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White House Blocks Don McGahn's Congressional Testimony; Tensions Flare as Democrats Debate Impeachment Behind Closed Doors; Appeal Filed after Judge Orders Trump Accounting Firm to Hand over Records; Rep. Andy Kim (D-NY) Discusses Impeachment, Don McGahn, the Iranian Threat; Trump Expected to Pick Ken Cuccinelli for Top DHS Job. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired May 21, 2019 - 11:00   ET



[11:00:08] KATE BOLDUAN CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. Thank you so much for joining me.

Another subpoena ignored. Another empty chair testifies. And now House Democrats are debating the question to impeach or not to impeach. And for the first time, signs that some top Democrats have reached a tipping point here.

Just last hour, former White House counsel, Don McGahn, refused to appear before the House Judiciary Committee following a directive from the White House and defying a subpoena from the committee chairman, Jerry Nadler.

Nadler still held the hearing, facing an empty chair to make his point, and said this:


REP. JERRY NADLER (D-NY): In other words, when this committee issues a subpoena, even to a senior presidential adviser, the witness must show up. Our subpoenas are not optional. Mr. McGahn has a legal obligation to be here for this scheduled appearance.

If he does not immediately correct his mistake, this committee will have no choice but to enforce the subpoena against him.

Mr. McGahn did not appear today because the president prevented it. Just as the president has said that he would, quote, "fight all subpoenas," close quote, issued by Congress as part of his broader efforts to cover up his misconduct.

This stonewalling makes it all the more important to highlight some of the incidents that Mr. McGahn is said to have witnessed.


BOLDUAN: So this comes after a meeting last night where, behind closed doors, House Democrats were split on whether this move from the White House is really the last straw.

And there's more. Less than 24 hours after a federal judge sided with Congress saying that the committees have a right to see the president's financial records, now the president has already filed his appeal to try to stop it still.

Clearly, a lot of moving parts today. Let's start on Capitol Hill. CNN's Manu Raju is there with much more.

Manu, what are the next steps now that the former White House counsel has refused to appear and testify?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, expect the House Judiciary Committee to move in the coming days to hold Don McGahn in contempt of Congress. This coming after they did a similar step with the attorney general, Bill Barr, after he did not turn over the full unredacted Mueller report and the underlying evidence, the Democrats plan to do the same thing here.

That will ultimately go to a House floor vote, and the full House will vote to hold McGahn in contempt, Barr in contempt, as well as other individuals not complying with subpoenas. Democrats plan to roll it all in one package. That process may happen in weeks. It may not happen this week. It could take some time.

At that point, expect court action to ensue. Jerry Nadler made it clear they plan to go to court to try to compel Don McGahn's testimony one way or the other, to provide the information they're seeking.

But, Kate, that process I just laid out is going to take time. Democrats believe this is just one, the first step in a series of steps to ultimately get what they want, but ultimately, they need the courts to agree with them -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Manu, there's -- kind of mixed into all of this, there's this, I don't know if we call it a rift that appears to be opening among Democrats. Last night, over this whole thing, and impeachment. You have been hearing a lot from Democrats. What are they telling you?

RAJU: Yes, there's a growing divide within the party about pursuing impeachment. A number of more prominent members are starting to speak out, to at least begin a formal process of an impeachment inquiry, at least an investigation to determine whether or not impeachment proceeding is warranted. That's a shift among Democrats. This is something they have been debating behind closed doors even as Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, has not favored that approach.

One top Democrat, Adam Schiff, who has been skeptical about pursuing impeachment, told me earlier today if the White House continues to stonewall their requests, it may be time to move forward.


RAJU: Do you believe that it's an impeachment inquiry is warranted now given the stonewalling from the administration? REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): I think that the administration is certainly

pushing the Congress in that direction by obstructing everything. But I expect we'll have a discussion about that today.

RAJU: Are you changing your tune on that?

SCHIFF: You know, I think the case gets stronger the more that they stonewall the Congress.


BOLDUAN: Several other members have went even further, including the House budget chairman, John Yarmuth, who said it's time to move forward now. Joaquin Castro, who is the Congressional Hispanic Caucus chairman, said it's time to start impeachment.

And also they're getting pressure from the left flank, including the freshman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who said she's sympathized with the speaker's position, but said impeachment must begin.


[11:05:08] REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D-NY): I trust the speaker is taking a measured approach to ensure we're moving everyone forward. I know being a speaker is hard, holding this party together is a difficult task, but we know what we need to do. I personally believe we have to move forward."


RAJU: So Pelosi has been saying behind closed doors she favors a deliberative approach. A subpoena, then see if they comply, court action, then building the case that the American public can see this White House's resistance as they try to get information. The question is, can she continue to keep her members at bay. As you can see, pressure continues to grow -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Yes, that's exactly right.

Great to see you, Manu. Thank you so much.

So with all of this, let's get over to the White House to get perspective there.

CNN's Abby Phillip is standing by.

Abby, what is the view from there on this fight over Don McGahn right now?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, the White House definitely wants this to be a fight, but they're framing this in a slightly different way. They're sensitive in some ways to the perception this is about the president trying to stop Don McGahn from potentially embarrassing him in a testimony before Capitol Hill. But the White House is saying this is actually about presidential powers. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said in a

statement that, "The order was taken to stop McGahn in order to ensure future presidents can effectively execute the responsibilities of the office of the presidency."

And that's something that President Trump himself reiterated when he spoke to reporters yesterday.

But we should also note that President Trump has personally attacked Don McGahn, basically calling him a liar. And we also know that the president's lawyers had tried to get McGahn to put out statements publicly about what he told Robert Mueller.

So this is clearly something the White House had wanted to stop. They are trying to order McGahn in a blanket fashion to not testify, not turn over documents.

But the question is, will this all hold up in court? And I think that's an open question right now. But they're willing to take it to that point, to take it to the courts for a fight that could go on for months and months.

BOLDUAN: Well, let's talk about court, Abby, because the president's legal team also just filed an appeal on another front, another fight, the fight over Donald Trump's former accounting firm and demands from Congress that the company turn over his financial records.

PHILLIP: That's right. This House Oversight Committee subpoena to Mazars, an accounting firm that worked with President Trump on accounting issues before he was president.

They issued a subpoena for a bunch of documents, and the president's lawyers had been trying to stop this. But they lost in court yesterday with a federal judge saying essentially that this is within Congress' right to do. It's within their powers to ask for these documents and that companies like Mazars has to turn them over. He gave them seven days. We're now at six days now.

This appeal basically could potentially put in motion a process that could stop that from happening, at least in the next week while that case is pending.

But already, President Trump has gone forward with attacking this judge. Listen to what he said to reporters yesterday.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: As far as the financials are concerned, we think it's the wrong -- it's totally the wrong decision by obviously an Obama-appointed judge.


PHILLIP: So an attack on the judge directly there from President Trump. But this, too, is also going to get worked out in court. I would say, Kate, this decision by the judge yesterday could have

reverberations across the board for President Trump. He made it very clear that Congress has the power to investigate, to do oversight, and contrary to what President Trump has been saying, it is not presidential harassment -- Kate?


Good to see you, Abby. Thanks so much.

Joining me now is Julie Hirschfeld Davis, a CNN political analyst and congressional correspondent for the "New York Times." Elie Honig is here, CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor, and John Bresnahan, the congressional bureau chief for "Politico."

John, let me lean on what you know happens behind closed doors on Capitol Hill. What happened with Democrats overnight? And what is it with McGahn's empty chair that seems to be something of a tipping point now?

JOHN BRESNAHAN, CONGRESSIONAL BUREAU CHIEF, POLITICO: I think we are close to a tipping point. I don't think we're at a critical mass yet where Democrats are going to impeach or try to impeach Trump. But I think they're close. I think Speaker Pelosi has got a problem. She's got a real problem here.

There was a dispute, a couple meetings last night where this was batted back and forth. Pelosi and the rest of her leadership team said, no, they don't want to move forward with impeachment. That was the message Jerry Nadler got today. That's why the hearing went so quickly today. Pelosi and Nadler didn't want any discussion of impeachment during that hearing.

But I think they're really getting close here. And they're going to have a meeting. House Democrats will have a meeting tomorrow morning where they're going to talk about this issue. They'll talk about impeachment. Pelosi has called this special meeting tomorrow morning, and I think this is what they talk about, should they move forward with impeachment or not.

Pelosi and her top lieutenants, again, they don't want to do this. They think it's a mistake. They think it's potentially a trap. You don't talk about your legislative agenda if you're talking about impeachment.

But there are a lot of rank-and-file Democrats who see the president stonewalling Congress and they want to take dramatic action.

[11:10:26] BOLDUAN: Some of the difference here, Julie, is also this isn't just freshman Democrats. This is some of the members of the leadership team who are bringing up, if not saying it's time to impeach straight up, it's time to start beginning impeachment proceedings.

Until now, as John has mentioned, Pelosi has been able to hold the team together until now, walking around on Capitol Hill this morning, she was asked, how do you address the divisions of your caucus? We don't have division. How much do you believe her, Julie?

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, CNN POLITICAL ANALAYST: On this one, not at all. It's clear there have been divisions on this from the very beginning. They have extended at least to some degree to the top ranks of the House Democrats. Maxine Waters, who is a committee chairman, said she's pro-impeachment.

But you're right, up until a couple weeks ago, you did not have senior members of the investigative committees, people like Jerry Nadler talking openly, like Adam Schiff is, whose clip you played a little while ago, talking about we may be getting close to the point where we need to do this.

It's important to point out there's a couple different reasons members are where they are on this. Some of the newer members have been there for symbolic reasons, for the principle of the thing.

When you hear, when you talk to people around Jerry Nadler, I think part of it is a real substantive concern that if he wants to be able to investigate this president to the degree he thinks Congress needs to, to exercise its prerogatives. Impeachment may be the only real tool that allows him to do that effectively.

That's why I think you see some of these folks moving more toward this as they see things like Don McGahn refusing to testify. They're thinking to themselves, if we're going to pursue an alternative to impeachment where we lay out the case to the American people, how can we do that if the president and White House are going to continue to stonewall and be effective at doing that.

Pelosi's arguments are the courts are going to potentially weigh in on our side. They have already done that in the case of the financial records. We should wait for that to play out.

BOLDUAN: I think that's a really interesting point in what we are hearing from some Democrats, in terms, Elie, of their reasoning for why they want to open impeachment proceedings. It's they think doing so would possibly strengthen their hand in terms of the case they make against the White House. Do you see -- do you see that?

ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I do. Legally and tactically speaking, it actually strengthens Congress' hands in the courts if there's an open impeachment proceeding.

Here's why. Understand the Constitution, the Congress has two big relevant powers, to legislate and to impeach. When Congress serves a subpoena on the executive branch and the executive branch ignores it, brushes it aside, as we have seen so far, and it ends up in court, like we saw yesterday, the judge will say, OK, is this subpoena reasonably related to one of those two, either of those two powers?

So legislation is always on the table, but if they can open up potential impeachment, then it enables Congress to go into court and say it's relevant to one or both of these. It gives them basically a second way to win in courts.

BOLDUAN: Legally and tactically can sometimes be diametrically opposed to politically.

John, what is it, John, about this argument we're hearing from folks that launching the impeachment inquiry doesn't mean there will be a vote on impeachment? In my head, how is that possible? Isn't the message pretty much the same?

BRESNAHAN: Oh, I agree with you totally. If you start an impeachment inquiry, you end up voting on impeachment.

Then the second part of this, there are some Democrats who are saying, well, we can continue to conduct a legislative agenda parallel to impeachment. Let's forget about that. I covered Bill Clinton's impeachment in 1998. There's no legislative agenda if you impeach the president. That's your agenda.

I think if you begin an inquiry, I think just by the sheer logic of it, the sheer force of it, you will end up with a vote. At minimum, in the Judiciary Committee, and maybe on the floor of the House, to impeach the president.

I think this is -- you know, Pelosi sees that once you go down this road, you can't go back. And you know, I think she's trying to balance, trying to thread the needle here. And right now, she's still leaning against impeachment, but the pressure is growing on her.

BOLDUAN: And, Julie, Nancy Pelosi said weeks ago that Donald Trump is trying to goad Democrats into impeaching him. Can both sides think impeachment is a win and can both sides be right?

HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: Oh, absolutely. I think at this point, obviously, I don't think Donald Trump or anyone around him wants him to be remembered as a president who was impeached. But in terms of the way he likes to fight his battles, the way he likes to campaign, it's always to be fighting against someone, to be the underdog, to be the aggrieved party. We saw that throughout the Mueller investigation.

[11:15:12] Now that that's over, this would be, you know, something that I think would be -- it's a potent theme for him whether or not they're impeaching him. They are sort of leaning into this and they understand it would be a politically difficult thing for Democrats to do, potentially politically costly thing for them to do and so, therefore, I think they see a potential silver lining there.

And Democrats as well. I think some Democrats believe that if they are going to get people energized on voting for Democrats, about, you know, potentially swinging over from the Republican Party or appeal to Independents, they have to show they're aggressively going after what they consider to be grave misconduct by the president. And if they don't do that, that people will think they're not fulfilling their responsibilities.

I think the fight kind of works for both sides politically. But again, these questions go way beyond politics. These are institutional questions. These are important principles that I think both sides, particularly the House Democrats, are really trying to weigh and figuring out how to go forward here. BOLDUAN: That's why we're seeing this struggle kind of be exposed/

And also to finish off the point John made off the top, it hasn't reached critical mass yet. That's the art of covering Congress. It's like when is critical mass and when do they decide that? That's what to watch over the next 24, 48 hours as they have this maybe kumbaya meeting or maybe the exact opposite when they get together tomorrow.

It's great to see you guys. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.


BOLDUAN: Coming up for us, we have a CNN exclusive. As the Trump administration heads to Capitol Hill to brief lawmakers on the threat from Iran, CNN speaks to Iran's foreign minister. What he says needs to happen before any diplomacy with the United States can take place.

Plus, we also have breaking news right now. Water rescues are under way after massive storms are hitting the middle section of the country. Take a look at that. This happened moments ago. We'll give you an update on how it's going there.

We'll be right back.


[11:21:52] BOLDUAN: The impeachment drumbeat is growing louder on Capitol Hill. That is because some top Democrats are now saying it's officially time to open impeachment proceedings. That is new. But how many Democrats are with them, if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is still trying to pump the brakes on any movement towards that?

Joining me right now, let's find ow, Democratic Congressman Andy Kim, of New Jersey, joins me.

Congressman, thank you for being here.

REP. ANDY KIM (D-NJ): Thank you for having me.

BOLDUAN: You have some Democrats who are taking a new position today. They're saying today has been a tipping point. David Cicilline saying that Don McGahn's empty chair at this House Judiciary Committee hearing is a tipping point for him. It's time to bring an impeachment inquiry against the president. Is this a tipping point for you?

KIM: For me, I take my cues and my direction from people in my district. So what I keep hearing, as I did a town hall this past weekend, is continuing to talk about health care, continuing to talk about infrastructure. They're raising questions about what's happening with Iran and Iraq right now. And these are the questions that I'm focused on here in Congress.

BOLDUAN: And I have heard that from others. But if you are not in a place of impeachment now, do you think starting impeachment proceedings would be helpful to you? KIM: There's a place for oversight, but you know, we also need to

make sure we're continuing on with the legislation. I don't sit on these committees of jurisdiction, but for me, my job is to focus in on what the needs of my district are, and that's what I'm doing here.

BOLDUAN: What is your bigger concern here? As you're saying you're taking your cues from your district. Is it that moving towards impeachment proceedings would distract from what you ran on and won on or is it more that it wouldn't result in Donald Trump being removed from the office because the Senate wouldn't go along with it at the end?

KIM: What I hear from my district is, they constantly go back to -- just a couple month ago, I was sworn in in the middle of a government shutdown. We saw the type of paralysis that comes with that. People in my district were so upset about the paralysis and the partisan knife fighting. And they said we ought to be able to move forward and get the job done and work where the rubber meets the road.

Those are the cues I'm taking. And those are some of the concerns I and others worry about when we think about not having that focus on our legislative agenda and actually trying to get things done.

BOLDUAN: Do you think -- do you think some of your fellow Democrats are misguided in saying now is the time to move on to impeachment? Do you think they're missing the point?

KIM: Everyone needs to focus in on what they're hearing from their district. They don't live in my district, I don't live in theirs.


KIM: For me, my job is to home in on exactly what the people in Burlington County and Ocean County care about. That's my job. So I'm not able to put people -- words in other people's mouths.

BOLDUAN: You have made a career as a national security official. And you're on the Armed Services. I want to ask you, you just received a briefing about Iran and the threat from Iran from former CIA director, John Brennan, and former State Department official and top negotiator in the Iran nuclear deal, Wendy Sherman. What did they tell you about the current threat they see?

KIM: Right now, what I'm focused on today, having heard that briefing and then going into the administration's briefing, which will be a bipartisan briefing, is just getting answers to the American people.

[11:25:09] Just, as I said, I had a town hall this weekend and was asked a lot of questions about Iran. We had a lengthy discussion about it. The people in my district are worried about this. And frankly, they're confused by what the administration is doing. Here on Capitol Hill, we deserve to have the answers for the American people on this.

The carrier strike group was moved out on May 5th. This has been over two weeks since they have taken those actions. So for us, we need to hear what the intelligence is, understand whether or not this is really a significant uptick.

As someone who worked on Iraq issues before, at the State Department and Pentagon, at the National Security Council, I know our personnel are under threat, at the embassy in Baghdad and elsewhere. So how is this different? And what is our actual strategy to be able to combat this?

So far, over the last couple weeks, all I have seen are a series of actions and tactics. I haven't seen anything that resembles a strategy of how our government is going to address this going forward.


KIM: And that's what the American people deserve.

BOLDUAN: Congressman, it's also not guaranteed, after you come out of a bipartisan briefing, you're going to come out with the same conclusions. Already, some lawmakers have been briefed by the current administration officials about the threat and have come out with vastly different takes.

Lindsey Graham said after being briefed that he's on the same page as the president, that Iran is threatening Americans in Iraq and other U.S. interests in the Middle East. And he is standing with them.

But you have Democrat Ruben Gallego, he responded to Lindsey Graham with a tweet saying this, "Again, Lindsey and I get the same intel. That is not what is being said. That's total information bias to draw the conclusion he wants for himself and the media."

How big of a problem is it if they're seeing the same intel, you're all seeing the same intel, but reaching vastly different conclusions?

KIM: That is a problem. That's why we need to have this type of briefing. We should have had it much earlier to make sure we're having that transparency.

And again, what it is we can explain to the American people. That's ultimately who deserves to know about this and understand the intelligence and understand the strategy and the goals. We have to make it certain that the efforts right now are focused entirely on protecting Americans, protecting our concerns. And that this is not something that is John Bolton leading ahead and pushing his agenda upon the American people.

I worked in that Situation Room before, and I want to make sure they're focused on our leads, not theirs.

BOLDUAN: Congressman, appreciate you coming on. Looking forward to hearing what your take on it is after the briefing coming up this afternoon.

Thanks so much.

KIM: OK, thank you so much.

BOLDUAN: Thank you.

We also have breaking news come in that President Trump has settled on someone to take a top job with the Department of Homeland Security. That person is the former attorney general of Virginia, a face you have seen on this network many times, Ken Cuccinelli.

Let me bring in CNN's Kaitlan Collins. She has the breaking details.

Kaitlan, what are you learning about Cuccinelli and do we know what the job is?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Also, Kate, a face the president has seen on cable television before, which is how he's caught the president's eye, because he's been a staunch defender of his. Now, we're being told by sources the president does expect, though he has not formally announced it yet, to pick Ken Cuccinelli for a top job at the Department of Homeland Security.

The question of what the job exactly is, people inside the White House and DHS do not even seem to know exactly what his title is going to be. But he did meet with the president in the Oval Office, and it does seem likely he's going to get a job over at the Department of Homeland Security.

And you may be asking yourself, why would he get a job there? They just have a new acting Homeland Security secretary. That's Kevin McAleenan, who used to work at Customs and Border Protection.

But now we're told by sources that the White House and President Trump want to bring someone in to DHS who has a similar mindset to the president. Because Ken Cuccinelli, the former attorney general for Virginia, is seen as an immigration hardliner, someone who agrees more with the president and the Stephen Miller type on immigration than some of the people they have seen at DHS so far. So they want someone who is a little more political to represent the views of the White House inside the department.

BOLDUAN: It almost seems like the president or Ken Cuccinelli could have a pick of what the top position could be at DHS --


BOLDUAN: -- because you have so many acting positions. As you have reported many times, the president prefers acting, as he likes to say, because then it gives him flexibility.

Regardless, let's see what's announced and what that means. Because then it means Senate confirmation is likely needed.

Good to see you, Kaitlan. Thank you.

[11:29:24] Coming up for us, CNN exclusive interview with Iran's foreign minister as top Trump officials prepare to brief Congress on the threat from Iran. What he says about President Trump's offer to talk. That's next.