Return to Transcripts main page


Trump's Communication With A Foreign Leader Spurred Alarm; Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) Speaks After Intel Watchdog Declines To Give Details; Interview with Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-OR; White House And DOJ Advised DNI Not To Share Whistleblower Complaint. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired September 19, 2019 - 13:00   ET


[13:00:00] JOHN KING, CNN INSIDE POLITICS: Thanks for joining us here in Inside Politics. We'll be back here this time tomorrow, a busy news day. Stay with us.

Brianna Keilar starts right now. Have a good afternoon.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN RIGHT NOW: I'm Brianna Keilar live from CNN's Washington Headquarters.

Underway right now, President Trump, who once revealed classified intel to Russian leaders in the Oval Office, asks, quote, is anybody dumb enough to believe I would say something inappropriate to a foreign leader, as the intelligence community's internal watchdog raises a red flag for something alarming that Trump said to a foreign leader.

After Corey Lewandowski took Congress for a wild ride at his hearing, Speaker Pelosi says he should have been held in contempt. So why didn't the Democratic chairman of the committee agree?

Plus, a CNN exclusive, Iran threatens all-out war if the U.S. mounts a military response to the attack on Saudi oil facilities.

And another leader, another apology for dawning racist makeup after pictures surface. This time it's Canada's Justin Trudeau.

We begin with that mysterious whistleblower complaint that we now know concerned a reported promise President Trump made to a foreign leader, a promise so alarming, it caused the independent inspector general to raise a red flag.

This afternoon for the very first time, the president has acknowledged this reporting initially by The Washington Post.

CNN Chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta is live outside the White House. What's the president saying here, Jim?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, as you might have mentioned, the White House isn't saying much right now in terms of officials over here, but the president did weigh in earlier this morning. He posted a series of tweets about all of this, essentially saying there is nothing to see here. We can put this up on screen and show you what we're talking about. The president is describing this story as another fake news story out there. It never ends. Virtually any time I speak on the phone to a foreign leader, I understand that there may be many people listening from various U.S. agencies, not to mention those from the other country itself. No problem.

This gets to the crux of it. He says, knowing all this, is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say anything or something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially heavily populated call? I would only do what is right anyway, only do good for the USA.

Now, Brianna, as we've been trying to take a look at this, going back to the timeframe that is in question here as to when this whistleblower contends the president said something that raised a red flag, the president was talking to a number of foreign leaders over the phone over the course of that period of time, and we can show you those pictures of those leaders.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, obviously, there is a lot of interest in whether or not this whistleblower complaint has to deal with a call involving the president and Vladimir Putin. But he also spoke with Kim Jong-un, the Pakistani prime Minister, the Dutch prime Minister and the emir of Qatar.

But, Brianna, I will tell you, while the president is brushing all of this off, one thing we should note is that administration officials, and I've talked to some in the past, has raised questions as to what the president has been doing behind the scenes on these foreign leader calls, specifically about Vladimir Putin.

I talked to a senior administration official earlier this year who questioned what the president was doing on these calls with Vladimir Putin during some of his conversations with Vladimir Putin, and so it is not, I think, a complete surprise that this whistleblower complaint has come forward.

We don't know the details about all of it. And our Manu Raju, our colleague up on Capitol Hill is reporting just a short while ago, the inspector general so far is not disclosing to the Intelligence Committee over in the House any of the details from this whistleblower complaint.

Obviously, House Democrats are upset about this up on Capitol Hill. And so far besides this tweet from the president, the White House is not saying very much about this so far, Brianna.

KEILAR: All right. Jim Acosta, thank you so much for that.

This latest revelation adds to a series of concerns over how the president has handled classified information. With me now is CNN Senior National Correspondent Alex Marquardt. And, Alex, just remind us of some of the incidents that caused intel officials to raise red flags.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Brianna. The president has a lengthy history of questionable, shall we say, behavior when it comes to secret information and dealing with intelligence as well as foreign world leaders.

So let's look at the most glaring examples.

Now, back in May of 2017, the president hosted a meeting in the Oval Office with Russia's foreign minister and the then-ambassador to the United States. And in that meeting, he shared highly classified information.

KEILAR: Stand by just for a moment.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): -- comments.

First of all, I want to thank the whistleblower for coming forward, for having the courage to follow the procedures as they're written in law to make a lawful disclosure to the Congress and to the inspector general of conduct that was gravely concerning to the whistleblower.

Under the law, when a whistleblower does that, the inspector general has two weeks to investigate that complaint to determine if it's urgent and credible, and to forward that complaint to the Director of National Intelligence.


The inspector general made exactly those determinations, found that this was within the jurisdiction of the Director of National Intelligence, that it was an urgent matter, and it met the statutory requirements the statutory requirements that it dealt with a serious or flagrant abuse, violation of law or other misconduct or misuse of resources.

What then is supposed to happen is the Director of National Intelligence has seven days to review the complaint and then they shall provide it to the Congress, and they shall instruct through the inspector general the whistleblower, how the whistleblower can come directly to Congress.

In the absence of that whistleblower law, there is no lawful mechanism for intelligence community employee or detailee or contractor to raise a complaint about serious misconduct.

The whole point of the whistleblower statute is not only to encourage those to report problems, abuses, violations of laws but also to have a legal mechanism to do so and not to disclose classified information because there is no other remedy.

That whole purpose is being frustrated here because the Director of National Intelligence has made the unprecedented decision not to share the complaint with Congress.

We were informed of this fact after the seven-day period, in which the director has to review it and submit it to Congress had expired. No complaint was provided and the inspector general felt it necessary to inform the Congress that that complaint was being withheld. In the absence of the actions, and I want to thank the inspector general, in the absence of his actions and coming to our committee, we might not have even known there was a whistleblower complaint alleging an urgent concern.

We will be releasing the inspector general's letters, but I want to read one sentence from them. 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 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.

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.

But what I do know is this. If, in a manner within the jurisdiction of the Director of National Intelligence, you have an employee of that community or contractor or detailee who follows the law and makes a complaint, and it is possible for the subject of that complaint to essentially quash the complaint or keep it from Congress, then this system is badly broken.

Now, I don't think this is a problem of the law. I think the law is written very clearly. I think the law is just fine. The problem lies elsewhere. And we're determined to do everything we can to determine what this urgent concern is, to make sure that the national security is protected and to make sure that this whistleblower is protected. Because the impact of this opinion, which the Department of Justice has been unwilling to share with us, the impact of this opinion is that if the Department of Justice decides that an employee of the Intelligence Committee comes forward, follows the law, follows the process, is nonetheless outside the process, they're not protected. Which not only means this whistleblower is not protected, it means no whistleblower is protected. That is the danger of the DOJ's misinterpretation of the law.

So that is where we are right now. Next week, we will have an open hearing with the Director of National Intelligence where he can explain to the country why he believes this urgent concern should not be shared with the Congress. But that's where we are.

And I'll be happy to respond to a few questions.

REPORTER: Do you believe that the White House or the president himself are pressuring the acting Director of National Intelligence not to hand this information over to you?


SCHIFF: All I do know is this. I don't know whether the White House is directly involved because we can't get an answer to that question. But we do know they are making some claim that a privilege may apply. Well, that narrows the category who may be intervening here.

We also know that there are other institutions involved that are preventing us from getting the complaint. And whether this is pressure brought by the White House, whether this is the Director of National Intelligence feeling that he is straitjacketed by this opinion of the Department of Justice, whether the Department of Justice is coordinating its activities with either the White House or the subject of the complaint, we don't know.

But given the inspector general said this is urgent, it can't wait, which is a profound concern that we have over -- well, we have seen over the last year, which is a concerted strategy to run out the clock on any information getting to Congress.

Here where it's urgent, that is simply not an option.

REPORTER: Why were you not able to get an answer today about whether or not the White House intervened, and why are you not able to get an answer about the substance of the complaint?

SCHIFF: Well, there is no privilege that covers whether the White House is involved in trying to stifle a whistleblower complaint. And I should say that even if you could make a claim of privilege over the subject natter of the complaint, given that it involves something that the I.G. has already found to be serious and credible and evidence of wrongdoing of one kind or another, there is no privilege that covers that. There is no privilege to conceal that. There is no privilege to be corrupt. And so that needs to be provided to Congress.

We can't get an answer because the Department of Justice and the Director of National Intelligence will not authorize the I.G. to tell us. And the inspector general is doing his very best to be very careful that he follow the law. And in some respects, the inspector general is in the same position of the whistleblower, which is if the inspector general steps one foot outside what he is authorized to do, then he is not protected.

And so this shows how someone is trying to manipulate the system to keep information about an urgent matter from the Congress.

REPORTER: In one of your letters you stated who your suspicions involved. Who do you think this allegation, this complaint, involves?

SCHIFF: Well, we know a few things. We know that this is a matter -- as I just read the language of the inspector general, the inspector general is a non-partisan neutral official here. And we have no reason to question his judgment. His judgment is this is not only within the DNI's jurisdiction, this is squarely within what the American people expect of a Director of National Intelligence.

So who is in a position to countermand that? Who is in a position to influence an acting Director of National Intelligence, who has not been on the job for very long, to do something completely unprecedented, which is to go outside of his own agency and seek an opinion about whether he has to provide this to Congress?

There are a limited number of options that also implicate privilege. And so the short answer is we don't know, but there is certainly a lot of indications that it is someone at a higher pay grade than the Director of National Intelligence.

REPORTER: Did you suspect that this was to protect the president who is unmistakably (INAUDIBLE) in your letter (ph)?

SCHIFF: I believe that there is an effort to prevent this information getting to Congress. And if the assertion is accurate that the Department of Justice has made and the DNI has affirmed that this involves a potentially privileged communication, then at one level or another, it likely involved either the president or people around him.

REPORTER: Mr. Chairman, regarding the subpoena of this complaint, and you just laid out all of the wrong (INAUDIBLE), what is your option at this point legally to obtain it? What's your recourse?

SCHIFF: Well, we will hear more, we will learn more next Thursday when the Director of National Intelligence testifies. And we are exploring with the House General Counsel what our options are.


I would imagine if it comes down that we have to go to court to get this that we will have a very good case to seek a temporary restraining order or a mandamus or some urgent form of relief because the inspector general has said this cannot wait.

So this is not a situation where we can afford to go through weeks or months of litigation in this court or that court. There is an urgency here that I think the courts will recognize. I hope that's not necessary.

And I hope that the Director of National Intelligence will reconsider. Because it's my understanding that, by law, he can provide this to us and, indeed, by law, he is required to provide this to us.

But we will look at whatever remedies we have, including when the Director of National Intelligence comes to the Congress for authorization to reprogram funds for one purpose or another. We will to whether he is abiding by the law in making a decision about those requests.

So we will use whatever leverage we can. But at the end of the day, we are determined to validate the whistleblower process to make sure that people can expose wrongdoing. Because what's at stake here goes well beyond this complaint and this president to whether any oversight is possible, any whistleblower is protected, and we're determined that validate that authority of the Congress.

KEILAR: All right. You were watching Adam Schiff there, the Democratic Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

We're joined now by Mike Rogers, the former chairman for the House Intelligence Committee, a Republican. He is now a CNN National Security Commentator back with Alex Marquardt as well.

All right, first to you, Chairman. What we heard from Schiff was essentially that he didn't think this is a problem of the law. He thinks, by law, Congress should have seen this whistleblower complaint but he said there, we, the Congress, might not have even known there was a whistleblower, known there was a whistleblower complaint if it weren't for obvious, we have seen, reporting that there is one coming out of the intelligence community. What did you think about what you just heard?

MIKE ROGERS, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY COMMENTATOR: Well, the whistleblower protections are very, very important -- really important in the intelligence community because there are very few options for in classified space to come forward with reports of wrongdoing.

KEILAR: Legally, right?

ROGERS: Legally, right, yes. You can't -- The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal is not an option for you if you have a gripe about something you think may have happened inside the community.

So I know when I was chairman, we took everyone, we had an investigator assigned to each whistleblower that contacted the committee directly. And this is a very unusual circumstance in this --

KEILAR: they contacted the committee directly after going through the I.G. process?

ROGERS: There is a lot that would come to the continue directly.


ROGERS: And they had the ability to do that. It was my belief as chairman that they fell under the protection of the Whistleblower Act to do that.

But remember, that doesn't mean that the whistleblower complaint is legitimate just because it shows up at the door. That to me is really, really important.

The president does legally have the ability to promise anything he wants. He has legally the ability to declassify in an instant. So you have to make sure that what the whistleblower is saying isn't the normal course of operations of the president. He may have disagreed with it, he may have not liked it, but does it rise to the level of a criminal complaint?

So it went to the I.G. The I.G. said there is something here and I will follow the whistleblower process. So that's what happened. It does mean -- I was a little disappointed in the chairman only because he made it sound like he's guilty, we're going to uncover the crime of the century. We don't know that yet.

KEILAR: Because at issue is a promise. This is what The Washington Post broke the story on. They used the word, promise. We'll put that in quotations. A promise that was made that reached the level of being alarming enough that this whistleblower went to the inspector general.

And to your point, you say, that doesn't mean this is a slam dunk. This hasn't been adjudicated. This has to go to Congress.

MARQUARDT: And so what we've got here is a claim that the president made this alleged promise to a foreign power. But what's really stunning here is that the inspector general of the intelligence committee found this to be of such great concern that he essentially circumvented the Director of National Intelligence and went straight to the committee.

And so what Adam Schiff was getting at right there is we now have this question over jurisdiction and over this question of the definition of what is urgent concern. And what we heard a couple days ago on Tuesday, when the acting Director of National Intelligence, Joseph Maguire, he said this did not fall under his jurisdiction.


It doesn't fall under urgent concern because it doesn't have to do with the intelligence community, it has to do with the executive branch.

We now know that it has to do with the president's communications. And now we have Schiff alleging that someone, and he didn't say who, is running interference between the whistleblower complaint and them, essentially.

So here we have this closed-door hearing. We are no closer to finding out what was in that whistleblower complaint, who this foreign power is, what this promise was made to them. I imagine that Schiff is holding out some hope for next week because then Maguire is supposed to appear, but that is going to be in an open session, so I defer to you on what can actually be said in an open session.

ROGERS: On a whistleblower complaint, not much. I mean, you treat that -- you should treat it with sensitivity to protect the whistleblower but also to protect the folks that a whistleblower would normally name in a complaint like that.

What I found interesting, and I thought that was a great assessment, is the fact that DNI Maguire has had a stellar reputation in his career. So this is not a political bone in his body. He is not playing the game here. If he says that this doesn't involve the intelligence community, I'm going to guess that the so-called promise that was reported on fell outside of something that would be in the purview of the intelligence community, which is why probably he's saying that hasn't have to do with us.

So I'm going to guess that that promise probably didn't have -- was not related to intelligence business and --

KEILAR: But does it mean -- really quickly, does it mean that Congress should not know? ROGERS: Listen, I think that Congress should know. But the problem -- here's the problem. Let's just say -- I mean, this is a serious charge, it's a serious allegation. It needs to be handled in a serious way, but you don't do it by having press conferences pointing fingers and implying that this is an awful, horrible thing. I can't wait to read it to this so I can tell you how bad it is. That part is wrong.

The whistleblower system only works if people keep it quiet until it's been adjudicated and then you have some second. Would you want anything to go to Congress today and try to get some sense of fairness? Probably not. And so this is what worries me about the way it's unraveling now.

KEILAR: I want to bring in Senator Jeff Merkley. He is a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. He's joining me now.

Sir, I'm not sure if you were able to hear everything that Chairman Schiff just said, but basically he is very upset and didn't get the information that he wanted from the inspector general, Michael Atkinson, who just briefed the House Intel Committee, and because this is something that the acting DNI did not provide this whistleblower complaint to Congress. This is something that the I.G. is unable to talk about.

Where do you think we are right now on this?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY (D-OR): We're at a very troubling moment. The fact that the Director of National Intelligence didn't convey the information to Congress as required by law, which deeply troubled the inspector general, who then stepped in to say this exists and you, Congress, need to know it exists. It's totally unprecedented. It leaves us wondering what type of information the president provided to someone if, indeed, it's information that he promised.

You can imagine promising information that would reveal technical capabilities of our intelligence collections system, electronic surveillance and so forth. You can imagine that the actual content of that information might reveal something about operations on the ground. You can imagine that it might reveal the identity of some of our intelligence operatives of whole variety of things that might significantly compromise our intelligence system. Or perhaps, as suggested in the conversation you just had, maybe this is completely a promise outside the intelligence but it happened to be an intelligence officer who was aware of the information and felt ahead to make a report.

The idea that the White House has suppressed, even letting Congress know that this existed, that in itself takes this right back to where I started, deeply troubling.

KEILAR: We're now reporting -- CNN is reporting that, in addition to the DOJ, the White House is also involved with withholding this complaint. We basically heard Adam Schiff say as much, right? He said, when asked if the president was involved, who is in the position of influencing the acting DNI, who has not been on the job very long, he said, to go outside -- so that he would go outside of his department to seek this council from DOJ. He likely thinks this is the president. What do you think about that, the president influencing as well, advising the DNI not to share?

MERKLEY: Well, it's in our understanding the DNI went to the Department of Justice. So it could be legal opinion provided by the attorney general, it could be legal counsel inside the White House, or it could be conversations with the president, the president said don't share it.


We simply don't know.

KEILAR: I mean, you're talking there about the possibilities of what this information could be. One thing has to do with what is going on, intelligence activity. The guidance that has come or the reason that the DNI is not releasing that, he says, is because it is not to do with intelligence activity. Do you take the DNI at that word?

MERKLEY: Well, at this point, I think, Congress would, one, like to know exactly what the complaint is. It's supposed to be conveyed by law to Congress. That would answer the question. It could have to do with areas that are a bit gray that -- essentially in the intersection between the world of intelligence and some other policy world.

KEILAR: The chairman said this isn't a problem of the law. He clearly thinks that this is a miscarriage of the duties by the Director of National Intelligence. You just heard Mike Rogers talk about DNI Maguire and the kind of person that he is, that he's not really someone who's seen as a political actor. Chairman Rogers' assessment is that this is not a political action. What do you make of that?

MERKLEY: Well, I think that when you have an unusual situation, this certainly extraordinarily share and usual I know of no precedent for anything like this, I can imagine an executive, like the Director of National Intelligence saying, I need some legal assistance on this, and if that legal assistance is, hold on, that conversation that the president have is privileged in some other way, therefore, the clear statement of the law that the whistleblower complaint needs to be conveyed does not apply. And suddenly, we're in this legal battle.

And we have seen that this administration has used legal adjudication to greatly frustrate and delay oversight and we may be facing that. Again, they may feel that, hey, we can delay. We can fight this out in the courts for a year. We can fight it out beyond the election in November of next year.

KEILAR: Senator Merkley, thank you so much for joining us.

MERKLEY: You're welcome.

KEILAR: Well, more on this breaking news, the White House and Justice Department actively withholding, involved in withholding a whistleblower complaint involving the president. Stand by. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)