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Trump Names Robert C. O'Brien As New National Security Adviser; Trump Announces Plan To Increase Sanctions On Iran; Pompeo Travels To Saudi Arabia To Meet With Crown Prince; Corey Lewandowski Stonewalls House Democrats At Hearing; Acting DNI Chief Fails To Turn Over Whistleblower Complaint. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired September 18, 2019 - 10:00   ET

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


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POPPY HARLOW, CNN NEWSROOM: All right. Top of the hour, good morning, everyone, I'm Poppy Harlow and it's a busy morning.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: And I'm Jim Scuitto. Can you keep up in a busy morning?

We're following two major breaking stories this hour. Last hour, President Trump announced his new pick for national security adviser. He's Robert C. O'Brien. He'll take the spot vacated by John Bolton, who was fired just last week.

The other breaking news story, President Trump announcing that he will be imposing new sanction on Iran. Does that mean no military retaliation? . HARLOW: That's right. Because that seems to be the response in the administration, at least right now to the increasing likelihood Iran was behind the recent attacks to Saudi Arabia. Minutes from now, the Saudi Ministry of Defense says they'll present hard evidence, material evidence, in their words, that they say Iran was behind this coordinated strike on those Saudi oil fields.

We'll, of course, monitor that press conference and bring you developments as they happen.

Let's begin though this hour and learn more about the new national security adviser. Our White House Correspondent, Boris Sanchez, joins us now.

So what do we know about the formerly hostage negotiator, Robert C. O'Brien?

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Hey, good morning, Jim and Poppy. Yes, Robert O'Brien, the new national security adviser, President Trump just announcing this on Twitter a few minutes ago. Our colleague, Jeremy Diamond, got some new reporting about this higher -- senior administration official here at the White House telling him effectively that President Trump wants a consensus builder and not somebody who is going to start fights, not a show boater.

The president, of course, firing John Bolton, the former national security adviser, saying that he got along well with him personally but that he didn't get along with big names in the administration. O'Brien, as you can see there, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, he's apparently involved in talks to get ASAP Rocky, the famous rapper released from Sweden after he was arrested there.

He was also in the Bush administration. He did some work for the United Nations. He apparently helped to train some Afghan judges and Afghan lawyers, something that may come in handy. Because a big part of this administration's national security directive is to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

He is handling a different portfolio, not just with the attempts to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, but also the ongoing trade war with China, difficult denuclearization talks with North Korea and some of the escalating tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

We should point out O'Brien coming to the White House from Mike Pompeo's State Department, perhaps a sign of Pompeo's growing influence in the administration, Jim and Poppy.

HARLOW: I think that's a good read. Boris Sanchez, thank you so much.

As we mentioned a short time ago, the president did announce this morning he will impose new additional sanctions on Iran. This seems to be at least for now the response, Jim, to the Saudi attacks.

SCIUTTO: Barbara, you're in the Pentagon, where undoubtedly the president's military advisers were at least preparing military options. Is it your sense, is it your reporting now that those are on the backburner?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, I don't know that they've ever really moved very far on it. The reaction we got here to the reporting that the military had been told to prepare options to plan, if you will, was sort of a shrugging of the shoulders. We always have options was the kind of answer you were getting.

But this morning, it does appear that new additional sanctions being prepared by the Secretary of Treasury Steve Mnuchin are option number one.

But from the standpoint, will these sanction, and we don't yet know what they are, who or what they will be imposed on, will that change Iran's own military calculation about engaging in these kind of attacks and it may well not. Because one of the things military officials, the intelligence community is seeing in this oil attack inside Saudi Arabia is it was sophisticated by the Iranians. Their missiles, their drones traveled very long distances, had an ability to precision target inside Saudi Arabia and they flew a very secured, this route (ph), very specifically designed to avoid U.S. and also Saudi air defenses that might have shot them down in the area.

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So the Iranians, even as they are trying to deal with sanctions, clearly have a very growing advanced military capability and an understanding of how to use it.

SCIUTTO: Yes. So they've spent a lot of money on U.S. missile defense and these drones got through them.

Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thanks very much.

Let's discuss now with CNN Chief International Correspondent, Clarissa Ward. Of course, she's spent a lot of time in the region.

I'm curious how both Iran and Saudi Arabia are reading this president. Because for the second time an aggressive act, presumably in this case, by Iran, at least from the administration's standpoint, and the president pulls back from the military response.

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think if you're Saudi Arabia right now, you are incredibly frustrated. I would say, actually, you're borderline desperate.

SCIUTTO: Wow.

WARD: Because if you are not going to act in this situation as the president of the United States and take a firm stand when you're talking about the greatest disruption to oil movement in decades and decades, then when are you going to take a stand?

Also for Saudi Arabia, this is desperately embarrassing. It has been revealed, as you just heard Barbara saying there, how vulnerable they are there, how vulnerable the infrastructure is despite all the enormous weapons and armament that Saudi Arabia has been buying over the last few decades.

If are you Iran, you are looking at this in a very different way. You're thinking, wow, we are really playing this so well right now because, essentially, we are being more and more disruptive, the escalations continue and no one is really rebuking us beyond words, some harsh words here and there and talk about maximum pressure and, obviously, the sanctions, which are certainly biting. But they're achieving their objective, which is to have more leverage at the negotiating table to remind the White House and other actors who might be involved that, listen, guys, we can send oil prices sky high whenever we want.

SCIUTTO: And when the president is very focused on the economic effect or higher oil price and the economic disruption, how that might hurt his chances in 2020.

WARD: Exactly.

HARLOW: It's exactly how Lindsey Graham sees it. And that's why he came out and said out loud when he tweeted last night about we have to do more. Pompeo is on his way to Saudi Arabia. He jumped said right away this was Iran more so than the president did, right? But the president did say he trusts Saudi intelligence. Should we have any reason to believe there will be any daylight between the Saudi leadership and Pompeo when this meeting is over?

WARD: I would think. at least on the surface, there will not be any daylight. We've seen Pompeo travel to Saudi Arabia many times, sit with the Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, always making out that they are singing from the same song sheet. But talking to the sources in the region, in Saudi, believe me, there is enormous frustration with this White House at the moment. Because their understanding was Donald Trump is our dream president, he has our back, he is very much focused on Israel, on the Bin Salman dynasty, he has a strong stance towards Iran. Now, we see John Bolton is gone.

President Trump is talking about having meetings without preconditions with the Iranian President, Rouhani.

SCIUTTO: Although denying he said it even though he said it.

WARD: Exactly, even though he said it. And the IRGC is up to all sorts of high jinks on the Strait of Hormuz and through the Houthis, and also now potentially firing directly from their own territory at Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure.

So it will take a lot for Secretary of State Pompeo to alleviate the very real anxiety that the Saudis are feeling right now.

SCIUTTO: Separate topic just because we have you here, the Israeli election. Now, it's unclear but it does appear that Benny Gantz, Netanyahu's opponent, has a slight advantage there. What would it mean for a post -- for Israel post-Netanyahu, for Israel, for the region, but also for this president who has aligned himself, virtually attached himself to the hip, politically with Netanyahu?

WARD: I mean, I think for President Trump, it will obviously be disappointing. He has gone above and beyond to try to help Netanyahu get elected back in April and then, again, with this election saying, tweeting about their phone conversation and this mutual defense pact.

I think for Israel, obviously, Netanyahu is the longest serving prime minister in Israeli history and the window on any kind of opportunity for exploring a Palestinian-Israeli peace process is essentially closed under his leadership.

Could that be opened a fraction with Benny Gantz? Well, potentially. Let's see what kind of coalition he would try to put together, if he is even able to put together a coalition. I think it's important to remember in the broader context of Benny Gantz is not a liberal by any stretch of the imagination. He still has a largely conservative background, very much security services, obviously, as the Chief of Staff of IDF background.

So I wouldn't expect any massive a pendulum shift in terms of the sort of policy that we see coming out of Israel. And I would also expect President Trump to continue to have a good relationship no matter who the Israeli leader is and to run this next election.

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SCIUTTO: It's a political calculation here.

WARD: Exactly.

HARLOW: UNGA going on this week, you've got this in Israel with just so much unknown where it's going to go. You've got Pompeo in Saudi and Iran and the U.S. president saying we're not going to talk at all. What is the most important thing you are looking for this week out of the U.N.?

WARD: I am looking to see whether we get any sense from the Trump administration of a more clear vision for what these strategic foreign policy is of this White House. Because right now, it is impossible for allies across the world and particularly in Europe trying to like read the tea leaves and see what this administration's real stance is, particularly on the issue of Iran. If you want to come to the negotiating table or do you want to talk tough? Is it maximum pressure or is it renegotiation? And how did we get to the stage where we are this close to a worst case scenario, which is a huge military conflagration and our best case scenario, potentially, is ratcheting back just to the status quo ante.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

WARD: Those are not good options to be presented with.

SCIUTTO: That's a good point. Thank you, Clarissa.

HARLOW: Clarissa Ward, always glad to have you, thank you so very much.

Still to come, new reports --

SCIUTTO: New reports -- we're going to do this one together. Let's see if we get any harmony. New reports, Nancy Pelosi, your turn.

HARLOW: Does not approve how the House Judiciary Committee is handling the impeachment. Much more on the divide within the party, next on Capitol Hill.

SCIUTTO: My turn. Plus, the first poll since the latest Democratic debate shows the race could be turning into a battle between Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren. So why is the former vice president sparring with Bernie Sanders?

HARLOW: All right, here I go. In this week, police in three different cities have taken action due to threats of violence against schools. An incredibly somber report we have for you ahead.

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[10:15:00] HARLOW: All right. What was billed as the first official impeachment-related hearing where Democrats hope to carefully build their case to try to remove the president from office, instead they ran into a White House stonewall as the former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski turned the hearing into a circus. But there is a key exchange that should not be overlooked even in a political circus.

Under oath, Lewandowski confirmed that President Trump asked him to tell the sitting attorney general to rein in the Russia probe. Listen to this.

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REP. HANK JOHNSON (D-GA): That's what he wanted you to deliver to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Correct?

COREY LEWANDOWSKI, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN MANAGER: I believe that's an accurate representation.

JOHNSON: And he wanted you to deliver it to Jeff so that Jeff could say it to the people, right?

LEWANDOWSKI: I believe so.

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HARLOW: Our Senior Congressional Correspondent Manu Raju joins us from Capitol Hill.

Manu, the significance of that admission getting lost in all those viral clashes from the hearing?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. And that's the concerns I am hearing from Democrats this morning is that the message may have ultimately been lost and the focus they believe was -- the admission was, in their view, an explosive one, when the president moving forward to try to limit an investigation into his campaign by instructing someone who is a private citizen to reach out to the attorney general. They said in any other situation, people would be immediately moving forward with impeachment proceedings.

But this caucus, Democratic caucus, is still divided over the next steps about whether to move forward and actually recommend articles of impeachment. Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, I'm told, just moments ago at this closed door caucus meeting, told her caucus the best way to beat Trump next year, the caucus should focus on one thing, beating Trump next year.

Now, she didn't say that impeachment would undercut the efforts to beat Trump. But that -- the lawmakers were left with the impression that that's essentially what she was trying to say, that perhaps moving forward, impeachment could help Trump. So the caucus should focus on trying to beat him in 2020.

Now, one Democrat who has been advocating impeachment, Maxine Waters, raised some concerns this morning about Lewandowski being the first witness to be called for that impeachment inquiry, even though she said that Congressman Johnson nailed Lewandowski.

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REP. MAXINE WATERS (D-CA): I think that there are some others who should have come first. I didn't think that he was necessarily the best one to come first.

Despite the fact that he pulled every trick in the book, think, in an attempt to enhance his election possibilities that he was nailed by Mr. Johnson who asked him about whether or not the president had instructed him.

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RAJU: Well, I just asked Jerry Nadler, the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, if he was concerned in any way that all the noise may have drowned out message that they were trying to deliver yesterday. He said, well, that's the point that he is blaming the Republicans for trying to make all that noise.

So, clearly, there is some questions about the way forward and ultimately whether or not the public understands what was revealed yesterday, Poppy.

HARLOW: And, Manu, before you go, the ODNI, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, has failed to meet a deadline to hand over a complaint from a whistleblower. Talk about how significant that is and why, why it happened?

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RAJU: Yes, that's right. It's still a mystery here on Capitol Hill about exactly what information that whistleblower has and whether or not it's something that has to do with the White House or whether or not it could undercut or has anything to do with Democrats in the House Intelligence Committee are investigating with Adam Schiff. The House Intelligence Committee have issued a subpoena asking for acting Director of National Intelligence to appear Thursday to explain exactly what is going on.

But he's not getting much cooperation. The department -- that office is saying that they need more time to respond. They are indicating that they ultimately will respond but a mystery about exactly why they're not getting this information that this whistleblower may have that Democrats say they need to know. Poppy?

HARLOW: Manu, thank you for your reporting on both those fronts. We appreciate it.

SCIUTTO: Joining us now to discuss this and other issues, CNN Legal Commentator, Jim Schultz. He's a former lawyer for the Trump White House. Jim, good to have you on this morning.

JIM SCHULTZ, CNN LEGAL COMMENTATOR: Thanks for having me on.

SCIUTTO: So first question, Corey Lewandowski, to be clear, confirmed under oath yesterday that the president told him to tell the sitting attorney general to rein in the Russia probe. You're a lawyer. Is that an acceptable demand for the president to make?

SCHULTZ: Look, I don't think there is any legal significance on what Corey Lewandowski said, whatsoever. We learned no new information yesterday, largely because Mueller did his job, Mueller and his team did this job. Anybody thinks that Congress can ask better questions or more succinct questions or more Probing questions than what the Mueller team did, that a team of professionals prosecutors and investigators.

SCIUTTO: I'm asking you as a lawyer. Is it acceptable for a president to instruct the attorney general to rein in probe in which the president is a party (ph) to that investigation?

SCHULTZ: Look, Attorney General Barr's theory is the president of the United States, acting within his capacity as president of the United States, has the ability, you know, within his constitutional powers to instruct his cabinet members and subordinates to make policy determinations, to make determinations regarding investigations, to launch investigations, and he's not wrong there. But to the extent that the president --

SCIUTTO: Okay. So a Democratic president is being investigated by Special Counsel would -- and he tells a close aide to tell the attorney general to rein in an investigation which he is involved, he would say that that Democratic president has that power to do so.

SCHULTZ: The way he went about, the way the president went about to doing it was not the right way to go about doing it. Was it illegal and unlawful? Attorney General Barr says no. Most legal scholars say no. And, in fact, there was no finding by Mueller that there actually was obstruction here.

So I think as it relates to all of this, this is much ado about nothing as it relates to the congressional inquiry, which is somewhat of a full (ph) inquiry.

SCIUTTO: A slight mischaracterization of Mueller because Mueller did not make a determination. He left that determination to Congress.

SCHULTZ: He did not make the determination, right?

SCIUTTO: But he didn't say it wasn't. I mean, he presented it as evidence.

On the issue of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, as you know, it's required by law to turn over details of whistleblower complaints, like the one that is involved now and that the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, is asking for. The law is clear on this. Complaints like this have to be referred to Congress.

Again, under the constraints of this may very well involved classified information. But, of course, those members of the Intelligence Committee have clear instance to handle that classified information. Is it okay for the Trump administration to ignore the law on this?

SCHULTZ: I don't know that they're ignoring the law on this. They're making a legal argument that this does not deal with intelligence- related issues. And I'm sure there's going to be some push and pull here and some negotiating. And, ultimately, there is going to be information turned over to Congress on this.

But it's well within the administration's right, and prior administrations have done the same thing, when Congress makes inquiries frequently, executive branches, in the interest of the executive branch to protect their power. That's what the executive branch does. This isn't something that hasn't been going on for ages.

SCIUTTO: All American laws are not designed to protect the executive branch's powers. There's a very clear laws here that requires whistleblowers like this to be referred to Congress.

SCHULTZ: Okay. And they're still working through it. They're still -- they've asked for more time. And we'll see how it plays out. But we largely don't know what this complain is about. It's a lot of speculation. It has some tied in the White House. I'm not sure --

SCIUTTO: The reason we don't know is because they're not reporting to the relevant. That's the reason we don't know.

SCHULTZ: Well, that's fine and well within the executive branch's right to disagree with the legislative branch of government. That's the way the Constitution works. They disagree with others and courts --

SCIUTTO: The House oversight powers over the executive branch.

SCHULTZ: Sure, we do.

SCIUTTO: And you've seen across the board. I mean, you have the White House ignoring subpoenas, you have them ignoring law on sharing information about a whistleblower complaint in intelligence. I'm just not clear on what limits you place on the president in terms of --

SCHULTZ: I've been part of the executive branch at the state level and the federal level and have studied executive branch politics for years and years. There has been this age old push and pull between the executive and legislative branch.

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They want information. The executive branch only wants to give them what they need to give them. This isn't anything new, nothing at all.

SCIUTTO: You have not seen an administration outright ignore subpoenas coming from the Hill? It is in terms of the scope of it.

SCHULTZ: Well, what do you mean ignoring subpoenas? Lawyers oppose subpoenas all the time in the context of court cases. The administration has a right to oppose subpoenas where they think the subpoenas are overreaching, certainly in the instances of these faux impeachment hearings where there hasn't been an impeachment proceeding convened yet the Judiciary Committee has changed the rules to call an Impeachment. It's really not impeachment but it is to appease some liberal base. I don't get any of it.

SCIUTTO: Well, a lot of the subpoenas not coming, to be clear, from impeachment. They're coming from others. As you might very well have a subpoena for the Director of National Intelligence on this issue. I mean, that's the big question there.

SCHULTZ: And it's going to be dealt with. And it will either get dealt with by way negotiation back and forth or go between the branches of government or to go courts and they'll make a determination.

SCIUTTO: All right. And we're going to keep up the conversation. Jim Schultz, I appreciate you taking the time this morning.

SCHULTZ: Thanks for having me on.

HARLOW: Good one. Facts matter.

SCIUTTO: Yes, they do.

HARLOW: A lot.

SCIUTTO: We're trying.

HARLOW: They always do. Okay, we'll stay on that.

Meantime, Joe Biden does sit atop again, the latest 2020 polling. But when it comes to enthusiasm among voters, Elizabeth Warren has an edge. Can she translate that into votes? We'll talk about it next.

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