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Billionaire Pays Off Student Loan Debt of a Graduating Class; NYT: Trump Preparing to Pardon Servicemen Accused of War Crimes; Ford to lay off 500 Salaried Employees in the U.S.; Trump Threatens Iran After Days of De-Escalation; Trump and Allies Move Against GOP Representative's Impeachment Revolt. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired May 20, 2019 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:36] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Top of the hour. Good Monday morning. I'm Poppy Harlow.


This morning Iran is firing back after President Trump launched a new threat. The Iranian Foreign minister ripping the president's tactics, urging respect for his country. And a top Iranian general says that Tehran is not looking for war, but is fully prepared to defend itself. The question is, is this just public saber rattling?


SCIUTTO: Is there's something real and threatening behind it?

HARLOW: That is the key question, Jim, right? That promise coming after the president tweeted a fight with the U.S. would be the, quote, "official end of Iran." It's the latest in a string of inconsistent messaging coming from the White House.

Let's begin this hour with our colleague and CNN senior diplomatic correspondent Michelle Kosinski who joins us from Washington.

That is the question, right? I mean, you have John Bolton in one ear.


HARLOW: Pompeo on the ear. And then you have what the president publicly tweets and says. What do we know?

KOSINSKI: Yes, and this inconsistent messaging actually led to a back-and-forth war of Twitter words between the president and the Iranian Foreign minister over the weekend with President Trump blaming the press for mixed messaging and saying that Iran doesn't know what to think, and then Iran responding, saying that the B team -- that's how he refers to Trump's aides including National Security adviser John Bolton -- saying one thing and he said that the president says another. And that it's the United States that doesn't know what's going on.

So then you had this tweet from the president basically saying after days of his emphasizing that he wanted to talk to Iran, warning them that if they wanted to fight, essentially that would be the end of them. Since then of course there's been this interview that has come out where he walks this kind of rhetoric back and emphasizes again that he doesn't want war, but keep in mind, this interview was taped days ago. Last week, well before he sent out that tweet. Listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We just don't want them to have nuclear weapons. And they can't be threatening us. And you know with all of --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I just want to read you something --

TRUMP: -- everything that's going on, and I'm not one that believes, you know, I'm not one somebody that wants to go into war because war hurts economies, war kills people most importantly, by far, most importantly.


KOSINSKI: OK. So he makes what seems to be his stance pretty clear in that interview, again that was taped in the middle of last week. But we don't know what precipitated his angry tweet about Iran and saying that, you know, war would be the end of you.

Could it have been that there was a rocket fired into the green zone in Baghdad yesterday that landed right outside the U.S. embassy? So might it have been a reaction at that? Might it have been more of the back and forth he got into with the Iranian Foreign minister? Might it have been leading up to what we expect is some announcements soon of who exactly was responsible for the attacks that happened off of the UAE?

We're waiting to hear all that. But we haven't heard any clarification as of yet from the White House.

HARLOW: Right. And that clarity is so important especially when you're dealing with such high stakes.

KOSINSKI: You would think.

HARLOW: Yes. Michelle, great reporting. Thank you. Jim?

SCIUTTO: Yes, contradiction instead of clarity, you might say.


SCIUTTO: For more on the reaction from Iran, in Iran, we have CNN senior international correspondent Frederik Pleitgen. He is on the ground there.

And Fred, I wonder if Iranian officials you speak with take this saber rattling including this latest tweet seriously or do they see it as largely for U.S. domestic consumption? FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think

that they take it seriously to a certain extent but I think you're absolutely right, Jim. I think that they do see it as something that is mostly for American domestic consumption. And really, one of the things that many people here in Iran are wondering about is why President Trump is saying this now. Because we were talking about at the end of last week there did seem to be signs of de-escalation between the U.S. and Iran.

We had our own Barbara Starr with some information saying that Iranian boats that allegedly had missiles on them had returned to port. We heard from the Friday prayers here in Tehran where the mood was really very toned down. It wasn't as fiery as we thought it would be. Now you have these reactions that are coming, for instance, from the Foreign minister. And you were just saying it, it doesn't give the impression that he's necessarily taking this threat very seriously.

One of the things that he says in his tweet is hashtag "never threaten an Iranian, try respect, it works." That almost appears as though he's mocking President Trump.

[09:05:02] At the same time, the Iranian messaging has been pretty clear on all this. They are consistently saying that they don't want an escalation with the United States, but that they would be ready if indeed there was one. And you reference a little bit the Revolutionary Guard commander. He's saying look, we don't want that escalation. We believe America doesn't want an escalation. But if there is one, Iran will react forcefully -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Fred Pleitgen, good to have you on the ground there. Thanks very much.

HARLOW: Yes. Really incredible to have him there.

All right. So back here in the U.S., almost 48 hours after a Republican congressman from Michigan became the first Republican lawmaker to call for the president's impeachment. Representative Justin Amash remains the only Republican lawmaker to call for the president's impeachment. Leaves him on an island.

In a series of Twitter posts, Amash laid out his, quote, "principal conclusions," from reading the entire Mueller report, which he claims the attorney general., quote, "deliberately misrepresented" and, quote, "A few members of Congress have read." He says the president, quote, "engaged in impeachable conduct" and claims our system of checks and balances is broken.

SCIUTTO: Yes. I mean, he read the report. He made a case there.


SCIUTTO: And it's interesting, I saw the tweets this weekend, and I was thinking, you know, the response is going to be largely personal attacks, rather than going after his logic or his argument there.

HARLOW: Right. SCIUTTO: And lo and behold. That's --

HARLOW: And they were. Yes.

SCIUTTO: As always been, president included, calling Amash a, quote, "total lightweight," and a loser. The kind of language we've sort of become used to from this president.

CNN's Lauren Fox is on Capitol Hill this morning. So has anyone come to Justin Amash's defense here? I mean, Mitt Romney had a sort of like walking the line response to this. Anybody else sticking their neck out this morning?

LAUREN FOX, CNN POLITICS CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, this has hardly started a chorus of Republicans calling for the president's impeachment. Instead what you have here is Justin Amash on an island alone. And that's not unusual for this congressman. He was elected in 2010 as a member of the Tea Party. He came into office basically arguing that the executive branch's power had become too broad and he's held that belief despite the fact that we now have a Republican in the White House.

That of course is unusual. And you saw over the weekend Justin Amash tweeting and slamming his Republican colleagues both for not reading the full Mueller report and basically for not going out there and arguing the same thing that they would have argued if President Barack Obama was the president, basically saying that they had changed their positions 180 degrees depending on who is in office.

Now over the weekend, you heard from Mitt Romney saying that he didn't agree with Justin Amash's conclusions on CNN basically saying, you know, that he thought it was admirable that someone is speaking out, but that he doesn't agree with him.

Then you had Kevin McCarthy, the leader of the Republicans in the House, saying that Justin Amash just is trying to get attention. And then of course you've got those personal attacks from the president tweeting, quote, "Never a fan of Justin Amash, a total lightweight who opposes me and some of our great Republican ideas and policies just for the sake of getting his name out there through controversy."

And we should note that Justin Amash has gone against the president's key policy priorities including that national emergency declaration on the border -- Jim and Poppy.

HARLOW: All right. Lauren Fox, appreciate the reporting.

Let's talk more about this, Sabrina Saddiqui, White House correspondent for "The Guardian, is with us, along with former federal prosecutor Laura Coates.

Good morning to you guys. Sabrina, lest talk about the politics of this. So we know the president's opinion that Amash just wants, you know, political advantage here, et cetera. But the president won Amash's district by 10 points.


HARLOW: So that calculation is questionable, Sabrina.

SCIUTTO: It's a risk. Yes.

HARLOW: Yes. Do you think that this is a blip and he's going to remain on this island alone with just Mitt Romney saying it's courageous but he doesn't agree with it? Or is this a game changer?

SABRINA SADDIQUI, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it's a game changer in so far as now Republicans can't claim that the Mueller investigation is simply a partisan exercise designed to take down the president. They now have one of their own not just calling for more hearings, but outwardly saying that he feels that the president's conduct may have risen to being an impeachable offense.

Now if you look at the response, though, from Amash's Republican colleagues and just how dismissive they are of his interpretation, of his conclusion, I think that tells you and reinforces what we already know. That the Republican Party, certainly Republicans on Capitol Hill, are overwhelmingly in the president's corner. And they are not going to pick this fight with the president.

Amash now has a primary challenger. Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, he has said that Amash is simply seeking attention. He said that Amash's comments were disturbing. So that tells you just about everything you need to know about how Republicans are going to treat what Amash has to say.


FOX: And that if anything, Amash is an anomaly, he's not a sign of more things to come.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Of course in all those statements there, no one went after the logic or the argument.

HARLOW: Right.

SCIUTTO: They just said he's seeking attention. He's a lightweight, et cetera. But that's where we are, I guess.

I want to quote from one of his tweets, Laura. He says, "The risk we face is not the Congress will employ it as a remedy too often," speaking of impeachment.

[09:10:06] "But rather that Congress will employ it so rarely that it cannot deter a misconduct." There's a -- I don't know if you want to call this a middle path here, but some Democrats, Laura, have raised the possibility of opening impeachment proceedings, not necessarily proceeding to an impeachment vote, but impeachment proceedings because that begins a process, but also gives them power to further investigate this, do their job as Congressman Amash is saying here.

What additional powers would that give Congress and what would that look like? LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, of course, the power of

Congress relies on that check and balance principle that the founding farmers initiated and so if they don't actually endeavor to do just that and just say to themselves, everything we do to check and balance another coequal branch of government is an exercise in futility. And we don't want to do it and we'll let the clock run out until the next election.

They actually would undermine their own power and essentially say that everyone in different branch of government is above the law. So they can absolutely initiate the impeachment proceedings. They can do so, I think -- Representative Jamie Raskin with Maryland is talking about this very issue talking about former President Nixon and how they initiated the process and then he resigned because it was a method for them to say listen, we have investigative authority here. Our nose has been thumbed at continuously by the members of the executive branch of government, trying to undermine our investigative power, ignoring our subpoenas and thwarting our otherwise valid investigative powers, telling us to prove legislative purpose.

And so they could actually flex it in this way and say we know that there may not be an actual impeachment that happens in a conviction in the Senate because of the Republican majority, however, the process of initiating it would actually go a long way to run, at the same turn the credibility.


COATES: And also showing their investigative power is legitimate.

HARLOW: And that, Laura, is what Nancy Pelosi was referring to I think it was last Thursday when she said as much, right? But my question to you on that is if Democrats move forward with Articles of Impeachment, well knowing they won't get a conviction in the Senate, what actual legal remedy does that give them to get more of these documents, to get more of the folks they want to talk to, to actually comply with the subpoenas. Does it actually give them more power?

COATES: It does in a sense. Think of the grand jury's power under the Mueller probe. They have the subpoena power, they can get information, documentation, witnesses to come forward. It's all under the umbrella of being an investigative body. Well, the Congress has not had the benefit of that grand jury because they played second fiddle to the Mueller probe. And now they're being stonewalled completely.

If they have their own grand jury akin with the investigative process of an impeachment, they now have the grand jury power in a sense to be able to now initiate all of these things. They don't have to have it questioned about whether there is a legitimate legislative purpose for it.


COATES: Because they have a check and balance.

HARLOW: Got it.

SCIUTTO: Sabrina, let me ask you a question coming in from a different angle here. There was a school of thought following the release of the Mueller report that impeachment was a dead issue and that even Democrats were quietly saying, we've got to abandon this, we've got to move on to something else. And yet you've -- you know, there's been more discovered, there's still lingering questions here and now you have a Republican, one Republican, granted one Republican, I wonder if this does not make successful impeachment more likely or realistic, does it at least mean that impeachment is not issue and the question is going away any time soon?

SADDIQUI: Well, it's certainly not going away. And I think that House Democratic leaders are still operating under the calculus that look, even if the House voted to impeach the president, they wouldn't be able to win a conviction in the Senate. And they're looking at this polling that shows that there isn't yet majority support within the American public for impeachment. And especially going into 2020, I think there is some concern that this could backfire and hurt the party's prospects.

But at the same time, what they're doing is they're saying even if these aren't impeachment hearings, we are still investigating the findings of the Mueller report further. They want to hear from Special Counsel Robert Mueller. They want to hear from former White House counsel Don McGahn. The issue is that they are being stonewalled by the White House.


SADDIQUI: And we saw House Democrats on the Judiciary Committee hold to vote the attorney general William Barr in contempt. Steny Hoyer, the House majority leaders, he says that when it comes to floor votes on issues of contempt, they are looking at putting together a package of a number of contempt resolutions to hold a number of Trump administration officials accountable. So it does look like they want to up the ante, they're just still trying to figure out exactly what their next move is.

SCIUTTO: Sabrina Saddiqui, Laura Coates, always good to have both of you.

SADDIQUI: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Still to come this hour, the president is set to rally in a key battleground state of Pennsylvania tonight. The very state Joe Biden is setting up his campaign headquarters. He's been there a couple of times since he announced. Can the president shore up support there?

And imagine going to your college graduation and learning that all of your student loan debt would be paid off in full. It happened to the entire Morehouse Class of 2019. One of the lucky students is going to join us, ahead.

[09:15:00] POPPY HARLOW, CO-HOST, NEWSROOM: I love that story, I can't wait for that --

SCIUTTO: Great story --

HARLOW: Also, is President Trump preparing to pardon several U.S service members accused of war crimes? Many in the military not happy at all about that possibility. We'll talk to one of them ahead.


HARLOW: All right, this breaking news just into us. Ford; iconic American company announcing a new round of job cuts in the U.S. and around the world. Let's go straight to our colleague Vanessa Yurkevich, she joins us live in Dearborn, Michigan, of course where Ford is headquartered. So what do you know about these cuts especially the U.S. job cuts? What's coming?

VANESSA YURKEVICH, CNN BUSINESS & POLITICS REPORTER: Hi, good morning Jim and Poppy, that's right. Jim Hackett; the president of Ford sent an e-mail out to employees just a short-time ago announcing another round of layoffs. There's going to be about 900 layoffs to salaried employees by the end of this week.

[09:20:00] And that's about 500 here in the U.S. This is a part of what we've known for about a year now. It's part of their redesign at Ford where they're going to be cutting about 10 percent of their salaried employees. So that's a total of about 7,000 globally.

Now, these are mainly white-collar jobs. So we're talking about people in management positions. It's not going to be people who worked at factories on the floors of plants assembling Ford vehicles. That's obviously been a concern considering what we know happened with GM.

Ford's biggest rival GM announcing last year that they were going to be closing about five factories in the United States and in Canada. But Jim and Poppy, it's interesting they're doing something a little bit different with these rounds of layoffs.

They're going to be allowing people to spend a couple of days at the different offices, saying good-bye to employees and their fellow colleagues over the course of this week, so they don't have to be leaving right away.

But this should wrap up the layoffs in total, should wrap up in about July. So we're expecting about 300 more layoffs coming to the U.S. alone by the end of July, Jim and Poppy.

HARLOW: OK, it's really significant, obviously you feel for those workers who dedicated so much to Ford, but the industry is changing and it is changing a lot. And this reflects that. Vanessa, thank you for being there and for that reporting. Jim.

SCIUTTO: No question, well, I guess, the president's message that he was going to rescue all these jobs -- HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: With trade war tariffs, et cetera, perhaps conscious of that, the president has been trying to shore up support in Rust Belt states. He was just in Michigan and Wisconsin. Later today, he'll hold a rally in the key battleground state of Pennsylvania where you're seeing some tight competition from Democrats.

A lot of polls show Biden well ahead in Pennsylvania. Joe Biden of course launched his campaign there, he has his headquarters there, he's known as Scranton Joe because he's got some family history there. Let's discuss now with Jeff Zeleny; CNN senior Washington correspondent, Jessica Dean, CNN correspondent.

And I want to play for you, Jeff, Joe Biden and a speech in Philadelphia this weekend, getting to the sort of --

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: The fundamental message of his campaign here. Have a listen and I want to get your reaction.



JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Some of the really smart folks say Democrats don't want to hear about you. They say Democrats are so angry that the anger candidate can be the better chance he or she has to win the Democratic nomination.

Well, I don't believe it. I really don't. If Democrats -- I believe Democrats want to unify this nation.


SCIUTTO: You both have been out on the trail, and I know, Jessica, you're going to be covering Joe Biden throughout this race. What is the reaction on the ground to that message from voters?

ZELENY: Well, Jim, there's no doubt that is a central question. Is this a moment to sort of win over some of those former Trump voters who were expecting Washington to change, who were expecting and hoping for more of a unifying message or is it a time to double-down and sort of drill-down into the respective bases.

And Joe Biden is making a bet on the former that he's trying to go after some of those Obama-Biden voters from 2008 and 2012 who fell away from the Democratic Party in 2016, who simply were not attuned to the message Hillary Clinton was selling three years ago in the 2016 campaign.

But Joe Biden is making that bet that it is a moment for that. And so far, Jim, it definitely is resonating. I mean, he's stronger than he was a month ago when he jumped into the campaign. But again, we should point out again and again and again, this race is incredibly early, the polls are incredibly fickle and frontrunners are fleeting.

But right now, that is the argument he's making that every particular reason he should be elected is to beat Donald Trump, to stop Donald Trump, that's all that matters to Joe Biden's campaign.

HARLOW: So Jess, to you, I mean, speaking about the polls specifically in Pennsylvania, which matters a lot to Joe Biden, it matters a lot to the president. Tonight, as he heads there, a new Quinnipiac poll out of Pennsylvania shows 77 percent of the voters there think they're doing really well economically, OK?

So their own financial situation they describe as excellent or good, that is great news for the president. That same poll shows that if, you know, the election were today, that the president would lose by 11 points to Joe Biden. And I wonder if Joe Biden is capitalizing on the fact that the president is not doubling down, tripling down on the economy.

And instead is choosing to focus on lightning rod issues like immigration. You've got obviously all this discussion over abortion after what happened in Alabama last week, et cetera. Is that a missed opportunity for the president that Biden is capitalizing on?

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right, so Poppy, you take a look at those poll numbers and it's a pretty shocking thing to see the one with people feeling great about their economic situation. But with the president not leading there in Pennsylvania, and you start to kind of think about what that means.

[09:25:00] And to get at your point, I think that's correct. Traditionally, we would see a president with much higher approval ratings if you have those economic numbers, and they would be drilling down on the economy over and over and over again.

Going to these key swing states and talking about those numbers, talking about making sure that families feel like they are in a financially safe situation. But in Pennsylvania, particularly back in 2016, you look at some of those numbers and you look at Trump versus Clinton, and these were some of the suburban counties with college- educated voters.

The people who are feeling really financially secured right now, but are perhaps turned off by these lightning rod issues, by the president's behavior, by his tweets, and are suddenly looking back to a Democrat like Joe Biden, and this is where his team thinks he can be very successful in a place like Pennsylvania.

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: So Jeff, want to quote something from the "New York Times" this weekend, talking about Democrats 2020 strategy because it struck us. It says "for Democrats, a clear evidence from the 2018 midterms is that college-educated suburban voters are more inclined to vote against Mr. Trump's behavior than in favor of his economic stewardship and this is nudging them toward making the president's controversial conduct front and center for voters." It seems like there's a lot of evidence of this in the polling that

this is about Trump. Even the way Democratic voters see the Democratic candidate, they want someone who can beat Trump. As you speak to Democratic pollsters, party operatives, et cetera, is this where they're leaning for the race, less about issues, more about we're not Trump?

ZELENY: No question. I mean, that's of course what every re-election race is with an incumbent on the ballot. This is going to be a referendum on the president, at least that's what Democrats hope. Of course, President Trump is trying to make Democrats unacceptable.

But I talked to Republican strategists who are close to the president, and they are seeing those alarm bells as well as what Jessica was just talking about, the social issues. What's happening in Alabama and other places certainly is causing much worry among those suburban voters who voted Republican in 2016 and may not this time around.

So that is one thing -- or one of the reasons you saw the president yesterday distancing himself from that Alabama law and others, saying he actually favors exceptions to the abortion law. So --

HARLOW: Right --

ZELENY: No question, you know, they're trying to feel that in suburbs, right.

HARLOW: For sure, that was significant. And I also just wonder, you know, it seems like on the economy, yes, the economy is great, but Joe Biden can also get up there and say hey, this was our economy too, right?

ZELENY: Yes --

HARLOW: He can also make the argument the Trump administration has built off the Obama-slash-Biden economy. All right, we'll have you back soon, guys, thank you, Jeff Zeleny --

DEAN: Thanks --

HARLOW: Jessica Dean, appreciate it.

ZELENY: Guys, thanks.

HARLOW: Just a reminder, the Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke will join our own Dana Bash for a live CNN town hall, that is from Des Moines, Iowa, tomorrow night, 10:00 Eastern only right here.

SCIUTTO: Well, the president claimed on the campaign trail that he would support the torture of detainees, remember that? Now, he's reportedly taking steps to pardon some convicted American war criminals. But could that endanger U.S. troops on the ground? We've spoken to a lot of soldiers who think that way. We're going to stay with that story.