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Trump Walks Back Comments On Accepting Dirt On Opponents; FEC Chairwoman Rebukes Trump, Says Accepting Foreign Dirt Is Illegal; Trump: Don McGahn "May Have Been Confused" In Mueller Testimony; Trump: Tanker Attacks Have "Iran Written All Over It"; Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) Discusses The Trump Admin. Blaming Iran On Oil Tanker Attacks, Trump Saying He Would Accept Dirt from Foreign Entities; Trump Won't Fire Kellyanne Conway For Hatch Act Violations. Aired 11- 11:30a ET

Aired June 14, 2019 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:00] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: We will keep you posted on this story. We are committed to that.

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SCIUTTO: It saves lives.

"AT THIS HOUR" with Kate Bolduan starts now.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. Thanks so much for joining me.

President Trump backing away from or trying to clean up from his wild remarks from yesterday, essentially welcoming foreign interference in the U.S. elections.

This morning, the president says that he would still listen but then he would, of course, report it to the FBI. Listen to him.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES (voice-over): I think it was accurately stated, and I have had a lot of support.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): Then clarify it.

TRUMP: Yes, I mean, I had a lot of support.

First of all, I don't think anybody would present me with anything bad because they know how much I love this country. Number two, if I was -- and, of course, you have to look at it because

if you don't look at it, you're not going to know if it's bad. How do you know if it's bad? But of course, you give it to the FBI or report it to the attorney general or somebody like that.


BOLDUAN: Of course, he says. But remember yesterday, he said very specifically, and I quote, "I would go maybe to the FBI."

CNN's Sarah Westwood is at the White House, joining me now.

Sarah, how is the White House describing or trying to describe exactly what the president is trying to do here? What are you hearing?

SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Kate, what you just played from "FOX & Friends," that is the president's latest attempt to try to clarify, clean up what he told ABC in that interview that was taped a few days ago. The president saying that, of course, he would go to the FBI.

But that is a departure from what the president told ABC, which is that he doesn't think he's ever contacted the FBI in his life.

He sort of dismissed this whole idea that contacting the FBI is necessary in this hypothetical situation of a foreign national offering him information that could be potentially damaging to his opponent.

And he even went so far in that initial interview to say that the FBI director was wrong in his guidance that any candidate from any party should immediately report to the authorities if they are being offered information of value.

The FEC, the chairman of the Federal Election Commission, actually felt the need to come out and clarify in a statement that "to solicit, accept, receive anything from a foreign national in connection with an election is illegal."

That the president's comments have drawn condemnation from 2020 Democratic hopefuls like Joe Biden, who said the president was dead wrong. Senator Kamala Harris, who called the president a national security threat.

And the president, still, in that "FOX & Friends" interview, trying to compare the situation of accepting dirt from a foreign national to his diplomatic conversations that he has with leaders of allied countries, like the U.K., like the prime minister of Ireland.

That's an argument he first started on Twitter yesterday. Kate, we heard him continuing to make that argument today.

BOLDUAN: That's exactly right.

Sarah, great to see you. Thank you so much. Joining me now because I have a lot of questions, CNN Legal Analyst,

Elie Honig, a former federal prosecutor, and CNN Political Director, David Chalian.

David, the president looks there like he's trying to walk it back. How did he do?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICS DIRECTOR: Well, I think what he did here was keep the Republicans that have been silent on this for the last 36 hours, the ability to stay silent on it. Right? I think he cleaned up enough. You can parse every single word he said and see if it's a full walk back or not, but he's clearly attempting to clean up something which means he clearly perceives something he said to George Stephanopoulos created a mess that needs some cleaning up.

And I think that will give license to those Republicans, the great majority of them, who did not come out and speak out against this yesterday, something to point to as to why they don't need to address it going forward.

BOLDUAN: Yes, let's be honest. If the president didn't say he didn't say anything wrong, we know exactly the tact he would be using in an interview. This is clearly a recognition that was a mess and they're trying to move away from it.

Elie, the rebuke coming from the FEC that came yesterday is pretty startling. Let me read it in part, from the chairwoman. "Let me make something 100 percent clear," she writes, "to the American public and anyone running for public office. It is illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election."

And her tweet of the statement, led off saying, "I would not have thought that I needed to say this."

Part of the president's defense here.

And, yes, David, you can yell at me because I'm now parsing words.

Part of the president's defense is if he thought the information he was being offered up was -- how did he put it -- incorrect or badly stated, then of course, he would go to the FBI. Does the value judgment matter?

ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: No, it does not. This is obviously a walk back. I don't think it's a particularly compelling or coherent walk back.

What the president said this morning was, I would check if it's good or bad or correct or incorrect. What does that mean? Good or bad according to who? Correct or incorrect according to who?


[11:05:03] HONIG: You would be opening the door to just mayhem if that was the standard. No, the standard is exactly as the FEC chair put it in her tweet. If the information comes from a foreign national or entity, it has some monetary value, even very low, and there's an effort to solicit, accept, or receive it, that's a crime.

You can make an argument that the president, at minimum, opened the door to that by his comments over the last couple days.

BOLDUAN: And then, David, the president also in this interview laid into former White House counsel, Don McGahn. Let me play first what the president said.


TRUMP: I was never going to fire Mueller. I never suggested firing Mueller.



TRUMP: Excuse me. I don't care what he says. It doesn't matter. That was to show everyone what a good counsel he was.


STEPHANOPOULUS: Why would Don McGahn lie under oath?


STEPHANOPOUOS: Why would he lie under oath?

TRUMP: Because he wanted to make himself look like a good lawyer, or, or he believed it because I would constantly tell anybody that would listen, including you, including the media, that Robert Mueller was conflicted.


BOLDUAN: Just so we're all clear, David, and for everybody to remember, because the report is so long and the details do get confusing sometimes. The president says I never suggested firing Mueller.

Don McGahn, in the report, page 298 actually, said that, recalls a conversation he had with the president where he says, "Call Rod, tell Rod Mueller has conflicts and can't be the special counsel." McGahn recalled the president telling him, quote, "Mueller has to go."

What do you make of this?

CHALIAN: And you'll recall, this is one of the -- of the 10 episodes of potential obstruction of justice that Mueller put forth in that second part of the report.

This is the episode that I think most observers came around to the notion that, but for that Department of Justice guideline, this is where an indictment could possibly come from, if Bob Mueller was operating under a different set of rules.

Here's what you just heard the president of the United States tell George Stephanopoulos, that his hand-picked White House counsel, an officer of the court, lied under oath to Robert Mueller to make himself look like a good lawyer. That is what the president is asserting and says he doesn't care, and it doesn't matter what McGahn says.

Well, all evidence to the contrary, if you read the Mueller report. What McGahn told Mueller matters quite a lot.

BOLDUAN: That's exactly right.

Just jumping off that, Elie, I am of lesser mind, obviously, but I do not understand, because he wanted to look like a good lawyer. Why looking like a good lawyer, would then want to lie to Robert Mueller? Do you understand what he's saying?

HONIG: Not exactly.


HONIG: What I do understand is he's afraid of Don McGahn, and he should be, rightly so. Because of the hundreds of witnesses who spoke with Robert Mueller, I don't think anyone does more damage to the president than Don McGahn.

He gives us that instance that you laid out where the president told him to get rid of Mueller. And on top of that, he later calls him back in and says, I need you to lie about that, falsify records. It's really bad.


BOLDUAN: Right. I left that part out.

HONIG: Yes. It's really, really bad.

I think all of this really underscores the need for the House, for Jerry Nadler, to get Don McGahn's testimony. None of this behind- closed-doors stuff. People need to see and hear from Don McGahn. If you believe Don McGahn, the president committed obstruction. That's it.

BOLDUAN: Can I say, for everyone, I always feel like, yes, we go back and read sections for everyone from the Mueller report.

But I think it is really important that we do. Because if you just let comments like, I never suggested firing Mueller out there, you have someone who is testifying to a federal -- to a special counsel, Robert Mueller, sworn testimony, what he's saying, David, I think it's really important that it must be called out every time.

CHALIAN: I totally agree. We live in the Trump era, where we learned there's a tweet for that, somewhere in Donald Trump's tweet history, something comes up, and you can pull the Donald Trump tweet.

Now, with every interview he gives, there's a Mueller report section for that. You can take everything the president says about this now and point to the Mueller report where it contrasts the president's own words.

BOLDUAN: Yes, the number of times I go to the searchable document of the Mueller report now after interviews is pretty remarkable. Control app is all our best friend.

Guys I really appreciate it. Thank you so much.

Coming up for us, the Trump administration says they have video evidence that proves Iran is behind the attacks on oil tankers in the Middle East. Now, President Trump says, we'll see what happens. We'll ask a Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee what he sees. That's next.

[11:09:29] Plus, an independent government watchdog says top White House aide, Kellyanne Conway, should be fired, but President Trump says she's going to stay right where she is. Is that the last word now?


BOLDUAN: This morning, the president of the United States is leaving no doubt that he says Iran is behind the dangerous attack on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Listen.


TRUMP (voice-over): Well, Iran did do it. And you know they did it because you saw the boat. I guess one of the mines didn't explode, and it's probably got essentially Iran written all over it. Now they're in deep, deep trouble. You can't --


UNIDENTFIED MALE (voice-over): How do you stop this -- how do you stop these outrageous acts when 30 percent of the world's oil comes from there?

TRUMP: We're going to see. We're going to see. We're going to see how to stop.


[11:15:05] BOLDUAN: This is after the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, released a video saying it shows Iranian forces removing -- there's the video there -- Iranian forces removing an unexploded mine from the hull of one of the ships. Iran, in response, is defiant, saying they are not behind it.

CNN's Frederik Pleitgen is in Tehran with more on this.

Fred, this is a dangerous situation. Tensions are only rising when you hear back and forth between Iranian leaders and the president of the United States. What are you hearing from there?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think you're absolutely right. It is a dangerous situation, one where the Iranians are making clear they're not going to back down in any way, shape, or form.

It's interesting because we were just showing that video. The Iranians haven't commented on that video at all except to persistently say they didn't have anything to do with this. And quite frankly, they don't see any reason to explain themselves further either.

It's interesting you saw Trump explaining the Iranians are in big trouble now, because the Iranians certainly don't seem to feel this way.

It was today, at Friday prayers, today, Friday in Iran, the big public holiday, that the main speaker at the Friday prayers was saying he believes Iran's supreme leader humiliated President Trump when he turned down an offer from President Trump to start talks. So the Iranians clearly not feeling very much of that maximum pressure, at least the leadership that the Trump administration keeps talking about.

At the same time, they accuse the U.S. of fanning the flames in the region. The foreign minister, Javad Zarif, accusing the United States, U.S. leadership, and specifically Secretary of State Pompeo of wanting to drive the U.S. and Iran to an armed conflict -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Fred, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

Joining me for more on this, Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger. He sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He's also a member of the Air National Guard.

Congressman, thank you for being here.


BOLDUAN: Are you at a place where you are confident in saying that it is Iran behind these attacks?

KINZINGER: Yes. I mean, look, the reporter, prior, about three- fifths of that discussion is what Iranian propaganda is. We need to look at what Iran's history is.

So in Iraq, a quarter of American troops were killed as a direct or indirect result of Iran. We can go over 30 years of history and point every time Iran has lashed out at the United States or any of our allies.

I have no doubt this is Iran in the Strait of Hormuz. They're the only ones with the capability to do it. We have video evidence. We probably have much more evidence we're not releasing at this point. And --

(CROSSTALK) KINZINGER: -- to think anything else is --

BOLDUAN: I was going to say, is it because of the video that we have seen publicly or something more than gets you to a place of this is Iran?

KINZINGER: No, I don't have the answer in terms of if there's anything else. I can see what's on open source right now. I don't have other information.

But what I do know is there's a history of this. They're the only ones with the capability of doing this.

Even if it wasn't the IRGC, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps soldiers, it would be a militia, for instance, they energize. We see that everywhere, too.

The idea -- and I have seen this on conspiracy theories already -- that the United States instigated this, is you have a typical conspiracy theory crowd, but this is pretty cut and dry. We know who did it.

BOLDUAN: On how to respond, I saw you say yesterday, if push comes to shove, you said, "The U.S. Navy would push, shove, stomp, and destroy them in a heartbeat." What -- where is that line, though? Is that this?

KINZINGER: It's something we're going to have to determine basically moment by moment. I don't know if they have reached that line yet, because obviously, military force is a big decision.

But the thing to keep in mind is military force doesn't mean 200,000 troops occupying Tehran. What it means is there's options to take out surface to air missile capability, options to take out Navy capability, which obviously is one of the bigger threats we're looking at here, IRGC headquarters. There's ways to inflict punishment and reduce capabilities. That's definitely on the table.

As of now, I think the sanctions are working. We have seen them withdraw investment in other areas of the region and they're lashing out, no doubt.

BOLDUAN: You say they're lashing out, and I do want to ask you about this. My colleague, Michelle Kosinski, has been reporting a senior diplomatic source of a U.S. ally. She says, while they're not defending these attacks at all, arguing that U.S. action has created the crisis that we're seeing right now in the Gulf of Oman.

The way this source is telling Michelle is that, starting with the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, sanctions that we're discussing right here, to also sending the carrier group, air strike group, to the gulf. Do you see that element of it? Could the Trump administration help calm things down there at this point?

KINZINGER: Look, I would agree, if Iran was nothing but a loving regime that was sending out aid and help to its neighbors and wishing everybody good wishes in the evening. Instead, they have been a very corrupt regime. They have been expanding terrorism all throughout that region.

[11:20:03] Look at Syria, half a million dead Syrians and Iran is largely responsible for that.

You look at their decision to actually jump start again this nuclear program, and the fact they were keeping ballistic missiles even under this deal, which is already halfway to expiration.

So this is the United States responding saying, we're going to defend the region.

And then for them to take out civilian tankers, that's nobody's fault but the mullahs in Iran and the IRGC, period.

BOLDUAN: On another topic, I haven't seen anything from you on the president's interview with ABC news that, if offered dirt on an opponent from Russia or China, he would take it. What -- what do you make of that?

KINZINGER: Look, nobody should ever, ever take any foreign intelligence or any information from any foreign government. If that's not the law, and I think it is, if it's not the law, we need to make that expressly clear.

I wish the president wouldn't have said what he did. I wish the president would come out very clearly and say now, of course, I wouldn't.

That said, of course, we're not going to do this. This idea that all Congress does it, absolutely not. That's totally untrue. I have never been approached by a foreign government with information on my opponent.

BOLDUAN: And that's the thing. That's why the pushback from the White House has been like, of course, the president is not going to take it, you're taking it all out of context. I have a hard time seeing that. He says everyone in Congress is being offered this up. We have gone through this before, Congressman. That's not true.

KINZINGER: Yes, and look, my thing in a lot of this is I always say, OK, we can always look back and play the blame game and say, this person is 80 percent, this is 20 percent.

Every moment is the opportunity where we pause and say let's make a clear, definitive statement. No foreign government, no foreign adversary, no foreign individual will have any influence in the United States election, period.

BOLDUAN: Can I ask one thing on that? Because one thing Congress can do is re-enforce the fact that's illegal, right?


BOLDUAN: And we saw Mark Warner try to put forth a bill to make it crystal clear. That was blocked on the Senate floor yesterday, blocked by Mitch McConnell.

When Mitch McConnell was asked last night about all of this, he says he gets picked at every day about every aspect about this, but the point that Democrats are trying to keep the 2016 election alive.

Do you agree with McConnell on this, that that's what this is?

KINZINGER: I don't know. I mean, look, some of this -- I don't know Mark Warner's bill at all. If it basically says, it re-enforced that foreign governments should have no influence, I would support that.

Like, for instance, in this last election bill that came out of the House, H.R.-1, there was so much left-wing dream in there, including public financing of campaigns, and then they tried to claim we voted against it because of some Russia stuff, which it had nothing to do with that. A lot of politics being played.


KINZINGER: But the bottom line is protect our election integrity.

BOLDUAN: You would support a bill from the House or Senate and you would want to see it being put forward and allow a vote on it if it re-enforces current law, which is you get an offer by a foreign entity for help in an election, it's your job to report it, yes?

KINZINGER: Oh, yes. Oh, yes, 100 percent. In fact, I've led many sanctions efforts against Russia, for instance --


KINZINGER: -- for interfering in the election. And in Eastern Europe, we look at that election security issues. And so, yes, 100 percent.

BOLDUAN: I'm looking forward to seeing that action, bipartisan action on that coming from both the House and Senate. We'll follow up.

Congressman, thank you.

KINZINGER: You bet. Take care.

BOLDUAN: Coming up for us, President Trump standing by senior adviser, Kellyanne Conway, even though a government watchdog says she should be fired. Who is right? What's going to happen now?

We'll be right back.


[11:28:18] BOLDUAN: A federal watchdog says counselor to the president, Kellyanne Conway, needs to be fired. Despite that, President Trump says this morning she's going nowhere.

This is all over the Hatch Act, a law that was first passed in 1939, that prohibits executive branch employees from engaging in political activity while on duty.

Conway has repeatedly, on camera included, advocated against Democratic candidates for office. Just watch this.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, SENIOR COUNSELER TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: I found his announcement video to be unfortunate, certainly a missed opportunity. But also just very dark and spooky in that it's taking us -- he doesn't have a vision for the future.

Doug Jones in Alabama, folks, don't be fooled. He'll be a vote against tax cuts.


CONWAY: I'm telling you that we want the votes in the Senate to get this tax bill through.

He doesn't want a liberal Democrat in the Senate. Nobody was even talking about Doug Jones until the president started talking about him.



BOLDUAN: Pretty stark.

This morning, here is the president's take.


TRUMP (voice-over): It looks to me like they're trying to take away her right of free speech. And that's just not fair. You ask a person a question, and every time you're supposed to say, I can't answer? I mean, she's got to have a right of responding to questions.


BOLDUAN: So what is going to happen now? And how did past administrations handle this?

Chris Lu is a former assistant to President Obama. He served as cabinet secretary. He's joining me now.

Thank you for being here.


BOLDUAN: The president says he is not going to take any action against Kellyanne Conway. And you said if he would take that position, that would be a new basis for impeachment. Why is that?

LU: Well, look, this is a willful disregard of a law, as you said, that was passed 80 years ago and that's been followed by Democratic and Republican administrations.

[11:30:09] Ultimately, the tone is set by the top. Kellyanne Conway won't be fired because her view of ethics is the same view as Donald Trump's view of ethics.