA: Well, you know, we've heard so much over the last couple of weeks, from Customs and Border Protection, federal government officials, talking about the increase in how the number of migrants arriving at the southern border is straining the system.

You know, throughout much of El Paso, there is border wall that already exists through here. And what we saw here in the last couple of days is -- for example, we witnessed one group of about 50 migrants, right in front of the border wall that were being processed by border patrol agents. So there's this -- so people understand, there's this no man's land between the river, which is the actual border, and the border wall that exists. And many of those migrants simply getting up to the southern side of that border wall, and that gets them into the United States and that's why you see those border patrol agents processing those large numbers of people here, even though there's a border wall in place -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Ed Lavandera at the border in El Paso, thanks so much.

When asked whether the president will close the border, a White House official told CNN, quote: You never know. It's anybody's guest.

While Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told me on "STATE OF THE UNION," the president will indeed cut off aid to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, also known as the Northern Triangle, because the countries could, quote, do more to stem the tide of migrants from their countries, despite the fact that experts and top officials within Mr. Trump's own administration say that cutting off that foreign aid will only cause more migrants to flee to the United States.

CNN's Abby Phillip is at the White House now.

Abby, is the White House preparing for the president to close the border?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, they're preparing for anything at this point. But officials are telling us that it's not clear that the president has gotten to the point where he's ready to make a decision on this. One official telling me that it doesn't appear that something is imminent as of this moment and that key parts of this decision haven't been made, like, for example, what would be the scope of such a closure, if one were to happen?

But there's also something else the White House is considering. According to my colleague, Jeremy Diamond, officials have been -- have been throwing around the idea recently of appointing some kind of immigration czar.

[16:20:00] The idea being to have one person focused on dealing with the issue of people crossing the border illegally and this surge that we've seen in recent weeks and months at the border.

This is happening at the same time that the Department of Homeland Security saying that there is a crisis and the crisis and getting worse by the day. There are some names being kicked around, including Kris Kobach, the Kentucky secretary of state, and also Ken Cuccinelli, the former official in the state of Virginia and also CNN political commentator, as well -- Jake.

TAPPER: I've heard a lot of Republicans, Abby, talking about how they think cutting -- shutting down the southern border will be a horrible idea, because it will be a self-inflicted wound on the United States' own economy. What type of economic impact would a border closure have?

PHILLIP: Jake, that argument is also being made within the White House. Officials briefing the president over a period of months about these economic impacts, and let me just show you a little bit of what we're talking about here. Mexico is the second largest trading partner for the United States, as of this moment. And 78 percent, almost 80 percent of U.S. exports go to Mexico by truck or rail. So, we're talking over that southern border.

Mexico also accounted for almost half of the agricultural produce that comes across the border. And that's not even talking about the flow of people, people who work in the United States or work in Mexico, and vice versa. But in the face of all of that, this is what Mick Mulvaney told you yesterday on "STATE OF THE UNION."


TAPPER: Are you concerned at all about closing the border, given the effect it will have on the American economy?

MICK MULVANEY, ACTING WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: Sure. But we're also concerned about the effect to the American economy and the nation as a whole from having 100,000 -- more than 100,000 people cross illegally this month.


PHILLIP: So this is the argument that Mulvaney is making to the president and the president also believes that closing the border is a unilateral action he can take to do something about this issue at the border. It also, in the president's view, is something that will put some pressure on Mexico to do more to stop people from getting over into the United States, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Abby Phillip at the White House, thanks so much. Let's talk about this with our experts.

Ayesha, obviously, there is a humanitarian crisis at the border, especially with all of these families seeking asylum and overburdening a system that can't take them. But shutting down the border, closing off legal immigration, closing off all the interactions going son, does that make sense? Might it work?

RASCOE: Well, what it seems like President Trump is trying to do is to say that he's going to do something to stop this flow across the border, because this is what he ran on, right? He ran on being able to get illegal immigration under control. And now you have illegal immigration at record levels under his watch.

And so, that's a huge thing for him to try to address. But if you try to shut down the border, yes, you may get Mexico to act, but you're going to get some Americans to act, too, because you're going to affect Americans.

It doesn't -- if you're trying to do something politically to make a point, but you hurt your own citizens, that's going to be an issue. And you saw this with the shutdown, where he tried to take this very kind of staunch point of view, I'm going to get my wall, but then when you started to see the repercussions of it, he ultimately had to give in.

TAPPER: Jamal, take a listen to what Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told me yesterday.


MULVANEY: Mexico could help us do it. They need to do a little bit more. Honduras could do more. Nicaragua could do more. El Salvador could do more.

And if we're going to give these countries hundreds of millions of dollars, we would like them to do more.

That, Jake, I would respectfully submit to you, is not an unreasonable position. We could prevent a lot of what's happening on the southern border by preventing people from moving into Mexico in the first place.


TAPPER: I think he meant Honduras, not Nicaragua, but the larger point, if you cut off aid to these countries, people in the president's own administration, in CBP and Homeland Security, they say the aid to these South American countries, Central American countries has reduced the homicide rate in many instances, it has stemmed the undocumented immigrants, it seems self-defeating.

SIMMONS: It often seems like the president doesn't really understand how these things work. The same questions come up when he deals with NATO, this question about giving aide to these countries in South and about how that will help stem the tide of immigration.

I think about the point you were just making with Ayesha, talking about trade. You know, I'm from Michigan. So many auto companies are now sourcing their parts from south of the border.

TAPPER: Right.

SIMMONS: And when people can't get parts for their cars and the prices go up and cars aren't available, that's going to hurt the American economy. And the economy seems to be the only thing that is holding this president up in terms of any of his poll numbers. So, I just think this is cutting off his face to spite his nose.

TAPPER: And, Scott, let's look at the State Department data I was just referencing. This is homicides per capita in El Salvador, cut in half from 2015 to have 2018. And officials in the Trump administration, DHS, CBP, State Department say that aide, the Customs and Border Patrol Commissioner Kevin McAleenan just last month just said this, that aide helped the officials in Central America make it less violent in those countries, and for instance, in El Salvador, and that meant fewer people fleeing to the United States.

JENNINGS: Yes, I have worked in this space over the past several years. I have experienced firsthand USAID products out in the field in various places.

I believe in American foreign aid. I believe it works. And I believe in this case, based on the data, it is working. So, I don't agree with the president that cutting off aide here is the right answer.

However, I do agree with the president that we need more aggressive tactics from these countries to help us get this crisis under control. Look at the numbers, the thousands of people who are coming across the border. So, the president is trying to come up with things. I think some may be good, some maybe not so good, to stop what many, many Americans, and certainly the vast majority of his supporters believe is an absolute crisis.

You have people coming here for good reasons, fleeing violence, but you also have people coming here absolutely for the wrong reasons. And the president is trying to find a way to do something about it. And I hope he ends up finding the right levers to pull it off.

TAPPER: All right. Everyone, stick around. We have some breaking news coming in about former Vice President Joe Biden. A Connecticut woman is telling a local newspaper that the former vice president, in her view, inappropriately touched her, rubbing noses. Details of these latest allegations, next.

Stay with us.