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Top Dems Tamp Down Impeachment Talk After Pelosi Pens Letter; House Judiciary Chair Subpoenas Former WH Counsel McGahn; ISIS Claims Responsibility For Deadly Attacks In Sri Lanka. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired April 23, 2019 - 10:00   ET


[10:00:11] JIM SCIUTTO: A very good Tuesday morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto in Washington.

POPPY HARLOW: And I'm Poppy Harlow in New York. And while Democrats struggle with a strategy for acting on Mueller report, their focus this morning is on a wealth of documents that could be pretty revealing. Today's deadline day set by the House Ways and Means Committee for the IRS to turn over several years' worth of the President's tax returns.

SCIUTTO: This is actually the second deadline. The first came and went. And it's almost certain, the administration will slow walk or stonewall this request, perhaps all the way to the Supreme Court. Just like every other request from every other current House investigation.

CNN's Lauren Fox joins us now from Capitol Hill. So Lauren, tell us first about the impeachment decision here, which is a big challenge not just for sitting Democrats, but for Democratic presidents for 2020. A decision in fact, that seems to put on the back burner right now.

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, that's right, last night, Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, held a call with her caucus. It went almost 90 minutes. And in this caucus-wide call, she basically asked for the committee chairman to brief the other members of the House Democratic caucus and basically asked for them to just continue their investigation.

So then the chairmen, each sort of took time to talk about what they were looking into. And there was some, you know, anticipation that impeachment was something that some of them wanted to do. Maxine Waters, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee argued that she supported impeachment personally but she wasn't going to make a push for it.

Other committee chairman like, Jerry Nadler, did not discuss it. Nadler instead focused on the fact that he planned to subpoena Don McGahn and that he wanted to hear from Mueller and Barr before the House Judiciary Committee. Elijah Cummings, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee talked about his investigations into the White House security clearance process and prescription drug costs. So that is sort of where the focus is. Basically, investigate now and let the impeachment question linger for a bit longer, so moving that to the back burner.

HARLOW: OK. And what about their next strategy when it comes to the tax returns? Obviously, they're not coming today. So, what next?

FOX: Well, we don't expect them to come today. Trump's associates have been very clear about that, that Democrats will not see the President's tax returns. So there are a few options moving ahead. Essentially, Richard Neal, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has sent that follow-up letter asking for the IRS to comply with his request.

He could immediately sue if he wanted to, basically argue that the IRS is not complying with the law that gives him the ability to ask for the President's tax returns or he could issue a subpoena on top of that, that basically just sort of seen as the legal security blanket, just bolstering the case in court.

We're not sure exactly what Richard Neal's next steps are. But we do know that he is committed to getting the President's tax returns and he's not going to back off. Jim and Poppy?

SCIUTTO: It's been going on for three years, back to 2016 during the campaign. We'll see where it ends up. Lauren Fox, thanks very much.

Also, this morning, former White House counsel, Don McGahn, now on the brink of testifying before Congress. The House Judiciary Committee serving a subpoena to McGahn, part of its obstruction of justice probe into this President.

HARLOW: And McGahn, a central figure featured prominently in Mueller's report, was one of several aides who did not follow through after the President asked them to essentially undermine the Russia investigation.

Let's go to our colleague Manu Raju, he's on the Hill. This would be one of the highest profile witnesses from within Trump world to be brought to testify. And they want him to come, judiciary, on May 21st. But they want a lot of documents, Manu, from him even before that.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, by May 7th, they want those documents. This would be a rather dramatic moment if he does comply with the subpoena, if he does testify in public, and if he does layout what the Mueller report showed his central role and knowledge about some of the activity that took place in the Trump White House.

Some of the controversies, including the President apparently directing McGahn to fire the special counsel Mueller, and McGahn turning around and saying that he would not do that, he would rather resign than cause another Saturday night massacre. How much of that will be detailed if he does ultimately come here? That is still a question. The McGahn camp has not commented yet since the issuance of that subpoena last night. But this is all part of what the Democratic-led Judiciary Committee wants to do in the weeks ahead. Investigate what Bob Mueller found. Look further into the allegations of obstruction of justice. Put off that question about whether to impeach the President, instead investigate everything that came about.

Don McGahn is not the only witness they plan to bring forward. The first one will be Bill Barr on May 2nd. Then Bob Mueller will also come. No date has been set yet. Those will all likely happen in May. And then expect other White House officials to also come forward, including former White House officials. So a lot this committee wants to do to investigate before the talk of impeachment really heats up.

[10:05:05] SCIUTTO: Also on that list, and I know folks at home got to have trouble keeping up with it. But this is key, because it really is about how the White House doled out security clearances. And the White House is now saying, trying to stop its former head of security from complying with a subpoena. Will that be successful?

RAJU: Yes. It is so far because I'm standing in the hallway where actually that interview was supposed to take place, and Carl Kline, who is a former head of personnel security at the White House and oversaw the security clearance process, has not shown up despite the subpoena that was issued for his appearance.

And the reason why he did not was because the White House told him not to. And he now works for the Defense Department. And his attorney said, well, he's going to listen to his employer, the executive branch, over this dispute with the legislative branch. And of course, this all stems back to concerns about the security clearance process.

Democrats say that they raised concerns about Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, people who had concerns raised about whether they should have even gotten security clearances. We have reported that the President's overrode those concerns, led to the issuance of those security clearances. And a White House whistleblower came forward and talked to this committee and said there were 25 instances of individuals whose security clearances were ultimately approved despite concerns in the vetting process.

Carl Kline was a figure in that. And that's what Democrats wanted to ask him about this process. But the White House had said questions about individual security clearances should be off limits. They told him not to comply. He's not complying. Now the Democrats may hold Carl Kline in contempt of the House. Guys?

HARLOW: All right, Manu, we'll see where it goes. Thanks so much for the reporting.

With us now, Jim Schultz, former Trump White House lawyer and Lis Wiehl, former federal prosecutor, so nice to have you both. Jim, let me begin with you just on McGahn because you were, you know, you were attorney working in the White House. You know McGahn spoke to Mueller's team of prosecutors for 30 hours and told them a lot. Now, you have the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, that committee calling for McGahn to testify and ready to subpoena him. Doug Collins, he argues this, quote, instead of looking at the material that Attorney General Barr has made available, Democrats prefer to demand additional material they know are subject to constitutional and common-law privileges that cannot be produced.

Where is the law here in your mind? I mean, they're asking for a whole lot of documents from McGahn by May 7th. They have an oversight authority here. Obviously, what McGahn told Mueller and his team raised a lot of questions, right? I mean, does Congress have the right to see this stuff?

JIM SCHULTZ, FORMER TRUMP WHITE HOUSE LAWYER: So, it was a very broad request that covered things way beyond the obstruction issues. So and I think that's important to look at. But also, these are not McGahn's documents to produce. These are the White House's documents.

And they're subject to executive privilege. And therefore, the White House is going to be the one to respond to this, not McGahn and McGahn's lawyers at the end of the day because these issues all pertain, for the most part, to his time as counsel for the President. And therefore, will be subject to executive privilege. And, you know, look, this went far beyond --

HARLOW: But do you think, just Jim jumping in on it, do you think --


HARLOW: -- that McGahn should come testify because I mean, you read the Mueller report. It raised a lot of questions, right, that part with him?

SCHULTZ: It's not McGahn's choice as to whether he comes and testifies or not.


SCHULTZ: It's largely up to the White House because again, he had a duty and an ethical duty there in the White House to serve as counsel for the President. And remember, this will have future implications. If the White House allows him to go testify, and that's what they have to do in this instance because of the executive privilege issues, if they allow him to go testify, that has significant precedent for future presidencies relative to executive branch privilege.

You want presidents to be able to ask for advice from their lawyers and get advice from their lawyers in future presidencies. And that lawyer to be able to give that advice unvarnished without worrying about being called before Congress and being outed, so to speak, as to what their advice was.

SCIUTTO: All right, forgive my skepticism, Lis Wiehl, because this White House has broken with House protocol to release information that it considers beneficial. You had the declassification of the information in the famous Nunes memos declassifying, you know, intelligence because they felt that that served their case here. I mean, in your view, does the White House have a principled leg to stand on if that's the argument they're going to make regarding McGahn's testimony?

LIS WIEHL, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Absolutely not. I mean when you talk about McGahn's testimony and you talk about obstruction, remember, obstruction would be not covered by executive privilege because when the President asked McGahn to obstruct justice, that would be an act that would be beyond executive privilege because it would be an arguably illegal act. And that's what the Congress, Congressional Committee would be seeking to establish.

So executive privilege does not cover illegal acts. And what the committee wants to burnish into the American public is McGahn referenced the Saturday night massacre. Now, why did he go to that? He's referencing Watergate. Now, why would his mind go to Watergate? Well, he's talking about being having to fire the independent counsel, much like the White House counsel was trying to, you know, Nixon was trying to fire Archibald Cox.

[10:10:23] There, he went through two independent counsels who resigned at that point before the independent counsel Archibald Cox was finally fired. And then another independent counsel was put in. You know, people want to get back to Watergate and what happened with Nixon who eventually resigned before he was impeached.

I mean I think that's important to think about why did McGahn's mind go to Nixon when he was been Trump was then asking him to be, you know, to fire Mueller? I mean that's an important thing to go into the mind set of McGahn at that point, when he's asked to do an illegal act. And I think Congress has the right to look at that.

WIEHL: Yes, Poppy, it's an interesting point because often what you'll hear from the Republicans and the President's defenders is that, you know, that's a liberal, that's a left argument here. But here's a guy, he was a presidential appointee, serving the president, sitting in the President's White House, making that case there. That's remarkable.

HARLOW: Yes, no, I think that's a really good point, Jim. And Jim Schultz, feel free to respond to that. But can I also just get you on Carl Kline?


HARLOW: And the White House like going all out here to get this guy who ran, you know, personnel management and has a whistleblower saying look, the way these 25 security clearances were handed out was not right and Congress wants answers and the White House is telling Carl Kline to defy it. Are you comfortable with that?

SCHULTZ: They're not telling him to defy it.

HARLOW: Yes, they are. They're telling him -- hold on Jim -- defy -- how do you -- where do you want to use? The White House is saying, you know, Carl Kline, you can't go testify to Congress. SCHULTZ: So the White House again, we're talking about the age-old principle of executive privilege here and as it relates Carl Kline same thing. This is information that relative to and subject to executive privilege and it's the White House's responsibility and ability to invoke that that executive privilege where they see fit. And I want to go back. I mean we go back to the Obama administration and the fast and furious investigation.

There was executive privilege asserted there between the communications between the attorney general and the President of the United States on that particular issue that went through the court system. So let's not act like this is something new here.


SCHULTZ: This is an age-old principle. It's been push and pull. Let me finish, please. So you're right. It doesn't cover criminal investigations. So if this were a court subpoena, I think the legal standard is going to be much different than a congressional subpoena. Because in the area of -- as it relates to congressional subpoenas, courts are much that more deferential to the court subpoenas than they are the law enforcement subpoenas versus congressional subpoenas because of that push and pull between the executive branch and the congressional branch and the ability of the executive branch to assert privilege.

And coming back to your point here, I mean you make the assertion that this was a criminal act. You know, Mueller did not find this to be -- the fact that he asked McGahn --

WIEHL: Because he couldn't indict a sitting president. That's why.


SCHULTZ: That may be one of a multitude of reasons and the fact that if Mueller actually wanted to bring an action on that or write it in his report that there was criminal conduct here, he could have done that and chose not to. We can argue about that point all day --

WIEHL: He gave it to Congress to decide.

SCHULTZ: And all day we can argue back and forth about that. But at the end of the day, the act of asking your lawyer for advice on something or asking staff to do something, and the staff pushing back on it --

WIEHL: He wasn't asking for advice.

SCHULTZ: -- that's not a -- that is not established criminal activity. And even if it were, we're still talking about this is not a criminal subpoena. This is not a subpoena from the Justice Department. This is not a subpoena from a court. This is a subpoena from Congress, in which would really amounts to political stuntsmanship.

SCIUTTO: Well, it's a pretty low bar for presidential behavior, right? If the only protection in effect is that the special counsel finds, you can't prosecute based on DOJ policy, it seems to have the evidence there, which Barr frankly mischaracterized repeatedly in public.

Listen, I know it's part of the law --

SCHULTZ: But that's not what he said, Jim. He didn't say it was just because of DOJ policies. If he had the evidence we --

SCIUTTO: We can roll the tape on that. We can roll the tape on that. But listen, I don't want to be unfair to you Jim because I know it's a longer conversation here. But it's certainly a subject of dispute and I appreciate both of you and Lis running through this. Let's promise we're going to keep up the conversation. We'll give you a chance to come back on. We'll dig a little deeper.

SCHULTZ: Thank you.

WIEHL: You got it.

SCIUTTO: Breaking, new information on the Sri Lanka attacks investigation. Officials now warning there are still people on the run with explosives and revealing another planned attack that horrible Easter Sunday that failed. We'll going to have details again.

Plus, President Trump will meet the Queen for his first state visit to the U.K. But how could this trip impact the already turbulent talks over Brexit there?

[10:15:00] HARLOW: An oral argument is under way this morning in the Supreme Court. Justices weighing whether to allow the Trump administration to add a controversial citizenship question to the 2020 census. It's important. We'll tell you about it ahead.


HARLOW: This morning, Sri Lanka's prime minister says, there are still people on the run with explosives in that country following the deadly terror attacks on Easter Sunday. Also this morning, ISIS is now claiming responsibility for the series of bombings that killed 321 people and injured more than 500.

SCIUTTO: It's just incredible bloodshed there. And we're learning even more. Top government officials claiming the explosions on Easter Sunday were in retaliation for last month's shooting at two mosques in New Zealand. That's the cycle of violence we're talking about now.

[10:20:04] Sam Kiley has the latest developments from Colombo, Sri Lanka. Sam, primarily, how severe is the concern that there are still attackers out there as we speak?

SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's absolute concern, Jim. There was a message that went out early afternoon today while we were out on the ground in Colombo saying, and this was from Sri Lankan police, saying that they were on alert for a truck and a car, both of which were believed to have been loaded with explosives. Both of which were believed to be at large somewhere in the capital city.

So there you go. One example of what has been a continuous process of identification of these sorts of threats. We saw the day after the bombings and the mass murders, there was a detonation of a van bomb not far from this location, just outside St. Anthony's Church that our own Ivan Watson witnessed. And now, we have these reports.

And there is now an assumption, really, that there are many more possible terrorists out there from this small fringe group that one though has been active now for some time, and one which Muslim leaders that we've spoken to here were complaining about as far back as 2015 to the government and the intelligence services. Jim, Poppy?

SCIUTTO: Goodness, so much more to uncover there. Sam Kiley on the ground for us. Joining us now to discuss the bigger issues, here is CNN terrorism analyst, Paul Cruickshank. And Paul, I suppose big picture terms, if anyone doubted that groups such as this still have the ability and the desire to carry out sophisticated attacks that should disappear with this.

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, that's right. And the Sri Lankan prime minister just in the last few minutes talking about suspected foreign links, foreign involvement, overseas travel, training, and coordination and all of that points to a major international terrorist conspiracy.

We have seen ISIS claim responsibility in the last few hours. They have not provided any proof that they were responsible for this. But I certainly think that's within now within the realm of possibility. Especially when you add in Barbara Starr's reporting about U.S. Intelligence identifying a participant who they believe may have links to ISIS.

So a lot kind of now going towards the ISIS direction in terms of a possible responsibility here, Jim. This is a group that has lost all its territory, basically, in Syria and Iraq but has wanted to carry on operational terrorist planning. There are several doesn't Sri Lankans who in the past several years have joined ISIS. Mainly they have gone to travel to Syria.

And I think the concern here is that maybe some of them managed to come back to Sri Lanka or maybe they were able to direct or train operatives to carry out this attack. Perhaps even by putting out internet communications back to Sri Lanka. The idea that this was just a small local group that hadn't been responsible that for much in the past, able to do this, I think is far fetched. I think we're now looking more at a broader international terrorist conspiracy.

SCIUTTO: Goodness, that's disturbing.

HARLOW: You know, Paul, also incredibly disturbing is the fact that the government apologized for totally missing this, saying we had the intelligence. We should have seen it, we didn't. And now the prime minister this morning is saying, there are still some people running around the country with explosives. Walk us through what Sri Lankan officials must be doing right now trying to track those folks down with the intelligence that apparently they had some of before.

CRUICKSHANK: Well, absolutely. And there's a lot of concern now that there are still attackers at large, cell members at large, bombmakers add large, that the danger is not over in Sri Lanka. There have been alerts that put out about explosives traveling in vehicles.

And they don't think they've apprehended everybody yet. So these are dangerous days ahead for Sri Lanka. And I have to really underline here that this attack came out of the blue for most people like me, people in the terrorism studies field. We did not expect there to be an attack on this scale like this in Sri Lanka.

There just really hasn't been a lot of Jihadi activity there. So whoever was able to pull this off really have shocked the international community. And sort of asks the question whether this could take place somewhere else that we might not expect.


CRUICKSHANK: That there are perhaps surprises in store despite the fact that ISIS has been significantly weakened in Syria and Iraq. That many of its operational attack planners have been killed, and it's more difficult for them to recruit people because they don't really have territory anymore.

HARLOW: Paul Cruickshank, thank you for your expertise. I know you're at the forefront of all of this. We appreciate it.

[10:25:03] A critical decision about the U.S. census will soon be made. Right now, Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments. We'll explain it all ahead.


SCIUTTO: This just in to CNN, former Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort has been moved now to a federal prison in Pennsylvania.

[10:30:00] HARLOW: The facility in northeastern Pennsylvania is described as a high-security penitentiary with a minimum security satellite cam.