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Iran Refuses Trump's Offer of Talks; Don McGahn to Defy Subpoena; Trump Appealing the Mazars Subpoena Ruling; Powerful Storms Threaten Oklahoma. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired May 21, 2019 - 09:30   ET



[09:31:50] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Happening right now on Capitol Hill, House Democrats are being briefed on Iran by former CIA director John Brennan and Wendy Sherman, a key negotiator, of course, on the Iran nuclear deal.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Now this comes just hours before top National Security officials will address both the House and Senate on the escalating tensions with Iran. Iran's Foreign minister, Javad Zarif, sat down with our Fred Pleitgen just this morning in Tehran. It's an important time, he's been one of the most vocal Iranian officials in these tensions here.

What did he tell you this morning?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Jim. Well, I asked him about some of the mixed messages that seem to be coming out of the White House recently with President Trump threatening Iran but then also saying that he wants to sit down and negotiate with the Iranians.

The Foreign minister telling me in no unclear circumstances at this point in time absolutely no negotiations with the Trump administration. Here is what he had to say.


MOHAMMED JAVAD ZARIF, IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: We are not willing to talk to people who have broken their promises. Because we talk to people, we did not believe that our nuclear program, our nuclear energy program, required us to provide any concessions or provide any confidence building measures, but we engaged, we acted in good faith, we negotiated, we reached a deal.

What the United States is saying is that we make a deal, whatever we can get you in the negotiations through the deal is fine, whatever we cannot get you we'll come back to try to get you. This is not the way serious countries deal with each other. The United States may be used to doing that with clients, but they cannot do that with Iran.

(END VIDEO CLIP) PLEITGEN: So Javad Zarif there saying he wants to see some sanctions relief before the Iranians would even think about sitting down with the Trump administration. As you can see there doesn't seem to be very much trust there. Of course at the same time the situation in the Persian Gulf as he puts it still very, very dangerous and he says he believes that it's the U.S. that's playing a dangerous game there, as he put it.

Let's listen to a little more of what he had to say.


ZARIF: Well, there will be painful consequences for everybody if there is an escalation against Iran. That's for sure. The United States is engaging in an economic warfare against Iran. It has to stop. Economic war means targeting Iranian people. That has to stop. The United States does not have the legal position, does not have the moral position, does not have the political position, does not have the international position to impose economic war on Iran.

Iran is not interested in escalation. We have said very clearly that we will not be the party to begin escalation, but we will defend ourselves. Now, having all these military assets in a small waterway is in and of itself prone to accident, particularly when you have people who are interested in accidents. So extreme prudence is required and we believe that the United States is playing a very, very dangerous game.


PLEITGEN: So you have the Iranians saying that they believe the situation in the Persian Gulf still extremely dangerous at this point in time. Of course, one of the big dangerous things for the entire region there is you have a lot of Iranian and U.S. forces in very, very close proximity, guys.


[09:35:01] HARLOW: Fred, that is an exceptional interview, a very hard one to get, a CNN exclusive. Kudos to you for getting it. People can watch I assume the whole thing on

Fred Pleitgen, live for us in Tehran this morning, thank you.


HARLOW: So another big deal overnight, a federal judge ruling that the president's accountant has to turn over financial documents of his before he was president. This as a Republican congressman says the president is worthy of impeachment and the House is zeroing in on his former staffers. Is he getting boxed in?

SCIUTTO: And tonight CNN hosts a town hall with Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke, moderated by our brilliant colleague Dana Bash. This in Des Moines, Iowa. It starts at 10:00 Eastern Time only here on CNN. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:40:06] SCIUTTO: We are just minutes away from the House Judiciary Committee holding a hearing without its witness. Democratic leaders say if and when he does not show up, they will hold the former White House counsel Don McGahn in contempt. Not the first time we've seen one of those empty chairs there at a House hearing.

HARLOW: Just a few weeks ago we saw the same thing. This morning this is happening on the morning after a federal judge says an accounting firm has to turn over the president's financial records from before he was president. At the same time a Republican congressman is joining Democrats and going farther than Democratic leadership and saying the president has committed impeachable acts. Is the president getting boxed in here?

With us now, John Avlon, CNN senior political analyst, and Errol Louis, CNN political commentator.

Is there something that makes the culmination of all of those things that we just mentioned different, John Avlon, now than three months ago, six months ago for the president?

JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think the president has embraced a total obstruction strategy and that runs into basic questions of checks and balances. So you're heading for the courts. And the courts could be that wall that the president faces. On the other hand we have the Mueller report. It wasn't the smoking gun Democrats had hoped, so some of this all smacks of plan B, but there's still a lot of investigations to be done and the president's strategy is going to run into reality, as we saw from a judge's decision yesterday.

There's not a lot of ground for him to stand on. They are essentially suing for time. So you've got a checks and balances conflict coming up.

HARLOW: Suing for time. Isn't it?


HARLOW: Interesting way to put it.


SCIUTTO: Errol Louis, does the Democratic strategy run into a wall here, too? Because you have a brewing internal conflict here between Democratic leadership and many of its caucus, some of whom Poppy just spoke to on the air here who want to open an impeachment inquiry. We should note that's not voting actually to impeach the president but at least begin an investigation. Seems like a critical mass developing here.

ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, you know, in some ways it's a distinction without a difference. When people are saying that their constituents want them to move to impeachment. Well, what would that look like? Well, it would look like exactly what we're going to see this morning, you know. Hearings, inquiries, pressing the president, pressing the administration for facts, documents and clarity on various different issues.

Let's keep in mind that the original Watergate committee wasn't really about Watergate. It was about, hey, what happened during the election? You know, it was a Whitewater inquiry that led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton.


HARLOW: Right.

LOUIS: So you don't have to call it an impeachment hearing for it to sort of lead inexorably to a question that has to be answered possibly through the impeachment process.

HARLOW: And just, John Avlon, we just got some news, the president is officially appealing the D.C. federal judge's ruling.

AVLON: Sure.

HARLOW: That Mazars, that accounting firm, has to turn over years of financial records of the president as a private citizen. We knew that he was going to appeal it, now they're actually doing it. But this is to your point about just running the clock out here.

AVLON: Yes, and then they're just going to hope they're going to get lucky at some court. What's different is the judge made a 41-page ruling yesterday, was pretty definitive.


AVLON: He basically just gave a Heisman to the White House's efforts and said there is no basis for this and he rooted it in American history from James Buchanan to Teapot Dome.

HARLOW: Yes, he did.

AVLON: And he really just said, look, you don't have a case here, folks.


AVLON: So we'll see if some other judge comes to a different conclusion but he was pretty definitive.

LOUIS: And we should keep in mind that you don't get an appeal just because you don't like the outcome of a ruling. Right? I mean, the appeals court is going to have to find some kind of cognizable question.

HARLOW: Yes. Let me --

LOUIS: That they would take up which they may not. HARLOW: Let me just read to people part of what you're talking about,

John Avlon. This is from the judge here, Judge Amit Mehta, who the president liked to point out is an Obama appointee.


HARLOW: "It is simply not fathomable that a Constitution that grants Congress the power to remove a president for reasons including criminal behavior would deny Congress the power to investigate him for unlawful conduct." Past or present. Even without formally opening an impeachment inquiry.

AVLON: Not fathomable doesn't give you a lot of room to run. And they're going to have to get real lucky with the judge who's approaching things arguably more ideologically because that history and the intent of the law seems pretty clear.

SCIUTTO: And we should -- I mean, the president is going to calm him an Obama appointee. But keep in mind, I mean, you know, Republican -- Trump appointee forced the president's hand on, for instance, Jim Acosta's press credentials. The judges aren't making decisions entirely from a party basis here.

Errol Louis, from a political standpoint, how different is it that one, granted, but one Republican, Justin Amash from the great state of Michigan has come out and said I've read the full report and I see a case here for impeachment.


SCIUTTO: How different that make this to that.

LOUIS: Well, you know, you have to keep in mind he is an unusual kind of Republican. I mean, he came in with the Tea Party wave and he is unquestionably conservative, anti-abortion, all of his bona fides are in order when it comes being a conservative. But he's also one of these folks who would vote against routine bills saying that we didn't have enough time to read it. You know, he's a bit of a libertarian.

SCIUTTO: But those aren't crazy procedures.

HARLOW: Can you imagine that, not voting for a bill if you didn't --

LOUIS: You know, I mean, it's --

AVLON: What the -- I mean.

HARLOW: What are they doing?

SCIUTTO: The thing is he's not -- these are not things coming from outer space. I mean, he's -- for instance, he voted against the tax plan because he says we don't have money to pay for it which is a position of the Tea Party -- Tea Party Republicans.

[09:45:09] LOUIS: Not a go along, get along kind of a guy. He's from a very conservative section of Western Michigan and so he's going to possibly get --


SCIUTTO: But he is a Republican.


LOUIS: But he's --

SCIUTTO: I'm asking, like, does it make a difference that it's not just Democrats --

LOUIS: Personally I don't think so because he is not in a leadership position. And there's no sign that he's going to bring anybody along with him. In fact, all he got was a challenge.

AVLON: That's right.

LOUIS: You know, a political challenge.

HARLOW: A primary challenge. Yes.


SCIUTTO: So far. So far.

AVLON: But, remember, for the sin of sticking by his principles and applying them evenly, I mean, you know, he had a quote the other day saying well, it turns out that a lot of my Tea Party cohorts didn't actually care about deficit and debt, they just wanted to hate on the president in power, President Obama at the time.


AVLON: So again the sin is one of sticking by principles and that will get you a primary challenge because, you know, they are going to hunt for heretics.

HARLOW: You know, and Mark Meadows saying it will be really hard to support him now because he went against the president on this.

Stay with us, guys. Evan Perez is with us in Washington.

So what can you tell us, Evan, on this news that we just got in?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Poppy, the president's attorneys have now filed with the court their notice of appeal which for now at least stops the accounting firm Mazars from turning over these records. The judge who made the ruling yesterday had given them seven days during which time the ruling essentially was stayed, but what this means is that now the clock is ticking, right? The accounting firm Mazars has another six days in which they have to turn over -- they would have to turn over these financial records to the House committee that subpoenaed them and so we'll see whether the judge continues to hold that in abeyance. You know, we've seen in other cases where the judges basically say we

believe that the House is going to end up winning this case, that they essentially asked the accounting firm or the financial firm to turn over those records, whoever is the subject of the subpoena. So we'll see what this judge does, but right now the Trump lawyers have now filed their notice of appeal officially with this judge asking for time in order to have the appeals court take another look at this case -- Poppy.

HARLOW: Thanks.

SCIUTTO: Well, if we thought we were coming out of court, we ain't. We're going to be there a lot.

HARLOW: As you said, the lawyers will stay busy.

SCIUTTO: Yes, a lot of billable time coming, billable hours.

Thanks very much, Evan Perez. John Avlon, Errol Louis, thanks as well to you. And we'll be right back.


[09:52:03] HARLOW: All right, so some breaking news today. Fifty million people are under the threat of severe weather as powerful storms move from Dallas to Kansas City. You're looking at live pictures right now. This is out of El Reno, Oklahoma, just outside of Oklahoma City where major flooding has forced people to be evacuated from their homes. Watch that.

SCIUTTO: Imagine if that was right outside your front door. That is the case for many residents there. Moments ago, rescuers deployed a rescue boat to some of those homes there. And that's where CNN's Ed Lavandera joins us now live.

Tell us about the scene there. I mean, those are rushing waters going down residential streets we're seeing in those live pictures.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Jim. Well, this is El Reno, Oklahoma. Rural community about 20 miles west of Oklahoma City. We are on Elm Street, and just down there in the distance is supposed to be six-mile creek. And you can see the swift water rescue teams that have been deployed there. Right now they are in the process of trying to get into -- behind those trees in the distance there. There are a number of people who have been rescued. Several people inside homes that they are checking out, who need to be rescued, and just a short while ago, a family was pulled out. Four adults, two children. They came brought out in a heavy duty truck that sits very high above the water.

So that's how they were able to drive out of there. But we have seen the swift water rescue teams here launch one boat. These guys here are waiting to see if they're going to be needed to launch into this area, but generally a rather small creek, but you can see how far and wide the flood waters are here this morning, Jim. A good mile down this road on Elm Street where we're standing is under water. We saw the swift water rescue boat kind of go down into the middle --

down the street and then hook a ride into those tree lines. That's where that home is that they're in the process of trying to check out right now. No word on exactly when they're going to be back. But we have already seen one family rescued from here, four adults, two children, and the work around here in the El Reno area continues -- Jim and Poppy.

HARLOW: Ed, thank you for being there. I know it's certainly very difficult task for all of those people carrying out these rescue missions live right now that we're seeing and it's important that you're there bringing it to us.

Do you have a sense of how quickly this came? Meaning it seems like a lot of people didn't have any advanced warning that it could get this bad for them.

LAVANDERA: Well, we have seen -- it was around like 2:00 this morning.


LAVANDERA: A massive band of rain started pushing its way through Central Oklahoma. So the rain has let up here in the last couple of hours, but this is rainfall that has really come down heavy for most of the overnight hours. And so the areas you see behind me, low-lying areas that people have been told about this for the course of the last 36 hours, that this kind of flooding could be expected. So the warnings went out, but it's still a very quickly developing situation for people who have nowhere to go.

[09:55:01] SCIUTTO: Yes. Sometimes it comes out of nowhere, seemingly.


SCIUTTO: Got to react quickly, and remember, always remember, don't drive your cars through that stuff.


SCIUTTO: Because so many of the drowning stories start that way.

HARLOW: In that way.

SCIUTTO: Ed Lavandera, thanks very much.

HARLOW: All right, back to Washington. Moments from now, former White House counsel Don McGahn will keep that chair empty, defying a congressional subpoena and skipping that House hearing about what he told Bob Mueller and much more. We're following all the developments.