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NYT: White House Chief of Staff Warned Nielsen Not to Tell Trump about Russian Meddling Efforts to Interfere in 2020 Election; Kushner Calls Russia Interference a "Couple of Facebook Ads"; Trump Says He Opposes Aides Testifying to Congress; Trump Speaks as White House Stonewalls Congress; Biden Set to Officially Enter Presidential Race Tomorrow. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired April 24, 2019 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:00] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: "AT THIS HOUR" with Kate Bolduan starts right now.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. Thank you so much for joining me.

Just minutes ago, the White House responded to a report that President Trump is being shielded from any mention of Russian interference in U.S. elections. According to the "New York Times," then-secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, was becoming more and more concerned about Russian meddling after the 2018 midterms. And when she pushed for a cabinet-level meeting to get everyone on the same page for 2020, she was basically told, no, do not bring it up in front of the president.

Acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, saying, quote, "It wasn't a great subject and should be kept below his level," according to the "New York Times" -- a senior administration official telling the "New York Times." So, to be clear, Russian interference happened in 2016. Trump denied that reality.

And now with Russians sure to try again in 2020 and by utilizing new techniques, Trump reportedly doesn't want to hear that reality. Feel safe?

CNN's Sarah Westwood is in Atlanta, where the president is set to speak this afternoon. She joins me right now.

Sarah, there's new reaction and new response coming from the White House about this reporting in the "New York Times." What are you hearing?

SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: That's right, Kate. Acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, is responding, denying he has any memory of this "New York Times" report, which claims that Mulvaney instructed then-Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen not to bring up the Russian interference in the election in front of the president still equated any discussions of maligned Russian behavior with questioning the legitimacy of his presidency. Here's what Mick Mulvaney said. He said, "I don't recall anything

along those lines happening in any meeting. But unlike the Obama administration, who knew about Russian actions in 2014 and did nothing, the Trump administration will not tolerate foreign interference in our elections. And we've already taken many steps to prevent it in the future."

That's not entirely true. In 2016, Obama did confront Russian President Vladimir Putin about the Russian election interference. He told Putin to cut it out. That's Obama's words. The Obama administration also hit Russia with sanctions that year for interfering in the election, although there's been some criticism among Democrats about the way Obama did handle the Russian interference.

But a U.S. government official tells our colleague, Jake Tapper, it's been like pulling teeth to try to get the White House to focus on election security in the run-up to 2018. After 2018, there were requests to hold cabinet-level meetings on election security to prepare for 2020 but those haven't been met. In July 2018, there was a National Security Council meeting, dedicated to election security. There were cabinet-level members attending that meeting. Of course, that's the only meeting at that level focused on election security that's been publicly reported. And it all comes one day, Kate, after Jared Kushner downplayed the effects of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

BOLDUAN: Saying that it was a couple Facebook ads. If you look at the first couple of pages of the Mueller report, you know it's a couple of thousands, maybe more than that.

Thanks so much. Really appreciate it, Sarah.

I want to talk to one of the "New York Times" correspondents who broke this story, CNN political and national security analyst, David Sanger, as well as CNN political director, David Chalian.

It's great to see you both.

David Sanger, this is your reporting. Take me through this. Why were they told not to bring it up?

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL & NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I think it's pretty straightforward. Since the beginning of the Trump administration, Kate, the president has reacted poorly to any discussion of Russian election interference because, in his mind, it calls into question the legitimacy of his election. And so he went through a very lengthy period of time, a few years, you might argue, he has never really emerged from it, in which he has essentially denied that the Russians were involved or downplayed the importance of that involvement. In my reporting on this earlier for a book, the president called me at one point after he met Putin for the first time and made the argument that Putin made to him, which was the Russians couldn't have been involved in the election interference because they were so good at this that they never would have been caught. And he said to me, you know, doesn't that sound right to you? You cover cyber issues and so forth. And, of course, we knew at that time and the president had already been briefed before he took office about the details of the election interference and, of course, you saw a fair bit of that in the Mueller report.

BOLDUAN: And just to put a fine point on your fine reporting, Mick Mulvaney is not denying it. Just saying, I don't recall anything along those lines happening --


BOLDUAN: -- is the response he put out. That's a very telling response. No problem calling it fake news and calling for an apology from the "New York Times" and beyond, if they disagree with the reporting they're hearing. That is not what you're hearing from the White House on this.

David Chalian --

[11:35:11] SANGER: Certainly not.

BOLDUAN: David Chalian, it's bad enough the president's complicated history in accepting reality of election interference in 2016. This reporting is that he essentially doesn't care or doesn't want to hear about it even in 2020.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes. I find David and his colleagues' reporting chilling, Kate. It is -- to hear the White House chief of staff say that we should keep something that is an attack at the very core of our democracy not at the president's level. That should -- well, if that doesn't get to the president's level, what does? I can't think of something more fundamental to our existence as a democratic society than our free and fair elections. And if they are under attack and the president's own government is trying to formulate a plan to respond to that attack and he gives the indication to his team that he wants no part of it, how is that not a complete abdication of his responsibility as commander-in-chief?

BOLDUAN: David Sanger, to David Chalian's point, your reporting is that Secretary Nielsen continued to try to work on this issue, despite being rebuffed at her efforts to try to get a cabinet level, at the White House level involvement, to try to get it before the president. Why does it matter. Lay it out for folks why it matters that White House-level attention is important and crucial in an effort like this, in terms of what's a coordinated effort that's needed to protect our elections?

SANGER: Kate, it matters for two reasons. The first is, if you're going to get the public to truly understand what the nature of the threat is, then you need the president out talking about it. You know, in the run-up to the Iraq war, whatever you thought about that decision, President Bush was out every couple of days trying to explain why he believed Iraq was a threat, right? During Afghanistan, during various terrorism activities.

So, there's nothing more important than signaling within the government and to the public, hey, this is something we need to pay attention to. And we saw where the president was on that just earlier this year when the worldwide threat assessment came out from the Intelligence Community. The first few pages were full of warnings about election interference and the president gave a State of the Union a few days later and never mentioned the subject. Instead, he talked about the southern border issues, which were on page 18 of the worldwide threat assessment.

The second reason it's important is that the Department of Homeland Security has responsibility for civilian defense, the defense of the civilian infrastructure. But the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command have responsibility at the military end. The Treasury and others have responsibilities in the financial world. Coordinating the U.S. government on this is a very complex issue. And if it's not done at the White House where the position of cybersecurity coordinator was eliminated last year, it's not going to happen.

BOLDUAN: And it sounds like it's not going to happen at all, David Chalian, if you look at what Jared Kushner has said about what he thought about the investigation into Russian election meddling just yesterday. Listen to this.


JARED KUSHNER, SENIOR ADVISOR TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: Quite frankly, the whole thing is just a big distraction for the country. You look at, you know, what Russia did, buying some Facebook ads and try to sow dissent. It's a terrible thing. But I think the investigations and all of the speculation that's happened for the last two years has had a much harsher impact on our democracy than a couple of Facebook ads.


BOLDUAN: It wasn't a couple of Facebook ads. Honestly. That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. It was millions of people saw these completely fabricated, made-up, troll-farm productions of hundreds of thousands of things just on Facebook alone.

CHALIAN: Right. Aimed at helping Donald Trump win the election, right?

BOLDUAN: Exactly.

CHALIAN: That was the goal of what the Russians were trying to accomplish. But what Jared Kushner, in his factually incorrect and absurdly downplaying comment there, what he does is actually give us insight into the president's thinking on this, right? He's channeling his father-in-law, the president, his boss, by dismissing this as completely -- as best he can to not raise this to the level of the kind of threat that it is because that would displease the president, apparently, as we're learning today in the "New York Times" reporting.

BOLDUAN: David, help me with this. There's a constant -- it's two different things. You can have two thoughts in your head at the same time. Russian interference in the election, yes, to try to help Donald Trump, and maybe it didn't change a single vote and he's still legitimate duly elected president of the United States. I continue -- I know you agree -- I don't understand why he can't have these thoughts in his mind at the same time.

[11:10:12] CHALIAN: He proves incapable of not being able to separate those thoughts.

BOLDUAN: David Sanger, great reporting. Thank you so much for bringing it. Really appreciate it, man.

SANGER: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: David Chalian, really appreciate.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Again, I will end the segment where we began it. Feel safe about the election? We'll continue to talk about it.

While Democrats in Congress are continuing to debate whether or not they'll move toward impeachment of President Trump, Trump is drawing a new line in the sand, writing this, on Twitter, of course: "I did nothing wrong. If the partisan Dems ever tried to impeach, I would first head to the U.S. Supreme Court."

Yes, the president believes he can sue over impeachment. We'll get to that in just a second.

But this is also as the president states, pretty unequivocally, he does not want anyone in his administration, past or present, complying with congressional investigations. The president telling the "Washington Post," in a new interview that he is blocking former White House aides from cooperating.

CNN's Manu Raju is on Capitol Hill.

Manu, where do things stand right now?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: All-out resistance from the White House over a range of requests that Democrats have made as a part of their wide-ranging investigations into all aspects of the Trump administration. Chairmen have sent letters about everything from Russian interference to immigration only to get a lot of those requests ignored. Now we're in a new front. Subpoenas have been issued. Now subpoenas are being fought or simply ignored.

We saw a subpoena issued earlier this week from the House Judiciary Committee to Don McGahn, former White House counsel, to testify by May 21st as part of its investigation into obstruction of justice, as well as everything that the Mueller report found, particularly as it relates to Don McGahn and how the president apparently tried to fire the special counsel, but Don McGahn resisted. We're told the White House may try to assert executive privileged to prevent McGahn from answering certain questions. The Democrats say that that is not applicable here because executive privilege was waived by the way McGahn already cooperated with the special counsel.

This has a number -- there's a number of different fights that are percolating that could end up in court. Tax returns being one of them. That is a deadline. The second deadline set yesterday was ignored by the administration. They said they need more time to respond to chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee's request for six years of the president's tax returns. That could also end up in court.

So, we're seeing a lot of these fights here between the Democrats and the White House about getting documents not getting fulfilled and that could mean that the courts ultimately have to intervene. And that could take time, Kate, working to the White House's advantage, trying to delay a lot of these requests, not comply with a lot of these requests, and we'll see if they ultimately are successful in court -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Manu, our viewers can see the president and first lady are departing the White House right now. We're going to see if they come up and speak to -- if the president decides to speak to reporters, as he often does.

Meantime, Manu, running out the clock, what is running out the clock to, the election? Is that the general thought of what the White House has been trying to do?

RAJU: Potentially. That's what Democrats particularly believe, that there's an effort here to drag things out as long as possible --


BOLDUAN: Hold on one second, Manu.


BOLDUAN: The president is speaking with reporters. Let's go to the White House.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: -- from an economic standpoint is doing the best, probably, it's ever done. We're hitting new highs again. We've hit new highs, I guess, close to or over 100 times since I'm president, from the time of the election. Unemployment numbers are the best they've ever been, by far. We have almost 160 million people working today in the United States. That's more than we've ever had working in our country before. We're doing well on trade. We're doing well with China. Things are going good.

I'm bringing the first lady -- right now, she's worked very hard on the opioid crisis. We're down about 17 percent from last year, which is pretty amazing. We're down 17 percent with the opioid problem. It's a big problem. It's a big addiction. And we're handling it. The doctors are working with us. The labs are working. The clinics are working. The pharmaceutical companies are working with us and we've made a tremendous amount of progress.

John, go ahead.


TRUMP: Well, the subpoena is ridiculous. We have been -- I have been the most transparent president and administration in the history of our country, by far. We just went through the Mueller witch hunt where you had really 18 angry Democrats that hate President Trump. They hate him with a passion. They were contributors, in many cases, to Hillary Clinton. Hate him with a passion. How they picked this panel, I don't know. And they came up with no conclusion and they actually also came up with no obstruction. But our attorney general ruled based on the information there was no obstruction.

So, you have no conclusion, no obstruction. Now we're finished with it. And I thought after two years, we would be finished with it. No. Now the House goes and starts subpoenaing. They want to know every deal I've ever done. Mueller, I assume, for $35 million, checked my taxes, checked my financials, which are great. You know they're great. Just check the records. They're all over the place. But they checked my financials and my taxes, I assume. It was the most thorough investigation, probably, in the history of our country. I think I read where they interviewed 500 people. I say it's enough. Get back to infrastructure. Get back to cutting taxes. Get back to lowering drug prices. That's what -- really, that's what we should be doing.



TRUMP: We're fighting all the subpoenas. Look, these aren't like impartial people. The Democrats are trying to win 2020. They won't win with the people that I see and they're not going to win against me. The only way they can maybe luck out -- and I don't think that's going to happen -- it might make it even the opposite. That's what a lot of people are saying. The only way they can luck out is by constantly going after me on nonsense. But they should be really focused on legislation, not the things that have been -- this has been litigated -- just so you understand, this has been litigated for the last two years almost since I got into office.

Now, if you want to litigate, go after the DNC, Crooked Hillary, the dirty cops, all of these things. That's what should be litigated because that was a rigged system. I'm breaking down, I am breaking down the swamp. If you look at what's happening, they're getting caught, they're getting fired. Who knows what's going to happen from now on? But I hope it's very strong. If you look at drain the swamp, I am draining the swamp.

Thank you very much.


BOLDUAN: You heard the president right there.

Let me bring in Abby Phillip at the White House as the president was going by.

Abby, one thing you can see very clearly right now, it is open warfare between the president and Democrats in the House who are conducting these congressional investigations. ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. He is

laying it all out there, and made it very, very clear, he is going to fight these subpoenas. Now, several of us tried to ask him specifically whether he might invoke executive privilege. He didn't answer that question directly. But he did repeat that he thought it was enough. He said he believed that some 500 witnesses had gone before special counsel, spoken to them and that was enough in his view. But he also said he has been the most transparent president in history, the most transparent administration in history.

It's worth noting that one of the issues that the White House is pushing back on is the president's tax returns, which he has refused to release. At the same time, he's saying he's being transparent. But he's blocking a form of transparency that all other presidents from the last several years have released ahead of even going into office. So --

BOLDUAN: I'm sorry. That's ridiculous.

PHILLIP: Yes. It is.

BOLDUAN: It's just a ridiculous statement. We could use air time and list off the areas of non-transparency but we all know that is factually not true.

Abby, great to see you. Thank you so much.

I want to bring this conversation. Bring David Chalian in.

David, one thing as I'm watching the president and how -- he said they're not going to comply with any of these subpoenas, it does make me wonder if he believes what he says, which he believes that the Mueller report completely vindicated him and is on the up and up, even if it is what he said, which is not completely exactly the reality, why is he so freaked out by these continual congressional investigations?

CHALIAN: No president would want to be under investigation from the opposition party. I understand that. And he is trying to say -- he would like Congress to work on legislating and not in their not oversight responsibility. Nancy Pelosi has made clear that she thinks the House Democrats can walk and chew gum at the same time. They can move forward --


BOLDUAN: Aren't they meeting on infrastructure?

CHALIAN: Yes, I was just about to say that, Kate, exactly. Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump are schedule to meet no infrastructure. So there's no blockage for them moving forward with legislation while also conducting the oversight responsibility that is in the hands of the House majority. Donald Trump seems to think that Bob Mueller, by that investigation being completely, that no other questions should be asked about his behavior whatsoever.


CHALIAN: The problem is that Mueller makes entirely clear in his report that he was -- he gathered all this information on obstruction of justice so that Congress can work its will or it can be preserved for other people to look at, at a future time. That's spelled out in the report. Mueller himself, even though Donald Trump is sort of trying to hide under the cloak of Mueller, actually says the opposite and laid forth a fact pattern for other people to investigate.

[11:20:48] BOLDUAN: Great point, David. Thanks so much for jumping back in. I really appreciate it.

CHALIAN: Thanks.

BOLDUAN: I also have a couple of questions for CNN legal analyst, Paul Callan, who is joining me now, who is listening to this with me.

Starting with executive privilege when it comes to the subpoenas and the asks on oversight coming from the House, because remains a question, will they invoke executive privilege. It sounds like -- he didn't answer those questions, but this comes up again. He told the "Washington Post," here's the quote, "There's no reason to go any further, and especially in a Congress that is obviously very partisan."

That's the quote that he gave to the "Washington Post."

Where are you. Can he exert executive privilege, put in executive privilege now? Let's just use Don McGahn as the example. Citing more than any witness in the Mueller report, over 150 times from the interviews he did. Could he assert executive privilege now after he has begun and spoken so extensively about these very issues with the Mueller team?

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think, Kate, he'd have a difficult time in getting away with that with respect to the courts. And I say that because, once you waive a privilege, and that was waived when McGahn was allowed to cooperate with Mueller, it's waived for all time. You can't say, I let him talk to Mueller but I'm not letting him talk to you. I think that the Mueller - the privilege has been waived with respect to Don McGahn and Trump doesn't have a leg to stand on, on that claim.

BOLDUAN: Another thing he was saying this morning -- I want to get your take on it - he said that if impeachment, if Dems move to impeach, he'd go straight to the Supreme Court. That's not possible, right?

CALLAN: No. I think he would be thrown exactly out of the Supreme Court if he tries to do that. I say that because, first of all, only two presidents have ever been impeached, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. In both of those cases, the Supreme Court did not interfere in the process. And they didn't interfere because they consider impeachment to be a political question. And the Constitution leaves it exclusively with the House of Representatives. Now, if impeachment is voted -- it's like an indictment being voted in a criminal case -- the trial is held in the Senate and the chief justice of the United States actually presides over that trial. But that's the only involvement that the Supreme Court has in the impeachment process.

BOLDUAN: I'm sure, no matter if it's ludicrous or not, I'm sure it won't be the last time we hear it. That's for sure.

Good to see you, Paul. Thank you very much.

CALLAN: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Really appreciate it.

Coming up for us, he's finally making it official. Former Vice President Joe Biden is set to make his 2020 announcement. What does his rollout tell you about his campaign? Details on that ahead.

Plus, a car plows into a crowd of people in California. Police say the man behind the wheel may have done it on purpose. Stay with us. We have new details coming in.


[11:27:51] BOLDUAN: Today officially marks the last day of the first chapter of the 2020 presidential race. Are you following me? Tomorrow, everything changes. Why is that? Joe Biden, the Democrat who has been leading the polls even though he's not officially in the race, officially is set to get in the race. Biden will be the 20th Democrat to join the field. So what exactly is going to happen then?

CNN's Arlette Saenz has more details on all this.

Arlette, it's great to see you.

What are you hearing on all of this?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Kate, after months of dropping hints and clues, Joe Biden is going to make things official tomorrow. I'm told he will be launching his campaign with a video and followed with his first event over in Pittsburgh, where he will be holding an event on Monday afternoon. Shortly after that, we are expecting to see him travel to all of those critical early states, like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, in the coming weeks.

As you mentioned, Biden's entry in the race will answer the biggest remaining question about what this field is going to look like. Of course, this isn't Biden's first time running for president. He ran in 1987 and again in 2008. Both times, those campaigns ended very poorly for him. But he knows what it's like to run in this high- stakes environment of a presidential campaign. And one question going forward, he's leading most of those polls as the front-runner, but will he be able to maintain that front-runner status with not just President Trump going after him but also his Democratic primary rivals -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: That is a good question, especially in light of it's a new cycle, a new time, a new era, and he is already faced some challenges before he got into the race. What are some of the challenges he will face as soon as he announces?

SAENZ: One thing that will be watched closely is his fundraising. Biden is not a prolific fundraiser. You've seen other candidates post huge numbers not just in their first 24 hours but also over the first quarter, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris. Is Biden going to be able to raise that money? He doesn't have a giant small-donor grassroots fundraising list. How is he going to cope with that?

[11:29:56] Also there's a big question about whether Biden meets the moment of the current Democratic Party. He hasn't run his own campaign since 2008. And right now, you do see a lot of excitement amongst Democratic primary voters for younger and more diverse candidates. Those are all questions that will play out over the coming days of this rollout -- Kate?