Return to Transcripts main page


Washington Post: Trump "Promise" to Foreign Leader Spurred Whistleblower Complaint to Intelligence Community Inspector General; AG Barr Meets with Lawmakers About Proposed Gun Bills; John Bolton Criticizes Trump at Private Event. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired September 19, 2019 - 09:00   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Top of the hour. Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.


Right now, as we speak, behind closed doors, the intelligence community inspector general is set to brief the House Intelligence Committee on a disturbing whistleblower complaint. One that is raising more questions about how President Trump communicates with foreign governments and perhaps what promises he makes to those governments. The inspector general, who we should note was appointed by this president, called the complaint an urgent concern. And by law, urgency means it's not a policy disagreement, it's an issue of national security concern.

HARLOW: CNN has learned that it came from a U.S. intelligence official who was so troubled by something the president said to a foreign leader on a phone call. This is all according to "The Washington Post." the complaint was triggered by a promise that the president made to that foreign leader.

The big question this morning, of course, is what exactly was that promise? And to whom was the promise made?

SCIUTTO: One thing is clear, though. A Trump appointed inspector general evaluated this complaint, found it to be of urgent concern which means, by law, it must then be reported to Congress. That's what the law says should happen after that judgment call is made. And yet so far Congress has not been provided with any information. In effect, the director of National Intelligence ignoring what is the legal requirement here.

HARLOW: CNN has a team across Washington covering this story from Capitol Hill to the White House. So let's begin this hour with our national security correspondent Alex Marquardt.

Alex, we know which leaders the president spoke to in the weeks, you know, preceding this. But what else can you tell us this morning?

ALEXANDER MARQUARDT, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Poppy, the timeline here is very important in terms of figuring out which foreign leader the president was speaking to and to whom this promise was allegedly made. That's according to "The Washington Post." This complaint we know was filed on August 12th. So if we look at the communications that the president had with world leaders in the month prior, there are quite a few of them. Among them, a phone call with Russian president Vladimir Putin, letters were exchanged with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, the prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, the Dutch prime minister, the emir of Qatar. We also know that there were phone calls with the prime minister of Israel and the new president of Ukraine. So there are a number of possibilities here.

Jim and Poppy, as you know well, we get so-called read outs from these communications from the White House. The White House can, of course, say really what they want. In the case of the call with Russian president Vladimir Putin, the White House said that the two world leaders discussed forest fires in Siberia. But what we do know is that there was something that was so disturbing in the communications between the president and a foreign leader that this member of the intelligence community who "The Washington Post" said was detailed to the National Security Council, that that person felt the need to file a whistleblower complaint.

That complaint was of such urgent concern in the mind of the inspector general of the intelligence community that that person then took it directly to the Congressional Oversight Committee. Now the director of National Intelligence then responded to a subpoena by the House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff saying, in fact, this is not of urgent concern because it does not directly involve intelligence activity.

It involves someone from the executive branch. But now it seems that the acting DNI, Joseph Maguire, is trying to find some middle ground with the House Intelligence Committee, with Capitol Hill. And so we are seeing, as you mentioned, as we speak, the inspector general testifying behind closed doors to the House Intel Committee. And then next week, the acting DNI himself is expected to testify in open committee to that very same committee.

Can be sure, Jim, that this morning those House Intel members are drilling down with that inspector general trying to get some answers about who this foreign leader was and what this promise made was -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: And why it will raise such alarm. Alex Marquardt, thanks very much.

Let's go now to CNN's Manu Raju. He's on Capitol Hill.

So, Manu, the inspector general speaking to lawmakers now. Do we know, particularly as Alex notes, that the DNI is in effect looking for some sort of middle ground here. Do we know that the IG is going to now detail this whistleblower complaint or try to give something but not everything on this?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We don't know that, Jim. In fact, we're waiting for him right now to arrive. He's expected to come around this corner, but in this secure facility right below us there are several entrances in and out. So people who come to testify behind closed doors, members themselves can oftentimes slip in and out of the eyes of the media.


But we were told that he may arrive any moment. But if he hasn't arrived yet, he is certainly late. So, it's possible he could have already arrived, but the question for a lot of the Democrats and Republicans is exactly how much information that he could provide this committee. Will he get into details about that complaint? Will he simply describe the handling of the complaint as Adam Schiff suggested in a statement last night.

That's still unknown. And last night I can tell you talking to Democrats and Republicans on this committee, they were still uncertain about what this complaint is, who in the executive branch may have tried to tamp down, prevent this from coming to Capitol Hill. So there are a lot of questions. So the ultimate question is how many of those questions will be answered behind closed doors later today, guys.

HARLOW: OK, Manu, thank you very much.

Let's go to the White House. Our senior Washington correspondent Joe Johns joins us there this morning.

As of last night, no response from the White House to "The Washington Post" on this one. What about this morning?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: That's right. We reached out to the White House Press Office and others, Poppy, here at the White House who might be able to shed some light on this, including the National Security Council. So far we've gotten radio silence. Also watching the president's Twitter feed very closely. Typically by 9:00 a.m. Eastern Time, which is right about now, you can expect to see several tweets from the president. Nothing so far.

Of course, as you know, the president's last tweet was about 11 hours ago out on the West Coast talking about his border barrier project and nothing since then. The president got back here a little bit after midnight, so it was a fairly late night for him and the people with him. Also I think important to say, this is not the only thing the White House is dealing with. They're certainly dealing right now with the issue of Iran and what to do about those strikes on the oil fields.

Back to you, Jim and Poppy.

SCIUTTO: Joe Johns, thanks very much.

Joining us now to discuss this, to understand this, CNN legal and national security analyst Asha Rangappa, she's a former FBI special agent, and CNN national security analyst Juliette Kayyem, former Homeland Security official.

Thanks to both of you. Asha, I want to begin with you because you had a really informative Twitter thread yesterday which helped explain a lot to me about the background here. First of all you note this was a Trump appointee. Second of all, by definition under the law here, it has to be urgent which means it's not a policy disagreement. It has to be something which relates to national security or another issue and, therefore, outside the president's constitutional powers to make foreign policy at his will in effect.

So knowing that that's the law, explain what that tells us about the seriousness of this complaint.

ASHA RANGAPPA, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, when the complaint concerns the president's interactions with another head of state or foreign leader, the bar for it to pass, to be an urgent concern under the definition that's laid out in the statute is very high. And this is because the president has incredibly wide latitude in conducting foreign affairs and in negotiating with world leaders.

So, as you said, Jim, this can't simply be, you know, bad policy or unwise policy or some kind of objection in that way. It would have to actually be something that was an abuse of power or violates the law in order for the IG to determine that it met the criteria and should be forwarded to Congress.


HARLOW: "The Washington Post," Juliette, notes this near the end of the piece, quote, "Statements and letters exchanged between the office of the DNI and the House Intelligence Committee in recent days have pointed at the White House without directly implicating the president." What questions does that raise for you?

JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I think that the ODNI is in a bit of a bind right now and we're going to see how he sort of works his way around that in terms of what his obligation is to Congress. And picking up on what possibly could entail some sort of grave concern involving the president. You really can only think of three that would rise to the level of the kind of sort of crisis maybe a bit strong that we're at right now.

The first, of course, is that President Trump did something for his own personal gain. The second is that he was willing to cede control or direction of an intelligence operation to another country. And then the third, of course, is some disclosure of sources and methods of a covert action. Almost nothing else is going to rise to the level of grave concern because, as Asha points out so brilliantly in her Twitter messages last night, you know, policy decisions and policy preferences really are not something that a whistleblower would pay attention to, let alone have an IG refer it immediately for congressional action.

SCIUTTO: So, Asha, the IG makes that determination. The law is clear here, is it not, that he then -- the DNI has to report it to Congress. So why is there an attempt at middle ground here? Is the law not clear that he has to make that report?

RANGAPPA: The law on its face is very clear. [09:10:01]

The IG has the discretion and authority to determine whether the complaint meets this high standard. And the point here is to basically vet the complaint so that there's not some cookpot who just, you know, starts whistleblowing. It has to go through him. And then there's basically a heads-up to the DNI that this is going to go to Congress.

The DNI can add his own commentary. Let's say he disagrees but there's nothing in the statute that gives the DNI any kind of veto power from it going to Congress. But I suspect what they're trying to hang their hat on here is a Constitutional Article 2 kind of argument that this would violate separation of powers.

SCIUTTO: Which is -- I mean, it's basically the argument that comes up with every request from Congress now. Every subpoena, you know, very expansive definition of the president's powers.


SCIUTTO: Even when you have an urgent concern here.

HARLOW: Juliette, what do you make of -- go ahead.

KAYYEM: Oh, no, I was just going to pick up on what Jim said. Sorry. But I think that's right. I think the challenge here is that we have systems in place put into the intelligence community for oversight. And one of those includes a whistleblower statute which those of us who know some of that egregious behavior of the intelligence community, that's a good thing. These systems are not designed for dealing with a president. It's just simply clear. And so when everyone says well, there's processes and, you know, the president should do this and there should be disclosure this way, the system is not working.

I have to be clear about this because when you have a political overlay that can stop a process designed for anyone but the president, you really are in a bind and I think that's why we're seeing these really extraordinary leaks. The system was not designed for this.

HARLOW: OK, ladies, we're out of time. Thank you so much, Asha Rangappa, Juliette Kayyem.

Still to come, will this whistleblower investigation just add fuel to the impeachment fire burning or being debated on Capitol Hill? We'll talk to a member of the House Judiciary Committee about that and a lot more, next.

Also, Iran's top diplomat this morning with strong words for the United States and Saudi Arabia saying there could be, quote, "all-out war" if a military strike is launched against Iran.

SCIUTTO: And this story, the Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau says that he should have known better after a photo surfaces showing him wearing brownface while teaching at a private school nearly 20 years ago.



POPPY HARLOW, CO-ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: All right, welcome back. Right now, the intelligence community Inspector General is behind closed doors as we speak. He's briefing the House Intel Committee on the recent whistleblower complaint regarding the president's communications with a foreign leader. "The Washington Post" this morning reports that the whistleblower's concerns involve a promise that the president allegedly made to that foreign leader. We don't know whom.

That's a critical question. There are many outstanding questions on this front this morning. Let's talk about this and a lot more with Florida Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell; member of the House Judiciary Committee. Good morning, thank you for being with me.


HARLOW: What is your reaction to the "Washington Post" reporting that someone in the Intel community heard the president make a, quote, "promise", according to the "Washington Post" to a foreign leader that was so troubling they took it to the Inspector General and now there's a fight over whether members of Congress can actually see that even though it's still law that they see it within seven days?

MUCARSEL-POWELL: I am extremely concerned to wake up to these news. We need to understand exactly what promise he made and who he was exactly talking to. What we have learned is that this president continues to put his interests before the country's.

This is a matter of national security. I don't sit on the House Intelligence Committee, but I look forward to getting more details on that. We've seen that this president admires and has close relationships to dictators all over the world, including Putin. And if you remember, Poppy, he compromised one of our American sources of intelligence in Russia because he was providing highly classified information. So, this has to stop and it's very worrisome.

HARLOW: You're talking about the meeting in the Oval Office with Kislyak. And I understand that -- I do want to note here, we just don't know at this point in time if this does involve classified information. So, let's wait until we know more before making that bridge, but I hear your concern.

Let me get your take on this or Stephen Collinson -- anyway had some interesting analysis on it this morning, talking about the DNI, Joseph Maguire says, quote, "Maguire's conduct appears to be the latest manifestation of the administration's multi-front strategy to thwart Congress' oversight efforts."

I watched your seven-plus minutes of questioning of Corey Lewandowski earlier this week, you know, to little avail, right? You didn't get many direct answers. There was a lot of mocking in that hearing. How confident are you right now, Congresswoman, in Congress' ability to exercise oversight over this administration, giving this just as the latest example.

MUCARSEL-POWELL: Yes, Poppy, I have to tell you the truth. We have never seen an administration that has obstructed Congress' ability to investigate at the -- to this level. And we knew that we were going to deal with a very difficult witness, but it was very important for us to bring him forth in front of the Judiciary Committee.

But what you saw on Tuesday, regardless of the show that he created is once again, a president that is engaged in cover-up.


He has surrounded himself with people that will be loyal to him and continue to cover his steps up. Lewandowski had been asked to ask Sessions to obstruct the investigation that special counsel Mueller was conducting. And just so that everybody understands, being -- obstructing our ability to investigate in Congress is an impeachable offense.

HARLOW: So, let's talk about where this goes from here because there are concerns, as you know from members of your caucus on this front. Let me just read you some interesting quotes from some of them. Representative Jared Huffman of California, quote, "if you are looking to draw out information and begin shaping a narrative for the American people, that" -- meaning, the Lewandowski hearing -- "wasn't the witness to do it with."

Also Representative Dan Kildee of Michigan, quote, "there's a numbness that is coming month by month." Does the lack of cohesion in your party on this front hurt your chances?

MUCARSEL-POWELL: I think that it's a very difficult and divisive issue, right?

HARLOW: Yes --

MUCARSEL-POWELL: Investigating this president. But I -- and I understand why they are saying that. Those are the thoughts that sometimes cross my mind. I'm not going to lie to you. I'm very honest --


MUCARSEL-POWELL: About that. But I do think that as a caucus, we're very united in the fact that we have to hold the administration accountable, which is why --

HARLOW: Yes --

MUCARSEL-POWELL: We have all these different investigations. So, along -- across all the different committees.

HARLOW: So -- MUCARSEL-POWELL: But at some point, Poppy, at some point, we need to

decide together as a caucus, what are the consequence for this president --

HARLOW: Totally --

MUCARSEL-POWELL: To continue to obstruct our investigative efforts. I agree with you and I feel very strongly about that.

HARLOW: I think you said it well, we need to decide as a caucus. But it seems like Congresswoman, day-by-day, that divide is growing a bit wider. Case in point, let's talk about how to handle the Lewandowski testimony. You had Nancy Pelosi, a representative for her telling our Jim Acosta, she believed that Lewandowski could have been held in contempt right then and there.

And Nadler warned him of that, but didn't follow through. John Dean; former White House counsel to President Nixon this morning, let me read you his tweet if we can pull it up on the screen. "Speaker Pelosi has green-lighted holding Lewandowski in contempt. They should do it before the week ends. Make a statement, Democrats. The rules apply to Republicans and their games are over." Is he right? Should Corey Lewandowski be held in contempt this week?

MUCARSEL-POWELL: Absolutely. Here's my personal statement. I am not going to speak on behalf of my 200-plus colleagues -- Lewandowski should be held in contempt. There has to be a clear consequence. We can't continue to have an administration mock our investigative powers of Congress.

HARLOW: Let me end on guns because, you know, this is something that is important to keep at the fore despite all of the other news that is going on. Attorney General Barr was on the Hill talking to lawmakers about potential gun proposals coming out of the administration.

At this point, this is personal for you. You lost your father to gun violence. I'm so sorry for your loss. I know what you have proposed -- I wonder what you make of the chances of expanded background checks getting through Congress at this point in time, because after the meeting with Barr, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin said, it is up to the president now.

Do you think that this president will get something to Mitch McConnell that will make it through Congress that is very similar to what we saw in 2013 when you had a Democratic-controlled chamber and didn't make it through?

MUCARSEL-POWELL: Poppy, I think that the American people are speaking very loudly. You know that more than 90 percent of Americans support a universal background check bill. You're absolutely right, this is very personal to me, to many of my colleagues like Lucy McBath.

It's also personal to so many parents in my community who have lost their children to senseless acts of gun violence. There are so many things that we can do that we can take action. We have done it here in the House of Representatives. We sent several bills, bipartisan bills to the Senate, they're sitting on Mitch McConnell's desk, I think that the pressure is on.

We are talking about this issue on a weekly basis. We're going to continue to meet. The gun violence task force is having different hearings every single week. So, I feel optimistic, I'm not giving up on this issue, and it's something that's a priority for me and for the majority of the caucus here in the House of Representatives.

HARLOW: We'll see where this goes, if it does go anywhere. Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, thank you for your time this morning.

MUCARSEL-POWELL: Thank you, Poppy --

HARLOW: Appreciate it --

JIM SCIUTTO, CO-ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: Some tough questions there for her to answer on the impeachment question.

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: John Bolton is speaking out for the first time since he was fired by President Trump. And the former National Security adviser is definitely not praising the president's policies. Plus, we are moments away from the opening bell on Wall Street, stocks should open slightly -- well, possibly slighter higher this morning -- look at those green arrows.

As the Federal Reserve says it will cut interest rates by another quarter point. It's the second cut in two months. Investors, however, were expecting a bigger cut.


Fed Chair did leave the door open to another cut in the future. Investors will also be watching news out of Washington, of course, as Chinese negotiators begin a new round of trade talks today between the two countries.