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Whistle-Blower Complaint Held Back; Iran's Foreign Minister Speaks Out; Justin Trudeau Under Fire Over Racist Photos; Vaping Crisis. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired September 19, 2019 - 15:00   ET



DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: So, this is primarily affecting young, otherwise healthy people who have not had medical problems are vaping and then suddenly get ill.

They don't know still, Erica, exactly what's driving it. They haven't found one single product, they haven't found one single substance.

Remember, we were talking about vitamin E last week? That could be implicated, but they're still not sure exactly what's causing these illnesses.

And just to finally wrap, I mean, look, we're waiting for the government, the federal government, to act on this. They have indicated that they will. In the meantime, in New York, where you are, they're talking about banning e-flavors, Michigan banning flavors, California proposing simple things, the states and cities taking this on in the meantime.

ERICA HILL, CNN HOST: Dr. Sanjay Gupta -- Sanjay, always appreciate it. Talk about sobering. Thank you.

Top of the hour now, and we begin with the breaking news on that controversial whistle-blower complaint involving the president himself.

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

The director of national intelligence has not shared the complaint with the House Intelligence Committee, which is required by federal law. "The Washington Post" reporting the whistle-blower filing involves a -- quote -- "promise" from President Trump to a foreign leader.

And while the DNI won't release it, the complaint was deemed credible and urgent by inspector General Michael Atkinson. Atkinson refused to give many details in a closed-door meeting today with the House Intelligence Committee, saying he's simply not authorized to do so.

A short time ago, Intel Committee Chairman Adam Schiff spoke about the Justice Department and its involvement in keeping the whistle-blower complaint from lawmakers.


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.


HILL: CNN's Sunlen Serfaty is on Capitol Hill live for us this afternoon.

So, Sunlen, what more did Adam Schiff say about that closed-door meeting with the inspector general, because this was not a quick meeting? They were there for hours.


It was just under four hours this morning, Erica. And the chairman of that committee, Adam Schiff, left that meeting clearly very frustrated and unsatisfied with the level of information that they received and the fact that, in that meeting behind closed doors, the Intelligence Committee I.G. told them essentially that he did not have the authority to reveal the details of the substance of the whistle- blower's complaint.

Of course, that being top on the members' mind, wanting to go in to get the details of this alleged conversation. Now they left there, again, very unsatisfied, and Adam Schiff really highlighting the fact that DOJ had a role in withholding the information from Congress.

And he at the time said he did not know if the White House was involved in withholding this, the details of this complaint to Congress.

But CNN has since confirmed that the White House is involved in withholding the complaint. And Chairman Schiff read a portion of the letter that the inspector general read to them today and we have now obtained ourselves, where he makes clear that he doesn't agree with this decision to have the jurisdiction essentially outside the ODNI.

Here's Schiff recalling a portion of that letter.


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


SERFATY: And Schiff went on to later say that that complaint being withheld from Congress, he believes, is an unprecedented departure from the law.

And he says that they are now talking to House general counsel, Erica, to potentially pursue legal avenues to get that information.

HILL: Sunlen Serfaty with the latest for us, Sunlen, thank you.

Well, this latest revelation adds to a series of concerns over how the president is handling classified information, how he's handled it in the past.

Let's take a look at some of what we have seen. Tough to forget that, back in May of 2017, the president hosted a meeting in the Oval Office with Russia's foreign minister and ambassador to the U.S.

In that meeting, the president shared highly classified intelligence about ISIS in Syria. Now, remember here, the president has wide latitude to declassify intelligence as he sees fit. In this case, however, the concern was that information had been provided to the U.S. by a close ally, Israel, and shared with Russia, not exactly a close ally, not in the same way.

Fast-forward then two months, the president meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Germany. The two men used interpreters. After the meeting, the president took the notes of his interpreter, a highly unusual move.


One year later, the president meeting again with Putin, this time in Helsinki, at the news conference following that meeting, they were asked about Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Standing next to Putin, you may recall the president went directly against his own intel community and said he didn't see any reason why Russia would be responsible, adding that Putin was strong in his denial.

Then, of course, there's the bromance with Kim Jong-un. When it was reported that the CIA had used Kim's half-brother as an asset to spy on North Korea, the president all but made an apology. Having an asset that important to spy on the kingdom might be applauded by most world leaders.

President Trump had this to say:


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I saw the information about the CIA with respect to his brother or half-brother. And I would tell him that would not happen under my -- under my auspices, that's for sure.


HILL: And that brings us now to just yesterday, the president visiting a portion of his border wall in San Diego, where he proudly described the new technology going into it, including perhaps going a little too far, in the view of one general.

Take a listen to this:


TRUMP: One thing we haven't mentioned is technology. They're wired, so that we will know if somebody's trying to break through.

And you may want to discuss that a little bit, General.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sir, there could be some merit in not discussing that.



TRUMP: I like that.


HILL: More now on that whistle-blower complaint.

The president calls the story about what "The Washington Post" is talking about, a promise that was made to a foreign leader, the president calls that fake news.

He also said he's aware whenever he speaks to foreign leaders that multiple people are listening in, adding: "Knowing all of this, is anybody who to believe that 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."

Of course, it's important to remember that, in 2017, as we mentioned, he did reveal classified intel to top Russian officials in the Oval Office.

I want to bring in now Irvin McCullough. He's a national security analyst for the Government Accountability Project. It's a nonprofit law firm that represents whistle-blowers.

Really appreciate you being with us today.

There's so much to cover in this. I want to get to the most recent news, though, and that is what we're learning from three different sources telling CNN the White House and the DOJ were actively involved here with the DNI in making this recommendation that, in fact, they don't follow the law and pass that complaint from the I.G., which it was deemed credible and urgent to the DNI. It should have gone to the Intel Committees. That's not happening because of this intervention, from what we understand. What do you make of that?


First off, thank you very much for having me. I really appreciate it.

The intelligence community inspector general is an independent entity that can make these kinds of determinations by themselves. There is not supposed to be external pressure in any way placed upon the I.G. like this.

The fact that the DOJ, the White House, the ODNI, and the ODNI general counsel are weighing in is a body blow to the I.G.'s independence.

HILL: The president -- which is interesting too, the president saying in that tweet that we just referenced that he's not dumb enough, in his words, to say anything that could get him in trouble, that could essentially lead to a whistle-blower complaint, which begs the question -- there are two things at play here.

Either, A, it didn't happen, as the president says, because he wouldn't do it, or, B, there was something that was deemed credible and urgent enough that it was a major concern that obviously -- excuse me -- let this whistle-blower to bring it up.


HILL: Pardon me.

MCCULLOUGH: No, that's exactly right.

The whistle-blower is not dumb. The whistle-blower made an urgent concern disclosure to the intelligence community inspector general, Michael Atkinson, the ICIG then looked at that disclosure and said it was credible. They said it was urgent.

They are the only body vested by the law to actually make that determination at the front. Then they're supposed to pass that determination onto the DNI pro forma, essentially, before it goes to the congressional Intelligence Committees.

That's where this process has just completely come to a halt. The I.G. made their independent determination, and the ODNI is just obstructing that determination.

HILL: About this, too, the fact that you're concerned about what's happening, but Michael Atkinson, who is the I.G. for the Intelligence Committee, you really see as doing a very good job.

He was not talking, as we learned, behind closed doors. It would make sense if they didn't tell us what we said behind closed doors. They're closed doors for a reason. However, the fact that we learned from Chairman Schiff that he was

really providing very little information, said he couldn't, does that surprise you at all, or is that in keeping with his role?

MCCULLOUGH: It surprises me, but not fully.

Michael Atkinson is in a previous life a DOJ lawyer before Trump appointed him as the ICIG. It does trouble me that Michael is essentially deferring to ODNI and the ODNI general counsel on this issue.


I believe he should have been much more forthright with the -- with the Intelligence Committee. But according to the letter that he sent to the committees on September 17, the DNI has put him between a rock and a hard place.

The DNI has made it almost impossible, he says in the letter, to carry out the two prime functions of his job.

HILL: Last question for you, really quickly, especially based on what you do in your day job there. Are you concerned at all about the impact this could have on potential whistle-blowers?

MCCULLOUGH: I am more than concerned.

The worst thing that could ever happen to me is, I get tomorrow whistle-blowing client coming to my organization, the Government Accountability Project, seeking assistance, and I have to tell them that there is a chance the DNI or the White House or some political official is going to tell them that -- is going to tell the I.G. that they are wrong, the I.G.'s determination does not mean matter, and what the whistle-blower is disclosing just isn't serious.

It's absolutely absurd, ridiculous. And I hope that the DNI can correct this or that the ICIG will.

HILL: Irvin McCullough, appreciate it. Thank you.

MCCULLOUGH: Thank you again. I appreciate it.

HILL: Moments ago, Canada's prime minister admitting he's hurt people after three instances surface of him wearing black or brown face in the past -- now the impact on his hopes for reelection next month.

Plus, breaking news in the NFL -- Nike dropping Patriots wide receiver Antonio Brown after a woman comes forward accusing him of rape.



HILL: Moments ago, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly apologizing for a series of racist photos and a video showing him wearing dark face makeup. That video shows Trudeau in the early '90s. It was obtained by CNN

partner Global News. A reporter received the video from a source within Canada's Conservative Party. Now, Trudeau, of course, is part of the Liberal Party, national elections just weeks away.

The photo that ignited all of this is this one you see here taken in 2001. That was published by "TIME" magazine. This is from a yearbook at the school where Trudeau was teaching at the time. He was dressed as Aladdin at an Arabian Nights-themed party at that private school where he was a teacher.

The other that has surfaced, a high school yearbook photo. This was obtained by CNN partner CTV, which shows Trudeau portraying African- American civil rights activist and actor Harry Belafonte in a school play.

Today, Trudeau saying he realizes he has deeply hurt people.


JUSTIN TRUDEAU, CANADIAN PRIME MINISTER: I recognize that it is something absolutely unacceptable to do. And I appreciate calling it makeup, but it was blackface. And that is just not right.

It is something that people who live with the kind of discrimination that far too many people do because of the color of their skin or their history or their origins or their language or their religion face on a regular basis.

And I didn't see that from the layers of privilege that I have.


HILL: Althia Raj is Ottawa bureau chief for HuffPost Canada and the author of "Contender: The Justin Trudeau Story," with me now.

What's the reaction right now in Canada?

ALTHIA RAJ, HUFFPOST CANADA: Well, I think it's too early to say at the doors what real people are thinking. But, definitely, the Liberal leader's caucus has been shocked, surprised, deeply disappointed with their leader.

The opposition parties have jumped all over this as proof what they have been saying for months, sometimes years, that Justin Trudeau is not as advertised, that he says he is one thing, he's a progressive, he's a feminist, he's a champion of diversity, but really, behind the scenes, he's actually somebody different, and that he lacks a judgment to be the leader.

And so I think what we saw yesterday really kind of helped support the opposition's arguments.

HILL: And that is -- we were talking a little bit last hour, but especially for people in the U.S. who may not be as familiar with him -- you have covered him for years, really documenting his rise to power here.

It does beg the question of a man who has really put himself out there as the champion of everyone, right? I am this woke individual attending multiple events, really trying to empathize with so many different people who make up Canada.

What is this do to his standing? I mean, does this -- it's one thing to hear it from the opposition, but from actual Canadians who are going to be voting, who don't want to maybe look at this through a political lens, this is a departure from what we have seen.

RAJ: Yes.

And it goes to the question of trust, right? We're in an age where we all want authentic leaders. Is he who he says he is?

I think we will -- we will find out if voters really make a decision at the ballot box on October 21 based on this issue. And the fact is that a lot of the racialized communities in Canada are in the suburbs. They around Toronto. They're around Vancouver.

And they live in swing ridings that really decide which way the election goes, if it's a Liberal government or a Conservative government.


I think the other question is that this really doesn't support Justin Trudeau's brand. And so how will he be seen internationally? That was a question that he ducked at his press conference.

Will partners want to associate with him? Will he be the cool kid on the block? Will Melania Trump want to go in for a kiss? Or will he be shoved to the sides and like, ooh, you're kind of a pariah on the global stage?

Will that affect Canada's ability to get things done with international partners? And then there's the whole question of just like him as a person. And we know voters want to connect with their leaders.

It's like if people thought they were buying granola, and they open the box, and they found Fruit Loops. And now he's apologizing for having acted like a Fruit Loop.

But are you ready to forgive him? And I think that, today, it was a very fulsome apology, much more, I would say, honest than when we saw yesterday. Is that enough, or will we be talking about this for the next four weeks?

HILL: Be interesting to see. We will be watching

Althia Raj, appreciate you joining us. Thank you.

RAJ: Thank you. HILL: Just ahead, a CNN exclusive, Iran's foreign minister issuing a

stern warning, as President Trump decides how to respond to those attacks on Saudi oil fields.


NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: What would be the consequence of an American or Saudi military strike on Iran now?





HILL: President Trump's national security team meeting again today to consider options for responding to an attack on Saudi oil facilities.

The U.S. has blamed Iran for the attack. President Trump says he's ordered new sanctions against Iran and hasn't ruled out a military response.


TRUMP: A lot of things could happen. If we can have a peaceful solution, that's good. It's possible that that won't happen. But there's never been a stronger country militarily, not even close.


HILL: All of this, of course, coming as we're hearing from Iran's foreign minister, telling CNN in an exclusive interview that any military strikes on his country would result in all-out war.

Here's part of his conversation with our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh.


WALSH: Where does this weekend -- you are in a extreme crisis now. Where do you think it ends? Do you think you will see a military confrontation this week? Or do you think this is not what the Trump administration wants?

ZARIF: I don't think this is -- I don't think this is what President Trump wants. This is certainly not what we want. And this is not the prudent course of action.

WALSH: Do you think it will be possible for the United States to prove that missiles were launched from Iranian territory?

ZARIF: Well, that will be a miracle because they were not.

WALSH: Mike Pompeo has been at the forefront of the allegations against Iran.

Very early on, and perhaps when some Iranian officials thought the departure John Bolton meant that the Trump administration was losing its main Iraq -- Iran hawk, Mike Pompeo very quickly accuses you of directly attacking Saudi Arabia.

Do you think that he is now the Trump administration's chief Iran hawk? I think, for a while, perhaps, you described him as someone maybe it was possible to even talk to.

ZARIF: Well, I never talk about personalities.

But I think Senator Sanders is very right in advising Secretary Pompeo that his job is to advance diplomacy, not to advance war. Others can do that.

WALSH: But it seems as though much of policy towards Iran is now, with the departure of John Bolton, set by Donald Trump himself. He's referred to himself as a very stable genius.

Would you agree with that assessment?

ZARIF: Well, that's not for me to decide.

WALSH: Well, he is your main interlocutor, it seems.

ZARIF: Well, we are not talking...

WALSH: Is he a very stable genius?

ZARIF: Well, I don't know. I haven't talked to him. I haven't met him in person.

So, I should take his word for it.

WALSH: So, you refer often to the B-team. That is John Bolton, who has now left his job, Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, who's on pretty rocky territory right now, and Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.

Only one of those is still secure in his job, Mohammed bin Salman.

Do you fear him militarily?


WALSH: Why not?

ZARIF: Because we have been able to stand against an Iraqi army that was supported not just by Saudi Arabia -- they paid $75 billion to Saddam Hussein to kill Iranians -- but also supported by every country in the world.

WALSH: You have been personally sanctioned by the United States directly as an individual. But you also have a long history, educated in the United States, presumably some part of your life and affection for the culture there. What will you miss about America?

ZARIF: Well, I haven't been able to see anything in America for the past many years now. Very few things that I miss.

And what I miss is rationality. What I miss is prudence. I think the United States deserves to be more rational.

WALSH: Just six months ago, you resigned from your job here in Tehran. And it seemed to be over a misunderstanding about a meeting.

Why did you come back to it? What convinced you to return to that role?

ZARIF: I resigned because