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Federal Judge Examines Mississippi Abortion Ban; Iranian Tensions; Impeachment Calls Grow Louder; Robert Mueller Hesitant to Testify Publicly. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired May 21, 2019 - 15:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[15:00:00]

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Evan Perez is our senior justice correspondent, who has been keeping tabs on all of this.

And so what is the story from team Mueller? Why would he not want to testify?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brooke, having covered Robert Mueller back when he was FBI director, these testimonies were never his favorite thing to do.

Obviously, everybody is waiting with anticipation for him to do some testimony, public testimony. But our Laura Jarrett and Jeremy Herb, who have done this reporting, tell us that part of what's happening, one of the holdups here in getting Robert Mueller to do that testimony is his hesitation to appear partisan and political, after having been quiet, obviously, all this time.

This, as you know, Brooke, has been a hyperpartisan thing. And so I think what they wanted was for the report to speak for itself. Obviously, that's not the case, because there are so many questions that are left unanswered.

And so there's a lot of clamor, frankly, and I think a lot of pressure that has built around -- built up around the Justice Department and

on the attorney general, frankly, is because we have not yet heard from Robert Mueller, from his team.

So the question is, what kind of accommodation could be arranged here? Perhaps some private portion of this testimony. But it is clear that a full-on day-long hearing is not what Robert Mueller and his team really want to do, especially given the partisan atmosphere here that surrounds all of this, this investigation nowadays.

BALDWIN: All right, so as those negotiations of will he or won't he, and, if he does, how does he do it, continues, you also have some more news on DOJ making an offer to try to get the House Intelligence Committee to back off a -- quote, unquote -- "enforcement action" against the attorney general, Bill Barr.

PEREZ: Right. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee in the House,

had threatened to take some kind of unspecified enforcement action against the attorney general as soon as tomorrow. And so now the attorney general and the Justice Department are offering for the Democrats in the committee

to come and see some of the materials that they have been demanding, some of the underlying investigative materials that, again, have been at the crux of this fight between the Democrats in Congress and the Justice Department.

If you will remember, the attorney general, Bill Barr, has offered them to come and see the unredacted report. So far, Republicans have gone over. A few -- a number of Republicans have gone over, but no Democrats have taken up this offer.

So, what the Justice Department is now doing is saying, look, you can come over, look at the unredacted report. You also get to see some 12 categories of materials that Schiff and Democrats have been asking for, again, in short order, as a way to sort of unstuck this standoff that has been going on between the Hill and the Justice Department.

We will see whether or not this is something that is doable for the Democrats, because , again, he had promised some kind of unspecified action against the attorney general. He's already been held in contempt by one of the committees over there in the House. So we will see whether this is something that at least gets the ball moving on these negotiations between the two sides.

BALDWIN: We will see if it will. Evan, thank you so much.

PEREZ: Thank you.

BALDWIN: Evan Perez in Washington.

As the Democrats' oversight war with the White House escalates, a new battle is brewing within the party. And it all has to do with impeachment. Calls for taking that action against the president are growing increasingly loud for some Democrats, after former White House counsel Don McGahn failed to appear this morning at the House Judiciary hearing.

The White House directed began to skip it, saying that his role as a former top Trump adviser means he is exempt. But the Democrat who runs this committee, New York Congressman Jerry Nadler, says, one way or another, Don McGahn will testify.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JERROLD NADLER (D-NY): Our subpoenas are not optional. Let me be clear. This committee will hear Mr. McGahn's testimony, even if we have to go to court to secure it.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BALDWIN: And moments ago, the chair of the House Oversight Committee said that he is getting the air on moving forward with impeachment proceedings, as the White House continues to stonewall.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D-MD): I think what the president has done is put us in a position where we cannot get any information to do the oversight that we need to do .

And that basically ties our hands and makes us, with regard to oversight, powerless.

The question now becomes

, what do we do? Do we allow this to continue? And where do we end up if we do that?

That's the question.

[15:05:01]

And I'm still mulling it over. I'm going to talk to my colleagues when I get on the floor in a few minutes. But I'm getting there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: Sunlen Serfaty is on Capitol Hill.

And so, Sunlen, Speaker Pelosi has been incredibly clear that she wants it to go through the courts, that impeachment should be the last resort. But, tomorrow, she holds a caucus-wide meeting, where sources say this issue will likely come up.

Where does the Democratic Party stand?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they are still certainly very divided, Brooke. I think that's the best way to summarize it.

But this is very clearly a very significant and important moment for House Democrats. Just in the last 24 hours, we're hearing increasing calls from many Democrats, many seasoned Democrats, saying, no, we should go ahead and move towards starting the impeachment process now.

Don McGahn, the former White House counsel, not showing up for his testimony in front of House Judiciary Committee today, defying that congressional subpoena , that certainly set off a lot of Democrats and raised a lot of alarms, saying, look, this stonewalling from the White House has gotten to a new level, essentially the last straw for many Democrats, who had previously been skeptical and shied away from talking about impeachment.

Here's a little bit of the debate as it played out on Capitol Hill today.

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REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ (D-FL): We need to use every tool at our disposal to make sure we can hold the administration accountable.

If that leads us to looking into impeachment, we will we will get there. But it's one step at a time.

REP. DAN KILDEE (D-MI): And I was not in favor of some of the earlier efforts around impeachment. The president is creating the circumstances where we may have to consider it. I'm personally much more open to it now than I was even a few months ago.

REP. MAXINE WATERS (D-CA): My position impeachment is what it has always been, and that is, the president of the United States of America needs to be impeached.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SERFATY: Now, you hear that divide plan out there, Brooke, among Democrats.

But those Democrats becoming more open to opening up the door to impeachment putting considerable pressure on Nancy Pelosi and House Democratic leadership. Of course, you said that they are going to convene a caucus-wide meeting tomorrow morning. Most certainly, this will come up, certainly a reset button, as this narrative for House leadership really has taken away from themselves this week.

Pelosi, behind closed doors in meetings this week, emphasizing that they need to stay the course, be deliberate, keep focusing on investigations and oversight -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: Sunlen Serfaty, thank you very much.

Let's chat about all of this.

Tim Naftali is a CNN presidential historian and former director of the Nixon Presidential Library, and Michael Zeldin worked as a special assistant to Robert Mueller at the DOJ. He's also a former federal prosecutor and a CNN legal analyst.

So, gentlemen, welcome.

And, Michael, to you first, since you worked with Mueller. Can you just help us understand his mind-set? Why would he, according to his team, not want to testify, be hesitant?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, when Ken Starr testified in the Clinton investigation before Congress,

it was so politically charged, that his ethics adviser, Sam Dash, well-known from Watergate fame, quit in protest over Starr's testimony. We saw political wranglings with Patrick Fitzgerald, who investigated as special counsel that Valerie Plame un-naming. And I think Mueller just does not want to get in that same soup with these guys, letting his report speak for itself. So I think that's his mind-set: I don't need this trouble. My report is comprehensive. There's nothing more that I can add.

BALDWIN: Bouncing off of that, Tim, do you think that, if he were to testify, because he doesn't want this to make -- to make this any more political than it already is, which some might say would be impossible, I would it ding his -- would it ding the report, the validity, the substance in the report, and also his own

credibility?

TIM NAFTALI, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, my reading of the report, volume two, the obstruction of justice section, gave me the impression

that this was supposed to be the beginning of a conversation, not the end.

So, I would -- I would be surprised if Mr. Mueller weren't unhappy with the stonewalling by the administration and more especially by his old friend, or at least his old colleague, Bill Barr -- Bob Barr -- because if you think...

BALDWIN: Bill Barr.

NAFTALI: Bill Barr.

If you think about what he thought Barr was going to do, Barr was going to -- was supposed to release those summaries that his team put together. He would never have had his team put those summaries together if he didn't expect them to be released.

But William Barr didn't release them. So I wouldn't be surprised if Mr. Mueller is unhappy with the way in which the administration has handled this. So I don't agree with those who think that the Mueller report was supposed to speak for itself. That's not possible.

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Now the issue is this. Having seen what happened to Jim Comey, knowing the history that Michael just explained, Mr. Mueller certainly does not want to become a political player.

On the other hand, he must feel disappointed in the fact that this -- his report has not led to more discussions about obstruction of justice. He would not have written that report -- that's my reading -- the way he did if he didn't want it to be the beginning of a conversation about obstruction, not the end of one.

BALDWIN: I want to hear Michael respond to that, to that point. Why would he not want to do that, A? And, B, how, how upset do you think he is with his old friend Bill Barr? ZELDIN: So taking the first part first, I think that Mueller -- and I

agree with him -- I think that Mueller believed, when he wrote in his report that he didn't want to make a charging decision, so as not to preempt Congress' role, which is the impeachment review, that he thought that Congress would take it up on their own initiative, and that he, therefore, is no longer needed as a witness, they can do all of it themselves, that that would involve calling McGahn, Priebus, all the people that gave him testimony, to flesh out whether or not it is an impeachable offense.

But I think Mueller's thinking is, but you don't need me. My evidence is presented to you. I have given this to you, so that you can inquire of it. And I expect you to inquire of it. And I'm disappointed in you if you do not inquire of it. But you don't need words out of my mouth.

That is my surmise as to what he is thinking.

BALDWIN: OK. OK.

I actually want to jump ahead with you just on impeachment. I'm just curious your thoughts. Let's play this forward, because some of these Democrats -- obviously, it's still the House divided right among the Nancy Pelosi Democrats, where she's basically saying, let's just wait, let it -- let it go through the courts, vs. jumping to impeachment proceedings.

Either way, if it goes to impeachment proceedings, what would impeachment achieve?

NAFTALI: Well, an impeachment that is -- that is helpful for the country is one that would achieve some kind of national consensus on whether a president should stay or leave.

My concern -- and my -- it's been my concern all along -- that the public is not ready, not enough of the public is ready for an impeachment inquiry for us to have anything but a partisan outcome. And the last thing we need in this country is a more divided country.

What is possible is that the Democrats could make the case to the American people now that the president's stonewalling is itself evidence of an impeachable offense, that the way in which this administration has dealt with absolutely constitutional questions that the Congress is expected to ask shows an unwillingness to do its constitutional duty, and is going beyond the Article 2 powers of the presidency.

But that's a very complex argument to make. That's not as exciting and as visceral as the Saturday Night Massacre, which shifted a lot of folks behind impeachment in 1973. The Democrats have not that -- they have been explaining it. They talk about -- they talk about accountability. They don't talk about transparency. And they're not being specific enough and precise enough about what it

is they want to know. I think, if they do that, the public may understand that they have a constitutional duty to keep pressing this administration.

BALDWIN: So, you think the majority of the country -- as we know, the majority of

the country is not in favor of this.

NAFTALI: Not in favor of it.

BALDWIN: Do you think it would shift because of this?

NAFTALI: I'm not -- what I'm saying is that the Congress can't be walked over by the executive branch.

BALDWIN: I got you.

NAFTALI: I'm thinking about the future, not about Donald Trump, about future presidents.

If they learn from this that you can just say no all the time, it's a bad lesson. So, but I think a couple things have to happen very quickly. One, the Congress has to use -- has to expedite court oversight of what's happening very fast.

Number two, they should be very precise about exactly what they want to know. And, number three -- I disagree with Michael -- there is something that Mr. Mueller can say, that only he can say. He should testify about his relation -- his discussions with Bill Barr and his expectations about what Bill Barr would do.

He doesn't have to talk about the investigation. We need to hear that from him.

ZELDIN: Yes.

BALDWIN: Tim...

ZELDIN: And I think that is the exact political point that he does not want to engage in.

BALDWIN: Yes. Yes. Yes.

Michael and Tim, thank you both very, very much.

NAFTALI: Thank you.

ZELDIN: Thank you.

BALDWIN: Across the country today, we have seen protests against restrictive abortion laws that have passed in several states.

And moments ago, a federal judge slammed the law that was just signed in Mississippi.

Plus, we will take you live to Oklahoma, where water rescues are taking place, as fast-moving floodwaters sweep across the area.

And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo briefing House lawmakers right now on the threat from Iran, as Iran's leaders tell CNN they won't negotiate with the U.S. until they're shown respect.

You are watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

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BALDWIN: Today, lawmakers are finally getting briefed on the rising tensions between the United States and Iran.

This comes after weeks of demands for details on why the United States sent this carrier strike group and some B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been talking to lawmakers, along with the acting defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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This has been happening this afternoon, of course, on the heels of CNN's exclusive interview with Iran's foreign minister, who says that Iran will not talk to President Trump and less the U.S. shows Tehran's respect -- that was Zarif's own word -- by honoring its commitments in the nuclear deal, which the U.S. withdrew from one year ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF, IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: We are not willing to talk to people who have broken their promises.

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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: Kylie Atwood is our CNN national security reporter.

And we know, Kylie, that a couple of lawmakers , including one we talked to last hour, walked out of the meeting, doesn't totally understand why the U.S. presence really is really there, other than maybe a maximum pressure campaign because of the Iran nuke deal.

What happened in the briefing? And did they learn anything else? KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Well, I think you got

one of the first responses out of that briefing.

Pretty shocking, a Democratic member of Congress saying that, based on what he heard, there was no need for the carrier strike force to be in the region. So, the question is, was Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Shanahan and Dunford able to convince lawmakers, beyond the one you spoke to, that the administration is right, and that they needed to put forth this military muscular approach in the region, that they needed to draw down all non-emergency personnel from U.S. missions in Iraq?

And is President Trump justified in drumming up some of the rhetoric here, saying that it would be the end of Iran if they got into a fight with the U.S.

Now, also interesting ly enough, even though we have heard from U.S. officials in the administration that potential threats, based on the intelligence the U.S. was seeing, were possibly imminent -- those are the words of Secretary Pompeo -- then, just yesterday, we heard President Trump saying that there was no indication that anything has happened or will happen.

So, what has changed?

BALDWIN: How do you square that?

ATWOOD: And did the U.S. do the right thing? Was deterrence the key here, and did they deter something from happening?

But Secretary of Defense Shanahan was asked by some reporters today if the threat level has changed from Iran. He didn't exactly give a direct answer. Let's take a listen.

BALDWIN: OK.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PATRICK SHANAHAN, ACTING U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: There haven't been any attacks on Americans. I consider that a hold. It doesn't mean that the threats that we had previously identified have gone away. Our prudent response, I think, has given Iranians time to recalculate. I think our response was a measure of our will and our resolve that we will protect our people and our interests in the region.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ATWOOD: And so there you have it, a nondirect answer to if these Iranian threats are new, if they are substantial enough, and if they have decreased, or, as the congressman said to you earlier, if they're the same as we have seen from Iran over the past few years in the region.

BALDWIN: Kylie, thank you very much.

Now to Mississippi, where a federal judge has just weighed in on the Mississippi law that bans abortion as early as six weeks of pregnancy.

CNN's Ariane de Vogue was inside that courtroom in Jackson. She is live now.

What -- what did he say? What did the judge say?

ARIANE DE VOGUE, CNN SUPREME COURT REPORTER: Oh, Brooke, this judge showed deep skepticism of this Mississippi law that bans abortion when the fetal heartbeat is detected. That can be as early as six weeks.

It has exceptions for the health of the woman, but it punishes doctors and is set to go

in effect in July. This district court judge, Carlton Reeves, he pointed out that just a few months ago, he struck down a ban at 15 weeks. And he said, look, the legislature has responded here by passing a more strict law.

He said that that smacks of defiance at one point. And he was also very troubled by this law because it had no exceptions for rape or incest. Critics say that it's unconstitutional and that most women don't even know at six weeks that they're pregnant.

But the state lawyers, they came to court behind me and they said, look, the state has the authority to regulate here and to protect life. It comes, of course, Brooke, as states across the country are feeling very emboldened. Nearly 15 other states have introduced similar legislation.

And it comes as they feel emboldened because President Trump last weekend, he sent out a tweet. He said he was strongly pro-life, and also through the fact that he has put on the court two conservative Supreme Court justices, as well as changing the faces of the lower court.

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And that could really make a difference here, Brooke.

BALDWIN: So, we hear this sentiment from this judge. We wait for him to rule.

Ariane de Vogue in Mississippi for us, thank you, Ariane, very much.

Coming up next, in Oklahoma, dangerous flooding after several severe storms have hit. At least 21 tornadoes touched down in four different states. We're told more could be on the way. We will take you live to Oklahoma, where rescues are under way.

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