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Pressure Grows on Pelosi to Begin Impeachment Proceedings; Midwestern U.S. Hit with Tornadoes & Flash Floods; Trump: Iran Attack Would Be 'Met with Great Force'. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired May 21, 2019 - 07:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: New reporting overnight goes into details of a heated discussion among Democratic leadership, with some pushing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to allow the impeachment proceedings to begin.

[07:00:12] The speaker is still resisting, and for now, House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler agrees. But there are signs he might be shifting.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Also this morning, former White House counsel Don McGahn will not appear at a House Judiciary Committee today, defying a subpoena. The White House directed McGahn not to testify.

And now, Chairman Nadler says there will be serious consequences. Nadler tells CNN the first step will be holding McGahn in contempt of Congress.

So joining us now to discuss all of this, we have Rachael Bade, congressional reporter for the White -- well, "Washington Post," who has inside scoop of what happened behind those closed congressional doors last night. We also have Jennifer Rodgers, former federal prosecutor and a CNN analyst; David Gregory, CNN political analyst; and Abby Phillip, CNN White House correspondent. Great to have all of you.

Rachael, we have to start with you. Give us color of what transpired behind closed doors, where the Democrats began in a heated debate about impeachment.

RACHAEL BADE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: So yesterday was sort of a tipping point for a lot of House Judiciary Committee members, when they got news that the White House was not going to allow Don McGahn to appear for testimony that he was scheduled to give this morning at 10 a.m. Just another example of stonewalling from the White House. They were fed up.

And in their traditional Monday night leadership meeting, four House Judiciary Committee members, who are also part of Pelosi's leadership team, confronted her about this and said, "Look, it's time to begin an impeachment inquiry. It would help us get the documents, the witnesses, the testimony that the White House has been stonewalling." And Pelosi and leadership, they basically pushed back. Pelosi said

that, "If we do this, it could undercut other investigations we're seeing in the House." There was some concern that voters don't really care about this issue, and perhaps it wouldn't register with them. They want to hear more about the agenda.

At one point, some of Pelosi's allies started scolding these members about trying to push for an impeachment inquiry. But these Judiciary members were like, "Look, listen, we have been trying to investigate the president. And we can't get anywhere right now, because the White House is stonewalling.

After this happened, a few hours later, Pelosi summoned the Judiciary Committee chairman, Jerry Nadler, to a private meeting in her office around, like, 9 or 10 p.m. at night.

And during that meeting, it sounds like, from my reporting and my understanding, Nadler pressed Pelosi on beginning an impeachment inquiry, and made the case to her why this could be helpful to House Democrats.

Pelosi and her top leadership team responded that the caucus was not there. And Nadler left the meeting. He wouldn't talk about it with me or with other reporters. Wouldn't comment on it and appeared to side with Pelosi rather than criticize her after this meeting.

But he later called a bunch of his own committee members and gave them a briefing, which is obviously how I found out about it. Because he made the call to a bunch of different lawmakers.

BERMAN: And that last part, Rachael, is what fascinates me, that Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler was pushing for impeachment. And not just Nadler but -- but the people who are basically the cardinals, the Democratic cardinals of the Judiciary committee, the senior members, they all want impeachment now. It seems as if this is no longer the fringe elements of the caucus, but there's a real push here.

That's exactly right. And lot of people have been privately talking like this for a few weeks. These House Judiciary Committee members have been privately putting their heads together, trying to figure out "How can we push Pelosi on this? How can we get her to yes, since she's always been skeptical of impeachment?"

A lot of people thought if Nadler confronted her, if her chairmen, who she's very close with, said, "Look, it's time," that she would listen to them. But clearly, Pelosi is not there. Not just her but her entire ranks of her senior leadership team just said, this is not going to work.

And so it is interesting, though, when Nadler came out of that meeting, he appeared to take up one of the talking points that she gave him in the meeting, which is that the courts are coming to our rescue right now. We have to look to the courts.

And again, this just really shows the power of Pelosi. You know, It's funny. After the election, there was lot of talk and concern that she might not be speaker. But ever since then, she has really solidified her power on her caucus. We'll just see how long can she put this off? Will it be enough to sort of quell this internal impeachment rebellion potentially we could see in the next few days and few weeks?

CAMEROTA: I mean, we're seeing the powers of Pelosi persuasion on Nadler, I mean, from Rachael's reporting.

So Jennifer, I want to bring you in, because I have some questions about what Rachael has just reported. That -- why would Nancy Pelosi say that starting an impeachment inquiry would affect, in a negative way, other congressional investigations? Why? Wouldn't it help those investigations to have more information?

JENNIFER RODGERS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It should. I mean, it's just a distraction issue. Right? I mean, if they're focused on impeachment, then you get the whole witch hunt narrative going. And it might take away from other things that perhaps independents could get behind, as opposed to the Mueller report and all that, which is so --

[07:05:04] CAMEROTA: Politically speaking, in other words. But you don't see any investigative reason why impeachment would eclipse the other congressional investigations?

RODGERS: No, not at all. And as you point out, it actually -- there could be some synergies there with sharing information and so on.

BERMAN: Streamlining. One of the arguments is to streamline. If there's an impeachment in inquiry, they can get all these requests in one place. And courts in the past have been more deferential to impeachment. Isn't that correct?

CAMEROTA: Sure. Sure.

RODGERS: And the more you get court opinions that are saying the arguments the administration are making are baseless, the more the administration can't continue to make those arguments.

BERMAN: So that's the legal side of it.

But David Gregory, what Nancy Pelosi is clearly attuned to here are the political risks of impeachment, which she still sees as incredibly high. Are they as high today as they were a month ago? Do they go down with every instance of stonewalling and Don McGahn not testifying? Things like that.

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I don't know that they do. I think what what the White House has set up is a fight for preserving executive power.

You know, in -- we've -- in the recent history, we've been covering Washington and the Bush administration, you know, and we saw the muscular projection of executive power during the Iraq War. And prior to that, of course, after 9/11.

And so whenever an administration makes this a fight about executive power and the power of the presidency, there are going to be those inherent. And I'm sure the White House would love to fight this out on those grounds.

And you heard Bill Barr give an interview to the "Wall Street Journal," raising that theme. So I don't know that the politics have changed.

And here's what I'm looking at. Where is Joe Biden on all of this? You don't hear Joe Biden coming out, saying it's time for impeachment against the president. And you can bet Nancy Pelosi is focused on one thing, as the -- as, really, one of the biggest leaders of the Democrats who are in power right now. Because all the power they have is in the House. Is coordinating at some level with presidential campaigns, saying, you know, are we speaking with one voice on this as we move farther and farther into the presidential primary season?

So I think Democrats are really divided on this, and I think the -- kind of the upper echelons of the Democratic establishment is still focused now on winning in the ballot box and trying to win in the courts.

And let's remember that, to whatever extent the administration delays on these decisions, if they get decisions that go against them, this is going to get farther and farther into the end of the year and perhaps even into 2020, when they will be facing revelations that come out of these investigations, if the courts ultimately go their way.

CAMEROTA: And they did get one of those decisions, David, yesterday that went against them. And this is, I think, what Nancy Pelosi is hanging her hat on, Abby. Which is, look, the courts are doing their jobs. And in fact, they had -- Nancy Pelosi's side had a victory yesterday with this Mazars case, which is the financial accounting firm case, that Congress wanted them to turn over President Trump's financial records.

The White House fought it, and yesterday, a judge -- I'll read to you -- a judge sided with Congress and against the president and against the White House. Here's what the judge said, federal judge: "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."

So that federal judge has decided that this accounting firm must turn over the documents. We'll see now what happens, if the accounting firm still resists, if it's appealed, whatever. But Nancy Pelosi's position is that the courts are going in their favor.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. And I think that judge made an argument that is almost exactly what the Democrats have been arguing, which is that they have to be allowed to do this beyond the scope of an impeachment inquiry. And so this is helpful to Nancy Pelosi as she tries to slow this whole thing down.

But at the same time, I think we can probably imagine that, as all of these various inquiries go forward, they're going to win some; they're going to lose some. And it's going to be at a kind of uneven experience, I think, for congressional Democrats, which is going to get frustrating.

But one of the, you know -- David mentioned that this could go into 2020. But I think one of the arguments that the White House and the president's supporters will make about -- about the advantage they might have in delay is that it really dilutes the Democrats' argument. It makes it a million tiny little pieces of various things that -- nothing that's big enough that voters can really grasp onto.

And I think that the White House is hoping that this all just starts to sound like noise. That, as all of these -- these investigations go forward, and these cases go forward, voters just simply can't keep up with the flow of information from these investigations. So in that way, delay can be to their advantage.

But I think Nancy Pelosi is also seeing that -- that voters may not care about this as the paramount reason why they vote in 2020. If you look at what's happening out -- out in the presidential field, the president's campaign is trying to hold onto states that they actually absolutely have to win in order to win 2020. And they're doing that right now, even before any kind of impeachment inquiry goes forward.

[07:10:13] So if you're Pelosi, you're going to say, "Let's not mess with a good thing. Let's keep this going, and let's not try to create something" that they maybe can't control.

What if impeachment helps the president look like a victim in the eyes of voters and helps him win, rather than weakens him going into 2020?

BERMAN: And that's the risk. And of course, president is very adept at playing the victim even when, in fact, he is the opposite of that.

But Rachael, and again, since you're up on the Hill covering this every day, you know, I read your article several times, and it had the smell of something different. You said tipping point before. Does this have the whiff of being the beginning of when impeachment really does begin here? Because that's how I read it.

BADE: You know, lawmakers up on the Hill, they have this joke that if you bet against Nancy Pelosi, you're going to lose. She's really strong, and she -- she has kept her caucus in line on a lot of really tough issues, including during the 35-day shutdown, when a lot of them wanted to negotiate with the president on his border wall.

So I think this is a real test for her speakership. I'm -- to be honest, I'm not sure. I'm not sure if we're going to see a bunch of members go out publicly and push back on her. I will say, privately, people are more bold, but I haven't seen them. You know, even though they confronted her in a private meeting, it's different than going to, you know -- going to television cameras and saying, "Nancy Pelosi is wrong. She is holding us back, and we need to do this." And we haven't really seen anyone do that, which again, speaks to the power of Pelosi.

But what I will say is that she's going to have to do something. I mean, there is so much tension. There's so much anxiety right now on the Hill with these House Democrats. It has been a month since Mueller's report has come out. They haven't heard from him. They haven't scheduled his hearing. Barr stood them up. McGahn has now stood them up.

And you know, they had a contempt vote against Barr in a committee where they haven't even had that contempt vote on the floor. And so there's a lot of worry: what are we doing? What is the plan? What are the next steps? Everything is taking a long time.

And I think that she's going to have to show them that she, you know, sympathizes with their situation, by either scheduling a contempt vote or allowing them to do this thing about fining Trump officials. She's going to have to do something to sort of let the air out of the balloon. I'm not sure what it's going to be. But, you know, perhaps that will be enough to sort of assuage some of these people for now. TBD in the future.

GREGORY: But let's talk about what -- what is the prospect of them learning anything? I mean, that's the issue.

Even if they got Don McGahn in front of their committee, what are you going to get? Instead of perhaps some great TV moments?

But we know what the details are. He's already cooperated, and it's in the Mueller report in great detail. So yes, you would turn that into a television event.

But this is the question about momentum. There's obviously frustration. There's a very important fight going on about the power of the legislative versus the executive on questions of obstruction of justice, which the Mueller report makes clear, it is within their purview to investigate and to drill down on.

But what you've got here is mostly frustration. Where is the momentum to what you're actually going to learn that you don't know? Now, they may score some things over time, but the point was made -- I think Abby was making the point. I think this is exactly right, what does it add up to? And what is that momentum building to that we don't already know? Especially when there is a sense in the public, whether it's true or not, that this is over.

And you know, if Mueller is not leaking any more, you know, nasty memos to Barr, and he's not, you know, coming forward to testify, I think it becomes harder and harder for Democrats to wage a big fight about some revelation.


PHILLIP: We could -- we could --

CAMEROTA: We just don't know -- quickly, Abby. Go ahead.

PHILLIP: We could learn more from -- from McGahn. I mean, it's clear that the White House doesn't want him to testify.

And in the last week, we learned that there is a dispute about whether or not Don McGahn told the special counsel that he believed the president obstructed justice. Did he say that or not?

I think there are some real questions about what Don McGahn really thought about the things that he experienced that Democrats are trying to get out. And that's also why the White House doesn't want him in front of those cameras and in front of those committees.

CAMEROTA: Guys, thank you very much for all of this information. Rachael, thank you for sharing your reporting with us. Fascinating to hear what happened last night.

OK. Also now this. Breaking news overnight, at least 14 tornadoes have been confirmed in central Oklahoma and western Texas. At this hour, we are getting reports of more tornadoes. Adding to the severe weather, intense flooding, leading to rescues, forcing evacuations, closing schools.

CNN's Ed Lavandera has been watching it all. He's live in Oklahoma City with all of the breaking details there -- Ed.


Only in Oklahoma and tornado alley can you have 19 tornadoes fall out of the sky in one day and have many people around here breathing a sigh of relief, as if they dodged the worst of what this storm system could bring.

But here in the overnight hours, this storm system that spawned all of those tornadoes yesterday, bringing heavy rains throughout the night. There has been a tornado warning near the town of Meeker, just southeast of Oklahoma City. That has expired here in the last hour or so. But it really kind of heightens the awareness here of what people are waking up to across Oklahoma, as this storm system continues to produce large amounts of rain.

Flash flood warnings and watches throughout much of the central and eastern part of this state, from Stillwater, Oklahoma, to Tulsa, Oklahoma. So those alerts going out. People being urged to be careful and cautious as they hit the roadways, especially in these low-lying areas where creeks and waterways might be filled up with water in these overnight hours because of all of the rain.

But Alisyn and John, throughout yesterday, there had been a high-risk warning issued by the National Weather Service, many anticipating a great deal of severe and intense tornadoes. The worst of that did not come to fruition, John.

BERMAN: All right. Ed Lavandera for us there in Oklahoma City on the watch from the severe weather. We appreciate it. The threat far from over. CNN meteorologist Chad Myers joins us now with the forecast.

Chad, what are you seeing?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Just one day after another, all the way through Thursday, John. Yes, 19 tornadoes but 55 reports of big hail yesterday. There's one of the tornadoes near Mangum, Oklahoma. Big tornado here.

Let me show you what this looked like on radar. I know a lot of you look at radar at home on your app and on your phone. Look at this. Does that look like a screaming eagle landing here, picking up something with its talons? Well, guess what? That's exactly where that tornado was that I just showed you. If you see that, it's time to run. At least get downstairs or something. Because that was a big tornado, and it was on the ground for a long time.

Never be on the business end of an eagle there. There's the weather, moving through Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Still tornado watches in effect all morning long. This could be a big day today. I know we had the high risk yesterday. This is like two steps down. But there's a lot of warm air out there. There's a lot of rotation still out there. And there still could be a lot of severe weather from Springfield to Kansas City, St. Louis, big cities today.

And even by tomorrow morning, all the way in to Indianapolis, Memphis, and maybe even Nashville -- guys.

BERMAN: Still watching it, and those talons, very, very closely, Chad. Thank you very much.

In just hours, top national security officials will brief lawmakers on Iran. CNN has an exclusive new interview with Iran's top diplomat. He is not backing down in his language. We'll hear from him next.


[07:21:43] BERMAN: Top national security officials will brief lawmakers on Capitol Hill today about the tensions and intelligence on Iran. President Trump has a new warning.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think Iran would be making a very big mistake if they did anything. If they do something, it'll be met with great force. But we have no indication that they will.


BERMAN: All right. CNN has some news here to add. We just had an exclusive interview with Iran's top diplomat.

CNN's Fred Pleitgen live in Tehran with more on that. Very interesting to listen to Javad Zarif, Fred.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, yes. Very interesting to listen to him. Very interesting also to confront him with the fact that President Trump has been making these statements, John, and making these tweets over the past couple of days.

Of course, there have been what appear to be some sort of mixed messages. On the one hand, President Trump saying about a day and a half ago that it would be the end of Iran if there was a fight. Then, at the same time, he's also saying he still wants to talk to Iran, to negotiate with Iran.

I asked Javad Zarif whether or not, in the current circumstances, the Iranians were willing to do that. He said absolutely not and blasted the U.S. president. Here's what he said.


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 to 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.

PLEITGEN: How dangerous do you think the situation is currently in the Persian Gulf, with a U.S. aircraft carrier on its way, B-52 bombers. Now at the same time, from your side, saying, "Look, we don't want escalation, but it will be painful if there is one."

ZARIF: But there will be painful consequences for everybody.

There is an escalation against Europe. That's for sure. The United States is engaging in economic warfare against Iran. It has to stop. Economic war means targeting the 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 there you have it. John, the Iranian foreign minister there with some pretty strong words for the Trump administration. On the one hand, saying that Iran does not want an escalation, but also, of course, as we heard there, saying that the situation, especially in the Persian Gulf, but in this wider region at this point in time, is still extremely dangerous.

[07:25:03] And of course, one of the things that we've heard, not just from the Iranian government but from the Iranian military leadership, as well, is that they say, if it does come to some sort of shooting match, it would be extremely painful for this entire region, Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: Understood. And it is very interesting to hear from his side. Fred, thank you very much for that interview and the reporting.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is running for president. What does he bring to the crowded field? We ask him, next.


CAMEROTA: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his presidential run last week, making him the 23rd Democrat vying to beat President Trump in 2020. So what are his chances?

Mayor de Blasio joins us now in studio. Great to have you here.