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NYT: Commerce Secretary Ross Threatened NOAA Firings After Agency's Birmingham Office Contradicted President Trump's Hurricane Dorian Tweets; Interview with Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) Regarding CIA Spy Bahamas Death Toll Hits 50 with Thousands Still Missing; President Trump's Approval Rating Drops from 44 Percent to 38 Percent. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired September 10, 2019 - 09:00   ET

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


[09:00:00]

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: We do begin this morning again with new reporting on the president and U.S. intelligence community.

After your remarkable exclusive reporting yesterday, there have been a lot of developments. This of course was about that covert operation to remove a Russian informant from Moscow. You have new details this morning. We'll get to those in a moment.

But let's just begin with your reporting, Jim, on the president.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: That's right. A new story we're reporting this morning. Multiple senior officials who served under this president tell CNN that Trump has privately and repeatedly expressed opposition to the use of foreign intelligence from covert sources, including overseas spies who provide the U.S. government with crucial information about hostile countries.

In private, the president has said that foreign spies can damage relations with their host countries and undermine his personal relationships with their leaders, the sources said. The president, quote, "believes we shouldn't be doing that to each other," one former Trump administration official told CNN.

In addition to his fear that such foreign intelligence sources will damage his relationship with foreign leaders, Trump has expressed doubts about the credibility of the information they provide. Another former senior intelligence official told CNN that Trump, quote, "believes there are people who are selling out their country."

We should note that even in public, Trump has looked down on these foreign assets as they are known in the intelligence community. Responding to reports that the CIA recruited Kim Jong-un's brother as a spy, remember, this is what the president said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I saw the information about the CIA with respect to his brother or half-brother. And I would tell him that would not happen under my -- under my auspices, that's for sure.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: Trump's skeptical view on foreign informants undermines one of the most essential ways that American intelligence agencies gather information about U.S. adversaries, including analysis of their capabilities and intentions. Intelligence assessments of national security threats all typically depend on a combination of both human and signals intelligence as well as other sources. This includes assessments about North Korea's expanding nuclear program to terror threats from al Qaeda and ISIS, and the military capabilities of Russia and China.

We will add that the CIA declined to comment and the White House also declined to comment to our requests for comments on this story.

HARLOW: OK. So, on top of this, it's not like it is new that the president's feelings about the intelligence community have been this way, but you've uncovered for just how long. The president's attitude about the intelligence community has long been an issue.

SCIUTTO: It has. And we've seen these disagreements between sitting U.S. presidents.

HARLOW: Sure.

SCIUTTO: And the findings of the intelligence community bubble out into the open repeatedly. Remember very early in his term he compared U.S. intelligence agencies to Nazis. He attacked senior intelligence officials, both current and former, somehow disloyal to the country, but bigger picture, he's denied or downplayed or questioned intelligence findings on America's most severe national security threats.

HARLOW: Sure.

SCIUTTO: Russian interference in the U.S. election. Iran's compliance with the nuclear deal. Remember before his withdrawal, U.S. intel agencies, they've testified public that Iran was complying.

HARLOW: Yes.

SCIUTTO: Also, North Korea's continued expansion of its nuclear program.

HARLOW: Yes.

SCIUTTO: The president downplaying that. The most famous episode was Trump standing next to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki and in effect taking his word, denying that Russia had interfered in the election, despite the fact that U.S. intelligence has found that very clearly. Most recently, this perhaps very telling, you'll remember the president tweeted out this photo which appeared to be a classified photo.

HARLOW: That's right. SCIUTTO: Of an Iranian missile launch site. These photos that show

U.S. intelligence gathering capabilities. The president putting that out on Twitter. And just in that larger picture here, you see a president at odds frequently with the intelligence agencies.

HARLOW: On top of all this, since you reported your exclusive 24 hours ago yesterday morning on our show, you have new information about the covert informant. What can you tell us?

SCIUTTO: That's right. I mean, we had these details when we first filed our story yesterday but withheld them because we didn't want to add to speculation about the person's identity. Since then, another news organization has reported these details, the "New York Times," so we're sharing some of them here just to get at the level that this source was.

HARLOW: About how high up he was.

SCIUTTO: How high up here was. And, therefore, how -- what a loss it is for U.S. intelligence. One, it was someone who served as an informant for more than 10 years.

HARLOW: Wow.

SCIUTTO: Providing important intelligence over time. Someone who had risen to the highest levels of Russia's national security infrastructure, including, imagine this, with the ability to take photographs of presidential documents. Imagine what insight that gives you about Russian plans and thinking and intentions. And an example of that was that intelligence from this source was essential to the intelligence community's finding on Russian interference in the 2016 election, specifically that it was directed by President Vladimir Putin and that his intention was not just to disrupt U.S. politics but also to advantage Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.

[09:05:06]

So, it's an enormous loss to lose an asset this high.

HARLOW: Yes. And because of those concerns.

SCIUTTO: Exactly.

HARLOW: And out of those reasons about the president's handling of information.

SCIUTTO: Exactly. Although we should note that those concerns about the president's handling of intelligence were part of a bigger picture.

HARLOW: Sure.

SCIUTTO: These concerns started during the Obama administration because that intelligence had been included in the intelligence community's assessment, but they grew during the early months of the Trump administration. HARLOW: OK. Great reporting, Jim. Stay on it.

SCIUTTO: Thank you, Poppy. One of the many stories we'll continue to cover here on this broadcast.

Joining me now is Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. He sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Congressman, we always appreciate you taking the time to join the show. So first, if I could -- I don't want you to get into -- you are a serving member of the Armed Forces. I don't want you to get into classified areas, but I do want to ask your reaction to the bigger picture story here. One, what loss is this to the U.S., to the U.S. national security agencies and the intelligence community to lose an asset this high in the Russian government?

REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R-IL): Well, before I comment on the story, there's more, I think, we need to find out. Right now it's anonymous sources. I'm not saying it's an incorrect story but I'll speak generally to the story which is, look, even our allies spy on us. I read an article recently that said there's more spies per capita in Washington, D.C., than anywhere in the world. There's probably one 200 yards from me somewhere here.

It's the nature of the business. And we need to spy on especially our enemies. And Russia is an enemy. China is an enemy. And we need to have assets both electronic and human surveillance assets high up in positions. So generally speaking, because I don't know enough about this story, generally speaking, I'll say, human intelligence is extremely important, and in many cases more important than even, you know, electronic intelligence in all areas.

SCIUTTO: Right. And we know that intelligence agencies depend on that kind of information.

KINZINGER: Yes. Absolutely.

SCIUTTO: As the developed pictures. You are aware of the president's often public battle with intelligence agencies, disagreeing or questioning their assessments on a whole host of things. What damage does that do, not just to the intelligence community's work but just the way America responds to these threats?

KINZINGER: Yes, it's not great. I mean, the president has every right to disagree. Typically that's done in private, right? You want a president surrounded by people with different opinions. You want a president that actually thinks through this stuff and questions what's told of him because even -- even the CIA, even intelligence agencies aren't always right but they are the best we have to find out information that we need to defend the American people and American interests. And so taking any kind of a battle public is always concerning for a couple of reasons.

Number one, it does discredit. Let's say we find ourselves in a major military conflict, whether with Iran or defending somebody or whatever that is, that will be based inside some cases on intelligence assessments. And now if you discredit whether in front of the world or in front of the American people, that can have a major impact. It can discourage the intelligence services but they're still going to do their job and do it well. I just think these kinds of things are -- you know, a lot of people appreciate a president that's transparent. There's some things where it's like maybe not that -- we shouldn't be that transparent all the time.

SCIUTTO: OK. I want to move on to another topic. That of course the president canceling talks with the Taliban, particularly with tomorrow being of course the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. You've been very public in your criticism of even the consideration of inviting the Taliban to Camp David for these kinds of talks.

Why do you believe that the president planned to do this? And do you believe he should in effect pledge that he won't reopen this idea at a later date?

KINZINGER: Yes, I mean, look. I don't think there's anything wrong with talking to the Taliban. Generally, I don't think we should talk to a terrorist organization ever, but, you know, we're approaching the longest battle we've been in. And so things are unprecedented here. But there's a difference. First off, if you're going to talk to the Taliban, you have to do it from a position of strength. America is never going to lose on the battlefield. We can only be defeated by our will and unfortunately too many times in history that's been the thing that's defeated us.

And so, a discussion has to be, look, we're going to do this from a position of strength. We're not going anywhere. But if you want peace, we're cool with peace, too. We want that. And so have these -- but to bring Taliban leaders, you know, to Camp David, not that far from New York City, a couple days prior to 9/11, I don't know how that went through the good idea filter and made it as far as it did. I'm glad the president backed off. I'm glad he made the statement yesterday that the Taliban is dead to him. Hopefully more Taliban are dead as a result of this, and then if we have peace talks we can move forward from a better position of strength.

SCIUTTO: Bigger picture on that key question. The president has made a campaign promise to leave Afghanistan by 2020 or at least have a significant reduction. Are you concerned that the ground work is being laid here for a withdrawal that doesn't -- that supports politics more than U.S. national security interests?

KINZINGER: I am.

[09:10:01]

And I have to look and say, would I be critical of President Obama if he did this? And I have to be equally fair to everybody. And I would have been really critical and I have been critical of President Obama and some of his moves in Afghanistan. And the point is this. You know, even the president said we're basically in a peacekeeping operation in Afghanistan. So what we're doing is preventing the collapse of the government, preventing a safe haven from future terrorist organizations at basically the rate of peacekeeping. I know people call this a war. It's technically a war but it's a very

low-grade war and it's a minor cost to prevent another attack on the homeland. So, this idea of following a campaign promise, I really don't think the American people are sitting around begging, you know, for us to leave Afghanistan. They want leaders to tell us, though, why this fight continues to be important.

SCIUTTO: Understood. Finally, on guns. You have led the way, we should note, among Republicans after the Las Vegas attack, pushing for instance for a ban on bump stocks which has since followed with presidential support. Now you're one of few Republicans to come out since the horrible shootings in El Paso and Dayton to call for universal background checks.

As you know, the real check on that is in the Senate, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, but also him and other Senate leaders looking for leadership from the president. Do you believe that Mitch McConnell will allow a floor vote on this and would you call on him to do so?

KINZINGER: Yes and yes. It depends on what it looks like. Again, there's -- I've seen some universal background check bills that are bad. I think we can make some good ones which doesn't overburden the American people, especially in private transfers but still goes through a background system. And it's not going to stop all these mass shootings. But I think if we can mitigate this problem as defenders of the Second Amendment, we have a responsibility to put forward solutions to do that within the context of defending our Second Amendment rights.

The last thing I'll say is this, to my friends on the left, you've got to be willing to talk about some things that may be short of your final goal. So many people I've gotten into a conversation said that I support these things and like, well, if you're not for a full assault weapons ban we're not even going to talk. I'm like, that's why Washington, D.C., doesn't work because neither side are willing to come off their edge. So let's be grownups and have a discussion.

SCIUTTO: Yes. The art of compromise lost, you might say.

KINZINGER: Right.

SCIUTTO: Congressman Kinzinger, thanks so much for joining our program this morning.

KINZINGER: You bet. See you.

HARLOW: Amen to that.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

HARLOW: Compromise.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Remember what that means?

HARLOW: Kind of. SCIUTTO: Yes.

HARLOW: Kind of.

SCIUTTO: We're both married so we know that.

HARLOW: Daily.

All right. So this morning, polls are open in North Carolina. This is a really consequential race. And voters are casting their ballots in a do-over special election in the state's 9th Congressional District. Allegations of absentee ballot fraud, which a big deal, remember, back in November's midterms, prompted state officials to wipe the whole thing out, call for a whole new vote. It is the final race of 2018 but it may as well be 2020. The outcome of today's matchup is seen as a critical test for the president's re-election chances.

Dianne Gallagher live in Charlotte this morning.

Good morning, Dianne. So the stakes very high. This will really tell us how the political winds are blowing. It will give us a look at a district that the president won by 12 points but a Democrat hasn't held since 1963.

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and Poppy, to be very -- I mean, look. The fact that we are here talking about this as a toss-up race in the 9th District says something here. Both President Trump and Mitt Romney won this district by 12 points. Right now, polling shows Democrat Dan McCready, Republican Dan Bishop neck- and-neck here. And plenty of money.

We're talking millions of dollars in outside spending have just inundated the people of the 9th District in ads that really mirror what we're seeing on a national scale here. Dan Bishop has painted himself as essentially in line with Donald Trump. Trump came in 11th hour election eve. Big rally for Bishop in Fayetteville, North Carolina, the other end of this district overnight, talking about socialists and talking about how Democrats are going to prevent him from continuing what he has done. Trying to incite that fear within the base because right now, early voting shows that Dan McCready and the Democrats have a little bit of an edge here.

Now McCready calls himself a political moderate. He is a former Marine. And he has really stayed away from the national Democrats this time around. He's been running for 27 months here, says that he wants this grassroots campaign to see him through the end here.

Here's the thing. This is a special election. Turnout so far we've seen has been steady but light which is what you would expect in a special election like this. But on a national level, they are looking at this as potentially a litmus test for 2020. Will President Trump's political playbook play next year or are they going to have to go back to the drawing board?

HARLOW: We'll see. Dianne, thank you. Let us know how it goes all day today.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

HARLOW: We'll be talking about it tomorrow morning for sure.

SCIUTTO: Quite an election to watch.

Still to come this hour, a new poll out this morning says 6 in 10 Americans believe the economy will slip into a recession as a result of President Trump's trade policies. What that means for him in 2020, next.

[09:15:00]

HARLOW: Yes, that number really matter. Also "New York Times" report that says the Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross threatened to fire top employees at NOAA after they contradicted the president. The acting administrator of NOAA is speaking right now, we're watching that.

And we're also of course live in the Bahamas again this morning, 70,000 homes just obliterated, 5,000 people have fled, the death toll stands at 50, but that is expected to soar.

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[09:20:00]

SCIUTTO: Welcome back. It has been the president's firewall throughout his term so far. The strong economy, the one thing voters consistently approve of as other presidential controversies continue.

HARLOW: But he may have a big worry sign on the economy. A new "Washington Post"-"ABC News" poll shows this morning support is slipping as more people fear a recession is approaching, the president's approval rating is now at 38 percent.

It was at 44 percent just in July, more Americans are blaming the president for the economy's uncertain future. Joining me to talk about this, John Avlon and, of course, our Chris Cillizza. Good morning, guys.

JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Hey --

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER & EDITOR-AT-LARGE: Good morning, Poppy.

HARLOW: So, Cillizza, 6 in 10 --

CILLIZZA: Yes --

HARLOW: Americans now expect a recession is somewhat or very likely. They expect higher prices, and that is hurting the president. The question becomes how much of that is 2020 going to depend on? Jim and I have an over-under on this. We both agree that the economy is keeping the president afloat --

CILLIZZA: Yes --

HARLOW: So, this is --

CILLIZZA: Yes --

HARLOW: A big deal for him. Are we right?

CILLIZZA: Yes, I think that's right. I mean, here's what's hard, Poppy, about Trump, his ability to defy political convention is huge.

HARLOW: Sure.

CILLIZZA: He would never be elected president by any political convention we used in the past. Even with the economy when it was the thing that was continuing, a majority of people said they approved of his handling of it, he still was in the kind of mid to low 40s in approval.

Typically with any president, Republican or Democrat, if your approval on the economy is in the 50s, 60s, your job approval is over 50. So, I think he has a very low ceiling and a pretty low floor candidly, but I think he moves in between about 37 percent and 43 percent, 44 percent.

I don't know if the bottom ever drops out, but I will tell you that if the economy is either weakening or seen to be weakening by the average voter, what is already a very fine line Trump needs to walk to get re- elected becomes virtually impossible to walk.

SCIUTTO: John Avlon, the president, of course, watches these figures very closely --

AVLON: Yes --

SCIUTTO: He's aware of the intelligence that economic numbers have on his numbers, and he has tools. I mean, well, he'd like to think this is his tool, but the Federal Reserve -- but he is putting pressure on the Federal Reserve and the Federal Reserve is lowering interest rates, seems to be in that posture.

Also, the president has talks with China which are difficult, but the president can make concessions and come out with a deal to relieve some of this pressure about the trade war.

AVLON: Sure.

SCIUTTO: Right, does this put more pressure on him to say, hey, let's make a deal?

AVLON: Look, there's no question this puts more pressure on him because the one read that he's been holding on to, the one number where he's been above water in approval is the economy. If that starts to slip, he's in real trouble, and you see that 38 percent is a pathetic number for a president with 3.7 percent unemployment.

SCIUTTO: Yes -- AVLON: A ham sandwich would be -- would be, you know, around 55, 60.

So, first of all, you were talking about the Fed, explicitly not supposed to be the president's tool. The whole point of the independent Fed --

SCIUTTO: I know --

AVLON: Is not to be manipulated by a president to keep things independent, he's obviously is assaulting that independence. How markets have started to incorporate the president's erratic behavior and his undermining of norms and then treat it as a new norm itself is kind of stunning.

With China, yes, could he have a tactical retreat and call it a win and remove some pressure and get a rally? Yes, he could. But the problem with the overall environment we're seeing with really low interest rates is that the Feds and governments around the world have less tools if the economy starts going in a free-fall.

So, let's keep an eye on Brexit, keep an eye on all these factors because the storm clouds aren't in the distance folks, they're here.

SCIUTTO: They're harder to pass a stimulus package --

AVLON: Correct --

SCIUTTO: Too with the debt levels where they are.

AVLON: Correct.

HARLOW: I just wonder, Cillizza, though, if the -- if we're talking about a general election and the economy is hurting, but the nominee is to the far left and someone who is talking --

SCIUTTO: Sure --

HARLOW: About, you know, policies that are going to, you know, undoubtedly cost the U.S. government a lot of money, does that calculation change?

CILLIZZA: Well, the answer I think is yes, Poppy, in that right now, Donald Trump is running against the sort of an amorphous group of whatever amalgam of Democrat a voter likes. Right, a little piece of Biden, a little piece of Sanders, a little piece of Warren. Eventually, it will just be one of those people who he'll have to run against.

And that those people have wards. I think the entire Biden candidacy is premised on the idea, all we need to do if you are a Democrat is provide a reasonable alternative. We don't need to do a lot. People want to fire Donald Trump, but they don't want to go for the devil they don't know.

You have to make it comfortable and easy. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren obviously different. And, yes, there's no question that Medicare for all, decriminalizing illegal immigration, these are the green new deal, these are policies that frankly are not supported by a majority of the American public.

[09:25:00]

SCIUTTO: Right --

CILLIZZA: Now, can you make that argument in a general election and sell people on it? You can, but it will be an issue, and it is. We know Donald Trump is much --

SCIUTTO: Yes --

CILLIZZA: Better on the attack of other people's policies --

SCIUTTO: Yes --

CILLIZZA: Than he is in defending his own.

AVLON: But it's basic, you don't lead with your chin. We know Donald Trump's re-election strategy is predicated upon negative partisanship, describing all Democrats as radical socialists. To the extent they play into that, that's not their strongest suit. At the end of the day, you're still going to have to win swing voters in swing states.

And the argument that Trump is going to make is -- and his supporters will make, don't pay attention to what he says, pay attention to what he does. Look at the economy, if that read goes away, that they're extreme, they're scary. You call the president of the United States and we gloss over this, last night in North Carolina, talked widely about Democrats being the American-hating left.

We're getting numb to kind of rhetoric that is utterly un- presidential. But he uses it every day. And the extent that Democrats start returning fire, we're going to have a banana republic election in 2020, it's going to be ugly beyond belief.

CILLIZZA: And by the way --

SCIUTTO: Yes --

CILLIZZA: Just to John's point, it's September 10th, 2019.

SCIUTTO: Yes --

CILLIZZA: Imagine October 1st --

SCIUTTO: That's right --

CILLIZZA: Twenty-twenty, I mean, if you think it can't get worse, buckle up because it will.

AVLON: It's going to get worse.

CILLIZZA: Yes --

SCIUTTO: Yes, that, we will take that to the bank. John Avlon, Chris Cillizza, thanks very much. HARLOW: Thanks gentlemen.

SCIUTTO: Coming up, the U.S. Coast Guard rescued all four crew members aboard this capsized ship. I mean, it's an incredible --

HARLOW: Amazing --

SCIUTTO: Rescue story. Up next, we're going to speak to a commander who was there when the final person was brought to safety.

HARLOW: Talking about the economy, we're also just a few moments away from the opening bell on Wall Street, stocks -- futures pointing a little bit lower there at the open, evidence of the trade war, more evidence that it's hurting China's economy as well as the U.S. economy.

New data this morning shows China's producer price index, that's an inflation index, fell by the most in three years, cooling some of the optimism investors have had over the last few days. Investors are going to be watching for clues of what the Fed is going to do next week.

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[09:30:00]