Return to Transcripts main page


Lawmakers to Challenge Robert Mueller This Week; Trump Pushes Back on Mueller Testimony; Massive Protests in Puerto Rico After Governor Refuses to Resign; Trump: Iran's Claim of Capturing CIA Spies "Totally False"; Tensions High After Iran Seized British-Flagged Oil Tanker Over Weekend. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired July 22, 2019 - 11:00   ET



[11:00:29] DANA BASH, CNN ACHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Dana Bash, in for Kate Bolduan.

And welcome to Mueller week. The former special counsel and reluctant star witness, Robert Mueller, testifies on Wednesday before two House panels. A make-or-break moment for lawmakers in both parties when it comes to the two-year Russia investigation.

Republicans are looking for ways to show that the Russia probe was slanted against the president from the start.

Democrats trying to seize on the narrative, reclaim it and, most importantly for them, prove that the president committed impeachable crimes.


REP. JERRY NADLER (D-NY): I think there's very substantial -- well, the report presents very substantial evidence that the president is guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors and we have to present -- or let Mueller present those facts to the American people and then see where we go from there. Because the administration must be held accountable and no president can be above the law.


BASH: True to form, President Trump is hardly a passive bystander in all of this. Starting today with a tweet calling Mueller "conflicted," and saying, "He shouldn't get another bite of the apple," and repeating his favorite terms for the investigation, "witch hunt, no collusion, no obstruction."

CNN's Lauren Fox is on Capitol Hill.

And, Lauren, I know you've been talking to your sources in both of these committees. What are you hearing as we're 48 hours away from this much-anticipated hearing about how they're preparing?

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, Dana, a lot on the line, obviously. Democrats hoping to bring the Mueller report to life in a report that they argue many Americans may not have had an opportunity to fully read. It's more than 400 pages, it's full of legalese, and it can be very difficult for Americans to really understand what was in the report, given how it was rolled out by the attorney general.

So Democrats hoping to recast what is in the Mueller report, make it very clear, even if it's a little more than Robert Mueller reading from the report himself. If it's live on television, the hope is that it can change the narrative about what the president has done. So that is the Democrats' first goal.

But behind the scenes, there are a lot of preparations happening. Both Republicans and Democrats have held mock hearings preparing for scripted questions. Nobody wants to be sort of seen as just going on and on and rambling. They want to be very direct. They have limited time.

So here's what Jerry Nadler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he hoped members and the American public would get out of the hearing.


NADLER: Well, we hope it won't end up being a dud. And we're going to ask specific questions about, look at page 344, paragraph 2, please read it, does that describe obstruction of justice and did you find that the president did that, for example.


FOX: And of course, we've covered extensively the Democratic caucus divide over this question about impeachment. Some top Democrats argue that this might be the last chance to really have a conversation about impeachment depending on what Robert Mueller says.

That's obviously in the clear backdrop here as Democratic chairmen are preparing their members for two very high-profile hearings on Capitol Hill on Wednesday -- Dana?

BASH: Lauren, as always, thanks for your reporting.

Joining me now, Michael Zeldin, a CNN legal analyst, who once served as Robert Mueller's special assistant at the Department of Justice. And Lisa Lerer, a CNN political analyst and national political reporter for the "New York Times."

Happy Monday to you both.

I have been talking to you about Robert Mueller, his quirks, his M.O. for two years, never mind, of course, the legal substance of the investigation.

Michael, let's start with you because, I mean, I have been talking to you about Mueller, his quirks, his M.O. for two years, never mind, of course, the legal substance of the investigation. But let's just talk about Mueller, the man. Given what you know and the man you worked with for a long time, what do you expect Mueller to do, given the fact that he has said in his one public statement that his report speaks for itself and he won't go beyond that report?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: That's what I think he's going to endeavor to do during his testimony. I think he's going to want to keep his testimony very narrowly circumscribed, not answer hypothetical questions and not answer what-if types of questions, and be the Marine that he's, which is answering the direct questions that he's asked and not forwarding any additional information to the questioner.

So I think that both the Democrats and the Republicans are going to be challenged to try to get Mueller to move off of the script that I think he's been working on for the last several weeks in preparation for this testimony.

[11:05:08] BASH: Absolutely. It's going to be a huge challenge.

And then, Lisa, just on the raw politics of this, I'm sure you're hearing from Democrats and Republicans, as I am, that the idea -- that the term "make or break" is not an overstatement when it comes to the focus on this investigation, the intense focus on this investigation. Obviously, mostly by the Democrats. The president as well.

LISA LERER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Democrats are really hoping that maybe people who didn't read the book will watch the movie or the TV show, I guess I should say.

And I think there's a sense that the polling numbers on impeachment haven't really moved even after the report came out. There's a little bit more support among Democrats for moving forward with impeachment. But the caucus remains divided. And there's a particular concern about these more moderate districts that really won Democrats back the House in the midterms.

BASH: Lisa, I'm just going to interrupt you for one second.


BASH: My apologies.

I just want to look at what is going on at the Supreme Court. The president and first lady are there to pay their respects to Justice Stevens, who passed away last week.




BASH: Again, that was President Trump, and first lady, Melania Trump, at the Supreme Court paying their respects to Justice John Paul Stevens, who is laying in repose there. I want to get back to our conversation with Michael Zeldin and Lisa


Lisa, I interrupted you mid thought. I'm not sure if you remember where you were, but I just want you to be able to finish the point you were making about the politics of this.

LERER: Yes, this is really, as you point out, make or break. After this Congress goes home for the summer recess, Democrats are hoping that they're able to use this hearing to give them momentum to raise questions and bring questions about President Trump's conduct and potential obstruction of justice and whether there was interference with the Russians in the election, bring that through the summer into those town halls that they'll have over the summer recess and give this issue -- change the narrative and give this issue new momentum because it's really faded a bit from public view.

BASH: Michael, Robert Mueller has said that if he could have exonerated the president, he would have.

You say that there are six areas in the report that illustrate obstruction of justice. How much do you expect him to dwell on that, given the fact that you just said that you don't expect to go beyond what's in the report? And obviously, what Democrats are desperate for is ammunition based on his investigation that the president did commit a crime, he just didn't go after the president because he's the president?

ZELDIN: That's right. And the report actually lays out quite clearly the areas where Mueller felt that there was substantial evidence of obstruction. Mueller didn't charge it for the reasons he set out in the report, which were the OLC opinion that prohibits sitting presidents from being indicted and basically fairness under DOJ policy.

But I think the Democrats could simply take Mueller through the report and say, look, let's turn to page 85 through 87, where Mueller is going to be fired at the request of the president to Don McGahn. Can you take us through that evidence? Or pages 115-117 where he's asking that a false record be created to cover up the request that he made to have Mueller fired.

So if they take him through that story, which is what he has written down, and the American people hear it for the first time -- because they haven't read it -- then maybe it changes their opinion of the president's ethics or behavior, which is important for their narrative toward the 2020 election.

BASH: Michael Zeldin and Lisa Lerer, thank you so much for that.

We're actually going to speak later this hour to a senior member of the Judiciary Committee.

[11:10:09] And don't forget CNN's special coverage of the Mueller hearings. Begins right here on CNN Wednesday morning at 8:00 a.m. Eastern. Thousands of protesters are filling the streets of San Juan,

Puerto Rico, in what could be the biggest demonstration yet. You're looking at live pictures of those demonstrators right now against the governor there, Ricardo Rossello.

He has promised not to seek another term amid allegations of widespread corruption, but he also refuses to resign, which is what these protesters want.

Public anger really started to boil over after private messages between the governor and his inner circle were leaked and those messages were killed with vulgar and homophobic language.

I want to get to CNN's Leyla Santiago, who is among the protesters right there in San Juan.

Leyla, tell us what you're seeing at this hour.

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Dana, there are hundreds of thousands of people who have shut off this expressway. This is a major artery coming into San Juan. And blocking the route out toward the southern part of the island.

We see a sea of Puerto Rican flags. People have come up with all sorts of ways to call for the governor's resignation, including -- I want to bring the camera a little over to the right so you can see what we just had pull up. You see this is a container that they have said they have made into a small apartment where they could put the governor and ship him out. That is one way they are calling for the resignation of the governor. Very creative ways for the protesters here.

This, for them, is about corruption. This, of course, was fueled by the chats you mentioned that were leaked last week. But they say this is beyond the offensive language that we're seeing published in those chats. This is about getting rid of corruption on the island and the mismanagement of funds that they feel that they are suffering from.

Now, over the last few days, we have been on the ground. We have seen, for the most part, peaceful protests, even festive, I would say. But there have been clashes where the police have had to disperse tear gas. That is a concern of how this will go tonight when protesters reach Old San Juan.

For his part, the governor says he is going nowhere and the protesters say they will not stop until he does.

BASH: Leyla, thank you. Always on top of it for us. And I would say that's a creative form of protest and quite practical.

So thank you so much, Leyla. Appreciate it.

And still ahead, rising tensions in the Persian Gulf. Iran says they've dismantled a U.S. spy ring. The White House says it's just more lies and propaganda. Plus, President Trump apparently has no intention on stopping his

attacks against the congresswomen known as the Squad. And one of those women just told the NAACP she's not going anywhere until Trump is impeached.

Stay with us.


[11:18:06] BASH: Iran says it busted a CIA spy ring and arrested 17 citizens of Iran. Now, Iran, the regime there claims that all 17 allegedly confessed to spying for the U.S. Some of them, they say, will be executed.

President Trump responding a short time ago on Twitter, called it "totally false. Zero truth. Just more lies and propaganda put out by a religious regime that is badly failing and has no idea what to do."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was also dismissing Iran's claims.


MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: I would urge everyone who is reading that story waking up to understand that the Iranian regime has a long history of lying. They lied about where they shut down the American UAV. They've now lied in the last few days about where they took down this tanker. It's part of the nature of the ayatollah to lie to the world. I would take with a significant grain of salt any Iranian assertion about actions that they've taken.


BASH: CNN's Matthew Chance joins us now from the United Arab Emirates with details.

Matthew, what do you know about the real deal, as much as we know about this spy ring, alleged spy ring?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we only know what the Iranian authorities have announced through their official channels. I preface that by saying, in the past, Iran has been the subject of U.S. intelligence operations. It probably is now and probably will be in the future.

But the specifics of these cases, this spy ring that the Iranians say they've broken up is unclear. They say they were Iranian citizens. They say they were recruited and motivated by money, often offered work in the United States, residency, health care, money, things like that. They say they were from various different sectors and they were operating as consultants in the nuclear industry, infrastructure, things like that, and all different walks of life.

[11:20:03] And it's something the Iranians are saying, pointing to in their official media and saying, look, the Americans may say that we're the maligned force in this region but it's actually the United States that's been provocative. It's the United States that is carrying out the spy missions against us.

And the Iranians know very well that that will strike accord inside Iran. People in Iran are very aware that, in the past, the U.S. has made Iran the subject of espionage operations. So it's going to strike a chord with them.

All of this falls into the backdrop of that other brewing crisis here in the Persian Gulf region. That one between Britain and Iran with the seizure by Iran of a British-flagged oil tanker about 200 nautical miles north of here. That's where the ship is being held under close guard by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard.

We've just had the first images of the 23 crew members. They're onboard and safe. They look like they're in relatively good spirits. But they're now part of a huge geopolitical chess game to which there's no clear ending.

We're waiting for British officials to announce what next steps they're going to take. They say they want it to be a diplomatic process, but given the backdrop, this could easily flare into something much more dangerous -- Dana?

BASH: The backdrop and the screen, the graphic that we just put up on the screen while you were talking shows all of the flare-ups, not just this, but the flare-ups over the past month and a half, two months.

Matthew, thank you so much for the reporting.

Joining me now is David Sanger, national security correspondent for the "New York Times" and a CNN political and national security analyst.

And a very lucky man because we see your backdrop.

David Sanger, thank you so much. I'm so glad to be able to talk to you about this because you know more about this than anybody.

The Iranians claim, David, that they busted an American spy ring. You say it reflects the growing narrative inside Iran that the U.S. is once again seeking to sabotage key facilities in the country. Explain what you mean by that.

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL & NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, the Iranians have claimed that they've done arrests of spy rings before. They made a similar claim about a year ago and about six months ago. So we can't tell whether they're talking about the same spy rings or there's overlap here or not.

And I think that Secretary Pompeo's warning that some of this is to be taken with a grain of salt is certainly worth listening to.

At the same time, we know that the United States mounted the most sophisticated cyber sabotage operation in history against Iran's nuclear enrichment site a decade ago. And of course, it managed to use cyber means, code, to blow up about 1,000 centrifuges. And the story, which is now quite famous and has been examined in many

ways in many different books and so on, has fit into the Iranian narrative at this point that the United States is always out to sabotage this government.

And so both things may be true. It may be that there are exaggerating in this case, and the U.S. does, of course, have active efforts under way to slow the Iranian program.

BASH: So Iran was, of course, in the news all weekend because it seized a British tanker. How does that fit into the broader growing tensions with Iran?

SANGER: Well, we're calling it escalation, right, that the Iranians, the second effort now, and the second one was successful to grab a British ship. They called it tit-for-tat because the British are holding a ship that's in Gibraltar that they maintain had been taking oil to Syria in violation of U.N. sanctions. So they've detained that ship.

So this is clearly an effort by the Iranians to get some leverage to get their ship back.

Now, last Thursday, in New York, I met with a number of reporters. I met with Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister.

BASH: Right.

SANGER: And he told us that the ship was not headed to Syria, and he would be willing to certify it's not going that way.

You can imagine a swap deal here in which the two ships get exchanged and there's some monitoring of the Iranian ship to make sure about whether it's taking its cargo.

But there isn't a British government in place right now that can really go negotiate that. So I think this may take a while to unwind.

BASH: One last question. You mentioned that you were among a group of reporters that met with the Iranian foreign minister last week. And in that meeting, he seemed to go through you -- because they're not exactly on a "pick up the phone and chat" basis with the American diplomats -- go through you to the Trump administration rejected their diplomatic offer. The Trump administration rejected it.

But do you see this possibly as the beginning of a beginning of a diplomatic thawing of sorts?

[11:24:56] SANGER: Absolutely, Dana. You've seen the administration say they would negotiate with no preconditions, and you saw that Senator Rand Paul was sort of offering himself as sort of an intermediary.

What was interesting about the offer from Minister Zarif, is he was basically saying that Iran would accelerate a commitment that it wouldn't have to until 2023 to allow the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, to conduct very intrusive inspections, that they would sign up to an IAEA agreement, to do that in return for the lifting of the sanctions that they found most onerous.

The administration immediately rejected this and said it's not enough. And certainly, I think, that Mr. Zarif knew it wouldn't be enough.

But it would at least be a way to get the discussion going and getting inspectors to go everywhere as has been -- you know, one of the complaints you've seen on President Trump's Twitter account is that the inspectors have been kept out of places. We don't know that that's true.

Unfortunately, and sadly, the head of the IAEA just passed away yesterday so that organization is also a little bit leaderless right now at a moment when its role may be very important.

BASH: Absolutely fascinating, all of it.

David Sanger, thank you so much. Enjoy Aspen.

SANGER: Great. Great to be with you, Dana.

BASH: Thank you.

And coming up, it is the showdown everybody has been waiting for. Lawmakers preparing to question Robert Mueller this week, live, and on camera. I'll speak to a Democratic congresswoman about what she plans to ask him, next.