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Hope Hicks Testifies Before House Judiciary Committee; Mark Esper To Replace Shanahan As Acting Defense Secretary; Record Turnover For Top Positions In Trump Administration; According To An Independent Report, Saudi Arabia Is Responsible For Khashoggi's Deliberate, Premeditated Execution. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired June 19, 2019 - 10:00   ET

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


DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Much a jaw-dropping case, Jim and Poppy, and, of course, still a lot of unanswered questions.

[10:00:05]

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: That's disturbing beyond belief. Dan Simon, thanks very much.

A good Wednesday morning to you, I'm Jim Sciutto.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN NEWSROOM: And I'm Poppy Harlow.

So happening right now, former White House Communications Director Hope Hicks is testifying behind closed doors on Capitol Hill. This is all part of the House Judiciary Committee's investigation into possible obstruction of justice by her former boss, President Trump.

SCIUTTO: Well, before going in, the White House was saying they will not let her answer questions, citing executive privilege.

Joining us now is CNN's Manu Raju live on Capitol Hill. You've been speak to lawmakers in the room. Is she claiming or are the lawyers claiming executive privilege here?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So attorneys in the rooms, several from the White House and her own (ph). Of course, what the attorneys are saying that (INAUDIBLE) sending a letter last night. They're citing that letter saying that she does not have to respond to questions during her time in the White House.

And democrats --

SCIUTTO: Yes. Manu, apologies, the audio there. But just to summarize, he is saying that the White House lawyer who is present there, at least for most questions, is claiming executive privilege, as expected here. And we'll see if that continues.

HARLOW: Representative Karen Bass telling Manu that this it's, quote, pretty ridiculous that this is happening.

All right, we're going to keep watching this as the hearing continues. According to sources telling our CNN, Kaitlan -- CNN's Kaitlan Collins, the relationship between the President and Hope Hicks has changed recently. One of the President's most trusted and closed confidants now we're hearing that the two rarely speak.

SCIUTTO: Let's get to CNN's Kaitlan Collins. So, Kaitlan, what changed and does that raise concerns in the White House that Hicks might provide damaging testimony?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, what we're seeing is it's a pretty dramatic shift from what their relationship used to be, where, essentially, people described them as a near constant conversation during the years that Hope Hicks worked for President Trump. And now, you're seeing now that she's been out of the White House for 15 months or so, their relationship has changed dramatically based on what our reporting is telling us. And that includes that they rarely speak anymore.

Now, this all started when Hope Hicks left the White House in March of 2017. She grew on to kind of take a break for a few weeks, but then she debated coming back to the White House or the administration at some point and then she got a job at Fox on the West Coast doing essentially P.R. for them. And that is really when you saw this big shift in her relationship with the President.

And based on what some of our sources telling us, there were several times when she didn't return the President's calls, leaving people to ask people around him, according to people familiar with his remark, what happened to Hope.

Now, we're told this isn't a sign of her feelings towards the President that she still supports him, that she's still on his side, but it was this desire for Hope Hicks to really distance herself from the orbit that she had occupied for so long, which is Donald Trump's.

She stays in touch with people from the White House, people from the campaign who often seek her out for advice on how to handle the President. But what you're seeing is a pretty dramatic shift in the way the two of them interact from someone who the President used to call more than he even called his Chief of Staff in the West Wing just to give you an indication of how close they were, and now, there is so much distance between them.

HARLOW: That's saying a lot, Kaitlan. It is. I wonder though what you are hearing about White House officials. Do they still believe that she won't say anything damaging to the President? Because, remember, she had previously testified on the Hill and she had talked about sort of white lies that she would tell on behalf of the President.

COLLINS: Yes. And that was one of the most striking comments from that testimony when she did admit that she told white lies on behalf of the President. And that's why some people are cautious about her testimony today. Because even though they do not believe that she is going in there to give up all this damaging information on the President, they do know that she was one of his closest advisers, one of his close confidants, someone he told so much to that she was essentially a family member to them.

But what we've heard from White House people is that they say they are not concerned about her testimony, that they don't think that it's going to go poorly. But some of these people were also had to be reminded about that white lies remark from Hope Hicks.

SCIUTTO: Well, a lie is a lie from the White House. And we've seen more than one. Kaitlan Collins, thanks very much.

Let's go back to Manu Raju. He's on the Hill with some audio issues before. I think they corrected it. Now, again, tell us what you are hearing from lawmakers in the room regarding Hicks' testimony.

RAJU: Well, there are White House officials who are in the room, attorneys from the White House Counsel's Office, Jim and Poppy, who are making it clear that she will not answer questions about her time in the White House. They are referring to a letter sent by the White House Counsel last night, Pat Cipollone, who said that she is immune from answering questions about her service in the White House.

[10:04:54]

And, of course there are a number of questions that democrats have planned to ask her and are asking her about what was outlined in the Mueller, specifically efforts allegedly by the President to undermine the investigation, allegedly to dismiss the Special Counsel, as well as his handling of the James Comey firing, in addition to his relationship with Michael Flynn, the former National Security Adviser. Those are questions that democrats have planned to ask her,

But I am told by democrats who are in the room that the White House attorneys are objecting to those lines of questions, they're saying that she will not answer those questions, that she is immune from testifying, and democrats are frustrated.

One member, Karen Bass, who sits on the committee, said that it was, quote, pretty ridiculous that they are not answering those questions. Jerry Nadler, the Chairman of the Committee, told Hicks and the attorneys in the room that it is absurd that they are going down this line by saying she cannot answer these questions. So that is not being resolved.

It could ultimately end up in court. That's one way that they could presumably see how it turns out.

They do still plan to ask her questions about her time on the campaign. We are hearing that she is answering questions about her time on the campaign.

At the moment, members say they have not gone to that major question about her knowledge about those hush money payments to silence the alleged affairs involving the President, those hush money payments in the run up to the 2016 elections. That's a question that democrats want to answer, in which they say there is no legal basis for the White House to block that kind of question when it does come up. Guys? SCIUTTO: Manu Raju, thanks very much.

Joining us now is Lis Wiehl. She's a former federal prosecutor. Okay. So, legally, constitutionally, can a White House official who served this country in the executive branch claim to not have to answer any questions regarding their time in the White House to Congress?

LIS WIEHL, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Right. The executive privilege can be used. It's almost as a cloak, like almost like taking the Fifth Amendment, but to cloak here, not herself, but her boss, Donald Trump. But like the Fifth Amendment, it can't cloak ongoing crimes and even a crime that was committed in front of her.

So if they were really smart and parsing their language here as lawyers, which they can do, they can look at it this way. Some of the things she can testify certainly not the things -- you know, pre-his being elected, that's not covered by executive privilege. No way. It is not executive privilege pre-election. So, of course, they can go after that.

Now, also her thoughts, what she is thinking, he didn't think. And kind of taking from the Mueller report, emails would ever get leaked. Those are her thought processes, her actions. She says in the Mueller report, I would jump in front of him to keep him, Trump, from going out and taking a New York Times interview. That's her action. That's not a communication that she has with Trump.

HARLOW: So she can answer to actions.

WIEHL: Actions and thoughts versus communications that she had.

Later on in that same page in the Trump report -- in the Mueller report, she says, oh, he liked that, that session that he had with The New York Times. Well, that's a communication.

So if they're smart about it, and I know they are, go after her thoughts and her actions versus her communications with the President.

HARLOW: That's a very interesting distinction. You're a good lawyer.

WIEHL: Parse the language.

HARLOW: And before you go, you have said that Nadler may be able to come up, within your words, some creative ways of narrowing the assertion of executive privilege.

WIEHL: Absolutely.

HARLOW: Is that the narrow way?

WIEHL: To me, that's the way do it. If I lawyering this, if I were in the room, that's the way I would do it. Because I would think -- you know, you say -- we're saying here we heard the report about maybe she's distanced herself from the President. I don't think necessarily going out and working for Fox in their P.R. department is necessarily showing that she has distanced herself from the President. That is just me.

So let's assume that she has not distanced herself from the President and that she's going in there and she will answer the questions to the best of her ability to make the President look good. If you really want to get to the questions around -- first of all, pre-his election, those are all fair game. She cannot, under the -- you asked about the constitutional issue. There is none. There is no executive privilege there.

Then when she's in the White House, anything having to do, I would say, lawyering it, her actions, her thought processes, those are not covered.

SCIUTTO: Or were there possible crimes involved.

WIEHL: Or possible crimes of obstruction.

SCIUTTO: Good to have you on. Thank you.

HARLOW: A shakeup at the Department of Defense. The acting Defense Secretary, Patrick Shanahan, is out. Another acting secretary is in, his name, Mark Esper.

SCIUTTO: A lot of actings. All of this unfolding as the department decides how to handle escalating tensions with Iran, key decisions about troop deployment.

CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr joins us now. Barbara, what's interesting about this is the Pentagon in this Iran drama, it seems, had been trying to rein back the State Department and White House on the ramping up of military action here.

[10:10:05]

With this transition, does that diminish its voice?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's hard to say at this point, really. Mark Esper takes over as the new acting Defense Secretary at midnight on Sunday. So now, we're on our third Pentagon Chief, two of them acting in seven months, as these Iran tensions ramp up.

Right now, today, Esper is beginning to attend meetings inside the Pentagon. He is beginning to get briefed up on all of these issues, everything from nuclear command and control to those threats, Iran, Russia, North Korea, China. But he is coming to the job midnight on Sunday with these Iran tensions as high as ever before.

The Pentagon has been very adamant, all of these forces going to the Middle East are aimed at deterrents, that they do not want war with Iran. The President has said he does not want war with Iran. But right now, it's not really clear that Iran is getting the deterrence message as they have had this series of what the Pentagon says is attacks against commercial tankers in the region, putting shipping at risk out there. So Esper walks into this. Where he may have a stronger voice than Shanahan, he has years of experience knowing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the past, he worked with National Security Adviser John Bolton. He has a lot of experience in the national security community. He knows Capitol Hill. He has these relationships. So it may be a bit of a smoother fit than Shanahan was over the last couple of months. But how strong his voice will be certainly still remains to be seen. Jim, Poppy?

SCIUTTO: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thanks very much.

Seeing the trend here, there is record-setting turnover at the top of the Trump administration. CNN White House Correspondent Abby Phillip joins us from Washington. The list of officials in acting roles continues to grow.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: They do, Jim. And this is, in some cases, by design, as President Trump, in some cases, fires officials without having people in roles to replace them. But what's extraordinary about this lengthy list of acting officials at some of the highest levels of government here are that, in many cases, they are in critical roles.

We're talking about the Secretary of Defense, which has been basically a vacant position since January, the Homeland Security Secretary, U.N. Ambassador, on issues that President Trump believes are of critical importance to him. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director is out of that job and we have a temporary person in that position, also citizenship and immigration services, another temporary official.

This is just part of a pattern of this administration of making personnel moves without having people in places to replace them, and in some cases, putting names up for Senate confirmation when they haven't fully vetted these officials. I think that was a clear case in the case of the Secretary of Defense even though Patrick Shanahan had been confirmed for a previous administration post, the White House clearly didn't know about this new information that would make it more difficult for him to get confirmed as Secretary of Defense.

So President Trump says this is about giving him more flexibility. But it's clear that these acting officials not only can't be in these roles permanently but they also are hamstrung to make long-term decisions. And that's why these good government groups raise a lot of alarm about this kind of trend because it really -- it makes these positions a little bit less capable of doing the kinds of long-term planning that they'll need to in order to make the best decisions. Jim and Poppy?

HARLOW: Yes. And, look, it's really important, especially that position right now given what's going on with Iran. Abby, thank you.

SCIUTTO: Yes. And we're already a nation at war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Still to come, an independent investigation finds that the murder of Washington Post Columnist Jamal Khashoggi was both deliberate and premeditated, and calls for sanctioning the Saudi Crown Prince. How will the U.S. respond?

HARLOW: Plus, panic after a ninth American has died in the Dominican Republic, but officials say the deaths are isolated and independent of one another. What is going on?

And Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell puts his foot down on reparations, saying that it would be hard to figure out who to pay and doesn't support paying reparations to descendants of slaves because we can't know who all was responsible for it. We'll let you hear for yourself ahead.

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[10:15:00]

SCIUTTO: The first independent report on the brutal murder of the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, finds Saudi Arabia responsible for what the report calls a deliberate, premeditated execution. The Washington Post columnist was killed after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October last year while his fiance waited outside. While the report's findings do not directly implicate Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, it does call for further investigation and targeted sanctions against the Crown Prince and his personal assets abroad.

[10:20:02]

I'm joined now by Washington Post Opinions Writer Jason Rezaian, who himself was a prisoner in Iran for a number of months. Jason, always good to have you on.

JASON REZAIAN, OPINIONS WRITER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Thanks for having me, Jim.

SCIUTTO: So let's start with some of the details in this report because we can't get away from that. It talks about a plastic bag being put over his head, suffocating him and crucial details about recordings of the people involved speaking about his dissection before he even arrived at the embassy referring to him as a sacrificial animal. Is there any doubt, as you read this report, that this was a premeditated murder rather than, as the Saudis claimed early on, a spur of the moment thing?

REZAIAN: Very little doubt at all, Jim. I think the report confirms what we've long suspected and these new details with the various quotes from the people involved and the fact that they lured Jamal into the Consulate and were lying to him, telling him that the plan was to take him back to Saudi Arabia to face charges or some other form interrogation, it's just -- it breaks my heart, it's disgusting. And I hope that this spurs people into action. Although I worry that it might not.

SCIUTTO: The Trump administration, as you know, blew through a deadline required by law under the Magnitsky Act, blew through that deadline in February, the requirement

being that they had to make an assessment as to who was responsible. We know that U.S. Intelligence has already assessed that this was likely directed by the Saudi Crown Prince. The Trump administration says it's still looking at details, gathering facts here. Is it your impression that the strategy here is to play this out, delay it until people forget about it?

REZAIAN: That certainly what it has looked like for a long time, Jim. But I know for one that this newsroom is not going to forget about it. There are people all over the world who are calling for justice in this case. And I think it's a great reminder that when you throw all your eggs into the basket of one relationship and something horrible like this happens, we're boxed into a corner in how to react. The Congress has come forward, called for action. The public is calling for action. When the administration sort of turns a blind eye to this, it tells you something about the state of the union at this moment.

SCIUTTO: And we're with you. It's certainly a story that we are not letting drop. We talk about it at every opportunity here.

I wonder, what was different about this in the initial weeks after this, was that Congress -- even republican-controlled Senate, even the President's close allies in the Senate, like Senator Lindsey Graham, were very vocal in their criticism of Saudi Arabia. And there have been some votes in the wake of this, taking back support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, for instance. But is there any remaining resolve in Congress to hold this administration accountable, forcing their hand on Saudi Arabia, or is that fading too?

REZAIAN: In my conversations with members of Congress over the last few weeks, yes, there is still resolve on this issue. I think for a long time, there have been members of both the House and the Senate who realize that our relationship with Saudi Arabia, while very important one, strategically, is in need of an overhaul.

And with the prospect of a young leader in his 30s, you know, they don't have term limits in Saudi Arabia. We might be facing a relationship with Mohammad Bin Salman for four or five decades to come. And I think now is the moment to decisively act and hold him accountable. It seems obvious to me.

SCIUTTO: The administration is presenting something of a false choice here, and that saying either you hold them accountable for this and destroy the relationship or you have the relationship. I mean, the U.S. holds allies accountable for things all the time. I mean, it disputed in the post-Israeli settlement building for decades even as Israel remain a close ally. So why the reluctance here to call the Saudis for a brutal murder while maintaining a security relationship?

REZAIAN: Well, look, the economic and security ties run very deep, but that does not mean that those ties are unbreakable or in need of adjustment. I do think that there are personal relationships involved, that we've heard a lot about Jared Kushner's relationships with the Crown Prince, but I think that it's time for Congress to continue to step up a push to seek justice.

Because, ultimately, this is also a First Amendment issue and whether or not the United States stands for freedom of the press, as we long have. There is so much at play here. And we have an opportunity to really do the right thing. We failed do that so far and I hope that this report kicks us into action.

SCIUTTO: Jason Rezaian, we stand with you at The Washington Post and the loss of your colleague.

[10:25:01]

It's certainly a story we're going to stay on top of. I appreciate coming on.

REZAIAN: Thanks, Jim.

HARLOW: Yes, we will. All right, happening now, just moments ago, the Environmental Protection Agency just announced a major change that could boost the coal industry, environmentalists obviously worried about these rollbacks though, and they think they could be devastating to the environment. We'll discuss it ahead.

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[10:30:00]

HARLOW: All right. So this really matters. This is just in, a big development from the Environmental Protection.