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New Details on House Dem Strategy to Press Robert Mueller; Key Matchups to Watch in Upcoming CNN Debates; Congresswoman Ilhan Omar Greeted with Cheers After Returning to Minnesota; President Trump Tries to Disavow "Send Her Back" Chant Amid Pressure; Iran Denies a U.S. Warship Downed an Iranian Drone. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired July 19, 2019 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:35] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: All right, we made it to Friday, everyone. Good morning. I'm Poppy Harlow. Jim Sciutto will join us in just a moment. He's on assignment at Aspen's National Security Forum.

But first, it is a high stakes hearing and Democrats are not taking any chances. Just days before Robert Mueller's much anticipated testimony we're hearing how the party is preparing to question the special counsel. It's a dual line of attack first focused on the details in the report of the president's alleged attempts to fire the special counsel and tamper with witnesses. And then secondly, zero in on the campaign's contacts with Russia and WikiLeaks hoping to push back on the White House's no collusion claim.

They, meaning the Democratic lawmakers, are studying hours of previous Mueller hearings, holding mock debates, essentially mock sessions of questioning and practicing their questions over and over again. And they are banking on the idea that they can still shift public perception on this report. Will it work?

Joining me now from Capitol Hill our congressional reporter Lauren Fox.

I mean, the Democrats here, Lauren, have a lot on the line. Right? This is like the big Kahuna, the big fish. And it seems like they're betting that they have a chance to potentially significantly shift public opinion here.

LAUREN FOX, CNN POLITICS CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, at least that's what they're hoping, Poppy. I mean, obviously a high stakes hearing next week with Robert Mueller. They're hoping that this changes the dynamics of not only the Mueller report and how it's perceived publicly but also perhaps could change the dynamics on that question about impeachment.

And just to give you a sense of what they're preparing, the House Judiciary Committee is looking at identifying five areas of alleged obstruction of justice from the president. And just to give you a sense of what those are, it includes Trump telling Don McGahn to fire Mueller, Trump telling McGahn to deny publicly that he was told to fire Mueller. Then Trump telling Corey Lewandowski to tell the Attorney General Jeff Sessions to limit the investigation. And then telling Lewandowski to tell Sessions he could be fired if he didn't. And finally, the committee will focus on alleged witness tampering of Paul Manafort and other deputies.

Now the House Intelligence Committee is going to be looking at communications the campaign had with Russia and WikiLeaks. But, you know, there's a lot of preparation happening. Those mock trials behind the scenes. You also had a judiciary staffer telling my colleagues Manu Raju and Jeremy Herb, quote, "I have been involved in 100 hearings and we've never prepared for one the way we are preparing for this one."

That just gives you a sense of what is on the line next week, Poppy. Obviously these are going to be heavily televised. Everybody is going to be watching and talking about them. But whether or not that momentum can last --


FOX: -- after a multi-week recess, that's a big question.

HARLOW: That's so telling that some of them are saying I've never prepared for a hearing the way I'm preparing for this one. That shows you how big it is for them.

Lauren, thanks. Great reporting.

Let's talk about this more for Elliot Williams, a former federal prosecutor and former deputy assistant attorney general to the Justice Department.

Good morning, Elliot.


HARLOW: Let's begin with this. If the Democrat ship has not sailed on dramatically changing public opinion is to be determined. But what is Democrats' best shot at guaranteeing that they can move the polling here and move the public belief here for all the people who haven't read the Mueller report? Meaning, what is the key question they need Bob Mueller to directly answer?

WILLIAMS: Honestly I don't think it's one question. It's an approach and it's discipline. They have to remain disciplined. Remember, and look, I've worked in hundred congressional hearings, too, and --


WILLIAMS: And the problem is that what happens is that members tend to ask their own questions and give their own speeches and pontificate and go on and burn and waste time because they're all looking out for their constituents and so on. What they need to do is have a clear strategy of just getting the facts in the Mueller report on the record. So you ask him, look, in this section where you talk about Don McGahn directing the firing -- the president directing Don McGahn to fire the special counsel, did you write X, Y, Z and get him to say yes and put it on the record? I think the most powerful information we've seen in the last year of

this was Robert Mueller giving a press conference and hearing out of his mouth the facts that he wrote on paper. And if they don't stray from that I think they'll be successful.


WILLIAMS: But, you know, these are members of Congress, you never know what they're going to do.

[09:05:02] HARLOW: What's the biggest mistake that Democrats and Republicans on these committees could make?

WILLIAMS: Overplaying their hand. And again, I've sort of explained it on the Democratic side.


WILLIAMS: The Republicans are quite coherent in their strategy. You don't have to agree with it. I think they're wrong as a matter of fact in law. But they've said no obstruction, no collusion. Every Republican, those words came out of their mouth. And if they stick to that and, you know, if Jim Jordan doesn't bang his shoe on the table and turning people off by how far they're going, I think they will have failed. They're very disciplined in their strategy, though -- sorry.

HARLOW: Let's keep shoes on, let's keep shoes on, feet on the ground.


HARLOW: This thing will go swimmingly.


HARLOW: One of the questions I think is, though, beyond the report if he'll go there, if Mueller will go there, which we don't know, right? He said in that public statement he's not going to go beyond the report. He's a reluctant witness, no question. But isn't one of the key questions, Elliot, were it not for the OLC, Office of Legal Counsel, guidelines, would you have moved to indict? I mean, isn't that like question number one?

WILLIAMS: That's a key question, but again, I still don't think you have to get him to go there because you have 448 pages of this individual laying out a rather detailed factual summary of the president's misconduct. And even in instances where they weren't able to bring charges for either OLC opinion or just on the factual basis it's still troubling conduct.

Again, you know, the president is fixated on was is a crime or not, but it's still conduct you don't wish to have a president of the United States engage in. And as long as you get him to put -- because most people haven't read this 448 pages so you're getting the writer of it or the face of it really to put into the record what he actually said. That's valuable. HARLOW: Let's hope most -- let's all members of Congress have read it

by the time these hearings begin because we know a lot of them had not before.


HARLOW: Elliot, thank you. Good to have you on.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

HARLOW: Have a nice weekend.

WILLIAMS: You too.

HARLOW: So our special coverage of the Mueller hearing begins Wednesday morning 8:00 a.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

Now we have the line-ups. Get ready for the showdown. CNN has unveiled who will be sharing the debate stage for both nights in our debate coming up at the end of the month. On the first night July 30th progressive rivals Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren will go tete-a-tete. On night two a rematch between Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

With me now, our editor at large, Chris Cillizza, and Todd Graham, debate director at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Good morning, gents. Cillizza, thanks for getting out of bed early for us.


HARLOW: Normally I can't see you until 11:00 a.m. So what are you looking forward to? Who's bigger in your mind here? Warren-Sanders or Harris-Biden?

CILLIZZA: OK, so I think that in the runup, Poppy, Harris-Biden will be the thing that gets most played. But let me just add one element to that because I agree that that's the big story line. Look who Joe Biden sandwiched in between? Yes, Kamala Harris on one side. Look who's on the other side. Cory Booker.


CILLIZZA: Cory Booker, Mister -- he was -- he had a moment with Joe Biden over Joe Biden's praise for -- late segregationist senator. That's a tough place for Joe Biden to be. Look, he's happy he's in the middle but in between those two people who have bested him in the two big back-and-forths, two African-American senators, that's not going to be easy for him. So I think that --

HARLOW: Oh, yes.

CILLIZZA: That's what I'm looking at. The other thing I'd say very quickly, it also offers Joe Biden an opportunity. He can literally face down the two people who've cost him the most (INAUDIBLE) thus far in the campaign and if he emerges from that looking better than he did in the first debate in his exchange with Cory Booker, that will help him.

HARLOW: All right. Well, Todd, here's a little preview of what we might hear from Cory Booker. Here he was last night when he was asked about Joe Biden's comments about working with segregationist senators. Listen.


SEN. CORY BOOKER (D-NJ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Of course, I did. How many times have we all in our lives who are some kind of other dealt with man-splaining or dealt with condemning remarks?


HARLOW: All right. So, Todd, if you're coaching Biden, how do you get ready for this and you're sandwich between these two? What do you tell him to do differently this time?

TODD GRAHAM, DEBATE DIRECTOR, SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY CARBONDALE: A lot. I'll tell him to do a lot differently this time. I think one of the problems that he has is one of the benefits. Here's a benefit that Joe Biden got this time is he knows where he was weak in the last debate. He knows where he needs to improve. Unfortunately for him where he needs to improve is in his race relation answers.

Now the problem with that is he's sandwiched, as we've talked about, between Cory Booker and Kamala Harris. And as a debate coach, as a perspective that I can give you, it's very difficult for Joe Biden to do anything -- for example, he can't really attack either of the senators on his right or on his left. And the reason he can't attack them is because it's a bad look for an older white gentleman to attack two of African-American, two people of color on their policies.

[09:10:06] So what he can do better then is while he can -- he should probably shy away from attacking them on their race relations policies but Joe could do better defending himself. So my best tip for Joe Biden is this is a tricky one but he's got to be able to come up with his own offense. In this case his offense --

HARLOW: Interesting.

GRAHAM: -- is not attacking them but it's what he's done well in the past.

HARLOW: Yes. There you go. All right, so, Cillizza, when you look at the other night and you look at Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.


HARLOW: And I think what's interesting is Pete Buttigieg is going to be right there next to them. And if you look at our Iowa polling from last month it showed that Sanders has been losing liberal support not only to Warren, which is expected, but to Mayor Pete as well. CILLIZZA: Yes. Yes. I --

HARLOW: So how can Mayor Pete Buttigieg play that up to his greatest advantage on the debate stage?

CILLIZZA: Yes, it's interesting. The first debate, Poppy, he was very careful, I think, is what I would describe. I think going into it his people said, look, you're 37 years old.


CILLIZZA: You need to project gravitas. Don't be all over the place. He was very measured, didn't really attack. He was right on the edge, I thought, of too rehearsed but I thought fell on the right side of that line. So I'm interested to see, I mean, we forget this because of the money he's raised and how fast he's come up. He was the -- he's the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.

HARLOW: Right. I know.

CILLIZZA: He did -- there's no -- he's not had anything like this in his career. Doing a debate for being the mayor of South Bend is very different than doing a debate with nine other candidates to be the Democratic nominee. So he is still very much in the learning curve process. There's one thing I think he should keep an eye out for, Beto O'Rourke who's on the other side of him in that debate.


CILLIZZA: Beto O'Rourke was the it guy in the race before Pete Buttigieg took that mantle. My guess is Beto O'Rourke sees this debate as -- he's really dead in the water politically right now. He needs something. Why not go at the guy who took your sort of, you know, buzz mantle? I could see that happening and it might benefit O'Rourke. Buttigieg needs to be aware of it.

HARLOW: If you're Beto O'Rourke's team, finally, Todd, what are you telling him right now? Because you're not on the same stage as Castro this time so you're not going to have that -- you know, that dynamic play out this time but if you look at his Q2 fundraising numbers they were way down. I mean, this guy needs some wind in his sails. How does he do it?

GRAHAM: Less Spanish, I'd begin with that. So after that I think -- less Spanish.

HARLOW: His Spanish is better than mine.

GRAHAM: Less Spanish.


GRAHAM: After that I do think, I agree with Chris, I think that Beto O'Rourke has to be-looking to be more assertive and more aggressive, and I think his target probably is Mayor Pete Because those are the two that seem to be vying for if not this election, future elections, future national prominence. I do think that they seem to be going after the same sort of voters.

Now, Mayor Pete, here's what I think you should look for with Mayor Pete. He's more of a pragmatist. He wants to know where the money is coming from for all of the policies that Elizabeth Warren and that Bernie Sanders are going to advocate for. So I think he's going to be the loudest voice on stage, Mayor Pete, on how are you going to pay for this. Because it's the one thing most of America still wants to know.


GRAHAM: Is these policies sound great but how will we pay for it.


GRAHAM: And Mayor Pete is the one who might put the -- you know, put the flame to the fire on that one.

HARLOW: I do think it was interesting hearing Mayor Pete talk last night in the speech he gave in Indianapolis, I think about, sort of this being, let's make this the end of the Reagan era, et cetera. I mean, it plays well on a -- it plays well on a liberal primary. The question is, if you're trying to get some of those more centrist voters in the general, if you make it that far, does that come back to haunt you.

CILLIZZA: And Poppy, just one other quick thing.


CILLIZZA: With Mayor Pete to keep an eye on.


CILLIZZA: Look, he will be next to Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders is 77, Elizabeth Warren is 69 or 70, you know.


CILLIZZA: He's 37. Now it doesn't drive that generational -- Biden next to him or Bernie next to him, maybe, but remember, I mean, that's a key component of his pitch and Beto O'Rourke, by the way.

HARLOW: Every time you say 37, I just think, oh, my gosh, I'm 37 and --

CILLIZZA: Well, I mean, as a 26-year-old I don't feel bad about that but --

HARLOW: Clearly you've got a decade to go, Cillizza. Thanks very much, guys. Gentlemen, we appreciate it. Todd Graham, Chris Cillizza, see you soon.

CILLIZZA: Thanks, Poppy. HARLOW: A day after a North Carolina crowd chanted "send her back"

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar faces a whole different kind of crowd back in her home district, greeted with cheers -- look at this -- as she landed at the airport in Minneapolis yesterday.

Also this morning, Iran is disputing U.S. claims that a Navy ship downed an Iranian drone. The country says maybe the U.S. took down one of its own by mistake.

And summer scorcher. Tens of millions of us bracing for dangerous record-high temperatures today and through the weekend.


[09:15:00] POPPY HARLOW, ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: All right, welcome back. From "send her back to welcome home".



CROWD: Oh, Omar, welcome home, Omar! Welcome home, Omar!


HARLOW: As President Trump tries to distance himself by disavowing the send her back chants at his North Carolina rally this week, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar did indeed go back home to Minnesota and was showered with a hero's welcome.


REP. ILHAN OMAR (D-MN): He is threatened because we are inspiring people to dream about a country --


OMAR: That recognizes their dignity and their humanity. And when I said I was the president's nightmare, well, you're watching it now.



HARLOW: That was quite a moment yesterday at her hometown airport in Indianapolis. Joining me now, Cleve Wootson; a national political reporter for the "Washington Post" and Susan Page; Washington Bureau- chief for "USA Today". Good morning to you both, and Cleve --


[09:20:00] HARLOW: Let me just -- let me begin with you. Seeing that welcome to Ilhan Omar, home of Minnesota; a state that the president once again this morning said he thinks he can win in 2020. I mean, look at that outpouring of support for her. What -- WOOTSON: Yes --

HARLOW: Does that tell you? Does it say anything about the president's strategy here maybe backfiring a little bit?

WOOTSON: Well, I don't know about backfiring. I think it depends on what side of the issue that you're on. You know, there are some advantages for Trump's statement, especially for people who are already in his base, particularly it allows him to paint not just, you know, Ilhan Omar, but all Democrats as sort of un-American and nothing really fires up the base -- a very few things fire up the base more than that.

So, while there are some clear obvious disadvantages, you know, one of them is his ability to flick --

HARLOW: Yes --

WOOTSON: Paint on all Democrats, even his opponents.

HARLOW: It's just sort of remarkable, Susan, to see that attempt, that argument that, you know, that is un-American because I think Representative Ilhan Omar is the quintessential story of something that can -- is uniquely and profoundly American.

That a refugee from Somalia could rise to be a representative in the U.S. Congress. Look at the juxtaposition though because there're still a very divided America. Look at the -- one of the photos which is of them greeting her last night, right? There's the sign, and then this is of a friendship Baptist Church that has that Nixon slogan, "America: Love it or Leave it", right? I mean, it just shows the division that persists or is increasing.

SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, USA TODAY: You know, Poppy, this is really a long-standing debate in American politics. So, is it the patriotic thing to praise the United States or is it the patriotic thing to point out problems or challenges in the United States and try to change them?

And we had a poll earlier this week about the president's tweeting -- we found a partisan difference in it. Most Republicans said it was unpatriotic to criticize the United States. Overwhelmingly, Democrats said the patriotic thing to do was to point out problems --

HARLOW: Oh, that's interesting --

PAGE: And try to -- try to correct them. But this -- and it's not the first time we've seen this debate, we saw this debate during the Vietnam war for instance.

HARLOW: Sure --

PAGE: Were Vietnam war protesters patriotic because they thought the war was wrong and they wanted the United States involvement to end or were the people who supported the war because it was a U.S. military effort doing the patriotic thing? It's an issue that divides us and we really see it intensified by the president over the last week.

HARLOW: Guys, let's go back to 2008, and the very intense heated debate and race between then -- now the late Senator John McCain and former President Barack Obama, and this is a moment I think no one will ever forget. Let's play it.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I can't trust Obama.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have read about him and he's not -- he's not -- he's an Arab. He is not --

MCCAIN: No, ma'am, no ma'am.


MCCAIN: No, ma'am, no, ma'am, no ma'am. He's a -- he's a -- he's a decent family man, citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that's what this campaign is all about. He's not. Thank you.



HARLOW: Let's just remember that as the president this morning tries to say he is disavowing those chants in North Carolina of "send her home". Well, the videotape says it. In the moment, Cleve, he did not do that and John McCain did.

WOOTSON: Yes, I see your point, and then I think you see other lawmakers who are saying the same thing John McCain said, which is let's focus on policy and not personality. But it still remains to be seen what impact that will have on voters, you know, when they're remembering this 16 months -- you know, 16 months from now in the voting booth, whether that's something that sticks, you know, in their mind or whether the thought of un-American sticks in their mind.

HARLOW: What do you think, Susan?

PAGE: You know, I think we're heading into what's going to be a really difficult for the nation presidential campaign because I'm not sure that the president's --


PAGE: Saying that he wasn't happy with these chants is going to stop the chants at the next rally. The chant "send her home" was totally consistent with the message he sent himself in tweets and comments that if you don't like what's happening in the United States, go back to your original country.

So, this is -- it's not as though you can reverse this trend, this divisive trend that we're seeing and playing. And so, I think this is going to be something we're going to be -- it's just going to be a challenge for the country and definitional in a way.

HARLOW: Yes --

PAGE: But where do you stand on this, maybe the primary issue that we see facing -- voters facing in 2020.

HARLOW: Look, as we heard Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger say yesterday, you know, this risks our union. There are things that are far above party and that is, you know, what is best for the union as a whole. Thank you so much, Susan, nice to have you, Cleve, as well, come back soon --


[09:25:00] HARLOW: A new escalation in the standoff with Iran. President Trump boasting the U.S. downed an Iranian drone. Iran, this morning says it didn't happen.


HARLOW: Welcome back. Iran this morning is denying the president's claims that a U.S. warship destroyed an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz. The president says the USS Boxer downed the drone after it came within a thousand yards of the warship and refused repeated calls to turn around.

This morning, Iranian officials say all of their drones are accounted for, going as far to suggest the U.S. military might.