Return to Transcripts main page


Trump And Allies Mobilize Against GOP Rep. Justin Amash's Impeachment Revolt; Mnuchin Defies Democrats' Subpoenas For Trump's Tax Returns; Trump Says Fight With U.S. Would Be Official End Of Iran. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired May 20, 2019 - 10:00   ET




POPPY HARLOW, CNN NEWSROOM: All right, top of the hour. Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow in New York.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: And I'm Jim Sciutto here in Washington, where GOP Congressman Justin Amash remains very much a party of one. So far, none of Amash's fellow republican lawmakers has joined him in declaring that the President, and I'm quoting here, engaged in specific actions and a pattern of behavior that meet the threshold for impeachment.

Amash complains that few members of Congress have even bothered to read the Mueller report about which he says the Attorney General intended to mislead the public. Maybe they only read Bill Barr's summary, which Amash, Poppy, also took aim at in the streets (ph).

HARLOW: Yes, he certainly did. By way of response, the Republican Party chairwoman calls Amash, quote, a parrot of democratic talking points, while President Trump, the five-time libertarian from Michigan is a, quote, lightweight and a, quote, loser.

Abby Phillip joins us this morning at the White House. Good morning to you, Abby. Happy Monday.


HARLOW: Are folks there convinced they can just sort of swat this away like a mosquito or do they fear a swarm?

PHILLIP: Well, I think here at the White House, the strategy is to make Justin Amash seem as lonely as possible when it comes to this kind of criticism of President Trump. That's why you see the President's allies really going after him and basically accusing him of being a part of the Democratic Party in a de facto way.

One of the allies, in addition to Ronna Romney-McDaniel, the RNC Chairwoman, is also the House Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy, a staunch ally of President Trump's who strongly criticized Amash, basically saying he votes more with Nancy Pelosi than he does with the Republican Party. And so as a result of that, you have seen republicans really try to stay as far away from this as possible, Mitt Romney refusing to sign on to Amash's view of what happened in that Mueller report.

And I think republicans understand that in the Republican Party, criticizing President Trump does not go over well. This is a president who has been willing to go after his political enemies even in his own party. Mark Sanford, former republican congressman, comes to find, who lost a primary after being a staunch critic of President Trump's on television.

So I think there is a fear here that if you give any oxygen to this, they could end up like some of those congressmen who ended up on the wrong side of President Trump. So far, it seems they have been fairly successful, and I think you're going to see a concerted effort to make Amash seem as lonely as possible, as isolated as possible in this Republican Party that is very much the party of President Trump.

HARLOW: It very much is. Abby Phillip at the White House, thank you.

Let's talk about this with Jack Weiss, former federal prosecutor from Los Angeles. Good to have you, Jack, this morning. So, I mean, it was a really important and interesting Twitter thread over the weekend here on the merits here, and, of course, the attacks, as Jim rightly points out, on Amash have been political, not on the argument that he was making, the legal case he was making. But I'm just interested in what you think happens to Amash's principle conclusions, right, that's what he's laying out here, to make them go from a blip to a game changer or is that just not going to happen?

JACK WEISS, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Well, what's interesting is he based his opinion on reading a 448-page book, and he says no one else read it. But what's interesting for impeachment is impeachment is a trial. And a trial is about theater. You know, the U.S. attorney who hired me in Los Angeles used to say that anyone can tell you what happened to the Von Trapp family, but when you go into court and put on a trial, you have to put on the sound of music.

And I am interested to seeing if the House takes it to the next step and puts on an impeachment proceeding that will televise everything, that will make it more compelling, that will make it theater. I think more people will pay attention that than Justin, who was the only guy who read the book, it seems.

SCIUTTO: let's for a moment, if we can, jack, tune out this presidential response to Amash, Republican Party, Ronna McDaniel, et cetera, and just get at his essential argument here. He took the time to read the report and he makes a legal argument and a constitutional argument about the President's behavior, quote, identifying multiple examples of conduct satisfying all the elements of obstruction of justice. As a lawyer, what do you think of his argument?

WEISS: Yes. Well, I was one of the nearly 1,000 former federal prosecutors who signed on to that letter that noted that if any other defendant in America had been presented with the similar set of facts, they would have been indicted. [10:05:03]

But we have, as your viewers know, this longstanding opinion at the highest level of the Justice Department that says a president and a president alone cannot be indicted.

So he's dead on, and that is the message that the Mueller report was telegraphing, that this was indictable conduct. The proper forum for that is the House Judiciary Committee which should consider it as impeachment conduct.

HARLOW: Let me ask you, Jack, about something different that's supposed to happen tomorrow but it's likely not going to happen unless things change dramatically, and that is the fact you have a former White House Counsel, Don McGahn, supposed to testify tomorrow before the House Judiciary Committee after missing that May 7th deadline for documents for him. No one is going to be shocked if there is an empty chair there. And if there is, I'm just really interested in what actual recourse democrats, Jerry Nadler, Chairman of the committee, have at this point. I mean, short of the sergeant-in-arms handcuffing these folks, right, and holding them in contempt or throwing them in jail, what can they do?

WEISS: It's a court fight. And I expect Congressman Nadler to go to court and to litigate, to get a court order requiring Don McGahn to appear. Don McGahn is a lawyer. He's an officer of the court. He will comply with a court order.

When he goes into Congress and testifies, however, I don't think he's going to be as explosive as John Dean. Remember, John Dean in Watergate was out to save the country. I think Don McGahn is going to be a truthful but reluctant witness in front of the House eventually.

SCIUTTO: Final question, jack. Somewhat contradictory point being made by Bill Barr and others that the Special Counsel did not find enough evidence of obstruction of justice, but also the Special Counsel should have made a decision to indict or not. I mean, it seems to raise a question about the point you made that is the guidance really that clear here? I mean, Bill Barr, the sitting Attorney General, seems to say, well, the Special Counsel should have made a judgment, even as he says, well, I looked at the evidence and there is no indictable crime. It's confusing.

WEISS: Yes. Jim, I agree with the premise of your question. And it's difficult for me to Monday morning quarterback this because the people on Mueller's team are really some of the most esteemed people in my profession. If I were to do it over again, I wish they would have at least kicked it OLC, kicked it upstairs in the Justice Department and said, we have an indictable case here. We have a case that ought to be brought, and these are far worse facts than whatever facts caused OLC to opine in the first place that a president was above the law. I wish they had done that. And perhaps when they appear in front of the House, as one day they have to, we'll get a chance to flesh that out.

SCIUTTO: Let's hope so. I think Americans have a right to ask questions of the prosecutors on this through their elected representatives. Jack Weiss, thanks so much for coming on.

WEISS: Thank you.

HARLOW: All right. Let's talk about this and more with Democratic Congressman Lloyd Doggett. He sits on the House Ways and Means Committee. It's so nice to have you, sir. Thanks you for taking the time this Monday morning.

REP. LLOYD DOGGETT (D-TX): Great to join you, Poppy.

HARLOW: Let's begin with taxes, because this is key given your position on the committee. So the chairman of your committee, Richard Neal, said just on Friday that he doesn't really see any good, what good would it do, he argues, to hold Steven Mnuchin or the IRS commissioner in contempt and it's time to hand it over to the courts, hand this over to the judiciary. You've said that you would be in support of contempt proceedings. Do you now agree with Chairman Neal that that wouldn't do much good at this point?

DOGGETT: Well, I think whichever path we take, the most important thing is to move immediately. This is something that should have happened yesterday. You know, Donald Trump hasn't hesitated to go to the courts. He's got a couple cases pending to thwart attempts to get the truth. I really think we would be better to move forward with inherent contempt and make it clear to this White House that we're not going through umpteen levels of judicial proceedings. We intend to enforce and stand up to those who deny the truth.

HARLOW: I hear the rhetorical argument here and the point that you're making. But I'm just wondering if you can make the case for how that would be more effective. How is holding Secretary Mnuchin or the IRS commissioner in contempt more effective at getting the documents you want than going through the courts?

DOGGETT: Someone held in contempt is fined or confined or both. And so it would be a matter, maybe Secretary Mnuchin, as another billionaire in the Trump cabinet, wouldn't care that much, but being fined $25,000, $50,000 a day and actually being subject to confinement.

HARLOW: So you think throwing Steven Mnuchin, just to be clear, the Treasury Secretary, in jail, and fining a billionaire $25,000, $50,000 a day, is going to get him to against the President's wishes, compel the IRS commissioner to turn over the President's tax returns from the last six years?


You think it's actually going to -- he would actually do that if you throw him in jail?

DOGGETT: I think the IRS commissioner should be subject to the same penalties. And I really think probably the fine approach would be the one that would have broader support. But going through civil contempt and even if an order is obtained this year and getting all the appeals out of the way does not seem as credible an alternative. Certainly, a fine would be attacked also but it would become effective right away. And maybe $25,000, $50,000 a day doesn't make a big difference to Steven Mnuchin, but perhaps it does to Don McGahn or any number of other people who know the secrets that the White House is working so hard to protect.

HARLOW: It would be an interesting strategy. We'll watch. We'll see.

Let's move on to big headline from the first republican, the only republican member of Congress right now to call for the President's impeachment, that is Justin Amash, a republican representative of Michigan. And it's significant not only because he's a republican but because he is going further than democratic leadership is at this point, right, further than Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer have at this point.

You told my colleague, Chris Cuomo, a few weeks ago on May 7th, quote, about impeachment, quote, I don't think it's the time to go there at this point. Do you maintain that position, sir?

DOGGETT: We're getting closer. And what I told Chris and would reiterate today is I think we have a little more work to do in our investigation and exposure of this, but I'm not ruling out in any way impeachment. I'm eager to see democrats show the same kind of courage that Justin Amash has shown.

You know, last week this time, he was a revered member of the republican caucus, somebody who voted most of the time with Donald Trump, a member of the freedom caucus. And today, they're distancing themselves from him as an individual because they cannot distance themselves from the facts and the conclusion of those prosecutors you were just discussing, all of whom, anyone who would review this would say, Donald Trump has committed impeachable offenses. It's just a question of what we're going to do about it.

HARLOW: If I just heard you correctly, sir, you called on your fellow democrats in Congress to show as much, in your words, courage as the republican congressman of Michigan has shown. Is that correct? Do you think your fellow democrats are being cowardly on this front, on the impeachment front?

DOGGETT: I think some could be a bit more forceful. I don't think this is a time for timidity. That doesn't mean I'm calling for impeachment proceedings to begin this afternoon. But whether it's inherent contempt or getting in the courthouse, it is important that we act boldly.

HARLOW: What is forceful? What is more boldly on the impeachment front because you yourself aren't going as far as Representative Amash?

DOGGETT: Well, it might well be a matter of instituting impeachment proceedings. It's just a question of whether it's done now or whether we can consider other alternatives immediately. I mean, here we are, we're getting close to halfway through this year, not a single lawsuit has been filed by our side. Nothing has been done to fine or confine anyone who rejects the attempts of Congress to have some accountability.

And Donald Trump has increasingly defined a total obstruction strategy. When some of those comments were made about not beginning impeachment proceedings, that was before Donald Trump had shown this total defiance and refusal to offer anyone or any document to the Congress, and defining our responsibilities narrowly to whether we're legislating. Our job is to be a branch of government that constrains excess of power in the executive branch, and Donald Trump will grab every bit of power he can get if we don't stand up to him.

HARLOW: That's quite a message and warning, frankly, that you're sending to your fellow democrats. Sounds like you're saying, do your job here. We're watching. Thank you very much, Congressman Lloyd Doggett on the House Ways and Means Committee. It's nice to have you. I appreciate it.

Still to come, President Trump threatens to end Iran if a war starts, and this morning, Iran is responding.

SCIUTTO: Plus, 2020 presidential candidate Kamala Harris says she will fine companies that don't pay men and women equally. The details of the equal pay plan that she is launching today, just ahead.

And did you watch it? HBO's hit series Game of Thrones is over. I was up late last night watching it. Don't tell my executive producer. After eight seasons of plot twists and shocking deaths, did the finale live up to the hype? I'm kind of on the fence. I want to talk about this. Stay with us.



HARLOW: All right. Welcome back. Iran now hitting back at the President's latest warning, quote, that the U.S. would end Iran if a war starts.

SCIUTTO: Iran's Foreign Minister says, instead of threats, the President should try respect, while a top Iranian general says that Tehran is not looking for war. Makes that clear, but is fully prepared to defend itself if one were to start.


Let's speak now to CNN's Senior Diplomatic Correspondent Michelle Kosinski. And I understand you have some new reporting about the intelligence that led to this latest crisis.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: This is coming from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, and last week, he was among senators who were briefed, a small number of people were briefed, a small number of people were briefed. There were a small number that were briefed, okay. But other senators, including Graham, came out and said that more should be briefed because he said that so many senators feel like they're in the dark and that the administration has dropped the ball on sharing exact information that had to do with these Iranian threats that the administration acted based on.

So today, Graham is Tweeting this, just received a briefing from National Security Adviser Bolton about escalating tensions with Iran. It is clear over the last several weeks, Iran has attacked pipelines and ships of other nations and created threats streams against American interests in Iraq. The fault lies with the Iranians, not the United States or any other nation. If the Iranian threats against American personnel and interests are activated, we must deliver an overwhelming military response. Stand firm, Mr. President.

So what's significant about this is this is the first that we're hearing from someone connected to the U.S. Government that Iran was behind these incidents, the bombing of ships off of the UAE, the attack of a pipeline in Saudi Arabia. We know that other nations suspect Iran on that, and they say that the U.S. suspects the same, but we don't have an official statement from the White House or from the administration saying Iran is behind this.

In fact, sources we talk to say it has now gotten to the point that it's surprising at this point, these nations involved, including the UAE, including the U.S., which is helping with the investigation, hasn't come out and attributed these things to Iran yet. There is some talk that could be as part of an effort to de-escalate things.

So here is Senator Graham coming out and saying that Iran, based on the briefing that he just got from the National Security Adviser, is behind these attacks.

HARLOW: Michelle Kosinski, it's very important. Thank you for the reporting. We appreciate it. Jim?

SCIUTTO: No question. So what do the Iranians think of this? We have someone in the ground in Iran, as we often do, CNN Senior International Correspondent Frederik Pleitgen in Tehran. So an interesting message in public from Iranian officials, even a general saying, we don't want war, making that message clear, but if attacked, we will respond. I mean, should we read into that an attempt to tamp down the tensions here?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think, Jim, that the Iranians have been trying to really temp down the tensions a little bit, trying to sort of take the temperature down ever since late last week. But I think one of the things that really surprised them a little bit was the President's Tweets we got late last night saying it would be the end of Iran if they wanted a fight. I think that angered a lot of people on the ground here, a lot of regular Iranians actually that we're speaking to as well, and, of course, government officials as well. You had the Foreign Minister come out and saying never threaten an Iranian and saying try a little more respect. That's something that would work more than that.

He's actually been trolling the President somewhat. He just issued another Tweet again, Javad Zarif. He said, Donald Trump rightly deplores the military industrial complex, pushing the U.S. to forever wars, and allowing the B team, which, of course, he talks about some of the President's advisers, including John Bolton, to trash diplomacy and abet war crimes by milking despotted butchers via massive arms sales achieves nothing but empowering that same complex, try to drain the swamp. So a little bit of Twitter trolling going on there at the President's latest Tweet.

But you're right, the Iranians continue to say they don't want an escalation in this But if there is an escalation, then they are ready for one, and that is going to be painful for the United States. So the Iranians certainly standing firm and at the same time, saying, and I think this is very important, Jim, under these current circumstances with the current sanctions in place, they say there are not going to be any negotiations with the Trump administration. I actually just talked to a senior diplomat just a couple minutes ago, and he told me exactly the same thing. He said they want the White House to bring things down, to take some of those sanctions away. Otherwise, there's definitely not going to be any talks, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Well, it's interesting, the Iranian Foreign Minister quote back one of those Twitter hashtags, drain the swamp, back to the President. Frederik Pleitgen, great to have you on the ground there.

Well, two of the big players, of course, in this beyond the U.S. are China and Russia. This is one of those battlefields.

And, Poppy, while you were gone, I had a book come out on China and Russia. It's called The Shadow War. And I just bring -- I bring it up now.

HARLOW: They need to pull me up. They're putting up the -- I'm like Vanna White here with, you know, --

SCIUTTO: I'll tell you whatever they put up. But, I mean, the reason I bring it up is that in each of these little fronts here, right, you have common -- sort of a common dividing line.


You got the U.S. on one side and China and Russia on the other side. And that's really the point of the book here, that this is a multi- front conflict around the world. I mean, it goes from places like Iran, Syria, but also up into outer space, submarine warfare and cyberspace. I mean, it is part of a strategy by both of these countries to catch up to and surpass the U.S.

HARLOW: And you -- I mean, Jim, you started reporting this book all around the world literally, from the Arctic to deep inside China before President Trump was president. I'm just interested in how him becoming president, you know, the rhetoric from him, this sort of declarations on Twitter, you know, from fire and fury to rocket man to the words he's used about Iran in the last few days, I mean, just how that has shaped everything.

SCIUTTO: Well, one thing that's key here, there's a lot of blame to go around. And if you read the book, I talk about criticism of the Obama administration, the Trump administration, the Clinton administration, for missing these threats in the past. The fact is though the President, certainly on Russia, not willing to articulate a strategy or even call out Russia for some of its bad behavior, and that's very different from what you hear from the submarine camp commanders, the guys flying the spy planes, the folks fighting cyber attacks in the NSA. So that disconnect is important.

HARLOW: It is. It's a great book, if you haven't bought it yet, The Shadow War, Jim's new book. Congrats, my friend. We'll keep talking about it.

SCIUTTO: Thank you.

HARLOW: Still ahead --

SCIUTTO: Still head, presidential hopeful Senator Kamala Harris unveiling her plan to close the gender pay gap. She says it would shift the burden from working women to large corporations. We're going to tell you how next.