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Pelosi Says Trump Is Engaged In A Cover-Up; Lawmakers Split After Briefing On Iran Threat. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired May 22, 2019 - 10:00   ET


[10:00:00] REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): To present to the Intelligence Committee. So there were three current within the last 72 hours examples of progress there were made to get the truth and the facts for the American people.

We have other presentation from Richard Neal that was happening on the taxing. It's very clear. It is the law of the land. And it's very clear it's the law of the land and then, of course, Jerry Nadler spoke in the beginning to put -- give us a context for all of this, excuse me.

Right now, the Judiciary Committee is marking up the DREAM Act. We do have our legislative agenda that we're moving forward on. It was a very positive meeting, a respectful sharing of ideas, and I think a very impressive presentation by our chairs.

We do believe that it's important to follow the facts. We believe that no one is above the law, including the President of the United States, and we believe that the President of the United States is engaged in a cover-up, in a cover-up, and that was the nature of the --

REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE) position of some of your members on on impeachment or contempt or anything? Is that part of --

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: Those were quite strong words coming of what we understand was a divisive --

PELOSI: (INAUDIBLE) exchanging information and points of view. Really, we have this important meeting (ph) with the President --

REPORTER: Can you still have that meeting though with all of this happening?

POPPY HARLOW, CNN NEWSROOM: All right. Nancy Pelosi only taking one question there, and there are a lot of reporters who want to ask a lot of questions there, including our Manu Raju, who is on Capitol Hill with us. This is as she was coming out of that meeting with her caucus. Here's what struck me, quote, a respectful sharing of ideas, she says, and impressive presentations by the chairs of the committees. she's the one who's got to unite them.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right. And that last comment there saying that we believe the President of the United States is engaged in a cover-up. That is a comment that Pelosi has been saying in private, that she wants for that to be the message of her democratic caucus about how to talk about what exactly is happening here. But that is obviously short of what some of her members want, which is to go forward with an impeachment inquiry.

Now, I am told in this meeting that is about -- is breaking up now, about an hour long, the Chairman laid out their details of what exactly they are doing, the letters they have sent. Elijah Cummings, one, said that we are winning on our current course of action, including pointing to a court case from Monday that led to Trump financial accounting firm to be ordered by a court to turn over financial records.

And that's the way that this essentially went. These chairmen laid out their current course of investigation but stopping short of impeachment, including House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, who was angry at the stonewalling by this administration but did not call for an impeachment inquiry himself.

I'm also told that Jerry Nadler said that he wants Bob Mueller to testify in public, this after we're hearing that we're hearing that the Special Counsel wants to go in private. That is another thing he weighed in on and declined to weigh in on yesterday. This is according to multiple attendees.

But nevertheless, Pelosi essentially getting what she wants here, guys, saying that we need to continue the current course. I'm hearing more members than not supporting her on that, and that's what she said moments ago to reporters, that the President is engaged in a cover-up, but yet, these are the things we're doing but not calling for impeachment.

SCIUTTO: So, to be clear, she is using public language here, accusing the President of the United States of covering up apparent or alleged crimes here, but you're saying she did not grant ground on how to respond to that by saying, okay, yes, an impeachment inquiry is necessary?

RAJU: Correct. She said that we need to continue the current course of action, which is investigations, which is court fights, which would lead to more subpoenas, which would lead to this ratcheting up of tension between the two branches of government, but stopping short of impeachment. That's the message that she has had all along. And, clearly, she believes that her caucus, for the most part, is on her side, guys.

HARLOW: Yes. So let me just -- Manu, just to remind people who may not have heard it in her comments, it was the end that's the most critical, as you rightly noted, quote, we believe the president of the United States is engaged in a cover-up. And the fact that she has been saying that privately, that's your reporting, but decided this morning after this contentious meeting with members of her caucus to say that publicly, how big is that?

RAJU: Well, that's the message that she wants the party -- that can unite her caucus. This is a decision by her to realize that there is so much growing frustration within her party about the lack of information coming from this administration, despite the subpoenas and believing that by talking very strongly, by making these rather stark remarks, accusing the President of the United States for engaging in a cover-up, she believes that's something that could get her party on the same side.


They all essentially agree to that.

But what they don't agree with about unanimously is how to assert their concerns, whether it's just going through the investigative route, whether it's actually launching an impeachment inquiry. So this kind of language is something that virtually all democrats agree with, which is why she's saying what she's saying. But when you drill down, that's when you start to get into the divisions within the caucus.

But at the moment, I think she believes this went well. The democrats who support her believe this went well and that she's kept those detractors at bay at the moment, guys.

HARLOW: Okay, important reporting. Manu, thank you for being there, as always.

SCIUTTO: All right. We're joined by former federal prosecutor as well as CNN Legal Analyst Jennifer Rogers. The President of the United States engaged in a cover-up. It's hard not to recall Nixon here, right, at least in terms of the way you now have the most powerful democrat in the land discussing this issue.

JENNIFER RODGERS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, there're so many parallels to Nixon, obviously. And we had so many pieces of evidence of a cover-up in the Mueller report itself when you look at the evidence of the obstruction on that. And now, we have -- I don't know if it's a cover-up or hiding. I mean, they're just hiding information. There's no question that dems are having a terrible time getting the fruits of the Mueller report and other information that they need to do their oversight role.

HARLOW: Her argument about a cover-up is clearly by stonewalling, by leaving empty chairs at hearings for the Attorney General and former White House Counsel Don McGahn, by refusing to turn over subpoenaed documents time after time after time, for refusing to turn over the President's financial records and tax returns that she is saying amounts to a cover-up, the third article of impeachment against President Nixon was so similar in terms of the refusal of the President in 1974 to turn over those documents.

RODGERS: Yes. There's no question that these are impeachable offenses, that high crimes and misdemeanors, that standard is met here. I mean, it's much lower than the criminal law standard. So they can do it. The question is, politically, do they want to do it? But, legally, it's really clear.

HARLOW: Because it's not a legal decision, it's a political -- SCIUTTO: Right.

HARLOW: It's a political maneuver.

SCIUTTO: And there's evidence that Robert Mueller's intention was to leave it to Congress. In effect, this was a roadmap. You make the decision because, ultimately, it's a political decision here. But I want to ask you a question, because this is something that is frequently brought up by the President's defenders, you can't have obstruction without an underlying crime. So more definitively, the Special Counsel says no hard evidence of collusion, conspiracy, et cetera.

But then even Justin Amash, of course, a republican lawmaker, said in actuality, the law does not require an underlying crime. Explain the law for obstruction of justice.

RODGERS: So obstruction of justice is interfering with an investigation. So there has to be an investigation into a crime of some sort. But that investigation doesn't have to result in the charging of a crime. So Martha Stewart, for example, was charged with obstruction of justice, was not charged with the underlying crime of insider trading.

And when you think about it, it makes sense.

HARLOW: And she went to jail because she obstructed justice.

RODGERS: She did. And it makes success because if you successfully obstruct an investigation, you can't prosecute that underlying crime. So, of course, legally, there needs to be no underlying --

SCIUTTO: There's a little chicken-egg thing going on there.

Listen, we have Sarah Westwood at the White House here. Sarah, the President has just been accused by the sitting Speaker of the House of a cover-up here. Any reaction from the White House yet?

SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, Jim, President Trump has been Tweeting a half dozen times this morning about the Russia investigation. He's been arguing that House Democrats are simply reinvestigating what Special Counsel Robert Mueller already looked into, and he knows that pressure is growing on Speaker Nancy Pelosi to initiate those impeachment proceedings.

He knows that there's a wing of the democratic caucus that wants to move forward on that, and he is clearly frustrated that they are still requesting things from his administration. His argument all along has been that his White House cooperated with Mueller, and so they don't need to cooperate with the House Oversight activities in this regard.

And now this is setting up the President for a potentially awkward situation later today. In just about an hour from now, Speaker Pelosi and other congressional democrats are due at the White House to talk about infrastructure, something that should theoretically be bipartisan. But because the White House is stonewalling requests for documents, for testimony on just about every front, tensions are rising between the White House and Congress, and a compromise, even on something that people want as much as infrastructure, does look difficult with that backdrop.

Now, in the last meeting, they agreed on a $2 trillion price tag. Today, they're supposed to talk about that $2 trillion plan. But some of the Trump administration's ideas, like leveraging public-private partnerships, those are not particularly popular with democrats because Speaker Pelosi, again, just an hour before she's supposed to face the President, accused him of engaging in a cover-up. This could definitely become a very tense meeting, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Awkward, to say the least.

HARLOW: Yes. Sarah Westwood, thank you so much.

Let's talk more about this.


Ron Brownstein is here, Senior Editor for The Atlantic and our Senior Political Analyst, as well as Chris Cillizza, CNN Editor at Large, and, of course, still with us is Jennifer Rodgers, our Legal Analyst as well.

Cillizza, I can imagine the headline of your next column might have the word cover-up in it. How big is this? How big is this?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN EDITOR AT LARGE: Well, I mean, I think it's a big deal, except she still reiterated that she doesn't think they should move to impeachment proceedings, the sort of contrast you guys called out right when we came out of that press conference.

If you think the President is engaged in a cover-up, then it would suggest that you also would -- qualifies for articles of impeachment. I think that word is dangerous for Pelosi, or she believes it to be. She believes that process is dangerous politically for the party. But my gosh, I was going to say, she's walking right up to the line, but it feels like you're going over the line but then saying, I'm actually not over the line.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Did she, Ron Brownstein, tie her hands to somebody? Because it appeared that she wanted -- I don't know if placate (ph) is the right word, but come out of that meeting, which I'm sure she got an earful on this and say, okay, well, I'm Going to go further in public than I have gone to this point, say absolutely no one is above the law, the President engaged in a cover-up, but let's use the strategy we've been using so far. Can she walk that line?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look, they want to control the pace and the kind of unfolding of this inquiry. I mean, if you look back at the Watergate precedent, there's no question that the Senate Watergate hearings, which were a full-year before impeachment, began a significant change in public opinion. And I think democrats have understood that bringing the Mueller report to life through testimony, you know, is an important -- that's the horse. You don't want to put the cart before that, because you need to make the case to the public.

But there is one other aspect of this, real quick. What's really turbo charging this, what's accelerating the talk of impeachment is the systematic rejection by the administration of Congress's historic role in conducting oversight on the executive branch.

And what makes this difficult for democrats is they are left defending the separation of powers alone. I mean, you have republicans who are there in the House and the Senate who understand that this is a threat to the historic authority of Congress, yet are choosing to be silent and to acquiesce as the administration tries to undermine that, and that, to a large extent, is what's forcing democrats to consider this impeachment alternative simply because they cannot present a united congressional front against this institutional challenge.

HARLOW: Speak to opening up an inquiry, right? Jim and I talked a lot about this between the two of us yesterday, an impeachment inquiry and actual impeachment proceedings. Is there a difference or is one just the beginning of the latter?

RODGERS: Well, I think in a way, they've already opened an inquiry to the extent that they are looking for evidence. They're trying to see what's there. But --

HARLOW: But I ask because you have democrats like Jamie Raskin, who was on the show yesterday, saying, yes, we should open an impeachment inquiry, but you're saying they already have.

RODGERS: Well -- so the House's role is the inquiry role. So since they don't try the case, what they do is present evidence. So I think what they mean is they would officially say we have an inquiry, and then start putting evidence into the record, on the floor of the House. That, I think, is the official inquiry. So they are not there yet but they're looking for the evidence.

SCIUTTO: It doesn't give them additional powers to open the inquiry, because, again, you could open the inquiry, that doesn't mean you proceed to a vote to impeach, the equivalent, in effect, politically of indicting the President for high crimes and misdemeanors. You could open the inquiry. Does that give Congress any further powers to subpoena, demand testimony, et cetera?

RODGERS: Well, I think it makes it harder to push back on those requests, because any judge who considers a request for a subpoena, if they've already opened that inquiry, is going to be very hard pressed to say that that's not part of their constitutional duties.

SCIUTTO: All right, fair enough.

Chris Cillizza, I mean, these are tough questions for all involved here, but it's interesting. You have the Attorney General, Barr, write that he's defending the presidency from attacks, not a president --

HARLOW: Right, not the President. SCIUTTO: -- the presidency, as if executive power was somehow diminished. It just struck me as a funny argument, because even in the previous presidency, right, you had republicans accusing President Obama of overusing the executive order and, of course, this president has used that too. I mean, is there evidence that Congress here is overstepping its bounds, that the presidency has been unduly limited, restricted by congressional moves, not just in this administration but prior administrations, even if the evidence is the opposite, frankly? You tell me.

CILLIZZA: Yes. I was just going to say, the one thing that presidents, republican and democrat, have done in recent decades is expand the power of the executive branch. George W. Bush did it. Barack Obama did it. Donald Trump has done it. And each one, like anything else, you stretch the elastic, and then the next person stretches the elastic more and more, so we've gotten more. The executive branch, the executive power has become greatly expanded.


And candidly, Jim, Congress has sort of let it happen. It was definitely true in first two years of Obama's presidency. It was definitely true in first two years of Trump's presidency, where they had congresses that were of their party and those congresses broadly acquiesce to them, I think particularly in Trump's case, somewhat out of fear, for political consequences.

And now, you have situation where Congress changes, at least one house changes, and they really -- you can debate this around the margins, but Ron's point is the right one, there is a constitutional mandate for the sharing of powers. These are co-equal branches of government, right?

So, just because the first two years of Trump's presidency, republicans didn't act like that, doesn't mean that democrats are doing something ahistorical here. In fact, they're doing what history suggests parties normally do in Congress.

SCIUTTO: There you go. Ron, yes? BROWNSTEIN: I was going to say real quick, you know, it is possible that the decision impeachment is not as politically explosive as they think. It is true that most Americans don't want impeachment now. But as we've talked about before, that could be a dynamic process.

And in 1998, when republicans impeached Bill Clinton despite a majority opposing that and with him having an approval rating 20 points higher than Trump does now, it is true, republicans lost their seats in '98 but they didn't lose the Congress in 2000. They only lost two seats in 2000. And they won the White House in part on the kind of arguments that were developed in impeachment created integrity back to the Oval Office. So there's no guarantee this is quite as explosive as they think today.

SCIUTTO: Not as black and white. It's a good point.

HARLOW: There you go. Okay, thank you all, Ron, Chris, Jennifer. CILLIZZA: Thank you.

HARLOW: Always good to have you. A big deal that Nancy Pelosi said that. We'll stay on it.

Also, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on the Hill right now facing off with lawmakers after he refused to hand over the President's tax returns. He says he's not violating the law.

SCIUTTO: We're also getting more details about Michael Cohen after a federal court has unsealed search warrants. The breaking details coming up.




PELOSI: Would you believe that it's important to follow the facts? We believe that no one is above the law, including the President of the United States. And we believe that the President of the United States has engaged in a cover-up, in a cover-up. And that was the nature of the meeting.


HARLOW: Such significant words that the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, repeated them, saying publicly she and fellow democrats believe the President of the United States has engaged in a cover-up.

Let's discuss with Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland. Of course, he sits on the Foreign Relations Committee. Very good to have you this morning, and we'll talk Iran in a moment because that's critical. But the House Speaker just said that. Do you agree with Nancy Pelosi that the President of the United States has engaged in a, quote, cover-up?

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D-MD): Well, Poppy, certainly the Mueller report showed areas where the President was trying to obstruct an investigation. Clearly, the House has no choice but to investigate the allegations that are in the Mueller report and get the facts.

So I agree with Speaker Pelosi that there needs to be an investigation in the House to carry out its oversight function, to know exactly what the President was doing and whether further action is required.

HARLOW: But, Senator, you heard her say definitively that the belief that she and her caucus have is that the President is engaged in a cover-up. Would you go that far this morning?

CARDIN: I think the way I would describe it is that the President, at every angle, has tried to derail people looking at what he's doing and he tried to influence the Mueller investigation. He tried to end the Mueller investigation. He has not cooperated with Congress on information being made available to the Congress. We're a co-equal branch of government. I think he clearly has tried to prevent us, the Congress and the United States, from carrying out our responsibility.

HARLOW: So, respectfully, I mean, isn't that the definition of a cover-up?

CARDIN: Well, I don't want to get into -- you can use your own definitions here. But, clearly, the President is trying to get Congress -- to prevent Congress from carrying out its responsibility. He's not cooperating with us. He's not giving us the information that's required. We're a co-equal branch of government.

HARLOW: Okay. So given that belief, we know impeachment proceedings, if they were to begin, would begin in the House and Nancy Pelosi's language is getting stronger by the day, but I wonder if you think potentially she's tying democrats' hands here because she's not going as far as to join the 24 members of House Democrats who are saying, yes, let's proceed with an impeachment hearing inquiry now. She's saying, wait, the courts are working in our favor right now. But in the same breath, she is saying that the President engaged in a cover- up. At some point, how long can she say that but not move forward with impeachment?

CARDIN: Well, Poppy, I think she is moving forward with the investigation. And, certainly, there are active subpoenas that have not been complied with, there's going to be enforcement proceedings, the House is carrying out its responsibility on oversight.


It's extremely difficult because of the failure of the president to cooperate and instructing others not to cooperate. So I think the house is moving forward.

HARLOW: All right. I'd like to turn to the issue of Iran because, of course, it is critical and you've been briefed on it as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Now that you've been briefed by senior members of the Trump administration on Iran, do you believe, Senator, that the threat level posed to the United States and our allies from Iran has increased or do you believe what the President said on Monday, quote, we have no indication that anything has happened or will happen?

CARDIN: Well, clearly, the tension is much, much higher, both from what the President has done as well as what's happening in Tehran by the Iranians. I think our greatest fear is that there will be a miscalculation that Iran believes that the United States is only interested in a regime change. And when you think or threaten to that degree, you can do things that can be very dangerous.

So I think we have to recognize that the risk levels here are high for a miscalculation and that, obviously, we have to be prepared for that. But we also need to have diplomacy to reduce the tensions.

HARLOW: So to your point about the necessity for diplomacy, but also being prepared for any potential miscalculation, does it concern you then that there is seemingly a pretty wide divide within the Trump administration on this one? Because you have the President saying on Monday what I just read and then you have Bolton, National Security Adviser John Bolton, according to Senator Lindsey Graham, warning about escalating tension with Iran. And then you have the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Tweeting on May 9th that Iran has engaged in an escalating series of threatening actions and statements. So it just does not seem like the President, the National Security Adviser and Secretary of State are on the same page on Iran. And I'm wondering if that concerns you.

CARDIN: Well, it obviously it concerns me. But I heard the Secretary of State and the acting Secretary of Defense after our briefings yesterday say that is the policy of the Trump administration to avoid any military conflict. So I'm going to take them for their word. I hope their policies will lead to that conclusion.

Everything we've seen from a military point of view, a military option here, certainly, an offensive option is not authorized, there's no legal way that that could be done. But if we are brought in through a defensive measure to defend ourselves, and we have to do that, and that gets out of control, that could be very much against our national security interest and stability in the region.

So we need policies that defend ourselves, absolutely, but make diplomacy a reality by reducing the tension between Iran and the United States.

HARLOW: Okay. Senator Ben Cardin, an important voice, of course, in this discussion. I do appreciate your time this morning. Thank you.

CARDIN: Thank you, Poppy.

HARLOW: Of course.

SCIUTTO: And balking, going as far as the Speaker there on the issue of the cover-up.

HARLOW: Yes, that was interesting, right?

SCIUTTO: Yes, balking his words.

Other story we're following, CNN is learning that Robert Mueller may be balking at the idea of public testimony, preferring private testimony. Why? Is that okay? We'll have the details next.