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AT THIS HOUR

Now: Hope Hicks Testifies Before House Judiciary Committee; The Changing Relationship Between Trump, Hope Hicks; EPA Rolls Back Rule Limiting Coal-Fired Power Plant Emissions; U.N. Report: "Credible Evidence" Saudi Crown Prince Responsible for Khashoggi Death; Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) Discusses U.N. Report on Khashoggi Death, New Acting Defense Secretary, Iran Tensions; Trump Kicks Off 2020 Campaign, Rehashes Old Gripes. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired June 19, 2019 - 11:00   ET

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


[11:00:00] SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Just a few minutes ago, Hakeem Jeffries, the House Democratic caucus chairman, he seemed a little out of sorts answering that question. He said he's unfamiliar with the context in which she made that comment. But he said it's obvious that inhumanity is taking place at the border.

Back to you guys.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Sunlen Serfaty, on the Hill, thank you very much.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: We appreciate it.

Thank you all for joining us. We'll see you here tomorrow morning. I'm Poppy Harlow.

SCIUTTO: I'm Jim Sciutto.

"AT THIS HOUR" starts right now.

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Erica Hill, in today for Kate Baldwin. Thanks for joining us.

Closed doors and tight lips. Long-time Trump confidant, Hope Hicks, testifies in private before the House Judiciary, the first member of the president's inner circle to do so as part of the panel's investigation into possible obstruction of justice.

The White House arguing, not surprisingly, she can't answer questions about her role as one of the president's most trusted advisers because of, you guessed it, executive privilege.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Your reaction to the White House saying Hope Hicks should not answer questions about her time in the White House.

SEN. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): Obstruction of justice. (END VIDEO CLIP)

CNN's Manu Raju is on Capitol Hill. Kaitlan Collins is in Washington.

Manu, let's start with you.

What are you hearing, first of all, about this hearing?

RAJU: Well, the White House counsels who are in the room alongside Hope Hicks are saying she's immune from answering questions about her time at the White House. That includes questions such as where her office was in the West Wing, as well as whether she told the truth to the special counsel.

According to Democratic lawmakers who were in the room, they're coming out saying they're making very clear she's not answering anything about any topics about their time at the White House.

Democrats coming in did want to ask her about those allegations of obstruction of justice that were laid out in the Mueller report, the efforts allegedly by the president to undermine the Mueller probe, including how he handled the firing of James Comey, whether he wanted to dismiss the special counsel, as was alleged in the report.

Among the other things, including his relationship with Michael Flynn, and her role in drafting a misleading statement that went out to the press when it was revealed that Donald Trump Jr had a meeting at Trump Tower with Russians who wanted to offer dirt on the Clinton campaign. All those topics off limits.

Coming out of this hearing, Democrats are making it very clear they're not happy, and they could go to court to fight this out.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. DAVID CICILLINE (D-RI): When the White House issued that letter making a claim of immunity, it doesn't exist in the law. It is quite clear that witnesses are required to answer truthfully questions asked unless a privilege is available. There's no such thing as absolute immunity that prevents someone from answering questions about any subject related to their work in the administration.

RAJU: Is it acceptable for the White House to be saying she has complete immunity?

SEN. STEVE COHEN (D-TN): I think the courts will decide that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: Now, Republicans have a different view. One Republican, Congressman Ratcliffe, came out of this room, and I asked him about this testimony so far. He said that she has been a very cooperative witness. He says that they're probably not expected to learn a whole lot in his view, and he views this as essentially a waste of time.

But she is answering questions, Erica, about her time on the campaign trail. And a lot of those questions do have to do with the president's involvement with that hush-money scheme to keep quiet those extramarital affairs that were about to come out in the run up to the 2016 campaign. There, executive privilege or even saying she has immunity not to testify does not apply. So still remains to be seen how she answers those questions.

But at least on the campaign side, she's answering questions, even as Democrats are making it clear they're not happy with the way this is going so far because she won't talk about her time at the White House -- Erica?

HILL: Manu with the latest on that.

Kaitlan, I know you have new reporting this morning on the changing relationship between the president and Hope Hicks. Tell us more about that.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Hope Hicks is coming back to a very different Washington. The last time she was here, Democrats were not in control of the House. So what she's witnessing there with these Democrats asking these questions is not anything like what it was when she was here in March, last March when she left the White House.

Also, Erica, what's different is her relationship with the president. We're being told, based on our reporting, that she and the president barely speak anymore.

That's a pretty dramatic shift from this near constant conversation they used to have where essentially Hope Hicks was the president's sounding board. She was there for things big and small, even steaming the wrinkles out of his pants, according to campaign aides.

But now that she's moved to the west coast, she has essentially this new life. We're being told she barely speaks to the president. And there was some time last year when she didn't even return his phone calls. That led the president to ask people what's going on with Hope.

Now, Erica, we should be sure to say this isn't some sign, we're told by people close to her, of changing feelings about the president. We're told she's still on his side, still supports him. But she felt this need, when she left the White House, to really distance herself from Trump, to get out of the orbit she had occupied for so long, which is the president.

White House officials have said they're not worried about her testimony today, not worried she'll reveal anything damaging about the president. But of course, any time they're asking questions, like Manu was saying, about hush-money payment scandals, it's not going to be very flattering testimony coming from one of the president's former closest confidants.

[11:05:11] HILL: Kaitlan Collins, Manu Raju, thank you, both.

Joining me now, Jennifer Rodgers, CNN legal analyst, former federal prosecutor.

I want you to take us inside what could potentially be happening here, based on your experience as a former federal prosecutor, as a defense attorney.

If we look at this changing relationship that Kaitlan just laid out -- and she was clear, this doesn't mean Hope Hicks is not still a fan and a supporter of the president. But just looking at the way that relationship has changed, that she wants to remove herself from the orbit, what does that tell you about her mind set going into this?

JENNIFER RODGERS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think she wants to make sure, Erica, that she doesn't violate the law, that she's following the law, that she's not doing anything that she ought not to do.

So I think it sounds like she's listening to the White House counsel's office and not answering questions they're telling her not to answer. So she's not going to buck them on that.

But if it came to something where she was asked a question and allowed to answer it, she's not going to lie for the president. That's where it seems to me she's drawing the line because now they have this distance that was talked about.

HILL: We should point out, she did also admit to a congressional panel she had told, in her words, "some white lies" in the past. That in itself is interesting. Just gives you an insight into her taking this testimony seriously.

RODGERS: Well, testimony is very different than speaking to reporters or speaking out publicly, as we know from the president himself, who tells whoppers constantly but not under oath. So this is a very different deal. She's going to make sure that she doesn't violate the law by testifying falsely for sure.

HILL: And when we look at asserting executive privilege, does this mean everything from January 20th, Inauguration Day, 2017, on, there will be no answers for those questions?

RODGERS: That's what the White House is saying and White House counsel is saying. If the Dems go to court, I think a court will find there's some room there, that she will be allowed to testify to some things.

Like all privileges, it can't cover up crimes or frauds. So certainly with respect to obstruction incidents, I think a federal judge would find that she could testify about crimes. It wouldn't cover up those crimes.

But for now, they're asserting that privilege. They're going to have to go to court to fight it out.

HILL: Also, for her time post-White House. Since she's left, she's no longer a White House staffer. Obviously, the president is still the president. There had still been communication, as we learned from Kaitlan, although it's petered out. Can executive privilege be asserted over any of those conversations?

RODGERS: So this is a big unknown area because executive privilege hasn't been litigated extensively enough for us to really know what the full parameters are. But I think not.

I think that it's meant to protect the president and his top advisers while he is the president. That's why it doesn't protect things before he takes office. So likewise, I think a court would find that after he leaves office, he only gets privilege with respect to his actual advisers at the time.

HILL: In terms of privilege, we heard Nancy Pelosi say in the sound we played a few moments ago that it amounts, in her view, to obstruction of justice. Do you agree?

RODGERS: I don't agree. Obstruction of justice, of course, is a legal term. It's a crime. What they're doing is what is, I think, a vastly, overbroad assertion of the privilege. It's a litigation position. That's not going to be a crime. It's obstructive but not obstruction.

HILL: Jennifer Rodgers, always good to talk to you. Thank you.

RODGERS: Thank you, Erica.

HILL: Coming up, a new report on the murder of journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, finds credible evidence linking the Saudi crown prince to the killing. So what will the administration do, if anything, about it?

Plus, it was billed as a campaign relaunch, so why is President Trump so focused on old battles?

And Senator Elizabeth Warren cementing her status as one of the top contenders.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:13:28] HILL: Moments ago, a major announcement from the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA deciding to undo an Obama- era rule on coal-fired power plant emissions. So the agency now says states can set their own carbon emission standards for the plants.

That decision to roll back an Obama-era rule comes despite the agency's own finding that doing so could result in more premature deaths.

CNN's Tom Foreman joins us now.

Tom, this move does help the president fulfill a campaign promise, as we know, to help the coal industry. Several states, though, and environmental groups will likely challenge this in court. Walk us through this new rule. What would change? TOM FOREMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, essentially what

happens is this. Under the Obama administration, there was a real push by the EPA to say, look, we're going to tighten the regulations on emissions to help with global warming and to help nudge the nation away from coal use.

They basically wanted to say, we need to discover new ways of producing cleaner energy. We need to rely more on that clean energy. And as long as we keep letting coal go forward unimpeded, that probably won't happen. So the Obama administration wanted to move away from that.

The Trump administration has said this was an overreach, they had no business doing this, the federal government was being too draconian here. And this rule change now says the states get to play a much bigger role in deciding what will be appropriate for their state.

And I'll tell you, the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who's a Republican from Kentucky, a big coal state, has already come out with a statement saying this is a good sign that the war on coal by the Democrats has been pushed into retreat, and he's very happy to know that his state can move forward this way.

So that's a little sense of, politically, how this is playing out -- Erica?

[11:15:10] HILL: Tom, the president last night during his big 2020 re-election kickoff had this to say. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have among the cleanest and sharpest -- crystal clean. You've heard me say it. I want crystal clean air and water anywhere on earth. We are creating a future of American energy independence and yet our air and water are the cleanest they've ever been by far.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: Tom, you're one of my favorite fact checkers. Do me a favor. Is any of that true? And would this new rule deliver on that promise?

FOREMAN: Well, let's start with the second part. This new rule, there are plenty of people out there, including the EPA's own analysis from earlier on, that would suggest no. The new rule will absolutely not deliver on that. Even if all that were true, we'd be moving in the opposite direction.

The idea there's energy independence, one of the things he saluted there, that was growing a great deal under the Obama administration. This was not something that was unique to Donald Trump. So if he's trying to lay claim to that, he does not have claim to that.

And the notion that our water and air are cleaner than it's ever been, well, that's a big reach to begin with. Cleaner than many parts of the world, sure. You would think that in a country as advanced as the United States that the water and air should be pretty clean. You can turn on a tap in most places in this country and simply drink the water. That's not clear in some other areas.

But for him to somehow suggest we've reached some pristine state that has not existed before, there's very little evidence to back anything like that unless you cherry pick certain areas in a certain way.

But I think that's also an indication of where we're going to go forward in this campaign with environmental talk. You'll have Democrats saying, look, we have too much we need to do, and Republicans saying, all of that costs jobs, all of that is expensive, we're doing just fine.

HILL: Tom Foreman, always appreciate it. Thank you.

FOREMAN: Good seeing you, Erica.

HILL: New this morning, an independent investigation blames Saudi Arabia for the, quote, "deliberate premeditated execution" of journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent writer and "Washington Post" journalist who, of course, was murdered after entering he Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October.

The CIA and other Western countries have concluded Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman ordered Khashoggi's assassination. Saudi Arabia denies it.

CNN senior international correspondent, Clarissa Ward, joins us now with more on these findings.

So this report from a U.N. official does not go so far as to directly implicate the crown prince, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, but it certainly makes some other things very clear, and it is gruesome, Clarissa.

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It is gruesome. It is lurid, Erica. Actually, I would say it says that there's strong credible evidence that the highest echelons of Saudi authorities, including the crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, may, indeed, have been involved with planning or at least have had knowledge of Khashoggi's murder.

This U.N. investigator is not pulling any punches, Erica. The thing that she's strongest on, that she really emphasizes is the idea that this was premeditated.

I'm sure our viewers remember that the Saudi story all along has been that this was a rendition that went wrong. Well, she punches a hole right through that because she has listened to the hours and hours of audiotapes from inside the Saudi consulate.

And at one stage, 13 minutes before Jamal Khashoggi even enters the building, you hear the voice of Dr. Tobagi (ph), the forensic expert who was brought along with the team of 12 Saudis, you hear his voice talking about dissecting a body. It's hard to read some of this out because it's lurid. It's unpleasant. But he expresses hope that a dissection would be easy. He explained

that separating the joints should not be a problem but commented he'd never cut something on the ground.

Then someone else in the room reportedly, Mr. Mutreb (ph), asks whether the "sacrificial animal" -- that's a quote -- had arrived. That's referring to Jamal Khashoggi, referring to him as a sacrificial animal.

She then goes on to outline what happens next. Khashoggi arrives. He's taken to a different room. They tell him to text his sons to say that he's going to Saudi Arabia, that he doesn't have a choice. He refuses to do it.

He then appears to see a syringe, because he says, am I going to be drugged. Then there's a seven-minute struggle during the course of which forensic experts believe he had a plastic bag put over his head. He was asphyxiated. Then she said that Turkish officials describe hearing the sound of the saw beginning to dismember Khashoggi.

So this is a damning report, Erica. And this U.N. investigator calling on the U.S. to launch an FBI investigation, calling on Turkey to open a public inquest, and calling for targeted sanctions potentially against Saudi Arabia as well.

[11:20:10] HILL: There's a lot in there.

Clarissa Ward, appreciate it as always. Thank you.

Joining us now, Republican Senator Kevin Cramer, of North Dakota, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Senator, good to have you with us today.

I'd like to get your take --

SEN. KEVIN CRAMER (R-ND): Good to be here.

HILL: Thank you -- get your take on what we just heard from Clarissa, going through this U.N. report, this independent report. Do you believe that the crown prince played a role in Jamal Khashoggi's death?

CRAMER: Well, clearly people at pretty high levels knew about it, maybe approved it, maybe even ordered it. I don't know exactly what all happened, but it's more concerning today than it even was some time ago. But there's never been much doubt that Saudi Arabia is an ally with some serious flaws.

HILL: An ally with some serious flaws. The report also found, as you know, credible evidence meriting further investigation. Specifically urged the FBI to investigate further. Would you agree with that? Would you like to see the FBI get involved in an investigation?

CRAMER: It's a little unclear to me how they would do that or whether they have to do that or whether it's even necessary. I think we can draw some conclusions at this point based on this report. Perhaps it's appropriate for the FBI to look into it further. I don't know if there's more to find out or whether we just want one more source to confirm what seemingly we already know.

I think the bigger question becomes, what do we do about it as a country. We do have these many awkward relationships with allies, quasi allies, situational allies in the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia, of course, is one of those. So how we move forward is not a trifling matter, but clearly I think we have to take a stand.

HILL: So then how do you believe we should move forward? What should that stand be?

CRAMER: I don't know, Erica, right off the top of my head. I do think -- you talked about some sanctions. I think one of the things we have to do is acknowledge it if there's credible evidence -- there appears to be -- that the crown prince was aware, if not even involved. You know, we need to acknowledge that up front.

Then I think as a team, whether it's Congress or whether it's the president's folks, we have to come up with some way to send a strong signal both to allies and adversaries that we know this, that it's not acceptable, and while we want to work together on certain things in the region, this has to be addressed.

HILL: We look forward to seeing what comes of that, whether it's from Congress, the White House.

Listen, if you get the president's ear and have a better sense, please let us know.

We do have a lot of topics we want to get to this morning. It has been such a busy 24 hours or so.

Most recently, of course, you serve on the Armed Services Committee. Yesterday, the president appointed secretary of the Army, Mark Esper, as acting secretary of defense. You said in response to that, "That the reality is the timing of this isn't very good."

Are you concerned about the lack of consistent leadership at the Department of Defense? And is he the right man for the job?

CRAMER: Well, my comments certainly were not about the secretary. I think he's a fine interim secretary. He's a very good secretary of the Army. He may well be the president's choice to fill the position.

One thing I would say, though, the timing is problematic because today we're bringing up the National Defense Authorization Act. We're going to start working on that on the floor, pass it out maybe next week already. That's the point of my timing point.

The other point is we've been without a confirmed secretary now for six months at a time when -- in an agency that's very, very important. So I hope that if the president has someone in mind for the permanent job that we can move -- that he can move and we can move quickly to fill the position. It's just such an important leadership position. HILL: One of those critical issues is escalating tensions with Iran.

Your colleague, Senator Tom Cotton, over the weekend, said, "If Iran is responsible for the attacks on oil tankers that it warrants a retaliatory military strike."

Do you agree?

CRAMER: We're on the very edge of needing to retaliate, I'm afraid. I'd still rather avoid it, Erica. I'd prefer the moves we're making now, create enough of a deterrence that the Iranians would back off their aggression in the Strait of Hormuz, that they would back off on using proxies to attack, whether it's pipelines or airports in the region. That would be my preference.

Tom, of course, is a soldier himself and has some strong feelings. He may even know a little more.

We are going to be briefed. We, being the members of the Armed Services Committee, are going to be briefed in a classified briefing this afternoon at 2:00. We'll know a lot more then.

HILL: Senator Kevin Cramer, appreciate your time this morning, sir. Thank you.

CRAMER: My pleasure. Thanks for the opportunity.

[11:24:42] HILL: A rising threat among the Democratic candidates and to President Trump -- Senator Elizabeth Warren. Is the president taking her seriously? That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HILL: Donald Trump makes it official, kicking off his re-election campaign in Orlando. The raucous rally, long on well-worn applause lines, short on policy and, frankly, much of anything new. Making it all feel very 2016.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[11:29:48] TRUMP: Thirty-three thousand emails deleted. Think of it. I keep mentioning, you know, there was a lot of corruption on the other side.

And we are building the wall. We're going to have over 400 miles of wall built by the end of next year.

(CHEERING)

TRUMP: Many times, I said we would drain the swamp, and that's exactly what we're doing right now. We're draining the swamp.