Return to Transcripts main page

CNN NEWSROOM

CNN Learning Both White House And Department Of Justice Were Actively Involved In Withholding Complaint From Congressional Intelligence Committee; Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA) Talks About Whistleblower Complaint Withheld By The White House and D.O.J.; House Judiciary Weighs Holding Lewandowski In Contempt. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired September 19, 2019 - 14:00   ET

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


WILLIAM F. WELD, FORMER GOVERNOR OF MASSACHUSETTS: ... so, you know, sympathetically. I kind of -- I inclined towards Kennedy's side here, not for generational reasons just to, you know, give somebody else a chance. It's more -- I think turnover is not a bad thing in Congress.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Governor Weld, thank you so much for joining us.

WELD: Thank you so much.

KEILAR: We appreciate it, and that's it for me. NEWSROOM starts right now.

[14:00:21]

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

ERICA HILL, CNN HOST: Hello, I'm Erica Hill, in for Brooke Baldwin, and we begin with breaking developments involving that controversial whistleblower complaint. This is the one involving the President himself.

CNN is now learning both the White House and the Department of Justice were actively involved in withholding that complaint from Congressional Intelligence Committee. That's according to multiple sources.

The Director of National Intelligence, you'll remember hasn't shared that complaint with Congress as is required by Federal law. "The Washington Post" reporting the whistleblower filing involves a quote, "promise" from President Trump to a foreign leader.

Keep in mind this is a whistleblower complaint that was deemed credible and urgent by the Inspector General Michael Atkinson, and he was in a closed door meeting today with House Intel.

In that meeting though, we learned, he refused to give details and that has many people thinking, why not? Well, he said it is because he's not authorized to do so.

Just moments ago, the Chair of the Intel Committee in the House, Adam Schiff talking about how the Justice Department was involved in keeping this whistleblower complaint from lawmakers.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): We do know that the Department of Justice has been involved in the decision to withhold that information from Congress. We do not know because we cannot get an answer to the question about whether the White House is also involved in preventing this information from coming to Congress.

We do not have the complaint. We do not know whether the press reports are accurate or inaccurate about the contents of that complaint.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: CNN's Sarah Westwood is at the White House now. So Sarah, what more do we know about the involvement of the White House and the Justice Department here?

SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, Erica, CNN is learning that the White House did intervene in the handling of this complaint. The White House and the Justice Department, according to sources who spoke with their colleagues, Pam Brown and Evan Perez, told O.D.N.I. that they believe that this complaint falls outside of the kind of Intel activities that are protected by whistleblower laws for the Intelligence Community.

Now, the White House Counsel's Office, the D.O.J.'s Office of Legal Counsel had been discussing this with O.D.N.I. and the top Intel agency has said that there could be an issue of privilege involved here.

The Intelligence Community Inspector General told lawmakers behind closed doors earlier today that he was not authorized to discuss any details about the complaint, not the nature of what President Trump may or may not have said, not even whether President Trump himself is involved as has been reported.

And as we just heard, House Intel Chairman Adam Schiff did not know whether the White House is involved or what kind of pressure was being put on acting Intelligence Director, Joseph Maguire but we are hearing contradictions here between the two Trump appointees.

On the one hand, you have the Intelligence Community Inspector General who is a Trump appointees saying that this was a credible and urgent complaint from a whistleblower. Then you have the acting Intelligence Director Joseph Maguire saying that in his eyes, this does not meet the definition of an urgent concern.

Now President Trump earlier today denied that he said anything inappropriate on any calls with foreign leaders. But of course, this episode, Erica could simply deepen the President's skepticism of the Intelligence Community. He has had an estranged relationship with Intel agencies since the start of his presidency.

HILL: That is putting it mildly. Sarah Westwood at the White House for us this hour. Sarah, thank you with those breaking details.

Now, as we just heard that closed door house Intel meeting with the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community, wrapping up a short time ago, let's get straight to CNN Congressional Correspondent, Sunlen Serfaty who is on Capitol Hill.

So Sunlen, Chairman Schiff, talked about his frustrations about not getting the details of this whistleblower complaint from the IG, Michael Atkinson. Why wasn't he able to talk more about it with lawmakers in that closed door session?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's the key question, and that's certainly as you said, the source of a lot of the Chairman of that Committee, Adam Schiff's frustration when he emerged from that four-hour closed session this morning.

Schiff said that in the meeting, the IG made the argument that this is essentially down to jurisdiction and that he simply did not have the authority to speak to exactly what this is all about.

And those details of course, what lawmakers streaming into the meeting today said they wanted to hear. Now, Schiff today says that Department of Justice had been involved in the decision to withhold the information from Congress and at the time he said, they could they could not get an answer from the White House.

As you heard Sarah say, though, previously, we now know according to our CNN reporting that the White House has been involved in this as well.

[14:05:08]

SERFATY: Here is Adam Schiff's reading an excerpt from the letter today from the Inspector General.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SCHIFF: Mr. Atkinson wrote, "I set forth the reasons for my concluding that the subject matter involved in the complainant's disclosure not only falls within the D.N.I.'s jurisdiction, but relates to one of the most significant and important of the D.N.I.'s responsibilities to the American people." This is what's being withheld from Congress right now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SERFATY: And Schiff went on to say that this decision to withhold this information from Congress is an unprecedented departure from the law. He says it shows that someone is trying to manipulate the system to keep the information -- urgent information according to the IG -- under wraps right now and away from Congress.

And he says that they are talking to the House General Counsel right now to potentially pursue legal avenues if this complaint and the details are not turned over to Congress.

Of course, Erica, this tees up a huge public hearing next week with the acting D.N.I. Maguire in front of the Committee -- Erica.

HILL: We will be watching for that, although given that it's a week away, anything can happen between now and then, as we know. Sunlen Serfaty, appreciate it.

The President is calling all of this, including the story about a promise he made to a foreign leader, fake news. He also said he's aware that whenever he speaks to foreign leaders, multiple people are listening in adding this, quote, "Knowing all of this, is anybody dumb enough to believe I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially heavily populated call. I would only do what is right anyway and only do good for the USA."

CNN Legal Analyst Jim Baker served at one point is General Counsel of the F.B.I. Good to have you with us today. So as we look at all of this, one of the things that really stands out to me here is the process, just the nuts and bolts. We know what the Federal law is. The IG gets a complaint. Deems it credible. Deems it urgent. It goes to the D.N.I. The D.N.I. is then by Federal law supposed to give it to Congress.

Now we're learning, though, that both the White House and the Justice Department have stepped in here and advised that that is not what should happen. Can they override Federal law in that manner?

JIM BAKER, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, they can't override Federal law. But what I think probably happened is that the acting Director of National Intelligence, went to either his General Counsel and/or to the Department of Justice and said, what is the law here? Help me understand what I'm supposed to do. And the Justice Department and his General Counsel presumably gave him an answer and they gave him an answer that gives them -- gives him the assessment, their assessment of the law.

And so look, I mean, under the Constitution and laws of the United States, it is possible that, that the IG cannot report this particular information. That is possible. It sort of depends what it is. It depends on the facts and circumstances. We don't know that yet.

But once the acting Director of National Intelligence's problem is that once he or somebody in his department went to the Department of Justice, once they tell you what the law is, you have to follow it. You're stuck. And so that's, I think, where he is and where the Inspector General is now. They don't have much recourse at this point time.

HILL: So they may not have much recourse, but one of the things you said just stood out to me. If he goes and he says, hey, I need to know what the law is. And they say, well, the law actually says, you have to give this to Congress. But we're telling you, you shouldn't do that. I mean, is this just another attempt at -- are we going to see something just to be tied up once again in the courts?

BAKER: Well, I don't know if it will end up in the courts. That's probably the -- from Congress's perspective, that's probably the worst place for it to end up. HILL: Right.

BAKER: They need to try to figure out how to use their own authorities under Article I of the Constitution. And quite frankly, they don't seem to be able to really figure that out yet. So that's a separate thing. But once the Justice Department says their view of the law, then the D.N.I. and everybody else in the Executive Branch has to fall in line.

HILL: Okay.

BAKER: Honestly, what they're left with it at that point is simply to resign. I mean, if they think this is that big of a deal, and look, we don't know what the facts are, again. We know it's serious, given what people are saying about it, but we don't know really what happened.

But if they think this is a very significant matter, they should just resign. That's what only -- that's what they're left with.

HILL: How unusual is it for the Justice Department for even the AG, this is the case to be involved in something like this?

BAKER: The Intelligence Community, you know, when I was at the F.B.I., we went to the O.L.C. and the other elements of the Department of Justice on a pretty consistent basis. Because if you've got a tough question or question where there's a lot of risk involved, and you want to get another opinion, you want to get a definitive opinion from the Department of Justice, then you go to O.L.C.

Over the years, I had a great relationship with the O.L.C. in the various jobs that I had, and would seek their counsel as often as I could and thought made sense. And so, you know, they should be trying to give people in the Executive Branch their understanding of the best reading of a law and to guide them with respect to what they're doing.

[14:10:05]

BAKER: The reality is though is once they say what the law is, you've got to follow that interpretation.

HILL: You've got to follow it. Just looking at all of this, step back for a minute. Is there anything in particular based on what we know at to 2:10 Eastern Time on Thursday that really concerns you?

BAKER: Yes, it changes quite a bit. What concerns me the most is the long term implications of this, and I think Chairman Schiff was making a comment about that earlier.

This will impact the long-term relationship between the President and the Intelligence Community because if he thinks that somebody, whoever got this information is sort of, you know, ratting him out to the Inspector General, then he is going to be more circumspect in what he says to the Intelligence Community.

They may be more circumspect with respect to what they say to him, and that's not good for him. That's not good for the Intelligence Community. It is not good for the American people. And it's not good for the American people also to lack some amount of trust in like what is going on here? Right?

The American people need to have confidence in what their elected and appointed officials are doing, and this does not look good.

The other thing real quick is, this is going to come out eventually, right? I mean, reporters are all over this thing right now, and somebody knows enough to be able to explain what it is.

And so, you know, it's just going to come out in a messy way. And so this is just not going to -- this is just not going to end well in my opinion, I'm afraid.

HILL: Jim Baker, appreciate the insight as always. It also raises questions about what this means for whistleblower protections. We're going to tackle that just ahead.

Meantime, at any moment, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau set to speak live after pictures of him in black and brown face surfaced just before Canada's elections.

Also Speaker Pelosi versus Chairman Nadler. Democrats now going head to head after Tuesday's explosive hearing with former Trump campaign adviser/manager, Corey Lewandowski.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[14:16:45]

HILL: More now on our Breaking News. The White House and Justice Department actively involved with holding a whistleblower complaint about President Trump's communication with a foreign leader. That's according to three sources familiar with the matter, credible and urgent is what it was deemed by the Intelligence Community's Inspector General.

Now a reminder here, we don't know what the complaint is about. A source though tells CNN it does involve communication between President Trump and foreign leader.

"The Washington Post" reporting the exchange also included a quote, "promise" from the President. A short time ago I spoke with freshman Congresswoman Chrissy Houlahan, a Democrat from Pennsylvania for her take on the brewing showdown in Washington over access to the whistleblowers words.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HILL: Congresswoman, our new reporting from CNN is that both the White House and the Justice Department actually advised the Office of the Director of National Intelligence when it came to this whistleblower complaint, essentially saying that it was outside the jurisdiction of the office. I'm just curious with your reaction. REP. CHRISSY HOULAHAN (D-PA): So this is another in a long line of

frustrations on the part of people here in Congress to exercise the duty that we have constitutionally for oversight, and no one certainly is above the law and when a whistleblower takes the actions that they've taken, I believe it is the responsibility and duty of Congress through the Intelligence Committee to have the ability and the authority to ask questions and get to the truth.

HILL: Are you confident that you will get the answers on what specifically is in this complaint?

HOULAHAN: I've become increasingly less and less confident in our ability to get to the bottom of a lot of things. I actually serve on the Foreign Affairs Committee and just today, had the opportunity to speak with Special Representative Khalilzad about his work in Afghanistan. But that was only after threat of subpoena and only behind closed doors. And this is not the kind of transparent government that we shouldn't be having. I would hope with all three branches of government working together.

HILL: To that point, the fact that you do serve on Foreign Affairs, in the five weeks leading up to when this complaint was filed on August 12th. The President was in contact in some form or another with the following leaders: Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, the Prime Ministers of Pakistan and the Netherlands, as well as the Emir of Qatar. Do any of those foreign leaders give you pause?

HOULAHAN: Well, I'm not certain that the whistleblower complaint necessarily has to do with that period of time. Maybe you have more information than I do. But of course, any number of elected -- or leaders that you've just named might be a concern for various different reasons that we've seen already.

HILL: "The Washington Post" reporting that this communication between the President and a foreign leader involves some sort of a promise. When you heard that, what was your initial reaction?

HOULAHAN: Yes, that that was the word that sort of pinged on me as well. And when I was talking to my team about it, the idea that it was a conversation with a promise set off some alarm bells, just trying to understand what somebody would have thought was worthy of a whistle blow to be able to elevate that to the Intelligence Committee, as an example is something that we should all be trying to get to the bottom of.

HILL: Well, hopefully we will get some answers soon. I do want to touch on a couple of other topics for you. Looking at -- I know you are not on this committee, you were not involved in the hearing with Corey Lewandowski this week.

However, your fellow Democrats seemed somewhat unprepared compared to what we saw from Republicans, from what we saw from Corey Lewandowski and it's been tough to see a consistent message from the caucus when it comes to impeachment, when it comes to holding Lewandowski in contempt. Is it hurting efforts by Democrats across the board, because obviously there is more on the agenda than just those things. And yet, they're sucking up a lot of oxygen and a lot of confusion.

[14:20:19]

HOULAHAN: So I believe as we started the conversation, that it is our responsibility, and many of these committees have jurisdiction for oversight and to getting to the bottom and to the truth in issues such as Mr. Lewandowski's testimony, but I think what's really also important is for us to continue to talk about all of the other work that we're doing and all of the other committees.

We have passed more than 400 bills thus far in my eight months here in Congress, and only about 50 of them have made it to the President's desk for signature or have been considered in the Senate.

And I really need to make sure that we're pushing forward on all of the responsibilities of the Congress on not just on the oversight responsibility, and that we're educating the public that this is a very active and a very busy Congress that's working very hard on issues that we were elected on -- healthcare, jobs, the economy, the environment, gun safety -- all of those are things that we have legislated on effectively here in the House and it is now the obligation of the Senate and our President to take those up and consider them.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HILL: Congresswoman Chrissy Houlahan there joining us a short time ago. At any moment now, we should be hearing from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He is set to speak live. This of course on the heels of pictures of him in blackface and brown face have surfaced just ahead of a country's election. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[14:26:11]

HILL: It may not be over for Corey Lewandowski. Two days after Donald Trump's former campaign manager stonewalled the House Judiciary Committee, multiple sources say lawmakers are now working on the initial steps to possibly hold Lewandowski in contempt. We should point out that process though could take some time.

Earlier today, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was pressed about her reaction to the Lewandowski hearing.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): We are legislating, investigating and litigating. And I trust the work of the Committees as they go through what to do there.

QUESTION: Was that during an investigation though? I mean, it was full of fireworks. It was very hard to --

PELOSI: Listen, I answered. I trust the Committee and the path that they are on. (END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: CNN Contributor and Watergate veteran, John Dean joining us now with more. So, John, if you listened to that, Nancy Pelosi very clearly saying she trusts the Committee and the path that they're on. Do you see a path there? What is the path?

JOHN DEAN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I think what they're trying to do is develop evidence to see if there indeed live witnesses that will support what's in the Special Counsel's report showing potentially impeachable offenses.

I think they're going within the bounds of the Special Counsel's report right now, but they've indicated they're going to go outside of it. They're on an impeachment inquiry, no question.

HILL: So no question they are on that path. When it comes to Corey Lewandowski and contempt, you know, there was so much talk during that hearing, and even in the moments after, right, about possibly holding Lewandowski in contempt.

It is a much more involved process, I think, than many of us had realized, and it actually involves some participation from Corey Lewandowski himself. Can you walk us through what this would entail?

DEAN: I used to be counsel of that committee, so I'm very familiar with these procedures. And the House has never really set up a very streamlined system for contempt, either when somebody denies a subpoena and ignores a subpoena, doesn't produce evidence, or indeed, is disrespectful as Lewandowski was during his hearing.

What happens is they have to have a ruling of the committee first that the witnesses in contempt, then they take that to the House of Representatives and the full House has to vote on it.

Then it either goes to a civil action or a criminal action. If they refer to a criminal action, because the U.S. Attorney of the District of Columbia works for the President, in this instant, Trump, he is not going to do anything at all. He will just sit on it, and it expires when that when that session of Congress expires, so it's not a very fruitful route generally. The civil cases can be very protracted as well.

HILL: Should Nadler have acted by this point?

DEAN: I'm sorry, I missed that.

HILL: Should Jerry Nadler have acted by this point, do you think?

DEAN: Yes. Well, as the Speaker said, yesterday, she said she would have called him in contempt right on the spot. I think she was speaking figuratively, that the Chairman indeed can -- he in essence did that. He said that he would take it under immediate consideration when one of the members said that the witness was acting in contempt.

I don't think Lewandowski is going to skate on this one. I think he offended the committee. He was very infantile in his presentation. I was thinking of the 16-year-old witness who showed so much more maturity than he did just the day before. That I think that the committee is going to do something about Lewandowski's behavior.

HILL: But isn't there a window though? I mean, to your point you say, you know, Chairman Nadler should have acted by now, you think and we understand it's sort of a drawn out process --

[14:30:10]

END