Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Tells Democrats He Would Go to Court if They Try to Impeach Him; White House Plans to Fight House Subpoena of Former Counsel Don McGahn from Testifying; Sri Lanka's President Asks for Resignations After Attacks; Mick Mulvaney Warned Kirstjen Nielsen Not to Tell Trump About Russian Interference in 2020 Election; White House Stonewalls House Investigations; IRS Misses Deadline, Fails to Turn Over Trump's Tax Returns. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired April 24, 2019 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:05] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: A good and busy and newsy Wednesday morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto in Washington.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: That it is. Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow in New York. And we begin this hour with a clear and proven danger to national security and American democracy, and a president who apparently does not want to hear about it.

That's right. "The New York Times" is reporting this morning that before she was forced out last month, former Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen tried to marshal a top-down defense against election interference by Russia but was told, quote, "It wasn't a great subject to raise in the Oval Office" -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Senior aides scared to bring it up with him. "The Times" says the president's acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney -- his chief of staff -- warned Nielsen to keep her election concerns below presidential level. Just last week the Mueller report declared that Russian hacking, leaking and trolling in 2016 was, quote, "sweeping and systemic," and U.S. intelligence chiefs have warned that 2020 could be worse.

So why keep the president out of the loop? Why can't he handle this news?


SCIUTTO: CNN's Abby Phillip is at the White House with some possible answers.

Listen, I suppose it's not entirely new because the president finds this subject as somehow undermining his victory in 2016 but this is remarkable when all of his National Security advisers tell him it's a clear and present danger going into 2020.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right. I mean, two years into President Trump's administration, what is remarkable about this is how this view that this -- that talking about election interference undermines his presidency has persisted even beyond the 2016 election.

That leading up to 2020 Kirstjen Nielsen, when she was Homeland Security director, tried to get the administration to take a whole of government approach to dealing with this problem, which requires the president's attention. And she was told by acting chief of staff, according to -- Mick Mulvaney, according to "The New York Times," that this was not a good subject to bring up with the president.

Aides have wanted to avoid talking about this at the risk of angering him or infuriating him by bringing up something that he thinks will undermine the legitimacy of his presidency. So what Nielsen has done or did instead was try to convene her own meetings. She tried to convene her own cabinet-level meetings with officials at the Justice Department and officials at the Department -- at the FBI to talk about how they can marshal the federal government resources to deal with the present danger going into 2020.

But that's clearly according to people who talked to "The Times" not enough to sort of bring the attention that they believe was needed on this issue. This goes all the way back to President Trump just never wanting his aides to talk about Russian interference. And even after the Mueller report was released a lot of people wondered why isn't President Trump even addressing that part of it, which was very clear.

And he still to this day has not addressed what Mueller concluded in that report which is that Russia did interfere and it was systematic. And it was a wide ranging and the president still has not acknowledged that then and he still is not acknowledging it going into 2020.

SCIUTTO: He's tweeted a lot of attacks, he's tweeted a lot of things about television ratings but he does not mention this Russia threat.

Abby Phillip, thanks very much.

HARLOW: All right. Let's talk about this with former FBI supervisory special agent Josh Campbell and retired chief of Russia operations, very useful here, Steve Hall.

Thank you both for being here.

Steve Hall, let me begin with you. The quote that "The Times" has is that Mick Mulvaney told Nielsen that bringing up concerns about, you know, Russia interfering in the 2020 election, quote, "wasn't a great subject," and should be kept below his level. His level being the president's level.

Let me ask you from an intelligence perspective. Does that impact the ability of the IC to deal with this, right? To combat it most effectively? Does it matter if it's raised to the president?

STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, sure it matters. I mean, I think Abby got it absolutely right in her reporting when you talk about a whole of government approach, which is really when you're talking about a cyber attack or cyber operations that are being run against the United States by Russia, you have to have a whole of government approach. And to have a whole of government approach you have to have, you know, the boss involved.

The president has to lend his weighty, you know, position on these things to get the government moving because it's a big thing. So the intelligence organizations need better funding, need better focus. That then extends into the domestic side of things where you're trying to protect against, you know, FBI, the U.S. Military, all those other organizations need to be involved altogether in this.

HARLOW: Right.

HALL: If you can't raise it to the boss to get it going, you know, it's a serious problem if the reporting is accurate.


SCIUTTO: I have heard --

HARLOW: I mean, I just have to bring --

SCIUTTO: Yes, just --

HARLOW: Bring this up -- Sorry, Jim.

SCIUTTO: The whole of government -- sorry, go ahead. Go ahead.

HARLOW: Yes. I'm just bringing up the book.

SCIUTTO: I will not step in the way of talking about the book.


HARLOW: Well, I'm in the middle of reading it, it comes out in a few weeks. But, I mean, on a serious note, Jim, not just plugging your book, this is what all of your research is about. It's about the efforts by Russia and the Chinese to, you know, fight against and work against, defeat, in your words, America.

[09:05:03] I mean, this goes to the core of it, Jim.

SCIUTTO: It is. And the thing is that the election interference being one front in a broad war, I mean, there are weapons in space, there's a competition under way of submarines, et cetera. And the point Steve brings up there, the whole of government response, from Democrats, Republicans.

HARLOW: Right.

SCIUTTO: From intelligence officials from both administrations, they repeat that phrase all the time. To fight back, everybody has got to be working together. You need presidential leadership.

HARLOW: Right.

SCIUTTO: I just wonder, Steve Hall, and I want to get to you, Josh, too, how does Russia receive this information? When the president denies whether it's in Helsinki or now today, he doesn't mention it following the Mueller report, do they see that as an invitation to attack again?

HALL: I think -- I think yes. You know, what the Russians are seeing is the fruits of their labor, the return on investment they did when they began this entire operation against the United States back in the 2016 elections. So yes, they read this as insecurity. As, you know, a U.S. government that can't get its act together and that of course makes it a lot easier for Vladimir Putin who if one thing that he -- if it's one thing that he does have, it's a whole of government approach in Russia. It's all about what Vladimir Putin wants to do. There's no question about that.

HARLOW: And Josh, your read?

JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, I think we dissect this three separate ways. I mean, for the better part of two years, the president and the White House, they've talked about something that didn't happen. We've heard this no collusion, no collusion. What they're now talking about -- at least as loudly -- is what it continues to happen. We know, although White House senior adviser Jared Kushner said that Russian interference was a couple of Facebook ads, we know that the intelligence community and Robert Mueller described this as a sweeping effort, that will continue, and the fact that we don't hear about election interference is troubling.

The second issue being, cabinet secretaries should be able to walk into the Oval Office and provide the president with any piece of information that he or she deems appropriate for the president to know and the fact that they're not doing that because it might hurt his feelings is obviously concerning.

Now that in and of itself is an issue. But when it involves our national security that then elevates to a different level. The last issue I have with this is, if you look at this reporting, why didn't we know about this sooner? If you were concerned -- and I'm talking about the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, why don't you go out with a bang? If there is an issue here that you see a glaring national security threat, and you can't give word to your boss in order to protect the country, you don't shirk away. You don't do this anonymously. You go out again loudly. At least you should.

SCIUTTO: Josh, you've been in a room with powerful bosses before, who you have to deliver I imagine at times uncomfortable, difficult information. Review Mick Mulvaney's role here saying, listen, the president doesn't want to talk about it. Let's deal with it below the presidential level here.


CAMPBELL: Yes. Well, within government and there are different layers of committees. The deputies committee at the White House or the National Security Council, obviously they will sift through information before it goes up to the president. Not everything can make its way to the president's desk so that part is fair. But the issue of Russian interference we know that they have done this in the past. We know that this will continue to be an issue. This is something that should get the attention of the president. This is something he should be talking about. And the fact that you have a White House chief of staff that's saying, look, let's not go to the boss, you know, that might, you know, rankle his nerves, you know, for whatever reason there obviously is an issue.

This isn't just anyone in government. This isn't some intelligence analyst, you know, at some intelligence agency. This is the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, a cabinet secretary. The fact that she is being given the -- you know, the stiff arm, saying, no, don't do this, don't tell the boss this, that should trouble all of us, especially as we go into an election season where we know that our adversary is going to continue to meddle in our affairs.


HARLOW: And Jim, I -- yes.

SCIUTTO: But why don't we -- yes, go ahead. Sorry.

HARLOW: I was going to say, not to, you know, forget that it was not that long ago the National Security adviser John Bolton eliminated the position of cyber security coordinator within the White House. So you already have lower level folks dealing with this stuff and then Nielsen can't bring it up to the top, you know.

SCIUTTO: Yes. And why do we found that the Department of Homeland Security after a horrible attack on the homeland, 9/11?

HARLOW: Right.

SCIUTTO: Its job is to protect the homeland, Russia's attacking elections part of the homeland. It's negligent.

HARLOW: There you go.

SCIUTTO: Josh Campbell, Steve Hall -- Poppy, I owe you one for bringing up the book. I will update --

HARLOW: It's a good, important read right now.

SCIUTTO: I'll get back at -- I'll get back at you.

Now to another issue, domestic, national security, the president's wall. Not the one he campaigned on and is trying to build at the border but the metaphorical wall that stands this morning by the president's own admission between the White House and Democrats in Congress.

The president tells "The Washington Post" he is blocking current and former White House aides and staffers from cooperating with House committees carrying out numerous continuing investigations.

HARLOW: He says the White House cooperated with the Mueller probe and, quote, "There is no reason to go any further," and especially in Congress where it's very partisan. Obviously very partisan says the president to the "Washington Post." Manu Raju, our colleague up on the Hill with more. House Democrats

didn't need to be told, they know that the White House is stonewalling and now the president is laying out exactly why.


[09:10:01] On issue after issue, the White House, the Trump administration has refused to respond to Democratic chairmen who sent letters. Now we're in a new phase where they're issuing subpoenas and we'll soon be in another phase where we're going to be in court seeing a fight between the two branches over what Congress could get.

Now one person in the middle of this now is Don McGahn, the former White House counsel. We are told that the White House is considering invoking executive privilege over specific topics if they do come up in his testimony before the White House Judiciary Committee assuming he does come next month.

Now Democrats say that he cannot -- the White House cannot invoke executive privilege because it was essentially waived by the way that McGahn cooperated with the Mueller investigations. So this is another thing that could be tested in court and the ultimate question here, too, is does Don McGahn want to cooperate with House Judiciary Committee? We don't know the answer to that quite yet. He's not commenting about the subpoena he got earlier this week -- guys.

SCIUTTO: So another issue relates to this conflict, relates to national security. We know that this White House overruled security officials on security clearances for many White House staff and the White House now standing in the way of the senior security official involved from testifying on this. Can they stop him from doing so?

RAJU: Well, they already have. Yesterday Carl Kline, the person who was in charge of the security clearances, was scheduled to come in under subpoena to the House Oversight Committee to testify about exactly what happened but the White House intervened saying that he could not respond to questions about individual's security clearance. The White House arguing this is not the role of Congress to learn about that.

The House Oversight Committee chairman pushing back strongly saying he -- they're in open defiance of a congressional subpoena. Now Elijah Cummings, the chairman, says that he plans to move forward with a contempt vote for Carl Kline. But what will that ultimately produce is the question. Will they get the information they want? That could also end up in court -- guys.

HARLOW: And then another, stonewalling also on taxes. I mean, the president said, you know, during the campaign, yes, sure, I'll turn them over. Hasn't happened. Doesn't look like it's going to happen. The Treasury just ignoring the second deadline, Manu.

RAJU: Second deadline saying they need more time to consult with the Justice Department about what they consider an extraordinary request by Richard Neal who's citing rarely used law in the tax code to move forward and provide these -- these tax returns to Capitol Hill. But again, like so much else, the White House is showing no interest in complying with what the Democrats are asking for here and then another thing that could be tied up for a long time in court.

So these fights all could be resolved by the third branch of government, the judicial branch. We'll see how long it takes to play out. But perhaps for the rest of this term of the president's presidency -- guys.

SCIUTTO: Quite a divide in the Supreme Court as well. I imagine how those decisions might be go.


SCIUTTO: Manu Raju, thanks very much.

Sri Lankan's president is asking for resignations after those deadly Easter bombings left more than 300 people dead. We're learning that a second wave of attacks was planned.

HARLOW: Just stunning. Plus it is the worst kept secret in politics. Former Vice President Joe Biden hours away from kicking off his presidential bid. How does he shake up the race?

And police say a driver intentionally plowed into pedestrians on a sidewalk in California. Look at those images. Eight people are hurt this morning. We're getting more information on this. Stay with us.


[09:15:00] POPPY HARLOW, CO-HOST, NEWSROOM: All right, welcome back. So this morning, the president has a warning to Democratic lawmakers when it comes to the idea of impeachment. Here's part of what he tweeted this morning. Quote, "if the partisan Dems ever tried to impeach, I would first head to the U.S. Supreme Court." Jim?

JIM SCIUTTO, CO-HOST, NEWSROOM: What does the constitution say about that? Let's discuss now --

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: With Seung Min Kim; White House reporter for "The Washington Post", Renato Mariotti; former federal prosecutor. So Renato, you know the law a little bit. I believe there's a constitutional process, whether it's politically smart or the Democrats have the vote, Supreme Court can't block an impeachment process, can it?

RENATO MARIOTTI, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: No, I mean, I think you're going to hear almost every legal scholar tell you the same thing I will right now, which is that, this is something that courts are going to stay far away from. It's a non-judiciable legal -- excuse me, political question that is really a fight between the different branches of government as outlined by the constitution.

HARLOW: So the question becomes then, Seung Min Kim, political, right? This is -- this is a political message by the president, one that legally would have no implications. SEUNG MIN KIM, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Exactly.

And I think ever since the Dems took back control of the House and started hinting at the aggressive oversight that they will conduct in the administration, the White House has taken on this fighting mentality and we really saw that yesterday with the president's interview with my colleagues at "The Washington Post" saying he sees no need to cooperate with Congress.

His argument is that, we at the White House and his inner circle has already cooperated with Mueller, and that's all that needs to happen. Now, that answer certainly is not going to satisfy congressional Democrats, it will in fact infuriate them.

HARLOW: Right --

KIM: And it's fascinating because previous administrations -- I mean, no president likes aggressive oversight, particularly from an antagonistic Congress, which this surely is. But other Congress' have had -- other presidents have shown a little semblance of at least trying to cooperate with the outside. Whether it's kind of giving them access to certain documents or what not.

But really, from the outset, this administration has taken on an aggressive fighting mentality against what Congress is trying to do, whether it's telling a former official in this case, the personal office director not to testify, indicating that they will assert privilege over the former White House counsel Don McGahn's testimony.

And also blowing through another deadline for the president's tax returns that was requested towards the Treasury Department.

[09:20:00] SCIUTTO: Yes, I mean, it's clearly a strategy, right? They're just going to -- they're going to stonewall on everything they can as long as they can. Legally, though, this argument, Renato, that they will claim executive privilege now on for instance Don McGahn being called before Congress, after not claiming executive privilege for his testimony before the special counsel. Does that hold legal water, can you hold it for one and not for the other?

MARIOTTI: No, once you've waived the executive privileges, it's waived permanently. So you can't put the toothpaste back in the tube so to speak, once the testimony is out there, it's out there. They not only disclosed everything that McGahn had to say to Robert Mueller.

But then, of course, they released everything he told Robert Mueller in the Mueller report to the public. So, a very hard if not impossible to try to make that argument. And even if -- even if they hadn't waived it, I think it would also be very challenging in this context to say that there had been a criminal investigation of the president and we're not going to tell the House of Representatives what a key witness has to say. I just think that's very hard.

HARLOW: Well, and I think, you know, to Renato's point about you can't put the tube back in the toothpaste --


HARLOW: Simply put, but exactly the right way to phrase it, would hold for all the folks that they're trying to call, not just -- not just McGahn, but when it comes to McGahn, if he does testify and if he does turn over these documents that Congress wants by, you know, May 7th, Seung, would his testimony -- the key question be, right, would it rise to the level of the John Dean for example in Watergate? We just don't know.

KIM: We just don't know. And it certainly would be an incredibly anticipated testimony, and sources have indicated to us at "The Post" that McGahn is -- you know, he's not eager to testify, but he's not reluctant. Obviously, he recognizes that there's a subpoena here that does compel him to deal with Congress.

And -- but how this is all kind of part of what the -- what the Democrats are trying to do and continuing their investigation because as we have seen time and time again, and particularly ramping up since the release of the redacted report last week that the party is incredibly divided on the impeachment question.

You have Pelosi saying again -- the speaker Nancy Pelosi saying again yesterday, that I am not there yet on the impeachment question when one of her own Chairman, Maxine Waters is on a lengthy Twitter threat, calling for impeachment proceedings to begin essentially immediately --

HARLOW: Right --

KIM: But the broader caucus is firmly united on at least finding more information, continuing to investigate, trying to get more information about the Mueller -- the Mueller investigation, trying to get the full unredacted report. So that's the course that Pelosi and her leadership is tracking on right now, but it's also a very tricky and a very delicate balance.

HARLOW: All right, we'll keep watching it, thank you both so much. We appreciate it. Ahead for us, Sri Lanka was warned several times about possible attacks before those deadly Easter Sunday bombings. Now, the country's president is demanding resignations over the mishandled intelligence. We'll bring you the latest.


SCIUTTO: This morning, Sri Lankan officials tell CNN the terror group responsible for the deadly Easter bombings was planning a second wave of attacks. We just received this surveillance video, one of the suicide bombers, that's him here getting into an elevator at one of the hotels attacked on Easter. It is always spooky to see this in the wake of an attack.

HARLOW: It certainly is, especially knowing all that intelligence that was missed. We've also learned this morning the Sri Lankan officials received multiple warnings before the bombings, but failed to act. Now, Sri Lankan's president is calling for the resignation of the Defense Secretary and the Inspector General of the Police. Our senior international correspondent, Ivan Watson is following the

latest for us, again, this morning, from Negombo, Sri Lanka. What else do we know at this hour, Ivan?

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we know that the Sri Lankan parliament has voted unanimously to impose a state of emergency. We know that the president is calling publicly for the resignation of a top defense official and the head of the police due to allegations of negligence because of the many warnings that came from India about a suicide bomb plot against churches like the one that's behind me here, which ultimately were attacked as well as three luxury hotels on Sunday.

We're getting more of a profile of the bombers themselves. Nine bombers all believed to be Sri Lankan, and according to a top Sri Lankan defense official, they came from upper middle class families, they were educated, one of them had studied in the U.K. and in Australia doing post-doctoral graduate studies.

They were financially independent. Two of them were a married couple, and as the defense official put it, this was very worrying. So those are some of the profiles for the mass murderers who have killed so many people. And I watched funeral after funeral today and it is just awful to see people whose loved ones were ripped away in a moment -- a carefully planned moment of hatred.

You know, Jim and Poppy, hold on -- and the viewers, hold on to your loved ones a little closer because there's very little else you can say after these types of mass murders, the likes of which we've seen here in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday.

HARLOW: It's so true, Ivan, I mean, you're there on the ground, you can feel it, you're seeing funeral after funeral. But can you just take a moment and just talk to us about some of these victims. I mean, we're hearing just this immense pain from a father, for example, who lost his children in this attack.

What else can you tell us about these victims, hundreds of them?

WATSON: Here, I mean, we're talking about 359, at least killed and so many hundreds more maimed and wounded, not even counting the psychological trauma. I talked to an Australian Sri Lankan father.