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Polls to Open Soon in Critical N.C. Special Election; CIA Spy Extracted from Russia Had Access to Putin; Wilbur Ross Threatened NOAA Firings after Trump's Dorian Tweets. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired September 10, 2019 - 06:00   ET



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The do-over election in North Carolina's Ninth District, offering a glimpse into the future.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We got a chance to change this country.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The polling indicates a very tight race.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's possible Democrats will turn out in force. Trump is hugely worried.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The U.S. successfully extracted one of its highest-level covert sources inside the Russian government.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We know that Trump has made a habit of giving classified information when he shouldn't.

JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: It's going to become even harder to collect human intelligence in Russia.


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Alisyn Camerota and John Berman.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. This is NEW DAY. It's Tuesday, September 10, 6 a.m. here in New York. Alisyn is on assignment. Bianna Golodryga, lucky to have you here this morning.

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Great to be here. Thank you.

BERMAN: So in just a few minutes, polls open for an election that could give us something of a political MRI of the Trump presidency. In fact, even before the results come back, the mere fact that it's a test at all tells us the patient might be struggling. This is a do- over of a House election in North Carolina, an election that was thrown out because of evidence of fraud by the Republican candidate's campaign

This is a district that Republicans have held since the 1960s and that Donald Trump won easily in 2016. But the polls show a dead heat between Democrat Dan McCready and Republican Dan Bishop. Both the president and vice president campaigned there in the last 24 hours, which shows they fear that a Republican loss would spell huge trouble for them around the country.

GOLODRYGA: Big news in that state. Also, we are learning new details about a CNN exclusive first reported by our colleague, Jim Sciutto. A source tells CNN that the top spy extricated from Russia had access to Vladimir Putin and could even provide images of documents on the Russian leader's desk.

The decision to remove the informant was driven in part by concerns that President Trump and his administration repeatedly mishandled classified intelligence that could expose the intelligence asset as a spy. The Kremlin is responding this morning, and we'll have much more on this fascinating story in just a few moments.

BERMAN: Yes, remarkable exclusive from Jim Sciutto. Jim will be with us shortly.

We're going to begin, though, with Dianne Gallagher. She was in Charlotte, North Carolina, on today's special election.

This is a big day, not just for North Carolina but I think for the entire Trump presidency, Dianne.

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, yes, John, and the people here in the Ninth District have been without representation for almost a year at this point, so when the polls open in half an hour, they are ready to finally get their congressman.

The thing is right now, it is a tight race in a district that both Trump and Romney won by 12 points, meaning that since it's a toss-up, the president, the vice president, and all sorts of Republicans who bring their clout with them are here to avoid what they see could be a litmus test for 2020.


GALLAGHER (voice-over): It's the final race of 2018.

DAN MCCREADY (D), NORTH CAROLINA CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: We've got a chance to change this country, and that's why we're here today.

GALLAGHER: And while North Carolina's Ninth District do-over election may technically be Dan versus Dan, it also poses an early 2020 test for President Trump.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A vote for any Democrat tomorrow in North Carolina is a vote for the rise of radical socialism and the destruction of the American dream.

GALLAGHER: At an election eve rally for Republican candidate Dan Bishop, the president making it clear that Tuesday's results are about more than one election.

TRUMP: Tomorrow, we take the first steps to firing Speaker Pelosi and winning back the House in 2020.

GALLAGHER: The GOP putting a lot of time and money into winning this reliably Republican seat. President Trump carried the Ninth District by 12 points in 2016.

MCCREADY: I'm Dan McCready. I'm the Democrat running.

GALLAGHER: Democrat Dan McCready has been campaigning for more than two years.

MCCREADY: My wife and I actually measure in terms of number of kids, because we had three when we started 27 months ago. We've got four now.

GALLAGHER: McCready lost the 2018 race to Republican Mark Harris by just 905 votes. But the state's board of elections refused to certify Harris the winner amid allegations of ballot fraud against a political operative working for the Republican's campaign.

MCCREADY: We saw what we know now was the largest case of election fraud in modern-day American history. Let me tell you, the easy thing to do when we saw that would have been to throw in the towel. I chose to fight.

DAN BISHOP (R), NORTH CAROLINA CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: Mr. President, we're not tired of winning.

GALLAGHER: Bishop is betting that doubling down on the Trump agenda will bring him a victory in this conservative-leaning district.

(on camera): So in District Nine, is a vote for Dan Bishop a vote for Donald Trump?

BISHOP: I certainly will go to the -- go to Washington and work very aggressively to help President Trump.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): The campaigns and outside groups have combined to spend millions on television, a sign of how high both parties view the stakes heading into 2020.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Our family can't afford Dan Bishop.

MCCREADY: How you all doing?

GALLAGHER: McCready, a former Marine and self-described political moderate, admits that some of the debates playing out in his party's presidential primary pose a challenge for him in the district, especially as TV ads --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Dan McCready, a liberal backed by radicals.

GALLAGHER: -- his opponent and even the president attempt to paint him as an ultraliberal.

(on camera): Do you feel like you're running against Dan Bishop or do you feel like you're running against Donald Trump? MCCREADY: Well, I'm running against Dan Bishop. Unfortunately for

him, he's not running against a socialist. He's running against a United States Marine.


GALLAGHER: Now, this district is sort of a suburban/rural mix, much like those that the Republicans had trouble with in the midterms. The difference being this one was won by the president by a much larger margin than those that the Democrats flipped back in 2018.


John, I can tell you that the president seemed to be trying to set expectations yesterday, saying that he thought Dan Bishop was a good guy but wanted to make sure everyone was aware that he wasn't the one on the ballot, so he didn't think of this one particularly as a bellwether, he said.

BERMAN: All right. Dianne Gallagher for us in North Carolina. Polls open there in, what, 25 minutes, so line up now.

Joining us is Ron Brownstein, CNN senior political analyst and senior editor at "The Atlantic."

Ron, let's start at the end here. What does it tell you that, in this special election, just one congressional district, both the president and vice president have been there within the last 24 hours?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It tells you they're worried, and I think, John, they have a very specific fear. You know, we've already seen 15 House Republicans retire, including several in these suburban southern seats outside of Atlanta, several in Texas.

And I think the concern among Republicans is that, if they lose a district that has been this reliably Republican, where Democrats have not held a seat since 1963 and where, as Dianne pointed out, Trump won by 12 points, that you could see a food -- floodgates open and more House Republicans decide this is just not happening in 2020.

BERMAN: So talk to me specifically about North Carolina Nine. This district is representative of what, if you're talking about national trends?

BROWNSTEIN: It's representative of the outer circle of Republican vulnerability in the suburbs, right?

So we saw two things in 2018. We saw Republicans routed in the last red pockets that were left in the big blue metro areas around the country. So the suburbs of Philadelphia or Minneapolis or Chicago or Northern Virginia, but we saw something else, as well.

We saw that suburban vulnerability under Trump extend to places where metro areas where Democrats have not previously made gains, in the suburbs of Atlanta or Houston or Dallas or Oklahoma City or Charleston or even Salt Lake City. This is one of those seats. This is a tough seat for Democrats.

There are only four Democrats in the House in districts that Trump won by a bigger margin than he won North Carolina Nine.

It starts in the suburbs, but it extends to the rural -- you know, extends to rural communities where the president is much stronger, and even the suburban part of it has been the most Republican remaining area in the Charlotte suburbs.

So if you see this kind of district go down for Republicans, much like the Conor Lamb seat, remember that Pennsylvania special election, it would be a sign of a pretty broad suburban recoil from the president.

BERMAN: You would start to see words like "floodgates opening" is what you would see.


BERMAN: Now the flip side of this, Ron, is that the Republican Dan Bishop, and you heard President Trump talking about it last night, trying to tie the Democrat, Dan McCready, to Nancy Pelosi, to The Squad, calling him an extreme radical leftist.

What will this election tell us about that message?

BROWNSTEIN: Yes, I think -- I think it's important, you know, like I said. This is a district that divides between suburban, ex-urban and rural.

So you have a piece of it that's in Mecklenburg County, where the Democrats made big gains from 2016 to 2018. Then the next county out is a kind of classic ex-urban county called Union County, where Democrats made more modest gains from 2016-2018.

If you see those reversed in this result, I think it would be a sign that, particularly in these kind of outer reach districts for Democrats, that message of painting the party as radical are able to hold some of those traditionally Republican, white-collar suburbanites who are, you know, unhappy or uneasy about the president and drawn to the Democrats.

McCready is trying to run the 2018 playbook. I mean, kind of put his head down, avoid these big ideological fights and focus as much as possible on bread-and-butter issues, particularly health care.

BERMAN: We did hear the president last night talk about religion, suggesting that the Democrats weren't so much about religion. There were people who say this rings the irony bell coming from the thrice married, you know, president of the United States.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes. Well, look I mean, evangelical white Christians are -- have become the absolute bedrock of the president's support. I mean, he's still looking at a 3/4 approval rating. I mean, there are many voters, many of those voters, essentially, view themselves in a struggle over the country's direction. They feel that they are on the losing side of kind of cultural and

demographic change, and the president presents himself to them as, in effect, a human wall against all of the changes that they don't like. And I think the evidence is pretty clear over two and a half years that this is about anything in his personal history that they're willing to forgive.

I mean, the problem is, is that what -- all the kind of coal he puts in the engine to mobilize that base has a real price that we're going to measure at the other end of the district in a place like southeast Mecklenburg County outside of Charlotte that had been, as I said, the most Republican part remaining in that metro area but where we're seeing undeniable movement against.

And this, by the way, particular interest, I think, to all of those retirements in Texas. The Texas five Republicans stepping down, this is that kind of seat. And if we see McCready, even if he falls short because of the rural piece, do very well again in the suburban areas, there's going to be a lot of anxiety among those Texas Republicans.


BERMAN: Even getting close might be something that worries Republicans. Ron Brownstein, you and I will both be up late tonight. Thanks for being with us this morning.

BROWNSTEIN: Thanks for having me.

GOLODRYGA: I think it's safe to say that the president will be watching exiting polling very closely in this race.

BERMAN: No doubt.

GOLODRYGA: Well, still ahead, the Kremlin has just responded to CNN's exclusive reporting about a U.S. spy inside the Russian government that was so close to Vladimir Putin he could take pictures of documents on his desk. That's coming up next.



BERMAN: We're getting new details this morning in a CNN exclusive that Jim Sciutto broke wide open about a CIA spy who was extracted from Russia in 2017 in a secret mission.

CNN can now report that the asset had access to Vladimir Putin, so much access he could photograph government documents on the Russian leader's desk.

The Kremlin this morning is now responding to Jim's reporting. Jim joins us up early this morning.

I have to say, Jim, remarkable reporting. You broke this hours before anyone else had it, and now you're some new information. JIM SCIUTTO, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes.

Basically, it's about how high-level the source was. And to be clear, we withheld a lot of these details, because we didn't want to risk any chance of identifying this person.

And we're holding back others, but "The New York Times" last night in confirming our story that gave some details. So this is what we know about the level, and this gets at the importance as to how big a loss this is for the U.S.

Someone who served as a CIA informant for more than a decade, a Russian national who had risen to the highest levels of the national security infrastructure in the Kremlin. As you mentioned, had direct access to the Russian president, including the remarkable ability to take photos of presidential documents.

Also, we know that this person was offered extraction earlier in 2017 at the end of the Obama administration because of concerns, length of service, but also the fact that intelligence from this source had been used in part for the intel community assessment on Russian interference in the 2016 elections, specifically that President Putin had ordered that interference and had done so to help, to benefit Donald Trump.

As that was coming out, the Obama administration offered this person extraction. This person refused. But months into the Trump administration, as a whole host of other events happened, including of course, the famous meeting in the Oval Office, where President Trump shared classified information from Israel with two senior Russian officials after that extraction was offered again and the person was successfully taken -- taken out of the country.

So those are the new details, just getting into the bigger picture here, multiple Trump administration officials have told me that this secret mission took place in 2017.

The timing of this decision was directly after that Oval Office meeting when President Trump went with those Russian officials, and a person directly involved in the discussions said to me that the decision was based, in part, on concern in the intelligence community that President Trump and his administration had mishandled classified intelligence a number of times.

That was part of a bigger picture, because a lot of inputs go into a decision like this, as I mentioned, for instance, the fact that intelligence from the source and the assessment on Russian interference in the election, but that that was also a factor in what is a decision -- it's a decision to carry out a very dangerous and difficult operation.

GOLODRYGA: And this isn't just any source. I mean, when you talk about his proximity to Vladimir Putin and the trust that he'd established within the Kremlin. This is any intelligence organization's dream source, right?

Can you go back to the time you mentioned prior to the U.S. being concerned, however, about him being exposed? Because it wasn't just this one time.

SCIUTTO: It was not. So we're at the end of the Obama administration. The intelligence community has established that Russia interfered in the U.S. election, and the Russian president directed it, and that the intention was, over time, not just to mess up American politics, but to advantage Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. Having a source that high in the Russian government factored into getting at what Putin's intentions were here.

So it's important to note how big a loss this is for the U.S. at a time of growing tensions between the U.S. and Russia to lose these eyes and ears inside the Kremlin is an enormous loss.

I spoke to a former senior U.S. intelligence official who said to me that, particularly in denied areas as they call these, Russia is a denied area, because it's hard for American intelligence to operate. There's a lot of surveillance. You know, imagine trying to cultivate a spy in Russia, considering all of that, just this person made clear to me, this former senior intelligence official, this is a very hard asset to replace.

BERMAN: I got to say, I hope people are listening to all the details here. Because this is fascinating at so many different levels, Jim. Just as fascinating is the administration response, because it's been nuanced.

SCIUTTO: It has. Listen, a lot of folks have noticed that if you look at the CIA statement, it doesn't seem to respond to the story that we wrote -- that we wrote here, and I should, in fairness -- I'll tell you exactly what the administration told me.

Here's what Brittany Bramell, CIA director of public affairs, told CNN. Quote, "CNN's narrative that the Central Intelligence Agency makes life or death decisions based on anything other than objective analysis and sound collection is simply false. Misguided speculation that the president's handling of our nation's most sensitive intelligence, which he has access to each and every day, drove an alleged exfiltration operation is inaccurate."

I should note, we reached out to a spokesperson for the secretary of state. Mike Pompeo, of course, was CIA director at the time. That spokesperson declined to comment.

The White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, told CNN, quote, "CNN's reporting is not only incorrect, it has the potential to put lives in danger."

I should note this, though. I spoke to five separate sources for this story, people who served in the Trump administration in the highest levels of the intelligence agencies and also on Capitol Hill, handling sensitive intelligence.

And they told me that this decision happened at a time of broad concern in the intelligence community about the president's handling of intelligence, and -- and it did not end with that Oval Office meeting. Before we go, in July 2017, you'll remember Trump met with Putin at

the G-20 in Hamburg, Germany. This was the famous meeting where it was a private meeting, and Trump took the interpreter's notes afterwards. Unusual step.

I've been told by -- by an intelligence source that after that meeting, as well, the intel community was concerned that the president had again improperly discussed classified information with Russia.

GOLODRYGA: And let's not forget: Vladimir Putin himself also a former spy.


GOLODRYGA: Jim Sciutto, fascinating reporting.

Well, Democrats are calling for Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross's resignation after he reportedly threatened to fire NOAA officials for a tweet contradicting the president. We'll discuss that coming up next.



BERMAN: All right. So we're getting new details this morning about the White House obsession with President Trump's false claim that Alabama was under threat from Hurricane Dorian days into the development of that storm.

"The New York Times" reports this morning the commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, threatened to fire top employees with the federal agency responsible for weather forecasts unless they disavowed a tweet from a regional office that contradicted the president. That threat reportedly led to the unusual and widely-panned statement released last Friday disavowing the tweet.

Joining us now is CNN political analyst Maggie Haberman. She's White House correspondent for "The New York Times." Let me do a dramatic reading from "The New York Times," Maggie.

GOLODRYGA: My favorite.


BERMAN: "The secretary of commerce threatened to fire top employees at the federal scientific agency responsible for weather forecasts last Friday after the agency's Birmingham office contradicted President Trump's claim that Hurricane Dorian might hit Alabama." That's according to three people. "That threat led to an unusual unsigned statement later that Friday by the agency," and look, this caused all kinds of problems within that agency, from the apolitical scientists to the political appointees.

But if you have a cabinet secretary threatening to fire people because of science, what does that tell you? HABERMAN: Well, it tells you that we're at a new level of this White

House, and again, we don't know what role the White House played. It's hard to imagine that Wilbur Ross did this on his own, just based on the facts of the story that we know.

This is an ongoing question that is being raised about the culture that has been created by this president in terms of what trickles down to government agencies, how that impacts objective fact. How that impacts science, and that statement was, as you noted, widely mocked.

So I don't understand what they think they're getting by doing this, other than making the president feel good, which is ultimately what this government has increasingly become about.

GOLODRYGA: And it was anonymously written, too.

HABERMAN: There was no name attached to it. And I agree with you, Wilbur Ross sort of making this call from Greece seems to be something that was likely driven from the White House and not something that he came up with on his own.

GOLODRYGA: What are the ramifications, if any? There are Democrats, obviously, calling for Wilbur Ross to step down. John Thune, the Republican, said that this, if true, is deeply concerning to him. How do you see this ending?

HABERMAN: I mean, I think that it depends on whether there are additional Republicans besides John Thune who say that. But I do think at minimum, there will be another hearing.

As we know, Ross has had problems before he had this controversy around the census question on citizenship, where he was found to have not been truthful about it. That ended up impacting their Supreme Court case about this with the administration.

And so Ross, I think you see him, if -- if he did this, Ross is trying to keep his job, I suspect. And a lot of people have been willing to do a number of things that they think will be pleasing to President Trump.

But once you start getting into government agencies, this isn't just sort of a staff debate. This isn't just a fight internally. This isn't palace intrigue. That is the kind of thing that the president's allies on Capitol Hill are going to have trouble ignoring and turning away from, as they have for so much of the last two years.

BERMAN: Right. Hot off the presses, ABC News and "The Washington Post" just put out some new numbers about the president's approval rating. If we can put up P-11 right now. It has dropped pretty substantially. Look at it now.


BERMAN: Thirty-eight percent approval rating in the ABC News/"Washington Post" poll. It was at 44 percent in July. Maggie, those aren't good numbers for this White House. How do you think this is being received inside?

HABERMAN: Well, I think that it is mirroring what they are seeing themselves in their own data, and I think it is being met with disbelief by the president, who as we saw over the last week, has been lashing out at "The Washington Post" and a story by Ashley Parker and Phil Rucker that was describing the sort of lost summer where he didn't make any gains.

He didn't try to build towards his re-election, and he got very angry about that story. And -- and these numbers might remind you why, because those numbers are reflective of what they are seeing themselves. This is a danger zone.

Look, it's going to matter when there's a binary, when it's him versus someone else, and so until we know what that looks like and we know what the economy looks like next year, it's hard to say what the durability is. And there's all sorts of volatility around this president always, which makes it harder to predict. But those are dangerous numbers.

BERMAN: The words you just used there, "danger zone," I think is exactly what was in my head there. Because when you start getting down to 38 or lower.