Return to Transcripts main page


President Trump Answers Reporters' Questions; Andrew McCabe in Legal Jeopardy?; Interview With Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY); Democratic Presidential Candidates Set to Debate; Rules of Impeachment; Trump in Baltimore; Trump Says, We Had A Big Meeting Today On Guns; Ten Democratic Presidential Candidates Debating Tonight, Biden And Warren Going Head-To-Head For The First Time; Trump Ally Netanyahu Cozies Up to Putin in Russia Just Days Before Crucial Israeli Election. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired September 12, 2019 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now: pushing impeachment. A House committee ramps up its investigation of the president, in the first official vote related to impeachment. But are Democratic divisions undermining the probe, as some party leaders refuse to utter the I- word?

Indictment risk. Fired FBI official Andrew McCabe could face criminal charges soon, after a decision by the Justice Department. Why is one of the president's favorite targets in legal peril tonight?

The big stage.

All of the top 10 Democratic presidential candidates are about to debate in Houston. Will there be fireworks as Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren go head to head for the first time?

And asleep on the job? Safety officials report a lapse in oversight in the fiery dive boat disaster off California. Could have been prevented if a crew member has been an overnight watch, as required?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Tonight, Democrats are intensifying their efforts to oust President Trump one way or another. The House Judiciary Committee just set new ground rules for its impeachment investigation. It's a formal step forward, and many rank-and-file Democrats are pushing for impeachment.

But party leaders are creating some confusion about what happens next, sending mixed signals about their strategy and their endgame, this as the 2020 Democrats are about to hold the first debate with all of the top 10 contenders on the same stage.

We're told Joe Biden plans to question whether Elizabeth Warren can deliver on her big proposals as they go head to head in Houston.

This hour, I will talk to Congressman Hakeem Jeffries. He's a Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, though, let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, President Trump, he has been taunting Democrats as they push ahead with their impeachment investigation.


The president and the GOP are all but daring House Democrats to begin impeaching Mr. Trump. Democrats in the House took another step toward impeachment, but Democrats hardly sound united on the issue. The president is talking to reporters right now as he is on his way to a speech in Baltimore, the same city he called rodent-infested and filthy earlier this year.


ACOSTA (voice-over): Talking tough, House Democrats are setting the ground rules for an impeachment investigation into the president, accusing Mr. Trump of behavior that endangers American democracy.

REP. JERROLD NADLER (D-NY): Conduct under investigation poses a threat to our democracy. We have an obligation to respond to this threat. We are doing so.

ACOSTA: The president was all the tweeting, bring it on, characterizing Democrats as choosing impeachment over simply beating him in next year's election. Republicans in the House are flat-out daring Democrats to get going.

REP. TOM MCCLINTOCK (R-CA): I dare you to do it. In fact, I double- dog-dare you to do it. Have the House vote on those 18 words, and then go at it. Why won't you do that?

ACOSTA: The GOP is seizing on the grumbling coming from moderate Democrats, who oppose impeachment, exploiting a divide that has put House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the hot seat.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): Come with me sometime, and you will hear what the American people are saying. They understand that impeachment is a very divisive measure. But if we have to go there, we will have to go there. But we can't go there unless we have the facts. And we will follow the facts. That's all I'm going to say about this subject.

ACOSTA: The president will likely have more to say on the subject at a speech to Republican lawmakers set for Baltimore, the same city he blasted earlier this year when he launched a racially loaded attack on its longtime Congressman Elijah Cummings, tweeting: "Cummings' district is a disgusting rat and rodent infested mess. If he spent more time in Baltimore, maybe he could help clean up this very dangerous and filthy place." DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Those people are living in hell in Baltimore. They're largely African-American. You have a large African-American population. And they really appreciate what I'm doing, and they have let me know it.

ACOSTA: Cummings invited the president to his district to show Mr. Trump he's wrong about Baltimore.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D-MD): A lot to be done. All the cutbacks with regard to -- that would affect cities have been significant. And you know what? I want President Trump to come to my district. I want him to -- oh, God, I want him to come.

ACOSTA: The president has moved on to his latest target, his just- fired National Security Adviser John Bolton, tweeting: "In fact, my views on Venezuelan and especially Cuba were far stronger than those of John Bolton. He was holding me back."

Sources tell CNN Mr. Trump may reward one of Bolton's old rivals, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, by giving him the job of national security adviser as well, a dual role not seen since the days of Henry Kissinger.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: That would not be an unprecedented move, of course. Presidents Nixon and Ford did the same thing with Secretary of State Kissinger. But at the same time, the president is looking at a slate of probably five or so, I would say, with Secretary Pompeo, five plus.

ACOSTA: Another big question for the president to answer in the coming days, gun control, and whether he will call on Republicans to embrace universal background checks, a proposal supported by nearly all Americans.

PELOSI: Why don't we spend some time going over to see Mitch McConnell and asking him why he doesn't want to save lives.


ACOSTA: Now, the president just finished talking to reporters. He told reporters that he just wrapped up a meeting where some proposals on guns were presented.

We understand the broad outlines of some of the options under consideration were part of that presentation. But the president at this point, Wolf, is not specifying exactly where he falls on the issue of universal background checks.

He did offer some clarity on this idea that the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, might serve in a dual role as both secretary of state and the national security adviser. The president said he is no longer considering that idea, but that he has about 15 other names under consideration at this point. So, Wolf, in just a few moments, we will have some of that tape from

the president's remarks to reporters. We will have that for you in just a few minutes -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We will play that tape as soon as we get it.

Thanks very much, Jim Acosta, over at the White House.

Let's talk a little bit more about impeachment in the meantime.

Our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju, is up on Capitol Hill.

So, Manu, where does the impeachment inquiry go from here? Have Democrats come to any hard agreement on what to do next?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Judiciary Committee chairman, Jerry Nadler, says there will be an aggressive round of hearings this fall, before deciding before the end of the year about whether or not to recommend articles of impeachment.

But even though Democrats on that committee, the Judiciary Committee, are mostly in support of what they're calling an impeachment inquiry, Democratic leaders have yet to embrace that term that they're actually mounting an impeachment inquiry, even though both -- every side agrees that, ultimately, they will have to make the decision about whether or not to recommend articles of impeachment.

But, Wolf, a number of Democrats I talked to today are not certain about whether or not they should go forward with impeaching the president, particularly Democrats who won Republican seats and seats in districts that the president carried.


REP. ANTHONY BRINDISI (D-NY): I don't think that, if you were to put articles of impeachment on the floor today, you can get to 218 votes. And I think the American people aren't there on the issue of impeachment. I would vote no on impeachment.

Unless there's some compelling evidence that comes out over the next couple months, my vote is no.

REP. MIKIE SHERRILL (D-NJ): I don't think we have made the case to the American people that we need to yet. So to the extent they think they can do that, I have been supporting them doing that.

RAJU: But, right now, you don't feel like it's necessary to move down the road of an impeachment inquiry?


REP. MAXINE WATERS (D-CA): As you know, the leadership in our caucus have been reticent to move forward aggressively on this. But because of the growing concern, not only the members, but our constituents, I think they are understanding that there had to be some movement, and that they understand that this movement could lead to impeachment.

RAJU: And what are the implications of the leadership not calling this an impeachment inquiry? Any concerns that the speaker won't call it an impeachment inquiry?

NADLER: I'm not going to get into that now.


RAJU: There, Jerry Nadler not commenting about any concerns about the speaker's handling of this.

Now, the speaker has endorsed what the Judiciary Committee has done, including today, voting on a resolution to essentially set the ground rules of their investigation in the weeks ahead about how exactly these impeachment hearings could take place.

That will start -- we will start to see that next week, when the committee holds a hearing with Corey Lewandowski, the former Trump campaign manager, on those allegations of obstruction of justice.

But, again, Wolf, the ultimate decision about whether to move down the road of voting to hold -- to impeach this president, something that continues to divide this party, and still uncertain if the Democrats would have even the votes to get that out of the House -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Manu, thanks very much, Manu Raju reporting.

Also tonight, the former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe could be indicted at any time. The Justice Department has rejected McCabe's appeal to avoid criminal charges for allegedly making false statements to investigators.

McCabe is a frequent target of attacks by President Trump. We should also note he is a CNN contributor.

Let's bring in our crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz.

Shimon, tell us more about this breaking story.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, so what happened here, Wolf, is that Andrew McCabe's team, his lawyers met with the Department of Justice in a last-ditch effort to try and get them to not pursue charges against him.

And this all stems from his conversations with a reporter, contact that he had with a "Wall Street Journal" reporter just before the election, concerning a story that they were running about the investigation into the Clinton Foundation.

And so McCabe says that he wanted to set the record straight. He felt that the newspaper had erroneous information. And so, essentially, at some point, he reaches out to this reporter. They have a conversation.

[18:10:05] The inspector general then launches an investigation into contacts between FBI agents media, and the media. And so Andy McCabe gets scrolled up in this investigation. They ask him questions about his contacts with media.

And they say, the inspector general, that he lied to them, that he wasn't candid about those conversations. And so, as a result of that, they recommended charges be brought against him for lying to these internal federal investigators.

And, of course, that is where we are now. We are waiting to hear if, in fact, the Department of Justice, it's going to file those charges. There seems to be indications that they are, because, today, they basically said, we're not going to listen to this appeal. We're not going to let you went on this side. We're going to go ahead and pursue this on our own, and therefore not allowing McCabe and his lawyers to appeal anything that the Department of Justice was doing.

BLITZER: Shimon, how unusual would it be to see an indictment in a case like this for lying to the inspector general over at the Department of Justice? Is that a crime?

PROKUPECZ: It is a crime, you can argue, technically, by the books. Yes, it is. These are federal investigators. Just like lying to the FBI is a crime, this is a crime as well.

However, there are certain things that go on in these investigations sometimes, especially with a senior guy like this. This was the number two guy at the FBI who was being asked all sorts of questions about his contacts.

His people say, McCabe's people say he was confused by some of the questions. And there's also this opportunity -- usually, what happens -- and they did this in this case. The inspector general did this in this case. They allow the subjects of these investigations to go back and correct anything perhaps that they thought may be wrong, anything that they think that maybe they were confused about.

And that did happen in this case. It is extremely unusual that you get a referral for charges and then actually a U.S. attorney then decides to take on and actually present this case and any case like this to a grand jury.

Of course, it shouldn't be lost on all, obviously, Andrew McCabe has been the target of the president, certainly a lot of issues concerning the Clinton Foundation investigation, certainly attacked him over the handling of the entire Clinton e-mail investigation.

And some people, certainly the people close to Andy McCabe, feel that this is in retribution for this, he's been the target of the president, and that is ultimately why the Department of Justice is bringing these charges.

BLITZER: Any indication when will we get a final decision over at the Department of Justice?

PROKUPECZ: We have no indication, Wolf. Certainly,, we have been expecting this for a little time now.

We thought maybe we'd get some word today. We haven't. Fridays are usually a day that they like to do this. We will see.

BLITZER: Hold on, Shimon.

The president spoke just moments ago at the White House. We have the tape now. He answered a whole bunch of questions.


TRUMP: And we're very close to a new high. It would be over 100 times, I believe. You will check it, but many, many times we set the record.

So, we're very honored by that. We're having a tremendous couple of weeks. A lot of good things are happening.

I got a call from heads of China. The call was directed to my people, actually. And they asked whether or not it would be possible to delay the hit on the tariffs up to 30 percent from 25 percent. Would it be possible to take it off of the October 1 date?

We gave them a two-week -- in honor of President Xi, President Xi, we gave them a two-week reprieve, and so we'll be doing the tariffs on October 15 instead of October 5 or 1.

They were going to be set on October 1. We're moving it to October 15 because they're having their 70th anniversary. And I will do that, again, in honor of President Xi.

And that's it. Any questions?


QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Secretary Pompeo (OFF-MIKE)

TRUMP: I think he's fantastic, but I actually spoke to Mike Pompeo about that.

And he -- he decided -- and he and I -- I get along with him so well. We have a lot of the same views and a couple of little different views, but he likes the idea of having somebody in there with them. And I do too.

I think that we'll have an answer for you. We have -- we have 15 candidates. Everybody wants it badly, as you can imagine, and we'll probably next week sometime make that decision. We look forward to that.



TRUMP: We had -- we have at least 10 more. A lot of people want the job. And we -- it's a great job. It's great because it's a lot of fun to work with Donald Trump. And it's very easy, actually, to work with me. You know why it's easy? Because I make all the decisions. They don't have to work.



QUESTION: Mr. President, you called Baltimore at one point rodent- infested. What's your message to the people of Baltimore now as you head to Baltimore?

TRUMP: Well, I look forward -- we're going to Baltimore right now. I look forward to it.

We're going to be with the Republican congressmen. And I think it's going to be a very successful evening. We're -- we had a tremendous election on Tuesday. And you saw the results on Tuesday night. One gentleman was Dan Bishop. He was not doing so well three or four weeks ago.

We got the message out. He won the election. He was losing substantially, and he ended up winning fairly easily. That's Dan Bishop. And Greg Murphy won by a lot more than it was expected. He won by many points. And a lot of people thought that was going to be a close race.

So we won two seats in Congress on Thursday. And I guess the press didn't talk about it too much. They would have if they lost, but they won. The Republicans had a great night on Tuesday.


QUESTION: Are you considering any kind of interim deal with the Chinese where they make a commitment on intellectual property?

TRUMP: Well, it's something that people talk about. I would rather get the whole deal done. We've taken in many, many billions of dollars of tariffs.

I would rather get the entire Chinese done. Look, if we're going to do the deal, let's get it done. A lot of people are talking about it. And I see a lot of analysts are saying an interim deal, meaning we'll do pieces of it, the easy ones first. But there's no easy or hard. There's a deal or there's not a deal.

But it's something we would consider, I guess, but we're very -- we're doing very well. We're doing very well.

I did the little bit of a delay in honor of President Xi because it's their 70th anniversary in China.


QUESTION: What do you -- what do you -- Mr. President, what do you expect out of the debate tonight?

TRUMP: Well, it's too bad I'm going to miss it. I'm going to have to have it somehow taped. I didn't even tell them about that, so maybe it's not that important. But it is important.

Look, it's going to be very interesting. I look forward to going home. I'm going to have to watch it as a rerun, because many of you are coming to Baltimore with me. I don't expect too much difference. I mean, you have three people that are leading.

I sort of think that those three people are going to take it to the end. It's going to be one of those three, I think. But you never know and politics, do we? You know better than I you never know in politics.


QUESTION: ... out of those, who you think your strongest opponent is?

TRUMP: I think -- you know, look, they all have their weaknesses and their strengths.

I think that they're very different. You certainly have a lot of different voices up there, but it would look to me like it would be Elizabeth Warren, and it looks like Joe maybe will be able to get there, maybe not. I don't know. And, certainly, Bernie is there. He's number three.

But I think that's -- because they're so far in the lead, the three of them. And, if you remember -- I'm sure you forget my Republican primaries, but I went to the lead at the very beginning and stayed there.

It's -- you know, if you don't make a really major mistake -- he should be able to make it. I would imagine Biden would be able to make it if he doesn't make any major mistakes. We'll see what happens.


QUESTION: ... the man -- the man -- the man that you called "my African-American" at your rally in 2016, he says he's leaving the Republican Party because you're pursuing a pro-white agenda. What's your reaction to that?

TRUMP: Yes, go ahead. Go ahead. What?

QUESTION: What do you -- what do you say to him? What do you say to -- he used to be a supporter of yours.

TRUMP: Go ahead.

QUESTION: It's a supporter of yours. He's a supporter of yours that used to be a supporter, and he's not anymore.

TRUMP: I don't know who you're talking about. QUESTION: He's the man that you pointed out at the rally and called

"my African-American." He used to support you.

TRUMP: I don't know.

We have tremendous African-American support. I would say I'm at my all-time high. I don't think I have ever had the support that I have had now.

And I think I'm going to do very well with African-American. African- American support is been the best we've had. And I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that, from an employment and unemployment, both employment and unemployment...

QUESTION: Do you think he's wrong that you're pursuing...

TRUMP: Well, I think this. I think this. It's very simple.

We have the best numbers we've ever had for African-Americans in terms of employment and unemployment, so I think we're going to do very well. Go ahead.


QUESTION: Have you made any decisions about guns or ethanol today?

TRUMP: So we had a big meeting on guns and we had a big meeting on ethanol.

We had a great meeting with Chuck Grassley, Joni Ernst, Mike Rounds. We had -- Kim was there -- Iowa. Kim was there. We had some terrific people, John Thune. We had a meeting on ethanol. We had a meeting on guns, separately and different people.

And I think we made some good progress on background checks and guns. I think we had a great meeting on ethanol for the farmers. I think we had -- our ethanol meeting was a great meeting. Let's see what happens.


But there's been nobody better to farmers than Donald Trump. That, I can tell you. I -- I think we made -- I think we made a lot of progress on ethanol, and I think we made a lot of progress on guns, yes.


QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) some time this year (OFF-MIKE)

TRUMP: At some point, yes, he will -- certainly, they want to meet. They'd like to meet. I think it's something that will happen, and we will see. But Kim Jong-un, I think something can happen, yes.

(CROSSTALK) QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) military, the military construction fund, Senator Tim Kaine says you're putting national security at risk and Democrats are calling for a vote to overturn your national emergency. What's your response to that? And...


TRUMP: So, the wall is being built. We need the wall for purposes of national security. The military is behind it all the way. Any project that they may delay a little bit, it's only a delay. They will get built. But the wall is something that we need.

We are going to be building hundreds of miles of walls. We had, as you know, a Supreme Court decision which was outstanding.

We also had a Supreme Court decision yesterday on asylum. And that was a very, very big decision. And it was a 7-2 decision. The asylum decision was very big.

But we had a very good decision on the wall and wall funding. And the wall is going up as we speak.

We intend to have approximately, you know, maybe something short of 500 miles of wall. That would be almost everything that we need. About 500 miles is what we need, and we are going to be very close to that by the end of next year.


QUESTION: Judiciary Committee approved a resolution defining the -- panel's investigation, the impeachment investigation. Are you concerned at all that moving forward...


TRUMP: No, I'm not.

We've done the best job of any president in two-and-a-half years in office. Our economy is incredible. Rules, regulations, everything that we've rolled back have really led to a resurgent economy.

If you look at all of the things we've done for the military, if you look at what we've done for the vets, if you look at everything we've done from an economic standpoint, to a national security standpoint, I think our country is in one of the best conditions that it has ever been in.

I think the economy may be the strongest it has ever been in, in the history of our country. And people know we are doing a great job. They do play politics and they continue to play politics. And a lot of people think that's the only way, but you know what?

Most people think that helps me. It's really an embarrassment to our country. We've done a great job.


QUESTION: Kim Jong-un wants new conditions for negotiations with the United States. Are you accepting new conditions for the negotiations?

TRUMP: Well, we are going to see. I think that North Korea would like to meet. I think you probably have heard that.

I can tell you that Iran wants to meet and China wants to make a deal. So we have a lot of interesting things going on.



TRUMP: Well, I haven't seen the Andrew McCabe situation. I really don't know about it yet. I heard it was big news before, but I have not been able to find out exactly what happened with Andrew McCabe.

Something happened that was very big. It was just breaking as I was -- walked out. But I haven't seen it yet.



QUESTION: What exactly have you and the first lady told Barron about vaping?

TRUMP: We haven't told him anything, except don't vape. Don't vape. We don't like vaping. I don't like vaping.


QUESTION: Do you think Nancy Pelosi is scared to impeach you?

TRUMP: I don't think she's scared of anything. I think she's a smart woman. And I think she knows exactly what she's doing.

We have the strongest economy in the history of our country. We are about ready to break the record again on stock market. We've broken the record on jobs. African-American, we just broke the record again. You know that. If you look at Hispanic-American, Asian-American, the best employment and unemployment numbers in the history of our country.

With women, we are at 71 percent -- 71 years. Think of this -- 71 years, the best numbers in 71 years. No, I think we've done a great job. There are those that say the best job in the history of our country for the first-two-and-a-half years. So, pretty much, that's the story.


QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) TRUMP: So we had a big meeting today on guns. We had a big meeting

today on ethanol. Both meetings went very well. A lot of progress was made, I believe, on the background checks and various things having to do with guns.

We are dealing with the Democrats. And we are doing -- I think we are dealing very well.

It seems like they'd like to do something. And I think -- and I can speak for Republicans. They'd like to do something. We will see what can happen, but we are always protecting our Second Amendment.


I want to make it clear, our Second Amendment will be protected fully.


QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Venezuela, sir?

TRUMP: Say it?

QUESTION: How was John Bolton (OFF-MIKE)

TRUMP: Well, we are dealing on Venezuela right now.

It's going to be a very interesting period of time. We're also trying to help a lot of Venezuelans who are dying. They have no food. They have no water. And we are trying to help. A lot of them have escaped, so to speak, into Colombia and different places. We are trying to help those people that have been able to get out.

But we are dealing with a lot of things having to do with Venezuela. My attitude on Venezuela is a very tough one. And, frankly, my attitude on Cuba is a very tough one.

And, in a way, they go hand in hand, because Cuba has always made it possible for Venezuela to do what they are doing. And, frankly, that's ending now. And, likewise, Venezuela, through the oil, took care of Cuba.

A lot of that is ending right now.


QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) the Israelis that they're spying on you at the White House?

TRUMP: I don't believe that. No, I don't think the Israelis were spying on us. I really would find that hard to believe.

My relationship with Israel has been great. You look at Golan Heights. You look at Jerusalem, with moving the embassy to Jerusalem, becoming the capital. You look at even the Iran deal, what has happened with Iran. Iran is a much different country than it was two- and-a-half years ago. It's a much -- it's in a much different position.

No, I don't believe that. I wouldn't believe that story. Anything is possible, but I don't believe it.

QUESTION: Are there any Democrats debating tonight that you actually respect?

TRUMP: I respect all of them.

QUESTION: All of them?

TRUMP: I respect everyone. Let me tell you, it takes a lot of courage to run for office. I respect all of them.

See that? I'm getting to be much better as a politician. You never thought you'd hear that answer.



TRUMP: I think so.

It depends really on the Democrats. It depends on whether or not the Democrats want to take your guns away, because there's a possibility that this is just a ploy to take your guns away, or whether or not it's meaningful.

If it's meaningful, we will make a deal. If this is a movement by the Democrats to take your guns away, then it's never going to happen, because we are never going to let that happen.

We will always be there for our Second Amendment. So we're going to see. If the Democrats want to make a deal, we can make a deal.

Thank you, everybody.


BLITZER: All right, so there's the tape,the president answering a whole bunch of reporters' questions before getting on that helicopter, heading off to Baltimore for a Republican retreat.

Jim Acosta is joining us from the White House right now.

Jim, the president, at one point, he said they're making some good progress on background checks as far as gun control is concerned. He also said that there's no notion of considering Mike Pompeo to be both secretary of state, as well as the national security adviser.

ACOSTA: Yes, Wolf, I think those are the two big headlines from the president's remarks just a few moments ago.

I think it's very important to kind of zero in on what the president was just saying a short while ago, when he said that: We're not going to support anything that takes people's guns away. Wolf, the president is obviously dancing around the issue here. He's

not committing to exactly what he's going to do. Democrats are not proposing anything along the lines of taking people's guns away. They're talking about expanding the nation's background check system, so there are universal background checks in this country.

But, Wolf, our reporting at this point is that the president is not ready to embrace a universal background check system. And I think you heard some of the code words that are being used by the NRA, frankly, and some of the gun rights supporters out there. It sounds like the president is speaking their language.

As for the national security adviser opening over here at the White House, it's open once again, and the president ruled out the possibility that he might give the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, that position, he said.

And I thought that was interesting. He said he even spoke about it with the secretary of state.

But one thing that we should point out, Wolf, that kind of scenario would have been very interesting to watch here in Washington, if Mike Pompeo had become both the secretary of state and the national security adviser.

As we know, inside the White House, the president likes to have a lot of advisers around him arguing with one another, so he can make that final decision, a la the boardroom in "The Apprentice."

And if you have Mike Pompeo doing both of those jobs, it sort of limits the number of viewpoints coming into the Oval Office for the president to consider -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That's a very good point.

All right, Jim Acosta at the White House, stand by.

I want to bring in Democratic Congressman Hakeem Jeffries. He serves on the Judiciary Committee. He's also a leader. He's chairman of the Democratic Caucus.

Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.

Let me get your quick reaction. You listened to every word that the president said during that Q&A. What jumps out at you?

REP. HAKEEM JEFFRIES (D-NY): Well, the president continues to talk the talk in terms of dealing with our nation's gun violence epidemic, but there's no evidence that he's willing to walk the walk.

This is very simple. The House passed universal criminal background check legislation in February. It's been languishing in the Senate for almost 200 days. Mitch McConnell refuses to act, yet there are massacres that are taking place and Americans are being slaughtered on our streets, not in Baghdad, not over in Afghanistan, but in Dayton and in El Paso and in Brooklyn and in South Central Los Angeles and in South side of Chicago and all points in between. And so we need action.

We want to close the gun show loophole. We want to close the internet sale loophole. We want to close the private transaction loophole. And guess what, Wolf, so do approximately 90 percent of the American people, including a majority of Republicans, a majority of gun owners, a majority of independents. The president needs to get Mitch McConnell to act.

BLITZER: But if the president were willing to accept at least some of what you want, would you be willing to deal with it?

JEFFRIES: Well, I think we always are willing to try to find common ground. But this is an issue where the floor should be universal criminal background check legislation. We need to do much more. Every step that we can take to save a life is a step worth taking.

BLITZER: Let me get your thoughts on what happened in the House Judiciary Committee. Because you've been sort of skeptical, but today, after the House Judiciary Committee voted, you tweeted this. House Judiciary Committee just adopted a resolution for impeachment investigation, all in caps, voted yes. No one is above the law. So where does this stand now?

JEFFRIES: Well, the House Democratic Caucus has been clear in terms of our perspective as it relates to the role that we should play as a separate and co-equal branch of government. We don't work for Donald Trump. We don't work for any president. We work for the American people.

And we have a constitutional responsibility to serve as a check and balance on an out of control executive branch. We won't overreach. We won't overpoliticize. We won't overinvestigate. But we do need to move forward, follow the facts, as Speaker Pelosi has said, apply the law and be guided by Constitution.

And so the Judiciary Committee took a step as it relates to our jurisdictional area of responsibility, and that is to explore whether they are high crimes and misdemeanors that were engaged in by this president and whether we should recommend articles of impeachment to the full House at some point in the future (ph).

BLITZER: This vote today in the Judiciary Committee, you're a member of the Judiciary Committee, does it give you more authority, more legal ability to get documents, testimonies, stuff like that, that you would need in an impeachment investigation.

JEFFRIES: That's quite possible. The administration has engaged in extraordinary stonewalling as it relates to complying with lawful, congressional subpoenas. They have refused to produce documents and refused to allow witnesses to testify. All we want to do is bring the truth to light for the American people who deserve to know whether or not the president is a crook.

And so we're going to explore the abuse of power, the culture of corruption as well as the obstruction of justice. Certainly, that was documented in the Mueller report in an exhaustive fashion. BLITZER: Congressman Hakeem Jeffries of New York, as usual, thanks very much for coming in.

JEFFRIES: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: And thanks for being patient listening to that tape with all of us.

Coming up, the first debate matchup between Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren is tonight. Will it decisive moment in the Democratic presidential race?



BLITZER: Right now, the leading Democratic presidential candidates are less than two hours away from taking the debate stage. This will be the first time that top contenders Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren have gone head to head. Our Senior Washington Correspondent Jeff Zeleny is joining us from the debate site in Houston right now.

So, Jeff, set the scene for us. What can we expect?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, good evening. Joe Biden will come into this debate trying to defend his argument that he is the strongest candidate to take on President Trump. Elizabeth Warren, of course, will be trying to defend all of her plans and how much they will cost.

All of this happening as the other candidates are on stage. Many of them are trying to breakthrough and have their moment before it's too late.


ZELENY: A Texas showdown tonight between the top three Democratic presidential candidates, marking their first in the 2020 campaign as they all stand side by side sharing a debate stage in Houston.

While Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have faced off once already, all eyes are on Biden and Elizabeth Warren, whose competing visions represent the starkest choice for voters. Biden's adviser tell CNN the former vice president plans to question whether Warren will be able to deliver on her proposals.

JOE BIDEN, FORMER U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: Her plans are great but executing on those plans is a very different thing.

ZELENY: Warren has been imploring Democrats to dream big, arguing now it's not the time to play it safe.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA): We can't choose a candidate we don't believe in because we're scared. And we can't other people to vote for someone we don't believe in. ZELENY: The Massachusetts senator releasing another new plan today, calling for a major expansion of social security to immediately increase benefits by $200 a month per person and expand benefits for the poor.

To pay for it, she would require the wealthiest Americans to contribute more to the program. Warren, along with Bernie Sanders, is calling for sweeping changes to healthcare and other government [18:40:00] programs. It's a revolution that Biden and several other rivals fear as pushing the party too far to the left.

Only ten candidates out of the crowded Democratic field qualified for the debate to be held on the campus of Texas Southern University, one of the nation's black colleges and universities. Biden announcing the endorsements today of 59 black state legislators from 15 states, underscoring how support from African-Americans has solidified his lead.

A new CNN poll shows the former vice president holds an overwhelming advantage among black voters, with 42 percent supporting him, about four times as much as Sanders, Warren and Kamala Harris. And just hours before the debate, Biden reminding voters once again of his loyalty to his partner in the White House, former President Barack Obama.

BIDEN: Barack Obama is an extraordinary man.


ZELENY: So, of course, the former vice president is clinging to his former boss, the most popular man inside the Democratic Party. But, of course, the Obama legacy will be on display and will be debated over on the debate stage. Of course, look at these proposals, Medicare for all, taxes, other central issues. Wolf, all of this is going to speak to as voters measure up which ideological direction they want the Democratic Party to move into. All ten candidates tonight clearly have a major moment here in Houston.

BLITZER: They certainly do. All right, Jeff Zeleny in Houston for us, thank you very much.

And a reminder to viewers, we're going to have full debate analysis starting at 10:30 P.M. Eastern later tonight right here on CNN.

Let's bring in our analyst to discuss. David Swerdlick, you just heard the president say as he was getting ready to go to Baltimore for this Republican retreat that he won't be watching the Democratic presidential debate live. He'll watch a rerun. That was his word. Is his trip to Baltimore, the speech he's going to make there, sort of designed as counterprogramming to take away from a bit the Democratic debate?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, Wolf. I thought it was counterprogramming but kind of a halfhearted effort. He got out there in that gaggle and talked about, well, it looks like a three person race between Warren, the vice president, Biden, and Sanders. He didn't say anything bombastic like he might otherwise on Twitter or in some of these gaggles just sort of gave the conventional wisdom to say he's aware of the debate, but, look, I'm giving a speech at the Baltimore Harbor tonight. Maybe you want to tune in to that too. We'll see. I think probably the debate is a bigger drawdown than another Trump speech that everybody has heard now a million times.

BLITZER: Bianna, is the president right when he thinks that Biden, Warren and Sanders remain the top three contenders? Certainly, in the polls, they do. But he also said, at one point, he imagines that Biden will get the nomination if he doesn't make any major mistakes.

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: And he also said that he respects all of the candidates which prompted the reporter to ask all of them, and he said, yes, all of them. It was a surprise response from the president gives you a sense of where we are in this administration.

But, look, here is a president who doesn't believe in polls when they don't favor him but clearly does follow polls the way the rest of the media and the rest of the country does. And to be clear, the top three candidates are the ones that he right now selected. And that is obviously Vice President Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. It's going to be interesting to see how they focus their night tonight and their time on that stage.

Remember, Biden's theory going into this election was it's about getting President Trump out of office, that he is unfit to be president of the United States and there is more middle ground in this country to unite people to not re-elect President Trump.

You have Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders who are focused on a lot of their policies that many right now are frankly concerned maybe a bit too far to the left. Obviously, this is a primary. You go to a general election and that's where you typically see candidates veer closer to the middle.

But it's going to be interesting to see tonight whether they once again do what they did in the second debate and go over Obama's legacy, which I think didn't sit well with in Democrats or they focus on President Trump or do they focus on ideas moving the country forward that many view as somewhat progressive. So that's what's going to be playing out tonight amongst those three and the other candidates.

BLITZER: I think you're right.

Also tonight, Jeffrey, it's the first time that Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren will actually share the stage in one of these debates. How do you think they will interact?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, so far, they have both been mostly positive on the campaign trail, talking about why they should be elected. What I'll be looking for is will they go negative on each other at all. Will Vice President Biden say, you are trying to take private health insurance away from tens of millions of people? Will Elizabeth Warren say, you were wrong on the war in Iraq, you were wrong on so many other issues? The question of whether they go negative, I think, will be the most interesting one to see.

If they're positive, I think the status quo is likely [18:45:00] to remain intact.


BLITZER: Jackie, what are your expectations from this debate tonight?

JACKIE ALEMANY, AUTHOR, THE WASHINGTON POST POWERUP: Well, I think Bianna raised a really valid point, which is that I was pretty surprised that the president wasn't more negative about the candidates when we just saw him speak a few moments ago after the polling this week that showed all the candidates pulling ahead against him in a general election. But he can be a pretty astute political analyst at times, and I think him saying that Biden needs to not make a mistake is completely true.

You know, the top tier candidates have different incentives during this debate than I think the bottom tier, who potentially need that moment, need to be more negative. But for someone like Joe Biden whose argument really rests on his electability, making a misstep, having a gaffe, appearing to be a step behind the other candidates could be really problematic for him.

One of the most interesting things I pulled from the polls this week was just how ascendant Elizabeth Warren is in all realms, especially in the electability argument. That's an argument that she's really chipped away at. Her numbers have gone up significantly while Biden's have dropped. And I think the more and more she gets out there in the sorts of debate settings, the more she disproves the electability argument against her.

BLITZER: Everybody, stick around.

There's more news we're following, including this: Why is Vladimir Putin meeting with a close ally of President Trump in Russia?



BLITZER: Tonight, Vladimir Putin is getting between President Trump and Israel's prime minister. The Kremlin later meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu in Russia just ahead of the Israeli election next week. We know President Trump has been going out of his way to help Netanyahu politically.

CNN's Oren Liebermann reports from Sochi, Russia.


OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Tonight, one of Donald Trump's closest allies is cozying up to one of America's biggest enemy. Just days before he's up for re-election, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is playing both sides internationally, making a lightning fast trip to Sochi to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin to tout their relationship.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER (through translator): Tightening the relations between us, Mr. President, is also the result of two other things, our mutual rational policy and the direct connection between us.

LIEBERMANN: While Iran and security topped the official agenda, analysts say there is another reason for a quick trip out of the country just days before ballots are cast.

Netanyahu is pushing for the Russian vote in Israel. Immigrants from the former Soviet Union make up some 15 percent of Israel's population, a vote that's generally in the hands of this man, Avigdor Liberman. Originally from the Soviet Union, Liberman once worked for Netanyahu before launching his own party. Now, the former defense minister is the secular right wing thorn in Netanyahu's side, having quit the Israeli leader's government saying he was too soft on terror and caved to the religious.

AVIGDOR LIBERMAN, LEADER, YISRAEL BEITEINU: I hope we will establish a real national white liberal government, without orthodox and without radical members of our Knesset.

LIEBERMANN: Polls show Liberman with enough seats to prevent Netanyahu from getting the right wing religious government he wants. And while Liberman's strength begins with his Russian base, his appeal is growing across the political spectrum.

ANNA RAYVA BARSKY, ISRAEL CHANNEL 9 (through translator): The joint interest is secularism. They feel that the country is changing and they feel the religious population is becoming a majority and more and more dominant and it scares them, and Liberman tells them, I am holding your flag.

LIEBERMANN: Roni Milo, the former mayor of Tel Aviv, he once belonged to Netanyahu's Likud party, now he says he's voting Liberman.

RONI MILO, LIBERMAN SUPPORTER: He is a right wing but not extreme right wing but more direct right wing on one end, and on the other end, he is not connected to all kind of corruption.

LIEBERMANN: Liberman refused to join with Netanyahu in April's election, forcing new elections. With renewed popularity, he is one more obstacle standing between Netanyahu and an election victory.

(on camera): Netanyahu heads home after this quick trip to try to take control of the headlines once again. His big announcements this week did not go as he had planned, after he said Israel discovered a nuclear base in Iran, President Donald Trump said he would be willing to meet the Iranian president. Then when he said he annexed parts of the West Bank, well, that was condemned by the Russians, and then Trump fired John Bolton, one of Netanyahu's closest allies in Iran, in another blow to Netanyahu.

Oren Liberman, CNN, Sochi.


BLITZER: Much more news right after this.



BLITZER: As the 2020 Democrats are about to debate tonight, we want to share some lessons from the oldest living president, Jimmy Carter. I visited him and former first lady Rosalynn Carter last Sunday in their hometown of Plains, Georgia, for a CNN documentary that I have been working on. I joined them at church where President Carter still teaches Sunday school. Just weeks before his 95th birthday, Carter spoke mostly off the cuff for 45 minutes, stressing the need for peace and love in a world with too much war and hate.


JIMMY CARTER, FORMER PRESIDENT: If we could just implement God's will on Earth according to Christian's belief, for a God who loves us all, forgives us all, created us all, the world would be a much more wonderful place.


BLITZER: While President Carter spoke of how problems plaguing this country, he never directly criticized or mentioned President Trump.

To our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm wolf Blitzer.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.