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Tensions Flare as Democrats Debate Impeachment Behind Closed Doors; White House Blocks McGahn's Testimony on Capitol Hill; Several Democrats Press Pelosi on Impeachment; Don McGahn Expected to Defy Congressional Subpoena; Democrats Divided Over Impeachment; Michael Cohen Reveals Jay Sekulow Urged False Testimony on Trump Tower Moscow. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired May 21, 2019 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:00] CHALIAN: That to me is an interesting middle ground.


BERMAN: David Chalian, thank you very much.

CAMEROTA: Yes. Thank you. So it does sound like the endgame for Democrats has changed so there's this growing list, as David just said, of Democrats who are calling on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to begin the impeachment inquiry against the president.

"NEWSROOM" picks up our coverage right now.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, I'm Jim Sciutto. Nice to be back shoulder-to-shoulder with Poppy here in New York.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good to be back with you, my friend. I'm Poppy Harlow.

Nothing says defiance like an empty chair. And once again that is exactly what we're expecting to see one hour from now when the House Judiciary Committee meets for what was meant to be an illuminating day of testimony from the former White House counsel, Don McGahn. Just like the attorney general, less than a month ago, McGahn intends to defy the panel's subpoena which will very likely earn him a contempt citation and a court fight, and thereby add to the pressure facing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from Democrats in her own party, Democrats eager to start impeachment proceedings against this president. For now she is standing firmly against that.

SCIUTTO: And I know you've heard this word a lot, maybe getting sick of it, subpoena, but subpoenas do matter, part of the Constitution, congressional powers to check the executive. That message jumping off the pages of a brand new ruling from a D.C. federal judge rejecting the president's bid to stop his former accounting firm from turning over documents to the House Oversight Committee. This is key in an ongoing investigation of Trump Organization.

CNN's Manu Raju is on Capitol Hill this morning. OK, so let's start with McGahn, the White House counsel. What happens

next with his absence and why is the panel so focused on getting him to testify under oath?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, he is a key witness who was a part of the administration for the first two years, a key witness in the Mueller investigation, someone who spent 30 hours talking to the special counsel, also is the one who -- one person who apparently the president tried to get to fire the special counsel in an effort to thwart the investigation.

Democrats want to hear all of this in public testimony, but under the instructions of the White House he is defying a subpoena and will not show up at today's hearing. He's also refusing to turn over records because the White House has essentially told him not to. They say that he is immune from testifying because he is a senior level White House adviser. That's an approach that Democrats reject.

So expect at this hearing today that both sides will tee off. Democrats will attack this administration of what they see as a lawless administration. They will plan to move forward to hold Don McGahn in contempt. Those votes could happen in a matter of days and Republicans will side with the White House and say, look, there is no legal justification for bringing someone this close to the president before Congress. He should not be compelled to testify.

That's going to play out in a very, very contentious hearing, but Democrats -- this is just the first step to hold Don McGahn in contempt and others in contempt as they defy these subpoenas, guys.

SCIUTTO: OK. Other big question here, the I word, impeachment. I remember a moment on this broadcast, remember just a couple of weeks ago, it was you, Manu, you asked Ted Lieu.


SCIUTTO: This question. He said, you know what, there's a lot of folks in the caucus want to move forward with impeachment.


SCIUTTO: At the time it seemed like, well, you know, how many exactly, but it seems like now, particularly after a meeting with Democratic leadership, that there is a growing critical mass here that may force the speaker's hand on this.

RAJU: Potentially because of the anger about the defiance from this administration to not turn over records despite facing subpoenas. In multiple closed door meetings yesterday Democrats engaged in a lengthy debate about the way forward. A number of members called for the impeachment proceedings to begin. At least an impeachment inquiry. But Nancy Pelosi has rejected that approach, wanted to go more in a deliberative approach and said, look, we're already getting results from this court case that they won yesterday to turn over financial records that the House Oversight Committee has demanded from a Trump accounting firm. Now I talked to two key members of the House Judiciary Committee last

night who really exemplified the divide within the Democratic Party, one saying let's move forward and the other one saying not so fast.


REP. HAKEEM JEFFRIES (D-NY): The question is, why would we open an impeachment inquiry if we are winning in the court system as it relates to conducting our constitutionally anchored oversight responsibility?

REP. DAVID CICILLINE (D-RI): But if the White House takes the position it's going to block us and prevent us from getting to the truth and getting the facts that we need to make informed judgments, it may leave us no choice but to open an impeachment inquiry so we can do our job.


RAJU: Now I'm told that a closed door meeting with Jerry Nadler, the House Judiciary chairman, and Nancy Pelosi last night, they discussed moving forward, they discussed the possibility, the advantages to their court case if an impeachment inquiry were to be opened. And Nadler made that case on behalf of his members, but Nancy Pelosi, again, said that is not the approach to go.

Nadler ultimately agrees with Nancy Pelosi, but no question about it, some members in the rank and file, and even some members of Pelosi's leadership team, are pressing to push ahead, guys.

[09:05:06] HARLOW: Manu Raju, thank you. Great reporting as always.

Let's talk to Jeffrey Toobin, our chief legal analyst, about all of this.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Nice to be in your nice new set.

HARLOW: Right?

TOOBIN: Beautiful here.

SCIUTTO: Isn't it nice? Isn't it shiny?

TOOBIN: Yes, indeed.

SCIUTTO: So impeachment. First of all, let's distinguish between a vote to begin an impeachment inquiry which gives Congress powers, as opposed to a vote to actually impeach which is kind of the equivalent of an indictment where the House would get together and say we as a majority impeach the president, and then that leads to the Senate going forward.

But on this step here, an impeachment inquiry, what additional powers would that give Congress to investigate and would those powers -- would it be harder for the White House to resist those powers as it is doing now?

TOOBIN: There is a school of thought and there are some court cases that say if Congress is doing an impeachment inquiry as opposed to just oversight, the president is more obliged to cooperate, is more obliged to turn over documents. However, that is not clear, and it is certain that the president would fight those subpoenas just like he'd --



TOOBIN: Fight the ones that exist. In yesterday's court decision in the case about access to the accountants' papers, that suggests that the Congress has all the investigatory authority it needs.

SCIUTTO: That's interesting.

TOOBIN: Even without an impeachment today.

HARLOW: So is Nancy -- the question becomes, as Hakeem Jeffries, Nancy Pelosi, are they right when they say to David Cicilline and Congressman Raskin, who we're going to have on in a few minutes here, no, no, no, we don't need to move forward with impeachment yet because the courts are working in our favor?

TOOBIN: They are right so far.

HARLOW: So far.

TOOBIN: But there are going to be a lot of different court cases. It wouldn't be surprising to see judges treat these issues somewhat differently.


TOOBIN: Each case is somewhat different. For example, I think the president's position on the accounting firm is very weak. I mean, the idea that this is outside Congress' power is an argument that no court has accepted in decades. However, the president's legal position about Don McGahn, the former White House counsel, is pretty strong. That that -- the conversations between a White House counsel and a president --

HARLOW: Right.

TOOBIN: -- are the kind of thing that's been covered by executive privilege, although it's not clear there either.

HARLOW: But it's worth noting that the -- you know, Bush White House, George W. Bush, and the Obama White House both tried to do essentially the same thing.

TOOBIN: And the only case, recent case on this subject, involves Harriet Miers, who was George W. Bush's White House counsel.


TOOBIN: A district judge actually ordered her to testify.

HARLOW: Right.

TOOBIN: But that case was settled before it went to the appeals court. So the question of how binding a precedent that is, is unsettled.


TOOBIN: But it just illustrates that that issue of White House counsel's testimony is a genuinely complicated one.


SCIUTTO: One thing is certain, there are going to be a lot of busy lawyers in Washington in the coming weeks and months.

TOOBIN: And legal analysts.

SCIUTTO: And legal analysts.

HARLOW: Job security, too.

SCIUTTO: It can only be a good --

TOOBIN: That's what I want.

SCIUTTO: Listen, stay with us because we have a lot more questions to run by you this morning.

There are new allegations from President Trump's former fixer Michael Cohen who is right now serving a three-year prison sentence for lying to Congress, just to remind you.

HARLOW: Right. According to House Intel testimony that was just released, Cohen told members of Congress that the president's attorney, Jay Sekulow, helped coordinate what turned out to be Cohen's false testimony about the timeline of the Trump Tower Moscow project proposal.

Lauren Fox is with us with the details.

So this thing is now out there for people to read, the back and forth questions about Cohen and it's revealing.

LAUREN FOX, CNN POLITICS CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, Poppy. Last night the House Intelligence Committee released that transcript of their interview with Michael Cohen earlier this year and in that transcript Michael Cohen tells Congress, tells that committee, that Jay Sekulow, the president's personal attorney, was aware that Cohen's claims that talks had ended on the Trump Tower Moscow project in January 2016 were false. Now, if you remember Michael Cohen had told Congress in previous testimony back in 2017 that everything had ended, those talks had ended, back in January 2016, but of course they extended beyond that timeline, well into the 2016 election year.

Michael Cohen now serving that three-year prison sentence in part because he lied to Congress. Now Jay Sekulow's lawyers are hitting back, saying that that testimony that Michael Cohen gave earlier this year is not true and in the statement they say, quote, "Michael Cohen's alleged statements are more of the same from him and confirm the observations of prosecutors in the Southern District of New York that Cohen's instinct to blame others is strong. That this or any other committee would rely on the word of Michael Cohen for any purpose defies logic, well established law and common sense." Again, Michael Cohen is serving a three-year prison sentence right now.

[09:10:03] In that transcript he also told members of the Intelligence Committee that he had no evidence that anyone from the Trump campaign in 2016 had colluded with Russia or that the president was an agent of Russia, but obviously new information from those transcripts that were released last night -- Poppy.

HARLOW: OK, Lauren, thank you. Jeffrey Toobin is back with us.

Rudy Giuliani says this is a bunch of hog wash, you can't believe Michael Cohen, you know, you've got to believe Jay Sekulow. But if Jay Sekulow did do that, did, you know, help him lie essentially to Congress, is that illegal?

TOOBIN: Well, I think the important point to realize here is that Jay Sekulow was dealing with information that his client gave him. So the issue isn't so much was Jay Sekulow lying, the issue was, was he lied to by his client and trying to align Cohen with Trump? I really don't think there is any likely misconduct here by Jay Sekulow.


TOOBIN: I think the real question here is, was Donald Trump trying to get a false narrative out there about the Trump Tower Moscow meeting.

SCIUTTO: Right. And we know the president has lied repeatedly about issues in this investigation. I mean, one of the most explicit is about the Stormy Daniels payments. So I know the White House strategy here is to say, well, Michael Cohen is a liar.

TOOBIN: Right.

SCIUTTO: That said we know, for instance, in court proceedings here in New York regarding his campaign finance law violation, I mean, prosecutors here took Cohen's testimony in that case implicating the president seriously.

TOOBIN: Very seriously.

SCIUTTO: Right? Enough to include --

TOOBIN: And --

SCIUTTO: When they can corroborate it. Right?

TOOBIN: And in the Mueller report.


TOOBIN: Michael Cohen is the second most cited authority after Don McGahn.


HARLOW: Don McGahn.

TOOBIN: In the Mueller report.


TOOBIN: So Mueller -- and also when Trump was -- when Cohen was sentenced in the Southern District, the Cohen -- I'm sorry. The Mueller prosecutors told the judge in the Southern District that we think Michael Cohen is a credible source.

SCIUTTO: Right. And to be clear Mueller and the prosecutors here they are not dumb. They've been in court before. When they cite that testimony, they've done their homework to corroborate it through other means, I imagine?

TOOBIN: To the extent --

SCIUTTO: That they can.

TOOBIN: To the extent they can. And the other issue about this Sekulow-Trump matter is that we will never really get to the bottom of it because the conversations between Sekulow and Trump will be covered by attorney-client privilege.


TOOBIN: He's a private lawyer.


TOOBIN: There is no issue of executive privilege there. So we will never know what Sekulow was told by Trump, but based on prior history we can at least conjecture that there was some falsehood there.

SCIUTTO: Understood. Always good to have you, Jeffrey.

HARLOW: Jeffrey, thank you very much.

TOOBIN: Good to be here.

HARLOW: We appreciate it. Of course, we're waiting for this empty chair moment, the House Judiciary Committee will not hear from Don McGahn today, but they're still going to have a hearing, trying to make their point. This as there is an internal battle within the Democratic Party at this point over whether or not to pursue impeachment proceedings against this president.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Lots of empty chairs on the Hill of late.

Plus after weeks of escalating tensions with Iran today Congress may finally get some answers, major intelligence briefings under way on the Hill. There's still a disagreement, though, about what that intelligence actually shows. We're on it.

Plus the fifth migrant child -- child -- dies in U.S. custody just since September -- December, rather. What happened?


[09:15:00] POPPY HARLOW, CO-HOST, NEWSROOM: All right, welcome back. So this morning, Democrats are divided over impeachment. We're getting more details about these tense meetings behind closed doors last night with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Let's talk to one of the Congress members who was in there, Congressman Jamie Raskin of Maryland, he serves on the House Oversight and the House Judiciary Committees. Good to have you on such an important morning, sir, thank you for being here --

REP. JAMIE RASKIN (D-MD): Thanks for having me.

HARLOW: We're going to get to that in a moment, but just about the hearing that is supposed to happen today, the empty chair will be there for Don McGahn; former White House counsel who will not appear before your committee. Jerry Nadler; the chairman of your committee has said there will be, quote, "serious consequences", that you're prepared to use, quote, "all enforcement mechanisms at your disposal." So what are you going to do?

RASKIN: Well, we're likely to hold him in contempt for not coming. The president has basically ordered everybody in the executive branch to not appear before congressional investigations, to deny us testimony, to not turn over documents.

And this is a completely unacceptable and categorical defiance of Congress' powers under article 1. The Supreme Court has said it is integral and essential to the legislative function that we have the power to conduct fact-finding and investigation. So there's simply no legal warrant for what they're doing.

HARLOW: And you had a federal judge rule in that light yesterday when it comes to the president's accounting firm and documents that need to be turned over. But on this issue of --


HARLOW: What you will do going forward, how far you will go with Don McGahn is what I'm interested in here. You were a constitutional law professor, in a recent interview, you cited an 1821 Supreme Court ruling, Anderson versus Dunn, and as we all know, that ruling shows that Congress has the power to enforce its own orders, meaning the Sergeant in Arms can arrest someone for contempt.

RASKIN: We -- yes, and we also -- HARLOW: Are you -- I mean, you brought it up so I'm interested. Are

you -- are you saying that Don McGahn should be arrested?

RASKIN: Well, we haven't talked about his specific case yet, and he hasn't shown up yet, we expect him not to show up in a little bit. But I think that he will be in contempt of Congress and we do have the inherent power to arrest and also to fine people who are disobeying a lawful order of Congress.

[09:20:00] So, somebody said to me, would you really go out and start arresting executive branch officials? You know, I think 16 or 17 of my constituents who were high school students who sat in at the office of Speaker Paul Ryan in the last Congress, they got arrested. I had to go down to the D.C. jail to get them out, so I know we've got the power to arrest people here and we've --


RASKIN: Exercised it before.

HARLOW: Will you -- should you, then, do you support using that power to arrest those who do not show up, like the Attorney General did not less than a month ago, and like it appears Don McGahn will not today?

RASKIN: I'm not averse to it at all. I think we need every tool in the constitutional tool kit out on the table to deal with this crisis of presidential obstruction of Congress' lawful powers. Now, it's better if it happens the way it did yesterday where a court said that the White House position was ridiculous, and that they had no -- they had no argument to block the congressional subpoena that was issued by the Oversight Committee --


RASKIN: To get the president's finances. That's better, but we should use whatever tools that are at our disposal.

HARLOW: But it's notable that you say you are not averse to arresting Don McGahn or Bill Barr. All right, let's move on because we have a lot to get to here. Let's move on to the topic of impeachment. You said yesterday the logic of an impeachment inquiry becomes overwhelming if McGahn doesn't show up.

Well, he is not showing up. You were in a meeting last night with fellow Democrats and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, you argued our reporting is that Democrats should begin an impeachment inquiry into the president. Do you want impeachment hearings to begin against the president?

RASKIN: Well, I don't want to talk about the specifics of a private meeting we had, but let me say this --

HARLOW: Well, here is why I ask, congressman.

RASKIN: Yes -- HARLOW: I understand your logic, but I also -- there is a ton of

reporting out there right now from the "Washington Post", from "Politico", from us, and I think the American people deserve to know the facts and you were in the meeting. So can you just set the record straight for us?

RASKIN: Well, I mean, the facts are precisely what the investigation is about. Look, we have been presented with overwhelming evidence of presidential obstruction of justice in special counsel Mueller's report. There were 11 different episodes where the president tried to interfere with the special counsel investigation.

The reason that we subpoenaed Don McGahn was because the president ordered him to get Mueller fired, either to say that he had to invent some conflicts of interest or just to go ahead and sack him.

HARLOW: Right, but --

RASKIN: We need his testimony so the American people understand what happened. Now --


RASKIN: I know you're interested in what's going on, you know, politically within the Democratic caucus. And let me just say this, that those of us who serve on the House Judiciary Committee have been exposed right up front and close to presidential obstruction of justice and high crimes and misdemeanors for a long time now.

And we are at a certain point in our educational process where we think that a lot of us think that the logic may be inescapable, not for impeaching or not impeaching, but for launching an investigation into high crimes and misdemeanors --


RASKIN: We can figure out what to do. The constitution gives us a pathway through this crisis.

HARLOW: So, I mean, that's notable, you just said a lot of us, you just said a lot of Democrats are supportive of opening an impeachment inquiry into the president right now. So again --

RASKIN: On the Judiciary Committee --

HARLOW: I hear you --

RASKIN: On the Judiciary Committee --

HARLOW: I hear you. So yes or no, do you support beginning impeachment hearings against the president at this point?

RASKIN: I would totally support opening an impeachment inquiry at this point. But you know, the thing is about being in Congress as opposed to being in the presidency, right? The president is one guy so he does whatever he wants obviously. Here we -- it's a team sport. We work together and we try to have the --


RASKIN: Conversations we can best -- as best as possible without everything leaking out, but everything leaked out, that we had a conversation yesterday. Some of the reports are accurate, some are inaccurate, but what I want to stand on here is that we have a responsibility, we took a constitutional oath to uphold and defend the rule of law and the constitution, and all of us are trying to do that the best that we can.

HARLOW: I understand that, and I'm interested in, is it accurate that Chairman Nadler told you and fellow Democrats that right now is not the right time to move forward with an impeachment inquiry?

RASKIN: You know, Chairman Nadler is going to speak for us in a little bit, you know, at the McGahn hearing. He will speak exactly for where we are as a committee and what we're going to be doing and we're going to operate collectively and we've got great solidarity and coherence and unity within the Democratic caucus during the most trying time of our lifetime --

HARLOW: But that's -- that is --

RASKIN: So we're trying to --

HARLOW: That saying -- I want some clarity here because that's saying something different than all of this reporting this morning. You're saying there's coherence and there's unity within the party and within the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee.

[09:25:00] And the reporting is that, there's a pretty significant divide right now, Congressman, that Nancy Pelosi and Jerry Nadler do not think now is the time to move forward with impeachment inquiry because the courts are working in your favor as in yesterday.

The federal judge's ruling in the Mazars Accounting firm case. And there is David Cicilline and you and others who are saying no, now is the time with McGahn not showing up that we need to move forward. So is there that division or is there not?

RASKIN: Well, as I was saying before, I think that those of us on the Judiciary Committee have been exposed to this overwhelming evidence of presidential obstructionism. And in addition, we are facing daily assaults on the constitution and the rule of law by the president and by the executive branch.

So we're right on the front lines of this thing. And I think, you know, we have a certain experience with the White House that brings us to a place where, you know, members who are on the Science Committee or the Energy and Commerce Committee or so on are maybe not necessarily there yet.

So, look, this is --


RASKIN: A team sport. We got hundreds of people in our caucuses, and it's a process and we've got to educate ourselves and we've got to educate the public about the means within the constitution to deal with the crisis.

HARLOW: I hear you, Congressman Raskin. It sounds like we're going to get some news from the Chairman Jerry Nadler on that front in just a little while. We'll wait for that and we appreciate you joining us this morning. It's a busy day for sure, thanks.

RASKIN: Thanks for having me, I appreciate it.

HARLOW: You got it.

JIM SCIUTTO, CO-HOST, NEWSROOM: Interesting, the logic may be inescapable to proceed --

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: To an impeachment inquiry, interesting. A quote, very dangerous game, Iran's Foreign Minister telling CNN that his country will defend itself if necessary. The CNN exclusive from Iran next. And we're just moments away from the opening bell on Wall Street, looks like green arrows there. Investors wait for any developments to end the trade war between the U.S. and China. Not sure whether those will come.

The U.S. says it will temporarily ease restrictions on Huawei so that that Chinese technology company can at least maintain existing phones and cellular networks. We'll be back.